LA to San Diego Drive: Best Stops for an Epic Road Trip

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The LA to San Diego drive is one of the great American road trips, as this spectacular route takes you through the best sights that Southern California has to offer. 

Our favorite stops are highlighted in this classic itinerary that will give you the chance to explore the best beaches near Los Angeles, from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach, visit old Spanish missions, and see the best of small-town, coastal California as you drive from place to place.

Along the way, you can surf in the Pacific, sit back and enjoy craft beers or excellent coffee with beautiful views, and of course, take in the breathtaking vistas along the coastal roads.

I’ve had many family and friends live in both Los Angeles and San Diego over the years and have had the pleasure of driving this route multiple times during my many visits! If you’re looking for advice from someone that has put in the leg work, then you came to the right place.

It’s a beautiful journey, and to help you to plan your road trip, here are some of the best stops on an LA to San Diego drive!

Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Coastal California (Travel Guide)

How Far is the Los Angeles to San Diego Drive?

LA to San Diego Drive Map

The LA to San Diego drive can be completed in two to three hours if you aren’t making any stops along the way. But who would do that? If you’re on this article, I am assuming you plan to spend some time seeing the great sites between Los Angeles and San Diego, or vice versa.

The shortest, most direct route simply takes you down Highway I-5, which is the same highway that leads all the way from Mexico to Canada. 

If you’re in a rush or want to get back quickly from San Diego to Los Angeles on the return leg of your road trip, then this is the easiest option.

The 120-mile route isn’t exactly interesting though once you leave the coast, as you mostly pass through residential and inland areas of Southern California.

A much more exciting LA to San Diego drive – and the one I want to share with you – will take you first along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, and then onto I-5 on your way south.

This is the route you want to take because it’s beautiful.

Distance-wise, it’s not so much longer than the inland highway either, but there are so many potential stops on the way that you’ll want much more time.

Luckily, one of the reasons that this is a great road trip is that you can take as little or as long a time as you desire.

If you’ve just got the weekend, then great, or if you’ve got an entire week, take your time and go slow. 

Need to book a car for your road trip adventure? We use Discover Car Hire for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.

LA to San Diego Drive: The Absolute Best Stops

Los Angeles

Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, California

Your LA to San Diego drive starts in Los Angeles, one of the most iconic cities in the United States. Personally, it’s one of my favorite cities in the USA. It blends vintage and luxury in a way that you can’t see elsewhere.

If it’s your first time in California, then before your journey, you’ll want to spend a day or two exploring Los Angeles before driving down the coast toward San Diego.

In Los Angeles, you can visit Beverley Hills to see where the stars live, you can take a picture next to the giant Hollywood sign, or you can spend days riding the roller-coasters at the theme parks found all around the city. 

LA is also a great place to fly to, and you can easily pick up a rental car at the airport. You can even go for a classic, top-down convertible or a vintage Mustang if you’re looking to drive in style.  

Our Top Recommended Tours:

Long Beach

View of Long Beach in California along the La to San Diego drive

On your LA to San Diego drive, the first port of call outside of the city will be the beach. Long Beach to be precise.

But while you can enjoy the soft sands and seaside views of Long Beach, the coastal city is actually as well known for its museums as it is for its beaches. 

If you have time for nothing else, be sure to pay a visit to the RMS Queen Mary. It is a 1930s passenger liner that has been turned into a floating museum. If you have more time then be sure to check out the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Museum of Latin American Art. 

Our Top Recommended Tours: Private Helicopter Tour over Long Beach and Los Angeles

Santa Catalina Island

The harbor along Santa Catalina Island in California

If you have plenty of time for your LA to San Diego drive, then you can leave the car behind in Long Beach and catch a ferry across to Santa Catalina Island. One of our favorite things to do along this route!

It’s just an hour away from the mainland, and on the island, you’ll find a unique ecosystem.

There are hiking trails across Santa Catalina, plenty of snorkeling spots around the island, and you can enjoy the delights of the largest towns, Avalon and Two Harbors. 

You can either say on the island for the night or return to Long Beach and stay there before continuing along the route.

Our Top Recommended Tours: Catalina Island Avalon Scenic Tour

Huntington Beach

Surfers walking along the beach in California at sunset

Next up, when you’re back on the mainland, carry on along the coast south and you’ll soon arrive at Huntington Beach. We love the vibe at this beach and never pass up a chance to stop here on this drive.

This is another classic Californian beach town, and you can stroll along the famous Huntington Beach Pier and enjoy excellent views over the Pacific.

If you’re a surfer, then Huntington Beach has some of the best surf beaches close to Los Angeles. 

Our Top Recommended Tours: Surf Lessons in Huntington Beach

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach California on a sunny day along the LA to San Diego drive

Laguna Beach is arguably the most famous and well-known beach in the area, and no LA to San Diego drive is complete without a pit stop here.

This is the heart of Orange County, and you’ll find plenty to do here.

Laguna Beach has excellent beaches of course, but you can also explore Crystal Cove State Park, where you’ll find beautiful coastal scenery and colorful water.

The city is an artist’s haven too, and there are a large number of galleries, as well as regular art and music festivals that are held all through the year. 

Our Top Recommended Tours:

Dana Point 

Humpback whale breaching off the coast of California

From Laguna Beach, it’s another short drive south along the coast to Dana Point. This is one of our favorite stops along the route if you get a nice day and like to be on the water!

This small city boasts one of the best harbors and marinas in southern California, and it’s a great place to explore.

It’s a beautiful spot to visit, and you can watch the sunset over the harbor while you enjoy the great restaurants or cafes on the waterfront.

During the day you can head out on dedicated whale watching or dolphin spotting tours because the coast here is renowned for a large number of marine mammals that pass by through the year. 

Our Top Recommended Tours:

San Juan Capistrano

Old brick building in San Juan Capistrano, California

Dana Point is where the South Coast Highway merges with I-5, and you can choose to carry on south on your LA to San Diego drive, or you can choose to take a quick inland detour to San Juan Capistrano, which is just a few miles down the road. 

San Juan Capistrano is one of the most historic destinations in southern California, and it makes for a nice change from the beaches and seaside towns you’ve been visiting so far. 

Here you can find the San Juan Capistrano Mission, which was founded by the Spanish in 1776. This is one of the oldest buildings in the state, and it’s well worth a stop on your way down to San Diego. 

Our Top Recommended Tour: Mission San Juan Capistrano & Old Town Tour

San Clemente

San Clemente pier at sunset in California

Another short drive south, this time along the I-5 Highway, will bring you to San Clemente.

The local beach, San Clemente State Beach, is one of the best strips of sand on your way to San Diego, and the wind and waves make it perfect for water sports. 

In fact, this is surf central, and you’ll find areas along the coast here that are suitable for absolute beginners, right up to professionals, making this one of the best surf destinations in southern California. 

Need to book a car for your road trip adventure? We use Discover Car Hire for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.


People enjoying the beach in Carlsbad, California

You’re getting closer to San Diego now, as you carry on driving south along the coastal highway. This means the beaches are getting more dramatic and this is one of the reasons I love this drive so much!

The views are spectacular and the scenery is dramatic, and you’ll be pulling over to constantly take pictures or just admire the beauty.

Carlsbad is the next stop, and although it’s just half an hour from San Clemente, depending on how many times you’re wowed by the scenery, it could take much longer to actually get here.

Enjoy the coastal setting of Carlsbad and if you’re traveling with kids then the best place to take them is Carlsbad Legoland.

Here you’ll find great Lego-themed rides and attractions to keep them busy for the day. 

Our Top Recommended Tours: Carlsbad Village Food and Walking Tour


Sunset over a beach in Encinitas, California along the La to San Diego drive

Just 10 miles down the road from Carlsbad is Encinitas. I love Encinitas!

This small city is where you’ll find the wonderful San Diego Botanic Garden, where you can walk through a fabulous collection of plant species collected from around the world. 

Like everywhere else along the Pacific Coast, Encinitas also has some unbeatable seaside views.

If you’re not overwhelmed or desensitized to the Pacific Ocean yet, it’s a great place to enjoy even more beaches before continuing on the final leg of your journey into San Diego itself. 

La Jolla

Couple walking along the beach in La Jolla, California

Just before you arrive in San Diego, you’ll want to stop off in the small town of La Jolla. Pronounce La Hoy-ya. If you love to browse local shops, like I do, this is a stop for you!

La Jolla is a world away from the big city, despite being so close, and you’ll find beautiful coastlines and gorgeous beaches waiting for you. 

Explore the local breweries, try out the numerous cafes and restaurants, and enjoy the laid-back, seaside lifestyle that La Jolla is famed for. 

Our Top Recommended Tours:

San Diego

Sunrise in San Diego, California

Your LA to San Diego drive ends in downtown San Diego, and if you’ve never explored the city before, you’ll want to save some time during your trip to see the best sights and attractions in San Diego

After many visits, we are both very fond of San Diego. It is a city that blends culture, history, and nature in a way that is totally unique to the USA.

Start with Balboa Park, one of the largest public parks in California. This enormous public space is where you can find San Diego Zoo, one of the most famous zoos in the world, as well as the city’s best museums. 

You can also visit the Embarcadero, the San Diego waterfront, where you’ll find maritime museums and the USS Midway museum. 

It’s a vibrant, cultural place, and an excellent last stop on your road trip from Los Angeles. 

Our Top Recommended Tours:

LA to San Diego Road Trip FAQs

Is it worth driving from LA to San Diego?

Absolutely! Though it’s a relatively short drive, there are so many beautiful beaches, towns, and historical sites along the way. It’s definitely worth it, whether you have one day, a weekend, or even a week.

Is the drive from LA to San Diego pretty?

It is if you take the Pacific Coast Highway, as advised in this post! I-5 is not the prettiest drive but the PCH definitely is.

What is the best scenic drive from Los Angeles to San Diego?

You’ll want to follow the Pacific Coast Highway for the prettiest Los Angeles to San Diego drive. You’ll still have to go on I-5 for the end of the trip but you’ll want to start along the coast for the views.

How long does it take to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego?

As long as you make it take! If you just drive straight through without stopping (and avoid rush hour) it should take 2 to 2 1/2 hours. But you can easily turn it into a full-day or even weekend trip if you make the stops listed above.

What is the best time to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego?

During the weekdays, you’ll want to avoid rush hour – aka the times everyone is driving to or from work. On the weekends, the afternoons tend to be busier with more traffic.

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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA

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