This 7-day drive itinerary of California’s Pacific coast from San Francisco to LA provides loads of tips for where to stay and what to do.
I did a five day trip in the other direction and stopped at some different places, so check this post out too for a more detailed PCH drive itinerary.
But driving the Pacific Coast highway wasn’t hard and really good fun as we wended between the coastal road and further inland through scrub fire country.
Land at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), pick up your car and drive approximately 60 miles/96 km, (just over an hour), to Santa Cruz County and overnight there.
Spend the day in Santa Cruz County
Explore the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk seaside amusement park – home to 2 Historic Landmarks, the 1924 Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, and the 1911 Looff Carousel. Admission to the park is free (rides are extra!), a walking tour brochure costs $3. Loads of restaurants, shops, a great beach, and of course, those rides! www.beachboardwalk.com
Overnight in Santa Cruz County
In the morning, drive 69 km to Gilroy in Santa Clara County (recommended drive: Hwy 1 and 101)
Chitactac Adams Heritage County Park offers a unique view into the Native American culture of Santa Clara County before and after the arrival of the Spanish. Open daily year‐round from 8 am to sunset, this 4‐acre site is just minutes from the cities of Gilroy and Morgan Hill on Watsonville Road.
Next, drive 64 km (45 minutes) to Monterey County. Walk Monterey’s Path of History as a free self‐guided tour of Old Monterey, marked by yellow tiles set in the sidewalk and explore the restored historic adobes, gardens and sites of interest, such as Colton Hall, where the California Constitution was created and California’s First Theater was built. www.seemonterey.com
Overnight in Monterey
Get an early start and drive 150 km (just over 2 hours) to Hearst Castle (recommended drive: Hwy 1 South). This former private home built by art collector and publishing baron W.R. Hearst, is set atop the rolling hills in San Simeon. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in California and I reckon it’s definitely worth a stop.
It was renown for glamorous parties and weekends of private movie screenings with the glitterati. The opulent pool has amazing views across the valley, authentic art and antiques cram the house and delicate ceilings and walls will make you twirl in amazement. It is now a California State Park, and open daily for guided tours.
Tour reservations are strongly recommended and may be made by phone at 800‐444‐4445 or online at hearstcastle.com.
Continue on 1 hour, to Pismo Beach (recommended drive: Hwy 1 South / 101 South).
The Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville offers visitors an atmosphere of old‐time theatre complete with cabaret tables, sawdust on the floor, and honky‐tonk piano music and top‐notch productions of classic comedies, melodramas and thrillers. www.ClassicCalifornia.com
Overnight in Pismo Beach
Drive 30 km to Santa Maria, in Santa Barbara County (recommended drive: 101 South)
Santa Maria Museum of Flight features Hollywood movie props: an H1 Racer from The Aviator, full‐scale Wright glider from Winds of Kitty Hawk and a large radio‐controlled model airplane that flew in the Flight of The Phoenix. A custom acrobatic plane from The Rocketeer is also featured, plus loads of other planes, models, photos, memorabilia and exhibits, including a restored F4 fighter jet that served in Vietnam and a 1929 Fleet biplane.
Continue on the 101 South just over 30 minutes, to the Santa Ynez Valley and Solvang. If you’re a museum junkie you’ll love this place (if you’re not just eat ice cream in the sun!)
Wildling Art Museum’s in Los Olivos is one of 8 Santa Ynez Valley Museums. The building in Los Olivos opened in February 2009 and celebrates the nation’s wild places as seen through the eyes of its finest painters, printmakers, photographers, and sculptors.
It is the only museum in the United States with this sole focus. Other Santa Ynez Valley cultural attractions include the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum & Carriage House in Santa Ynez; History Rooms in Los Alamos and Buellton; Elverhoj Museum of History & Art; Hans Christian Andersen Museum (I bought a book of fairytales here!); Vintage Motorcycle Museum and Old Mission Santa Ines Museum in Solvang.
Every summer from June through September, live theatre is performed under the stars at Solvang Festival Theater, a 700‐seat venue in the half‐round within easy walking distance of hotels and restaurants. www.solvangusa.com
Overnight in Solvang
Drive 50 km to Santa Barbara (recommended drive: 154 / San Marcos Pass Rd.)
This is the quite possibly the prettiest city in the USA as far as I’m concerned. (See my blog on it here >>)
Don’t miss the Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded by the Spanish Franciscans in 1786. I also loved the main street and its little alleys and nooks of shopping and the huge wide beach and gorgeous bay is great for a sail. www.santabarbaraCA.com
Continue south along the coast 30 minutes, to Ventura (recommended drive: 101 South)
The Olivas Adobe is an outstanding example of a two‐story Monterey‐style adobe built by Don Raymundo Olivas after he received a Mexican land grant in 1841. Tour the Adobe’s garden, which contains 100‐year‐old fuchsias and a grape arbor dating from the early California Mission period. www.ventura‐usa.com
Continue south along the coast 20 km to Oxnard, also in Ventura County and visit Fresh & Fabulous Café and Bakery in the restored Woolworth Building with retro‐style vinyl booths and ’60s lighting mixed with modern day healthy treats then tour the Woolworth Museum adjacent to the café and see original signs from the’30s, and a 1940’s take‐your‐own photo booth. Heritage Square, just 3 blocks away, has an impressive collection of late 19th and early 20th century houses. www.VisitOxnard.com
Overnight in Oxnard
To go straight to Los Angeles International Airport, drive 100 km from Oxnard (recommended drive: 101 South & 405 South).
Of course, if you have a late flight you might want to lunch in Santa Monica. It’s great for shopping, beaching, being a tourist on the 100-year old boardwalk with its rides, souvenir shops and restaurants and of course there’s always a bit of celebrity-spotting.