Bixby Bridge at sunset

5 Day Road Trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco

5 Day Road Trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco

Travelling the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a once in a lifetime journey. We rented a convertible to make the most of the stunning scenery along the coast. It’s a 250 mile (400km) drive and we felt like we could have spent longer to really appreciate all the little townships, vineyards and side roads.

TIP: Watch out for FOG!! The best times to drive the PCH is in July and August as you’re more likely to have clear weather, but this is also the busiest season with higher prices. However, the warmer the inland temperatures, the more likely there will be coastal fog.

Day 1 - Los Angeles to Pismo Beach


Santa Barbara

The first couple of hours was spent negotiating our way outside the LA suburbs and reaching Route 101 north. It’s interesting in its own way to see the sprawl of the city. Once you reach the coast you can see the tanker boats way out to sea. Our first stop was in Santa Barbara for lunch.

Santa Barbara is a small city with a lot of heart. The restaurants in the city centre are small and intimate with amazing food. We went to the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach for some excellent food and ocean views.

Out of Santa Barbara we took Highway 154 through the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. Here it was lovely to have the roof down and appreciate the countryside. We travelled through the Santa Ynez winery area to visit Solvang. I’m always in the search for buttery Chardonnays and do some research before I visit an area. So I enjoyed tasting the Blackjack Ranch Winery Chardonnay ’21 and their Reserve Chardonnay.

Fog at Morro Bay

Pismo Beach

Along the way we visited Pismo Beach and the neighbouring Shell Beach, some of the most outstanding beaches between Los Angeles to San Francisco. Here we walked along the boardwalk, looked at the boutique shops and watched some of the surf boarders. From Shell Beach you might be able to see dolphins or whales and you can definitely watch the seabirds!

We checked into the Vespera on Ocean, one of the Autograph collection hotels in the Marriott chain. This had access to the boardwalk and is within walking distance for downtown Pismo Beach.

We then drove further down the road to Morro Bay,  one of the best spots in the West Coast to watch the sunset. You can also climb to the top of the Morro Rock to catch the sun setting over the ocean. We went to the Galley Seafood Grill & Bar while we waited for sunset. The seafood is really fresh and they serve the sauces on the side so you can appreciate the flavour of the fish.

Day 2 - Morro Bay to Big Sur

Hearst Castle

Today’s highlight is a visit to Hearst Castle near the township of San Simeon. We had fog at the coast and were pleasantly surprised to drive out of the fog as we climbed the hill towards the castle.

TIP: pre-book your tickets, especially in the high season, to ensure you get to visit the castle. 

We had also booked an accessible tour which is fascinating as you visit the stables and kitchens since you can’t visit any parts of the castle with stairs. We also saw several of the large gathering rooms and the dining table for the guests. The serving/warming table in the kitchens was nearly as large as the dining table and the settings would mimic those of the guests!

Ordinary tours include the gardens and outdoor pool and attached cottages. There’s also a large art deco indoor swimming pool. Other features of note include the tapestries and dinner place settings.

Hearst Castle

Big Sur

After a few fascinating hours in the castle we continued enjoying the PCH, now named the Cabrillo Highway. We stopped for lunch and the Ragged Point Inn and then stopped again at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for a walk.

Then we continued on the 90 miles of rugged coastline to our night’s accommodation in Big Sur. The scenery around this area is awesome so we stopped often at roadside turnouts to enjoy the views. Big Sur was the first part of the highway opened in the 1930s.

TIP: Another point to stop along the way would be the elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas Light Station. 

After settling into our accommodation for the night, Post Ranch Inn, we headed for dinner at the Nepenthe restaurant. Afterwards, it was back to the Inn to appreciate the ocean views and, of course, the sunset.

California Coast at Sunset

Day 3 - Big Sur to Monterey

Soledad Mission


On our way to Monterey we went on a short hike to the Pfeiffer Waterfall to see the morning sun sparkling on the falls. Then we drove passed the Bixby Creek Bridge, spanning 320 feet (98m), for some photo opportunities.

TIP: The views are best in the late afternoon with the golden glow on the west-facing headlands and cliffs.

The Big Sur part of PCH crosses a number of further bridges before ambling into the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Known for its artists and wineries, there are several walks to explore art galleries and wineries. Here we visited the Carmel Mission (1783) and took photos of the charming garden and statues. This is the best restored of the missions in the area and it’s founder Father Junipero Serra’s resting place. It has the original bell and bell tower. This photo of a statue is taken from the gardens in the Soledad Mission in the Carmel Valley.

We then went to the former mayor’s, Clint Eastwood, restaurant in Carmel for lunch. The restaurant, the Hog’s Breath, is close to his Mission Ranch hotel.

Lone Cypress Tree, Monterey

17-mile Drive to Monterey

The highlight of the day was the 17-mile drive to Monterey with the obligatory stop to photograph the lone cypress tree, thought to be about 500 years old.

TIP: Late afternoon is the best light to photograph the tree with the rocks lit by the evening light.

The road winds through large homes and passes well-known Pebble Beach golf courses and costs a fee per vehicle. We decided to go to the Lodge at Pebble Beach restaurant for dinner before driving down to Carmel-By-the-Sea for another sunset view.

We stayed at the comfortable Monterey Marriott with lovely views overlooking Monterey Bay. There are some nice little nooks to get some quiet times. If you have time, checkout the outdoor pool. It’s also a nice walk around the harbour and marina. 

Day 4 - in Monterey

Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row

We had time to stop in Monterey to visit the Aquarium down near Cannery Row and the old Fisherman’s Wharf. I think this is the best aquarium that I’ve ever been to. It helped that we had pre-bought our tickets and arrived right when it opened to avoid the crowds. Lunch was memorable as we could watch Monterey Bay through the picture windows and glimpse the marine life.

TIP: To take great photos of the jellyfish, turn off the flash and use a fast setting or a tripod to keep the camera steady.

We didn’t have time to visit any wineries so we stopped at the Taste of Monterey tasting room in Cannery Row to taste several wines from the area, all while looking over a view of Monterey Bay. This included buttery Chardonnays from the Montoya and Big Sur Vineyards.

Jellyfish at Monterey Aquarium

Pacific Grove and Point Pinos Lighthouse

There’s time to visit Pacific Grove where we experienced the Monarch Grove Sanctuary. Monarch butterflies migrate the 2,000 miles from Canada during November to March.  Next we walked to the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast.

We stayed a second night in Monterey and splashed out at the Tarpy’s Roadhouse restaurant for some New York Steak and classic meatloaf.

Pacific Coast Highway California Coastline

Day 5 - Monterey to San Francisco

Mission Chapel

Drive from Monterey to San Francisco

It’s now a 3 hour drive to San Francisco and we have a few options for the route. We could carry along the PCH1 through Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, take Highway 280 from Santa Cruz, or blast up to Highway 880. One consideration is the time of year. It sounded nice to drive around the coast to Half Moon Bay, but in the summer this area attracts a lot of tourists and day trippers. 

We decided to take the route through Santa Cruz to visit another mission. Mission San Jose is a replica of the 1797 sanctuary. It has a  thoroughly interesting museum with a small garden and small chapel. On the way into Palo Alto we stopped at the Baylands Nature Preserve to eat a picnic lunch in some serene wetlands.

It depends whether you’re heading to the airport or to San Francisco for more sightseeing. We stayed at the San Mateo Marriott near the airport as it’s cheaper and there are hotel shuttle buses. We walked across the road to some wetlands and views of the planes landing and taking off.

See our weekend trip to San Francisco for the next part of the journey.

Other things to do driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Best California Photo Spots

  • Santa Barbara Scenic Drive
  • An option while at Pismo Beach is to go for an thrilling ATV ride. 
  • Hop on the Wine Trolley in Monterey to visit several wine tasting rooms in Carmel Valley
  • Go on a whale watching tour or maybe spot a whale from the Point Lobos State Reserve

California Inspirations for your drive

When to visit California

Spring – temperatures fresh and comfortable. Wildflowers and grasses. Shorter lines and better deals
Summer – common to see overcast in the morning with the fog burning off by noon.
Fall – mild weather and foliage. Wine harvests. Less fog.
Winter – snow usually from November to March with some resorts open until April.

Events of Note

January – Mavericks Challenge (surfing) near Half Moon Bay
January – Santa Barbara International Film Festival
February – AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am
March – Vineyard Beekeeping Retreat in San Luis Obispo
April – Subaru Sea Otter Classic (Cycling) near Monterey
April – Pebble Beach Food & Wine
May – Carmel Art Festival
June – San Francisco Jazz Fest
July – Carmel Bach Festival
July / August – Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters
August – Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance, Vintage Car Parade
August – Eat Drink San Francisco
August – Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
September – Monterey Jazz Festival
October – Carmel-by-the-Sea Art Walk
October – Pismo Beach Clam Festival

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