California’s Pacific Coast Highway is no secret. It’s a world-famous stretch of pavement that might conjure up grainy images of skinny palm trees, vintage convertibles, and the golden age of surfing. But the stretch of coast between Northern and Southern California offers up a bit more variety than a Venice Beach postcard.
It’s a slice of road that winds along precarious cliffs and cypress groves—all the way down to those warm, sun-soaked beaches. You’ll pass through wildflowers in super bloom and rolling vineyards. You’ll cruise past iconic views with a dizzying blue fade on the horizon. And you’ll stumble across plenty of offbeat cafes, beaches, and bars with a locals-only feel.
One of the most wildly beautiful locations on Earth, a drive along the PCH (with a solid playlist) is absolutely the way to do it. So we had our California-based editor, Lyndsay, pack her bags for a little road trip to scope out some of the best places to eat, stay, and explore along the way. Starting in Marin County, just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, she ended up in Santa Barbara to meet the rest of our photo crew for a few days of shooting.
Lyndsay, Head of Copy
Hey there, I'm here to kick off Free Fly's first-ever road trip series. (I'm hopeful it'll become a series if I keep calling it one.) I somehow convinced my team to let me take a solo trip down the coast, and I've put this little field guide together as evidence that it was productive.
If you’re planning your own California road trip or visiting the West Coast any time soon—here’s a few recs to put in your back pocket.
Just let us know where you end up.
Souvenir Wine Shop | Imbibe
570 San Anselmo Ave, San Anselmo, CA 94960
First, supplies. A stroll through this San Anselmo wine shop transports you into a loungey, ‘70s-esque space outfitted with records and colorblocked ceilings. They’re stocked with local beers and tasty wines that pair perfectly with camping or backyard dinners with friends. Ask a store associate for recommendations, they really know their stuff—like what “glou glou” means. From “calculated curators to lowbrow revelers,” they’ve got something for just about everyone.
Visit during the summer to sip and stroll around outside to live music. Or if you swing by on the fourth Friday of every month, you can pop into a tasting party.
M.H. Bread and Butter | Eat
101 San Anselmo Ave, San Anselmo, CA 94960
It’s rare that this cafe and bakery doesn’t have a line out the door, but the Fried Egg Sando with thick-cut bacon and basil aioli is 100% worth it. On cooler days, go for the Shakshuka (poached eggs in a simmering tomato sauce).
Started up by a pair of ultra-runners (with a baking habit) back in 2013, the space was designed to nourish their friends and fellow athletes after tackling the nearby trails. Today, the space has new ownership, but the restaurant still works with local purveyors like Cowgirl Creamery and Draper Farms to source fresh Bay Area ingredients. Since they opened their doors 10 years ago, their bread and baked goods have firmly held onto local legend status.
Equator Coffees | Imbibe
244 CA-1, Mill Valley, CA 94941
Tucked in between Proof Lab Surf Shop and Marin’s favorite fish taco spot, you’ll find Equator Coffees. Outfitted with reclaimed wood and surf-centric design details, it’s the perfect place to post up before heading out for a trail run, mountain bike ride, or early morning surf.
Hook Fish Co. | Eat
254 Shoreline Hwy, Mill Valley, CA 94941
Right next to Equator Coffees is Hook Fish Co.’s Mill Valley location. They started out in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset as a low-key neighborhood spot, and took off in a big way thanks to fan favorites like Fish + Chips, Poke Tacos, and a Blackened Fish Sandwich. Bring your friends, your dog, and probably your puff coat (the Bay Area is famously chilly during the summer months) for laidback beer garden vibes.
Their hot sauce is out of this world—made with carrots and habanero—and you can buy it by the bottle. Also, don’t skip the tartar sauce… ask for two.
Santa Cruz is known for its quintessential surf town feel and world-class breaks. Pleasure Point offers something for everyone, with a peeling point break and plenty of takeoff spots—you’ll see longboarders, shortboarders, and SUPers out there.
High tide can make entry and exit a little tricky, requiring some well-timed maneuvers and rock scrambling. If you consider yourself a beginner, make sure to take a look before you paddle out. The best way to find out where to go (and when to go) is to ask a local surf shop for recs.
Freeline Surf Shop | Play
821 41st Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062
Just a short walk from the Hook (the entry point at the end of 41st St.), you’ll find one of the most revered surf shops in town. Freeline Surf Shop has been around since 1969—what started out as a small operation slinging boards out of a living room, turned into the area’s favorite family-owned surf shop. If you’re visiting, you can rent a board for $30 and a wetsuit for $20. The staff is laidback, friendly, and knowledgeable, and they’ll get you in and out quickly.
Taqueria Vallarta | Eat
893 41st Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062
Stop by this classic taqueria for some savory post-surf Mexican food. After a couple hours in the water, street tacos and a massive Michelada have never tasted so good. No frills, big taste, and easy on the wallet.
Verve Coffee Roasters | Imbibe
816 41st Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062
This local coffee roastery is big on bright California design and bold coffee flavors. Their space is light and airy, filled with plantlife, and modern design elements. You’ll only find Verve locations in a handful of California cities… and Japan. Stop by for a quick cup and prime people watching.
Walk Around Carmel | Explore
An hour south of Santa Cruz, you’ll run into Carmel-by-the-Sea (you can just say Carmel, though). It’s a small, European-style beach town that looks like it’s straight out of a fairytale, with Hobbit-like cottages and tons of old-world charm.
For the past century, it’s been a hub for artists, writers, and architects—even Frank Lloyd Wright posted up here and built his iconic Della Walker House at the south end of Carmel Beach (which recently sold for a cool $22 mil). In the ‘80s, Clint Eastwood was the mayor for a couple years, and I’m pretty sure I crossed paths with Jon Hamm.
If you’re just stopping through, take a walk through the neighborhoods and explore all the different types of architecture—old and new. Walk along Scenic Road, where you’ll get beach views and wind-battered bluffs on one side, and a peek at some incredible homes on the other.
Between Dolores & 6th Avenue, San Carlos St, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93921
This ritzy little town is full of charm, but it can be tough to find a down-to-earth spot for dinner that doesn’t require reservations (especially on a weekend). Flaherty’s has been around for 40+ years, and they do classic seafood dishes with a more approachable (read: less stuffy) atmosphere. The seafood in this area is bound to be fresh and delicious, but at Flaherty’s you can grab oysters, crab cakes, and lobster bisque all without putting your wallet in a chokehold.
27625 Schulte Rd, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93923
15 minutes inland from coastal Carmel, you’ll find Saddle Mountain Ranch—a campground tucked away in a gorgeous valley dotted with vineyards and trails that wind up into forested hills. You can book a campsite on Hipcamp—SMR has everything from walk-in tent camping ($36) to luxury tents ($176) with a full queen sized bed, gas fireplace, and heated blankets.
If you’ve never “glamped” before, this location is a great place for it. With well-kept showers, bathrooms, and a pool overlooking the valley, you won’t need any camping gear—just a book, some wine, and your built-in flashlight. Just make sure to pack everything away at night so the local wildlife doesn’t try to join you in your tent.
You won’t find the same sleepy town of Monterey just as Steinbeck left it in the pages of Cannery Row—his nostalgic portrait of the old fish-canning district. Instead you’ll find a bustling little town, now home to restaurants, bars, and public beaches instead of sardine-packing factories. That old-school grit might not be there anymore, but the barking seals and seaside beauty still are.
If you’ve only got a few hours in Monterey, skip the tourist spots. While the aquarium is unbelievably impressive with 80,000 plants and animals on display (definitely worth it if you have the time), you can also see some incredible wildlife in its natural habitat out on the water.
Monterey Bay Kayaks | Play
693 Del Monte Ave, Monterey, CA 93940
Stop by Monterey Bay Kayaks for a paddle through the bay. You’ll glide over kelp forests and get up close (technically, five boat lengths away) with harbor seals and sea otters. The staff will give you a quick run through on where to go and where not to. Rentals are $45 for a single kayak and you’ll find that the best time to head out is early in the morning, before the wind picks up (and the crowds descend).
Don’t get too close to the otters—they’re nocturnal animals just trying to catch some z’s. You’ll see them sleeping in pods with their hands over their eyes to keep the sun out.
Alta Bakery and Café | Eat
502 Munras Ave, Monterey, CA 93940
For brunch and coffee, swing by Alta Bakery and Cafe in the Old Town District. The historic space has a sprawling villa-like feel to it, with a courtyard garden and cafe seating. Their fresh menu boasts outstanding baked goods, local favorites like the "Obligatory Avocado Toast," and other tasty items like a Charred Summer Squash Salad and Lamb Pizza. Their drinks are equally impressive with a wide range of cafe options, plus local wine and beers. Try the North Coast Foggy Day IPA or a Garden Herb Mimosa.
Big Sur Detour
2023 brought plenty of rain to California, and along with it—road slides. Road closures along the Pacific Coast Highway meant Big Sur was off limits, so I took the 101 from Monterey down towards San Luis Obispo. It’s more than worth the trip, so once it opens back up—here’s a few key spots:
Montaña de Oro State Park
Montaña de Oro State Park | Explore
3550 Pecho Valley Rd, Los Osos, CA 93402
2:45 hours south of Monterey (or 30 minutes west of San Luis Obispo), you can get some rugged coastal views at Montaña de Oro State Park. A massive oceanside park with foothills, crumbling cliffs, and plenty of trails for exploring—you can shake out here for a hike or run. I did this 4-mile loop, and got lucky with patches of super blooming poppies. The rain that caused those road slides in Big Sur? Also responsible for one of California’s most impressive super blooms on record and also visible from space.
Brophy Bros | Eat
119 Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, CA 93109
If you're in the Santa Barbara area, Brophy’s is an absolute must. This local favorite is an easygoing seafood spot right on the water. They make a mean clam chowder and they’re well-known for their cloud-like fish and chips (how can something fried be so fluffy?). You might have to wait a bit, but the awesome food and friendly, on-point service is worth the wait.
Handlebar Coffee Roasters | Imbibe
128 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101
This cycling-centric coffee shop was started by two former pro cyclists who settled down in Santa Barbara to “switch gears.” After attending the American Coffee & Barista School in Portland, Oregon, they both became pro coffee shop owners and now have two locations in town. We visited both and they’re equally impressive with expansive layouts and delicious menus.
There you have it—a quick two-day road trip down to Santa Barbara. Of course, this list hardly scratches the surface of all there is to do, eat, and write about along Pacific Coast Highway. But my hope is that you'll consider this small list of worthy pitstops whenever you're mapping out your own itinerary.
Where should we head on our next road trip? Let us know—I'm still pulling hard for this thing to become a series.