Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in Four Days

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.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San FranciscoThe Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

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. And read this if you have five days!

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.

Hearst Castle on the Pacific Coast HighwayHearst Castle

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.

Driving Time from San Diego to San Francisco

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.

Early morning in San DiegoEarly Morning San Diego

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.

Later Starts

One advantage of having the extra day is that you can afford to have a leisurely start to your day and set off a little bit later. This means you have more time to enjoy your breakfast if it's an especially good one!

Day One

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.

The coast at La Jolla in CaliforniaLa Jolla

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.

The Pacific Coast Highway near Laguna BeachThe Pacific Coast Highway near Laguna Beach

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.

Busy beach at Huntington BeachHuntington Beach

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?

The Pier at Huntington BeachThe Pier at Huntington Beach

Nature Reserves

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.

Bolsa Chica Ecological ReserveBolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

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.

Crossing Los Angeles

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.

The entrance to Santa Monica PierThe entrance to Santa Monica Pier

Where to Stay in Santa Monica

Day Two

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.

Riding a bike along Pismo BeachPismo Beach

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.

Red tile rooftops in Santa BarbaraSanta Barbara

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!

Where to Stay in Cambria

Day Three

From Pismo Beach we suggest you try to make it to Carmel or Monterey, which neighbor each other, and this should be a four-hour drive. If you got as far as Cambria, you've more time to enjoy today.

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

Indoor swimming pool at Hearst CastleHearst Castle

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.

The California coast in Big SurThe Big Sur California Coast

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.

The California coast in Big SurThe Big Sur Coast

Where to Stay in Monterey

Where to Stay in Carmel

Day Four

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.

The beach at Carmel in CaliforniaThe Beach in Carmel

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. 

Big Basin Redwoods State ParkBig Basin Redwoods State Park

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.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

Other driving pages

  • When to Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

    When to Drive the Pacific Coast Highway depends on whether you want to drive in Oregon and Washington as well as California, and on the weather.

  • West Coast RV Parks

    One of the best guides to West Coast RV Parks, covering campgrounds in California, Oregon, and Washington, is West Coast RV Camping from Moon Guides.

  • Ways to Go

    Here are links to the different ways you can go along the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the most popular drives in the world but you can also cycle it.

  • San Francisco to San Diego

    Driving from San Francisco to San Diego has two main options, the fast way on I-5 or the scenic route along the Pacific Coast Highway.

  • The 17-Mile Drive between Carmel, Pacific Grove, and Monterey

    Pacific Coast Highway Travel takes the 17-Mile Drive from Carmel to Pacific Grove and Monterey, stopping to see the Lone Cypress and beautiful coastline views.

  • Route 66 Meets the Pacific Coast Highway

    Historic Route 66 winds from Chicago to LA, going through Los Angeles, meeting the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, California, at the Santa Monica Pier.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Stops

    Pacific Coast Highway stops include big city vacation destinations like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, and smaller places like Monterey.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Road Trips: Lonely Planet Guidebook Review

    Review of the Pacific Coast Highway Road Trips book from Lonely Planet, which includes a California Driving Guide, by the Pacific Coast Highway Travel website.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Guide

    Pacific Coast Highway Travel reviews the Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Guide book covering the drive from Vancouver to San Diego.

  • Pacific Coast Highway in California

    The Pacific Coast Highway in California book shows in historic photos the building of the Pacific Coast Highway from its earliest beginnings in 1911.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Driving Tips

    Pacific Coast Highway driving tips for this great American road trip include finding cheap gas, watching the speed limits, and allowing plenty of travel time.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Drive Times and Distances

    Drive times and distances on the Pacific Coast Highway or the quickest routes from Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego.

  • Maps of the Pacific Coast Highway: Free Driving Maps of the PCH

    Road maps of the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH are essential for anyone planning to drive the trip, and detailed routes are available for free.

  • LA to Hearst Castle

    Pacific Coast Highway travel offers advice on driving from LA to Hearst Castle, including distance, journey time, and route.

  • Epic Drives of the World

    Epic Drives of the World from Lonely Planet describes 50 of the world's most exciting road trips, including, of course, the Pacific Coast Highway.

  • Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

    Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is made easier with Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen, a good handbook for the west coast drive.

  • Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in Two Days

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

  • Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in Three Days

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

  • 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.

  • Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

    Here are the basic facts if you plan to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, including which is the best direction and when is the best time to go driving.

  • Coastal California Guidebook

    Lonely Planet's Coastal California guidebook is the ideal travel guide for driving or cycling the Pacific Coast Highway from the Oregon border to Mexico.

  • California Driving Laws

    If visiting California and planning to drive the Pacific Coast Highway it's important to know California driving laws in case they differ from your own state.

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