July 29, 2017

Drive the Pacific Coast Hwy from LA to San Francisco!

Update: I have added info about the PCH road closure at Big Sur and some suggestions for getting around it.

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This road trip post is for anyone who wants to drive California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway 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

Pillow talk: 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 >>>)

PCH 1 road closures

Road closures on PCH 1

San Luis Obispo

Cielo, San Luis Obispo

*Today you’ll hit the detour.

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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Day 3 – Big Sur

Pillow talk: 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. But you won’t have to do this.).

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…

Keep going! >>>

About Megan Singleton

Megan

Hi, I’m Megan Singleton and I’m the word slinger of this blog as well as on radio every week and a few newspapers and mags from time to time. I set off on this travel blog malarkey 17 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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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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