Labor Day is around the corner, signaling the unofficial end of summer and the start of a new school year. This is your last chance to have some summer fun! The pandemic is not over, but that does not mean you have to stay home. Avoid long lines or flight delays at the airports and take your family or friends on a fun road trip.
Renting a Statevan’s passenger van is the perfect transportation for your end-of-the-summer adventure. Our spacious van allows you to travel together with your friends, keep the children from kicking each other, or give you more room for camping gear while saving you money and wear-and-tear on your car.
You won’t be able to escape the heat, so head up to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and enjoy the scenic coastal route and the cool ocean breeze. There are plenty of quaint towns where you can watch the marine wildlife, wine taste, or hike.
Before we get started on the must-see places, the PCH has a few nicknames. Today, South Californians know PCH as the “One,” but it began as Route 60 and then was named the Roosevelt Highway, after Theodore Roosevelt, when it opened in the late 1920s. Throughout the years, PCH has been called Route 3, Route 101 Alternate, and California State Route 1 in 1964. Today, the PCH’s nicknames are Highway One, the Cabrillo Highway, the Shoreline Highway, the Redwood Highway, etc. To avoid confusion, it is never called the 101, which is an entirely different highway but does overlap the PCH several times.
Here are our ideas for the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway:
- Los Angeles to Santa Barbara
- Santa Barbara to Solvang
- Solvang to Paso Robles
- Paso Robles to Big Sur
- Big Sur to Monterey
- Monterey to San Francisco
Whether you have one week off or just the holiday weekend, choose own adventure but be sure to enjoy the marine wildlife, a glass of wine at a winery, and soak in the stunning coastal lines.
Los Angeles (Santa Monica) to Santa Barbara
Estimated Driving Time: 2.5 hours
Head to Santa Monica in the morning and start your road trip to Santa Barbara on the PCH. Santa Barbara is a mix between a Mediterranean city and an American city between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Don’t miss the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the 10th and best-preserved California Missions founded by the Spanish Franciscans in 1786. You can still see the influence of the 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, which lasted until 1822 with the conclusion of the Mexican War of Independence. Santa Barbara became a part of the expanding United States in 1848 as a result of the Mexican-American War.
We recommend grabbing an early lunch at Santa Barbara’s most famous restaurant, La Super-Rica Taqueria on Milpas Street. It’s a casual and budget-friendly eatery that Isidoro Gonzalez founded in 1980. The authentic, flavorful Mexican food made the late Julia Child a regular.
If you have extra time, you can check out the city’s stunning panoramic 360-degree view at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse’s clock tower or take a stroll down Stearns Wharf and soak in the beautiful beach view.
Santa Barbara to Solvang
Estimated Driving Time: 40 minutes
After lunch in Santa Barbara, take a detour to Solvang, a charming Danish Village founded by Danish settlers in the early 1900s. It is the most unique town you will see on your road trip. Solvang is known for its windmills, gorgeous Danish architecture, tasty Danish pastries, and of course, their wine and craft beer. Check out one of more than a dozen wine tasting rooms.
If you are traveling with children, you should swing by Ostrichland where you can see emus and ostriches up close and feed them.
Solvang to Morro Bay:
Estimated Driving Time: 1.5 hours
Paso Robles is about a 48-minute drive from the PCH, but it is an excellent mid-point to stop overnight. Before you head inland to Paso Robles, stop by at Morro Bay. Morro Bay is a tourist destination that was founded in 1870 as a port for the export of dairy and ranch products. Today, it is a marine wildlife sanctuary, and there are always sea lions and harbor seals that make the docks their nap spots. You can also spot otters along its Embarcadero. The best time to catch them is 8 or 9 in the morning near the dock next to the Great American Fish Company, but you might get lucky in the late afternoon. Otherwise, you can stay overnight in Morro Bay and skip Paso Robles to get a glimpse of the otters, but don’t worry, you will be able to see more otters in Monterey.
Morro Bay’s main highlight is Morro Rock, a giant volcanic plug sitting at the coast’s edge along the bay. The volcanic plug is a chain of nine volcanic mountains in San Luis Obispo County. In the past, the rock has acted as a natural beacon for seafarers as early as the 1500s, and was considered sacred ground to the Chumash and Salinan native tribes.
If you have more time, hike up the Black Hill, a moderate 2.5 mile back trail that offers 360-degree views of downtown Morro Bay or rent a kayak to get up close to the marine life.
If you plan to stay overnight in Morro Bay, we recommend having early dinner at the local’s favorite restaurant, Toganazzini’s Dockside Too. This casual seaside restaurant has gorgeous ocean views and the freshest and most delicious fish in town.
Morro Bay to Paso Robles:
Estimated Driving Time: 45 minutes
After 16 miles or so back on the PCH, you will see a sign for Paso Robles/CA-46. Turn right to head inland, into wine country, Paso Robles. The 46 is a beautiful stretch of highway that cuts through chaparral and grass-covered rolling hills. About 6.5 miles down the road, you’ll reach the apex of the hill; look to the right, and you’ll see Green Valley Viewing Point, an observation point that offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding hills.
Paso Robles has the perfect weather for wine-making. The region began grape growing in 1797, and now there are more than 200 wineries, 26,000 vineyard acres, and 40 varietals of wine, but they are known for their Zinfindel, Cabernet, and Rhone blends. Here is a helpful site that filters out the wineries to your liking and your company; just because you are traveling with children, it doesn’t mean you can’t go wine tasting. A favorite family-friendly winery is Riverstar Vineyards. You can also go beer tasting at one of the six breweries in Paso Robles.
For lodging, the Paso Robles Inn is conveniently located in the center of downtown Paso Robles, within walking distance to the best restaurants and tasting rooms. Check reviews or book at Booking.com.
We recommend La Cosecha, a popular family owned farm-to-table Latin-inspired flavor restaurant offering tapas to pizzas for dinner. For breakfast, Andrea’s on Pine has a lovely outdoor patio and delicious quiche and French toast.
If you have extra time, saddle up and see the rolling California countryside on a horse with Central Coast Trailrides or discover wine country up in the air ziplining at Margarita Adventures. Margarita Adventures have six ziplines, starting with a 2,800-foot tandem-line thrill ride and finishing with a 1,800-foot journey over Pinot Noir vines. It’s the perfect adventure for the thrill-seekers, but please zip line before you go winetasting!
Paso Robles to San Simeon
Estimated Driving Time: 45 minutes
The must-visit place in San Simeon is the famed newspaper tycoon William Randolph’s, Hearst Castle. Unfortunately, the roadway leading up to the Castle is severely damaged and it will be closed for six to nine months. However, for those who enjoy quirky architect, the “Anti-Hearst Castle,” best known as the Nitt Witt Ridge, is open just right off the PCH in Cambria. Arthur “Art” Harold Beal bought the land in 1928 and spent the next fifty years creating his own “castle on a hill” with whatever material he can find –from beer cans, driftwood to parts of the Hearst Castle.
Whether you are an adult or traveling with children, the Elephant Seal Vista Point is a must pit-stop before heading up to Big Sur. The cliff overlooks an elephant seal rookery with the world’s largest population of Northern Elephant Seals and can be seen throughout the year. From the Elephant Seal Rookery, you will be able to see Piedras Blancas Light Station. If time permits, take a tour of the Light Station.
San Simeon to Big Sur
Estimated Driving Time: 1 hour & 20 minute
The Big Sur has jaw-dropping ocean views along the highway and countless State Parks just waiting to be explored. The best State Parks along the Big Sur are Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pfeiffer Beach, the Limekiln Beach State Park, and Andrew Molera State Park. For outdoors lovers, be sure to spend at least a full day at one of Big Sur’s California State Parks for fantastic hiking and some serious natural beauty, but make sure the trails are open. If your time is limited, be sure to stop by at the iconic McWay Falls, one of California’s two tide falls, at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can park on the main highway road and save money and walk down to the viewing spots for the falls. Pfeiffer Beach is part of the Los Padres National Forest and is famous for having a big rock with a hole that looks like a cavern. It is a popular spot, so it is best to get there early to find parking because you cannot park along the road.
We also recommend you to take a pit stop at the Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the area’s most iconic photo spots. Head north on the PCH for about 11 miles, and you will notice a ton of people pulled over on the north side of a bridge. The Bixby Creek Bridge was a Depression-era work project and was completed in 1932.
Big Sur to Monterey:
Estimated Driving Time: 1 hour
After the Bixby Creek Bridge, continue north on the PCH, and you will see two attractions before arriving at Monterey.
For outdoor lovers, a hike in Point Lobos Natural Reserve is a must. The reserve has miles of looping trails with killer cliff-side views and resident sea lions. Go early or late because they have tiny parking lots, or you can save state park fees by parking on the main road and walk-in.
When you finish your hike, continue on the PCH for another 16 miles, and you will arrive at the beginning of the 17 Mile Drive. This popular private scenic road follows the coastal route between Pacific Grove and Carmel. You will pass the coastal cliff and the iconic Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach and its golf course. The entrance fee is $10.50 per car.
Continue on the stunning coastline to Monterey, famous for its year-round whale watching and its world-class aquarium. The bay is a national marine sanctuary that houses a wide range of marine diversity, including; humpback, Orca and blue whales, sea otters, great white sharks, harbor seals, sea lions, and three kinds of dolphins. Whale watch costs around $60 per adult. Go to Metatrip to find the most affordable tour.
Another boat tour worth considering is with Elkhorn Slough Safaris. They will take you up the river estuary to see otters, seals, sea lions, and sea birds.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the most famous in the United States, and it continues to inspire visitors and conservationists more than 30 years after its opening. Nearly 200 permanent exhibits introduce visitors to 35,000 creatures of over 550 species, a compelling reminder of our profound connection to the oceans. The aquarium’s sea otter and penguin shows are wildly popular. The show put on by the playful animals as they are fed and put through training exercises by expert aquarists is a big reason the aquarium is the number one attraction on the Monterey peninsula. You don’t want to miss out on encountering a glowing jellyfish at the Jellies.
Don’t forget to learn about Monterey’s rich history. Founded in 1770, Monterey had functioned as the capital of Alta California, under both Spain (1804-1821) and Mexico (1822-1836). The city hosted California’s first theater, public building, public library, publicly funded school, printing press, and newspaper, but it was made famous by the local darling literary giant John Steinbeck in his novels Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. It is worth checking out Monterey’s Path of History, a free self‐guided tour of Old Monterey, marked by easy‐to‐distinguish yellow tiles set on the sidewalk.
If you are exhausted from all the walking, stay in and have a pizza from Pizza My Heart deliver to your hotel room, or if you still have energy, have dinner at the local craft brewery and restaurant, Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill’s outdoor patio.
In the morning, head over to 3 Mundos Sandwich Shop for an inexpensive, tasty breakfast burrito, or you can order their famous Argentine Trip Tip sandwich for lunch before getting back on the road. Another breakfast or lunch option is Poppy Hall in Pacific Grove, offering classic comfort food.
Monterey to San Francisco:
Estimated Driving Time: 2 hours
In a couple of hours, you will reach your final destination, San Francisco, one of the most iconic cities in the world. San Francisco is often thought of as the technology hub of America, but its legacy is the revelatory architecture and its rich history –from the Gold Rush to the “hippie” countercultures, the Sexual Revolution, the Peace Movement, and establishing the first LGBTQ neighborhood in the country. The city is full of vibrant neighborhoods, parks, beaches, museums, and a whole host of entertainment options and things to do for you to explore. And you will eat your heart out at some of San Francisco’s most dynamic food scenes, from humble Mission District burrito joints to Michelin-starred dining rooms.
Before you tour the city, we recommend parking your vehicle at your lodging location as it’s pretty convenient for you to get around. Just be sure to bring all valuable belongings inside.
The most iconic landmark in San Francisco is the Golden Gate Bridge. Connecting San Francisco with Marin County, the Golden Gate Bridge is the most photographed site in the city and was, at one time, designated the extraordinary man-made sight in the United States by the U.S. Travel Service. The bridge only took four years to build, and it opened on May 28th, 1937. If you want to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, the road is US Hwy 101, or SR 1, and there is a toll fee. The walkways on either side of the bridge are open to pedestrians and cyclists and free, but it is only open during daylight hours. The walk begins at the start of the bridge (accessible from the Presidio shuttle) and ends with a viewpoint in Marin County. Many locals enjoy biking across the bridge to the nearby waterfront town of Sausalito. The city offers free walking tours on Thursdays and Sundays. Battery Godfrey offers a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can take more picturesque photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field, a grass field, and a sandy beach with a restored marsh.
From Crissy Field, it’s an easy walk to the Palace of Fine Arts, the last remaining structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this classical-looking building is beautifully situated on a lagoon that reflects the mirror image on the surface of the calm water while ducks and geese drift. Today, the Palace hosts art exhibitions and performances.
Make your way over to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Fisherman's Wharf is one of San Francisco's most lively tourist areas. This old section, once the Little Italy of San Francisco, has over 50 stores and unique places to eat and is known for its beautiful setting along the waterfront. It's a fun place to stroll around and get a taste of the city. The docks by pier 39 are some of the best areas in the city to see sea lions.
From Pier 33, you can catch a ferry to Alcatraz Island and visit the historic and notorious Alcatraz prison, where some of America's most well-known criminals were inmates here, including Al Capone. It operated for almost thirty years, closing in 1963 and re-opening as a tourist attraction in 1973. While most people come for the history or the novelty of seeing a former prison, the island is now a prominent area for nesting seabirds. If you are short on time, an easy, convenient way to see Alcatraz and some of the other highlights of San Francisco, like Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, and the Golden Gate Bridge, is to take a combined Alcatraz and San Francisco City Tour. Alcatraz regularly sells out, so booking in advance is strongly advised.
Once you’re done with the tour, make your way to North Beach, otherwise known as Little Italy. North Beach has historically been home to a large Italian population as well as the center of the beatnik subculture. Today, the neighborhood is one of San Francisco’s central nightlife districts and has many Italian restaurants. Tony’s Pizza has excellent Neapolitan-style pizza, and you get it by the slice or order a whole pie.
Adjacent to North Beach is Chinatown, the largest and oldest Chinatown outside of Asia. Almost completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, Chinatown was rebuilt entirely in the Chinese style and was soon even more attractive than before the disaster. With its temples, theaters, restaurants, antique and souvenir shops, teahouses, and traditional pharmacies, visiting Chinatown has become one of the top things to do in San Francisco. For tourists, the main street in Chinatown is Grant Avenue, with the Chinatown Gateway at Grant Avenue and Bush Street. If you are craving Chinese, dine at the iconic Sam Wo Restaurant, serving authentic Chinese cuisine since 1908. George Chen’s China Live is another good option.
Take advantage of the city’s free walking tours in each neighborhood, architect, and landmark. You can make reservations on their site.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without riding San Francisco’s historic cable cars. Cable Cars were introduced in 1873 to help locals contend with the many hills the city is built on. Today, the few remaining cable cars offer tourists a great way to explore the city in historic fashion. Since 1964, these tram-like vehicles have had the unique distinction of being the only public transport system to be declared a historic monument. Tickets can be purchased on board the cable car, or if you are planning on more than a couple of rides, consider buying a pass. If time permits, check out the Cable Car Museum; it’s free!
For art lovers, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is one of the city's top museums, with 170,000 square feet of exhibition space spread across ten floors. The museum focuses on 20th-century art in all forms, and the innovative and exciting exhibits are constantly changing. The permanent collection consists of 33,000 pieces, and one of the more interesting collections is contained within the Fisher Collection.
If you have more time, drive down Lombard Street, the ‘Crookedest Street’ of San Francisco. You will start at the top of Lombard and slowly wind your way down while appreciating the beautiful flowers.
If you have more time, take a day trip up to the two best-known and largest grape-growing areas, Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley. It is just 1.5 hours north of San Francisco. The area is incredibly scenic, with a drier climate than the coastal regions. It was founded in 1848 and bears the name of the long extinct Napa Indians. The western boundary is formed by the Napa Mountains. The Howell Mountains form the eastern boundary of Napa Countym, and they also protect the valley from storms.
Things to bring:
- Warm clothes –the coast can get very cold and windy
- Umbrella, hat, sun glasses
- Charger for your phone and iPad
- Water, snacks, Ziploc bags, utensils
- Bug sprays
- Car phone charger
- Hand sanitizer, trash bags, wipes, toilet paper
- A roll of quarters
- Hand lotion, chap stick, sunscreen
- First Aid Kit, aspirin
- Travel pillow
- Whether it is lodging, restaurants, or tours, make reservations in advance. It’s a holiday weekend!
- Be sure to check your gas gauge. There are stretches of hours before coming across a gas station. If you are unsure, fill up the tank to be on the safe side. This also applies with the bathroom break, and don’t forget to pack a toilet paper roll.
- Again, don’t leave any valuable things in the vehicle at all times.
- Dispose your trash properly. The majority of the coastline is made up of fragile ecosystems. Do your part to stop erosion and damage by not going somewhere dangerous and stay on the trails.
- Before you get on the road, check the weather to see if there are any road closures.
- Statevan offers Electronic Toll Pass, so you don’t have to worry about getting a ticket.
We at Statevan wishes you and your family and friends a safe and fun Labor Day! For all you van rental needs please call us.