Why pick one when you can do both? That’s our ethos when it comes to LA and San Francisco. There are few spots on Earth where two such incredible and iconic cities lie so close to each other, so it makes perfect sense to tick off the two when you visit California.
Okay, we’ll admit it – they’re at least a six-hour drive apart. But that’s the best bit. This journey is perhaps the greatest road trip going, and there’s more than one way of doing it. Which will you choose?
Interstate 5 – The quick and easy route
Length: 380 miles
Time: 6 hours
Interstate 5 is undoubtedly the most direct and simple route between the two cities. It heads south-east down the dead-centre of California in an area known as the Central Valley, a flat plain flanked by two ranges of mountains. It’s covered mostly by farmland and scattered with small, rural towns.
This route is best reserved for those who want as little fuss as possible getting between the two cities in a single day. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to do along the way though.
Things to do:
Castaic Lake is a vast reservoir located just off Interstate 5, close to LA. Formed by a huge dam, it’s one of several that supply this megacity with water all year round. There’s tons to do in the area; hire a boat and head out across the lake, walk one of the many hiking trails in the surrounding state park or lounge on the beaches down at the lagoon – it’s your call.
Six Flags Magic Mountain lies just across Interstate 5 from the lake. It’s perhaps not as well-known as the theme parks over in Florida, but with 19 rollercoasters onsite – more than any theme park in the world – it trumps most of them. From the 255ft plunge on Goliath to the 41 storey, 100mph launch on Superman: Escape from Krypton, it’s an adrenaline junkie’s paradise.
Halfway along the valley, when your tummy’s rumbling and you need to stretch your legs, pull in at Kettleman City. It’s here that you’ll find the charming and eccentric Bravo Farm. Once little more than a cattle ranch, this family-run business has been transformed into a roadside oasis. You’ll find stores, restaurants, playgrounds and even wine tasting on offer – all themed with rural Californian flavour.
State Route 1 – The coastal route
Length: 440 miles
Time: 9 – 10 hours
More commonly known as the ‘Pacific Coast Highway’, this is the route favoured and adored by most road-trippers. As the name suggests, it straddles California’s spectacular coastline for much of the route between the two cities. It doesn’t start until you reach San Luis Obispo, a town 3 hours north-west of LA, so take Highway 101 out of the city initially.
If it’s jaw-dropping scenery and Instagram opportunities you came to California for, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Things to do:
There are plenty of incredible experiences along the route. Once leaving San Luis Obispo, you’ll first reach the quaint coastal towns of Morro Bay and Cayucos. About 3 and a half hours into the journey, these are great spots to stop at, if only for an ice cream and a dip in the water.
After around 4 hours of driving you’ll reach San Simeon. With plenty of campsites and hotels available, it’s an ideal place to rest your head.
Come morning, Hearst Castle is a short drive away – up in the mountains. This vast revival-style mansion and estate was built as the private home of a wealthy newspaper magnate, but today is one of California’s most iconic visitor attractions. It features 165 rooms set across 127 acres of tiered gardens, pools and terraces displaying a stunning collection of furniture and art – not to mention the panoramic views. Get there early in the morning and explore for a few hours before hitting the road again.
After a few more hours winding your way along the coast, you’ll reach Big Sur, a settlement of ranches, lodges and gardens among lush greenery. If you’re peckish, stop for a bite at the Nepenthe restaurant. Its high-up outdoor terrace is the ultimate place to chill out and take in the views. If you need to cool off, a soak under McWay Cove’s refreshing waterfall should do the trick.
A short while later, the cliffs will flatten out into a sweeping bay and you’ll pass through the towns of Carmel and Monterey. Head for Santa Cruz. This is one of America’s original seaside towns, and its iconic boardwalk is full of charm and whimsy – think arcades, funfairs, ice creams.
Once evening falls, it’ll be hard to resist glancing over at the spectacular sunset taking place as you complete the final stage of your journey.
Note: Due to landslips in February 2017, parts of this road remain closed. Please check official advice before you travel the route.
The scenic route
Length: 600 miles
Time: Several days
If you’d prefer to spend your time in California enjoying nature – rather than delving into the urban buzz of two of the world’s greatest cities – then try the scenic route. Be warned though, this is not a journey for the faint hearted. It traverses mountains, reaching the highest point of any pass road in California – and will require much pre-planning, a spot of camping and plenty of gear – but for those who take the leap it’s a lifechanging experience.
Our scenic route requires changing road several times. You should begin by leaving LA on Interstate 15 heading north-east, before veering off at Route 395, heading northwards. After a 4-hour drive, you’ll turn left onto the Tioga pass (state Route 120). This will take you on a meandering tour up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and through Yosemite National Park. When it’s time to head to San Fran, you simply follow the road out of the mountains. You’ll first turn off onto Interstate 205, followed then by Interstate 580, which will take you right into the city.
Things to do:
It’s hard to know where to begin when describing quite how much there is to experience along this route. To do it will require some serious prior planning – you’ll probably want to pre-arrange two or three stopovers along the way, choosing from motels, lodges and Yosemite campsites.
When you set off from LA, you’ll immediately be plunged into the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert, speeding past Joshua trees as you go. As you head north you’ll be flanked by the lush Sierra Nevada mountain range on your left and a smaller desert range on your right. Should you wish to visit, Death Valley lies just behind this range and is a worthwhile detour. Just be sure to exercise extreme caution and always follow instructions; it got its name for a reason!
When you turn onto the Tioga pass (route 120) you’ll rapidly climb through dense forests high into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to find yourself at the heart of world-famous Yosemite National Park. On your way, you’ll pass crystal blue lakes, monstrous waterfalls and towering cliff faces. No visitor to Yosemite ever forgets it – this is a truly magical place. We won’t tell you how to spend your time here, only insist that you leave enough in the schedule to really take in its beauty.
Note: The Tioga Pass is closed for parts of winter due to snowfall, so always check before you travel.