An LA to San Francisco drive along the Pacific Coast Highway in California is undoubtedly one of the best road trips in the world. While you can drive between the two cities along the I-5 highway in just under 6 hours, taking your time and driving along the coast provides travellers with some amazing sites and stops to see. Combining this section with a drive from LA to San Diego or event as part of a longer road trip to Portland or Seattle makes for the ultimate California itinerary for visitors who want to see the best of this state!
Wondering where to stop on a Los Angeles to San Francisco drive? These 13 stops combine a fantastic mix of beautiful nature, relaxed beach towns, hip cities and quirky attractions!
13 Best stops on an LA to San Francisco Drive
If you need to rent a car prior to setting off on your Los Angeles to San Francisco drive then I recommend searching on Rentalcars.com to find the best deal for car hire!
1. Santa Monica
Even though Santa Monica is still a part of Los Angeles, it makes for a fantastic first stop when driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Home to the iconic Santa Monica Pier, there are a number of great coffee shops and cafes that can provide a much-needed caffeine boost before hitting the road properly on your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip.
I suggest first heading either to Main Street which has a local Farmer’s Market on weekends. If you want to indulge in Santa Monica’s world-famous shopping then venture over to the Third Street Promenade before ending your stop in Santa Monica with a walk along the Oceanfront and an obligatory photo at the Pier!
Next up on your Los Angeles to San Francisco drive and only about a twenty-minute drive from Santa Monica is Malibu. While Malibu was heavily affected by wildfires towards the end of 2018, it remains a popular spot for visitors due to the prestige that surrounds the town in Hollywood.
Due to the fires, a lot of the natural scenery here will take time to replenish and won’t be as spectacular as what you’ll see further up in Big Sur on your LA to San Francisco road trip. However, if you fancy seeing over the top multi-million dollar homes or want to check out some of the beautiful beaches in the area such as Zuma Beach then a stop in Malibu for a couple of hours is worth it.
3. Santa Barbara
The city of Santa Barbara is a fantastic place to stop for a day and enjoy the laid back California lifestyle. Begin your one day in Santa Barbara by strolling along the Harbour and exploring the iconic Stearns Wharf. You can then take advantage of the plethora of watersports offered in the area by going surfing, kayaking or paddleboarding. If you don’t feel like getting into the water then there are also a number of hiking opportunities in the area.
In the afternoon, make sure to take advantage of Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trails. There are 28 tasting rooms scattered across the city with some of the best wine you’ll find in all of California. Most of the tasting rooms are within walking distance of each other meaning you can enjoy a couple of these wineries during your time in Santa Barbara. Tasting flights typically cost around $15 and you can share a tasting between two if you want to visit multiple wineries.
If visiting several wineries, it’s worth investing in this Self-Guided Wine Tour as it gives you complimentary wine at a number of tasting rooms and discounts on flights which will easily be worth the money if visiting multiple tasting rooms.
From Santa Barbara, the scenic LA to San Francisco drive goes along the 101 through picturesque mountains and wine country. About 45 minutes north from Santa Barbara, you have the option of detouring to Solvang – a town that will make you feel as if you’ve been transported to Copenhagen, Denmark!
Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants who wanted a feeling of familiarly after immigrating to the USA. Solvang is fairly compact and you could spend an hour or so walking around here and enjoying the Northern European architecture and shops. If you’ve visited Copenhagen before you might also notice a replica of a lot of the city’s famous sites such as the Little Mermaid Statue and Hans Christian Anderson Museum.
Solvang is an unusual stop and not something you would expect to find on a Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip however it makes for a good detour if you are longing for a taste of Europe!
5. Pismo Beach
After Solvang, your next opportunity to stop on the California Coast will be at Pismo Beach – a quintessential California surf town!
The main attraction of Pismo Beach is the stunning coastline that you find here along with the old school California feel. On a nice day, you can walk along the pier and spend an hour or two watching surfers hitting the waves. Alternatively, if you’re a surfer yourself, then you can rent a board and enjoying the great conditions which are suitable for beginners and advanced surfers.
Pismo Beach makes a good stop for lunch if you have spent the night in Santa Barbara as there are a number of great independent cafes and restaurants to enjoy. We stopped at Shin’s Poke which is an excellent place to eat if you’re after a fresh poke bowl!
6. Hearst Castle
Another unique stop on the Los Angeles to San Francisco drive is Hearst Castle, located a short detour outside of San Simeon. The castle was built by newspaper mogul William Hearst and will once again make you feel as if you’ve been transported to Europe!
Visiting the castle costs $25 and takes a couple of hours making this a fairly expensive detour if you’re trying to minimise your California trip cost, however, you can get a view of the castle from Highway 1 if you prefer to stick to the coast. Make sure to also keep an eye out for zebras and other animals when driving past Hearst Castle which are remanents of what was once the world’s largest private zoo.
7. Elephant Seal Vista Point
Located only a few kilometres from the detour to Hearst Castle, Elephant Seal Vista Point gives you the opportunity to see elephant seals relaxing on the beach and waddling in the ocean. The seals spend the majority of the year living deep in the ocean however they come onto the beach throughout the year with peak season being in December to March when they are breeding.
The seals are absolutely fascinating to watch and you can easily spend an hour or so walking along the viewing platforms and seeing them from unique vantage points. The viewing platforms here are wheelchair accessible, free to visit and maintained by Friends of the Elephant Seal which are a non-profit organisation working hard to conserve these magnificent animals.
8. Big Sur
Arguably the highlight of the LA to San Francisco drive, Big Sur is an area of California that will undoubtedly blow you away! There are several state parks and coastal walks in the area that means there is plenty of spectacular natural scenery to enjoy and you should plan to spend at least one day in Big Sur.
From the dramatic coastline to beautiful waterfalls to lush redwoods there is something for everybody at Big Sur. Make sure to stop at iconic sites such as Bixby Creek Bridge & McWay Waterfall which are located on Highway 1. Spend a couple of hours hiking in Pfieffer Big Sur State Park and make sure to take advantage of the plethora of short coastal walks that you can access by pulling off Highway 1. The coastal walks were the highlight of our time in Big Sur as watching the waves crash against the cliffs is infatuating!
Located just north of Big Sur, Carmel is a town that deserves to be stopped at in its own right when driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The town of Carmel is quite charming to walk through and there are a number of artisan shops to check out. Similarly to Santa Barbara, Carmel is also a great town to stop at a wine tasting room to enjoy a glass or flight!
It should also come as no surprise given it’s proximity to Big Sur but there is plenty of beautiful scenery to enjoy close to the town of Carmel. Nearby Point Lobos State Reserve makes for a fantastic sunset stop as well as a great place to enjoy a scenic drive as there are typically fewer visitors here compared to Big Sur.
From Carmel, take the famous 17-mile drive towards Monterey. The 17-mile drive is a beautiful coastal road that has a number of lookout points to stop at. The drive gets extremely busy so I highly recommend doing the drive first thing in the morning before the tour buses arrive!
In Monterey, enjoy a walk down Cannery Row while spotting tributes to some of the literary greats that have come from this part of the world. You can also visit Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is considered one of the best aquariums in the world and has a number of great exhibits to explore.
It’s worth also driving to the nearby town of Pacific Grove, both to enjoy more local and affordable places for lunch (I highly recommend a clam chowder bread bowl from Vivolo’s Chowder House!) and to stop at the Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. From the months of October to February, thousands of monarch butterflies migrate here and you can walk through the sanctuary and see them flying around between trees and colourful plants. Entrance to the sanctuary is free.
11. Santa Cruz
Driving from Monterey to Santa Cruz will take approximately one hour and have you arriving in another quintessential California surf town! The most popular place to visit in Santa Cruz is the Beach Boardwalk which is home to one of the oldest roller coasters in the USA. It has been significantly upgraded over the years and is now a great mix of old school charm and modern attractions. Entrance to the Beach Boardwalk is free and you pay per ride.
After exploring central Santa Cruz, take a drive or walk along West Cliff Drive for another dose of spectacular views and watching surfers go about their day!
12. Half Moon Bay
Located only 30 miles south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay makes an excellent lunch stop before heading towards the big city! Half Moon Bay is a relatively small town and has a number of great little cafes and boutique shops to explore if you want to stretch your legs.
I recommend heading to San Benito House Deli for lunch where you can get enormous and delicious homemade sandwiches with a range of toppings for very reasonable prices. Lunch here will ensure you’re fuelled up for the final part of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip!
13. Marin Headlands
When beginning your LA to San Francisco drive, I suggest marking your final stop as Marin Headlands in San Francisco. This will direct you to drive across the famous Golden Gate Bridge and towards Marin Headlands where you can enjoy several viewpoints of the bridge and the city of San Francisco! There is absolutely no better first impression of this amazing city than seeing its most iconic site from the spectacular viewpoints of Marin Headlands!
Is it better to do a San Francisco to Los Angeles Drive?
While we explored all of the stops in this article by driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, it is arguably better to do this trip in reverse.
A San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip will see you driving next to the coast which has several advantages. The main benefit is that you can easily pull off Highway 1 when you want to stop and enjoy a viewpoint or take a photo. This is particularly beneficial when driving in Big Sur as the roads are narrow and it can be more challenging to pull into a car park from the other side of the road. The other advantage is that the views are obviously better for the passengers if driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles!
At the end of the day though, you should drive along Highway 1 whichever way makes the most sense to you! Regardless of whether you travel from San Francisco to LA or the other way around, the stops will be the same and you will still get to see all of the magnificent attractions in this beautiful part of California!
There are plenty of car hire options in both Los Angeles and San Francisco if you need to rent a car – browse on Rentalcars.com for the best deals.
Where to Stay on an LA to San Francisco Drive
While you can find accommodation anywhere along the Los Angeles to San Francisco drive, I recommend basing yourself in Santa Barbara and Carmel or Monterey out of all these stops along Highway 1. Both these areas have a number of attractions that can be explored over a couple of days while the other stops work better as pitstops when driving. That being said, if you want to spend a couple of days surfing or breaking up your journey further than both Pismo Beach or Santa Cruz are also logical places to spend a couple of nights.
These are some accommodation recommendations on an LA to San Francisco drive, along with places to stay in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. Aside from hostels or hotels, it is also worth considering Airbnb as there are a number of rooms available in the area (you can even stay in John Steinbeck’s old studio!). You can click here to see the best Airbnbs in California.
Hollywood Inn Suites Hotel — Located in the heart of Hollywood, this hotel has a range of rooms to choose from and is centrally located making it an excellent base for exploring. Click here to see their latest prices
Freehand Los Angeles — A modern hostel located downtown, it is a great place to stay for solo travellers or people trying to cut down costs. There are private rooms as well as dorms available. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Los Angeles!
The Presidio Hotel — A boutique hotel in the heart of Santa Barbara. They have a range of clean and comfortable rooms available and a friendly staff that will go above and beyond to ensure you have a great stay. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Santa Barbara!
Carmel Lodge — Another great place for couples who want a romantic hotel stay in Carmel. There are several rooms to choose from and breakfast and parking are included in the room rate. Click here to see their latest prices
Carmel Green Lantern Inn — Located next to Carmel Beach, this cosy bed and breakfast is a lovely place to stay in Carmel. Their guest rooms have private entrance making this a great option for people looking for more privacy. Click here to see their latest prices
The Stevenson Monterey – If you want to stay in Monterey, then this motel is a great budget option and located just off Highway 1. They have a range of rooms available and their location is ideal for people that are only staying in the area for one night. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels close to Carmel or Monterey!
Golden Gate Hotel — A small hotel, located next to Union Square, they have several different types of rooms available and breakfast and parking are included in the rate. Click here to see their latest prices
USA Hostels San Francisco — One of the best-rated hostels in San Francisco, you can choose from dorms and private rooms and are known for their great atmosphere which is ideal for meeting other travellers. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in San Francisco!
An LA to San Francisco drive along Highway 1 is undoubtedly one of the best road trips that we have ever been on! With so many different attractions to see, you will definitely be able to find something of interest for all types of travellers!
When travelling away from home, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a travel insurance policy so you’re covered for any unfortunate events! We like WorldNomads and always use them for our trips – click here to get a quote from WorldNomads
Are you planning on driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco? Have you driven this route before? Let us know in the comments below!