Driving California's Scenic Highway One

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

Driving on California's Highway One
••• Driving on California's Highway One. Michael Hanson / Getty Images

California's Highway One is a state highway. It runs from Capistrano Beach in Orange County to Leggett in northern Mendocino, a total of about 750 miles. You can tackle it in sections, pick just part of it to see or make the journey into a week-long road trip. 

No matter what you have in mind, this guide links to detailed directions for every single mile of it, starting from the south.

Orange and Los Angeles Counties

Highway One begins in the town of Capistrano Beach in Orange County.

From there, to Santa Monica and through Malibu, it's a city street.

It takes on several street names but is most often called Pacific Coast Highway (which locals shorten to PCH). Between Manhattan Beach and LAX, it's called Sepulveda. North of the airport to Santa Monica, it's Lincoln Blvd.

The route sometimes follows the coastline, but far more often it passes neighborhoods and mundane strip malls. To decide whether you want to drive it, see the Pacific Coast Highway guide from Dana Point to Santa Monica. If we were chatting over the back fence, I'd tell you that the best parts of that route are from Laguna Beach to Naples (just south of Long Beach) and from Santa Monica through Malibu to Oxnard.

Santa Monica - Malibu - Oxnard

One of the most scenic sections of Hwy 1 goes through beautiful Malibu. For the first part of the trip, the road passes the garages and back doors of coastal homes, but north of Pepperdine University it sometimes runs so near to the continent's edge that it feels like you could reach out and dangle your fingers in the water.

This guide has all the details for the drive from Santa Monica to Oxnard.

Oxnard to San Luis Obispo

North of 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. The stretch of 101 between Oxnard and Santa Barbara is especially scenic, with views of the Channel Islands offshore.

Just north of the Gaviota Tunnel (which is north of Santa Barbara), Hwy 101 turns inland, and you won't see the ocean again until you get to Pismo Beach, and then only briefly.

Hwy 1 splits off from Hwy 101 north of Gaviota, passing through Lompoc and Guadalupe before rejoining Hwy 101 just south of Pismo Beach. This 50-mile section is sometimes called the 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. From Pismo Beach to San Luis Obispo, Highways 1 and 101 are the same.

San Luis Obispo to San Francisco

The road you think of as the Pacific Coast Highway is probably the section between San Luis Obispo and Monterey. Its 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 stay longer in Big Sur.

A project to restore mudslide damage to California Highway 1 north of Ragged Point will cause significant delays and detours well into 2018. Here's how you can cope with the road closure and what to do to see the views you've been dreaming about.

Through the City of San Francisco

In the city of San Francisco, Hwy 1 is a street: 19th Avenue.

It leads 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 by taking CA Hwy 35 north and following the coastline.

Golden Gate Bridge - Marin - Sonoma - Mendocino

North of the Golden Gate Bridge, the official highway name of Highway 1 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 trip more 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). A trip to Hearst Castle and Big Sur from San Luis Obis can take most of a day. San Francisco to Mendocino can be a very tiring all-day drive.
  • If anyone in your party suffers from motion sickness, be prepared. If that party is a licensed adult, try letting them drive which always help me control the nausea.
  • If you are driving Highway One in only one direction, go from south to north if you can. You will be driving on the less knuckle-whitening insides of the curves and views are clearer toward the north.
  • If you are driving the road in both directions (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. Avoid dangerous situations and allow plenty of distance between your vehicle and the one in front of you. 
  • Buckle up! California law requires it for the driver and all passengers.
  • Pull over five or more cars are following you. It's also a California law, but only do it when you can pull over safely
  • Don't pass where there are double yellow lines. This rule is more important than ever on the curve-filled sections of the highway where visibility is limited.