This past summer I rented an RV from RVezy in San Diego and drove the Pacific Coast Highway up to San Francisco. I spent a week driving Highway 101 along the California coast and saw some of the most beautiful places in the state.
Pristine coastlines, gorgeous beaches, waterfalls, parks, and quaint beach cities all define the Pacific Coast Highway. Spend a morning hiking and the afternoon wine tasting. Or wake up for a sunrise over the ocean and spend your evening in a cute beach town.
With so many beautiful sites and a variety of activities, this is a great option for a California road trip.
Road Trip from San Diego to San Francisco Itinerary
What you Need to Know About a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
There are two main route options from San Diego to San Francisco. You can drive the boring I-5 through the Central Valley of California or you can drive the slightly longer, but drastically more scenic route along California’s coast.
I would highly recommend this and here are some tips to get plan your road trip!
Q: How Many Miles
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to San Francisco is just over 600 miles or about 10-12 hours of driving straight through.
Q: How Many Days
While it is possible to drive the 600 miles in a day or two, I would highly recommend spending at least a few days or even better, a week driving up the California coast.
There are so many places to explore along this route, making a week-long road trip well worth it.
What To Pack
California’s coast has varying temperatures, climates, and places you’ll visit. The average climate in San Francisco is much cooler than in San Diego.
Check the weather before you set out. Here are some basics to take with you.
➤ Clothing Layers– While you might be able to wear shorts in San Diego and Los Angeles, you’ll need a sweatshirt, rain jacket, and jeans in San Francisco. Prepare for temperatures ranging from 50 degrees F to 90 degrees F.
➤ Water– Always pack extra water in your car.
➤ Cooler– It’s nice to have picnic lunches as you drive up the coast. This saves time from eating out every meal allowing more time to explore. A cooler will keep your food fresh and last longer.
➤ First Aid Kit– You never know what will happen.
➤ Folding Chairs-If you want a break from driving or are planning a picnic lunch, folding chairs are always convenient to have.
➤ Hiking Gear– If you plan to hike bring a daypack, knife, headlamp, hiking poles, and hiking shoes with good traction.
➤ Sunblock– You won’t want to ruin your trip with sunburn.
➤ Maps– Download offline maps and carry a paper map as a backup.
➤ Cash– Some state parks and sites only accept cash for entrance fees.
Best Way To Travel
I would recommend spending each night in a different town or city along your road trip. I spent one night in each place as I moved north. Therefore, I spent only 1-3 hours a day driving, and the rest of the time I was free to explore.
It works well to get an RV or car rental down in San Diego and drop it off in San Francisco. I felt more comfortable driving up the coast, and therefore, on the inside of Highway 101.
It’s also common to drive from San Francisco to San Diego, just prepare to drive along the steep, cliff coastline!
Where To Stay
Both camping and hotel accommodation options are the most popular way to explore along the coast. Because a Pacific Coast Highway road trip very popular, plan to book hotels and campsites a few months out to secure your spots.
Best Time To Go
Spring (starts March) to fall (ends December) is the best time to drive the Pacific Coast Highway for the best weather conditions but it is also the most popular time of year which increases accommodation prices and places are more crowded.
The off-season is late fall to early spring. Southern California typically still has moderate temperatures but as you head north it might become cloudier and rainier along the coast.
However, the low season means it is typically less busy at restaurants and accommodations.
Essential Stops on Your San Diego to San Francisco Itinerary
There are so many beaches, cities, and towns to add to your Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary. With so many places to choose from, here are my favorite places I stopped along my trip.
San Diego, California
San Diego, known for its year-round Meddeteranian climate, beaches, and famous family attractions, is a great place to start your road trip adventure. Surf, hike, brewery hop, and eat Mexican food.
While visiting the city of San Diego don’t miss two must-see spots; Balboa Park and La Jolla Beach. Then spend the first night of your road trip at the iconic Hotel del Coronado, a historic oceanfront resort where Hollywood stars and presidents have stayed. Or even just dine here for a fine dining experience.
Then from San Diego drive north towards Los Angeles. This drive is less than 2 hours without traffic so make a stop at a sand beach in Orange County; I’d recommend Laguna Beach for the beautiful trail network along the coast.
Or stop at Dana Point for a whale watching tour. It’s considered the whale and dolphin watching capital of the world and day trips or sunset cruises are nice options here.
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles is the next must-stop destination along the California coast. This wacky, fun city has a variety of food and activity options for all explorers. If you’re into sports, watch a baseball game at Dodger Stadium.
For the entertainment lover, stroll along Holly Boulevard. If you’re traveling with kids take them to Disneyland or Universal Studios.
Bohemian spirits should visit Venice Beach. The beach has a free-spirited boardwalk with funky murals, street performers, fortune tellers, unique shops, a skate park, and the well-known Muscle Beach outdoor gym. Venice Beach is a fun stop located just south of Santa Monica.
Santa Monica is known for its fancy venues, restaurants, hotels, art galleries, and the Santa Monica Pier featuring a small theme park and aquarium. Santa Monica is known as a nicer area outside of Los Angeles making this a good place to stay as you drive up the 101 and helps you avoid the busiest parts of the city.
Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara sits between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Its dramatic mountain landscape behind the coastline makes this a perfect place to spend a night along your road trip route.
It’s famous for its wineries, historic Spanish Mission buildings, golf courses, upscale dining, and easy access to the nearby Channel Islands. Outdoor lovers can surf, paddleboard, sail, bike, or enjoy the beach in Santa Barbara.
Just about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, Santa Baraba is a great spot to spend the third day and night of your Pacific Coast Highway road trip.
Pismo Beach, California
The next stop on your road trip itinerary should be Pismo Beach. It’s about two hours north of Santa Barbara and is famous for Pismo State Beach, Oceano Dunes, the Pismo Beach Pier, the Monarch Butterfly Grove and so much more.
This is a great pit stop on your way to San Luis Obispo, just about twenty minutes north of here.
San Luis Obispo, California
San Luis Obispo is located in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, very close to the California coast. Hike up Bishop Peak, explore the historic downtown, or pop in at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
Located about 20 minutes from Pismo Beach, and surrounded by many incredible places, both these cities are great options to find accommodations or campsites in.
As you head north to Big Sur, don’t miss a few famous spots. Head to Morro Bay to see Morro Rock, a picturesque spot along the coast. If you enjoy wine, drive slightly east to Paso Robles. This town is famous for its wineries and olive oil tastings.
Also, don’t miss a stop by Piedras Blancas Rookery to see California’s famous elephant seals sprawling across the beach. It’s possible to see the seals year-round here and makes for a great lunch stop.
Big Sur, California
Big Sur is an incredible stop along the Pacific Coast Highway. Bixby Bridge is a classic photo spot along the California coastline with rugged mountains, forests, and the impressive bridge architecture.
Stop by Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, located along the coast of Big Sur. Here you’ll see McWay Falls which is one of two waterfalls in California that flow onto the beach. It drops 80 feet and flows year-round. This park is also home to some of California’s coastal redwood trees, the tallest trees in the world.
Big Sur is one of the dreamiest spots along the California coast. You could easily spend a whole weekend here but even just one night is a great option.
Enjoy a meal on the cliffside at Nepenthe. It’s my favorite restaurant I stopped at on this road trip. The food was amazing and the cliffside views were even better.
Monterey Bay, California
Heading about 45 minutes north of Big Sur will land you in Monterey. The small city of Monterey is located on California’s rugged coastline and the bay itself is famous for its diverse marine wildlife.
Different whales migrate through here year-round so hop on a whale watching tour, no matter what time of year! When I went last summer I not only saw humpbacks but I also saw juvenile great white sharks!
Or head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a nonprofit public aquarium known for its ocean conservation efforts and educational programs.
History buffs should stop in at Monterey Bay State Historic Park to learn about the Spanish Missions that came to California during the early 17th century.
Stop at Cannery Row or Old Fisherman’s Wharf for shopping and dining. Drive the scenic 17-Mile Drive and end at Pebble Beach. With so many beautiful views along the drive, dedicate a few hours to this spot.
Santa Cruz, California
Just under an hour north of Monterey is Santa Cruz. One of California’s friendly beach towns, Santa Cruz sits along the mountainous coast and has some nearby state parks.
If you’re a surfer hit up one of the many beaches along the coastline. If you enjoy trekking, explore one of the many hiking trails at Big Basin State Park, home of the impressive California Redwood trees.
Visit Natural Bridges State Beach to see an impressive rock formation, marine life, and tidepools. Visit the Santa Cruz Wharf to shop and dine, or explore the nearby amusement park.
Half Moon Bay, California
As you leave Santa Cruz to head to San Francisco, pop in at Half Moon Bay. It’s right off the 101 and the perfect addition to your coast itinerary.
Main Street in town is the perfect lunch spot with plenty of restaurants, an olive oil tasting room, a wine tasting room, and a bunch of little shops.
Mavericks’s is a world-famous surf area right off the coast of Half Moon Bay. Only for the most advanced of surfers, it’s still fun to watch the massive waves along the coastline.
San Francisco, California
End your road trip in the city of San Francisco. Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and explore the Marin Headlands for beautiful views of the bay.
Wind your way up to Hawk Hill for the perfect photo spot of the Golden Gate Bridge with the San Francisco skyline in the background.
Head downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf to grab oysters, check out the noisy sea lions at Pier 39, stop in at Boudin Bakery for San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread, or visit the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop for a tasty ice cream treat.
There are plenty of ways to explore this city. Spend another day on a boat ride and tour to the former federal penitentiary, Alcatraz, visit the Mission District for burritos, and head to Golden Gate Park to see the Botanical Gardens, San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, a bison paddock, the Japanese Tea Garden, or the California Academy of Sciences museum.
The drive up the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the best road trips you can take in California. This route is the most scenic way to enjoy your coastal trip.
With all the diverse cities, towns, and beaches as well as activities for any type of traveler this is the perfect destination for anyone.
So book your campsites and accommodations, pack your bags, and create the perfect road trip itinerary to start making your way up the California coast!