Are you going to be traveling in California anytime soon? If so, You’ll want to look at the best road trips you can take from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
There’s no doubt that California is one of the best and most beautiful states to travel around in the US.
But being that the state is so large, it can be a daunting task trying to narrow down exactly where you want to go or what you want to see.
However, if you want to see as much of the state as possible in a reasonably short amount of time, a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco is the best way to do it.
What’s the best route for a road trip from LA to San Francisco?
The two best road trip routes from Los Angeles to San Francisco are the coastal route, which follows the Pacific Coast Highway, and the interior route, which follows I-5. The coast offers iconic coastal views but the interior route is faster and has more interesting attractions along the way.
California is a beautiful state with varied landscapes, offering everything from endless beaches to snow-capped mountains and everything in between.
This guide will walk you through the best routes as well as all of the best places to stop along the way, ensuring that you will be able to get to everything you want to see on your trip.
Over the years and during my many visits to the west coast, I’ve spent months traveling around California and have done both of the road trips myself.
So I can guarantee that these are the best road trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco and some of the best ways to see the state as a whole.
Deciding Which Road Trip to Take
When it comes to deciding which route is the best for you, there are a few things to consider including the kinds of sites that you want to see and the amount of time you are willing or able to spend on the road.
When it comes to sites, the coastal route offers all of those beautiful coastal views that you crave, while the interior route is a bit less impressive in this regard.
However, this route does pass by many other types of attractions like wineries, ghost towns, and wildlife preserves.
It all depends on the types of things that you want to see and do.
The other thing that you’ll need to consider is time.
If you are in a hurry and want to get from one city to the next as quickly as possible, the interior route along I-5 is the way to go.
At around 400 miles it will take you approximately 6-8 hours of driving depending on traffic.
On the other hand, the coastal route along the Pacific Coast Highway is around 500 miles long and will take about 9-10 hours of nonstop driving so keep this in mind when planning which route to take.
The Best Road Trip Between Los Angeles And San Francisco
There’s no doubt that the best road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco is the coastal route along the Pacific Coast Highway.
This route has some of the most beautiful views in the whole country and offers an abundance of interesting places to see along the way
You should definitely plan on splitting the trip into 2 or more days so that you can stop in and enjoy as many of these amazing places as you can.
Here are some of my favorites.
1. The Malibu Coast and Point Mugu State Park
The first great stop you can make along the way is only about 30 miles up the road from Los Angeles.
Malibu is known for being the home of many rich and famous Hollywood celebrities, but this small town also offers 21 miles of beautiful coastline.
Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, this town is in close proximity to both beautiful beaches and miles of mountain hiking trails.
It is easy to forget just how close you still are to Los Angeles here, as the town feels like a whole other world, completely surrounded by nature.
No matter whether you want to soak up some rays at the beach, go hiking in the mountains, or simply stop somewhere for lunch, Malibu might as well be a mandatory first stop on your trip.
However, it doesn’t stop there. Right next to Malibu is Point Mugu State Park.
With an additional 5 miles of beaches, 70 miles of hiking trails, and campsites that you can stay at.
If you are stopping in Malibu, there is no reason not to stop by, especially if you want to get a closer look at nature or camp for the night.
2. Santa Barbara
Just an hour and a half up the road from Los Angeles is Santa Barbara. Offering red tile roofs and beautiful ocean views, Santa Barbara is another great place to stop along your road trip. There are lots of things to do in Santa Barbara like going to the beach, shopping at the city’s many boutiques and stores, tasting wine from the local wineries or taking a kayak tour around the nearby Channel Islands National Park.
Some of the most beautiful places in the city include the Old Santa Barbara Mission, built-in 1786, and the Santa Barbara Courthouse, both of which showcase classic Spanish architectural style.
Santa Barbara is also home to Stearns Wharf, the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
And if you are in the mood to see some rare and indigenous plants, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden has 9 miles of trails through its 78 acres of gardens that contain over 1000 different species of plants.
No matter what you are in the mood to do, there is a great chance that you will find something to enjoy whether you stay for the night or only for a few hours.
A bit less than 2 hours up the road and just 11 miles off of the Pacific Coast Highway, is the small town of Solvang.
But Solvang is not just any small town.
Often referred to as the Danish Capital of America, this small town features classic Danish-style buildings including windmills.
The flower lined streets will make you feel like you’ve left the United States completely.
There are plenty of things to do in Solvang.
The town has an abundance of wineries, museums and shops and it is home to the historic Old Mission Santa Ines, built by Franciscan Missionaries in 1804.
Whether you like shopping, history, wine tasting, or simply enjoying the sights and sounds of this quaint Danish town, Solvang offers something for everyone and is a must-stop on your road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
4. Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Another 2 hours up the road, you’ll find the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery.
Located in San Simeon, California, the elephant seal rookery is part of the Piedras Blancas Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area and has two beaches that are frequently occupied by hundreds of elephant seals.
The best time to see the seals is in February during their mating season, however, there are other peak periods for seal sightings in April through May and September through November.
Keep this in mind when you are planning your road trip as you may not be able to see as many if any at all during the other times of the year.
The Elephant Seal Rookery is a great place to stop, especially if you just want a short break from driving to stop and look at the elephant seals.
However, if you want to spend a bit more time here and would like to hike along the coast, the north parking lot has the trailhead for a two mile hike to Point Piedras Blancas Beach which is also often covered with seals.
5. Hearst Castle
While you are in San Simeon, you might as well stop at Hearst Castle too.
Also known as La Cuesta Encantada, meaning enchanted hill in Spanish, this massive complex consists of the 115 room Casa Grande, a guest house, multiple pools, and 8 acres of decorative gardens.
Built by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his architect Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947.
Now a California State Park, the castle complex is huge and it is a delight to simply walk through the gardens around the estate.
The inside of the Casa Grande acts as a museum with all of the expensive oil paintings, marble statues, extravagant tapestries and exotic furniture that Hearst collected throughout his life.
There are several tours you can take that will show you the inside of the castle along with all of the priceless art and artifacts, and while walking around the estate you will be able to enjoy all of the beautiful views that come with being so high above the ocean.
There’s no doubt that this place is worth stopping for an hour or two.
6. Big Sur
Possibly the most famous section of the California coastline begins just north of San Simeon.
Big Sur, is considered one of the most scenic stretches of coastline in the United States and the world as a whole.
Stretching 71 miles from around San Simeon to just before the Carmel Highlands in the north, this section of the coast receives upwards of 6 million visitors a year, a number similar to Yosemite National Park.
One of the most beautiful places to stop along the Big Sur coast is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
The park features countless hiking trails, 500 year old redwood forests, and campsites to stay at if you’d like.
The most famous landmark in the park is McWay Falls which can be hiked to or simply seen from the road.
The waterfall is 80 feet high and empties from the top of its giant granite cliffs into the ocean.
It’s an absolute must see when passing through.
With all of the different trails to explore and stunning views to see, you could spend weeks wandering around this park, so I suggest stopping for at least a night to take in as much of the beauty as you can.
Another great stop is at the very edge of the northern tip of Big Sur.
Point Lobos Natural Reserve is considered to be the crown jewel of California’s State Parks.
This state park is home to incredibly diverse wildlife from both land and sea, including foxes, deer, bobcats, seals, sea otters, and gray whales, so this is a must stop for any nature lover.
There are a lot of beautiful trails that follow the shoreline and often lead to hidden coves, so even though you can’t camo or bike in the park, it is a place well worth spending a few hours exploring.
Just 4 miles up the road from Point Lobos Natural reserve is the quaint town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Full of art galleries, shops and restaurants, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a beautifully romantic European style town that is absolutely worth stopping in.
Known for its beautiful natural scenery and charming architecture, Carmel-by-the-Sea has an extensive artistic history.
It’s been home to many writers, artists and musicians and has even had a few famous mayors, including Clint Eastwood.
Besides walking along its quaint streets lined with boutiques and restaurants, or hanging out at its beaches, Carmel is also home to the Carmel Mission.
Built in 1770 by Franciscan Father.
Junipero Serra, the complex features beautiful gardens and courtyards and has a few museum galleries for those who want to get a closer look at some of the original art and artifacts.
The last great place to stop on your road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, is Monterey.
Once a prominent fishing town, one of the best parts of the city to explore is Cannery Row.
Cannery Row was originally home to a number of sardine canning factories, but as the sardines disappeared from the bay, so did all of the canning companies.
Nowadays, the old factories are occupied by different gift shops and restaurants, making it a great place to walk around and explore.
Another great place to check out in Monterey is the Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
Again speaking to Monterey’s fishing heritage, Old Fisherman’s Wharf served as an open air fish and seafood market up until the 1960s.
Now the wharf is lined with a plethora of gift shops and fresh seafood restaurants.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf is also the place where the whale watching tours and charter fishing boats leave from, so whether you want to eat some fresh seafood or see some local wildlife, Old Fisherman’s Wharf is the place to go.
However b y far the biggest and most famous attraction in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Monterey Bay Aquarium is the 6th largest aquarium in the world, and is home to thousands or different fish, marine mammals and other sea animals.
You’re able to observe all sorts of different ocean habitats including, open ocean, rocky shores, tide pools, and even kelp forests.
If you are even slightly interested in marine animals, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must see for children and adults alike.
The Fastest Route from Los Angeles to San Francisco
Whether you find yourself in a hurry, or are simply looking for a different route to travel, the interior route along I-5 is another great road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
For those who need to drive from one city to the next as quickly as possible, this route can get you there in as short as 6 hours, traffic permitting.
However, if you do have a bit of extra time and want to see some different parts of California along the way, I’ve included a few of my favorite places to stop below.
1. Six Flags Magic Mountain
If you are looking for some thrills, Six Flags MAgic Mountain is a fantastic place to stop for an action packed and fun filled day.
Known as the “Thrill Capital of the World”, the park boasts a world record 19 rollercoasters adding to the over 100 different rides, games, and other attractions.
Just an hour north of Los Angeles, there’s no reason that the park that was voted “America’s Best Theme Park” by readers of USA Today, shouldn’t be the first stop on your trip.
2. Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve
Just a few miles off of I-5 is the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve.
Located on the edge of the Mojave desert, each spring the most reliable poppy blooms in the state causing the preserve to explode with color.
The poppy preserve also boasts 8 miles of trails, so you can walk through and get up close and personal with all of the beautiful poppies.
The trails are great if you need to stretch your legs and get some much needed fresh air after being stuck for so long.
The wildflower season generally lasts from late February through May, so keep this in mind when planning your trip as you won’t see many poppies here throughout the rest of the year.
3. Lost Hills, The Last Place James Dean Stopped Before His Death
If you are interested in pop culture, history or just like James Dean, you can stop in Lost Hills, California to see the last place that James Dean stopped before he legendarily died in a car crash at the age of 24.
James Dean’s face is all over this little town and you can stop in a 50’s themed diner for some food if you’d like.
There aren’t too many other things to do here, but it’s definitely worth a short visit.
4. New Idria Ghost Town
If you are interested in California’s many ghost towns, a great stop about 4 hours up I-5 from Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve is New Idria Ghost Town.
Founded around 1857, the town was built to support the local New Idria Mercury Mine.
Eventually, in 1972, the mine closed and the town was abandoned.
Though the town’s decay has been accelerated by vandalism, you can still walk through and explore the ghost town’s 100 standing buildings.
So if you like history and would love to explore a real ghost town for yourself, this is definitely a great place to stop.
5. O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area
The last great place to stop on your way to San Francisco is the O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area.
Consisting of 700 acres of wildlife preserve, the forebay features 8 miles of artificial waterways and is home to countless wild deer and well over 100 different species of birds.
However, if 700 acres isn’t enough land for you to explore.
The O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area is next to the Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area, San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area and Pacheco State Park, all of which are filled with countless trails to hike and beautiful wildlife to see.
This is your last chance to get a deep dose of natural beauty before entering San Francisco, so take advantage of the opportunity and spend as much time exploring as you can.