California's coastline offers the most majestic vistas in all of the States, so you'll definitely want to do a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco - very few drives in North America can even come close to matching it.
The 560-mile road trip from San Diego to San Francisco takes 10 hours 20 minutes to drive. Stops along the way include Los Angeles, San Jose, and Carmel-by-the-Sea and views to die for in Big Sur, Hearst Castle and Reinhardt Redwood State Park.
You won't want to miss a thing along the way, so continue reading and take some notes on how to approach this incredible itinerary.
How far is San Francisco from San Diego and how long will the road trip take?
|Pacific Coast Route |
(via Highways 1 and 101)
|560 miles||10 hours 20 minutes|
(via Interstate 5)
|500 miles||7 hours 40 minutes|
Along the scenic route, the road trip from San Diego to San Francisco covers 560 miles. You'll be driving Highways 1 and 101 for the majority of the drive, cruising through California's finest coastal attractions.
Cities are an integral part of this route - you'll be tempted by gorgeous beach towns every step of the way, although there's no shortage of forests and parks in between your city stopovers either.
The drive takes around 10 hours 20 minutes if you don't count detours and the inevitable tourist trap crowds, but for the best possible experience, consider breaking up the drive into at least a week.
It should be noted that some of the coastal turns do warrant some careful driving, especially with the potential for fog in the summer around Big Sur.
If you're in a hurry, you can take the Interstate 5 and get to San Francisco in about 7 hours 40 minutes. There's a lot less to see along this route, however, unless you're willing to make some inconvenient inland detours.
Best road trip route from San Diego to San Francisco
The best road trip route from San Diego to San Francisco is definitely the coastal route – as amazing as San Francisco itself is, a lot of the places along the Pacific Coast may just give it a run for its money.
The Pacific route (Highways 1 & 101)
Take Interstate 5 out of the city, just past Mission Bay Park and Torrey Pines State Reserve, then pass San Clemente and spend some time in Los Angeles. Head west out of the city and visit Santa Monica, then hop onto Highway 1.
Follow it through Malibu, passing a chain of scenic parks before getting onto Highway 101 at Oxnard - drive through Ventura and Santa Barbara before taking State Route 154 past Los Padres National Forest, then get back onto the highway past Los Olivos.
Cut through Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo, then take Highway 1 and hug the coast through the Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Monterey. After a string of parks, including Big Basin Redwoods State Park, take Interstate 280 through Daly City (between Lake Merced and San Bruno Mountain State & County Park), then continue north to San Francisco.
The fast route (I-5)Immediately hug the coast via Interstate 5 on your way out of San Diego, and go through Los Angeles. Passing through Santa Clarita and right by Bakersfield, just follow the interstate north past Henry W. Coe State Park and San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, then join Interstate 580 just before Tracy.
Drive by Brushy Peak Regional Preserve, Anthony Chabot Regional Park, and Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park, then drive through Oakland and cross the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge to get to San Francisco.
Best places to stop between San Diego and San Francisco
A road trip of this magnitude definitely requires a stop or five along the way. Luckily for you, there is no shortage of amazing oceanside resorts vying for your attention on the way from San Diego to San Francisco. These are some of the very best:
Marvel at the unmatched beauty of the Big Sur
Your slow and scenic drive will get even slower and more scenic as you approach Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, so you'll want to stop somewhere in the area. A good candidate would be Big Sur, arguably the most beautiful spot on the West Coast.
There are lots of great hotels here, but for the best possible experience, consider soaking in the luxury hot tub at Ventana Big Sur.
The first thing you'll notice is that the views from the Ventana Big Sur's balconies are out of this world. With around 160 acres of beautiful property to explore, you'll be able to connect with nature like never before.
Adding to the amazing atmosphere are the Sur House Terrace and Bar, and the two beautiful swimming pools, each complete with sweeping ocean scenery.
This is also the perfect place to find your inner peace by taking free-of-charge yoga classes, and you can even make things educational and take a tour of the on-site art gallery.
All these amazing services, along with the proximity to Pfeiffer Beach and Andrew Molera State Park, make this hotel rather expensive. If you can afford it, though, you'll come out of the experience even more excited to tackle the rest of this beautiful itinerary.
Enjoy the royal treatment at San Francisco
Once you get to San Francisco, you'll want to find yourself a quality resort that's close to all the city's main happenings. Although you'll have plenty of options, St. Regis San Francisco might just be the most stylish hotel in the city, and it definitely has the best view.
The setup of the rooms is very sleek and inviting, to the point where it'll feel less like a hotel room and more like a genuine (high-end) home.
One thing you'll find here that isn't in the average home, though, is the full-service spa. On top of that, the Grill Restaurant is spectacular, the lounge bar has a wide selection of drinks, and there's an indoor swimming pool, perfect after a day of exploring.
Then, there's the great location. If you book a room higher up, you can get from the lobby to Union Square in the time it takes you to walk to the ground floor. Best of all, the hotel is quite affordable considering all it has to offer.
Things to see on a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco
It's difficult to cover everything during a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco, so besides just splitting up the trip into several days, you'll also want to take the ocean route both ways if you can. These are some of the places you'll want to look out for:
- Crystal Cove State Park – a beautiful beach area accentuated by its eye-catching cliffs
- Los Angeles – affectionately (and rightfully) dubbed La-La Land, your nightlife and recreational options in this city are virtually endless
- Malibu – a popular beach city with a chain of state parks located just to the north
- Los Padres National Forest – this park elegantly combines lush greenery and epic mountain ranges into a unique coastal experience
- Montaña De Oro State Park – the name of this park translates to Mountain of Gold, referring to its sea of yellow wildflowers
- San Luis Obispo – a distinct city around halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco with a unique Spanish aesthetic
- Elephant Seal Vista Point – if you happen to be passing by this area in the fall, you can expect to see a huge pack of its titular sea marauders
- Hearst Castle – featuring well over 100 rooms, around 40 bedrooms and bathrooms, and a full-blown theater, this historic construction is a proper palace through and through
- Big Sur – the Santa Lucia mountains emerge from the Pacific Ocean, creating one of the State's most iconic coastlines
- Carmel-by-the-Sea/Monterey – these beautiful cities are popular summer stopovers and feature various cultural events year-round
- Big Basin Redwoods State Park – the oldest state park in all of California features ancient coastal redwoods – very hard to come by in such large numbers
- San Jose – the largest city in Silicon Valley features amazing nightlife options, and it might be of special interest to tech-savvy tourists looking to learn a thing or two
- Bakersfield – besides its various parks and museums, this city is known for being an important hub for country music
- Reinhardt Redwood State Park – a rare example of a redwood forest located away from the coast, this park is a must-see for avid hikers and nature lovers
Best time to go on a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco
If you're doing a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco, you should know that your experience will be vastly different depending on when you visit. Summer is by far the city's peak season, due in no small part to iconic events such as Burning Man.
With that said, being a city along the Pacific Coast, San Francisco is subject to summer fog and oceanside winds – when these set in, don't expect temperatures to get much higher than the mid-60s.
The drive towards San Francisco can also get quite foggy on sunny mornings, but it's generally not much of a concern the rest of the day. Take this time to explore your stopover city before taking off.
Snowfall is relatively rare in San Francisco, but where the winters lack in snow, they make up for it with a decent amount of rain. January is the city's rainiest month, so this is a bad time to explore the city.
The best time to visit San Francisco would probably be fall – the city gets its highest temperatures in September/October, around 70 degrees on average. You can expect the occasional cloud of fog, but the warmer temperatures and lack of crowds more than make up for that.
Spring can be another good time to visit, as average temperatures aren't that much lower than in the summer during a dry year, but the relatively common springtime rainfall can complicate matters.
If you know for a fact that San Francisco hasn't gotten much rain in a given winter, chances are the upcoming summer would be drier too, making it a good time to do your road trip.