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How to Prepare for a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

California’s Pacific Coast Highway is one of America’s greatest and most iconic road trips. These eight tips will help prepare you for what lay ahead!

How to Prepare for a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

The Pacific Coast Highway might be America’s greatest drive and California’s greatest road trip. It’s hundreds of miles of open road, hugging a stunning coastline of rocky bluffs tumbling into a glowing blue sea.

It’s a whirlwind tour of 12 Californian counties, and an opportunity to see the Golden State’s most famous coastal resorts. It’s days and days of mind-blowing scenic bliss. It’s amazing.

I recently took a California road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, and it’s fair to say that not everything went according to plan. But does it ever?

Here’s what you need to know in order to make your Pacific Coast Highway road trip into the stuff of legend.

The Golden Gate Bridge by night—the start to many Pacific Coast Highway road trips.
The Golden Gate Bridge by night.
  • Pack For All Kinds Of Weather on the Pacific Coast Highway

    Your best bet for good weather is to go between late July and late October—but you’re driving through a lot of micro-climates, and in some places, conditions can turn on a dime.

    Your best bet is to bring layers.

    Pack your best travel gear for rain and cold, with a snug windproof jacket and a waterproof parka. (I recommend the ExOfficio Storm Logic and Rain Logic, respectively.)

    Pack for sunshine and baking heat with breathable, quick-dry fabrics, t-shirts and shorts.

    Pack a long-sleeve shirt for those days in between, where the wind is too cold for comfort (or you’re driving a little too fast).

    Make sure you’re covered, figuratively and literally—but don’t sacrifice style for comfort. It’s California, after all.

  • Take A Little Longer

    Cali Palm Trees

    It’s possible to race through the PCH in one exhausting day—but aside from auditioning for the next Need For Speed movie, I can’t think of a single good reason to do that. Forget efficiency. Aim for memories.

    This is not a landscape you should hurry. It’s filled with hidden coves that only the locals know about, cliff-top paths and beaches that beg to be explored, side-roads you’ll turn down on a whim, cafes and diners that promise a pleasantly lazy afternoon in the sunshine, and so much more.

    Make your plan. Add half the time again. Make sure you can enjoy yourself.

  • Schedule Your Stops

    When the road opens up and you feel like you could drive forever, it’s easy to keep going and miss all the fun stuff.

    Don’t rely on your instincts. Decide where to stop in advance, and stick to it.

    Don’t plan to drive for more than three hours a day (in fact, that’s a lot, so aim for even less)—and if you find you’ve been driving for more than an hour without stopping, take the next turn-off and go exploring.

  • Make The Roof Optional

    Ford Mustang Convertible

    This is the automobile equivalent of packing for all kinds of weather. If the sun comes out and you’ve chosen to be sealed away under a fixed roof, you will curse yourself for the rest of the trip.

    Not to mention, a convertible is the classic way to do an American road trip—especially this one.

    I picked up a Ford Mustang Convertible from Sixt, which was every bit as awesome as it sounds.

    SPECIAL OFFER: Get 10% off your booking with Sixt when you use this link.

    A popular alternative along this route is taking an RV, and there’s a healthy online community of motor-home enthusiasts who will be able to help you there—but here’s a practical word of warning from a forum at Fodor’s:

    Renting the thing, gas, one-way drop off, and campsites will cost more than just renting a car and staying in nice motels.

    If you want to take a little longer and you like the romance of it, rent an RV (RV rental prices are available at RVshare). But if you want looks and the best view you can get from behind the wheel, choose a convertible. Nothing else gets close.

  • Stay Where The People Aren’t

    16 Epic Stops for Your California Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway

    Big cities mean big prices. If you’re looking for accommodation in a heavily urban area, you’ll probably blow your budget and end up with a mediocre experience. Or you’ll settle for something affordable, but absolutely horrible. (“Oh well, it’s just for one night.”)

    The solution is to skip the big towns and cities, because, honestly, there are just as many hotels—and actually better ones—in the smaller towns. Plus, that romance of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip? It takes place in those sleepy, laid back surf towns that dot the entire coast.

    I used the app to find hotels along the way, and in true “me” fashion, it was usually at the very last minute. It’s cheaper than just showing up, and always has great deals. Plus, after booking 10 nights, you get one free!


  • Take Luggage That Lasts (And Moves)

    If you’re driving all day and staying in a different place every night, you need luggage that can take a bit of abuse and still keep your possessions safe and sound. Something with a hard protective outer shell, or at least a lot of padding, is ideal.

    It also needs to be easy to move. This is a trip where you change rooms every single night, so, unless you love hauling a fully-laden suitcase around by the handle at the end of a long day of driving, wheels are a must.

    I brought American Tourister’s new line of very colorful luggage along for the ride. It fit perfectly in the backseat of a drop-top Mustang, and it’s just so California.

  • WiFi Will Often Be Terrible, So Plan Accordingly

    Fire in the sky in La Jolla, just outside of San Diego
    Fire in the sky in La Jolla, just outside of San Diego

    I was shocked to find how bad the internet was in hotels along the Pacific Coast Highway – and how unpredictable. This is the problem with relying on local connectivity while road tripping, and if for some reason you need to be online in the evenings (say, you’re a professional travel blogger), one badly-connected hotel can throw your plans into chaos.

    The way around this is to expect bad WiFi and take a backup method of getting online, whether a specially purchased mobile data plan or something more powerful.

    In this instance, I took my Tep Wireless personal WiFi hotspot (aka “Teppy”), and I had no problems connecting, including when I was on the move.

  • Don’t Forget Why You’re Really There

    If you wanted to get from one Californian city to another in the most efficient way possible, you would have flown.

    Road trips are never about the destination. The reason you’re doing this will be around you all day, under the spinning wheels of your vehicle, in the scenery flowing past on either side, in the endless blue sky. A road trip is a series of moments enjoyed to their full potential. If you find your mind leaping forward to where you’re going, you’re doing it wrong.

    Take a moment every hour to force yourself out of your own thoughts, and look around you. Drink it in. Make an amazing memory from everything you can see, hear and feel.

    Because that’s why you’re taking this trip.

    READ NEXT: A Doors-Off Helicopter Ride Over Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands

Pacific Coast Highway FAQs

  • What is the best way to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?

    I recommend driving the Pacific Coast Highway north-to-south.

  • What is the best time of year to travel the Pacific Coast Highway?

    September is the best month to travel the Pacific Coast Highway.

  • How long do you need for West Coast road trip?

    10 days to a month is a good amount of time for a West Coast road trip.

  • Where to stop on a West Coast road trip?

    Some of the top destinations for a West Coast road trip include Seattle, Portland, Red Woods National Park, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

  • How long does it take to road trip the Pacific Coast Highway?

    You can drive the Pacific Coast Highway end-to-end in about 12 hours, but I’d recommend taking at least a week for a road trip.

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
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