Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in Five Days

Pacific Coast Highway Travel's advice on driving the Pacific Coast Highway in five days, including the best places to stay over, and the best things to do and see.

Red Mustang car stopped on the Pacific Coast Highway

We've written other pages on driving the Pacific Coast Highway in two days, in three days, and in four days. If you can spare five days to drive the highway then so much the better! 

California Road signs including the Pacific Coast Highway

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in Five Days

If you have five days to drive the Pacific Coast Highway then you have even more options available to you. You can check our suggestion for a three-day drive and simply spend an extra night in both Santa Barbara and Cambria.

You could also look at our four-day itinerary and spend an extra night in one of those recommended stops: Santa Monica, Pismo Beach, Carmel, Monterey, or San Francisco if you’re going all the way into the city.

The San Diego Skyline at NightThe San Diego Skyline at Night

Driving Time from San Diego to San Francisco

Purely for convenience we’ve worked out this itinerary assuming you’re driving south to north, but if you’re going north-south simply reverse it. The total driving time between San Diego and San Francisco, along the coast, is about twelve hours.

Map of the California coast

This means that in five days you’d average a little over two hours driving per day, though in reality you’ll probably drive four hours a day on three days and stay put for two days, or only drive to explore the local area.

If you spend two nights in Carmel, for example, you’ll probably drive to Monterey and back on one day, and spend all day there. If you stay in Cambria for two nights, you might want to take a drive inland through wine country.

However, if you enjoy staying somewhere different each night, this is our suggestion for doing just that.

Santa Monica Beach in CaliforniaSanta Monica Beach

Day One

Here we’d recommend just what we did to start the four-day itinerary, which is to drive from San Diego to Santa Monica. This should take about three hours, depending on the traffic when you get closer to Los Angeles. It gives you plenty of time to stop and explore the beach towns on the way, like Laguna Beach or Huntington Beach, or visit the lovely Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. It also gets you to the far side of Los Angeles for an easier start on Day Two.

A drummer busking on Santa Monica PierBusking on Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica is also a really pleasant place to spend an evening. There’s plenty of accommodation to choose from, and plenty of places to eat, to suit all budgets. It’s easy to explore on foot, and if you get there early enough you can pay a visit to Santa Monica Pier.

Santa Barbara Mission in CaliforniaSanta Barbara Mission

Day Two

We’d recommend going from Santa Monica to overnight in Santa Barbara. The drive along the coast should take you about 90 minutes, giving you plenty of time to take breaks in Malibu and Ventura, which are probably the two most interesting stops on the way.

Malibu sign

You should still get to Santa Barbara in time to enjoy a few hours there, and have a bit more free time the following morning before you need to set off.

Cambria's Folksy Main StreetCambria's Folksy Main Street

Day Three

This day we’d recommend driving from Santa Barbara to Cambria. It should take you almost three hours, and there are plenty of places you can take a break, including Solvang, Pismo Beach, and Morro Bay. Even if you spend an hour in each place, perhaps stopping off for lunch in one of them, you’ll still easily get to Cambria by the early evening.

The view from Hearst CastleHearst Castle

While you’re planning this part of your itinerary, we’d recommend booking a tour of Hearst Castle for the morning of your Day Four. It’s one of the must-see sights along the Pacific Coast Highway.

The view from Hearst CastleHearst Castle

Day Four

Leave Cambria for Hearst Castle, and allow time for a short stop at the Piedras Blancas Beach just north of there, to see the amazing elephant seals. Tonight you’re aiming for either Carmel or Monterey, which are very close together. If you’re traveling as a couple, we’d recommend Carmel. If it’s a family vacation, stay in Monterey, and as close to Cannery Row as you can.

The California coast of Big SurBig Sur

The whole drive should take you between two and three hours, but you’ll want to allow for lots of leisurely photo stops as you drive the best part of the whole coast, Big Sur.

Monterey Bay AquariumMonterey Bay Aquarium

Day Five

For your final day we’re assuming you’re heading for San Francisco International Airport, which is just over a two-hour drive from either Carmel or Monterey. If you’re going all the way into the city itself, it’s only an extra 30 minutes or so. 

The coast near Santa Cruz in CaliforniaThe Coast Near Santa Cruz

If you have all day, you easily have time to do some more sightseeing before you set off… but be careful if you visit the wonderful Monterey Bay Aquarium as you’ll be there half the day!

Giant redwood forests in CaliforniaDon't Miss the Giant Redwoods

As it is, you’ll want time to perhaps stop off in Santa Cruz and see the boardwalk, and after that leave time to see the giant redwoods. If you still have time to spare then Half Moon Bay is a cute little place to visit.

And there you have it – driving the Pacific Coast Highway in five days!

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