The Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip is one of the most famous and scenic drives in the United States provided you take a certain route.
Thanks to the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway One, along the California coastline you get gorgeous scenic views the whole way. In this article you’ll find the best Pacific Coast Highway road trip stops from LA to San Francisco to help you plan your California road trip.
The Pacific Coast Highway continues north to the Oregon coast and up to Olympia, Washington, so if you want to extend your road trip to the Pacific Northwest, you can. This article covers ONLY the section of the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco – California Highway One.
Here are 30 of the best stops to make on your epic California Pacific Coast Highway road trip.
LA to San Francisco Road Trip
Technically, you can drive straight from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about six hours. People who don’t have time for the scenic route take Interstate 5 instead. But when you do have the time to go the scenic way you get the rugged coastline along Highway One, lighthouses, elephant seals, charming coastal towns, and so many stunning California beaches!
Note that Highway 101 (also known as “the 101” or simply “101”) also overlaps with Highway One but they are two separate highways. Both highways run a north-south route, but Highway 101 is a more inland route so you’re not on the coast nearly as much compared to Highway One.
The Pacific Coast Highway is also known as Highway One
When cruising the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco plan on spending at least 2 to 3 days to enjoy the journey. Relax, enjoy the views, and see gorgeous beaches, adorable towns, and interesting attractions along Highway One.
TIP: Download Google Offline Maps on your phone so you can navigate while offline. You will probably lose cell service along Highway One but with Google offline maps you don’t need cell service, it runs on GPS.
You may be thinking – shouldn’t you start in San Francisco instead of LA? Sure, if that works for your travel plans, but if you’re ultimately headed to Oregon, Washington, or Canada you’ll be driving north from Los Angeles.
Distance LA to San Francisco on Pacific Coast Highway
LA to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway is around 500 miles (800 km) and takes about 10 to 12 hours without stopping.
With several stops allow at least 2 days but it’s best if you have several days to a week for a more relaxing Highway One road trip.
TIP: Bring a windbreaker and layers! Coastal areas are often windy and sometimes surprisingly cold for California.
Depending on your preferences you can pack all of the incredible stops listed below into just a few days or spend a full two weeks (or more) exploring charming coastal towns in California.
Do whatever works best for you, your time constraints, and your budget.
Okay, let’s go on a road trip!
Best Stops Pacific Coast Highway Between LA and San Francisco
Starting in LA, here are the best Pacific Coast Highway stops on the way to San Francisco.
The heart of Los Angeles is primarily known for its various movie and TV show sets. You can request tickets to attend a live show taping for some of your favorite shows.
You can also take part in two of the most popular things to do in Los Angeles – hiking to the Hollywood sign and visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
And if you’re not really into all the celebrity stuff, there are other fun and interesting things to do in LA like visiting the fascinating La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, the amazing Getty Museum, visit the out of this world Griffith Observatory, and enjoy some retail therapy on Rodeo Drive.
Before you leave Los Angeles County, there are a couple more cool stops you should make…
Queen Mary at Long Beach
Before you leave LA county make a visit to the cruise ship to nowhere – Queen Mary at Long Beach has not moved since 1967. But she’s still afloat and you can get some great photos of this mighty ship.
The Queen Mary, constructed in Clydebank Scotland in the 1930s, embarked on her maiden voyage in 1936. Read more about the history of the Queen Mary here.
Next head to Venice Beach and stroll the famous oceanfront boardwalk for some of the best people watching around.
But also go see the giant mural Luminaries of Pantheism (on S Venice Blvd) and make a visit to the Venice Canals. Although not quite (not at ALL!!!) the same as the Venice Italy canals, but still worth a visit for a peaceful and serene walk in this historic district.
Just about every movie set in Hollywood, California has a beach scene, and the scene was most likely filmed at Santa Monica.
The most popular part of Santa Monica is the Santa Monica Pier. That’s where you’ll find the iconic Ferris wheel, as well as a few other rides, food spots, and entertainers. Both foodies and shopaholics will love Santa Monica Third Street Promenade area.
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Malibu is famous for being the land of celebrities and surfers.
The talented surfers are at El Matador Beach and Zuma Beach, and the celebrities can be found all around town.
Do some shopping at Malibu Country Mart just one block off the Pacific Coast Highway.
And for an awesome viewpoint just off Highway One check out Point Dume on the Malibu coast. Take a refreshing swim at Point Dume State Beach, go hiking, or relax and take in the wondrous views.
Continuing on Highway One, less than 15 miles from Malibu, check out the sand dunes near Point Mugu at Point Mugu State Park.
If you’re doing a camping trip during your Pacific Coast Highway trip, you’ll not want to miss Point Mugu State Park.
Hike to your heart’s content in the Santa Monica Mountains and enjoy bodysurfing at the beach. There are several campgrounds, and you can even camp on the beach!
Rincon beach is a beautiful place to stop for a picnic lunch and walk along the beach listening to the waves crashing. This place is mesmerizing and meditative.
Home to the annual Rincon Classic surfing contest for the locals, it’s a great event to watch the surfers ride the waves.
For a chill and relaxed beach town along Highway 1 consider the small town of Carpinteria. It’s generally more affordable than nearby Santa Barbara.
This laid back town is close enough to Santa Barbara for day trips and there are several beautiful beaches around Carpinteria. And you’ll find there are several yummy dining options in Carpinteria including Zookers, Teddy’s by the Sea, or Siam Elephant Thai Restaurant. I also liked Padaro Beach Grill for seaside dining outdoors at the picnic tables.
For a wonderland of plants and flowers visit the Seaside Gardens to look at dozens of amazing succulents plus the display gardens are simply gorgeous and have soothing water features. It’s like a combination botanical garden and plant nursery all in one.
If you’re in Carpinteria on a Thursday don’t miss the Farmers Market! From 3 – 6 pm you can shop for fresh fruits and veggies, baked goods, and beautiful flowers.
The Carpinteria City Beach is a nice sandy beach to go for a walk, watch the sunset, or take a surfing lesson. Nearby, at the Carpinteria Bluffs you can watch the harbor seals basking in the sun and flopping about on their bellies. And during pupping season from late December through spring you can see baby seals too!
Read my full list of things to do in Carpinteria!
Santa Barbara is a favorite stop while on the road from LA to San Francisco. This picture-perfect town boasts bright blue waters, red-tiled roofs on white stucco buildings, and sunny weather. It’s absolutely amazing and there are many wonderful things to do in Santa Barbara.
Take a self-guided tour and walk up the steps to admire the views from the Santa Barbara Courthouse tower.
Walk down Stearn’s Wharf and enjoy fresh seafood at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company – expect a line-up, it’s popular!
Stop and smell the flowers at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden and Lotusland.
Take a self-guided tour of the Old Mission Santa Barbara.
Savor a delicious scoop of ice cream from McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams.
Watch the sunset from Butterfly Beach.
A great brunch spot in Santa Barbara is the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach with outdoor dining and seaside views. Then take a walk on Hendry’s Beach (also known as Arroyo Burro Beach) and look for beach glass, especially after stormy weather.
A short drive from Santa Barbara is the Monarch butterfly overwintering spot in Goleta. Take a short easy hike to see thousands of the butterflies clustered together in the trees until late spring when they make the migration north.
Monarch butterflies are amazing travelers – during migration they fly from 50 to 100 miles per day! And they do this for weeks and weeks – amazing! Learn more about the monarch butterfly migration.
Something to do in Goleta, whether it’s monarch season or not, is the Ellwood Mesa Coastal Trail, it’s an easy hike with exceptional views of the beach and coastline.
You’ll have to veer off of the Pacific Coast Highway to get to Solvang, but it’s worth it.
At the beginning of the 20th century, loads of Danish immigrants flocked to the United States. And one of the places they settled in was Solvang, California.
Now, Solvang is a popular wine tour destination and it’s full of Danish style architecture and culture.
Here are some things to do in the unique town of Solvang:
Eat traditional Danish food – including Danish pastry, of course!
Enjoy wine (and beer) at the tasting rooms.
Visit the museums: From history and art to the Vintage Motorcycle Museum.
Check out The Little Mermaid Fountain (just like the one in Copenhagen)
Take a walk to look at the wooden windmills in Solvang.
La Purisima Mission State Park
About an hour from Santa Barbara, in Lompoc California, stop at La Purisima Mission State Park and explore the artifacts on a self-guided tour of the restored Spanish mission. Learn about the Chumash people, on who’s traditional territory the mission was built and how they were almost eliminated after the arrival of Europeans.
There is a visitor center, extensive exhibits, gardens, and hiking trails at the park so bring a picnic lunch and spend some time exploring the old mission.
History buffs won’t want to miss this interesting and educational stop on the Pacific Coast Highway.
With beautiful beaches and local wineries, Pismo Beach is a laid back place to spend a day or two during your California road trip adventure.
If you’ve ever wanted to go racing around in a dune buggy on the beach then Pismo Beach is the place to check that off your California bucket list. You can rent anything from a single rider dune buggy up to 6 person buggies. And you can also rent ATVs at Pismo Beach.
If you’re roadtripping with kids take the little ones to the cliffside Dinosaur Caves Park for fun at the playground along with walking trails and beautiful ocean views. The park has a few jumbo dinosaur eggs and several animal sculptures, including a dinosaur.
One more thing, if you are in Pismo Beach late winter through early spring it’s another great place to see the monarch butterflies overwintering – head over to the Monarch Butterfly Grove.
San Luis Obispo
In San Luis Obispo the number one thing to do is go to the Mission Plaza and visit the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. This Spanish mission from the 1700s features a museum and they also offer tours of the mission.
Then for something completely different you can walk over to Bubblegum Alley to see the walls covered in bubblegum – similar to Seattle’s famed gum wall.
Maybe you’re old enough to remember drive-in movies? If not, you’re in luck because San Luis Obispo has the Sunset Drive-in where you can stock up with movie snacks at the concession and watch a movie the old fashioned way – in your car! On Sundays the drive-in location holds a swap meet during the day, and you never know what you’ll find at those events – cool or kitschy souvenirs perhaps?
Morro Bay is a lovely little hidden gem. While many people drive past on their way from LA to San Francisco, it’s worth it to take the time to explore this adorable beach town.
One of the best things to do in Morro Bay is kayaking! Since it’s a bay, this area has calmer waters than most of the California coastline.
On top of that, there’s so much to see while kayaking in the area. In addition to the Santa Monica Mountains and the beautiful ocean, watch for wildlife in the waters of Morro Bay. Keep an eye out for seals, otters, and sea lions.
At the halfway mark between LA and San Francisco the seaside town of Cambria is a delightful central Cali coastal stop.
Visit historic downtown Cambria, walk the Moonstone Beach, have lunch in Cambria, then for something truly unique take a tour of Nitt Witt Ridge – a folk art experience.
When you have a craving for a luscious delicious treat visit Linn’s of Cambria and get the fresh baked olallieberry pie topped with whipped cream. Olallieberries look like blackberries but the olallieberry is a hybrid of the loganberry and youngberry. What berry?! Just eat the pie :)
Just a short drive from Cambria is the famous and historic Hearst Castle, former home to publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst Castle was designed in the Mediterranean Revival style by the magnificent architect and engineer Julia Morgan – the first woman to earn an architect’s license in California.
Now a California State Park, various tours of Hearst Castle are offered including group tours such as the Upstairs Rooms Tour and the Grand Rooms Tour. Guided private tours are also available.
In addition, the Neptune Pool (outdoors) and the Roman Pool (indoors) are outlandish swimming pools at Hearst Castle.
San Simeon Seal Rookery
There is no animal quite like the elephant seal. These giant ocean travelers look like giant seals trying their best to become elephants – with the large snout and blubbery body. But they flop about on their bellies and make the wildest sounds!
Watch the elephant seals at the San Simeon Seal Rookery – you can visit for free! At the rookery there’s a boardwalk and viewing area. And yes at first you may find them rather ugly, but they’re so ugly they’re cute, and weird, and you can’t stop watching them. April is one of the best times to see lots of elephant seals at San Simeon.
The only driving route to Big Sur is via the Pacific Coast Highway. There is a small village called Big Sur, but the main attraction is the rugged undeveloped coastline along this beautiful section of California. The region of Big Sur is one of the most popular and most famous stops on Highway One.
NOTE ON HWY 1 ROUTE FALL 2023: 24 miles south of Big Sur Hwy 1 is closed from Lucia to Limekiln State Park due to a landslide. To get to Big Sur you’ll need to take Hwy 101 to Salinas then Hwy 68 West to Hwy 1 South and drive down the coast from Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea to Big Sur. Check the Big Sur highway conditions website for more information.
Undoubtedly, one of the best thing to do in Big Sur is go to Pfeiffer Beach. What is remarkable about this beach at Big Sur is the purple sand. The purple tint is from the natural manganese deposits washing down from the neighboring cliffside.
Also at Pfeiffer Beach you can look for sea creatures in the many tide pools at low tide and marvel at the towering Keyhole Rock, a giant keyhole arch formation in the rock.
Besides Pfeiffer Beach there are many more things to do in Big Sur.
Visit Andrew Molera State Park for hiking, camping, beachcombing, and sweeping views of Monterey Bay from the largest park in Big Sur.
Hike through the redwood forest to a 60-foot waterfall at Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Trail in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Pay a visit to Henry Miller Memorial Library which is more than a library, it’s a performance venue, arts center, and bookstore too.
Relax in the soothing hot springs at Big Sur at Sykes Hot Springs for a backcountry hot spring experience or visit the easier to get to Esalen hot springs at their holistic educational center. Mikaela at Voyageur Tripper blog has a detailed post about Sykes Hot Springs and everything you need to know about backpacking to the hot springs in Big Sur.
Visit the unique Limekiln State Park to see the lime kilns and learn about the history of the kilns. One of the main reasons to visit the park is choice camping options near the beach or in the redwood forest.
From Big Sur on the way to Carmel you’ll drive across one of the most photographed bridges on the Pacific Coast Highway – the Bixby Creek Bridge.
Just 30 minutes from Big Sur lies Carmel-by-the-Sea, usually referred to as simply Carmel. This town is often voted as one of the best small towns in the United States.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is an ideal place to just slow down and unwind. Stroll through the town, sample the wines at the tasting rooms, and watch the sunset at Carmel Beach.
Or take a short drive to Point Lobos State Natural Preserve to hike shoreline trails or go SCUBA diving! You can rent gear in Monterey. Point Lobos is another great sunset viewing spot.
For more coastal hiking options visit Garrapata State Park less than 7 miles south of Carmel.
In the spring you must stop at Calla Lilly Valley, a bluff overlooking the ocean, covered with calla lilies during the spring bloom.
17 Mile Drive
You’ll have to take a slight detour off the Pacific Coast Highway to visit this iconic scenic drive near Carmel-by-the-Sea.
The 17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach is a famous scenic road through Pebble Beach golf course with stunning views along the rugged California coast.
Enter the 17 Mile Drive via the Carmel Gate on the south side and exit at the Pacific Grove gate. Note there is a $10.50 fee to enter – unless you are on a bicycle then it’s free. The fee for 17 Mile drive includes a map of the scenic drive.
Point Pinos Lighthouse
The Point Pinos Lighthouse began operating on February 1, 1855, and it’s the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the US West Coast.
There is a $5 admission fee to go inside the Victorian era building, where you can see artifacts and learn more about the historic Point Pinos Lighthouse.
Chill out in Santa Cruz and enjoy views of the Monterey Bay from a beautiful sandy beach or go hiking among the giant redwoods. Santa Cruz is one of the best places to visit along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Did you know that in central California you can ride one of the few remaining wooden roller coasters in the United States? Yes! The Giant Dipper is the name of this historic wooden roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. There’s also a cool carousel with hand carved horses – fun for kids of all ages!
Also in Santa Cruz check out:
Santa Cruz Wharf for shopping, sweets, souvenirs, and sea lions! And you can book a boat tour or go fishing too.
Natural Bridges State Park is yet another amazing California state park along the rugged coastline. This one features natural bridge formations in the rocks on the beach. An excellent spot for wildlife watching along Highway One with shore birds, seals, otters, and whale migrations in spring.
Explore the hiking trails and camp among the towering old growth redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
Learn all about surfing history and see the vintage surfboards at The Surfing Museum in Santa Cruz.
Plan to spend some time at beaches in Santa Cruz – choose from Santa Cruz Main Beach, Seabright Beach, Lighthouse Field State Beach or Twin Lakes State Beach.
Take a tour at the Mystery Spot to experience the gravitational anomaly in the redwoods with an entertaining tour guide. A touristy but fun attraction on Highway One.
Pop over to UC Santa Cruz to visit the Arboretum and Botanic Garden to view a fascinating collection of plants in the various gardens.
Maybe now is a good time to mention the banana slugs of Santa Cruz. The mascot at UC Santa Cruz is the beloved banana slug! Ewww, right? But Santa Cruz manages to make them look cute. See if you can spot real live banana slugs in the wild when you are hiking the trails around Santa Cruz…hint: they are yellow.
Santa Cruz is definitely a kid friendly place to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway, and adults love this one too!
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
At the Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park you can stop and have a look at the picturesque lighthouse on a cliff top. Admission is free – there’s a visitor center and gift shop.
At Pigeon Point Lighthouse you can view the huge Fresnel lens (16 ft tall) and learn the history of the lighthouse that has guided mariners since 1872.
How about budget lodging with a hot tub? Overlooking the ocean at Pigeon Point? If you are lucky you can stay at the Pigeon Point Hostel – book well in advance! When I checked the rooms were already booked for the next 12 months.
Along the coast watch for the grey whale migration starting around March, which is an ideal time of year for a Highway One road trip. At low tide on the beach you can explore the tide pools for smaller sea creatures.
Are you wondering why it’s called Pigeon Point? It’s because on June 6 in 1853 a ship named Carrier Pigeon ran aground nearby, so that’s how it became known as Pigeon Point.
Half Moon Bay
The last stop before arriving in San Francisco is the charming town called Half Moon Bay.
Here are a few ideas for things to do in Half Moon Bay:
Hit the beaches! So many beaches around Half Moon Bay – you’ve got your choice from Dunes Beach, Poplar Beach, Miramar Beach, Roosevelt Beach, and the Half Moon Bay State Beach. I see a beach walk in your future!
You can walk the Half Moon Bay coastal trail – an easy walk along a mostly paved trail through the Ritz Carlton Golf Course with smashingly gorgeous views. And, if you get hungry or thirsty just pop into the Ritz Hotel for a nosh and beverages.
In fall Half Moon Bay becomes the place for pumpkin patches. Early fall is usually less crowded than summer season and the weather is still pleasant.
Last stop on your way out to San Francisco, explore the tide pools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve where you might find small fish, colorful anemones, starfish, and sea cucumbers.
By the time you get to San Francisco, you’ll have seen so many cool sites and done loads of amazing activities. But the City by the Bay is the perfect place to spend a couple days since there are tons of things to do in San Francisco and nearby.
For sure you need to go see the Golden Gate Bridge! It’s also a part of Highway One and this is one of the places it overlaps with Highway 101 – that’s the more inland route on the California coast.
If you’re spending a few days in San Francisco you’ll want to head further north on Highway One and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County which has lots of cool day trips from San Francisco.
The small island of Alcatraz, with the former federal prison, is one of the major attractions for visitors to San Francisco. Alcatraz is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
To get to Alcatraz you need to take a ferry from Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 – get more info from the National Park Service to plan your trip to Alcatraz.
Golden Gate Park
You don’t want to miss this extraordinary (and HUGE) park in San Francisco. Golden Gate Park features an outstanding Botanical Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, the California Academy of Sciences, hiking and biking trails, and more.
There’s even a small herd of bison at Golden Gate Park!
Get a free map of Golden Gate Park so you can find your way around :)
Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf has a variety of shops, restaurants, street performers, and it’s the place to watch the California sea lions sunning on the docks. Spending an afternoon at Pier 39 is something fun to do in San Francisco for a laid back kind of day.
Golden Gate Bridge
Walk, jog, bicycle, or drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to celebrate the finish of an amazing California coast road trip!
This iconic San Francisco landmark is a wondrous site to see, so it’s no big surprise that it’s the most photographed bridge in the world.
The Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles (2,737 m) long and takes about 30 minutes to walk across – each way, so plan for at least 1 hour if you decide to walk the bridge.
FAQ about LA to San Francisco Road Trip
Here are the most frequently asked questions about driving LA to San Francisco.
How long does it take to drive the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco?
Without making any stops it takes about 10 to 12 hours to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway. With stops you should plan on spending at least 2 to 3 days driving from LA to San Francisco. Of course, if you have the time and budget you can make the Pacific Coast Highway road trip vacation last as long as you like!
What’s the best time of year to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?
Late spring is an ideal time to drive the PCH when all the wildflowers are in bloom. Summer will likely offer the best weather but it’s also the peak season for road trips in California. Early fall is also a good time of year to drive the Pacific Coast Highway. And while the highway is open year round, in winter you run the risk of rainstorms and sometimes there are road closures due to mud slides, especially around the Carmel-by-the-Sea to Cambria section.
Is Big Sur in between LA and San Francisco?
Yes, Big Sur is located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. So Big Sur is the perfect place to stop and spend a night or two. In fact, the Big Sur region in Central California is one of the most popular stops on the Pacific Coast Highway.
What if I’m Driving from San Francisco to LA?
No problem, if you are driving the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to LA instead of starting in LA. You’ll just need to start from the bottom of this list so you’ll be planning your Highway One road trip with the stops in the reverse order listed in this article. A lot of people say that it’s best to do this drive starting from San Francisco because then you are on the right hand side of the highway right next to the coastal views and you don’t have to cross traffic to take the exits.
And there you have it! All the best stops on a Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip! Even though big cities mark the start and finish to this Cali road trip, it’s all the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway towns that make it magical.
More articles to help you plan your California road trip
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