Road Trip from San Francisco to San Diego on Highway 99
When envisioning the drive from San Francisco to San Diego, the long coastal stretches and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean are what often come to mind. The costal drive follows the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), which we have road trip itineraries for. However, there is also the option to drive inland along California Highway 99. Regularly overlooked for the famous PCH, taking the inland route offers a different, but nonetheless adventurous and fun, view of The Golden State. Fuel up and follow this inland road trip route from San Francisco to San Diego to see more of the best California has to offer. Be prepared for the open road by visiting our checklist of road trip essentials.
Drive Time from San Francisco to San Diego: approximately 10 hours
Distance from San Francisco to San Diego: approximately 550 miles
Best car for this road trip: Full Size
1. San Francisco
San Francisco has weeks of activities in the surrounding area. It doesn’t matter if you’re visiting for the first time or are a seasoned veteran around town, you’ll want at least a day to explore some of the best attractions and restaurants in the region. From the Ferry Building and Alcatraz to local favorites like Sing-Alongs at the Castro Theater and the rock labyrinth at Lands End, make sure you take the time to explore the Bay Area.
On the day of your drive, you'll want to get an early start so you'll have ample time for sightseeing and activities along the way. That doesn't mean you can't stop for breakfast, though. Be sure to check out one of the city's best breakfast joints, Sweet Maple, known for its over-the-top Millionaire’s Bacon. Mixed with brown sugar, cayenne and seasonings, Millionaire’s Bacon is a sweet heat combination baked slowly for hours until it achieves the perfect texture. Don’t dine on swine? Try something a little different. The Sweet Maple Omurice is a rice mixture with marinated ribeye, scrambled egg and sriracha demi-glace.
Once you've fueled up your rental car and stocked up on road trip snacks, you'll be ready to hit the road. Follow signs for Interstate 580 East to get on the right track. You'll pass through towns such as Hayward, Livermore and Tracy before the interstate turns into California State Route 99 South. Continue to follow this road until you arrive in Fresno. Altogether, the drive from San Francisco to Fresno should take about three hours.
You'll find plenty to explore in Fresno like the Forestiere Underground Gardens – a hand-built network of rooms, courtyards and passageways with foliage, microclimates and throwbacks to ancient Roman architecture. In gorgeous weather, why not relax in Woodward Park and visit the Shinzen Friendship Garden, a beautiful Japanese garden featuring a koi pond and teahouse. If you're looking for a place to burn off some energy, hit the walking trails throughout Woodward Park.
If you’re driving in the summer, cool off with a stop at Island Water Park. Filled with classic attractions like wave pools, thrilling slides and relaxing lazy rivers, Island Water Park is a great spot to have unabashed fun.
A late lunch will give you the energy needed for the next leg of the drive. Local joint Sam’s Italian Deli and Market is an iconic location in Fresno. From New York style hot pastrami to Sam’s Special, there is a sandwich sure for everyone’s taste preferences.
After a few hours of exploring Fresno, it’s time to hop on the road again. Follow signs for California State Route 99 South and head toward Bakersfield. You'll arrive in about two hours after passing through towns like Visalia and Tulare.
If you're not up to speed on your California history, you'll find plenty of opportunities to learn in Bakersfield. Stop by the Kern County Museum to tour historical buildings and learn how Bakersfield came to be, stop in the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History to explore 16,000 square feet of taxidermied animals, fossils and bones or go to the California Living Museum to discover live attractions of the region’s native flora and fauna.
Before turning in for the night, head to Buck Owens' Crystal Palace. This eclectic joint serves up a wide range of pub food while displaying Buck Owens’ memorabilia and a backdrop of live country music and dancing.
In the morning, hit the road and drive south on California State Route 99. The highway will eventually turn into Interstate 5 South, and you'll arrive in LA in about two hours. Start early enough to enjoy breakfast in Los Angeles.
4. Los Angeles
On your drive into LA, stop at A-Frame for their weekend brunch special, all-you-can-eat Hawaiian-inspired pancakes paired with all-you-can-drink beverages. If that isn’t your style, it’s tough to beat a blueberry toast crunch donut from California Donuts.
No matter how many times you've visited Los Angeles before, there's always something new to do and see in this buzzing city. Head to Santa Monica for some beach time and a stroll along the boardwalk, get your cultural fix at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or do some upscale shopping in Beverly Hills. If you haven’t surfed before, there are numerous instructors that provide lessons across the beaches surrounding Los Angeles.
A fun activity for the whole family is an afternoon trip to Duff’s Cakemix. Celebrity Baker Duff Goldman started this interactive bakery where guests come into the DIY dessert design studio, pick out pre-baked cakes and cupcakes and then uses the studios decorating tools to create their own personalized dessert.
When you're ready to get back on the road, take Interstate 710 South to Interstate 5 South. You'll arrive in San Diego in about two and a half hours.
5. San Diego
In San Diego, take full advantage of the warm, sunny days by spending an afternoon at Balboa Park. This is where you'll find over a dozen museums, ample green space, lush gardens, plenty of walking trails and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. If you want to hit the beach, dig your toes into sandy spots like Mission, Coronado or Pacific Beaches.
There are a number of great neighborhoods for delicious food. From the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy to Old Town and North Park, there are hot spots tucked in around town perfect for tantalizing your taste buds and satisfying your soul. For family-friendly dining, The Crack Shack in Encinitas or Little Italy has got you covered. The indoor/outdoor space is perfect for the San Diego climate while the bocce ball court/cornhole court/mini-golf area will keep everyone entertained. The food, led by culinary director Richard Blais, takes inspiration from the chicken and the egg argument. The menu is littered with fried chicken dishes and egg plates.
San Diego is filled with fun, outdoor activities all within a short drive of the city. Drive up to the Torrey Pines State Reserve for scenic hiking trails, head to Mission Bay for a jetpacking session or swing by La Jolla and go kayaking through nearby sea caves.
Taking a road trip from San Francisco to San Diego via Highway 99 will bring you through some of California’s most unique and entertaining areas. Depending on your cup of tea, there are a bunch of family-friendly activities along the way sure to please everyone. Plan ahead and take as much time as you need. Once you’re finished your trip, simply follow the car rental return signs at San Diego and return your one way rental car.