The Ultimate PCH and California Coast Road Trip: Camping Edition

The quintessential West Coast road trip takes you from California’s surf beaches and Redwood forests to the coastal wilderness and old-growth rainforests of Washington State.

When it comes to classic, all-American road trips, the Pacific Coastal Highway (PCH) is right up there on the bucket list with Route 66 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it’s ideal for RVs. 

Hugging the coast from San Diego, California, all the way up to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, it winds past rugged sea cliffs, windswept surf beaches, and Redwood-blanketed state and national parks. You’ll pass through three states and cover almost the entire West Coast—about 1,650 miles and you’ll need a minimum of 5 days.

As long as you take the hairpin bends slow, the two-lane, toll-free highways are suitable for all but the largest of RVs, but keep a close eye on the weather. Summer fogs and winter frosts can render road conditions dangerous, and landslides are not uncommon after heavy rains and storms, leading to partial road closures. 

To help you plan the ultimate road trip, we’ve pulled together the most memorable stops and Pacific Coast Highway camping spots.

Tip: You can use the National Scenic Byways map layer when searching for Hipcamps to easily find convenient locations along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Photo by Hipcamper Pierre Alvan

Planning a stress-free Pacific Highway road trip

Whether you opt for a 3-day California road trip or a week-long (or more) journey that continues through Oregon and Washington State, the PCH is packed with spectacular views, scenic coastal camping, and epic hikes. But like all road trips, the more that you plan and prepare in advance, the more enjoyable it will be. 

Start by researching your route: there are so many things to do on Pacific Coast Highway that it’s better to cut down your total mileage and focus on a shorter section than try to cram too much in. 

If time is limited, opt for a California PCH road trip and choose a 3 to 5-day section of Highway 1 (US State Route 1) between San Diego and Mendocino County. If time is no object, give yourself 7 to 10 days to drive the entire route from San Diego to Seattle, continuing north along Highway 101 (US Route 101). 

Traditionally, the PCH is driven from south to north, but there are advantages to either direction. The ocean views are arguably even more dramatic when heading southbound as you’ll be right on the edge of the sea cliffs, while more nervous drivers might prefer to head north for maximum clearance.

The time of year is a more crucial consideration—winter conditions are best avoided if possible, but the summer crowds can bring traffic to a crawl. Late spring and early fall offer the best compromise, with fewer crowds and warm weather, but you’ll still want to book campsites as far in advance as possible. 

Most importantly, map out your daily route to ensure you aren’t spending too much time driving and allow time for extra stops and unexpected delays—you don’t want to be driving the road at night. 

Each of our suggested stops on the Pacific Coast Highway has options for tent or RV camping. Snag a place at a beachfront campsite, stay at a state park campground, or seek out your own slice of paradise at a secluded Hipcamp far from the crowds.

Photo by Hipcamp Photographer Lisse Lundin at Private Beach Farm in Goleta, CA

Start: El Capitan State Beach

Southern California is full of showstoppers, so give yourself plenty of time to drive the 220-mile stretch between San Diego and Santa Barbara and drink in the Hollywood-approved Pacific Ocean views. Beach towns like Laguna Beach and Newport Beach make perfect pitstops, and you won’t want to miss the view from Santa Monica Pier or a stroll down the famous Venice Beach boardwalk. 

Give Los Angeles a miss when it comes to camping, as you’ll find far more options around Malibu, Santa Monica, and Santa Barbara. Hikers, surfers, and campers are all welcome at El Capitan State Beach and neighboring Refugio State Beach, both of which have beachfront campgrounds, rugged coastal trails, and opportunities for kayaking, fishing, and whale-watching.

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Photo by Hipcamper Zach Zulanas at Wilde Big Sur in Big Sur, CA

Stop 1: Big Sur

Hemmed in by soaring redwoods, jagged mountains, and wave-ravaged beaches, Big Sur brings big views. Sweeping along the sea cliffs from San Simeon to Monterey, this iconic coastline is home to some of the most-visited attractions on the Pacific Coast Highway. 

Hop out to visit Hearst Castle, hike to McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, or head inland to camp beneath the redwoods in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Further north, Bixby Bridge is the archetypal PCH viewpoint, after which you can swing by Point Lobos State Natural Reserve to spot sea lions and elephant seals, visit the small town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, or take a scenic detour around Monterey Bay’s 17-Mile Drive.

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Photo by Monica Semergiu at Salmon Creek Ranch in Bodega Bay, CA

Stop 2: Point Reyes National Seashore 

The epitome of “taking the scenic route” is the coastal road from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, but the seaside views are worth every bit of extra mileage. Stretch your legs along Moon Bay State Beach, cross the famous Golden Gate Bridge, then take a detour into wine country and go wine tasting at a Sonoma Valley winery. 

Just north of San Francisco, the Point Reyes National Seashore has about 80 miles of rocky headlands and wild shoreline where you can hike between beaches, dunes, and a rare coastal waterfall. Intrepid campers can choose from hike-in and bike-in backcountry campsites, some right on the coast, or paddle out to camp at secluded Tomales Bay.

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Photo by Hipcamper Julian Bialowas at Humboldt Redwoods

Stop 3: Redwood National and State Parks

The small town of Leggett in Northern California marks the end of State Route 1, from where you’ll continue north along US Route 101 through the heart of the Redwood National Park. With a woodland canopy that towers taller than the Statue of Liberty, the mighty redwood forests are a sight to behold, whether you explore on foot, by bike, or by kayak. 

The world’s tallest trees provide a spectacular backdrop for hiking along more than 200 miles of trails, as well as some of the most impressively situated RV camping along the Pacific Coast Highway. Book early, as campsites always fill up fast.

This ends the California portion of the route, but it’s worth continuing on to the Pacific Northwest.

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Cape Blanco State Park, OR

Stop 4: Cape Blanco State Park 

Oregon’s 300-plus miles of PCH winds past looming sea stacks, long beaches, and craggy forelands, demanding that you slow down and enjoy the views. Just north of Port Orford, Cape Blanco State Park is the perfect spot to camp. 

Follow the coastal trail to the 19th-century Cape Blanco Lighthouse, go fishing along the Sixes River, or make the most of the multi-use trails to hike, bike, or horseback ride. The state park campground is open year-round and has electric hookups and cabin rentals, but you’ll also find some cozy Hipcamps peppered along the coast.

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Ecola State Park, OR

Stop 5: Cannon Beach 

Creative vibes and natural landscapes await at Cannon Beach, Oregon. An easy day trip from Portland, this laid-back seaside town is known for its sandy beach, landmark sea stack, and many independent art galleries. The aforementioned Haystack Rock is more than just a photographer magnet—it also attracts tufted puffins in the spring and summer months. 

After bird-watching, go tide pooling along the beach, explore the forested capes of neighboring Ecola State Park, or pick a seafood restaurant on Oregon’s North Coast Food Trail, which includes many of Cannon Beach’s foodie favorites. 

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Photo by Hipcamper Ruchita Parat at Olympic National Park

End: Olympic National Park

West of Seattle, Olympic National Park is one of the largest national parks in America; it’s also the terminus of Highway 101 and a natural end to your Pacific Coast Highway road trip. 

Road-weary RVers can relax at the steamy Sol Duc Hot Springs, but you’ll want to save some energy for hiking at Hurricane Range or Hoh Rainforest, boating along Lake Crescent, and wildlife-watching at Rialto Beach. Choose from 15 national park campgrounds or dozens of nearby Hipcamps, many easily accessible from the 329-mile loop road.

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Zoë is a British freelance writer, editor, and copywriter who has lived, worked, and travelled over six continents, and is currently based in France. As a travel writer, she specializes in budget travel, backpacking, the outdoors, adventure, and French life and culture, but she also has a keen interest in ecotourism, equestrian, and the digital nomad lifestyle.

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