San Francisco to Los Angeles Road Trip

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A road trip down the world-famous Pacific Coast Highway is a bucket list travel goal, and a few days or a week driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles will allow to you see some of the best sights of the west coast in one trip. West Coast USA has incredible beaches and landscapes but you’ll find much more than this on the Pacific Coast Highway.

From sophisticated cuisine in LA to the jaw-dropping sights of Big Sur and the Pinnacles, the breathtaking wildlife of the Channel Islands and the unique Danish town of Solvang, you’ll discover something new at every turn. Although non-stop driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles takes just six hours, spend at least six days winding your way along the coastline while enjoying the natural beauty, attractions, food and nature of California.

San Francisco to Los Angeles 

20 Places To Visit On A San Francisco to Los Angeles Road Trip

1- Marin Headlands

san francisco to los angeles golden gate bridge on a blue sky day
A San Francisco to Los Angeles flight is the quickest way to travel between the two cities but a road trip reveals many treasures beyond the Golden Gate Bridge.

Marin Headlands will no doubt be your first stop out of the city of San Francisco to admire stunning views over the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

You can easily take a picnic here, enjoy your final views of the city and take some great photos.

While you’re there, find out more about the historic military base of Fort Baker, which originally guarded the entrance to the bay.

A view worth chasing is also that from nearby Point Bonita Lighthouse, and also spend time checking out Rodeo Beach.

Marin Headlands is a great place to make your first stop as many people head to the Golden Gate Bridge viewpoint and don’t explore further, meaning you’ll likely have the incredible views, beach and grassland to yourself.

2- San Jose

train from san francisco to los angeles
San Jose is the capital of Silicon Valley and one of the world’s top high-tech hubs, so it’s worth spending time here if you’re taking the train to San Francisco from Los Angeles.

San Jose is not just an interesting place to visit to explore its culture and restaurants, it’s the hub of Silicon Valley, which has become a world-famous destination in its own right as the home of tech giants including Facebook and Apple.

Aside from this, you will also find a wealth of art galleries, museums, markets and a buzzing downtown area – unsurprising given the sheer number of workers.

The city is also famous for the Winchester Mystery House, a magnet for horror fans filled with trick bookcases, dead ends and strange items for you to explore.

San Jose is 58 miles (93 km) and 1.25 hours from Marin Headlands.

3- Stanford University

amtrak san francisco to los angeles
Stanford University is a private university about 37 miles (60 km) southeast of San Francisco and worth stopping by on a Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip.

There’s no doubt you have already heard of Stanford University, and you might not consider a university a holiday destination.

However, just like its Massachusetts rival Harvard, Stanford is a beautiful and historic university worth adding as a stop on your drive.

Stanford has produced some of the world’s most notable names, from Poet laureates to Nobel Prize winners.

The best way to see it is to hire a bicycle and cycle around the old campus buildings, check out the view from the Hoover Tower and visit the Canon Arts Center, which is filled with sculptures and paintings by renowned artists.

Stanford University is 22 miles (35 km) and a half an hour drive from San Jose.

4- Santa Cruz

train to san francisco from los angeles amusement park and beach
One of the best beach destinations to visit closer to San Francisco than Los Angeles is Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is a quintessential Californian beach town, and many of the town’s top attractions revolve around the beach.

Head to Santa Cruz Boardwalk to soak up the sun before heading to Main Beach to dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean.

Natural Bridges State Beach has unique rock arches jutting out of the ocean for an even more scenic spot.

Santa Cruz is, naturally, famous for its water-based activities.

If you head to Santa Cruz harbour, you’ll find it is a launching point for boating, kayaking, surfing and snorkelling trips.

After you’ve worn yourself out, the harbour also has a variety of excellent fresh seafood restaurants for dinner.

Santa Cruz is 42 miles (67 km) and a 1-hour drive from Stanford University.

5- Monterey

san francisco ca to los angeles ca
Look out for the nesting birds on the Monterey coast, which is one of the places you will want to spend time at while travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Monterey is very close to Santa Cruz but is slightly more famous for one thing – wildlife.

Monterey is popular with visitors from across the world for its whale watching and other local wildlife who call the coast their home.

A whale-watching tour is a must-do excursion while in the area, particularly if you’re visiting during breeding season when you’re almost guaranteed sightings.

If you’re travelling with kids, a more educational way to see the wildlife is at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which can be a fun day out if the weather isn’t on your side.

Satisfy your hunger pangs after a day on the water and head to the famous Cannery Row, where many of the area’s best restaurants, bars and shops are located.

Monterey is 43 miles (69 km) and a 45 min drive from Santa Cruz.

6- Pinnacles National Park

distance from los angeles to san francisco natural lake in the park
When travelling from Los Angeles to San Francisco, there are many detours you can take along the way, such as Pinnacles National Park, which is an hour’s drive from Monterey.

Pinnacles National Park may be the smallest national park in California, but this doesn’t take away from its breathtaking beauty, plus it means you’ll have the time to explore it fully.

Pinnacles is named for the domed rock formations which were formed next to the park’s ancient extinct volcano.

Pack hiking boots and lots of water before you set off exploring.

Check out the Talus Caves which the park is also famous for, before heading to the High Peaks.

If a view is what you came for, you’ll find it on this trail loop.

While you’re walking, you might be lucky enough to spot a native Californian condor.

Pinnacles is also a mecca for rock climbing enthusiasts, so if you’re keen, bring your gear and climb some of California’s best peaks.

Pinnacles National Park is a 51-mile (82 km) drive and a one-hour drive from Monterey.

7- Carmel by the Sea

san francisco to los angeles carmel shop in carmel
Carmel is the best place to stop for a shopping spree while driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Carmel by the Sea will likely be one of the prettiest places you visit on your road trip.

Combining classic Californian beaches with fairy-tale European architecture, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somewhere more unique.

Aside from its architecture, Carmel is also known as a haven for artists, with over 100 galleries despite being only one mile long, and has some of California’s best food spots.

It is also the start of the famous stretch 17 Mile Drive, a three-hour scenic drive with plenty of stops at stunning locations in the area, including Lone Cypress and Bird Rock.

For some relaxation, make some time to go to Pebble Beach, which is actually six perfectly white beaches and blue water that has been compared to the Maldives.

Carmel by the Sea is a 55-mile (88 km), 1.25-hour drive from Pinnacles National Park.

8- Point Lobos

distance from san francisco to los angeles Road with yellow line, pacific ocean beach,
The distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles is 383 miles and you can drive it in six hours if you don’t make any stops.

Point Lobos State Reserve is technically in Carmel, but it is a stopping point in its own right.

The state parks have a host of hiking trails so that you can fully experience the nature and the views the area has to offer, and on the rocky cove, you’ll likely spot the local sea lions lazing in the sun.

China Cove is one of the park’s most popular lookouts, with the ocean stretching into the distance – luckily, this is the easiest and quickest trail in the park if you’re short on time.

A few other places not to miss are Gibson beach, for its impossibly blue waters and Bird Island, which is a haven for bird watchers and is covered in hundreds of different species.

If the weather and visibility look good, you can also go snorkelling and diving off the coast, where you’ll see California’s diverse marine life.

Point Lobos is a 4-mile (6.4 km), 10-minute drive from Carmel by the Sea.

9- Big Sur

los angeles to san francisco road trip California big sur coast, ocean, mountains and blue sky with clouds
When driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a highlight is California’s Big Sur coastline.

Big Sur probably needs no introduction, as it is easily the most famous sight on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Make time to stop here as there is a huge amount to explore, including the wilderness of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, home to Manuel Peak – hike if you dare.

There are also many other state parks in the area, from Julia Pfeiffer Burns with its sparkling waterfall, which drops into the ocean, to Garrapatta, which has trails along the rugged coastline.

Head to Keyhole Arch Rock on Pfeiffer beach at sunset for epic views over the water.

Big Sur is a 21-mile (34 km), 30-minute drive from Point Lobos.

For more California ideas, see:

10- San Simeon

San Simeon is a gorgeous town put on the map by William Randolph Hearst, and many of its attractions are named after him.

It’s full to the brim with attractions, such as strolling along San Simeon Pier or relaxing on the William Hearst State beach.

However, you’ll also discover that the area has excellent wine tasting, art galleries and a thriving culinary scene.

The city also has more than one beautiful coastal walk, whether you choose to visit the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse or head for the windy bluffs of the Boucher trail.

San Simeon is a perfect place to stay overnight on your trip as it is also home to two of California’s most famous sights.

San Simeon is a 65-mile (104 km), 1.5-hour drive from Big Sur.

11- Elephant Seal Point

flights from san francisco to los angeles elephant seals demostrating alpha behaviour
Elephant seals on the sandy pacific ocean beach in San Simeon is one of the incredible sights while road tripping from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

One of San Simeon’s most well-known and popular sights, the Piedras Blancas Rookery, or Elephant Seal Point, is the only spot in the world where you can spot hundreds of elephant seals in their natural habitat absolutely free.

It’s open 365 days of the year, but the best times to visit are in January, April and October when up to 17,000 seals head to San Simeon’s shoreline.

Alternatively, visit just after the breeding season to see some cute seal pups.

The lookout means everyone can stay a safe distance from the animals and ensure their habitat remains protected.

Visiting Elephant Seal Point is likely to be one of the most memorable sights of your trip.

Elephant Seal Point is a 3-mile (4.8 km), 5-minute drive from San Simeon.

12- Hearst Castle

driving from san francisco to los angeles castle surrounded by tall palms
The Randolph Hurst castle is the ‘Disneyland’ of art in the hills of San Simeon and somewhere you will want to explore while driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Hearst Castle is San Simeon’s crowning glory, drawing visitors from all over to explore the lavish mansion of publishing magnate and town hero, William Randolph Hearst.

The complex is an impressive sight, with 165 rooms in the main house and 127 acres (51 ha) of stunning landscaped gardens.

There are also fountains, pools and ponds, and panoramic views of the Californian coast.

Most visitors spend half a day or even a full day exploring or taking a tour of the castle and its grounds.

So, it’s worth staying in San Simeon overnight and combining it with the other unique sights the city has to offer.

Hearst Castle is a 5-mile (8 km), 10-minute drive from Elephant Seal Point

13- San Luis Obispo

how far is los angeles to san francisco cross bells and christmas wreaths
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra and named after Saint Louis of Anjou. It’s one of the stops between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

San Luis Obispo is the unofficial middle point of your Pacific Coast Highway road trip and is home to a mixture of the best of the state, from local farms to sandy beaches.

One of these is Pismo Beach, the most popular in the city, where you’ll find locals, artists and students relaxing and surfing after a long day.

California is famous for its vineyards, and if you didn’t get a chance to go to Napa Valley, don’t miss your opportunity to visit both the Edna Grande and Arroyo Valley, which produce some of California’s best wine.

Another beautifully scenic spot is Lopez Lake which has miles and miles of trails, paths, wildlife and camping spots to explore.

San Luis Obispo is a 42-mile (68 km), 45-minute drive from Hearst Castle.

14- Morro Bay

flights from los angeles to san francisco yatchts moored at Morro Bay
Morro Bay is a waterfront community in San Luis Obispo County, between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Morro Bay is within the previously mentioned SLO County, however, if you’re a nature lover, it can’t be missed off your list.

Home to multiple state parks and beaches, it provides the opportunity to see even more wildlife and participate in more sporty activities such as kayaking and surfing.

Morro Bay State Park is the city’s most popular, where you can go hiking, biking or fishing and enjoy beach views over the iconic Morro Rock.

The area also has some friendly locals, namely the Morro Bay sea otters who love to float.

Morro Bay is a 13-mile (21 km), 15-minute drive from San Luis Obispo.

15- Pismo Beach

flights to san francisco from los angeles sunset over the beach and cliffs
Pismo Beach on the Pacific Coast is a beach to look out for while driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Pismo Beach is one of California’s smallest cities, with only 10,000 residents, but it is still a great place to stop while you’re on the coast.

One of its best sights is the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, where at the right time of year, you’ll see thousands of Monarch butterflies clustered together on every tree before migrating south.

The butterfly grove is regularly voted one of the world’s top things to see.

While you’re in Pismo, both the state beach and Eldwayen Ocean Park are scenic spots to spend some time by the water or enjoy a picnic lunch.

Pismo Beach is a 25-mile (40 km), 30-minute drive from Morro Bay.

16- Solvang

flights to los angeles from san francisco windmill and heritage architecture
Solvang is an interesting cultural city in Santa Barbara County and a unique place to see between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Much like Carmel, Solvang is famous for being a city that doesn’t look like it belongs in California.

The city’s buildings and culture are Danish, with many related attractions such as the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and the Elverhoj Museum of Art.

The area is classically old-fashioned, and you can even take a tour around town in a horse and carriage.

Many important religious landmarks are also a substantial part of the city’s heritage, including the Bethania Lutheran Church and the Old Mission Santa Ines.

Solvang will definitely be one of the most unique and memorable places you’ll find between San Francisco and LA, perhaps even in the whole of the United States.

Solvang is a 53-mile (85 km), one-hour drive from Pismo Beach.

17- Santa Barbara

los angeles to san francisco city view on a blue-sky day
On a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you’ll want to stop at Santa Barbara. Here’s the view from Santa Barbara’s City Hall tower.

Santa Barbara is locally known as the American Riviera for its laidback vibes, beautiful beaches and wealth of attractions and dining options.

Californians love hiking, and there are some great ones in Santa Barbara, such as Inspiration Point, where you can enjoy views over the coastline and the distant Channel Islands.

Also worth checking out is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Lobero Theatre, California’s oldest continuously performing theatre, where you can catch a show on most nights.

Another fun thing to do is a Santa Barbara food tour, where you’ll stop at the city’s delis, wineries, cheese shops, restaurants and even chocolate shops.

Santa Barbara is a 33-mile (53 km), 45-minute drive from Solvang.

18- Channel Islands

los angeles to san francisco drive pacific ocean view
Stunning views along Highway 1 is one of the highlights of a driving vacation from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The Channel Islands are a set of small islands off the Californian coast which are famous for their wild hiking and being surrounded by marine life, including humpback whales.

There are five islands, and you can catch a boat to them all, although trips only run on certain days and are weather dependent.

To get an authentic experience of this wild location, hire a kayak and paddle the waters, go hiking or head out to spot some whales.

Although there are no hotels on the islands, you are allowed to camp, which is a thrilling overnight trip for those looking to truly experience California’s natural wonders.

The Channel Islands Ferry Point, Ventura, is a 27-mile (43 km), 30-minute drive from Santa Barbara.

19- Malibu

how far is san francisco to los angeles
Malibu Creek State Park in California is a lesser-known place to explore while on a road trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Malibu may conjure images of beach mansions of the rich and famous, but mere mortals will also find much to enjoy in the area.

It is home to some of California’s best beaches, hiking trails, waterfalls and vineyards, not to mention stunning waterfront restaurants.

Head to Zuma Beach, Point Dume and El Matador State Beach for all things beach.

For a more active option, you can hike the trails at Malibu Creek State Park for stunning mountain views.

The best place to eat in Malibu, without a doubt, is Neptune’s Net, which is possibly Malibu’s most famous seafood restaurant.

Malibu is a 40-mile (64 km), 45-minute drive from Ventura.

20- Santa Monica

san francisco to los angeles flight Route 66 sign Santa Monica
The end of Route 66 at the Santa Monica Pier in California is one of the highlights when travelling between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Finally, you’ve almost arrived in the heart of Los Angeles. But, before you continue into the city, you can’t skip visiting the iconic area of Santa Monica, including the tourist hotspot of Santa Monica Pier.

Whether you stroll by the water at Palisades Park, join the crowds at the State Beach or get some thrills on a rollercoaster on the pier, this is an authentic taste of Los Angeles life.

For a typical tourist hotspot, don’t forget to go to Muscle Beach before grabbing a bite in a beachfront restaurant where you can enjoy deep-fried fish while looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

Santa Monica is an 18-mile (29 km), 25 min drive from Malibu.

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India Jayne trainor
India-Jayne Trainor is a British/Australian freelance writer, photographer and contributor to various online blogs and travel websites. She has travelled to almost 30 countries, most recently Cuba and Sri Lanka. Her work focuses on solo female travel, having spent two months backpacking alone through South East Asia as well as living in Germany for a year. Her favourite country to date has been Hong Kong, but she is happy in any country by the ocean. Her next destinations are Uzbekistan and a road trip through the American Mid-West. India is currently based in London, UK.