3 Days in Pacific Coast Highway

August 31, 2014

Big Sur Pacific Coast Highway California

Get into your car and go on a road trip in one of the world’s most famous scenic roads. Drive by Pacific cliffs, rugged beaches, glamorous towns and engineering marvels.

The Pacific Coast Highway, also known as California Route 1, is one of the most scenic drives in the entire world. Pacific Coast Highway California Route 1Running along the coast of California, this stretch of coastal highway is at times an engineering marvel, cutting along steep cliffs with the Pacific Ocean crashing down below. Traveling as a couple, we didn’t have time to go all the way from north to south or from San Francisco to Los Angeles, so we focused on the stretch of highway from San Francisco to Big Sur, enjoying surf towns, majestic scenery, beautiful beaches, ritzy towns, and even dolphins and whales. This was part of a holiday in San Francisco and we ventured out of town for this classic California road trip.

The Pacific Coast Highway road trip was one of the most pleasant drives we ever took. The combination of natural beauty and that great California quality of life that has become famous, are what made this drive special. We drove through beautiful beaches enjoyed by surfers, deserted coves, lovely small towns, sunny valleys, pacific cliffs, and glamorous historical towns. A road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 is certainly a must-do!

What’s Included in this Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary?

  • Part 1: San Francisco, Santa Cruz & Pacific Grove [Skip To Page]
  • Part 2: Pacific Grove, 17 Mile Drive, Carmel Valley, Carmel & Point Lobos [Skip To Page]
  • Part 3: Bixby Bridge, Big Sur & Back to San Francisco [Skip To Page]

Travel Tips for a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip:

  • Lonely Planet Coastal California CoverDon’t leave home without the Lonely Planet Guide To Coastal California, only $14 on Amazon! It’s got loads of photos, national park & small town info that, together with this guide, will be your best friend on this epic road trip.
  • Book your accommodations as early as possible, especially around the Carmel area. During peak season, rooms are snatched quickly and prices can very quickly rise to $200-$300 for an extremely basic motel room. This guide includes a few recommendations.
  • The classic route is to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles or vice versa. Some will drive on Highway 1 from SFO as far south as Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo and then drive back on the 101 Freeway. Between Carmel and Big Sur, there are no reasonable shortcuts to get from Highway 1 to the 101 Freeway. You’ll pretty much have to use Highway 1 in both directions. The first reasonable transfer happens between Cambria and Harmony on Highway 46.
  • While distances seem short on the map, you’ll find driving times a lot longer from point to point since you are stopping a lot on this beautiful road and the road itself is slow-moving at times. Leave plenty of time to relax and enjoy the beauty of this breathtaking stretch of road.
  • Speaking of relaxing, be sure to have plenty of gas in the car as stations are rare at times and expensive for the most part.
  • There are plenty of marked vista points and wide shoulders to pull over and soak the views. These are also signs of worthwhile stops.
  • There are also some great hikes around Big Sur (Partington Cove, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park) so if you have the time, check those out.
  • Especially around the Carmel vicinity, summer fog plays a really big part in the weather pattern and will usually clear in the afternoon (no guarantees though). Leave whatever doesn’t require sunlight to the morning and late afternoons when it gets cloudy. The scenery here is breathtaking and as you know, the sun is the secret sauce to almost everything so plan accordingly.
  • That said, it can get chilly if the weather is cloudy so even if the calendar shows July or August, bring something warm. Dressing in light layers is the trick.
  • Especially around the Salinas area and even south of Carmel, you’ll find farmer stalls on the side of the road. The fruits and vegetables are as fresh as they come and can make for a really nice picnic.

Our Pacific Coast Highway Route:

Click on the map to open in Google Maps

Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary



  1. “one of the most scenic drives in the entire world”.. Totally true. Just came back from this road trip 2 months ago and I’m always aching to go back.

    Photo journal covering 500 miles of California in 2 days – bit.ly/shelynPCH

    1. Avichai & Shelyn,
      We’re doing a 3-day 2 night trip end December, one-way SF to LA.
      – Where should we stay those two nights?
      – What weather conditions should we consider — and how should we plan accordingly?
      – Any other pointers?

      1. Hi Shelyn

        If that’s all the time you have, you could spend 1 night in Carmel By The Sea and one night in San Luis Obispo. Check the distances on Google map but I just checked and it looks OK. To save extra time, drive from SF on the 101 and not Highway 1 to Monterey and only then get on Highway 1. There are some nice sights but the good stuff starts after Monterey. As for other pointers, just be careful if roads are icy or foggy. Check this link: http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo/display.php?page=sr1

        It isn’t much time to do the whole leg from SF to LA so you might be a bit in a rush. It’s still beautiful though and most sights are just off the road. Be sure to have 1/2 day in Carmel. It’s beautiful to stroll around, check out the beach and have lunch.


  2. Hello, Doing a July 7th-12th Flying into SF flying out of LA. Looking for a decent itinerary. Places to stay, where we should stop etcetc.. Any suggestions would be helpful

    1. Hi Chris
      The itinerary I published in this post has you covered from SFO to Big Sur. I would spend 2 nights in Carmel and you can have a look where I stayed which was a great place. From Big Sur (McWay Falls) to L.A, I would consider stopping in San Luis Obispo, San Simeon (visit Hearst Castle) and Santa Barbara as you really get close to Los Angeles. Hope this helps. Enjoy your trip!

  3. Hello,
    I am travelling next october with my girlfriend. We are thinking to spend 3 days with its nights in the route from SFO to LA.
    Also, we are thinking to split the lodge between Carmel, Cambria and Santa Barbara.
    What do you think about?

    1. Hi Joao

      I think that’s a very good plan with well spread out lodgings. Since there’s quite a bit to see in Carmel (and the vibe is good and chic), perhaps skip Santa Cruz and pickup HWY 1 just before Monterey (i.e. really start your PCH trip with the 17 Mile Drive). Have a great time and let me know if you have more questions, suggestions.

  4. This sounds like exactly what I am looking for. However, we were wanting to spend 1 night in Carmel and 1 night in San Simeon or Big Sur, what are your thoughts. We only have 2 nights and will be leaving form the SF area, with no need to tour the city as we live near and visit frequently. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Rhonda

      I think it really depends on what time of the day you land in SFO and whether there will be delays or not. Assuming you land in the early morning hours and pick up a car, Carmel is only 2 hours away. Add to that a few stops and it makes sense. Carmel to San Simeon via Highway 1 is currently closed so I suggest checking the HWY status on line.

  5. Hello

    We are a family of 4 from India and shall be travelling from SFO to LA and would be driving on pacific coast for which we have 2 days and nights , which towns you will recommend to stay a night each ? Both kids are under 14

    1. Hi. I would look at Santa Cruz (for the amusement park), Monterey (for the aquarium), San Luis Obispo (“major” town after Big Sur) and Santa Barbara. Hope this helps!

  6. My Girlfriend and I will be making a trip from San Diego to San Fran and I’m planning on leaving SD tuesday and staying in SF friday night to fly out saturday morning. 4 days to get up the coast. I’m concerened that LA will throw a hiccup in my drive time due to traffic. Any suggestions on how to plan around that? we plan on staying in Monterey area Thursday night and leaving Friday to travel to SF and spend the rest of the day there.

    1. Hi Matthew. I would suggest to really rely on the Waze traffic app for planning your legs. Perhaps there is a way to bypass the LA traffic but it might not be as bad you think, depending on what time you reach the metro.

  7. Hello,
    I just saw your very nice post online. Just a few comments, I owned the Cottage of Sweets for 38 years, just retired and loved my life. You may not know this but the Monterey Peninsula is only foggy during the summer months. To really see the beauty of the area, go in October. It is actually warmer then and it is totally clear and you get to see the spectacular views. The fog is nice in the summer ( we called it our local air conditioner) but to see the real beauty of the area, come in the fall, and the prices for hotel rooms are a bit cheaper as well. Glad you enjoyed your visit.

    1. Thanks for the helpful comment Lanny (and for the sweets over the years). I updated the guide with your advice on the fog.

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