Did you know that California’s famous Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) starts (or ends) in Orange County?! This famous scenic route goes almost all the way through The OC, sending you past the cutest beach towns along the way. It’s the perfect mini Southern California road trip!
Where are the best places to stop during an Orange County road trip? In this post I am sharing over 10 road trip stops along Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County, including little bonus stops along the way.
One thing I love about Orange County is that each beach city is different. And this road trip is perfect because it will give you a chance to experience each one. If you already live here – check out this post anyways…there could be something you haven’t seen yet!
Since OC is pretty small, you could easily drive through it in one day if you wanted to, but that wouldn’t give you much time to explore. If you are trying to complete this mini road trip all at once, give yourself at least a few days if you can!
Load up the car with your road trip essentials, strap on your seat belts, and lets hit the road! From north to south, here are the best Pacific Coast Highway stops in Orange County, California.
The Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops in Orange County
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Make a stop at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands to explore its hiking trails and over 100 bird species that can be spotted in the area. There are two free parking lots for the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, the North lot on the southeast corner of PCH and Warner Ave and the South lot at 18000 Pacific Coast Highway. Visit the Bolsa Chica Interpretive Center if you feel like learning something new or taking a free guided tour of the wetlands!
Bonus stop: Explore Bolsa Chica State Beach, which is right across the street from the Wetlands, but you will have to pay for parking. There are a bunch of things to do there like ride bikes, swim, surf, play volleyball, have a bonfire, or hang out at SeaLegs on the Beach.
Read more: 7 Unique Things to Do in Huntington Beach
Dog lovers unite in Orange County’s only off-leash dog beach, located just north of the Huntington Beach Pier. Literally named “Dog Beach”, your doggo can frolic off-leash and I guarantee he will have the time of his life.
Even if you don’t own a dog, visiting Dog Beach is fun! Being surrounded by dogs frolicking in the sand instantly puts a smile on your face. Don’t miss out on some super cool events like the Surf Dog Surf Competition, SoCal Weinerfest and the ever-so-popular Corgi Beach Day!
Huntington City Beach & Pier
Huntington’s City Beach is for all things fun in the sun. Start a game at the volleyball courts where Olympic medalists have practiced, rent a classic beach cruiser and ride the bike path for miles and miles, snag a fire pit (but don’t forget your s’mores) and wait for the perfect sunset. If you’re up for it, try a surf lesson!
One thing that cannot be missed is the Huntington Beach Pier. There is something magical about it – ask any local. As you walk one of California’s longest piers, you’ll look out to the ocean and see tons of surfers waiting for the perfect wave (it is so fun to watch them catch a wave)! For a yummy treat, grab a shake from Ruby’s Diner at the end of the pier.
Bonus stops: You can also check out Main Street where you can shop the boutiques and grab a bite to eat. For even more shopping and dining options, walk over to Pacific City!
Huntington Beach is a great place to stay the night…check for hotel deals here!
Balboa Peninsula & Island
One of my favorite things to do in Newport Beach is hang out at the Balboa Peninsula. You can rent a bicycle or a skateboard, or bring your rollerblades as I do sometimes! Start at the Newport Pier and make your way down 2 miles of sand to the Balboa Pier.
Hop on the car ferry to explore the shops on Balboa Island – and grab a famous frozen chocolate banana from Sugar ‘n Spice (any Arrested Development fans here?!). You can take the ferry no matter if you are driving, walking, or biking and it is located on Palm Ave. As of September 2020, the pedestrian price is $1.25 and only cash is accepted.
Bonus stop: If you have extra time head to the trendy Lido Marina Village for some fine dining and boutique shopping with views over the marina.
Newport’s Back Bay
If you are a nature lover, exploring Newport’s Back Bay is a must. This preserved wetland area is formally known as The Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Ecological Reserve and has a 10.5-mile hiking and biking loop, over 200 species of migratory birds, and places to rent kayaks or SUPs. If you want to learn about the area, make a stop at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center to find out everything you need to know about the Back Bay.
Bonus stop: To extend your time in Newport Beach you could also explore Newport’s Marina. Rent a kayak from the Newport Aquatic Center and make your way to the Marina, where you can marvel at all the ridiculously expensive houses and boats before making your way back to nature. This is just one of many ideas of budget-friendly things to do in Orange County.
Another way to explore the Newport Marina is by Duffy Boat! Take one of these electric boats to cruise through the marina for a few hours. There are several places to rent one, but you’ll probably need to make a reservation ahead of time.
Crystal Cove State Park
One of the most diverse State Parks I have ever been to is Crystal Cove State Park, which is located in between Newport and Laguna Beach. This park has awesome ocean view hikes, mountain biking trails, paved ocean-view pathways that are dog friendly, a historic district, cottages for rent (but it’s super difficult to get a reservation), restaurants, camping, and four different beach areas! You could spend a day in Crystal Cove and still not have enough time to do everything you want to do.
My recommendation for a quick stop at Crystal Cove State Park is to check out the Historic District. Park at the Los Trancos parking lot and cross the Pacific Coast Highway or use the tunnel from the south end of the parking lot and walk to the Historic District. Above the beach, you can have lunch or a snack at the Shake Shack, or for a more expensive beach-front option you can try the Beachcomber Café.
Bonus stop: If you have more time, explore the beach! Drive to Pelican Point – my favorite beach in Crystal Cove State Park.
It is hard to fit in just one stop in Laguna Beach, especially since there are over 20 different little coves and beaches in Laguna Beach. One of the most popular things to do in Laguna Beach is to explore Downtown, including Heisler Park and Main Beach.
Heisler Park is where you can find amazing ocean views, little coves and beaches for swimming, diving, surfing, explore tide pools, grab some brunch from Las Brisas, have a picnic or a cookout, or just hang out with a good book. It is like THE place to be in Laguna.
Bonus stops: Just south of Heisler Park is Main Beach, Laguna’s busiest beach and the one that has the most things to do like basketball and volleyball courts. Just across the street from Main Beach and south along the PCH you’ll find Downtown Laguna Beach, with tons of cute little boutique shops and places to eat. Stop for gelato at Gelato Paradiso – it is the best in town!
Read more: Budget Friendly Things to Do in Laguna Beach
Beaches of South Laguna
I told you it would be hard to make only one stop in Laguna Beach. It’s totally worth making a few more stops and “beach hopping” through Laguna. It has some of the most unique and special beaches in Orange County.
Tip – parking in Laguna can be tricky, so use my Laguna Beach parking guide!
On Victoria Beach, you can find the mystical Pirate Tower. This tower is a staircase to the house above, and although you can’t climb up it, you can still take some pretty awesome pictures of it. Sunset is the best time, but you’ll have to visit when the tide is low.
Below the Montage Resort on Treasure Island Beach, you can find a perfect arch sea cave. Take the beach entrance to the south of the Montage pool to find it!
One of my personal favorites and somewhat of a local’s secret is Table Rock Beach. The wooden stairway takes you down to a small but gorgeous little cove that is typically quiet compared to other beaches in Laguna.
Bonus stops: Visit all 8 of my favorite beaches in Laguna Beach!
Laguna Beach is another great place to spend the night, check for hotel deals here!
Dana Point Headlands
The Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area is a nature preserve directly above the ocean. There is an easy hiking trail that is only a mile long and has amazing ocean views, plus an option to extend to a 2.5-mile loop.
Bonus stop: Find the Dana Point Sea Cave! Yes, there is a cave directly under the Headlands trail!
Hiking to the Dana Point Sea Cave is easy and family-friendly. It starts sandy but gets a little rocky towards the end. I recommend wearing decent hiking sandals that can get wet. You want something that can grip the rocks, otherwise, you risk twisting your ankle!
I hope you enjoy exploring Orange County as much as I do. Do you have any favorite Pacific Coast Highway stops in Orange County that should be added to this list?