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17 Most Popular Stops on a Road Trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco You’ll Love

Embarking on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco will prove very rewarding for any happy traveller. This is one of the most breathtaking routes to drive along the Pacific Coast. Although there is the option to take a more direct path along the I-5 Highway, the Pacific Coast route provides a unique, scenic, and relaxing drive.

And by planning your trip over several days, you can ensure enough time to fully experience the stops along the way. This route includes some iconic points of interest in California including the Santa Monica Pier and the famous 17-mile drive.

In this article, I have highlighted some of the top attractions and little towns to stop in along the way. Take your time marvelling at the magnificent views along this stretch of coastline that spans approximately 615km (382 miles). Stop in at Big Sur for a surf, explore the quirky town of Solvang, enjoy an evening of wine tasting or set out on a morning hike.

Whatever you desire, you can bet that there is a place along the Pacific Coast Highway that will satisfy you and whoever else is in the car with you. And be sure to check out some of the most unique restaurants in San Francisco while you’re in the area.

Are you a local wanting to explore more of what the Californian coast has to offer? Or perhaps you’re looking to tick off some sites from your USA travel list? Either way, this list will help you make the most of your trip.

This list has something for every type of traveller, including options for the whole family to enjoy. Exploring and enjoying this route will be so worth the time. Be flexible and don’t rush yourself. The idea is to soak up the views and appreciate each location to its full potential.

1.    Santa Monica Pier

26km (16.1 miles) (25mins) from Los Angeles

The first place I recommend that you visit is just a short 26km (16-mile) drive outside of Los Angeles. It’s roughly 25 minutes away, traffic depending of course. Santa Monica Pier has something to offer the whole family.

Santa_Monica_Pier_Sunset_Los_Angeles_California.jpg
Santa Monica Pier

It is the only amusement park located on a pier. Take some time and enjoy a spin on the solar-powered Ferris wheel, while soaking up the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. If you are an LA local this may not be a high priority for you, however, I would highly recommend this as the first stop of anyone’s journey.

An added bonus about the pier is that there is no admission fee. So if you are on a budget but still want to see some of the incredible Californian landmarks and attractions, this must definitely make your list.

santa monica pier sunset in california
Santa Monica Pier

Before heading on your way, enjoy a cup of coffee and a bite to eat at one of the cafes located on the Pier. The next stop is just a short drive up the road and will greet you with some legendary scenery.

2.    Malibu

28.5km (17.7 miles) (25mins) from Santa Monica Pier

Malibu is just a mere 27km (17-mile) drive from Santa Monica. Malibu is a town that is best known for being home to many famous celebrities. So if you’re hopeful for the opportunity to see someone straight off the A-list, then make this spot a pit-stop.

malibu
malibu

Along this stretch, there are endless beaches, such as Zuma Beach, to stop off at and enjoy a dip in the ocean. If you didn’t grab a bite whilst at the Pier, Malibu is home to some notable restaurants and cafes. And who knows, you might even bump into a celebrity whilst having breakfast.

malibu
malibu

Getting to the next stop requires a slightly longer drive, so be sure that you have plenty of water, you’ve topped up your gas, and have your favourite playlist or podcast ready to go.

3.    Santa Barbara

107.6km (66.9 miles) (1hr 14min) from Malibu

Just 107km (66 miles) from Malibu lies the seaside town of Santa Barbara. There is enough to do and see in this little town to keep you busy for the rest of the afternoon. I would recommend making this your first overnight stop in order to experience all it has to offer.

Old mission santa barbara
Old mission santa barbara

After a long day of driving, you might look forward to taking a dip in the water or renting a kayak for some refreshing fun. There are also plenty of shops and restaurants to explore if you fancy a shopping spree.

Old Mission Santa Barbara
Old Mission Santa Barbara

One of the main attractions is the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trails, which has over 20 different wineries. I would suggest spending the afternoon or evening sipping on some of the delicious wines on offer here.

santa barbara california

Take a trip to the Funky Zone and kick back with a glass of wine, or take a walk through some of the tasting areas. End off your night with a tantalising dinner before recharging for the next day.

4.    Solvang

55.3 km (34.4 miles) (42mins) from Santa Barbara

Start the morning off early, grab your coffee and make your way to the quaint city of Solvang. If the name has not already given it away, the moment you arrive you will realise you are about to experience something far more than just a beach town.

solvang
solvang

Solvang is only 55km (34 miles) from Santa Barbara, making it the perfect place to stop for breakfast. Solvang is known as the ‘Danish Capital of America’ and is bustling with Danish architecture and culture.

I would seriously propose spending a few hours exploring this interesting city. Solvang is bursting with history, just waiting for you to come and explore. You definitely cannot leave until you have seen the picturesque Solvang Windmill.

solvang
solvang

The town also has exciting tours, several different museums and exhibitions for visitors to learn more about this offbeat hamlet. If you are a book-lover, the Hans Christian Andersen Museum has to be at the top of your list of things to do in Solvang.

In the mood for a trip back in time? Why not take a loop around the town in a horse-drawn carriage. This is a truly unique way to spend your time sightseeing. The carriages used are called Honen, which is a form of transport native to Denmark. Or you could immerse yourself in Danish culture and rent a bike to wind through the town’s attractions.

5.    Pismo Beach

100.9 km (62.7miles) (1hr 18mins) from Solvang

After experiencing the quirky little town of Solvang, it is time to continue with your journey along the Pacific Coast. The next checkpoint on our list takes us back to the coast towards Pismo Beach.

This section will take just over an hour which means you can arrive at your destination in time for a mid-morning dip in the ocean. Back in the 1950s, there was an abundance of clams to be found along the white beaches in the area.

pismo beach
pismo beach

For a period hereafter, Pismo Beach was known as the “Clam Capital of the World”. They have since no longer been referred to by this name. However, to honour this piece of history, every October Pismo Beach holds its annual Clam Festival. This is such a fun event with plenty of clam chowder on offer and even a clam-themed parade to enjoy.

Pismo Beach has something to entice the whole family. Take a short drive up to the Oceano Dunes and have some fun exploring this area which people have described as a natural ‘Sand Box’. Or if you are a thrill-seeker and are looking for a bit of an adrenaline rush, why not rent an ATV and imagine yourself competing in the Dakar?

pismo beach
pismo beach

If the thought of riding an ATV through the sand dunes does not tickle your fancy, you can opt for a different activity. There are plenty of ways to explore the serene nature here, such as visiting the Pismo Reserve. The reserve offers many different trails which you can hike. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars to try your hand at birding.

If you plan your road trip around the months of October and February, you will have the opportunity to visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove, where these dainty insects arrive in their clusters.

This phenomenon is so incredible to see, especially when you take into account that they fly up to 200 miles a day. The sight of these clusters perching in the eucalyptus trees is not something you get to see every day.

6.    Hearst Castle

88.3 km (54.9 miles) (1hr) from Pismo Beach

If you are up for a detour and spending a few hours exploring an impressively extravagant estate, Hearst Castle is the place for you. Just over an hour from Pismos beach, you’ll find yourself in awe of what used to be newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s lavish mansion. Park your car at the visitors centre, from where you’ll be transported up to the house.

hearst castle exterior
hearst castle exterior

This estate is unbelievable and well worth the visit. Owing to the considerable size of the property, there are several different tours on offer, in order to show off all 165 rooms. The Grand Rooms Tour is incredible and escorts you to some of the most impressive spaces in the castle.

If you want to get a thorough idea of the extent of the castle, you can always opt to do more than one tour if you have time. All the tours are led by a knowledgeable guide who share valuable insight into the history of the grounds.

This is definitely a must-see for history buffs and art lovers as the castle is decorated with many priceless and historic artworks. It is also surrounded by an impressive garden complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

On your drive up to the castle, prepare to do a bit of game viewing as you drive past the remains of what was once one of the world’s largest privately-owned zoos. This can also be a great weekend trip from San Francisco.

hearst castle
hearst castle

I would suggest you set aside several hours of your trip as there is an abundance of things to see and explore here. This is a stop that will defy all expectations and is a must on any itinerary. One can only grasp the beauty and magnitude of the castle when you visit it in person.

7.    Vista Point

2.4 km (1.5 miles) (5mins) from Hearst Castle

Before getting on your way again, take a five-minute drive down to Vista Point. Here you will be able to witness the oceangoing Elephant Seals in their natural habitat. This stop is easily accessible and free to the public, which is certainly a bonus.

vista point
vista point

Although it is possible to view these quirky ocean dogs throughout the year, the Elephant seal mainly visits the rookery twice a year. Vista Point is visited by up to 25,000 seals a year. These animals have been named after their large size and the protruding trunk found on the males.

vista point
vista point

The northern Elephant Seals used to be hunted for their blubber which would be rendered for oil. By 1982 there were only between 50 and 100 seals left off the coast of California. The U.S. has worked tirelessly at protecting and helping this magnificent animal restore their numbers. It has been a breath of fresh air to see the increased number of Elephant Seals at this rookery in recent years.

8.    Slates Hot Spring

196.3 km (122 miles) (2hr 48min) from Vista Point

Just a mere two-hour drive from Vista Point is the Big Sur region which plays host to the Slates Hot Springs. Located on the edge of the coast, the Slates Hot Springs is an exciting stop to add to your itinerary, especially if you are a night owl.

esalen institute
esalen institute

The Slates Hot Springs is located at the Esalen Retreat and is therefore only available to those guests staying at the retreat and who are taking part in the courses offered. Though do not be disheartened, the springs are open to the public between 1 am and 3 am. And I cannot imagine a more picturesque setting from which to view the glorious Californian night sky.

So why not book accommodation nearby and enjoy a fun evening out before heading over here to relax? Or if you want to have an early start to your day, come and spend time in the hot springs before setting off on the rest of your road trip.

Esalen hot springs
Esalen hot springs

After enjoying the springs it may be time to hit the hay or the road, depending on what you have planned. It is probably wise to stay in the area as the next stop is nearby.

9.    McWay Waterfalls

5.6 km (3.5 miles) (7mins) from Slates Hot Springs

Why not start the morning with a short hike to experience what is perhaps one of the biggest highlights in the Big Sur region. The falls are only a short seven-minute drive from the Hot Springs and are an ideal way to start the day.

mcway waterfalls
mcway waterfalls

Park your car and embark on a brisk 1 kilometre (half-mile) walk to the falls. Here you will be able to witness the magical 80-foot falls in all their splendour. This site really makes you feel as though you have stepped into a fairytale. Be aware that this is a popular viewpoint and you may have to wait a while in order to get the best spot for a picture.

10.                  Big Sur

20.7 km (12.19 miles) (21mins) from Mcway Waterfalls

Although you would have technically been travelling through the Big Sur region for a while, there is still plenty to see and do. This area is bustling with seaside towns, gorgeous state parks, and so much more. There are so many sights and activities to experience that it is well worth spending several days in this region alone.

big sur
big sur

The Big Sur is known for being an area where surfers come to enjoy a more rugged break. The backline of the set of waves can sometimes look rough and intimidating for beginners, so safety should always be a priority amidst the fun.

Take caution when venturing into the deep blue of this area. If a good surf is on your to-do list then I would recommend checking out the Big Sur Rivermouth, or the Sand Dollar Beach. If you are an experienced surfer looking for a bigger challenge, consider taking a trip down to Willow Creek.

big sur
big sur

Do not fret if surfing is not up your alley; there are plenty of other activities to choose from. You can opt to put on your trail shoes and spend a few hours exploring the Pfeiffer State Park. This park has been deemed a ‘mini Yosemite’ as it is surrounded by dazzling Redwood trees. The campsites are well-equipped and even have Wi-Fi access for those who do not wish to disconnect entirely.

One of the recommended hikes would be going along to Partington Cove. There are two different routes and can lead you straight to the ocean. The hike might be fairly steep, but only being a 2-mile loop, it is very family-friendly.

11.                  Pfeiffer Beach

8.3 km (5.2 miles) (14mins) from Big Sur

Just a stone’s throw away from Big Sur lies a splendid sight that should definitely be on your road trip. Think of those out of this world black beaches one sees in Iceland or the Pink Beach of Indonesia. The pacific coastal route is home to California’s very own mythical beach.

pfeiffer beach california sunset
pfeiffer beach

Pfeiffer Beach has the most stunning purple sand that makes you think you are somewhere out of this world. Many people have said that this stop is an absolute must along the Pacific Coast Highway. The beach has a $12 entrance fee but is so worth it. This is a truly unique opportunity to experience on your road trip.

pfeiffer beach big sur california road trip from los angeles to san francisco
pfeiffer beach big sur

Spend the day frolicking in the waves and lying in the sun. It does have the potential to become windy, so ensure that you check the weather forecast before going.

The beach is filled with breathtaking sights, such as a giant rock with a hole in the middle. If you get there before sunset you will experience the dramatically beautiful sight of the sun peeking through the hole in the rocks.

12.                  Bixby Creek Bridge

43.4 km (27 miles) (45mins) from Pfeiffer Beach

As you drive along the picturesque coast, the Bixby Creek bridge will slowly start coming into view. You’ll feel as though you’re living in a movie, so queue the dramatic music and soak up the sights from your window.

This bridge is iconic. It has been used in several movies and T.V shows. In fact, I’m sure that any Big Little Lies fans will instantly recognise it.

Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge

The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in California, (after the Golden Gate Bridge of course). Its architecture is strikingly beautiful and with it being placed in such a serene location, you can see its appeal. You truly appreciate this feat of engineering when you have the opportunity to witness it in person.

Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge

It is not advised to stop on the bridge but rather pull over at the viewpoint for the perfect angles. Parking is limited so keep that in mind when planning your trip. As is common in California, the fog has the tendency to be a shifting factor when trying to get that perfect picture so bear this in mind.

13.                   Point Lobos State National Park

11.1 miles (16mins) from Bixby Creek Bridge

After witnessing one of California’s most scenic bridges it comes time to continue on your road trip. By this time you might start to get hungry. So why not make your way to Point Lobos State National park and enjoy a relaxing picnic.

Point Lobos is located right on the Pacific coast and has been considered the ‘crown jewel’ of California’s state parks. Covering 5.36 square miles, Point Lobos offers everything from marine life to wildlife.

Point Lobos State National Park
Point Lobos State National Park

The park is full of trails, so ensure that you are wearing appropriate shoes when you enter. Pack your camera and binoculars, and get ready to witness mother nature at its finest. It is possible to drive around and get to most of the viewpoints, but I would recommend walking the trails as this is how you are able to completely experience the beauty of the area.

You might even run into some deer, opossums, grey foxes, rabbits and maybe even a coyote. Ensure you keep your eyes peeled for the vast variety of wildlife here.

Point Lobos State National Park
Point Lobos State National Park

During winter you might find yourself in luck and have the opportunity to see some majestic whales. Point Lobos plays home to the Californian Gray Whale. Over recent years the waters have also had some exciting visitors such as the Humpback Whale and even the occasional Blue Whale.

There is also other marine life such as Killer Whales, Dolphins and a variety of seals. I highly recommend spending some time at the Whaler’s Cove and trying to see what water creatures you can spot.

14.                  Carmel-by-the-sea

6.2 km (3.9 miles) (10mins) from Point Lobos State National Park

Located on the Monterey peninsula lies an idyllic beach city. This area is home to some historic sites, art galleries, charming restaurants and shops. With its enchanting European styled architecture, this small village makes you feel as though you have stepped into another part of the world. There is plenty to do in Carmel and it’s well worth spending a few hours here or even spending the night.

carmel
carmel

This townlet sets the scene for an unequalled romantic getaway. Each hotel has its own allure to make you fall in love. You will have your pick from gorgeous old-timey hotels that look as though they have been plucked straight from Europe. The delightful French-style L’Auberge Carmel is one of the iconic historical hotels of the area. Originally built in 1929, you will feel instantly transported to a chateau in the French Alps.

If hotels bursting with picturesque provincial charm is your vibe then you’ll be enamoured. But if the romantic European style hotels are not what you are looking for, Carmel offers a variety of beach cottages and modern hotels to choose from too.

This beachy spot is bursting with history – take a trip up to the Carmel Mission Ballesca where you can learn a lot about Carmel and how it became the town it is today.

carmel by the sea
carmel by the sea

Here you have the opportunity to visit California’s first-ever library, and even view some spectacular ancient artefacts. If you are interested in learning more, then why not hire a guided tour and get the inside scoop of its history.

As is common with a lot of the Pacific Coastal towns, there are plenty of trails to explore. Enjoy some time by the beach before heading for some local seafood. There is an assortment of restaurants to try out that offer something for everyone.

After a delicious meal, why not try out one of the pubs and grab an ice-cold beer. You cannot leave Carmel without trying one of Carmel Craft Brewing Company’s craft beers. These have become so popular in recent years that you are now able to find their beers in almost every restaurant.

15.                  17-mile drive

3.8 km (2.4 Miles) (7mins) from Carmel-by-the-sea

As you leave the magical town of Carmel, take a spin along the 17-mile drive. Whilst travelling along one of the most picturesque drives in the world, you’ll view spectacular coastal cliffs, strikingly white beaches, and some insane mansions.

17 mile drive China Rock
17 mile drive China Rock

The 17-mile drive has a $10 entrance fee, but don’t let this deter you as your money will be very well spent. This route is known to become quite busy during the day, so I would recommend making this your first stop of the day to avoid the crowds.

The 17-mile drive has a selection of lookout points and iconic sights. One of the most well known and visited spots is the Lone Cypress. The Cypress tree is a rare tree that only grows in this area, making it somewhat of a landmark. There are other stops such as Bird Rock where you can see a variety of birds and sea life sharing this rock.

17 mile drive
17 mile drive

Besides the beautiful coastal view, the 17-mile drive is home to some affluent golf courses. Why not stop in at Pebbles Golf Course and grab a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. If your budget allows it, you could also play a few holes at one of the many golf estates in the area.

16.                  Monterey

6.5 km (4.1 miles) (10mins) from 17-Mile Drive

After enjoying the scenery of the 17-mile drive, you will find yourself in the town of Monterey. This town is also packed with history and interesting places to visit. Being one of your last stops before reaching San Francisco and the Bay Area, be sure to soak it up and enjoy this coastal city to the fullest.

monterey wharf
monterey wharf

Monterey has a lot to offer and it is well worth spending a few hours here. If you are up for an adventure, why don’t you book a scuba dive in Monterey Bay and explore the underwater kelp forest? This unique experience will be the perfect addition to your bank of road trip memories.

If scuba diving is not quite up your alley, but you still want to see what lies beneath the sea, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the place for you. This aquarium is the sixth-largest in the world and was the first to display a living kelp forest.

The aquarium is a non-profit organisation and focuses on highlighting the marine life found in the area. Make sure to visit the jellyfish exhibit as it is absolutely dazzling.

monterey sea
monterey sea

You cannot come to Monterey before visiting Cannery Row street, so ensure you leave yourself some time to pay a visit. Cannery Row used to be home to several sardine canning factories and the buildings have now been turned into restaurants and shops.

Cannery Row brings about a unique feel and vibe to the Monterey coast and the name Cannery Row pays homage to the John Steinbeck novel of the same name. Spend some time walking around the quaint stores and learning about the history before heading off towards your final destination.

17.                  Marin Headlands

201.1 km (125 miles) (2hr 34mins) from Monterey

The final stop on your journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco has to include one of the most iconic bridges in America and in the world for that matter. As you enter San Francisco you drive along the esteemed Golden Gate Bridge. It is at this point that you can take a deep breath, relax and marvel at this incredible piece of engineering.

san francisco sunset golden gate bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is utterly mind-blowing and leaves you speechless as you take in its magnitude. To truly be able to appreciate this sight, I recommend heading up to Marin Headlands. Here you can park your car, get out and view the bridge in its entirety. Enjoy a bit of a hike or a dip in the ocean while you’re in the area.

san francisco sunset with beach in foregound

Looking to experience some of the best nature experiences in the United States? Check out my posts on the 15 Best Northern California Hot Springs, 13 Best Pumpkin Patches in Arizona, 9 Best Hot Springs in Washington State, 11 Best Pumpkin Patches in Las Vegas, 33 Historical Places in Florida, 3 Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs, 13 Spectacular Sunflower Fields in Long Island, 11 Pumpkin Patches in Houston, 13 Sunflower Fields in Illinois, 13 Hot Springs Oregon, 15 Stunning Sunflower fields in New Jersey, 13 Best Pumpkin Patches in San Diego, 10 Best Places for Hot Springs in the USA, 6 Best States to see Sunflower Fields in the United States, 15 Gorgeous Sunflower Fields in California, 15 Best Places for Cherry Picking in Michigan, 23 Hot Springs In Nevada, Radium Hot Springs Colorado, 29 Hot Springs in Montana, 21 Sunflower Fields in Ohio, 33 Unique Things to do in Florida, 33 Great Things to do in Destin Florida, 21 Awesome Things to do in East Texas, 13 Lakes in Southern California, 32 Best Places to visit in Bay Area, 13 Best Hot Springs in Pagosa Springs, 23 Things to do in Orlando for adults, 17 best stops on a Road Trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, 21 Texas Coastal Towns, 7 Stunning Sunflower fields in Minnesota, 29 Hot Springs of New Mexico, 29 Idaho Hot Springs and 11 Terrific Texas Sunflower Fields.

After you have relaxed and enjoyed the view, it’s time to head to your final destination, San Francisco. Once you are settled in, why not enjoy dinner at one of the many incredible restaurant experiences in the city. Explore Chinatown or Little Italy for some fantastic food.

Final Thoughts on Road Trips from Los Angeles to San Francisco

The road trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco, along the Pacific Coast Highway, is one of the most picturesque routes in the world. It’s no secret why this drive is so highly renowned and on so many travellers’ bucket lists.

If you have the opportunity to enjoy this iconic trip you should not hesitate at the chance. With all the different coastal towns, historic sights, trails, and breathtaking views, you are sure to have an exciting and memorable trip that’ll have you gushing for years to come.

Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge

⇒ Interested in heading to California? Check out my posts on Unique Restaurants in San Francisco, 15 Gorgeous Sunflower fields in California, Things to do in Calistoga review of the great Solage Spa, 19 awesome places to watch San Diego Sunsets, visiting Yosemite in One Day, 15 Best Northern California Hot Springs, 15 Best Places to Watch San Francisco Sunsets, 10 Stunning Sunsets in California and in Yosemite in October, 32 Best Places in Bay Area, 17 Great Stops on a Road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, 31 California Landmarks and my guide to a Livermore Wine Tasting.

I covered all of the costs associated with writing this article. However, this road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco post includes affiliate links. That means if you click through and end up making a purchase I will receive a small commission. I wanted to make sure you were aware of this.

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