Though it is a relatively short distance, making some stops on the LA to San Diego drive can turn a boring slog on the 5 into an interesting road trip along the beautiful Pacific Ocean.
Driving up the California coast is something that everyone should try to do at some point in their lifetime. Unfortunately, sometimes embarking upon a complete San Diego to San Francisco road trip or even up north towards Portland & Seattle isn’t a viable choice for everyone — whether you’re pressed for time or only have a limited California travel budget.
However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy some of the highlights of a longer trip along the Pacific Coast Highway by treating the short drive to San Diego from Los Angeles as a fun road trip in and of itself.
Because Southern California is quite densely populated, there are numerous fun and interesting stops that you could make when driving from Los Angeles to San Diego that you could easily spend a number of days on this drive alone.
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How Far is San Diego from Los Angeles?
The distance on the drive from LA to San Diego is about 120 miles (193 kilometres) and while it should only take about 2 hours non-stop in a car without traffic, it can be very worth taking the time to get out of the car and explore what lies between these two vibrant and dynamic cities over a day or two.
Keep in mind that, if you do make some of the stops on this list, it will add to your overall drive time as you will be diverting from the I-5 and onto some smaller, surface streets.
Best Route to Take on the LA to San Diego Drive
The most common route to take when embarking on an LA to San Diego road trip is along the I-5, the interstate freeway that starts at the Mexican border and goes all the way to Canada.
While taking the 5 is certainly convenient, the majority of it will take you through boring, inland suburbs and it can often be so packed with traffic you could be forgiven for mistaking it as a parking lot.
Though you are certainly going to need to drive at least a portion of your journey along the 5, it isn’t entirely necessary to take it (or any interstate, for that matter) the entire way.
A far better and more scenic option would be to take the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1, from Los Angeles until it ends (or begins depending on which direction you’re driving!) in South Orange County.
If you take the PCH for the majority of your drive, it is far easier to treat the journey as a road trip. There are numerous interesting stops you can make and the drive along the coast is one of the most beautiful in the state.
Of course, you’re going to need to have a car to go on the San Diego to Los Angeles drive and if you are looking to rent one for your trip, you can’t go wrong with booking through RentalCars.com. This platform aggregates prices across most major companies to ensure that you get a great rate on your rental car.
Alternatively, you can hire a campervan or RV through Outdoorsy to save on accommodation costs and to enjoy the freedom of being on a road trip.
LA to San Diego Road Trip Stops
If you want to take the monotony out of the traditionally boring trip from Los Angeles to San Diego, then make sure to explore the beautiful coastal area that lies between these two Southern California cities.
Most of these stops lie within Orange County, where I had the pleasure of living for several years. So this article will be packed with some first-hand local knowledge and a few hidden spots that are well off the typical tourist trail.
Stops in this list are listed from north to south, however, if you want to make all of them, it would only really be possible if you chose to spend the night somewhere along the way.
The halfway point between LA and San Diego would be in South Orange Country, so look for accommodation around the cities of San Clemente, Dana Point, or Laguna Beach.
1. Huntington Beach
If you’re driving to San Diego, the first stop outside of LA County along the PCH will be beautiful Huntington Beach, which is about as far north as you can get in Orange County.
Colloquially known as “Surf City USA,” Huntington Beach is the quintessential California surf town and possesses one of the biggest and most beautiful beaches in the greater Los Angeles area. If you’re interested in taking in some sea air and chilled-out beachy vibes, then Huntington Beach is the perfect stop for you.
Besides the seemingly endless expanse of beach here, take the time to stroll down the iconic Huntington Beach pier, dip your toes in the water, and maybe try your hand at surfing. There are numerous surf schools in Huntington and it is a fantastic place to learn how to catch some waves.
There are also a lot of shops to browse and some great restaurants if you’re looking for a bite to eat. Like elsewhere in Southern California, taco stalls are particularly popular in HB and you can find some really good places here.
The beach area is located on the Pacific Coast Highway, however, if you want to browse some shops or find a nice cafe or restaurant, then take a stroll down Main Street, which has most of the businesses in HB.
2. Newport Beach
Drive south along Highway 1 from Huntington and the next town you will hit is the ultra-swanky Newport Beach. Known to most non-Californians as the setting of the 2000s TV drama The OC, Newport Beach is also an incredibly popular summer destination and a great stop.
There are a lot of things to do in Newport, so much so that it could be a destination all in its own rather than a stop on an LA to San Diego road trip. However, if you only have a limited amount of time to spend here, then make sure to head to the Balboa Pier and Fun Zone.
Here you will find a wonderful seaside amusement park complete with a small Ferris wheel, arcade games, and traditional carnival food available. This is also the taking-off point to visit Balboa Island, which has a number of interesting boutiques and multi-million dollar homes.
There is a small car ferry that will take you there in about 5 minutes from Balboa Pier if you’re interested.
If you’re more interested in natural scenery than traditional seaside kitsch, then head a little bit farther south to Crystal Cove State Park. Here you will find some untouched beaches, beautiful and dramatic cliffs, and numerous hiking and walking trails for you to enjoy them.
3. Laguna Beach
South of Newport lies perhaps the most famous beach town in Orange County: Laguna Beach. Located in central OC, Laguna Beach is an eclectic mix of an artist’s colony, a hippie beach town, and a high-end resort.
Home to some of Orange County’s best restaurants, boutique shopping, art galleries, and nightlife, it is hard to get bored during a stop in Laguna Beach.
The majority of the sites in Laguna are located along the PCH, making it incredibly convenient to stop here. It is worth noting, however, that finding parking in Laguna can be very difficult and I, therefore, recommend taking advantage of the first parking spot you see.
You almost always will have to pay for parking and, especially in the summer, your car will be ticketed or even towed if you park illegally, so I wouldn’t recommend testing your luck.
The most famous attraction in Laguna is, not surprisingly, the beach. The main beach in Laguna is not as big as Huntington or even Newport, however, there is a nice promenade area, a park and it’s a great place to find a bench and people-watch for a bit.
There are also numerous art galleries and trendy boutiques to browse while in Laguna, making it a great stop to occupy yourself while driving from LA to San Diego.
4. Table Rock Beach
While most visitors to Laguna Beach will only stop at the Main Beach and think they’ve seen it all, they do not know that this is very much the worst beach in the town. If you want to avoid the tourist crowds and treat yourself to some stunning seaside scenery in the Laguna Beach area, you need to head to Table Rock Beach.
Though small, Table Rock is my favourite beach in Orange County but it can be difficult to find and you need to be in decent physical shape in order to reach it. It isn’t very well-marked, but it is located just off of the Pacific Coast Highway in South Laguna, just north of Mission Hospital.
Find street parking either on a side street or directly on the PCH and then you have to walk down a number of stairs in order to reach this beach, however, it is well worth it. Because it is kind of difficult to reach and not well advertised, only a few locals really know about it.
It is blessed with some beautiful rock formations, wonderful surf to gaze at, and some solitude that one craves when visiting the beach.
5. Dana Point Harbor
If you’ve had enough of the beach, then heading to Dana Point Harbor as you venture farther south is a great option for you. As one of the main cities in South Orange County, Dana Point is a lovely place to wander around and the Harbor has a lot to offer visitors.
Not only are there numerous boutique shops, restaurants, and cafes in the Harbor area, it is also a taking-off point for ferries to Catalina Island or whale-watching tours. Dana Point is known as the “Whale Capital of the West” and you don’t need to venture far from the harbour in order to see some of these majestic creatures.
Dana Point Harbor is also a great place to try your hand at a stand-up paddleboard or to hire a kayak. Because of the perennial good weather, you can enjoy activities like this pretty much year-round.
6. Mission San Juan Capistrano
This is the first stop that is located inland of the Pacific Coast Highway, but I assure you that it is worth making a slight detour from the coast.
Located just inland from Dana Point (drive up Del Obispo street which intersects with the PCH), this old Spanish mission is located in the historic town of San Juan Capistrano and is well worth the visit.
Founded in 1776, the Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of the top attractions in all of Orange County. Established by Spanish saint Junipero Serra, who is known for setting up 21 missions in what was then Spanish territory in California and Mexico, this mission was the 7th of 9 missions to be established in Alta California, which is now present-day California in the USA.
This is one of the largest and most important missions set up by the Spanish and there is a long and important history to learn here. Full-price entry for a general admission ticket is $10 and includes a self-guided audio tour.
7. Los Rios District
After you’ve explored the Mission, it is time to walk down Verdugo Street to the Los Rios District, which is located just behind the train station in San Juan Capistrano.
What is said the be the oldest continuously inhabited street in California, the Los Rios District offers a tranquil escape from your Los Angeles to San Diego drive.
Home to a number of restaurants, gardens, and interesting shops, this is just simply a nice area to stroll through and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere. Stop for a drink at the wonderful Hidden House Coffee and maybe stroll down to view the llamas at the petting zoo right nearby.
8. San Clemente
If you’re not bored of classic Southern California beach towns (and how could you be?), then you cannot go wrong with visiting San Clemente.
San Clemente is the southernmost town in Orange County and is a quintessential surf town, equipped with a lovely beach, an iconic pier, and a lovely boardwalk vibe. There are countless cool cafes and shops throughout San Clemente along with some great restaurants and taco stands.
If you want to hit the beach (and why wouldn’t you?), you are certainly not starved for choice in San Clemente. The most popular beach and the one with the most amenities would be the San Clemente State Beach, which is located just adjacent to the main town.
If you want to watch the surfers strut their stuff and maybe enjoy fewer crowds on a hot day, then head to the quieter Trestles Beach to the south, close to San Onofre.
All in all, San Clemente makes for the ideal stop on a drive from San Diego to Los Angeles.
After visiting San Clemente, it is time to head further south and leave Orange County altogether. Highway 1 also ends in Dana Point, so after San Clemente, you are going to need to get on to the Interstate 5 in order to make it to downtown San Diego.
However, leaving OC doesn’t mean that you are casting aside interesting stops on the drive. In fact, about a 30-minute drive (without traffic) south of San Clemente, you will reach the charming seaside city of Carlsbad in North San Diego County.
Carlsbad is your typical laidback California beach town and is home to a beautiful stretch of sand, eclectic surf shops and cafes, and a number of great restaurants. It is a perfect stop if you want to continue to explore the coast en route to downtown San Diego.
Apologies if I’m beginning to sound like a broken record at this point, but a Los Angeles to San Diego road trip is filled with idyllic beach towns and you are really spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing which one to visit.
If you want another choice for a quintessential California surf town with a laid-back vibe and lots of cool things to see and do, then you can’t go wrong with Encinitas.
Located in north San Diego County just a bit south of Carlsbad, Encinitas has a great vibe and its own seaside charm that differentiates itself from nearby Carlsbad or swanky La Jolla. The cute streets are packed with hip restaurants, funky cafes, and quirky shops.
The beach is also expansive and soft and perfect for spending a few hours lounging on or watching the surfers — or trying your hand at surfing yourself!
If you’re looking for a mellow, laid-back, and ultra “SoCal” stop on the San Diego to LA drive, then Encinitas is the perfect choice for you!
11. La Jolla
After Carlsbad, the last two stops on your drive are located just outside of San Diego proper. And one of the best stops to include on this drive is the beautiful neighbourhood of La Jolla (pronounced Luh HOY-uh).
As one of the most expensive postal codes in the entirety of the United States, La Jolla is dotted with multi-million dollar homes overlooking some of the most stunning cliffside and beach scenery in San Diego.
Not only is the town dotted with fantastic restaurants, craft beer pubs, wine bars, and high-end shops, but heading to La Jolla Coves promises views of frolicking sea lions and other marine life.
This is also an incredibly popular place to rent a kayak or go on a guided kayaking tour to explore the cliffsides and natural arches up close.
12. Mission Bay
One of the last great stops on the LA to San Diego drive to make before you reach lovely downtown is Mission Bay. As one of the most popular beach areas in San Diego, Mission Beach is a fantastic place to explore.
Along with a wide expanse of beautiful white-sand beach — perfect for surfing and sunbathing alike –, Mission Bay is also famous for Belmont Park, an iconic boardwalk amusement park complete with a classic wooden roller coaster, a carousel, an arcade, and much more.
There are also numerous taco shops, boutiques, and ice cream stands that make this one of the best places to spend a beachy few hours to complete your eventful drive from Los Angeles.
Where to Stay Between San Diego and Los Angeles
While the drive isn’t a long one and rarely constitutes the need to stop for the night, if you’re keen to hit all of the great stops on this list then it might be wise to do it over two days.
Staying somewhere halfway between the two cities is a great way to be able to enjoy the most of what this scenic drive has to offer! If you’re wondering where to stay, have a look at these recommendations:
Seaside Laguna Inn – A small and cosy hotel located in the heart of Laguna Beach only minutes from the numerous beaches in the area, this is a fantastic place to stay. They have a range of clean, air-conditioned rooms, free parking on the premises, and a fantastic breakfast included in the room rate.
Always Inn San Clemente Bed & Breakfast – This cosy B&B located in San Clemente is an excellent place to stay in the geographical halfway point. They have a few clean and comfortable rooms on offer, are located close to the beach and have a hearty breakfast included in the nightly rate.
Private Rental – If traditional hotels and B&Bs aren’t quite your speed, then a private rental might be a great choice for you. There are numerous properties available that will suit any personality and budget such as this beautiful villa in Laguna Beach.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels on this drive!
While you could easily drive from Los Angeles to San Diego in 2 two to three hours along the 5 freeway, there are numerous fun and interesting stops to make if you take the time venture off the interstate.
Are you planning this road trip? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!