California offers countless amazing road trip opportunities, but the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one of the best you'll find anywhere in the Golden State. This drive follows the scenic Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), also called Highway 1.
We’ve compiled some of our favorite spots to help you plan your road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco. And what better way to fully appreciate those views than behind the wheel of a convertible that can be picked up directly at LAX. Be prepared for the open road by visiting our checklist of road trip essentials.
Drive time from Los Angeles to San Francisco: approximately 10 hours
Distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco: approximately 500 miles
Best car for this road trip: Convertible
You'll want to get an early start in Los Angeles to take full advantage of the sunshine and coastal views all along your route. Fortunately, the early bird catches the best donuts the city offers. LA's donut shops open early, so you can fuel up before you head out. Stop in Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken in Downtown LA for a fried chicken and honey butter sandwich served on a savory doughnut or swing by Trejo's Coffee & Donuts on Santa Monica Boulevard and grab one of their pineapple fritters.
Next, throw on your shades and follow the signs for California State Route 1 North, better known as the PCH. Don’t expect too much from the PCH just yet, you'll wind up in Malibu before you have a chance to be mesmerized by the palm trees and sparkling Pacific Ocean. However, you don’t want to miss the fun in the sun you’ll find in Malibu.
As soon as you arrive in Malibu, head straight for the coast. This is a city that's known for its beautiful stretches of sand, and you'll want to catch some rays at Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Take time to hang ten with the surfers, soak up some sunshine or follow some of the park’s hiking trails for scenic views. Step back into the world of ancient Greece and Rome with a visit to the Getty Villa –an impressive museum modeled after a Roman country villa. Admire 7,000 years of art, architecture and Mediterranean gardens.
Grab a table at Geoffrey’s Malibu for delicious seafood and gorgeous ocean views. Nothing says “Malibu” quite like a plate of sea scallops with foie gras risotto and pomegranate reduction in full view of the ocean. When in Rome, right?
Continue north on the PCH as it snakes along the Pacific Coast through Oxnard, Santa Barbara and other beachfront towns. If you need a breather or if you want to snap a few photos, pull over at one of many designated roadside stops.
With most of the trip spent right along the coast, a 15-mile trek inland for a unique lunch or dinner will break up any possibility of monotony. Head north on HWY 154 in Santa Barbara and mosey on over to Cold Spring Tavern. The mountainside, Western-themed saloon is known for its old-world romanticism and American cuisine including wild game black bean chili, tri-tip sandwiches and venison sausage stuffed mushrooms.
Progress along the PCH for about two hours from Santa Barbara and enjoy exquisite Pacific Ocean coastline until you arrive in stunning Morro Bay. What may look like a small fishing village is actually packed with outdoor adventures, state parks and beaches. Those prone to adventurous excursions should head out to Morro Rock –a volcanic plug with hiking trails and quiet beaches.
Pick up some seafood at a local market and stake claim to a fire pit at Spooner’s Cove in Montana de Oro State Park. Enjoy an evening around the fire, grilling the fresh catch of the day and watching the stars come out. Stay in Morro Bay for the night, as you'll want to rest up for more excursions ahead.
When you're ready to hit the road again, hop on the PCH north toward Monterey. Approximately 34 miles north of Morro Bay is the Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon. This popular spot is perfect for getting an up close and personal look of the herds of elephant seals that line this part of the California coast. About four miles beyond the rookery is Hearst Castle. The mansion was originally commissioned by William Randolph Hearst and boasts larger-than-life visuals throughout the grounds. Take a tour of early to mid-century opulence surrounded by rolling hills, magnificent coast lines and towering palms.
Leaving Hearst Castle, you'll have about two and a half hours of beautiful views to enjoy while driving north toward Monterey, so be sure to stop at least once along the way to take it all in.
You should arrive in Monterey in time for lunch. Stop at the nearest sustainable seafood spot for an ultra-fresh meal. After touring historic Cannery Row, garnering widespread fame from the identical-titled book from John Steinbeck, spend a few hours at the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. Home to some truly amazing marine life, the aquarium focuses on regional marine habitats. You can get some exercise on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, but make sure you save enough time to catch the sunset from a prime spot on the waterfront. Stay overnight in Monterey, since you'll want to have plenty of energy for the drive to San Francisco.
To get from Monterey to San Francisco, hop back on the PCH and follow it all the way to the Bay Area. You'll arrive at your destination in about 2.5 hours.
Whether you want to experience a legendary drive on the serpentine Lombard Street, visit storied Alcatraz Island or chill out in the Haight-Ashbury district, you'll find countless things to keep you entertained in San Francisco. Park your rental car at your hotel and see the best of the City by the Bay on foot or by cable car.
Of course, once you arrive in San Francisco, there's no need to put a stop to your road trip. If you still have time to explore, head over the Golden Gate Bridge for outdoor adventures at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. Just be sure to pack the appropriate attire. Mark Twain famously said, “The coldest winter I ever saw as the summer I spent in San Francisco.”
Venture to the Ferry Building on an empty stomach because you’ll want to engorge yourself on the plethora of delectable options such as meat cones, eclectic biscuits, locally made cheeses, kaki-age tempura and so much more. As you are wrapping up your trip you can conveniently drop off your car at San Francisco Airport or at a neighborhood location in the city (must be included in reservation).
These are merely a handful of the options found while traveling along the PCH. You could spend a month slowly traveling up the road and never do the same thing twice. The best advice we can give is to take it slow, soak in the beauty and seek unique experiences around every turn.