Pacific Coast Highway Travel's advice on driving the Pacific Coast Highway in four days, including the best places to stay over, and the best things to do and see.
We've written other pages on Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in Two Days and Driving PCH in Three Days. If you've got four days to drive from San Diego to San Francisco, or from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so much the better.
One option is to follow our suggestions for driving the route in three days and simply stay an extra day in one of the main stopping places, to relax and explore. The drive has many places where you would really enjoy an extra day, perhaps to relax on the beach, or to visit museums, or Hearst Castle, depending on your interests.
If you like the sound of that then places we'd recommend for a two-night stop would include Santa Barbara (museums, shops), Pismo Beach (chill), Cambria (beach, nearby wine country), Carmel (romance, food, shops, beach), and Monterey (history, aquarium).
If you want to stay somewhere different every night, that's an equally good option. You'll get to enjoy four places instead of three, so read on.
It takes about twelve hours to drive between San Diego and San Francisco by the coastal route, and about nine hours if you take I-5. So if you're driving the California coast in four days and want to stay somewhere different each night, you'll be averaging three hours a day driving. This is a relaxing way to do it and allows for plenty of stops for photos or short hikes or whatever you want to do.
From the planning point of view we're assuming you're driving south to north, from San Diego to San Francisco. If you're driving north to south, simply reverse the route. It still works. And if you have the choice and want to know if one direction is better than the other, read our Drive the Highway page.
One option is to spend day one driving slowly through the southern California beach towns along the coast to Santa Monica for your first night. That gets you to the other side of Los Angeles for another relaxing start on day two.
The driving time on this day ought to be about three hours, but it does depend on traffic, especially around Los Angeles. It can be as much as five hours, so you should definitely check your GPS before you set off, or Google Maps or Bing Maps, to get an idea of the traffic conditions.
Assuming all is well, leave San Diego on I-5 heading north, and take exit 26A for La Jolla Parkway West. This takes you into La Jolla, where you should have time for a stop and a walk around. There's plenty to do in La Jolla, including the contemporary art museum and the aquarium, though you'll probably have to choose one or the other.
If you want to see the aquarium, you can visit it on your way out of town. Don't go back to I-5 but continue north on North Torrey Pines Road. This is inland at first but will take you to the coast through Del Mar and Encinitas. Beyond here is Carlsbad, Oceanside, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, and Newport Beach, any of which would make a good stopping point if it's getting to lunchtime.
One of our favorite places along this stretch of the coast is Huntington Beach. If you only have time for one stop, then make it here. Apart from the beach, there's plenty to do and see, and there's good shopping too. It will also make a lovely lunch stop if it's that time of day. There are plenty of places with ocean views, with one of the best of all being the diner at the end of the pier. What could be better than clam chowder while surrounded by the ocean and overlooking the beach?
If you're more into wildlife than shopping or surfing then cut your time short in Huntington Beach as you have a wonderful afternoon in store. First stop will be the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, where they've seen over 200 different bird species in the marshlands, dunes, mudflats, and other habitats.
A little further north is the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, another beautiful spot which offers protection for several threatened or endangered species. Make the most of your time here as when you hit the road you're heading for the joys of Los Angeles traffic.
From Seal Beach or Huntington Beach you have two choices for crossing Los Angeles. The easiest option is to get on I-405 and take it across the city till you get to Junction 53B and take I-10 West and follow signs for Santa Monica.
The other option is to stick to the coast and drive through (or stop off in) Long Beach, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Venice Beach and into Santa Monica that way. It looks like I-405 has got to be quicker but it totally depends on the traffic. Compare routes on your GPS, Google Maps or Bing Maps, and see what they say. It also depends how late it now is, and whether you want to see those beach towns or just get to Santa Monica.
Try and get an early-ish start if you can, as our suggestion is that you try to get to somewhere like Pismo Beach, which should be a three-hour or so drive, and spend an hour or two in Santa Barbara around lunchtime. This is where you'll really start to appreciate that you're driving the Pacific Coast Highway.
In Santa Monica you get on to CA-1, the Pacific Coast Highway, and head north through Malibu. You stay on CA-1 as far as Oxnard, where we always manage to get lot, but eventually after some zigging and zagging CA-1 joins US-101 North, and you follow this all the way into Santa Barbara.
If you want to take a break then we prefer Ventura over Oxnard, as it has more of a PCH feel to it, but given the four-day time limit we recommend motoring on and making the most of Santa Barbara. Check our Santa Barbara page for some of the many things you can do there. This includes having lunch and we suggest trying one of several places on Stearns Wharf, which juts out into the ocean.
Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach should only take a couple of hours, so you can either spend more time in Santa Barbara, or if you're a beach-lover get to Pismo Beach and relax there. If you're making good time and want to push on then another hour gets you to Cambria.
If you can get to Cambria you've more time to enjoy Day Three, the best day of the drive, and we'd recommend trying to do that. You should also try to find time to buy a few picnic provisions for tomorrow!
Apart from Cambria itself, your first stop should be Hearst Castle. If you want to visit Hearst Castle you should book ahead as the tours fill up. If you're traveling out-of-season you might be lucky if you simply show up, but you really don't want to take a chance if you want to see one of the biggest attractions on the Pacific Coast Highway.
If you do tour Hearst Castle, and stop to see the elephant seals just north of there - something we never miss - then that's pretty much your morning taken care of. From Hearst Castle it's still a three-hour drive to your next stop, Monterey or Carmel - and you'll want time to enjoy the gorgeous Big Sur, the most dramatic stretch of coast and what most people want to see along the drive.
For lunch we think today should be your picnic day. So if you didn't buy anything yesterday, get something this morning before you set off, or stop on the way. The reason for that is that a sit-down lunch eats into your time on the longest of the four days, and it also means you can stop when it suits you, at a scenic viewpoint, and dine in the best restaurant of all - the open air.
By the time you get to Big Sur, you're only a half-hour's drive from Monterey or Carmel, so it's up to you how long you spend admiring the scenery, or whether you want to get to your hotel early so you can relax and enjoy wherever it is you're spending the night.
From Carmel or Monterey, it ought to be about a two-hour drive if you're going to San Francisco International Airport, which is south of the city, but traffic can be heavy so check the conditions and allow time to return your rental car as well as check in.
If you're not going to the airport but into the city it should be an extra thirty minutes or so, about 2.5 hours, depending where you're going. So you have time to take it easy, and if you're staying in Monterey take the 17-mile Drive to Carmel, or do it the other way if you're staying in Carmel.
Heading out on Highway 1, it should take you 30-45 minutes to get to Santa Cruz, which makes for a fun stop and a good place to have lunch. There are several eating places along the Santa Cruz Wharf, a great spot to eat.
In the afternoon continue to drive along CA-1 along the coast, here known as the Cabrillo Highway as well as the Pacific Coast Highway. You'd have time to stop off at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, a chance to see the giant redwood trees.
Half Moon Bay makes another good stopping-off place, before you need to think about cutting across east to I-280 to get into San Francisco. If you have time simply keep on the coast until you get to Pacifica, a popular surfing place with good beaches. From there it should be about 30-40 minutes into downtown San Francisco, but… and you know what's coming… it depends on the traffic.
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