How to drive Pacific Coast highway in 2 days. 2 days PCH itinerary with recommended stops and the best Highway 1 overnight stop between San Diego and San Francisco.
The Pacific Coast Highway drive is one of the most famous and scenic in the United states if not the world.
It is the road you have seen in American movies, the one that meanders along the high California coastline with expansive views over a moody Pacific Ocean.
It is the kind of drive that makes you want to get a convertible, blast out your favorite road tip playlist and just drive.
However, if you you only have a couple of days, it takes a little more than stepping on it to enjoy Pacific Coast Highway (PCH1).
For starters, this is not a short drive, nor a drive you can do it quickly and without planning.
PCH1 snakes up along the California coast for hundreds of miles and connects the State’s Southern tip in San Diego with Oregon, far North.
Also, it has speed limit of about 25mph in many sections and is a bendy, meandering road in most parts.
This means you need to plan at least one overnight stop if you are going from San Diego to San Francisco and even more time if you want to journey along the whole of it.
We drove Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to San Francisco in two days and needed them both.
In this article, I recall that trip and try answer the question: what are the best stop when driving Pacific Coast Highway in 2 days and what is the best overnight stop between San Diego and San Francisco?
If you are looking into driving a longer stretch of this highway, have a look at this PCH road trip itinerary from Seattle to LA instead.
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But first: what is Pacific Coast Highway?
The Pacific Coast highway (PCH) is a long road following the California coast and connecting the San Diego area in the South with San Francisco and the North.
The road is over 600 miles long and it is one of the most scenic in the country if not the world, thanks to a high coastline and vast views over the Pacific Ocean.
The highway has several names that define different parts of the route. Some you will encounter are Pacific Coast Highway, California state Route 1, highway 1 and even Highway 101, although this latter one only applies to part of the road where PCH and Highway 101 merge.
The route takes different shapes and offers a very different feel depending where you are.
Part of it are flat and pleasant, some are inner city streets (in LA for instance) and some are rugged and mountainous (Big Sur).
Day 1 morning: Diego and the Southern California Coast
The very first part of PCH1 if you start from this end of the route in San Diego is very different from what you may imagine.
Here the road is flat and while pretty, it is not exceptionally scenic.
Highway 1 here passes thought many Southern Californian towns and they make great stops for coffee or to get a last taste of California beach lifestyle before heading North.
In this very first area we are very fond of Carlsbad and Encinitas, two seaside town with a relaxed and alternative vibe.
However, unless you want to juts stop for a quick coffee, you are unlikely to get much time here.
These two towns are very much in the San Diego area and they are too close to your starting point to make a practical stop.
The road here is also full of traffic lights as it crosses lively town centres so, while pleasant, it is not the driving experience you have been dreaming off – yet!
If you can, I recommend using these towns as a base to discover the area rather than a pit stop along this road trip.
Los Angeles: brace yourself for traffic
The first majour city you encounter when driving Highway 101 Northbound from San Diego is Los Angeles and wow, what a beast of a city this is!
I am very fond of LA, we have spent a lovely summer here and are headed there again next August, but in terms of driving it is a bit of a monster.
You start hitting the LA traffic well before the city limits start and depending on the time of day you may find it is a type of traffic that somehow moves or doesn’t move at all!
The best way to tackle it is to check traffic conditions before setting off and making informed decisions (Google Maps will do).
What you need to know about pacific Highway 1 across Los Angeles is that it is scenic in parts and very long.
The road passes some of the best known parts of LA and if, like us, you are a tourist in this area, you will be overwhelmed by the abundance of names you recognize form the silver screen and TV series
Hermosa Beach, Venice Beach and Santa Monica are the first bits you encounter, with their expanse of golden sand and the coastline gets higher and leads you into that powerhouse of coastal charm that is Malibu.
Again, you are not likely to have a lot of time to spend in any of these paces but the highway here crosses the city so you can see these sights from the car.
Lunch in Ventura, Central California
The area North of LA sees again a different type of scenery, one that mixes coastal views with almost countryside settings.
We stopped here for a late lunch on our first day and our choice of town was Ventura, which is pleasant and with easy food and petrol options (great views too!).
In our case specifically, we stopped at the Ventura shopping center for a quick hot dog and frozen yogurt as this allowed us a quick stop without the stress of complicated parking.
This is a good option if you are in a hurry and a pleasant one with kids.
The space is vast and safe for them to stretch their legs and you also get restrooms etc: it is a great place for a pit stop.
Good to know. If you are driving Pacific Coast Highway in 2 days only, you are likely to only have only lunch stop here.
However, if you happen to have a little longer this is an area worth seeing.
Another great stop and one that will allow you to stretch your legs and do some cultural sightseeing in Santa Barbara.
Here you have a mission and nice shops that make for a pleasant stop before reaching our recommended destination for the night: the coastal town of Cambria.
Cambria: the best overnight stop on Highway 101
The biggest headache I had when planing this 2 day road trip along Highway 101 was deciding where to stay the night.
The first and last parts of the drive have a wide variety of accommodation options but once you hit the middle of it and the area of Big Sur, where you are most likely to want to break up the trip, you find yourself in a bit of conundrum
Places here are few and far between, they tend to be isolated and most of all they fill up very fast!
Our choice eventually fell on the town of Cambria and it was the perfect overnight stop.
Since we drove from San Diego we only got to Cambria in the evening when the sun was setting and this was a good thing.
This town is lovely but shuts at 9 pm so you need to get there before that time to be in with a chance of getting dinner!
The universe must have been on our side that day as indeed we got the just in time.
We settled in our oceanfront inn and got dinner in a gorgeous restaurant and bar nearby that gave us lovely Italian fare and a a cozy yet dynamic atmosphere.
If you are staying where we did, you will fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean waves and will wake up to quite a special view.
From where we were, you could just cross the road and reach the coast on the Cambria boardwalk, and enjoy the show of the moody fog lifting and revealing the stunning blue ocean in front.
Good to know: if you think you will arrive very late in Cambria, check with your accommodation what type of food option are available after hours. We were told last admission in restaurants was at 9pm – double check or you may have to hop back in the car to find a meal!
Cambria was a lovely place to break up the highway 101 drive and one that fulfilled the needs of the kids as well thanks to the gorgeous tide pools that kept them busy while I went photo crazy with the Californian coastal landscape
Day 2 on PCH 1- Morning in Big Sur
The second morning on Highway 101 was the most scenic.
Driving North from Cumbria, you enter the area called Big Sur, the one that makes this drive so scenic and it is indeed a wonderful and atmospheric stretch of road.
In summer, this area gets a good bit of fog and this happened to us.
Many stretches were invisible (the view, not the road) because of low fog but was by no means enough to ruin it for us.
Despite the fog enveloping the ocean, its blue still suddenly appears in front of you as you drive and when it does, it takes your breath away it is so beautiful and vast!
Big Sur is green and luscious and has several pull over opportunities for you to take in the view.
While famous for the driving, this is an area that invites you to stop and stay.
We saw several hotels, inns and campsites hidden in the Big Sur vegetation and they made us want to settle there a few days and explore the local hikes
Needless to say, with two days on the road we had no time to do that but some of the hotels had lovely cafes where we were able to stop for a break with ocean views.
Depending on visibility on the day of your drive and your interest, places o consider seeing in this area are Hearts Castle (long stop), Piedras blancas beach and its sea lions and McEvoy falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park
Need to know: this area of PCH is narrow, meandering and scenic. While movies and guidebooks often present it as a place for driving a fast convertible with the wind in your hair, the reality is much much different! This is a slow road with low speed limits: careful driving is essential.
Bixby bridge and Carmel by the sea
The next stretch of road leads you to famous Bixby bridge, that you may remember from many movies including the recent Netflix Series Big Little Lies.
The bridge is on the road so it is a sight you cannot miss and several cars stop for the photo ops it offers.
Here are several spots to pull over, be careful when leaving the car and entering the road again.
If you are going North, you are on the wrong side of the road for view and crossing requires a lot of attention (so much so that with the kids, we didn’t).
We didn’t stop and headed straight to the gorgeous small town of Carmel-by- the sea.
This is a beautiful town with a distinctive upscale character.
Beautiful boutiques, art galleries and elegant restaurants abound and, coming from the South, you start appreciating how diverse the California climate is.
The day before we were in shorts and flip flops while this town called for a slightly warmer and definitely more dignified clothing!
Carmel is a great lunch stop and great for a pleasant walk on its main street.
If you prefer a different and more family friendly vibe, a great alternative to Carmel is nearby Monterey.
This is a larger town, perched right on the ocean and a great place to stop if you have kids thanks to the large aquarium.
If you are driving Pacific Coast Highway in 2 days you are unlikely yo be able to stop for a proper visit but with children in tow it may be worth anyway, even just to enter and see the information materials and the vibe of the place.
We visited the aquarium with the kids in a different occasion and highly recommend it but do plant at least a few hours here: the Monterey aquarium is big!
The stretch between Monterey and San Francisco has several beautiful stops to consider but our choice fell on Capitola.
This is a small town on the coast and is is one of the prettiest stops we could have taken.
Here the waterfront is faced by rows of colorful houses reminiscent of Europe but with a distinctive america feel.
This is a gorgeous little spot to stop for coffee and a quick walk on the beach. Coming from the south just be warned: the water here is cold!
The first day we drove highway 1 I through the LA traffic was bad but nothing prepared us for the San Francisco traffic.
We hit the city limits and this was pretty much it: we were stuck in the car for ages moving or rather not moving at snail pace!
We eventually made it to our hotel in the early evening, well after the rental car drop off time, and if there is one take away that I can share about driving Pacific Coastal highway is: factor in potential crazy traffic!
The road is slow by nature but traffic around the main cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco can seriously stop you in your tracks and add hours to what is otherwise a long but manageable distance for a 2 day drive.
Pacific Coast Highway in 2 days: conclusions
Overall I am happy we drove this road and found our itinerary a good one for the time we had.
If you can however, rather than driving Pacific Coast Highway in 2 days, I recommend you take a little longer and stop in what is truly special here: the many natural areas especially in Big Sur.
I highly recommend staying in Cambria as an overnight stop and I cannot stress enough how important it is to book accommodation in advance and leave plenty of buffer time to reach your destination.
I hope you fond this overview of a two day drive on Pacific 101 useful and it helped answer the questions: what is the best 2 day itinerary for Pacific Highway 1 and where is the best overnight stop between San Diego and San Francisco along Pacific coast highway?