PCH road trip from Santa Monica to Napa

I recently planned and took a road trip with my sister up a portion of the Pacific Coast Highway.  I wanted to share with you the details since it was so much fun!  Each stop and location was thoughtfully planned.  I thought maybe my trip would inspire you to take this trip or maybe you were already planning a trip and this may help with your planning.  Here’s the recap…

Day 1:  We met at the LAX airport around noon.  After getting our Jeep Wrangler rental car, our first stop was Paradise Cove Beach Cafe in Malibu, about 30 minutes from LAX.  We took our shoes off and let our toes play in the sand while we enjoyed a fruity cocktail.  The food was good too!  After our meal we got out and walked along the beach.

Perhaps you recognize the Beach Boys album scene from the picture above.  It’s a famous beach with lots of history.  So many pictures on the walls of famous movies that were filmed there and the movie stars that have been there.

After lunch we went drove just a couple miles north to Pointe Dume to check out the view.  We took a quick hike to the cliffs.  We could’ve hiked a little longer, but we had more things to do!  So we only spent about 30 minutes at this location.

We drove up Malibu Canyon and down Topanga Canyon.  Beautiful drive!  It’s interesting how Malibu Canyon and Topanga Canyon are completely different.  Topanga is full of artsy stops/shops compared to Malibu Canyon.  The views are better from Malibu Canyon in my opinion.

After driving up/down the canyons for an hour or so – we checked into our hotel around 5:00 pm.  We stayed at the JW Marriott Le Merigot in Santa Monica.  We got bikes for free from the hotel to ride along Ocean Front Walk.  We rode down to Venice Beach and then inland for a couple blocks to see the Venice canals.  They were so beautiful and peaceful.  We walked our bikes along the canals.  We saw the sunset while biking which was pretty!  The path along the beach is wide, not crowded and flat.  We arrived back at Santa Monica, in the dark, parked and locked our bikes, to walk the Santa Monica pier and get some ice cream.

Day 2:  After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we jumped into the Jeep for an hour and a half drive to Santa Barbara.  We checked into Condor Whale Watching at 9:30 am for a half day of whale watching.  I met up with a friend from Instagram/Facebook/blogger, Loretta from @Countdownto60.  The Condor boat was big and about 40 people joined us for whale watching.  The boat left at 10:00 am and returned at 2:30 pm.  The boat served food, snacks and drinks.  There was an indoor seating area for those that want out of the wind. We saw at least 4 whales and countless dolphins and even some seals.  It was so much fun!

After whale watching, we went to downtown Santa Barbara for a late lunch and a beer at Brass Bear Brewery.  They serve wine too!  Then we rented a small surrey (bike for two) and we toured the water front area on a nice paved path.  We rented the bike for less than an hour.

We then drove from Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach.  It was a beautiful drive.  We stopped at a scenic overlook and learned a little about the Cold Springs Canyon Bridge.  We arrived at Pismo Beach and checked into the Shore Cliff Hotel in time to see the sun setting.


Day 3:  We enjoyed a nice complimentary breakfast at the hotel and then walked around the property.  They have great views right from the hotel.  It was fun to watch the birds perched on the cliff but the smell was pretty bad. Just saying…those rocks are not really white – that’s from the birds.

We drove 40 minutes north to Morro Bay to see Morro Rock.  It is a volcanic plug in the bay, lots of people out running, walking their dogs and we could’ve hiked to the top where I’m sure the view is amazing, but we decided to move along down the road.  We drove 40 minutes north to Elephant Seal Vista Point.  This was just 7 miles north of the Hearst Castle (our main event of the day) to take in the seals and they surely didn’t disappoint.  They were so much fun to watch.  The volunteers were full of interesting facts.

We spent over an hour enjoying the seals and learning about their life and migration from the volunteers.  The seals were grunting, barking, fighting for their perfect sunspot and then proceed to put sand on themselves to keep cool. They have a nice wooden boardwalk to walk along the beach and see the seals.

We tried to stop at Piedra Blancas Lighthouse but it was closed unexpectantly.  So we drove south about 7 miles to San Simeon.

We stopped at San Simeon and had lunch at Sebtastian’s.  It was an old general store with outdoor eating.  After eating, we walked to the pier just down the road at Hearst Beach.  It was a warm, sunny day.  The picture above is of an old one-room school house.  Hearst Castle in in the background high on the hills.  We spent about an hour at San Simeon waiting for our tour time at Hearst Castle.

Our tour at Hearst Castle was at 2:00 pm for the Designing the Dream tour.  We arrived early and I’m glad we did – there was a 45 minute movie to watch about the building of the Castle, a gift shop to explore, snacks to purchase and even a Starbucks in the Visitors Center.  You take a bus up the hill to the Castle for your tour.  It was a very good tour with lots of details and information about the family.  Definitely worth doing.  Our favorite places to see were the pools.  After the tour you can walk around the grounds and take in the lovely flowers, trees and views.  The bus takes you back to the Visitors Center.  We ended up spending at least 4 hours at Hearst Castle.  You can do more than one tour a day and that might be the best way to maximize your visit. I bet some people spend the whole day at the Castle.

It was just a 15 minute drive to Sand Pebbles Inn in Cambria, our hotel for the night.  The hotel is right across from the ocean.  Our room was on the second floor facing the ocean.  We loved keeping our windows open all night listening to the waves crashing against the shore.  If they had a balcony, it would’ve been ideal. The hotel was very nice and neat.  Upon arrival we walked on the wood boardwalk, above the beach alongside the road, for less than a half mile to the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill.  We enjoyed a nice dinner there. They have outdoor seating, but it was full when we arrived.  Even still we had about a 45 minute wait for our table. I ran out, across the street – to the beach, to catch the sunset – since we had an inside table.

Day 4:  We woke up and took a stroll along the beach. I had to get my toes in the water.  It was freezing!!! We watched surfers (in wet suits) and checked out the driftwood teepees.  Then we had a complimentary breakfast at the hotel.

We got back on Hwy 1 and drove towards Santa Cruz.  We stopped so many times to take in the views.  We saw a dirt road going up the mountain and decided to take it…I did rent a Jeep!  It was a pretty steep incline and for me it was scary.  I’m afraid of heights, so this was definitely out of my comfort zone.  Heck, driving along Hwy 1 was sometimes scary, so going even higher on a dirt road…on a cliff…oh yeah!  But it was one of the highlights of the trip in retrospect!


The pic above is taken from the off-road trail.  We took dozens ( hundreds) of pictures of the views.  It really is so beautiful!

We arrived at Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur around 1:30 pm (because we stopped often to look at the views).  The view from Nepenthe Restaurant is good, but not a good as some on the way there.  The food was really good and the setting was great!  There is also a gift shop on site that we checked out.

We stopped at Big Sur Bakery after lunch, but we were so full from lunch that we didn’t buy anything.

We tried to stop at Pfeiffer Beach to see the natural arch, but the parking lot was full and Rangers made us turn around.

Next stop…Bixby Bridge.  The view is the best from the north looking south.  Amazing!

We continued our drive to Santa Cruz, stopping and taking pictures, looking for whales and taking in the views.

We arrived at West Cliff Inn in Santa Cruz before dark.  West Cliff Inn is an old Victorian home.  We shared a bed, in a small room.  It was sufficient, but not much room to spare. There was a bed, a fireplace, an armoire and a chair and not much room for anything else.  The bathroom was modern and quite large. We walked across the street and a couple blocks to the Santa Cruz pier and watched the sea lions. The pier has several view points for you to see the seals sleeping under the pier. They are quite amusing!  It’s also amazing how fast they swim!  We ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant on the pier. The pier isn’t really inviting, but we were glad to see the seals and our quesadillas and margaritas were good.

Day 5:  The next morning we enjoyed a complimentary breakfast at the Inn and then drove along West Cliff Drive to get a feel for area.  We stopped to watch a couple surfers head down to the water and catch some waves.  This area of Santa Cruz is really nice. They have a wonderful paved path along the coast to walk, bike, skate, etc.

We drove an hour south to Pebble Beach.  We paid $10 to enjoy the 17 Mile Drive and it was well worth it.  We listened to the 17 Mile Drive app to get the history and important sites to look for.  We saw the lone cypress – a highlight.  There were lots of tourist in Pebble Beach, but I’m so glad we took our time and enjoyed this location.  We stopped and shopped, had lunch at The Bench, at the The Lodge, overlooking hole #18.  Pebble Beach is stunning! We sat outside, on a beautiful sunny day, and enjoyed a wonderful lunch and a cocktail.  We drove 17 Mile Drive up/back a couple times.  We also loved driving Scenic Road in Carmel-by-the-Sea.  Such a charming area.

We booked an afternoon horse ride from the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center.  I’m not a natural on horses and they seem to sense this!  My horse got startled by an oncoming Greyhound bus and jumped around a few seconds…I thought I was going down.  But I held on.  It was so funny in retrospect!  My sisters horse went from a slow walking pace to galloping at one point – even scared my horse (in front of her).  We laughed and laughed!  I’m so glad we did this – getting outside your comfort zone makes for the best experiences I think!

After horseback riding we drove around some more and told a security guard we were having dinner at some hotel and got closer to hole #7 – which is what my sister really wanted to see.  As we were driving around the parking lot, trying to get a good view of the golf course, she spotted a lady walking her dog on the golf course.  Well that’s all it took.  Within seconds we were parked and out walking the Pebble Beach Golf Course.

My phone was on about 2% battery from taking pictures while on the horses – I was so sure we would get arrested for walking the course and I wouldn’t be able to call hubby.  But we didn’t get arrested – we didn’t even get noticed.  We ended up seeing 3 people walking their dogs on the edge of the course. It was around 5:30 pm – there were no golfers on the course.  We walked holes #5, #6 and #7.  Hole #7 is a peninsula and the view is just breathtaking.  We got back in our car and waived to the security guard and headed out.  Pics above are hole #7.

We enjoyed a lovely Italian dinner and drinks at Aliotti’s Victorian Corner in Pacific Grove before heading back to the West Cliff Inn in Santa Cruz.  Pictures below are from the Inn, a really beautifully preserved Victorian home.  We got home around 9:00 pm.

Day 6:  The next morning we enjoyed our complimentary breakfast before checking out and heading up Hwy 1.

Again, we were stopping along the way and taking in the sights.  Pigeon Point Lighthouse was on the agenda, but we drove through the parking lot and decided not to tour it.


Lunch was at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company.  We continued our drive, again stopping as we wanted to take in the views.  We arrived at Cliff House in San Francisco around 3:00 pm.  We got out and shopped the gift shop and walked around to take in the views.   We then headed to the Holiday Inn Express at Fisherman’s Wharf where we  stayed for 3 nights. The hotel was new (or recently redone) and we were very  pleased with our room and the hotel overall.

We wasted no time in getting out and walking to Pier 39 to check out the seals (yes, we like these funny animals).  We looked around Pier 39 and then took  a pedicab to Ghirardeli Square.

We decided to take a trolley ride.  So we waited in line for about an hour for our turn on the trolley.  It is not a quick load on/off.  In fact we watched the sunset and the fog roll in over Golden Gate Bridge from our place in line and then it got cold.  I ran across the street and bought a hoodie to wear for the night.  The trolley ride was so fun.  We rode it about 20 minutes then go off at the end stop.  Then a quick back on another trolley for another 20 minute ride back to Ghirardeli Square.  The trolley drivers are entertainers and make the ride even more fun!

We walked back to our hotel but not before stopping at In and Out Burger for a late night dinner.

Day 7:  We enjoyed a complimentary breakfast at the hotel before our day of exploring.  Now you’re really gonna think we’re crazy…crazy fun that is!  We rented a GoCar for the entire day and saw the whole city.  We were touring around on/off the GPS guided route for 9 hours!  We started out at Fisherman’s Wharf and went thru the Presidio area, Golden Gate Welcome Center, Baker Beach, Cliff House, thru Golden Gate Park, Twin Peaks, Haight/Ashbury, Lombard Street and many more sites.  It was a blast!  We kept laughing at how ridiculous we must look, but we would do it again in a heart beat!  What a great way to see the city.  The GPS route and narrator in the GoCar tell you all about each location and what to look for.  It was educational and we went at our own pace.

We saw all the major highlights in the city.

We even got off the GPS guided route (this is allowed) and went to visit a friend and Brewmaster at Anchor Brewing.  We got a special tour of the brewery and enjoyed a beverage!

We got back to the GoCar facility, 5 minutes before closing with zero gas remaining!

We walked a couple blocks to Carmel Pizza Company for a delicious pizza and then next door to Baked Bear for a warm cookie and ice cream sandwich.

Day 8:  The next morning we were up early and headed to Napa Valley.  Our first stop was Artesa Vineyards & Winery.  It’s a beautiful modern winery with an outstanding view.  Keep in mind, we were not interested in the wine tasting as much as taking in the architecture and scenery.  I was lucky enough to meet up with Loretta, from Countdownto60, at Oxbow Public Market.  We enjoyed a delicious (famous) english muffin from Model Bakery.  We shopped a little at the Market and at Napa General Store before driving the loop around Napa Valley.  We stopped at Opus One, Robert Mondavi, Turnbull Wine Cellars before having lunch at Gott’s Roadside.  My sister likes beer more than wine, and we found Mad Fritz Brewery.  Then we stopped at Costella Di Amorosa which is a beautiful castle with chickens, peacocks, goats, etc. We stayed at this location the longest.  We stopped at a few more locations before heading to Sonoma to meet up with another fashion blogger, Brenda Kinsel.  We stopped and shopped a little in Sonoma before we met her at El Dorado Hotel and enjoyed a nice meal and wine.  It was so great to meet these two ladies that I “knew” online and create a real friendship.  The lighting wasn’t good for the picture below, but the smiles were real!


You would think were were done with sightseeing at this point but nooooo.  Once we got into San Francisco it was around 10:00 pm.  We went to see the Painted Ladies and go up/down some steep streets.  We couldn’t really see the Painted Ladies at night, but we did see the Civic Center and the Palace of Fine Arts.  The streets were almost vacant as nobody was out and it was fun to explore at night.

Day 9:  Our last day.  We took the scenic route to the airport, following The Embarcadaro to downtown, past AT&T Ball Park, then headed to the airport.


Overall we had such a good trip. The PCH views were amazing.

I hope you enjoyed the details of our trip. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have if you are planning this trip.  We definitely took our time and never felt rushed.  I took the time to do a lot of planning for this trip, so that’s why I wanted to share it with you. Perhaps this inspire you do explore the PCH!

xo, Cindy



4 thoughts on “PCH road trip from Santa Monica to Napa

  1. I’ve been patiently waiting for this post!! I saw on FB that you met up with Loretta, and i’m so glad you got to see Brenda too!!
    I can just hear the laughter you and your sister must have had on much of this trip. I was at the Hearst Castle when I was about 10….I would absolutely love to do it again!!
    And the views???? Aren’t they amazing? I said the same thing last weekend out in LA. Gorgeous sunsets that can’t be beat. Although Colorado gives them a good run for their money!!!
    We need to get together…with Laura. Soon!!!
    PS..Maybe Laura wants to join us at the Denver FAshion Week event??


  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the details and pictures of your trip and really wish I could have been there! You did so much and had so much fun! I am so happy for you! Dad would enjoyvreading your blog, too! Love you, Sis!


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