Tens of thousands of tourists over the next few months will drive the coastline of California along State Route 1, aka Highway 1 or Pacific Coast Highway or PCH. The drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, staying mostly on Highway 1 is over 400 miles and around a ten hour drive with no stops. This means you will likely want to stay overnight somewhere, if you plan to experience and feel more of the California vibe than simply ten hours feeling the vibrations of your vehicle.
Add time to photograph whales, hike in a Big Sur redwood forest, visit Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, see a coastal waterfall at McWay Falls, view massive elephant seals on the beach at Piedras Blancas, tour a lighthouse or two, or visit Hearst Castle and you will require many more hours or days for your driving trip. And those are just the detours on the 130-mile journey between Monterey and San Luis Obispo.
Take it from me. I am local.
This is my local’s tips article on driving California Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Plenty of guides tell you what there is to see along the route. The value added information here is where you will likely find the best hotel deals in cities along the way for your stops over the two or three day drive or however long you plan to spend.
The most photographed world-famous scenic part of Highway 1 is the 130-mile drive from Monterey in the north at Monterey Bay to Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo in the south. This section of Highway 1 is a three hour drive without stops, if there is no traffic impeding your potential speed.
I live in Monterey, California and most days I drive Highway 1 only along a 20 mile stretch between Costco in Sand City and Carmel Highlands, the town before launching off into Big Sur on Highway 1. My normal Highway 1 trip is for the simple pleasures in life like grocery shopping and driving to the beach. Now and then I make the drive 300 miles south to L.A. When I leave too late in the day to make the drive in one day, I tend to stay in Santa Maria. This is a good city for a hotel stop when driving the California central coast and you are trying to budget your spend.
Santa Maria, California, population 100,000
Santa Maria, California is most frequently the lowest priced place for chain brand hotels between San Francisco and Los Angeles with most of the major chains represented including Hilton, Marriott, IHG, Radisson and of course Best Western, Choice Hotels and Wyndham. There are no Hyatt Hotels between Monterey/Carmel (2 Hyatt properties) and Santa Barbara (250 miles). There are no Starwood Hotels along the California coast between San Jose and Ventura (300 miles).
The reason Santa Maria is lower priced than nearly any other location is it’s the largest city between Salinas and Santa Barbara in the central coast region of California and Santa Maria is ten miles inland from the ocean.
SLO, Pismo Beach and Santa Maria are the cities with the most hotels between Monterey and Santa Barbara on a 240 mile drive along Highway 1/U.S. Route 101.
San Luis Obispo, California Population 45,000
San Luis Obispo, population 45,000, elevation 233 is the most northerly of the three San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara central coast California towns with a choice of hotels. Most drivers will pass through SLO when entering or departing Highway 1 Big Sur coast drive. The town is locally named by saying the letters in acronym form S-L-O.
San Luis Obispo has lots of hotels for a city its size, but it is a university town and also highly touristed as the main city for a hotel night for travelers before or after driving the 130 mile stretch of Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast between Monterey and San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo is an interesting college town with bars and restaurants downtown, once you figure out where downtown is located after exiting U.S. Route 101. Fortunately, the chain brand hotels of SLO are easily located right off U.S. 101, mostly in California style shopping mall locations in the more recently developed south end of the city.
SLO has many chain brand hotels, easily accessible from U.S. 101 and the hotels are generally more upscale than Santa Maria, along with higher prices. San Luis Obispo is a college town with California State University San Luis Obispo, a historical California agricultural and engineering polytechnic university founded in 1901.
Pismo Beach, California, population 8,000 residents (and probably 4,000 tourists many days)
Pismo Beach is most expensive of the three options for hotel stays since this is the main California beach town for the region. Pismo Beach, a beach town of about 8,000 residents, is ten miles south of San Luis Obispo. There are hotels lining the cliff edge on the north end of town, the view shown in the photo. There are a couple of Best Western hotels with great ocean views and often reasonable prices during midweek off-season months. Most hotels in Pismo Beach are not affiliated with a major hotel chain. Many Pismo Beach hotels run $200 and up on weekends and summers.
Santa Maria, California, population 100,000
Santa Maria, California is 20 miles south of Pismo Beach. Driving the extra 20 miles for a hotel in Santa Maria is not too inconvenient if you want to save $75 to $100+ per night on hotel room rates in summer. Highway 101 is multiple lane freeway between these towns.
Sample Hotel Rates for San Luis Obispo-Pismo Beach area
Tuesday July 12, 2016 (hotel search on May 11, 2016)
- Best Western Plus Shore Cliff Lodge $209 (Hotel name accurately describes its location and explains high price).
- Embassy Suites San Luis Obispo $209
- Hilton Garden Inn San Luis Obispo $209 (This is a San Luis Obispo location and eight miles from the beach.)
- Courtyard San Luis Obispo $199
- Holiday Inn Express San Luis Obispo $180
- Hampton Inn Arroyo Grande/Pismo Beach $169 (Arroyo Grande is a few miles south of Pismo Beach and away from the ocean. Lots of restaurants and shopping malls and outlet center alongside U.S. 101.)
- Holiday Inn Express Grover Beach/Pismo Beach $159 (hotel is next to U.S. 101, a mile closer to Pismo Beach than Arroyo Grande).
Santa Maria Hotel Rates Tuesday July 12
- Fairfield Inn Santa Maria $159 (stayed there last week and nice hotel, but overpriced in my opinion considering two comparable IHG hotels at lower price next door.)
- Radisson Santa Maria $135 (airport location on south side of city and a few miles off U.S. 101. I stayed there several times on low rates under $100 per night for good value Club Carlson promotion bonuses). $135 is decent rate for July.
- Holiday Inn Santa Maria $125. This Holiday Inn is in same location as Candlewood Suites and Fairfield Inn at north end of Santa Maria, near U.S. 101 at Broadway exit, the first exit south after Highway 166. Loyalty Traveler – Holiday Inn Santa Maria BRG (Dec 27, 2013).
- Candlewood Suites Santa Maria $106. Loyalty Traveler – Hotel Review: IHG Candlewood Suites Santa Maria (Jan 10, 2014).
Candlewood Suites in Santa Maria is between Fairfield Inn and Holiday Inn at the first exit for Santa Maria driving south on U.S. 101. That extra drive 20 or 30 miles south from SLO and Pismo to Santa Maria drops hotel rates by one-third to half.
San Francisco to Santa Maria is 275 miles. That is a long drive for one day, especially with frequent stops. A hotel in Monterey is a good stop for the night before driving Big Sur when heading south. I think driving Highway 1 South to Big Sur is preferable direction due to ability to pull off road for ocean views. Driving north on the Big Sur coast means you have to cross Highway 1 to stop on the cliffs, a difficult maneuver in many places.
Santa Maria to Los Angeles is 175 miles, if driving Highway 1 in the primary places it separates from U.S. 101. Hotel rates rise again south of Santa Maria since this is mostly rural cattle ranch country along U.S. Route 101. The few hotels in towns like Buellton, 30 miles south of Santa Maria, are higher priced due to their proximity to the Santa Ynez Valley wine region, a place depicted in the 2004 film Sideways.
Buellton, California, population 5,000
Hotel Rates on Kayak.com for July 12, 2016
Santa Ynez Valley Marriott $199
Marriott Santa Ynez Valley in Buellton is the better deal in my opinion compared to Fairfield Inn Santa Maria. This Marriott is adjacent to U.S. 101 hotel at the cut-off and gateway for Santa Ynez Valley wineries.
Lompoc, California, population 43,000
If sticking to Highway 1 south, then the route takes you from Pismo Beach to Guadalupe, west of Santa Maria and Highway 1 turns past Vandenburg Air Force Base. Vandenburg AFB is a missile base and one of the premier military installations in the USA. Lompoc has grown and upscaled significantly in the past 20 years and Highway 1 around these parts is smooth and straight enough to transport rockets. Highway 1 goes through the city of Lompoc, a rural town that has become a city, yet still retains some flavor of old California town historical charm. That old California character gets much harder to find as you go farther south in the state.
Highway 1 passes through the town of Lompoc, with a series of stop lights, a few miles before the highway merges into U.S. 101. Both U.S. 101 and Highway 1 roads are the same for around 60 miles of coastal driving through Goleta, Santa Barbara and Ventura (except for some places where Highway 1 is the parallel beach road to U.S. 101) before Pacific Coast Highway branches off from U.S. 101 in Oxnard for the coastal drive through Malibu to Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
Lompoc Hotel Rates on Kayak.com for Tuesday July 12, 2016
- Embassy Suites Lompoc $204
- Holiday Inn Express Lompoc $169
As a tourist in Lompoc, you are in hotel competition with all the overpaid defense contract workers living in the local hotels. Good luck on finding a deal here.
South of Lompoc and Buellton, US. 101 heads to the Santa Barbara County coast. This 50 mile stretch of California coast is among the highest priced places in California for hotels. Once you are south of Santa Maria, your next best chance of finding a budget hotel deal is in the Ventura/Oxnard/Camarillo area. Oxnard and Camarillo are generally lower priced than Ventura and kind of the last chance for a budget hotel night before heading into metropolitan Los Angeles and generally far higher hotel rates.
I know many tourists plan to drive the coast in one day and avoid a hotel stay. Don’t do it.
There is so much to see and experience along the California coast. You will likely find yourself focusing hours on the rear end of RV buses you can’t pass when you are in a hurry to rush through the Highway 1 drive.