Southwest

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: 8 Places to Stay Along the Way

California writer Ella Buchan takes you on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip and to the best hotels along the way.

The first time I followed the squiggly, salt-sprayed curves of California’s Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway 1, I was squeezed in a car with two friends and a mountain of luggage. The lack of space didn’t bother us, though. We were, all three, entranced by every bend in the ribbon-like road, every moment the bluffs dropped back to reveal craggily framed pockets of misty, cornflower blue ocean and endless stretches of creamy sand.

We sipped Pinot Noir and Syrah in the wineries around Santa Barbara, walked around an eerily quiet theme park in Santa Cruz, and discovered a still-burning love for San Francisco’s steep streets, seafood, and sometimes surreal character.

I’ve retraced those tracks several times since–sometimes portions of the route, sometimes the entire length from San Diego up to California’s rugged northern coast. It’s the quintessential California road trip, one to take with the roof down, shades on and a warm breeze ruffling your hair. Perhaps one reason it never gets old is that it knows how to roll (just enough) with the times.

This is most evident in its hotels, from enduring classics to newer resorts that blend beautifully with the landscape, fully exploiting those glorious views. Plan your own Pacific Coast Highway road trip and check out these eight hotels off Highway 1 along the way.

La Jolla: Coastal Chic in SoCal

1/3

Start (or end, if you’re traveling north to south) your road trip in style. Scripps Inn La Jolla is a chic escape just outside San Diego, dishing up a healthy dose of coastal breezes and ocean views from its beachside perch.

Nearby, kayakers paddle around La Jolla Caves, while the cliffs at Torrey Pines are popular with paragliders. There’s no pressure to do anything so taxing, though. Soaking up the sunset is top of the list of must-dos in La Jolla. Join picnickers atop coastal bluffs or cram onto the tiny terrace at We Olive (head to the wine bar at the back of the shop).

Even better, take a few steps from your stylish, cozy room to your balcony, which juts right over the ocean. From December to April, you might even spot a gray whale gliding past; the hotel overlooks the mammals’ migration path.

Scripps Inn

Top rated
La Jolla, 0.3 miles to Cold Stone Creamery
8.9 Excellent (839 reviews)
Excellent Location 9.3 / 10
Hotel CTA

Manhattan Beach: Boutique by the Sea

1/4

Save a city break in Los Angeles for another time and instead head straight to sun-drenched Manhattan Beach, where everything–and everyone–emanates a golden glow. You will, too, after a night or two at Westdrift Manhattan Beach, where rooms with luxurious textures and subdued jewel shades gaze over the sand or towards the city lights. This is a place for surfing, sunning and splashing in the waves, or just wandering the easygoing downtown streets, lined with art galleries, boutiques, and seafood restaurants.

Westdrift Manhattan Beach, Autograph Collection

8.4 Very good (1004 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 8.8 / 10
Hotel CTA

Santa Barbara: Spanish-style Comfort

1/4

This road trip is just as much about discovering cities and cultural attractions as cruising past beaches and palm trees. As it happens, Santa Barbara–dubbed “The American Riviera”–has it all. The streets of the walkable downtown showcase the city’s Valencia-style architecture, in bright white and buttercup yellow, while stretching languidly towards a broad sweep of burnished gold sand fringed by skinny palm trees.

Sitting pretty on the waterfront, Hotel Californian is one of the most stylish hotels around. The Spanish Colonial Revival–style architecture is offset by bold, graphic touches and Moorish tiles. The onsite spa, inspired by Morocco’s hammams, will have you refreshed for another stretch on the road.

Hotel Californian

Top rated
Santa Barbara, 1 miles to Leadbetter Beach
9.2 Excellent (378 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.3 / 10
Hotel CTA

San Luis Obispo: Take it Nice and SLO

1/4

Laid-back San Luis Obispo–or SLO, as the locals call it–is a little under halfway between LA and San Francisco, making it an easy choice for a couple of days’ break from the road, especially with accommodation options as delightful as the Granada Hotel & Bistro. This hip, art-filled hotel sits in the heart of the compact, walkable downtown, so you’ll have ample opportunity to stretch your legs after being behind the wheel. Explore independent fashion boutiques and stores filled with local crafts before flopping in one of the classically stylish, supremely comfortable rooms.

If you’re there on a weekend, load up on brunch before hitting the road. Fresh-from-the-source options include deviled eggs with bacon, jam, and French toast heaped with berries and coconut caramel.

Don't Miss This

Morro Bay

Don’t miss nearby Morro Bay, named for volcanic peak Morro Rock and frequented by adorable sea otters, who often float close to the shore with pups cuddled on their bellies.

Granada Hotel & Bistro

Top rated
9.1 Excellent (712 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.4 / 10
Hotel CTA

Big Sur: A Rediscovered Classic

1/4

Big Sur was out of reach for most people for more than a year after a mudslide in May 2017 cut off a stretch of Highway 1. It was badly missed, and you’ll understand why as soon as you turn into this stretch, perhaps the most beautiful of the entire road (and it has some pretty stiff competition). The cliffs suddenly appear more dramatic, plunging to caramel sands and teal water. The road is wigglier, and the trees are taller–redwoods soar so high you can barely see their canopies.

Every inch of Hotel Ventana Big Sur has been thoughtfully designed to make the most of this inspiring backdrop. The resort nestles within 160 forested acres, and rooms have terraces or balconies facing the redwoods or the ocean. Fireplaces and enormous beds piled with luxurious textiles raise the comfort bar.

Allow time to stop at Hearst Castle, 60 miles south of Hotel Ventana. This 165-room mansion, which belonged to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, has a colonnaded Roman pool and views across the Central Coast. The turn-off is close to the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, where you can peer down at huge, long-snouted elephant seals that breed here on the sand.

Hotel Ventana Big Sur

Top rated
9.0 Excellent (769 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.4 / 10
Hotel CTA

Carmel-by-the-Sea: Limitless Outdoors

1/4

When you’re spending a long time on the open road, you crave comfort, but you also get used to being just a window away from the great outdoors. The best accommodation, like Hotel Carmel Valley Ranch, understands that, creating stylish spaces that blend seamlessly with their surrounds.

Suites at the ranch, a short drive from the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, have decks that overlook vineyards and gaze out at mountains. There are double-sided fireplaces (to warm indoors and out), armchairs pointing towards the valley and, in one studio, a deep-soaking, al fresco bathtub.

Be A Kid Again

Things to Do at Hotel Carmel Valley Ranch

Craft demonstrations, bee-keeping lessons, naturist hikes, golf and s’mores by the firepit encourage you to discover your inner toddler (whatever your age).

Hotel Carmel Valley Ranch

Top rated
9.0 Excellent (1130 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.3 / 10
Hotel CTA

Sausalito: Room with a View

1/4

You’ll cross the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco to arrive at Cavallo Point Lodge, over the bay in sunnier Sausalito (the fog never quite seems to float this far). Then, if you book a stay in one of the resort’s high-perched contemporary rooms, you can stare at the hulking, rusty-red steel icon at your leisure. It appears so close it threatens to burst through the floor-to-ceiling glass.

The hotel is located on former military base Fort Baker, with historic rooms arranged around the green in a horseshoe lodgings. The onsite spa, with hot tubs and outdoor pool, will soothe car-weary limbs. Then you can cycle, hugging the bay, to the center of Sausalito, where pastel-hued homes cling to the hillside above a stretch of waterfront restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, and cute souvenir shops. Frequent ferries shuttle passengers to and from San Francisco.

Cavallo Point Lodge

Top rated
Sausalito, 1.8 miles to Sausalito Bay
9.0 Excellent (829 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.3 / 10
Hotel CTA

Little River: Traditions Worth Keeping

1/4

A couple of hours’ north of San Francisco and close to the end (or beginning) of Highway 1, Mendocino curls around a ruggedly beautiful and refreshingly uncrowded stretch of coastline. The hotels here are all about home comforts rooted in tradition, without compromising on luxury by even a single thread count.

Little River Inn has been in the same family since 1863, and many guests return year after year. Each of the rooms faces the Pacific, so you can scour the horizon for gray or humpback whales from your bed or balcony. While some have generous balconies for sea-gazing and possible whale-spotting.

Nearby, take a trip to Glass Beach, where bottles thrown into the ocean have been washed back up as thousands of smooth, multi-colored pebbles.

Around 50 miles north, the road finally runs out around Leggett. But no matter. You can continue north towards the Oregon border, take a wine-tasting detour on the redwood-flanked Highway 28, which winds through the Anderson Valley–or simply turn around and do it all again.

Little River Inn

Top rated
9.1 Excellent (684 reviews)
Excellent Location 9.2 / 10
Hotel CTA

Featured photo by leonie wise on Unsplash