The coastal route from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one of the most scenic roads to travel in all of California. Along the way, you’ll pass stunning beaches, serene redwoods, historic landmarks, cozy beach towns and so much more. We live on the California coast ourselves and try to do this route once a year.
In this guide, I’ve rounded up all the top stops, attractions, towns, and unique hidden gems to see along a road trip to San Francisco (by a local!).
So pack your bags and get ready to hit the open road! Going on a road trip is one of the best ways to explore this beautiful State.
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Renting a Car For a Road Trip From Los Angeles To San Francisco
The easiest, fastest, and most convenient way to go on a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco is in your own private rental car from Discover Cars. I’ve lived in California most of my adult life and this State is not exactly public transportation friendly. You’ll need a car to get around and reach all of the top destinations!
If you’re planning to rent a car for your road trip, Los Angeles is a great place to do so! Discover Cars has a lot of car rental choices & very affordable pricing.
Thinking of renting a campervan or RV for the first time? We recommend using our favorite van rental company Outdoorsy! Outdoorsy offers thousands of recreational vehicle rentals from popular cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and more.
Best Time For a Road Trip In California
California’s coast is known for having some of the best weather in all of the United States. Whether you’re planning a road trip in the spring, summer, fall, or winter – there is no such thing as a ‘bad time’ for traveling in California!
The peak travel times are in the summer months when you can expect a lot more people at attractions and parks.
If you want to enjoy the nice California weather, but avoid the crowds, we recommend going on a road trip from Los Angeles in the spring or fall. During these seasons the hotels and vacation home rentals are also much cheaper so you can often find great deals on accommodations!
What To Pack For a Road Trip
If you’re wondering what you should pack for a San Francisco road trip in a car, check out our post covering must-have road trip essentials here!
These are some of the basics that we recommend bringing along:
- Light Jacket. The weather on the California coast can be unpredictable and can change drastically throughout the day. When traveling to the coast it’s always colder than expected so pack a jacket that you can easily carry around and to the beach. I have an ultralight jacket that I bring in my backpack with me everywhere.
- Hiking shoes. I prefer wearing hiking shoes with extra grip that prevent me from slipping & falling especially in misty coastal conditions.
- Sunglasses. Sunglasses can help battle harsh sun when driving or heading outdoors. I like to use polarized sunglasses that protect my eyes from sun glare.
- Sunscreen. This is an absolute must for traveling in California. It’s easy to get sunburned even on foggy days!
- Lip Balm. Sitting in front of your car’s air-conditioner can make your lips feel very dry. Bring a lip balm to keep your lips moisturized.
- Portable phone charger. It’s always a good idea to bring a phone charger just in case your phone runs out of battery and you need to use it to look up directions.
- An emergency roadside tool kit can come in handy if your car breaks down in remote areas like Big Sur and you can’t call roadside assistance.
If you’re planning to rent a campervan, we have a WHOLE separate list covering 85 essentials that you should pack for a road trip in a van.
Best Stops On a Road Trip From Los Angeles To San Francisco:
1. Los Angeles
As the largest city in California, Los Angeles is known for its many exciting tourist attractions and sights. We lived in LA County during our 20s and there is always something fun to do!
If it’s your first time visiting Los Angeles, we recommend starting with:
- Hollywood. Hollywood is the entertainment business capital in the US. Here you can visit the world-famous Hollywood sign, Walk of Fame, and spend the day at Universal Studios Hollywood.
- Beverly Hills. A ritzy area with celebrity homes and luxurious shopping areas like the Rodeo Drive.
- Griffith Park. This park & observatory offers many hiking trails and one of the best views of Los Angeles!
- The Getty Center. If you enjoy museums and arts, head to the Getty Center. I love coming here for different exhibits and taking a stroll in the manicured gardens.
Not sure where to start? Check out this Los Angeles tour that will take you to the most iconic sights in LA, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and more!
2. Santa Monica
Santa Monica is a small, but busy coastal town just a short drive from Los Angeles. We recommend stopping by the Santa Monica Pier which is one of the most popular attractions in the area!
The Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier is not just your typical beach pier. Here you can find oceanfront roller coasters, arcades, a Ferris wheel, and delicious seafood restaurants.
In the evenings you can lounge on the beach and enjoy views of the Pier and its bright colors. Overall, this is a great stop for families with kids!
Downtown Santa Monica also has a large outdoor pedestrian mall that has many restaurant choices and stores. If you’re looking to do a bit of shopping, this is where you’ll want to go.
Other local attractions include:
- Palisades Park
- Tongva Park
- Santa Monica State Beach
Malibu is a small city that spans 30 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s known for being one of the nicest places to live in California with homes averaging 3.5 million dollars.
With miles and miles of coastline, Malibu offers an endless list of incredible beaches to visit. Our favorite is the El Matador State Beach which has scenic stairs leading down to hidden beach coves and unique rock formations. This is also a great spot for photography, especially for sunrise or sunset!
Malibu is also one of the best places in Southern California for hiking. A few of our favorite Malibu trails include:
Where To Stay In Malibu
Experience the beauty of the California Coast with one of these top places to stay in Malibu:
- Malibu Beach Inn. This luxurious four-star hotel sits right on the beach and is a short walk from the Malibu Pier. During your stay, you can pamper yourself at the CURE Daily Spa or enjoy a meal at the onsite restaurant.
- The Surfrider Malibu. This is an upscale boutique hotel that offers 20 rooms for a peaceful and relaxing stay. Guests especially love the rooftop bar and restaurant where you can enjoy views of the coast.
Ventura has been our home for the past couple of years, and it also happens to be a popular stop on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco!
Ventura itself is a small, charming coastal city but it offers plenty to see and do such as:
- Downtown Ventura. Ventura’s downtown has excellent restaurants and eateries. A few of our favorite places to dine include Rumfish y Vino and Lure Fish House for their fresh seafood.
- Ventura Pier. From downtown, you can easily walk over to the Ventura Pier where you can watch local surfers catching waves in the ocean.
- Surfers Point at Seaside Park. This is a peaceful beach to come watch the sunset.
- Serra Cross Park. An iconic park with one of the best views of the Ventura coastline from up top!
From Ventura, you can easily plan trips to nearby towns such as Ojai or go wine tasting at one of the local wineries.
Ventura is also one of the best spots in California for surfing. For beginner surfers, I recommend taking a surfing lesson with an experienced instructor to help you catch a wave, even if you’ve never been before!
5. Santa Barbara
With long stretches of sandy beaches, a charming downtown, gorgeous Spanish-style buildings, and swaying palm trees Santa Barbara is your quintessential California city.
Santa Barbara also produces some of the best wines in California! Santa Barbara is home to over 200 wineries so there are plenty of places in town where you can take a break from traveling for the night and enjoy some world-class wine tasting.
A few of the top sights in Santa Barbara include:
- Old Mission Santa Barbara 1786 – a historic 18th-century Spanish mission building.
- Stearns Warf – a pier with excellent seafood restaurants and wildlife-watching opportunities.
- State Street. State Street is a beautiful street that runs through downtown Santa Barbara. Along both sides of the street, you can find great restaurants, dessert shops, and boutique clothing stores.
- Funk Zone. This is our favorite place to go in town for eateries with fun outdoor patios and craft beers.
Where To Stay In Santa Barbara
Here are some of the best hotels in Santa Barbara for a stay near the beach:
- La Playa Inn Santa Barbara. La Playa Inn Santa Barbara is a highly-rated hotel with raving reviews for its friendly staff and excellent facilities. It’s possible to book standard rooms as well as family-friendly suites that can accommodate up to four guests.
- Hotel Californian. This five-star hotel is just steps away from the ocean! Hotel Californian is brimming with upscale comforts that include an outdoor pool, an onsite spa, and easy access to local restaurants.
Solvang is a unique Danish town that is like nothing else! It is nicknamed the ‘The Danish Capital of America’ due to the European bakeries, restaurants, windmills, and Danish-style architecture that you can experience here.
This charming town started building Danish-style houses in the 1950s and soon after became a popular tourist destination. It’s sort of like going to a mini-Disneyland (but for free!).
A few of the must-do things in Solvang include:
- Old Mission Santa Ines 1804
- Hans Christian Andersen Museum
- Wildling Museum
- Solvang Trolley
- Trying aebleskiver – a delicious Danish pancake pastry
For a fun way to explore Solvang and learn more about its history, check out this Guided Pedicab Tour of Solvang with Wine Tasting!
7. Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach is known as one of the best Central Coast stops for its striking ocean views, sandy shorelines, and beachfront hiking trails. In Pismo Beach, you can also rent an ATV to ride around the sand dunes which is such a fun activity!
A few of the top attractions in Pismo Beach include:
- Pismo Beach Pier & Plaza – here you can snap a photo in front of the iconic ‘Pismo Beach Pier’ sign.
- Monarch Butterfly Grove – best visited in the winter months between October to February.
- Dinosaur Caves Park – a beautiful oceanfront park that is a great place for bird-watching.
- Oceano Dunes – at Oceano Dunes you can drive your car on the beach. A unique experience that you can’t do anywhere else in California!
- Old West Cinnamon Rolls – this little family-operated dessert shop has been in business since 1972 selling THE best cinnamon rolls on the coast. I always stop here whenever I am driving through the area!
If you’re up for stretching your legs, the Spring To Spring Trail at Pismo Preserve is a beautiful oceanfront trail that offers incredible views of the entire Pismo Beach coastline.
Where To Stay In Pismo Beach
Here are some of the best places to stay in Pismo Beach:
- SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel. This is considered to be one of the top hotels in Pismo Beach thanks to its prime location next to the ocean. Each room is furnished in a bright and elegant style with modern touches.
- Pismo Lighthouse Suites. Pismo Lighthouse Suites has 70 spacious newly renovated suites that are perfect for a family getaway. This family-oriented hotel offers plenty to keep the kids occupied including an outdoor swimming pool and a playground along with a tennis court, putting green, ping pong table, badminton, and life-size chess.
8. San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo (also known as SLO) is a small, charming town that’s easily accessible while driving on a road trip from LA to San Francisco. We often stop here to enjoy lunch at one of our favorite local eateries such as SLO Provisions and At Bites Vietnamese restaurant.
A few of the top attractions to visit in SLO include the quirky Madonna Inn, historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and the Bubblegum Alley.
Set in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, there are plenty of amazing hiking and mountain biking areas in SLO such as the Irish Hills Natural Reserve.
Where To Stay In San Luis Obispo
Here are some of the best places to stay in San Luis Obispo:
- San Luis Creek Lodge. This stylish lodge is one of the most beautiful boutique hotels in all of California! San Luis Creek Lodge features king and queen standards furnished with mid-century modern decor, locally sourced art, and fun wallpaper.
- Hotel San Luis Obispo. This contemporary hotel is within walking distance of Mission San Luis Obispo and features beautiful rooms. Onsite you can enjoy fantastic amenities including a swimming pool, a hot tub, a fitness center, and a bar.
9. Morro Bay
Morro Bay is another sleepy town on the Central Coast. It’s not as busy as Pismo Beach, yet it offers plenty of landmarks, hiking trails, and sightseeing opportunities.
The biggest attraction of Morro Bay is Morro Rock, a tall volcanic plug that you can spot from anywhere in town. Morro Bay is also known for fresh, drool-worthy seafood so it’s a great spot to stop for lunch on the waterfront Embarcadero strip.
A few other popular things to do in Morro Bay include:
- Hiking Black Hill Trail. You can either hike or drive to the top of Black Hill for panoramic views overlooking Morro Bay.
- Camping. Morro Bay has two popular campgrounds that offer camping sites next to the beach – Morro Strand State Beach Campground and Morro Bay State Park Campground. This is a great option if you plan to rent a campervan or an RV for your road trip.
- Morro Bay T Pier (Otter Viewing Area). This is an excellent spot to go for wildlife viewing. Here you can observe sea otters floating in the water with small babies sleeping on their stomachs – the cutest thing you’ll ever see!
Where To Stay In Morro Bay
Here are some of the best hotels to stay in Morro Bay:
- Gray’s Inn & Gallery. Gray’s Inn & Gallery is known as one of the top hotels in Morro Bay, thanks to its location overlooking calm ocean waters and the marina. There are three different suites available to choose from, two of which are one bedroom and the other a studio.
- Estero Inn. Estero Inn is a sophisticated Morro Bay hotel known for its prime location. This boutique hotel sits along the water’s edge in the heart of Morro Bay and boasts cozy accommodations and views of Morro Rock.
10. San Simeon
San Simeon is a hidden little gem on the Central California coast. This town is known for spectacular views of rugged coastal cliffs, the San Simeon Pier, and the fascinating Hearst Castle.
Hearst Castle is a grand estate that was built by William Randolph Hearst in 1919. The Hearst Castle is like no other estate in California and consists of towers, guest houses, 127 acres of manicured gardens, elaborate water fountains, and pools.
Visitors traveling Highway 1 can stop by Hearst Castle Museum and head on a tour to explore the historic rooms, suites, cottages, and other works of art featured here.
11. Elephant Seal Vista Point
If you enjoy wildlife viewing, Elephant Seal Viewpoint is a must! This is an especially great stop for families with kids where you can view Elephant Seals up close.
Elephant seals were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s but now have repopulated due to preservation and volunteer efforts. This viewpoint is free to visit and there are many information signs where you can learn more about these large animals.
For protection purposes, visitors are not allowed to walk down on the beach. You can observe the elephant seals from a safe distance along the wooden walkways and viewing platforms set up on top of the bluffs.
12. Ragged Point Inn & Resort
Ragged Point Inn And Resort is situated at the beginning of Big Sur and is an excellent spot to stop for lunch, stretch your legs at the beautiful hotel grounds, and peep through the Portal to Big Sur art piece at the rugged coastline.
This location offers several eateries from quick-to-go food options to the fine-dining Ragged Point Restaurant. If you need to fill up on gas before heading into Big Sur, there is a gas station on site along with a small convenience store.
13. McWay Falls
McWay Falls is one of the most popular stops on a California coastal road trip. This stunning beachfront waterfall is situated within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and there is a small $10 fee to visit it.
After parking in the visitor lot, you can take a short 5-minute walk down to the viewing area of the waterfall. It’s best to visit McWay Falls on a clear day, otherwise, the view of the waterfall might be obstructed by a dense fog.
From the overlook, you can observe this scenic 80-foot-tall waterfall that flows down an ocean cliff into a small cove next to the beach. There are only two beachfront waterfalls in California – the McWay Falls and Alamere Falls in Marin County. This is truly a unique attraction that you don’t get to experience very often!
Where To Stay In Big Sur
Due to the remote location, Big Sur has limited accommodation choices. A few of the best places to stay in Big Sur include:
- Big Sur Lodge. This resort & campground is situated at the center of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The Big Sur Lodge offers excellent amenities such as onsite dining, a bar, and a camp store for all-in-one convenience!
- Big Sur River Inn. This family-friendly lodge is surrounded by a forest and has a relaxing river-front seating area with chairs half-immersed in the water. There is also a seasonal swimming pool, sun deck, restaurant, and a general store on site.
14. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is located in a remote section of the Big Sur coastline and is a great place to visit if you want to get away from the crowd.
At this State Park, you can enjoy a variety of trails that lead through ancient redwoods. From this State Park, you can easily drive down to Pfeiffer Beach to see the stunning Keyhole Arch rock formation.
If you’re planning to do the road trip in a campervan rental, we recommend staying at the Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground for a night. This is one of the most beautiful campgrounds in California where you can stay in spacious campsites tucked away amongst ancient redwood trees.
15. Bixby Creek Bridge
The Bixby Creek Bridge is an essential stop on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco! This bridge was built in 1932 so people traveling up and down Highway 1 could cross Bixby Creek River safely.
Bixby Creek is one of the tallest single-arch bridges in the world. Due to its interesting look, Bixby Creek is an excellent spot to stop for photography while driving through Big Sur.
After parking in the small visitor lot, you can walk down a dirt trail to take in the full view of the bridge. Seeing the Bixby Bridge for the first time will truly take your breath away!
Pssst! I use the Sony a7c camera for my travel photos. This is the smallest and lightest full-frame camera available on the market – perfect for traveling, hiking, and road trips!
16. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of the most gorgeous places that you can visit along the coastal drive. This Natural Reserve is located slightly south of Carmel and marks the ending (or starting) point of the Big Sur region.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is known for serene oceanfront trails, stunning viewpoints, wildlife sighting opportunities, and hidden turquoise coves. It’s well worth setting aside an hour or two to visit this natural reserve and hike a few of its trails.
Note: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve does not allow dogs, even if you don’t plan to take them out of the car. It costs $10 per car to visit this reserve.
Situated on a small peninsula, Monterey is one of the top cities to visit on the California coastal drive. Due to the city’s size and convenient location, many people also stop in Monterey for the night before or after traveling into Big Sur.
There are so many great things to do in Monterey including:
- Monterey Bay Aquarium – a wonderful place to visit for families with little kids.
- Old Fisherman’s Wharf – a historic wharf and fish market where you can get some excellent fresh seafood right out of the water!
- Lover’s Point Beach. This scenic beach consists of large boulders and turquoise blue water.
Monterey is also one of the best places for whale watching in all of California! From Monterey, you can arrange 3-hour or half-day whale-watching tours to experience seeing whales, dolphins, and sea lions up close.
18. Santa Cruz
Many people stop by Santa Cruz while traveling along the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. Santa Cruz is known for being a vibrant, quirky community that’s set right on the coast.
A few of the best things to do in Santa Cruz include spending time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, visiting the Natural Bridges State Beach, and browsing through shops at the Santa Cruz Wharf.
Santa Cruz also offers easy access to nearby redwood State Parks including:
- The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
- Fall Creek Unit
- Portola Redwoods State Park
Where To Stay In Santa Cruz
If you plan to stop in Santa Cruz for the night, these are some of the best places to stay in town:
- Beach Street Inn and Suites. This is one of the best hotels in Santa Cruz thanks to its location overlooking Main Beach. Some of the top local attractions such as the Boardwalk and the Warf are just a short walk from the hotel.
- Dream Inn Santa Cruz. Dream Inn Santa Cruz is a luxurious surf-inspired four-star hotel. The rooms are filled with stylish, modern décor and come with views of the Pacific Ocean.
Read Next: 8 Best Breweries To Try Out In Santa Cruz
Felton is one of the most underrated towns along the West Coast and my personal favorite. Here you can visit and walk amongst some of the oldest and tallest redwood trees in the world.
Some of the top things to do in Felton include:
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. This park covers over 4650 acres of protected redwood forests. If you’re short on time, I recommend hiking the mile-long Redwood Grove Loop Trail where you can visit trees that are 2000 years old and 300 feet tall!
- Roaring Camp. Roaring Camp is situated next to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and offers train rides through one of the oldest redwood preserves in California.
- The Mystery Spot. The Mystery Spot is one of the most fun & quirky things to do in the area. The main attraction of the Mystery Spot is a crooked cabin that appears to be gravity-defying!
Where To Stay In Felton
Here are some of the best places to stay in Felton:
- Fern River Resort. Whenever we are visiting Felton, we always stay at the Fern River Resort. The Fern River Resort is nestled in a serene redwood property off Highway 9 ensuring easy access to the nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, local restaurants, and shops.
- Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort. For RV and campervan travelers, we highly recommend the Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort. Here you can stay in spacious campsites surrounded by majestic redwood trees while also enjoying comfortable amenities such as restrooms, hot showers, a clubhouse, and private access to the nearby San Lorenzo River.
20. San Francisco
Last, but not least is your final destination – San Francisco. With a population of over 800,000 people, San Francisco is one of the largest cities in California.
I recently took my mom to San Francisco for the first time. You’d be surprised to know how many people live in California their entire lives and never make it out here!
If it’s your first time visiting San Francisco, we recommend starting with these attractions:
- Union Square. This is the main plaza of the city where you can do a bit of window shopping. In the winter Union Square displays an enormous Christmas tree, an ice skating ring, and fun Holiday events.
- Golden Gate Bridge. Every time I see the Golden Gate Bridge, it still takes my breath away! Golden Gate Bridge is a giant red 746-foot-tall suspension bridge that connects San Francisco with the rest of Northern California.
- Pier 39. Pier 39 is a popular waterfront pier where you can do some souvenir shopping, wildlife sightseeing, and indulge in fresh seafood. From here you can also head on a tour of the nearby Alcatraz Island.
- Lombard Street. This is a short, windy street with many tight hairpin turns. If you dare, you can drive down this street in your own vehicle!
- Chinatown. If you’re a foodie, you’ll love San Francisco’s Chinatown. I recommend checking out Begoni Bistro Dim Sum & Wok for their delicious Peking Duck and steamed shrimp dumplings.
San Francisco is a large city that is pretty spread out and has limited parking. Instead of paying for Uber or driving yourself, sign up for this fun GoCar San Francisco Tour!
These GoCars are easy to drive and come with guided navigation so you can learn more about San Francisco as you explore the town.
Where To Stay In San Francisco
I recommend choosing a central hotel so you can easily walk around and not worry about driving.
- Palihotel San Francisco. This is where we stayed on our latest visit to San Francisco. Palihotel is situated a couple of blocks from Union Square so we were able to reach all the top attractions within a short walk. Palihotel is a boutique hotel with luxurious rooms and unique, retro decorations throughout.
- CitizenM San Francisco Union Square. CitizenM is a vibrant hotel at the center of San Francisco’s downtown. The hotel offers excellent amenities including free WiFi, an onsite restaurant, à la carte breakfast, and a fitness center for those who can’t miss a day at the gym.
Ready to hit the open road? Going on a road trip is such a great way to disconnect from our busy daily lives and explore new places.
We hope this itinerary has inspired you to add a few new stops while driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco!
To help you more with trip planning, here are some frequently asked questions about traveling this route:
What Is The Most Scenic Route From Los Angeles To San Francisco?
If you’re looking for a scenic route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Highway 1 will be your best option!
This highway travels next to the coast and the Pacific Ocean passing charming towns, redwood forests, waterfalls, and other beautiful landmarks.
How Long Is The Road Trip From LA To San Francisco?
The route from Los Angeles to San Francisco is nearly 500 miles long. Without traffic and any stops, it takes about 10-12 hours to complete it. Even if you don’t plan to do any sightseeing, just adding bathroom & food breaks automatically extends this route into a 2-day drive.
I’ve done this drive many times and it travels pretty slowly because a large portion of it passes through Big Sur which has windy, narrow roads. These roads are very dangerous and should be driven with caution.
If you plan to stop at any of the main attractions and towns, I recommend setting aside 2-4 days for a road trip from LA to San Francisco.
Where Should I Stop Driving From Los Angeles To San Francisco?
Some of the must-see stops while driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco are:
- Santa Barbara
- Pismo Beach
- Morro Bay
- Elephant Seal Vista Point
- Big Sur
- Golden Gate Bridge
Here are a few other popular California travel posts that you may like: