Plan the perfect road trip along the California Coast with our Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway 4 Day Itinerary.
The road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles is perfect for those who have only 4 days to drive the Pacific Coast Highway.
This PCH road trip route goes through Big Sur so you can experience the best parts – panoramic views and beautiful beaches!
Here are the best places to stop as well as travel tips for 4 day itinerary along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Day 1 – San Francisco (Best Place to Start Pacific Coast Highway 4 Day Itinerary)
San Francisco is the most famous city on the West Coast.
This is the ideal place to begin your Pacific Coast Highway road trip since it is well connected by air to most major cities.
Car rentals at the San Francisco airport are also abundant.
Book a hotel in Downtown San Francisco, park your car there, and check out the city using a combination of walking and cable cars.
If you want to make the most of your 1 Day in San Fran itinerary, then you should start really early in the morning, preferably around 7 or 8 am.
Golden Gate Bridge
Start your visit at the famous San Francisco icon, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Walk part way across the bridge to the very first bridge tower. Take photographs under the orange red main cables and side cables.
Take photos of the city skyline from the bridge and take a picture of the deep blue water below.
Lastly, take a picture with the Marin headlands in the background, before you head to your next destination, Fisherman’s Wharf for breakfast / brunch.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the popular waterfront area of San Francisco.
It has a lot of San Francisco attractions including tour operators, museums, and restaurants.
Almost all restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf serve seafood and that’s what you should have for breakfast or brunch, depending on how much time you spend at the beach.
The restaurants serve good fish and chips, seafood sandwiches, and clam chowder soup.
Boudin’s is an iconic bakery that serves the soup in sourdough bread bowl, a San Francisco speciality.
Then take a walk around the rest of Fisherman’s Wharf and observe the famous sea lions sleeping in the sun.
Palace of Fine Arts
Next, see the Palace of Fine Arts and walk down Lombard Street before shopping in the alleys of Chinatown.
The Palace of Fine Arts has beautiful architecture and is a landmark building in the city.
Take a stroll around its dome and Grecian columns, see the reflection in the pond and watch the ducks while you are there.
Lombard Street is famous as the most crooked street in the city and is a must on your San Francisco itinerary.
This excruciatingly steep street curves in eight hairpin turns, to create San Francisco’s most popular tourist location.
Walk down the street along the sidewalk and see the well-maintained houses and front porches.
End your visit at the second-largest Chinatown in the country.
The neighborhood features traditional Chinese architecture and food and is a must visit especially for the variety of dim sums.
You can also buy souvenirs, admire street art, and people watch in Chinatown, making is an essential on the Pacific Coast Highway 4 Day Itinerary.
Ghirardelli Square and Union Square
End your day at the Ghirardelli Square and Union Square, the popular commercial centers in the city.
The square was where the popular Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was located before moving to a nearby location in the greater San Francisco area.
You can still visit the Ghirardelli Chocolate market and buy chocolates and ice creams just like in the old days.
Union Square has restaurants, branded stores for shopping, and wine tasting rooms and is the perfect place to end your day in San Francisco.
If you are a San Francisco local then you can skip the most popular attractions in favor of exploring the hidden gems of San Francisco including the Mission District murals, 16th Avenue Tiled steps, Haight Ashbury district, and panoramic views from Coit Tower.
To explore more attractions in the city and plan your own itinerary, read Best Things to do in San Francisco.
Day 2 – Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, and Monterey
Drive south from San Francisco to the coastal cities of Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, and Monterey.
Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay is a small coastal city, located south of San Francisco.
It’s most popular for its beaches and outdoor activities.
The water and weather here is generally cold and the views can be foggy year round.
You need to dress in layers and carry a light jacket even in the summer.
Spend half a day exploring the most popular attractions in Half Moon Bay – the beaches, Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and Fitzgerald Marine Reserve – during your trip.
All along the coastline of Half Moon Bay, you will find several state beaches including Dunes Beach, Francis Beach, and Venice Beach.
The beaches have gorgeous views and are favorites for hiking, picnics, and camping.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Pigeon Point Lighthouse located in Pescadero is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country.
The lighthouse is 115 feet tall and looks impressive perched on the edge of the ocean.
You can tour the lighthouse as well as watch abundant marine life from the observation platform near the lighthouse.
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is located in Moss Beach, to the north of Half Moon Bay.
Here you can find tidal pools during low tide.
This is the perfect place to look for low tide creatures including crabs, starfish, and mollusks.
To explore more attractions in the area, read Best Things to do in Half Moon Bay.
Distance from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay – 30 miles
Time required for the trip – 45 mins
This idyllic town on California’s Central Coast truly is a paradise, with its gentle ocean breezes, stunning redwoods, and the world-famous Boardwalk.
But there’s more to Santa Cruz than natural beauty: there’s also a rich history and busy arts scene that make this one of the most interesting places to visit on the PCH Road Trip.
Popular attractions in Santa Cruz, including the Museum of Art and History, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park, Santa Cruz Wharf, and the Mystery Spot.
Last stop of the day is Monterey.
This charming city is a destination in itself.
It has historic museums, a world class aquarium, and is one of the best destinations along the coast to go on a whale watching excursion.
The city also has pubs, breweries, seafood restaurants, and is a haven for foodies.
With just half a day to spend in Monterey, we recommend walking along the Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row followed by dinner at the marina.
Monterey Aquarium on Cannery Row
Monterey’s Cannery Row has an interesting history.
This is where sardine canning factories were located in the 1950s.
Overfishing led to the decline of the industry in the 1970s and since then, Cannery Row has become home to a number of tourist attractions including the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Fisherman’s Wharf is where you will find all the cruise and whale watching tour operators.
If you have time, definitely go on a whale watching excursion. Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to a number of restaurants, seafood shacks, and souvenir stands.
Pick an eatery and enjoy your dinner by the waterfront while listening to the sea gulls.
Fisherman’s Wharf and the Cannery Row are connected by a charming walk.
Along the way, you will spot a variety of marine life including California sea lions, sea otters, and harbor seals.
You can see the sea lions bark and play with each other, it also makes for great photo opportunities.
To explore all of Monterey’s attractions including the 17 Mile Drive, read Best Things to do in Monterey.
Distance from Half Moon Bay to Monterey – 91 miles
Time required for the trip – 2 hours
Day 3 – Big Sur and San Luis Obispo
Highlight of your PCH Road Trip!
Big Sur is a 90 mile stretch of natural coastline along the central coast of California.
In Big Sur, the Santa Lucia mountains meet the coast, so you can see scenic cliffs, bluffs, and headlands along the route.
Amenities in Big Sur are extremely limited, so we recommend filling up your car completely before you leave Monterey.
Also prepare for the day in advance and get some deli sandwiches, pastries/snacks, and water plus have a heavy breakfast in Monterey.
The area is home to many state parks and national forests and is a favorite with those who like being outdoors.
You will find miles and miles of hiking trails that go through forests, up the cliffs, and down to the beaches in Big Sur.
You will also find many campgrounds and a few quaint bed & breakfasts and inns.
While there are many things to do in Big Sur, if you have only a day you should see the highlights of Point Lobos, Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, and the Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon.
The Big Sur Village is located right before Pfeiffer Beach – after Bixby Creek Bridge – and is great to pack a picnic lunch and stock on essentials.
Bixby Creek Bridge
The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the state.
The magnificent arch bridge has striking architecture and straddles the Bixby Canyon while the rocky Pacific Coast provides a stunning backdrop to this engineering marvel.
Since it’s opening in 1932, it has attracted tourists to this part of the Californian Coast.
There are dramatic pull out points and parking areas just before the bridge while driving south and the views from here are fantastic.
The next attraction in Big Sur, is the beautiful Pfeiffer Beach.
This beach is famous for its unique purple colored sand and eye catching rock formations, particularly the keyhole rock.
Unfortunately, there’s not much parking near the bridge and the road is not well-maintained.
You need to reach here as early in the morning as you can, to avoid long queues for a parking spot.
Another great time to see the Pfeiffer Beach is at sunset, but you need to stay in Big Sur to be able to visit the beach at dusk.
McWay Falls – Best Stop on Pacific Coast Highway 4 Day Itinerary!
Next stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to hike the small trail to McWay Falls.
McWay Falls is a stunning 80 feet long waterfall that empties directly into the Pacific Ocean.
It is one of our favorite Pacific Coast Highway stops on Highway 1.
It is beautiful to see the McWay Creek tumble onto the sandy beach below; the waterfall flows year round.
There is an observation deck at the end of the trail from where you can see the falls.
McWay Falls is also a popular place for sunset photos.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
For your last stop in Big Sur, stop by the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon.
The rookery consists of over 6 miles of the coast and there is a walking trail parallel to the coast.
From the trail and viewing area on the cliffs, you can see hundreds of elephant seals lying on the beach below.
You can spot large adult elephant seals as well as small pups playfully playing in the water.
To read more about all the attractions in Big Sur including Point Sur Lighthouse and Hurricane Point, read the post on Best Things to do in Big Sur, California.
After watching and photographing the elephant seals, make your way for San Luis Obispo.
Distance from Monterey to Big Sur Village – 30 miles
Time required for the trip – 45 mins
Optional: Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle is an enormous estate, located atop a hill in San Simeon.
It was once the home of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
Today it’s open to the public as a museum, and visitors can explore its numerous rooms and gardens.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, better known as SLO, is a vibrant college town.
We love stopping here on the Pacific Coast Highway 4 Day Itinerary as it makes the perfect break after the natural scenery of the Central Coast.
It is fondly called the ‘Happiest Place in America’ and is great for young professionals and millennials. However, the city also has many attractions for older travelers.
You should spend most of your time in Big Sur and reach San Luis Obispo late afternoon to enjoy it’s popular attractions and nightlife.
See the Mission San Luis Obispo, the historic Downtown, and the Museum of Art followed by a visit to the Bubblegum Alley and one of the area’s restaurants.
Mission San Luis Obispo
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is one of California’s most beautiful missions.
It is built in the adobe style of architecture and has a big courtyard garden with shady trees.
The interior has painted motifs and ornate details.
The Mission also has an on-site museum where you can understand the history and culture of the Spanish Missionaries and the Chumash Indians that lived in the area.
Next walk down the Historic Downtown streets that surround the Mission.
You can see several traditional Spanish style buildings.
See the Visitor Center, Chinatown, and alleys before heading to the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
This small museum has an excellent collection of artwork by native Californian artists.
Next visit the Bubblegum Alley.
It is exactly what it sounds like – pieces of bubblegum stuck to the wall.
While elders often find this attraction disgusting, youngsters are fascinated by it and want to add their own piece on the wall.
Even if you are not a fan – you should check out the wall – at least from afar.
At 65 feet long and 15 feet tall, this wall is simply huge and is said to have 20 yrs old pieces of gum stuck on it.
The Alley has been featured in multiple TV Shows and newspaper articles and is one of the unique attractions in San Luis Obispo.
For dinner, you can stop by another obscure attraction – the Madonna Inn.
This restaurant is famous for its garish decor and rose pink ornate dining room.
If it’s not to your taste, you can always have dinner at another of San Luis Obispo restaurants.
To explore all nearby attractions including Pismo Beach and the Avila Hot Springs, read our post on Best Things to do in San Luis Obispo.
Distance from Big Sur Village to San Luis Obispo – 110 miles
Time required for the trip – 2 hours 30 mins
Day 4 – Santa Barbara and Los Angeles
On your last day of 4 day Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary, visit the beautiful city of Santa Barbara before enjoying the bustling vibe of Los Angeles.
Santa Barbara is one of the gems along the California Coast.
This vibrant city is the preferred gateway for the greater Los Angeles area.
It is known for its striking Spanish architecture, a tranquil tropical looking waterfront, and its proximity to the mountains.
While you won’t have much time to spend in the city, you should definitely see the city’s highlights including the Mission Santa Barbara, the County Courthouse, and the waterfront Stearns Wharf.
Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara is the undisputed beauty of all California Missions.
It is quaint and graceful and its whitewashed Spanish architecture has inspired the entire city’s architecture.
It is known for its roman-colonial features including sculptures, the twin towers, and other details.
The Mission also houses an art museum and the historical garden has a variety of fruit plants and roses.
On the grounds, you will also find the quaint cemetery where many prominent Spanish and Chumash people are buried.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Next visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
This building was built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture after the devastating earthquake of 1925 that destroyed the entire city.
On a visit you can take in the architecture, murals, and the Sunken garden.
You also need to take a ride to the top of the courthouse clock tower for a gorgeous view of the city.
For your last stop, explore Stearns Wharf.
It has beautiful views of the harbor and many eateries where you can grab lunch.
For more things to do in the city, including the zoo and whale watching tours, read Best Things to do in Santa Barbara.
Distance from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara – 120 miles
Time required for the trip – 2hrs 15 mins
Head south to Orange County via Ventura and Malibu.
The city is packed with fun activities and attractions like the pier and its restaurants, museums, shopping, and theaters.
Ventura is the perfect place to take a ferry to Channel Islands National Park.
Channel Islands National Park is a group of islands off the coast of southern California.
The park is best known for its marine life and giant sea caves.
Enjoy views of the Santa Monica mountains and the beaches in Malibu on your way to LA.
Picture perfect sunsets, miles of sandy beaches, and a relaxed California lifestyle is what Malibu’s most famous for!
Spend some time at Zuma Beach before you drive south to the hustle and bustle of LA.
Los Angeles, the southernmost city on your itinerary, is the perfect end to the Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary.
LA is a destination in itself: one that is glamorous and glitzy.
The city is famous for its beautiful beaches, Hollywood film industry, and culinary scene.
The city is also packed with cultural attractions and shopping opportunities.
From its beaches to its mountains, the Los Angeles lifestyle is the epitome of laid back SoCal charm and style!
Los Angeles Attractions
For movie lovers, the unmissable attractions include the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the star studded sidewalk on Hollywood Blvd and the iconic Hollywood Sign.
While these attractions are free, it is worth splurging on movie studio tours including Warner Brothers Studios.
The city has plenty of world famous museums and cultural destinations: perfect to add to the Pacific Coast Highway 4 Day Itinerary.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is most known for its Urban Lights Installation while the Broad has a variety of striking artwork.
Car lovers should visit the Petersen Automotive Museum while the La Brea Tar Pits are perfect for kids who love to see fossils of prehistoric animals.
Another favorite of ours is the Griffith Observatory where you can see a variety of astronomy exhibits.
But Los Angeles is not all about the urban attractions.
The city has plenty of activities for outdoor enthusiasts.
Spend your day hiking at Point Dume Nature Preserve or surf the waves like a lifelong Californian.
Enjoy the thrill rides, people watch, and enjoy the busy vibe of Santa Monica Pier.
Finally, end the day by listening to a live music performance or attending a comedy show on Sunset Strip.
For more attractions including Venice Beach, Getty Villa, and Mulholland Drive, read Best Things to do in Los Angeles.
Distance from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles – 100 miles
Time required for the trip – 2 hrs
Optional: San Diego
You can also drive further south on the PCH Road trip to San Diego in Southern California.
If you’re looking for a city with stunning beaches, incredible weather, and plenty to see and do, San Diego is perfect destination!
This SoCal hotspot has world-renowned beaches, zoos, and gardens to mountains and valleys within easy day trip distance.
The downtown area is packed with restaurants, museums, and nightlife, while the outlying communities like La Jolla offer stunning ocean views.
If driving from south to north on the road trip, Pacific Coast Highway start point will be Dana Point and from here you will head north along California Highway 1 to San Francisco in northern California.
Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Pacific Coast Highway 5 day Itinerary
California Pacific Coast 7 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 10 day itinerary
All PCH Itineraries
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Planner
Best Places to Stay along the Pacific Coast Highway
Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops