Driving from San Francisco to San Diego
The drive from San Francisco to San Diego reveals the awe-inspiring beauty of it’s coastline and all the natural wonders of California. It makes for an epic California road trip. Much of the journey winds along the famous Pacific Coast Highway road and offers travelers a chance to experience one of America’s beloved highway road trips.
By following the footsteps of fearless pioneers, you’ll witness the rugged cliffs, sandy coastlines, and jaw-dropping vistas of the Pacific Coast. With dozens of scenic viewpoints, famous California landmarks and, charming towns to stop at, planning a road trip itinerary for this road is a tricky task.
This guide will help you plan the trip of a lifetime and provides 12 destinations to include in your drive from San Francisco to San Diego. If you were to drive direct without any stops the journey would take you about 12 hours.
San Francisco to San Diego Drive
Before departing for your road trip, take a few days to explore Northern California’s cultural and financial epicenter. San Francisco skyrocketed to fame thanks to the 19th century Gold Rush and remains an American icon today.
Don’t leave without getting a snapshot of the Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s historic bridge that’s one of America’s greatest engineering feats of the 20th century. Sail to Alcatraz Island and tour the haunted prison complex that housed notorious criminals for decades. Visit the Golden Gate park, this urban natural haven filled with gardens, museums, art, flowers, trees, lakes, birds, wildlife and more.
San Francisco has many iconic neighborhoods, and each has a distinct charm. Union Square is the city’s cosmopolitan hub with designer shops, upscale restaurants, and beautiful theatres. Fisherman’s Wharf has tons of seafood eateries on the waterfront, Mission District takes pride in its colorful buildings, and you can visit America’s oldest Chinatown.
Don’t worry about fitting in any of the popular weekend trips from San Francisco, you’ll cover a number of these places on your drive to San Diego.
Road Trip Route
Once you’re finished exploring San Francisco, organize your car rental and pack your bags for an unforgettable journey. There are plenty of car rental companies such as Enterprise, Sixt, and Hertz, and you won’t be far from hitting the Pacific Coast Highway.
The route takes you through Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sur, San Simeone, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbra, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach and finally to San Diego. I recommend that for Day 1 on the road you aim to get from San Francisco to Monterey where you will stay over night. You will spend the day in Santa Cruz and just get to Monterey around dinner time so you have all of day 2 to explore in Monterey. Then either early day three or late day two you head to Big Sur. If you are a nature lover like me I recommend parking the car and go camping and hiking around Big surf for at least 2 nights and then on Day 6 you hit the road again and aim to make it down to San Luis Obispo. On Day 7 I recommend getting to Santa Barbara by the end of day and weather you spend the majority of Day 7 in San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbra depends on preference. What is important is how you set up for your entrance and exit in and out of LA. LA traffic is hell on earth so you need to plan to not be on the road any time close to rush hour. In other words, get to Santa Monica before 8 am or after 9pm. This should keep you out of the most horrendous traffic. You can move between Santa Monica and Venice beach pretty easily in the day so it doesnnt matter where you choose to stay if you want to visit both places. Then as you leave LA, I would recommend leaving really early, probably as early as 6 am to make sure you get to Huntington smoothy without hitting traffic jams on your way out of LA. I would recommend just doing a day stop in Huntington and Laguna Beach and Get to San Diego either before end of day traffic or stay the night somewhere in North County San Diego and then cruise into San Diego sometime mid day, again to avoid traffic.
The first stop on the legendary Highway 1 is the charming coastal town of Santa Cruz. Roughly 70 miles south of San Francisco, the area around Santa Cruz contains over a dozen state parks, unique museums, and a plethora of outdoor activities.
With the Santa Cruz Mountains at your doorstep, it’s hard to spend only one day exploring the rugged wilderness by the coastline. Tap into your inner explorer to find waterfalls hidden in the mountains or zoom through the mountain bike trails in Wilder Ranch State Park. Castle Rock State Park is a hiker’s paradise with over 30 miles of trails, and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park lets you walk amongst nature’s skyscrapers.
Back along the coastline, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is home to California’s oldest amusement park. The shores of Santa Cruz Beach have plenty of shops, restaurants, and cafés, while the Santa Cruz Wharf is a hub for fishing, sunbathing sea lions, and exciting nightlife.
Located two hours south of San Francisco, Monterey is home to several historic cultural attractions. The seaside town rocketed to fame with acclaimed author John Steinbeck eloquently describing its beauty in books like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. Named after the beloved novel, Cannery Row has transformed into a cosmopolitan hub of tourist shops, restaurants, and unique bars.
Monterey Bay is renowned for its marine life, and it’s no surprise that the Monterey Bay Aquarium draws more visitors than any attraction in town. I’m not sure how I feel about aquariums but if you don’t have any objections to them they have a huge variety of creatures to see there such as penguins, sea otters, and sharks.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a charming spot to watch sea lions or depart for a whale-watching excursion. History buffs can visit Monterey State Historic Park to learn about the past life of the former California capital. As the day winds to a close, the rolling dunes of Del Monte Beach provide an unbelievable setting to watch the sunset.
As you head out from Monterey the next day, I recommend making a quick stop in Story Book Carmell-by-the sea. Grab a coffee to go and head out for a morning walking tour of Carmel. It’s a small beautiful little town and walking through it to see the cute story book houses is the perfect morning exercise before hitting the road again towards our next stop, Big Sur.
Once you reach this beautiful stretch of State Route 1, it’s more about the journey than the destination. The Big Sur region encompasses around 90 miles of unspoiled Pacific coast that have inspired explorers for generations. It remains one of California’s most protected areas with a multitude of state parks that are jam-packed with campgrounds, hiking trails, waterfalls, scenic viewpoints, and native wildlife.
Driving the narrow, winding highway is an attraction itself by encountering majestic cliffs, rocky coastline, and rugged mountains. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is the most popular stop in Big Sur with its spotless beach and the 80-foot McWay Falls. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is roughly 10 miles away and offers travelers breathtaking views of sea stacks and the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Intrepid travelers could spend weeks delving into Big Sur’s natural wonders, and there are hundreds of campsites that host people from all over the world. It’s impossible to discover all of Big Sur’s picturesque parks in just a few days, but some of the best include Andrew Molera State Park, Garrapata State Park, and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
San Simeon draws nature lovers with its scenic viewpoints, sandy beaches, and fun-filled outdoor activities. Start your visit by trekking to the Piedras Blancas Light Station for breathtaking views of the mighty Pacific Ocean. The lighthouse built in 1875 once guided vessels sailing along the rocky shores of the Central California Coast.
Hearst Castle is among California’s grandest architectural feats, and tours of the property treat you to sensational hillside vistas. Towards the coast, San Simeon’s beaches offer visitors all the needed facilities to have a picnic, barbecue, or relaxing day at sea.
Local fishermen cast their reels from the pier, kayak rentals are available, and you may even see locals bring their four-legged friends. Swing by the Coastal Discovery Center to learn about the native wildlife or try to find sunbathing elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Rookery.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo started as a Spanish Mission on California’s Central Coast, and the peaceful town is often overlooked on Pacific Coast itineraries. That would be a shame since this bustling community is situated in a gorgeous area and has earned accolades such as the “Happiest City in America.”
Why are residents in SLO so joyful? With more than 300 sunny days, beautiful beaches, and rolling green hills, it’s not difficult to figure out. The 18th century Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa gives you a glimpse into the town’s earliest foundations, and tours let you see the gorgeous church, tranquil gardens, and museum filled with interesting artefacts.
Stroll through Bubblegum Alley to leave your mark on the community, soak your stresses away at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, or unwind on the shores of Avila Beach. Spend the night at the historic Madonna Inn and pick out the themed room of your dreams before hitting the road again.
With its scenic waterfront, mountain backdrop, and opulent boutiques, Santa Barbara earned the moniker, “American Riviera.” Nestled between the mountains and sea, Santa Barbara has a perfect location to enjoy fabulous year-round weather. Toss in its beautiful architecture, cultural sites, and delicious wines, and you have all the makings of a laid-back visit.
Waltz along Santa Barbara’s cosmopolitan streets and admire the red-tile roofs reminiscent of the colonial era. Mission Santa Barbara is the town’s namesake, and this beloved landmark has been the home of Franciscan friars for over 200 years.
Head to the iconic Stearns Wharf for enchanting views of the sea, and bike rentals are available to pedal up the coastline. The Santa Barbara Zoo delights families with more than 500 animals, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has a stunning collection of Asian, American, and European art. Venture inland to discover incredible mountain vistas and hundreds of native California species at the serene Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
Santa Monica is a classic pit stop on this road trip once you reach the Los Angeles metro area. The coastal town sits just west of downtown Los Angeles and features one of California’s historic piers for a fun-filled day by the Pacific Ocean. Santa Monica Pier is famous for its amusement park, eclectic mix of eateries, street performers, and fishing spots.
Santa Monica State Beach is one of the best beaches near Los Angeles, and its golden shores welcome swimmers, surfers, and sunbathers. The Marvin Braude Bike Trail follows the coastline and lets you explore more of the area during your day in Santa Monica.
Check out Santa Monica’s cosmopolitan vibe by walking down the 3rd Street Promenade to find dozens of high-end retailers and non-stop entertainment. The Gallery Food Hall is heaven for foodies with its diverse collection of open-air restaurants.
For nature lovers, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area is an escape from the city bustle and a peaceful day in the outdoors. The mountains serve as a gateway to the wild stretches of wilderness on LA’s doorstep, and hikers have access to over 500 miles of trails.
A hub of activity with tons of eccentric characters, Venice Beach is California’s people-watching mecca. Skaters, street performers, musicians, gym buffs, and more interact in this free-spirited enclave 20 miles outside of Los Angeles.
Abbot Kinney Boulevard is the main drag of Venice Beach, and the mile-long strip is teeming with boutique shops, street murals, art galleries, and fabulous eateries. Watch the madness unfold at Hotel Erwin and rest your feet at the High Rooftop Lounge.
To feel Venice Beach’s unmatched energy, stroll along the boardwalk to behold colourful works of art, find wacky souvenirs, or pump iron with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno at Muscle Beach Gym. Other recreational activities in Venice Beach include cycling, volleyball, basketball, tennis, and surfing.
California is famous for its surf culture, and no other place in the state personifies the seaside pastime like Huntington Beach. Around a 45-50 minute drive from Los Angeles with no traffic, the glorified surf town offers beachgoers 10 miles of sandy shores, beautiful weather, and top-notch swells.
World-class surfers put on thrilling shows for sunbathers, and dedicated instructors provide lessons for newbies. To learn more about the sport’s impact on Huntington Beach, visit the International Surf Museum to see countless exhibits and read about surfing icons.
Huntington Beach is more than just surfing, and everyone from nature enthusiasts to fashionistas can have an enjoyable time in “Surf City USA.” Huntington Harbour hosts kayakers, paddle boarders, and fishing excursions. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve protects much of Southern California’s native wildlife. For a shopping extravaganza, head to 5th & PCH or the South Coast Plaza in nearby Costa Mesa to find some of the area’s top boutiques.
The last stop before reaching the San Diego metro area, Laguna Beach is a fashionable coastal town noted for its stunning art galleries, beautiful gardens, and natural scenery. Some of Orange County’s best beaches reside around Laguna Beach, and adjacent wilderness parks provide visitors with sensational cliffside vistas.
Main Beach is among the busiest places in town with tons of restaurants situated on the boardwalk. There is a multitude of recreational activities like basketball, volleyball, and snorkelling, and lots of nearby tide pools that give you a glimpse into the area’s marine life.
Unwind in Heisler Park to feel the ocean breeze, have a picnic, view artistic sculptures, and smell the fragrance of radiant flora. Adjacent to the park, Laguna Art Museum showcases artwork from California artists in a gorgeous setting beside the Pacific Ocean.
The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park attracts nature enthusiasts with dozens of hiking and biking trails, untouched grasslands and canyons, and native wildlife. Crystal Cove State Park sits just north of Laguna Beach and is a playground for swimmers, surfers, hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders.
Your road trip ends in “America’s Finest City,” and the town that birthed the state of California. San Diego’s year-round sunshine, pristine beaches, and famous surf culture make it one of the Pacific Coast’s most enjoyable destinations. San Diegans love the outdoors, and its cultural attractions rival California’s other iconic cities.
Balboa Park is a fantastic place to begin your San Diego adventure with over a dozen museums, radiant gardens, delicious eateries, and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Old Town San Diego and the Gaslamp Quarter are two historic districts that provide endless entertainment and there’s plenty to do in San Diego at night. Skip over to the waterfront and go on a shopping spree at the atmospheric Seaport Village.
San Diego has many of Southern California’s best beaches, and roughly 70 miles of coastline offer a bevvy of seaside activities. La Jolla Cove has calm waters for swimmers and families, Del Mar provides reliable swells for surfers, and Torrey Pines State Beach is one of San Diego’s last stretches of undeveloped landscapes.
Discover other places on the road and continue with reading this itinerary for Backpacking USA.
What was your favorite stop on this San Francisco to San Diego drive? Let me know in the comments below.
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