The Ultimate 10-Day California Road Trip Itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to San Diego | California, USA
Golden Gate, Sausalito & Muir Woods | San Fran, Half Moon Bay & Santa Cruz | Carmel, 17-mile Drive & Point Lobos | Best of Big Sur | Central Coast & Vineyards | Santa Barbara & Los Angeles | San Diego
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Welcome to all, but especially those that need an escape from the daily grind.
I'm Amy B, the writer, editor-in-chief and HBIC at Change N Focus. My mission is to inspire each of you to travel & explore the great outdoors, empower you to be the best YOU and truly LIVE the life of your dreams!
Check out About Amy B to read more about my journey.
Book a one-way flight to either San Francisco International Airport (SFO) or San Jose International Airport (SJC) and the return flight home will be out of San Diego International (SAN). The trick with flying into and out of another airport will be the cost of the rental car. Find a rental car as early as possible, but make sure they don’t charge too much for the transfer fee, meaning charging you to drop off at a different location than you picked up the rental car.
Also, I recommend booking an early flight out and a red-eye or later flight home. Why? It maximizes the time you are “on vacation”.
Golden Gate, Sausalito & Muir Woods – DAY 1
Your flight will likely arrive in the morning hours on day one. Once you have all your luggage in your rental car, get ready to explore! This may feel like the longest day ever, depending on the time change of where you live.
Head toward the Golden Gate bridge, if you love photography, you can read my San Francisco photography tips. Even though I hate driving across most bridges, for some reason I love driving over Golden Gate. If it is close to lunch time, grab a bit to eat in Sausalito. You will wind down roads past some incredible houses and there are tons of great restaurants on Bridgeway. If it is still early morning, there are cool coffee shops and cafes as well.
Then continue north to Muir Woods National Monument where you will spend the afternoon walking amongst the beautiful redwood trees. I like visiting cities, but I always find something to do in the great outdoors to keep my anxiety in check. The park is open 365 days a year and generally open from 8am-5pm. Entrance fees are $15 for 16 years and older and free for 15 years and younger. I am usually in possession of an American the Beautiful Annual National Park pass and that gets the pass holder and three other adults into Muir Woods.
Photo of Golden Gate Bridge from Marshall Beach in San Francisco
Photo at entrance to Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco
When heading back toward San Francisco, make sure to stop at Battery Spencer before you reach the Golden Gate bridge if you want photos of Golden Gate with the cityscape in the background like below. I recommend finding a chic VRBO or AirBnB in the city for one night. There is no specific recommendation here, because I’ve always stayed with my sister-in-law that lives south of San Francisco. Enjoy an early dinner and adult beverages before crashing after the long first day.
For detailed route and directions for the day one itinerary, visit my San Francisco Google map.
San Francisco, Half Moon Bay & Santa Cruz - DAY 2
Today will be jam packed, so start your day with coffee, then drive to the Painted Ladies of Steiner Street. There should be street parking around Alamo Square Park. Sip your coffee and relax on a bench in the park and you’ll want a few pictures of the “Painted Lady” houses on Steiner Street (east side of park). Then head to Lombard Street. Cool to drive down, but difficult to photograph without a drone. In the morning, you may be able to pull over at the bottom to snap a few shots looking back up the short but crazy winding street.
Photo of the Painted Ladies of Steiner Street
Next stop is the tourist filled Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. You will pay for parking. This area is full of tourist trinket shops. I enjoyed watching the seals off the pier and taking photos of Alcatraz Island, once a fort, a military prison and a maximum security federal penitentiary. I’ve never been out of the Island. After the pier, head west to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. You can catch a trolley here if you want to wait in a really long line, otherwise, hop on in the city. Trolley cars are an iconic part of San Francisco and if only plan to visit this city once, hop on and take a ride. Otherwise, just off this park is the original chocolate factory at Ghirardelli Square. If you are a chocolate lover, you will want to stop here. Back in the car for a drive to the coast and Half Moon Bay for a late lunch. For more details about things to photograph in the Bay area check out my San Francisco Photography Tips.
Photo of Alcatraz from Pier 39
Sam’s Chowder House is in Half Moon Bay and only a thirty-mile drive, but at least an hour depending on traffic. Best ocean views and highly recommend the lobster roll!! I know, I know…you are not on the east coast, but this lobster roll is just as good as those I’ve had in Boston.
Photo of view at Sam's Chowder House on the Pacific Ocean & my west coast lobster roll
After lunch, drive just fifteen minutes south along the coast and stop at San Gregorio State Beach. There is a path that walks up the hill to the right, if you are looking at the ocean. You will want to walk up the hill to see the incredible view of the Pacific Coast. Back in the car for another short drive (40 minutes) down to Santa Cruz where you should experience the beach boardwalk for rides, shopping and fun photos.
Photos of hill and coastal view at San Gregorio State Park
Photo of Santa Cruz Boardwalk
I recommend continuing your drive to spend the next two nights in the same location in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Take a look at the Normandy Inn Cottages in downtown Carmel or just outside town at Carmel River Inn.
For detailed route and directions for the day two itinerary, visit my San Francisco to Carmel Google map.
Carmel, 17-mile Drive & Point Lobos – DAY 3
Spend the morning of day three, exploring the Point Pinos Lighthouse and the stops along 17-mile Drive. For more details on this activity, visit The Pacific Coast Highway’s 17-mile Drive & Photography Tips.
For a map, visit my Carmel 17-Mile Drive Google Map.
Lunch will be back in Carmel. In the afternoon, you will explore the trails and scenery in Point Lobos State Nature Reserve. Both locations you discovered today would be beautiful for a pacific coast sunset. Again, you are spending the night in Carmel.
Photos of Point Lobos State Nature Reserve off the Pacific Coast Highway just south of Carmel
Best of Big Sur on Pacific Coast Highway – DAY 4
You will want to pull over many times on your drive down Highway 1 on the pacific coast. The drive twists and turns and therefore will be slower driving, but that will give you the chance to watch for great photo opportunities. The first main stop is at the Bixby Creek Bridge.
Then you will head south with two restaurant stops. Nepenthe has stunning views of the coastline but may not be open depending on the time of morning you pass by. Plus, I prefer the next option. Coast is an art gallery, but also a unique building that used to be Redwood tanks. Inside the building is 34 feet in diameter which will give you the feel of how wide the base of the giant Sequoia tree, General Sherman, in nearby Sequoia National Park. Enjoy a bite to eat for breakfast from the beautiful ocean views from the top deck of Coast.
Next main stop is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. One of my favorite spots on the Pacific Coast Highway. Day use fee of $10 per car. There are quite a few great hiking trails to explore. First, walk underneath the highway on short trail just 0.6 miles roundtrip, to view McWay Falls which is a waterfall that drops directly into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The light blue hues of the water in the cove are stunning. The path will take you to some historical information about Julia Pfeiffer and a look back up the coast. Although, in March 2020, the path was damaged, and you couldn’t get much farther than the view of the falls.
Photos of McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on the Pacific Coast Highway
Second trail I recommend is Canyon Trail that takes you 0.25 mile inland to a 60-foot waterfall. The Canyon Trail splits into the Ewoldsen Trail that takes you up through the Redwood forest with some cool bridges and great scenes of the sun cutting through the trees. My sister and I ended up on the Ewoldsen Trail only because we missed the sign to the waterfall that we wanted to see. And somehow what should have only taken a few minutes, ended up in a crazy story of us crawling over fallen trees and almost sliding off the edge of the cliffs at many points. We finally decided to turn around because the “waterfall” wasn’t worth it when we found the sign back closer to where we started! Great memories when things don’t go as planned.
Photos in Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Depending on the time of year you take this road trip, you may be able to see tons of elephant seals near San Simeon. You will see elephant seals throughout the year, best times for action is October through May and the big show of breeding in January & February where you can see up to 17,000 animals on the shores of San Simeon. Birthing and breeding occur December through March and watching a male elephant seal stake claim on a location is incredible. Elephant seal bulls can grow to 16 feet long and almost 5,000 pounds!
Photos of the elephant seals at the beaches of San Simeon
My sister and I both love Mexican food and eat a lot of it every time we travel together. We recommend El Chorlito in San Simeon for a late lunch today. Then you will continue to Moonstone Beach where we recommend staying at Moonstone Landing Inn. Walk to the park near there or just out to the ocean in front of the inn for a sunset.
Photos from Moonstone Beach
For a road map for day four, visit my Big Sur Google Map.
Central Coast & Vineyards – DAY 5
Optional morning trip to see Hearst Castle at San Simeon. Night of day five, you must stay at The Casitas Estate of Arroyo Grande! Check out my accommodation review for details about luxury services you will enjoy at this secret oasis overlooking the rolling hills of vineyards. From in suite massages and fine dining, to peaceful & serene views of countryside from a gorgeous pool. Spend the afternoon wine tasting at an array of vineyards but start at my favorite Talley Vineyards that is only one mile from The Casitas.
Photos of the Casitas Estate and Talley Vineyard tasting room
You are now at the halfway point of this ten-day road trip. Do yourself a favor and sleep in before Tony delivers your incredible breakfast to your room.
Old Mission Santa Barbara & Hiking Trails – DAY 6
Depart Arroyo Grande Valley for Santa Barbara where you will visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara and beautiful rose gardens as well as the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. I highly recommend Santa Barbara VRBO listing #643929, which is a living space over a garage. The hosts are incredibly kind and helpful, plus you can hike down into the canyon behind their property and the views from their home are stunning.
Photos of Santa Barbara Mission and rose garden
Photos of view from VRBO rental and hike with my sister in the Santa Barbara hills
Los Angeles, The City of Angels – DAY 7
Hop on Highway 1 south once again and take an hour drive to Malibu and eat breakfast at Paradise Cove Beach Café. It is right on the water and has a beach and pier to explore afterwards. Be careful when seated outside, the birds stole my husband's food!
Photos from Paradise Cove Cafe in Malibu
Continue down the cost and find parking in between Santa Monica pier and Venice Beach. You will want to check out the pier and definitely walk through Venice Beach for people watching at its finest. We ran into a group kung fu fighting!
Photos from Santa Monica and Venice Beach in Los Angeles
Drive to Beverly Hills to see Rodeo Drive, most of us can’t afford to shop there, but feel free to window shop. Next up is at stop in Hollywood, park near the TCL Chinese Theater and there you can see the walk of fame and if you are lucky like we were, you may see famous people! Literally, walked up on Vin Diesel’s ceremony where he put his handprints on the ground! Not big on celebrity, but cool to stumble across an actual event, not that we could get close or see much. Thankful for a zoom lens!
Los Angeles photos of Rodeo Drive, downtown and Chinese Theater and Vin Diesel at his hand ceremony
Final stop in Los Angeles for us was the Griffith Observatory, where you can get a great view of the iconic Hollywood sign. If parking is a problem, I recommend a hike at Runyon Canyon before heading to San Diego. There WILL be traffic everywhere in Los Angeles like you have never seen before. Intestate 5 South will take you all the way to San Diego. If you can afford the luxury location, I recommend staying at the La Jolla Shores Hotel for the next three nights. I usually stay with my aunt and uncle that live there, but I did stay at the hotel for my cousins wedding. There are also decently priced VRBO or AirBnB rentals in San Diego.
Photos of Hollywood sign and Griffith Park Observatory
San Diego, California – Final 3 Days
If you booked your return flight late on day ten, then you have three full days in San Diego. You won’t be able to fit everything into three days, but I’ll give you things each day that are relatively close to each other. You can view more photos and Instagram tips at Photography Guide to San Diego.
Start your morning with donuts at Solana Donut House in Solana Beach. Grab your coffee and visit the Meditation Garden in the Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area. Beautiful, quite and peaceful morning in the gardens with views of the Pacific. Spend the afternoon at Del Mar North Beach or Torrey Pines State Beach if you want some relaxing time in the sun and sand.
Otherwise, take a hike in the Torrey Pines State Reserve and visit the Torrey Pines Gliderport to watch the paragliders or sign up to tandem paraglide. The experience should be on your bucket list, read about how I overcome my fears and anxiety to paraglide the bluffs of La Jolla. You will want to call ahead to see if they are flying if you don’t see them on your hike.
Photo of me coming in for landing at Torrey Pines Gliderport
Make reservations to eat dinner near sunset at Poseidon in Del Mar. Located on the water and has the best sunset views from the deck if you can get a spot!
Get up early and head down to visit the La Jolla Cove & the Children’s Pool to see all the pelicans, seals and other birds before the crowds. Then stop at Mount Soledad for 360-degree views of San Diego. Next head to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. You could spend an entire day at each of these, so you might want to select one. Eat a late lunch in Old Town San Diego on your way back to La Jolla. My recommendation is once again Mexican food at Casa Guadalajara. If you haven’t had your fill of margaritas, head to the upper deck at George’s in La Jolla for happy hour and enjoy the amazing views overlooking La Jolla Cove.
I suggest a sunset walk on La Jolla Shores Beach if you are staying at the recommended hotel. Make dinner reservations in La Jolla. I love Italian at Catania. My cousin had her rehearsal dinner here and food was delicious and wine list was top notch.
You’ll have to check out of your hotel today, but again another busy day of sight seeing before hopping a late flight home. Some people like the drive out to Coronado Island to see the Hotel del Coronado which is beautiful and there is a great beach directly in front of it to take a walk. On your way back, stop for some views of the downtown San Diego skyline.
Check out Seaport Village on your return to downtown for some naval history or you can catch an afternoon at Petco Stadium to catch a Padres game. After a ball game find food and adult beverages in the Gaslamp District before you fly out. Or if you still want a little bit of nature before your flight, head to Point Loma. You’ll find great views at the lighthouse, tide pools and sunset cliffs and cityscape views from the Cabrillo National Monument.
Remember for more details and locations to take photos visit San Francisco Photography Tips and Photography Guide to San Diego.
Hope you take a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway of California at some point. If you have, let me know which was your favorite location along the way!