Which direction would you choose to drive on the Pacific Coast Highway between LA and SF?
April 5, 2009 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Which direction would you choose to drive on the Pacific Coast Highway between LA and SF?

Hey Gang,

Next April, I'll be traveling with some friends for 8-10 days and our intent is to spend the bulk of the time in San Francisco. We want to drive the PCH and spend an afternoon/evening in LA also.

I apologize for the open-ended-ness of this, but what factors should I consider when deciding whether to drive from SF to LA or vice-versa? I'd love any perspective you can share on traffic, best times or days to make the drive, differences between the experience driving S or N, and all the issues I'm not thinking of.

We'll be flying to CA from Calgary, AB, expecting to arrive in one city and leave from the other. Thanks in advance!
posted by chudmonkey to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You get a much better view down the cliff to the ocean when you drive south. That can be good or bad depending on your level of fear regarding winding roads.
posted by buggzzee23 at 12:30 PM on April 5, 2009

Yeah I was going to say south, for exactly buggzzee23's reason.

Also to consider: in the summer, sunsets will be in the northwest. Do you want to see the sunset or have less sun in your eyes?
posted by aubilenon at 12:37 PM on April 5, 2009

I've done the drive both ways and it's stunning in either direction. I would actually vote to go from LA to SF. It's kind of for aesthetic reasons.

Option 1: Land in SF, have a beautiful week there. Drive south, enjoy the view, then get sad when it's over and the ugly suburbs of LA loom... get depressed by the pollution and traffic, one night in LA (in which you're pretty beat from the drive), then home.

Option 2: Land in LA, one night in LA, drive north and experience the mounting excitement as the city melts away and start climbing the cliffs and you start winding your way towards SF. Arrive and spend a wonderful week, then fly home feeling happy and well rested.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:47 PM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've never done this...however, I would say South for the following reason. The ocean is to the west of the highway. Presumably, the passenger does more sightseeing than the driver, whose eyes should be on the road.* If you're driving south, the view of the ocean is on the passenger side of the car. Therefore, if you drive south, you don't have the driver blocking the view and you don't get the driver's nose in your pictures.

* Hopefully you'll switch off the driving so everyone can look sometimes.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:51 PM on April 5, 2009

I did this as a family trip years ago, and we drove north to south. It's definitely a more "comfortable" drive in the northbound lane, as the PCH is very narrow (just two lanes), winding, and mostly atop cliffs. But depending on your comfort levels, as other commenters note, you may prefer the closer-to-the-ocean southbound lane.

Also, it's a fairly long drive - as I recall, at least eight hours. Despite the "Highway" in the name, it's nothing like an interstate (nor would you want it to be). We stopped for the night in Monterey. So depending upon how you feel, you might want to break the trip up.
posted by DavidNYC at 1:01 PM on April 5, 2009

Also, just so you know..once you hit Malibu the PCH becomes pretty much just another traffic-y road in la, not sure how south you're looking to drive.
posted by mattsweaters at 1:02 PM on April 5, 2009

I've done it both ways in May and September, and went LA to SF with SO this January. We picked to south to north route in the winter so that the low winter sun would be at our backs for the day. The light on the cliffs ahead made for a great view, and we stopped enough so that we could both enjoy the sights. All I can remember about the May trip was that it was kind of a bright day, but not so bad.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:03 PM on April 5, 2009

Don't underestimate how tiring it can be to keep your eyes on the road there. Be well slept, take breaks. You'll survive regardless, most probably, but you don't want your memories to be of the exhausting triumph of staying on the road.

If you see a beautiful beach just a short hike down the cliff, and no one else is down there, think twice before taking a swim. Riptides.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:13 PM on April 5, 2009

Leave early in the morning is my only advice. It takes a very, very long time to drive up PCH -- there are lots of very windy narrow bits where you have to go extremely slowly. And you don't want to be doing it in the dark, which can be v. scary.
posted by paultopia at 2:51 PM on April 5, 2009

For me the scary part of this drive is in Big Sur. Big Sur has beautiful cliffs with panoramic views. It's a wonderful drive on a spring day. I don't know how I'd feel about it at night, especially considering that there aren't very many reasonable hotels to pull over and spend the night at.

If I were doing this I would drive up from Los Angeles, eat lunch in Santa Barbara, and maybe overnight in Pismo Beach. Then I'd do lunch/early dinner at Nepenthe after a late morning start in Pismo. I wouldn't do the Half Moon Bay to San Francisco bit on PCH. I'd skip inland to 280 to do the last bit.
posted by rdr at 3:11 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, it's a fairly long drive - as I recall, at least eight hours

Yes, this is true. The main part of the drive, where all the beautiful scenery is, runs from about San Luis Obispo to Monteray; the scenery before and after these towns is nothing special. The main stretch takes a solid 3 or 4 hours to drive and demands full concentration from the driver since the road twists and turns almost constantly, but there are lookout points and beaches at many points along the way where you can stop and stretch and admire the view. This stretch has very few services; you'll pass through a couple of "towns" that consist of a gas station and a store and nothing else. Whichever way you come from, leave very early in the day and get to Monteray or San Luis Obispo as early as you can; then eat and rest and fill up the tank before you do the main stretch.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:35 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I went south to north and appreciated being on the inside of the majority of the twists and turns.
posted by TheClonusHorror at 3:02 PM on April 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Trying to get to the "root" of things. Sorry.   |   Axis of evil, here I come! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.