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.

Cars driving the Pacific Coast Highway near Bixby BridgeThe Pacific Coast Highway near Bixby Bridge

We've written elsewhere about driving the PCH in two days, which is possible but not ideal. In our view, three days is the minimum time you need to get from San Diego to San Francisco, which is what many people want to do.

If you're driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, even better. You can also read about driving the Pacific Coast Highway in four days, or in five days.

Waterfall on California's Pacific Coast

Pacific Coast Highway Driving Time

From San Diego to San Francisco takes about 12 hours, so in three days you'll be averaging four hours in the car each day. That's not bad at all. Two hours in the morning, a nice long lunch break, then another two hours in the afternoon.

Driving is what the Pacific Coast Highway is all about, of course, but four hours a day is much better than the six hours a day you face if doing it in two days. 

Red Ford Mustang on the Pacific Coast HighwayDrive the Pacific Coast Highway in Style

Day One

With three days at your disposal, you can afford to have a leisurely breakfast and hit the road by about 10am. Our own preferred stop when driving the Pacific Coast Highway in three days is Santa Barbara, which should be 3-4 hours from San Diego.

The exact time to drive from San Diego to Santa Barbara depends on the notoriously difficult Los Angeles traffic. There's no easy way to get across the city. You just have to grit your teeth and hope for the best. By having a more leisurely start the traffic should be slightly easier than it is in the early morning, but it's never a totally smooth run.

By having an extra day you can afford to hit the coast at Santa Monica and head north through Malibu. When you only have two days you have to take the faster inland route and you won't see the coast till you get to Ventura.

Santa Monica makes a great place to stop for lunch, and you'll have time to stroll on the pier, walk on the beach, and find the right spot for a bite to eat. From Santa Monica the drive to Santa Barbara should take you less than two hours, although it can easily be three hours if traffic is heavy. Even if it is, you should still arrive by late afternoon or early evening, and have time to explore a few of the many attractions Santa Barbara has to offer.

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

The Bixby Bridge on the Pacific Coast HighwayBixby Bridge

Day Two

We would aim to set off early from Santa Barbara and get a chunk of driving done in the morning. It's a pleasant drive but not a particularly scenic one in places. If you set off early then it gives you the chance to drive at a more leisurely pace in the afternoon when you're along one of the most attractive stretches of the coast.

The Santa Barbara Mission in CaliforniaSanta Barbara Mission

There are plenty of options for places to stop and stretch your legs, or have a nice lunch. In two hours you could be in Pismo Beach, where you can have a break right on the ocean. Just fifteen minutes further on is San Luis Obispo, which is inland but a lovely little town. Fifteen minutes beyond that is Morro Bay, where you should definitely divert to see the waterfront and Morro Rock.

Morro Bay and Morro Rock on the Pacific Coast HighwayMorro Bay and Morro Rock

About thirty minutes from Morro Bay is a place we love to visit, and often spend the night: Cambria. It's three hours from Santa Barbara, so you could have lunch here too, if you set off early enough.

But if you don't have time for that, at least divert off the highway and drive through and see Main Street. It's an easy diversion. Take a right exit when you see the sign for Cambria, which puts you straight onto Main Street. This winds through the town and rejoins the highway on the other side of Cambria. 

Where to Stay in Cambria



Cambria's Main Street, just off the Pacific Coast HighwayMain Street, Cambria

North of Cambria do make a stop to see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. Again, this is right off the highway so a quick and easy stop – although we always spend far more time there than planned!

The beach is just beyond Hearst Castle, but if you only have three days to do the drive you may not have time to visit. You have to allow at least a couple of hours and book a tour in advance, but if you can find the time then we do recommend it highly.

Piedras Blancas BeachPiedras Blancas Beach

For your second night you have two options, depending how you want to break up the driving and what you want to see. From Cambria it's about an hour to Big Sur, though it can be two hours if the traffic is heavy and slow. This is a lovely place to spend the night as it's the most scenic stretch of the highway, but it will leave you with a 3-5 hour drive the next day to get to San Francisco.

The Big Sur coast along the Pacific Coast HighwayBig Sur

Your other option if day two is going well is to stay in either Carmel or Monterey, which are very close to each other. Carmel is probably a better choice for couples, while Monterey has more to offer families, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium

From a practical point of view, the whole drive from Santa Barbara to Monterey or Carmel could be done in 4 hours if there's no traffic, but it could easily take 6 hours if the roads are busy.

Where to Stay in Monterey



Where to Stay in Carmel



Misty Morning driving the Pacific Coast HighwayMisty Morning Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Day Three

If you spend the night in Big Sur then, as we said, it's anything from 3-5 hours driving time to San Francisco, going by the coastal route as much as possible. If you don't have to be in San Francisco till the evening then you have time to visit both Carmel and Monterey on the way, which are probably the two main attractions, although we also enjoy Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.

Jellyfish in the Monterey Bay AquariumJellyfish in the Monterey Bay Aquarium

If you've pushed on to spend the second night in Carmel or Monterey, you have time to linger a little before setting off. If you want to see Monterey Bay Aquarium then you'll need at least two hours, preferably more.

From Monterey to San Francisco is probably going to take you 3-4 hours, so you can either spend time seeing Monterey and Carmel, and have quick visits to maybe Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, or wherever else you like the look of along the coast.

Where to Stay in San Francisco



The Pacific Coast Highway Crosses the Golden Gate BridgeThe Pacific Coast Highway Crosses the Golden Gate Bridge

Pacific Coast Highway in Three Days

You can drive the Pacific Coast Highway in three days and it makes a wonderful road trip. Obviously an extra day or two is always better, but even if you took two weeks to do it we'd still be saying you need an extra day or two. But if three days is all you have – enjoy the drive!

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 Four Days

    Pacific Coast Highway Travel's advice on driving the Pacific Coast Highway in four 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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