USA Road Trips: Pacific Coast Highway LA to San Francisco

If you didn’t read Part One USA Road Trips: San Diego to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway, you have some catching up to do! Now, in the final stretch of this epic California drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Big Sur attractions promise breathtaking vistas, buzzing student nightlife and redwood grove hikes…

Leaving Los Angeles, you’ll hit the mission towns and stretches of surf beach all the while hugging the precipitous cliff-hugging road. It’s not a vast distance, so you can take it all in at a nice, leisurely pace. The crashing waves against the Pacific Ocean Highway are particularly breathtaking. Encounters with lazing elephant seals and hippies that couldn’t bring themselves to leave the magnificent Big Sur make up the colourful characters in the area.

There are plenty of opportunities to stretch your legs with bikes trails and hikes through beautiful redwood groves in one of the many coastal California state parks. There’s enough of a student population in the little towns en route to deliver atmospheric nightlife too.

LA – Setting off

Getty Centre

Leaving the city, you might fancy making a quick detour up to the Santa Monica Mountains. You’ll need an early start to beat the queues, but catching the tram up to the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive) is delightful. A stunning work of architecture, the building was designed by Richard Meier and is surrounded by gleaming gardens with views of a left-behind smoggy LA or the ocean to the west.

To set you up for a day on the road, Neptune’s Net (Yerba Buena Rd) dishes up clam chowder, lobster, Dungeness crab and Pacific oysters by the pound. It is amazing value and passengers (no drink driving I’m afraid drivers!) can wash it all down with a Bud and ogle at the sea view.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara skyline

Although you have barely driven 60km north of Malibu, Santa Barbara is a must see mission town. The Spanish-style architecture will certainly catch your eye and the place offers great shopping, lazing on the beach and cosy coffeehouses. On warmer days, buy some bits for a picnic and head to gardens at the Santa Barbara Mission, established in 1786.

With more time on your hands, there are a number of Santa Ynez Mountain hikes to choose from such as Inspiration Point. This is ‘Sideways’ country so delve into one or two of the 103 Santa Barbara wineries. Pick your time of year carefully and you could have prime Santa Barbara whale watching opportunities. The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) gives the place a youthful vibe so on your way out of town, swing by Isla Vista; the students love the cheap Mexican food on offer at Freebirds (879 Embarcadero Del Norte).

Spend the night! Find hostels in Santa Barbara

Head inland to Solvang


The road forks and heads inland near the Gaviota State Park. Shun Highway 1 for an easy diversion along Highway 101 to visit Solvang. You’ll drive through some stunning rolling wine country before pulling in to the rather odd town centre. Danish immigrants descended on the area now known as Solvang in the early 20th Century to establish a settlement far from the midwestern winters. The resulting town, heavily influenced by Danish architectural styles and traditions, is something of a tourist attraction oddity. Quaint windmills, and year-round Christmas shops will add a touch of the downright peculiar to your road trip and you can tuck in to meatballs, cabbage or pancakes.

From Solvang, take Route 246 to lead you back on to Route 1.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach butterfly migration

One of the perks of driving this US road trip in winter is to catch the Pismo Beach monarch butterflies migration. You can spot them nestling in bushes and eucalyptus trees.

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo Night Market

Highway 1 cuts inland briefly, taking you through the fun town of San Luis Obispo. Its early development as a mission town of the 1700s twinned with a 17,000 strong student population today, give this place a well-rounded atmosphere of historical intrigue, and hubbub nightlife. Visit on Thursdays for the farmers’ market with BBQs and live music. San Luis Obispo is a popular stop-off for most making the LA to San Francisco road trip.


You are about half way on Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip at this point. Cambria has two oddly related attractions. Firstly, Hearst Castle (750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon), the extravagant estate owned by publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. Built using a mish mash of European castles, churches and Moorish tiles, it also boasts the world’s most photographed swimming pool. Reserving a place on one of the tours is essential.

A cheaper alternative, although together they make a crazy comparison, is Nit Witt Ridge (881 Hillcrest Dr.) – quite literally the poor man’s version. The house was created by a local garbage man, Art Beal, who used his collected loot of tins and bottles and odd bits of trash to create his mansion.

Elephant Seal

12 miles north of Cambria you should take the opportunity to stop off at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, an ideal place to spot the pups and adult giants lolloping on the rocks, sparring and learning to swim.

Big Sur

McWay Falls

Running between Ragged Point, just beyond San Simeon and Carmel, welcome to your Big Sur drive! It is slow going along the 90-mile Big Sur coastal road with so many beautiful state parks running alongside which call for plenty of stopping.

Two things hinder the experience in summer: fog and crowds. Try to visit in spring or autumn instead and don’t get caught driving at night when the highway is often shrouded in thick fog.

The Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park specialises in ginormous redwood groves and you will be rewarded after a climb down to the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach and the McWay Falls.

Whether packing a picnic or enjoying the spectacular views from the deck, the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant (The Village) covers all sizes of appetite, with wood-fired pizzas and burgers as well as croissants and the best coffee in town.

If you’ve found the sea a tad nippy, try visiting a hot spring. Some of the most spectacular hot tubs can be found at the Esalen Institute (55000 Highway 1), overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But passers by can reserve the mineral baths between 1am and 3am (yup, at night!) for $20. You can even bathe in nothing but your birthday suit!



Carmel-by-the-sea offers an undulating stretch of art galleries – the remnants of a bohemian neighbourhood established in the late 1800s. It’s rather well to do with boutique shopping and picture-perfect houses, but can leave a sickly sweet taste in the minds of backpackers.

If you want to see how the other half live, pay $9 to cover the 17-mile drive, a gated community of golf courses and zillion-dollar homes to the stars.

Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

You won’t have been able to access many beaches along the Big Sur so Monterey Bay is a welcome return to sandy stretches. Santa Cruz sits at the north end of Monterey Bay.

Favourite things to do include a plod along the vintage Santa Cruz boardwalk or drifting inland and up to the hills where the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) boasts some nice redwood groves. Have a lesson with a Santa Cruz surf school or scream yourself silly on the Giant Dipper rollercoaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (free admission).

The people are just as much of an attraction, and the colourful array of characters including surfers and hippies will push you to spend a day or two here soaking up the atmosphere. Oh, and you can‘t miss the bonkers Bigfoot Discovery Museum (5497 Highway 9), a short ride north of Santa Cruz.

About 10 miles north of Santa Cruz, Año Nuevo Bay is another great spot to catch the elephant seals.

Spend the night! Find hostels in Santa Cruz

Half Moon Bay and Mavericks

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Past the pumpkin-obsessed town of Half Moon Bay, you might catch some top-class (and insane) surfers tackling Mavericks, with waves reaching 50ft in winter.

Just north of Mavericks you can experience the incredible tide pool at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve (200 Nevada Avenue, Moss beach – just before Montara), nicely tucked away behind a residential neighbourhood and relatively off the tourist path. At low tide you can marvel at the reef covered in straggling sea grass, sea stars, hermit crabs and anemones – a spectacular colourful display right beneath your feet!

The Homestretch

Devil's Slide

You are now less than an hour from San Francisco (traffic depending) and the road is perhaps at its most frightening with deadly drops beside the cliff. The area is prone to mudslides – no wonder this stretch is known as Devil’s Slide – so be sure to find out in advance if there are any Highway 1 disruptions at this point. If this stretch of Highway 1 is closed, I-280 and CA Hwy 92 is the detour between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay. Luckily the Devil’s Slide tunnel project is well underway and due to open in early 2013.

San Francisco – You have arrived at your destination!

The only thing that could top this trip is if you could arrive crossing the glorious Golden Gate Bridge, but sadly, you enter from the south side of the city. Still, plenty of time to explore the bridge if you have left yourself a couple of days in San Francisco. If you want to learn about the city from someone in the know take a tour with a company like Whether you like nature, bikes or food, they can incorporate your fancy into the tour.

Stretch you legs with a wander in Golden Gate Park. Here you can hire bikes, rollerblades, even Sedgeways! If you’ve been stuck in a car, the Japanese Tea Garden offers some welcome respite or lazing on a rowing boat floating on Stow Lake. On rainy days, head to the Conservatory of Flowers, a old Victorian greenhouse.

A trip to the 1920s Castro Theatre is a must for lovers of classic vintage films, arrive by historic trolly – the F line from Embarcadero is just $2. If you spotted the sea lions on your road trip, don’t bother with touristy Fishermans Wharf.

Coit Tower

Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard) is a great way to take in a view of San Francisco, ($7 for adults) but don’t blink and miss the Diego Rivera-style murals painted inside the tower. For cheap eats in San Francisco, head to the Ferry Building, ideally Tuesdays or Saturdays when the Farmers Market is in full swing until 2pm.

USA Hostels San Francisco is our top-rated place to stay in San Francisco and was the winner of the 2012 HostelBookers Award for Top 3 Best Staff in North America. They offer a free breakfast, both private and dorm rooms, a free city tour as well as plenty of activities.

Thanks to Jim Bahn, brewbooks, David McSpaddenSudheendra Vijayaku, Anita Ritenour, Eric ChanYngvar, Chuq Von RospachDon GrahamvtsrDawn Endico, Marc SmithTrodel, and Tobias for the images off Flickr. Please note, all images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting.

Related posts:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

18 + 10 =