10 Things You Should Know Before Road Tripping Up The Pacific Coast Highway
Cici Pandol — 15 February 2022
The Pacific Coast Highway, or CA Highway 1, is one of the most iconic road trips in the US for a reason. After having completed it twice in two years, I feel even more strongly that my home state is one of the most rich, beautiful and unique places in the world. So many natural wonders are hidden around each bend, and there really is something for everyone to enjoy- from families to couples to a group of 20-somethings.
This time around, a group of my close gal pals and I packed ourselves into an SUV for an eight-day adventure from Ventura, CA to Portland. Read below for some of our best learnings so you can be set up for success when you head out on your adventure.
1. Download HearHere before you head out!
There are a few great apps that really enhance road trips, but HearHere is the one I tell everyone they absolutely need. The first time I did this road trip up the coast I hadn’t heard of this location-based audio tour app and missed SO MUCH about what I was driving by! As we drove by interesting signs or headed into a town, someone in the car was always asking if there was a HearHere story about it. Being able to open the app and click on a story on the map about what we were looking at allowed us to learn the history of a place, the people who did interesting things there, or fun facts about the unique landscapes. It even led to a few spur-of-the-moment trips! Without this info, I can tell you from experience you will miss out on half of the joy of road tripping.
2. Dress in layers
The weather in California is mild but wild! When the PCH is right on the coast, as it often is, it’s normally chilly and overcast with wind. However, the highway also often weaves inland, and even 5 miles off the coast the temperature increases drastically and the sun comes out. Shorts or leggings, a sweatshirt, and sneakers, with a windbreaker or rain jacket within reach, are always a good choice, and definitely don’t forget the sunscreen!
3. Service is very spotty north of San Francisco
You may think California is an extremely populated state, and it is! However it’s also a huge state, and most of the population is south of San Francisco. This means north of SF cell service is really unpredictable and there are long stretches with little to no service. Thankfully there’s an easy fix. In the morning, use your hotel or Airbnb wifi to download the Google Maps region you’ll need for the day, a few podcasts or music, and the HearHere stories you’ll be driving by and you’ll be set.
4. Plan to spend more time between LA and San Francisco than north of SF
Speaking of population density, take this into consideration when planning your trip. There is MUCH more to see and do from LA to SF, so don’t feel like you need to space out your time evenly based on mileage. I would plan to spend 60% of your time between LA and SF and 40% of your time between SF and the border of Oregon. Expect to have lots of activities and stops while in SoCal, and enjoy more typical long “road trip” days in NorCal just looking out the window or stopping for photos of the epic landscapes. HearHere is great for either of these- telling you about the stops you’re coming up on or just about the beautiful scenery you’re driving by!
5. Drive the LA to SF leg during the week and the north of SF leg on the weekend
Southern California is incredibly crowded, and trying to do anything on the weekend can be stressful and more expensive. On the other hand, because Northern California is more tourist-driven, most things are only open Thursday through Sunday. Take advantage of this and start your trip on a Monday or Tuesday in LA and explore everything north of SF no earlier than Thursday!
6. Eat two meals a day plus have a cooler of healthy snacks
Spending time finding and eating three meals a day can take up all of your exploring time. If you’re like me, food is an important part of travel but not the only focus. I’ve found that having a cooler in the car with tasty, fresh food like avocados, apples, bread, peanut butter, cheese sticks, and yogurt is a lifesaver when you’re hangry. When you do decide to stop for a real meal, eating at 4 or 5 pm often helps with getting into interesting spots when you’re driving through town. Just a note- when staying in hotels you likely won’t be able to re-freeze your ice packs in the mini-fridge so either plan to find an Airbnb occasionally or bring bags to put ice in each night.
7. Stay at an Airbnb with laundry, a kitchen, and TV every 3-4 nights
Hotels are often cheaper than AirBnB’s, though they usually have less character. We stayed mostly in hotels for this reason (Shout out to Best Western), but it was an absolute lifesaver to have an Airbnb in the middle of the trip. Having more hang-out space, a kitchen for a home-cooked meal, access to laundry, and a big TV really refreshed us and helped set us up for success the rest of the trip. It does get tiring moving every day also, so if you have time, I would suggest ¾ of the way through your trip to stay for two nights in one place.
8. Book your accommodations before you head out
Speaking of accommodations, book ahead! This is for two reasons. First, hotels and Airbnb’s were very booked up even looking a month in advance. Second, there just aren’t that many places to stay north of San Francisco, and many AirBnB’s require two-night minimums. Make a loose plan of your start and endpoint for each day and the main things you’ll stop and see in between and book those hotels. It’s also worth noting that on my cross-country road trip I booked the entire trips’ accommodations one day off. I called every place to change the date and none charged me a fee or didn’t have space, even those that said they were fully booked online, so don’t worry if you do end up getting off schedule and need to change dates around.
9. Find a way to sweat every day
A little exercise goes a long way when you’re on a road trip, even if it’s just a 20-minute walk in the morning before you hit the road. The amount of sitting and eating on the go can make you start to feel a little gross, but a brisk walk or run to start off the day is a fun way to see a little more of the place you’re at! It’s also great for rustling up some endorphins to scare off any grumpy feelings. My favorite walks were hikes in the giant redwood forests in northern California!
10. Make a return plan
The trip up Highway 1 is technically one way, but there are a few options for how to get back to wherever you came from. First, you can just turn around at the Oregon border and return to San Francisco’s airport via the faster route straight through the valley (about seven hours) or continue north to Portland (four and a half hours) to fly home. The nice thing about Highway 1 is, while it is jam-packed and you could easily take two weeks to drive it all, in actuality, it’s only 10-12 hours of driving if you do it straight through. Fun fact: Highway 1 doesn’t go all the way from the border of Mexico to the border of Oregon! It actually starts in LA at Dana Point, about an hour south of Santa Monica, and ends in Leggett, CA, about 4 hours south of the Oregon border!
If you’re still able to work remotely, consider taking two weeks to drive the PCH while working! Check out my itinerary for working from the road on the Pollen Travels blog.