Driving California's Scenic Highway One

A practical guide to driving one of America's most scenic highways

Big Sur, Highway 1
••• James O'Neil/Getty Images

California's Highway One runs from Capistrano Beach in Orange County to Leggett in northern Mendocino. This guide links to detailed directions for every single mile of it. 

Orange and Los Angeles Counties

Highway One is a city street from San Juan Capistrano to Santa Monica. It is most often called Pacific Coast Highway (which locals shorten to PCH). The section between Manhattan Beach and LAX is called Sepulveda.

North of the airport to Santa Monica, it's Lincoln Blvd.

Its route sometimes follows the coastline, but far more of it does not, passing instead through neighborhoods and mundane strip malls. To decide whether you want to drive it, see the Pacific Coast Highway guide.

Santa Monica - Malibu - Oxnard

One of the most scenic sections of Hwy 1 goes through scenic Malibu. It often runs so close to the edge of the continent that it feels like you could reach out and dangle your fingers in the water. This guide has all the details for that drive.

Oxnard to San Luis Obispo

For much of its route north from Oxnard, CA Hwy 1 merges with US Hwy 101. You can use this guide to driving 101 to check out what you can see along the way.

Just north of the Gaviota Tunnel (which is north of Santa Barbara), Hwy 1 splits off for about 50 miles. This section is sometimes called Cabrillo Highway. You could drive it if you want to cover every single inch of the famous highway, but there's little of interest if you're just sightseeing.

That detour rejoins US Hwy 101 in Pismo Beach. From there, Highways 1 and 101 are the same.

San Luis Obispo to San Francisco

This is probably the most famous part of the Pacific Coast Highway. Sights include Hearst Castle, the Big Sur coast, Carmel, Monterey and Santa Cruz. Here's the guide to what you can see and do along the way.

Here's some additional information if you plan to take a pit stop in Big Sur.

A bridge replacement project on California Highway 1 will cause major delays and detours well into 2018 along this section of highway. Here's how you can cope with the road closures and what to do to see the views you've been dreaming about.

Through the City of San Francisco

Hwy 1 is known as 19th Avenue in San Francisco, leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a busy street with little to see and traffic that's more than annoying. You can get through town more easily by merging with I-280 north of Pacifica or taking CA Hwy 35 north and following the coastline.

Golden Gate Bridge - Marin - Sonoma - Mendocino

North of the bridge, the official highway name is Shoreline Highway. It passes along some dramatic coastline, through scenic Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. It ends north of Rockport, where it turns inland toward Leggett and disappears.

Here's the drive guide from the Golden Gate Bridge through Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.

Tips and Advice

These tips and ideas will help make your drive most pleasant:

  • Check your gas gauge. There's no gasoline available for up to 40 miles in some stretches, especially in Big Sur and north of San Francisco.
  • "Go" when you have a chance. Restrooms are also scarce in those same areas.
  • Allow plenty of time. Assume you will average about 30 miles per hour (45 kph). This means a round trip to Hearst Castle and Big Sur can take most of a day and San Francisco to Mendocino can be an all-day drive.
  • If anyone in your party suffers from motion sickness, be prepared. If that party is an adult, let them drive.
  • If you are driving only one way, try to drive from south to north. You will be driving on the insides of the curves and views are clearer toward the north.
  • If you are driving both ways (making a round trip to Hearst Castle from Big Sur, for example), avoid crossing traffic to see things on the opposite side of the road. Save them for the return trip instead.
  • CA Hwy 1 is prone to landslides, especially during rainy winters. Check its condition online or call 800-427-7623 before you go. And here's what to do if it is closed in Big Sur.

    It's always good practice to follow these safety tips, but they become even more important along busy CA Hwy 1:

    • Drive defensively
    • Buckle up! California law requires it for the driver and all passengers
    • Pull over if too many cars are following you (but only when you can do so safely)
    • Don't pass where there are double yellow lines