Driving From Los Angeles to San Francisco on Highway 1

Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco may very well be the most iconic scenic byway in California – possibly in the US. It’s a gorgeous drive that takes you along some of the most beautiful places where the ocean meets the mountains. We actually drove the road from San Diego all the way to northern California (For Bragg) but most people usually make the drive between LA and San Francisco, so this is what this post is all about.

Driving From Los Angeles to San Francisco on Highway 1This is a detailed guide for the drive, marking what we think are the most important stops along the way, from LA to San Francisco. It covers the following stops –

  1. Santa Barbara
  2. Solvang
  3. Pismo Beach
  4. San Luis Obispo
  5. Morro Bay
  6. Cayucos
  7. Cambria
  8. San Simeon
  9. Piedras Blancas
  10. Jade Cove
  11. Limekiln State Park
  12. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
  13. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
  14. Andrew Molera State Park
  15. Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park
  16. Garrapata State Park
  17. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
  18. Monterey
  19. Santa Cruz

We have some more tips and ideas to share, so make sure to read through. This is a long post, so here’s a quick table of contents to help you find your way around –

What is California Highway 1 Like?

The drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco up Highway 1 takes about 10 hours, straight through. The 450+ miles along the way have a lot more to offer, though than a speedy drive. This coast-hugging route is one of the most scenic in all of California.

How long should you take to drive California Highway 1?

Just because Google Maps puts driving time in a little under 10 hours, doesn’t mean this is a drive for a single day. You should allocate at least two days for driving along this section of the California coast. Three would be better, allowing you some time to explore Monterey too. You can take longer. Spending a week along the road – making it into a vacation destination in its own right – is a fantastic idea. That’s what this post is all about, really – to show you just how much there is to do and see along Highway 1.

Even if you prefer to just cruise along the road driving, 10 hours may not cut it. Some drivers would take longer – closer to 11-12 hours. Plus, you should probably allow some time for breaks to stretch your legs, fill up on gas or have lunch. So, at a minimum, plan for 12-14 hours.

Remember, the drive is slow in parts. In the areas close to Los Angeles, the road takes you through various towns. Most are lovely and picturesque but driving speed is limited. In the Big Sur area, you’re going to slow down as the road curves along the cliffs. I can’t find any good pictures we took of the road itself (which is a shame, I know!) so here are a couple of images from Google Maps, showing you what’s the road like in the Big Sur area –

Highway 1 - Big Sur area

Highway 1 - Big Sur area

Do you get motion sickness driving California Highway 1?

The coastal overhangs may be intimidating but don’t let the of motion sickness keep you from traveling this highway. Yes, parts of the road are winding but the drive itself isn’t technical or too difficult. Having said that, our youngest son did feel sick around some areas. We had to stop occasionally and let him have a breath of fresh air. He was 7 years old at the time and prone to car sickness. Turns out that’s common with younger children. His older brother (9 at the time) and us, the parents, had no issue with motion sickness.

Driving From Los Angeles to San Francisco

When the time comes to leave Los Angeles behind, Highway 1 offers you the best views and the most direct route to equally-exciting California locales. Ready to head out? Let’s see what waits down the road for you.

Santa Barbara

View from Santa Barbara’s courthouse tower looking east | Photo by Photopippo

Santa Barbara is an hour and a half away from Los Angeles. 95 miles from the City of Angeles, it serves as the first stop on your Highway 1 road trip. Take your time here to stretch your legs on any of the local beaches or to meander through the local foodie scene. If you want to take a break from the road, you can even rent a sea kayak and head out to the Channel Islands for a few hours. Make sure you grab a postcard in the area but don’t get distracted! You’re just getting started on a long, winding trip past beautiful ocean views.

(Unless of course, you want to get distracted! You can definitely spend a few days enjoying Santa Barbara as a destination in its own right!)

For more information about Santa Barbara, you can visit their official website.

Solvang

34 miles and 39 minutes down the road from Santa Barbara, you’ll find Solvang, California. This little town is famous for being a Little Denmark right in the middle of California. You’ll actually find five windmills here, along with beautiful picturesque streets filled with European-style houses and gardens. Really cute!

We spent a couple of fun hours in Solvang, just taking in the unique atmosphere and having lunch. You could spend a day here if you wanted to. Just check out our post about 13 awesome things to do in Solvang.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is 50 minutes and 54 miles away from California’s Danish Heartland. It serves as the Clam Capital of the World, holding a Clam Festival every October for visitors and locals alike. If clams aren’t up your alley, you can spend your time exploring Dinosaur Caves Park or walking the Pismo Pier. If you’ve only got a little bit of time to spend in the city, make sure to swing by Bubblegum Alley. It might not be the cleanest spot in Pismo Beach, but it certainly leaves an impression.

If you like the local vibe and want to spend a day or two here, check out our post about the top 10 things to do at Pismo Beach.

San Luis Obispo

A mere fifteen minutes and 12.8 miles away from Pismo Beach is the town of San Luis Obispo. Referred to locally as one of the “Happiest Places in America,” “SLO” lets you slow down your road trip by offering you your first overnight rest stop.

While you don’t have to park your car in SLO, the town makes the time you spend within its boundaries more than worth your while. It sits on the border of two of California’s most prolific wine regions, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. If you didn’t pick up a bottle in Solvang, you can readily do so here. The food scene in SLO is stunning, as well. Reviews say that Restaurant Ember stands out above the rest by providing local food that’s been transformed to suit any palette.

For more information about this road trip pit stop, you can visit their official website.

Morro Bay

If SLO isn’t your style, you can drive another 15 minutes and 13.1 miles up to Morro Bay. Morro Bay offers nature lovers of all stripes direct access to some of California’s most beautiful ecosystems. Birdwatchers will particularly enjoy this area, as it attracts a different menagerie all year round. Its most known feature is the iconic Morro Rock – a giant rock formation right in the middle of the bay.

Anyone looking to wake up their muscles down on the beach will also enjoy Morro Bay. While the kids play in the wakes, you can kayak, fish, or surf until the sun sets over the water. This was actually our overnight stop when we traveled along Highway 1, so we mostly strolled along the marina and took sunset pictures of Morro Rock.

Morro Bay at Sunset

For more information about things to do in Morro Bay visit their website.

Cayucos

For drivers looking for the finer things in life, California presents Cayucos. Eight minutes and six miles away from Morro Bay, Cayucos is a certified resort town. Here, you’ll be able to look over a phenomenal stretch of beach free of the rush of California’s more urban areas. If you want to grab a bite to eat before getting on your way, this is the place to do so. Cayucos is home to a thriving food scene that celebrates the local.

For more information about this road trip pit stop, you can visit their website.

Cambria

We’ve spoken at length already about the beaches along Highway 1. No beach has quite the appeal, though, as Moonstone Beach. 20 minutes and 14.5 miles from Cayucos, you’ll find sandy coves interspersed with the rockier terrain of Northern California. You can walk along the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk to see where the state starts to transition into its northern climes.

Whether you want to take the time to hike the coves or just want to smell the sea air, Cambria and Moonstone Beach are the places to do so. For more information about Cambria and the area, you can visit this website.

San Simeon

Like the other seaside stops on this list, San Simeon offers all of its visitors stunning ocean views and unfettered access to California’s expansive beaches. Fifteen minutes and ten miles away from Cambria, it would be a quick stop on a long road trip if not for the famous Hearst Castle.

Established in 1865 by George Hearst, the Hearst Castle was not always a castle. Once upon a time, it was merely called “Camp Hill,” as it provided a place for Hearst and his future generations to rest. After several years, the Hearst family commissioned Julia Morgan to build them a ranch on the estate. The ranch grew into one of the most stunning architectural feats seen in California.

Nowadays, Hearst Castle is an interactive museum unlike any other you’ll come across in California. Here, you can take tours through The Enchanted Hill, Casa Grande, on-site cottages, and a sprawling kitchen. You can even eat on-site, allowing you to properly round out this trip back in time.

Hearst Castle opens daily during the summer at 9 AM. Adult tickets cost $25, and children’s tickets cost $12. Any child under the age of 5 can enter for free.

For more information about San Simeon and Hearst Castle, you can visit the website.

Piedras Blancas

The animal lovers on your road trip will love Piedras Blancas. Only seven minutes and 3.6 miles away from San Simeon, here you’ll find a thriving elephant seal rookery. This rookery is public, free, and open all year round. This means that you’ll be able to take the kids down to the water to see some of nature’s strangest creatures up close and personal.

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas - along Highway 1, CA

Note, of course, that you have to stay a reasonable distance away from the elephant seals who’ve hauled onto the beach. However, with over 17,000 of them visiting the local shores in peak season, you’re guaranteed an exciting view of Piedras Blancas’ critters. When we were there (October), there were only female elephant seals there, enjoying a nap on the beach. Two friendly docents were present on the platform and answered all of our questions about the seals. A fun stop, for sure!

Jade Cove

Jade Cove is named for the litany of jade that has been found in the area’s waters over the years. If you have treasure hunters on your hands, this is an ideal place to get out of the car and go hunting for all things shiny. Jade Cove is 39 minutes and 24.5 miles away from Piedras Blancas, making it a welcomed stop in the midst of your day of driving.

We didn’t find any jade there ourselves, but we did stop to look! There was a nice path going down to the water but because we arrived at high tide we couldn’t really look for gems. A sign there mentioned that prospecting for minerals was prohibited above mean high tide level.

Hiking Jade Cove, CA

For more information about this road trip pit stop, you can visit its website.

Big Sur State Parks

Finally, you’re within a reasonable distance of Big Sur and Big Sur’s state parks. As you make your way up Highway 1, you can choose to visit all of these natural wonders or find your favorite as you go. If you love nature and hiking, this is definitely the area where you should be spending some time along the highway. We’ll go over these parks now – as they are stops along the way – but make sure you also check out our additional posts –

6 state parks in Big Sur, CA that should be on your bucket list

The most stunning waterfalls in Big Sur

Limekiln State Park

Limekiln State Park | Photo by Kevin Stanchfield

Big Sur itself is about an hour away from Jade Cove. From that entrance, it’s another 45 minutes and 28 miles to Limekiln State Park. Here, you’ll be able to camp at any of the park’s 24 campsites while also touring the gorgeous redwood forest.

For more information visit their website.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

The next Big Sur park is 24 minutes and 15.2 miles away from Limekiln State Park. Named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park presents you with 3,000-foot overlooks that stretch out above the Pacific Ocean. You’ll be able to spot a litany of redwoods in this park, but it’s the view that really sets it apart from the rest.

For more information visit their website.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Another 25 minutes and 12 miles away, you’ll come across Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Here, you’ll be able to spot the Santa Lucia Mountains as well as the bends of the Big Sur River Gorge and River. Perfect for hikers, bikers, and campers alike, this park is ideal for anyone who wants to go on a self-guided tour of California’s sprawling northern ecosystem. You’ll also find Big Sur Lodge in this area, where you’ll be able to restock on road trip snacks or spend the night in one of the 61 available guest rooms.

For more information visit their website.

Andrew Molera State Park

Big Sur 072 Andrew Molera State Park, Beach Trail | Photo by Allie_Caulfield

For a more natural park experience, head 19 minutes and 8.5 miles down the road to Andrew Molera State Park. Ideal for beachcombers, this park is relatively unattended. If you’re looking for some peace and quiet, this is the place to be.

For more information visit their website.

Point Sur Light Station State Historic Park

Point Sur Light Station, Monterey County, Big Sur, California, as seen from Highway 1 | Photo by Frank Schulenburg

If park architecture is more up your alley, you can drive 12 minutes and 4 miles from Andrew Molera State Park to hit Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park. Here, the Point Sur Lightstation rests on a Pacific overlook. As the first light station to open in California after the turn of the century, the lighthouse is now open to tours led by local docents.

For more information visit their website.

Garrapata State Park

Garrapata State Park Beach | Photo by Stanislav Sedov

Another 25 minutes and 12 miles down the road, you’ll find Garrapata State Park. This park is an ideal stop for anyone wanting to see California gray whales, harbor seals, sea otters, and sea lions. Note that these critters migrate with the seasons, so your best chance of spotting them will come in the spring and fall.

For more information visit their website.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

33 minutes and 17. miles away Point Lobos State Natural Reserve welcomes road-trippers into Carmel County. Considered one of the most beautiful of California’s state parks, you’ll be able to hike through trails that see over one million annual visitors. You can also visit the local educational centers established by the Point Lobos Foundations, which aim to inspire visitors with the views the park has to share.

Our Dan getting his feet wet in China Cove, Point Lobos State Park

Point Lobos is a short drive away from your next destination – Monterey. You can also drive on to spend a few days in Monterey and work Point Lobos into your Monterey itinerary.

Monterey

Back view of Monterey Bay Aquarium

Once you’ve left Big Sur and its accessory parks, you’ll drive 13 minutes and 7 miles to the city of Monterey. At the heart of Monterey County, you’ll be able to kick off your hiking boots and swap them out for a barefoot walk on Carmel Beach. Alternatively, you can take a jaunt down Cannery Row, picking up local bottles of wine as you go. From here, it’s only 2 hours and 119 miles up Highway 1 to San Francisco.

There is so much to do in Monterey, you could easily spend 2-3 days there. We spent five days in total in this area and were never bored. Check out our posts about the Monterey Peninsula area –

Best Things To Do In Monterey, CA (A Complete Visitor’s Guide)

10 Awesome Self-Drive Day Trips Around Monterey, CA

Santa Cruz

If you keep driving along Highway 1 to San Francisco, Santa Cruz will be your next major stop. Like Monterey, this is a place where you can spend several days (we did!). There are some fantastic state parks nearby where you can see Redwood seqouiah trees, and there’s the town itself, with its promenade and beach boardwalk.

You can read more about it in our post about the top 10 things to do in Santa Cruz, CA.

That’s it! You can keep hugging the coast all the way to San Francisco from here. Or you could do what most people do and just take the main road, going through San Jose and silicone valley. Plenty to see and do there too!

Where To Stay While Driving From Los Angeles to San Francisco

Are you ready to get behind the wheel and head up Highway 1? I don’t blame you. The gorgeous views alone are more than enough reason to take a few days for you and your family. If you’re going to go road-tripping, though, you’re going to need some places to stay. If you don’t want to spend your time camping in Big Sur, there are a few different places along the route that’ll welcome you with open arms.

San Luis Obispo – Madonna Inn

Your first day on the road will lead you to either Morro Bay or San Luis Obispo, depending on your preference (and level of exhaustion). Of the two, we recommend San Luis Obispo, as it is home to the Madonna Inn. Pink and white on the outside, this inn offers you your choice of over 100 themed rooms, from jungle rock to modern gold glitter. Ideal for kids and adults alike, you’ll be able to wind down your day in a room that’s as enthralling as the town itself. This place is a stop along the road for many people – even if only to take pictures. Make sure you check out the bathroom too!

The Madonna Inn also houses an outdoor pool, riding trails, live theatre, and a tennis court – that is, of course, hot pink. You can dine at the on-sight roadhouse (also pink in color) or grab breakfast at the inn’s cafe and bakery. No matter how you choose to spend your time at the Madonna Inn, you’re guaranteed a one-of-a-kind experience.

If you’re interested in booking a room check out their listing over at Booking.com.

Cambria – Moonstone Landing

You may instead choose to drive behind SLO on your first day. If you do, you’ll come to a stop just outside of Big Sur in Cambria. There is a litany of places to stay in the area, but one of the best is Moonstone Landing. This oceanfront hotel offers free WiFi and a gorgeous view along with every room. You’ll also have ready access to a gas fireplace, refrigerator, microwave, and coffee machine regardless of the room you book. Certain rooms may also come equipped with a patio, balcony, or a spa bath.

Outdoors, you’ll be able to enjoy an on-sight hot tub. The local beach is just across the street and access to all overnight visitors. When you wake up in the morning, you’ll be able to enjoy a complimentary continental breakfast before heading into the depths of Big Sur and its parks.

You can find more information via Booking.com.

San Simeon – San Simeon Lodge

If you want to push on further than Cambria, you can choose to spend your night in San Simeon. This is a great location for visiting Hearst Castle the following morning. If you do, we recommend putting your feet up at the San Simeon Lodge. Surrounded by gorgeous landscaping, this hotel offers you a quiet get-away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You’ll be able to overlook the ocean from your patio or balcony while also enjoying free WiFi, cable television, and an in-room refrigerator.

If you’re interested in booking a room at this pit stop, you can find more information via Booking.com.

Monterey – Portola Hotel & Spa

On the final day of your trip, when you’re worn from being behind the wheel, you’ll want to stay somewhere where you can relax and recuperate. One of the best places to do so in Monterey is the Portola Hotel & Spa. Located near the center of the city, this hotel will give you direct access to most of Monterey’s hot spots. You’ll also be able to enjoy any of the three on-site restaurants as well as the microbrewery, so long as someone stays back with the kids.

The Portola Hotel & Spa’s many rooms are equipped with flat-screen televisions and refrigerators. Some rooms even offer overarching views of the nearby harbor. After you’ve put up your bags, you can make your way down to the hot tub, pool, fitness center, or the spa to wipe away the stress of the day.

Find more information on their Booking.com listing.

Finally, a map!

 I hope you found this guide helpful! I’ll wrap things up with a map of all the stops mentioned in this post, along with a few images which I hope you’ll be able to pin to your Pinterest account. That helps me spread the word about this blog, so thanks! And as always, your questions, comments and overall feedback are welcome, so leave me a comment!

Driving From Los Angeles to San Francisco on Highway 1

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