The Ultimate Los Angeles to San Francisco Road Trip

McWay Waterfall Trail
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California is possibly one of the best states to take a road trip. Many people drive from another state to get to California, but the state’s big enough to do a road trip within it. I recently completed a Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip and loved everything I saw along the way.

Los Angeles to San Francisco Road Trip Itinerary

Here’s my itinerary so you can follow the same road trip.

Day 1 – Depart From Los Angeles

On the first day, you can fly into the Los Angeles International Airport. You’ll need a car for the road trip, so I recommend renting a Toyota from Alamo, Hertz, or any of the car rental places nearby. Toyota hybrids are particularly best for this type of trip when it comes to being fuel-efficient.

After that, head over to Shade Redondo Beach Hotel. This is a beautiful hotel that’s right on a marina, so you’ll have a beautiful view from your room. You can spend the afternoon walking along the water or soaking in the tub outside on your patio. There are plenty of places to check out during your one day in Los Angeles, so it’s helpful to create a short list of what you want to see first.

If you want to extend your trip, you can always do one day in Joshua Tree National Park.

You could also head down to Costa Mesa, where you’ll find fewer crowds and plenty to do. Make sure to check out some of the best places for brunch in Costa Mesa while you’re there.

For dinner, head back to your hotel for dinner at Sea Level @ Shade. You’ll have an amazing view of the marina and be able to watch the sun go down. You can end the night with a glass of wine on your private balcony. If you want to take some scenic drives from Los Angeles at sunset, you have many different options.

Looking for a longer drive? Check out my itinerary for a Seattle to San Diego road trip!

Day 2 – Los Angeles to Pismo Beach

santa barbara pier

The next morning, it’s time to start exploring the Route 101 drive. There are so many places to stop, so I recommend getting an early start. Just a note, it takes about 3.5 hours to drive from Los Angeles to Pismo Beach, so keep that in mind while planning your drive for the day.

If you’re looking for some good beaches to stop at, you can stop in Santa Monica to visit the various shops there and visit the pier. Malibu is another popular place to stop, and you may even see a celebrity or two out on the waves.

For lunch, head up to Santa Barbara. Drive onto Stearns Wharf (you can drive right onto the pier and park for free for 90 minutes) to have lunch at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. This is a great place to get local seafood while having an ocean view and is also one of the most romantic getaways in the US.

If you want a different but fun experience for lunch, you can stop at Cold Spring Tavern. This is an old stagecoach stop in the mountains with a restaurant and the old village behind it. You can even see the former jail (it’s tiny!). I highly recommend stopping here on your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip.

cold spring tavern

Before you leave Santa Barbara, you can stop by the Old Mission. The Mission is over 200 years old and has a cemetery, mausoleum, and landscaped gardens. If you want a relaxing afternoon, visit the Salt Cave for a massage, facial, or for a “salt cave session.”

On your way to your hotel, stop at Cachuma Lake. You can get in here 20 minutes for free if you just want to drive around and take pictures. There are plenty of areas to have a picnic if you want to spend more time here as well.

toyota prius prime los angeles to san francisco road trip

After you’re done exploring the lake, it’s time to drive to Pismo Beach to check in to your hotel. Vespera on Ocean may have one of the best locations I’ve ever seen, as it’s quite literally on the beach.

I thought I’d catch up on some work while I was here but was quickly distracted. I had my own patio overlooking the beach and could get onto the pier or on the beach within a minute.

Day 3 – Pismo Beach to Carmel

pismo beach pier

During this part of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, take some time to explore the cute town of Pismo Beach. You can get clam chowder at Splash Cafe for a delicious lunch.

For an adventure, head to Oceano Dunes to drive on the sand dunes. If you’re into photography, one of my favorite photographers, Chris Burkard, has his studio there so you can pick up a few pieces to take home.

For the next part of your trip, keep in mind that Pismo Beach to Carmel will take about 2.5 hours without stopping. On your way north, you can make a quick stop at Elephant Seal Vista Point. You’ll be able to see elephant seals basking in the sun.

After that, head over to Hearst Castle for a tour of the residence of former publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The tours cost $25-30 depending on which tour you do.

I recommend doing tours of the grand rooms, but you can also see the kitchens or the bedrooms. Make sure to check out the outside as well with its extravagant gardens and Olympic-sized swimming pool.

hearst castle gardens

When your tour of the castle is complete, stop by McWay Waterfall Trail. This costs $10 to park and walk down to the trail, which is about 1/2 mile to the waterfall. The waterfall is pretty unique, as it pours onto the beach and into the ocean.

Mc WayWaterfall Trail los angeles to san francisco road trip

You’re probably hungry by now, so drive about 15 minutes north to Nepenthe. This restaurant is on top of a giant hill and has a stunning view of Big Sur. There’s also a bar and boutique store available.

If you just want a snack, you can stop at Big Sur Bakery. This is also the only place around that has Wi-Fi if you need it! That said, I should also mention you probably won’t have service until you get to Carmel, so plan accordingly.

Your next stop is Pfeiffer Beach, which has a sharp turn off Route 101 and then a 2-mile bumpy road to the bottom. Admission is $12 to enter, but it’s a beautiful wide beach with purple sand. You have to look closely to see the purple, as parts of the beach looked normal to me.

pfeiffer beach sand

There are many pull-off spots on the Big Sur road trip, but the most famous is Bixby Creek Bridge. This bridge was featured in Big Little Lies and several other shows, so you’ll likely recognize it. There is a safe spot to park just north of the bridge to take photos.

bixby creek bridge

You’ve had a long day of driving on this section of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, so head to your hotel to relax at Hyatt Carmel Highlands. They have a fireplace in the room with real logs that are all set up to light.

This is a great way to relax as you watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. There’s also a restaurant on-site to grab a quick dinner after a long day on your highway 101 road trip.

Day 4 – Carmel to San Francisco

For the last day of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, I recommend getting a late flight out of San Francisco International Airport so you have time to explore this stretch. It’s only about 2 hours from start to finish, but Carmel has a lot to offer.

You can start your morning relaxing on Carmel Beach or go shopping along Ocean Avenue. Another great place to stop is Point Lobos State Reserve, where you can go hiking and see wildlife.

You can head up to Monterey to grab lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf and do a bit of shopping. I also recommend visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium while you’re there.

Leave a few hours to get back to San Francisco to accommodate for traffic and relax before your flight back. You can either fly out of the San Jose International Airport or go further north to the San Francisco International Airport.

If you have extra days, I recommend checking out what there is to do in 3 days in San Francisco. This is a fun city to spend time in.

big sur viewpoint

Choosing the Right Road Trip Car

Picking out the right road trip car is just as important as your itinerary. Toyota invited me to try out the 2020 Toyota Prius Prime Plug-In Hybrid for this trip, and my honest opinion is it was the perfect choice for this type of trip.

Toyota Prius Prime Amenities

This compact car was big enough to be roomy for the drive, but also small enough to fit into any parking spot. There was also plenty of room in the trunk for my luggage and any souvenirs I picked up along the way.

los angeles to san francisco road toyota

The mileage is another big sell about the Prius Prime. I drove over 400 miles and didn’t have to fill up once. In fact, there’s an EPA-estimated 640 miles on this car so I could have gone even farther. I had the misconception that a hybrid car meant I had to stop constantly to charge it, so I was pleasantly surprised that I was wrong.

Once the battery is charged, you can even drive for 25 miles on EV mode. That means if you work close by, you could technically drive to work and back without ever needing to buy gas!

toyota prius prime big sur

Whether you’re looking for a new vehicle to buy or just one to rent for a California road trip, I highly recommend the Toyota Prius Prime.

The Ultimate Los Angeles to San Francisco Road Trip

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