3 Days in Pacific Coast Highway

August 31, 2014

Part 1: San Francisco to Pacific Grove (1 Day)

San Francisco to Santa Cruz

We picked up our rental car the evening before so that we could get an early start on Saturday morning. Saturday mornings in San Francisco are synonymous with the farmers market at the ferry terminal plaza down on the Embarcadero. Farmers from around the region gather here on Tuesdays, Thursdays but with Saturday being the big show. After a fresh breakfast with a great view of the Bay Bridge, we headed out on our road trip. By this time, the morning fog, another thing which San Francisco is synonymous with, had started to clear so the timing was right (see above travel tips). Our goal was to stay at all times on the Pacific Coast Highway to enjoy the coastal views. We followed signs to Daly City and after that to Pacifica, which just by the name hints you’re in the right direction.

  • San Francisco Farmers Market

As we entered the town of Pacifica, a beautiful beach came into view and with that, our first stop on this road trip. The beach here is wide and long, bordered by 2 small cliffs with wood cottages dotting the slopes. It’s a very popular spot with surfers and the beach was packed with surfers of all ages trying to catch a wave, mind you the water is freezing cold.

Pacifica California

Continuing south on California Route 1, our next unplanned stop was at Gray Whale Cove Beach. You can go down to the beach via a private path (sign says you’re not supposed to use it but everyone does). The pristine beach is beautiful, with white sand and sweeping views.

Back to the car but not for too long (this is the Pacific Coast Highway 1 after all), our next quick stop was just before Martini Creek. There’s plenty of room to stop after one of the bends in the road and you’ll see many cars stop here for great north and south views. The south view is of a really long stretch of fine beach that is Martini Creek.

  • Gray Whale Cove Beach Big Sur Pacific Coast Highway

Santa Cruz

Our first planned stop was the surf town of Santa Cruz, which is situated at the northern tip of  Monterey Bay. Settled by the Spanish in 1791, present-day Santa Cruz is known for its laid back atmosphere, college life, sunny weather, surfing, and of course, the famous boardwalk.

If you do spend the night here, there’s lots to explore aside from the waterfront area such as the downtown area at Pacific Avenue, the university campus and the outer beaches (which are supposed to be nice). In our case, however, we did not spend the night here (thankfully so) so we concentrated our time on the beachfront area of the Municipal Wharf and the boardwalk. Why ‘thankfully so’ you might ask? Well, Santa Cruz seemed like a crowded and tacky place, that lost its historical charm (mind you, we only saw the beachfront area).

Santa Cruz CaliforniaParking here is quite challenging and on weekends, the waterfront area is one giant traffic jam. So we did a little detour and parked on Gharkey Street to escape the traffic jams and the paid parking (7 day metered parking but do look out for local street signs). From there, it was a short stroll to the Municipal Wharf entrance. The wharf extends a few hundred meters into the water and for the most part, lined up with seafood restaurants, making it a popular spot, also for aspiring fishermen. A stroll along the length of the wharf also gives you a great view across the bay to the boardwalk and beach along with the famous amusement park. However, cars are also allowed on the wharf, taking away some of the serenity of walking over the water. You can also spot some seals off the wharf as they catch some sun on one of the floating docks.

Heading back into town, one cannot visit Santa Cruz without paying a visit to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, California’s oldest amusement park and a designated State Historic Landmark. Opened in 1907, this crowded stretch of beach is very popular with holidaymakers and can get extremely crowded. You’ll find here nostalgic carousel rides, bumping cars, video arcade and the famous Big Dipper, one of the best-known wooden roller coasters and one of the most visible landmarks in Santa Cruz. Rides cost between $3-6 but you can pick from a variety of passes. As you would expect from an amusement park, food and drinks are quite expensive and we had some very basic and overpriced junk food in the park (I am sure the price was cheaper in 1907). We headed out of here pretty quickly towards the car.

Overall, we are quite happy that we didn’t spend the night in Santa Cruz. A few hours are enough, in my opinion, considering the great beauty that is around this area. Santa Cruz was very tacky, crowded, loud and seemed to cater more to families with young children who are not in the business of exploring too much. It seems to be a very popular spot nonetheless, as we saw holidaymakers there from across the US (even honeymooners!).

Santa Cruz to Pacific Grove

Salinas CaliforniaThe Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Cruz to Pacific Grove looks like any ordinary 2 laned highway. However, you do catch a glimpse of the Salinas Valley which is also known as ‘America’s salad bowl’. You’ll soon find yourself driving through prime agricultural land, with endless fields on both sides of the road and countless tractors plowing along. Pretty much everything is grown here, from lettuce to artichoke and from strawberries to tomatoes. It’s also the backdrop for John Steinbeck’s famous novel ‘Of Mice and Men’. You’ll find quite a few road stalls where you can stop and buy some local produce.

As we didn’t have time to stop, we drove straight through Monterey and its famous Fisherman’s Wharf. We planned to come back here on the way back but didn’t have time in the end. The main attraction is the Monterey Aquarium and simply strolling along this wharf, which was once home to major sardine production.

Lover's Point Pacific GroveWe arrived in Pacific Grove in the early evening hours and checked into the Lover’s Point Inn on Ocean View Boulevard. This sounds like the name of a cheap motel and that’s exactly what this place is. However, Lover’s Point is the name of the most famous spot in Pacific Grove, which is at the very southern tip of the Monterey Peninsula. You can catch great views across the bay, making it a memorable spot and justifiably giving it its name (there’s also a footpath which can take you to Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey). The Lover’s Point Inn is situated right across from Lover’s Point and it’s quite an old motel style place. Rooms are quite basic and do need some renovation. There is no air conditioning but you do have a mini-fridge and a basic breakfast included in the price. Most rooms do face the ocean but ours faced the staircase and it was quite noisy with thin walls and the sound of people entering or leaving their room. It was extremely overpriced at $300 a night but we did book last minute and this was the least worst available option in the area (Carmel and other Pacific Grove accommodations were fully booked). We did see a few lovely bed and breakfasts dotted along the oceanfront and wished they had some vacancy (such as the Seven Gables Inn).

Pacific Grove is a lovely small and quiet town. Apparently, folks here really do their best to keep their tranquil way of life. Evidence to that is that Pacific Grove was the last town to rescind the Prohibition Act, only doing so in 1969.

Red House Cafe Pacific Grove

For dinner, we headed up 17th Street to Union Street, which is the town’s main street. We chose the Red House Cafe for dinner as we heard this place serves great American food with a European touch and very popular with the locals. The cafe is housed in a red Victorian house which dates back to 1895 with a lovely outside deck. Local owner Sylvia Medina who also doubles as a waitress was just lovely. We enjoyed a great steak and a seafood pasta, along with homemade lemonade (free refills). Fresh bread with delicious olive dip is served throughout as well. We were going to have breakfast at Pavel’s Backerei the next morning but as they’re closed on Sundays, Sylvia convinced us to try their signature breakfasts – guaranteeing we would not regret our decision.

Any Regrets?

  1. Don’t bother with junk food at the Santa Cruz boardwalk as we did. Head out to nearby Moss Landing for some fresh fish at Phil’s Fish Market.
  2. We didn’t get to see Monterey itself and its famous Fisherman’s Wharf, though the main highlight is the aquarium and I doubt we would have gone there anyway.
  3. There are good lodging options around Pacific Grove. Book early to save and to actually get your money’s worth.


  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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