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

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.

Part 2: Pacific Grove to Carmel (1 Day)

  • Red House Cafe

So the following morning, we headed back the same way on 17th street to the Red House Cafe, this time marveling at the charming and colorful wooden Victorian houses which all date far back in time. Pacific Grove is super cute! Sylvia sure speaks the truth and breakfast was marvelously delicious. We had the buttermilk pancakes and cinnamon brioche french toast ($10 on average), so fresh and prepared with great finishing touches. As in America, coffee is served with an endless bottom and before you know it, your cup is already full. Sylvia’s tips didn’t stop with breakfast options and she recommended a stop in Carmel Valley and a few other tips for food and wine in Carmel. We don’t usually go back to the same restaurant twice but this turned out to be a great move!   

17 Mile Drive

Pacific Grove CaliforniaDespite it still being foggy, as most summer mornings in this area are, we ventured out for another famous scenic road, the 17 Mile Drive. This private road connects Pacific Grove and Carmel along the Pacific Ocean, passing through the famous Pebble Beach and the Del Monte Forest along the Monterey Peninsula. Still in Pacific Grove, we drove along Ocean View Boulevard which turns into Sunset Drive towards the entrance gate of 17 Mile Drive. This stretch of oceanfront scenery is prime real estate property with simple yet inspiring houses with breathtaking views. People here have an excellent quality of life and certainly have a great view for their morning coffee.

Though not much happens in Pacific Grove on a Saturday night, we were happy to stay here for a couple of reasons. The first one is that Santa Cruz was not our cup of tea and would have pretty much been stuck there without enjoying the quieter southern side of the bay. The second reason is that 17 Mile Drive is a lovely scenic road, worth seeing in daylight so stopping at Pacific Grove for the night is a good option where you can then start the next day with the 17 Mile Drive (mind you it might be foggy).

Pebble Beach 17 Mile DriveWe entered the 17 Mile Drive via the Pacific Grove Gate paying the $10 per car toll to the Pebble Beach Corporation (as if they need it), which runs this place. The name is a bit tricky since quite a few roads are crisscrossing the wealthy gated community of Pebble Beach so staying on the 17 Mile Drive can be a bit tricky, look out for the signs. The first stop is Spanish Bay, a wide and rugged stretch of beach with good views to the adjacent Pebble Beach Golf Links and its surrounding enormous mansions. Spanish Bay is also home to a few shipwrecks who crashed along its waters many years ago.

There are quite a few places to stop along the road but everything is dwarfed by the mother of all stops, The Lone Cypress Tree, which is the icon of Pebble Beach. This Cypress tree has been perched on a seaside cliff for over 200 years and is by far the most visited place along this stretch of road. From here, we continued along the drive stopping at a few spots before heading out in Carmel Gate. You can appreciate the beauty of this road even on a cloudy day. It’s well worth the $10 toll.

Lone Cypress Tree 17 Mile Drive

Carmel Valley

Since it was still cloudy, we wanted to wait a little bit before entering Carmel and so, on a tip from Sylvia back from the Red House Cafe, we ventured out to Carmel Valley, a short 20-minute drive inland. The rule of thumb in this area is that the seaside is foggy and the valleys are sunny. Drive just a few minutes inland and the sky opens up to that famous California sunshine. The drive was lovely, with great views of the valley below, home to wineries, ranches and of course… golf courses. Carmel Valley itself is tiny and there a handful of dining and wine tasting options, however, on Sunday, most are either closed or open late. So after a short stroll in the sun and a drive through one of the side streets up to the hills for some fine views (and once again envious wooden cottages), we headed back to Carmel.

Carmel Valley California


Carmel-by-the-Sea, simply known as Carmel is the residential jewel of this area. An extremely affluent community, the residents of this small town will do everything to preserve their way of life and have been known to pass peculiar municipal laws for this reason (no neon signs are allowed and no high heels over 2 inches are allowed without a special permit). Houses are not street numbered and each has its unique name! With a great beach, a historic Spanish Mission and a lovely nearby national park – Carmel owes its modern-day notoriety for its countless number of art galleries, an extreme abundance of fancy cars, great wealth, and one famous former mayor… Mr. Clint Eastwood.

Where To Stay In Carmel?

Carmel is the perfect place to base yourself in for one or two nights while exploring the area. We spent one night at Carmel Lodge which was a great improvement from the previous night’s stay. The lodge is one of the most affordable options in Carmel but that doesn’t mean you need to compromise comfort and cleanliness. Rooms are usually large and comfortable with a simple breakfast delivered to your room.



Exploring Carmel & The Area

Parking is easy in Carmel and free for the most part. We parked our car near the beach and walked the rest of the way. By noon, the sun managed to fight through the fog and starting our visit with Carmel Beach made a lot of sense. Carmel Beach was one of the highlights of our trip and definitely our favorite spot in Carmel (mind you, it was sunny).

Carmel Beach CaliforniaThis soft white sand beach is wide and long giving you plenty of opportunities to find your own spot. We were treated to quite a spectacle of dozens of dolphins swimming nearby, super close to the beach. You could see that the water was full of nutrients and the dolphins were having a field day. To join the party, packs of Cormorants were hunting Kamikaze style, diving headfirst into the water to catch the fish. You could stay here for hours gazing at this! We strolled along the beach finally settling down on one of the sand dunes, which are much warmer than the beach below, to enjoy the sand and the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. We also enjoyed a nice stroll along the path just as you enter the beach, where you can catch a glimpse of the cypress trees and ocean-facing houses that will surely make you jealous.

Carmel Beach California

We ventured out to town via Ocean Avenue, Carmel’s main street. Our first stop was the Cottage of Sweets for some lovely chocolates and an assortment of candy by the pound. The staff is very friendly and you’ll find anything here, even my favorite- Dutch licorice. One block up the road was Carmel Bakery, where we had lunch. This nonpretentious place has an excellent selection of baked goods and delicious sandwiches.

  • Carmel California Pacific Coast Highway

From there, we headed right on Dolores, soaking in the obscene amount of Ferraris, Porsches, Rolls Royces, and even McLarens. If you like fancy cars, you’ll like Carmel. We stopped at Cantinetta Luca, which was recommended to us by Sylvia back in Pacific Grove, to make dinner reservations.

Carmel California

Back on Dolores, this time to the other side of Ocean Avenue, we stopped in one of Carmel’s many passages, the Secret Garden. These are small well-kept alleys, each with its own flavor. The Secret Garden was quite cool and led to a Tibetan shop with lots of relaxing sounds and incense burning in the air- super tranquil!

  • Carmel Passages California

In between these stops, we couldn’t miss the wonderful art that is on display (and of course, sold) in the dozens of fine art galleries that line Carmel’s streets. A particular one that we enjoyed was Renoir Art Galleries on 6th Avenue between Dolores and Lincoln. You’d imaging art galleries being quite a pretentious place, however, art advisor Jim Seregos welcomed us in and was a wonderful host with a wealth of knowledge about art and life itself. He showed us the different collections and introduced us to Mario Simic, whose fine work is on display. Mario, Serbian by origin, has been living and creating in the US since the ’70s. He’s famous for his magnificent artwork of iconic American landscapes and by staring at some of his paintings (ask Jim to show you the moonlight painting), you are whisked away on a great journey to nature’s finest spots. It was really interesting to have a conversation with Jim and Mario, and to get a sense of this line of business (not to mention the art is simply spectacular).

Renoir Art Galleries Carmel

It was around 4 pm at this time and before checking in at our hotel, we had one more stop to make. We made the 15-minute drive to Point Lobos Natural Reserve. It’s $10 to get in by car or a donation if you walk in on foot. This park is home to numerous small tidal coves with the towering cliffs of Big Sur visible to the south. There are a few good (and short) hiking trails with the main highlight being Sea Lion Cove (though there are other good options, including scuba diving). Carved by the ocean, Sea Lion Cove is home to hundreds of seals and sea lions. When we were there, they were catching some last rays out on the rocks so we couldn’t see them (rangers do offer binocular view) but we sure could hear them. They were so loud, it sounded like a bad orchestra trying to play Mozart. Overall, it was a really nice visit, with our first taste of the rugged nature to come. If you’re lucky, you might spot some Gray Whales.

  • Sea Lion Cove Point Lobos Pacific Coast Highway

For dinner, we headed to Cantinetta Luca, a lovely Italian restaurant. We had the Napolitana pizza and gnocchi. The pizza was pretty good but the gnocchi was quite small. Wine is also quite expensive, with $12 per glass for a 6 oz. glass (it’s pretty big though). The nighttime also gave us a great opportunity to really appreciate the art as the streets were empty and the galleries light up their front windows.

  • Carmel Art California

Any Regrets?

  1. 17 Mile Drive has some excellent scenery but it’s harder to appreciate the beauty when it’s cloudy. Not much you can do about that….
  2. Being out west, we wanted to enjoy the sunset with some great Pacific Ocean view at the Highlands Inn but once again, the weather dictates everything as there is a rare chance you’ll see a sunset here as the clouds move in late in the afternoon.

Part 3: Big Sur and Back to San Francisco (1 Day)

Hansel and Gretel House CarmelAfter enjoying a simple but adequate breakfast in bed at the Carmel Lodge, we were about to embark on the rugged part of this Pacific Coast Highway road trip, a perfect climax – Big Sur. But as you know by now, morning fog means you want to kill some time and give the sun a chance to break through before reaching the day’s highlights (check the weather reports though as it tends to be foggy during the summer). So there were two more things to check out in Carmel before leaving.

The first stop was a quick one in Carmel’s upper residential area on the lovely Torres Street, where the road is constructed around the trees and not the other way around. All houses are super cute here and look more like fancy wood cabins. However, between  5th and 6th Avenue, you’ll spot a different looking house, straight out of a fairytale. This house is named the Hansel and Gretel house and you’ll understand why when you see it up close.

Before leaving for our last stop in Carmel, we stopped by at Carmel Bakery for a second time, this time stocking up for the day’s drive. We drove about 5 minutes out of town to Carmel Mission, a Spanish Mission established in 1771 by Junipero Serra. A very worthwhile $6.50 admission takes you back in time into this tranquil mission. This place has a lot of history, having changed hands between the missionaries, the Mexicans and finally the Americans. Having gone through extensive periods of restoration, the mission is a great escape. Stroll through the basilica and the outer gardens and really get the feeling for what it was like here, centuries ago.

  • Carmel Mission California

Big Sur

By noon, the fog had not cleared over Carmel and we started our final California Route 1 journey to Big Sur. The landscape just south of Carmel down to San Simeon 90 miles to the south, is extremely rugged and part of it is known as Big Sur. We are talking about towering cliffs, a snaking road and sharp bends – with the secret sauce, the Pacific Ocean. Big Sur is the picture you have in your mind when you think about California HWY 1 and in fact, many television car commercials are shot in this area. You’ll find yourself stopping the car after almost every bend in the road, as majestic scenery is revealed in front of you. There are plenty of stopping options but be careful with overtaking as it’s mostly a one-laned road. Driving times will also be a lot longer with all the worthwhile stops so plan accordingly and in general – this is probably one of the nicest drives you’ll ever make so take the time to relax and enjoy the beauty of Big Sur.

Highway 1 California

The first real stop on our journey was Bixby Bridge, 30 minutes south of Carmel. You’ll probably recognize this bridge from photos or commercials and there’s a good place to stop just north of the bridge (don’t be confused with a much smaller and similar-looking bridge a few miles before). Bixby Bridge was completed in 1932 and it’s one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. Take the time to stroll around and walk down just below the bridge on the marked path for great ocean views. We even spotted some California Condors flying around.

  • Bixby Bridge California Pacific Coast Highway

We continued heading south and it was still pretty cloudy. A few miles south of Bixby Bridge, you’ll notice a huge rock rising from the ocean with a lighthouse at the top. This is Point Sur Historic Park. We didn’t stop here but it looked pretty cool. A few more minutes of driving and the sun finally made its first appearance of the day and would stay with us as we continued to drive south. After a few miles, we passed by Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where you’ll find some lodging and eating options. There are some fine walks in this area and one of them is a stroll down to Pfeiffer Beach, famous for its natural rock arch. It’s extremely hard to locate and apparently you need to turn on Sycamore Canyon Road. We missed this turn and by the time we realized it, were already miles to the south.

Continuing to stop at many beautiful spots along the way, we passed by another beach we wanted to explore but ended up short on time, Partington Cove. You’ll see quite a few cars parked on the side of the road but other than that, it’s pretty hard to find. There’s a nice hike down to the secluded beach which takes you through a man-made tunnel. Our last stop on Big Sur would be McWay Falls, just after the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Just before you reach McWay Falls, you won’t be able to miss a large vista. Stop the car here for great north and south views. The view is breathtaking and we even saw quite a few Gray Whales snacking just off the coastline.

California Highway 1

And now to McWay Falls. Park the car on the side of the road but be careful (not sure if there’s a proper parking spot) and walk down the path to one of the nicest spots we ever visited. McWay Falls is a waterfall that spills directly into the ocean and in low tide, spills onto a beautiful golden crescent-shaped beach (try and come when the tide is low). You can’t go down to the beach and that further adds to the beauty of this place as only the birds can catch a tan and cool off in the freshwaters. The waterfall spilled directly into the ocean at all times up until a very serious 1983 landslide which completely altered this area (it still gets battered by winter waves). It’s actually a lot nice like this and you’ll want to spend hours staring at this memorable spot.

Be sure to walk to the edge of the path. The views keep getting better and better and there’s a great view looking to the north as well as signs which explain the history of this place. This spot was the home of the Brown family, who had this view all to themselves until 1961, when Helen Brown donated this area to the state and asked that it be named after Julia Pfeiffer, one of the area’s pioneers. Before leaving, be sure to relax for a few minutes. Listen to a beautiful natural orchestra of waves crashing onto the beach, retreating into the ocean, and within those few seconds until the next wave comes in, the sound of the waterfall crashing onto the beach – all with a picture-perfect postcard view! This was definitely the highlight of the day.

  • McWay Falls Big Sur California Pacific Coast Highway

The clock showed around 4 pm and we wanted to head back to San Francisco. The best way back is turning around and heading back towards Carmel on the Pacific Coast Highway. The drive to San Francisco is 160 miles and takes just over 3 hours (if there’s no traffic). You’ll connect to the much faster 101 Freeway just after Salinas.

Aside from eating great burgers and maybe catching a baseball game, another ‘must-do’ in the US is of course … shopping. En route from Big Sur to San Francisco, we stopped at Gilroy Premium Outlets, where 145 brand stores await your credit card (it’s also a good way to kill time until rush hour is over). This place deserves a good few hours and you’ll want to use a car to navigate from one part of the mall to the other. We didn’t have too much time and did a quick round before heading back to San Francisco. We arrived back in San Francisco at about 9 pm, tired but full of great memories. A road trip on California’s Pacific Coast Highway is indeed a traveler’s ‘must-do’.

Any Regrets?

  1. We definitely were on the losing side of the ‘waiting for the fog to clear strategy’ this time around. It was actually still cloudy in the Carmel area on our drive back. So don’t trust the weather report too much or at least check what the weather is like down in Big Sur, as a few miles can make the difference.
  2. Had we more time, we could have gone down to a few more beaches or taken things a little bit slower than we did.
  3. There is still so much to see further south as the coast continues to be rugged for miles. Other points of interest also include Hearst Castle, San Simeon, and San Luis Obispo. Of course, the classic route takes you to super relaxed Santa Barbara, Malibu, and eventually Los Angeles – but you need at least a full week for this journey.

3 Days On The Pacific Coast Highway - Sample Itinerary
3 Days Pacific Coast Highway Roadtrip Itinerary

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  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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