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.
Are there recommended viewpoints along the way?
Your first stop on the way to San Francisco from Los Angeles will be Malibu, and you won't want to miss the views at Malibu Lagoon State Beach. The hiking trails offer splendid scenic vistas, and the fascinating Greco-Roman Getty Villa museum is worth a stop. From that point, there are numerous designated roadside stops along the way to Santa Barbara. Stop into Morro Bay to check out the volcanic Morro Rock.
San Simeon brings natural wonders and man-made wonders with a chance to see an elephant seal herd at the Elephant Seal Rookery, right off the Pacific Coast Highway, and a chance to see the famous Hearst Castle. After that, pop into Monterey for a waterfront walk on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. Hit the road for San Francisco and head straight for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. There's simply no better vantage point to take in San Francisco's most iconic site.
Does Enterprise rent convertibles?
Yes, Enterprise rents popular convertible makes and models like Ford Mustangs, which has a classic style and sporty performance that make it a perfect choice for a quintessential American road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. Visit Enterprise.com before your road trip to browse the current convertible selection available in Los Angeles at your preferred pickup location.
Any tips on avoiding Los Angeles traffic?
Los Angeles is notorious for traffic congestion. If you're just passing through on your way north, try not to drive through Los Angeles at peak commuting times, from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. or from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. You can also lean on Google Maps or an app like Waze to alert you to alternate routes around pile-ups or tune in to the radio for live updates from the California Highway Patrol.
How many lanes is the Pacific Coast Highway?
The Pacific Coast Highway is primarily four lanes across, though it does narrow down to two lanes in certain sections, for instance, just past Monterey and Marina heading into Castroville and some sections of Big Sur. It returns to a four-lane freeway from Watsonville to Santa Cruz before narrowing once more to a rural coastal road from Santa Cruz into Half Moon Bay.
Pay close attention to your map or GPS once you hit San Francisco, as Highway 1 first becomes a city street, Junipero Serra Boulevard, before branching off to 19th Avenue, then Park Presidio Boulevard, and finally merging with US-101. If you choose to keep on driving, your trek on Highway 1 will lead you right over the Golden Gate Bridge.
How much is the toll for the Golden Gate Bridge?
You will only pay a toll at the Golden Gate Bridge if you are driving southbound into San Francisco. The toll is calculated by the number of axles. Two-axle vehicles, which account for most passenger cars and motorcycles, will be charged an $8 toll.
What agency patrols the Pacific Coast Highway?
The California Highway Patrol polices the Pacific Coast Highway, dealing with everything from speeding tickets to DUIs, accidents, and injuries. This Highway is unusual in that you have a heavy flow of commuters, locals, and out-of-towners sharing the same lanes at all times. The road is extremely beautiful, and it's easy to take your eyes off the road, but you'll also need to be vigilant for sudden stops in front of you, sharply winding curves, pedestrians crossing the road to the beaches, bikers, and cyclists, too.
What are summers like in San Francisco?
San Francisco enjoys the same cool, breezy weather almost year-round, making San Francisco the perfect destination for a road trip in a convertible. San Francisco summers top out in the upper 60s, and it rarely rains in the summer months.
What is Hearst Castle?
Hearst Castle is the former estate of legendary newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. The magnificent castle and grounds were built in 1919 by architect Julia Morgan; the palatial estate comprises 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens. In its heyday, Hearst and his companion, silent film star Marion Davies, welcomed notable visitors including Winston Churchill, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford.
Today, the castle is a museum and a California state park. Visit and tour the grounds, and you can marvel at world-class art collections and architectural imports ranging from antiquity to Art Deco ephemera.
Does Malibu have public beaches?
Malibu has quite a few public beaches to choose from, each boasting its own unique personality and perks. El Matador State Beach is known for its impressive cliffs and rock formations. Zuma Beach is typically less crowded than other neighboring beaches, boasting wide stretches of sand and excellent surf. Leo Carillo State Park and Beach is a fascinating stretch of rocky, cave-filled beach to explore. There are also the mountain vistas of Malibu Lagoon State Beach or Topanga State Beach.
El Pescador State Beach is the perfect spot for beachcombers looking to spot marine wildlife like starfish in the wild, and Nicholas Canyon is secluded, clean, and an excellent surfing spot. There are many more public beaches strung along Route 1. With so many public beaches in Malibu, you'll be spoiled for choice. Typically, you can find a free or low-cost parking lot nearby or even park along the Pacific Coast Highway if you find an inviting spot, but take care to check both lanes before crossing to the beach.
What are some kid-friendly stops near Morro Bay?
If you're traveling with family, there's no shortage of kid-friendly entertainment in and around Morro Bay. Start with a day at Morro Beach. The kids will love clambering around near Morro Rock, and you can also fly a kite or look for shells on the beach. Pop into the Shell Shop on the Embarcadero for a souvenir, if you're pressed for time. If you want to experience nature in a personal way, visit the charming aquarium in Morro Bay. For a small cost, you can buy a bag of food to feed to the seals and sea lions. Hearst Castle is also just 30 miles outside of the city, and this old Hollywood palace will certainly leave an impression on your young ones.
Any restaurant recommendations in Malibu?
Head to Mastro's for steaks, seafood, and the house-specialty lobster mashed potatoes. Dinner is guaranteed to be decadent with romantic ocean views to match. If you're in the mood for casual, beachside fare, Cholada Thai doesn't disappoint. It might look like a hole in the wall, but this charming beach shanty is also known for generous portions and great prices. Find farm-to-table fare, amazing views, and a full bar at the beginning of the pier at Malibu Farm Cafe. Looking for fish tacos? Pepperdine students swear by Taco Tuesday specials at Duke's.
Where should I eat in Monterey?
Foodies have plenty of dining options in Monterrey, from fine dining to casual cafes. Restaurant 1833 caters to the posh crowd in a historic property that's both cozy and chic, serving varied dishes and exceptional specialty cocktails. If you just need a great cup of coffee before moving along down the highway, pop into Acme Coffee Roasting Co. for an organic latte. Parker-Lusseau Pastries is another local favorite spot. The cafe is housed in a building that some believe was the 1846 headquarters of the legendary General Fremont.
If you're going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cindy's Waterfront is convenient and ethically appealing, given that all food served is sourced within 25 miles of the property. For no-frills, high-quality sushi, check out Akaoni. Care for a craft brew? Check out Alvarado Street Brewery and Grill.