Planning a scenic trip along the Pacific Coast Highway? I’m sharing the 7-day itinerary for our round-trip Los Angeles to San Francisco Road Trip here!
In my opinion, California is the most beautiful state in the country.
Some might say that I’m biased because I grew up in San Diego, but I have lived outside Cali for nearly 10 years now (in the West Coast, Midwest, the South), and I STILL think California is the most beautiful.
For one, the sheer diversity of its landscape is amazing.
Oceans, deserts, mountains, lakes, forests, wine country – California has it all and there is always something new to discover.
So, when we decided to go on a family road trip this summer, I was a huge advocate for a road trip up the California coast.
Now, when I say family road trip… I truly mean a family road trip. My husband and I went with my brother in law, sister in law and a bunch of our nieces and nephews. We’re talking 14 people, including adults, teenagers and kids/toddlers. So, as you can imagine, we had a variety of interests on board.
I can confidently recommend this itinerary for large groups because we had a grand time and there was something for each person to enjoy. (This includes college campus tours for the college-bound).
I also recommend this itinerary for those coming from out-of-state or are new to California because it hits many hot spots and covers as much ground as possible over 7 days.
Before going into itinerary details, here are some things you might want to know:
California Coast Road Trip TIPS:
The best route to take:
The fastest way to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco is actually on Interstate 5 (which is inland).
Highway 1 is a scenic route that runs along the coastline and adds several hours to the journey.
Because the point of this road trip was to enjoy the coastal scenery and appreciate the beauty of the California shoreline, our Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip took place along Highway 1.
Then, on our way back down from San Francisco (back to LA), we took Freeway 5 to save time.
Why did we make this a ROUND TRIP?
As I mentioned, my family members and I all came from outside of California. We all flew into and out of LAX airport.
We could have flown into one airport and flown out of another (SFO), but returning a rental car to a different location than where you rented it is wildly more expensive.
Also, booking 2 one-way flights is usually more expensive than a round trip flight from the same airport.
So, the simple answer is that a round trip road trip was the most cost-effective option.
Safety precautions to take along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH):
The PCH (another name for Highway 1) is a winding and mountainous 2-lane highway. While the road is paved and generally well cared for, it is still important to be careful.
Some precautions to take before starting this trip:
+ Check the weather conditions and road closures!
Due to California wildfires, landslides can lead to road closures along the PCH. Start with checking the California Department of Transportation website for highway conditions.
+ Use a reliable car
There are long stretches of road with poor cell service and few resources (gas stations, stores, etc). This would be a really bad place for your car to break down.
+ Don’t rush / Allow plenty of time
If you’re in a hurry, you should take Highway 5. Highway 1 is meant to be the scenic, slow route; it takes you significantly longer than the 5 or 101. Also, rushing increases your chances of putting yourself and others in harms way.
+ Don’t drive tired
It’s not worth it. The road is winding and you could be lulled to sleep and cause an accident.
+ Don’t drive it in the dark
If you’re unable to see the scenery, it defeats the purpose of taking this route and just increases risk for no reason.
Traveling with Young Ones
At the beginning of the trip, stock up on snacks and drinks so that you don’t have to stop unnecessarily.
I also recommend bringing a few activities. I actually designed this bingo game, which you can print for free, for this trip.
Now, on to the itinerary.
Los Angeles to San Francisco
ROAD TRIP ITINERARY:
(B) Breakfast (L) Lunch (D) Dinner
DAY #1 : Arrival in Los Angeles // Explore Hollywood
While our trip started in Los Angeles (LAX airport), it could just have easily started the other way – from San Francisco (SFO) or another Bay Area airport. In this case, LAX was the affordable option for us.
Upon landing at LAX, we picked up our reserved rental car and had something to eat nearby.
An iconic place to eat that is nearby is the Inglewood branch of Roscoes Chicken & Waffles.
It isn’t uncommon to see recognizable/famous personalities at Roscoes. It is one of those places that people tend to put on their Los Angeles bucket list.
Next, we checked into our AirBnB located in Hollywood. Our experience with this accommodation was less than pleasant so I won’t bother sharing the details.
The good thing is that it was walking distance from most of the popular Hollywood sites.
After checking in and settling down, we walked a couple of blocks over to Hollywood Boulevard to check out the famous Walk of Fame, Wax Museum, Chinese Theater, etc. Even if you choose not to pay for these attractions, there is plenty to see on Hollywood Boulevard trust me! The street is rife with entertainment and interesting characters!
We ended the night with dinner at a nearby Hollywood restaurant. There are plenty around to choose from.
|START||– Arrival into LAX |
– Rental Car Pick Up
|EAT(L)||Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles (Inglewood)|
621 W Manchester Blvd, Inglewood, CA 90301
|SLEEP||AirBnB in Hollywood|
|DO||– Hollywood Walk of Fame (N Highland Ave & Hollywood Blvd)|
– Hollywood Wax Museum (6767 Hollywood Blvd)
– Madame Tussauds (6933 Hollywood Blvd)
– TCL Chinese Theater (6925 Hollywood Blvd)
– Dolby Theater (6801 Hollywood Blvd)
– The Hollywood Museum (1660 N. Highland Ave.)
(don’t underestimate the fun of just walking down the street & people watching!)
|EAT(D)||Mel’s Drive-In (website) |
1660 N. Highland Ave.
DAY #2 : Explore Los Angeles
We started our first full day in LA with, arguably, LA’s most popular hiking destination: Runyon Canyon Park.
This park has multiple hiking trails. We chose the moderate intensity trail (a bit accidentally) and it was tougher than expected.
You will get your morning workout in for the day and may even spot some celebrities hiking in this park. Like I mentioned, it’s very popular.
Don’t worry if it’s not close to where you are staying, there are so many hiking trails to pick from in Los Angeles.
After this, we grabbed breakfast. Then, after cleaning up and getting refreshed, we headed out to enjoy some of LA’s most popular attractions. (You’ll see some suggestions/options below).
If interested in college tours, this would be a good day to stop by USC or UCLA.
One thing about Los Angeles is that there are sooooooo many popular and amazing eating places to try. You can’t possibly expect to get to all of them. Some of my must-eat recommendations are Porto’s (cuban-inspired bakery) and tacos, because no one does taco truck as good as Los Angeles.
|START||Morning Hike at Runyon Canyon Park |
2000 N Fuller Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046
|EAT(B)||– The Griddle Cafe (website)|
7916 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90046
|DO||– Griffith Observatory|
– STAPLES Center
|EAT(L)||– Porto’s Bakery (website)|
– Grand Central Market
|DO||– Santa Monica Pier & Beach|
– 3rd Street Promenade
(see “Best Taco Trucks in Los Angeles“)
DAY #3: Los Angeles —-> San Luis Obispo
Day 3 puts the road in road trip- lots of time spent driving today.
On this morning, we checked out from the AirBnb and grabbed breakfast on the road. A bunch of us stopped at Trejo’s for yummy donuts on the way to the freeway.
A word of caution: the quickest way from Southern California to northern California is on the Interstate 5 freeway, so your GPS will probably try to steer you onto this freeway. However, that is NOT the scenic route.
What you want is the route that goes from the 101 and ends up on Highway 1 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway). Very important.
The 101 freeway will take you through Malibu, Santa Barbara and other coastal cities. The fun of a road trip is that you can enjoy the countryside through the window or take your time and stop at any of the cities you choose. (Some ideas listed below).
Our Central California stopping point for the night was San Luis Obispo (SLO). SLO didn’t have any good AirBNB choices for the size of our group so we booked a couple rooms at the Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach using Marriott points. It was a BEAUTIFUL property (highly recommend) and a welcome getaway after a poor AirBnb experience in LA.
After checking in, we grabbed dinner at Firestone Grill – a very popular restaurant which you will be able to tell from their long line that stretches outside.
When in SLO, make sure to try the tri-tip! That is what the area is known for!
We then spent time at the beach, toured Cal Poly University and explored the town.
|EAT(B)||Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts (website) |
6785 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90038
|DO||– Malibu, CA|
– El Matador Beach
– Santa Barbara, CA
Santa Barbara is a beautiful little coastal city on the way up to SLO. You can stop briefly to admire its quaint nature, drive by some of its well known sites like the Old Mission or you can make a day trip of it by scheduling tours & activities in Santa Barbara.
– Lompoc Flower Fields
|EAT(L)||(spontaneous // on the road)|
|SLEEP||Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach (website)|
147 Stimson Avenue, Pismo Beach CA 93449
|– Avila Beach – kayaking & other water activities|
– Bubblegum Alley
– Hop-On, Hop-Off Wine Tasting Tour
– Oceano Dunes
– Visit Cal Poly University
|EAT(D)||Firestone Grill |
1001 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo CA 93401
(Other popular options include)
– Splash Cafe Clam Chowder
– Ruddell’s Smoke House
– Madonna Inn
– Brown Butter Cookie Company
– SLO Donut Co
DAY #4: San Luis Obispo —-> San Francisco [BIG SUR]
Another big road tripping day!
Before getting on the road, some of us started the day with a morning hike in Avila Beach.
There are lots of trails in the area. The hike that we went on was the Ontario Ridge Trail Loop which was absolutely picturesque.
That being said, this is not a hike that I would recommend for children or those with poor mobility. It was of moderate difficulty, high elevation and started out (and ended) very steeply. Overall, it was a very enjoyable and scenic hike that I look forward to doing again.
After breakfast, we got back onto the Pacific Coast Highway and headed up toward San Francisco. A large part of this coastline is whats known as the Big Sur.
There are lots of places to stop for cliffside views of the ocean and mountains and we took the opportunity to do so.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you. This road winds a lot and some may find the drive a bit scary (read: me) or even nauseating. Just keep that in mind.
Stopping at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a great place for a bathroom break or to stretch the legs because this gives you a chance to admire a nice waterfall (McWay Falls).
Along the way to SF are popular coastal cities such as Monterey, Carmel by the Sea and Santa Cruz- all of which have great places to eat and things to see.
|START||Morning Hike – Ontario Ridge Trail Loop (information)|
Shell Beach Drive Trailhead address: Indio Drive & Bluff Drive, Pismo Beach, CA 93449
Trailhead coordinates: 35.174558, -120.707748 (35° 10′ 28.40″N 120° 42′ 27.89″W)
|EAT(B)||(spontaneous // on the road)|
|DO||– Hearst Castle|
– Big Sur
– McWay Falls (Google Location)
80-foot waterfall located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
52801 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920
– Monterey, CA
– Santa Cruz – beach & boardwalk
|EAT(L)||(spontaneous // on the road)|
|EAT(D)||Hula’s Island Grill (website)|
622 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey CA 93940
|SLEEP||AirBnB (San Francisco / Daly City)|
DAY #5: Explore San Francisco
We arrived in San Francisco in the wee hours of day 5, checked into our AirBnb and called it a night.
Later in the morning, we grabbed breakfast nearby and headed out to see the sights of the San Francisco area.
First stop: the Golden Gate Bridge. We parked in a lot near the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center and was able to walk onto the bridge in just a few steps. There was ample parking (weekday afternoon) and lots of room for us to enjoy the surroundings and take pictures with the bridge in the backdrop.
After the Golden Gate, we headed over to Pier 39 to enjoy the novelty shops, buy souvenirs, admire sea lions, ride rides and enjoy unique treats. Definitely a place where there is something for everyone to enjoy.
After Pier 39, we headed over to Lombard Street for beautiful vistas of the city and thereafter, began our hunt for lunch/dinner, which we enjoyed in Golden Gate Park.
DAY #6: San Francisco —-> San Luis Obispo
At this point, the trip was winding down. We had spent most of our enthusiasm and energy exploring all the major cities and the vibe of the trip transitioned from exploration to relaxation and recuperation.
We had enjoyed our stay in San Luis Obispo so much that we decided to leave San Francisco as early as possible to head back down to the Central Coast.
Since we had already explored the scenic route on the way up, we shaved time off of our trip back down by taking Highway 5 (which is, as you remember, the fastest route). We only stopped when needed and once we arrived in SLO, checked back into the Vespera Resort for one final day of luxury enjoyment.
Everyone relaxed in their own way. Some on the beach. Others with drinks on the resort.
We scheduled our arrival back to SLO for a Thursday so I got to attend their famous Farmers Market. It was as awesome as advertised. Lots of people, lots of vendors, lots of good eats.
I highly recommend planning on a BBQ dinner if you end up at this Farmers Market.
DAY #7: San Luis Obispo —-> Los Angeles (LAX)
Time to say goodbye.
Early in the morning, we checked out of our hotel in San Luis Obispo and drove straight to LAX to drop off our rental car and bid California a satisfied farewell.
|CHECK OUT & DEPARTURES|
To customize your California coast trip with the stops you prefer, use Road Trippers.
We had a wonderful, wonderful time on this LA to SF road trip and I truly hope that you all do too!