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San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip: 23 Best Stops + Itinerary

San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip: 23 Best Stops + Itinerary

Quaint towns and bucket list cities, fresh ocean air and pristine beaches, epic sunsets and stunning coastal views all combine to make driving California’s Pacific Coast Highway 1 from San Francisco to San Diego one of the most picturesque and famous US road trips.

Is it worth your time and money to drive the PCH in California?

Oh yes! Driving Pacific Coast Highway 1 through California is one of those genuine bucket list road trip experiences you will never forget.

Here’s what we will show you in this guide:

  • 23 best stops to make on the drive from San Francisco to San Diego
  • Things to do and where to stay at each stop
  • 10 day and 14 day California Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary examples

So start downloading your favorite road trip tunes and let’s get stuck into planning your dream drive from San Francisco to San Diego!

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San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip Factfile

Road Trip: California Pacific Coast Highway
Road Numbers: CA-1 and US-101

Start: San Francisco, CA
End: San Diego, CA

Distance: 600 miles
Drive Time: 17 hours
Things to do: Photography, hiking, beaches, small towns, major cities

Pacific Coast Highway 1 California headland with Pacific Ocean
Big Sur coastline on the PCH

Where Does The Complete Pacific Coast Highway Start And End?

The two ends of the Pacific Coast Highway road trip route are San Diego in California and Olympia in Washington State.

If you wanted to drive the entire length of the US western seaboard on the Pacific Coast Highway, you would be in for 1,650 miles of beautiful scenery and adventure.

We have driven the Washington portion and half the Oregon portion in one trip, plus the most famous section of the PCH from San Francisco to San Diego on a separate road trip.

Both are stunning and we highly recommend you drive the entire thing if the opportunity arises.

Where Does The California Section Of PCH Start And End?

The California Pacific Coast Highway technically begins near Leggett in Mendocino County and runs 656 miles south to Dana Point, just below Los Angeles in Orange County.

However, by far the most popular and heavily trafficked section of the Pacific Coast Highway in California is between San Diego and San Francisco.

Drivers will merge onto I-5 for the final 65 miles between Dana Point and San Diego. Interstate 5 tightly hugs the coastline, so it isn’t as boring as your typical drive on a freeway!

Personally, we decided to visit Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Death Valley as part of a wider California road trip before driving the Pacific Coast Highway from SF to SD.

Car Hire: If you plan to hire a car in San Francisco or San Diego to drive the stunning California coastline, compare prices with Rental Cars for best value and most options.

23 Best Places To Visit On A San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway without stopping would be like going to Paris and not going up the Eiffel Tower.

It is easy to underestimate how many days you need to explore the best of California’s Pacific Coast Highway 1. Many visitors are so focused on San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego that they forget about everything in between.

We will cover example itineraries later in the guide to help with planning your road trip. But for now, let’s get stuck into each of the 23 best stops to make when driving between San Francisco and San Diego.

Important – If you are planning to drive from San Diego to San Francisco instead, simply reverse the order of places to visit.

1. San Francisco

San Francisco at dawn with Oakland Bridge and tram lines SF is one of the 3 big cities to stop at along California's Pacific Coast Highway road trip
California Street view over Oakland Bridge at sunrise

San Francisco is one of the most popular places to visit in the USA thanks to a world famous suspension bridge, a notorious prison out in its bay and a fabled cable car system.

The walkable city of San Francisco is full of character and it is a truly unmissable place to visit in California.

SF is filled with unique things to do and see, great food and a chilled vibe. Spend time simply exploring neighborhoods like Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf and Mission District.

  • Time required: Minimum 2 days, although 3 days would be better
  • Top tip: Don’t miss Twin Peaks and Coit Tower for the two best city views
  • Where to stay: Affordable and highly rated – CitizenM Union Square

Planning to spend time in San Francisco?

Here are our most popular guides:

2. Golden Gate Bridge

Photographing San Francisco's golden gate bridge is one of the best things to do on a pacific coast highway road trip driving from San Francisco to San Diego
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is the most photographed bridge on the planet. You can’t miss the famous international orange color, which is instantly recognizable.

If you’re lucky you will see the Golden Gate Bridge piercing out of lingering fog in SF bay.

You can see the bridge from a number of areas around SF, but there are a handful with exceptional views. Battery Spencer and Marshall’s Beach offer 2 of the most iconic photography locations.

  • Time required: 2-3 hours to see the bridge from all best viewpoints
  • Top tip: Start on the Marin headland side of the bridge and cross back to SF
  • Where to stay: Luxurious hotel with bay views – Fairmont Heritage Ghirardelli Square

Want the top views? Read our guide to the best views of Golden Gate Bridge so you can get to the right spots with your camera.

3. Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island from SF bay Pier 33 with telephoto lens the rock looks desolate
Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay

There are times when tours can do a disservice to historic monuments or landmarks. Thankfully, Alcatraz is not one of those times!

On the contrary, both the day and tours of Alcatraz prison are filled with excellent information, plus special talks about escape attempts, locking systems and much more.

You will board an Alcatraz ferry at Pier 33 but be sure to book in advance to avoid disappointment on the day. Audio headsets play commentary in multiple languages and we can’t recommend the tours highly enough.

  • Time required: 3-4 hours including ferry shuttles if you take things slowly and join special talks.
  • Top tip: The Alcatraz night tour offers one or two bonus areas not found on the day tour.
  • Where to stay: Very close to Pier 33 – Hotel Zephyr San Francisco

Want to visit Alcatraz? Read our in depth review of the Alcatraz Tours including what to expect on both the day and night tour.

4. Half Moon Bay State Beach

Half Moon Bay state beach 4 miles of golden sand on the pacific coast near San Francisco
Half Moon Bay Beach

The first stop once you leave San Francisco is Half Moon Bay beach. This 4 mile long beach belongs to the State of California and that means you have to pay US$ 10 to park your car.

Get used to this because it happens a lot on the Pacific Coast Highway road trip from San Francisco to San Diego!

If you left SF in late afternoon or early evening, enjoy spending sunset on the beach. But if this is just the start of your day, don’t spend too long here as there’s plenty more sand to come.

  • Distance from last stop: 30 miles from San Francisco downtown.
  • Time required: 1 hour max if only passing through.
  • Top tip: There is limited parking on the roads leading up to the beach, arrive early to snag one.
  • Where to stay: Luxurious suite on the beach – Beach House Half Moon Bay

5. Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Pigeon Point Lighthouse tallest lighthouse on west coast of US fantastic stop on California highway 1 between SF and LA
Late afternoon at Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse on America’s West coast. Built in 1871, the towering 115 ft white lighthouse is incredibly picturesque as it sits atop the rocky coastline.

The lighthouse looks exactly like a New England lighthouse and still actively aids navigation.

Again, if you left SF later in the day, there are worse places to watch the sunset, particularly if you are into photography.

You can even sleep inside the lighthouse as it is now also a hostel.

  • Distance from last stop: 21 miles from Half Moon Bay.
  • Time required: 30 mins to 1 hour max if only passing through.
  • Top tip: The best time to photograph Pigeon point lighthouse is sunset.
  • Where to stay: Inside the Lighthouse! – Pigeon Point Lighthouse

6. Shark Fin Cove

Shark fin cove is a small secluded cove with cave and huge rock shaped like a shark fin close to San Francisco California
Huge shark fin shaped rock

Shark Fin Cove is one of many outstanding rock formations you will drive past on the Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and San Diego.

The huge and intriguing shark fin shaped rock is a great place to visit when traveling with the kids.

After explaining that the biggest shark in the world lives here, take them down to the beach to see the shark’s fin framed through a small cave.

A calm day and low tide will help frame the enormous fin shaped rock for sunset photographers shooting long exposures.

  • Distance from last stop: 18 miles from Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
  • Time required: 30 mins to 1 hour max if only passing through.
  • Top tip: The sea cave is another fantastic location for stunning California sunset photography.
  • Where to stay: Nearby Santa Cruz – Budget: Mission Inn / Luxury: Inn at Depot Hill.

7. Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural bridges state park near Santa Cruz is the perfect place to watch sunset over California's pacific coast not far from highway 1
Sunset at Natural Bridges State Park

Natural Bridges state beach is another place you have to pay to park but it is worth it if you’re arriving just before sunset.

At low tide, you can explore rock pools to discover sea stars and crabs. Just off shore you might see otters and seals playing. Maybe even migrating whales if you’re lucky.

The beach is small but clean and neat. Natural Bridges’ focal point is a stand alone rock formation with an arched doorway-like cave just a few meters out into the Pacific Ocean.

Dozens of shore birds will wade along the beach as the ocean flows and ebbs gently with a stunning orange sky at dusk.

  • Distance from last stop: 9 miles from Shark Fin Cove.
  • Time required: 30 mins to 1 hour max if only passing through, longer for sunset.
  • Top tip: End your first day on Pacific Coast Highway 1 here or in Monterey up next.
  • Where to stay: Santa Cruz – Budget: Mission Inn / Luxury: Inn at Depot Hill.

8. Monterey

Kristen looking through a telescope near Monterey Bay California when driving San Francisco to San Diego pacific coast highway 1
Kristen looking for marine life in Monterey

Monterey is the first town to spend a good amount of time in after leaving SF. The charming town is perfect for a morning stroll. Don’t miss Cannery Row which was once the center of Sardine packing factories, now converted into restaurants, galleries and shops.

The major highlight of Monterey Bay is its aquarium, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the United States. It was the first to care for and display a great white shark and house a kelp forest.

Further around the headland you will find lovers point park and point pinos lighthouse. Walk around both quickly before moving on to the next stop.

  • Distance from last stop: 45 miles from Natural Bridges state beach.
  • Time required: 2-3 hours total, more if eating breakfast in town.
  • Top tip: Those with more time and budget, stick around Monterey area an extra night.
  • Where to stay: Monterey – Budget: Wave Street Inn / Luxury: Monterey Plaza.

Planning to stay in Monterey? Read our popular guide to the 15 best hotels in Monterey covering cheap, mid range and luxury hotel options.

9. 17 Mile Drive

Lone Cypress Tree on 17 mile drive in Monterey Bay near pebble beach golf club
Lone Cypress Tree on 17 Mile Drive

17 mile drive is a wonderful coastal road filled with beaches, rocky headlands and super-sized mansions – all owned by Pebble Beach Corporation.

Pebble beach is a gated community and 17 mile drive is part of the community so you do have to pay $10.50 to drive the road.

Is it worth it? Yes!

You will find a dozen or so highlights to stop off along the road to admire scenery, marine life and golf courses.

The most famous attraction is called Lone Cypress Tree, a tree standing guard alone on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific.

The final stops on 17 mile drive? Cypress Point and Pebble Beach golf clubs.

Both are considered among the best courses in America and Pebble Beach of course is steeped in US Open tour history.

  • Distance from last stop: 2 miles from Monterey Bay aquarium.
  • Time required: 2-4 hours total, depending on how much you like golf!
  • Top tip: Near Pebble beach you’ll see some of the biggest houses you’re likely to see in person!
  • Where to stay: Carmel-by-the-Sea – Candle Light Inn or Carriage House Inn

10. Pebble Beach Golf Club

Mark at Pebble Beach golf club next to golf cart in Monterey California
Mark at Pebble Beach golf club

Pebble Beach has hosted the US Open on 6 occasions, the last being in 2019 when Gary Woodland won his first major. With a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, it’s easy to see why this place is so popular.

Widely regarded as one of the best golf courses in the world, Pebble beach can in fact be played by non guests or members … as long as you have US$ 525 plus US$ 92.50 for a caddie going spare.

More realistically, go to the museum and walk around the club grounds. Definitely worth visiting.

  • Distance from last stop: At the end of 17 mile drive.
  • Time required: 1 hour to look around museum and grounds.
  • Top tip: You can go inside Pebble Beach club house and to 18th hole viewing area.
  • Where to stay: Carmel-by-the-Sea – Candle Light Inn or Carriage House Inn

11. Carmel By The Sea

Shopping in stunning buildings in Carmel-by-the-sea village beautifully kept and one of the nicer stops on California's pacific coast highway
Shops in Carmel by the Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is simply stunning but there’s not a whole lot to do except walk around the lovely shops, boutiques, art galleries and restaurants before walking down Ocean Avenue to Carmel beach.

Stop in a cafe or grab an ice cream to accompany you as you take in the scenery of this idyllic town.

Important: If you are traveling North to South from San Francisco to San Diego, there are very few hotel options between Carmel and San Simeon / Cambria / Morro Bay. Plan to leave Carmel no later than lunch otherwise you’ll be driving 30-40 miles of the best stretch of PCH in the dark.

  • Distance from last stop: 2.5 miles from Pebble Beach golf club.
  • Time required: 2 hours to look around beautiful tiny town, 3 with beach visit.
  • Top tip: Town center is less than half a mile to Carmel beach, easily walkable.
  • Where to stay: Carmel by the Sea – Candle Light Inn or Carriage House Inn

12. Bixby Creek Bridge

Bixby bridge curving over headlands close to Big Sur in California on the Pacific Coast highway 1
Famous Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur

Bixby Bridge is one of the most popular stop offs along the California Pacific Coast Highway and it is the first major stopping point along the famous Big Sur stretch of coast.

The bridge is among the best photo spots on the Pacific Coast Highway, so as you might imagine it is selfie central and you should prepare for crowds!

There is one small paved parking area but it fills quickly, therefore it is likely you will have to use the dirt path parking lot. Maneuvering in and out can be challenging and requires patience.

It is worth the effort once you can relax with amazing views of Bixby Bridge and a Pacific Ocean backdrop.

  • Distance from last stop: 15 miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea.
  • Time required: 1 hour max to soak up views and get some bucket list selfies.
  • Top tip: When reading map or GPS, prepare to stop at Castle Rock Viewpoint.
  • Where to stay: Big Sur – Budget: Big Sur River Inn / Luxury (5*): Ventana

Planning to stay in Big Sur? Read our detailed guide to the 10 best hotels in Big Sur to find the perfect place to stay on this secluded and highly sought after coastal area.

13. Point Sur

Point Sur lighthouse and naval facility sits on an island like headland jutting out into the Pacific Ocean
Hazy sunset at Point Sur

Point Sur is a California State Park and Naval Facility located at the heart of Big Sur’s stretch of coastline.

Over time, erosion has formed a beach between the mainland and Point Sur, which can be walked on with a guided tour on Wednesdays and weekends throughout the year for $15 per person.

The gigantic volcanic rock stands alone at the end of Point Sur and is home to Point Sur Lighthouse, which was completed in 1889 after multiple shipwrecks.

The lighthouse plays a crucial role today in preventing more sea floor wrecks.

  • Distance from last stop: 6.6 miles from Bixby bridge creek.
  • Time required: 30 mins – 1 hour, unless taking guided tour.
  • Top tip: Best seen early in day, afternoon sun is strong directly behind Point Sur.
  • Where to stay: Big Sur – Budget: Big Sur River Inn / Luxury (5*): Ventana

14. Partington Cove

Partington Cove is an unusual short hiking trail from California's pacific coast highway leading to a rough sea cove with rocks to climb
Waves crashing into Partington Cove

Pfeiffer Beach among the best beaches in California for families but it is popular and comes with another entrance fee. Stop here or continue on to the next point of interest, Partington Cove.

Partington Cove offers one of the only popular hiking opportunities on the drive from San Francisco to San Diego along Highway 1.

Park up on a curved part of the road and find a metal gated entrance half way around the bend. A short but fairly steep trail in good condition leads you down into the canyon.

When you reach the first junction, turn right and shortly after turn left before crossing a wooden bridge. In a matter of seconds you will reach the entrance to a 60 foot wooden tunnel.

Partington Cove opens up once you reach the end of the tunnel. If you feel confident and safe, climb across boulders to find the perfect place for watching waves crashing into the cove.

Important: If driving North to South from San Francisco to San Diego, you’ll need to continue to at least San Simeon for accommodation options. Cambria and Morro Bay offer more hotel options after San Simeon.

  • Distance from last stop: 18 miles from Point Sur.
  • Time required: 2 hours to hike down, explore and return to car.
  • Top tip: Wear shoes with good grips to climb around boulders.
  • Where to stay: Budget – San Simeon  / Luxury – Cambria (55 miles South)

15. McWay Falls

McWay falls is the single most stunning natural feature along California Pacific coast highway 1 thin waterfall plunging onto a sandy beach and joining the ocean as the tide gently washes in
Stunning McWay Falls on the California coastline

McWay Falls was our favorite natural feature of the entire drive from San Francisco to San Diego. It’s not every day you get to see a perfectly streamlined waterfall plunge off a rock and land on a beach!

As the Pacific Ocean tide gently washes up the tiny McWay sandy beach, McWay Falls lands in sand then water, sand then water. It’s a lovely scene.

The walk to McWay Falls viewing point does not begin on the main road.

You need to walk inside the parking lot and on a path passing underneath Highway 1. This then leads you to a viewing terrace which will be crammed full of tourists and locals.

We visited McWay Falls around 5pm in November just before sunset and it was packed.

  • Distance from last stop: 2 miles from Partington Cove.
  • Time required: 1 hour to soak up the waterfall scene.
  • Top tip: If visiting in daylight, take your ND filter to get silky water photographs.
  • Where to stay: Budget – San Simeon / Luxury – Cambria (55 miles South)

16. Morro Bay

Morro Bay is an intriguing town between San Francisco and Los Angeles huge random rock at sea with colors in sky
Colorful sunset at Morro Bay

Morro Bay is a small waterfront city named after a 580 ft tall volcanic rock called Morro Rock. A quaint harbor area is protected by the huge rock, making for calm waters and paddling opportunities.

Sea otters are regular visitors to the marinas and often play in the shallow water. Morro rock is a pretty awesome sight, particularly when it draws in swirling and colorful clouds at dawn or dusk.

  • Distance from last stop: 81 miles from McWay Falls.
  • Time required: 1 hour Morro Bay harbor front, more if go to nearby state parks.
  • Top tip: Don’t miss the epic hand carved beef sandwiches at Hofbrau der Albatross.
  • Where to stay: Masterpiece Hotel – Awesome Roman spa hot tub in basement!

Planning to stay in Morro Bay? Read our complete guide to the 10 best hotels in Morro Bay CA to find the perfect place to stay.

17. San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo chewing gum alleyway is weird but a fun stop off on the way to LA
Bubblegum wall in San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo – or SLO Cal for short – is one of California’s oldest European founded cities. 

Oddly, the quirky main attraction in San Luis Obispo is an alleyway that has been completely covered in bubble gum. Yep, you read that right!

We were intrigued, so we parked up on the Main Street right next to the alley and true to its word, there is not a single bit of concrete showing.

SLO Cal is home of California Polytechnic University, a popular farmers market and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa – a Spanish mission.

  • Distance from last stop: 14 miles from Morro Bay.
  • Time required: 1 hours to look around town.
  • Top tip: Scout Coffee near Bubblegum Alley serves up excellent coffee.
  • Where to stay: Garden Street Inn – Boutique French country decor.

18. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach pier big beach with blue lifeguard hut
Huge beach and pier at Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is a laid back beach town offering the classic Californian wooden pier extending across golden sand and out over 1,000 ft into the Pacific Ocean.

As with most stops along the Pacific Coast Highway road trip, Pismo Beach pier is best seen at sunset. If only we could stop time at sunset to drive the entire road trip from San Francisco to San Diego!

Nearby is Dinosaur Caves Park, which provides elevated views over the pier and beach. You can also visit a eucalyptus tree grove created for Monarch Butterflies between November and February.

  • Distance from last stop: 12 miles from San Luis Obispo.
  • Time required: 1 hour walk around the beach and pier.
  • Top tip: Oyster Loft is a cracking sea food restaurant.
  • Where to stay: Inn at the Pier – Pool and fitness center, meters from the beach.

19. Solvang

Solvang Danish town in California is unique strange but awesome definitely stop here when driving pacific highway 1 from San Francisco to San Diego along the coast
Danish architecture in Solvang CA

Solvang is a tiny picturesque town offering a taste of Denmark in sunny California. This is one of the best and most unique stops along the Pacific Coast Highway road trip between San Francisco and San Diego.

Traditional Danish architecture, a windmill and rows of boutique stores will keep you busy for a few hours. Don’t miss Mortensen’s bakery, Copenhagen sausage garden and any of many coffee shops or chocolatiers.

The entire town is stunning so be sure to explore each and every street.

  • Distance from last stop: 64 miles from Pismo Beach.
  • Time required: 2 hours to explore the awesome and unique town.
  • Top tip: Turn up a side street for free parking.
  • Where to stay: Mirabelle Inn – Beautiful boutique hotel / Hotel Corque – Luxury with a pool

Planning to stay in Solvang? Read our detailed guide to the 10 best hotels in Solvang to find the perfect place to stay in Danish California.

20. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Pier near sunset long shadows casting and usa flags waving in wind
Pier in upscale Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara has been dubbed ‘the American Riviera’ and when you combine the Spanish colonial influence with basking in a Mediterranean climate you will know why!

Upmarket, classy and a very popular tourist destination, Santa Barbara is the perfect place to park the car and unwind for a day or two if you have the spare time on your drive to San Diego from San Francisco.

Walk down State Street sampling world famous wines and eating at fantastic restaurants. Eventually you will reach Santa Barbara Pier and West Beach.

When planning your itinerary, strongly consider a day trip to Channel Islands National Park – just 20 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara.

If traveling with kids, Santa Barbara Zoo is very highly rated and just a few miles outside of town.

  • Distance from last stop: 46 miles on US-101 (or 33 miles on CA-154) from Solvang.
  • Time required: Half a day to two full days depending on your timeframe.
  • Top tip: Drive CA-154 into Santa Barbara for amazing views over the city on approach.
  • Where to stay: Santa Barbara – Marina Beach Motel on a low budget or La Playa Inn on a mid range budget.

Planning to stay in Santa Barbara? Read our helpful guide on the 15 best hotels in Santa Barbara, covering the beach, downtown and a budget area nearby.

21. Los Angeles

Los Angeles is the biggest of the 3 cities along California Pacific Coast highway 1 from San Francisco to San Diego Hollywood sign from Mt Lee overlooking LA city amazing view
View over LA from Hollywood Sign

Los Angeles needs no introduction!

The city of angels is world famous for Hollywood and movies but there’s so much more going on in LA and you need a minimum of 2 full days to explore.

Hollywood, Santa Monica, Downtown LA, movie studio tours, watching a live screening of game show or talk show, the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory are just some of things you can’t miss in Los Angeles.

After driving for a few days it will be nice to park the car and leave it as you explore the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown.

  • Distance from last stop: 100 miles from Santa Barbara.
  • Time required: 2 to 4 full days depending on time available.
  • Top tip: Driving around LA is crazy and time consuming, use metro when possible.
  • Where to stay: Hollywood – Budget: Hollywood Celebrity / Luxury: Hollywood Roosevelt

Planning a day or two in LA?

Read our popular guides to Los Angeles to help with your itinerary:

22. Hollywood Movie Studio Tour

Warner Bros studio tour is worth checking out when visiting Los Angeles and Hollywood friends sofa with mark and kristen
Mark and Kristen on the Friends sofa at Warner Bros

Hollywood movie studio tours are quintessential tourist attractions for first time visitors to LA and they are the perfect way to break up driving along the Pacific Coast Highway.

We can only vouch for the high quality of the Warner Bros studio tour but you can also choose between Sony, Paramount and Universal studio tours.

Typically you will see familiar looking external sets, studio lot sets for currently running tv shows, costumes, sound stages, exhibits and props.

Warner Bros top exhibits are DC, Batman, Friends, Big Bang Theory and Harry Potter. 

  • Distance from last stop: N/A.
  • Time required: 2-3 hours total for Warner Bros studio tour.
  • Top tip: Book early to avoid disappointment on the day.
  • Where to stay: Hollywood – Budget: Hollywood Celebrity / Luxury: Hollywood Roosevelt

Want to visit Warner Bros? Read our complete Warner Bros Studio Tour Review to see exactly what you can expect from a Hollywood movie tour.

23. San Diego

San Diego night skyline from Coronado island looking amazing and still San Diego is the end of California's Pacific Coast Highway and the perfect place to complete the epic road trip from San Francisco
Downtown San Diego from Coronado

America’s finest city, San Diego. What better place to end the epic Pacific Coast Highway road trip?!

Easily one of our personal favorite US cities, we suggest you allow at least 2 full days for exploring San Diego and its surrounding areas.

San Diego’s laid back vibe and perfect climate will leave you wishing you had more days to spend here.

Balboa Park, Gaslamp, Coronado, La Jolla, Old Town and every beach from Torrey Pines back into town should not be missed when ending your drive from San Francisco to San Diego.

  • Distance from last stop: 120 miles from Los Angeles on I-5.
  • Time required: 2 – 3 days to hit the highlights of San Diego.
  • Top tip: Follow coastal road through Laguna and Newport Beaches for Orange County.
  • Where to stay: Budget – Staypineapple / Luxury – Pendry San Diego

Spending a day or two in San Diego?

Here are our popular guides to help with planning:

San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip Itineraries

Phew, that’s a lot of stops you can make!

And there are dozens more you could also consider that we didn’t include in this guide.

In the end it all comes down to prioritizing the stops you like the look of most and figuring out a way to include them into your travel plans.

What are the best ways to include these awesome stops into your itinerary?

Well, let’s take a look at two examples of how you can plan your drive from San Francisco to San Diego. The first is 10 days and the second is 14 days for those with more time.

Important – We are driving north to south (San Francisco to San Diego) for these example itineraries, but you can still follow them in the opposite direction if traveling from San Diego to San Francisco.

10 Days San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip Itinerary

Let’s take a look at an example of how you can spend 10 days driving from San Francisco to San Diego.

  • D1 – San Francisco > Tram, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street – Sleep SF
  • D2 – San Francisco > Embarcadero, Alcatraz, Chinatown, Union Square, Coit Tower – Sleep SF
  • D3 – Twin Peaks, Half Moon Bay, Pigeon Point, Shark Fin Cove, Natural Bridges – Sleep Monterey
  • D4 – Monterey Bay, 17 mile drive, Pebble Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Bixby Bridge, Point Sur, Partington Cove, McWay Falls – Sleep San Simeon / Cambria / Morro Bay
  • D5 – Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Solvang, Santa Barbara – Sleep Santa Barbara
  • D6 – Los Angeles > Malibu, Beverly Hills, Hollywood – Sleep LA
  • D7 – Los Angeles > Downtown, Santa Monica, Venice – Sleep LA
  • D8 – Los Angeles > Movie studio tour, game show, Griffith Observatory, Hollywood sign – Sleep LA
  • D9 – San Diego > Beaches, La Jolla, Old Town – Sleep SD
  • D10 – San Diego > Coronado, Embarcadero, Balboa Park, Gaslamp – Sleep SD

This itinerary is action packed with little time for resting in between.

You could potentially sacrifice a night in LA to add a night between Day 4 and Day 5 if you can find accommodation along the Big Sur stretch of Pacific Coast highway. Otherwise Day 4 is long with a lot of driving and stops.

Our example: We ended up driving 81 miles from McWay Falls to Morro Bay in the dark, which meant we missed a big portion of the coastal highway.

14 Days San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip Itinerary

Let’s take a look at an example of how you can spend 2 weeks driving from San Francisco to San Diego.

  • D1 – San Francisco > Tram, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street – Sleep SF
  • D2 – San Francisco > Embarcadero, Alcatraz, Chinatown, Union Square, Coit Tower – Sleep SF
  • D3 – Twin Peaks, Half Moon Bay, Pigeon Point, Shark Fin Cove, Natural Bridges – Sleep Santa Cruz
  • D4 –  Monterey > Aquarium, Lovers Point, Beach, Cannery Row, Relax – Sleep Monterey
  • D5 – Monterey Bay, 17 mile drive, Pebble Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea – Sleep Carmel
  • D6 – Bixby Bridge, Point Sur, Partington Cove, McWay Falls – Sleep San Simeon / Cambria / Morro Bay
  • D7 – Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Solvang, Santa Barbara – Sleep Santa Barbara
  • D8 – Santa Barbara > State Street, Pier, Beach, Malibu – Sleep LA
  • D9 – Los Angeles > Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Mulholland Drive – Sleep LA
  • D10 – Los Angeles > Downtown, Santa Monica, Venice – Sleep LA
  • D11 – Los Angeles > Movie studio tour, game show, Griffith Observatory, Hollywood sign – Sleep LA
  • D12 – San Diego > Newport Beach, Torrey Pines, SD Beaches, La Jolla – Sleep SD
  • D13 – San Diego > Balboa Park, Old Town, Little Italy, Embarcadero – Sleep SD
  • D14 – San Diego > Coronado, Gaslamp, Relax – Sleep SD

The extra days on this itinerary allow you to go at a much slower pace. You can also include more time in some of the smaller cities between San Francisco and San Diego.

Serene sunset over the Pacific Coast in Big Sur California
Sunset on the Pacific Coast Highway

San Francisco To San Diego Pacific Coast Highway FAQ’s

Let’s take a quick look at the most asked questions about planning a Pacific Coast Highway road trip between San Francisco and San Diego.

How Long Does It Take To Drive From San Francisco To San Diego?

It takes around 8 hours to drive the 500 miles from San Francisco to San Diego on I-5. However, if you want to drive California Pacific Coast Highway 1 between San Francisco and San Diego, you should plan for at least one week to 10 days.

What Is There To See Between San Francisco And San Diego?

The California coastline between San Francisco and San Diego is filled with stunning vistas, marine life, quaint seaside towns and the attraction heavy city of Los Angeles.

What Is The Prettiest Part Of The Pacific Coast Highway?

The most attractive part of California’s Pacific Coast Highway is the famous Big Sur coastline. The 70 mile stretch of rugged coast between Carmel and San Simeon is filled with beaches, waterfalls and coves. Big Sur is the most desirable and isolated part of the coast in California.

What Is The Best Time Of Year To Drive The Pacific Coast Highway?

The shoulder season months of April, May, September and October are by far the best times of year to drive the California Pacific Coast Highway thanks to fewer crowds, more parking spaces, higher hotel room availability at lower prices and comfortable temperatures.

More Bucket List US Road Trips
More From California

We hope this guide helps with planning your California Pacific Coast Highway 1 road trip from San Francisco to San Diego!

Please let us know if you have any questions or need help with planning your itinerary.

Happy road tripping!

Mark and Kristen

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gary notley

Wednesday 21st of September 2022

Thank you planned our trip and some really useful suggestions

Mark and Kristen Morgan

Wednesday 21st of September 2022

Thanks for letting us know, Gary. We hope you have a fantastic trip driving the PCH!

Samer Hanna

Tuesday 30th of August 2022

Hello, Thank you so much for this helpful article. My wife and I are planning a trip from SD to SF for 10 days as part of our honeymoon and we would really appreciate any help and recommendations for places to stay and/or explore! Thank you!

Mark and Kristen Morgan

Wednesday 31st of August 2022

Hi Samer, congrats on your wedding and the drive from SD to SF will be a fantastic part of your honeymoon! At the bottom of every stop in our guide we included the best available places to stay based on guest rating and location to that particular stop. The best places for a couple to visit on the drive are Santa Barbara, Solvang, Big Sur coastline, Carmel-by-the-Sea, 17 mile drive and Half Moon Bay. Have an amazing time guys!

MG

Sunday 10th of April 2022

This post has helped me so much to organize ideas for our trip. We are doing San Fran to San Diego begining dec. 24 and ending on Jan. 6 with two kids. We wanted to squeeze disney land and maybe the sandiego zoo in there or even any other park for them to enjoy. Any suggestions on how to plan for this in order and where to stay when we go to the parks? Thank you!

Mark and Kristen Morgan

Monday 11th of April 2022

Hi MG, thanks for getting in touch and we're happy to hear your family will be driving San Francisco to San Diego over Christmas and New Year, that will be some trip! Adding in San Diego Zoo will be easy, it is right in Balboa Park near the main touristy areas. Just give yourself the final day of your itinerary for exploring San Diego, there's loads to do (it's one of our favorite cities in the US!). You won't need to stay in another hotel, just use the same one for your entire stay in San Diego. Disneyland is located right off I-5 in Anaheim heading South from LA toward San Diego. After you're done in LA, take I-5 and allow a full day for Disneyland, there are dozens of hotels pretty much on site around the complex or you can drive 30 minutes to Newport Beach / Laguna Beach to stay there before driving on to San Diego the next morning. Let us know if you need any more help and we hope you all have the best trip!

Jb

Friday 25th of March 2022

Looking for itinerary for trip down the west coast months from now. @ 12 days

Seattle to Santa Barbara. Any ideas ? Thanks

Mark and Kristen Morgan

Saturday 2nd of April 2022

Hi JB, without knowing if you're interested in cities, photography, beaches, hiking etc we'd suggest picking 5 or 6 stops along the route you definitely want to include on your drive down. If you stick to the PCH, you're looking at almost 1,300 miles in 12 days and it will be slower going, so you might want to consider jumping on I-5 for a few stretches to eat up some miles. You could try: Cannon Beach is a great place to stay night 1 if you stick to the coastline. Yachats night 2, Bandon night 3, Brookings night 4, visit Redwoods and night 5 nearby, Mendocino night 6, night 7 and 8 in SF, Monterey night 9, San Simeon or Cambria night 10, Solvang night 11, arrive Santa Barbara day 12. But there's plenty of room for you to adjust those days around your preferences. Have a great drive down the coast!

Grace Palasz

Tuesday 17th of August 2021

Great article!!! We are planning a trip through the costaline from san francisco to san diego as well but with 3 children. We only have 10 days but would like to go with the kids to certain specific things like san diego zoo, sea world, disney, on our trip. How would you plan a trip with all the deiving time and length in eac city. We were thinking San Francisco- monterrey sleep there and then go to santa barbara sledp there and then go to LA (sleep in OC) amd then san diego. How would you guys order the trip?

Mark and Kristen Morgan

Thursday 19th of August 2021

Hi Grace, sounds like a great trip for the kids! There's always a compromise on a 10 day trip like this one, either cut time in the cities or cut time stopping in between. If you want to do disney, sea world and the SD zoo, you will need to put in a few longer driving days as you have suggested above. The part between Monterey and Santa Barbara is beautiful and there's a lot to see, so doing this in one day would be a shame but your priorities are for the kids so stick to your plan as above. We would do something along these lines: SF 2 days - Monterey & Carmel 1 day - Cambria 1 day - Santa Barbara 1 day - OC 2 days - San Diego 2 days. That will keep drive time down and should be enough time to hit the kids attractions. Let us know if you need any more help or tips, otherwise have a fantastic trip!