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 LA to San Diego drive 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. While the San Diego to LA drive should only take about 2 hours 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.
Best Route to Take on the LA to San Diego Drive
The most common route to take when driving from Los Angeles to San Diego 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 the 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 an LA to San Diego 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.
LA to San Diego Drive Stops
If you want to take the monotony out of the traditionally boring San Diego to LA drive, 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 a number of years before my life was centred around travelling. 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 from Los Angeles to San Diego, the first stop outside of the City of Angels along the PCH will be beautiful Huntington Beach, which is about as far north as you can get in Orange Country.
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 then next town you will hit is the ultra swanky Newport Beach. Known to most non-Californians as the setting of the 2000’s TV drama The OC, Newport Beach is also an incredibly popular summer destination and a great stop on the LA to San Diego drive.
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 a San Diego to LA 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 and on the San Diego to LA drive: Laguna Beach. Located in central OC, Laguna Beach is an eclectic mix of artist’s colony, hippie beach town, and 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, 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, 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 book a deep-sea fishing tour, 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 San Juan Capistrano, 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 LA 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.
After visiting San Juan Capistrano, it is time to head further south and leave Orange County altogether. Highway 1 also ends in Dana Point, so after San Juan, 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 from Los Angeles to San Diego. In fact, about a 30-minute drive (without traffic) south of San Juan Capistrano, 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.
9. La Jolla
After Carlsbad, the last two stops on you LA to San Diego drive are located just outside of San Diego proper. And one of the best stops to include on this drive (or a part of a San Diego itinerary) 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 Staes, 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 and explore the cliffsides and natural arches up close.
10. 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, and 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 on an LA to San Diego Drive
While the drive from Los Angeles to San Diego 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. Click here to see their latest prices
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 between San Diego and Los Angeles. 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. Click here to see their latest prices
Airbnb – If traditional hotels and B&B’s aren’t quite your speed, then Airbnb might be a great choice for you. There are numerous properties available that will suit any personality and budget such as this cosy beach bungalow! Click here to see the best Airbnbs in California.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels
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 to drive from San Diego to Los Angeles or vice versa? Have you made this drive? Let us know in the comments!