July 29, 2017

Drive the Pacific Coast Hwy from LA to San Francisco!

One of the most iconic road trips in the world, and certainly the US (second only to Route 66 I’d say) is the Pacific Coast Highway between San Diego and San Francisco – and even further north. This post is my five-day itinerary suggestions for a self-drive road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco (or the other way round if you start at the bottom of the post!)

Update: I have added info about the PCH road closure at Big Sur and some suggestions for getting around it, which will affect traffic until later 2018.

Oh, and if you’re reading this in New Zealand, I have a great package deal from House of Travel to tell you about below…

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So here we go! This road trip post is for anyone who wants to self drive California’s iconic PCH but can’t be bothered figuring out where to stop, shop and stay! I’ve done the work for you, all you need to do is bookmark this post and drive like the wind!

I call it the no-brainer itinerary of five glorious days starting in Los Angeles, spending two nights in beautiful Santa Barbara, one night at Big Sur and one night in Santa Cruz via Monterey and Pebble Beach before arriving in San Francisco.

Driving the PCH

Pin this pic to your Travel board!

First, lets allay all fears of driving in the States. It’s a doddle!

But second, make sure you have a GPS. I took mine from home and downloaded US maps before I left for about $70. Money well spent, let me tell you. However if your GPS is a smart-alec like mine, he’ll try and take you on the shortest route rather than the most scenic. Hence taking off the wrong way for the first mile inland to the Los Angeles freeway. However, once onto him, we fooled him by putting coastal destinations along our route and adding new ones as we reached them.

Fairmont Santa Monica

The view from the Fairmont Hotel over Santa Monica Beach

Ok, so starting in LA’s stunning beach town of Santa Monica for two days of R&R after our flight from New Zealand (this is still my favourite LA town. I have stayed a gazillion times and wrote this post on my 7 favourite hotels in Santa Monica >>) we shopped the pedestrianised Third Street Promenade, enjoyed cocktails at sunset (see my top picks for Best Rooftop Bars in Santa Monica >>)

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**UPDATE: In March 2017 heavy rains caused slips and damaged the Pfieffer Canyon Bridge and they say it’ll be a year before you can head up this iconic coastal road without a detour…* (which I will explain below)

For the latest on the road closures, visit bigsurcalifornia.org/highwayconditions >>

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Let’s go!

Camarillo shopping outlets

Camarillo shopping outlets

Day 1 – Santa Barbara

Where to stay: Brisas del Mar

Don’t miss: Camarillo Shopping Outlets

From Santa Monica, Highway 1 is starts at beach level where views of the half-kilometre wide sandy beach stretches out to the ocean – perfect for sunset wine watching (although not whilst driving).

Santa Barbara motel

Brisas del Mar

Just 40 minutes north are the Camarillo Shopping Outlets. Three clusters of shops and eating places with brands like Gap, Banana Republic, Forever 21, North Face, Nine West, Calvin Klein, all at ridiculously cheap prices, although all end of summer stock when we went.

Preferring to stay on the coastal road rather than head inland over the ranges, we teased the GPS with another little out-of-the-way coastal town on our way to Santa Barbara. Clearly you need a paper map for such deception, or at least one of the visitors magazines with a California map (you don’t need anything with serious details).

Santa Barbara

Main St, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is less than an hour from the outlets and I maintain, is the prettiest city in the United States so plan to stay two nights. Thanks to strict building codes brought in after the devastating 1925 earthquake, buildings are Spanish adobe style reflecting the roots of the town, they are no more than 2 stories (in some cases you’ll see an office block at 6 floors, but certainly no high-rises).

Brightly coloured bougainvillea spill from walls and the tree-lined main street is edged with shops, behind which are piazzas with more shops, fountains and lovely open spaces and check out the cycle lanes – easy peasy. Parking is cheap here – free everywhere for first 75 mins then $1 per hour.

The weather is gorgeous pretty much year round due to the city being hugged by the Santa Ynez mountains which keep much of the hot desert wind at bay while the ocean breezes are largely quelled by the Channel Islands, just off the coast. Again the sand stretches for what seems like miles.

Brisas del Mar is about 3 blocks from the ocean, is more motel than hotel, and has a free wine and cheese hour at 5pm followed by hot cookies around 7pm.

The Mission, Santa Barbara

The Mission, Santa Barbara

Day 2 – Santa Barbara

Visit the Old Mission,Santa Barbara which stands majestically overlooking the city. Founded in 1786, this is still home to Franciscan friars (although we didn’t see any when we went. I think they cloister themselves away making beer and meditating).

For $4 you can take a tour through the ancient hallows, the photogenic gardens and old cemeteries, gaze at the art and architecture and just generally take your time to marvel.

Santa Barbara roof tops

Views from the mountains to see

Another must-do is climb the steps (actually only 2 flights as there is a lift) to the rooftop of the courthouse and look down over the ‘American Riviera’. The courthouse itself is so beautiful you’d think it was a tourist attraction, except for the clip-clop of legal secretaries stilletos carrying piles of paperwork and signs above doors saying ‘In Session’.

Grab lunch at Olio Pizzeria for some authentic Italian or take the Urban Wine Trail and go tasting in the middle of the city. Wander down to the beach and out on the pier to check out the innovative beggars urging you to throw a coin into their lair. (See my pics here >>>)

*Today you’ll hit the detour.

PCH 1 road closures

Road closures on PCH 1

San Luis Obispo

Cielo, San Luis Obispo

When I drove this route we also had to detour actually and went up to Monterey and down to Big Sur from the North. However, that’s because the slip happened while we were in transit. You may wish to plan for this as PCH 1 is expected to be closed north of San Simeon until about July 2018.

Personally, I still reckon a visit to Hearst Castle is worth it – especially if you are staying in San Luis Obispo or San Simeon. Then you’ll need to take the inland 101 and continue north to Monterey…

Click on this link to see what you can do on the detour via SLO CAL (San Luis Obispo County) >>

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<< Visit House of Travel for great deals on driving the PCH from San Francisco to San Diego >>

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Day 3 – Big Sur

Where to stay: Ventana Inn

Don’t miss: Hearst Castle

This is the longest driving day (made even longer on our trip due to a massive slip blocking Highway 1 some three months earlier meaning a 4-hour detour inland on the 101).

We started with our essential morning coffee in Santa Barbara (I’m not a Starbucks fan and am pleased to report that boutique cafes who make a decent latte are springing up over here) and headed towards San Luis Obispo for our lunch stop. Other places worthy of slowing down are Solvang (the Danish capital of the US) and more shopping outlets at Pismo Beach.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a must-see!

San Luis Obispo is famous for its Thursday night street market, but instead we found Cielo Cantina on Chorro Street, a Mexican restaurant with an outdoor firepit where we sat in the sun munching on twice-cooked tortilla chips and eating crab cakes and Caesar salad washed down with a cheeky Corona. Alas a parking fine also ensued. They must have watch-dogs timed to pounce the nano-second your 30 minutes is up. US$33 dollars for the privilege.

Hearst Castle is a must-see even if you have hours of driving ahead of you! Part of the Hearst publishing empire and great grand-daddy to Patty (nudge, nudge. Google her!). But seriously this is such an amazing place. What started out as a humble bungalow to be built on the family ranch at the turn of last century, became a 130+ room ‘castle’ that took 28 years to complete and entertained Hollywood glitterati in the 1930s. Ohhh if these walls could talk…

Ventana Inn, Big Sur

Ventana Inn is so gorgeous tucked away in the woods

Ventana Inn in Big Sur is worth the drive. Set in 243 acres of trees high above the ocean it’s a sanctuary/retreat and you’ll find people roaming around in their fluffy white bathrobes heading to the spa, or just sitting outside in the sun. It has divine open fire places in the rooms and a clothing optional pool (which took me by surprise as I was exploring the property next morning with my camera. Alas no pics, for fear of being arrested). There are also Japanese hot baths and a sauna, but I was a bit nervous to venture further around lest I see more portly middle-aged bottoms.

The restaurant served up a bison steak for me with a big red wine and hand-picked scallops from Maine for Kate (or we could have had Amish-raised pork) before we crashed in our room and threw an innovative sack filled with kindling and wood on the fire and all we needed to do was light the paper tag and voila – a camp fire in our room.

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*Pick up Hwy 1 again in Monterey…

Carmel

The Sweet Shop, Carmel

Day 4 – Santa Cruz

Where to stay: Dream Inn

Don’t miss: 17-Mile Drive from Pebble Beach

Setting off up the rugged Big Sur coastline, we made a few photo op stops of bridges and kite surfers and tootled into Carmel to see if we could find Clint Eastwood – mayor in the 1980s. Alas no. Carmel is a higgledy-piggledy town sloping down to the sea, studded with towering pine trees and wooden-tiled roofs growing lichen. The only thing we could afford here was a cupcake – although there was a sale on at Anthropologie (some of you will notice your hearts just skip a beat).

Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach – from the 19th

Two hours was plenty on this blustery day and parking was a nightmare, so the next stop was Monterey via the famous Pebble Beach golf course where more spectators than players are found in the souvenir shops and dining at one of the three bars/restaurants.

Take the road ‘17-Mile Drive’ which weaves around the coast from the golf club north towards Monterey and fantasize at the $20,000,000 houses hidden among the trees or with rocky gardens rolling down to the sea. There are other golf courses here too, just not as famous and therefore not as crowded. (Peter Hay Golf Course, Spyglass Hill Golf Course, Poppy Hills Golf Course – but unless you’ve teed off from Pebble Beach, why bother?)

Dream Inn, Santa Cruz

View from our room at Dream Inn

We arrived in the surfy town of Santa Cruz (although Huntington Beach officially now holds the name of surf capital after years of battling it out).

Dream Inn is beautifully decorated (recently refurbed) and is literally right on the beach. Its 165 rooms all have ocean views with private balconies and being lulled off to sleep by the crashing ocean is just magic. It’s also at the foot of the pier that stretches out into Monterey Bay lined with souvenir shops and seafood and ‘burgers and fries’ kinda restaurants that proved ideal with a beer to watch the swell of the waves roll under us to the beach.

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk was built over 100 years ago as a bath house and now has all the old fashioned rides and side shows, plus a few more whizzy ones, to keep the kids in a daze for days.

This is a surf beach and the weekend we were there a competition was underway by the time we pulled back the curtains. The pedestrianised town has boutique shops, art galleries, spas and cafes.

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco

The famous Golden Gate Bridge

Day 5 – San Francisco

Where to stay: Handlery Hotel

Don’t Miss: a walk/cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge

The last stretch to San Fran is only about an hour so we headed off late morning and put Sausalito into the GPS to take us over the famous Golden Gate Bridge (which is 3km long so a full walk might not be that enticing). This cute seaside town is more of a village with waterfront pubs, antiques, art and other boutiques. It’s also perfect for photographing the views, including Alcatraz.

After an hour here we had a bit of time to kill before returning the car so found out that the famous row of painted villas with the city in the background is called the Painted Ladies (now you won’t have to faff about asking cops and garage attendants like I did) and is located on the edge of Alamo Square. These houses were in the opening credits of Full House and also starred in So I Married an Axe Murderer.

San Francisco Painted Ladies

The multi-million dollar Painted Ladies

As luck would have it, the car was to be dropped at Hertz, literally one block from the Handlery Hotel on Union Square. Jon Handlery loves kiwis and in fact, donated US$10,000 to the Christchurch earthquake fund, so for that reason alone, stay here! But the hotel is right on Union Square, it’s family owned, and there are 2 wings. One is accessed by the main lift in the lobby and the other past the pool. They also have a restaurant/bar attached and I was particularly honoured to receive a Jon Handlery bobble-head doll. Thanks Jon!

And that’s it. Phew. A brilliant 5 days and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone 🙂

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Hey Kiwis, House of Travel has a fab package on sale until August 18 so you can do this trip!

You start in San Francisco and make your way south to San Diego (via an inland detour to Las Vegas!) in this cool 12-day/11-night package including a Hertz rental car and accommodation from $1485pp. Flights are separate – and as there are so many amazing deals out now across several airlines, you can take your pick.

<< Click here to see this hot deal for driving the PCH at House of Travel >>

 

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About Megan Singleton

Megan

Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio every week and a few newspapers and mags from time to time. I set off on this travel writing journey 18 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

"Drive the Pacific Coast Hwy from LA to San Francisco!" - What do you think?

Leave a comment

  1. Sanya on

    Hi Megan

    Thank you for the very helpful post! Some friends and I are planning to land in LA on 25th May around noon and do the drive from LA to SFO over 27th-28th. While Santa Barbara seems like a clear winner to spend 27th night, we wanted to reach SFO by 28th afternoon (to get around 2.5 days in SFO) – So didn’t want such a significant portion of the drive left ahead of us on the 28th. Any suggestions for where to spend 27th night based on the above?

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Well it’s 5 hours if you could take the 101 coastal road, but you can’t due to the slips at the moment. It’s 6 hours 40 up the 5 so I would look at something near Fresno? I don’t know what’s there, but Santa Barbara is so cool you won’t want to leave too early I would think 🙂

      Reply
  2. Doug on

    Hi Megan, great article, we are looking at doing a similar trip on a slightly tighter time frame in September 2018. Who do you normally rent your car through, do you use booking.com for this also ?

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Doug, I usually just search for the best price! However right now House of Travel have a deal running (bookings until August) for Hertz rental for 12 days plus accommodation between SF, Las Vegas and San Diego. Just click on the link in the post and it’ll take you there to check it out 🙂

      Reply
  3. Neil and Anne on

    We are planning to drive PCH from SAN Francisco to LA in June 2018, doing your itinerary in reverse, and really looking forward to it.
    Are you aware if the detour you needed to take is well sign posted?, or do you need to plan each step so that you get back on the PCH?
    Don’t have your budget, based upon the nightly rates of your recommendation of accomodation 😂.
    Thanks for posting your itinerary – it has certainly made things easier to plan

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi there, I’m not sure how well it’s sign posted right now, but I would go as far as Hearst Castle, then plan to double back a little and detour from there. There is a link in the post for SLO-CAL info and that will have contact details for up to the minute queries. Have fun!

      Reply
  4. Shantanu on

    Hi Megan

    Thanks for sharing such a detailed account of your trip. We are planning to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles towards the end of June with stops at Big Sur among others. This is our first so wanted to check if the PCH is open.

    Thanks again

    Reply
    • Megan on

      I believe it’s due to open in July, but that depends on lots of things so make sure you check before you set off – Megan

      Reply
  5. Lisa on

    Hi Megan,
    We are flying into LA and driving to Napa hoping to drive along the coast in1 day. We are spending 4days in Napa and then 2 days in San Fran before flying back to Michigan… we’ve never been to California and hoping this goes as smooth as we plan it. Any tips

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Lisa, that’s a big drive in one day! My advice would be to take the interior 101, especially through the Big Sur where the coastal road is closed anyway. Napa is still 20-30 minutes from SF and the drive between LA and SF can be done at a good clip in about 8 hours. Good luck!

      Reply
  6. Catherine on

    Hi Megan,

    Myself and my friend are looking at doing this trip in September 2018. Can you advise which is the best way to go, as in LA to San Fran or San Fran to LA?

    I’m also a little nervous of the driving as it will be the opposite side of the road from home. I’ve read some comments that the drive involves cliff type driving which I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing. Is this true?

    Thanks
    Catherine

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Catherine,
      I didn’t find driving too hard at all and in fact once you’re on the highway it’s mush easier than driving around little side roads as cars are in front to show the way! There’s no cliff driving per se, but the views from the coastal road in places are breathtaking and there are places to pull over to take photos.

      On saying that, due to the slips still keeping the road closed at Big Sur, you may miss much of it unless you choose to do a big inland loop and come back down a wee way.

      If you wanted to drive up from LA you will be on the right hand side – away from the sea side, which you might prefer to get the hang of it. That’s the way I did it, but it really depends which cities you might want to fly into and out of.
      I hope this helps!

      Have a great trip,
      Megan

      Reply
  7. Abel on

    Hi there .
    We have limited time -only have a week and plan to spend 3 days in LA and at least 1,5 days in SF .
    Is it possible to do the scenic road trip from MA to SF in a day ? If not and we spread it over two days where is the best place to overnight ?
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi there
      You can do it in a day, although I’d probably just take the train if you wanted to whip through that quickly as you won’t have time to stop.
      If you are going to overnight, I’d suggest Santa Barbara. A fabulous little town and beautiful beach and plenty of interesting adobe architecture, wineries, and a cute shopping precinct.
      Have fun!
      Megan

      Reply
  8. Mark Harris on

    Hi,
    My wife and i are plannig a US trip.
    We plan to fly to Las vegas have some days there. Then fly to san diego and drive up to San Fransisco. Fly to Salt Lake city and drive up to yellowstone park. (planning a 4 week trip.)

    How long would you plan for the PCH trip (including time in los angeles and san fransisco?) We have a 8 month old kid with us. so we dont want to make very long driving days.
    thanks,
    Mark

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Mark, what a great trip. I started my “5 days” in this post having already spent 3 days in LA, and then we had another 3 days in SF. I’d suggest you look at 8-10 days for this and break your journey for a couple of nights in Santa Barbara and if you didn’t want a big drive to SF from there, maybe in Monterey or San Jose. Although you are quite close to SF, so maybe stop there for lunch and have that extra day in SF. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  9. Veronica Cavanaugh on

    My boyfriend and I did this in one day, and it took us 9 hours! I had to stop at every beach. However, I would like to go back and follow an itinerary close to yours. Thank you for the awesome photos!

    Reply
  10. Jessica on

    Thank you for the fantastic and helpful advice. I am planning a road trip for 5 days from San Fran to LA at the end of November is there still a detour through the big sur as I heard they had reopened another bridge? Thanks!

    Reply
  11. Brian on

    Thanks for the information. Looking to do the drive LA to San Fran in March 2018 with the family. The game plan was to spend a few days up the (driving) coast…but now thinking up to four days. Total stay in California is three weeks.

    The two cities we are looking at is LA and San Fran. We land in LA (from Toronto) and have to leave from there. So was thinking spend more time up the coast…take the time off San Fran or LA. Last three days looking to just hang out at a beach in LA.

    Brian

    Reply
  12. Skye Ogilvie on

    Hi Megan!
    My boyfriend and i will be driving from LA to San Francisco very similar to your itinerary but then going on to San Diego so we will have to keep the car.
    We were just wondering how you found driving in San Francisco? We’ve been told it can be really difficult and confusing to drive and park. We will also be staying in Union Square. Any tips?
    Many thanks Skye

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Skye
      Yes parking is hard to find and valet parking is expensive in SF, so I would drop the car off and get around via bus or tram. You realise San Diego is in the opposite direction to San Francisco? You’d be better to start in one and drive via LA to the other. Union Square is a great spot. Try the Handlery Hotel or one of the Joie de Vivre Hotels. Right now I have a deal with Booking.com to give you NZ$40 off any room night. Have a look here https://www.bloggeratlarge.com/news/save-40-on-your-next-hotel-booking/

      Reply
  13. Marianne on

    Hi Megan. We are going to LA at the end of October and want to drive from LA to San Fran. Your blog looks great but when I clicked on the hotels they were very expensive almost the cost of one of us to fly to the US. Can you recommend any better value hotels/motels. Also I want to do some shopping for the kids what places do you recommend? We are only in the USA for 9 days so thought the best way to make the most of it is go from LA to San Fransisco.

    Reply
  14. Paul B on

    Hello
    I will be driving from LA to San Fran. I want to drive the PCH but do not have that much time. I want to spend one night along the way. What would be the best parts of the PCH to drive and how do you recommend this being done.

    Thanks so much Paul B

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Paul, you’ll be on the inland 101 for a good chunk of it because of the broken bridge at Big Sur. I guess it depends on how long you wish to drive each day. You can actually do the whole drive in a day if you had to, but maybe St Luis Obispo? I like Santa Barbara, but that’s only a couple hours out of LA. Have fun!
      Megan

      Reply
  15. JJ on

    Hello Megan,
    Thank you for the update information since the 2017 detours.

    First time visitors, flying into LAX mid-end of Sept 2017, starting with 2 full days/nights in Santa Barbara (Venice Beach, Santa Monica Pier, fisherman’s warf, sunset cruise (read whale watching is not optimal this time of year), Solvang, San Luis Obispo, 1 night Pismo Beach, drive up to Ragged Point, Elephant Seal Vista point, Cambria, then 1 night Carmel by the sea, (Monterey, 17 mile drive, Bixbay Bridge, cannery row)
    Questions: 1. How far south can we go from Carmel By the Sea – any must sees along hwy 1 south of Carmel By the Sea? Little upset Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is closed. Any suggestions to make the most out of hwy 1 south of Carmel By the Sea?
    After Carmel By the Sea we are travelling up hwy 1 Santa Cruz, staying one night around Half Moon Bay, then off to San Fran for 2 nights staying along fishermans warf (golden gate, alcatraz night tour, cable car, Lombard street, Union Street area) maybe Sausalito? Then off to Yosemite, hopefully Tioga Pass, staying in 1 night Mammoth Lakes. Next day, death valley into Vegas.
    I was hoping to do Jade Beach or see McWay Falls, little disappointed however, trying to make the most of our trip.

    Any suggestions or must sees I have not listed? Any help is appreciated.

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi there
      Gosh you are going to be doing a lot in a short space of time! I would definitely add a tour of Hearst Castle when you’re at San Luis Obispo. It’s about $25 if I recall but well worth it.
      As far as the latest road works and closures are concerned you’d be best to check out some Big Sur blogs and info sites directly that update daily. I see Pfieffer State Park is open. Try this blog http://www.thebigsurblog.com/
      Also for San Fran, I have written this post on how to spend 36 hours which you might enjoy https://www.bloggeratlarge.com/usa/36-hours-in-san-francisco/
      Have fun!
      Megan

      Reply
  16. Adam on

    Hello Megan- I’m planing on taking off with my 13 year old son this weekend tackle this tour. I’m from the east coast and never have done this trek. I have so many questions for you please. should I fly to san fran and drive to LA or the other way around?

    we travel quit a bit around the world..so were accustomed to sites..my question is it worth hitting all the below points?

    San fransico
    santa cruz
    monterey
    big sur
    Santa barbara
    Malibu

    which places should we spend more time (days) at?

    Please please inform.

    Thank you in advance!!!!

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi there
      What a great trip! To be honest with Hwy 1 closed through Big Sur, I would head up to St Luis Obispo and come out at Monterey. SF to LA or vice versa I don’t have a preference – whatever flight deals you can get perhaps! Some say drive south so the coast is on your right, but with the huge detour this is a bit moot now. I loved Santa Barbara. Monterey and Santa Cruz we just passed through, but I also love Santa Monica in LA, so maybe a couple nights there too. And of course a couple nights in San Fran before or after is great to see and do as much as you can there too. You’ll find more posts on here about all these cities!
      Hope that helps.
      Megan

      Reply
  17. Mirani on

    Hi
    Great information. I will be driving from LA to SFO next week with a nights stop in Monterey. Your write up will assist me to map out a route. Trying to see as much beauty as possible.

    Reply
  18. Sophie Tamagna on

    Hi – Thanks for the guide!

    I’m looking for some reassurance this driving up the coast (vs down) will still be worthwhile and beautiful…. I have heard mixed views that driving up is not as good becaue you’re on the wrong size or the views aren’t as good (and our flights are
    Already booked!) did you have any problems?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  19. Ethan on

    Hey!

    This is a fantastic guide, thanks so much for sharing.

    Just a quickl question for you. What you recommend as an itinerary for a coastal California trip if you have 10 days?
    Thanks!
    Ethan

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Ethan, depending on where you are starting I would either continue up to Portland then Seattle or go south to San Diego!

      Reply

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