The Perfect 3 Day California Road Trip Itinerary

3 Day california road trip

For a nice, 3 day California road trip, here’s where we recommend visiting and what to expect! There are enough beautiful places in California to fill a lifetime. Since we have been gone the last few years we have been yearning to do more travel within the States. More specifically, we wanted to explore our own backyard in California.

Seeing how we were on a bit of a time crunch it was tough to pick just a few spots!

Our Pacific Coast Highway road trip started in Huntington Beach and went all the way to San Luis Obispo in Central California, so this 3 day California road trip will focus specifically on Southern California up to Central California, a perfect taste of this gorgeous center of the coastline.

There were so many places to see and enjoy that it was actually difficult to pick where to go! Things worked out perfectly though, so by the end we felt like we’d just planned the perfect 3 day California road trip itinerary.

Check out our coastal road trip for some incredible stops including breathtaking views, drop-dead gorgeous beaches, wine tasting, and historical sites!

Looking for a longer trip? Check out this 5 day Southern California road trip itinerary and this week-long Pacific Coast Highway California Coast road trip.

The Perfect 3 Day California Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1 of our 3 Day California Road Trip

Matador Beach in Malibu

El Matador Beach in Malibu (69.3 Miles) 

Our first stop was planned precisely so we could drive on the PCH through Malibu and enjoy the iconic gorgeous views of the coast from the highway.

While we could have spent a whole day exploring the beaches of Malibu or hiking Zuma Canyon, we picked one stop for its incredible cliffs overlooking the rocky gem of a beach, El Matador.

Matador Beach in Malibu

El Matador State Beach is small but incredibly picturesque. Don’t come here to swim as there are too many rocks.

You come here to explore the caves and rock formations while watching the icy Pacific waves crashing into the rocks.

Matador Beach in Malibu

After the beach, we continued north along our Pacific Coast Highway road trip. We were awe struck with more incredible views while driving past the giant rock formations at Point Mugu.

And if you have the time, we highly encourage you to spend some time enjoying some of the best things to do in Malibu while you’re here!

Solvang (93.8 miles)

Solvang Windmill

Ever since I’ve seen the wine California Road Trip movie, Sideways I have been wanting to visit the famous Danish town of Solvang.

You may recognize it by its iconic windmill and Danish-style buildings. We were lucky to visit after Thanksgiving and the entire place was decorated for Christmas! It made it feel like a charming storybook village straight out of a snow globe.

We spent a few hours here eating an incredible lunch at Bacon & Brine and strolling the streets sipping on hot coffee. You could spend hours here going through all the shops, finding all the windmills of Solvang (yes, there’s more than one!), and exploring the Santa Ines Mission.



If you have extra time you can even go wine tasting in town at Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards.

Thanks to the friendly people and the storybook vibes we almost didn’t want to leave!

Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (65.1 miles)

So much Pink

Staying at the Madonna Inn is actually what we planned our entire California road trip around. This famous 1950’s, kitschy, the pink lovin’ hotel is a notable landmark of the central coast in California.

Famous for it’s individual, over-the-top themed rooms, people flock here to have a unique hotel experience in one of their creatively decorated rooms.

We knew we wanted PINK, so we picked out a few rooms from their website and were surprised on arrival with the Carin room. Carin has it’s very own spiral staircase to a round shape room lined with pink glitter wallpaper and pink furnishings throughout the entire room. Your eyes are in for a real treat here.

Pink Madonna Inn Room

Carin Room Madonna Inn

Pink Madonna Inn RoomPink Madonna Inn

If pink isn’t for you, then there are plenty of other themed rooms with different colors. But, you will see pink everywhere else around the resort as it’s their signature color. Every detail from the stationary in the room, card key, cakes, and even the tennis courts are pink.

We were excited to spend both of our nights here in a room made of pink heaven!

Madonna Inn Sign

Obligatory Pose with the Sign

Check out rooms and rates at the Madonna Inn.

Day 1  Recap
  • Number of Stops: 3
  • Miles Driven: 228.2

Day 2 of our 3 Day California Road Trip

Hearst Castle & San Luis Obispo (44.3 miles)

Highway to Hearst Castle

Just an hour’s drive more on your California coast road trip, you’ll see more dramatic views along your way to Hearst Castle, one of the many cool things to do in San Luis Obispo.

It was one of the many homes of famous American newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. This is one of Hearst’s more notable homes since it offers tours and is now run by California State Parks.

Hearst Castle

Reminisce on what it must have felt like to be bumping elbows with Hearst, his mistress Marion Davies, and all the other famous guests such as Winston Churchill, Hedda Hopper, Howard Hughes, and Charlie Chaplin through the 1920s – 1930s.

Celebrities and famous friends of Hearst would be flown out on his private airstrip. They’d then spend the weekend enjoying many of the activities at the castle. These include things like horseback riding, dinner parties, tennis, swimming in the castle’s famous pools, playing  dress up and putting on a play, watching films in the private theatre, and enjoying  the property’s private zoo. You can still see some of the descendants of the original zebra herd grazing with cows in the field here!

There are a few different tours to choose from. If you’re lucky you will get a really good storytelling guide who will give you all the old celebrity gossip! 

Hearst Castle Tour

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle Pool Room

Hearst Castle Indoor Pool

Hearst Castle Garden

Whether you’re a history buff or just love incredible architecture and views, you will enjoy Hearst Castle. We would love to revisit and knock off another tour!

Edna Valley Wineries (63.2 miles)

We took a different scenic route back to do some wine tasting towards San Luis Obispo in Edna Valley. Instead of taking the Pacific Coast Highway, we opted to drive inland on highway 46 through the mountains.

We kept being wowed mile after mile while driving through the mountains. The rolling hills and mountains offer a breathtaking view from above. You can still see off to the distance where the cliffs kiss the Pacific Ocean.

If we had the time, we would have stopped every two miles at every single scenic viewpoint, but we had to get to the wineries before 5 pm when they close!

This region of California is famous for its wine. Most notably would be Paso Robles and Los Olivos. We were running tight on time, and the wineries of Edna Valley are close to Madonna Inn, so we chose to explore them.

San Luis Obispo Views

SLO Valley Views

We only made it to two wineries: Edna Valley Vineyards and Wolff Vineyards. Our favorite of the two being Wolff Vineyards for its delicious red wines, friendly wine pourer, a cute dog, and epic sunset views of the vineyards.

If it were up to us, the vineyards would be open until 8 pm and offer a shuttle back to the Madonna Inn! That way we could have kept sampling the wine. Seriously, we could spend a whole weekend here just tasting wine.

Back to Madonna Inn (7.6 miles)Madonna Inn Steakhouse

Madonna Inn Pink Room

Back for night number two in our pink glitter paradise! We came back early enough in the evening to enjoy a dinner at the Gold Rush Steakhouse. It’s known for its pink plush dining room!

After our meal we were surprised with a slice of Madonna Inn’s famous pink champagne cake for our honeymoon!  

These cakes are so popular that a thief broke into the Madonna Inn stealing only cake and not the cash in the register! If a cake is THAT good that a burglar isn’t interested in stealing money, it’s definitely worth trying.

Day 2  Recap
  • Number of Stops: 2
  • Miles Driven: 115.1

Day 3 of our 3 Day California Road Trip

Morro Rock (17.2 miles)

We went back up a bit before heading south towards. This stop includes a visit to Morro Rock, the giant jutting rock in the water at Morro Bay. We just had to add this into our California road trip itinerary, especially since it wasn’t too far!

Morro Rock is the visual symbol of Morro Bay. The rock is an actual volcanic plug, which is hardened magma on top of when the volcano was active. It stands over 500 ft tall. You can drive right up to it and watch the surfers or walk around the path leading to the harbor.

If you’re hungry head to the harbor and enjoy and of the restaurants lined up next to the boats and bay.

On your way out be sure to pass the road that goes along the Morro Bay State Park to the Sea Pines Golf Resort. That’s where the most scenic views and walking paths are!

Pismo Beach Sand Dunes (29.7 miles)

Sand Dunes Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is another area where you could easily spend an entire afternoon in. We skipped the central beach area. Instead, we headed to the Oceano Sand Dunes. You can literally drive on the beach for miles!

What really caught our attention here would be the RVs and campers parked right on the beach! They had the best view with the ocean and rolling sand dunes.

If you want to spend more time here, then you can rent a dune buggy or a four wheeler. You can find plenty of ATV shops right on the beach. This was extremely tempting to us. However, we had more stops to make and had to keep on moving!

Tip: You may only want to drive on the sand if you have a truck or SUV with four wheel drive in case of getting stuck! 

Santa Ynez Winery (49.3 miles)

On our drive back south we wanted to kill some time so we could avoid the traffic around Los Angeles. We conveniently stopped for one more winery tasting at Bridlewood Estate Winery in Santa Ynez Valley.

Bridlewood had the best wine we tasted on this trip! We actually ended up going home with a few bottles.

The winery itself has a beautiful tree-lined path that leads to the mission-style estate. There, you can enjoy a large tasting room and gorgeous patio overlooking the vineyards.

Bridlewood left such an impression on us we ended up signing up for their membership program and plan on making a return visit when we get back to California!

Santa Barbara Downtown (31.5 miles)

The final stop on our California road trip itinerary was downtown Santa Barbara. We had a delicious dinner here and managed to avoid LA’s rush hour traffic.

There was no better place to kill some time. We strolled through the streets which are more like an outdoor mall. It had everything from big department stores to cute consignment shops and boutiques.

Tucked away on and off the alleys on State Street were restaurants, bars, and theaters. We ended our trip with the perfect prime rib nachos and a spicy margarita at Viva.

You could spend an entire day shopping in the downtown area! If you have more time you can explore the Mission of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, or walk around Shoreline Park to name a few! 

Back Home: Huntington Beach (130.3 miles)

Huntington Beach Pier during Sunset

Day 3 Recap
  • Number of Stops: 4
  • Miles Driven: 258

We ended our 3 day California road trip feeling like we accomplished and saw a lot! This trip has so many gorgeous views and amazing places to see in just three days.

We recommend anyone looking for a California getaway to explore this coastal region. Enjoy the shoreline views, rolling mountains, wineries, and activities!

Doing this trip made us want to stick around in the U.S. and maybe plan a longer California road trip itinerary!

Complete 3 Day California Road Trip Recap

  • Number of Stops: 9
  • Miles Driven: 601.3

California is full of beautiful places, there are so many different road trips you could make a complete California bucket list to last a lifetime. Check out some of our other trips through our home trip, like all we did in Palm Springs, our favorite day trips from Los Angeles, and where to stay in San Diego.

Have you gone on a 3 day California road trip? Which spots did you visit?

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