Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip in 11 Days: The Complete Itinerary

I am a huge sucker for road trips, especially ones to the west coast. In the summer of 2021, my best friend and I decided to take a road trip down the entire Pacific Coast in 11 days...and we started in Denver, CO. Here's the story.

Day 1: Denver, CO ---> Boise, ID

815 miles / 12 hours

It's not the most exciting of drives, I will forewarn you. However, I really enjoyed watching how drastically the Rocky Mountains changed from Colorado to Wyoming.

We stopped at Little America in Wyoming for $0.75 ice cream cones (thank you billboard advertising). They were quite tasty, probably tasted better after spending 5+ hours in the car.

We counted a lot of cows and got through about half of the U.S. playing the license plate game as we finished driving to Boise.

We had plans to camp in a near-by state park, but the summer fires were so bad the smoke irritated my throat while I was just pumping gas. So, we decided to save our eyes and lungs from the smoke and got a hotel. We explored downtown Boise after we got settled. It's small but so clean! We kept talking about how we've never seen a cleaner downtown. Granted, there is a University directly in the city so that helps matters.

Day 2: Boise, ID ---> Seattle, WA

494 miles / 8 hours

Pro tip: Stay with family as much as you can while going on a long road trip. It will save you money and they always end up feeding you and give awesome recommendations for local things to check out while you're there.

We left Boise early in the morning after a great breakfast of cheese omelets and breakfast pastries (K swore those omelets revived her soul). We could have slept in, but we wanted to arrive in Seattle before 3:00 so we could have ample time to do something in the city.

At my aunt's recommendation, we visited the Museum of Pop Culture (locals call it MoPop) which was really pretty neat! They had exhibits on rock & roll, horror films, sci-fi films, LGBTQ rights, and a whole exhibit dedicated to Nirvana.

We of course walked underneath the Space Needle (didn't have time to visit inside, but honestly just standing underneath it is cool enough).

We walked down to the piers in the evening and got some fried seafood at one of the stands. You gotta have seafood when you're literally walking above the ocean.

It was a quick trip visiting family. We only budgeted time to stay 1 night. We had the entire coast ahead of us!

Day 3: Seattle, WA ---> Portland, OR

174 miles / 3 hours

I had never been to Oregon and was so excited to stop in Portland for a day!

We arrived in the city sometime around 3:00. Our first stop was the largest bookstore ever: Powell's City of Books. This book store had different named rooms for different genres of books. It was amazing! I ended up buying two books (I still have to read them...oops)

We walked around Pearl District scouting out food and drink places. We ended up getting some really good wood fired pizza at a place called Oven & Shaker. (Isn't that the coolest name?) The coolest part of that restaurant was the fact that there were bag hooks attached to the tables! I thought it was so genius.

For dessert, we hit up Cookie Dough Cafe. It's one of those places that serves cookie dough like it's ice cream. I had always wanted to go somewhere like that and finally, at age 23, I finally did. We ended up getting both cookie dough and ice cream which I highly recommend. All cookie dough can get a little heavy so the ice cream helped lighten it up.

We weren't ready to turn in yet so we hit up Scandal's, "best gay bar on the block" according to a local guy. We went on a weeknight so it pretty low-key. Most people were hanging out outside enjoying the summer weather. After a little while, we made our way back to our hotel (where we both completely forgot which room number was ours. Sorry to the 3 rooms I tried to unlock with my key-card).

Day 4: Portland, OR ---> Newport, OR

132 miles / 3 hours

Our last day in Oregon, we finally got to see some gorgeous Oregon coastline. Being a Colorado girl, it amazes me how cliff-sides can just drop off and become beaches.

On our way to Newport, we stopped along the highway and found a hiking trail to give our legs a little break. I had wanted to find some amazing waterfall hikes while we were in Oregon, but when you're driving 5+ hours a day, there's not a ton of time for exploring the forests. Luckily the little hiking trail we found gave us a taste of just how beautiful the forests in Oregon are. Everything was so green and lush and mossy. Tree branches were covered in moss and fungus. I just had to stand in the middle of the trail and take a deep breath in the humid air.

Once we got to Newport, we visited the Yaquina Lighthouse. It was so cool! The fog was rolling in thick in the afternoon. And it was cold! 2 Colorado girls went to the west coast excited for warm beaches and were shocked when it was 55 degrees and foggy and windy...with that being said, we should have packed more pants.

For dinner, we went downtown to the harbor and ate some of the best calamari I've ever had. I was making it a goal to have as much seafood as I could on the trip.

Once we got to Newport, we visited the Yaquina Lighthouse. It was so cool! The fog was rolling in thick in the afternoon. And it was cold! 2 Colorado girls went to the west coast excited for warm beaches and were shocked when it was 55 degrees and foggy and windy...with that being said, we should have packed more pants.

For dinner, we went downtown to the harbor and ate some of the best calamari I've ever had. I was making it a goal to have as much seafood as I could on the trip.

Day 5: Portland, OR ---> Eureka, CA: Redwood National Park

368 miles / 6 hours

We crossed over into California around 10:00 in the morning and of course stopped to take pictures at the state signs. We took pictures at the Oregon state sign then ran across the small highway to the California sign, since we didn't get the Oregon sign coming out of Washington.

We had a goal to make it to Redwood National Park and find a good hiking trail, finally! I fell asleep while K took the wheel and drove around. We hadn't pre-planned a hike so we just drove till we found a trailhead that looked good.

Now, I'm usually such a planner. I will make sure I know the trail name, how long it is, how hard it is...(I dated an Eagle Scout for a while), but some reason we walked into this hike not knowing anything about the trail. The hike started very moderately. We walked down a narrow path through tons of ferns. Slowly the ferns turned into giant trees and lush forest greenery. At some point we crossed a beautiful wooden bridge and I felt like I was in a storybook. We started hearing water and I was hopeful we'd find a creek or waterfall. (I wanted to do a waterfall hike so badly in Oregon).

As we kept hiking, the water noise was growing louder and louder and sounded deeper than a waterfall would. Eventually, we got out of the forest and the trail turned into sand and grass...the trail ended AT THE OCEAN.

We had hiked some random trail that started in the forest and went all the way down to sea level. It was absolutely gorgeous, and the fact that it was a complete surprise to us made it 1,000 times better. We ended up hiking 4 miles round trip. Our calves were feeling it.

We stayed the night at a roadside inn in Eureka after finding out all of the campsites were completely full. (You have to book out 2 weeks in advance for campsites in California. Lesson learned). But honestly, I didn't care since we had just completed what I consider the best hike I've ever been on.

Day 6: Eureka, CA ---> San Francisco, CA

312 miles / 6 hours

Day 6 was packed! As we headed out of Eureka, we made a little side trip to a black sand beach K wanted to stop at. The road to the beach was extremely wind-y and curvy: extreme mountain driving. I would recommend taking motion sickness medicine if you need it for sure.

I was shocked at how many starfish were washed up on the black rock beach. We tried to save a couple but gave up after realizing a lot of them did not smell great...

There were giant rocks that the waves were crashing on. The tide was coming in once we got there so we stayed to witness the waves getting rougher and rougher and crashing even bigger against the rocks. My favorite thing to do was listen to the water pull back on the rocks. It sounded like a giant hand was stirring a pool of rocks. So mesmerizing.

We stopped at Confusion Hill next: a golden stop for families in the mid-1900s when families started road-tripping for their vacations. It's also the place that inspired the show "Gravity Falls". There were crazy perspective tricks going on: things like balls rolling up walls instead of down and being able to walk on walls of the dilapidated house.

Once we got to San Francisco, we stopped at the fortune cookie factory and got enough cookies to last us the rest of road trip (we were half-way through at this point), and even then some.

I wanted to take K to see Marin Headlands, a protected area of land with old war batteries and barracks. I had been there before on a past road trip and it was one of my favorite stops. However, that afternoon the fog was way too heavy to see anything. (Fret not, we went the next morning)

So, we headed back to the city and walked along the pier and grabbed dinner at a place called Wipeout. We shared a tropical drink despite it being about 60 degrees outside (and still no warm pants on our bodies) because it was summer, and that's the thing to do.

We stayed at the Zephyr hotel which is a phenomenal place to stay! It's covered in art and repurposed materials turned into furniture and such. There was a giant courtyard with fire pits and large yard games that would make it a perfect family spot. (They gave us s'mores kits as we walked into the hotel)

Day 7: San Francisco, CA ---> Santa Barbara, CA

326 miles / 5 hours

We started off our day visiting Marin Headlands since it was too foggy the day before. The weather was gorgeous for our second attempt.

We hiked around the bluffs my cousin and I had found before on a previous road trip and I was so happy. I had wanted to go back ever since I had found it a few years before.

After exploring the Headlands, we made our way down to Santa Barbara. We took a good stretch of 100-ish miles on the actual Pacific Coast Highway. The majority of the trip so far we had taken I-5 which is a little more inland but faster and less wind-y.

Once in Santa Barbara, we set up camp in the San Juan National Park. There are much fewer trees than I'm used to when camping in the Rocky Mountains. Once our campsite was set up, we headed into town where we met up with an old high school friend of mine. He walked us around downtown and the pier and then we stopped at an Italian place for dinner. He told us that Santa Barbara had an amazing mix of cultures, especially when it came to food. After dinner he took us to his favorite speakeasy/lounge where I tried hard kombucha for the first time. I am now hooked.

I didn't take many photos while in Santa Barbara. It was nice to just enjoy good company without worrying about documenting the day. I was sad we only had a few hours to spend in Santa Barbara. I had hoped we could have time to go visit the vineyards and go wine tasting, but I guess I'll just have to go back and spend a few days in the city instead of just driving through.

Day 8: Santa Barbara, CA ---> San Diego, CA

218 miles / 4 hours

After a beautiful drive through more wine country, we finally arrived in southern southern California. (Seriously so southern that on a previous trip, my phone connected to Mexico cell service) We got into the city around 3:00 and by 3:30 we had changed into our swimsuits and were lying on the beach.

We stayed with my great aunt and uncle who have a place not 10 minutes from beach...maybe even shorter. But they're within walking distance of Del Mar which is just beautiful.

It was a gorgeous day. The sun was out, it wasn't too windy, the ocean was chilly but you got used to it after a couple of minutes. We swam around and avoided many boogie boarders. I even tried to body surf a little bit which availed to no success.

After we were done at the beach, we walked around Del Mar, popping into little shops and boutiques that were just totally my style.

That night, we treated ourselves to an amazing sushi dinner. Sushi by the ocean! It can't get better than that. We had the whole spread: edamame, flash-fried tofu, sake based cocktails, avocado roll, octopus roll, and a Caterpillar roll (my personal favorite).

We got to walk back to the condo listening to the ocean only a couple hundred feet away.

Day 9: Full day in San Diego

Day 9 we didn't drive for more than an hour. It was magical. I made sure we got to spend a full day at least somewhere in California, just so we could rest and not feel so rushed to be driving literally the entire trip.

We went to La Jolla to explore and not 5 minutes after I got out of the car, a bird pooped on my head. I had never had that happen before in my life. I ended up taking an un-planned bath in the ocean to try and get it off my shoulder and out of my hair. (ew) The ocean was much colder this day than yesterday, but luckily I warmed up really quick as we walked around the park.

There were quite a few vendors selling jewelry and clothes and trinkets along the park walkway. There was one guy in particular who gave me extremely 70s hippie vibes. He stood there and talked to K and I for a while and eventually asked us for our numbers. We awkwardly yet politely declined.

We stopped at my favorite gelato place Bobboi that makes all natural gelato. I had a lavender berry gelato and it was probably the best flavor I've ever had. I want to try to recreate it but unfortunately don't have an ice cream churner at home...

We made our way to Pacific Beach hoping to meet some college aged people. Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of beach goers that night. We got dinner at a little beach bistro where this random guy told us he was so intrigued by how animated our conversation looked that he had to know what we were talking about. (K and I have since gotten other comments like this when we are together...) We enlightened him and he then repaid our explanation with a story about how he met Harry Styles in Las Vegas one time. Ah, we love random unsolicited stories from strangers. Shout out to our waitress who kept an eye on us a little extra to make sure we felt safe and okay.

It was a great, relaxing day revisiting some of my favorite spots in San Diego.

Day 10: San Diego, CA ---> Phoenix, AZ

355 miles / 5 hours

I was a little sad to leave the coast but was also getting ready to be back home in my own bed.

We got breakfast with my great aunt and uncle at a local spot they recommended. (I got the biggest piece of french toast in the world) After saying our goodbyes, we made it back onto the road for another long day of driving.

We took Highway 8 to Phoenix. It goes so far south we could see Mexico for a portion of the drive. It was a little eerie seeing the black fence stuck in the sand for miles along the border.

We got to Phoenix around 3:00 and dropped our stuff off at my brother's house. We sat in the air conditioning for a while before heading off to Scottsdale to walk around and grab some dinner at one of my all time favorite restaurants: Culinary Dropout. (Probably the best name EVER)

We walked over to the restaurant and got on the waitlist and had about 40 minutes to kill. We felt a little under-dressed in our 7-hours-on-the-road outfits walking around the richer part of Scottsdale. So, we did what any character in a movie would do and buy an entirely new outfit at Forever21, change in the car, put on makeup, and go back to the restaurant a whole new person.

We had amazing appetizers and shared a mango drink (which was recommended by my brother's roommate). Our waitress asked if we were celebrating anything that night and we told her it was the last night of our big 11 day road trip. We re-capped bits and pieces of our trip, informing her we were going back home to Colorado. She told us they were planning on opening another location in Denver...and I got so excited. Finally, I didn't have to travel to Arizona just to eat at Culinary Dropout. (I have been to the Denver location once recently and it's so cool! Has a huge outdoor area and an entire converse-mural wall)

Day 11: Phoenix, AZ ---> Denver, CO - full circle

865 miles / 13 hours

We woke up pretty early the next morning to start one of the longest drives of the trip. The scenery was quite pretty to look at, though - all the giant red rock mountains.

Once we got into New Mexico, everything started turning greener and the sky grew darker as it started raining.

But that rain quickly turned into a giant storm. We ended up driving through multiple flash-flood warnings in the pitch black of night through the mountains. It was not fun at all. We tried to play word association games to keep us distracted from the fact that we might have to pull over and find high ground. It was honestly really nerve-wracking.

I felt a lot better once we crossed over into Colorado and I started recognizing city names and highways. We had contemplated pulling off and trying to let the storm pass, but ultimately we decided to just stick it out and drive all the way home. I'm so glad to say that we made it safely.

Would I do it again?

In a heart beat! This road trip was one of my favorite things I've ever done. In fact, I have a road trip planned for the first week of July this summer (2022). At this point, I think it's going to be an annual adventure!

If I were to do this exact road trip again, there are a few things I would do differently, but there's also some things I wouldn't want to change.

What I would do differently:

-Look up rules for booking camping ahead of time

-Pack more pants (and just warmer clothes for those cool, foggy, coastal nights)

-Bring more hearty food to have meals in the car (we ate A LOT of cliff bars)

-Stay at our stops longer (I would have loved to have more than 5 hours in Santa Barbara, or even make more stops along the way home to see other national parks)

What I wouldn't change:

-The balance of planned vs. spontaneous stops

-Not taking the actual Pacific Coast Highway the whole way (it would've taken even longer and been so wind-y, I would have gotten so car sick)

This road trip definitely made the highlight reel of my life: I made so many amazing memories, saw amazing places, and ate a lot of good food. Oh man.

If you're on the fence about doing a road trip like this: JUST DO IT. It's amazing! You don't have to go exactly where we did, or you can! I'm not the Royalty of Road Trips. If you do end up going, I would LOVE to hear your story and see the awesome pictures you take along the way.

I already have my next road trip planned for this summer and I can't wait!