Nothing quite compares to a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip. It’s an incredible journey through some of the most beautiful places in the entire country and the perfect goal for your next family adventure.
There are 2 major driving routes that will get you from San Francisco to San Diego. The fastest is on I-5 South, which will take about 7.5 hours. If you’re looking for anything faster, you should consider flying instead. The major downside to I-5 is that it’s a boring trip that misses most of the beautiful stops and sights that California has to offer.
Instead, you should take the scenic drive to get from San Francisco to San Diego. This route involves Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway 1.
On this California road trip, you’ll be cruising down the coast with amazing views and beautiful places to stop along the way as you cross from Northern California into Southern California.
- Distance From San Francisco to San Diego
- How Long Driving San Francisco to San Diego
- Best Time of Year to Drive from San Francisco to San Diego
- Best Stops On A San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip
- More Tips For Road Tripping San Francisco To San Diego
Distance From San Francisco to San Diego
The distance from San Francisco to San Diego is just over 500 miles if you drive straight down I-5. The truth is, you’ll get from San Fran to San Diego pretty quickly, but you’ll miss out on some of the greatest places in California.
So, if you’re looking for a more enjoyable drive, consider taking Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway 1. The Pacific Coast Highway hugs the coastline for much of the journey, while the 101 is set slightly inland.
On this path, you’ll be able to stop off at insanely cool places like Monterey, Big Sur, and Santa Barbara. The distance from San Francisco to San Diego on this scenic drive is closer to 600 miles.
How Long Driving San Francisco to San Diego
Driving directly from San Francisco to San Diego on I-5 South will take just over 7.5 hours, depending on traffic. So you could leave in the morning and complete the drive by dinner time. But honestly, that’s not what we’re here for. Instead, make it into an actual road trip, where you enjoy the amazing state of California along the way.
Driving Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway 1 will take over 10 hours of pure driving, but you’ll have the most gorgeous views of the ocean and coastline.
You’ll also drive through some of the cutest towns on the coast, like Carmel-By-The-Sea and San Simeon. And let’s be honest, when road-tripping with kids, the more times you can get out and explore, the better.
|Pacific Coast Route
(Highway 1 & 101)
The best way to experience the San Fran to San Diego road trip is to allow one to two weeks. This way, you’ll be driving 1-2 hours between locations and spend a day or two at each.
Spread out over 14 days, you shouldn’t be crunched for time and have enough time to enjoy the various places along the way.
Best Time of Year to Drive from San Francisco to San Diego
California is a state known for having abundant sunshine. So, when it comes to times of the year when the weather isn’t the absolute best, it earns a nickname.
You’ve probably heard of “May Gray”, “June Gloom,” “No-Sky July,” and “Fogust.” These are all indications that it’s likely not the ideal time for a San Fran to San Diego road trip.
Additionally, if California is going to get rain, for sure it will happen during the winter months or possibly in the spring.
After considering all of this, the best time for San Francisco to San Diego road trip is the fall, September through early November. It’s when you’ll find little precipitation and lower rates of fog. You’ll also find fewer crowds, if you are able to travel when schools have returned.
Best Stops On A San Francisco To San Diego Road Trip
What better way is there to start an epic road trip than from the great city of San Francisco?
You’ll want to dedicate a few days to exploring and enjoying San Fran and the entire Bay Area. No visit is complete without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and riding a cable car which is quintessential SF activities.
Make sure to plan a time to visit San Fran’s famed Chinatown, where you can experience its sights, sounds, and tastes. You can even see how fortune cookies are made at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
If your kids want to play, there’s no better place to take them than the playground at Dolores Park. At Pier 39, you’ll find the Aquarium of the Bay as well as cool rides like a carousel. Consider taking a boat tour of the bay, where you’ll see the Golden Gate Bridge from underneath.
Leaving San Francisco, you’ll head about 80 miles south to Santa Cruz. To get there, take the Pacific Coast Highway down along the coast.
Pro Tip: San Francisco is known for its fog. But this marine layer normally burns off by mid-day. So to play it safe, plan to do the driving in the latter half of the day.
In less than two hours drive, you’ll arrive in Santa Cruz, the ideal Pacific Coast beach town. It’s filled with beaches, surfer culture, and love. So it’s clearly the best first stop on this road trip from San Francisco to San Diego.
A major destination, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a classic beachside amusement park that will delight everyone in the family. With 40 to choose from, there are rides designed for everyone in the family, from little ones to adrenaline junkies. You can ride with unlimited access wristbands or pay for individual rides with a boardwalk card. You’ll see some discounts if bought online in advance.
With a blue whale skeleton out front, you can’t help but want to go in and explore everything the Seymour Marine Discovery Center has to offer. Kids will love getting up close and even touching some of the sea life. Children under three get free admission, and college kids can get a student discount with ID.
Monterey & Carmel-By-The-Sea
It’s a short 45-minute drive down the coast to Monterey and Carmel-By-The Sea, the next stop on this road trip from San Fran to San Diego.
Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium is totally one of the best to do in Monterey. It’s one of the top research facilities in the country and has some of the most diverse fish populations in America. Open 10:00 am – 5:00 pm daily; the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-do activity.
Buy tickets in advance and find out more on the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.
MY Museum (the Monterey County Youth Museum) is an excellent activity for families with little ones. Designed specifically for them, kids are encouraged to touch and play. They can do experiments, make music and play pretend. MY Museum is open Wednesday-Sunday. Kids under two years are free.
Go to the water at places like McAbee Beach and Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Monterey is one of the best places to take a whale-watching tour or go kayaking on the bay.
Don’t miss visiting Carmel-By-The-Sea. This special town feels like you’re in a fairytale with small buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, and thatched roofs. Enjoy a stroll through the village, where you can check out the unique shops and grab a bite at the restaurants.
Heading south from Carmel-By-The-Sea, it’s less than 30 miles to get to Big Sur, the next stop on this west coast road trip.
Heading south on the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll have the Santa Lucia Mountains on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Stretching 90 miles, there are a number of places and state parks you’ll want to stop and experience on this leg of the trip.
You’ll have short hikes and wildlife viewing at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and Garrapata State Park. Bixby Bridge and Pfeiffer Beach are ones not to miss.
Toward the end of the drive, you’ll come to Julia Pfeiffer State Park. Known for coastal hikes, an 80-foot waterfall, and a beautiful forest, it’s a major highlight in Big Sur.
Extending your time in Big Sur is a good idea to spend the night. Camping is available in Big Sur so that you can enjoy even more of this beautiful place.
Pro Tip: Some of the trails in Big Sur are on the cliff’s edge, like Bird Island Trail in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. So make sure to watch your step and keep being careful with young children.
Pro Tip: Cell service can be spotty in Big Sur. So download what you might need ahead of time.
San Simeon is a beautiful community right on the Pacific Ocean that you should definitely visit. One of the major sights in San Simeon is Hearst Castle. Since its completion in 1946, William Randolph Hearst’s estate has been a major landmark and destination.
Today, you can visit the grounds and tour the castle. You’ll need to make advance reservations on the Hearst Castle website. If you decide not to visit the grounds, no worries, there are other great things to do in the area. Plus you’ll be able to see the castle from a distance on your visit to San Simeon.
Everyone in the family will love spotting sea otters and elephant seals in San Simeon. It’s the perfect place to stretch your legs on a walk along the water.
At Hearst Memorial Beach, you can walk the sand or out on the San Simeon Pier. Walking Moonbeach at low tide is super cool with multi-colored stones underfoot.
Ring a bell? Yeah, just about any parent who has ever watched Finding Dory knows about Morro Bay. Unfortunately, the Marine Life Institute from the movie is fictitious. But you can still visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was the inspiration for the Jewel of Morro Bay.
Just make sure to do it during your stop in Monterey, not Morro Bay. Check out more info about it in the Monterey section above.
One of the best things to do in Morro Bay is to visit Morro Bay State Park. Everyone will love hiking in the park and getting some exercise after the road trip. Kids will love seeing Morro Rock sticking out of the water. They might even catch a glimpse of sea otters that call the area home.
Everyone in the family can learn more about the area’s history, oceanography, and the park’s wildlife at the Museum of Natural History located in the park.
If you like to camp, consider staying at Morro Bay State Park. You can book a campsite up to 6 months in advance at reservecalifornia.com.
Get a closer look at sea life on a boat tour of Morro Bay. Kids will love to spot whales, otters, and seals. You can also let the kids play at Tidelands Park right on the bay.
The next top on the San Francisco to San Diego road trip is Santa Barbara. Located just over 100 miles south of Morro Bay, it’s known for beautiful architecture and picturesque beaches. Everyone in the family will love making a stop here.
Kids will love the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Museum of Natural History Sea Center. At MOXI (the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation), kids can do everything from stepping inside a giant guitar to printing something from a 3D printer.
Everyone will love grabbing an ice cream and exploring Stearns Wharf. Let the kids play at any of the playgrounds in Santa Barbara, like Alameda Park and Chase Palm Park Shipwreck Playground.
The 115 miles between Santa Barbara and LA, Highway 1 has some of the most beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.
Santa Monica & Los Angeles
As you drive down the coast, there’s no denying that Santa Monica and Los Angeles are major stops on this road trip from San Fran to San Diego. So, it’s a good idea to plan to spend a couple of days in LA County to really enjoy the area.
A scavenger hunt is a great way to get kids active in seeking out the major sights. See who can spot the Hollywood Sign first, or mark how many times you see it while in LA.
On the Walk of Fame, search for the name of actors from movies or shows kids love. Harry Potter fans will love to find Daniel Radcliffe, and little ones can search for Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Take the kids (and the kids at heart) to the major theme parks. You can’t go wrong with a day at Disneyland or Universal Studios.
La Brea Tar Pits Museum is a huge hit with kids interested in the past. They’ll love seeing what ice age fossils have been discovered and watching the 3D movie about it all.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to San Diego, the final destination on your fabulous road trip from San Francisco. After covering the last 120 miles from LA, it’s time to enjoy everything this great city and Southern California have to offer.
The entire family will enjoy visiting Balboa Park. You can stroll the beautiful gardens and visit one of the 17 museums, including the Natural History Museum right there. It’s also right next door to the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
Head to Old Town San Diego to learn about the history and culture of the city and the birthplace of California. It’s also a great place to enjoy delicious Mexican food.
Legoland is also a great place to spend the day with the entire family. Everyone will love a beach day on Coronado Island. And don’t forget to see the seals at La Jolla Cove.
- Top Tip: If you’re planning on visiting even just a few of the best attractions in San Diego, picking up a Go City attraction pass can save you a lot of money.
More Tips For Road Tripping San Francisco To San Diego
- Keep up to date on highway conditions by checking the California Department of Transportation website especially if you’re taking the Pacific Coast Highway 1, which can be closed due to landslides.
- If anyone in the family gets carsick, you may want to stick to Highway 101, where possible, instead of the PCH, which has LOTS of curves.
- Remember to purchase your parking permit when visiting California State Parks. They only cost $10 and are valid for 24 hours.
- Finally, our Ultimate Family Road Trip checklist is a worry-free checklist for every journey.
Looking for more road trip ideas on the west coast? You’ll also want to grab our detailed itineraries covering:
- San Francisco to Yosemite National Park – take your time and meander the scenic route into the mountains
- A Portland to San Francisco Road Trip – taking the coastal route down and the scenic central route back through Oregon
- Explore the entire of the US Pacific Northwest coast with this San Francisco to Seattle itinerary
- San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park Road Trip
- Extend this further with this San Diego to Phoenix itinerary or head further north and discover the fascinating stops on a San Diego to Grand Canyon drive.
- San Francisco to Redwood National and State Parks – taking in the top end of the Pacific Coast Highway and incredible forest driving
- The 12 Most Scenic Driving Routes in Northern California
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