Planning a trip to the west coast of the United States?

You’re in for a real adventure!

The California coast is one of the most beautiful parts of the world. 

And there is no better way to experience it than by car! 

Skip the pricy flight and plan a road trip from LA to San Francisco – you won’t regret it!

Keep reading to discover the 15 best stops on an LA to San Francisco road trip in 3 days.

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Day 1: Santa Monica Pier to Santa Barbara

1. Santa Monica Pier

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You can’t leave the Los Angeles area without stopping at the Santa Monica Pier.

This iconic pier is the first stop on day 1 of your road trip to San Francisco. 

The Santa Monica Pier is open 24 hours a day and is over 100 years old.

It is hands down the most famous pier in all of the United States.

Although the beach is lovely and a great place for swimming and sunbathing, there are plenty of non-beach activities at this California attraction.

Pacific Park, a family amusement park with a solar-panelled Ferris wheel, is found here.

In addition, there are all kinds of restaurants and eateries, shops, a video arcade, and an aquarium.

During the summer months, the Santa Monica Pier also has outdoor concerts, movies, and art installations.

  • Location: 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA
  • Hours: Open 24 hours a day, excluding special events & individual businesses
  • Distance: 16 miles (25.74 km) from Los Angeles
  • Duration: 21 minute drive 

Official Site

2. Malibu Beach

On your way out of Los Angeles, be sure to stop in the upscale enclave of Malibu.

If the Miley Cyrus song isn’t enough to inspire you, then the beaches will be!

Malibu Beach is home to some of the most scenic, pristine coastline in the entire state.

That is why so many celebrities have built their mansions and beach houses on it.

The most popular beaches are Zuma Beach and Malibu Lagoon State Beach (a fantastic surfing spot).

Beyond the natural beauty, the neighborhood is also home to the historic, Spanish-style Adamson House (which houses the Malibu Lagoon Museum), and the Santa Monica Mountains.

The mountains have plenty of trails, making them an ideal place for hiking or trail running.

Prepare to walk through canyons and under waterfalls!

  • Location: western Los Angeles County, California
  • Distance: 10.4 miles (16.73 km) from Santa Monica Pier
  • Duration: 16 minute drive 

Official Site

3. Santa Barbara 

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Next up: Santa Barbara! 

Like Malibu, Santa Barbara is famous for its wealthy residents, many of which are A-list celebrities.

In addition to the celebrity appeal, Santa Barbara boasts incredible boutique shopping and top-notch restaurants.

The downtown core also has a distinct style, owing to the Mediterranean-style stucco rooftops and white buildings.

These unique architectural elements are a product of the city’s Spanish colonial history.

Other Santa Barbara attractions include the Santa Barbara Zoo, Mission Santa Barbara, Lotusland, Arroyo Burro Beach County Park, and Stearns Wharf.

It’s also a great place to hit the beach if you were looking for some more beach time before day 2 of your drive.

As one of the bigger cities in the greater Los Angeles area, there are plenty of accommodation options for all budgets.

  • Location: coast of California
  • Distance: 75.8 miles (121.98 km) from Malibu Beach
  • Duration: 1 hour 17 minute drive

Official Site

Day 2: Solvang to Big Sur Campground & Cabins

4. Solvang

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Let day two of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip begin!

Today, you will be driving all the way from Santa Barbara to Big Sur (on the central California coast).

Your first stop will be roughly 40 minutes from Santa Barbara, in the city of Solvang.

Solvang is an inland city in the Santa Ynez Valley.

It is extremely unique owing its Danish heritage.

Many of the buildings are Danish in style, and there are several cultural institutions that teach visitors about its Danish past, such as the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art.

Other attractions include The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, The Old Mission Santa Inés  (and 1800s Franciscan church), and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

Lastly, if you’re a wine lover, then be sure to explore the region’s many wineries, which are located in the valley.

It’s a beautiful place to go for a drive even if you don’t feel like stopping in for a tasting.

  • Location: city in Santa Barbara County, California
  • Distance: 34.4 miles (55.36 km) from Santa Barbara
  • Duration: 39 minute drive

Official Site

5. Pismo Beach  

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Another must-see on your road trip up the California coast?

Pismo Beach!

Pismo Beach is a central California city known for its pristine beaches and many wineries.

Head inland to sip on some tasty California wine, or enjoy all that the rugged coast has to offer.

There are plenty of outdoor spaces to enjoy nature in Pismo Beach.

These include Dinosaur Caves Park (it has trails with ocean views), Chumash Park, and Margo Dodd Park.

There is also a butterfly shelter called The Monarch Butterfly Grove that protects the butterflies migrating to the area each year.

Fun fact: Pismo Beach is the clam capital of the world. 

So if you’re visiting in October, be sure to attend their annual Clam Festival, which includes a clam-themed parade and a clam chowder competition.

  • Location: southern portion of San Luis Obispo County, CA
  • Distance: 54.1 miles (87.06) from Solvang
  • Duration: 50 minute drive

Official Site

6. San Luis Obispo

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Drive a mere 15 minutes from Pismo Beach and you will find yourself in San Luis Obispo.

This city in California’s interior is referred to as “SLO” by the locals.

It was founded in 1772 by Spanish Franciscan Junípero Serra, which makes San Luis Obispo one of the oldest European-founded communities in California.

There are many historical attractions, such as Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, an 18th century Spanish mission with a museum.

Other fun activities include The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, where you will find artwork by contemporary Californian artists.

Be sure to visit the Farmers’ Market on downtown Higuera Street where visitors can buy everything from fresh flowers to produce.

Finally, don’t miss out on Bubblegum Alley, a street where pieces of chewed gum cover the walls.

  • Location: Southern California’s Central Coast Region
  • Distance: 13.1 miles (21.08 km) from Pismo Beach
  • Duration: 15 minutes 

Official Site

7. Hearst Castle

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Feel like royalty with a visit to Hearst Castle.

This breathtaking castle is located in San Simeon, California, a 45 minute drive from San Luis Obispo.

The castle is both a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark.

The castle was constructed in the early to mid 20th century at the behest of William Randolph Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan.

Hearst Castle has been nicknamed “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill in English).

In the 1920s and 1930s, the castle was a popular spot among the area’s elite, thanks to the many parties held here.

Over the years, famous guests included Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, and Clark Gable, to name a few.

Today, the castle is open to the public, which means you can walk through its ornate rooms and incredible grounds (the grounds include multiple pools and gardens).

  • Location: 750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon, CA
  • Hours: Open Daily, starting 9:00am
  • Distance: 42.2 miles (67.91 km) from San Luis Obispo
  • Duration: 45 minutes drive

Official Site

8. Elephant Seal Vista Point

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In San Luis Obispo County lies Elephant Seal Vista Point.

You will reach this fascinating wildlife region just 10 minutes after leaving Hearst Castle.

If you love seeing animals in their natural habitat and find seals to be adorable creatures, then this should be a must-stop on your road trip.

Elephant Seal Vista Point is a lookout point that allows visitors to marvel at the local colony of seals.

It is free to enter and open year round.

Seals are visible on most days, however, their peak season is January, April, and October.

During these months, there may be as many as 17,000 seals on the beach.

Note that January and February is breeding and birthing season.

This is probably the best opportunity you will have to see these majestic animals up close.

  • Location:  north of San Simeon, CA 
  • Distance: 5.2 miles (83.84 km) from Hearst Castle
  • Duration: 10 minute drive

9. Big Sur Campground & Cabins

You’ve arrived at your day two destination – and what a destination it is!

Big Sur is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in the United States.

You will reach Big Sur after driving for roughly 1.5 hours from Elephant Seal Vista Point.

Big Sur is one of the most rugged, and thus picturesque, areas of California’s coast.

It is located just south of the towns of Monterey and Carmel.

The area is bordered to the west by the Pacific Ocean and to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains.

No matter how long you spend in Big Sur, be sure to spend time outdoors.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, with its dramatic cliffs and turquoise blue waters, is a must.

You’ll also love driving over (or even just taking pictures of) Bixby Creek Bridge.

And if you choose to stay at Big Sur Campground & Cabins (one of the best accommodation options in the area), be sure to take advantage of the 1,000 acres of hiking trails that surround it.

  • Location: 47000 CA-1, Big Sur, CA
  • Distance: 60.5 miles (97.36 km) from Elephant Seal Vista Point
  • Duration: 1 hour 34 minute drive

Official Site

Day 3: Carmel by the Sea to Golden Gate Bridge

10. Carmel by the Sea

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The final day of your road trip has arrived.

Today, you will make your way from Big Sur to San Francisco, and just like the past two days, there will be many exciting stops along the way.

The first is Carmel by the Sea.

This upscale coastal town is located on the Monterey Peninsula and is known for its artsy residents and many museums.

It is also home to the historic Carmel Mission, which dates back to the Spanish settlers that arrived in 1602.

The quaint cottages and bed and breakfasts are the main appeal of Carmel, not to mention the stunning natural beauty.

The gorgeous Bluff Path runs from Carmel Beach (a popular beach for surfing) to Carmel River State Beach (home to many rare birds).

The beaches in Carmel are also great for scuba driving, snorkelling, and swimming.

  • Location: 3080 Rio RdCarmel, CA 
  • Hours: Open daily 9:30am-5:00pm
  • Distance: 24.9 miles (40.07 km) from Big Sur Campground & Cabins
  • Duration: 36 minute drive

Official Site

11. Monterey Bay Aquarium

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Even if you don’t know much about Monterey, you’ve likely heard of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

This is widely considered to be one of the best aquariums in the States.

It is only 15 minutes by car from Carmel by the Sea, making it a great spot to stop on the final day of your road trip.

The aquarium is non profit and is known for its focus on the marine habitats of Monterey Bay.

The institution has many conservation achievements under their belt, such as being the first facility to care for a great white shark.

Research by the organization has also focused on sustainable seafood.

Visitors to the aquarium can expect to see all kinds of local animals, such as sea otters, puffins, sea turtles, and bluefin tuna.

Fun fact: The Monterey Bay Aquarium was the first ever aquarium to have a living kelp forest, which is still on display today.

  • Location: 886 Cannery Row Monterey, CA
  • Hours: Open daily 10am-5pm
  • Distance: 6.8 miles (10.94 km)  from Carmel by The Sea
  • Duration: 15 minute drive

Official Site

12. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

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If you couldn’t get enough of the Santa Monica Pier, then be sure to make time for a quick pitstop at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

This scenic and lively pier located on the central California coast is a must-visit.

The boardwalk includes a beachfront amusement park that dates back to 1907, making it the oldest park in California.

The boardwalk runs along the coast of Monterey Bay and features all kinds of rides, as well as an arcade and a mini golf course.

Some of the rides, such as the Looff Carousel, date back to the late 19th century and are on the US National Register of Historic Places.

Old-fashioned carnival games and food and drink stands can be found here as well.

There are no admission fees to enter the park or the beach, so whether you want to hit the ferris wheel or just relax on the sand, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

  • Location: 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
  • Distance: 44.1 miles (70.97 km) from Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • Duration: 57 minutes drive

Official Site

13. West Cliff Drive

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Why rush to San Francisco when you can stop and enjoy one of the most stunning boardwalks in the world: the West Cliff Drive.

This scenic, 3-mile walking and biking path offers epic views of Monterey Bay.

The path is located in Santa Cruz, less than 10 minutes from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The West Cliff Drive begins at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.

Along the way, you’ll pass by famous hotels and inns, charming residential neighbourhoods, and of course, plenty of pristine beaches.

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse are two attractions you can stop at.

Alternatively, join in a game of frisbee at Lighthouse Point or watch local surfers doing their thing at Cowell Beach.

Stretch your legs and enjoy the walk or rent a bike nearby and cycle your way.

We’re sure you’ll love this outdoor adventure!

  • Location: W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA
  • Distance: 2.6 miles (4.18 km) from Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
  • Duration: 10 minute drive

14. Half Moon Bay

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Just south of San Francisco is your second last pitstop: Half Moon Bay.

Half Moon Bay is a city that comprises a string of beaches.

Half Moon Bay State Beach is one of the most popular beaches, and is a great spot for both swimming and surfing.

Poplar Beach, Dunes Beach, and Miramar Beach are also beautiful and suitable for everything from sunbathing to picnics.

Mavericks Beach is the place to be if you’re a surfer.

If you wish to get a walk in, take a stroll on the Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail.

In essence, Half Moon Bay is the ideal place to enjoy the serenity of nature and relax on the beach.

  • Location:  235 Main Street, Half Moon Bay, CA 
  • Distance: 62.7 miles (100.90 km) from West Cliff Drive
  • Duration: 1 hour 10 minutes drive

Official Site

15. Golden Gate Bridge

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You’ve made it! 

But just before you settle in at your hotel, take the time to marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge.

One of the most iconic bridges in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of San Francisco’s best attractions (it also happens to provide one of the country’s best photo opps).

This suspension bridge spans one mile and connects the Pacific Ocean with San Francisco Bay.

The bridge dates back to 1937 and is widely considered an architectural marvel, as few people believed that a bridge in this location would be possible due to high winds and the strong current.

The towers on the bridge are each 746 feet tall, so you’ll definitely see it from a distance.

As you’ll be coming from the south, there will be great photos that feature the bridge with the city in the background.

Enjoy the view and then get back in the car for the last remaining portion of your drive into the incredible Northern California city of San Francisco.

  • Location: Southernmost end of Marin County, California
  • Distance: 39.6 miles (63.73 km) from Half Moon Bay
  • Duration: 59 minutes drive

We hope this list has convinced you that there is no better way to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco than by car!

From the charming town of Carmel to the spirited Santa Monica Pier, there are so many spots along the California coast you don’t want to miss.

If you’re driving back, you can also rent a car in San Francisco and stop at more attractions on the way to LA.

Here’s another fun trip:

Rent a Car in LA