If there were a consensus list of ‘Best Road Trips on Earth’, it would come as no surprise to see Los Angeles to San Francisco at the very top. If you are so lucky to have the opportunity to set out on this adventure, as my partner and I did this past summer, you will soon understand why.
The scenic route of the Pacific Coast Highway, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, is a sight for sore eyes. Along the way you will be graced by beautiful coastal views, immaculate beaches and flawless forests, charming seaside surf towns and magnificent mansions alike.
To quote the great Beach Boys musician, Al Jardine, “I love driving; driving along the California coastline is the best drive in the world.”
If you’re an adventurer, a seeker of beauty, or someone who simply enjoys a nice drive, there’s no question that the road trip from L.A to San Francisco is right up your alley. For the practical people out there, I have some important information for you to consider, too.
How to get to San Francisco from Los Angeles?
There are a few different routes that you could take to get from L.A to San Francisco. The quickest, cheapest, and not-as-fun way would be to fly. I’ve seen one-way flights for as low as $35, so if you’re the type of traveller that prioritizes frugality above all else, this may be the way for you. A typical flight takes about an hour and 15 minutes, covering about 337 miles.
L.A to San Francisco Travel Route comparison (Time, Distance, Cost, Pros and Cons)
|Interstate 5 & I-585||Straight shot: 6hr15m||337mi||Car Rental: ~$80/day Fuel: ~$31||Quick Inexpensive option Still get to road trip||Less scenery Less fun|
|Scenic Route||Straight shot: 10hr Scenic Drive: 2 days||500mi||Car Rental: ~$80/day Fuel: ~$47 Hotel (Scenic Drive in San Simeon): ~$55||Beautiful scenery Experience many cities and towns Make more memories||Most expensive option Longest option|
|Fly||1hr15m||337mi||Ticket:~$35||Quickest journey Least expensive option||No road trip No scenery|
A not-so-quick, not-as-cheap, and also not-as-fun way to get from L.A to San Francisco would be to drive the dreaded, boring, straight-line highway that is I-5. It’ll take you about 6 hours and 15 minutes to cover 337 miles of pavement, and it’ll cost you some mileage on your car, some gas and snack money, and all of the beautiful sights and sounds of the scenic route from L.A to San Francisco.
The scenic route is for those who prioritize fun and beauty, and it’s the way that my partner and I took last summer. We started on Melrose Avenue in L.A and drove about 500 miles up the pacific coast, taking two days to explore the likes of Santa Monica, Malibu, Carmel Highlands, Gilroy, and more, before eventually landing in San Francisco.
Technically speaking, you could take about 10 hours to burst up the coast in one straight-shot, but do you really want to miss out on Fish and Chips on a Santa Barbara beach at dusk, or some bargain hunting at Gilroy’s premium shopping outlets? I think not.
We decided to rent a car for our journey, which turned out to be a great decision. For our return trip, from San Francisco back to L.A, we had planned to carpool with a few friends, so we only needed our rental for one-way.
We needed to find a rental dealership that would allow us to rent the car in L.A and drop it off in San Francisco, and luckily that wasn’t difficult to do. Most household rental dealerships offer this service these days, so you won’t be hard pressed to find one.
You’ll have many options to choose from at the dealership, ranging from small, “economy” sized cars, which are the smallest and cheapest, to premium luxury vehicles which are the most expensive.
You can also rent trucks or vans if you require the additional space. We decided to go with the midsize vehicle as we weren’t bringing that much stuff, but still wanted some leg room.
The midsize vehicle class is a step up from the economy class, but they are not much different in price. We paid about $160 USD for the 2 days before dropping off the car, which works out to roughly $80 USD/day. For reference, you can expect to pay roughly $90/day for an SUV, $95/day for a pickup, and $450/day for an executive luxury car.
The other thing to consider when renting a car for your road-trip is gas. At the time, gas was going for about $4.61USD/gallon. Our car got about 52 miles per gallon, so for the 500 mile trip, we paid roughly $47 for gas. What a small price to pay for what we got in return!
Day 1 : Los Angeles to San Simeon
Melrose Avenue to Santa Monica
Day 1 of our journey began on Melrose Avenue in L.A, and our first stop would be 20 minutes away in Santa Monica. Remember, the purpose of this road trip was not to be efficient, but rather to take in the legendary route for all that it’s worth. So, a stop at the beach was a no-brainer.
Santa Monica is renowned for its 3.5 mile long beach just west of downtown Los Angeles. The Santa Monica Pier, built in 1909, is the main attraction of the beach.
It contains a small amusement park with a solar panelled Ferris wheel, an original carousel hippodrome from the 1920s, an aquarium, shops, pubs, restaurants, and more. It’s also a popular fishing spot for locals.
For all of you exercise historians out there – Santa Monica Beach is also home to the legendary Muscle Beach outdoor gym, established in the early 1930s.
We decided to stay away from the pier as we knew we could spend hours there enjoying ourselves. Instead, we hit the beach, played some American football, and got a token baywatch-esque photo with the on-duty lifeguard.
Next up – Malibu.
Santa Monica to Malibu
It took us about 30 minutes to arrive at our next stop, Malibu. And where did we end up, you ask? You guessed it. The beach. Technically speaking, Malibu is a beach city in the Santa Monica Mountains region of Los Angeles County.
Known for the luxurious celebrity mansions and various stunning beaches, Malibu really gave us a taste of the stereotypical, dreamer’s idea of what California is. Fans of the TV shows Baywatch or The O.C. will love to know that we visited Paradise Cove Beach and got a picture with the Baywatch tower.
Malibu to Santa Barbara
After Malibu, we were off to Santa Barbara. This would be the longest haul of the trip thus far, taking about an hour and 20 minutes and spanning just shy of 70 miles. Our taste buds were tingling at this point, and so we had to refuel and get some food.
So, of course, in keeping with the theme of the trip, we stopped at another beach. Santa Barbara is situated on the central California coast, littered with Spanish-influenced stucco heritage buildings, with the Santa Ynez mountains as a conspicuous backdrop.
The Santa Barbara channel is one of the west coast’s most plentiful sources of seafood, and so, in appreciation for the local tradition, we had to indulge in some fish and chips.
With full tummies and a renewed love for California and its wealth of beauty, we set forth for our final stop of the day, and where we would rest for the night, San Simeon.
Santa Barbara to San Simeon
For the next 2 and a half hours we made our way up the coast, gazing into the horizon of the Pacific Ocean, and ready to enjoy the sunset and retire for the evening. We were off to San Simeon. San Simeon is a small village of about 650 people, halfway between L.A and San Francisco.
One of the most intriguing parts of San Simeon’s history is the relationship that William Randolph Hearst had with the town.
Hearst built his castle in the region, which is now a main attraction for the area, and his company, the Hearst Corporation, donated the William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, including the Hearst Pier, to the County back in the early 1950s.
The day was coming to a close. We drove for 4 hours, covered over 240 miles, visited 3 beaches, had 2 two-piece fish and chips, and were about to take in the day’s only sunset. It was time to rest and get ready for day two, where we would eventually finish one of the world’s greatest road trips, and conclude in San Francisco.
Day 2 : San Simeon to San Francisco
San Simeon to Big Sur & the Bixby Creek Bridge
We woke up on day two of our trip at the Courtesy Inn in San Simeon. It was a sweet little spot. Think 70s motel, but well-maintained. It had a pool and complimentary breakfast and coffee. That, coupled with a good night’s sleep, and we were primed for the next leg of our journey.
Next stop – Big Sur.
Unlike the day before, we started off with a relatively long drive this time. It was about an hour and a half, 65 miles, from our hotel in San Simeon through Big Sur. I have to say that the next stretch of driving was easily my favorite part of the trip, and the whole reason why we decided to embark on this journey.
Big Sur is the rugged, mountainous coastline segment spanning the roughly 71 miles between San Simeon and Carmel Highlands. In one straight shot it would take about an hour and a half to pass through, but we were so taken aback by the beauty that we had to make multiple stops to smell the roses.
Big Sur is truly one of the most breathtaking places on earth. It has been called the “longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States,” a “national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development,” and “one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation.”
This stretch of coastline is considered by many publications and world-travellers alike as among the top 35 tourist destinations on earth. And, to many a surprise, Big Sur brings in as many visitors each year as Yosemite National Park! It truly lives up to the hype.
We took our time driving this coastline, and stopped at every chance we had to breathe it in and snap a photo. One key feature of the Big Sur coast is the Bixby Creek Bridge.
It’s one of the most photographed bridges in California, and has been described as “the most spectacular meeting of ocean and land in the entire United States.”
Big Sur to Carmel Highlands
Carmel Highlands is a small, sea-side, house-in-the-hills type of place. It’s population is just over 3000, and it’s an unincorporated community in Monterey County.
Fun fact: Carmel Highlands has some of the most expensive real estate in the United States, as many celebrities have homes and vacation homes in the hills. We took a quick detour to check out some of the homes, gassed up, grabbed some snacks, and were on the road again.
17 Mile Drive
In fierce competition with Big Sur for the highlight of our trip is 17 Mile Drive, the toll-gated, scenic, amusement-park-like route rounding the Monterey Peninsula through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove.
This stretch of pavement is surrounded by such beauty that you have to pay just to pass through! The toll cost is $10.75 per vehicle, although, personally, I think it should be $17 just for effect – don’t you think? From famous golf courses, to mansions, Bird Rock, and the 5,300-acre Del Monte Forest of Monterey Cypress trees, there is no shortage of sights and sounds to experience.
The most popular attraction of 17 Mile Drive is The Lone Cypress. This iconic tree is situated in isolation on the hillside between Cypress Point Club and Pebble Beach Golf Links, two of the world’s best-known golf courses. This 250-year-old tree is so appreciated in the west that the Pebble Beach Company adopted it as their logo.
We could have spent hours if not days driving and exploring 17 Mile Drive, but the show must go on. We set forth towards our final stop before reaching San Francisco.
17 Mile Drive to Gilroy
Gilroy, the southernmost city in the San Francisco Bay area, is known for all things garlic. Comically nicknamed the Garlic Capital of the World, it’s forever tied to its garlic crop and its annual garlic festival.
But, rest assured, we weren’t here for the garlic. Instead, we wanted to get some shopping in before arriving at one of the most expensive cities in the world.
We decided to stop off at the Gilroy Premium Outlets to give ourselves a little reward for all of the driving we had accomplished.
But, we quickly realized that we needed to save as much money as possible because we were just an hour away from San Francisco – our final destination – the place where it costs 3 times as much to raise a family than the average American city.
And finally, 2 days and 500 miles later, we made it to San Francisco. We set out on an adventure through one of the best road trips in the world, and we did it.
It was great to have conquered the open road and to have reached our goal, but as we should all know by now, to heed the wise words of the great Ralph Waldo Emerson, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”