How to Plan the Perfect California Road Trip—and Where to Stay

Read this before you get in the car and cruise

Updated 01/09/19
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Courtesy of Hotel

Perhaps the most iconic and scenic drive in the U.S., the Pacific Coast Highway spans just over 655 miles from Dana Point to Leggett. Cruising the legendary route—or at least part of it—is the definition of road trip goals.

But with so much to see and do along the way, it’s certainly easier to pick a playlist than decide where to stop (and stay). So, to steer you in the right direction, we’ve rounded up the awesome spots worth marking on your map.

01 of 07

Big Sur

Courtesy of Kodiak Greenwood

Few places on the planet have the visual intrigue of Big Sur. Its rugged cliffs, thick mist, and towering trees command attention. As you might have guessed, there’s an abundance of outdoor adventure. So, whether you prefer leisurely hikes, grueling treks, or quiet strolls through 500-year-old redwoods, you’ll find it here.

You can’t go wrong with either Ventana Big Sur or Post Ranch Inn. Actually, that’s an understatement of epic proportions. Both properties are truly exceptional—luxurious accommodations, award-winning restaurants, and vistas so spellbinding you’ll forget there’s a world beyond Big Sur. For something more low-key and wallet-friendly, consider one of the many campsites.

02 of 07

Malibu

Courtesy of M. K. Sadler

Despite an influx of celebrity homes, this seaside community remains true to its roots. Malibu Lagoon State Beach still lures surfers, there’s tons of hiking trails to explore, and history is on display at at Adamson House. Before making your way north, stop at Malibu Seafood to feast on fish 'n' chips and gaze at the glory of the Pacific Ocean.

In terms of accommodations, there are a couple motels turned boutique hotels worth checking out. The Surfrider is an easy-going enclave with shelter-magazine-level design and a guests-only roof deck that serves stellar cocktails. Originally built in 1947, the Native Hotel gives guests a taste of old-school California with exposed beams, concrete aggregate floors, and hammocks.

03 of 07

Dana Point

Courtesy of Monarch Beach Resort

With its care-free attitude and coastal charm, this SoCal gem delivers a true Orange County experience. Expect glistening marinas filled with boats plus plenty of chic restaurants and boutiques. Surfers can ride the waves at Doheny State Beach. Of course, pleasant year-round temps don’t hurt either.

Monarch Beach Resort impresses with its oceanfront setting, spectacular panoramas, and plethora of recreational pursuits. If the sand and sea alone aren’t enough to lure you, it also boasts one of the most picturesque pools in California as well as a gorgeous golf course. For a little R&R, head to Miraval Spa for a pampering treatment.

04 of 07

San Francisco

Courtesy of Hotel Zelos

San Francisco is the perfect place to end your road trip. For starters, there’s the Golden Gate Bridge. Cable cars and candy-colored Victorian houses (known as the Painted Ladies) are also a major draw. Foodies will love the Embarcadero and authentic Mission-style burritos. Alcatraz, the infamous former prison, is a must-see too.

Hotel Zelos occupies a fashionable address in the vibrant SOMA district. It’s literally steps from top attractions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art plus high-style department stores and designer outposts in Union Square. Craving a cocktail? Head to the rooftop bar and lounge, Dirty Habit, for a palate-pleasing tipple.

05 of 07

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Courtesy of Carmel Valley Ranch

The crown jewel of the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel-by-the-Sea is utterly enchanting. This storybook destination delights with its fairy-tale cottages, intimate eateries, and art galleries. Also on the itinerary? Hop in the car and set your navigation for scenic 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach. Famous landmarks include the Lone Cypress and Spanish Bay.

Carmel Valley Ranch is a sprawling 500-acre playground with tons of space to roam as well as an action-packed calendar of activities, ranging from golf and tennis to beekeeping and archery. Of course, if you’d rather relax, that’s definitely doable—especially considering many rooms are equipped with fireplaces and outdoor bathtubs. Stress-melting soak under the stars, anyone?

06 of 07

Santa Barbara

Courtesy of Hotel Californian

Santa Barbara, a.k.a. the American Riviera, is a slice of paradise on the central California coast. Downtown is dotted with white stucco buildings that infuse a Spanish Colonial feel. Upscale shops sell handcrafted accessories and vintage wares. The burgeoning Funk Zone is filled with urban wineries. Hungry? Make a reservation at one of the many excellent restaurants.

If you want to be in the heart of the action, book a stay at Hotel Californian. Set just one block from the vibrant waterfront, this historic property—which was recently revamped—wows with its modern Moorish decor, soaring ceilings, and sumptuous king-size beds. There’s also a hammam-inspired spa along with a beautiful ballroom and event lawns.

07 of 07

Santa Monica

Courtesy of Loews Santa Monica

A far cry from the hustle and bustle of downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica has sand shores and tons of laid-back appeal. While you’re there, visit Muscle Beach and get in on the touristy fun by riding the world-famous Ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier. (Pro tip: Go for a spin at sunset for some seriously Insta-worthy shots.)

The Loews Santa Monica is contemporary and comfortable. All 347 guestrooms—including 21 suites—are swathed in soothing neutrals with pops of blue. Art nods to its desirable location. And if you like activities, you’re in luck. There’s everything from water aerobics and kundalini yoga to beverage tastings and live entertainment at the ocean-view pool.

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