California Dreamin’: Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

As we were recalling our favorite moments from 2013, we nearly skipped right over our time in California. It seemed like years ago thinking about all that has happened since, but it was in fact April that we took our dream road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Driving the Big Sur was on the top of our bucket list, as well as seeing the Red Woods and driving over the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. In one fell swoop, we managed to cross all of these off our list! We flew into LA, picked up a rental and drove the fast route to San Francisco. We spent a few days exploring San Fran before heading south on the Pacific Coast Highway, ending with a few days in LA. There is so much about this trip we could share, but for this post we will focus on the drive itself and the key points to stop along the way.

San Francisco to LA Road Trip on Highway 1

Santa Cruz

guide to driving the pacific coast highway san francisco to LA

We made our way from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, our first stop. Unfortunately it was early in the morning and the amusement park wasn’t open yet.We didn’t plan on staying long anyway, just wanted to check it out. We took a few pictures and were on our way again.


guide to driving the pacific coast highway san francisco to LA

Monterey was Charlie’s favorite stop along the way, and with good reason. Since we were on a time crunch, we just stopped at the Fisherman’s Wharf for a famous clam chowder bread bowl. All of the shops let you taste-test so try a few samples before you settle on one. It was by far the best clam chowder. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! We also really enjoyed watching the sea lions and sea otters playing in the bay. Adorable!


guide to driving the pacific coast highway san francisco to LA

We didn’t stop in Carmel, but we made a point to drive through. The shops and houses are so quaint and the coastline is a must-see! I wished we had more time here as well. If you have the time, plan to spend an evening here. From here you can do the 17-mile drive, which is a scenic loop that hugs the coastline around Pebble Beach passing famous mansions and golf courses.

Big Sur

Although the Big Sur does not have specific boundaries, the location it most commonly refers to is the 90 mile stretch between Carmel and San Simeon. Be prepared for lots of twists and turns on a narrow road, hugging the rugged coastline with cliffs up to a 1000 ft plunging into the Pacific Ocean. I have to admit it is a bit freaky, but also the most thrilling drive of our lives. Words cannot explain. Be prepared to pull off the road frequently at viewpoints because you won’t be able to get enough pictures. There are also many landmarks you don’t want to miss. Bixby Creek Bridge: one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world and the most photographed along the Pacific Coast. You can’t miss it because you have to cross it 🙂

bixby bridge big sur

Big Sur River Inn: if we could go back, we would have stayed at least one night here. If you don’t have the option to stay, plan to stop for lunch or at least a drink. There is a creek that flows behind the Inn and there are wooden chairs throughout. We grabbed a beer and chilled out in these chairs where time stood still. It was also a great break from the long drive and possibly one of our favorite and most relaxing moments of the entire trip.

guide to driving the pacific coast highway san francisco to LA

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: There are plenty of state parks to stop in throughout this stretch and make sure you take the time to do so. It was here we finally got to see the Redwoods we’d been longing for, as well as the iconic McWay Falls.


Pismo Beach

guide to driving the pacific coast highway san francisco to LA

While you may be shocked to learn that the “Pismo Beach Disaster” never actually happened, it is still a place worth stopping. We chose here to stay the night after getting a great deal on a hotel through Groupon. After eating dinner in San Luis Obispo, we made it just in time for sunset and it was breathtaking. In the morning we headed out to the pier and watched the surfers catching some waves.


guide to driving the pacific coast highway san francisco to LA

Solvang was an interesting stop along the way, nothing like the rest of the trip. Probably because it is a Danish village in the middle of California. It’s a very neat little town, and definitely mixes things up a bit. After Solvang we headed for LA, and as much as I would love to go into that, that’s another story for another time! You might also consider stopping at: Nepenthe/Phoenix Shop, Point Sur Lighthouse, Henry Miller Memorial Library, Hearst Castle, the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. Tips: We recommend driving from north to south so that you are hugging the coast and getting the most of the views. Also take advantage of the Big Sur’s famous hikes, stop at the viewpoints for pictures, witness the magnificent wildlife, and most of all take your time. Don’t rush it. I wish we would have allowed ourselves more time! FYI:

  • Recommended hotels: The Opal San Francisco, Seacrest Oceanfront Hotel in Pismo Beach
  • Miles traveled: approx 900
  • Favorite meals: Clam chowder in Monterey; Burgers at Eureka Burger in SLO
  • Best memory: beers at Big Sur River Inn
  • Favorite city: Charlie – Monterey; Brittany – Carmel-by-the-sea
  • Best tip: Take your time and allow plenty of time to stop for pictures! Only regret is that we didn’t spend more time on the drive.

Check out this mash up of our California road trip!

Did we miss anything? Let us know so we can add it to the list!


Commenting area

  1. We absolutely loved Big Sur during our American road trip (We hired a 25ft RV and went from California to Arizona, Utah, and Nevada and back)

    Beautiful country, and we really miss not having Denny’s for breakfast! mmmmm!

    • Brittany Bennett March 19, 2014 at 2:23 am · · Reply

      Wow that’s awesome! That’s the way to do it. We wish we could have spent more time there. There is just so much to see. But that only means we will have to go back one day 😉 Thanks for the comment Adam!

  2. I’m so ashamed of myself for being from LA and never have taken this road trip but this is definitely encouragement to get on it! Big Sur has long been on my to do list as well as seeing the Redwoods. Great post, images. and inspiration!

    • Charlie and Brittany September 12, 2015 at 10:41 am · · Reply

      Ohh you have to go see! It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced! I really want to do it again but at a much slower pace. Love California in general though. So many beautiful things to see in that state 🙂

  3. We love this road trip! It’s one of the prettiest things to do in CA! Looks like you had a great trip!

  4. I love this trip! I have never stopped in Solvang though; I’ll have to stop next time I take this trip.

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