Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
Where to go, what to do and where to stay – everything you need to know for planning an a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip itinerary.
Before we jump into the itinerary we ended up following ourselves, here are a few key things to think about when planning your perfect Californian road trip along the pacific coast highway.
We booked our car with Hertz and they were great. We went for a larger 4WD because we had A LOT of bags with us at the time and needed the space.
Hertz have a Gold membership plan that is free and lets you just rock and up and pick the car up with no hassle at all. We’ve been stuck in long queues before so really appreciated the change this time around. With Gold membership you stroll in, skip the check in desks and make your way straight to your car. The only interaction you have with people is on the way out of the parking lot where the staff quickly check your licence.
Car hire is relatively cheap in the States so you can use comparison sites like rentalcars.com and shop around for a deal especially if you are doing an extended trip. And if you’re ever going to hire a flash convertible they often have reasonable deals on them so this may be the time to do it!
We’ve also heard that Costco has started offering car hire so that might be worth looking into for the budget conscious.
When to go
Summer is obviously a very popular time for a Californian road trip with hot weather and a bunch of beautiful beaches to enjoy it on. I’d actually recommend an avoiding the peak summer season though. This recommendation is for 2 reasons.
First, summer means popular which means higher prices and crowds of people. Fighting crowds and struggling to find parking at the famous spots might make you enjoy the trip a little less.
Secondly, the weather in California, particularly Southern California, is pretty good year round and I’d argue the stifling heat and frequent wildfires in summer might not be the best time to be stuck in a car driving.
We went in December and had stunning weather – it was still warm enough for shorts and t-shirts!
A shoulder season (spring or autumn/fall) might be a good bet or at least try to avoid the busiest public holidays like July 4th to make sure there are plenty of good accommodation options still available.
Really though, you can do it whenever you want as it isn’t like the roads often close for snow or anything (at least not south of San Francisco). We even saw people sunbathing in San Diego in the middle of December. Some winter they get there!
Where to stop along the Pacific Coast Highway
This was the bit we researched the most. We didn’t want to get to the end of our trip and find out we had driven right past some amazing sights. There are a lot of options and places to choose from though so you can’t have everything unless you are going to take a month to do the trip.
We chose to start in San Francisco and made our way south to San Diego with 5 days of driving. Between those two cities you have a lot of potential places to stay and a lot of things you can see. We opted to stay in Monterey, Cambria, Pismo Beach, LA (Venice Beach) and San Diego.
A couple of places we discussed going to but didn’t end up going with as overnight spots were Big Sur, Santa Maria and Santa Barbara. We skipped these options for overnight stays mainly because we could find better, cheaper accommodation options elsewhere but they are all great options that are worth looking at.
Where to stay on the Pacific Coast Highway
We include the accommodation we stayed at and recommend at the bottom of each day of the itinerary below. We wanted to mostly stay at mid range places that weren’t hugely expensive but were still nice, had free wifi and free parking included and ideally had a free breakfast so we could save some cash on that and get on the road easily each morning.
We found that outside of the cities the accommodation options were a much better price but we still splurged on a few places like in LA where we wanted something a bit nicer with more room. The hotels and a short review of each is included below on each day’s itinerary but the short list of just where we stayed is below.
San Francisco – HI – San Francisco Downtown Hostel
Monterey – Casa Munras Hotel & Spa
Cambria – Moonstone Landing
Pismo Beach – Ocean Palms Motel Pismo Beach
Venice Beach, LA – Hotel Erwin
San Diego – Beach Haven Inn
Which route to take
The coastal route of course! Route 1 or Highway 1 is where you should stick to as much as possible. There are a few little sections where you may want to skip it for a little bit and drive the quicker inland route but particularly from Monterey south to LA, you should stick to Highway 1 as much as possible.
I would recommend either getting a GPS (and being careful to plan the route out on it and not let it plan the fastest route automatically) or looking up the directions before each day of driving and noting the key turns.
We had a love/hate relationship with our Garmin GPS at first but we’ve come to rely on it now and it is great once you know it’s limitations (mainly big cities or brand new roads!). You can buy it on Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.
We would look up and enter a few stops on the planned drive each day so that we could easily make sure we were on the right coastal route. Usually there are only a couple of key turns for each day of driving as you’re following Route 1 along the coast for the most part but you do want to avoid missing an exit and ending up on the inland route, missing out on that beautiful coast you came to see.
What are the roads like to drive?
Great – it is one of easier drives we’ve done. Route 1 on the Pacific Coast Highway is a pretty well maintained road. Although the main drag of traffic has been shifted inland at some points, Route 1 is still a great and easy road to drive.
There are plenty of stops along the route so you don’t have to worry too much about running out of gas or food and there are regular viewpoints or vistas signposted where you can park the car and take a break from driving to enjoy the view and take some selfies.
The main challenge in driving this route is just keeping your eyes on the road as you’re constantly being tempted by to look out at the beautiful coastal views.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
San Francisco makes a perfect starting point for a PCH road trip and there are a lot of things to do there so you should try spend at least 3 but ideally more than 4 days there if you can. Check out what we got up to in San Francisco here.
The key thing we looked at for San Francisco accommodation was location and price. It is easy to spend a lot of money in San Francisco but equally, you want to stay close enough to public transport that you can get around easily and you don’t want to stay in an absolute dump.
Daily Itinerary for 6 day Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Day 1: Pick up the car and drive from San Francisco to Monterey
Drive Time (Hours)
Things to do in Monterey
- whale watching
- check out fisherman’s wharf
- see the world class aquarium
Where to stay in Monterey
We stayed at Casa Munras Hotel & Spa. We had a free upgrade in rooms to a really nice suite and our only complaint was that we were only there for one night. It was a great location, walking distance from Fisherman’s wharf and the main street of restaurants and I imagine the pool there being very popular in summer.
Day 2: Drive Monterey to Cambria
Drive Time (Hours)
Things to do in Cambria
- Drive along 17 Mile drive in Monterey to check out the coast and some world class golf courses such as the famous Pebble Beach (cost is $10 payable at the gate and the best gate to enter is Pacific Grove Gate)
- See Bixby Bridge
- Hike around Big Sur at Pfeiffer State Park
- See McWay Falls
- Elephant Seals Vista Point
- Hearst Castle
Where to stay in Cambria
We stayed at Moonstone Landing. The rooms were HUGE and awesome plus we were literally across the road from the beach and a great walkway. We drove into town for dinner but it was a great spot and also had free coffee (available all the time) and a decent breakfast included.
Day 3: Drive Cambria to Pismo Beach
Drive Time (Hours)
Things to do in Pismo Beach
- Check out the Pismo Pier
- Walk on the beach and grab a frozen yoghurt at Pismo Yoghurt
- Try a famous cinnamon roll at Old West Cinnamon Rolls
- Go wine tasting at some nearby wineries or at Taste of the Valleys
Where to stay in Pismo Beach
We stayed at Ocean Palms Motel Pismo Beach. This was the only hotel we didn’t really LOVE on our trip. It was OK and worked fine for a night (and it was comfortable and clean) but we just didn’t love the vibe of the place for some reason. The breakfast was kind of odd too because you’re just in the small lobby/check in area with a make your own waffle station.
Day 4: Drive Pismo Beach to Venice Beach, LA
Drive Time (Hours)
Things to do in LA
- Check out Santa Monica Pier and the Venice Beach Boulevard (walk or bike)
- Visit the famous Gold’s Gym or Muscle Beach for a workout
- Explore Venice Canals
- Go shopping in Santa Monica
- Go to Universal Studios
- check out Hollywood Boulevard
- Get a great view of LA from the Hollywood sign
Where to Stay in LA
We stayed at Hotel Erwin in Venice Beach. We were originally looking to stay in Santa Monica but couldn’t find accommodation that worked well for us. Hotel Erwin offered valet parking which was key in LA as a lot of places we found charged a lot for parking or didn’t have any available. We splurged here to get a nice big room with a kitchenette and loved the location.
The only complaint was the price really (it was expensive and more than we paid at any of the other hotels).
Day 5 & 6: Explore LA & then drive from Venice Beach, LA to San Diego
Drive Time (Hours)
Things to do in San Diego
- Eat the best Mexican Food in the world
- Explore UCSD campus
- Watch some beautiful sunsets
- Check out the beaches
- Go beer tasting
I’d recommend sticking around in San Diego for a while too – we had 5 days there and could have easily stayed for longer. To read more about things to do in San Diego, click here.
Where to stay in San Diego
We stayed at Beach Haven Inn in Pacific Beach. The location was perfect for us (Pacific Beach has everything nearby and everything else is easy to get to) and the suite we got was great value. We had a separate lounge, kitchen and bedroom and it was even larger than our old flat in London.
*Some of the links used above are affiliate links – there is no difference in cost to you but we do get a small commission if you book or buy through the link. As always, we only ever recommend and link to accommodation that we have stayed at and thought was good or things that we use ourselves.