How to Drive the California Coast in 5 Days
A road trip down the California Coast is one of the most popular Bucket List items for travelers. The Pacific Coast Highway is a scenic drive along the Pacific Ocean that begins north of San Francisco and winds 650 miles down the coast to San Diego.
Last Spring, my boyfriend and I flew out to San Francisco to embark on this quintessential American road trip with only a few days off of work. We wanted to see as much as possible on the coast within just a short five day time span, but a trip down from Napa Valley down to southern California is at least a week's worth of exploring, if not two.
If you're short on vacation days or travel funds, this long weekend itinerary will take you 500 miles down the California coast without sacrificing any of the must-see sights along the way.
Day 1 – San Francisco
Source: Gal Meets Glam
Source: Lauren Wells
It's easy to spend a day in San Francisco. The weather can be finicky, but even in the foggiest conditions, being on the edge of the Pacific Ocean with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge is pretty amazing.
What to Do:
- Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39. The pier is definitely touristy, but worth wandering around if it's your first time to the city. Window shop, see the seals sunbathing on the docks and if you get a fog-free day, celebrate the sunshine with a frozen drink at Wipeout.
- Golden Gate Bridge. Rent bikes and ride west along the waterfront from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge. The views are amazing and the Presidio hosts lots of festivals, fairs and events throughout the year.
Day 2 – San Francisco to Monterey
Drive from San Francisco to Monterey (2 hours and 45 minutes)
Source: Lovely Indeed
Source: Dale Cruse
Along the Way
- Natural Bridges State Park (1 hour and 45 minutes from San Francisco). Photo op! Subject to the Northern California fog, the state beach is haunting and beautiful. Visit during a clear sunset and you'll be treated to a beautiful view of the sun through the natural rock formation.
- Santa Cruz Broadwalk (2 hours from San Francisco). One of the most historic boardwalks in the state, the Santa Cruz boardwalk is a fun stop along the drive South to play a quick game of mini golf and snack on saltwater taffy.
- Fisherman's Wharf (2 hours and 45 minutes from San Francisco). Not to be confused with San Francisco, Monterey also has a Fisherman's Wharf with small shops and restaurants. Before leaving town, be sure to follow the sound of the seals to see them sunbathing underneath the docks.
Day 3 – Monterey to Santa Barbara
Drive from Monterey to Santa Barbara (4 hours)
Source: Lauren Wells
Source: Around The World in KT Days
Along the Way
- Pebble Beach and 17-Mile Drive (15 minutes from Monterey). Following Route 1 south from Monterey will by pass Pebble Beach, but the detour is worth it - especially if you're traveling with a golf fan. The resort is one of the top courses in the world, nestled off of the 17-mile drive through the Del Monte Forest. The winding drive will add about a half hour to an hour to your commute south but it's a worthwhile stop to check off of your bucket list.
- Bixby Canyon Bridge (40 minutes from Monterey). Shortly before entering Big Sur, you'll cross the Bixby Canyon Bridge. It is a popular scenic overlook point and one of the prettiest bridges along Route 1.
- Big Sur (1 hour from Monterey). I wish we had more time in Big Sur, but we took time to stop at most of the scenic overlooks to take photos of the cliffs, waterfalls and Pacific Ocean views. Be sure to pull over for Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls. Hungry? The most popular place to have a meal with a view is Nepenthe, but we stumbled upon the Whale Watchers Cafe a little farther down Route 1 and loved the charm of the humble diner.
- Hearst Castle (2 hours and 40 minutes from Monterey). Up on a hill south of Big Sur sits the Hearst Castle - a popular tourist destination for a good reason: the mansion is beautiful. The tours up to the castle end at 4 o'clock, so be sure to get through Big Sur with time to stop.
Day 4 – Santa Barbara to Santa Monica
Drive from Santa Barbara to Santa Monica (2 hours)
Source: Hotel Milo Santa Barbara
Source: Damsel in Dior
We didn't have any planned stops on the quick drive down to Santa Monica, but the upon entering Malibu the views of mansions on the left and beaches on the left non-so-subtly signal your entrance into the glitz of greater Los Angeles.
Along the Way
- Venice Beach (2 hours from Santa Barbara). Venice is one of the most artistic, free spirited neighborhoods of Los Angeles. You'll come across sidewalk performers, skate parks and a slew of small bars along the water.
- Santa Monica Pier (2 hours from Santa Barbara). A couple of miles up the beach from Venice is the Santa Monica Pier. A massive dock with carnival games and rides, full restaurants and live entertainment, the Pier is an easy place to spend a full day.
Day 5 – Los Angeles
Source: Style Scrapbook
If you have a full day of travel to get back to the east coast be sure to grab an early breakfast and one more walk on the beach before heading to LAX. If you have a quicker commute home, head to Los Angeles to explore the city for the day.
What to Do:
- Warner Brothers Studio Tour. Admittedly a bit touristy, but the WB studio tour is a very cool experience for any TV or movie fan. Walk through famous sound stages, have coffee at Central Perk and, if you're lucky, get to spot a celebrity or two.
- Lunch in Beverly Hills. Rub elbows with California's wealthiest on Rodeo Drive. Whether you're buying or just window shopping, Beverly Hills is one of the best places to people watch.
- Hike to the Hollywood Sign. If you're looking for a bit of exercise and fresh air before heading home, the views from atop the Hollywood Sign are pretty spectacular. The shortest route up the sign is a quick 3 miles.
- See our complete guide to Los Angeles, here