A Packing Guide for a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Make the most of your journey along California's breathtaking coast with these packing essentials.

A Packing Guide for a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Make the most of your journey along California's breathtaking coast with these packing essentials.

Highway 1 is one of the most scenic drives in the world, snaking along the California coast past rocky shoreline, miles of farmland, and dozens of picture-perfect towns. The Highway 1 classic route travels 586 miles between San Diego and San Francisco, highlighting the Golden State’s diverse terrain. One of the most well-known portions of the route, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), runs from San Diego to Santa Barbara. To ensure you make the most of your time on this all-American journey, we’ve compiled a list of essential packing items you won’t want to leave behind.

Binoculars

One of the most exciting aspects of this California drive is the amount of marine life you’re likely to see. If you’re riding “shotgun,” keep your eyes on the water for the telltale sign of a passing whale (moist air shooting from the spout), or scan the coastline for a colony of sea lions soaking in the sun. You can also seek out some of the best wildlife by knowing in advance where and when they tend to hang out.

Gray whales are the most common type of whale spotted along the Pacific Coast Highway, and while they can be seen almost year-round, Half Moon Bay (December through February), Dana Point (December through April), and Channel Islands National Park (December through April) are great spots to start your search. Seals and sea lions are also aplenty, but San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Año Nuevo State Park, and Monterey Bay offer nearly guaranteed views. Have your binoculars ready to get a good look at these California residents while keeping a safe distance.

Beach Gear

California’s rugged, picturesque coast is the main draw for this drive, so make time to enjoy the multitude of beaches, many of which are public. Pack a blanket—it doubles as the perfect picnic table—so you can take advantage of some oceanside downtime without sacrificing your precious cargo space. Some top spots for seaside lounging (or lunching) include Pescadero State Beach, Garrapata State Park, and Fletcher Cove Beach Park.

Surfing, kiteboarding, and fishing are also popular California beach activities, so pack your equipment of choice if you plan to indulge. Beginners need not worry, as there are plenty of options for lessons along the route. Plan in advance to secure a spot in an introductory course, and add learning a new sport to your PCH memories.

Keep in mind that California’s beach scene can be on the chilly side the farther north you travel, so suit up accordingly. A wet suit is encouraged if you want to dip more than a toe in the Pacific, depending on the location and time of year.

Clothing Layers

Layers should be among the first things you throw in your bag. Temperatures can range widely, even within a few miles, so having a light jacket will ensure that those windy northern overlooks are just as enjoyable as the sunny southern beaches.

Sunscreen and Hat

Don’t let the gray skies of northern California fool you; slather on the sunscreen for protection against the harmful UV rays. A hat won’t only shield your face from the sun, but it will keep your windblown hair in check. Whether you’re renting a convertible for some top-down enjoyment or simply taking in the sights from one of the many roadside overlooks, the wind is likely to do a number on your 'do.

Camera

This one might seem obvious, but sometimes the obvious things are the easiest to leave behind. Pack a few different camera options to capture your tour of California’s coast. Your camera phone is a great option for quick snaps and selfies, while your DSLR will allow you to better capture images of wildlife out at sea. Don’t have a DSLR? Pick up an attachable phone lens, such as the 4-in-1 lens from olloclip, to add a bit of zoom to your handy sidekick.

Hiking Shoes

California’s rugged coast is incredible to take in from the road, but stopping to explore on your own two feet is a must. Hiking or athletic shoes will be crucial to your exploration, no matter the distance. Many of the overlooks have rocky ground that can be hard to navigate in sandals, and when you’re standing on the edge you’ll be glad for your sturdy kicks.

Looking to take a longer break from the car and stretch your legs? There are plenty of hikes along the Pacific Coast Highway that offer stunning views at all difficulty levels. Here are a few worth seeking out:

Easy: McWay Waterfall Trail (.6 mile out and back) in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Moderate: South Plateau Trail to Bird Island (1.7-mile loop) in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Difficult: Point Sal Overlook (nine miles out and back) in Point Sal Beach State Park

Music

What’s a road trip without some good jams? Load up your phone with tunes (or throw in some good old-fashioned CDs), as service can be spotty in certain areas along the route. To really get in the California spirit, consider “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas, “California Girls” by the Beach Boys, and “Beverly Hills” by Weezer as a starting point for your playlist. And don’t forget your phone charger!

Map

While the PCH offers plenty to do (restaurants, boardwalks, beaches, and more), taking a detour will only add to the experience. There’s a myriad of great sites to see right off the main route, and a physical map will ensure you don’t get lost when cell phone service gets dicey.

Snacks

No one likes a “hangry” road-tripper. Do yourself a favor and pack a cooler with some of your favorite California snacks to keep hunger at bay during some of the more isolated (and beautiful) stretches of road. My go-to snacks include San Francisco sourdough bread, local honey, and an assortment of cheese (check out the California Cheese Trail for plenty of local options). Also keep your eyes peeled for farm stands along the route, and treat yourself to fresh homemade pies and sweet you-pick strawberries. Throw in some plates and utensils and have yourself a beach picnic—you won’t be able to beat the views.

The Intangibles

The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the world’s greatest road trips, so come with a sense of adventure. Make unexpected stops at unassuming overlooks, which are often hiding the best views; take an unscheduled detour; and spend some time chatting with the local farmer whose produce you’re purchasing. All of these things make traveling this route such a unique trip—so get out and enjoy the ride!