31 Ways to Make an I-5 Trip Between LA and SF Way More Enjoyable

Camp at Pyramid Lake, visit state parks or follow the Oakland Cannabis Trail

August 22, 2023 6:35 am
Person paragliding over a beach, overlooking the ocean while a bird flies above.
Here's all the ways to make a trip between LA And SF better
SeeMonterey.comMichael Troutman/DMT Imaging

The drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco or from the Bay down to SoCal is probably the most common road trip in California. At a little less than 400 miles, it’s a straight shot down the I-5, from foggy climes and gorgeous bridges to sunny beaches and Hollywood Hills. Part of the appeal of shuttling between these two cities is how different they are and how quickly you can get between them: flights are cheap and abundant. However, both LA and San Francisco are car cities, and getting around once you’re in town can be a pain if you’re not equipped with some wheels. So the six(ish)-hour trip between LA and SF is a necessary evil for most in-state travelers. 

But with a little creativity, that can all change. In the spirit of summer (and fall) road trips, we’ve rounded up a whole variety of ways to make it more manageable, whether with stops, shops, sights, trails, restaurants, hotels or a fun detour (garlic-centric and otherwise) along the way. 

1. Got a few extra hours? Take Highway 1 instead.

Skip I-5 altogether, splurge on gas and take Highway 1 all the way. Yes, it’s a windy old highway and yes, it will take you at least three hours longer. But it’s also one of the most beautiful, scenic drives in the world. Get on the 1 in Santa Monica and pass through Malibu, Santa Barbara, Morro Bay and Big Sur on the way north.

2. Wake up early and spend the day at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

If you’re leaving from Los Angeles, this amusement park is about an hour into the trip. Break up a monotonous day of driving with a few hours of fun, then pile back into the car and finish the trek at night — which is a perfect traffic hack.

A view from the California Department of Water Resources Vista Del Lago Visitor Center located on a bluff overlooking Pyramid Lake in Los Angeles County.
Pyramid Lake
California Department of Water Resources

3. Take in the splendor of Pyramid Lake, a man-made reservoir created by Pyramid Dam on Piru Creek.

If you’re a camper, this is the place to overnight — it’s one of the most beautiful spots along the ride.

4. If you’re in need of food, gas, necessities, an ATM or just a break, Flying J truck stops are open 24 hours and always stocked with essentials, including showers (especially useful if you camped at Pyramid Lake).

If you like to drive in the middle of the night, a 24-hour truck stop is your best friend. Watch for Flying Js along the route — they’re not trendy, but they are tried and true.

5. Reward yourself for getting over the Grapevine, then pull over and check out Fort Tejon State Park.

Cresting the Grapevine is a milestone on this drive, so take a break and learn a little bit about California’s early history by exploring the restored adobes and park museum. Or do a bit of forest bathing and wander among the 400-year-old valley oak trees.

Open road surrounded by empty land with small building at the end of the road.
Cuyama Buckhorn is a roadside inn off State Route 166 in New Cuyama
Cuyama Buckhorn/Stephanie Russo

6. Spend a night at the Cuyama Buckhorn, the platonic ideal of a California roadside inn.

Aside from cozy, Western-themed rooms, they also boast a world-class bar program and recently brought back their strange signature ostrich burger, which Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold reviewed 30 years ago.

7. Or take State Route 166 to the Carrizo Plain National Monument, turn onto Soda Lake Road, ditch your car and hike through some of the best super-blooms in the world.

This area is so remote that visitors claim they can “hear the silence.”

8. Detour ever so slightly down the 99 to Bakersfield and visit Buck Owens Crystal Palace.

There’s a museum, a restaurant and regular live music — the perfect distraction on a long drive if you’re a country music aficionado. Before exiting off the 99, note that they’re only open Thursday through Sunday.

9. Kern County locals swear by The Little Purple Barn for fresh produce in case you need some serious snacks for the ride.

When in farm country, shop the wares — recommendations here are pies and fudge. Murray Family Farm’s flagship, The Big Red Barn, is off Highway 58, but they’ve created an outpost right off I-5 for interstate travelers craving farm-fresh food and local treats. 

10. Get some real, classic diner food at Milt’s Coffee Shop in Bakersfield.

Plenty of people swear Bakersfield has nothing to offer, but Milt’s has been proving them wrong since 1964. 

11. Always stop and get gas when you’re in a more developed city like Bakersfield so you don’t run out while you’re in the middle of nowhere. Remote stations always jack up their prices.

It’s common sense that’s worth repeating.

The Great California National Park Road Trip
Hit all nine of them on this roughly 30-day itinerary

12. Wildlife lovers should take a right on Highway 46 and make a stop at Kern National Wildlife Reserve, where a six-mile loop runs around the wetlands.

There are few better places to catch a glimpse of California’s diverse waterfowl, and the reserve is open to the public from sunrise to sunset. Just watch out for the winter months when it’s an active hunting season.

Exterior of the Farmhouse Motel, resembling a small white barn with red details and doors opening to a small living room
The Farmhouse Motel is new to Paso Robles
Karyn Millet

13. Take the 41 over to Paso Robles, do a little wine tasting at Niner Estate and crash for the night at the brand new Farmhouse Hotel.

Central Coast wine country detours are the best kind. Who said you had to do the whole drive in one day, anyway? 

14. Exactly halfway through the trip, a night at Harris Ranch is great for golf lovers.

This hacienda-style resort boasts a golf course and several dining outlets serving the local beef. If you can handle the cattle ranch smell, you’ll love the country charm and massive lap pool.

Exterior of El Capitan, square building with a vertical sign attached to front.
El Capitan
Elina Golobova

15. Take State Route 140 east to Merced and check out the restored downtown, where El Capitan brings a much-needed boutique hotel to the area. 

If you decide to completely detour and go to Yosemite for a few days, this is also a great place to stop before heading into the park.

16. Along with the hotel, the new owners restored and reopened a historic theater, The Mainzer, for craft cocktails, tap beer and plenty of live entertainment.

See a show on the way out of town, then finish the drive to LA while everyone else is sleeping. 

17. Even if you don’t stay the night in Merced, eat at the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Rainbird, one of the best chef-driven prix-fixe menus for miles around.

There’s better road trip food options than Carl’s Jr., you just have to know where to look.

18. Venture west on State Route 152 instead of east and spend time hiking across the 87,000 square miles that make up Henry Coe State Park.

It’s the largest state park in Northern California and well worth a few hours of your time.

Two people on a beach wearing paraglides. One is in the air while one is on the ground.
Visit Monterey to go paragliding
SeeMonterey.com/Michael Troutman/DMT Imaging

19. Cut over to Monterey for some true adventure sports on your way to and from either city.

It’s a bit of a trek to the coast, but paragliding over the bay, scuba diving and even skydiving are all viable options.

20. Feeling bougie? Take a helicopter tour of Big Sur and Monterey to immerse yourself in some of the most beautiful scenery in the state.

There’s a 40-minute tour down to Point Lobos or a 60-minute stretch that covers the famous cliffside shoreline of Big Sur.

Small house with door opening to a small living room
Le Petit Pali, one of Carmel-by-the-Sea’s newest hotels

21. Visit picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea and check out one of the tiny city’s newest hotel openings, Le Petit Pali.

Two brand-new locations of this boutique hotel just opened here. Le Petit Pali is the latest from Palisociety, and it’s a little bit of elegance in a quaint seaside town. 

22. Another boutique opening, Carmel Beach Hotel, is the closest stay to Carmel Beach there is. 

Make this part of your trip, and the hours of driving will melt away. Twenty-six rooms across seven historic buildings mean this property might as well be a destination itself.

23. Can’t commit to making the whole nine-hour drive down Highway 1? Ditch your car for a bike and cycle the most scenic stretch through Big Sur.

The perfect way to kick-off or end a trip — stretching your legs and breathing in that ocean air.

24. Pass through Big Sur for your final stretch before hitting the city, and stop at Nepenthe for dinner.

It’s one of the best restaurants in the entire state, and the views are simply stunning. 

25. If you do stay in Big Sur, the cabins at Big Sur Lodge are perfect for groups.

Privacy is everything, especially if you’ve already been crammed in a car together. 

26. A room at Big Sur Lodge also comes with complimentary access to several Big Sur state parks, so a hike is in order before leaving the area.

Stock up on snacks and trinkets at their adorable gift shop while you’re at it. 

27. Gilroy boasts about being the garlic capital of the world, and Garlic World is worth a visit if you’ve never been.

Take State Route 152 and get ready to be regaled about the health benefits of the stinky, flavorful specialty. Maybe just don’t eat any until after the road trip is over.

Large hotel building overlooking the ocean
Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay is a romantic pit stop
Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay

28. Spend a night overlooking the water at The Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay.

Take an early stop and spend the night in style at this palatial property right on Half Moon Bay. This place is very romantic, so if you have love in mind for this road trip, it could be a game changer.

29. Follow the Oakland Cannabis Trail for a chance to help support local cannabis culture.

This area offers “canna bars” and lounges for those interested in going beyond just smoking weed for a high. Just obviously consider this your final stop for the night — there’s actually something great about overnighting in Oakland (maybe at the Moxy) and crossing the Bay in the morning light. 

Rooftop tubs on top of a hotel building with skyscrapers in background
1 Hotel San Francisco’s rooftop tubs
Hotel San Francisco

30. If you’re arriving in the Bay from LA, 1 Hotel San Francisco is an ideal final destination.

Three words: rooftop tub soaks. 

31. If you’re arriving in LA from San Francisco, book The Delphi Hotel.
Formerly the downtown location of The Standard, this historic building has been transformed into sleek, updated accommodations with luxury amenities and a classic diner, Denae’s, for all-day dining.


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