California Road Trip: Los Angeles To San Francisco Drive
Los Angeles to San Francisco Drive | Written by Brian Callender & Julie Boyd | Photography by Julie Boyd
California is at its best along the coast. Rolling green hills come to an abrupt end and crumble into the ocean along an endless stretch of coastline. Fog ebbs and flows over the beaches and wraps itself over mountains of redwood forests. Warm days are filled with dewy, salty air and the sound of gulls echoing in the distance.
CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: 7 DAYS
If you haven’t made the Los Angeles to San Francisco drive along the coast, it is calling to you. Pack up the car, and grab your sense of adventure as we explore an itinerary to some of our favorite spots along Highway 1.
Day 1: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara
With a full tank of gas and plenty of snacks for the road, make your way north on the 101 freeway toward Ventura. When driving through the L.A. area, always anticipate that you will run into some variation of traffic! If you’re leaving on a weekday, it’s best to depart either before rush hour begins at 6:00 a.m. or when it begins to dissipate at 10:00 a.m. Keep in mind the evening traffic will begin to form around 2:00 p.m.
Without traffic, you can expect to arrive in the Ventura area in about two hours. Ventura is a quirky little beach town and worth a stop. Some highlights of the town include the Channel Islands National Park visitor’s center, Surfer’s Points, and Harbor Village.
About 20 minutes ahead, is the city of Santa Barbara, a fun college town with plenty to explore.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara:
There are a number of hotel and B&B options in Santa Barbara, so this is a good place to stop for the day. When we visit the area, we like to stay in Santa Ynez, which is about 30 minutes north, and in wine country.
What to do in Santa Barbara:
1. Check out the Wineries: There are 120+ wineries in the area to visit.
2. Explore Downtown: There are tons of shops and restaurants in this vibrant beach city.
3. Visit Solvang: This little Danish town is a popular destination for travelers to the area. Here, you’ll find cute Danish buildings, delicious pastries, and even a windmill! Since the town is small, you can see it in just a few hours.
Day 2: Santa Barbara to Big Sur
Get an early jump-start on your day, by hitting the road and stopping for breakfast in San Luis Obispo at the unique, Madonna Inn. From there, you’ll separate from the 101 freeway which heads inland, and instead switch over to California 1 or Pacific Coast Highway.
Just an hour north make your next stop at Hearst Castle. Plan to spend several hours at the castle, and be sure to make a reservation in advance as tours are quite popular. We highly recommend the Upstairs Tour as it was less crowded than the Grand Rooms Tour on our visit, and provided a more in-depth look at the estate.
After you’ve had your fill at Hearst Castle, continue up Highway 1 as it winds along the beautiful coastline. Don’t miss some of our favorite spots in Big Sur including McWay Falls and the iconic Bixby Bridge.
Have a late lunch and pint at Big Sur Taphouse, or dinner at one of the many restaurants with a view. Be sure to catch the sunset at Pfeiffer Beach’s Keyhole Arch, a photographer’s dream!
Where to Stay in Big Sur
There are a number of options if you decide to spend a night or two in Big Sur, from hotels to cabins to campgrounds. The hotels in the area are a bit on the pricey side, so on our trip we opted to stay in nearby Monterey, which is about an hour north. There are also some affordable accommodations in Caramel.
Days 3-5: Explore Big Sur and Monterey
Wherever you decide to stay, we recommend you spend at least two days in Big Sur and Monterey. There is quite a bit to explore in each location and this itinerary could easily be expanded even further if needed.
What to do in Big Sur:
Check out this post for a driving guide, and this one for more details on our favorite things to do in Big Sur. Below is a short list of our favorite things to do.
1. Hike the Ewoldsen Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: You’ll be treated to scenic views of the coastline after hiking through gorgeous redwoods.
2. Explore Point Lobos State Reserve: This is a great alternative to doing to 17-Mile Drive. There are several easy hiking trails that take you along the shoreline and through groves of cypress trees. You may even encounter deer there like we did while exploring this stunning reserve!
3. Watch the Sunset at McWay Falls: No trip to Big Sur would be complete with a visit to the overlook for McWay Falls. It’s amazing every time we visit!
What to do in Monterey:
1. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium: A must-do if you are interested in having a peak at life under the sea, or seeing sea otters up close.
2. Walk the Path of History: Only two miles long, the path is easily identifiable by the yellow markers in the ground. You’ll get a nice tour of the city, see some historic buildings, and may even learn a thing or two.
3. Sample clam chowder from all of the restaurants along the touristy Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
4. Grab a beer at the Alvarado Street Brewery.
For more details on what to do in Monterey, visit this page.
Days 6-7: Monterey to San Francisco
Bid farewell to Monterey and head north on Highway 1. Stop for a breakfast burrito in Santa Cruz, and take a walk along the boardwalk. From there, you can take the coastal route, and continue North on Highway 1 to San Francisco. Points of interest include Shark Fin Cove, Half Moon Bay, and the famous Maverick’s Beach.
If you have time, we recommend you take a short detour on Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Jose. Points of Interest include Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and The Winchester Mystery House. If you are looking to stretch your legs at this point, we recommend hiking to Berry Creek Falls or Mission Peak.
The two of us love San Francisco with its cool weather, endless dining options, quirky neighborhoods, and a huge list of must visit destinations.
Where to Stay in San Francisco:
There are no shortage of options in the city, though it can certainly be pricey. Our advice is to find something that is centrally located to all of the action. A good place to start is Union Square, which is pretty central and provides a number of hotel and dining options. Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist hot spot and will certainly be crowded, but is something to consider if you’re traveling with a family.
Wherever you choose to stay, keep in mind that parking in the city is expensive. Street parking can be an option, though you may have to park on one of the city’s many hills! A third option is to stay outside of the city and take public transit in via the BART or CalTrain. There are some great hotel selections near Burlingame Station, which is also near the San Francisco Airport.
What to do in San Francisco:
Certainly not an exhaustive list since there are so many things to do in and around the city! Here are some good places to start.
1. Walk or Bike the Golden Gate Bridge: It’s the iconic symbol of the city and everyone should try all three forms of transportation at least once. There’s a good chance the bridge will be crowded if you visit during peak times of day and you may even encounter some of the famous fog.
2. Indulge in a Chocolate Sundae at Ghirardelli Square: If you like chocolate like we do, then you’ll want to enjoy the deliciousness on display here. Grab a sundae and a seat.
3. Take in Fisherman’s Wharf: Definitely a tourist trap, but if you’ve never been to Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s worth a visit.
4. Lombard Street: Affectionately known as the “world’s crookedest street,” this is another tourist hot spot worth visiting at least once. Aim for a weekday and off-peak hours and you may actually be able to enjoy the short drive down.
5. Escape to Alcatraz: Take a boat across the bay to tour this famous former prison. Remember to book tickets in advance!
6. Go to the top of Coit Tower: The 210 foot tower is another iconic marker in the city, and a popular destination for visitors since it’s opening in 1933. Parking is limited, so be prepared to wait for a spot. Admission is $2-8 depending on your age.
7. Grab a slice of pizza in Little Italy: Every neighborhood in San Francisco is brimming with delectable eats, and it’s hard to go wrong wherever you choose to go. Since Julie and I both have Italian roots, we loved eating in North Beach, and had some tasty pizza at Tony’s Slice House.
8. Visit Sausalito: Get out of the city and head across the Golden Gate Bridge to this cute town on the water. It’s a good and popular bike ride from San Francisco and there are a number of quality dining options.
9. Explore the Redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument: Another destination outside of the city, and one in which you can stretch your hiking legs a bit. Since much of the monument is easily accessible, expect to find crowds if you come during peak times of day. On our visit, we parked at the top of Muir Woods and hiked down to avoid cars in the main lot.
10. Visit Land’s End: Parking is hard to come by at this location, but if you can snag a spot there is a ton to walk around and see at Land’s End. Don’t miss the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or the opportunity to walk along one of the many hiking trails to see coastal views and a different perspective of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Los Angeles to San Francisco Drive: EXTENDING YOUR TRIP
There are so many wonderful places to explore beyond Los Angeles to San Francisco drive. Here are some ideas for extending your trip in the Golden State.
NORTH OF SAN FRANCISCO
Drive out to Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes Station lies about an hour north of San Francisco, and then it’s about another 45 minutes out to the lighthouse. Along the way you’ll be treated to views of coastal cattle pastures, and can make stops at Instagram worthy locations like the famous shipwreck, and the Cypress Tree Tunnel. If you have extra time, stop at Cowgirl Creamery to sample some delicious cheeses.
Visit the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa. Some of the best beers in the world are made here, including the famous Pliny the Elder and the elusive Pliny the Younger. The brew pub also serves some delicious food and we highly recommend the pizza. 🙂
Take a drive through wine country and visit Napa and Sonoma. In addition to tasting delicious vintages, this region is known for its culinary scene. In Sonoma, we recommend visiting Vella Cheese, and picking up some baked treats at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville.
Visit Redwoods National and State Parks. If you have a few extra days on your Los Angeles to San Francisco drive, and don’t mind putting more miles on your car, you might consider heading all the way up to the top of California to visit Redwoods National and State Parks. Eureka is roughly five hours north of Sonoma, and the scenery along the way is breathtaking.
Explore the Shasta-Cascade Region. Two of our favorite hikes, Castle Dome, and Heart Lake are located in the Shasta-Redding region of Northern California. Redding is a great town to stay in if you are interested in going on adventures to Castle Crags State Park, Lake Shasta, Burney Falls, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and more.
SIDE TRIPS IN CENTRAL CALIFORNIA
Visit Pinnacles National Park. For National Park enthusiasts, stay an extra day in Monterey and drive over to Pinnacles National Park. We recommend visiting through the East Entrance and hiking the Bear Gulch – High Peaks Loop, which will take about an hour and 20 minutes of driving to reach.
Drive to Lake Tahoe. Ski Resorts, casinos, and quiet cabins surround this sapphire blue lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There is something for everyone here, and depending on the season, you can hit the slopes or relax on the sandy shores or Tahoe.
Head to Yosemite National Park. Our favorite place in the state is about a four-hour drive from San Francisco. Whether you have never been, or go regularly, a side-trip to Yosemite on any vacation is always tempting.
Walk among giants in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Another beautiful series of National Parks lies just south of Yosemite. If you are making the Los Angeles to San Francisco drive, you may also consider swinging through these parks to gaze at the largest trees in the world.
SOUTH OF LOS ANGELES
Start in San Diego. San Diego is a fun region to explore, and you could easily spend several days there and not see everything. If you have just one day, we recommend starting your day with breakfast in the Gaslamp District, visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, taking in a sunset in La Jolla, and having dinner at Bronx Pizza.
Visit Orange County. If you are not from Southern California, you might consider spending a day or two in this area before beginning your Los Angeles to San Francisco drive. Disneyland is a popular choice for theme park enthusiasts. We also recommend taking a drive along PCH and stopping in some of the beach cities. Laguna Beach is a favorite for views, and Newport Beach has a vibrant surf culture. Don’t forget to have a famous Original Frozen Banana on Balboa Island!
Take in the sights of Los Angeles. L.A. is another stop that you could spend some serious time in depending on your interests. Having grown up in Southern California, the “Hollywood” sights have lost their glamour for us. We do enjoy visiting some of the museums like The Getty and The Huntington Library, going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and there are tons of cool little neighborhoods to explore and grab a bite to eat in like Koreatown, Pasadena, and Venice Beach. Long Beach is another great city in L.A. County, as it is home to The Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific. If you are fond of hiking adventures like us, consider heading to the San Gabriel Mountains for a day hike. Here are some of our favorites: Southern California Day Hikes
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29 thoughts on “California Road Trip: Los Angeles To San Francisco Drive”
I have dreammmms of going to California and doing this roadtrip! You hit up some of the places on my list! Great post!
Thank you! I hope you get to visit soon!
Oh my gosh your photos are stunning! All of these places look incredible. Big Sur and San Franscico are top on my list for sure. What kind of camera do you use girl? You are so talented!
I appreciate that, Viola. I use a Canon 6D. I actually have a post about all of my gear in the photography section of the site.
I definitely want to do a California road trip now that I live in Arizona – it’s so close! I have been thinking I would go in winter to avoid crowds and based on your article, that seems like a great idea. Thanks for sharing this itinerary, I’ll definitely refer back to it when i get around to planning my trip!
Thanks Leigh! Winter is the perfect time, just do go the week between Christmas and New Years because all of the schools are out on holiday and it does get crowded. We made that mistake one year when visiting Big Sur. Haha! I hope you get to visit soon!
The scenery in California is so amazing! I’ve been dreaming of road tripping the coast just like this for years. Yosemite is near the top of my bucket list, and seeing it in winter with all that snow would be incredible.
It is so magical to be there when it snows!
This is ultimate guide for california road trip.I am yet to visit here but this post is such gem for planning it well.
Thanks for sharing.
You’re welcome! I am glad you found it useful!
This may come out wrong. But I think if the images of the US that make it abroad are as diverse as this and show this quirky down to earth odds and ends, and these outdoor curiousness, the interesting ‘normalness’, rather than the high powered big city life or the desperately aspirational Hollywoodesque lifestyles, or the caricatured rural belt, people in the rest of the world would find a lot more to relate to with Americans. I think these are great photos – but the best part of this collection is how *likeable* they come across! Like having a friend drag you around the country when you visit from abroad.
Thanks Teja! I think most Americans are very different than how they are portrayed in the media. That is actually probably true of most countries though. Of course, it also depends on where we are from. It is is big country!
This is so fantastically comprehensive!! I’ve always wanted to do 2-week California road trip and you covered most of the spots I want to see! I’m planning to get a parks pass in 2019, so I’ll definitely save this for when I’m finally planning my trip!
The National Park Pass is such a great deal. We buy one every year!
Wow, California seems to get more and more scenic the more north you go. The photography is brilliant!
I can’t get over how gorgeous every single picture is! We tagged along my husband’s business trip to California and only did a bit of what it offers, but we had a fantastic time and will definitely be back to experience more… maybe in the winter too… it was SO HOT when we were there!! LOL!
Thank you so much! Yes, it can get very hot! Usually it is much more mild in the winter, but sometimes we get random heat waves. I always tell people that it is normal for the weather to not be normal in California. LOL! 🙂
Yosemite in the winter looks spectacular! I’ve never visited the state of California but this guide is really detailed, I can tell a lot of hard work went into producing the post! I’d love to see the giant sequoias and redwoods up close and personal!
I love this post! My dream roadtrip is from San Fran to Monteray. I haven’t been anywhere in this area yet and this post has provided tonnes of information on what to do and see and where to stay. Now I just need 2 weeks off work and the border to open up!
Thanks Kelly! San Francisco to Monterey is a great trip, and really the whole coastal drive is well worth the visit. Hopefully you get a chance to visit California soon!
There is just SO much to see and visit in California, a road trip is a great idea! This is such a useful article, saving for later!
Thanks Laurel! And we have a lot to see in do here in California, we hope you make it out here soon to explore for yourself!
I took this road trip many many years ago and this post inspires me to do it again sometime soon! I love the side trips in central California that you recommend because I didn’t know about those. Thanks for the interesting and informative post and your images are STUNNING!!!
Thank you Michelle! It’s great to hear that we inspired you to want to do this road trip again and experience some new places! There is so much beauty in our home state and we would love for others to be able to experience it as we do.
I have been to most of the attractions you mention, but I was not aware of Keyhole Arch and McWay Falls. Your photos are fantastic!
I would have probably added the Santa Barbara beaches, El Presidio de Santa Barbara and Old Mission Santa Barbara to the list.
We took a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco a few years ago, but it was not such an elaborate one like the one you described here. 🙂 Love all the places you suggested to break the trip for. Also, beautiful photos.
Thanks Pubali! We’re glad you had the opportunity to make this drive in the past and hope you get a chance to come back again and check out some of the additional spots!