You are driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco (or vice versa!) and you don’t know how much time you’ll have to spend on the road? Are you intimidated by the long distances to travel in California? Are you wondering what is the fastest route from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or which is the most scenic? Don’t worry, this article is just what you were looking for.
I will not only give you directions, but I will also give you some advice on where to stop and what to see along the various routes in order to rest and break up the journey. In addition, also give you tips to make this challenging journey from the City of Angels to Fog City less tiring.
Click on the small square in the top right corner to see all the different options
Option 1: I-5 N, The Fastest Route
Are you in a big hurry to get from L.A. to San Francisco? In that case, there is no time to lose. If you don’t have a car, rent a car in Los Angeles and get on the road. But on which road? The fastest route from Los Angeles to San Francisco is I-5 N.
In about 6 hours (380 miles from downtown to downtown), traffic and weather permitting, you will arrive in San Francisco. To be sure you’re on the right track, put Santa Clarita in the GPS, which is on the way. From there, you’ll just have to head north on the same road. After crossing the Tejon Pass (where it is often windy), you will arrive in the flat landscape of the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural area where you are likely to find fog.
What do you see along the way? Unfortunately, very little. For most of the journey, the road can seem really boring and frustrating and the only way not to go crazy is to stop at a rest area (You will find one every 30 miles or so) to eat something. However, here are a couple of possible stops:
- If you have some time. you can take a detour on CA Hwy 14 and reach Vasquez Rocks, a bizarre rocky landscape. However, this is not far from Los Angeles (about 40 miles) and there is still a long way to go.
- Otherwise, you can stop to get some fresh air and see a beautiful lake at the Pyramid Lake overlook, called Vista del Lago Visitor Center. It’s rare to find a rest area with such an impressive panorama! The exit to take is called Vista del Lago and is located 25 miles north of Santa Clarita.
For obvious reasons, the road is traveled mostly by trucks that have to reach San Francisco in the shortest possible time. This can be a bit annoying for some drivers who are intimidated by these giant vehicles, especially when they have the brilliant idea of passing in front of other vehicles (and they do!).
Option 2: US 101, A Viable Alternative
If you really don’t like the idea of making the trip from Los Angeles and San Francisco along the boring I-5 N and you have a little more time on your hands, you can take US 101, a much more interesting and very “flexible” road. There are many small detours you can make on the way.
Best Stops on Highway 101 and Things to See
The journey on US 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco takes about 7 hours (without ever stopping) and is about 430 miles long, so it is a little longer than the previous one. Highway 101 departs from Los Angeles, passes near the famous scenic Mulholland Drive, then goes straight to Santa Barbara (which, if you have some time, is worth visiting) and then, after crossing the Gaviota Pass, continues to Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Salinas, San Jose and finally San Francisco. You can also drive Highway 101 without ever stopping and enjoy the beautiful views, but here’s where it might be worth making a few stops.
From Oxnard to Santa Barbara
- From Oxnard to Santa Barbara there is a very scenic segment of 101 through mountain and oceanic landscapes. Just past Ventura, you can also see the Channel Islands.
- The strawberry growing season is from February to September. On this route, you will see strawberry fields. Many claim these are the best strawberries in the state. You can decide for yourself by tasting some of them at one of the stands along the road.
- Santa Barbara is clearly worth a visit, but if you’re short on time, you can take a walk along the waterfront or visit the Santa Barbara Mission. Find these and other tips in our article on what to see in Santa Barbara and our in-depth guide of the California missions.
From Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo
- Highway 101, which actually overlaps with Highway 1, winds along the coast through avocado trees and vineyards and offers a view of the ocean on your left. You will see this view as far as the Gaviota Pass, after which the road heads inland.
- At Buellton (where you find the Hitching Post restaurant – 406 E Hwy 246, which no BBQ lover should miss out on), you may decide to make a detour to Solvang, a sort of Danish colony in the heart of California. Some restaurants here also offer typical Danish cuisine, if you want to taste something new. Between Buellton and Solvang (just about 4 miles) there is also an ostrich farm called Ostrichland USA.
- Before arriving in San Luis Obispo, the road will take you back to the ocean at Pismo Beach, a classic beach town. You can reach the waterfront and have a plate of clam chowder at the Splash Cafe (197 Pomeroy Avenue), or just visit the Pismo Beach Pier. If you’ve always liked the idea of driving on the beach and you haven’t been to Daytona Beach in Florida yet, you should know that you can go to Pismo Beach’s Ocean Dunes (105 W Grand Ave, Grover Beach). It’s the only place in California where it’s allowed.
- After visiting the Mission of San Luis Obispo de Toulouse (751 Palm St, San Luis Obispo) and the beautiful park in front of it, go to Bubblegum Alley, 733 Higuera St. If you’re not too grossed out, you can decorate the wall with your chewing gum too.
- After leaving the chewing gum-covered walls, go grab a bite. The sandwiches at the Firestone Grill (a few minutes walk from Bubblegum Alley, at 1001 Higuera St) will leave you speechless (enjoy your meal!). After lunch, make a last quick visit to the Fremont Theatre at 1035 Monterey St. It’s worth it to take even one picture from the outside.
San Luis Obispo to San Francisco
- This stretch of road is characterized by wayfarers’ sticks topped with metal bells on the side of the road. This tells you that you are traveling along the El Camino Real. If you have some time, you can discover some beautiful missions which we have already mentioned to you when describing the previous stops.
- If you are staying away from visiting the national parks in California and want to discover a fairly unknown one, consider taking a detour to Pinnacles National Park. It is not as breathtaking as the other parks that you will visit in California, but in the article in the link, I pointed out some trails that could be rewarding to do. In that case, you will also need to find accommodations, because the hike may take you longer than expected.
- The great writer John Steinbeck, author of such successful novels as Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, and The Pastures of Heaven, is originally from Salinas. If you want to learn about the life of Steinbeck, go to 1 Main St and visit the National Steinbeck Center. From Salinas you can decide whether to go straight to San Francisco or take a nice detour to Monterey and Carmel-by-the Sea – if you have time, they’re worth visiting!
Two Possible Detours
1) Most likely, you will have decided to take Highway 101, reluctantly giving up driving on the famous, spectacular coastal road: Highway 1. I understand that it really seems like a waste of time, but if you want to drive at least a little bit longer than the one you already drive after Santa Barbara, there is an option.
- Instead of following Highway 101 up the Hollywood Hills in the direction of Ventura, you should drive to Santa Monica and stay on the oceanside road to head towards Malibu. Even the name of the well-known destination in California evokes images of spectacular beaches. It’s hard not to be tempted to go, even just a little bit! If you’re not in a hurry, stop and take some time to visit Malibu. Before you resume the journey on Highway 101 at Oxnard, you’ll have the chance to take a thrilling drive with views of the Pacific Ocean, while the escarpments, canyons, dunes and beaches of Point Mugu State Park await you.
2) After Santa Barbara, you can decide to head to San Luis Obispo without passing by the coast and instead go inland along CA-154:
- On sunny days, the views on this road are even more remarkable. You’ll pass the impressive Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge (but you won’t be able to see it from above), a very long arched bridge, the fifth-longest bridge of its kind in the world).
- You’ll see many horse breeding ranches along the way. The Santa Ynez Valley is renowned for horse breeding.
- If the rustic air of this area has made you thirsty for a glass of wine, you can stop in Los Olivos and drive down Grand Avenue, looking for one of the various wine cellars that offer wine tastings of local wines. Alternatively, head to Los Alamos and drive to Bell St., where you’ll find Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. The bakery’s pastries and sandwiches are very popular.
Option 3: The Scenic Pacific Coast Highway
Let’s be honest, the two options above are only for those who do not have high expectations. The best way to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco and vice versa is to take the legendary Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the most beautiful and popular scenic roads in America, a true symbol of road trips in California.
Unlike the other two roads, it is better to spend at least 2 days driving on Highway 1, but if you have a little more time you could even decide to spend even more time on the road because there are really a lot of things to see along this 460-mile road. In this regard, I don’t think there’s anything better than to refer you to two of our in-depth guides on this famous road:
- Pacific Coast Highway: A guide to the scenic route from San Francisco to Los Angeles
- Big Sur: Wonders not to be missed on the Californian coast
- Where to stay between Los Angeles and San Francisco: Recommended stops for an overnight stay along Highway 1
Other Options: Plane and Train
If you don’t feel like spending all this time driving, you have the following alternative solutions:
- Airplane: There are internal flights from Los Angeles to San Francisco that will take you to your destination in about an hour and a half. Check prices and availability on the best and cheapest price comparison websites that we have collected in the article Cheap US Flights.
- Train: Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is a train route that offers fantastic views of the coast. We talked about it in this article.