If you want to drive the Pacific Coast Highway then you can do it in half a day. Officially it's less than 130 miles long, running between Dana Point and Oxnard in southern California. This is the stretch of Highway 1 which has been legally designated the Pacific Coast Highway by the California state legislature.
It's not unusual, of course, for the American people and the legislature to disagree, and many people would tell you that the highway runs from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or from San Francisco through to San Diego. Even more people know that the real Pacific Coast Highway, regardless of what anyone in an office – or even the road signs – will tell you, is made up of the various roads that run all the way down the west coast of the United States, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.
Far from being under 130 miles in length, the real Pacific Coast Highway is at least 1800 miles long, and some say nearer 2000 if you take the long way round wherever you can. It's even been dubbed Route 2066, in homage to Route 66, which winds from Chicago to LA and meets the Pacific Coast Highway when it gets there.
Do you drive north to south? How long will it take? Where should we begin? Can we do it in a rental car? Those are the basic questions most folk want to know about driving the Pacific Coast Highway. And the answers are:
The correct answer is that it depends. There's no right or wrong direction. A lot depends on the season you're traveling. If it's heading towards summer you might want to drive towards the north, to give it time to warm up in Oregon and Washington. If it's past the peak of summer, maybe do the north first and drive towards California, where you know the sun will linger longer.
We turned this advice into a fun short YouTube video:
If you're planning to do the whole route then slightly off-season is best. The beach resorts of southern California get packed with people in mid-summer, and the Pacific Coast Highway goes right through or right by many of these places. Who wants to get stuck in traffic? So avoid July and August. Otherwise any time is a good time, but it also depends on the direction you plan to travel in (see above).
As long as you want it to. If you want to do the full 2000 miles, then if you're happy averaging 200 miles a day, it's obviously going to take ten days. But you'll want some down time too, especially if one person's doing all the driving. So figure on two weeks. If you can spare more than two weeks, you'll be fine. You'll do the whole trip and have fun along the way. Of course, if you can spare two years you might just get to see everything.
If you've got your own wheels it's kind-of nice to think of starting at either the Canadian or Mexican border, and driving all the way to the other end. It's a nice notion but it's not always practical.
If you're flying into Seattle why drive almost to Vancouver only to turn round and come back again? Likewise if you arrive in San Diego, don't feel you need to drive to Mexico before you can begin your journey. By all means do it if you want to, if that's your personal goal, but don't feel guilty if you can't make it. You get extra time to enjoy the real fun bits, and that's more important to our way of thinking.
Sure, no problem. Fly into San Diego or Seattle, pick up a rental car and hit the road for two-three weeks. You will have to pay extra for a one-way drop fee, and one of our website visitors reported a charge as high as $500 for a one-way rental. It would be cheaper to drive back the fast Interstate route, which can be done in 2-3 days, and return your car to the same place. Even two nights in motels and the gas won't come to $500!
Or there's another alternative: take the train. If you can get a good return flight deal flying in and out of the same airport, why not drive one way and catch the Amtrak back again? Or do the train journey first, pick up a car, and drive slowly back? The Amtrak Coast Starlight is one of the USA's most beautiful train rides, and it goes between Seattle and Los Angeles every day.
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In 1972, California voters mandated the creation of a coastal trail from Oregon all the way to Mexico, but it still isn’t complete.