Driving The Pacific Coast Highway From Santa Monica To San Francisco

Following our 3 night stay in Santa Monica we started the third leg of our honeymoon in America by driving 420 miles of the California coast along the Pacific Coast Highway (route 1) to San Francisco!

With the route being so long we decided to take our time by breaking it up over 3 days. This was a highly recommended route that claimed to offer a relaxed drive with stunning coastal views, particularly at Big Sur. The drive didn’t disappoint!

Day 1 – Santa Monica to Cambria via Santa Barbara – 220 miles

Being someone who is quite into cars, I wanted to undertake such a long, iconic drive properly and so insisted that we hire a classic American car. This was of course a convertible Ford Mustang.

Pacific Coast Highway Ford Mustang

We had pre-booked the hire car via Hertz so made our way to LAX for the pickup. After completing the final bits of paperwork we got the car we booked and not only that but the Mustang which turned up was almost brand new which made things all the more special!

Finally behind the wheel, we set off on our first leg of the 420 mile drive, heading 220 miles (6 hours including stops) along the Pacific coast to Cambria.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Santa Barbara

Driving 90 miles north from Santa Monica, the first stop on our journey was Santa Barbara which had taken us around 2.5 hours. We parked up and went for a walk along the beachfront which led us to Santa Barbara Harbour. This was a great little place with lots of interesting boats and yachts moored. Being early afternoon we stopped at the Breakwater restaurant on the harbour front for some fresh fish and chips before walking back to the car to continue the drive.

Santa Barbara beach
Santa Barbara Harbour
Santa Barbara Harbour


Leaving Santa Barbara, we had originally planned to stop at Pismo Beach which was a recommended location however with the light fading we decided to drive directly to our hotel for the night at Cambria Pines. From Santa Barbara this was 130 miles north which took us around 2.5 hours to drive. Arriving at Cambria Pines resort in the pitch black (barely any street lighting!) we checked in and exhausted from the driving, headed straight to the restaurant before hitting the sack.

Driving to Cambria
Driving to Cambria

Day 2 – Cambria to Monterey via Big Sur – 100 miles

After grabbing some breakfast from Cambria Pines’ buffet we jumped in the car to start the second day of our drive. This would take us a further 100 miles / 4 hours (with stops) along the coast to Monterey.

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon

The first stop on the route was at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon! This was a great stop to observe the seals up close in their natural environment. If you are heading here with children it was really safe and there’s plenty of information boards to learn about the seals too.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon

Ragged Point – Portal to Big Sur

20 miles down the road from the elephant seals we made a stop at the infamous Ragged Point. This pretty much marks the start of Big Sur and offers breathtaking views of the coastline.

Ragged Point – Portal to Big Sur
Ragged Point – Portal to Big Sur

We tried to make a stop at McWay falls however when we pulled off the road at the turning, unfortunately the barriers were locked and the roads closed. There was no reasons given on the signs except that it was unsafe and with fires burning due to the extreme heat this summer in California we can only assume that was the reason. This was really disappointing as it was a sight we had been looking forward to however I for one will not be arguing with fire!

With little time to spare we started the car back up and made our way further along the road to Nepenthe.

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway

Lunch at Nepenthe

45 miles and over an hour and a half further along the road from Ragged Point we made our way to Nepenthe via Big Creek Bridge.

The road took us high up the cliffs to a viewpoint overlooking the very misty coastline. Due to the forest fires that were burning we also saw the helicopter crews at work, filling their tanks with water before flying off to their destination which was pretty cool.

The view from Nepenthe restaurant

Pfeiffer beach

With a decent lunch inside us we made our way back down the hill to the beautiful Pfeiffer beach, offering stunning natural formations and golden sands.

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Bixby Creek Bridge

A further 20 miles along the coast we stopped at the well known Bixby Creek Bridge. This is one of the most famous sights of Big Sur and it was a pretty special sight. It was also incredibly dangerous with the main photo spots being on a near vertical cliff edge and loose soil under foot!

The Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur
The Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur

Carmel by the Sea

With Bixby Bridge behind us we continued on for the final drive of the day, making our way 30 miles further north to Carmel by the Sea. Carmel was a beautiful little town on the coast with a gorgeous beach and plenty of small shops offering everything from tourist goods to expensive art. In the mood for neither, with it being a long hot day we opted for the ice cream shop!

Carmel by the Sea beach
Carmel by the Sea

Having spent a good hour wandering around in Carmel we made our way back to the car and drove the remaining 4 miles of the day to Casa Munras resort where we grabbed some dinner and headed to bed.

Day 3 – Monterey to San Francisco via Santa Cruz – 100 miles

The third and final day of the road trip would take us the last 120 miles from Monterey into San Francisco. First things first however, a ridiculously over-sized breakfast at Denny’s!

Denny's breakfast - big!

Obviously, I destroyed this!

Santa Cruz

The final day of driving didn’t have much to offer us location-wise however we did decide to make a stop at Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz looked like a pretty cool seaside town that in the height of summer would be overrun with families and tourists. On the day we visited however it was a bit like a ghost town! I think we must have missed a memo or something! The car parks were completely empty as was the boardwalk and pier! That aside the place looked like it would be pretty cool to visit but certainly not a touch on Santa Monica where we’d been only a few days earlier.

Santa Cruz beach boardwalk
Santa Cruz pier
Santa Cruz beach

Unfortunately Santa Cruz was the final beach resort offering anything to look at on the drive. The remaining 50 miles to San Francisco offered very little beyond 2/3 lane highways off the coast, in-land. Not only that, the temperature had reached a blisteringly hot 100°F / 38°C so a little hot and bothered with little to look at we made our way down the final stretch of road and dropped off the car at San Francisco airport.

Final stretch to San Francisco
100 degrees reached!
Route to San Francisco

Upon booking our road trip I was quite apprehensive about undertaking so much driving on highways. The Pacific Coast Highway is however for the most part a single carriageway with people just like ourselves leisurely cruising along the roads taking in the views and stopping at the viewpoints. There isn’t therefore the pressure of people riding your boot (trunk!), high speeds or anything like that. The drive was incredibly relaxed with both myself and Sarah taking turns to drive so that we could enjoy the beautiful coastal views.

I would love to do this drive again in the future and recommend it to everyone visiting the Pacific Coast. The entire experience was incredible!

Road trip essentials

Setting off a road trip like this is an incredible experience and offers a huge sense of freedom and adventure. There are however a number of essentials for your trip and certainly some recommended items to enhance it even further!

Firstly, this road trip in particular is the California coast and it is HOT! Make sure you pick yourself up some Sunscreen and also a Windscreen Cover for your car – trust me, when you stop the car for a wander around and come back this will be massively appreciated to reflect the heat! If you have a convertible then something else which you will appreciate is Insect Repellent – stopping at traffic lights, pulling up on the side of the road to take a photo or even slowing down can result in flies and other creepy crawlies entering your personal space – keep them at bay!

Finally something to really make your trip memorable that you can look back on in years to come is a video of your trip and one of the best ways to do that is with a GoPro. A trusted and reliable brand we certainly recommend getting your hands on one!

San Francisco

The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway ended with us driving to the car drop off at San Francisco airport which was very easy and well sign posted. With the car and Big Sur behind us we started the fourth leg of our honeymoon with a 3 night stay in San Francisco.

Are you planning to drive the Pacific Coast Highway this year? We’d love to hear your plans, let us know in the comments!

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