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Imagine for a moment that you’re looking for the ultimate sense of freedom in one of the most beautiful places on earth. What comes to mind? I have a few different scenarios in my head, but one of them is definitely road-tripping the Pacific Coast Highway. There’s nothing quite like the winding coastal road with its windswept vistas, towering cliffs, and charming coastal towns. Yes, it sounds cliche – but the PCH really lives up to it in the best way possible!
I first drove the entire Pacific Coast Highway back in 2014 from San Diego to Seattle; since then, I’ve driven several major portions of it – but not the whole thing… so now it’s back on my bucket list!
If driving the Pacific Coast Highway is also on your bucket list, you’ve come to the right place – especially if you already know you only have a few days to attempt to make the trip happen. I was in the same position when I drove the PCH; I had a full-time job, limited PTO, and wanted to make the most of my time while seeing the most possible. It is entirely possible to drive the PCH in as little as five days, and this post will show you how.
Below you’ll find a complete guide to help you plan a five-day Pacific Coast Highway road trip; this post is an excellent compliment to a number of other posts I’ve written about the PCH, including what to pack for your PCH road trip, the top hotels along the Pacific Coast Highway (a few of which you can stay at during this trip), and my complete PCH road trip guide. I hope that all together, this post and those others can help you tick this incredible road trip off your bucket list. Ready to go? Let’s hit the road!
Note (November 2023): As of the latest update to this post, California Highway 1 (the PCH) is closed between Limekiln State Park and Lucia in the Big Sur area of the route; you’ll need to bypass this closure inland on US-101. Be sure to check the California DOT website (Enter “1” in the field) for the latest updates.
In this post, I promote travel across lands that are the traditional lands of many Indigenous groups. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Top Questions about the Pacific Coast Highway
Before jumping into my suggested itinerary, I wanted to briefly address the most common questions I get asked about the PCH in general.
- Where does the Pacific Coast Highway begin and end? As with so many answers in the world, that depends! The named “Pacific Coast Highway” actually only runs from Dana Point to Leggett (655.8mi), California, but many people want to drive the entirety of the Pacific Coast from Washington to the California-Mexico border. This post focuses more on the latter.
- Which direction should I drive the PCH? You can drive it in either direction, but I recommend driving southbound, and that’s the direction I’ve written this post in; I actually drove most of it northbound when I drove the Pacific Coast Highway in 2014. If you decide to drive northbound, just reverse the order of days I’ve suggested.
- When should I plan my PCH road trip? While you might think summer is the best time for this road trip, that’s not actually the case. The Pacific Northwest has the best weather between June and September, while Central and Southern California tend to have great weather year-round. Northern California, however, tends to have better weather in the autumn than in the summer. For this reason, I recommend planning your road trip in September or early October if you can.
- Where should I stay while driving the Pacific Coast Highway? Personally, I’m partial to hotels (and recommend hotels in this guide), but I know lots of people want to camp. If that’s the case, I recommend checking out this article which helps you choose spots to camp along the route.
If you have other general questions about driving the Pacific Coast Highway after reading the rest of my guide, please let me know in the comments at the end of this post. I can answer you directly and add those questions here too, to help other travelers.
Suggested 5-Day Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary
I’ll be honest: five days is a very short amount of time to drive the Pacific Coast Highway. If you want to drive the entire 1,675-mile route from Olympia (Seattle) to San Diego, you’re going to put in some long days on the road – even if you take the fastest route (which usually doesn’t overlap with the PCH itself). That’s not to say it can’t be done though – you can absolutely drive the PCH in five days. Here’s a quick glance at my suggested five-day Pacific Coast Highway itinerary:
- Day 1 – Seattle to Portland
- Day 2 – Portland to Crescent City
- Day 3– Crescent City to San Francisco
- Day 4 – San Francisco to Santa Barbara
- Day 5 – Santa Barbara to San Diego
Below, I have a more detailed breakdown of each day, as well as the shortest route between each day’s start and endpoints – and the coastal route plus stops you can make if you decide to stick to the Pacific Coast Highway the entire way.
Day 1: Seattle to Portland
- Fastest Route: 2 hours, 45 minutes via I-5
- Most Coastal Route: 9 hours via I-5, US 101, and US-26
As you can tell, the choice between driving the “entire” Pacific Coast Highway and taking the quick route between Seattle and Portland is very different. I can’t really tell you which one to pick – it’s up to you whether you want to spend more time in the cities (Seattle and Portland) or in the car exploring the coast. If you’re a completionist like me, you can certainly do the longer drive in one day!
What I can share are some tips either way:
- For visiting Seattle, check out my one-day guide; it helps you make the most of a short time in the Emerald City.
- I also have a city guide for Portland, which includes some fun activities across the Rose City.
- If you decide to take the coastal route, some stops I recommend include Olympia, the capital of Washington, pretty Port Angeles for lunch, Ruby Beach and the Hoh Rainforest along the Pacific coast, and towns like Aberdeen (home of Kurt Cobain), Long Beach (home to the longest beach in the U.S.), and Astoria (home of The Goonies).
If you do decide to take the route out onto the Olympic Peninsula, this is the second longest day of driving in the entire road trip – so if you can conquer that, the rest of the itinerary gets easier even if you stick to the coast the entire way.
Accommodation Suggestions: Portland has loads of great hotels, but my favorite is the Hotel DeLuxe near downtown. Their themed lobby and movie nights make my inner movie nerd happy, and the “lobby bar” is so good that locals frequent it. From $115/night, book on Hotels.com. Browse other Portland hotels and vacation rentals.
Day 2: Portland to Crescent City
- Fastest Route: 5 hours, 45 minutes via I-5, US-199
- Most Coastal Route: 7 hours, 30 minutes via OR-18 and US-101
To be honest, if you decide to take the coastal route for Day 1 and Day 2, I actually wouldn’t stay in Portland this night – it just doesn’t quite make sense to spend the time driving inland on Day 1 and back out to the coast on Day 2. Instead, I’d stay somewhere like Cannon Beach or Newport (see my tips on these stops in my complete PCH guide if you decide to do this).
If you do decide to stay in Portland, your drive can vary again today: you can either head straight down Interstate 5 before cutting out to the coast to end your day in Crescent City, or you can hop out to the coast right away and enjoy a bunch of different coastal sights along your way south.
For the inland route, there aren’t a ton of stops I recommend; instead, I’d spend the morning in Portland (tips linked above in Day 1), make the drive during the midday, and end with your evening in Crescent City.
On the coastal route, there are lots of beautiful stops you can make:
- There are some beautiful natural sights like Devils Punchbowl and Sea Lion Caves, as well as several state parks and lighthouses.
- You can stop for lunch in Newport, and visit some of the main sights in town, like the Historic Bayfront and Oregon Coast Aquarium.
I also have a guide for visiting Crescent City that can help you fill your time there, whether you drive straight from Portland or take the scenic, coastal route.
Accommodation Suggestions: On one of several trips we’ve made to Crescent City, Mr. V and I stayed at this gorgeous 3-bedroom oceanfront property on Pebble Beach Drive. It was huge and fully stocked, perfect for a family or for a couple who just want space to escape. From $295/night; book on VRBO. Browse other vacation rentals and hotels in Crescent City.
Day 3: Crescent City to San Francisco
- Fastest Route: 6 hours, 30 minutes via US-101
- Most Coastal Route: 9 hours, 30 minutes via US-101 and CA-1
You have another choice in routes on Day 3 – though you don’t have to make it right away as the Pacific Coast Highway is US-101 as you head south out of Crescent City. However, when you reach the junction with California Highway 1 at Leggett, you would want to head out to the coast if you’re committed to driving the Pacific Coast Highway in its entirety – US-101 stays inland and is a few hours shorter, whereas the PCH (CA-1) meanders down the coast.
In either case, before you make that decision, I highly recommend spending some time in Humboldt Redwoods State Park along the Avenue of the Giants, which is one of the best places in California to see old-growth Coastal Redwoods. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of Northern California (of which, to be fair, there are many!).
Staying inland on US-101, you can zip down more quickly to reach San Francisco and spend some time exploring the city’s top attractions – the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, and the city’s many great museums are all worth your time if you decide to prioritize more urban time versus driving on the coast.
If you drive the coast instead, some of my favorite places to stop include Fort Bragg Glass Beach, the Mendocino Headlands, Point Reyes National Seashore (which can add a few hours to your day if you really want to explore it, making for a very long day!), and Muir Woods for more time among the Redwood.
Whether you make the long drive or the shorter one, both routes today are pretty long, so be sure to stop for lunch and pretty of leg-stretching breaks before you end the day in San Francisco.
Accommodation Suggestions: Blow your budget and stay the night at the Fairmont San Francisco, one of the nicest hotels in town. This gorgeous building mostly survived the 1906 earthquake and captures Victorian glory with modern amenities. Rooms start from $179/night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com. Browse other San Francisco hotels and vacation rentals.
Day 4: San Francisco to Santa Barbara
- Fastest Route: 5 hours, 15 minutes via US-101
- Most Coastal Route: 6 hours, 30 minutes via US-101 and CA-1 (where open)
When it comes to choosing which route to pick on Day 4, I’ll be honest: I would not take the coastal route today, even as a completionist. This is because of the fact that the Pacific Coast Highway is closed in the Big Sur area, so you actually end up spending most of the day on US-101 anyway – you might as well have a shorter day and enjoy more time in San Francisco and Santa Barbara instead!
If you decide to take the coastal route where it is open, some of my favorite stops are Pigeon Point Lighthouse south of San Francisco, Monterey (home to the world-famous aquarium), and driving 17-Mile Drive to pass the Lone Cypress and visit Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Once inland on US-101, you could take the extra time to detour in to visit Pinnacles National Park; it’s one of my favorite parks, and a relatively small park which makes it optimal for a day visit. If that sounds intriguing, check out my suggested itinerary for Pinnacles to help you decide.
Heading back to the coast (since Santa Barbara is on the coast anyway), you can also stop at Pismo Beach to stretch your legs before continuing on to end in Santa Barbara. I don’t have a guide for Santa Barbara given that it’s been almost a decade since my visit, but I hope to return someday soon to put together a fully detailed resource for you.
Accommodation Suggestions: Plan an overnight in Santa Barbara so you can soak in the charm. For accommodation, try a small hotel like the Eagle Inn. Rooms start from $115/night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com. Browse hotels and vacation rentals in Santa Barbara.
Day 5: Santa Barbara to San Diego
- Fastest Route: 4 hours via US-101 and I-5
- Most Coastal Route: 5 hours, 30 minutes via US-101, CA-1, and I-5
This final day of your whirlwind Pacific Coast Highway road trip is actually the shortest in terms of driving – it’s all about sampling the best that Southern California has to offer. Your goal here is to make it from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to San Diego, and given how bad the traffic in L.A. is, I would just take the shortest route rather than heading deeper into the chaos.
I would spend the morning enjoying Santa Barbara before heading south, then maybe detour to spend part of the day in Los Angeles; I have a guide for spending one day in L.A. that can help you pick a few stops worth making, Venice Beach and Santa Monica Pier are two of my favorite parts of the city.
Once you get south of L.A., I-5 runs close to the coast, so you can easily make stops in seaside communities like Dana Point, Huntington Beach, and Encinitas before you reach the end of your road trip in San Diego. From there, you can either fly home (if you rented a car) or drive home.
Like Santa Barbara, I don’t have a specific guide for San Diego – I really want to spend some time here but haven’t had the chance yet, beyond the short time I spent during my own PCH road trip.
How to Choose a Car for the Pacific Coast Highway
Speaking of cars… you’ve gotta figure out your car situation! Maybe you are planning to drive your own vehicle to the start of your Pacific Coast Highway road trip and home afterward – or maybe you don’t want to put that mileage on your vehicle. In that case, you’ll need to rent a car.
When I drove the PCH, I rented a car and drove it as a ‘one-way rental’ (meaning I dropped it off in a different city than I picked it up). This was more expensive than a round-trip rental, but I didn’t want to drive the Pacific Coast Highway both ways!
I’ve put together some tips on how to choose the right car for the PCH, but in short, I recommend an automatic car with a low center of gravity – but skip the convertible or SUV. Both of these vehicle types will either slow you down or you won’t get the use out of it for the extra cost.
Have any other questions about how to plan your 5-day Pacific Coast Highway road trip? Let me know in the comments below, or check out my complete PCH guide which has tons of details to help you plan your trip.!