Golden Gate bridge during sunset, with the tide going out
JonathanC Photography/

Road trip from Washington DC to San Francisco

Updated by Dianne Titos on February 14 2024

Get ready to set off on a cross-country road trip of a lifetime from Washington, DC to San Francisco. Driving through the heart of North America from its capital, through its majestic mountains, world-famous national parks and endless plains, to the beautiful coast of the Pacific.

The 2,875-mile road trip from Washington DC to San Francisco will take 43 hours to drive nonstop. The highlights en route are Indianapolis, St Louis, Denver, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe as well as Yosemite, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

With so much to see and experience, you will make lifetime memories on your road trip across the USA. Read on below to learn more about our recommended routes, best places to stop, top highlights, and best seasons to make the drive.

How far is San Francisco from Washington DC, and how long will the road trip take?

Comparison of road trip routes between Washington DC to San Francisco
RouteDistanceDriving Time
The Northern Route2,875 miles43 hours
The Southern Route3,000 miles47 hours

We have curated two equally amazing routes that will take you from Washington, DC, the nation's capital, to San Francisco. Both are full of fantastic landscapes, all-American cities and towns, and some of the most culturally rich areas of the country.

The Northern Route runs about 2,875 miles and requires around 43 hours of driving time to reach San Francisco. That is without accounting for any detours you might want to make.

Comparatively, the Southern Route covers approximately 3,000 miles and takes around 47 hours of drive time without any stops or detours.

We recommend taking at least 10 days to truly appreciate all the remarkable sites and experiences each route has to offer as one doesn't set off on an epic cross-country road trip every day!

Lombard Street in San Francisco, California
Lombard Street, one of the most iconic sights in San Francisco, awaits you at the end of this incredible cross-country road trip.

Best road trip route from Washington DC to San Francisco

When deciding between the Southern and Northern routes from Washington, DC to San Francisco, your preference will largely depend on the landscapes you want to immerse yourself in and the sights you're keen on seeing.

The Southern Route will bring you through a rich tapestry of diverse terrains, ranging from the Colorado Mountains to the Utah Deserts.

As you venture through iconic cities including Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St Louis, Kansas City, and Denver, you'll have the golden opportunity to witness the marvels of Yosemite National Park, alongside other wonders like the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

The route is interstate-heavy, with a smooth drive, which means you will miss out on quaint small-town experiences. However, you'll still get to experience major cities and the iconic vistas of Moab and Mammoth Lakes.

The alternative Northern Route is a haven if you're looking for lush forests and picturesque lakes. Kickstart your journey with stops at Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, followed by a drive through the forested hills of Pennsylvania.

History buffs will appreciate a stop in Salt Lake City, the host of the 2002 Winter Olympics, while nature enthusiasts can enjoy the pristine beauty of Lake Tahoe as they approach California.

While this route features a blend of city life and natural splendors through visits to Cleveland, Chicago, Des Moines, and Omaha, it also showcases serene stretches of highway through the Great Plains of Nebraska and the Red Desert of Wyoming.

Please keep in mind that some national parks on this road trip, such as Arches National Park, might require reservations before visiting, so make sure to check the official websites for up-to-date information.

How to drive from Washington DC to San Francisco

The map above shows our suggestions for the best road trip routes between Washington DC and San Francisco. Keep reading for detailed descriptions of both routes, where to stay on either, and the best things to do on the way.

The Southern Route

Starting in Washington, DC, head west on Interstate 68 (I-68) towards Pittsburg. Just south of the city, take I-70 to Columbus. From here, head west to Cincinnati and then continue on route on I-74 to Indianapolis. Drive further west through Indiana to the beautiful city of St Louis.

From here, make your way through the mountains of Missouri. Continue on west on I-70 into Kansas City.

Make your way back on route and drive through the Great Plains into the great city of Denver. Here, you'll see the towering Rocky Mountains in the distance.

Drive further west, through the mountains, into Utah. Take a slight detour into the natural treasures near Moab, such as Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

From here, make your way into the deserts of Nevada. Continue on through the beautiful desert landscapes and into California. Jump into the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains and take a nature-filled detour to Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite National Park.

After you visit Yosemite National Park, drive down towards California's Central Valley. Continue on into the Bay Area and your destination of San Francisco.

The image shows the Vernal Falls on the left and its staircase trail on the right side at dawn.
The stunning Yosemite National Park is only one of the unforgettable highlights of the Southern Route.

The Northern Route

From the nation's capital, head north on I-76 through Pennsylvania and visit the beautiful city of Pittsburg.

Continue north to the shores of Lake Erie and the city of Cleveland. After soaking up the Rock and roll history, make your way west along the lakeshore to Toledo.

Continue on I-90 west to Chicago. After exploring one of America's most exciting cities, make your way back on route to Des Moines.

Jump back on route and head west on I-80 to Omaha. Continue west through the Great Plains of America. Next, drive through the small towns and charming communities of rural Wyoming.

Shortly after, you'll arrive in Utah. Make your way to Salt Lake City and marvel at the Great Salt Lake and the famous Salt Lake Temple. From here, get back on route and continue on I-80 to Nevada. Drive through the endless deserts of Nevada.

Soon, you'll arrive in the entertainment capital of Reno. From here, make your way up the mountains and into beautiful Lake Tahoe. After exploring the refreshing lake scenery, get back on I-80 and make your way west into Sacramento, California's capital city.

From here, you're just a short drive away from your destination of San Francisco.

Clear waters of Lake Tahoe with snow covered mountain peaks in the background, California - Nevada border
Whether you are traveling during colder or warmer months, Lake Tahoe is an all-year destination that you will want to add to your itinerary on the Northern Route.

Best places to stop between Washington DC and San Francisco

With so much fun and excitement along the way, you'll want to stop in one of the amazing destinations below. This way, you'll get to make the most out of these routes and rest the night in style.

Explore the red rock landscapes surrounding Moab

Moab is the ideal pit stop on the Southern Route, nestled about 2,060 miles into the drive. This location is two thirds of the way into your road trip, making it the perfect place to take a breath and enjoy the landscapes of Canyonlands.

Known as the base camp for exploring the wonders of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Moab is a playground for adventure seekers and nature lovers. It boasts incredible red rock formations and breathtaking vistas that have made it a favorite among filmmakers.

Milky Way Galaxy behind Double Arch sandstone rock formation
Moab is the perfect gateway to Arches National Park, and staying here will mean that you can easily explore the park at night and admire the stars.
Arthur Cauty/

Take time to visit the renowned Moab Rock Shop, a place where you can find minerals, fossils, and gemstones, and other types of earth's treasures. Following this, gear up for a visit to the Canyonlands National Park to see mesas, buttes, and deep river canyons, sculpted by the Colorado River and its tributaries.

After a day of exploration, we recommend staying at the luxurious Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton. The hotel will treat you to a range of amenities, including a stunning swimming pool. The rooms have breathtaking views of the surrounding landscapes, offering a visual treat right from your room.

To add to your Moab adventure, venture to the Slickrock Bike Trail, just a 15-minute drive from the hotel. Another notable destination a mere 10-minute drive away is the Sand Flats Recreation Area.

After your adventures in and around Moab, surrender yourself to relaxation at the state-of-the-art spa at Hoodoo Moab, a haven where you can rejuvenate after a day of adventure.

Admire architectural gems in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City is approximately 2,115 miles into the Northern Route, inviting you to take a leisurely pause in a location steeped in both natural beauty and rich history. This iconic city, known for hosting the 2002 Olympics and being home to the stunning Great Salt Lake, has a mix of the modern and the historic.

In the heart of this picturesque city lies Temple Square, a monument to the spirit and dedication of the Mormon pioneers who built the city from scratch.

Road running between Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak, Colorado, with snowy mountains in the background
Salt Lake Temple is not the only architectural marvel in the city; the Salt Lake City and County Building in Washington Square Park also deserves your attention.
John Hoffman/

Your cultural exploration can continue at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, where exhibits showcase the artistic traditions of the area.

Once you arrive, we recommend staying at the luxurious and popular Grand America Hotel, known for its stunning façade, which stands as one of the most beautiful architectural marvels in Salt Lake City.

The rooms are elegant and feature bathrobes, slippers, and marble-floored bathrooms to enjoy after your long drive. The hotel also features an outdoor pool facility and a state-of-the-art fitness center.

Situated at a stone's throw from some of the city's most remarkable sights, the Grand America Hotel is close to Washington Square Park, the perfect place for leisure walks amidst lush green surroundings. Not much farther is the Brigham Young Historic Park.

READ MORE - Click here for more great hotel options

Where to stay when you reach San Francisco

San Francisco, a city bursting with experiences and history, is renowned for its historic San Francisco Cable Cars that offer a unique way to explore the city's picturesque neighborhoods.

As you drive through the city's streets, don't miss the iconic 49 Mile Scenic Drive, an adventure that guides you through the city's most celebrated landmarks, offering an intimate introduction to the myriad wonders of San Francisco.

Sky scrapers, palm trees, pedestrians, blue sky at Union Square, San Francisco Downtown
The famous Union Square will be a stone's throw away during your stay in San Francisco.

Top off your time exploring the city's famous fine dining scene with a night at the opera, as San Francisco is home to one of the most illustrious opera houses in the USA.

Nestled in the city's heart, we recommend staying at the luxurious Hotel Nikko San Francisco. This hotel promises a five-star experience right by Union Square and the Moscone Center. From the moment you step in, you'll be taken away in comfort and luxury.

For those looking to unwind after a day of exploration, the hotel houses a rooftop pool enveloped by a vaulted atrium ceiling — a heavenly place to take a dip and relax as you gaze upon the sky.

Culinary lovers will appreciate the opportunity to indulge in a fusion of Japanese and American cuisines at Hotel Nikko's top-rated restaurant, where every dish promises a celebration of flavors and a feast for the senses.

Things to see on a road trip from Washington DC to San Francisco

Get ready! There's a lot to explore on your long drive, from national parks to quaint towns and culturally rich cities. To help you plan your ultimate adventure, we've included our top destinations below.

Southern Route

  1. Seneca Creek State Park - Located in Maryland, Seneca Creek State Park is home to the picturesque 90-acre Clopper Lake and offers a wide array of recreational opportunities, including hiking, picnicking, and boating.
  2. The Old Roman Bath House - Situated in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, the Old Roman Bath House offers a historical glimpse into spa culture, with its preserved Roman-style bath houses built in 1815.
  3. Bradford House Museum - This museum is the 18th-century home of the whiskey rebel David Bradford, offering a deep dive into the historical events and lifestyle of that period through well-preserved artifacts and guided tours.
  4. Buckeye Lake Museum - The Buckeye Lake Museum showcases the rich history of the Buckeye Lake Region, with exhibits featuring Native American history and the area's development as a popular amusement park.
  5. Fountain Square, Indianapolis - A vibrant and historic neighborhood in Indianapolis, Fountain Square houses numerous art galleries, studios, and theaters, making it a hub of cultural activity and a must-visit for art enthusiasts.
  6. Who North America, Camby - Nestled in Camby, Indiana, Who North America is a haven for "Doctor Who" fans, offering an extensive collection of memorabilia, merchandise, and even some interactive experiences based on the popular TV series.
  7. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site - This Illinois-based UNESCO World Heritage site protects the archaeological remnants of the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico, offering insight into the ancient Mississippian culture.
  8. Prairie Museum of Art & History - Located in Colby, Kansas, this museum showcases the historical and cultural evolution of the High Plains region, featuring art exhibits and historical artifacts.
  9. Arches National Park - Situated in eastern Utah, the park is known for its over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the famed Delicate Arch, offering breathtaking landscapes and hiking trails.
  10. Canyonlands National Park - Also in Utah, this park features a dramatic desert landscape carved by the Colorado River, offering a panoramic view of canyons, buttes, and mesas, perfect for hiking and exploring.
  11. Manti-La Sal National Forest - Spanning Utah and Colorado, this national forest is home to diverse ecosystems, offering a scenic drive through mountains, forests, and lakes that are ideal for camping and hiking.
  12. The Willms Ranch - This is a historic ranch that showcases the classic American ranching lifestyle, offering a glimpse into ranch operations and the history of cattle ranching in the region.
  13. Mammoth Lakes - Nestled in California's Eastern Sierra region, Mammoth Lakes offers an abundance of outdoor recreational activities, from skiing in the winter to hiking and biking in the summer, all surrounded by stunning natural beauty.
  14. Yosemite National Park - This UNESCO World Heritage site is famed for its giant sequoias, waterfalls, and diverse ecosystems, a haven for nature enthusiasts and explorers.
  15. Del Valle Regional Park - Situated in California, this park is a picturesque natural retreat offering a wide range of activities including hiking, fishing, and camping, with amenities such as picnic areas and a family-friendly atmosphere.
Mammoth Lakes surrounded by a pine forest with mountains in the background.
Mammoth Lakes is one of our favorite destinations on the Southern Route.

Northern Route

  1. Idlewild and SoakZone - A family-friendly amusement park in Pennsylvania, offering a variety of water attractions and classic amusement rides, a great spot for a day of family fun.
  2. Saxonburg Museum - Situated in Pennsylvania, this museum delves into the history of Saxonburg, with a focus on its founder and the various historical epochs the town has experienced.
  3. West Branch State Park - Nestled in Ohio, this state park is known for its beautiful landscapes, offering recreational opportunities including hiking, boating, and fishing on the Michael J. Kirwan Reservoir.
  4. Lorain Harbor Lighthouse - Located on Lake Erie in Ohio, this historic lighthouse, known as the "Jewel of the Port," offers guided tours providing a glimpse into its historical significance and stunning views of the surroundings.
  5. Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums - Situated in Ohio, this complex celebrates the life and presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes through a rich collection of artifacts and educational exhibitions.
  6. Sauder Village Living History Museum - Located in Ohio, Sauder Village takes you back in time with historical reenactments, crafts demonstrations, and interactive experiences showcasing life in the 19th century.
  7. Indiana Dunes National Park - Situated along the southern tip of Lake Michigan, this national park in Indiana offers over 15,000 acres of dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, and forests, offering a rich biodiversity and a range of recreational opportunities.
  8. Chicago Botanic Garden - Located in Illinois, it is a living plant museum situated on 385 acres, showcasing a variety of themed gardens and educational exhibits that champion botanical research and conservation.
  9. Pappajohn Sculpture Park - Situated in Des Moines, Iowa, this park features a stunning collection of more than 30 artworks by 25 acclaimed artists, providing an open-air gallery experience in a park setting.
  10. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium - Located in Nebraska, it stands as one of the premier zoological parks in the US, offering a range of exhibits showcasing diverse global ecosystems and species.
  11. Pawnee National Grassland - Spanning across northeastern Colorado, it is known for its unique geological formations and bird watching opportunities, offering a serene landscape for hiking and nature photography.
  12. Great Salt Lake - Situated in Utah, it is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, offering a surreal landscape known for its high salinity and recreational opportunities such as sailing and hiking.
  13. Pilot Peak Historical Marker -This site marks the significance of Pilot Peak as a navigational aid and its role in the history of the Oregon Trail, offering historical context and a picturesque view.
  14. Reno - Known as "The Biggest Little City in the World," Reno, Nevada offers a rich cultural scene with its casinos, museums, and a vibrant arts district, coupled with natural attractions like nearby Lake Tahoe.
  15. Lake Tahoe - Straddling California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is renowned for its clear blue waters and surrounding mountainous landscape, offering year-round recreational opportunities, including skiing, hiking, and water sports.
Yayoi Kusama's art dotted pumpkin art installation on a sunny day
Pappajohn Sculpture Park is the perfect place to visit on a sunny day in Des Moines on the Northern Route.
Ganeshkumar Durai/

Best time to go on a road trip from Washington DC to San Francisco

San Francisco is a jewel of a destination, offering a rich tapestry of experiences all year round, with its popular events and attractions. However, your journey to this vibrant city, through either the Southern or the Northern Route, brings its own set of seasonal considerations and events that can enhance your road trip experience.

Embarking on the Southern Route in winter, it is important to note that some attractions in Canyonlands, Arches, or other National Parks might be closed due to weather conditions.

Opting for the Northern Route also means packing for potentially heavy snow during winter and spring. However, you'll be able to see some of America's largest holiday parades, including Chicago and St. Louis' Christmas parades and New Year's celebrations.

Salt Lake City features the famous Sundance Film Festival every January. Once you reach your destination, the Chinese New Year Parade & Festival in January/February is a testimony to the city's rich cultural fabric and well worth experiencing yourself.

Spring is a fantastic time to make the journey because of the nice weather and fun events. Spring flowers cover the mountains and many cities have events like the Cinco de Mayo festival in Denver.

Summer is the perfect time to take both routes because of the warm temperatures and perfect weather. This season promises a cultural feast with events such as the Moab Music Festival from August to September, and the Denver Chalk Art Festival in September, adding a vibrant touch to your journey.

Your summer drive could also coincide with spectacular events like the Chicago Air & Water Show and Lollapalooza in August.

Fall welcomes you with Fleet Week in October, a celebration of naval traditions. On the way, you'll see plenty of beautiful fall colors, especially in Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region.

Regardless of when you travel, one thing is for certain. You'll have the most jam-packed and adventure-filled road trip imaginable!