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Driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway is an iconic American experience. The California coastal drive, which ranks as one of the most gorgeous road trips in the United States, features the majestic western coastline, amazing forests and incredible viewpoints. We meticulously planned our coastal California drive – and are sharing our CA Route 1 itinerary details to help fellow travelers plan their trip.
San Francisco to Los Angeles: Pacific Coast Highway
The San Francisco to Los Angeles coastal drive on the Pacific Coast Highway – or PCH – rolls through small California coastal towns, crosses magnificent bridges and delves into dense forests. The scenery along the SF to LA coastal drive is simply breathtaking – and the Big Sur coastal drive section is certainly a highlight of the trip. In our California Coast road trip itinerary, we include the region’s top attractions and best places to stop.
Fun Fact: The Pacific Coast Highway is part of California State Route 1 (or CA SR 1). State Route 1 runs from Leggett (which is north of San Francisco in Mendocino County) south to San Juan Capistrano (which is between LA and San Diego), where the highway merges into Interstate 5. Specific portions of the 655-mile-long road are designated as the Pacific Coast Highway. The highway is also labeled an All-American Road.
Planning a California Coastal Trip
In our itinerary, we outline a 4-Day California coastal trip. That said, we understand that not all travelers plan to make the California drive in the same time allotment. Some people only have a couple of days to complete a California self-drive tour, while other adventurers plan on spending a week driving the coast of California. In fact, it is even possible to make the San Francisco to LA coastal drive in a single day (albeit, it will be a very long day with about 10 hours of drive time).
Regardless of your time frame, you can use our California coastal road trip planner to create your best California self-drive itinerary. In addition to the day-by-day sightseeing suggestions for your California coastal vacation, we include tips of where to stay, what to pack and offer alternate route stops. We even share links to online maps and include a San Francisco to Los Angeles coastal drive map marked with top attractions at the end of the post.
Coastal California Trip FAQs
Before jumping into our day-by-day plan for driving down the coast of California, we are answering a few commonly asked questions about the California coastline drive.
How Long is the California Coast Drive?
Our California coastal drive itinerary is a one-way trip that begins in San Francisco and ends in Los Angeles. The 3-night, 4-day California road trip covers roughly 500 miles. However, the actual length of your coastal drive in California will depend on whether or not you make any detours or additional stops for sightseeing or hikes.
For each day’s journey, we indicate the route length and an estimated drive time. Be aware, however, that in the busy summer months, some parts of the California coast experience bumper-to-bumper traffic, resulting in much longer drive times – and, therefore, some sights along the route may need to be eliminated. Try to be flexible and adjust your California Coast road trip itinerary, as necessary.
Pro Tip: Before you start your California coastal drive vacation, we also recommend spending a few days in San Francisco. Use our San Francisco Weekend Itinerary for tips on what to see and do in the city!
What Vehicle to Use on the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles?
We think it is best to use a rental car for California coastal travel. In fact, an SUV – that sits higher off the ground – is recommended for the scenic drive on the California Coast so that you have the best view of the surrounding landscapes. The one-way trip will incur extra rental fees, so start your search for the best prices here.
Which Direction is Best for a California Self-Drive Trip?
We think the best route on California State Route 1 is from north to south – which is why we recommend the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Pacific Coast Highway. Driving south allows for uninterrupted views of the coastline. Plus, it is a lot easier to pull off into most of the scenic overlook spots to the right, rather than having to make a left turn across traffic.
South to North via Pacific Coast Highway: Los Angeles to San Francisco
While we do not prefer it, there is nothing wrong with driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Pacific Coast Highway. Although views will be slightly obstructed by southbound cars and turning into scenic overlooks will require caution, it is completely viable to make the northbound Los Angeles to San Francisco coastal drive. For the best places to stay on an LA to SF coastal drive, simply use our outlined itinerary, in reverse.
Where are the Overnight Stays on the Coastal Drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles?
The overnight California coastal drive stops we include in our itinerary are Monterey, Morro Bay and Santa Barbara. For each of the stops in our itinerary, we include suggested California coastal hotels (based on places we have either personally stayed or found through our diligent research).
Travelers interested in California coastal camping sites (or California coastal RV parks) will find numerous choices, however, we do not have any personal recommendations.
When is the Best Time for California Coastal Trips?
The California coast climate can vary dramatically from north to south. Overall, the California coastal region weather is a Mediterranean climate with mild year-round temperatures, but winters can be rainy. Therefore, we think the best time is from late spring until early autumn.
That said, we made our trip in mid-autumn – and the weather was absolutely perfect! With full sunshine and crisp temperatures, we think autumn is the best time to visit Big Sur and the coastal region.
CALIFORNIA COASTAL DRIVE
With our detailed day-by-day California Coast drive itinerary, you can easily plan your trip on the Pacific Coast Highway. Our plan for 4 days on the California coastal road features the best coastal towns, fun attractions and epic viewpoints.
This Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary includes everything you need to know! Save, Bookmark or Pin our California road trip blog post so that you can easily access it while planning (and during) your trip!
Day 1: Drive to the California Coastal Region
Destination: San Francisco to Monterey Bay. Route: Pick up your rental car at the San Francisco International Airport and start your drive from SF to LA via Pacific Coast Highway! Hop on Route 1 at Pacifica and drive south to Monterey. Distance: 113 miles. Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes.
The San Francisco to Monterey Pacific Coast Highway route features a beautiful coastline, beaches, parks and hiking trails.
Start your San Francisco coastal drive in the early morning, heading directly west from the airport to Pacifica. Shortly after starting the southbound California Coast drive, stop at Devil’s Slide Trail – a 1.3-mile section of Route 1 that has been converted into a pedestrian-only path and features stunning ocean views. Also consider making a stop at the Devil’s Slide Bunker for a short hike at the graffiti covered World War II bunker.
Eat lunch at Moss Beach Distillery, which has an outdoor patio that overlooks Seal Cove. The upscale eatery features an abundance of seafood and classic American fare. However, if you are looking for something a little more casual, stop by Sam’s Chowder House, where they serve award-winning clam chowder and lobster rolls with a sea view.
Half Moon Bay Trail and Beaches
Work off your lunch with a stroll on the Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail (you can even rent bikes to pedal along the path!) or put your feet into the sand and walk along the string of sandy beaches along the bay.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
A worthy sight off the coast (but a detour that will take up a big portion of the day), Big Basin Redwoods State Park was designed a park in 1902. The park features hiking trails, waterfalls and the famous Coast Redwood trees, which can live for more than a thousand years and are among the tallest trees in the world.
If time allows, make a stop in Santa Cruz to walk the Santa Cruz Wharf and boardwalk. With ample time, consider making the 6-mile roundtrip walk on West Cliff Drive to the Natural Bridges State Beach Vista Point, which offers an excellent vantage point of a natural rock arch that sits in the ocean near the shoreline.
With heaps of attractions, history and natural beauty, Monterey is one of the best California coastal cities to visit. Check out the fascinating Jellyfish Exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, walk from the historic (now slightly kitsch) Cannery Row to Fisherman’s Wharf and stand on the shore to spot Sea Otters and Sea Lions.
Sip a locally produced glass of wine at the waterfront Taste of Monterey and then indulge in casual pub fare and a few craft beers at Peter B’s Brewpub.
Where To Stay in Monterey Bay
During our stay in Monterey Bay, we stayed at the Portola Hotel and Spa – and we highly recommend it to fellow travelers! Centrally located, the fashionable hotel offers excellent amenities and has an on-site spa. Check rates and availability!
Day 2: Big Sur Drive
Destination: Monterey Bay to Morro Bay. Route: Pacific Coast Highway south. Distance: 123 miles. Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes.
In the morning, spend a couple of hours in Monterey. Sip coffee, visit sights or simply stroll around town, then embark on the route to Big Sur.
The distance from Monterey to Morro Bay is about 125 miles – and the route passes through some of the most gorgeous sections of the coastal drive in California. Leaving Monterey via the 17-Mile Drive (rather than California Route 1), travel through beachside Carmel-by-the-Sea and then follow SR 1 through the incredible beauty of Big Sur and on to Morro Bay.
California 17-Mile Drive
The scenic 17-Mile Drive hugs the coastline of California through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove. Points of interest include the Point Pinos Lighthouse, Bird Rock Vista Point, the Lone Cypress tree (a Pebble Beach icon), Pescadero Point viewpoint and the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Rated as one of the best state parks in California, Point Lobos is well-worth a stop on your California coastal drive. If you are feeling ambitious, complete the 6.7-mile Point Lobos Loop Trail, otherwise, just take in the magnificent views by making short jaunts from a few of the parking lots.
Drive to Big Sur
Driving Big Sur is an absolute highlight of any California road trip. The Big Sur drive features the rugged coastline to the west and the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east. Beyond taking in the stunning Big Sur scenic landscapes, we recommend seeking out a few must-see Big Sur sights.
Some of the best places to see in Big Sur are Rocky Creek Bridge, Bixby Bridge (also called Bixby Creek Bridge or Bixby Canyon Bridge), Point Sur Lighthouse, Nepenthe restaurant, McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (we recommend taking the hike!) and Big Creek Bridge.
Pro Tip: These sights are listed from north to south on the PCH; use this link to Google Maps for locations.
As one of the best places to visit in Big Sur, Nepenthe is a perfect spot for lunch. Enjoy their Famous Ambrosiaburger on the outdoor patio of the cliff-topping restaurant. The sweeping views are as satisfying as the food! Note: While Nepenthe is an absolute gem of a spot for a Big Sur sunset, unless you decide to stay in Big Sur, you will have to miss it – as there is still more to see before arriving in Morro Bay!
Big Sur to Morro Bay
Continue the Big Sur scenic drive south on the California Coast Pacific Coast Highway. After crossing Big Creek Bridge, consider stopping at Limekiln State Park to explore the waterfall and creeks on one (or more!) of the three short trails. For more hikes, buy the Big Sur guide on day hikes.
A landmark sight between Big Sur and Morro Bay is the Hearst Castle. While many people include the extraordinary castle as a stop on their California coastal route, in a day filled with epic natural scenes, we opted to skip it. The choice is of course up to you!
The quaint and almost sleepy Morro Bay is an ideal place for some rest and relaxation after two full days of sightseeing on the scenic California coastal drive. The seaside town is incredibly laid back – with the beach itself punctuated by the massive Morro Rock. The volcanic 581-foot-tall monolith is preserved as a California Historical Landmark and is home to numerous bird species, as well as sea lions, otters, seals and other sea life.
Besides Morro Rock, the town has a charming city center comprised of streets lined with restaurants, cafes, inns and tourist shops. Morro Bay State Park sits at the south end of town, while the Stacks – three chimney stacks formerly part of a power plant – mark the north end of town.
The pleasant town has numerous waterfront eateries, all of which feature a seafood menu. However, we recommend dining at Dorn’s Breakers Cafe, a local institution serving fresh seafood since 1942 and offering fine views of the bay and Morro Rock from the elevated patio.
Where To Stay in Morro Bay
We struggled somewhat to find a hotel in Morro Bay that ticked all of our boxes. Desiring to be on the water in the center of town at an affordable price (not asking too much, right?!), we chose to stay at the Bayfront Inn. While the hotel doesn’t necessarily dazzle guests, the staff were friendly and the rooms were clean and comfortable. We would definitely stay at the Bayfront Inn again! Check rates and availability!
Day 3: California Scenic Drive: Wineries and Beach
Destination: Morro Bay to Santa Barbara. Route: CA SR 1 south. Distance: 126 miles. Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes.
South of Morro Bay, the landscape shifts from dramatic seaside cliffs to vine-covered rolling hills and flat, sandy beaches. State Route 1 – called the Cabrillo Highway in this section – deviates inland from the coast, merges at different points with Highway 101 and wiggles its way south, then finally makes its way back to the shoreline as you approach Santa Barbara.
San Luis Obispo
Start your day in the nearby town of San Luis Obispo – or just SLO, for short. Stop at the iconic Madonna Inn for breakfast in the over-the-top Copper Cafe. Then, head into the historic city center to visit the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, get a glimpse of Fremont Theater and leave your mark on Bubblegum Alley.
From SLO, it’s just a short drive to on Route 1 to Pismo Beach, where you can walk out on the pier or visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove (best from autumn to mid-winter). Alternatively, take 227 south from San Luis Obispo for a beautiful drive through the vineyards of Edna Valley. For more wineries and tasting rooms, consider detouring to nearby Santa Maria Valley wine country.
Dubbed the “Little Denmark in California,” Solvang was established by a group of Danes in the early 1900s. The town features European-style architecture, replicas of Copenhagen landmark sights and an array of bakeries and restaurants serving Danish treats. In addition to the strong ties to the city’s origin, Solvang is home to numerous wineries and wine tasting rooms from local producers.
We didn’t stop in Solvang – we were too excited about getting to Santa Barbara! – but visitors will find many Danish-themed restaurants right in the heart of the city.
Santa Barbara: One of our Favorite Coastal California Towns
Stylish and chic, Santa Barbara is brimming with a multitude of tourist attractions, delectable eateries and breezy wine tasting rooms. Featuring an abundance of nature, history, art and gastronomy, Santa Barbara ranks high on our list of best California coastal towns.
After getting settled into your accommodations, take a stroll on West Beach and walk to the end of Stearns Wharf. Start your walk up State Street, but detour into the Funk Zone district for a late afternoon wine tasting at one of the many wine tasting rooms. (Oreana Winery ranks as one of our favorites!).
If you can tear yourself away from the fun vibes of the Funk Zone, continue your walk up State Street and pick a place to eat dinner. We recommend indulging in classic Southern California Mexican eats at Carlitos Cafe y Cantina.
Other things to do in Santa Barbara include visiting the Old Mission Santa Barbara, stepping inside the opulent Santa Barbara County Courthouse, viewing exhibits at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, shopping at Paseo Nuevo, going to the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens or exploring the many hiking trails north of the city.
Where To Stay in Santa Barbara
We have stayed in many hotels in Santa Barbara, but our top pick is the Hotel Milo Santa Barbara. With a prominent location right on the waterfront at West Beach and just minutes from Stearns Wharf and the Funk Zone, the boutique Hotel Milo has an outdoor heated pool, stylishly decorated rooms and super service. Check rates and availability!
Day 4: Los Angeles Coastal Drive
Destination: Santa Barbara to LA. Route: CA SR 1 south. Distance: 100 miles. Time: 2 hours.
In the morning, eat a classic American breakfast at Sambo’s – which proudly claims to serve the best breakfast in Santa Barbara since 1957…then work it off with a morning bike ride along the Cabrillo Bike Path that extends all the way to Butterfly Beach.
After your morning exercise, start the final leg of your California coastal drive to Los Angeles. Work up your appetite on the hour-long drive on the California Coast to Malibu – because Neptune’s Net is a must-see stop on the PCH.
Home to movie stars and the wealthy, Malibu is a posh seaside town that seems to embody the classy California lifestyle – and Route 1 passes right through it.
For lunch, eat at the landmark Neptune’s Net seafood diner, which was established in the 1950s and has been featured in films and television shows. Just a bit further down the road, Point Dume lookout is worth a stop for another elevated view of the California coastline from the rocky bluff.
As you roll through Santa Monica, you may be lured to make a stop to visit the recognizable Santa Monica Pier. In addition to the giant Ferris wheel and other amusement park rides at Pacific Park, there is an aquarium and a few American chain restaurants. Just south of the pier is the original Muscle Beach, which was designed in the 1930s.
Fun Fact: The Santa Monica Pier marks the western end of Route 66, which begins in Chicago, Illinois.
From Santa Monica, the Pacific Coast Highway turns inland, passing through Venice Beach (but not on the shoreline) and leads straight to LAX airport. You may want to go ahead and drop off your car rental if you are only staying the night (especially if you will incur extra fees for overnight parking at your hotel) – and then use Uber to get to your accommodations.
Where To Stay in Los Angeles, California
Choosing where to stay in LA is quite the conundrum. There are hundreds of hotels – in the city, by the airport and at the beaches. Because of the airport’s close proximity to the beach, we have often opted to just stay at an airport hotel.
The Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel is one of our top picks – and we highly recommend it if you decide to stay near LAX. The luxury hotel offers clean rooms, comfortable beds, a pool (and whirlpool!) and free airport transport. Check rates and availability!
That said, we love the friendly, local vibes at Manhattan Beach and think it is a spectacular place to stay as well – especially if you plan on staying a few days or are continuing your drive down the Cali Coast (more details on that in a minute!). There are a few hotels right on SR 1 – like Best Western Plus and Wave Hotel – which is just a short walk to the beach. But the chic boutique Shade Hotel Manhattan Beach is an absolute gem!
California Coastal Map
Alternate California Coastal Drives
We outlined what we think is the absolute best itinerary for a California coastal drive – but it certainly isn’t the only route to take. In fact, there are hundreds of different ways to create itineraries for coastal drives in California. Factors to consider are your allotted time, budget and interests – but we are highlighting a few other popular ways to drive the Pacific Coast Highway.
San Francisco to Big Sur
For an out and back California coastal road trip that returns to the Bay Area, consider driving only from San Francisco to Big Sur. The San Francisco to Big Sur distance is only about 150 miles.
However, unless you plan on making the return coastal drive to San Francisco, you will need to continue driving south almost to Morro Bay (a total distance of about 240 miles) to be able to hook back up with an inland highway and complete the Big Sur to SFO route.
Travelers interested in creating an SF to Big Sur California Coastal Drive Itinerary can simply use our outlined route for Days 1 and 2, then make the drive back up north on Day 3.
San Francisco to Santa Barbara
Travelers who are limited to just a 3-Day Pacific Coast Highway road trip can do so by eliminating the last segment of the drive to Los Angeles. In our opinion, the most beautiful part of the coastal drive is from San Francisco to Santa Barbara via Pacific Coast Highway – and Santa Barbara has an airport!
San Francisco to San Diego
Driving from San Francisco to San Diego on PCH is a phenomenal way to see the California coastline. The route takes in the major California cities and stunning natural beauty.
It is relatively easy to create a California Coast Drive Itinerary from San Francisco to San Diego on the Pacific Coast Highway. In fact, you only need to add one more day to your Cali Coast trip plan. After staying the night in Los Angeles, hop on the Pacific Coast highway from LA to San Diego. The distance is about 120 miles and could take 3 to 4 hours (but expect it to be much longer in traffic!).
For tips on what to see and do in San Diego, use our Weekend in San Diego Itinerary.
Northern California Coast Drive
The Pacific Coast Highway north of San Francisco is drastically different from the Central California Coast. Characterized by epic scenery, Redwood forests and secluded beaches, the Northern California Coast offers a more off-the-beaten-path experience (but don’t expect to be the only one there!).
One of the great ways to create a Northern California Coast Drive Itinerary is to follow the coastline north from San Francisco – and then continue up the Oregon Coast.
To create this epic California to Oregon Trip, use our Oregon Coastal Road Trip Itinerary!
California Coastal Tours
Visitors who want to forego the responsibility of driving down the California Coast can join an organized California Coastal Tour.
This small-group 3-day tour from San Francisco features the highlights of the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The best part is that the skilled driver takes the wheel, allowing you time to take in the scenery! Get the details here!
California Coast Day Trips
Visitors to San Francisco and Los Angeles can also take day trips that will allow them just a glimpse of the magnificent coast.
One of the most popular day tours from San Francisco, the full-day trip includes Monterey, the 17-Mile Drive and Carmel. Get the details!
And, this Los Angeles day trip explores Santa Barbara, Solvang and the Hearst Castle. Book it now!
California Coastal Train
Taking the train is an alternate way to see part of the coast of California without driving. However, the majority of the tracks through California are inland. The route, run by Amtrak, is dubbed the Grand West Coast Train Adventure and the Coast Starlight Train runs from Seattle to Los Angeles with stops along the way in Vancouver WA and Portland OR.
California Coastal Cruise
Another way to view the California coastline is via a West Coast Cruise. Boat cruises range from 1 to 10 days and are run by multiple cruise lines.
California Coastal Hikes
Yet one more option for exploring the West Coast is by hiking the California Coastal Trail. The network of public trails covers about 1,200 miles and can be used by walkers and bikers.
What You Will Need for Your California Coastal Road Trip
Before you set off on your California Coast scenic drive, we have a few final tips for your trip!
Weather Appropriate Clothing
As we already discussed, the California coastal climate varies from north to south – and from season to season. It is best to be prepared for your scenic coastal drive in California with clothing that can be layered. A warm jacket may be required in the north, while you will want to back your swimsuit for Southern California.
Short hikes and city exploration are sprinkled throughout our California Coast drive trip. We recommend bringing a few different pairs of shoes to ensure you have the proper footwear. For the cities and towns, a pair of comfortable walking shoes – like Skechers or these Columbia shoes for women and these Merrell trail shoes for men – are ideal. Flip flops are best for the beaches and you may even want to bring a pair of hiking boots, depending on which hikes you plan to take.
Find all of our packing tips on our Packing List page!
California Coastal Highway Map
While you can use the above San Francisco to Los Angeles Pacific Coast Highway Map for sightseeing, we think it is best to purchase a road map for your trip. Buy a California Pacific Coast Highway map – like this one on Amazon – before your trip.
The scenery on the West Coast California drive is nothing short of spectacular. While the various outlooks offer stellar vantage points to take in the sights, it can be difficult to see the details. With a good pair of binoculars, however, you will be able to scan the water for whales, get a better view of coastal scenes and see the surrounding nature in better details.
Camera with Zoom Lens
If you are anything like us, you will be snapping a ton of pictures on your California Pacific Coast Highway trip. As we just mentioned, however, some of the best sights can only be viewed from far away. We highly recommend using a good DSLR Camera with zoom lens to capture the beauty of the coastline. In our travels, we carry a Canon Rebel with an everyday 18-135mm lens. The camera can be purchased in a bundle with an array of accessories, which makes it perfect for beginner photographers!
We Want To Know: Is there anything you would add to our California Coastal Drive Itinerary? What were the highlights of your California Coast road trip? Give us your best tips on the comments below!
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