25+ Scenic Stops on the San Francisco to San Diego Drive

Golden-Gate-bridge-in-San-Francisco-by-Katie-Hinkle

Planning an amazing adventure by doing the San Francisco to San Diego drive or San Diego to San Francisco road trip? No matter which direction you go along California’s coast and a good chunk of the US west coast there are tons of incredible and scenic stops along the way.

We’ve picked our favorite stops on this incredible journey plus road trip tips. Make your drive unforgettable by adding in some of these amazing stops. This guide covers some of the best things to do in each of these destinations as well as recommendations for overnight stays in case you plan on making a longer stop here.

Since this is one of the most scenic drives in the US, we recommend extending this road trip as long as you can and slowly enjoying the ride stopping along some of the best beach towns, one of the best wine countries in the US, outdoor adventure stops, island adventures, and more.

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Table of Contents
    1. San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Tips
    2. Renting a Car for Your San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip
    3. Scenic Stops on Your San Francisco to San Diego Drive

San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Tips

Newport Beach Pier aerial shotThe total distance from San Francisco to San Diego is 501.6 miles and although the drive could be completed in a single day, your San Francisco to San Diego road trip should take you 1-2 weeks depending on the type of itinerary you build.

There are also alternate routes you could take for this trip, but we recommend the beautiful and scenic Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 1 for this road trip of a lifetime!

The best time of year for a San Francisco to San Diego road trip or San Diego to San Francisco road trip is pretty much year-round. California has some of the best weather in North America, with Southern California having some of the most ideal and temperate temperatures year-round averaging 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

The best time for a road trip for cruising along the coast is easily May through October and August through September if you’re looking to swim in the ocean. The Pacific Ocean is much cooler than the Atlantic and even in spring you’ll need a wet suit if you dare to go into the water. Otherwise you’ll be good mid-late summer to early fall.

Something to keep in mind is June Gloom. Many people assume that the beginning of summer is happy, sunny weather. But in Southern California, there’s a phenomenon called June Gloom where there’s daily cloudy and overcast skies as well as cooler than normal temperatures. This can be a big bummer if you’re planning a beach filled road trip or want to rent a convertible car.

To avoid crowds, November and December are great as well as the late winter/early spring.

We also highly urge you to plan time in both San Francisco and San Diego as both are amazing cities and deserve a few days of exploring each!

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Renting a Car for Your San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip

Matador Beach in Malibu

If you already don’t have a car for your starting point we recommend renting a car in advance on Expedia.

We also recommend getting travel insurance for this trip. Many travel insurance plans also cover Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) coverage up to $35,000.

We recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance for short trips like this since you can buy your travel insurance at any point and have coverage. 

One reason why this is one of the best travel insurance out there is that they cover CDW for up to $35,000 if you plan on renting a car and upgrade to the Explorer plan. This is an incredibly great deal if you end up in a country.

We personally used World Nomads travel insurance for years because of how quick and easy it is to get coverage anywhere and anytime and there’s 24/7 emergency assistance making claims a breeze when or if you ever get injured or sick abroad.

But if you’re looking to upgrade to a longer-term travel insurance plan like we have for frequent travelers, we recommend checking out our guide to how to pick the best travel insurance for a few different options depending on what your needs are and type of coverage you’re looking for.

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Scenic Stops on Your San Francisco to San Diego Drive

The Golden Gate Bridge

~ 0 miles from San Francisco & ~ 520 miles from San Diego

Begin your San Fransisco to San Diego road trip at one of the most famous and scenic spots in California right here in San Francisco, The Golden Gate Bridge.

Make sure while you’re there to explore all the different vantage points of viewing the Golden Gate Bridge. Especially since you should be taking tons of photos to remember the first stop along your San Francisco to San Diego drive!

Feel free to take a drive across the 2-mile long bridge or rent a bike from one of the bike rentals in the area. If you’re looking for a great view or photos of the bridge, keep in mind there are various vantage points!

While you’re in San Francisco, there are a few more awesome sights you can check out:

  • Alcatraz Island
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • The San Francisco Cable Car
  • AT&T Park

San Francisco also has a variety of places to grab amazing food and drinks, as well as places for shopping, all while exploring one of California’s best cities!

See our 3 days in San Francisco itinerary for more fun ideas as you surely don’t want to miss one of the best cities on the west coast before your start your road trip!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: food, shopping, sightseeing, photography, entertainment, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: $$$ The Ritz Carlton | $$ Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

~ 70 miles from San Francisco & ~ 487 miles from San Diego

This is one of the best stops on your San Francisco to San Diego drive or San Diego to San Francisco drive if you have a love for nature and history! The Big Basin Redwoods is California’s oldest state park, which was established in 1902.

Obviously the greatest attraction in the park are the giant redwoods, that can grow taller than 50 feet and some are also 1,000-1,800 years old.

In addition to the famous redwoods, the park offers gorgeous waterfalls, views of the Pacific Ocean, over 80 miles of trails, a variety of animals roaming the park, and much more.

If you would like to spend a night camping in the park, reservations must be made six months in advance.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

~ 73 miles from San Francisco & ~ 461 miles from San Diego

You’ll be dying to hit this stop on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip, especially if you’re traveling as a family.

This is the one-stop-shop for everything you and your family need. From beach activities to the boardwalk, Santa Cruz has it covered. Enjoy the variety of rides and rollercoasters as well as mini-golf, laser tag, bowling, arcades, and more!

For the adults, there are tons of food and shopping options along the boardwalk as well!

Note that admission is free, just pay for ride tickets! And don’t forget the awesome boardwalk corndogs!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach fun, entertainment, food, shopping

Monterey

~ 118 miles from San Francisco & ~ 440 miles to San Diego

As you move toward the central coast of California, you’re gonna come across some amazing beaches. These spots are perfect for surfing and even shell finding!

One of the best spots in Monterey is easily Cannery Row. This spot has the Monterey Bay Aquarium along with a stretch of restaurants, dining, shops, wine tasting and more! San Carlos Beach marks the end of Cannery Row, so head out to the water after you check out the aquarium and getting some amazing food!

Another must-see in Monterey is Old Fisherman’s Wharf, not to be confused with Fisherman’s Wharf in San Fran. This spot is where visitors can check out the fishing industry in Monterey and snag a cup of their delicious clam chowder.

While you’re in the area, check out the luxurious Pebble Beach. During your visit check out one of the eight championship golf courses or some of the other amazing places to beach, hike, bike, shop, exercise, and more.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beaches, shopping, wine and dining, entertainment, overnight

Suggested Hotel: Intercontinental The Clement Monterey

Carmel-by-the-Sea

~ 122 miles from San Francisco & ~ 443 miles from San Diego

Carmel-by-the-Sea is one impressive little village along the coast. This is another spot you won’t want to miss on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip.

Carmel has some of the best boutiques, specialty shops, and markets that you’ll find along your San Francisco to San Diego drive.

Carmel Beach offers a great surfing spot as well as some scenic routes to run or hike along the beach. Hanging out at Carmel Beach can be an all-day event! Bundle up for a bonfire on the sand with your crew.

Other aspects that make this little beach town so great are the delicious food spots and wine tasting points, the nearly 100 art galleries, The Carmel Mission, and more.

This one square mile town is easy to get around by foot and by car! Carmel is great for a day trip or a weekend getaway!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach, wine and dine, shopping, art galleries, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: La Playa Carmel

Big Sur

~ 146 miles from San Francisco & ~ 415 miles from San Diego

Another amazing stop on the San Francisco to San Diego drive or San Diego to San Francisco drive is Big Sur.

This central coast is a magnificent escape for those travelers looking for a paradise. Big Sur has been claimed to be one of the most, if not the most beautiful state parks in all of California. You will have the final verdict once you complete all the stops on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip.

This artwork of a coastline offers many hiking trails and different beaches to explore. Specifically, many locals and tourists love Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for its gorgeous coves, waterfalls, and famous trail, the Waterfall Overlook Trail that leads to McWay Falls.

Another iconic spot to see in Big Sur is the Bixby Bridge! This is a must-see when driving along Highway 1. From this bridge, you can overlook the beautiful sea and rolling valleys.

There are also many places to stop and grab a quick bite, cup of coffee, or stretch those legs.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: photography, beaches, hiking, food

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

~ 245 miles from San Francisco & 355 miles from San Diego

This landmark is easily one of the best stops along your San Francisco to San Diego road trip in San Simeon, California. The previous estate of William Randolph Hearst has since been turned into one of the greatest museums on the west coast. 

Hearst famously used this home as a popular getaway for him and all his celebrity friends in the 1920s as an escape complete with a private airstrip, zoo and animal collection, as well as impressive entertainment options that would make you want to be a part of his entourage in the roaring 20s.

This home, or castle, is made up of 165 rooms and over 100 acres of gardens, terraces, pools, and walkways.

Visit this historic California State Park and museum to the art displayed from all over the world. And not only is the work fantastic, but the estate itself is absolutely breathtaking. It took nearly 3 decades to bring the Heart Castle to completion – and you can learn all about that on your visit.

There are several guided tours available, which we highly recommend looking into! You won’t want to miss out on this beautiful Castle and all the history that lies within it including juicy old celebrity gossip and rumors!

San Luis Obispo

Unique Hotels

~ 232 miles from San Francisco & ~ 309 miles from San Diego

One of the most scenic places to visit in California is along the central coast. San Luis Obispo or SLO is full of a variety of amazing things to do for all you road trippers, so you won’t want to miss this one on your San Francisco to San Diego drive.

One of the most iconic spots in SLO is the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes, this spot is perfect for some camping, off-roading, or photography.

Obviously you can check out the coast for some awesome beaches and some surf opportunities. While you’re checking out the waters, make sure you stop at the famous Morro Rock, which is a remarkable volcanic plug at the entrance of the Morro Bay harbor.

In addition to these nature adventures, SLO has much to offer when it comes to dining and wine tasting. Make sure to check out some of the 200+ wineries during your visit!

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Better yet, one of our favorite things to do in San Luis Obispo is stay at the eccentric Madonna Inn which loves the color pink and each hotel room is uniquely themed from bright pink glitter walls to cave rooms built into actual rocky terrain. You feel as though you’ve also transported back in time here, this is a must for an overnight if you can plan accordingly on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip or San Diego to San Francisco road trip!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach trip, sightseeing, wine tasting, and overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Madonna Inn

Avila Beach

~ 241 miles from San Francisco & ~ 304 miles from San Diego

Add this amazing central coast beach to your San Francisco to San Diego road trip itinerary. Avila Beach offers everything from shopping, golfing with an oceanfront view, farmers’ markets, spas, and so much more.

Avila also offers plenty of opportunities to get active during your San Francisco to San Diego road trip! Find places to hike, bike, and paddle board all while soaking in that Central California sun.

During your visit make sure to check out the Point San Luis Lighthouse, which was established in 1890 and operated for nearly a century. It was restored in 1995 and offers tours!

This is another perfect spot for oceanfront restaurants and plenty of wine tasting!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach break, shopping, entertainment, wine and dine, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Avila Lighthouse Suites

Pismo Beach

~ 242 miles from San Francisco & ~ 298 miles from San Diego

Here’s another opportunity to visit a central coast beach, and if you’re driving along PCH on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip, this beach will be a tough one to resist.

Pismo Beach has much to offer, like many of the other central beach towns we’ve covered. They’re all great, what can we say.

In addition to their beautiful white sand beaches, visitors can take advantage of riding ATVs in the sand dunes, surfing, fishing, golfing, and much more!

Walk along the boardwalk, visit the outlets, and check out the wine scene! There are also plenty of restaurant and cafe options.

If you’re looking to stay a night in Pismo, check out the camping!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach, wine and dine, entertainment, shopping, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Shore Cliff Hotel

Solvang

Solvang Windmill

~ 297 miles from San Francisco & ~ 248 miles from San Diego

You will not want to miss this incredible Danish town on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip. This spot is located in the Santa Ynez Valley of California and is very recognizable due to its windmill and other Danish-style architecture.

Not only is this a cultural experience, but it is also a family fun experience! While you’re here, check out all of the delicious Danish pastries, the adorable shops and boutiques, the Solvang trolley, and some of the best wine in the area!

Take your time exploring the area, the Santa Ines Mission, and taking an iconic photo in front of the windmill (there’s more than one!)

Better yet, you’re in the Santa Ynez Valley which is also famous for its wine, so if you’re a wine lover like us you’ll want to plan some wine tasting as well.

We’re sure you won’t be in any rush to leave this amazing little town that was the star of the movie Sideways.

If you’re doing your San Francisco to San Diego road trip or San Diego to San Francisco road trip in the winter, Solvang is especially charming in the winter when it’s decked out for the holidays!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: wine tasting, dining,  shopping, sightseeing, desserts,

Suggested Hotel: Hadsten House

Santa Barbara

~ 325 miles from San Francisco & ~ 215 miles from San Diego

Santa Barbara is one of the more famous beach towns in California and is an especially popular stop along the San Francisco to San Diego drive.

Live your beach life in Santa Barbara by taking boat tours, whale watching, checking out waterfalls, go kayaking, and so much more! This beautiful beach town is the perfect spot for an action-packed visit.

Santa Barbara is packed with museums, restaurants, wineries, and great shopping on the famous State Street where all the action is happening.

Check off everything that Santa Barbara has to offer or just kick your feet up and relax on the gorgeous beaches! Spend a day or a few exploring the nearby wineries and beautiful landscapes, Santa Barbara will not disappoint.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach break, food & drink, shopping, entertainment, nearby wine tasting, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Spanish Garden Inn

Ventura

Downtown Ventura California

~ 352 miles from San Francisco & ~ 188 miles from San Diego

Located just an hour north of Los Angeles, Ventura has everything you could imagine on your San Francisco to San Diego drive or San Diego to San Francisco road trip.

While you’re visiting, you can check out the awesome downtown area. It’s jam-packed with tons of boutiques, restaurants, antique & thrift shops, and one of the best spots for this is on Main Street.

There’s also plenty of historic spots to check out along your visit in Ventura such as San Buenaventura Mission and The City Hall.

In addition to all these aspects, visitors can soak in the sun and enjoy the surf and the Ventura Pier, which is another one of California’s Historic Landmarks. This is also a great beach town for surfing.

Make sure to indulge in the foodie scene in Ventura. There is no lack of delicious options in the downtown area!

This spot is perfect for day trip or a weekend getaway, read more about all the best things to do in Ventura and nearby in our guide.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beaches, food & drink, shopping, entertainment, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Waypoint Ventura Vintage Trailer Hotel & Campground

Day trip to the Channel Islands National Park

Views on Santa Cruz in the Channel Islands National Park

~ 363 miles from San Francisco & ~ 187 miles from San Diego

If you’re dedicating a few days to the Ventura area, you have to check out the Channel Islands National Park off the coast!

Although there are eight Channel Islands, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and Anacapa make up the five islands included in the National Park.

Spending some time on these islands are a great escape from reality. Spend your day trip hiking, snorkeling the gorgeous waters, taking photos, and soaking in the beautiful views. It’s honestly surreal and doesn’t feel like you’re in California, let alone the US.

Depending on how much time you’re able to spend, check out the boat tours or even catching some whale watching! Each island offers something special to their visitors, a can’t miss experience during your San Francisco to San Diego road trip.

Depending on the season and ferry schedule there are a few different options of which islands you can visit, if you’re looking for an easy half-day trip we recommend visiting Santa Cruz Island. If you want to add a bit of adventure, you can easily plan a multi-day camping trip on the islands as well.

Great stop of your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: camping, beaches, photography, hiking

El Matador Beach in Malibu

Matador Beach in Malibu

~ 403 miles from San Francisco & ~ 158 miles from San Diego

Although there are many gorgeous beaches in Malibu, you just can’t miss this one on your San Francisco to San Diego drive. This is a gorgeous beach with unique rock formations on and off the coast and is also a State Park.

El Matador has irresistible cliffs overlooking the gorgeous beach and caves to explore, which makes it a lovely place to sit and watch the waves crash but the area is too rocky to swim.

If you have time, we recommend hanging out in Malibu a bit and see why this is one of the most highly coveted areas to live in for Los Angeles. Also, check out The Getty while you’re in the neighborhood!

Some tips when visiting El Matador

  • There are picnic tables for a meal looking over the Pacific Ocean
  • It’s best to visit at low tide
  • It’s a very popular spot in the summertime

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach, photography, sunset

Hollywood Sign Hike

 

Hollywood Sign Los Angeles

~ 377 miles from San Francisco & ~ 127 miles from San Diego

If you only had one stop in Los Angeles on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip or San Diego to San Francisco road trip, this is one of our favorites. Step away from the coastline a little bit to get one of the most iconic landmarks in California, the Hollywood sign.

You may be surprised to find out you can’t actually reach the sign itself, films have portrayed this to be some hot and mysterious hang out spot sometimes. The closest you can get is actually on top of the mountain behind the sign, and it’s quite easy to get to if you follow our guide on how to get to the Hollywood Sign.

There are three different trails that range from easy to difficult! But even the more challenging hike is pretty easy. Choose whichever one suits you best and will be the most enjoyable hiking experience for you and your group!

Also, note that there are various entrances which will also dictate how many miles and how difficult your trail will be! It might be a good idea to plan ahead before driving into Los Angeles. This is also easier to visit on a weekday than a weekend.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: hiking, exercise, photography, views

Santa Monica Pier

~ 381 miles from San Francisco & ~ 135 miles from San Diego

Check out one of the most iconic spots in Southern California on your San Francisco to San Diego drive.

Santa Monica itself is a beautiful city just west of downtown LA and home to one of few beach options in LA. The Pier is definitely one of the greatest attractions in the city, it is home to the Pacific Park, full of rides, carnival games, an aquarium, good eats, and more! 

Santa Monica hosts a variety of special events/festivals year-round! So make sure to check out the calendar before planning your trip down south!

Other things to do near the Pier include:

  • Walking and biking trails
  • Surfing
  • Fishing
  • Shopping at Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Place
  • Nightlife at rooftops, night clubs, and dive bars
  • Variety of restaurants

If you’re looking for more than just a day trip, staying right outside of Los Angeles may suit you! There’s more than enough to keep you occupied in this sunny Southern California spot.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive: beach, entertainment, dining, shopping, possible celebrity sightings, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Shore Hotel

Seal Beach

 ~ 409 miles from San Francisco & ~ 102 miles from San Diego

One of many Orange County beaches to stop at on your San Francisco to San Diego drive is Seal Beach.

This small beach town is perfect for parking it on the sand and sunbathing, surfing, and swimming. Make sure to check out the Seal Beach Pier, it is the second-longest pier in California and offers free fishing!

A couple of things to add to your Seal Beach checklist are the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge and Seal Beach food tours! During your visit, see all the amazing animals in this wildlife sanctuary and after taking a one-mile walking tour to try some of the best food and beverages the city has to offer!

Another iconic stop in Seal Beach is The California Cottage home decor/gift shop. Make sure to stop in and grab yourself a souvenir.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach, entertainment, food, boutique shopping

Main Street Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach Pier during Sunset

~ 417 miles from San Francisco & ~ 96 miles from San Diego

Huntington Beach is a must-see on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip, also Scott’s hometown! Known as the home of the U.S. Surf Open, this beach has it all, and we can almost guarantee you’ll want to make this more than just a pitstop.

In the summer, this is one of the hottest beach towns in all of California. Some of the most iconic things you can do in Huntington Beach is stroll down the pier and eat at Ruby’s Diner on the end of the pier for one of their famous milk shakes and visit Main Street.

If you’re on Main Street there’s a couple of places you won’t want to miss! There are tons of great restaurants to check out with amazing oceanfront views. We personally love heading to Pacific City for some of the great dining options there where you can sit outside and enjoy the view or from inside a restaurant with an epic beach view.

Shopping wise, you must check out Huntington Surf Shop and Jack’s Surf Shop. These are some of the most popular and iconic surf shops in Southern California. In addition to these two shops, there are many boutiques, souvenir shops, and more to check out!

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Huntington Beach also offers one of the beach farmers markets there is. They take place every Tuesday on Main St. from 5-9 PM.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach, dining, drinks, shopping, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort

Day trip to Catalina Island

Avalon Catalina

~ 433 miles from San Francisco & ~ 65 miles from San Diego

One of our favorite places EVER is off the coast of Southern California. Plan a day trip, or better yet an overnight trip to visit the beautiful Catalina Island on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip. This little spot is a paradise full of amazing outdoor activities perfect for a day trip or a weekend getaway!

The possibilities are endless on the island in and out of the water. One of the most popular attractions is the Zip Line Eco Tour. Reservations are recommended for this top rated Pacific Ocean experience.

In addition to the zip lining, visitors have the opportunity to take boat and food tours, go golfing, hiking, fishing, scuba diving, paddle boarding, and much more all on this incredible island paradise.

For a more relaxing visit, check out the shopping or the spa scene! Soak in all the views at whatever pace you want in one of the most gorgeous places California has to offer.

This iconic island is full of old Hollywood history, historic landmarks, and you can’t help but love the gorgeous colorful island cottages as well as all the vintage signs, buildings, and memorabilia around town that make you feel like you’ve gone back in a time machine.

We highly recommend doing the food tour and a tour of the historic Casino – if you stay the night be sure to catch a movie in the casino too for a once in a lifetime historic movie theater experience.

Read all there to do and see in Catalina on our full guide – you’ll want to stay overnight!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach, dining, shopping, entertainment, spas, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Aurora Hotel

Newport Beach/Costa Mesa

Newport Beach California during sunrise

~ 425 miles from San Francisco & ~ 84 miles from San Diego

Newport Beach is an amazing beach spot with an endless supply of amazing things to do which will nicely complement your San Francisco to San Diego road trip.

Newport each definitely exemplifies the luxurious beach lifestyle. Find yourself getting spa treatments, having a cocktail or glass of wine at a swanky bar or beach lounge, California-chic shopping, and much more. If you’re looking for great shopping, stop by the Fashion Island mall or head to downtown Newport Beach or Balboa Island.

On the adventurous side of things, there are trails for hiking and biking and go to the beach for surfing, sailing, and sunbathing! If you’re traveling in an RV or have camping equipment, look into planning a night of beach camping in Newport Beach!

Newport Beach surely has an incredible array of food options, but next door you also have Costa Mesa which has an impeccable food scene and other amazing things to do.

Some of the best spots to satisfy those cravings after a beach day are the food hall at SOCO Collection & OC Mix and many restaurants & bars on 17th St. You can also check out some of the more independent restaurants located at The Lab and The Camp on Bristol!

See our full guide to best things to do in Costa Mesa for options!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach bumming, dining, drinks, shopping, entertainment, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Balboa Bay Resort

Crystal Cove State Park

~ 429 miles from San Francisco & ~ 86 miles from San Diego

Another one of our favorite places in Southern California to add to your San Francisco to San Diego road trip or San Diego to San Francisco road trip is Crystal Cove State Park.

Crystal Cove is located right between Corona del Mar (one of the Newport beach towns) and Laguna Beach.

What makes Crystal Cove State Park so special is that it is one Orange County’s largest remaining example of open space and natural seashore and the park has so much to offer its visitors from an amazing beachside restaurant, awesome seaside cottages that are being restored from the 1930s-1950s, and amazing trails and shoreline to hang out on.

The State Park has 3.2 miles of beach, 2,400 acres of wilderness, and an offshore water area. This is an ideal spot for someone who loves beachy adventures.

This area is loved by hikers, swimmers, surfers, scuba divers, mountain bikers, and lovers of nature!

The park offers guided hikes as well as tidepool walks and some geology lessons! This is a great opportunity to experience the outdoors with your family!

Don’t miss the famous Crystal Cove Shake Shack either for one of their amazing milkshakes, their date shake is the most famous!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach, hiking, overnight

Suggested Hotel: Cottages for overnight use – you need to book well in advance or call to see if they have any cancellations during your visit. Most cottages are booked out a year in advance, and since it’s a state park they are VERY affordable.

Laguna Beach

Heisler Park Views looking over Main Beach in Laguna Beach

~ 431 miles from San Francisco & ~ 79 miles from San Diego

A place that truly holds a special place in my heart is Laguna Beach. I lived here for a few years and it still is one of my favorite places ever.

Visit the gorgeous city of Laguna Beach located in Orange County, California along your San Francisco to San Diego drive. Laguna Beach is known for being a beautiful coastal town with much to do and so much to see.

One thing we love besides the beaches is that Laguna has always been an artsy town. There are many galleries and tons of work from local artists.

If you’re looking to spend some time soaking up the sun, Laguna has some of the best beaches in Southern California. Although the most iconic beach is Main Beach, there are many others that are a must see on your San Francisco to San Diego drive.

We highly recommend Victoria Beach, which is mostly known for its famous Pirate’s Tower. This spot is great for awesome road trip photos!

Also consider going to Tablerock Beach or Thousand Steps Beach, which are also two of the best spots in Laguna Beach located in the southern part of town.

Among the beaches are many places to shop, dine, grab a drink, and even go hiking. Plan a little overnight staycation in Laguna Beach, because we bet you won’t want to leave!

See all the best things to do in Laguna Beach in our full guide!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beaches, dining, drinks, shopping, exercise, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: La Casa del Camino

Dana Point

~ 439 miles from San Francisco & 66 miles from San Diego

Dana Point, also known as The Whale Watching Capital of the West will provide visitors with an incredible oceanic experience along your San Francisco to San Diego road trip or San Diego to San Francisco road trip.

If you’re looking for a more luxurious beach experience during your drive, make sure you stop in Dana Point. This beach city is also located in Orange County, California and is overflowing with experiences by the oceanside.

Feel free to spend your entire day or overnight exploring Dana Point! Visit the art galleries, golfing, shopping, relaxing spas and more!

Some of the best things to do in Dana Point can be done while soaking up the sun, like laying on the sand, surfing, boating/fishing, or taking a whale watching tour!

We love renting kayaks or stand up paddle boards in the harbor!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beaches, soft adventure, shopping, dining, spas, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Monarch Beach Resort

Encinitas

Moonlight-Beach-in-Encinitas-California-by-Katie-Hinkle

Photo Courtesy of Katie Hinkle Photography

~ 476 miles from San Francisco & 26 miles from San Diego

This beach town is one of the little gems of Southern California along your San Francisco to San Diego drive. It has so much to offer all the California road trippers. Encinitas has a variety of calm and quiet beaches along with cute coffee spots, restaurants, and tons of surf/antique shops.

Stop by a few of the gorgeous beaches in this area like Swami’s Beach or Moonlight Beach. Feel free to snag a coffee or OG açaí bowl from Better Buzz, one of the best and cutest coffee shops in California.

Encinitas offers one of the most beautiful drives down PCH, the transition from Carlsbad, California to this adorable little beach town is one of the most soothing drives in the country. Nothing like rolling the windows down and blasting your favorite jams along a coast like this one.

It’s definitely a good idea to park your car and set up camp overlooking the gorgeous water and keep your cameras handy because this is easily one of the most photogenic beach cities you’ll come across.

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beaches, coffee, dining, shopping, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Inn at Moonlight Beach

Torrey Pines Hike

View from Torrey Pines hike in San Diego California by Katie Hinkle

Photo Courtesy of Katie Hinkle Photography

~ 485 miles from San Francisco & ~ 17 miles from San Diego

If you want some great beach views, this is a must see on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip. Enjoy a beautiful hike overlooking the clear blue waters of San Diego.

There’s a few different trails you can explore at Torrey Pines, they range from just under a mile to a little over two miles. Each trail is definitely doable, moderate at most, and totally worth the sweat.

Some would say you truly haven’t seen San Diego until you’ve seen it from the Torrey Pines trails. There’s also plenty of beautiful spots to pull over and snap some photos and videos.

While you’re visiting Torrey Pines, keep in mind that is only open during the day time, there is nowhere to purchase food or drink, no pets are allowed, and there are guided tours available! You can check out more info on Torrey Pines at their visitors center when you arrive.

There’s also a world-famous golf course here if you’re into golfing!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: beach views, golf, hiking, photos

La Jolla

Sunny Jim's Cave to the ocean in La Jolla San Diego

~ 492 miles from San Francisco & ~ 13 miles from San Diego

Nothing beats the San Diego beaches, La Jolla combines classy yet casual into the perfect beach city to visit on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip.

This area has attracted all kinds of people but it especially caters to those art lovers, beachgoers, and fine diners. Find yourself kicking back in an adorable coffee shop, dressed up for a night out on the town, or lathered in sunscreen for a day out in the waves.

You could easily make an entire vacation out of this small beach town, but it’s also perfect for a day trip! Enjoy the galleries, the shopping, and definitely the food!

Don’t miss the seals at the Children’s Pool or the awesome Sunny Jim’s Cave!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive for: catching waves, beach, shopping, art galleries, food, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Pantai Inn

Coronado

Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego

~ 506 miles from San Francisco & ~ 6.5 miles from San Diego

Congratulations, you’ve pretty much made it to San Diego! One stop not to be missed is definitely Coronado. The possibilities are endless in The Crown City of Southern California.

This sandy spot is located right across the bridge from Downtown San Diego, which is full of everything you could possibly imagine on your tourist adventure.

Find yourself biking the beautiful beachfront, or checking out all the shops and dining on Orange Ave and Coronado’s Ferry Landing.

This area is also known for family fun activities like surfing, kayaking, sailing, paddle boarding, and golfing on their top rated golf course, Coronado’s Public Golf Course.

Don’t miss the famous Hotel del Coronado either while you’re here!

Great stop on your San Francisco to San Diego drive: beautiful beach, shopping, dining, great views, entertainment, overnight stay

Suggested Hotel: Hotel del Coronado


Botanic Building at Balboa Park in San Diego

You’ve made it to San Diego, just like in San Francisco we recommend spending some time to see what makes this amazing Southern California city one of the best!

Check out all the best things to do in San Diego, where to stay in San Diego, and other guides like the best things to do in Balboa Park, why you need to see all the best things to do in Old Town San Diego, and our San Diego itinerary!


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San Diego to San Francisco road trip