What better way to explore a part of the country that’s unfamiliar to you than with a road trip! There’s no better feeling than getting out on the open road and experiencing new things. The drive time from San Francisco to San Diego can vary depending on what route you decide to take-- the scenic Pacific Highway, or the faster I-5. On this road trip we’re going to concentrate on what’s along the journey south to San Diego, as opposed to keeping on any one road.
The spots we’ve found to visit are in the general vicinity of either highway, so you can choose which one you would prefer to take. There’s a lot to see along the way from San Francisco to San Diego, so we’ve hand-picked a few that are can’t miss for your next trip. As always feel free to add your own stops along the way as well!
San Francisco, CA | fishermanswharf.org/
There’s perhaps nothing quite as iconic in San Francisco as Fisherman’s Wharf-- it is a must see for all visitors to this beautiful, urbane city. There’s a lot going on in this area of the city, including some must-see attractions such as Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, and Historic Hyde Street Pier.
Here you can get a little shopping done, stop for a bite at a waterfront restaurant, or even tour the National Maritime Museum. It all depends what you’d like to experience in this ocean-side district!
2800 Pleasant Valley Rd. | Aptos, CA | nicholsonvineyards.com/
No trip from San Francisco to San Diego would be complete without a stop at one of the many stellar wineries located throughout the area. As you travel south out of San Francisco on the Pacific Highway, you come across the beach town of Santa Cruz. This cute town is worth a visit, if only to check out their famous pier, or dip your feet in the ocean.
Consider taking some time to slow down, and enjoy a wine flight at the Nicholson Vineyard Winery, which is a short trip off Highway 1. Here you can take in the beautiful views of Nisene State Park that surround the vineyards, and enjoy different local vintages that are sure to please the palate.
“What a great time. Beautiful wines in a gorgeous setting. Newer addition to the wine tasting room makes it open and fun. Great staff, easy to talk to.” - Yelp Review
132 Central Ave. | Salinas, CA | steinbeckhouse.com/
The small town of Salinas is definitely worth a visit as you make your way south. Sometimes known as the Salad Bowl of the World-- due to its large amounts of agricultural production-- Salinas has a lot more to offer tourists than just great restaurants! (Although, they do have plenty of those.) One such place is the Steinbeck house, which is the childhood home of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck. The Queen Anne Victorian is a historic landmark that is available for lunch, tea, or dinner, and also offers a gift shop for all kinds of unique souvenirs.
Another Steinbeck-themed spot to visit in Salinas is the National Steinbeck Center, which houses exhibits that display the cultural significance of the Salinas area, which was reflected in Steinbeck’s books.
“One of the best afternoon tea places in town, be sure to check out the gift shop downstairs which displays a lot of historical items from Steinbeck's past.” -Yelp Review
Kernville, CA | fs.usda.gov/sequoia/
If you’re taking I-5, once you get around Bakersfield, you can start to look for signs to turn off to Sequoia National Forest. This is the perfect place to see the largest trees in the world-- sequoias. They grow in over 30 groves across the park that are accessible to hikers, ATVs, or on horseback, as are over 1,500 miles of marked roads. This national park is also has seasonal campgrounds if you want to make a whole day out of it.
There’s nothing quite like gazing up at these ancient trees, so make sure to pack some hiking shoes to explore this beautiful park and snap some pictures!
“The Giant Forest is amazingly beautiful. You have to see the size of these trees to fully understand how magnificent they are.” -Yelp Review
660 W Main St. | Guadalupe, CA | dunescenter.org/
Santa Maria is lovely, old town that is just brimming with fun activities. It happens to be in the prestigious Santa Barbara wine country, so make sure to check out a few of those in the region! If you’re up for some barbeque, this is your town! Named by Sunset magazine as the “West’s Best BBQ Town,” barbeque Santa Maria style is something everyone should try, preferably more than once!
After sampling some barbeque, head west and out towards the coast, where you’ll encounter the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes. This beautiful county park features 550 ft. high dunes, and it is also the nesting place of the snowy plover. This beach is fun to explore on foot, but feel free to try your hand at surfing as well while you’re there!
“I enjoyed my brief walk along the Pacific Ocean at the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes County Park...the wildlife displays and preserves are pretty cool...there is a nice quiet solace about this place.” -Yelp Review
2480 Roblar Rd. | Los Olivos, CA | clairmontfarms.com/
The village of Los Olivos is a small town that’s big on history. It was originally a stop on a stage coach trail, which was eventually converted to a railway. There is a cute shopping district that is very walkable, and definitely worth a look. Stop in for a bite and relax outside as you take in the beautiful Santa Ynez mountains!
Also located in Los Olivos is the Clairmont Lavender Farm, which is an organic lavender farm that grows, harvests, and makes lavender-centric products. At the farm you can see fields of the beautiful purple blossoms of this amazing plant billowing in the wind, and can understand why artists come each year to paint the beautiful scenery! Stop for a while and enjoy the property, and be sure to pick up some creams or oils!
“'ve visited Clairmont Lavender Farm a couple of times over the years and absolutely love visiting and picking up some treats for myself and for gifts.” -Yelp Review
20828 Entrada Rd. | Topanga, CA | parks.ca.gov
This park is located on the fringes of the Los Angeles city limits, but you would never know it! Topanga State Park has 36 miles of trails for hikers to use, which offer some amazing views of the mountains, as well as the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the beautiful views, you can also find all kinds of interesting flowers and wildlife, as well as fossils and earthquake fault lines.
Depending on when you visit, make sure to bring water and insect repellent, as the trails can get quite dusty, and there tend to be a lot of bugs as well!
“Awesome hiking trails, easy access from your vehicle, not overcrowded, a great place to go on a weekend. The location is safe, friendly and there are several trails worth trying.” -Yelp Review
Laguna Beach, CA | visitlagunabeach.com
Laguna Beach is located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, and offers visitors some very unique beach experiences. Not only can you relax on the Main Beach, join a volleyball game, or watch the surfers, but you can also explore tide pools and caves! This coastal city is also close to the hiking and biking trails of Crystal Cove State Park, should you prefer to take a longer hike.
If you’d prefer to stay in the area, make sure to take a walk through Heisler Park to take in the expansive views of the ocean. You can also visit the marine refuge and explore the native inhabitants of the many tide pools.
“Laguna Beach is a great summer destination! Either a day trip, staycation, weekend getaway, longer vacation, you'll win no matter what.” -Yelp Review
1100 Coast Blvd. | La Jolla, CA | lajolla.com
Just north of San Diego is the pristine beach town of La Jolla. This area is known for its beautiful vistas and quiet beaches. La Jolla Cove is a public beach, but it is also a protected marine reserve, and is teeming with underwater life. This area is a great place to bust out your snorkeling or SCUBA gear to get a closer look at all the interesting species.
When the tide goes out, smaller tide pools are left which are a lot of fun to explore as well. Don’t forget to snap some pictures of the sea lions, who can often be seen sunning themselves on the rocks that surround the cove.
“La Jolla Cove is one of the most beautiful places in the world to see. If you are a person who appreciates Mother Nature. Then you owe yourself a trip to La Jolla Cove.” -Yelp Review
San Diego, CA | balboapark.org/
You made it to your destination of San Diego! This fun in the sun city is a great place to spend a few days. There are all kinds of restaurants to try, beaches to check out, and shopping to do! But the first thing on your list should be to check out the amazing Balboa Park. This beautiful and expansive park is home to 17 museums, including the San Diego Museum of Man, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, and the San Diego Museum of Art among others.
Balboa Park is also home to a variety of gardens to explore, all boasting different themes and species of plants. The gardens are either free to explore or request a nominal donation, including the popular Alcazar Garden, The Australian Garden, and the Japanese Friendship Garden.
There are always seasonal events scheduled in the park in addition to the permanent exhibits, such as food tastings, dance shows, and craft fairs. If you have time, stop off at the fantastic San Diego Zoo as well!
“I can't believe this huge and beautiful park is at the center of San Diego! It's massive with a lot to do and you can spend multiple days here, and it's super accessible since it's right in the middle of the city.” -Yelp Review
Road trips are so much fun, especially when there’s so much to get out of the car and see! The trek from San Francisco to San Diego is especially enjoyable, and we hope the next time it’s time for this trip, you check out some of the amazing spots on this list! What are your favorite road trip destinations between San Francisco and San Diego? Let us know in the comments!