Put the windows down to let in the ocean air on your Los Angeles to San Diego road trip with this amazing guide to all the beaches, parks, and sights along the way!
I’m one of those serial road trippers they warn you about in California.
You’ll find me driving my van up and down the coast, never tiring of the quirky beach towns and quirkier folks who occupy the local pubs and coffee shops.
No matter how many times I set out to revisit a destination along the California coast, I find myself having a completely new experience each time.
The Los Angeles to San Diego drive is one I’ve made many times, often taking the direct route but many times making a road trip of it.
Once you’re within the San Diego city limits, there’s a lot to visit in the sunny Southern California paradise.
Perhaps you’ll walk around the beautiful Balboa Park, check out the world-famous zoo, find a soft sandy beach to relax at, or enjoy some great restaurants in downtown San Diego.
As you embark on your coastal LA to San Diego road trip, I offer this guide as a travel companion to you as inspiration for your personalized drive.
Whether you’re on a time crunch, a food tour, or chasing the waves, there’s something in here for everyone on their own Los Angeles to San Diego road trip.
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Table of Contents
How Far is San Diego from Los Angeles?
The distance between LA and San Diego is roughly 120 miles along the I-5 S, the most direct route.
However, if you’re driving between two closer points, such as Disneyland and Del Mar Beach, the LA to San Diego drive can be as little as 80 miles.
How Long is the Drive from Los Angeles to San Diego?
Without stops or traffic, the Los Angeles to San Diego drive is about two hours if you take the most direct route along the I-5 S.
Alternatively, you may choose to venture inland and take the I-15 S through Temecula and Escondido.
This route will take roughly three hours without stopping and minimal traffic, but it does pass through several unique SoCal towns for a few adventures along the road trip.
The Quickest Route from LA to San Diego
The most direct route from LA to San Diego is to cruise down the I-5 S. If you’re on a time crunch with your road trip, this is the way to go. This route takes about two hours, depending on traffic.
The Slow, Scenic Route [Los Angeles to San Diego Drive Along the Coast]
The scenic option, depending on where your journey is starting within LA, is to take Highway 1, also known as Pacific Coast Highway or PCH.
This route takes you along the beaches the whole way down to San Diego.
LA to San Diego Road Trip Map
What to Expect
If you’ve opted for an LA road trip down the PCH, you’ll have a slower, more indulgent experience of the Southern California coast.
There’ll be plenty of beaches, trails, food options, and turn-offs along the way to San Diego. This is a very scenic route!
However, this route changes the length of the trip to 140 miles and will make the journey take around 4.5 hours.
If you have the time, or you’ve rented a convertible and truly want to make the most of it, then taking a joyride down the path of these beautiful beaches is the way to go!
Stops Along the Way from LA to San Diego
Why it’s worth visiting: Santa Monica, just west of downtown Los Angeles, is one of the most well-known spots for visitors to LA. That’s because of its gorgeous beach, iconic pier, and lively atmosphere.
- Take a trip to the Santa Monica Pier, which holds Pacific Park amusement park, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, Bubba Gump Shrimp, and many other famous attractions.
- Relax on Santa Monica State Beach and gaze out over the Pacific Ocean.
- Grab a bit to eat while strolling or taking a bike ride.
- Stop for a picnic at Palisades Park and enjoy the beautiful view over lunch.
- Go window shopping in downtown Santa Monica at the Third Street Promenade.
Why it’s worth visiting: Venice Beach and its Boardwalk has a reputation for its notable artists and celebrities that have frequented the area.
Venice has been a popular destination since the mid-20th century when it became the famous Californian hippie beach town it remains today.
You could really stay in Venice for days as you venture from LA to San Diego and never tire of activities. I spent a couple of weeks living in my van in the Venice area, and every day was an adventure.
- Stroll up and down the boardwalk and peruse the many unique, quirky shops lining the beach park and bike paths.
- Check out the incredible athletes at the iconic Muscle Beach, the famous Venice Skatepark, or the basketball courts where even Kobe Bryant played a game.
- Dance to music from buskers playing all hours of the day.
- Tour the Venice Canals and pretend you’re in Venice, Italy, rather than Venice, Los Angeles, for a moment.
Why it’s worth visiting: Home to a rich surf community, Long Beach is a bustling port city that’s less touristy but still has many attractions worth checking out.
- Explore aboard the RMS Queen Mary, a historic ocean liner and museum ship.
- Be awed by the incredible sea life at the famous Aquarium of the Pacific,
- Take a walk along the vibrant shoreline village.
- Check out one of the many internationally attended events, such as the Acura Grand Prix and Long Beach Pride Festival.
Why it’s worth visiting: Huntington Beach is famous internationally among surfers and beachgoers as “Surf City.”
The Huntington Beach Pier and surrounding area make this one of the nicest beaches you’ll see on your LA to San Diego road trip.
- Visit the art galleries, eclectic surf shops, and the International Surfing Museum.
- Rent a surfboard and go surfing!
- Enjoy the trendy boutique stores, restaurants, and bars all around.
- Walk along the sprawling beach and enjoy the fresh air.
Why it’s worth visiting: Newport Beach is an Orange County beach town that has thousands of yachts and sailboats and offers plenty of opportunities for fishing, watersports, swimming, and surfing.
If you want to go on or in the water, then Newport Beach is the beach for you!
- Book a cruise and see if you can spot any dolphins or whales.
- Cross the bridge or ride a ferry to visit Balboa Island, where you can hang out on the beach, visit the museum, and check out local shops and restaurants.
- Take a surf lesson (or just watch the local surfers while relaxing on the beach).
- Go inland from Newport Beach and hike in El Morro Canyon–there’ll still be ocean views, though!
- Catch your own dinner while fishing off the Balboa pier.
Why it’s worth visiting: Laguna Beach is a small coastal city in Orange County known for its bohemian vibe and natural beauty.
Tucked away behind Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach has limited development and remains a bit hidden.
- Explore the sea caves and tide pools by the ocean, stroll Salt Creek Beach, check out Table Rock Beach, or head into the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park for over 40 miles of trails through the woodlands and ridges.
- Go camping for a night under the stars at Crystal Cove State Park, which offers gorgeous beaches, hiking trails, tide pools, and beach camping.
- Check out the art galleries all around the town and Laguna Beach area.
- Laguna Beach has its main beach area, but there are quite a few coves and smaller beaches in this area. Find one of these stunning beaches hidden along the miles of coastline and take in the stunning seaside scenery all to yourself.
Why it’s worth visiting: After the crowd at the main beach destinations, Dana Point offers a much quieter, relaxed vibe.
You won’t find as much of a social scene here, but if you want a calmer stop, pleasant hikes, or fancy boutique shopping, this is the stop for you.
- Grab a morning coffee down near the marina and spend a few hours strolling the Dana Point Harbor.
- Explore the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area.
- Take a dolphin and whale watching cruise from Dana Point Harbor along the California coastline.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Why it’s worth visiting: The San Juan Capistrano Mission was established in 1776 with the purpose of expanding the Spanish colonies to California.
- Walk around the ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano, which eventually gave birth to the Orange County we know today.
- Learn about the original architecture and visit the chapels, museums, and landmarks that line the streets.
- Visit the Los Rios District of San Juan Capistrano to see the oldest neighborhood in California, including original adobe homes from the 1700s.
Why it’s worth visiting: When you visit San Clemente, you’ll be able to enjoy a somewhat famous beach town that avoids the rush of Orange County. It has beautiful beaches, a nice pier, and a fun downtown area.
- Take a stroll down San Clemente State Beach Trail and find a spot to have a beach picnic.
- Walk from the San Clemente Pier up to the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens for amazing views of the ocean.
- Rent a surfboard and ride the waves!
Why it’s worth visiting: To check out the Oceanside Pier, which is the longest wooden pier on the American west coast, jutting 1,954 feet out into the Pacific Ocean!
- Visit Stone Brewing for a drink from the brewery that helped start a craft beer scene for which San Diego is now recognized internationally.
- Take a short drive south and visit Legoland or the Sea Life Aquarium.
- Check out the Oceanside Pier and enjoy a day at the beach.
Why it’s worth visiting: One of the top beach destinations in the world, La Jolla is a stunning and opulent seaside community known for its rugged coastline and beautiful rock formations, internationally acclaimed Torrey Pines Golf Course, posh boutiques, and so much more.
- Visit La Jolla Cove for beach views and to spot countless sea lions!
- Soak up the sun on La Jolla Shores Beach, a gorgeous mile-long beach in the stunning La Jolla Shores neighborhood.
- Walk around La Jolla’s downtown area, “The Village,” and check out some of the fanciest and nicest restaurants, bars, art galleries, and shops. Be careful, though; this is not a cheap area!
- Hike up Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for beautiful views that are easily worth the two to three-mile hike.
Why it’s worth visiting: The Pacific Beach neighborhood is nestled around The Mission Bay waterway, which is home to SeaWorld San Diego.
This final stop on your LA to San Diego drive is most notable for its popularity amongst San Diego surfers, college students, and hipsters.
- Take a stroll around Mission Bay and have a day at the beach.
- Hop from one trendy bar to the next along the boardwalk in this young and vibrant San Diego community.
- Go for a swim or rent a surfboard or boogie board in Pacific Beach.
Where to Eat on the Drive Between San Diego and Los Angeles
There are countless restaurants, food trucks, and casual beachside spots to eat at along your LA to San Diego road trip. These are some of my favorites:
- In Venice Beach, the famous Hinano Cafe is down by the pier. Hinano Cafe is known to have been Jim Morrison’s favorite Venice hangout, and they do a mean burger.
- In Long Beach, Padre’s is great for happy hour and tacos.
- If you’re in the mood for a seafood lunch while in Huntington Beach, my go-to would be Duke’s, which is right beside the pier and has a big, beautiful patio overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
- If you’re looking for a dinner spot, my personal favorite bite in Newport Beach is The Crab Cooker, right on Balboa Peninsula.
- Laguna Beach has tons of great spots, including Nick’s for casual Californian comfort food, or if you want something a little more local, Adolfo’s is a great local Mexican place just down the beach off the Pacific Coast Highway.
- Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar, right down by the San Clemente Pier, is an excellent choice for any time of day, offering seafood and comfort food with an extensive menu.
- In Oceanside, check out the Beach House Winery for award-winning wines and spectacular vineyard views. The Beach House Winery also has pizza, so it’s not just a drink stop.
- Along the way from Oceanside to La Jolla, take a pit stop in Moonlight Beach to stretch your legs and grab some fish tacos or a California burrito at The Taco Stand.
Best Time to Drive From Los Angeles to San Diego
What’s the best time of day for an LA to San Diego road trip?
It is important to consider that no matter which route you take on your Los Angeles to San Diego drive, LA traffic is no joke.
If you’re antsy to get out of the city, do yourself a favor and avoid rush hour at all costs.
You may think I’m being dramatic, but I once gave myself three hours to get from Huntington Beach to West Hollywood for an evening dance class, and I didn’t even make that in time!
If you’re planning to leave during the week, it’s best to be on the road by 2:00 pm at the latest, or wait it out and leave after dinner if you’re okay with an evening drive.
I’d lean towards an early day departure, especially if you’re opting to take Highway 1 exiting LA to San Diego.
I would also suggest either getting up early and hitting the road before the morning rush hour or waiting until that dies down as well. The LA to San Diego road trip is a delicate balance because traffic can be truly horrendous.
What’s the best month to make an LA to San Diego drive?
The time of year you want to travel from Los Angeles to San Diego really depends on your priorities.
Southern California has some of the best weather year-round in the US, with winter on average sitting around the mid-50s to low 70s.
So while it’s not always “laying out in the sun” weather, it’s certainly great for venturing around and exploring year-round.
If you want beach weather, then your best bet is to have your San Diego trip between May and September.
The summer and early fall months are vibrant in Southern California, and you can pretty much rely on consistent days in the mid to high 80s with blue skies in both Los Angeles and across San Diego County.
The beautiful beaches will be in full swing, the sun will warm your skin, and you’ll be happy without a sleeve 90% of the time.
There are perks to going in all seasons, however.
Wildlife is booming in the colder months, so if this is exciting for you, perhaps consider a winter or early spring road trip.
From December to March, many marine species migrate along the California coast, and there are thousands of California Grey Whales visible during this time for the patient observer!
Another perk to traveling from LA to San Diego in the off-season is generally fewer tourists.
You can hit any of the famous beach towns in this article and have a leisurely drive down the Pacific Coast Highway with much less traffic and smaller crowds.
If you time it right, some major music festivals such as Coachella and Stagecoach also happen in the spring in SoCal, a short LA road trip away, and could be worked into your Los Angeles to San Diego itinerary.
Other Ways to Get from LA to San Diego
It’s also good to remember that there is, in fact, a train from Los Angeles to San Diego. The Pacific Surfliner will take you approximately three hours and cost about $30 for a coach seat ($50 for business class).
Greyhound is also an option for your Los Angeles to San Diego drive. The Greyhound bus costs $20.
Taking the bus won’t be much of a road trip, though, because there’ll be just a few stops for a brief moment to stretch your legs along the way.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it a nice drive from LA to San Diego?
The LA to San Diego drive can be scenic along the Pacific Coast Highway or nice and quick down the I-5. But it does depend on traffic.
If you leave at the wrong time or get unlucky, your Los Angeles to San Diego drive can be frustratingly slow.
What is the scenic route from San Diego to Los Angeles?
A scenic road trip from San Diego goes up the I-5 until San Clemente, at which point you’d take the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) the rest of the way.
You’d have options to stop at various destinations along the way, such as beautiful Huntington Beach or the Santa Monica Pier.
Are there tolls between Los Angeles and San Diego?
You can complete your road trip easily without taking any toll roads, though.
Can you do a day trip to San Diego from LA?
A San Diego drive from LA is just a day trip, usually, just a couple of hours unless you have stops along the way.
What month is best to visit San Diego?
My favorite time to be in San Diego is September. The weather is consistently warm but not scorching–usually in the mid-70s.
And if I’m visiting on a weekday, that means I can enjoy the main beach areas without kids on summer break, making it too crowded.
Get your FREE Los Angeles Mini Guide + a printable checklist with 100+ things to do in the city!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Taylor is a multi-disciplinary artist, writer, yoga instructor and frontline worker who spends most of her time in her van (Vannigan) winding through the coastal and mountain roads of California where she feels most at home. From navigating the realities of van-life to the fluctuations in diverse climates and landscapes, Taylor is excited to bring everything she’s learned about California to fellow wanderers seeking beauty and adventure.
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