Pacific Coast road trip - driving from LA to San Francisco

We look at the iconic sights along the way on a once-in-a-lifetime Pacific Coast road trip on Highway 101 through California.

By Saga team

Published 4 May 2024

Highway 101 is a popular road trip destination in the USA, running from Los Angeles, California to Tumwater in the State of Washington, and there are few places in the world that generate more iconic imagery than California.

Stopping off at fabulous points along the way – from the elegant ‘Riviera’ resort of Santa Barbara to the overblown fantasy of Hearst Castle, staying in a treehouse on Big Sur and whale-spotting in Monterey – I only wish this 430-mile journey could have lasted longer.

Los Angeles is everything you’ve seen in the movies, but then magnified, stretched and glitzified many times over.

The usual tourist suspects may seem clichéd but they’re still must-dos – the obligatory Universal Studios tour, Rodeo Drive’s high-end (window) shopping, the awesome views of the Hollywood sign from Griffith Observatory, the star-strewn sidewalk of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, off-the-wall Venice Beach.

But you should also seek out LA’s Art Deco architecture, among the finest in the US. For the real LA experience, brave the traffic and cruise the Strip at dusk – it’s what your car’s for!

The seaside ‘west wing’ of Los Angeles feels more like a stand-alone resort than part of the general urban sprawl. It’s a classic surfing hang-out and the century-old pier boasts a solar-powered Ferris wheel, no less.

The pier is the final western point of the classic Route 66 – but we’re heading north, not east. Maybe next time…

Known as the American Riviera, this delightful, elegant, curiously south-facing seaside town is a well-heeled resort. It has something of a Mediterranean ambience – and it’s not just the palm trees.

If you’ve made your money in Hollywood, and still have some sense of perspective left, this is where you choose to live.

Building began in 1919 on Hearst Castle, the San Simeon hilltop retreat of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. It out-Disneys Disney with its preposterous design.

It’s Citizen Kane come to life as you make your way through 165 rooms and 127 acres of grounds. More than a million people visit every year. Lady Gaga, who appreciates excess when she sees it, filmed her GUY music video here. You can see why.

The stretch of highway here weaves, ducks and dives between the mountains of the Pfeiffer Big Sur National State Park.

You’ll travel over the 715ft-long Bixby Bridge – stop for a photo opportunity – where 90 miles of lightly populated communities and ‘wow’ moments await.

McWay Falls, where the water cascades into the sea; Ragged Point, 400ft above the ocean; cutesy Carmel; secluded Pfeiffer Beach. Do be aware though that severe winter storms have led to some bridge and road damage: you may find your route diverted.

It probably boasts more laid-back locations than any stretch of road this side of the Pacific. Big Sur is relaxed to the point of prostration. Jack Kerouac came here for the peace and solitude, described in his novel Big Sur.

Famously the location of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel Cannery Row and the location for the first great Sixties rock festival in 1967 – and still hosts the coolest annual jazz fest in the US.

Like Big Sur, it’s got a timeless hippie vibe (the Beach Boys’ 1973 California Saga nails it), though a little busier than its neighbour just down the highway.

Even the whales that patrol the waters along here seem laid-back. If you don’t want to venture out into the Pacific, then check out Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best in the world.

‘Babylon by the Bay’, ‘49 square miles surrounded by reality’ – describe it as you will, San Francisco lives up to the soubriquets and then some…

Park the car (not before you’ve driven down Lombard St) and walk/bus/cable car the city. It’s (very) hilly but surprisingly compact.

Each distinct district – Chinatown (one of the biggest in North America), the digital start-up core of South of Market (SoMa) and vibrant Hispanic Mission, reclaimed-from-the-dunes wonder of Golden Gate Park, still-quirky Haight, the boho buzz of North Beach, summer-fogged Inner Sunset – melds into another.

Photo tip:

For the best views of the city, climb Coit Tower, sip a cocktail at the Top of the Mark bar or catch a ferry to Sausalito, with must-book Alcatraz to your right.

Our not-to-be-missed insider recommendations for the best places to shop, dine and generally have a good time.

One of five on the Big Sur stretch. Before its construction in 1932 the only way to cross the gulley was to detour inland for miles.

The grandiose swimming pool reflects the newspaper magnate’s no-expense-or-taste-spared decor.

Once the fish-canning district in Monterey, it’s now a popular strip of gift shops, seafood restaurants and bars in converted factories.

This annual festival debuted in 1958 and it’s still the benchmark festival. The late Jimmy Cheatham played in 1988.

Inspiration for before you go – or even when you’re on the road!

In Roads, Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry ‘Lonesome Dove’ McMurtry combines a love of his nation’s great highways with his bibliophile’s knowledge of American history. Captivating!

It’s ‘the law’ that at some point on a US road trip you must eat a burger, and cult favourite In-N-Out Burger, founded in 1948, the same year as McDonald’s, is considered one of the best chains.

This is Clint Eastwood territory – he lives in Monterey. Catch the former mayor of Carmel in the atmospheric 1971 chiller Play Misty for Me with Carmel and Big Sur locations,

The AA recommends applying for an International Driving Permit, to be carried alongside your UK licence. It’s not compulsory, but car-hire companies and insurers can impose their own terms.

Be aware, too, that speed limits vary between different states.

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