My San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip is still one of my absolute favourite I’ve ever done. In fact, it’s so good I’ve done the Pacific Coast Highway road trip twice. Wouldn’t mind going again tbh.
The San Francisco to Los Angeles drive is well known as one of the prettiest and most scenic routes in the world, never mind America.
Highway 1, as it’s also known, actually starts as soon as you arrive in California. It begins at the northern border with Oregon and stretches all the way down to finish in San Diego. If you steamed ahead the whole route would take ten hours to do, but then you’d miss out on all the joys of the 1000km of impressive roads, views, and cool places to stop along the way.
Road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you’ll enjoy stunning coastal views, Californian sunshine villages, epic forests, cool towns and a wine making district or two, too.
Of course you can do Highway 1 the other way, and drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a road trip, but this way is generally considered the best. And it’s the only way I’ve ever done it!
Where to stop on the San Francisco to Los Angeles drive
1. San Francisco
San Francisco is a great city. There’s a good reason why it’s used in so many films as a backdrop, and why it’s on the dream list for so many people to visit.
The Golden Gate Park is an absolute must do while you’re in the city. Have a few days to explore Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island and just relaxing with a coffee in Union Square. Get around via the famous San Francisco tram and make sure to walk down crazy Lombard Street too, don’t attempt to drive it!
Pick up your rental car and drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to get off to a memorable start to your San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip. It’s the most recognisable bridge in the world, and is actually surprisingly long. A great opportunity to get used to the glory of those wide lanes in the USA.
Distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles
The San Francisco to Los Angeles drive is 6 h 16 mins (383.1 mi) via I-5 S – the most direct route.
If you want to drive from SF to LA the scenic route, as described here, then you’re looking at around 9 h 19 mins (454 miles) via Highway 1.
2. San Jose
San Jose could be described as the centre of the western world right now, thanks to the huge companies that now call Silicon Valley home. Facebook and Google HQs are here, and the famous Hewlett Packard Garage from where it all began.
There’s a lot of money floating about in San Jose and if you can get an invite into any of the head offices, take up the offer.
As well as possibly controlling all of our futures, San Jose also has a fascinating past. Galleries, museums, an open air market and a lively downtown make San Jose a must on your road trip from San Francisco to LA.
Also, make sure to swing by the famous Winchester Mystery House. It’s full of curiosities, including dead end hallways, staircases that run up to the ceiling and 165 rooms. The late Sarah Winchester built the place at a cost of over $20m, as instructed by her Medium. Imagine having the money to just follow that advice on a whim – joyful!
3. Santa Cruz
Look out the window to see the stunning Half Moon Bay as you pass from San Jose, Santa Cruz bound. Even better, pull over and snap a moody pic from the cliff edge before you rush away.
Put “Ano Nuevo State Park” into your sat nav where you can visit the Elephant Seals in the marine park, and take a look at a San Francisco Garter Snake too.
Seriously, don’t miss the Elephant Seals. I’ve never seen so many in one place, it was amazing.
Ninety minutes from San Jose in your rental car (with no stops) you’ll find yourself in Santa Cruz. The 60s live on here, especially along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its old-school Americana vibe. Explore the lighthouse on the beautiful beach, and the Big Dipper along the boardwalk. The Mystery Spot – a collection of strange phenomena from the last 70 years – also makes for an entertaining few hours.
On Pacific Avenue you’ll find all kinds of vintage goodies, visit Palomar for night time salsa dancing, Wilder Ranch State Park for hiking and the Rio Theatre for local music. The Wharf is a great place to start for restaurants and shops and if you have the time you can go on a whale watching boat or fishing expedition too.
Lots to do in Santa Cruz so don’t skip it on your Pacific Coast Highway trip!
READ MORE on US Road Trips
The best advice on planning a road trip in the USA is here, and if you’re looking for help in planning your road trip budget, just click here. One of my favourites is the drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon – the sites are awesome. And this road trip from Miami to Key West is pretty sweet too!
4. Monterey Bay
Just an hour from Santa Cruz you’ll find Monterey Bay on the curve of the coast. Lots to do here, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and the Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
Don’t miss the scenic ’17 Mile Drive’ and have a mooch around Carmel-by-the-Sea – a cute seaside village with shops, cafes and restaurants. Whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing and biking are also popular in Monterey.
A gentle uphill drive from here takes you out to the Big Sur, where the fun really begins.
5. Big Sur
The Bixby Bridge is your best route into the Big Sur, well, pretty much the only one from Highway 1 tbh. It’s one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world and one of the most photographed bridges on the West Coast – bar the Golden Gate that you’ll have already driven over. The Bixby Bridge is 714 feet long and 280 feet high.
There are many beautiful sights along the Big Sur driving from San Fran to LA – Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, Point Sur State Historic Park, Ragged Point – lap them up by stopping often. If you have time, take a few days to relax along the route, soak up some of the scenery and just generally chill out.
The journey is as important as the destination, right?
The Big Sur holds an arty, hippy community that, in my experience were quite unwelcoming to anyone who wasn’t in it. We tried to visit the Esalen Institute for the views and natural hot spring baths. Two of my friends were wearing baseball caps and I saw them eye them up before refusing our entry.
If you’re part of the said hippy / arty community then go along and enjoy. If not, just soak up the views and take your money elsewhere!
6. San Simeon
Ok, next stop on the San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip is San Simeon. The highlight of San Simeon is Hearst Castle high up on The Enchanted Hill. More than 1 million people visit every year – it’s the number one attraction in San Simeon. Lady Gaga filmed a video here, and you can explore the 250,000 acres of rooms, suites, cottages, kitchens and grounds.
Moonstone Beach is also a popular spot in San Simeon, as is the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery and shopping at Cambria Village too.
7. San Luis Obispo
Right, this is actually kinda absolutely disgusting but in San Luis Obispo there’s a 15-foot high, 70-foot long alley lined with bubblegum. Like, on purpose. You can go and add your mark on the world, if you like.
If you’ve got time to spare in San Luis Obispo hike up Black Hill, Islay Hill, Bishop Peak and round theSan Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. The Fremont Theatre is also worth a visit, if only for the awesome facade in the evening. Soda Lake is an awesome sight too, especially for anyone with an eye for design.
Pismo Beach is a close enough walk and you can enjoy the tasty restaurants, ATV rentals, wine tasting, fishing, surfing, skydiving, bowling and mineral springs there. Also, they like to feed you clams.
8. Santa Barbara
Next up on your California coast drive is Santa Barbara. It’s the perfect stop off before you hit up the craziness of LA. Hug the coastline here and you’ll get to see Stearns Wharf and East Beach too. Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Lotusland are all popular things to do in Santa Barbara, while culture vultures can hone in on the Lobero Theatre, the Arlington Theatre and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
Keep an eye on the road markings and signs, rather than the sat nav, to be in the right lane for Ventura on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Do the San Francisco to LA road trip right and you’ll end up on Ventura Beach, right in front of the pier. This is the spot if you want to do some surfing. If not, take a look around the historic Downtown Ventura and make the most of the vintage boutiques and second hand stores.
On a typically sunny day, Ventura really is an amazing stop to enjoy – beautiful sunsets too.
Oh Malibu – not the Barbie, or the drink, but the destination. The drive from Ventura to Malibu is stunning. Follow signs to Point Dume and you’ll find a beautiful sandy beach, headlands, cliffs and rocky coves. Wander around Malibu and you’ll find piers, sickeningly beautiful weekend homes and super healthy restaurants – and maybe even the odd celebrity or two.
Stay on Route 27 and you’ll come across offbeat stores, diners and ramshackle saloons along the roadside. Get out at the top for an awesome view over the San Fernando Valley at the top of Topanga Overlook.
You just can’t get a bad view on a San Francisco to LA road trip.
11. Los Angeles
And you’ve made it!
Your LA to San Francisco road trip is done. In LA you can visit the Kodak Theatre, walk along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, check out the Santa Monica Pier, drive down Sunset Boulevard and stroll down Rodeo Drive. You could check out the awesome views of the Hollywood sign from Griffith Observatory, visit Universal Studios or go on a stars homes tour.
LA is such an exciting place, with so much to do in Los Angeles on a budget – you can enjoy the people watching when the inevitable city traffic stops play!