Road-tripping from Phoenix to San Francisco is a spectacular panoramic journey bypassing many of the West Coast’s best attractions and landscapes. If you did the drive flat out, it would take around 12 hours, so naturally, you’ll want to break it up. The best way to tackle the drive is over a few days or even a week, to see as much as possible along the way.
There are a few major highways leading out of Phoenix, but the route you’ll need to take heads directly west towards San Diego, before driving directly up the coast all the way to your final destination. Luckily, this stretch of the West Coast includes amazing cities such as Los Angeles, national parks like the Pinnacles and breathtaking natural wonders such as Big Sur and the Channel Islands.
- Phoenix to San Francisco
- 20 Places To Visit On A Phoenix To San Francisco Road Trip
- 1- Phoenix
- 2- Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
- 3- Cleveland National Forest
- 4- San Diego
- 5- Legoland California
- 6- Palm Springs
- 7- Joshua Tree National Park
- 8- Los Angeles
- 9- Universal Studios
- 10- San Bernardino
- 11- Calico Ghost Town
- 12- Six Flags Magic Mountain
- 13- Malibu
- 14- Santa Barbara
- 15- Ventura & The Channel Islands
- 16- Big Sur
- 17- Pinnacles National Park
- 18- Monterey
- 19- Santa Cruz
- 20- San Francisco
Phoenix to San Francisco
Looking for the best car rentals? Compare rates here.
- Small-Group Deluxe Grand Canyon – from Phoenix with Sedona side trip.
- Universal Studios Hollywood General Admission Ticket – must-do when travelling with kids.
- Big Sur Self-Driving Audio Tour in California – Highway 1, Pacific Coast Highway.
- Monterey Bay Drive – A Self-Guided Audio Tour from Del Monte Beach to Cannery Row.
- San Francisco CityPASS – save money with access to many attractions.
20 Places To Visit On A Phoenix To San Francisco Road Trip
Phoenix, Arizona, makes the perfect place to start a road trip. Known as the Valley of the Sun, it sees almost year-round sunshine and is one of America’s largest cities by population and you’ll find plenty of things to do in Phoenix at night.
Its popularity means it’s filled with many attractions, restaurants and entertainment, so spend at least a day or two here to start the trip.
To make the most of the weather, head to Phoenix’s most famous attraction, the Desert Botanical Gardens, home to thousands of species of flowers and trees.
In season, also check ahead to see if there’s a baseball game on at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, before wandering around Tempe in the evening, which is the city’s student district and has some of the best nightlife in the city.
Top Tour: Small-Group Deluxe Grand Canyon with Sedona Day Trip.
2- Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
As you leave Phoenix, one of the first attractions to stop at is the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, which lies at the very edge of Arizona.
If you don’t have much time, you can take a scenic drive through the park, which is beautiful and gets stunning sunsets.
Keep an eye out for the wildlife the park is home to, such as Golden Eagles, Bighorn Sheep, mountain lions and desert tortoises.
With more time, hiking is particularly popular in the park, as is searching for sparkling quartz crystals, which can be found by digging around in the Crystal Hill Area.
Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is 176 miles (283 km) from Phoenix or a 4-hour drive
3- Cleveland National Forest
Just before hitting the first major city of San Diego, you’ll pass Cleveland National Forest.
This is a place to stop for outdoorsy types, as the area has over 100 miles (161 km) of hiking levels for beginners and experts, including a large chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Other things to do include cycling, hunting and fishing, plus there are a variety of campsites for both tents and RVs, in case you’re travelling in one.
Also in the forest is the Palomar Observatory, which offers guided tours and educational exhibits, or if you’re staying overnight, you can join a star gazing group.
Cleveland National Forest is 200 miles (322 km) from Kofa Wildlife Refuge or a 4-hour drive
4- San Diego
San Diego is the first major city on the road trip and one of the best on the West Coast.
You’ll need at least two or three days in this city to see San Diego’s major landmarks and the city is a haven for beach lovers and surfers, so head to Mission Beach or Torrey Pines to swim or catch a wave.
La Jolla is a popular beach area where you can enjoy water-based activities and see the hundreds of sea lions that love to bask in the sunshine and even swim with them in La Jolla Cove.
Since the city is so close to Mexico, the food is fantastic and you’ll find plenty to eat and other things to do in San Diego at night.
Downtown San Diego and the Gaslamp Quarter are home to excellent Mexican eateries, taquerias, bars, restaurants and shops.
The San Diego Zoo is one of the best in the country. Skip the line and pre-book your tickets here.
San Diego is 48 miles from Cleveland National Forest or a 1-hour drive.
5- Legoland California
Legoland California is a short way up the coast from San Diego and is an ideal stop if you’re travelling as a family to break up the journey.
Like other Legoland theme parks, this one has many rides, entertainment and exciting things to do for kids.
The most famous ride is the Coastersaurus, but there’s also a Lego Ninjago 4D screening, a fun boat ride with performances for younger kids and Miniland USA, which has miniatures of some of America’s most famous landmarks.
If you decide to visit, try to avoid weekends, which are the busiest time, but don’t worry too much about what to bring, as the park has many restaurants, drink stands and shops.
Legoland California is 33 miles from San Diego or a 45-minute drive. Skip the line and reserve your tickets here.
6- Palm Springs
Palm Springs is one of the most beautiful regions in California and a must-visit if you like art or the outdoors.
The get a proper view of the city, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway offers terrific views across the mountains beyond, where you can also go hiking like the locals.
Down on the ground, choose from the Palm Springs Art Museum, Air Museum or Botanical Gardens to get your culture fix, before taking a stroll down Palm Canyon Drive, where the best galleries, shops and restaurants in Palm Springs can be found.
If you’re passing through on a Thursday, take the time to visit the Palm Springs Villagefest, which is a huge weekly fair downtown with hundreds of stalls selling gifts, crafts and food.
Palm Springs is 115 miles (185 km) from Legoland California or a 3.5-hour drive.
Top tour: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Admission Ticket.
7- Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is aptly famous for the hundreds of uniquely shaped Joshua Trees which reside inside the park, making it a haven for photographers, influencers, hikers and more.
Hiking and camping are two of the most popular activities here, especially since the park has little light pollution, allowing visitors to see fantastic night skies.
Bouldering is also fairly common, as the park is littered with rocks and crevices.
Even if you don’t have the time to spend the night, you can drive through the park on one of the two main roads, which have many pull-ins to admire the view and picnic areas for a scenic lunch.
Joshua Tree National Park is 37 miles from Palm Springs or a 1-hour drive.
Top tour: Joshua Tree National Park Offroad Tour.
8- Los Angeles
The first thing to note about Los Angeles is that it is much bigger than most people think, and to see anything properly, you’ll need a minimum of three or four days.
The most famous sights, of course, are Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Hollywood, but there’s so much more to see besides.
Downtown Los Angeles has a variety of theatres and museums, or you can head to the quirky neighbourhood of Silver Lake and catch the LA Dodgers at a game (skip the line and buy your tickets here).
Less visited neighbourhoods such as Anaheim, Long Beach and Torrance hide the city’s best bars, beaches and nightlife, so there’s something for everyone.
Los Angeles is 135 miles (217 km) from Joshua Tree NP or a 2.5-hour drive.
9- Universal Studios
In the northeast of Los Angeles is the famous Universal Studios Hollywood.
Although many think this theme park is perfect for kids, adults will love it too, as LA is home to everything movie-related and Universal has rides, shows and interactive entertainment based on the most famous movies in history.
The studios have recently opened Nintendo World, which is extremely fun for avid gamers, or all ages will love the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Other movie-themed areas of the park include Jurassic World and Despicable Me.
The most popular attraction, however, is the World-Famous Studio Tour, which shows visitors behind the scenes of a real-life movie set.
Universal Studios is 9 miles from Central Los Angeles or a 30-minute drive. Skip the line and book your tickets online here.
10- San Bernardino
San Bernadino is an often-overlooked city just east of Los Angeles, however, it has some of the area’s best scenery and landmarks.
One of the unique attractions drawing people to the city is the original McDonald’s, where the first-ever fast-food restaurant opened, now a museum and houses hundreds of pieces of memorabilia.
Also, drive along the Rim of the World Scenic Byway, a road along the San Bernardino National Forest with epic views over the hills.
The forest itself is spectacular if you have time to spend the day, and part way in is the beautiful Big Bear Lake, backdropped by snow-capped peaks, where you can go fishing, boating, hiking and more.
San Bernardino is 66 miles (106 km) from Universal Studios or a 2-hour drive.
11- Calico Ghost Town
Calico Ghost Town one of several ghost towns in California. This former mining town in San Bernardino and one of the coolest places to experience a real Wild Western town, as it has houses, bars and saloons just like you’d see in a Western movie.
Adults and kids will enjoy various activities here, such as panning for gold, riding the old Western train or watching the daily performances and faux gun fights.
There are also many historic buildings to explore, such as a schoolhouse and a jail, along with souvenir shops and plenty of options if you need a bite to eat.
Calico is 80 miles from San Bernardino or a 1-hour 50-minute drive. Most people do a ghost town tour from LA but if you’re passing by, you can save hundreds of dollars by popping in and seeing it for yourself.
12- Six Flags Magic Mountain
California is the home of theme parks and Six Flags Magic Mountain is one of the best authentic American theme parks you can visit.
Some of the park’s most popular roller coasters include the Twisted Colossus and Tatsu.
However, the rides aren’t the only thing to thrill visitors, as there are also live shows, games and many restaurants throughout the park.
Depending on which time of year you visit, the park also often puts on special events like Fright Fest at Halloween and Christmas events during winter, which can be fun to check out.
Six Flags is 130 miles from Calico or a 2.5-hour drive.
Malibu is one of the loveliest areas in California and home to the most beautiful beaches, people and houses on the coast – including many belonging to celebrities.
There are many beaches, such as Surfrider Beach, Zuma Beach, and El Matador State Beach, where you’ll often see locals surfing and swimming.
Nearby, you can also go hiking in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains for stunning views of the ocean and surrounding hills.
If you’re keen to get a glimpse of where the other half lives, several ‘celebrity homes’ tours will point out the most over-the-top houses in the area and who they belong to.
Malibu is 50 miles from Six Flags or a 1-hour drive.
Top tour: 4×4 Vineyard Tour.
14- Santa Barbara
Like Malibu, nearby Santa Barbara has year-round sunshine and beautiful beaches, such as East Beach and Butterfly Beach, where you can swim, surf and sunbathe to your heart’s content.
The city is also home to many art galleries and museums, such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Granada Theatre, which host a variety of exhibitions, performances and events, so make sure to check out the upcoming schedules online.
Another prominent landmark is the Santa Barbara Mission, which has stunning architecture and manicured gardens for taking a stroll, or further afield, there are many hiking trails and nature reserves to be explored in the nearby Santa Ynez Mountains.
Santa Barbara is 66 miles from Malibu or a 1.5-hour drive.
15- Ventura & The Channel Islands
Ventura, a city northwest of Los Angeles, offers great beaches, shopping and dining.
However, its main draw as a road trip stop is that it is the gateway to the beautiful Channel Islands National Park, and also, off the coast, you can go whale-watching in season.
The park is made up of five separate islands, which can be explored via boat or ferry tours from Ventura, and many of these combine whale or wildlife watching trips.
The islands are home to wildlife, including seals, sea lions and dolphins.
On the islands, many activities include hiking, camping, kayaking and caving.
Ventura is 27 miles (43 km) from Santa Barbara or a 1-hour drive. Find out why you should book a surfing lesson in Ventura.
16- Big Sur
Big Sur is a stretch of coastline between Carmel and San Simeon, but it is often argued to be the most beautiful stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway.
It has rugged cliffs and windswept beaches, and the entire area is perfect for swimming, hiking, or even simply driving around.
Major sights not to miss include Point Lobos Natural Reserve, where a huge population of sea lions live, Pfeiffer Beach, which has some of the best views along the coast, and the Bixby Creek Bridge, which has become famous in many photos for its unique arches against a jaw-dropping backdrop.
Big Sur is 290 miles from Ventura or a 5-hour drive. Download the Big Sur Self-Driving Audio Tour in California (Highway 1, Pacific Coast Highway).
17- Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is one of the most unique national parks in California, which has landscapes not too different to Zion in Utah, with towering rock formations, boulders and cliffs created by volcanoes millions of years ago.
Spend at least a full day here, as you can enjoy hiking and exploring the many trails in the park, and along the way, you may be lucky enough to spot the wildlife in the park, such as condors, bats and even some snakes and lizards.
The park is also very popular for rock climbing, with over 30 miles of climbing routes available for all levels of experience, although if you don’t know how to climb, you can always watch from afar.
Pinnacles NP is 80 miles (129 km) from Big Sur or a 2-hour drive.
Just a short drive from Big Sur lies Monterey, a city well known for its maritime connections, with fantastic coastal views, beaches and wildlife.
If you don’t spot whales on this road trip, which is highly unlikely, make time to explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can see some of the creatures that live deeper in the ocean, like jellyfish and sharks, as well as playful sea otters.
The city is also home to Cannery Row, a historic district now a lively shopping and dining neighbourhood, with many restaurants, boutiques and galleries perfect for grabbing a bite to eat or picking up a souvenir.
Monterey is 53 miles (85 km) from Pinnacles NP or a 1-hour drive. Download the Monterey Bay Drive: A Self-Guided Audio Tour from Del Monte Beach to Cannery Row.
19- Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is within touching distance of San Francisco, but it’s worth making a stop here to explore.
The city is known for its famous beach boardwalk, which has rides, games and live entertainment, and stunning ocean views if you prefer to take a walk along the length of it.
Santa Cruz’s historic downtown area is home to various shops, galleries, and restaurants, which come alive each evening, and is also where you’ll find the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, or not far from the pier, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
For some chill-out time, Natural Bridges State Beach is perfect for swimming and has cool rock formations and tide pools, where kids can search for starfish and other small fish.
Santa Cruz is 43 miles (69 km) from Monterey or a 50-minute drive. New to surfing? Take Beginner Surf Lesson in Santa Cruz.
20- San Francisco
Your final destination is another that deserves a few nights of exploring, as San Francisco is one of the most iconic cities in America with plenty to discover.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a good starting point, visible from almost everywhere along the bay and its Recreational Area is a fun place to cycle or walk, plus there are long stretches of beach all the way along to explore.
Head back to Fishermen’s Wharf for some of the city’s best food, including the famous clam chowder from Boudin’s, before catching one of the famous street cars right up to the highest point in the city, Coit Tower, which you can climb for amazing views.
With some spare time, Alamo Square is home to the famous Painted Ladies – pretty coloured houses set against the San Francisco skyline.
The nearby neighbourhood of Pacific Heights has lots of local restaurants and bars.
San Francisco is 75 miles from Santa Cruz, or a 1.5-hour drive. Book your
San Francisco CityPASS to save money while you’re there.
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