This classic Pacific Coast highway trip is rated by National Geographic as one of the world’s most spectacular drives of a lifetime.
I recommend planning your trip for at least seven nights so you can enjoy the ride and not feel too rushed. This, of course, is dependent on how many stops you wish to take along the way and how long you want to spend at each stop.
A road trip along Highway 1 can be planned successfully to fit any budget or interest.
Which airport to fly into?
There are essentially three city airport options that you can choose to fly into: San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego.
If you are budget conscious, I suggest flying into the airport that yields the cheapest option. I prefer to drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles, however you can choose to start or end with San Diego.
If you are planning on renting a car, many people prefer to pick up their vehicle at one airport and drop it off at another to maximize their time.
This is fine, but it can cost an additional $200-400 since car rental agencies will charge a convenience fee to drop it off at another location.
Check ahead to see what the additional fee is before booking your flights, then decide whether you wish to pay this extra fee if you are short on time.
For me, the best option is to fly in and out of the same airport: LAX or SFO. Aim to catch the earliest flight in to maximize your time.
Which city to begin your journey?
This is a personal preference, but as mentioned, start with the city that fits your budget. Last time I went on the Pacific Coast journey, I flew in and out of LAX as this offered the best price for both flights and car rental.
When I flew into Los Angeles, I took the Interstate 5 up to San Francisco to begin my journey there.
That way I could spend a couple of nights in San Francisco, then slowly make my way (via Highway 1) back down to Los Angeles to relax before flying home.
Alternatively, you can start in Los Angeles and make your way up to San Francisco along Highway 1, then take the Interstate 5 at the end of the trip back to LAX to fly home.
How many overnight stops should you take?
If you are driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles, plan to spend at least two or three nights in these cities.
For example, during my seven night Pacific Coast trip, I spent two nights in San Francisco, one night in Carmel, one night in Pismo Beach and three nights in Los Angeles.
The coastal route takes about nine to ten hours without stopping, so essentially you can complete the drive in one day.
However, there are many beautiful vista points and areas worth checking out between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The amount of overnight stops to take depends on your budget, time and what you wish to see and do. If you only have one week, I recommend spending most of your time in San Francisco and Los Angeles with two or three overnight stops along the way.
While I prefer to plan my overnight stops ahead of time, so I can pick out a good hotel location and research the area — others prefer to be spontaneous by driving without hotel reservations and stopping overnight when they wish.
Going with the flow can be fun, but when I am on a budget, I prefer to plan and book my hotel accommodations in advance. This way I can make sure I am getting a nice clean room at an affordable rate.
During the busy season, it may be hard to find a suitable hotel or prices can be quite expensive.
Best time of year to go?
While California is generally a comfortable temperature all year round, some parts of the state can have variable weather.
San Francisco, for example, is quite foggy and cool during the summer months (June, July and August) while south of the city tends to be clear with sunshine.
Los Angeles and San Diego on other hand sees warm temperatures in the summer and gets a lot more sun. Even daytime temperatures in the winter remain comfortable around 60-70 F / 15-20 C.
Between Memorial Day and Labour Day is the most popular time for tourists to visit and travel throughout California due to the comfortable weather and relatively low humidity.
However, my favourite time to visit California is during Autumn (September – early December), as the crowds begin to drop off and prices dip to shoulder-season rates.
Top five places to visit along Highway 1 in California:
Situated about one and a half hours south of San Francisco, this beach town is a popular spot for California locals and tourists alike.
Santa Cruz is known for it’s beach boardwalk which offers an oceanfront amusement park (the oldest in California).
Here you can enjoy rides, mini-golf, arcades, laser tag, and other family-oriented activities. Did I mention that Santa Cruz is home to 29 miles of beautiful beaches?
CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA and MONTEREY
Carmel is a city within Monterey County which is famous for its natural scenery and recognized by Travel+Leisure magazine as one of the most romantic cities in the world.
A few miles north of Carmel is the beautiful waterfront community of Monterey.
While the area is filled with restaurants, art galleries, shops and beach activities, the most popular things to see here are the 17-Mile Drive (pebble beach) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
If you plan to spend the night here and are on a budget, try looking at accommodations in Marina, which is just outside of Monterey.
Marina offers beautiful beachfront resorts that are much more affordable than the ones in Monterey and Carmel.
About 13 miles south of Carmel is the famous Bixby Bridge. This iconic bridge has been featured in many car advertisements and is associated with the Pacific Coast road trip.
There are a couple of spots on the side of the road if you wish to stop and take a photo.
Big Sur is by far one of the most scenic spots along California’s coast. You can choose to camp or stay overnight in one of the lodgings in the area, but this is not necessary.
A day trip through Big Sur is enough to enjoy the natural scenery without paying the tourist trap prices.
One of my favourite places to visit in California is the incredible Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
William Randolph Hearst was an American newspaper publisher who created the largest newspaper chain in the nation. In 1947, Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan built Hearst Castle, which he called La Cuesta Encantada (Spanish for “Enchanted Hill”).
The castle has 165 rooms and 127 acres of beautiful pools, gardens and terraces.
Hearst Castle offers a number of different tours of the property, the most popular is their Grand Rooms tour which is recommended for first time visitors.
If you enjoy castles, I highly recommend a trip to Hearst Castle.
Santa Barbara is located just a two hour drive north of Los Angeles and popular for its Mediterranean climate and lush scenery.
Here you will find a collection of top rated wineries, shopping and dining, and beautiful beaches. It’s easy to see why Santa Barbara is home to some of America’s famous celebrities.
Stop here for lunch or spend a day exploring what Santa Barbara has to offer before heading down to Los Angeles.
Other stops you may want to take:
Half Moon Bay – Just south of San Francisco, located in San Mateo county, Half Moon Bay is popular for its beaches and wineries. When I was younger, I used to love going to their pumpkin festival every Autumn.
San Luis Obispo – Named the happiest city in America by author and researcher, Dan Buettner, San Luis Obispo is popular for its wineries, beaches and beautiful weather. Hit up Bubble Gum Alley while you’re there!
Malibu – Popular with California’s celebrities, Malibu is a beautiful spot for a day at the beach, horseback riding, and hanging out with the dolphins.
Long Beach – Stay here if you are on a budget, but looking to be close to Los Angeles. From here, drive down to Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
Venice Beach – When in Los Angeles, head to Venice beach, walk along the boardwalk and hang out at the beach.
Over to you — what are your favourite places to stop along Highway 1 in California?
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