When it comes to road trips, the Pacific Coast Highway road trip (also known as the Highway One Roadtrip) in California definitely tops the list.
The Pacific Coast Highway road trip stretches from San Francisco right down to San Diego. Most will do the drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles, however if you have time, keep heading further down to San Diego.
You can do the journey in 8-10 hours (if you drive straight…non stop…), but if you have time, I recommend giving yourself at least 4-5 days (if not more) to really soak in all that the Pacific Coast Highway road trip has to offer…because there is a lot to do.
The Pacific Coast Highway road trip takes you from San Francisco right down to San Diego along the California coast. Our itinerary takes you on the coastal road for the most part, but we do switch it up before we get to Santa Barbara to give you a peak into the amazing landscapes slightly inland from the coast. And trust me – it’s amazing, well worth the diversion.
I have suggested overnight stops based on our personal experience – I feel that these are probably some of the better overnight stops along the way. I also make note of highlights to see along the way to make the most of your trip.
So let’s buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Table of Contents
- San Francisco
- Overnight Stop: Monterey
- Overnight Stop: Pismo Beach
- Overnight Stop: Santa Barbara
- Overnight Stop: Santa Monica
- Overnight Stop: Newport Beach
- Overnight Stop: San Diego
Our journey on the Pacific Coast Highway road trip, also known as Highway 1 starts in San Francisco. There is so much to do in San Francisco alone that I would need a whole another post (or two…or three) to sum it up. I recommend spending a few days in San Francisco before heading on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip. From spending the weekend in Napa Valley to riding on the Golden Gate Bridge to eating and drinking your way through this exciting city, there’s no way you can start your road trip without at least spending a few days here.
Bonus Tip: Before starting your Pacific Coast Highway road trip, grab some pastries from the Boudin Bakery to have on your trip as snacks.
Overnight Stop: Monterey
Our first stop takes you to the seaside town of Monterey. We recommend finding accommodation in Monterey, because there is quite a bit to do here, and it is more affordable than staying at Carmel by the Sea. We stayed here for 2 nights to make the most of this area.
Bonus Tip: The area surrounding San Francisco and Monterey is home to some of the best agricultural land, which produces a wide range of fruits and vegetables. There are several quaint fruit and vegetable stores selling fresh Californian produce – stop here and pick up some healthy snacks for the road.
- Happy Girl Kitchen
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Monterey Aquarium
- Cannery Row
- Carmel by the Sea
Recommend place to stay is Portola Hotel & Spa. The hotel is a short walking distance to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Approximate Driving Time from San Francisco: 3.5 hours (Highway 1) or 1.5 hours (Highway 101)
Highlights: Monterey to Big Sur
17 Mile Drive
If you have ever heard of the famous Pebble Beach golf course, then this is for you. The 17 Mile Drive is home to some incredible homes (including many celebrities), a lovely coastal drive and home to the famous Pebble Beach golf course.
This is one of the iconic stops along the Pacific Coast Highway road trip…and what a bridge it is. It is definitely impressive, and you will find yourself taking an endless amounts of snaps. If you are heading south on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip, most people will stop to the right for photos. For a different perspective, exit to the left, which will give you some great views of the bridge. Plus you won’t be fighting with all the tourists to grab a snap.
Approximate Driving Time from Monterey: 45-50 minutes
Pfeiffer National Park (Big Sur)
This is a great spot to check out those gigantic Redwood Trees, and the redder the bark is, the older the tree. There are some great hikes here, along with easier routes if you just want to hug a redwood tree.
If you are happy to do a small walk through to see the Redwood Trees, aim to give yourself about 45-60 minutes. But if you are a fan of hiking, you may want to give yourself longer…even consider staying overnight in the Big Sur area.
Approximate Driving Time from Bixby Bridge: 20-25 minutes
Plenty of picnic options along the view, including some of the vista points. But if you are a restaurant lunch, we recommend checking out Lucia Lodge or Nepenthe. Both offer fantastic views and good food.
On a side note: if you do plan to spend time hiking in Big Sur, it is a good idea to find accommodation in this area. There’s a super cool place to stay called Treebones Resort. It does book out way in advance though so best to book ahead of time.
(Nepenthe) Approximate Driving Time from Pfeiffer National Park: 5-10 minutes
(Lucia Lodge) Approximate Driving Time from Pfeiffer National Park: 35-40 minutes
Elephant Seals (San Simeon)
When you get to the San Simeon area, there is a specific vista point to see the Elephant Seals… And it’s hard to miss, because you will find many others stopping here too… Or you can just follow the seals’ smell!
Approximate Driving Time from Pfeiffer National Park: 25-30 minutes
Hearst Castle (San Simeon)
Hearst Castle is a popular stop for visitors on the Pacific Coast Highway road trip, but the catch is that you have to book yourself onto a tour…you are not allowed to just roam free. There are several tours to choose from, which takes you to different parts of the ‘castle’ and each tour costs U$25. Best to book in advance online to secure yourself a spot as it can get quite busy.
Approximate Driving Time from Pfeiffer National Park: 25-30 minutes
The Madonna Inn
A bit of a hidden gem along the journey – The Madonna Inn. You don’t need to be staying here to stop in and admire this eclectic hotel. The best way to describe this place – Pink, pink and more pink!
It is one of the most unique hotels I have ever seen. Every single room in this hotel is completely different creating a different experience each time you visit.
Approximate Driving Time from San Simeon: 50-60 minutes
Overnight Stop: Pismo Beach
Many will end up stopping at San Simeon as the halfway point, but I recommend driving another hour and staying at Pismo Beach. There is not much to do at San Simeon once you have seen the elephant seals and Hearst Castle. I also found that the hotels and food are overpriced for what you get. Pismo Beach is a great beach town with a variety of options when it comes to hotels, food and shopping.
Approximate Driving Time from The Madonna Inn: 15-20 minutes
Highlights: Pismo Beach to Santa Barbara
Drive inland towards Santa Barbara for a different perspective
So after a few days of driving along the coast, we thought it would be interesting to check out a bit of the inland. So we hoped off the Pacific Coast Highway and got onto Highway 101 and connected to Highway 154 right down into Santa Barbara.
We were so happy with this decision, because the trip along the 154 had some incredible views and it was worth a change from the coastal views.
Overnight Stop: Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a charming town along the Pacific Coast Highway road trip. And there is a lot to do here to keep you busy, so if you can, try to stay the night here. For a nice view of the sunset, head out onto Stearns Wharf. I should note that it can be quite expensive to stay in Santa Barbara, especially on the weekend. So if you are on a budget, I would probably spend the day in Santa Barbara and stay in neighboring town Ventura.
- Stearns Wharf (great sunset spot)
- Wine & beer tasting
- State Street for cafes, restaurants & shops
- The Santa Barbara Courthouse
- Santa Barbara Mission
Approximate Driving Time from Pismo Beach: 1.5 – 2 hours
Highlights: Santa Barbara to Santa Monica
Ventura & Malibu
The TV Show ‘Two & a Half Men’ really reminded me of this area, as you’ll find beautiful houses set right on the cliff’s edge overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This is also a popular spot for surfers to hit the waves.
Approximate Driving Time from Santa Barbara to Ventura: 1.4 – 1.5 hours
Approximate Driving Time from Santa Barbara to Malibu: 2.5 hours
Getty Villa (Malibu)
The Getty Villa is well worth your visit when you pass through Malibu. This was probably one of my favorite stops along the trip. Owned by J. P. Getty, the Getty Villa is set on 64 acres and was originally JP Getty’s home, where he would house his growing art collection. In the 1960’s, construction began to transform this space into a museum, which would showcase an impressive collection of art, predominantly from Europe. Today it is now an impressive museum that is well worth the visit.
If you do end up here, be sure to give yourself about 2-3 hours to get through, because there is so much to see. The entry fee is FREE, but you will need to pre-book your entry time online. Parking on site is U$15. I also recommend joining on any of the tours offered, such as the Architectural Tour or the Garden Tour to learn more about this sight.
Approximate Driving Time from Malibu: 20-25 minutes
Overnight Stop: Santa Monica
A long stretch of white sandy beach and a pier filled with fun is what I loved about Santa Monica. The Santa Monica pier is most recognizable because of the small theme park set on the pier. I also recommend hiring some bicycles to bike around the area – it’s the best way to explore and it’s the best way to get to Venice Beach. Finally, I would stay in the Santa Monica area before moving further south.
Approximate Driving time from Malibu: 30 minutes
Highlights: Santa Monica to Newport
If you keep heading south on the stretch of beach from Santa Monica pier, you will eventually find yourself in Venice Beach. It is an eclectic and colorful part of Los Angeles worth experiencing. For a great sunset spot, check out ‘High Rooftop Lounge’ at the Erwin Hotel. Also head down Abbott Kinney Road for a great selection of restaurants, cafes and shops.
Approximate Driving time from Santa Monica: 10 minutes (Walking about 30 minutes)
Not far from Newport Beach is Huntington Beach, a long stretch of white sand and ocean with some great surf. I liked walking along the pier and watching the surfers from atop catch some great waves.
Approximate Driving time from Venice: 1.5 hours
Overnight Stop: Newport Beach
I really enjoyed my time at Newport Beach. It was such a chilled out town, with so much to do. The beach was beautiful, the sunset was spectacular and the vibe was cool.
Head onto Balboa Island, which has a wide range of places to eat, drink and shop. It also has a nice stretch of beach for swimming and is also home to the famous surf break – ‘the Wedge.’
Approximate Driving time from Huntington Beach: 13-18 minutes
Highlights: Newport to San Diego
La Polla is a great beachside town not far from the San Diego vicinity. Walk all along the cliffs for some breathtaking views of the coast. There are also numerous spots for swimming and you might even find a seal swimming alongside of you!
Approximate Driving time from Newport Beach: 1.5 hours
If the name doesn’t already say it all, this is a great spot just outside of downtown San Diego to watch the sunset. It’s right on the edge of the cliffs and provides you with an epic panoramic view of the ocean.
Approximate Driving time from La Jolla: 25 minutes
Overnight Stop: San Diego
To end our Pacific Coast Highway road trip, we found ourselves finally in San Diego. Of course you can use San Diego as your starting point and work your way up North, but we chose to head South from San Francisco to San Diego.
San Diego was a fun city. If you like your beers, there are so many fantastic microbreweries around San Diego. Most places will let you do a ‘flight’ of beers, which is a tasting palate.
- USS Midway Museum
- San Diego Zoo
- Beer Tasting
- And for even more inspiration, here are some amazing Californian breweries you have to check out!
Bonus Tip: If you are looking to head back to Los Angeles from San Diego and are sick of driving, jump on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train. It’s a fantastic train journey all along the coast and offers some fantastic views of the numerous beach towns along the way. If you do the trip from San Diego up to Los Angeles, make sure to sit on the left side in the direction of travel – this will give you the best coastal views.