Drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway

categories: Central Coast, Northern California, Southern California

When you think of California, perhaps the glitz and glamour of Hollywood spring to mind, but California, specifically its coast, offers so much more. You could easily take a quick flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but why not take your time driving along the iconic, cliff-hugging Pacific Coast Highway instead?

Highway One

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Built in the 1930s, the mostly two-lane, Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most popular road trips in the U.S. as it runs from San Diego to San Francisco, via Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Solvang, Morro Bay, Big Sur, and Santa Cruz. This rugged road is over 650 miles (~1000 kilometers) long, which, to put that distance into context, is about the length of the United Kingdom.

Driving the length of the Pacific Coast Highway, in one continuous drive, would take around 10 hours, but if you can, spend a few days meandering, stopping, and soaking in the beauty of this coast. If you can’t spare the time, you can condense the stops or reduce it even further by mixing in sections of the Pacific Coast Highway with inland Interstate 5, but I highly recommend that you take your time and stop and really see nature at its best.

Los Angeles

The City of Angels, LA, Los Angeles, home of Hollywood, whatever you know this star-filled city as, Los Angeles is home to over 4 million people, but ‘Los Angeles’ is often used to collectively describe the neighboring parts of the Greater Los Angeles region such as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Long Beach, Anaheim, Calabasas, and Malibu. Rich in diverse cultures, with its warm and balmy weather, Los Angeles is one of the most popular tourist destinations as it gives you the opportunity to see mountains, deserts, and the ocean all in one trip. Getting around LA is easy; if you are moving from one area to another e.g. Santa Monica to Sunset Boulevard (a 30 min drive without heavy traffic), a car or cab is recommended, but if you’re staying in the same spots, e-scooters, e-bikes are an easy way to get around and are readily available in places like Santa Monica and Venice.

Los Angeles has something for everyone:

Venice California Canals

  • Immerse yourself into the bohemian way of life at Abbott Kinney and Venice Beach – this place is made for people-watching with its pedestrian ocean front boardwalk filled with arts, crafts, fortune tellers, bodybuilders, and skateboarders. Abbott Kinney is also where you’re likely to find hip labels and up and coming designers. Venice is famed for its man-made grid-shaped canal network, which was built by the developer Abbot Kinney to replicate the famous waterways of Venice in Italy.

Getty Center

  • Absorb some culture at the hillside Getty Center and villa – run by the Getty Trust (founded by J. Paul Getty from his oil billions) the Getty Center is home to a museum that houses paintings by Rembrandt and Van Gogh, a library, all surrounded by landscaped gardens. With over a million visitors a year, this is one of the most popular museums in the U.S.

Disneyland

  • Feel like a kid again and visit Mickey Mouse at Anaheim’s Disneyland, the only theme park designed and built under the watchful eye of Mr. Walt Disney himself.
  • Shop like the rich and famous on Rodeo Drive (who remembers the infamous shopping scene from the 80s classic Pretty Woman?) or at the more affordable The Grove, located next to the historic Farmers market which still operates today offering tasty treats from around the world.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

  • see some Hollywood stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and famous hand and footprints by the TCL Chinese Theatre, the location for the Academy Awards (the Oscars) in the 1940s. So how did this tradition of printing hand and footprints start? Well, all stories agree that it was just an accident, a shoe print into some unset concrete and the tradition was born.
  • See real stars at the Griffin Observatory (featured in the 2016 movie La La Land). See exhibits, look through telescopes or just enjoy the views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign
  • Take a walk along Santa Monica Pier, as seen in Iron Man (2008) and Forest Gump (1994), play on the amusements, or take touristy photos at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Walk a little bit further down to the infamous Shutters on the Beach Hotel, but be warned this is a tourist trap…everyone is there for the sunset cocktails.

Hollywood Sign

  • Take a hike to see the notorious Hollywood sign up close and personal. The sign can be seen from the popular with celebs, Runyon Canyon Hike which offers views of the city too.
  • If it’s old Hollywood you’re after, a stay at West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont or at Los Angeles oldest still operating hotel, The Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Oscars were held in 1929.
  • Alternative hotels include the Andaz in West Hollywood, near Sunset Boulevard if you want to be close to the action or if you want to stay further out and be closer to the ocean, the DoubleTree Suites in Santa Monica is a good option.

Solvang

Solvang

Cranking up the Fleetwood Mac and Zero 7, take a 3-hour drive out of Los Angeles via Santa Monica, Malibu, and Santa Barbara (three places where it’s beach casual and at the same time glamourous) to Solvang provides Pacific Ocean views in all their glory. It’s worth checking ahead for the road conditions, given this is a popular route any issues can cause major delays.

Stop at Malibu to see Point Dume and its rock formations and the white sands of Zuma Beach, both of which you may recognize as they have starred in many films and tv shows.

Solvang, is under two hours from Malibu, is set inland from the Pacific Coast Highway and it’s perhaps a little strange to see homes styled with Danish facades in California, but Solvang was founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants so its roots are authentic. Solvang is famed for its quaint architecture (see the city’s Danish windmill on the main street), its wineries (over 100), and craft beers, but Solvang’s true star of the show is how it celebrates farm to table dining which can be sampled at the newer modern restaurants, such as Mad & Vin and at the wineries. Perhaps the most popular tourist location is the Solvang Bakery where you can sample Danish pastries all within eyeshot of the windmill. As with most places on the Pacific Coast Highway, Solvang has been featured in many films such as the 2004 story of wine and friendship, Sideways.

Cambria, Big Sur, and The Post Ranch Inn


Open up the windows and let the salty ocean breeze in and in an hour and a half from Solvang you’ll find the quiet seaside village of Cambria, where time has almost stood still. It can get quite lively at the Friends of The Elephant Seal Visitor Center in San Simeon, (just outside of Cambria) as this is where elephant seals migrate from Alaska to breed.

Once you’ve got your seal photos, it’s just under two hours to the Big Sur and you’ll see some of the world’s most breath-taking views of redwood trees, mountains, ocean, and endless blue skies. You might notice the temperature drop the further north you drive so wrap up.

Highway One
Big Sur is famed for its rugged coastline and dramatic waters and what makes this section so special? The fact that it is underdeveloped and with limited light pollution, you can see nature uninterrupted both in the day and at night. The waters of Big Sur are there to be admired, but not sampled as its cliffs are jagged and its waters cold and wild. Not surprisingly, this stretch of road is one of California’s most popular tourist destinations, be warned in peak time this can lead to heavy traffic.

As Big Sur is so underdeveloped, real estate is at a premium and so you’ll see that reflected in some of the hotel’s price points. Very much in the spirit of when in Rome, we opted to stay at one of the world’s greatest hotels, the adults-only, Post Ranch Inn. This eco-resort is nestled on the clifftop and is set in 150 acres of lush green grounds home to many local species, including providing a safe haven for endangered butterflies and frogs. [Disclosure: Shweta’s stay at the resort was sponsored but the opinions are her own].

The hotel is made up of a series of wooden cabins and treehouses, which are rustic and sympathetic to the landscape and either face the woodlands or the ocean. The ocean rooms have sweeping and uninterrupted views of the Pacific Ocean and even the beds are positioned so you can watch the nighttime shooting star show. A handful of the rooms also have outdoor bathtubs, perfect for a dip with a glass of wine. Naturally, local wines are another leading lady in this show.

The ethos at The Post Ranch Inn is to switch off and enjoy nature and whilst tech is not banned, this is the place to put the phone to one side and take a walk instead.

The Award-winning Sierra Mar restaurant is a glass box that appears to be suspended above the cliff and serves locally sourced fine dining Californian food and wines. There is an outdoor bar too if you want to watch the sunset outside.

This luxurious and unique resort is romantic, restorative, and exclusive. Whilst the uniqueness of this resort is reflected in the price tag, The Post Ranch Inn offers some of the best views of the Big Sur, daily yoga, guided nature walks, meditations, tours of the chef’s garden, and stargazing as you’ve never seen before, all included when you stay.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge

Heading north on the Pacific Coast Highway from The Post Ranch Inn, you’ll arrive at Bixby Creek Bridge, just before Carmel by the Sea and Monterey (Monterey is famed by the 2017 TV series Big Little Lies). Built in 1932, the Bixby bridge offers ocean views and prime sunset viewing and has featured on countless TV shows, commercials, and movies. You’ll awe at the architectural brilliance as Bixby bridge connects two cliff edges and stands tall over the valley below.

Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco

From Bixby, it is views from the car seat as you journey on to San Francisco. San Francisco is a city where you can free your inhibitions and dream big, even the weather has its own microclimates, so everything really does go. It is rich in culture, history, and entrepreneurship, however, it’s hard to miss some of the harder edges and realities of inner-city living. Undulating hills meet industrial and revival style design, this city is also one of the most important in the history of LGBT rights and activism (Harvey Milk served as the first elected gay official in California in 1977)

Having visited San Francisco before, we decided to take it easy and wander the streets versus tick off the main to-dos, but we stayed at The Clift Royal on Geary Street. This highly styled, trendy Phillippe Starke designed hotel and glamourous Redwood Room bar is close to

  • Union Square is home to multiple hotels, stores, and restaurants

Chinatown

  • Chinatown, one of the US’ oldest Chinatowns
  • Ferry Plaza, an iconic building which is home to an artisan food marketplace
  • Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 is a vibrant waterfront community celebrating all things water with great views of San Francisco Bay.

If you haven’t been to San Francisco before, then

  • Visit Golden Gate Park, a long rectangular park bigger than New York’s Central Park which is home to botanical gardens, the de Young Museum, a Japanese tea garden, and the outdoor athletics stadium Kezar Stadium, which was the former home of NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.

Golden Gate Bridge

  • Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, a 1.6km (1 mile) long suspension bridge spanning the body of water between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. This important bridge is often held as a symbol for California and San Francisco, especially visualized peaking above the low clouds and fog of San Francisco. For the best views, head to the Fort Baker side.

Alcatraz Island

  • Visit Alcatraz Island, an island built for a lighthouse, military buildings, and a prison. Nicknamed the rock, the famously secretive island prison claimed to be escape-proof, despite what the 1979 movie Escape from Alcatraz will tell you.
  • Ride the San Francisco cable cars. Built in 1873, a cable car is a great way to see San Francisco.
  • Walk or drive down Lombard Street, the famously steep and winding road.
  • Take in a Baseball game at Oracle Park where even the cheap seats have a great view of San Francisco Bay.

If you want to see more trips like this or other trips by people like you, visit https://guidedtravel.co.

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by Shweta Sharma

Shweta Sharma is the founder of Guided Travel. By People Like You where you can save time, skip any travel FOMO by following trips by people like you, borrow the bits they loved, miss the bits they didn’t. It's that simple.

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