Ready to get behind the wheel on the Pacific Coast Highway? Don’t start your engines before reading our top California road trip tips!
California’s Pacific Coast Highway is easily one of the best road trips in the world – a cliff-hugging, twisting road that takes you through some of the most picturesque scenery in the world.
From the wild and leafy north of the state and its Lost Coast to the sun-baked city of Los Angeles and beyond, there’s so much to see do and experience along the way.
I finally got round to doing the trip this summer and it was easily one of the best trips I’ve ever done, from the scenery to the food, and best of all, the freedom of the road!
I travelled from San Francisco north up the 101 all the way to Trinidad, before exploring the Lost Coast and the Pacific Coast Highway all the way down to Los Angeles.
To help you plan your own, here are some of my top California road trip tips when planning:
California Road Trip Tips #1: Plan the route
Depending on how much time you have to do the trip (the more, the better!), work out driving distances and how many stops you’ll need. For our trip of just over two weeks, we planned around eight stops, which worked our perfectly and allowed for some relaxing beach days! Roadtrippers.com is a really handy planning tool.
California Road Trip Tips #2: Drive north to south
First up, choose your route! We booked flights to San Francisco on the way there and Los Angeles on the way back to make the most of the time we had (just over two weeks), which worked out perfectly. As the Pacific Coast Highway snakes its way down the winding wild coastline of California, it’s important to make the most of the sea views. That’s why the best route is driving from north to south (San Francisco to Los Angeles) so you have the glorious Californian coastline to your right the whole way.
California Road Trip Tips #3: Get a Mustang
The car, not the horse! You don’t do road trips every day, so go all out. Almost everybody has a convertible on the PCH and the ultimate car has to be the Mustang convertible – nothing quite shouts ‘road trip’ like one in California. We found it to be the perfect set of wheels for the trip and there was nothing nicer than a refreshing blast of sea air and sun on your face when you hit the road in the morning.
California Road Trip Tips #4: Have your camera poised and ready
The magical thing about a road trip is that you never know quite what to expect. Even if you plan every stop, there are still miles upon miles of incredible scenery, quaint towns and villages and wildlife hotspots that you’ll discover. One day we made a stop to find a huge population of enormous elephant seals – and incredible experience – and another time we stopped for a break only to spot a pod of dolphins frolicking in the waves below.
California Road Trip Tips #5: Explore beyond the cities
For me, the most amazing part of this road trip was exploring the wilderness – it was escapism at its best. I particularly loved northern California and its verdant forests of giant Redwoods, as well as its quaint towns and villages like the fishing haven of Trinidad and the historic town of Ferndale, which is almost completely unchanged from its Victorian era.
California Road Trip Tips #6: Be weather-savvy
When you think of California, you think of the sun-kissed beaches of the south, but the same is not true for the north – so pack wisely! It’s important to bear in mind the sea fog too (particularly in the summer), as this clings to the PCH and can bring temperatures right down. Top tip: check Instagram location-tagged photos as well as weather apps in the morning if you want to check what the weather is like from people’s recent photos.
California Road Trip Tips #7: Plan your stops
If you are only planning on a two-week trip or have limited time off, then plan your hotel/Airbnb stays in advance to help keep to an itinerary that you’ve planned based on driving distances. However, it’s good to keep some spontaneity as to what you do so don’t over-plan every step of the way!
California Road Trip Tips #8: Meet the locals
We booked some hotel stays along the way (particularly in LA), but in the whole we used Airbnb – and as a result we made some of the best memories of our trip. Staying with locals really gave us an insight into the destinations we stayed in and it was fantastic meeting interesting people from all walks of life.
California Road Trip Tips #9: Don’t skip the car insurance!
The PCH is at times very remote, particularly if you choose to tackle the Lost Coast stretch like we did. There was a number of times when we thought to ourselves what we would have done if we had broken down with nothing but wild landscapes and tiny hamlets for miles.
California Road Trip Tips #10: Pay at the pump
One of the biggest differences that you’ll find when paying for fuel in the US is that you aren’t able to fill up before paying, so keep tabs on how much you use in the first few days to know how much to fill up. The best part is that fuel is cheap compared to the UK (it’s actually shocking!).
Have you road tripped the PCH? Tell us your top tips below!