“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”
– Jack Kerouac in ‘On The Road’
While I don’t care much for On The Road and the way it’s written, I can’t help but agree with Kerouac’s description of the beautiful California landscape.
We are following the quintessentially American Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary in 5 days and the purple sky, setting sun, wineries, and Spanish colonial mansions pass by in a blur.
As I look out, I understand why this San Francisco to Los Angeles drive itinerary is said to be one of the most scenic in the country.
Also known as California State Highway 1, this route passes through dramatic landscapes and incredible stops as it snakes its way down to Los Angeles, the city of angels.
If you are venturing down this route, I suggest renting a convertible.
The wind in my hair is the only thing missing as I press my nose against the car window, staring at the blue ocean below.
The stops on San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip itinerary are truly incredible and can make the journey last as long as you want.
You can camp, hike, surf in laid-back beach towns, stay in cozy bread and breakfasts on wineries, bike along the way, even enjoy a romantic honeymoon or birthday as you make your way down the coast.
This is the perfect road trip whether you are traveling with kids, family, or friends.
We recommend spending at least 3 or 4 days to enjoy the road and make this trip at a leisurely pace.
San Francisco To La Road Trip Itinerary Along Pch 1
When we talk about a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, we mean along the scenic PCH 1.
Actually, there are 3 routes that connect San Francisco to Los Angeles. Here’s a little information about all of them:
Along the I-5
The interstate or I-5 route is the quickest and shortest route connecting these vibrant cities on the West Coast. The distance is about 380 miles and takes roughly 6 hours.
This is the route you take when you are in a hurry to reach Los Angeles and not what we recommend in this road trip guide!
If you are making a round trip, you can use this route to return to San Francisco though we recommend the more scenic Highway 101 for your return journey.
US Highway 101
Not many people know this, but the US Highway 101 is a good intermediate option between the boring and practical I-5 and the scenic but winding PCH 1.
It partly follows the Californian coast and is 430 miles long. This route takes a little less than 8 hours.
The PCH 1 between SF and LA is the Holy Grail of beautiful road trips.
Though it is almost as long as the US Highway 101, it takes significantly longer – about 10 to 11 hours – to drive it along the central coast of California.
However that is discounting the awesome stops along the way – some are overlooks worth stopping at for a quick look while other stops include charming seaside towns, state parks, and picturesque landscapes that need at least a day or two to explore properly.
It is this route that we refer to in this San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip guide.
San Francisco To Los Angeles Drive Itinerary Travel Tips
You can also use this itinerary in the reverse direction i.e same itinerary, Los Angeles, to San Francisco.
However, if you are traveling from the north to the south, it is easier to stop at the scenic vistas and pull-outs.
Pay special attention to your GPS or navigation apps on the route, as they will try to redirect you towards the interstate or Highway 101.
The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 collapsed in early 2017, making Big Sur inaccessible and dividing the PCH 1 into two parts. That continued for almost 18 months.
However finally in August 2018, the Big Sur region is again accessible via California Highway 1. We recently did this trip again in April 2019 and the road was great. It can happen again anytime, however, so we recommend checking before you go.
The route is easily affected by the weather. In winter, it is frequently foggy which makes for incredible vistas but also dangerous driving conditions.
After heavy rainfall, mudslides can occur along the route.
We suggest keeping an eye on weather advisories and driving slowly and cautiously. Also, we do not recommend driving the PCH 1, especially around Big Sur, at night.
The road is heavily trafficked and congested during summer weekends and major holidays.
To get an idea of the seasonal crowds, consider this: over three million tourists drive Highway 1 every year!
There is no cell service for long stretches of the Pacific Coast road trip itinerary, so print your detailed trip guide along with planned stops and hotel reservations before you go!
Spring is a great time to take this drive as the Californian landscape comes alive with vivid wildflower blooms, and the views along the Pacific Highway 1 are breathtaking.
We love driving this road from March to April.
The way we have written this article, we have detailed Pacific Coast Highway 4 day itinerary excluding time spent in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
You can use the extra day to see San Francisco or Los Angeles or use it to hike and explore the beautiful region of Big Sur beyond a one day trip to create your own custom Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary for 5 Days.
This route also makes for a perfect RV trip.
There are many campgrounds located along the Pacific Coast Highway and you can easily drive an RV or small campervan from San Francisco and to Los Angeles – or even better, rent a RV directly from other families for amazing deals.
Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary In 5 Days
This road trip is truly for the journey than the destination.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Los Angeles with its touristy Walk of Fame, Hollywood Sign and the mansions of Beverly Hills – BUT – Los Angeles should not be the reason you make this trip.
After all, you can drive like a maniac down I-5 and reach Los Angeles in under 6 hours. Not that we suggest driving like a maniac at any time!
In fact, we always, and I mean always, recommend driving with caution and calling it a day before you get too tired and sleepy.
No, the reason you take this long and winding road instead is to savor the breathtaking views and enjoy the open roads.
The PCH 1 between San Fran and Los Angeles is about 9 hours long and quite lovely!
The PCH 1 hugs the Central Coast of California and with Big Sur finally being open again in late August 2018 (it was closed for most of 2017 due to a big landslide), the road is ready to receive its share of visitors.
Our San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip itinerary is perfect for those seeking out the dense fog-shrouded roads, dappled sunshine streaming through tall trees, and the waves crashing on the cliffs below.
If poetic road trips are your dream, then this one will make you thank your lucky stars forever!
And with that, we introduce the perfect itinerary for a road trip along California Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Exploring San Francisco And Renting A Car
San Francisco is your starting point for this itinerary.
The Golden Gate City is a delight to experience and perfect for exploring using your extra day i.e Day 5.
If you are flying into San Francisco, we recommend taking a couple of days to get around and find out for yourself what makes San Francisco so special.
See the Golden Gate Bridge, visit Alcatraz Island, eat sourdough clam chowder soup at Fisherman’s Wharf, and drive down the twisting Lombard Street. For an incredible experience, cycle down the Golden Gate Bridge like we did and explore the beautiful city of Sausalito.
Read our San Francisco posts now to plan this part of the trip:
San Francisco 3 to 5-day itinerary ideas
17 Best Things to do in San Francisco on your first visit
You can also venture into San Jose, a trendy city with cool restaurants, cafes, and pubs. Visit the famous Winchester Mystery House – a weird house with mysteries and haunted stories. Drop-in into Silicon Valley to check out the headquarters of Facebook, Google, and many others.
When you are done exploring San Francisco and the surrounding area, you can rent a car for your trip down the coast. This is a route made for convertibles, so if you can get your hands on one – don’t let it go!
Day 1: Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey Peninsula, 17 Mile Drive, And Carmel-By-The-Sea
Start by making a shortstop in Half Moon Bay. Located just south of San Francisco, the town has an incredible stretch of beaches and is perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and surfing. Other attractions in Half Moon Bay include kayaking, horseback riding, hiking among the redwoods, and wine tasting.
The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and its tide pools are teeming with marine life including crabs, sea anemones, sea urchins and more. There’s actually enough to do in Half Moon Bay to warrant its own day trip but you can take a quick look around the area before you head south.
Next, we suggest stopping in Santa Cruz to check out the famous boardwalk. The Santa Cruz beach boardwalk is a huge amusement park featuring many vintage rides including the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster. This is a great hit with kids of all ages and families. The boardwalk is also a Mecca for state fair kind of foods including deep-fried Oreos, corn dogs, and cotton candy. The nearby Santa Cruz Wharf is a great place to see sea lions.
The famous seaside town of Monterey is about 3 hours from San Francisco. Monterey is famous for its Monterey Bay Aquarium – a huge facility with interactive exhibits and lots of marine animals and plants on display. Monterey coast is also popular for whale watching cruises with various species being seen including blue whales, grey whales, humpback whales, and even killer orca whales. Other things to do in the Monterey area include walking tour of the Cannery Row, seal watching and checking out the eateries along Fisherman’s Wharf.
It should come as no surprise that the Pacific Coast Highway trip itinerary is full of smaller famous stretches and drives like 17 Mile Drive in Monterey. This winding road is very popular with tourists for its scenic views and gorgeous houses. This drive is a ticketed private road through an exclusive neighborhood but at an entrance fee of ~$10 per car, it’s well worth the visit. The famed Lone Cypress Tree and Pebble Beach are the most well-known attractions of 17 Mile Drive.
The final stop of the day is the quaint town of Carmel-By-The-Sea, just 4 miles away from 17 Mile Drive. This town began as an artist colony and continues to provide inspiration with its bohemian vibe and highly scenic vistas. The town is famous for its eclectic cottages, cape-cod style homes, and fine restaurants.
We recommend spending the night here: preferably in the Mission Ranch owned by the famous actor, Clint Eastwood. Carmel also happens to be quite welcoming of pets; you can check out this Dog-friendly Carmel Travel Guide written by our friend Paroma who loves taking her fur baby there.
Day 2: Big Sur Highlights – Bixby Bridge, Point Sur Lighthouse, McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, And San Simeon
This day is the highlight of the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles; consequently, no itinerary for Pacific Coast Highway can skimp on Big Sur.
The scenic Big Sur region starts just south of Carmel and is home to many state parks, nature trails, and wilderness areas. Big Sur stretches along for 90 miles and is great for camping, backpacking, and hiking. We recommend stopping at all the vistas and pull-outs in this stretch to appreciate the beauty of the area. Whatever you chose to do in Big Sur, you won’t go wrong.
Start your drive by having breakfast either in Carmel or in Big Sur village. Also fill up on gas here, preferably in Carmel, as gas further up the drive is expensive and limited. Next, you will drive along Big Sur’s popular attractions.
We recommend checking out the Rocky Creek Bridge, the famous engineering marvel of Bixby Bridge, the charming Point Sur Lighthouse, and McWay Falls. Pfeiffer Beach and Sand Dollar Beach are a must for beach lovers.
We haven’t explained this information in detail here since we have already got your covered for everything in Big Sur in our Big Sur Visitor Guide. The free guide also includes a complete list of attractions in the Big Sur area, you can read the complete article for details.
San Simeon is home to the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, the largest in North America. It is free to visit and open every day and is a great hit with kids and families. The rookery is located 7 miles to the north of the city. Elephant seals can be seen year-round. From January to April, elephant seal pups can be seen in the rookery.
San Simeon is the perfect base for touring the Hearst Castle (see more below in ‘Detours along the way’ section). We suggest spending the night at Cayucos, popularly known as the ‘Coolest small town in America’ or in nearby San Luis Obispo. If you have an extra day or two, spend them in Big Sur – you can camp at Julia Pfeiffer State Park or stay in the many campgrounds or inns in the area.
Day 3: Cayucos, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, And Pismo Beach
Cayucos is a small beach town that you can easily walk around. Walking through Cayucos is like stepping back into time. It is a 5 block long untouched town where everybody knows each other. Beautiful murals pop out of nowhere, antique stores are laden with stories of the past, and whales and dolphins just happen to swim past the pier in Cayucos. Surfing is a popular activity here as is hiking among the tidepools and rocky cliffs.
The charming Morro Bay town gets its name from the Morro Rock – a giant volcanic rock that juts out from the ocean near the beach. In case you were wondering, this is the same Morro Bay referred to in the Disney movie ‘Finding Dory’. Morro Bay is a delight to explore: the air is full of salty ocean scent and incredible marine life. Morro Bay has a natural harbor and is home to a variety of wildlife including seals, sea lions, and otters. The town is also full of charming restaurants and is popular with foodies.
San Luis Obispo is a hip college town with a very young and trendy vibe. Popular daytime activities in San Luis Obispo include the Art Gallery and Mission San Luis Obispo while the town’s nightlife on Higuera Street is also worth checking out. Another popular attraction (though we don’t really agree with the ‘attraction’ part, more like ewww..) is the Bubblegum Alley, similar to the one in Seattle. The town also has a drive-in movie theatre which reminded us of small-town Americana.
Pismo Beach should be your last stop on this day. The beach here is perfect for spending a day swimming or soaking the sun. This relaxed coastal town is the perfect beach getaway. The sand dunes next to the beach here are perfect for renting an ATV and dune bashing. Pismo Beach is also great for viewing marine life including whales, dolphins, and sea otters. The pier and boardwalk are also worth a visit and great to catch the sunset. You can stay for the night in Pismo Beach.
Day 4: Santa Barbara, Ventura, And Malibu
Note – As a friend who lives in Los Angeles informed us, technically, the stretch of Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles is actually known as Pacific Coast Highway. We think this jargon as confusing and have decided to leave aside the technicalities for this post. However, if you have to be precise about it – this is the day you are driving on the PCH!
Santa Barbara has beautiful houses, romantic views of the Pacific Ocean, and sparkling beaches. There is a lot to do in this coastal town and it provides a charming distraction to the touristy and commercial Los Angeles.
Spend some time walking along the historic Stearns Wharf and learn more about the history of the town and the ocean. An exhibit about the Channel Islands National Park is also present on the pier. However, to visit the Islands you will need to take a boat ride from Ventura.
Santa Barbara also offers many other attractions including the Zoo, Museum of Fine Arts, Maritime Museum, Museum of Natural History, and a sprawling Farmer’s market. From Santa Barbara, you can either head straight onwards to Los Angeles or make a stopover at Ventura or Malibu.
Located about 1.5 hrs away from Los Angeles, Ventura couldn’t be more different than LA. Set amidst green hills and boasting of untouched beaches, Ventura is a hidden gem on the Pacific Coast. Ignored by many tourists who prefer visiting Malibu, this small town has everything from art galleries, museums, restaurants, and cafes, to botanical gardens and great surfing. The Ventura Pier is excellent for taking an evening stroll and people watching.
Ventura is also the gateway to Channel Islands National Park, one of the less visited national parks in the country. The Channel Islands make an off the beaten path detour on the Pacific Coast Hwy road trip.
Malibu is the famed beach town of California known for its beaches, oceanside mansions, and star-spotting – of the Hollywood variety! Memorialized in countless movies and tv series, Malibu is a must-visit for most tourists. We love visiting Zuma Beach and hanging out there while watching the surfers, sunsets, and seagulls. Malibu also has excellent whale watching opportunities, especially in the winter.
This is a perfect spot to watch the sunset before you reach Los Angeles to stay for the night. Have a drink in one of the area’s restaurants and rejoice to the most amazing road trip you have just undertaken!
Day 5: Reaching Los Angeles
LA is the perfect end to the San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip itinerary. From here you can either take a return flight to your home city or use Day 5 to explore the city of angels a bit before you leave.
There are many amazing things to do in Los Angeles. For Hollywood fans, you can visit the famous Kodak and Oriental Theatres, go star-spotting in Beverly Hills, take pictures with the Hollywood sign or find your favorite stars on the Walk of Fame.
I love heading up to Griffith Observatory and window shopping in Rodeo Drive. Many of our friends live in the area, so we also utilize our time in the city to catch up with them. You can check out our guide to Los Angeles for perfect itinerary ideas.
This need not be the end of your trip. You can drive along the coast all the way down to San Diego to get the complete experience of the PCH road trip. Or you can visit Death Valley on your way to Las Vegas to extend your road trip into the Californian desert landscape and see exceptional scenery on the way.
If you are making this trip in the opposite direction, you still have many options to extend your Pacific coast highway road trip itinerary. Technically you can drive this route all the way to Portland, Oregon or even Seattle.
Alternatively, you can drive from San Francisco to Yosemite to see the magnificent redwoods. Or go from San Francisco to Reno and Lake Tahoe and then maybe Las Vegas? …As you can probably tell, we love stretching all our trips to accommodate Las Vegas! The options to turn this 4-day long trip into an exciting American road trip adventure are potentially endless!
Great Detours to Add to your PCH Itinerary
While this Los Angeles to San Francisco itinerary mostly covers all the stops, there are also some amazing attractions and towns worth taking a short detour if you have more than 5 days. Here are some of our favorite detours along the way:
Hearst Castle On The Enchanted Hill, San Simeon
If you take the detour from Cayucos to San Simeon, you will reach the famous Hearst Castle. While the castle can be seen from Highway 1, visiting it requires a little detour. The castle has a fascinating history. Newspaper magnate William Hearst commissioned San Francisco architect Julia Morgan to build his dream mansion and construction continued for almost 30 years.
Visitors can view the property including the giant swimming pools on a guided tour. The house is filled with artwork and furnishings from around the world. The movie ‘Citizen Kane’ is based on Heart’s life and viewing the mansion is an excellent way to get a glimpse into his life.
Paso Robles is Central California’s wine country capital. Comparable to Napa Valley of Northern California, Paso Robles has world-class wineries, vineyards, and even craft breweries. If you are interested in wine travel, Paso Robles is a must detour.
You can easily spend 2 -3 days in the area exploring the wineries, touring wine caves and checking out area’s breweries and distilleries. Apart from its wine and spirits scene, Paso Robles is also famous for its thermal hot springs.
Carrizo Plain National Monument
Pretty at any time of the year and especially during spring, Carrizo Plain National Monument is simply unmissable during a super bloom. The last super bloom was in 2017, we recommend keeping an eye on the news for the next super bloom and planning a visit accordingly.
The plains are carpeted with orange poppies, yellow buttercups, and a host of other wildflowers in vivid colors and magnificent quantities. Wildlife viewing opportunities in the natural reserve are plentiful and you can spot elks, pronghorns, coyotes, migratory birds, and butterflies.
The monument is located about 60 miles east of San Luis Obispo and a perfect addition to the Pacific Highway 1 road trip.
Solvang makes for a great 30-mile detour from Santa Barbara. If you don’t know about the town, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Solvang is California’s Danish Village and features pretty Danish architecture, windmills, and a holiday atmosphere throughout the year.
We love tasting the yummy pastries and other baked goods available throughout the village and shopping for Danish souvenirs including cuckoo clocks. Solvang also makes a great base for visiting exploring the Santa Ynez Wine Country and holds many wine-themed events during the grape harvest season.
Vineyards Of The Santa Ynez Valley
Located along the central coast of California, Santa Ynez Wine Country may not be as popular as Napa Valley but produces a vast variety of wine each year. The best time to visit is in Fall when the harvest season begins but wine tastings and tours are available in Santa Ynez throughout the year. While we always love spending a couple of days in Napa, Santa Ynez is the place to go for fewer crowds and cheaper wine tastings.
RESOURCES FOR PLANNING SAN FRANCISCO TO LOS ANGELES ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
Big Sur Day Trip and Beyond: Complete Travel Guide – Our detailed guide on planning a day trip or weekend getaway in the Big Sur region.
Our epic 10 day California road trip itinerary – find recommendations in where to go and what to see in the whole state
Along Big Sur – The trip of a lifetime! (CC 2.0 / Foundry)