Best 14-Day Pacific Coast Highway 101 Road Trip

In the pages of Great American Road Trips, the drive from San Diego to Seattle should be at the very top. The route, which glides along the coast from Southern California’s sunny beaches to Northern California’s redwoods, then on to rocky Oregon shores and the rain forests of Olympic National Park, is beyond beautiful. 

Along the way, the West Coast’s most dynamic cities, each one a worthy destination in and of itself, line up like the pearls in a 2,878-mile-long necklace. From its epic views to its incredible food, its hiking trails to its city streets, San Diego to Seattle 101 is the trip of a lifetime.  

DAY 1: SAN DIEGO 

Go straight for the city’s nautical heart by exploring the restored ships of the Maritime Museum at the waterfront in Downtown. Victorian buildings—and plenty of other tourists—surround you on a stroll through the Gaslamp Quarter. Plant your- self at a Downtown hotel and graze your way through the neighborhood’s many restaurants. If you have time, visit the San Diego Zoo, one of the best in the country.  

DAY 2: LOS ANGELES 

California-dream your way out of San Diego and along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Pass through Orange County’s classic beach communities before heading slightly inland to the heart of Los Angeles. Wander through massive Griffith Park (don’t miss the historic Griffith Observatory) or stop by the La Brea Tar Pits for a glimpse of prehistoric Los Angeles. 

Some of the country’s best modern art is housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Nostalgic musts in Hollywood include the Hollywood Walk of Fame along Hollywood Boulevard and the celebrity footprints cast in concrete outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now known as the TCL Chinese Theater). Or, spend time exploring the coastal town of Santa Monica and its iconic pier before hitting the road to Santa Barbara. 

DAY 3: SANTA BARBARA 

Navigate north up the PCH towards celebrity hangout Santa Barbara; the drive takes two hours. Don’t leave without exploring the highlights of this strolling along State Street, through the red-tile-roofed buildings of downtown to the gorgeous Santa Barbara County Courthouse and take in the views from its tower. 

Before leaving town, stop at the Mission Santa Barbara, widely considered the finest of the 21 California missions. Outside the city you enter wine country and pass through Solvang, one of the West Coast’s quirkiest towns, before returning to the coast and San Luis Obispo. 

DAY 4: BIG SUR 

Get an early start and drive to Big Sur. Get a look at the iconic McWay Falls from Highway 1, then hit the trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or the water at Sand Dollar Beach or Andrew Molera State Park. You can make camp at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or stay in a hotel. 

DAYS 5 AND 6: SAN FRANCISCO 

Get up bright and early to make your way to the Bay Area, past the artist colony of Carmel and the town of Monterey (the setting for John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row) where you should stop for a quick lunch at the roadside favorite Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay for a bowl and a beer on the patio.

It’s about two hours north from Monterey to San Francisco. From the “Painted Ladies” (Victorian homes) of the Haight and back-alleys of the largest Chinatown outside Asia, San Francisco is one of the country’s most enchanting cities. 

The murals in the Mission neighborhood, seals at Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach’s Coit Tower, and downtown museums like the SFMoMa are among the many must-sees, and you will easily be able to fill your two nights with activities. 

In Golden Gate Park, linger amid the flora of the Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, soak up some art at the de Young Museum, and find serene refreshment at the San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden. The Pacific surf pounds the cliffs below the Legion of Honor art museum, which has an exquisite view of the Golden Gate Bridge—when the fog stays away. 

DAY 7: POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE 

It’s a short drive today over the Golden Gate Bridge and up Highway 1 to the Point Reyes National Seashore and the oyster-rich waters of Tomales Bay. The tiny, historic town of Point Reyes Station has a handful of pleasant shops and restaurants. 

It’s a lovely stop before hitting the wildlands of the national seashore a few miles down the road. The Point Reyes National Seashore is an unusual mix of historical ranching and dairy lands and protected wilderness. 

See the wild tule elk at Tomales Point, whale watch from the 150-year-old Point Reyes Lighthouse, and get a look at the elephant seal colony at Chimney Rock. When you’ve had your fill of Point Reyes, hit the road to drive up the inland side of Tomales Bay. The Marshall Store, a roadside joint with barbecued oysters, Dungeness crab sandwiches, and other delights from the bay, is always worth a stop. 

DAY 8: MENDOCINO 

It’s a day of spectacular views and quaint coastal towns as you continue up the PCH towards Mendocino. In Bodega Bay, tool around town on a bike or rent a kayak for a few hours on the water. Four miles from the coast is the village of Bodega, the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds. 

Mendocino is a laid-back town and mecca for artists and gallery owners. Check out the Mendocino Art Center then browse some of the many galleries in town. If you prefer your art in liquid form, there are a number of wineries in nearby Anderson Valley.  

DAY 9: EUREKA 

Today’s route takes you away from the coast and into the weird and wonderful world of rural Northern California on the Redwood Highway (Highway 101). At the day’s end, you’re back at the coast in Eureka, a city which rose to prominence during the gold rush era. The entire town of Eureka has been named a historic landmark but the best-preserved blocks are located in Old Town. Explore the neighborhood on foot, and don’t forget to check out the Carson Mansion, considered the grandest Victorian home in the United States.  

DAY 10: BROOKINGS, OR 

Bouncing back and forth from coast to forest, today’s drive takes you north Carmel and the town of Monterey (the setting for John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row) where you should stop for a quick lunch at the roadside favorite Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay for a bowl and a beer on the patio. It’s about two hours north from Monterey to San Francisco. From the Painted Ladies (Victorian homes) of the Haight and back-alleys of the largest Chinatown outside Asia, San Francisco is one of the country’s most enchanting cities. 

The murals in the Mission neighborhood, seals at Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach’s Coit Tower, and downtown museums like the SFMoMa are among the many must-sees, and you will easily be able to fill your two nights with activities. 

In Golden Gate Park, linger amid the flora of the Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, soak up some art at the de Young Museum, and find serene refreshment at the San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden. The Pacific surf pounds the cliffs below the Legion of Honor art museum, which has an exquisite view of the Golden Gate Bridge—when the fog stays away.

DAY 11: NEWPORT 

Head north from Brookings, through the fishing town of Bandon, past the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, and on to Newport. When you reach Newport, see otters and fish endemic to this region of the Pacific at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, or walk along the town’s historic bay front, where seafood processing has been ongoing for over 100 years. At the northern end of town, the Yaquina Head Lighthouse stands tall above Nye Beach’s long stretch of sand.  

DAY 12: ASTORIA 

Highway 101 sweeps inland today, passing through the outer edge of Tillamook State Forest before heading back to the coast and the site where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific. The day’s drive ends in Astoria, a port town and one of the stars of 1985’s The Goonies. Go for a stroll along Cannon Beach, a wide swath of golden sand punctuated by massive monoliths, including the 235-foot-tall Haystack Rock.

Break for some cheese (and a tour) at the Tillamook Creamery in Tillamook. Learn about Lewis and Clark’s epic adventure to discover the West in the early 19th century and peek inside their winter shelter, Fort Clatsop, at the Lewis & Clark National Historic Park. In Astoria, Goonies fans will get a kick out of the Oregon Film Museum, while aficionados of architecture and design will enjoy the Flavel House Museum. 

DAY 13: OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK 

It’s your last day along the coast, so soak in the views as you cross the border into Washington State and head up to Lake Quinault in Olympic National Park. In the industrial harbor town of Aberdeen, you’ll find several homages to Kurt Cobain, who grew up here in the ’70s and ’80s. See memorials to the man above and below the bridge in Kurt Cobain Memorial Park, and get a look at his childhood home at 1210 East First Street.

Then drive to Olympic National Park. While you won’t be able to see the entirety of this place that covers more than a million acres of diverse landscape, you can explore its lower reaches. On Lake Quinault you can swim, fish or boat in the lake, or hike the Quinault Rain Forest Trail and spend the night in Lake Quinault Lodge.  

DAY 14: SEATTLE 

Backtrack to Aberdeen then head east through the state capital of Olympia and north on Interstate 5 to the bustling city of Seattle. Whether it’s your first time in Seattle or your 100th, the city’s greatest hits—including the delicate sculptures at the Chihuly Garden & Glass Museum, the bustling seafood market Pike Place, and the iconic Space Needle—never get old. Options a little further off the beaten track include a visit to the Fremont Troll, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, and Seattle Underground.

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