A visit to California wouldn’t be complete without a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway. This iconic road continues along most of the California coast and can be enjoyed at any pace… whether it’s over the course of 1 day or 2 weeks.
For the perfect “sampler platter” of sights and activities along this scenic drive, I recommend planning 3 days from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Here are my suggestions for an unforgettable California coast road trip!
Day 1: Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo
101 North from LA to Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a must-see when driving from Los Angeles north along the California coast. It has it all- from beautiful beaches to gorgeous gardens. Leave LA bright and early to get to Santa Barbara for breakfast.
Top things to See and Do in Santa Barbara:
- Don’t miss the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the 10th of the California Missions founded by the Spanish Franciscans and the only one to be continuously occupied and used since its founding in 1786.
- Visit the tower of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for panoramic views of the city.
- For flower and garden lovers, a visit to Lotusland is a must! This 37-acre garden is home to more than 3,000 species of plants.
- Take a stroll down Stearns Wharf for beautiful beach views
101 North to 154 West from Santa Barbara to Solvang (Approx. 35 miles | 40 minutes)
Solvang “California’s Little Denmark” is a quaint little city founded by Danish settlers in the early 1900s. While Danish bakeries, shops and windmills are an amazing attraction, the town is best known for its wine and craft brew culture.
Top things to See and Do in Solvang:
- Rent a bike and cycle some of the many scenic bike paths
- Visit one of more than a dozen wine tasting rooms
- Try authentic Danish food at one of Solvang’s iconic eateries
San Luis Obispo Area
101 North from Solvang to San Luis Obispo area (Approx. 70 miles | 1 hour)
There are many beautiful areas located near San Luis Obispo to finish the first day of your road trip. Book a night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo for a one-of-a-kind hotel experience. Enjoy a romantic sunset at one of the wineries in Paso Robles. Or, head to Pismo Beach or Morro Bay for a beautiful beach-side stay.
- Paso Robles: Wine lovers
- Pismo Beach: Beach lovers
- Morro Bay: Outdoor adventure lovers
- San Luis Obispo: History, art, outdoors and lovers of everything-in-between
California has some of the BEST camping in the entire country. Choosing to pitch a tent along the Pacific Coast Highway at one of the many campsites could very well prove a more enjoyable experience than even a 5-star hotel. For the best California campground booking website, I use Hip Camp. They provide helpful info on campsites and you can book directly from their website.
Day 2: San Luis Obispo to Big Sur
Hearst Castle / San Simeon
CA-1 North from SLO to San Simeon (Approx. 42 miles | 45 minutes)
For one of the most popular tourist destinations in California, book a tour of Hearst Castle. Originally built as the private estate of W.R. Hearst, this state park features lavish furnishings & authentic art pieces. You might even spy some exotic creatures (such as Zebra) roaming the property.
Whether you choose to visit or skip Hearst Castle, be sure to pull off the road at the Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals. You can see them all year long but the best time is during mid-March to mid-September when the seals come to molt. They’re hilarious looking creatures and it’s a pretty impressive showcase of one of nature’s oddities!
CA-1 North from San Simeon to Big Sur (Approx. 50 miles | 1 hour 20 minutes)
Big Sur is by far one of my all-time favorite places in the world. There are some killer ocean views along the highway and countless State Parks just waiting to be explored. For outdoors lovers, be sure to spend at least a full-day at one of Big Sur’s California State Parks for amazing hiking and some serious natural beauty.
Top things to See and Do in Big Sur:
- Camp and hike at one of Big Sur’s California State Parks: Limekiln Beach State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and Andrew Molera State Park.
- Stay at Tree Bones Resort for a one-of-a-kind glamping experience
- Visit Esalen Institute: Book a program in advance for the full experience or come for the hot springs during public hours
- Head to the Henry Miller Library for an evening concert of movie screening. Events Calendar here.
Day 3: Big Sur to San Francisco
CA-1 North from Big Sur to Monterey (Approx. 45 miles | 1 hour)
Monterey is best known for its beautiful coastline, its world-class aquarium and from the many John Steinbeck novels set there, including Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. Spend the morning exploring the countless historic buildings or discovering life unda-da-sea at the famous aquarium.
Top things to See and Do in Monterey:
- Visit what is known as one of the best displays of sea life in the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Don’t miss the Jellies Experience for a glowing jellyfish encounter or the Open Sea exhibit during feeding time.
- Walk Monterey’s Path of History as a free self‐guided tour of Old Monterey, marked by easy‐to‐distinguish yellow tiles set in the sidewalk
- Explore the outdoors via kayak, bike or scuba
CA-1 North to 101 North from Monterey to San Francisco (Approx. 120 miles | 2 hours)
San Francisco is a one of the most iconic cities in all of California. Eat your heart out at some of SF’s unique restaurants and explore the city’s history, art and eclectic counter-culture.
Top things to See and Do in San Francisco:
- For a complete guide to food, activities and accommodation, check out my article Ultimate Guide to San Francisco in a Weekend
- Head to China Town for delicious food and great shopping
- Visit Seaport Village and Pier 39 for waterfront entertainment, dining and shopping
- Take a day trip to Marin Headlands and the Point Bonita Lighthouse
- Head over the Golden Gate Bridge and camp at Steep Ravine Cabins near Stinson Beach. Book well in advance to secure a cabin for your stay- they sell out fast!
Day 4: San Fran to LA (Return)
I-5 South from San Francisco to Los Angeles (Approx. 400 miles | 6 hours)
If you rent a car, you might consider flying to your next destination from San Francisco. While not nearly as beautiful as the California coastal drive up CA-1, if you need to return to LA by car, cut down your drive time by taking the I-5 south. There are much fewer “scenic” stop-offs but the countryside is vast and beautiful!