Pacific Coast Highway 1 California USA – 3 Day Road Trip Guide

Pacific Coast Highway USA Road Trip

San Diego to San Francisco

Total Drive Time, around 12 hours – 600 miles

The best months of the year to drive on the Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway 1 are September and October. The weather is slightly warmer than in the summer months reducing the likelihood of fog on the road. The Pacific Coast Highway 1 is most spectacular when driven in the sun and safer too.

Early morning fog tends to burn off by late morning, so all is not lost if you have to travel during the summer. This trip takes you through pretty towns, big cities, wine regions, giant redwoods and Spanish history to name a few.

Our USA road trip idea gives the bare bones of an idea. There are many excellent blog posts full of stunning photos, tips and itineraries and we recommend you take a look at those to help inform your plans.

Part 1 San Diego – Santa Barbara

San Diego is a great place to start your trip after spending some time in the city. Visit the world famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. There is also the Old Town museum, Belmont Park and SeaWorld San Diego. When you are ready, head north for an hour or so on Interstate 5 until you reach exit 79 and then merge on to CA. 1 – the start of Pacific Coast Highway.

Tip: Starting in Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego rather than San Francisco can save you money on your car hire as the following illustrates:

Rental Car:  Convertible, Collection from San Diego on 15 September 2019, returning to San Francisco 7 days later, fully inclusive package, Cost = £332.74 (price correct at time of writing)

Rental Car: Convertible, Collection from San Francisco on 15 September 2019, returning to San Diego 7 days later, fully inclusive package, Cost = £405.11 (price correct at time of writing)

As you travel along the Pacific Coast Highway 1 there are lots of pull-ins for you to stop and admire/photograph the scenery. As a coastal road it can be very windy, so do bear that in mind when driving.

Heading to Malibu will take 3 – 4 hours depending on traffic around Los Angeles. When you arrive in Malibu you can enjoy Point Dume State Beach, or go celebrity house spotting.

Nature lovers can enjoy many inland trails with waterfalls, canyons and grasslands. Followers of the surfer lifestyle may better appreciate Malibu Lagoon State Beach, also known as Surfrider beach! Ventura Beach (about an hour on from Malibu) is another must-stop for the surfer’s paradise vibe. Find out about California Beaches here.

End day one in Santa Barbara and spend some time along State Street. The popular street is home to shops, galleries, museums and theatres.

Tip: Try to time your trip to avoid travelling through major cities during rush hours. It may seem obvious but it is worth restating as this can add hours to your trip. Starting from San Diego in the morning should mean travelling past Los Angeles in the middle of the day when it is quieter – hopefully!

Part 2 – Santa Barbara to Monterey

Head off on the Pacific Coast Highway to San Luis Obispo. Here you can enjoy the cultural delights of Bubblegum Alley (a 70 ft long alley of, yes, bubblegum)! Or the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa which is a 1700s Spanish mission with a museum.

The Pacific Coast Highway will now take you on towards Big Sur, but along the way please stop at San Simeon, home of the Elephant Seal Rookery and see the herds of Elephant seals sunning themselves on the beach. San Simeon is also home to Hearst Castle and Piedras Blancas Light Station.

Big Sur is a 90 mile coastal region rather than a specific place. It has rugged coastline, the totally instagrammable Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls and Point Sur Lighthouse. The latter two are within state parks –Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Point Sur State Historic Park.

The parks and particularly the falls, can close due to heavy rains, landfalls, fires etc, so always check the most up to date information before you travel. Highway 1 can also often be closed by the same events. You can check current conditions in the area here. 

Driving on to Monterey, setting for the fabulous Big Little Lies, and you will now be only a couple of hours from San Francisco. But, stay in Monterey and enjoy the Monterey Aquarium, a top research facility. Golf fans might schedule a round at Pebble Beach or Cypress Point. Try the dining options at nearby Pacific Grove.

Tip: Lodging and tourist facilities are very limited in the Big Sur area. If you have not booked in advance, then make sure that you enjoy this area as part of your day, before moving on towards Monterey for the night.

Part 3 – Monterey to San Francisco

You could just head straight in to San Francisco, but as the traffic will be busy, why not take a detour. 17 Mile Drive is a privately owned scenic road through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula.

The entrance fee of $10.50 (May 19) is reimbursed if you spend $35 at any of the Pebble Beach restaurants. This would be a wonderful way to spend the morning/lunch before heading into San Francisco to arrive before rush hour starts. Doing this trip in October means you can also visit the Monterey Monarch Butterfly Santuary as the butterflies arrive in this month.

Tip: Starting in San Diego means that you can drop your car off at one of the many downtown car hire locations before walking on to your accommodation. The downtown locations can be really busy for collection with long delays and limited car choice because the locations are so small. Dropping off here avoids those headaches!

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway 1

Tip: Driving north on Pacific Coast Highway puts a lane of road between you and the sudden and steep falls at the edge of the road.

The Pacific Coast Highway is a slow drive with many winds and hairpin bends. You will find sharp curves, steep falls and high cliffs along the often ‘rugged’ coastline. Use the pull ins to stop and admire the views rather than trying to look whilst you drive. Avoid driving in fog, or at night.

Be prepared to go slow and enjoy it. Keep fuel levels topped up for the remoter areas. On the coast sections storms can roll in at speed. Always check for current road conditions and check for closures using “SR1” or “Highway 1”.

Tip: Starting in San Diego guarantees no one-way fees

At certain times of year a one way fee can apply to cars taken from San Francisco (particularly the downtown rental depots) to other locations in California – or elsewhere. Returning a car hired elsewhere in California to San Francisco does not attract a one way fee.

Extend your trip – Pacific Coast Highway in a Motorhome

Hire a motorhome for your trip and stay in the heart of the country. Stay in campsites and state parks and follow your whims as you travel the road. A 22 ft motorhome sleeping up to 4 people can be hired for around £1,250 for a 7 day rental from San Francisco.  The package includes 1,500 miles, supplementary liability insurance, premium excess guarantee and kitchen equipment. Please click here to find out more about motorhomes.

Pacific Coast Highway Blogs we have enjoyed:

Independent Travel Cats – very detailed with lots of links and practical advice. – particularly for the Big Sur area.