Considering going on a Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip? You could take a quick flight over, but that’s the boring way to go. You could drive the I-5 highway for maximum time efficiency, but there’s really nothing to look at other than farmland.
How about a scenic multi-day drive along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway instead?
This California coastal drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the best road trips in the USA. Not only do you get sweeping ocean views along the way, but you have the opportunity to stop in a countless number of California’s coolest towns along the way.
Taking your time to drive up the California coast opens up a world of amazing sights and attractions worth stopping for!
There really is no better way to experience what the California coast has to offer than with a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, taken at your own pace.
And if you’re looking to extend your road trip even further up north, check out my other post, featuring road trip stops from San Francisco to Redwood National Park.
Wondering exactly where to stop on a multi-day California Coast road trip? These 24 stops combine a fantastic mix of awe-inspiring nature, laid-back beach towns, stylish cities, and off-the-beaten-track attractions!
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HOW LONG IS THE DRIVE FROM LOS ANGELES TO SAN FRANCISCO?
The straight-shot drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco can be done in 5.5 to 6 hours if you put your foot down and avoid rush hour traffic.
But.. if you’ve got the time to spare and the motivation to see the beautiful California coast, why would you go the short and boring route when there are so many unique towns and picturesque beaches to stop at along the way?
Because I am giving you so many road trip stop options in this post, it would be impossible for me to estimate how long your trip will take. I will say, that if you take the scenic, coastal route up to SF, your overall driving time will take over 8.5 hours.
Which is totally fine! Because this trip is not about how long it takes to get to your destination, but rather what you see along the way!
Here’s an example of what an LA to SF road trip (with very minimal stops) would look like:
LOS ANGELES TO SAN FRANCISCO ROAD TRIP: HOW MANY DAYS ARE NEEDED FOR THIS ROAD TRIP?
The number of days you should take for your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip will depend entirely on what you want to do/see on your road trip.
We’ve done SF to LA and LA to SF trips ranging from 2 days to 5 days, but a 10-day road trip does not seem out of the question at all (especially if you are trying to fit in a majority of the towns listed in this post).
Though there is no right or wrong answer here, we do have one tip: take it slow. There’s seriously so much to see and do along the California coast!
Having said that, we recommend spending at least 4 to 5 days driving up the coast. Ideally, a long weekend or a week off of work would be perfect for this road trip.
If you’re early on in your trip planning stages, I would recommend going through this post, marking down the stops/towns that pique your interest, and then backing into it, to determine how many days you want to spend checking out all the stops.
LOS ANGELES TO SAN FRANCISCO ROAD TRIP: RENTAL CAR / LOGISTICS
For our Pacific Coast road trips, we typically like to pick up rental cars from a nearby airport, even though we’re local (there’s often more availability at the airports compared to rental car shops in town). From Los Angeles, you could compare car rental prices offered at both the LAX airport and the BUR airport.
We typically like to rent from Hertz. Usually, rental car companies charge one-way fees upwards of $200. However, in a recent instance, we booked our car with Hertz, and there happened to be no one-way drop-off fee. (Obviously, your results may vary, but check them out regardless!)
And with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. Check out rental car pricing and availability here.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search! Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices across the major rental car companies, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees. You’ll only be charged if you show up to pick up the car!
Pro Tip: Coming from out of state? If you are planning on driving from south to north: fly into Los Angeles (LAX) or Burbank (BUR) do a one-way drive up to the Bay Area (being sure to take all the awesome stops in between). When you are ready to leave, you can fly out of San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), or San Jose (SJC). You can save a lot of money by comparing flight prices between nearby airports!
ARE YOU ROAD TRIP READY? YOUR QUICK CHECKLIST:
License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
Spare Tire | In addition to carrying a spare tire with you, don’t forget to check your current tire conditions before you set off as well.
Jumper Cables / Car Jump Starter | A must-have for any road trip! If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool was sent from heaven and serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one!
iOttie car mount | This is my partner in crime on any road trip. It’s got an amazing grip and popping your phone in and out of the mount could not be easier. If you’re renting a rental car and you’re not sure if it has a navigation screen, bring a phone mount with you. The iOttie attaches by suction, so it’s easy to transport from car to car.
Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This convenient little kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more.
Check out the rest of the road trip packing list at the end of this post!
24 BEST PLACES TO STOP ON YOUR CALIFORNIA COAST ROAD TRIP: LOS ANGELES TO SAN FRANCISCO
Below are 24 of my favorite stops to enjoy on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco along Highway 1. The more days you have to spare, the more of them you can visit!
1. LOS ANGELES
New to LA? This is a great place to start–and a great place to spend a few days if you’re just visiting!
In LA you can do the typical touristy things like visit the LACMA, walk along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, hike the Hollywood Sign, visit Griffith Observatory, or stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. But if you did just that, then you’d be missing out on what the real LA has to offer. My recommendations are:
- Travel east and visit neighborhoods such as Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Koreatown. Such great coffee and food options in all three neighborhoods.
- Stroll along grungy Venice Beach and the refined Abbott Kinney neighborhood, both of which are LA hotspots (but at least it’s cleaner than the Hollywood area). At Venice, you’ll encounter all kinds of street performers, skateboarders, rollerskaters, and joggers doing what they do best. On Abbott Kinney, you’ll witness influencer-type travelers and locals dressed to the nines in their best brunch/vacationing clothing.
- Head to the Arts District near Downtown LA for the many up-and-coming breweries, coffee shops, and art galleries.
- Take a stroll at Little Tokyo, which is walking distance from the Arts District. From museums and Japanese gift shops to restaurants and bars, there’s a lot to see around Little Tokyo, one of L.A.’s most historic and popular multicultural neighborhoods.
- Visit the Getty Center and Getty Villa museums, both of which are free and boasts a diverse collection of paintings, sculptures, exhibits, and other artwork.
- Head even further south to my personal favorite beaches: Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach. Each has its own personality and charm, ranging from bro-y to family-oriented. Since the waters are so much cleaner down here, this is a great place to beach, surf, or go stand-up paddleboarding!
Looking for more unique things to do in LA? Check out this post: 175 Bucket List Things To Do In Los Angeles, California (From A Local’s Perspective)
2. SANTA MONICA
Even though Santa Monica can be considered a part of Los Angeles, it makes for a fantastic stop before leaving the Los Angeles area.
Aside from being home to the Santa Monica Pier, there are a number of great eateries, coffee shops, and shopping options here (there are way too many stores at Third Street Promenade to name here).
If you’ve arrived on a weekend, head to Main Street in the morning for the local Farmer’s Market. If you’re here at night, watch Main Street transform into a lively bar-hopping hotspot.
Local Tip: Skip Santa Monica Beach, it’s always way too crowded. The pier has rides and could be good for a photo opp with the ferris wheel in the background, but other than that, not much else other than crowds of tourists.
20 to 30 minutes from Santa Monica
The drive from Santa Monica to Malibu is stunning, so keep your eyes open on this stretch of the drive!
For locals and LA transplants alike, rite of passage activities located in Malibu include dining at Malibu Farm Restaurant by the pier and going on a wine safari at Malibu Wine Safaris. Check them out if you’re looking for that quintessential Malibu experience.
From there, you can head over to Malibu Village for a few boutique shops, Malibu Country Mart (good for picking up picnic supplies), and Starbucks for a little pick-me-up.
Continuing on your way down, you’ll pass Zuma Beach, known for its family-friendly waves. This is a good place to hop out of the car, get a stretch, and enjoy the sand/sun. There’s a fee to park in this lot, but you can always just park beside the road and walk over to the beach.
Continue the drive for another 13 miles and you’ll hit Point Dume, where you’ll find a beach as well as picturesque coastal cliffs and rocky coves. Not too far from Point Dume will you find Paradise Cove, a super fun touristy pit stop.
There’s a restaurant here that oozes beachy California vibes, as well as a private beach where you can hang out at. There is a fee to park here, but if you dine in, that fee is reduced.
Before you leave the official Malibu area, you can stop at Point Mugu State Park for a quick hike or a beach picnic. In my opinion, this is one of the prettiest and lushest areas in ALL of Southern California.
Local Tip: Stop by Malibu Seafood located along Highway 1 and order the fish and chips; you will have no regrets.
20 to 45 minutes from Malibu
There are a plethora of things you can do in Ventura, CA. This town is where you want to go if you love surfing–the surf is great here.
Aside from catching waves, check out the Ventura Pier and Promenade. There are great fishing opportunities at the end of the pier, and if you come here in the evening you can bear witness to the city’s famous sunsets!
Then head over to historic Downtown Ventura and make the most of your time here treasure hunting at vintage boutiques and secondhand stores. There are various breweries and wineries here as well. You’ll definitely want to grab lunch or dinner at one of the many restaurants here.
Can you tell yet that we Californians love to drink our wine?
For a little bit of nature or history, head over to the Ventura Botanical Gardens or the Mission San Buenaventura.
5. OJAI (DETOUR)
20 minutes from Ventura
There is something truly magical about Ojai, California. This laidback California community, just a 20-minute drive from Ventura, boasts a strong Spanish and Western feel. For decades, it’s served as a haven for artists, writers, bohemians, health enthusiasts, and celebrities looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Upon arrival, you’ll begin to notice its mystical charm, almost like Sedona in Arizona. If hiking/biking, Spanish-style buildings wrapped in bougainvillea, wine tasting and health-conscious eateries are your thing, Ojai will be the perfect weekend retreat for you.
I’ve been to Ojai twice, once for camping and once to enjoy the urban magic this town has to offer. And you know what? I’m already itching to go back!
The surrounding mountains offer fantastic views and even more fantastic outdoor recreation opportunities. If you’re looking for adventure, don’t miss a bike ride on the 9-mile Ojai Valley Bike Trail or a quick hike on the Piedra Blanca Formations Trail.
Downtown Ojai is worth spending an hour or two alone. You’ll know you’re here when you see the Spanish-style bell tower inviting you to the town’s center. It’s a great place to grab a meal or drink and spend some time after a day of hiking or biking.
Be sure to carve out at least two hours to browse for home goods and artisan gifts. Ojai is jam-packed with cute specialty shops such as Fig, Summer Camp, In The Field, and deKor & Co.
This is a great town to spend a night in (we personally love long weekends in Ojai)–and specifically, we recommend none other than the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa!
6. SANTA BARBARA
45 minutes from Oaji / 30 minutes from Ventura
Santa Barbara! How can anyone not love the Mediterranean atmosphere of Santa Barbara, CA? After all, the city’s nickname is the “American Riviera”. The Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and Lotusland are all popular things to do in Santa Barbara.
Head over to State Street for top-notch shopping, great restaurant options, and lively nightlife as the sun sets on the town. When in Santa Barbara, don’t miss the opportunity to eat some fresh strawberries or uni (sea urchin)! Both strawberries and uni from Santa Barbara are world-famous.
For the freshest uni, head to some of the seafood markets or restaurants in Santa Barbara. For strawberries, you’ll find produce stands selling them at many exits along the way as well as near the fields where they’re grown.
From there, grab some wine and even a meal in the Funk Zone, a relatively new area of former fishing warehouses now turned to a hub of trendy restaurants, bars, and wine tasting rooms. Need a restaurant recommendation? The Lark is super popular among locals and tourists.
If you’re looking for ice cream to follow up that meal, you NEED to stop by McConnell’s. My one and only recommendation–the cookies and cream flavor (prepare to be mindblown by the power of the flavors)!
Local Tip: Head over to Leadbetter Beach if you’re looking to just float along merrily in the ocean. The lack of waves at this beach is absolutely perfect for families and children– and people like me, who don’t want to be dodging waves left and right.
Looking to call it a night in Santa Barbara? Really great choice, because the lodging options are endless. Check for Santa Barbara hotel availability and pricing here!
Where To Stay: La Playa Inn Santa Barbara
7. SOLVANG / LOS OLIVOS (DETOUR)
40 minutes from Santa Barbara
Welcome to the first stop on the list of awesome pit stop towns in Santa Ynez Valley.
Solvang is literally something out of a fairytale, or at least out of the United States anyway. Who knew you could find a Danish town smack dab in the middle of California?
For a taste of Europe, head on over to Solvang, where you’ll find Danish eateries, shops, and a refreshing, unique atmosphere. Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants who wanted a feeling of familiarity after immigrating to the USA.
Since this town is fairly small with the main attractions condensed across a few cross streets, allocating two to three hours to explore should be enough. On the way into town, you’ll pass an ostrich farm called Ostrichland USA, where you can pay to go in and feed these guys! Nearby is also Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch, literally the cutest things you’ll ever see on a road trip ever.
While you’re in the area, mosey on over to the tiny town of Los Olivos, CA. It’s tiny, but it’s a cute place to explore nonetheless.
8. LOS ALAMOS
13 minutes from Los Olivos
Los Alamos is another great little town in Santa Ynez Valley that won’t take you too long to visit.
Surrounded by ranches, farms, and vineyards sits a quaint little town called Los Alamos. This town is only seven blocks long, yet reflects as much Old West heritage as any small town on California’s Central Coast.
A quick detour through Los Alamos is well worth your time, which you can spend perusing art galleries, antique shops, and wine tasting rooms. There is also a great variety of restaurants here. If you’re more of a picnic person, Ferrini Park is the ideal picnic location for nature lovers and sports enthusiasts (there are volleyball courts here).
Local Tip: If you love bread or need coffee, make sure to stop at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. Their artisan bread and pastry selections are so worth it, as are their coffee, breakfast items and sandwiches.
1 hour from Santa Barbara / 30 minutes from Solvang and Los Olivos
Guess what the main attraction is here at Lompoc? You guessed it, more wine tasting! Lompoc is a popular getaway destination for not only wine lovers, but also history buffs and art enthusiasts.
Lompoc is home to one of the oldest structures standing in California – La Purisima Mission, founded in 1787. Today, this is the most extensively restored mission that exists, with 10 original buildings furnished to transport you back to the era. You can take a self-guided tour of the church, living quarters, and gardens.
Old Town Lompoc is another gem, where you can take a stroll while soaking in that small-town charm. Keep your eyes peeled for the ~40 custom murals in the area. Other Lompoc attractions include a wild horse sanctuary (Return to Freedom) and a missile and satellite launch facility.
10. PISMO BEACH
50 minutes from Lompoc
Ah, Pismo Beach, a classic Central Coast beach town famous for its sand dunes, boutique shopping, award-winning boardwalk, and beautiful coastline!
You can easily spend a whole day here eating at the restaurants, wine tasting, fishing, surfing (or learning how to surf), beaching and enjoying the mineral springs here.
Be sure to also check out the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, where thousands of butterflies migrate to spend the winter. Lastly, the main attraction that draws many Californians to Pismo Beach: ATVing on the sand dunes next to the beach!
If you want to prolong that old-school California flair on your road trip, consider spending a night in Pismo Beach. You can spend your day on the golf course, horseback riding, or picnicking on the beach, then fill your nights with some good wining and dining options at one of the many waterfront restaurants. Check for Pismo Beach hotel availability and pricing here!
On the hunt for kitschy attractions and/or lodging? Check out Madonna Inn, one of California’s quirkiest places to stay. From the outside, it’s already unique as heck. On the inside, you’ll find that each one of its 100+ rooms is decorated in a completely different style than the next!
Local Tip: Do NOT miss the clam chowder at Splash Cafe. So thick, so creamy and dreamy. They even sell boxes of it for you to take home!
Where To Stay: Madonna Inn
11. MONTANA DE ORO STATE PARK
35 minutes from Pismo Beach
Outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers will definitely want to consider a day trip from Santa Barbara to Montaña de Oro State Park. This wonderful gem of a park is quite possibly one of California’s best state parks.
If you’re up for an adventure and a drive up the coast, head to this “Mountain of Gold” (what its name translates to)! The park is best known for its yellow/gold wildflowers that cover its hills in the springtime. All in all, you’ll get a jam-packed day of rugged cliffs, secluded sandy beaches, tide pools, coastal plains, streams, canyons, and hills galore.
Looking to get a hike in? There are so many awesome options that suit every skill level, from the easy 4.1-mile roundtrip Montaña de Oro Bluff Trail to the longer Coon Creek Trail (7.1-miles roundtrip). Both will bless your day with ultra-scenic views!
Don’t forget to pack a cooler to store your picnic lunch and post-hike drinks!
12. SAN LUIS OBISPO
15 minutes from Pismo Beach
As you continue to move further north on Highway 1, you’ll soon hit San Luis Obispo, a pleasant university town with a historic Spanish mission in the middle of downtown. If you’re interested in learning more about the mission’s history, visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
Centered around the old mission lies the historic downtown area of SLO. What you’ll find here (on Higuera Street) is traditional Spanish-style buildings housing various restaurants, shops, and cafes. If you’re in a hurry, you can pass SLO by and head straight to Pismo Beach. Nevertheless, SLO is a great place to grab a coffee or tea before continuing on your California Coast road trip.
If you’re looking for entertainment for the kids, check out San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum or San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum. All in all, this is a good place to stop, take a restroom break, and grab a bite to eat.
13. MORRO BAY
15 minutes from San Luis Obispo
If you’re looking for more off-the-beaten-path destinations to explore on your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, then add Morro Bay to your itinerary now!
Morro Bay is a small, beachy town alive with family-friendly activities. It’s a great place for beach/water activities, including sailing, kite-flying, surfing, and kayaking.
At a distance, you’ll surely spot Morro Rock (what the city is best known for), a humongous rock formation jutting from the water.
Explore the energetic Embarcadero, filled with shops and art galleries, or spend a few hours dining at an oceanfront restaurant. If you don’t know what to order, just get seafood. Morro Bay is a fishing town, and the seafood is as fresh as can be!
Where To Stay: Estero Inn
14. PASO ROBLES (DETOUR)
38 minutes from Morro Bay / 32 minutes away from SLO
About 30 miles east of Highway 1, you will find the quaint, hidden gem of a town known as Paso Robles. Paso Robles is one of California’s fastest-growing and up-and-coming wine regions, and I love it because it’s really not too much of a tourism hotspot at the moment.
This town almost reminds me of Napa and Sonoma in Northern California, with how its downtown area is structured, brimming with things to do! Spanning across several blocks in the downtown area, there are many wine tasting rooms, artisan gift shops, and gourmet shops selling quality items such as olive oil and soaps.
If you have the time, make a pit stop in the center of town and allocate ~2 hours to peruse the shops, grab some wine (Justin Winery is great), and hang out by the tree-lined town square.
If you have more time, head to the surrounding areas to explore the many other picturesque wineries and estates. Paso Robles has great weather, so it’s almost always ideal for sipping and eating al fresco style.
I’ve never had the opportunity to stay the night here, but it’s another wonderful town to consider for an overnight stop (especially if you want to take advantage of the amazing tasting rooms and wineries in the area). Check out Paso Robles hotel pricing and availability here.
If you’re here during the night, be sure to check out Bruce Munro’s Field of Light at Sensorio. This immersive art installation is comprised of an array of over 58,800 stemmed fiber-optic lightbulbs, gently illuminating the landscape in morphing colors.
Where To Stay: Allegretto Vineyard Resort Paso Robles
BONUS: NITT WITT RIDGE
25 minutes from Morro Bay / 38 minutes from Paso Robles
Nitt Witt Ridge, a California Registered Historical Landmark, is a quirky-as-can-be house on a quarter acre in Cambria, CA.
This extremely intricate and artsy house was designed by a reclusive artist named Arthur “Art” Harold Beal. Since buying the house in 1928, he spent the next 50 years carving out the terraces with only a pick and shovel and creating his own version of a castle on a hill (somewhat inspired by the nearby Hearst Castle, where he reportedly worked for a time).
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Art was an eccentric garbage collector who gathered and kept much of what others threw away to build his home.
The building materials you’ll see here include beer cans, toilet seats, abalone shells, washer drums, car rims, tile, car parts, and old stoves. Other materials are actually remnants of Hearst Castle. This blend of materials and elements is both impressive and perplexing, making it a fun landmark that you shouldn’t miss if you’re passing through!
Tours are by appointment only, but typically run at 11am, 12pm, or 2pm. The suggested donation is $10 per person for a 40-minute tour. This is a residential neighborhood with very limited hillside parking.
15. RAGGED POINT
1 hour from Paso Robles / 1 hour from SLO
For travelers heading north from Southern California, Ragged Point is often the first few stops when traveling through Big Sur. When you get to Ragged Point, head to Ragged Point Inn and Resort, perched atop a 300-foot cliff, and soak in those views!
Here, you’ll also find a gourmet restaurant, coffee bar, and a steep trail that descends to a black-sand beach. Not to mention, it’s a beautiful spot to spend the night!
Where To Stay: Ragged Point Inn and Resort
16. SAN SIMEON
20 minutes from Ragged Point
A bit further north of the coast lies the little area of San Simeon. There’s not too much to do here, other than the Hearst Castle.
It’s pretty random to think that there are castles in California, but Hearst Castle is just that! This castle was built by newspaper mogul William Hearst and will immediately transport you to Europe.
Today, Hearst Castle is now an accredited museum and a California State Park, displaying Hearst’s extensive art collection. The Hearst Castle offers a variety of tours to choose from during your visit to San Simeon, CA.
First-timers will thoroughly enjoy the Grand Rooms Tour. If you’re looking to go deeper, you can take a tour through the cottages, kitchen and upstairs suites. There are other special tours that highlight the art and architecture of the property as well.
If live reenactments are your thing, don’t miss The Evening Tour, available only in fall and spring, where costumed docents recall the days when Howard Hughes, Buster Keaton and Greta Garbo wandered the castle.
More than 1 million people visit every year–so it is worth visiting if you like architecture! Tours fill up during busy seasons, so making a reservation in advance is recommended.
17. BIG SUR
Just about two hours south of San Francisco is a 90-mile expanse of unforgettable nature and views known as Big Sur. Big Sur is one of my favorite day trips from the Bay Area, and when you make your way through here, you’ll totally understand why. The rugged coastline and pristine turquoise waters are truly a sight to see.
If you love nature, Big Sur is a great place to spend the night so you can enjoy a whole day of exploring hidden beaches, vista points and hiking trails. Notable spots include Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Keyhole Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach (unmissable sunset spot).
Some other outdoor activities include hiking Manuel Peak at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, hunting for jade at Sand Dollar Beach, and wandering through redwood groves at Limekiln State Park.
Looking to call it a night somewhere along the Big Sur? Many of the state parks such as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park have campgrounds you can book in advance. If you don’t have camping gear with you, there are various lodges, inns, motels and resort options as well.
18. CARMEL BY THE SEA
40 minutes from Big Sur
At the northern end of the Big Sur region, you will be met with charm and romance, all wrapped up in one jam-packed town called Carmel-by-the-Sea.
This quaint and romantic seaside village boasts a great selection of shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants. You will not be able to resist the charm that the town of Carmel carries, evident the minute you step out of your car! If you’re just passing by, Carmel is a great town to grab a bite to eat and go wine tasting.
If you’re looking to call it a night around here, both Monterey and Carmel are great areas to stay in. Both these towns provide various hotels and B&B’s to unwind and relax!
Where To Stay: L’Auberge Carmel
Note that the B&B lodging options in Carmel specifically might be pricier than in neighboring cities. Check out some more of the best places to stay in Monterey/Carmel here.
More of an adventurous traveler? You might also like: Camping in Carmel: 15 Best Camping Spots Near Carmel, California
10 minutes from Carmel
Just minutes from Carmel-By-The-Sea, you’ll find Monterey Bay. This seaside town is even more sleepy than the last, but that might just be due to the overcast skies that frequent the area. Don’t fret because they’re actually a lot to do here!
Highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium (often considered as one of the best aquariums in the world), Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and spotting cute little otters in the water.
When in Monterey, you definitely cannot miss walking down Cannery Row, the setting of two John Steinbeck novels. You’ll notice many warehouses that used to be sardine canneries now serve as home to popular restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing, and biking are also popular activities to do here. We love Monterey so much that we dedicated an entire post to showcase some of the best things to do in town!
If you’re planning on stopping in both Carmel and Monterey, consider taking the scenic 17-Mile Drive.
Where To Stay: Spindrift Inn
20. GILROY (DETOUR)
45 minutes from Monterey
Why is this on the list? Because garlic shops, premium outlets, and side-of-the-road fruit stands! If you’re into any of these things, consider working Gilroy into your itinerary somehow. It’s not along the coast, but I figured I’d mention it here–for those of you interested in the Garlic Capital of the World.
Whenever I make the drive from LA to SF, I’m always torn on either visiting Santa Cruz or Gilroy (for shopping) on the way up. One is good for those nostalgic beach vibes, while the other is great for shopping and picking up fresh produce/fruits!
Don’t be surprised if you smell the garlic as you travel through the city. The Gilroy Foods processing plant never fails to fill the air with the fragrance of garlic. If you love garlic, then linger here longer and breathe it all in.
21. SANTA CRUZ
50 minutes from Monterey
Santa Cruz, CA is a half sleepy beach town, half college town. The laid back surf culture is so strong here. If you choose to stop here, check out the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (home to one of the oldest roller coasters in the USA) and take a stroll among this boardwalk’s old-school Americana vibes. Entrance to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is free and you pay per ride.
From there, head on over to a more modern part of town, downtown Santa Cruz. This is Pacific Avenue to be exact, and here you will find a variety of vintage shops as well as modern apparel and gift stores, eateries, bars, and coffee shops.
For the coffee lovers–the local coffee roaster in Santa Cruz is Verve, so stop by Verve Coffee and bring some beans home for yourself or as a souvenir gift for others. On your way out of Santa Cruz, check out The Mystery Spot, a kitschy roadside attraction that hosts a collection of strange phenomena from the last 70 years.
For nature lovers, Santa Cruz has got some good stuff for you! The best hiking trails in Santa Cruz can be found at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Last but not least, stop by Natural Bridges State Beach to have a lunch picnic or watch the sun go down behind the iconic rock formation here.
Local Tip: The Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve at Natural Bridges State Beach is a must-see if you’re in town from late fall to winter. The Monarchs migrate over to this mild seaside climate and form a “city in the trees.” You can literally see thousands of monarch butterflies dangling among the trees here. It’s really an unforgettable sight to see.
Where To Stay: Dream Inn Santa Cruz
You might also like: San Francisco to Santa Cruz Road Trip: 15 Best Stops On Highway 1
22. SAN JOSE
45 minutes from Santa Cruz
San Jose is the heart of Silicon Valley, so naturally, it’s on the pit stop list! All throughout the South Bay area, you’ll find fun stuff to do, but San Jose is extra special in our eyes. If you’re into tech culture, check out The Tech Museum of Innovation.
If you’re more into oddities and kitschy attractions, take your ride over to Winchester Mystery House and take a guided tour of the property. No spoilers on why, but this house, now a historic landmark, is an interesting curiosity that you need to see for yourself (semi-spoiler: there are many doors that lead to nowhere, find out why when you visit).
You can surely busy yourself all day with the many art galleries and museums in San Jose, CA. Make sure to stop by San Pedro Square Market, which hosts a variety of food vendors. It’s a great place to enjoy casual patio dining with some friends. If you’re staying the night, downtown San Jose is a lively place to be, with its many bars and eateries.
Local Tip: I also recommend taking a stroll through Japantown San Jose, one of the last three authentic Japantowns in the United States. For food, eat at La Victoria Taqueria and buy a bottle of that famous orange sauce to bring home. If you love Caribbean food, then do not miss Back A Yard Caribbean American Grill (they serve the most amazing jerk chicken I’ve ever tasted)!
Where To Stay: AC Hotel by Marriott San Jose Downtown
23. HALF MOON BAY
50 minutes from San Jose / 58 minutes from Santa Cruz
Half Moon Bay is a relatively small town 30 miles south of San Francisco and has a number of great cafes and boutique shops to explore.
If you’re into beaches or surfing, make sure to stop at Mavericks, a world-famous surfing spot where you can witness massive waves ranging from 25 to 60 feet high! There are also a bunch of plant nurseries on the main road getting into town, including a nursery dedicated to carnivorous plants– how cool is that!
The best meal to get here is Barbara’s Fishtrap, a little shack restaurant that serves up the best seafood in town (get the fish and chips and a crab sandwich). If you can’t manage to get a seat inside, grab your food to-go and dine at one of the nearby picnic tables and benches out with the sun and cool breeze.
Where To Stay: Nantucket Whale Inn
24. SAN FRANCISCO
40 minutes from Half Moon Bay / 55 minutes from San Jose
Congratulations, you’ve finally made it to San Francisco, CA!
San Francisco, CA is one of the most recognizable cities in the US, home to techies, yuppies, and hippies alike. Sure, it’s known for its extremely overpriced housing prices, but it’s also known for its liveliness, vibrancy and diversity.
I live 30 minutes away from San Francisco so it’s nothing new to me, but I still find that each time I visit the city, I am amazed at everything this place has to offer. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure! Here’s a list of a few of my favorite things to see and do:
If you’ve never been to San Francisco and you have a few days, I’d recommend spending 2-3 full days in SF to take in all that the city has to offer.
Spend a day knocking out the tourist attractions such as visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, touring Alcatraz Island, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, grabbing dinner and drinks in North Beach, and shopping in Union Square.
With your extra days here, dive into the culture of San Francisco a little more.
- Take a food tour – San Francisco is known for its top-notch dining options. It’s no wonder since the city is a melting pot of cultures. There are Chinese and Italian neighborhoods adjacent to each other, as well as a large and bustling Latinx population. There are so many cuisines you could possibly eat here, so why not try as many as you can on a food tour of San Francisco?
- Explore Chinatown – San Francisco’s Chinatown is the biggest Chinatown in the U.S. Naturally, you’re going to find some really good Chinese food here. There are also a good amount of souvenir stalls and tea shops to peruse on the main streets.
- Explore the Mission District – Named for the historic Mission Dolores built in 1776, the Mission District is an exuberant, lively neighborhood with Latinx roots and a down to earth hipster vibe. Here, you’ll find some of the best Mexican food in the city, as well as hipster coffee shops, boutiques, and a bunch of bars and cocktail lounges. It’s one of my favorite neighborhoods to hang out at when I’m in the city.
- Explore North Beach – North Beach is one of the culturally richest, most-loved neighborhoods in San Francisco! Here, you can find restaurants and shops of amazing quality, as well as a high density of bars, hole-in-the-wall bakeries, eateries, and coffee shops. Given that there’s so much to see, this neighborhood (along with Chinatown) boasts some of the most entertaining urban walks in the city.
- Hang out at Golden Gate Park – Have a picnic or a jog at the expansive Golden Gate Park. Did you know it’s 20% larger than New York’s Central Park? You can rent bikes and ride around the park, or simply stroll on one of the many walking trails. The park also features various museums, an arboretum, and a carousel. Before you leave, stop by the beautiful Japanese Tea Garden.
- If you want to catch great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, head to Baker Beach or Marin Headlands just across the bridge.
Local Tip: Continuing north on your California road trip from here? You should also pick up some bread and pastries for the ride ahead of you at Arizmendi Bakery, Arisacault, Tartine, or B Patisserie. If you couldn’t tell, I love bread so you know I’ve got you covered on all the best bakery spots.
LOS ANGELES TO SAN FRANCISCO ROAD TRIP: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
Aside from the usual clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without on your LA to SF road trip:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- Spare Tire | In addition to carrying a spare tire with you, don’t forget to check your current tire conditions before you set off as well.
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- iOttie car mount | This is my partner in crime on any road trip. It’s got an amazing grip and popping your phone in and out of the mount could not be easier. If you’re renting a rental car and you’re not sure if it has a navigation screen, bring a phone mount with you. The iOttie attaches by suction, so it’s easy to transport from car to car.
- Jumper Cables / Car Jump Starter | A must-have for any road trip! If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool was sent from heaven and serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one!
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
- Travel Pillow | If you have room in the car for a regular pillow, I find that they are the most comfortable for long car trips. If you need a more portable option, this memory foam travel pillow works well not only for car travel but also for camping!
- Travel Blanket | For all your napping needs–especially if the driver likes AC and you’re trying to snuggle up for a nap. This one is packable so it won’t take up very much in your car.
- Slip-on Sandals | Slip-on/slip-off sandals are a must for that extra comfort while sitting in the car. This allows you to make lots of stops without having to go through the process of putting your sneakers/boots back on.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road-trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- GoPro | Capture all those awesome action/adventure moments with a top of the line action camera. Your regular camera or iPhone won’t be an option if you’re engaging in action sports like mountain biking, rock climbing, or whitewater rafting. For water sports, you could always get a waterproof case, but GoPro has time and time again proven to be the best for underwater photography.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on rivers or lakes, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a warmer windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Osprey Daylite Daypack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Laundry Bag | Summer and/or outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Sunscreen | Sunscreen is absolutely necessary for a California road trip. Even if it’s overcast or cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply it whenever you’re outdoors. No matter where we go, we like a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that damage our environment. For the face, we are absolutely obsessed with Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from a river or lake to a car. This one here is a great option.
- Travel Clothesline | This is a small and portable clothesline that allows you to hang up your wet clothes almost anywhere. I’ve found that it’s really handy whenever I have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be air-dried. I love it for its multi-purpose functionality!
- Dry Bag | Another multi-purpose item on the list! Dry bags are completely necessary for keeping your dry belongings (clothes, electronics, money, etc)… dry. Don’t set foot on a kayak or SUP board without putting your stuff in a dry bag. Trust me, it’s better than ending up with a phone or camera submerged in water in the case where the boat tips or something. It’s also super handy for carrying around wet bathing suits and towels. Or even doubling as your laundry bag!
- Insect Repellent Lotion | Mosquitos love hot climates (summer nights in LA is prime mosquito time in certain areas), so I would definitely recommend packing insect repellent with a high DEET percentage if you’re traveling in the summer and plan to be on the water. Sawyer makes some really great bug repellent products, and they’re travel-friendly too!
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
Have you done the Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip? What are your favorite stops along the California Coast? What are your favorite detours? I’d love to hear about them!