Road Trip from San Diego to San Francisco via Highway 1
California, the Golden State, is one of the best places in the country to go for a road trip. The diversity of the state’s terrain is chock-full of interesting sites and plenty of adventure along the way. What better way to experience the sights and adventure is there than a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), aka Highway 1? Start in sunny San Diego and make your way north to the always interesting — if somewhat foggy — San Francisco. From sandy beaches and cliffside views to coastal cities and redwood forests, see where you should stop along the Pacific Coast Highway with this road trip itinerary. Be prepared for the open road by visiting our checklist of road trip essentials and check out the most frequently asked questions at the bottom of this page.
Drive Time from San Diego to San Francisco: approximately 12 hours
Distance from San Diego to San Francisco: approximately 600 miles
Best Car for this road trip: Convertible
1. San Diego
San Diego is a gorgeous city filled with a vast array of entertainment options. Before you leave town, spend a little time exploring the beaches and Balboa Park, home of the world-famous San Diego Zoo. There’s also Sea World, professional sports teams, Hotel del Coronado, Old Town and Belmont park, just to name a few.
Day 1: Before you get on the road, grab some breakfast and a cup o’ joe at local mainstay Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla. How does some bacon oatmeal pancakes sound for an early morning meal?
From San Diego, get on I-5 north and travel for roughly one hour. Take exit 79 toward Beach Cities, and then merge onto CA-1. The scenery along the PCH offers some of the most breathtaking coastal views in the world. Keep in mind that the road is rather windy; don’t become so distracted by the sparkling water and towering cliffs that you don’t give safety the attention it deserves. No worries though, there are plenty of pullouts along the way where you can stop and gaze at nature’s beauty.
A few hours of driving will get you to Malibu. Take pictures of beautiful houses, or walk along the pristine Point Dume State Beach. If you're in the mood for a little detour, hop on Route 27 and go to Topanga Outlook to take in an amazing view of the San Fernando Valley.
Make a pit stop at the Malibu Pier and grab some lunch at Malibu Farm Restaurant. This spot overlooks the pacific and is perfect for delicious Californian cuisine. Can’t you see it now, sitting by the water, the sounds of the waves crashing against the beach and some branzino fish tacos on your plate?
If you're a surfer, you might want to make another stop in Ventura, which is north of Malibu. Hang ten on some stellar waves at Ricon Beach.
3. Santa Barbara
Continue along Highway 1 to Santa Barbara where you’ll wind down for the night. Check into your hotel and hit the town on State Street. The heart of Santa Barbara, State street has plenty of shops, art galleries, theaters and museums.
A full day of driving will surely make you long for a delicious meal and maybe a couple of cocktails to end the day. Continuing the California cuisine theme – when in Rome, right? – pay a visit to Opal Restaurant & Bar. Here, you’ll get to nosh on a little bit of everything from tiger shrimp pizza to lemongrass crusted salmon. Wrap up the entire evening with a scoop of banana and salted caramel ice cream from McConnell’s.
4. San Luis Obispo
Day 2: Head north on the Pacific Coast Highway until you get to San Luis Obispo. One of this town's claims to fame is its Bubblegum Alley, which is a 70-foot-long alley lined with — you guessed it — bubblegum. You can add your own to the collection!
On the outskirts of town is Bishop Peak, a volcanic plug that offers some hiking trails for outdoors enthusiasts. Catch a sight of the city from this gorgeous vantage point.
About an hour beyond San Luis Obispo is the Elephant Seal Rookery and Hearst Castle. The Rookery is a perfect spot to pull over and check out the herds of elephant seals that make their home on the shoreline. On the other end of the spectrum is a mansion commissioned by William Randolph Hearst. With boastful opulence and grand visuals throughout the grounds, Hearst Castle is an insight look into the extravagance of the wealthiest during the early 1900s.
After San Luis Obispo, get back on route and once again let yourself indulge in viewing the beautiful scenery out your car windows. Keep a lookout for quaint stops and shops along the way. You'll have to cross Bixby Bridge, which is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. Be sure to snap some photos of the iconic landmark.
The Pacific Coast Highway will take you straight to the coastal town of Monterey, about two hours or 115 miles from San Francisco. One of the most popular attractions is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a top research facility in America.
Any golf enthusiast should plan some extra time to play a round of golf along the coast at one of the iconic courses found in the area. Pebble Beach or Cypress Point are two well-known spots that offer the chance to spot marine life while sinking a putt.
Depending on the time of day you stroll into town, you’ll want to grab some lunch or an early dinner. It’s probably time to get some hearty grub food so, swing by Cannery Row Brewing Company for a beer or two and a burger or a short rib grilled cheese.
6. San Francisco
It’s time to tackle that last stretch of highway into San Francisco. Along the way, you’ll see plenty of opportunity to admire the redwood forests. Once you reach the city, take a few days to explore. You’re bound to see and experience something you didn’t expect.
Near the top of everyone’s list should be Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and checking out Golden Gate Park. Or maybe it’s hopping on the city’s cable cars. But, what about Fisherman’s Wharf or Alcatraz or the Mission District. As you can see, there is so much to do, give yourself the time to experience it all.
You can also take a few trips outside of San Francisco to experience the
surrounding area. Go to Oakland to catch a baseball game, taste wine in Sonoma County, or go to Half Moon Bay to catch a glimpse of the magnificent redwoods or a spectacular sunset.
Pacific Coast Highway FAQs
When Should I Drive the Pacific Coast Highway?
If you want to take full advantage of this scenic route, plan your trip for September or October. The summer months (June, July, and August) can be cooler, and you'll likely have to contend with fog all along the drive. October generally boasts the nicest weather and fewer crowds along the way.
Don't let fog deter your summer plans, though. It's coastal fog, which means it's typically heaviest in the mornings and evenings. The fog usually burns off by the middle of the morning, so you can start driving then if you're looking for clearer weather.
How Dangerous is the Pacific Coast Highway?
The highway hugs California's coast, and offers constant gorgeous views — but may make the hearts of hesitant drivers pound. This road is a narrow, winding highway, and some areas do have big drop-offs. As long as you take common-sense precautions, though, you should be fine.
You should pay attention to the weather forecast and potential road closures. Bad weather can lead to the highway closing in parts, so make sure you check for closures before you head out, and be wary of hazards once you're on your way.
Storms can sometimes occur, but you're most likely to encounter fog along the route, which can make driving conditions challenging. You and the other drivers around you will be navigating hairpin curves, especially around big sur, so exercise increased caution when fog rolls in. Although California weather is generally very pleasant, when there are storms, they're significant. PCH is safest (and most beautiful!) when you drive it in the sun.
The highway is also rather isolated, so make sure you're ready to drive slowly for several hours at a time with enough gas in your tank and prepare yourself to focus on the road. You'll encounter sharp curves, steep ledges, and high cliffs. There are numerous stops along the way so drivers don’t need to worry about missing the scenery en route.
Driving at night is not recommended but if you do embark on this trip after sundown ensure you are alert and ready for segments of the road that may be completely dark.
Driver tip: going North on the PCH helps stay a bit further away from the drop-offs and may ease some anxiety.
How Far Does the Pacific Highway Go and Where Does it Start and End?
The Pacific Coast Highway is technically only certain segments of California State Route 1. When you're making plans, though, you'll likely think of the full State Route 1. The longest state route in California, State Route 1 measures at just over 650 miles from beginning to end.
How Long is the Entire Pacific Coast Highway?
The highway starts at its southernmost point at Interstate 5 (I-5) right near Orange County's Dana Point. In the north, the terminus is at U.S. Route 101 (US 101), right near Leggett in Mendocino County, CA.
Is the Pacific Highway Closed?
The Pacific Coast Highway sometimes closes abruptly. Closures can last for a week or more if sections of the road remain impassable due to mudslides, and bridge work. Have an alternate route in mind in case this happens during a planned trip.
Driver tip: The California Department of Transportation website provides up-to-date highway 1 road closures.
Where Should I Stay Along the Pacific Coast Highway?
Plan a leisurely route along this scenic drive so you can take advantage of overnight stays in some of the best locations in California. Make sure you reserve time for San Francisco and Big Sur (limited lodging, book in advance), not to mention the Los Angeles area.
For more low-key stops be sure to look for a place to stay in Morro Bay and San Louis Obispo.
For an off-the-beaten-path and quirky detour, check out Solvang, a Danish town settled by Danish pioneers in the early 20th century.
What are Some Common Names for the Pacific Coast Highway?
You might hear the Pacific Coast Highway referred to in a variety of ways. The Highway is a component of State Route 1, also known as SR 1. You may sometimes hear State Route 1 simply called Highway 1. You'll also hear "PCH" as a common name for the highway. And of course, many know the Pacific Coast Highway as one of the most scenic drives not only on the West Coast, but worldwide!
Is i5 the Pacific Coast Highway?
The Pacific Coast Highway is part of California State Route 1, or SR 1. I-5 is an inland highway that offers the fastest and most direct route from Los Angeles to San Francisco eventually going through Portland and Seattle as well.