A Travel Guide to Driving the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco

In August of 2014, we went on a Wild West Adventure to explore California’s Gold Country. We drove from Santa Barbara to San Francisco via the Pacific Coast Highway, through Gold Country into Lake Tahoe, down through Yosemite National Park, and back to Santa Barbara.


We did this over the course of a week. While there is still so much to explore in California, this is our account from Santa Barbara to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway.


Along the Pacific Coast Highway

Traffic isn’t bad if you drive during the week.  Just open road here!


If You’re from Outside the US


The following is part 2 of our Wild West Adventure. If you missed part 1 go check it out! If you’re looking to do a trip like this and you’re an international traveler, be prepared and get your ESTA Application here. You’ll also find helpful ESTA tips throughout this article so you can travel stress-free.


The Madonna Inn

This place is seriously one of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever been to.


The Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Barbara to San Francisco


Leaving Santa Barbara at 5:00 am will land your belly in San Luis Obispo for breakfast. Thanks yet again to my dear friend Justin, we had a special place in mind, the Madonna Inn. We didn’t know what to expect of this place other than eggs and orange juice, but we were starving and that was a good enough reason to go.


The Madonna Inn

Maybe it’s just me, but the Madonna Inn makes me all warm and fuzzy.


The Madonna Inn

Check out these doors.


The Madonna Inn

Or you can sit at the breakfast bar and have your eggs…


As soon as we pulled in I was in retro love. This place immediately pulled my vintage heartstrings which I kept somewhere between my Elvis and Marilyn Monroe tattoos. Good Lord, how could such a killer find exist without my knowledge? It proves to show, the eastern and western United States are indeed worlds apart.


The Madonna Inn

If this isn’t cozy, I don’t know what cozy is.


The Madonna Inn

Just some of the random stuff you’ll find inside. This place is a MUST visit.


After Leaving the Madonna Inn


The sun was rising and beaming through the sea fog as we made our way winding through flower-lined sea cliffs along the Pacific Coast Highway. It reminded me of the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. It was rugged, fresh, untouched nature, like a painting we somehow managed to teleport into.


Along the Pacific Coast Highway

This picture does zero justice to this vista.


For Travelers Outside the US


What is ESTA? ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It’s the system used by the Department of Homeland Security to clear international travelers so they don’t have to wait for a Visa. 


Along the Pacific Coast Highway

I could sit here for hours…


Along the Pacific Coast Highway

The cutest gas station in the history of gas stations.


Fairytale Traveler Tips


While taking California’s State Road 1 all the way to San Francisco is a little bit longer, it’s completely worth it. Allow yourself some cushion to stop for pictures and slow drivers.


Here are a few places along the Pacific Coast highway that are worth seeing. You can either just stop and take pictures or go on a short hike. Here’s a great link to California’s Tourism site with great trip planning tools.


  • Cayucos State Park
  • Estero Bay
  • San Simeon State Park
  • Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
  • Big Sur State Park
  • Carmel or Monterey good for a lunch spot


Union Square Cable Car .San Francisco 2

Cable cars are right there! Who’s going to SF without riding a cable car???


San Francisco, Everybody’s Favorite City


We arrived in San Francisco at about 3:00 pm. This would be our last night of luxury and leisure before heading east into the mountains. I planned a surprise for the Little and booked the Kid’s Suite at Hotel Union Square and a night tour of Alcatraz that you can read all about in my giant article in the Hotel Guide (recommended).


Hotel union Square review 8

A closer look outside.


Hotel Union Square Review kids suite 2

The epic Kid’s Suite. Photo courtesy of Personality Hotels.


The Little at hotel union square

A little something for the Little, thank you Hotel Union Square!


SIDE NOTE: Hotel Union Square is quite possibly the coolest boutique hotel I have ever been to. The Kid’s Suite was amazeballs. The Little had his own play area, computer, game console, and toys. I had a giant bed, a flat screen, and a bottle of wine. WIN!


Hotel Union Square Review 9

I face-planted into this sack after a long day of driving and sightseeing. I’ll tell you, it was like a cloud.


We had a blast riding cable cars, exploring Fisherman’s Wharf, and looking for ghosts in Alcatraz at twilight. San Francisco played a big role during the Gold Rush because so many people migrated there. Union Square in 1849 was just a camping ground for gold miners on their journey into the Sacramento Valley.


Alcatraz at night

Approaching Alcatraz. This fortress was originally intended to guard against the foreign invasion of San Francisco which had boomed during the gold rush.


Alcatraz at night

After the prison stood dormant for six years, Native American activists occupied Alcatraz.


Alcatraz at night

Inside Alcatraz at night. This place is said to be haunted by some of America’s most dangerous criminals.


Fairytale Traveler Tips


Book your Alcatraz tour way in advance. The night tour especially sells out months ahead of time. Way cooler at night.


How Do You Know if You Qualify to Use the ESTA Application?


You qualify for ESTA if your stay in the United States will be 90 days or less. If the purpose of your trip is for business, pleasure, vacations, short-duration medical treatment, or transit en route to another country. If you have a valid passport lawfully issued to you by a Visa Waiver Programme country.


If you have a return or onward ticket. If your travel will not terminate in contiguous territory or adjacent islands unless the traveler is a resident of one of those areas. If you are a citizen or national of one of the Visa Waiver Programme member countries.


Along the Pacific Coast Highway

We loved stopping and taking pictures, even though it was foggy…


So plan a trip and drive the Pacific Coast Highway to see all of these wonderful sights and experience these exciting activities. Make memories that will last forever as you have fun, laugh a lot, and enjoy yourself.


This article was made possible by


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About Christa Thompson

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Christa Thompson is the Founder and Chief Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. She started traveling the world in 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

7 Comments on this post

  1. Welcome to my part of the world! Don’t you love a good road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway? Next time, go horseback riding at the Madonna Inn in SLO (that’s San Luis Obispo) for you non-locals. What a trip!

    Nancy D. Brown / Reply
  2. Hi there… great site. Just joined the linky party at Global Kids and wanted to say hello and thank you!!! I look forward to following along on your travels. You can visit me at http://www.globalmunchkins.com I am just starting out 😉

    global munchkins / Reply
  3. I am planning to go up the PCH this year with a large group. We will get a minivan for the trip from LA to SF and I am wondering if there are any gas stations in between. Do you know of one?

    Manny Lujan / Reply
  4. […] the PCH from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara (and time permitting even further north to San Francisco) is one of the most California vibe things you can do. Recently I was given the opportunity by Kia […]

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