10 Must-See Stops on a San Francisco to Los Angeles Road Trip

The world-famous Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH for those in the know) is a bucket-list item for many travelers – van lifers and casual vacationers included. It’s a beautiful drive down a spectacular stretch of the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and if you’re looking for sandy beaches, surf spots, and epic burritos, you can’t go wrong with this route.

This article will approach the trip from a van life perspective – offering campground and parking suggestions over Airbnbs or motels. Be aware that camping along the California coast is incredibly popular, and campsites book up fast. It’s a good idea to plan your road trip and book your spots well ahead of time.

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San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip

The Road Trip Route

There are a few ways to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles by campervan. The coastal route is called Highway One, stretching down the Pacific Coast of the United States and into Mexico. This is undoubtedly the most beautiful route, but also the slowest, so depending on your timeframe, you might want to spend some time on the bigger highways like the 101, 280, and the 5.

You can make the drive in about 6-7 hours if you put your foot down and just go for it (and we have!) However, to really get the most out of this scenic route, we recommend planning 3-5 days.

This trip is best driven in the fall, as summer tourist traffic makes driving in parts of California an absolute nightmare during the high season. The fall weather is better anyway – many parts of the California coast are socked in with fog during the summer.

1. San Francisco

Obviously, your San Francisco road trip is going to include some sights in San Francisco. You can find camping at several spots just outside the city, including some spots up in the Marin Headlands behind the Golden Gate Bridge that offer spectacular views of the bay.

Kirby Cove is a good option for camping, as well as Rob Hill or the Candlestick RV Park. You may be able to find overnight street parking in San Francisco, but it’s unlikely. Parking is strictly controlled and permitted in most areas.

san fran to los angeles road trip

While in SF, don’t forget to check out Union Square, Golden Gate Park, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory, and the plethora of museums like the Asian Art Museum and de Young Museum.

This is also a good place to get the classic “Mission Style” burrito, which is popular in Nor Cal. You can compare it to the “California” burrito more popular in SoCal when you get to LA (but in my opinion, if you want a real California burrito, you need to keep going until you hit San Diego.)

If you rent a car for this road trip, you can pick up a rental car at the San Francisco International Airport. Most local camper van rental options allow pickups at the airport as well.

2. Santa Cruz

About 100 miles south of San Francisco and 50 miles past Half Moon Bay is the small beach town of Santa Cruz. This makes a great first stop. There are lots of state-run campgrounds, many of them tucked into the redwood trees or right on the beach. Nisene Marks is a popular choice about ten miles south of Santa Cruz.

santa cruz on california road trip

While you’re in town, check out the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, or hit up West Cliff Drive to check out the surf. There’s a cute little downtown with shops and restaurants and beautiful hiking trails just north of the city in Wilder Ranch.

3. Monterey

A short drive south of Santa Cruz (about 1 hour if traffic is good) is Monterey, a coastal town known as the setting of the hit HBO series Big Little Lies. If tracking down spots from the show is something you’re interested in, check out Happy Girl Kitchen, Garrapata State Park, and Lovers Point Park.

monterey aquarium road trip

Monterey is also home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the most famous aquariums in the world. It’s right on the coast, so you’ll not only see beautiful fish, sea otters, penguins, and jellyfish inside the aquarium but also sea lions, dolphins, and whales in the Pacific Ocean right outside. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can rent a kayak and paddle out into the bay.

Veteran’s Memorial State Park is a good spot for camping here. Carmel By the Sea isn’t too far away and makes a nice brunch or coffee visit.

4. Big Sur

If there’s one spot you absolutely should not miss on a San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip, it’s Big Sur. It’s a rugged headland just 30 miles south of Monterey, boasting some of the most spectacular scenery on the West Coast. It offers plenty of State-run campsites and BLM land. Kirk’s Creek and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park are good camp spots.

big sur california road trip coast

Big Sur is a nice place to stop and recharge – it’s remote and unpopulated, so you’ll be roughing it a bit more than in other places. Take in the scenery, hike, and spend time on the beach (Jules Pfeiffer Beach is a nice one.) Bixby Creek Bridge has reopened since its collapse in 2021, so you can also drive across this world-famous site.

5. San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo is about 170 miles south of Big Sur and home to one of the best-preserved missions on the California coast. If history is your thing, this is a great spot to learn about the Spanish occupation of California and the impact of that occupation on the Native people of the region.

san fran to la road trip slo

You can also check out the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, and this is a good jumping-off point to visit Hearst Castle and Elephant Seal Vista Point in San Simeon. On the way, check out Morro Bay, a sleepy little harbor town that makes a nice lunchtime stop.

6. Solvang

The city of Solvang is a cute Danish town that looks like it was lifted right out of Holland and plopped in the middle of California. You’ll find an eclectic mix of California wine and cuisine and European bakeries, coffee shops, and windmills.

san to la cali road trip solvang

The town is about 70 miles south of SLO and 35 miles north of Santa Barbara. We don’t recommend spending a night there, but it makes a good lunch stop.

7. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara marks for some the official separation between NorCal and SoCal. It’s about 100 miles south of SLO, and the biggest city you’ll have seen since San Francisco, if you follow this road trip guide.

Santa Barbara is an affluent university town and home to many celebrities. This is relevant because it means prices are high and camping spots are limited. You should plan to camp well outside the city or even stop for the day and continue to your next destination. While in town, check out the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

8. Channels Islands National Park

The Channel Islands are a breathtaking string of five islands just off the California coast. You can get to the islands of Santa Cruz and Anacapa by ferry year-round, and to the outer islands of Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara from March through November.

Channel Islands National Park

If you can spare a day of your San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip to get out to these islands, you should absolutely do it. They are unpopulated and rugged and offer some of the most incredible hiking and scenery in the state.

9. Catalina

Another popular island destination off the California coast is Catalina. A very different vibe from the Channel Islands, this populated island has two main ports: Avalon and Twin Harbors. The town of Avalon offers a slice of Mediterranean escape, while Twin Harbors has camping and hiking trails.

catalina island california adventure

If you get a chance, a trip out to the island of Catalina is a great way to spend a day. There are regular ferries from San Pedro port in Long Beach and from Dana Point.

10. Los Angeles

Unless you plan to go to the Channel Islands or Catalina, I recommend making the drive from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles in one shot. There’s not much to see in Long Beach or Ventura; the real highlight of this part of the journey is driving along the Pacific Coast Highway.

venice boardwalk cali

Once you get into LA, Malibu Creek Campground or Musch Trail Camp are possible camping spots, or you could just head out to Los Padres National Forest for a better camping experience. The list of things to do in LA is almost endless, but some popular options include the Hollywood sign, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, and the plethora of bars and restaurants all over the city.

Your San Francisco to Los Angeles Road Trip

A San Francisco road trip to Los Angeles is an unforgettable journey. From the redwood forests of San Francisco to the sandy beaches of SoCal, the Pacific Coast Highway offers a diverse and exciting set of experiences.

Make sure to plan your road trip ahead and prepare for busy campsites, particularly in the summer and fall. Don’t forget your swimsuit, and make sure to bring your biggest burrito-loving appetite!



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