Looking to plan a San Francisco to San Diego road trip? I don’t blame you!
It is deserving of a spot on every US bucket list due to the ridiculous beauty from start to finish! The coastal highway down the Pacific Ocean in California offers diverse views at each stop, but the common factor is the natural beauty from beginning to end!
California is my home state and I have spent decades exploring it and spending as much time as possible on the coast, and the views on this road trip still take my breath away every single time!
If you are planning a road trip from San Francisco to San Diego, there are many options of places to stop that are well worth your time for a few hours or even a few days. From coastal hikes to historical highlights to museums and culture, you can drive this route in as little as one day (but I sure hope you won’t!). Consider taking at least 7 days to fully experience all that this California coastal road trip has to offer.
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Spots to Stop on a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip
- 1. San Francisco
- 2. Santa Cruz Boardwalk
- 3. Natural Bridges State Park
- 4. Capitola
- 5. Monterey
- 6. Carmel
- 7. 17-Mile Drive
- 8. Point Lobos State Reserve
- 9. Big Sur – McWay Falls
- 10. Big Sur – Bixby Bridge
- 11. Big Sur – Keyhole Arch on Pfeiffer Beach
- 12. Hearst Castle
- 13. Cambria
- 14. Morro Bay
- 15. Montana del Oro State Park
- 16. San Luis Obispo
- 17. Pismo Beach
- 18. Avila Beach
- 19. Solvang
- 20. Santa Barbara
- 21. Channel Islands National Park
- 22. Malibu
- 23. Santa Monica
- 24. Huntington Beach
- 25. Newport Beach
- 26. Laguna Beach
- 27. Carlsbad
- 28. La Jolla
- 29. San Diego
Starting your Road Trip from San Diego to San Francisco
Unless you are a Bay Area local or are coming from a Northern California road trip in the redwoods or a wine tasting adventure in Sonoma, you are likely flying into San Francisco International Airport.
Don’t forget to check out Oakland International Airport and San Jose International Airport too. They wouldn’t be quite as convenient, but if it would save you a ton of cash, it might be worth it.
When driving the California coast, you have two main options. You can plan a round trip drive, in which case we would highly recommend taking Highway 1 from San Francisco to San Diego, and then driving back north via I-5 on its speedy straight freeway (with very few redeeming views or road trip stops).
Or you can book a one way flight to SFO and then a one way flight home from San Diego International airport. The latter would personally be my preference (otherwise you have to endure a pretty bland 8-9 hour drive back which is not a very fun way to end a trip!).
Check out how this will affect your rental car price through as it often incurs a fee to drop off at a different location.
How to Drive from San Francisco to San Diego
The most picturesque drive in California (and maybe even on the whole planet) is the coastal drive down Highway 1 aka Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). If you were to drive this in one straight shot, it would take you about 11-12 hours (sans traffic and zero amazing stops). The distance from San Francisco to San Diego is approximately 600 miles along this coastal route.
But we would highly recommend taking as much time as you have as there is SO much to see down the coast! A few days would be a minimum amount of time to spend, but you could easily fill two weeks if you’ve got it. The pacific coast highway from San Francisco to San Diego is going to take your breath away at every turn!
As this is a drive along the coastline, the road is often windy and sometimes the ocean bluffs edges look a little too close for comfort. But just keep your eyes on the road, stop often for breaks so that the driver can enjoy the views too, and soak up every minute. Because it is truly STUNNING.
Best Time of Year for a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip
California is stereotyped as having great weather all year round. And while the temperatures are moderate, winter does bring rain and sometimes mud slides to the coastline which is, of course, not conducive to a smooth road trip on a windy ocean road.
Late Spring through early Fall is your best bet for sunny skies and warm temperatures. Spring and Fall bring a greater chance of rain and summer months have a tendency for foggy mornings and larger crowds. So travel when you can and layer up your clothing no matter when you go because the chilly ocean air in the northern coastal communities does not mess around!
California Coast Stops on a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip
Trying to decide how to spend a day or three in San Francisco can be an overwhelming choice as the list of options is a mile long! Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory is usually at the top of every tourist list for good reason. You can choose to walk or bike across or even just drive. Baker Beach is the perfect spot for that quintessential bridge photo but you’ll need to cross your fingers that the fog will be your friend and not your foe that day.
The Palace of Fine Arts, de Young Museum, and Legion of Honor, and are filled with a vast array of cultural and educational opportunities for those of all ages. Go up the tower at the de Young Museum for 360 degree views of the city.
Stinson Beach is a popular spot to dip your toes in the sand and just over the bridge is Muir Woods in all its coastal redwood splendor. If you are looking for some quirky options, drive down the crookedest street on Lombard or hop on the cable car and watch the city go by. A trip to Alcatraz is also both educational and ridiculously entertaining.
Golden Gate Park is a great choice for spending time outdoors. Stow Lake, Strawberry Hill, and Huntington Waterfall are all picturesque spots for a walk or a picnic. The Japanese Tea Garden is also here and is lovely especially in the spring. You’ll find Sam’s Chowder Mobile parked in front of the garden on Saturdays and Sundays – yum! The California Academy of Sciences is a must see especially if you are traveling with children.
Ghiradelli Square is a lovely spot for wine tasting, chocolate tasting (of course!), and gorgeous harbor views. No one comes to San Francisco without wanting to taste it’s culinary delights. Take one of the historic trams down the E line to the Ferry Building too for cupcakes from Miette.
Where to Stay in San Francisco:
- Argonaut Hotel (family-friendly)
- Fairmont Hotel (beautiful at Christmas!)
- Intercontinental Hotel
- Note: Airbnbs are not recommended in San Francisco. While there may be some great ones, scams are plentiful and too difficult to confidently avoid.
Recommended Activities in San Francisco:
- Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Grand City Tour
- San Francisco Bay Sunset Cruise
- Little Italy and North Beach Walking Tour
Located just below the cliffs near the Presidio, this mile long beach is a popular spot for good reason. The views of the bridge can’t be beat and are beautiful whether they are moody and foggy or bright and sunny.
Baker Beach is the perfect spot for a picnic and a wade in the surf, but everyone else thinks so too, so be sure to get there early on peak days! Parking is in the lots on Bowley Street and they fill up quickly. If you want to stay out of the traffic, you can also park elsewhere and take the Muni 29 or PresidiGo Shuttle.
Stop by Battery Chamberlin for some history and stroll the Batteries to Bluffs Trail for some exercise. Restrooms and picnic tables are also on site, so pack your picnic and your warm layers and plan to stay awhile!
Baker Beach holds a special place in my heart! We lived about a half hour from San Francisco in 2010 when we were expecting our first child. We had our maternity photos taken with the beautiful background bridge view as a memory of where we were at that time in our lives. The Island + Alpine Crew circa 2010!
Santa Cruz is is the next fun stop on your Highway 1 road trip.
Downtown Santa Cruz is centered by Pacific Avenue with plenty of fun shops and restaurants to enjoy. One option is to rent bikes and explore the town. Head to Walnut Avenue Cafe for brunch or a slice of “Figgy Piggy” at Pizza My Heart.
Head to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park or Big Basin Redwoods State Park to explore the gorgeous coastal redwoods that are native only to a small section of the world. Please promise me you won’t miss this! If you didn’t hit up Muir Woods before you left the San Francisco area, then taking a short hike through the Santa Cruz redwoods is a definite must-do.
The historic boardwalk sits on the sand luring visitors to play laser tag, ride the rollercoaster, or munch on some cotton candy. The Giant Dipper Rollercoaster from 1924 is still in action – but expect that bumpy, uncomfortable wooden roller coaster feel – I know you know what I mean! Pick up the unlimited rides wristband if that is your thing or just stroll around the wharf soaking up the iconic atmosphere.
The beach is wide and sandy with plenty of place to play in the sand, learn to surf, and splash in the surf. Keep an eye out for the sea lions basking in the sun near the wharf. Take a walk down to the lighthouse to stretch your legs and watch the surfers at Steamers Lane. If you happen to be here at sunset, you will not be disappointed! The views are beautiful!
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz:
- Carousel Beach Inn (family friendly)
- West Cliff Inn (romantic getaway splurge)
Recommended Activities in Santa Cruz:
NATURAL BRIDGES STATE PARK
On the west side of Santa Cruz is the beautiful Natural Bridges State Park. The 65 acre park features a natural bridge rock formation that makes for an incredible spot for a picnic or a sunset. Don’t miss searching the tidepools further down the beach for colorful sealife! Low tide is the best time to see a variety of creatures.
Thousands of visitors head to Natural Bridges each year in hopes of catching the peak of monarch migration season. Mid-October to January is your best bet for experiencing them.
Boogie boarding, swimming, and surfing are all common activities on this beach. But feel free to just stretch out a towel, watch the waves, and soak up the sun instead if you prefer! A Visitor’s Center also features a small aquarium and a butterfly display.
Throughout our many California road trips, we’ve found some pretty amazing, random spots, including the small beachside town of Capitola. Capitola is a beautiful city in Santa Cruz County that is totally worth a stop along your trip. We recommend either stopping for the day or one night in this laid-back, coastal town. We visited as a day trip after sightseeing in Santa Cruz.
As one of California’s oldest resort towns, Capitola is so picturesque. A must-see is the brightly colored low-rise condos, the Capitola Venetians, that line the sandy beach. If you’re planning on staying the night, you can actually stay in one of the pastel homes if available, as most are vacation rentals! And even if you’re just passing through, the Venetians make the perfect photo opportunity.
While in town, you’ll also need to venture to the old wooden wharf, located just down the beach from the Venetians. Make sure to explore above and below the wharf – it’s quite a charming little area and also great for photos. You’ll get a great view of Monterey Bay from above that you won’t want to miss. And if you do have some time and like to surf, Capitola is known for its waves. Book a lesson at any of the local shops – there are plenty of them.
While Capitola is a small town, it’s a bustling one nonetheless. For all shopping and dining needs, Capitola Village is the perfect place to explore. And if you have a sweet tooth, check out Gayle’s Bakery, an extensive bakery that offers tons of hot dishes and delicious coffee too. // by Hannah + Adam Lukaszewicz from GettingStamped
Where to Stay in Santa Capitola:
Central Coast Stops on a San Francisco to San Diego Drive
Monterey is a perfect stop for anyone traveling up the coast of California on a San Francisco to San Diego road trip. This coastal town is great because of the incredible views, the local food, and the unique things you can do here.
Monterey is located just north of Big Sur, perhaps the most beautiful stretch of Highway 1, and is an incredibly beautiful place in its own right. The Monterey area is home to many beautiful beaches, including Pebble Beach, Carmel Beach, Asilomar Beach and Del Monte Beach. Each of these is a wonderful place to hang out and soak up the California sun. On top of the beaches, you can head up the Carmel Valley for a view of the mountains and some hikes to mountain overlooks.
While you are in Monterey, you’ll have to sample the local food. As a coastal city, Monterey is home to some of the most delicious seafood you can find. At Fisherman’s Wharf, you can peruse many tourist shops for souvenirs while you enjoy a free clam chowder sample from all of the restaurants on the pier. Choose your favorite clam chowder and have dinner at that restaurant, you won’t be disappointed!
Also on the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf you’ll be able to spot sea otters, harbor seals, and California sea lions. You’ll definitely be able to hear these guys and gals barking back and forth before you can see them! If you care to have a trip inland from Monterey, Pinnacles National Park is a detour that gives you the opportunity for some incredible mountain hikes and the opportunity to spot a rare California Condor!
The wonderful landscape, delicious food, and unique activities you can have in Monterey make this a must-stop on your road trip along the California Coast. We recommend spending a day or two exploring the city, and a day or two hiking if you are interested in the outdoors. This will make for the perfect beginning (or end) to your time in Big Sur and will only add to the adventure you get to experience. // Jack & Julie Ruhl from Ruhls of the Road
Where to Stay in Monterey:
Recommended Activities in Monterey:
POINT LOBOS STATE RESERVE
The landscape of Point Lobos Reserve just draws me in? How about you? The contrast of the blue water, rugged cliffs, and the coastal trees are just magical. You won’t find a soft, sandy beach at Point Lobos, but you will find beautiful trails to explore and gorgeous vistas. “The crown jewel of the California State Park System” is a common way to describe this underrated state park.
Follow the Sea Lion Point Trail to see…you guessed it! Sea lions! Sea Lion Cove is the star of the show, but you might spot them elsewhere as well. If it is spring, you will get to enjoy colorful wildflowers along the trail as well.
Take the Bird Island Trail to see the mysterious China Cove with its beautiful blue, green waters. This is a popular .8 mile trail and appeals to visitors of all ages. You will also see plenty of birds, and can take the stairs down to Gibson Cove to dip your toes in the water.
Certified SCUBA drivers can explore this park at another level by diving in the the Underwater Park and studying the diverse ecosystem in this section of the ocean.
CARMEL + 17-MILE DRIVE
Sandwiched conveniently between California’s Big Sur coastline and its towering redwoods to the south and Monterey to the north, Carmel is a must-visit stop on any California road trip and makes a perfect base for a few days to soak in all the nearby treasures.
Carmel itself is a jewel box of a village and playground for the uber wealthy. Picture quaint storefronts and restaurants with colorful facades and meticulously tended gardens. It’s a beautiful place to visit in California in spring, particularly, when summer crowds are fewer.
Shoppers and art lovers will want to spend serious time perusing the many local galleries and one-of-a-kind boutiques here on Ocean Avenue. Foodies will delight in the excellent restaurant scene. Try Sauce on the Side for casual vegetarian fare or Jamaican Reggae Grill for a little taste of the Caribbean in Carmel.
Be sure to drive the famous 17 mile drive just north of Carmel that connects to Monterey. Your $10.50 entrance feel includes a guide to particularly dramatic coastal viewpoints including where to see the iconic Lone Cypress tree that’s been featured on postcards for decades. You’ll pass the famous Pebble Beach golf course and wander through lovely forests on this drive, too. // by Chris Román from Explore Now or Never
Where to Stay in Carmel:
Recommended Activities in Carmel:
BIG SUR – 3 AMAZING STOPS
“The Greatest Meeting of Land and Sea” quote perhaps incorrectly attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson is appropriately claimed by nearly every place between Monterey and Big Sur.
Big Sur is one of the most phenomenal places on Earth and the Highway 1 drive through Big Sur is a transformative life highlight for anyone fortunate enough to have done it. Try to make time to visit Monterey and nearby Pebble Beach and Carmel but definitely devote time to driving the entire 100 mile stretch of Big Sur.
You can do the entire drive in the minimum few hours, with only a quick few stops, but your most memorable and soul-filling Big Sur experiences will include lengthy stops at countless overlooks, Rocky Point and Nepenthe restaurants (unforgettable and magnificent sunsets), the classic Big Sur photo spots at McWay Falls and Bixby Creek Bridge, and dozens of other side roads, art galleries, farms, hikes, campgrounds, and other worthwhile distractions.
The village of Big Sur (really just a handful of buildings) is 25 miles south of Carmel and 65 miles north of San Simeon; stop there for snacks, a fun saloon with decent burgers, or even an overnight stay in a fun Big Sur campground.
My two insider tips (shhhh, do not tell anyone) are to visit Pfeiffer Beach and explore the rugged Coast Road. Pfeiffer Beach (on Sycamore Canyon Road) is a gorgeous hidden beach that is the setting for many films. Take a perfect selfie with Keyhole Arch and then sit atop the rocks on Pfeiffer Point and watch whales in the ocean.
The old school unpaved Coast Road can be accessed near Andrew Molera State Park, Great Sur Turnout, and Bixby Creek Bridge. Make sure you have a sturdy vehicle (and a lot of water and supplies) and allow several hours (or even days) to explore this area. // by Charles McCool from McCool Travel
Where to Stay in Big Sur:
Recommended Activities in Big Sur:
Hearst Castle isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it is quite the sight to see, so I don’t want to leave it out! If you are ready for a break from the ocean views and ready to soak up some art and culture, consider scheduling a tour here. I have personally taken the Upstairs Suites Tour and Grand Rooms Tour on separate occasions and found both to be stunning and well worth my time.
William Randolph Hearst built his castle in the hills of San Simeon, with beautiful gardens, acres of property, a swimming pool that belongs in a palace, and 165 rooms filled with art, beautiful architecture, and many stories to tell.
CAMBRIA + MORRO BAY
An awesome road trip between San Francisco and San Diego would not be complete without visiting the stretch of Highway 1 between Cambria and Morro Bay. In this area, you have easy access to scenic ocean views, wildlife encounters, water activities/excursions and restaurants serving mouthwatering dishes.
Two or three days is a good amount of time for those who want to get to know the area well. On a road trip limited by time, you can spend a day checking out the main two towns.
Start the day by completing a short walk in Cambria. Places such as Moonstone Beach, Leffingwell Landing and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve have easy trails next to the Pacific Ocean.
The Cambria Village houses unique stores owned by locals, artist studios, a historical museum and a good variety of restaurants. I love to get a Caprese sandwich at the French Bakery and a slice of fresh apple pie at Linn’s. In addition, Cambria is an excellent place to indulge in wine tasting. Cutruzzola is one of the most acclaimed tasting rooms in town.
A few miles down the road, you will find Morro Bay, a true gem of the California Coast. This town is famous because of the huge rock (a volcanic plug) standing along the beach. You will see the rock from a considerable distance! In this town, I recommend walking the Embarcadero, getting to the base of the rock (end of Coleman Drive), taking a bay cruise or visiting the Museum of Natural History at the Morro Bay State Park. This is otter central. The probability of seeing at least a dozen is high.
End the day by having a seafood feast at Dutchman’s, The Galley or Tognazzini’s. Or, you can watch the sunset from one of the piers at the Embarcadero or from the top of Black Hill. // Ruth Rieckehoff from Tanama Tales
Where to Stay in Cambria:
- Cambria Pines Lodge (budget friendly)
- Cambria Beach Lodge (Free to Travel mama favorite)
Recommended Activities in Cambria:
MONTANA DEL ORO STATE PARK
In the small, unassuming beach town of Los Osos is the most gorgeous state park. Montana del Oro State Park is a true hidden gem on this road trip from SF to SD. Hike the Bluff Trail and have a picnic in Spooner’s Cove. If you plan to stay awhile, you can also launch a kayak here and explore the water in a new way. Either way, it is the perfect stop for a couple hours to see the majestic coastline on this stretch of the coastal highway.
SAN LUIS OBISPO
San Luis Obispo (SLO) is an adorable city on the Central California coast, at almost the halfway point between San Francisco and San Diego. And it’s an essential stop on any road trip between these two cities! You can stop for a short while just to enjoy the afternoon, but to fully enjoy what SLO has to offer I recommend staying at least 1-2 days while on your road trip.
There are tons of things to see and do in San Luis Obispo, but some of the highlights include shopping in the cute downtown shops, enjoying the famous weekly Farmers’ Market on Thursday nights, and exploring the local Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (which gives San Luis Obispo its name). If you love charming little cities, then this is a perfect place to stop on your road trip!
However, SLO is also one of my favorite places along this route because of all the amazing outdoor scenery to enjoy. There are plenty of beaches you can go to in nearby cities like Avila Beach or Pismo Beach, but there are also lots of gorgeous mountains in SLO that you can enjoy hiking. One hike you won’t want to miss is Bishop Peak, which gives you excellent views over the city and the surrounding areas!
Plus, there’s lots of good food to be found here. From the local favorite BBQ place called Firestone Grill, to delicious donuts at SloDoCo, to clam chowder at Splash Café, to amazing sandwiches at High Street Deli…you will certainly be spoiled for choice while you’re here!
Overall, if you’re looking for a laid-back and relaxed place to stop on your road trip, this is the place to be. Those of us who live in SLO often like to pun about its name, saying that we live the “SLOw” life and enjoy life to the fullest. So come and visit and learn what it’s like to slow down and enjoy the beauty of the California coast! // Abi Johnson from Happy Go Abi
Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo:
- Madonna Inn (family suites)
- University Inn (budget friendly)
- Apple Farm Inn (sweet rooms for couples)
Avila is a sweet beach on the Central Coast. Our children love running around and splashing in the waves here. Pirates Park will delight children and active beach goers will enjoy surfing or renting boogie boards and riding the waves. Restroom facilities and picnic tables are available too.
A stop at Avila Valley Barn, the local Farmer’s Market, and the Bob Jones Trail is perfect for hiking and biking. Cycle Central Coast can also set you up with rentals and recommend other coastal trails to get you riding and taking in the scenic vistas. Wednesdays and Saturdays, tours of the Point San Luis Lighthouse are available which is a highly underrated activity on this coastal road trip.
Located on California’s Central Coast, Pismo Beach is a welcome stop to slow down, relax, and recharge after a long day of exploring Highway 1 on on a California road trip!
Set along beautiful beaches and atop cliffs and bluffs, this pretty town is well worth at least a two night stop to properly explore all it has to offer. Kids will love playing at the Dinosaur Caves Park overlooking the ocean, spotting wild otters swimming in the waves below the cliffs, exploring the tide pools at Eldwayen Ocean Park, walking along the beach and Pismo Beach Pier, and watching the sunset over the ocean. However, the highlight of your time here may be visiting the Monarch Butterfly Grove to view the thousands of Monarch butterflies that migrate here each year during winter.
For the more adventurous, you can hike the Pismo Preserve by foot, bike or horseback, or discover the secrets of the sea caves carved into the cliffs of Pismo Beach. There are many wineries located in the area surrounding Pismo Beach for wine-lovers to visit.
For the best places to eat, highly recommended options are both Ventana Grill and the Flagship. Both restaurants offer unbeatable views over the Pacific Ocean, super friendly staff who will make you feel welcome, and delicious meals to suit all ages and appetites. Otherwise, this is the perfect place to wander the streets and discover one of the many wine bars and clam chowder joints tucked away in this beachside town. // Stacey Shailer from Adventure by 3
Where to Stay in Pismo Beach:
- Edgewater Inn (budget friendly)
- Cottage Inn by the Sea (romantic getaway)
Recommended Activities in Pismo Beach:
Solvang is a small town in the Santa Ynez Valley just off route 101, about half way between Santa Maria and Santa Barbara. Stepping into Solvang is like stepping into an altered version of Denmark. There are five Danish windmills, a Little Mermaid fountain, a round tower, a giant red clog and countless half-timbered buildings in Danish style of dark wooden beams on white walls. In addition to the architecture, there is Danish food everywhere. There are not one but five Danish bakeries selling Danish goodies, and even a Danish outdoor beer garden.
The town was founded in 1911 by Danish Americans wanting to keep their Danish culture alive, and the town has continued this tradition to the present day. It is possible to make a quick stop here to pick up a snack at one of the bakeries or a Danish souvenir. However, it is also possible to stay overnight or even a couple of days.
There are several museums including the Hans Christian Anderson Museum, the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum and the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, which shows the town’s Danish history. There is also a great place to see two of California’s 21 missions. The Old Mission Santa Inés is right in town and the fascinating La Purisima Mission State Historic Park is in Lompoc about half an hour away.
This is also the heart of wine country, and there are countless vineyards and wineries in the region to visit, taste some samplings and perhaps buy a bottle or two. There are several restaurants in town including the Copenhagen Sausage Garden, a Danish restaurant, the out-of-place Belgian Café and several American restaurants too. Solvang is a totally unique town in the United States and well worth a visit! // James Ian of Travel Collecting
Where to Stay in Solvang:
- King Frederik Inn (popular favorite)
- The M Solvang (breakfast included!)
Recommended Tours in Solvang:
As the Central Coast shifts to the Southern California Coast, Santa Barbara is there to invite road trippers to enjoy its beautiful beaches and spend as much time outside as possible. Head immediately to Butterfly Beach with a surfboard, kayak, paddleboard, or just a towel for laying on the sand. This unique beach boasts both sunsets and sunrises so try to catch at least one of them – both if you are lucky! Easy Beach is another great option if you’d like to beach hop.
The Cabrillo Bike Path is perfect for pedaling on rented bikes. This is a busy bike path, but the scenery makes it worth handling the pedestrian traffic! Visit the Old Santa Barbara courthouse and climb the clock tower for views of the city. Tour the Old Mission Santa Barbara, stroll Stearns Wharf, or pick up ice cream from McConnell’s.
CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK
San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip – Southern Coastal Stops
Malibu doesn’t require a long stop on your coastal road trip, but the stunning views make it well worth your while for a drive-through and some photo opportunities.
The stretch between Point Dume and Point Mugu Rock is the most scenic. Other sections of the highway have obstructed ocean views due to the lucky residents who have homes up against the sand. If you want to stop for some beach time, El Matador Beach would be the best place to do so.
Located just west of Los Angeles, Santa Monica is the perfect place to stop for a few hours or even a day, especially if you’re driving up the coast along the Pacific Coast Highway. Santa Monica has so much to offer all types of visitors from families to couples, and even solo travelers.
For amusement park lovers, Santa Monica Pier is the best place to be! The pier is known for its lengthy boardwalk which serves as the end (or beginning) of the Route 66 freeway and is home to a few food trucks and carnival food stands. The pier is also host to a trapeze school and theme park rides such as a ferris wheel and even a small roller coaster.
Closer to shore are Santa Monica State Beach and Palisades Park. Santa Monica State Beach is a 3.5 mile long expanse of a beach which includes public spaces such as parks, picnic areas, playgrounds, restrooms, lifeguard stations, and even the original Muscle Beach. The first Hot Dog on a Stick location was located just south of the Santa Monica Pier on the original Muscle Beach.
Palisades Park is also a great place for a stroll. This park lies on the bluffs above the beach overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway. Palisades Park is lined with palm trees and green grass. There are also a few sights to see here, including the Santa Monica Pier arch, Camera Obscura Art Lab, and Santa Monica Veterans Memorial.
Santa Monica is a beautiful and relaxing coastal city with so much to offer that you can easily spend a day or two here if you have the time. // by Constance Panda from The Adventures of Panda Bear
Where to Stay in Santa Monica:
- Hotel Carmel by the Sea (charming + includes breakfast)
- Sea Blue Hotel (least expensive option right by the pier)
- Oceana (beachfront luxury)
Recommended Activities in Santa Monica:
Huntington Beach, California really grabs you on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip. You can just feel the laid back vibe as you step out of the car. Located southeast of Los Angeles, the world famous 8.5 mile long Huntington Beach is known as Surf City USA. The beach here is definitely at the heart of Huntington Beach and stretches from the surf to the wide cement pathway that runs along its entire length.
Along with world class shopping at the Pacific City Mall and beautiful hotels right across from the beach, there are also boutique shops, surf shops, and cafes and restaurants for any budget. Rent bikes and ride the beach path stopping at one of several beach concessions for a snack and a cold drink.
Not far from the beach is the World’s Largest Surfboard outside the International Surfing Museum. The 42-foot long surfboard holds two Guinness World Records, and makes a great photo op. Certainly world class surfing is the big draw here, but it’s only one of the many things to do in Huntington Beach. Take a stroll along Main Street to see the Surfing Walk of Fame with the names of legendary surfers. The Huntington Beach Pier is the longest pier on the west coast, so be sure to walk to the end and eat at Ruby’s or take in the incredible panoramic view at sunset.
Whether you just want to put your toes in the sand or wax up a board and hit the surf, we guarantee you’re in for some fun. Huntington Beach is a home run for any day trip and even better if you can stay longer. // Lori Sorrentino from Travlinmad
Where to Stay in Huntington Beach:
- Waterfront Beach Resort (oceanfront splurge!)
- Surf City Inn (great budget option)
Recommended Tours in Huntington Beach:
Newport Beach offers several beaches within the town and they are seriously all wonderful. However, Little Corona Beach is by far my favorite beach in Southern California. When living here, I made my way to this gorgeous spot in Newport Beach every chance I got without even knowing its name for awhile. I still visit every time I am in the area!
Since there is not a designated parking lot, visitors will need to park on Ocean Blvd. or around the neighborhood wherever they can find a spot, being courteous of residents of course. The good news is parking is free, and the bad news is parking is also crazy in Southern California beach towns.
The beach is down a paved hill and is a beautiful, golden slice of heaven. It is never too crowded, the waves are calm, and there are plenty of tidepools and shells to explore. A lifeguard, restrooms, and showers are on site.
Down the street is the larger Corona del Mar beach with a large parking lot (still fills up on weekends!), a vast stretch of sand, the same beautiful water, and firepits for evenings on the sand.
Another great option is to take a Harbor Cruise from Balboa Island to tour the coastline and visit the sea lions hanging out on the buoys.
Laguna Beach is worth the stop on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip. We recommend accessing Main Beach Park via the stairs at Hesler Park. The palm-tree lined beach with rocky coves, and a beautiful stairway are just picturesque. A gazebo looking out over the beach is a perfect spot for watching the waves.
I have done several photo shoots on the sand of Laguna Beach with family and friends, so I highly recommend it as a photo spot too!
Take a while to stroll through the streets of Laguna. If it is a Thursday, you are in for a real treat! Art Walk takes place on the first Thursday of the month year round and will give you a great taste of the local art and culture. Stop by Coyote Grill for a delicious meal with a delicious view.
Carlsbad is located about 30 to 40 minutes north of downtown San Diego (though that time strongly depends on traffic) and is a great addition to your Pacific Coast Highway road trip. It’s one of the larger cities along the coast in San Diego County, so pull off the Carlsbad Village Drive exit to experience the best parts of Carlsbad. Head west after you exit and you’ll be taken right into the heart of Carlsbad Village, where you’ll find plenty of free parking and streets perfect for exploring on foot.
Carlsbad Village has a number of shops and restaurants, and if you keep walking west you’ll find steps leading right down to the beach. Give yourself a couple hours to get the full Carlsbad Village experience. Stop at Vinaka Cafe, a favorite with locals, on the top level of the Village Faire shopping complex to get a latte for your exploring, or continue to Carlsbad Boulevard, which runs parallel to the beach to grab a craft beer at Park 101 to enjoy on the fun patio. If smoothies are more your thing, get a fresh fruit one at the permanent food truck right in the middle of Carlsbad Village, which is also adjacent to a unique outdoor bar.
For shopping, you’ll find boutiques lining both Carlsbad Village Drive and Grand Avenue plus the cross roads in between. Head north of Grand Street along Carlsbad Boulevard to discover more trendy clothing shops.
If you’re in the mood for some food, get some local Mexican cuisine at Norte or Las Olas, both located off of Carlsbad Boulevard. Lastly, make your way down those steps to enjoy one of San Diego’s best beaches; if you’re in Carlsbad at sunset, the city’s beach is an incredible place from which to see it. // by Gina Tarnacki from Evergreen & Salt
Where to Stay in Carlsbad:
- Legoland California Resort and Castle Hotel
- Grand Pacific Palisades (gorgeous oceanfront hotel)
A trip to La Jolla is a definite must-stop on a road trip between San Francisco to San Diego. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Park is a highlight in this area and is not to be missed. Beautiful undeveloped beaches, rare Torrey pine trees, and miles of tails along the bluffs are begging to be explored.
La Jolla Shores Park is a pretty spot for a picnic in the sand. It is also a great place for surfing lessons or blowing off steam at the playground. For an afternoon exploring tidepools, head to the small, but enchanting La Jolla Cove. You might also get to visit the sea lions here as well.
Stretch your legs on the Historic Coast Walk. This easy hike is under a mile but rewards you anyway with incredible views of the coastline. If you’ve worked up an appetite after this, head to George’s at the Cove where the food is as delicious as the view. Whether you are in the mood for a burger or mussels, you’ll be covered.
Though you may have reached your destination, the journey is not yet over! San Diego is a destination in itself and a pretty amazing one at that. From tasty restaurants to picturesque parks to family adventures to romantic walks on the beach, San Diego has so much to offer everyone from solo travelers to families.
Balboa Park is a spot that never fails to add joy to your itinerary with its perfect picnic spots, theaters for date nights, small museums for browsing, and fountains for making wishes. Or you can consider taking a Balboa Park walking tour. Head to Old Town for some tasty tacos and to browse the old historic buildings telling stories of days long ago. If it is nightlife you are after, the Gaslamp District is your best bet for live music and late night hours.
The number of beautiful beaches in San Diego are endless, but Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is especially known for it sunset views. Mission Beach or Coronado Beach are perfect for afternoon beach time and swimming. Head to La Jolla Coves for a quieter experience or for hiking at Torrey Pines.
Families will especially love the incredible San Diego Zoo, San Diego Safari Park and nearby Legoland. Legoland is more inland and will take you away from the beach for a bit, but this could be a good thing if you encounter chilly weather. Keep in mind though, that chilly in San Diego usually just requires a sweatshirt!
The USS Midway is a historic museum that is located on an aircraft carrier. It has numerous exhibits and educational tours that will keep the attention of those of all ages. Seaport Village is a sweet shopping and dining area on the waterfront. It is the perfect place for dinner with a sunset view or for picking up a few last souvenirs (we are fans of travel themed ornaments ourselves!).
If you are looking for a bit of luxury to end your long, but ridiculously beautiful drive from San Francisco to San Diego, head to Coronado Island. You can stay for just the afternoon or splurge for a room and book yourself a spa treatment while you are at it!
Where to Stay in San Diego:
- Kona Kai Resort & Spa (harbor view)
- Hotel del Coronado (luxury hotel)
- Hotels near the San Diego Zoo
Recommended Tours in San Diego:
What to Pack for a Road Trip on PCH
Like any good toad trip, making many amazing stops means changing accommodations several times. The lighter you pack, the easier that will be! We love these carry-on sized suitcases and literally never leave home without them. They are available in a larger size too.
Another thing that always makes it into our suitcases are these packing cubes. They come with adorable and handy labels to keep things well organized. Consider packing each 2-3 days worth of clothes in each cube and then you only have to open one at each hotel! Does it get any easier than that?
What goes better with a road trip than snacks and picnics at each stunning vista? These cooler bags collapse so that you can fit them in your luggage during air travel, and then easily keep your food cold with just a little added ice from your hotel. We love these wine glasses for sunset date nights on the beach and these are our tried and true way for having cold water to stay hydrated on the road.
Depending on your time of year for traveling down the California coast, you may or may not need much beach gear. However, sunscreen is always a must, and these towels fold up sooo small that there is no excuse for not having one to sit on the sand!
Of course, don’t forget your sunglasses and hat, good walking shoes, beach sandals, swim suit, and light jacket for chilly mornings and evenings!
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is your tech gear. With all of these incredible views, this is not the time to run out of battery! This power bank will keep you charged on the road. Whether or not you are bringing your fancy camera to capture the epic views, or will rely on your trusty cell phone, don’t forget a charging cord and another one for backup. We love this case too for holding all of our cords and accessories.
10 Day Itinerary for a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip
You can structure this coastal road trip however you’d like, and as many or as few days as you’d like – that’s the beauty of it! Feel free to skip some stops altogether that don’t suit your fancy and stay for several days at others.
If you only have 7-10 days, it is surely not enough to make all 29 stops on this list for more than a very short stop, so add more time if at all possible. But if not, we have grouped the coastal towns together geographically so that you can choose 1-2 for each day to explore in more depth.
Here is one suggested way of planning your road trip itinerary:
- DAY 1
- Explore San Francisco
- Drive to Santa Cruz (85 miles)
- Overnight in Santa Cruz
- DAY 2
- Explore Santa Cruz, Natural Bridges State Park, Capitola
- Overnight in Santa Cruz
- DAY 3
- Drive to Monterey (55 miles)
- Explore Monterey, Carmel, 17-Mile Drive, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Overnight in Monterey or Carmel
- DAY 4
- Drive to Big Sur (35 miles)
- Explore Big Sur
- Drive to Cambria (55 miles)
- Explore Hearst Castle + Cambria
- Overnight in Cambria
- DAY 5
- Drive to Morro Bay (30 miles)
- Explore Morro Bay, Montana del Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Avila Beach
- Drive to Solvang (55 miles)
- Overnight in Solvang
- DAY 6
- Explore Solvang, Santa Barbara, Channel Islands
- Overnight in Santa Barbara
- DAY 7
- Drive to Malibu (75 miles)
- Explore Malibu, Santa Monica, Huntington Beach (60 miles)
- Overnight in Huntington Beach or Newport Beach
- DAY 8
- Explore Newport Beach, Laguna Beach (15 miles)
- Drive to La Jolla (65 miles)
- Explore Carlsbad + La Jolla
- Explore La Jolla
- Overnight in San Diego (10 miles)
- DAY 9
- Explore San Diego
- Overnight in San Diego
- DAY 10
- Explore San Diego
Ready to Take a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip?
Now that you have completed your road trip down the California coast from San Francisco to San Diego, you are sure to have found some new favorite places and some hidden gems. We encourage you to return to our beautiful home state to explore more of its treasures like the Sonoma Valley and Lake Tahoe!
About 600 miles and 12 hours of driving later and we hope that you have created a lifetime of memories and have hundreds of postcard-perfect images to share!