Itineraries,  Road Trip Tips

A California Coast Road Trip: San Francisco to San Diego Drive

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Whether you’re California Dreamin’ or you left your heart in San Francisco or maybe you just need a getaway (“California, here we come!“), there’s something romantic and wild and edgy and progressive about exploring the Golden State. I moved to California in 2017; I don’t think I’ll EVER finish exploring it – and the California Coast is my favorite part of the state. There are so many ways to slice it up and put together a California coast road trip! (Or other California road trips and road trips from San Francisco, too!)

California Coast Road Trip - Big Sur 1

If you feel the same, or you just want to find out, spend your well-earned vacation days on my suggested ten-day California coast road trip itinerary. What you’ll find below is an adjusted version of my ultra-popular Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Guide.

In that post, I show you how to drive from Seattle to San Diego in 10 days; in this post, you’ll learn how to drive from San Francisco to San Diego in the same amount of time. (You can also use this itinerary to drive from San Diego to San Francisco by reversing the itinerary.)

For this California coast itinerary, you have way more time to stop and explore each day than in my Pacific Coast Highway guide – and you’ll spend more nights in California’s coastal towns and cities. If you really want to soak in the Pacific coast, this California coastal road trip will do the trick!

Note: As of December 2020, this post has been updated to reflect the businesses and accommodation options that are currently open, but some may be temporarily closed or otherwise affected by the pandemic. Be sure to double-check all hours and openings when you book your trip!

This post was originally published in September 2019 and was most recently updated in December 2020.

California Coast Road Trip Tips

Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary Featured Image

Before I launch in, there are a couple quick tips I want to share about these itinerary:

  • When to Plan Your California Coast Road Trip – The best months to drive from San Francisco to San Diego are September and October, but this drive can be done any time of year.
  • Start in San Francisco – As you research your California coastal road trip, you might be tempted to fly into Crescent City (the northernmost coastal town in California). This is more expensive and adds extra days inland as you may our way south. If you want to visit the California Redwoods, it’s a great option, but that’s a different road trip!
  • Drive Southbound – Like in my longer Pacific Coast Highway itinerary, I recommend driving southbound. You’ll have better views!
  • Rent the Right Car – Renting the right car for the hairpin turns of this California coast drive is key. I’ve got a whole guide on choosing the right car for the California coast/PCH. You also need to arrange a one-way car rental.
  • Pack the right California Coast Road Trip Essentials – Road trips can be boring, especially if you don’t pack the right stuff. On this San Francisco to San Diego road trip itinerary, you won’t have radio service at times – so among other road trip essentials, I always recommend, include a Bluetooth transmitter for your phone!
  • Sample California Wine Responsibly – You’ll see a few spots on this itinerary to stop and sample California wine. I always time these for the end of the day (after driving). Please drink responsibly – and don’t drink and drive!

Quick Glance: Your California Coast Road Trip Itinerary

If you want a quick look at the California coastal road trip itinerary I suggest, take a peek below (click the map for full directions). Then read on for details and suggestions about each place.

California Coast Road Trip Map
Start/End
1.San Francisco to Santa Rosa
2.Santa Rosa to San Francisco
3.San Francisco to Santa Cruz
4.Santa Cruz to Carmel-by-the-Sea
5.Carmel to Big Sur
6.Big Sur to San Luis Obispo
7.San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara
8.Santa Barbara to Los Angeles
9.Los Angeles to San Diego
10.San Diego

The Perfect 10-Day California Coastal Road Trip Itinerary

PCH Southbound Sign

Day 1 – Arrive, San Francisco to Santa Rosa

From the time the tires touch the tarmac at SFO, your road trip starts off right away. Grab your one-way rental car from the airport, and set out for 10 days of adventure.

For the first night on this California Coast road trip, we’re going to take a quick detour to wine country. You flew all the way here – you might as well enjoy it! It’s a 90-minute drive from San Francisco to Santa Rosa by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and heading north on Highway 101.

In Santa Rosa, book yourself a spot for the Estate Pairing at St. Francis Winery. This wine and food pairing is a perfect way to sample one of the Sonoma Valley’s top offerings – plus enjoy the view out over the vineyards while you do.

For dinner and drinks to end the day, I recommend heading to downtown Santa Rosa: Perch + Plow is right on the Old Courthouse Square and Russian River Brewing Company is a classic spot.

Day 2 – Santa Rosa to San Francisco

3 Days in San Francisco - Packing List

After breakfast in Santa Rosa (try Zee’s Diner, just off the 101), head back south across the Golden Gate Bridge toward San Francisco. Be aware that there’s a toll to cross the bridge; you’ll receive a bill from your rental car company once you get home (it’s all electronic).

Once in San Francisco, head out to your overnight accommodation to park the vehicle there. I recommend staying in the Outer Sunset area because it’s the easiest way to get out of the city the next morning.

After you drop off your car and luggage, head toward Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. Parking can be tricky to find (and paid), but this area is a great place to spend the morning. Don’t forget to walk out around Pier 39 to see the where the California sea lions have taken over a section of the marina.

Either walk or catch a street car down the Embarcadero toward the San Francisco Ferry Building. This is a great spot for lunch – the grilled cheese and tomato soup at Cowgirl Creamery is one of my guilty indulgences, as is Humphry Slocombe for ice cream.

After lunch, catch the Muni into the Mission. This is a great neighborhood to explore – there are some cool free walking tours to see the Murals and there’s plenty of window-shopping and people-watching. For dinner, dig into burritos at Taqueria El Farolito, a famous SF spot. Then call it a night and rest up for tomorrow’s adventures!

Day 3 – San Francisco to Santa Cruz

California Coast Road Trip - Santa Cruz

Rise and shine early to hit the road – as you might have guessed, San Francisco traffic is a nightmare. Head south on California Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway), and within a few minutes, you’ll officially start your California coastal trip!

Pass through Pacifica – don’t get distracted by the surfers – and stop for lunch and a beach stroll in Half Moon Bay. This is a famous getaway from the City (SF) and Silicon Valley, so you might see some Venture Capitalists enjoying a walking meeting or some equally techie thing.

PCH - California - Pigeon Point

Continue on to Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, another great spot to stop and stretch your legs. Obviously, it’s also a great photo spot too!

It’s a pretty short day on the road, so you should arrive in Santa Cruz by no later than mid-afternoon. You can spend the afternoon and evening exploring the Santa Cruz Wharf and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. At the former, keep an eye out for sea lions below the wharf and sea otters in the water; the latter is like Coney Island and a fun spot for fair rides and food.

Day 4 – Santa Cruz to Carmel-by-the-Sea

In the morning, depart Santa Cruz on this short of driving. The first stop is Monterey, about 60 minutes south of Santa Cruz along the California Coast.

Spend the morning in Monterey: the two best sights are the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. Conveniently, they’re next to one another! You can park at the east end of Cannery Row then walk along the waterfront and shops to the Aquarium and back. It’s easy to spend the whole morning here, so plan to have a later lunch (around 1pm).

It’s a 15-minute drive from Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea, your stop for the day. You can make it take longer (which I recommend) and pay to drive 17 Mile Drive, a private road that hugs the coast. Along the way, you can stop to see the Lone Cypress (below) and other sights.

3 Days in Carmel - Lone Cypress

I’ve spent several weekends in Carmel, and love the small-town vibe that immediately envelops you. Whether you opt for a stroll on the beach or window shopping the galleries in town, there’s plenty to see for a town this size. In the mid-afternoon, plan a wine tasting at Blair Estates Winery, Mr. V‘s and my favorite winery in town. It’s a bit hidden off the beaten path, but if you can catch the winemaker Jeffrey Blair you’re in for a real storytelling treat.

For dinner, Cultura Comida y Bebida is the place. Their Oaxacan food is top-notch, and it’s a great chance to try chapulines (grasshoppers) if you’ve never had them before. Their queso fundido is also to-die-for (all pictured above).

Day 5 – Carmel to Big Sur

3 Days in Carmel

Before you head out of Carmel, either take that stroll on Carmel Beach you skipped yesterday, stop by the Carmel Mission to learn more about the history of Spanish settlement in California, or stop by Point Lobos State Park for a few short hikes. You’ll need to arrive early at Point Lobos; parking fills up quickly. Depending on how long you spend at these spots, you may want to lunch in Carmel.

It’s a super short 60-minute drive to Big Sur, your destination for the night – so take your time to stop for photos and viewpoints along the way.

Once in Big Sur, head for a walk or hike out in Pfieffer Big Sur State Park. The most popular trail is the 0.64-mile (roundtrip) hike on McWay Waterfall Trail. This is the photo spot for Big Sur, as you can see!

California Coast Road Trip - Big Sur

You’re overnighting in Big Sur and start much longer days of driving tomorrow, so take it easy tonight and rest up. It’ll start to feel like a real road trip along the California coast soon!

Day 6 – Big Sur to San Luis Obispo

California Coast Road Trip - SLO

Unless you plan to take a hike this morning, set out from Big Sur once the sun is up. Today’s a longer day of driving than others so far, but there’s still plenty of time to stop and enjoy the scenery on this part of the California coast. This is arguably among the most picturesque of the whole trip!

California Coast Road Trip - Hearst Castle

Stop for lunch in San Simeon, a small town that marks the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles. If you have time, you can even visit Hearst Castle, which was built by the publishing tycoon.

California Coast Road Trip - Mission San Luis Obispo

Continue south to San Luis Obispo (SLO), your stop for the night. The Mission San Luis Obispo is a good spot to spend an hour in the afternoon before dinner at pizza shop Ember or farm-to-table Foremost Wine Co.

Day 7 – SLO to Santa Barbara

Calfornia Coast Road Trip - Pismo Beach

After breakfast, set out from SLO. Your day today is a short two-hour drive in total, with plenty of good reasons to stop. One of the best happens almost right away: Pismo Beach. Pismo is a short drive from San Luis Obispo and a great spot to enjoy your morning coffee.

Next, I recommend taking a quick detour from Highway 101 onto CA-1 through Lompoc. I had the chance to visit Lompoc back in late 2018 for a rocket launch, and fell in love with this small military town.

For lunch, eat at Valle Eatery in town or Jalama Beach Burger, if you have time to drive to Jalama state park (this adds an extra hour of driving, but you have time). You could also take time for a wine tasting at Flying Goat Cellars if you want to try some of the wine from the Santa Maria Valley.

It’s another hour to Santa Barbara, your overnight stop. I recommend trying to time your arrival for Happy Hour at Enterprise Fish Company where you can nosh cheap oysters and calamari with SoCal local beer. For dinner, treat yourself at Loquita, a hip little Spanish restaurant.

Day 8 – Santa Barbara to Los Angeles

California Coast Road Trip - Santa Barbara Aerial

While it’s not far by mileage between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, it can take longer than the two hours I estimate – especially depending on traffic as you come through Malibu. While that means you don’t want to delay, it’s still a worthy stop to visit the Mission Santa Barbara before you head out of town.

Yo’ll arrive in L.A. for lunch, but I don’t recommend exploring too far inland unless you’ve got a specific sight in mind or area in mind. I have a guide for spending one day in L.A. but it requires a full day, so instead it’s better to stick to Santa Monica and Venice Beach. You’ll be right along California Highway 1 and the waterfront. This minimizes the time you spend stuck in Los Angeles’ notorious traffic.

For dinner, Venice Ale House is a good option. They have tasty but healthy brewpub food and waterfront views, which gives you a good view to enjoy the sunset over the beach.

Day 9 – Los Angeles to San Diego

Start your morning with a walk on the beach before setting out on the longest day of driving yet – possibly made longer by any traffic you encounter (so check the map before you set out). The route can be faster along California Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, which is what I recommend. Once you depart L.A., you’ll pass through a series of delightful southern California coast towns.

For lunch, stop in Huntington Beach, one of my favorite spots in the area. Since you don’t have time to enjoy all there is on offer, swing through American Dream for burgers and beer for lunch, followed by a walk on the pier to stretch your legs and burn off the beer. You can watch surfers work the waves – does it get more stereotypically California coastal than this?

Continuing south, stop for dinner in Encinitas at Haggo’s Organic Tacos. This place is known for their fish tacos and you’ll be rubbing elbows with surfers from the beach and laid-back techies that have flocked away from the Bay Area fog.

End with a drive to San Diego for night, and rest easy: your California coast drive is complete!

Day 10 – San Diego, Depart

California Cosat Road Trip - San Diego
  • Drive Time: n/a
  • Suggested Accommodation: n/a

On your final day along this California coast road trip, there’s as little driving involved as you want. You have a whole day in San Diego until your departure. Some of the popular sights in San Diego include Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo – though I’ll be honest, I’ve never been to San Diego beyond driving through to catch flights and pick-up/drop-off rental cars! If I ever make it, I’ll be sure to add more info about how to best spend your time.

Now you’re all set for an epic California coast road trip! Have other questions? Let me know in the comments!

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30 Comments

  • ERIC

    Thanks for the quick trip! We have not been to No.Cal. for years. Once the beaches reopen, we hope to travel up the coast. Eric

  • TABG

    FYI.
    Enterprise Fish Company is not re-opening after COVID in Santa Barbara.
    And Haggo’s in Leucadia/Encinitas (San Diego) either closed or moved recently.

  • Veronica Medina

    Thank you for this guide. We are planning our road trip and the information you posted is very helpful in planning our trip.

  • Jake

    This is great! What do you suggest I would change if this is for myself and my twin sons that will turn 16 in August? We will go in July likely. I don’t plan to drink wine and I may do 10 days.

    • Jake

      @Valerie,
      Thank you! I think I’m going to do the northern road trip from San Fran to LA. I wasn’t sure if there’s an itinerary that’s good to drive to Lake Tahoe on the way down from San Fran? Also if my kids want to do a day a Disney Land then how many days total do you suggest?
      Thanks much in advance!

      • Valerie

        Thanks for reading, Jake! Lake Tahoe isn’t on the way at all, so I don’t think you can really “add it on” – you’d want to add 2-3 days for at at least. As for Disney, I would just decide how many days you want to drive down the coast, and then add on your Disney days to that.

  • Erick

    This is a great guide. I am looking at planning the road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I’m not interested in the wine country stops and will be doing this adventure with my 15 and 16 year old sons only. Are there places you can advise I swap the wine country stops out with? How many days do you think is a good amount of time for this trip? We will end up staying 1 or 2 days at the end of the road trip to stop over at Disney. What’s a good amount of days to plan so that we don’t rush but don’t waste time either? I don’t want to drive all day either. Thanks very much for the best guide out there!

    • Valerie

      Thanks for reading, Erick! Sounds like you could just do the 10 day trip as I described but skip Santa Rosa and add the extra day on for Disney. Have a great trip!

  • Lorenzo E

    If you were to do this same coast trip in 7 days, what would you take out of the trip to shorten it? We love wine, good food and the beach.

    • Valerie

      That’s a long answer, Lorenzo since it requires entirely re-doing the nightly stops! I recommend just looking at the stops I suggest, skipping any you aren’t interested in, and recalculating the travel times for your own comfort level.

  • Kristie

    When budgeting – opt for a cheaper hotel – clean spot to lay your head (you’ll be at beaches, wineries and hiking, etc most of the time) and use that money for your car rental – the best one for hugging those turns. I love a good coastal drive. Love your itinerary (:

  • CJ

    This is amazing; thank you! I’m thinking about doing this solo in October. I’d like to spend a few days in SF before renting a car, Any recommendations on where to stay?

  • Leslie Rodwell

    Thank you for the resourceful information. I have read this along with your longer post re: California and the PNW. My family and I (including two boys ages 7 and 9) have planned a trip for this March for the California coast starting in San Francisco and ending in LA. Would love to add San Diego, but not enough time in our 8 days. I mentioned to a friend who shared his concerns about the treacherous PCH drive especially from Carmel to LA (likely specifically around the Big Sur area). From reading other sites, I read stuff that it is an easy drive nothing to worry about and others who state there are no guardrails and hardly any shoulder (not to mention roads washing away with mudslides). He was concerned my children may find it scary (and potentially some adults afraid of heights. Can you help me understand this stretch of road and any concerns (or lack thereof) you may have? Thanks.

    • Valerie

      While that’s the part of the road that has collapsed twice from landslides, I’d still go for it. It’s certainly a narrow road – you’re right that there are no shoulders but there is a guardrail, but I wouldn’t let that deter you. That’s the most beautiful part of the road and I don’t feel any concern about driving it.

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