The California coastal highway road trip is consistently ranked as one of the best road trips in the whole world. This coastal highway, also known as Route 1, is jam-packed with incredible views. From sprawling vineyards to cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean, the drive is nothing short of stunning.
You can view our entire California Coast roadtrip itinerary in this short 3 minute video
What Is the California Coastal Highway?
The highway that I’m referring to is actually called the Pacific Coast Highway, or Route 1. It is a highway that stretches the entire coast of California. For the majority of the drive, it hugs the coastline, providing incredible views over the Pacific ocean.
The route along the California coast follows both Route 1 and Route 101, as they often merge together. Because of the incredible views and the world-class stops along the drive, the California coastal highway road trip is considered to be one of the best road trips in the United States, and the whole world.
Where Does the California Coastal Highway Road Trip Start and End?
The short answer is that the California coastal highway road trip starts and ends wherever you want it to. There isn’t a set structure or rulebook that you need to follow when driving along the California coast.
The most common thing to do is set your northern endpoint as San Francisco and your southern endpoint as either Los Angeles or San Diego, but this is completely flexible – you can make the drive much longer or much shorter if you wish, depending on your interests and how much time you have. We drove from San Francisco to San Diego and to us it felt like the perfect stretch.
This makes sense because being closer to the edges naturally gives you more ability to see down into the cliffs and towards the water. If you’re not comfortable with driving right alongside the cliffs (often with no guardrail whatsoever) you should drive from south to north. The views are still good, and being on the inside puts an extra 10 feet between you and the several hundred-foot drops that line the outside of the road.
How Long Does the California Coastal Highway Road Trip Take?
This question depends entirely on where you choose to start and end, clearly. If you choose to drive from San Francisco to San Diego, expect to spend at least 12 hours on the road. This is pretty much the bare minimum.
If you have no traffic and don’t stop for anything other than gas, you can probably make it in 12 hours. Obviously, you shouldn’t do this! While the views along the road are incredible, one of the best parts of the California coastal highway road trip is all of the awesome stops along the way.
We did the trip in a very short amount of time because of other time constraints that we had, and it is definitely possible to do this trip in two or three days. I’d definitely recommend stretching it out longer though – even up to a week if you have the time.
We drove from San Francisco all the way to San Diego in two days with our only overnight stop in Santa Barbara. Possible? Yes. Ideal? Not really.
We had an incredible time, but having a few more days can only enhance the experience. If you stretch it out over a week, you can expect to drive anywhere between 2 and 3 hours per day. If you do what we did, expect to be on the road from the crack of dawn until dinner.
Where to Stop Along the California Coastal Highway
Like every other section so far in this post, the answer depends fully on how much time you have. There are so many great towns, cities, and rural areas along this route that I can’t craft a universal itinerary for you.
Instead, I’ll tell you what where we stopped and stayed, and what I’d do next time if I spread this drive out over a full week.
As I said, we knocked this drive out in two days. In fact, the day before we started the road trip we had another long drive from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, and we had just driven all the way from Napa Valley to Lake Tahoe. If you want to add a stop in Napa Valley to your California coastal highway road trip, definitely check out my Napa Valley Travel Guide.
Quick California Coastal Highway Road Trip Itinerary:
Leave San Francisco at 5:30am
Stop in Monterey at 7:45am (2hr. 15min.)
Drive nonstop through Big Sur until Ragged Point
Arrive in Ragged Point around 11:15am for lunch (2hr. 30min.)
Continue directly to Santa Barbara, arrive at 4:00pm (2hr. 45min.)
Spend the night in Santa Barbara
Leave Santa Barbara at 6:00am
Arrive in Malibu at 7:15am and grab breakfast (1hr. 15min.)
Drive through Beverly Hills and visit the Hollywood sign at 9:00am (45min.)
Arrive at San Juan Capistrano for lunch and sightseeing at 11:00am (1hr.)
Arrive in San Diego at 2:00pm (1hr.)
While we did manage to make the entire drive in just two days, several places along the way deserved much more time and we’d definitely devote more time to each place next time. If you have a full week, I’d recommend driving just from one place to another each day and spending a full day (or more) at each destination. Here’s what that could look like:
Long California Coastal Highway Road Trip Itinerary:
Drive to Monterey and spend the night there.
Drive to somewhere in Big Sur and spend a night there. I recommend the Ragged Point Inn.
Drive to Santa Barbara and spend the night there.
Drive to Los Angeles or Malibu and spend two nights there.
Explore Los Angeles. It needs a second day just because it’s so massive.
Drive to San Diego and stop in San Juan Capistrano along the way.
Monterey is an adorable coastal town just south of San Francisco that was the muse of many 20th-century writers. There is a town called Big Sur, but the term Big Sur can also refer to everything along the coast from Monterey to a bit south of Ragged Point.
The hiking and camping here are incredible, and the area is also known for luxury boutique hotels. The Ragged Point Inn that I mentioned is not luxury at all, but it is an awesome and lively place to stop for a bite to eat or absorb some great views.
Santa Barbara is a high-end, adorable city on the coastline and is definitely worth a stop. For us, it was a natural breakup of our drive and we really enjoyed the city.
Malibu is a high-end beach town north of Los Angeles and is known for its surfing and its popularity with celebrities.
San Juan Capistrano is a town built around an old, Catholic, Spanish mission. The mission has now been turned into a museum and is a beautiful property to walk around in. This is a great place to stop for a while and grab lunch.
Final Tips for your California Coastal Highway Road Trip
That’s all we have for you about planning your California coastal highway road trip! Hopefully, this blog post helps you to plan the perfect road trip along California’s coast.
If you’re planning a California coastal highway road trip, comment below! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have.