How to Plan a Los Angeles to San Francisco Road Trip

McWay Waterfall Trail
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At over 800 miles long and plenty of areas to explore, 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. Taking a Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip along Highway 1 is one of the most scenic places to plan a vacation.

I’ve explored many parts of California over the years, including some of the beautiful national parks, but I particularly loved driving from LA to San Francisco a few years ago. You’ll be along the coast for most of it and have amazing views of the Pacific Ocean. I found this to be an extremely relaxing drive and recommend it to anyone who has the time!

In this article, I’ll give you helpful tips on planning your own road trip from LA to San Francisco, provide a sample itinerary, and share some of the best stops on a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Tips for Planning a Los Angeles to San Francisco Road Trip

toyota prius prime los angeles to san francisco road trip

I recommend planning your trip in advance when you do a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco by car so you don’t miss any stops along the way. Here are some tips to help you start crafting your itinerary.

How Long is the Drive From LA to SF on Highway 1?

One of the first questions you may have is how long is the road trip from LA to San Francisco. If you were to drive straight without stopping and just take I-5, the driving time from Los Angeles to San Francisco is about six hours (which of course does not include the infamous LA traffic!).

However, you’ll want to do a LA to San Francisco drive on Highway 1 because there are so many beautiful places to see. You can do the drive in about eight to ten hours if you don’t stop much, but I recommend spending several days to fully explore each area. This post includes a suggested itinerary for an LA to SF road trip, but you can make it as short or as long as you want.

What to Pack for a Los Angeles to San Francisco Drive

You’ll want to have the right items with you on a drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so check out my essentials for a road trip post for a full list.

Here are my top recommendations to bring with you:

  • Emergency roadside kit – You never know when you might need to perform a last-minute repair on your car, so it’s important to have this in your trunk during your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip.
  • Reusable water bottle – Save plastic water bottles and refill this instead during your trip.
  • Reusable coffee mug – Similarly, save paper coffee cups and instead get your morning coffee filled up in this each day.
  • USB car chargers – There are so many scenic places along the way, so make sure your phone and camera are always charged.
  • Camera – You’ll want to take hundreds of pictures, so this is essential to have.
  • Snacks – Save money by bringing your own snacks.

Route for a LA to San Francisco Drive

I always find it helpful to visually see the places I want to stop, so here is a map of the general route and the recommended stops you’ll be checking out while driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Need help planning out your road trip? I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to see exactly how long it’ll take from one point to the next and also to find new places to add to my itinerary!

How to Pick a Rental Car

There are parts of Highway 1 that are narrow and windy, so I don’t recommend picking a large vehicle if you can help it. A medium-sized vehicle is perfect for your road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco so you can fit your passengers and be able to fit into any stops you make along the way.

You can reserve a car in advance in Los Angeles and arrange to drop it off in San Francisco from the following companies:

Sample Itinerary for a LA to San Francisco Road Trip

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 car from Alamo, Hertz, or any of the car rental places nearby.

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. You can start by heading over to Redondo Beach to relax and spend the afternoon walking along the water.

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

You could also go 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, enjoy a beautiful dinner at Sea Level @ Shade. You’ll have an amazing view of the marina and be able to watch the sun go down. 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!

Where to Stay: The Shade Redondo Beach Hotel is a beautiful hotel right on the water and a relaxing way to start your 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, where you have a variety of places to stop at. There are also plenty of shops around if you want a souvenir for your trip.

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.

After you’re done exploring the lake, it’s time to drive to Pismo Beach to check in to your hotel.

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.

Where to Stay: You’re literally steps away from the beach when you stay at Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

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 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.

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. It’s known for its sand that looks purple depending on the lighting.

There are many pull-off spots on the Big Sur road trip, but the most famous is Bixby Creek Bridge, so make sure to stop here on the way north.

Where to Stay: Book a night at Hyatt Carmel Highlands to relax by your own fireplace with real logs and watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

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.

The Best Places to Stop on a Los Angeles to San Francisco Drive

There are so many amazing places to stop at when driving from LA to San Francisco, but here are my favorite ones.

Redondo Beach

LA to San Francisco road trip redondo beach

I recommend stopping at Redondo Beach at the beginning of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip for a relaxing start to your vacation. You can visit Redondo Pier to go shopping, stop at a brewery, get ice cream, or have lunch with a view.

You can also walk along the marinara and daydream about having your own sailboat or yacht. If you’re staying at one of the hotels in the area, stop at Bluewater Grill for local seafood to enjoy while the sun goes down.

Santa Monica

Another fun area to visit in the area is Santa Monica, which always has something going on. There are dozens of different shops to stop at if you’re in the mood for shopping.

If you prefer to be more active, you can walk along the beach and see the original Muscle Beach, where you’ll see people doing challenging tricks on rings and bars. You should also take a ride on the Ferris wheel for an incredible view of the beach from up high.

Malibu

If you came to California in hopes of spotting a celebrity, Malibu may be your best bet. Tons of Hollywood stars call Malibu home, so you may see them around at the local restaurants.

Duke’s Malibu is a popular place for Hawaiian food and tropical drinks, plus you’ll get a great view of the water. If you feel like treating yourself, stop by the infamous Nobu restaurant for Japanese food.

Santa Barbara

road trip from LA to San Francisco santa barbara

This LA to San Francisco road trip was the first time I’d been able to stop in the town of Santa Barbara even though I’d explored other towns around it before. It was such a cute town and I wish I had more time to walk through all of it.

For a unique experience, 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.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach may be my favorite town on this list because I loved the relaxed, casual vibe it had. There are several beachside hotels to stay at, which I recommend splurging on for an incredible view when you wake up.

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.

Hearst Castle

hearst castle gardens

Save a few hours during your LA to San Francisco road trip to visit Hearst Castle, which is an incredible sight. They have multiple tours for different parts of this castle because it’s so giant. You’ll take a bus up the steep hill this is located on, but the views from the top are incredible.

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.

McWay Waterfall Trail

Mc WayWaterfall Trail los angeles to san francisco road trip

If you stop at Hearst Castle, make a quick stop at the McWay Waterfall Trail on the way north. 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.

Pfeiffer Beach

pfeiffer beach sand

While there’s a lot of beaches in California, this one stands out because the sand is purple. You do have to look closely to see the purple, as parts of the beach looked normal to me.

Admission is $12 to enter, but I recommend stopping here to get some photos. It’s also less crowded than many other beaches so you’ll have more of it to yourself.

Bixby Creek Bridge

bixby creek bridge

You’ll have to drive over this famous bridge on your LA to San Fran road trip anyways, so you might as well stop to get some pictures. The 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 (don’t walk onto the bridge!).

Carmel

pacific ocean

Carmel is another town that had a relaxed feel that I loved. You can visit Carmel Beach if you want to walk along the sand or dip your toes in the water.

The Carmel Mission is a beautiful place to visit, and you can visit the museum to learn more about its history back in the 1800s. If you want to do a little more shopping on your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, head to Ocean Avenue to find a variety of shops.

Monterey

big sur road trip monterey

Monterey is one of the best places to stop from Los Angeles to San Francisco because you can either have a relaxing time here or be active. There are plenty of wine shops to visit if you want to try out the local wine, which I highly recommend.

If you’re into scuba diving, you’ll want to head to Monterey Bay to take a dive among the kelp forest. This was unlike anything I’d seen before and felt like I was in a new world the further down I went.

No matter how much time you have for your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, I can guarantee you’ll enjoy all the scenery along the way!

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