The idea of driving down the Pacific Coast Highway along the California coastline captured my imagination long ago – maybe it was from a song, or maybe it came from glimpses I had driving along short portions of the coast during my college years. But I finally got a chance to experience the incredible stretch of coastline from San Francisco to Los Angeles, driving down the PCH and the 101 for 9 days, and it was nothing short of magical.
I am so excited I was able to collaborate with Travellers Autobarn for this trip – I got to experience vanlife for the very first time with their Kuga campervan, and by the end of the trip I had completely fallen in love with being able to have my home away from home on all my adventures. Here’s my itinerary for the ultimate California coast road trip, so you enjoy your own vanlife adventure too!
Begin your journey by flying into the San Francisco International Airport. From there, grab an Uber or Lyft over to the Travellers Autobarn depot. Here you’ll get all checked in and get the rundown on everything that is in the van and how to take advantage of all of its features. From the depot, stop into a grocery store to get your supplies for the week so you don’t have to worry about snacks and essentials later on.
Head into the city and spend your first day enjoying some of the classic tourist sights: Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park, Pier 39, Union Square … There is tons to see in the city for a variety of interests, and tons of amazing food to eat! Here are some of my favorites: sourdough bread at Boudin Bakery Cafe, seafood at the Pier Market, fried rice at the House of Nanking, and ice cream at the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. In the afternoon, journey up to the Marin Headlands for a spectacular drive with lots of pullout points for photographs of the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge, and then head back over the bridge to catch your first sunset at Baker Beach.
Get an early start at Point Reyes National Seashore, about a 1-2 hour drive north from San Francisco. Here, you can hike, kayak, see the lighthouse, and even go on a safari! Note: when I was there, the lighthouse was closed for renovations so make sure to check online before you go.
When you’ve explored your fill, head back to the city and on the way, stop to hike at John Muir Woods National Monument. It feels like a miniature version of the Redwoods National Park, but it’s right next to the city! HUGE NOTE: you will need to purchase a parking pass beforehand to visit the Monument. There is no Internet or Wi-Fi there so don’t save this to the last minute! For sunset on day 2, stay in this area and head out to Mt. Tamalpais for spectacular city views!
Begin day 3 with your last sunrise in the Bay – I loved the views so much from Marin Headlands that I headed back up there once more. There are so many places in the headlands to capture a sunrise – you can’t go wrong! – and you can even hike down to the beach below the bridge (on the north side).
After sunrise, get an early start on the way south to beat traffic. First stop: Santa Cruz. Check out the Natural Bridges State Beach, the Boardwalk, and the Lighthouse Field State Beach. Unfortunately for my trip, a huge storm hit the coast during the week I was on this road trip, so some of my stops I was unable to get photographs due to the crazy rains – just means I have to come back!
Head further south in the afternoon to Monterey, where you can’t miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You could spend an entire day or more in Monterey, but since I had spent a good amount of time here on a previous trip, I chose to spend most of my day in one of my absolute favorite places in California: Carmel-By-The-Sea. I had the most incredible lunch at Enzo’s, and then I stopped at the Carmel Bakery for a sweet treat and breakfast for tomorrow. Carmel is one of the most adorable towns I have ever stepped foot in, and I always wish I had more time – to shop, to eat, to explore.
In the afternoon, I explored the 17-mile drive, an absolute MUST see. There are so many stops to take photographs along this gorgeous stretch of coastline, but the only downside is you have to pay a fee to enter this area. For sunset, pick any one of the stunning beaches you explored earlier and take it all in.
Catch a sunrise at one of the beaches in Carmel or Monterey, or get some well-deserved rest for the rest of the trip. Since the weather had been bad the previous night, I caught up on some sleep and enjoyed a sleepy breakfast from the van, just watching the waves. From Carmel, head south toward one of the stops I was most excited to see: Big Sur. But make sure you make plenty of stops along the way – there are so many ridiculously gorgeous state parks along this particular stretch. Remember, it’s all about the journey, not the destination!
My first stop was Point Lobos, where I hiked around and enjoyed the ocean views. There were so many flowers blooming, and there are even otters in this area! Further south, I found even more incredible spring blooms on a hike just off the freeway. As you get closer to Big Sur, you’ll drive over some breathtaking bridges. I recommend stopping at least one of them to grab photographs, as the ocean views become more and more epic as the cliffs climb in height.
Continue on to Big Sur, get all checked in and settled to your campsite, and then head out for sunset. Check with the rangers before you go for which trails and views will be open. While I was there, many trails were still being repaired from erosion and some devastating storms from the past few years.
For sunrise on day 5, I backtracked up north to capture more bridge views, as I loved them so much from the day before. I spent a little more time exploring some of the beach trails, and then I headed all the way south to Limekiln State Park for some forest and waterfall hiking. Take your time on the drive there and the drive back – you’re definitely going to want to stop at some of the pullouts to enjoy the majestic cliff views of Big Sur. In the afternoon, spend some time hiking the trails at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (please be respectful of trail closures here and only hike what is open, or you could end up worsening the erosion).
Since this was the halfway point of my trip, in the evening I decided to skip dinner in the van and treat myself to a fancy dinner at Nerpenthe. While expensive, it’s hard to beat the cliff views at this delicious restaurant, and I love the history of the place. After dinner, head out to enjoy sunset at McWay Falls, or watch sunset from one of the bar seats at Nerpenthe. McWay Falls was a place I had also been looking forward to photographing for years, but was bummed to find that the trail was closed. However, you can still see the falls from the freeway, huzzah! Capture this incredible waterfall falling into the ocean from the overlook – there is a designated path to the overlook from the closest parking pullout. Please stay on trail here and be respectful of others enjoying the view.
Rise early to get a head start on the drive south. It was hard to say goodbye to Big Sur but I was excited to get into southern California for the second half of the trip! On your way out, make a pit stop at the Big Sur Bakery for some coffee and delicious baked goods to fuel your drive, or make a longer stop to have a full breakfast before heading out. Set your GPS to Pismo Beach but prepare to make plenty of stops.
First up: enjoy some cliff views from Ragged Point, the last stop on the edge of Big Sur. From here, the cliffs will start to flatten out and the landscape will begin to change. Further south, there will be many pullouts to enjoy the ocean views – at one such stop I was able to see a bunch of elephant seals! To continue the cuteness, make a stop at Morro Bay to see sea otters hanging out in the bay by the boats.
Once you reach Pismo, head over to Pismo Beach Pier for a beautiful stretch of white sand beach and walk around the shops near the ocean. Catch your sunset here or at Shell Beach, where the sand is not as good but the rocks make for some great compositions.
Return to Morro Bay for sunrise, but this time set your GPS for Morro Rock. You will need to park on the north side of the bay and walk quite a ways down the beach toward the rock, but the views will be well worth the trek. After sunrise, enjoy more of the San Luis Obispo area. There are tons of amazing hikes in this area where you can see some fantastic city and mountain views, but since I had less time, I chose to just explore Montaña Oro State Park. After hiking, grab lunch at Slash café and definitely get the clam chowder bread bowl – it’s a life changer.
In the afternoon, head south to Santa Barbara, another absolutely breathtaking ocean town. There is plenty to do here; take a wine tour to unwind after all this adventuring, or stroll around the botanic garden and definitely go explore the mission. Spend the night here to get more time in Santa Barbara, or head south to complete the trek to Los Angeles. There are so many beaches that I love in Los Angeles – Malibu, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica Beach are all fantastic stops. Catch your sunset at one of these stunning beaches and then make camp for the night.
Spend day 8 enjoying the incredibly diverse city of Los Angeles. Since I went to college here, I didn’t spend much time in the city before heading home (opting to spend more time at the front end of the trip in San Francisco where I had seen less), but please feel free to extend your stay to 10 or 11 days to enjoy one more time in the city. Some of my favorite things to do in the city include: hiking Hollywood sign (there’s a short trail and a long trail, take the long trail!), watching the stars from Griffith Observatory, seeing the flowers at Huntington Botanical Garden, and hiking around Griffith Park.
Of course there are also tons of touristy things to do as well (and there’s nothing wrong with seeing those!), such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Disneyland (south of Los Angeles proper), Los Angeles Museum of Art, Universal Studios, Rodeo Drive, Walt Disney Concert Hall, La Brea Tar Pits and Museum … the list goes on and on. Plus the shopping is incredible here! Spend your time enjoying what you like, and make sure you enjoy some of the insanely delicious food in the city – pretty much any type of food you can think of there’s a place to eat it in Los Angeles, and it’s some of the best you’ll have.
In the morning, get your van all cleaned up, trash taken out, things packed up, and return the vehicle at the Los Angeles Travellers Autobarn depot. Dropping off the van will take less time than the check-in, and the depot is very close to the airport. Take a quick Uber or Lyft to the Los Angeles International Airport and catch your flight home!
Whew, this was my longest post yet, thanks for sticking with me! The common theme of this trip was that I felt like I could easily spend more days at each stop, there was just so much to explore! Please feel free to adjust this trip to best suit your own interests – maybe you do want an extra few day stopover in one of the adorable seaside towns, or maybe I packed too much into one day (I always tend to, oops!) and you want to skip things or move things around. Make the trip your own and enjoy every second!
Disclaimer: This trip was in partnership with Travellers Autobarn, but all thoughts are my own and represent my honest opinions.
Other Details and Considerations
- What to eat: I mentioned a few places I stopped at along the way, but for most meals I cooked in the van! It made the trip more affordable and I could eat healthier than just eating out for every meal.
- Where to stay: stay tuned for a future blog on everything vanlife, but I highly recommend the iOverlander app, where you can find campsites, places to park, where there are showers, hookups, and more.
- Campervan rental: I highly recommend the living equipment add-on, which includes your sleeping bags, pillows, sheets, towels, kitchen cutlery and pots and pans, a kettle, cleaning equipment, and camping chairs. Check out the Kuga campervan here for more details.
- Weather: I had a bit of un-luck with a storm for most of the week, but generally spring weather along the California coast is mild and mostly sunny with chances of rain. San Francisco and Big Sur are much colder than the other stops, so make sure to pack layers.
- Tides: since pretty much this entire trip revolves around the ocean, you better believe I am going to remind you again to ALWAYS check the tides before heading out to any beach, and pay attention to the waves while you’re out.
- Cell service: for pretty much all of Big Sur and other large swaths of the California coastline, you will struggle to find service and Wi-Fi, so make sure you download Google maps offline to help with directions and print out or screenshot any other information you will need.
- Visit https://www.parks.ca.gov/ for more information on all of the GORGEOUS state parks along the California coast!
Have you driven parts of the California coastline? How about the full coastline? Let me know in the comments if this guide inspired you to plan a trip here!