The drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles is one of the most iconic American road trips. The coastal route down, known as the Pacific Coast Highway, is full of beautiful scenery, endless coastal views, quirky small towns and cities and lots of fun activities.
So, find your credit card, hire that convertible, put the top down and join me as I cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway as we drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Our start point is The City by the Bay, San Francisco. Nearly everyone who drives the Pacific Coast Highway spends at least a few days in San Francisco and I recommend you do the same. It’s a unique city with its own quirky weather system, undulating hills, countless attractions and some gorgeous photo spots.
Planning your Pacific Coast Highway road trip
There are many routes you can take when driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The quickest route is south down the I-5 but that is, without doubt, one of me most boring stretches of road you could drive in America!
If you have the time then you should drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway (State Route 1). So what do you need to consider when planning your Pacific Coast Highway drive?
Car Rentals in California
To drive the Pacific Coast Highway you will need a car. That’s not a problem as there are a ton of options for renting a car in San Francisco. Of course, you can use an online price comparison site, in fact, that’s recommended so you can find the best price on the convertible you’ll want to cruise down the PCH.
How many days for the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles?
For the whole trip, I would advise setting aside 2 whole weeks. That gives you 3-4 days in San Francisco and another 3-4 days in LA. The rest of the time you can spend enjoying the sights of one of the most beautiful road trips in the world.
The Pacific Coast Highway is such a great road trip because of the flexibility it offers. If you are short on time you can drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles down the PCH in less than 9 hours. However, I recommend that you take your time and take in as much of the beautiful scenery of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Where should I stop on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles?
This depends on how much time you have set aside for your trip. It’s a route that can be done in 1 day or you can easily take a whole week and still not run out of things to do. Regardless of how long you have to make the drive, these are some of the stops you will kick yourself if you missed when driving the Pacific Coast Highway.
90 minutes from San Francisco is Santa Cruz a beautiful coastal city. It has a long wharf stretching out into the Pacific Ocean, filled with eateries and shops. The nearby Santa Cruz Beach is famous for its vintage rides including the 1911 Looff Carousel and the Giant Dipper roller coaster.
Drive 45 minutes on from Santa Cruz and you hit Monterey. Once the capital of Alta California, Monterey is probably best known for its association with writer John Steinbeck. Monterey is the setting of Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.
I recommend strolling around the Monterey State Historic Park. It’s a great way to experience the history of the town and also build up an appetite to enjoy a seafood lunch at one of the many great seafood restaurants in the town.
For those of you with lots of time to spend here in Monterey, there is the 29-mile long Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, great for a scenic cycle ride. Back in the car, I recommend doing the 17-mile drive as it will lead you to the next stop.
Carmel by the Sea
At the end of the 17-mile drive is a quaint seaside town called Carmel by the Sea. But don’t be fooled by the peaceful vibe this town is full of upscale art galleries, expensive shops and gourmet restaurants. It’s less than 4,000 population is made up of some famous names. Clint Eastwood lives in Carmel and was mayor in the ’80s. Right up until when she died in 2019 Doris Day also lived in Carmel.
Carmel has always had a connection with the arts. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was home to writers, poets and artists. Today, Carmel’s reputation is as the number 1 rated dog-friendly town in America.
Take a walk along the sandy Carmel Beach and if you have the time stop for a drink on the patio at Mission Ranch, co-owned by Clint Eastwood.
Bixby Creek Bridge and Big Sur
Just 25 minutes on from Carmel is the highlight for many who travel the Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur and Bixby Creek Bridge. Big Sur is a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of California. Its iconic scenery stretches 90 miles long and is one of the most beautiful sights in America. It is made up of 9 different state parks and home to numerous hiking trails.
The highlight of Big Sur is the Bixby Creek Bridge, a single-span bridge that is actually taller than the Golden Gate Bridge. It is the most famous viewpoint of the whole Pacific Coast Highway and a must-see spot for anyone driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
2 hours and 20 minutes from Bixby Creek Bridge is the town of Morro Bay. It’s known as the Gilbraltar of the Pacific because of the Morro Rock that towers 581 foot above the small town. Morro Rock is a volcanic plug that ‘guards’ the mouth of the bay.
As for Morro Bay, the small town is easy to navigate on foot. It’s a popular eco-tourism spot and remains popular with sea mammal lovers. Bird watchers regularly visit its bird sanctuary.
80 minutes further south from Morro is Solvang and probably the last thing you’d expect to see on the Pacific Coast Highway. Solvang is known as California’s Little Denmark and the Danish Capital of America because it was founded by Danish settlers.
Solvang is a striking contrast from the stunning coastal vistas you will have already seen on the PCH. It feels like something out of a Thor film, a Northern European style town in the middle of California. The town makes a quirky detour from the coastal scenery of the Pacific Coast Highway.
50 minutes on from Solvang you will find Santa Barbara. Brimming with Mediterranean style white stucco buildings, Santa Barbara makes an instant impact. You feel the Spanish heritage straight away. The striking Santa Barbara courthouse and the Old Mission are just two examples.
State Street runs through Santa Barbara and is lined with upscale boutique shops and wonderful restaurants where you can enjoy the local wine and speciality dishes. This striking coastal city framed by the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains is well worth your time as you draw closer to Los Angeles.
30 mins drive past Santa Barbara leads you in Ventura. Best known for its golden sandy beaches such as Buenaventura State Beach, home of the wooden Ventura Pier. Ventura is also a popular surfing destination with Surfer’s Point unsurprisingly being the focal point.
Notable sights include the Mission San Buenaventura, complete with 1809 church. Some boats travel from Ventura Harbor to nearby Channel Islands National Park, a habitat home to rare foxes and scrub jays.
55 minutes later and you’re arriving at Malibu. Home to an array of Hollywood stars, Malibu might be the most celebrated beach town in the World. It’s famous for its weekend beach homes, picturesque sandy beaches and views of the glorious Pacific Ocean.
Just saying you have walked along the pristine golden beaches that the rich and famous enjoy is worth the visit itself. Malibu is not just about celebrity spotting. Many interesting hiking trails offer some beautiful views. Then you can get back to celeb-spotting by pulling a chair up at Paradise Cove Beach Cafe.
25 minutes on from Malibu is the renowned Santa Monica. The endpoint of the iconic route 66, Santa Monica. Home to beaches, great food and the famous Santa Monica Pier, a full-on amusement pier capped off by the distinctive Ferris wheel.
Nothing says California more than the chilled out vibe you get visiting Santa Monica. When you’re done shopping down 3rd Street Promenade go grab some food and then hit the beach to sit on the sand and drink in another glorious sunset.
You’ve now finally made it to Los Angeles but that means the fun isn’t over just because the drive is. Los Angeles is a wonderful city with lots of fun things to do for the whole family. Whether it’s experiencing the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills or spotting stars along the Hollywood walk of fame LA has a lot to offer.
Where to stay in Los Angeles
There are a ton of options for where to stay in and around Los Angeles but my personal favourite it the Hotel Roosevelt. I stayed here when I first visited Los Angeles in 2012.
Before my visit I had no idea of the rich history of the Roosevelt but as soon as you enter you begin to understand the part it played in Hollywood’s history. In its early years, it played host to iconic stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. Located in Hollywood it’s a great spot for those interested in the rich movie past of the town.
There are quicker ways to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles but none of them offers the experiences you will find as you travel down the Pacific Coast Highway. From intriguing small towns and cities to the massive breathtaking scenery the PCH has earned its reputation as one of the Worlds most iconic drives.