The Ultimate San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Guide: Three Ways to Get To Two of California’s Favorite Cities

Three road trip routes lead from San Francisco to San Diego. Each offers a benefit, whether it’s reaching the Southern California sun as fast as possible or soaking in the views as you work your way down the coast.

This post describes each of these options. We share the best stops along each route, how long each takes, and suggested itineraries for the scenic routes.

Read on to choose the best option for you!

Things are always changing! Make sure to double-check schedule changes and closures before your trip.

We use affiliate links to keep our blog free for you to read and to pay for the occasional pizza night. If you buy something through a link on our page, we might receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Choosing Your San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Route

One of the top factors in choosing your road trip route will likely be how long each takes to get you from San Francisco to San Diego. For consistency, the three routes we focused on in this post were mapped using the San Francisco and San Diego airports as anchors. This means your trip might be slightly longer or shorter depending on your actual endpoints.

With all that in mind, these routes can generally be classified as follows:

The Fast Route: I-5

The Coastal Shortcut: 101

The Scenic Route: Highway 1

Choose your adventure and skip ahead here or read on for more guidance about the pros and cons of each option.

Route Maps

The following map gives you a sense of how each route moves from north to south. The blue pins follow I-5, the red pins follow 101, and the yellow pins follow Highway 1.

At certain points, some of the routes actually merge. Highway 1 and 101 overlap on the Central Coast, and Highway 1 and 101 both end near LA. For this reason, the last portion of all three routes follows I-5 down the coast to San Diego.

Road trip from San Francisco to San Diego: 2, 4, and 6-Day Itineraries

Looking for itineraries? Click here to skip ahead and download quick and easy 2, 4, and 6-day options.

I-5 Road Trip, The Fast Route: San Francisco to San Diego in One Day

I-5 is the fastest way to get from San Francisco to San Diego. You’re not driving here for the scenery or the fresh air. This route cuts through the Central Valley with its endless miles of farmland.

While not particularly scenic, and despite some truly smelly stretches near the cattle ranches, this freeway exists to connect California’s major population centers. It’s an efficient shot between Santa Nella and LA, with an average speed limit of 70mph.

Below we share some tips for driving I-5, and some places to stop when you need to stretch or get a bite to eat.

Top 5 Tips for Driving I-5

Check the Traffic

Check for traffic warnings before you go. Because this is the fastest route between California’s major cities, traffic can get bad around peak travel times like holidays. Your main reason for taking this route is to get there fast. If you’re going to be sitting in traffic, you may want to choose another option like 101.

Avoid Rush Hours

Time your trip to avoid rush hour traffic in the major cities. I’m not sure that we’ve ever passed through LA without hitting a ton of traffic, but you can attempt to avoid the worst of it.

Recirculate Your Air

The farms that line I-5 are not the charming, “bring your kids to pet the animals” type. These are industrial and they are sometimes very stinky. The most notorious I-5 smells come near the area of Harris Ranch with its gigantic cattle feedlot. You may want to set your car’s air to recirculate when passing between exits 350 and 330. That said, ironically Harris Ranch is also one of the most popular stops along this route. More on that below!

Watch the Weather

You may encounter heavy dust-stirring winds and low-lying fog along I-5. Slow down and drive carefully. Reduced visibility is known to cause pile-ups.

Know the Grapevine

The most notorious section on the I-5 route is known as “The Grapevine.” This is a five-mile stretch that crosses Tejon Pass at an elevation of 4,144 feet. To get up the pass from low-lying Central Valley, the road has a steep 6% grade for 5 miles. This is a long distance for such a steep grade, and it’s a bit much for some cars to handle. It used to be common to see older cars overheating along the shoulders.

Also, in the winter months, the Grapevine can experience severe weather conditions, even snow. When this happens, the roads will close until weather conditions improve. Be sure to check the weather and road conditions before you go.

Gas and Charging Stations along I-5

As with any rural highway, you’ll find long stretches on I-5 without services. Our general rule is: when in doubt, fill up. On our last trip, I decided to pass on an expensive gas station, only to find that the next was over 30 miles away … and even more expensive. 

For charging, you’ll find the most stations at Harris Ranch, Kettleman City, and Tejon Ranch, though more are popping up all the time. Tejon Ranch and Bravo Farms both have large Tesla Supercharger areas, but fewer regular chargers. Harris Ranch also has a Tesla Supercharger area and was installing a new section of regular chargers the last time we passed by.

It’s helpful to map out your trip with sites like Charge Hub and Gas Buddy before you go.

The Best I-5 Road Trip Stops from San Francisco to San Diego

If you’re taking I-5, you’re aiming to get to a destination fast. The goal is not to enjoy the scenery and road trip stops. I once decided to make it a two-day trip out of curiosity to see what we could find in the Central Valley. And while it wasn’t awful, I would have much preferred spending an extra night in San Diego!

But it’s still a long drive and you’ll want to stretch your legs, fill up, and get a bite to eat at some point. The following are our best bets for stops along the way.

Note: the following is written from the perspective of someone driving southbound from San Francisco to San Diego. You can still make the same stops driving northbound, but some of the directions may not apply.

Getting to I-5 from San Francisco via 101 S

You can choose between two routes to get to I-5 from San Francisco: 101 S through Silicon Valley or 580 E through the East Bay. It takes about an hour and a half to get to I-5 from either route when your starting point is SFO.

When you take 101 through Silicon Valley, you’ll pass by several worthwhile stops in cities like San Carlos and Palo Alto. But at this point, you’re so close to San Francisco that you probably want to keep going until you get a few more miles under your belt.

Some worthwhile stops between Silicon Valley and I-5 are:

Morgan Hill

Morgan Hill is anchored by a quaint Main Street that gives it a nostalgic feel. We enjoy stopping for meals at local restaurants like Trail Dust BBQ. Main Street Bagels is a worthwhile stop for a quick breakfast downtown.

Gilroy

After Morgan Hill, you’ll start smelling the first of the I-5 road trip smells in Gilroy. This one is pleasant if you’re a garlic fan. Gilroy is known as the Garlic Capital of the World, and you’ll smell it when you’re here! The Garlic Shoppe and Garlic World are both right off 101. Either makes for a fun quick stop for garlic lovers. On a hot day, Marianne’s Garlic Ice Cream won’t disappoint.

Casa de Fruta

Casa de Fruta, Road Trip stop between San Francisco and San Diego
Playing at Casa de Fruta after ice cream from Casa de Sweets

Once you turn onto Highway 152, you’ll pass by Casa de Fruta. This has been a popular road trip stop for almost as long as cars have passed through here. 

What started as an orchard has expanded over the years into a full-service stop with multiple stores, a restaurant, and an RV area. When we go here, we most often picnic and then grab a special treat from Casa de Sweets for dessert. There’s plenty of space for kids to run around, a playground, a merry-go-round, and a little train that runs through the property.

San Luis Creek North Beach

The picnic area at North Beach near San Luis Reservoir and I-5, San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Stop
The picnic area at San Luis Creek’s North Beach

North Beach is a good option for a picnic break. Near the swimming beach, you’ll find shaded picnic tables, restrooms, and nice views out onto the water. We also spotted deer grazing nearby. There is a $10 fee for entry to the recreation area, so bring your California State Park Pass with you (or borrow one from your local library before you go!).

Unfortunately, we learned the hard way that it can get blistering hot here in the middle of the summer. Though the kids and I had the whole place to ourselves, we recommend choosing an option with air conditioning or misters on a hot day!

Getting to I-5 from San Francisco via 580 E

This route leads from SFO to I-5 through the East Bay. As with the 101 route described above, this is probably not the time to visit the best of Walnut Creek and Livermore. Though there are certainly worthwhile stops around here, you’ll probably want to keep on driving until you get past the Altamont Pass.

Santa Nella’s Pea Soup Andersen’s

This is the most iconic road trip spot you’ll find on this section of the drive. Pea Soup Andersen’s has been a road trip tradition for generations of Californians. I have certainly posed with Hap-pea and Pea-wee en route to Southern California as a kid.

If a hot bowl of split pea soup isn’t appealing, they offer a full menu, including breakfast.

Road Trip Stops from San Francisco to San Diego on the I-5

Harris Ranch

Excited for treats from the bakery at Harris Ranch. I-5 San Francisco to San Diego road trip stop.
Excited for treats from the Harris Ranch Bakery

Harris Ranch’s cattle feedlot is known for being the reason behind one of the stinkiest stretches of I-5. It’s also one of the most popular stops on a San Francisco to San Diego road trip. Go figure!

The reason road-trippers stop here is an ever-expanding complex that offers pretty much anything you might need. They have an Inn, four restaurants, a gift shop with a bakery, and on-site gas and charging stations. An RV Park is coming soon.

We’ve stopped here a few times, and found the facility to be quite nice. John and I ate at the more-casual Ranch Kitchen on our latest road trip and were surprised to discover how much we enjoyed the Harris Ranch Cabernet. We tried to buy a bottle to bring home, and they were all sold out. I guess we weren’t the only ones! We took home the display bottle.

I have to be honest here. While many visitors order a steak, and one of the restaurant options is a pricey steakhouse, being so close to the cows removes any desire to eat meat. For folks like me, there are good vegetarian options like a portobello burger.

Bravo Farms

Playing in the mining area at Bravo Farms, I-5 San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Stop
Playtime at Bravo Farms

South of Harris Ranch, the next big road trip stop is Kettleman City’s Bravo Farms. Grab a Tex-Mex meal at Wild Jack’s restaurant or treat the kiddos to an ice cream break. You’ll find a huge souvenir shop and plenty of places for the kids to run around outside. For us, the large play space is the big draw of Bravo Farms. A fun playground goes a long way on this drive.

There are other fast-food options within walking distance, and I noticed families bringing in meals to eat in the large back play area which has picnic tables. Because our last Wild Jack’s meal for our family of four cost us about $100, we’ll probably opt to bring our meals next time too, and then buy the kids a treat.

The Oasis at Tejon Ranch

Looking for ways to cool off at the Oasis, Tejon Ranch. I-5 San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Stop.
Cooling off at the Outlets at Tejon

Just before you reach the Grapevine, you’ll see big signs for the Oasis at Tejon Ranch. This is a large complex with an outlet mall and several dining options. Most of the food options here are fast food, but there’s a broader selection than the usual McDonald’s or Taco Bell that you’ll find on the rest of I-5. A stop at Jamba Juice can be a refreshing change from other fast food chains.

I’ve also found some great deals at the Outlets at Tejon, especially at the Columbia Outlet. It’s a worthwhile stop if you have the time.

This is also a major point for refueling or charging your car. There are several gas stations, a Tesla supercharger, and some regular chargers sprinkled throughout the complex.

Vista del Lago

Views of Pyramid Lake from the Vista del Lago visitor center, I-5 San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Stop
Checking out Pyramid Lake from the Vista del Lago Visitor Center

After crossing over the Grapevine, you’ll see glimpses of Pyramid Lake to the west. Take the Vista del Lago Road exit, and you’ll soon arrive at one of my favorite stretch breaks on I-5. Vista del Lago Visitor Center is a little-known water education center managed by the California Department of Water Resources. It’s filled with interesting hands-on educational exhibits designed to teach the whole family about how the state manages its water. And it’s completely free. Plus there are beautiful viewpoints that overlook Pyramid Lake below.

Valencia

If you have roller-coaster crazy kiddos (or if you’re a roller coaster fan yourself), one reason to make your I-5 drive into a two-day road trip can be found just north of Los Angeles in Valencia’s Magic Mountain. Magic Mountain is known to have some of the biggest, craziest, and fastest roller coasters in the state.

If you love a good amusement park thrill, you might want to make Magic Mountain a part of your San Francisco to San Diego road trip. Spend the night and try to time your day 2 departure to skip the worst of LA traffic!

Los Angeles

When you get to LA, I-5 passes along the boundary of Griffith Park. Covering 4,511 acres, Griffith Park is one of the largest urban parks in North America and the largest historic landmark in LA.

The park may look familiar to you as many movies and tv shows have been filmed here. The iconic Observatory is perched on the edge of Mount Hollywood with the city stretched out below. You can visit to look through telescopes, explore exhibits and see shows in the Planetarium. And to enjoy amazing views of LA and the Hollywood Sign, of course.

Other popular Griffith Park stops include a merry-go-round, a mini train ride, and easy hikes like the lush and green 0.5-mile walk through Fern Dell.

Anaheim

You probably don’t need to be told what the big Anaheim attractions are! But even if an extended stop at the happiest place on Earth isn’t in the cards for this trip, a meal and stroll through Downtown Disney might be a fun break for Disney fans. Downtown Disney is a lively promenade with shops and restaurants. There are no admission fees. You can park in the Simba Lot off Disneyland Drive.

For Instagrammable bites without the Disney stress, give the Anaheim Packing District a try. Housed in the former Sunkist Packing House, the market is fun to browse and allows everyone in the family to find something they’ll love. From Mini Monster’s boba topped with cotton candy to chickens and waffles from Georgia’s Kitchen, this isn’t your typical roadside lunch break.

San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip: I-5 Stops Along the Coast

Once you’re close to the coast on I-5, all three road trip routes from San Francisco to San Diego merge. There are some gorgeous stops along this section. The following three are some of our favorites.

San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano

Anchored by the historic Mission, San Juan Capistrano exudes small-town charm. Mission San Juan Capistrano is a main draw for visitors. It’s laid out like a history museum and three generations of us enjoyed wandering the grounds.

Within a quick walk of the Mission is the historic Los Rios District, known to be the oldest neighborhood in California. Three of the neighborhood’s forty homes are the original adobe structures that once housed people who built the Mission or worked its ranch in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Other homes were built by immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

If you’re hungry and are up for a splurge, enjoy a meal at the lovely Ramos House Cafe in the historic district. The Tea House on Los Rios also makes for a unique stop if that’s your jam (one giggle).

San Clemente

The coastal city of San Clemente is known for its beaches, Spanish-colonial architecture, and laid-back culture. Stroll the lovely downtown area, or wander along San Clemente Pier. 

If you’re traveling with kids, consider a stop at Linda Lane Park on the beach, just north of the San Clemente Pier and the downtown area. The seaside park has a play structure for kids and fields of grass where the family can enjoy a picnic and get their wiggles out. A tunnel under the railroad tracks provides access to the beach from the Linda Lane parking lot.

Carlsbad

Exploring the Sea Life Aquarium at Legoland, Carlsbad
SeaLife Aquarium at Carlsbad’s Legoland

Located in North County, Carlsbad is only 35 miles north of your San Diego destination.

The main reason families stop here is Legoland, a must-visit destination for Lego lovers of all ages. Though it may be a controversial opinion, I think JJ loves it even more than Disneyland.

Aside from Legoland, Carlsbad has much to offer visiting families. South Ponto Beach is located at the southern end of South Carlsbad State Beach. It is a wide beach in a mostly undeveloped area, making it popular with local families.

Other Carlsbad attractions include the Museum of Making Music, the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, and the Leo Carillo Ranch Historic Park.

Now, go enjoy San Diego!


Highway 101: The Coastal Shortcut

Taking the 101 route offers the best of both worlds. You’re not on the most scenic route, but you can appreciate the scenery and enjoy a fun stop or two along the way.

You can make this trip in one day, but many of the following stops make for good places to stay and explore overnight. For a quick summary, download our 2-night suggested itinerary below.

As with the I-5 Route above, you’ll start by taking 101 S through Silicon Valley. However, instead of turning onto 152 after Gilroy, you’ll head west and continue toward Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.

Note: the following is written from the perspective of someone driving southbound from San Francisco to San Diego. You can still make the same stops driving northbound, but some of the directions may not apply.

Gas and Charging Stations along 101

Gas stations are pretty easy to come by along most of 101, even outside of the main population centers. King City is one of the most popular fill-up areas in the more rural section of this route. You’ll also want to slow down around here as it’s a well-known speed trap!

For those with electric vehicles, four fast chargers have recently been installed in Soledad, a small town between Salinas and King City. I found this EV charger map helpful for locating chargers along the route.

The Best 101 Stops for a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip

San Juan Bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista
Mission San Juan Bautista

If you’re interested in California’s missions, a stop at San Juan Batista is worth your while. Established in 1869, the town’s commitment to preservation gives the walkable pedestrian-only downtown a historic feel. San Juan Batista is on the National Register of Historic Places for its plaza and Spanish-Mexican Colonial architecture.

Visitors today enjoy strolling downtown, souvenir shopping, and enjoying some pretty good eats. If you’re swinging by in the morning hours, enjoy a quality caffeine break at Vertigo Coffee, named after the Hitchcock movie filmed here. Around lunchtime, try Jardines Restaurant which offers Mexican food in a lovely garden setting.

The Mission itself was built in 1797 and is the largest of California’s missions. Now part of the California State Park system, you can walk most of the grounds for free or pay $10 for a self-guided tour of the buildings.

Salinas

Known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” because of its agricultural production, Salinas is the hometown of John Steinbeck who set many of his stories in the area.

Steinbeck fans will enjoy a visit to the National Steinbeck Center. This interactive museum takes visitors through the author’s life and work. See big-screen clips from movie versions of his novels and exhibits like the Model T Ford featured in “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” A road-tripper’s favorite is the camper Steinbeck took on his 34-state journey.

For creative inspiration and lunch, visit the Steinbeck House. This is Steinbeck’s boyhood home turned restaurant, and it’s just a few blocks away.

Detour Option: The Monterey Peninsula

Butterfly Grove Inn at the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary
Fun murals at the Butterfly Grove Inn near the entrance to the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary

The Monterey Peninsula is an amazing vacation destination in its own right. Depending on how long you have for your drive, it may be a worthwhile detour on your trip.

Unless you spend the night, you probably won’t have time to visit the area’s most famous attraction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But strolling through Cannery Row, Carmel’s Ocean Avenue, or the Pacific Grove Butterfly trail are all worthwhile diversions.

To get to Monterey from 101, exit at 156 W in Prunedale. Highway 1 takes you along the coastal route, and 68E will bring you back to 101 S.

There’s more info on the Monterey Peninsula on the Highway 1 road trip itinerary below. You can also read about our favorite things to do in Monterey here.

Paso Robles

Looking forward to delicious cookies from the Brown Butter Cookie Company, 101 San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip stop
Looking forward to cookies from the Brown Butter Cookie Company!

Paso Robles is the first of many fun Central Coast towns you’ll hit on the 101 route after Monterey. I love visiting the Central Coast and even wrote a whole post about my favorite 25 towns in the area. One of the biggest challenges on this stretch of 101 is choosing just one or two towns for stops.

Paso is one of my favorites. It is quickly emerging as one of California’s latest wine hot spots. Many say it’s like Napa in the early years. Unpretentious and fun, it offers several delicious stops for grown-ups and relaxed kid-friendly options for families.

On a recent road trip stop here, my whole family fell in love with Jeffrey’s Wine Country BBQ, tucked away in a little alley around the corner from Downtown City Park. After lunch, we enjoyed a cookie break at Brown Butter Cookie Company and some playtime in the park’s playground. It made for a perfect road trip break, though the kids didn’t want to move on.

San Luis Obispo

Driving on Higuera Street in Downtown SLO on a sunny day
Driving down Higuera Street on a sunny winter day.

As a Cal Poly alum, I have great memories of living in San Luis Obispo, commonly known as SLO. Like many other former students, I always try to find an excuse to stop here on our trips south. Sometimes I’ll even exit 101 just to drive through downtown before hopping back on the freeway!

Downtown SLO is a great place to grab a bite to eat and stretch your legs. A tri-tip sandwich from Firestone’s Grill is one of the most popular options for former residents like me. And if you need a bit of caffeine before the next leg, try a Linnaea’s latte. Stay awhile and enjoy it in the back garden for a moment of zen before you get back on the road.

A less appetizing landmark downtown is Bubble Gum Alley, located between 733 and 734 Higuera Ave. Here you’ll find a small alley completely lined with chewed bubble gum. Some people get creative, writing notes and drawing images with their leftover gum. It’s certainly a sight to behold, even if it’s a bit gross!

South of downtown, another popular San Luis Obispo landmark is the bright pink and unabashedly gaudy Madonna Inn. Stop in for a slice of their famous pink champagne cake before you reach the coast.

Avila Beach

Playing by the sea in Avila Beach
We love the playground by the sea in downtown Avila Beach.

The quaint seaside town of Avila Beach is an awesome destination for families looking for a relaxed beach visit. A little downtown lines the beach with shops, restaurants, and places to pick up an ice cream cone or shaved ice.

The beach here is popular because it occupies a more sheltered section of San Luis Obispo Bay. This means that it is often warmer and sunnier here than in neighboring coastal towns.

In addition to the beach, spots like the Avila Barn and the Central Coast Aquarium are family-friendly and small enough for a fun road trip stop that won’t take up your whole day.

I love it here and wrote a whole post on our favorite things to do in Avila Beach.

Pismo Beach

Pismo's Old West Cinnamon Rolls make a delicious breakfast on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip.
Breakfast of champions! Old West Cinnamon Rolls at Dinosaur Caves Park.

As you pass the last Avila Beach exit, you’ll turn into my favorite stretch of 101. The road veers left, and suddenly the Pacific Ocean stretches out before you. From here on, you’ll hug the coast and drive by too many lovely California beach towns to count. Pismo is one of these classic coastal cities. It seamlessly blends hometown charm with touristy kitsch.

Dinosaur Caves Park, ideally located on bluffs overlooking the ocean, is one of our favorite stops on 101. If you’re driving down in the morning, pick up some of the best Cinnamon Rolls you’ll ever taste at Old West Cinnamon Rolls and enjoy them with coffee at the park while the kids run off the sugar.

If you’re stopping by later in the day, save room for Splash Cafe’s famous clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl (I like to add the seafood topping too). This is seriously one of my favorite meals of all time, and I’m not alone on that front. Be prepared for long lines and limited seating here. That said, online ordering is now an option, so you can try to shave some time off your wait that way. As for seating, avoid table-stalking by walking your meal down to the Pier and enjoy lunch on a bench with an ocean view.

Beyond the Pier and downtown area, a stop at Pismo Beach Monarch Grove is well worth your while if your trip is between November and February. After several years of declining monarch counts, 2022’s count skyrocketed with an estimated 22,000 butterflies counted!

Oceano Dunes

South of the Pier, Pismo State Beach and the Oceano Dunes State Recreational Vehicle Area allow vehicles on 8 miles of drivable beach. Off-roading and ATVs are very popular in the area, as is the experience of trading the freeway for a stretch of sand. More information on beach driving can be found on the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area site.

Solvang

Ostrichland, a great San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip stop on 101
Ostrichland!

Santa Barbara County begins south of Santa Maria. Towns like Los Alamos, Los Olivos, and Santa Ynez are known for quaint and unique downtowns and delicious food and wine. This is the area made famous by the movie Sideways. If you’re traveling without kids, this is a great place to overnight after wine tasting.

Solvang is the largest and most family-friendly town in the area, known as the Santa Ynez Valley. Calling itself the “Danish Capital of America,” this charming little town delights at first sight. It’s on the kitschy side, but we have fun wandering among the Danish-inspired architecture and doing some bakery tasting.

If you’re looking for a unique stop, Ostrichland, USA is right off the freeway. Housing over 100 ostriches and emus, you can feed the birds and watch them roam. In summer months, lucky visitors may even get to glimpse the chicks that hatched in the spring!

For more ideas on things to do in Solvang, check out this post on our favorite things to do in the area.

Santa Barbara

The Prehistoric Forest at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has fantastic outdoor exhibitions.

Once you get to Santa Barbara proper, you start feeling the Southern California vibes. There’s a lot to do in Santa Barbara, making it another great option for an overnight stay.

This is a beautiful town known for its Spanish colonial architecture, beaches, and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. Its beauty and near-perfect weather earned it the nickname, “the American Riviera.” There’s something for everyone here, making it a wonderful stop for couples, friends, and – of course – family adventures. I wrote one of our very first mini-guides on Santa Barbara, which you can find here.

If you’re just stopping for an hour or two, head to Stearns Wharf. This is a perfect Santa Barbara road trip stop, with a central location and good options for family fun. You’ll find the Santa Barbara Sea Center here, an interactive aquarium with exciting hands-on exhibits like Shark Cove, Intertidal Wonders, and Jellies and Friends. 

Stearns Wharf is also home to the Lil’ Toot Water Taxi. Lil’ Toot provides 15-minute narrated boat rides between the Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf every half hour. This provides some fun and novelty without taking away too much driving time!

Carpinteria

Splashing at the "World's Safest Beach"
Road trip splash stop at the “World’s Safest Beach.”

South of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria is one of our favorite laid-back beaches. A curve in the shoreline means most of the beach faces south, with the Channel Islands offshore protecting the beach from larger swells. Over time, this has allowed the beach to build up softer sand and a nice gradual slope in the water. No need to worry about steep drop-offs here!

These calm beach conditions earned Carpinteria the title of “world’s safest beach.” OK, in reality, it was probably a marketing slogan to draw families from neighboring beach towns. But that bit of trivia aside, my kids love splashing in the waves here. We noticed families with kids of all ages, and even a surprising number of people bobbing on rafts…in the Pacific Ocean!

Off the beach, palm tree-lined Linden Avenue is ideal for a stroll. If your road trip happens to be the first weekend of October, this street hosts Carpinteria’s annual Avocado Festival, a very California event.

Ventura

Exploring the big pirate ship at Marina Park, a good San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip stop

Whenever I think of Ventura, I think of Patagonia. Drawn to the combination of surf, mountains, and rivers, Yvon Chouinard established Patagonia’s headquarters here in 1973. As you might imagine, there are plenty of outdoor adventures to experience near this iconic town.

If you just want to stretch your legs, snap a photo from the Ventura Pier, the city’s main landmark, and take a stroll along the Ventura Promenade. Once you make it to Surfers Point, it’s not a long walk to the Great Pacific Iron Works, Patagonia’s very first store. Pick up a souvenir you can use for years to come.

A few minutes down the freeway, you’ll find Marina Park on the north side of Ventura Harbor. This is a family-friendly spot where kids can run around the lawn or play on a pirate ship in the sand. It’s a lovely walk from the ship to Soter’s Point, which leads out onto a jetty where you can watch boats leave the Harbor and head into the ocean. There are picnic tables with beautiful views throughout the area.

Los Angeles

After Ventura, it won’t be long until you reach Los Angeles where you’ll likely hop onto the 405, also known as the San Diego Freeway. Also known as the busiest and most congested freeway in the country.

Though my usual inclination is to get past LA traffic as quickly as possible, this route does take you right past The Getty. A stop here offers the chance to view some of art history’s masterworks and to experience the gorgeous outdoor spaces that overlook the city. If you’re an art museum fan, the Getty is worth your time. Plus, admission is free! Just make sure to go online and scheduled a timed reservation before your trip.

Tip: The California State Route 73 Toll Road

Google Maps and Apple Maps will probably route you away from the 405 and onto SR 73. This is a toll route developed so that folks in Orange County who are willing to pay tolls can bypass the 405 traffic.

Unlike the toll lanes that increasingly pop up around other California freeways, this one came as a bit of a surprise to us. Once you’re on it, getting off and back onto the 405 isn’t as easy as changing a lane.

Toll costs vary based on the time of day with a max of $9 one way. If you don’t have a FasTrak, tolls can be paid online at TheTollRoads.com within five days before or after your drive. A bill with penalties will be mailed to you if you miss the window (we found this out the hard way!).

If you want to bypass the tolls, be sure to stay on the 405 until you reach I-5 South.

San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip: I-5 Stops Along the Coast

At this point in the trip, you’re close to the coast. From here you’ll take I-5 S, and all three routes to San Diego merge. There are some gorgeous stops along this section of the trip. Click here for three of our favorites.


Highway 1: The Scenic Route

A drive down Highway 1 never gets old. I try to steer the family onto the scenic route every chance I get! As the highway winds along the coast, it reveals so much about California’s character and stunning beauty.

Many say that a Highway 1 road trip isn’t for kids. While you may not find sprawling road trip stops with big playgrounds geared especially to them, there is something for everyone here. We’ve tackled sections of it for years now, and have made many happy family memories along the way.

The following are some of our favorite things to do along Highway 1 from San Francisco to San Diego. I have another mega-post on 50 ways to enjoy a Highway 1 road trip with kids, with points of interest from Leggett to Dana Point should you want to extend your trip even further!

Some may find all of the Highway 1 options a tad overwhelming. If you prefer to skip ahead to suggested itineraries, you can download 2-Day, 4-Day, and 6-Day options here.

Note: the following is written from the perspective of someone driving southbound from San Francisco to San Diego. You can still make the same stops driving northbound, but some of the directions may not apply.

Top 5 Tips for Driving Highway 1

Know the Road Conditions

Highway 1 is improbably carved into rugged and wild coastal cliffs. While this makes for a beautiful drive, it also means a lot of maintenance. It’s not uncommon for a rainy day to bring rock slides and mudslides, closing the road for hours or even days.

Download the California Department of Transportation’s Quickmap App for real-time updates on things like traffic and road closures. You can also get updates on road conditions on the CALTRANS website. If you have any questions before driving, call the CALTRANS Highway Information Network at (800) 427-7623.

If you do hit bad weather, be flexible. It might be worth your while to detour to 101 for a bit rather than waiting a day for the road to reopen.

Pull Over

Ironically, this is good advice on both the fastest and slowest routes to San Diego! There can be a lot of traffic on Highway 1, with cars, motorcycles, and RVs all going at different paces. If you see a line of cars behind you, simply pull over at the next pull-out and let them go by. Better to go at your own pace and enjoy the drive than feel rushed by others.

Mind the Cliffs

Sadly, Highway 1 is no stranger to tragic accidents. While the views are magnificent, remember that they aren’t worth risking an injury or worse. There are viewpoints all along the way, so keep your eyes focused on the road and pull over whenever you want a closer look.

And when you do, stay in the marked areas. Don’t be featured on the news as someone who fell over a cliff taking a selfie (one of my recurring fears).

Bring a Map

You can depend on undependable cell reception throughout stretches of Highway 1, especially through Big Sur. Download any maps and directions before starting your trip. It also doesn’t hurt to bring a road atlas and maps as backup.

Another thing to download ahead of time is the tide schedule so you know when it’s safe to go to explore any tide pools you encounter along the way!

Be Proactive with Motion Sickness

There are lots of twists and turns along this route, and it’s not uncommon for people to feel motion sickness. Always prepare for the worst so you don’t end up like us, frantically cleaning out car seats on the side of the road!

I cover car sickness prep in detail in our Road Trip Essentials post. In short, our go-to solution is having limes cut and ready to go. We have the boys start chewing on them right as we start a curvy section, and then continue as needed. Ginger tablets can also do the trick. 

If they look pale, especially if their lips are white, we find a place to pull over and take a walk. We haven’t used kid-friendly Dramamine yet, but it might be helpful in more predictable cases.

Gas and Charging Stations along Highway 1

There are long sections of Highway 1 with no gas stations. Notably between Carmel and the River Inn (about 26 miles) and then from Ventana to Ragged Point (about 47 miles). Remote places with only one gas station are pricey! Plan ahead so you don’t get stuck.

As for charging, there are several places near Santa Cruz and Monterey to charge up before you get to the more remote areas. Big Sur has both a ChargePoint station and a Tesla supercharger conveniently located near Big Sur Bakery. After that, the next group of chargers is in Cambria (about 70 miles away).

South of Cambria, you can find some stations in Cayucos (Tesla only) and Morro Bay. Stations become more frequent once you reach San Luis Obispo and other towns with larger population centers.

Mapping your trip with sites like Charge Hub and Gas Buddy before you go is never a bad idea.

The Best Highway 1 Road Trip Stops from San Francisco to San Diego

Our reference starting point is the San Francisco Airport, which is actually south of San Francisco in Burlingame. To get to Highway 1 from the airport, take 101 south to Highway 92. From there, 92 winds over the hills to the coast near Half Moon Bay.

For this post, we’ll pick up Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay and start heading south from here. This route hugs the coast all the way to San Diego.

Half Moon Bay

Scenes from Half Moon Bay Main Street in October
Scenes from Downtown Half Moon Bay in October

Half Moon Bay is a quaint seaside town, famous for its annual fall pumpkin festival. This area is known for its agriculture and coastal beauty. As you drive south, you’ll have the Pacific on your right and rolling hills dotted with farms on your left.

Half Moon Bay has several good cafes to get your trip started on the right foot. Cafe Society is a popular option in the heart of downtown.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

The boys love visiting Pigeon Point Light Station, as evidenced by the stuffed lighthouse in their room that holds little marine animal stuffies.

At 115 feet, Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the tallest on the California coast. Although the original 16-foot lens is no longer in use, the station is still an active Coast Guard navigation aid.

The original Light Station buildings are now unique lodging houses run by Hostelling International. How many other budget-friendly options have ocean views, on-site tidepools, seals, and a beach?

Año Nuevo State Park

A beautiful coastal hike in Año Nuevo State Park
The gorgeous Whitehouse Creek Trail in Año Nuevo State Park

Año Nuevo is a great park to draw you out of your car for a coastal walk. The park is best known for its elephant seal preserve. To see the elephant seals, you need to take a 3 or 4-mile guided walk. This may not be the best option for your road trip schedule, especially as you can see them further south without tours or reservations.

On our last visit, we took the North Whitehouse Creek Trail to Franklin Point. It was stunning! And we just happened to spot several elephant seals along the way. Just be sure to leave them plenty of space. I went to take a picture of one and he started to charge me. They move surprisingly fast!

Davenport’s Swanton Berry Farm

Lovely Swanton Berry Farm on Highway 1 in Davenport, CA
Swanton Berry Farm is a perfect place to pick up healthy road trip snacks and fresh baked goods on Highway 1.

We love Swanton Berry Farm. Located in coastal Davenport, it was the first certified organic strawberry farm in California. Their produce is sooo good.

They also display their commitment to fair farming on the human side. People who work at Swanton Farm are part of a union contract and it’s not hard to find visible support of the United Farm Workers here. This was the first organic farm in the country to organize in this way.

In the summertime, their U-Pick is open every weekend. Get a box in the farm stand, pick a pound of strawberries, and enjoy a healthy and delicious treat throughout the next stretch of your drive.

Santa Cruz

Summertime June Gloom Beauty in Santa Cruz
June Gloom doesn’t take away from the beauty of Its Beach in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a must-stop location on your San Francisco to San Diego Highway 1 road trip. A main draw is Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the oldest continuously running amusement park in California.

Make time to pull over, grab a corndog, and ride the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in 1924 that is now a national landmark. The carousel, built in 1911, is also a classic the whole family will enjoy.

If you’re interested in making an extended stop here, read our post on 15 Ideas for an Amazing Santa Cruz Getaway with Kids.

Elkhorn Slough

Kayak ride through Elkhorn Slough
Elkhorn Slough is ideal for beginning kayakers.

The Elkhorn Slough is a waterway full of wildlife. Winding seven miles inland from Monterey Bay, this biologically rich estuary is home to otters, seals, and hundreds of birds.

Visitors can explore the slough by the Elkhorn Slough Safari boat or by kayak. The boys’ very first kayak outing was here. It’s a perfect area for beginners with calm waters and plenty to see.

The Sea Harvest Restaurant at the Slough’s entrance is a casual spot that’s great for relaxing with some fish tacos after a morning adventure. Nearby, Moss Landing State Beach is also a good place to picnic and play on the sand if you’re not ready to get back in the car just yet.

The Monterey Peninsula

The famous jellyfish of the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Jellyfish are a highlight at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Monterey Peninsula is a great spot for families. It could easily be a vacation in and of itself and makes a great overnight option.

Monterey used to be full of commercial sardine canneries. Today Cannery Row is one of the main tourist areas, named for the book written by the region’s most famous son, John Steinbeck. It’s full of restaurants and shops and is anchored by the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Aquarium has expansive online learning resources. If you plan to visit, make their puzzles and coloring pages part of your road trip activities!

Nearby, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove are charming towns in their own right. Carmel’s beach with its soft white sand is one of the most beautiful in the area (though not good for swimming).

From November to February, Pacific Grove, also known as Butterfly Town USA, plays host to thousands of migrating monarch butterflies in its sanctuary grove.

For more ideas on things to do in the Monterey peninsula, check out our top 20 ideas for exploring Monterey with kids.

Point Lobos State Park

Walking through Cypress Tress at Point Lobos State Reserve.

Just south of Carmel is one of my favorite parks in all of California. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is known as, “the Crown Jewel” of California State Parks and it has amazing nature trails that are fun for the whole family.

Our favorite walk with the kids is the Cypress Grove Trail. It’s less than a mile long but offers some of the park’s most awe-inspiring landscapes, from the orange-algae-covered cypress trees to the spectacular blues of Monterey Bay. And there are opportunities for a little rock scrambling and side trails that the boys love.

If you still have more energy to explore, continue walking south to the beaches and tidepools!

Check out our Point Lobos guide for more information and details on the best hikes with kids.

Garrapata State Park

Looking toward the ocean from Calla Lily Valley.
Garrapata State Park’s Calla Lilies

South of Point Lobos, the 90 miles of cliffs and coastline known as Big Sur begins. The landscape is dotted with several amazing state parks. Garrapata State Park is another of our favorites.

Garrapata has miles of beachfront and easy hikes with unforgettable views. One of our favorite spring hikes is to Calla Lily Valley, literally a small valley with hundreds of wild calla lily blooms each spring. This short trail right off the highway is a lot of fun and feels like discovering a big secret. After exploring the flowers, make your way to the beach and then back up to the trailhead for an easy but memorable loop.

To get to Cala Lilly Valley, park along the dirt turnouts on the side of the road near mile marker 63. After starting the trail, you’ll head north along the bluff overlooking the beach. Follow the trail down the stairs to Doud Creek (the steps furthest from the beach were the easiest to descend when we visited).

Because conditions are always changing, check the main park site before heading out.

Bixby Bridge

View of Bixby Bridge from the parking pull out on the northeastern edge.
Big Sur’s famous Bixby Bridge

The icon of Big Sur and one of the most photographed spots in California, Bixby Bridge was built in 1932. The bridge’s 342-foot-long center arch looks like it is wedged into the canyon walls.

Cars almost always slow down as you approach, and there’s a pull-off with parking on Old Coast Road at the bridge’s northeastern corner.

Hop out here to take a closer look…and take some photos, of course!

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Exploring by the Big Sur River in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Exploring Big Sur River

Though small by many park standards, Pfeiffer Big Sur is popular due to it having the southernmost groves of redwoods in California. Plus campgrounds and fun river recreation.

The Pfeiffer Falls Trail is one of the most popular in the park and makes for a great Highway 1 stop with kids. It recently reopened after being closed for years due to fire damage. Today’s visitors can climb through the redwood canyon to view 60-foot falls streaming into a serene pool below. Explore the trail as an out and back, or connect with the Valley View Trail for a 2-mile loop.

After your walk, head to the Big Sur Lodge to relax with some ice cream and play by the river.

Note: there is no beach access at this park. Pfieffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (featured below) are distinct parks within the California State Park System. Though they are separate parks, you only need to pay the park admission once to access both if you visit them on the same day. Los Padres National Forest manages Pfeiffer Beach (featured next). It is not a part of the State Park System and has its own admission fee. 

Pfeiffer Beach

Purple Sand at Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach’s Purple Sand

Known for two unique natural features, the Keyhole Arch and improbable purple sand, Pfeiffer Beach is one of the most popular spots on the Big Sur Coast and will thrill any purple-loving kid.

You’ll arrive via the winding narrow Sycamore Canyon Road. As of our last visit, there was a $12 fee for entrance and parking. For more information and tips on visiting Pfeiffer Beach, we wrote a full post on planning a family day at Big Sur’s purple sand beach.

Nepenthe

Nepenthe is a must-stop on a San Francisco to San Diego road trip on Highway 1
Stop here for good food with jaw-dropping views.

Unlike many places on Highway 1 through Big Sur, Nepenthe is pretty easy to spot from the road. There’s a huge parking lot and a multi-story building. Normally, I try to avoid crowded touristy spots like this, but the views here make it worth the while.

Is it crowded? Yes. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it stunningly beautiful to gaze out at the ocean from a sun-warmed patio? Also, yes.

If Nepenthe is too crowded, or not yet open, Cafe Kevah is a popular alternative downstairs with its own amazing views. The Phoenix Shop next to Cafe Kevah is a good place to find unique gifts and souvenirs.

Partington Cove

A 1.5-mile hike to a hidden cove is the appeal behind another of Big Sur’s favorite easy hikes.

Part of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the trailhead to Partington Cove is 2 miles north of the main park entrance. When you reach the turnout on the ocean side of Highway 1, you’ll see a steep dirt road that leads through the forest below. The turnoff used to be harder to find, but now it’s on Google maps. Remember to download directions before you go in case you don’t have service!

As you descend the trail, veer left at the first junction to continue to the cove. From there, you’ll reach a bridge that takes you to a tunnel originally built in the 1880s. The cove is on the other side of the tunnel.

Visitors love the blue-green water that is so clear you can see a kelp forest growing below. Head out to the bench, sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.

McWay Falls

Bug at McWay Falls
Lovely McWay Falls

If you can find a parking spot in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, simply follow the crowds to McWay Falls, one of Big Sur’s most popular stops.

The walk to the falls overlook is quick and easy, about 0.25 miles. Shortly after the falls come into view, you’ll come to a fence that has closed off the rest of the trail. The natural processes that have shaped Big Sur’s dramatic scenery also make the cliff sides unstable, so this is as far as you can go.

McWay Falls is one of only two tide falls in California, waterfalls that fall directly into the ocean. As long as you keep your expectations in check, knowing it’s a short and easy trail likely filled with crowds, you’ll enjoy the view. I’ve come to think of it as fun to view McWay Falls with others. At the very least, we always find someone willing to snap a family photo!

Ragged Point

Ragged Point is the southern gateway to Big Sur. If you’re driving from the north, pull over to say goodbye to those magical views. And also to refuel the car and your stomach.

Some of Ragged Point’s offerings include the Sandwich Stand, an Espresso Bar, and Ice Cream plus some more formal restaurant offerings.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Preserve

Elephant Seals for miles on the Beach at Piedras Blancas, popular San Francisco to San Diego road trip stop
Elephant Seals as far as the eye can see!

If you’re determined to see some elephant seals on your Highway 1 road trip, the viewing experience at Piedras Blancas is much easier than at Año Nuevo. You don’t need reservations here or a long hike. Just park and wander over to the long boardwalk south of the parking lot. You’ll smell them as soon as you get out of the car!

This site has interpretive signage and brochures for visitors. It’s supported by Friends of the Elephant Seals, and you’ll sometimes find a trained docent to share more information.

If you’re traveling with kids, check out the kids’ zone site before you go. Looking at information about a site before you visit makes it even more exciting to see it in person.

San Simeon

Hearst Castle's famous Neptune Pool, a popular stop on a San Francisco to San Diego road trip down Highway 1
Hearst Castle’s famous Neptune Pool

The main tourist attraction in San Simeon is Hearst Castle. Looming high on the hills above the sea, Hearst Castle is a mansion-turned-museum that reveals what it would have been like to live in, or visit, the former home of media-magnate William Randolph Hearst.

The bustling Visitor Center has movies about the history of the site as well as food and gift shops for souvenirs. You’ll get your tickets here for the shuttle to the Castle. Most first-timers choose The Grand Rooms Tour.

Based on my experience coming here without kids and coming here with a 2 and 4-year-old, I’d recommend visiting with kids ages 7 and up. Tour sizes are large and they aren’t designed with young kids in mind. Both boys loved wandering outdoors, but they got a bit antsy after a while inside.

As you drive past the property on Highway 1, keep your eyes open for zebras. I’ve only glimpsed them once, and of course, everyone else in the car was snoozing!

Across the Highway from Hearst Castle is Hearst Memorial Beach and the park’s Coastal Discovery Center. This is a joint venture between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and California State Parks. If you need a break but don’t have time for Hearst Castle, check out their interactive exhibits and education programs about this coastal region.

Cambria

Boys playing on the boardwalk in front of Moonstone Beach, another great road trip stop on Highway 1 with kids.
Lunch stop at Moonstone Beach

Moonstone Beach is a great stopping point on your Highway 1 drive. The beach is lined with a well-maintained boardwalk, several restaurants, and hotels.

Shamel Park, on the beach’s southern edge, has a large playground and signage from the coastal Whale Trail identifying this as a good spot for whale watching. It also marks the point at which Santa Rosa Creek meets the ocean. This makes a lagoon that might be more enjoyable for little ones to play in than the rougher Pacific nearby.

One of the northernmost towns on the Central Coast, this area makes for a great overnight stop as well. Check out our favorite places to play and stay in Cambria here.

Morro Bay

Trailhead to the Heron Rookery in Morro Bay
Views of Morro Rock from the trailhead to the Heron Rookery

Known for its namesake Morro Rock, a 576-foot tall volcanic plug, Morro Bay is a fun little coastal town known for its protected Bay and the shops and restaurants along the waterfront. Check out the dock near the Great American Fish Company if you want to say hello to the resident otters.

Another way to get up close to the wildlife is a kayak tour with Central Coast Outdoors. There’s nothing like an adventure break to make new road trip memories, and the Bay’s calm water is perfect for exploring families.

If kayaking doesn’t fit into your agenda, consider getting on the water with Morro Bay Whale Watching & Sub Sea Tours. The Sub Sea Tour is on a small boat with a viewing room beneath the water’s surface. You can view marine animals up close without getting wet!

If you’re in Morro Bay between February and June, the Morro Bay State Park’s Estuary Preserve has an 800-acre protected wetland for animals who call Morro Bay home. The Heron Rookery is one of the coolest wildlife trails we’ve been on as a family. You can see and hear hundreds of double-crested cormorants, great egrets, and great blue herons roosting in trees all spring.

San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Stops South of San Luis Obispo

When you get to San Luis Obispo, Highway 1 and 101 become the same road. We cover some of our favorite stops along 101 above. Click on the towns listed here to find out more information on each.

San Luis Obispo

Avila

Pismo

South of Pismo, Highway 1 and 101 split again, with Highway 1 leading through the Vandenberg Air Force Base and 101 leading into the Santa Ynez Valley. Santa Ynez Valley is one of my favorite sections of 101, and I generally prefer this route.

Solvang is a fun stop and makes a good base for exploring the area. It’s a good overnight option with lots of accommodations to choose from.

Highway 1 and 101 meet again as you approach Santa Barbara. Click below to get back to descriptions of some of the best stops in this area.

Santa Barbara

Carpinteria

Ventura

The roads split one more time after Oxnard. Take Highway 1 here to continue on the coastal route to Malibu. This stretch is most commonly known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH.

Zuma Beach

When you reach Zuma Beach, you are now in gorgeous Malibu. Zuma Beach is considered by many to be one of the best beaches in the LA area, with miles of clean sand, plenty of parking, and easy access to beachside snacks. Locals and tourists flock to it year-round.

Located at the southern end of Zuma Beach, Point Dume is a famous rocky bluff that extends into the Pacific Ocean. It marks the northern end of Santa Monica Bay. Hike to see amazing views of Santa Monica Bay, the north Malibu Coast, the Santa Monica Mountains, and Catalina Island off in the distance.

Annenberg Community Beach House

For an easy introduction to LA beaches, consider spending time at the Annenberg Community Beach House. This is another of William Randolph Hearst’s former beach houses, but you can swim here without a massive donation.

Families love the splash pad, playground, heated pool, concessions, and the ability to reserve a canopy on the beach.

Santa Monica

Highway 1 meets Route 66 at the Santa Monica Pier
The Pacific Wheel at Santa Monica Pier

Highway 1 meets Route 66 at one iconic road trip stop: the Santa Monica Pier. You’ll probably recognize it by Pacific Parks’ famous Ferris Wheel. With a dozen rides and games, this park is a great stop to make on your road trip from San Francisco to San Diego.

South of Santa Monica, the PCH becomes a series of heavily trafficked city streets, especially as you get near LAX. You can continue here if you’re determined to drive the complete route, but most road trippers skirt around this section and rejoin Highway 1 further south.

Long Beach

Long Beach has two popular attractions to draw you back onto the PCH. On the north side of the harbor is the recently reopened Queen Mary. Check their website for the latest. They’re announcing new tours and exhibits for the first time in three years!

Across the Los Angeles River from the Queen Mary is the Aquarium of the Pacific. Unlike its neighbor to the north in Monterey, it has reliably sunny Southern California weather. One of the most popular exhibition areas, the Harbor Terrace, hosts outdoor hands-on exhibitions including the Moon Jelly Touch Lab where you can feed a jellyfish if you dare!

The aquarium also offers excursion experiences where you can whale watch with the aquarium’s naturalists or view the marine animals that live in Long Beach Harbor.

Huntington Beach

Checking out the Huntington Beach surf scene from the pier.
Watching the surf scene from the Pier at Huntington Beach.

Pick up the PCH again near Seal Beach and continue along the coast to one of California’s ultimate surf towns.

If a family surf lesson is on your list, this is the place for you. Book a lesson with Corky Carroll’s Surf School. They’ve been teaching people how to catch a wave for 25 years now.

Huntington Beach has an 8.5-mile paved path perfect for beach cruisers, and Wheel Fun Rentals has options for the whole family. Make sure to stop for tacos and ice cream cones along your route in true So Cal fashion.

If you’re looking for a final overnight stop before you reach San Diego, the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa is steps from the sand and caters to families. Amenities and programs include dive-in poolside movies, waterslides, sandcastle-building lessons, s’mores, and even an opportunity to swim with mermaids. And there’s a spa for mom and dad.

Crystal Cove State Park

Featuring 3.5 miles of beach and woodland, Crystal Cove State Park draws families in to hike, camp, horseback ride, and explore tide pools and sandy coves.

The park features a quaint Historic District on the beach with a seaside colony of 46 rustic cottages originally built in the 1930s and 1940s. If you’re lucky, you can book one for an unforgettable stay on the sand!

The Beachcomber Cafe and Ruby’s Shake Shack are good options for a road trip brunch stop, or before spending a day at the beach.

Dana Point

The PCH Monument marks the end of Highway 1 in Dana Point

The PCH officially ends in Dana Point. If you’ve been traveling this route all the way from San Francisco, make a stop at the historical monument that marks the start (or end) point of this iconic road.

At the Highway 1 bridge over San Juan Creek, a 31-foot-tall tower spells out PCH in golden letters. Pat yourself on the back and snap a photo at the southernmost point of “The Most Beautiful Drive in America.”

And while you’re in town, check out the Dana Point Harbor. Known as the “Whale Capital of the World,” this is a great place to catch a whale-watching tour year-round.

Another worthwhile stop is the Ocean Institute. Located on 2.4 acres of the Harbor, this education center offers guided marine life tours, tide pool hikes, kayak tours, and more.

San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip: I-5 Stops Along the Coast

Though you’ve reached the end of the road, so to speak, your journey to San Diego continues. You’ll continue on to I-5 S, where all three routes merge as you near San Diego. There are some gorgeous stops along this section of the trip. Click here for three of our favorites.


FAQs about Road Trips from San Francisco to San Diego

When should I plan my road trip from San Francisco to San Diego?

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with June Gloom Fog
June Gloom at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

If you have a flexible schedule, the best time to plan a road trip from San Francisco to San Diego is late Feb through April. Though San Francisco and San Diego enjoy famously good weather year-round, the roads in between them are a bit more finicky.

Rain along Highway 1 can mean rockslides, mudslides, and closures that can last all day (or more). With a few exceptions, most of the area’s rainy days are over by the end of February, leading to beautiful green hills and colorful wildflowers.

“June gloom” is another weather pattern to be aware of each year. This refers to the cloudy, overcast skies common along the California coast in the late spring and summer months. Overcast skies often burn off around midday, but be prepared to see more gray skies than blue around this time of year. It doesn’t take away the coastal beauty in my book though!

Last, but not least, is the fall fire season. Fall can be a beautiful time to visit the area. Just be sure to book travel insurance in case conditions require you to cancel.

How Many Days Do You Need to Drive from San Francisco to San Diego?

This is a trick question. It’s entirely up to you! You can technically drive each of the route options within one day, so how long you take depends on how much time you have to enjoy the drive.

The following are some things you might want to consider as you make your decision.

I-5: The Fast Route

This route is just about 500 miles long and takes approximately 8 hours without stops. If you’re in a rush and just want to get from point A to point B, you’ll probably want to take the fastest route along I-5. You can easily get from San Francisco to San Diego in one day. The drive doesn’t have a lot to entertain you along the way, so load up your favorite audiobooks and playlists before you leave.

101: The Coastal Shortcut

This route is just under 550 miles long and takes about 9 – 10 hours without stops. You can still get from San Francisco to San Diego in a day this way, but it’s more fun if you break the trip into two days.

We usually choose this option when traveling between Northern and Southern California as a family. Taking Highway 101 most of the way cuts out the beauty of Big Sur, but it still offers interesting stops along the way. You’ll drive along the Central Coast and enjoy plenty of scenic places to stop.

Highway 1: The Scenic Route

This route is 575 miles long and takes 10 – 12 hours without stops. Most people who choose this route intend to take it slow. You can find good itineraries that take anywhere from 2-7 days depending on how long you want to spend at each stop. As with the other options, you can technically make it a day trip. But it would be a long day. This route is a journey as much as a destination. Meander along the coast through some of California’s best scenery and fun coastal towns.

How long will it take me to get back?

Planning a return is my least favorite part of road-trip planning. I tend to load in tons of fun things to do on my way somewhere, and forget that I’ll have to turn around and come home at some point!

Many people who choose to take a slow San Francisco to San Diego journey intend for the road trip to be a big part of the vacation experience. In this case, you may want to consider renting a car for a slow one-way drive, and then take a quick flight home from San Diego.

If you intend to drive round trip, choose one of the more scenic routes heading southbound and then shoot up I-5 in a day on the return. Conversely, you can head south on the quick route, enjoy your time in San Diego, and then slowly work your way up north. If you enjoy a good drive, there’s no wrong way to go!

San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Itineraries

I know there are a ton of options in this post! If you want to cut straight to our suggested itineraries for the 101 and Highway 1 routes, you can download them here.


If you enjoyed this post about ways to road trip between San Francisco and San Diego, you might like these too:

Not ready to plan your road trip from San Francisco to San Diego just yet?

Save this post for later, and visit us again for more ideas on family-friendly west coast adventures.

Road trip San Francisco to San Diego Pin

2 thoughts on “The Ultimate San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Guide: Three Ways to Get To Two of California’s Favorite Cities”

  1. This is excellent guidance! The Thanksgiving pilgrimage from San Jose to LA when I first moved to CA was a right of passage, and my family has been bickering over the best routes and start times and pit stops and gas stations for decades since. I especially appreciate your nod to the exit number when manual air vents should be shut for foul scents. Thank you for the detail, I’ll be sharing this with all my family, in and out of state!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! And yes, the stink in that section of the 5 is no joke. If you have any other pit stops or gas stations to add, please share. I’m always interested in learning new ways to tackle these routes!

      Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.