USA Road Trips: San Diego to LA on the Pacific Coast Highway

San Diego to Los Angeles is the perfect route if you’re looking for a relatively short road trip. It’s just 2-3 hours, depending on traffic, leaving you more time to enjoy the many attractions along the way.  You’ll make your way through the Orange County, enjoying the beautiful sights of crystal waters, chic resorts and vineyards and orange groves, before arriving at the bright lights and legendary state that is LA.

You’ll need a good night’s sleep before you hit the road so book yourself into USA Hostels San Diego.

Stay here and you’ll get loads of freebies including all-you-can-make pancakes and wi-fi, and loads of discounts on tours and food — make sure you’re there for Taco Tuesday with $2 tacos and margaritas! There are 4- and 6-bed dorms, a full equipped kitchen and a tv room.

Dorms start from €21.26 pppn.

Route planner

  1. Take the San Diego Freeway Interstate 405 going South.
  2. Then take the exit towards California 73/California 55/San Diego merging onto the California 73/Corona Del Mar Freeway.
  3. After about 17 miles you will take the Interstate 5 South freeway where you will hit a partial toll.
  4. From then on it’s up Route 5 along the Pacific Ocean, all the way baby!

On the way there are plenty of opportunities to soak up the West Coast atmosphere, check out these potential detours

La Jolla

Just 15 miles from San Diego, see how the super-rich residents of La Jolla spend their dollars – the average price of a home here is €1.6million. The hilly seaside resort has sandy beaches, rocky shorelines and lush parks. It’s also a good space for shopping, although, judging by the clientèle here, it might be of the window variety.

La Jolla Cove is one of the most beautiful in Southern California, but don’t go collecting seashells – everything on the beach is protected by law. If you like to feel the sunshine on your bits, get yourself down to Black Beach. It’s the largest nudist beach in the US. Or check out the seals sunbathing on Seal Beach (below).

In other attractions the Torrey Pines Golf Course used by the PGA Tour is here, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, and downtown La Jolla is brimming with boutiques, markets and fancy restaurants.

San Clemente

50 miles upstream and you’ll land in San Clemente, known for its ocean, hill, and mountain views. As well as its pleasant climate and Spanish Colonial-style architecture. It’s also known as the home of President Nixon’s ‘Western White House’ where he retired and wrote his memoirs. Franklin D. Roosevelt was also a fan of the Orange County town.

Surfing is the favourite past time here, with the West Coast’s premier surfing spot Trestles and the historic surfing beach San Onofre are here. It’s a top spot for surf competitions, so grab yourself a board and go headfirst into those waves, or stay dry and enjoy the nautical scenery from land.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Learn about California’s history at Mission San Juan Capistrano, just 8 miles away. The historic landmark was founded more than 200 years ago and stands today as a museum and an ode to California’s multi-cultural history – embracing its Native American, Spanish, Mexican and European heritage.

Originally built as a self sufficient community by Spanish Padres and Native Americans, the Mission was a centre for agriculture, industry, education and religion.

Take a tour around the grounds and take part in the daily activities like feeding koi fish, basket weaving and panning for gold, among other things.

Dana Point Harbour

5 miles away lies Dana Point, used by whales as a navigational landmark on their migrations and known as the “Whale Capital of the West”. There are many whale watching excursions to choose from in this plentiful fishing area.

If that doesn’t float your boat (sorry) then check out the shopping opportunities on the harbour before retiring to the variety of restaurants and coffee shops. Cross the bridge to Dana Island and you’ll find more walking paths leading to yacht clubs and waterside parkways.

While you’re there check out the secluded beach at the Ocean Institute, and the educational sea exhibits. Dana Point holds the Festival of Whales in March and the Tall Ships Festival in September. It also has the Dana Point Grand Prix in April which sees cyclists wind their way through the hills and valleys of the area.

Laguna Beach

Another sandy knoll worthy of a visit is Laguna Beach, 9 miles away. Made famous by the TV series of the same name, the seaside resort and artist’s community a half an hour detour from the highway but well worth it. The hilly surroundings are often described as ‘paradise’ and it’s also a great place for thrift and vintage stores.

Check out Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari for some adventure, and the  free Public Art Collection on the beach for some culture. Laguna Outdoors organises guided trail hiking, trail running, mountain biking, scenic biking and tidepool tours to witness the amazing scenery from a different viewpoint. From here it’s just 40 minutes until the next stop…

Anaheim – Disneyland

Anaheim is full of things to do, including the almighty Disneyland. You’ll find amusement parks aplenty, theme parks, an observatory, the Hollywood sign, and enough evening entertainment to last your lifetime.

Stargaze from the roof of the Griffith Park Observatory,  it’s one of the biggest in the US and you can see the famous Hollywood sign from the balconies.

Universal Studios is a great stop off. You can enjoy the Hollywood back lot, learn more about the moviemaking process and enjoy the amusement park filled with special effects rides, live entertainment and movie-themed surprises.

You’ll also find Six Flags Magic Mountain in Anaheim – part of the best theme park chain in the world. You’ll be wearing your stomach on the outside after spending a day at this tummy-turning adventure playground. From here it’s just 26 miles to the centre of LA.


You’ve made it! There’s loads to do in LA. Check out Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where the film premières take place and spy on the muscle men and women of Venice Beach. Rodeo Drive might be further than your dollars will stretch but it’s great for people watching.

So, you’ve reached your destination – you’ll be needing somewhere to stay. USA Hostels Hollywood is just a few steps from all the main attractions and the hub of nightlife.

All the 6-8-bed rooms have comfortable beds and backpack-sized lockers as standard. In the hostel you’re welcome to join their free comedy and open mic nights and they have discounted tours of Beverly Hills, Runyon Canyon and the Hollywood sign.

Dorms start at €25.78 pppn.


Don’t have a car? No problem, just jump on The Hostel Hopper – a door to door hostel shuttle between LA and San Diego, with iPad’s and Wi-Fi for the journey.

Top 10 tracks

A road trip isn’t complete without some singalong tunes blasting out the car stereo. Make sure you take a connector for your iPod and a few tunes in CD form so you’re ready for whatever the car hire company throws at you.

Here are some top tunes to make your approach to the City of Angels more musical…

  1. California by Metro Station
  2. The City of Angels by The Distillers
  3. California by Phantom Planet
  4. Going Back to Cali by LL Cool J
  5. Road Trippin by RHCP
  6. Pacific Coast Party by Smash Mouth
  7. California Girls by Katy Perry
  8. This Is Los Angeles by WC
  9. California Love by Tupac Shakur
  10. Drinking in LA by Bran Van 3000

Any other songs you think would make excellent road trip tunes? Let us know in the comments box below…

Thanks to rkramer62, digitizedchaos, davequ, Wendy McCormac, Lisa Andres, tracie7779, Doug Orleans for their images from Flickr. Please note, all images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting.

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