When it comes to road trips, it’s hard to find a more ideal state to drive through than California: coastal views, beach towns, wildlife, national parks, and countless points of interest to choose from. San Francisco and Los Angeles are two of the California’s top destinations, and the drive between the two is only about six hours—and a road trip from SF to LA is the perfect opportunity to experience California in all of its glory.
While it’s true that San Francisco and LA have each have plenty to do while you’re visiting, you don’t want to miss out on the destinations that dot the road along the way. Make the most of your drive from the City by the Bay to the City of Angels when you check out these road trip stops as you go!
Just about a half-hour’s drive from San Francisco, you’ll find the the small bayside city of Alameda. East of San Francisco and West of Oakland, Alameda—which means “grove of poplar trees” in Spanish—was named by settlers for its enchanting greenery. But whether you’re interested in the history behind the town or just looking to see some native marine life, Alameda’s Crab Cove Visitor Center and Aquarium is an enriching first stop to make on your way out of San Francisco.
Located at the western end of Crown Memorial State Beach, Crab Cove Visitor Center is a hub of environmental education, local history, and Bay Area wildlife. While perhaps not the most flashiest nature center that you’ll ever see, Crab Cove is a delightful and immersive place to learn about shoreline creatures and other animals in the area. Accompanied by the Crab Cove Marine Protected area, the center offers visitors the chance to explore the natural habitat of the mudflat and rocky shore that’s home to a variety of wildlife. You’ll be charmed by the knowledgeable, caring staff at Crab Cove and won’t be able to get enough of the gorgeous natural surroundings—plus, the center’s dedication to sharing fun facts through interactive exhibits creates a very kid-friendly atmosphere!
Nestled in the midst of Silicon Valley, San Jose is a culture-abundant metropolis that offers visitors a fair share of attractions from science and technology to food and art. A balanced mix of history, intrigue, and architecture, the Winchester Mystery House combines the best of San Jose into one must-see stop to make in the west side of the city. Built in the late 1800s by Sarah Winchester, the only surviving heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the Winchester Mystery House is a historic landmark for its age, complex construction, and, of course, the many curiosities that have made it a popular tourist destination.
The mansion is rumored to be haunted by the many people killed by Winchester rifles, and its bizarre architectural features are attributed to Sarah’s alleged belief that she could illude the spirits by continuously building an impossibly intricate place of residence. Sightseers have deemed the Winchester House a can’t-miss attraction when in San Jose, though many warn that Sarah’s short height has made crouching and ducking a repeated requirement throughout the tour for taller visitors.
With a history that dates back to 1769, Santa Cruz was one of the 27 original counties that were created when California became a state in 1850. Constructed in 1914, the Santa Cruz Wharf, located between Main Beach and Cowell Beach, is not only a piece of Santa Cruz’s past that you can walk across, but at almost three thousand feet long, it’s also the longest pier on the West Coast. Take in some awe-inspiring views of the Santa Cruz coast as you walk along this living artifact that’s flush with shops, restaurants, and the seals and sea lions that live below and around the wharf.
Whether you’re in the mood for seafood, diner fare, or a little bit of everything, you’ll won’t be complaining about a lack of choices when it comes to food on the Santa Cruz Wharf. You can also pick up trinkets, souvenirs, apparel, and more when you stop in some of the shops that line the wharf. But don’t forget to scan the horizon and pay attention to the water—you might just see a whale, dolphin, or otter!
Named after a 20th century rancher who lived in the area for most of her life, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of Big Sur’s most-visited parks, thanks to its diverse coastline views and scenic hiking trails. Among the park’s beloved view points is McWay Falls, a steady waterfall that juts out from the seaside cliffs and pours into the turquoise waters below.
The hike to the falls is only a short walk, but there are plenty of hiking trails in the surrounding area if you want to do a bit of exploring. However, it is a popular point of interest, so keep in mind that the space around and leading up to the falls might be crowded. Additionally, check the park’s website before making your visit because weather conditions might influence its accessibility.
San Simeon is about halfway between San Francisco and LA, which makes it a rational place to make a stop—especially if you plan a visit to Hearst Castle. Also known as La Cuesta Encantada (Spanish for “The Enchanted Hill”), Hearst Castle was built in 1919 after William Hearst, the man behind Hearst Communications, inherited the estate (along with millions of dollars) from his father. Hearst teamed up with the architect Julia Morgan to design and construct his lavish residence, which, despite being developed for almost 30 years, was left unfinished when Hearst died in 1947.
The grandiose estate features 165 rooms, 123 acres of gardens, two pools, a wine cellar, an airstrip, and even, at one point at least, a zoo. (Some of the descents of the original zoo animals that once populated the space can still be found near and around the property, including zebras!) An avid collector, Hearst transformed his home into the likes of a museum with antiques, artwork, and other priceless treasures, many of which are still on display today. The ornateness at Hearst Castle is so extreme that it almost has to be seen to be believed—and your extraordinarily well-versed tour guides will be more than happy to fill you in on the stories behind the historic property when you book a tour.
A short detour from California State Route 1 will take you to Morro Bay, a coastal town with a landscape that holds everything from lagoons and saltwater marshes to hiking trails and beaches. And yet, despite the geological versatility, it isn’t very difficult to pick the area’s most definitive natural feature—because it stands at almost six hundred feet and is over 20 millions years old.
A State Historic Landmark, Morro Rock is a volcanic plug that served as a navigational aid for sailors for around 300 years and is the last peak of the Nine Sisters, the chain of volcanic mountains that run between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Visitors are humbled in the presence of Morro Rock and its mighty display of Mother Nature’s awesomeness. Wildlife can also be found throughout the surrounding area, and the town itself is home to many local shops and restaurants.
Next up on our list is another coastal town, this one by the name of Pismo Beach. Though Pismo Beach is primarily known for its wineries and, of course, from late October to February, thousands of tiny travelers come through the area, and they aren’t there to drink wine or build sandcastles. Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove welcomes over 10 thousand monarch butterflies every year as they migrate to find shelter from the harsh winters in the North.
If you’re driving by Pismo Beach during monarch season, don’t miss out on the magical sight of butterfly-clusters sprinkled throughout the forest of Eucalyptus trees. These black-and-orange visitors are free to see, but the Grove does accept donations toward its preservation. Docents offer talks so that you can learn more about the butterflies, and the Grove even provides telescopes so that you can see the monarchs high up in the trees. But if you’re not in town during the right months, don’t worry—you can still find plenty to do in the Pismo Beach area, including swimming, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and more.
Trendy, picturesque, and rich in history, Santa Barbara is a city that has it all—including an incredible zoo! It might be on the smaller side, but the Santa Barbara Zoo is a wonderful place to spend the afternoon when touring the city, and it’s one of the nation’s accredited zoos that participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’s Species Survival Plan, a cooperative conservation plan to maintain genetic diversity in captive populations.
The wildlife at the Santa Barbara Zoo is known for being active and engaging, and you can see more than 500 animals when you visit. From classic favorites like lions, giraffes, and gorillas to exotic finds like capybara, reindeer, and giant anteaters, the residents of this zoo are sure to capture your heart—which is why the zoo offers behind-the-scenes experiences to interact with the animals!
Around 40 miles from Downtown LA, Thousand Oaks makes for a lovely last stop before the City of Angels. Across the street from Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza lies a colorful assortment of international tributes in the form of flowers: Gardens of the World.
This quaint botanical potpourri has six different spaces, each modeled in homage to a specific time or place—the Japanese Garden, the French Garden & Water Feature, the Mission Courtyard, the English Perennial & Rose Garden, the Italian Garden, and the American Bandstand. Free to the public, Gardens of the World is a kaleidoscope of plant life that will leave you with a newfound appreciation for the simple pleasures in life, like stopping to smell the roses.
If there’s one thing that California isn’t short on, it’s breathtaking views. But you can’t fully appreciate the state’s beauty from the inside of the car—you have to go out and do some exploring! From the big and the small to the bustling and the remote, the road trip destinations that you’ll find on your way from San Francisco to LA are sure to leave you speechless with their vibrance and beauty. It’s time for a West Coast adventure!