This post is part of a series on travel close to home. You can find more posts from this series on my page Getaways Near Me (or You)
My daughter moved to LA (Los Angeles, California) about 18 months ago. And while I’ve driven between the Bay Area and Southern California many times, this year has seen me doing the drive more than ever. There has never been any doubt that the fastest way to drive from SF to LA is I-5 (AKA “the 5” or Interstate 5.)
Most of us are in a hurry. You may only have a weekend to spend in the great Cities at either end of this drive. You may have young people (really young, you know kids) in the car with short attention spans. In situations like these, getting to your location quickly is better than enjoying the journey.
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Not Only Is I-5 The Fastest Drive From SF To LA, But It’s Also Easy
You head east out of San Francisco over the Bay Bridge (aka I-580). You stay on I-580 until it merges with I-5 South. There are no significant road changes. You may be bored, but you can’t get lost.
I-5 is the fastest route between the Bay and LA, but not the most scenic. In fact, many would say this is one of the most boring drives in the state of California. It is straight and flat, except for the “Grapevine.” We’ll talk more about the Grapevine in a bit.
Even though you’re in a hurry, you will probably need to make at least one stop, at least to refuel the car. You may want to take a bit longer break to eat a nice meal or walk around a bit. If you’ve got kids, you’ll want to burn off some of their energy, or they will make you crazy.
Take heart, there are a few good places to stop.
Things To See On The Drive From SF to LA
Recognizable from I-5 by its Dutch-style windmill is the world-famous Anderson Pea Soup factory, store, and restaurant is front and center in Santa Nella. Anderson Pea Soup is a nostalgic winner with those of us who’ve been driving up and down the “5” for years. But, it doesn’t have much appeal to the younger crowd.
Fear not, you can also pack a picnic and head just two miles south of Santa Nella on Highway 33 to O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area. To the east of the San Luis Reservoir is O’Neill Forebay, and adjacent to it sits the wildlife area. You can let the kids or dogs run around on the shore for a bit before heading back to the highway and into traffic.
Near Buttonwillow is the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve. Tule Elk were in danger of extinction; then, in 1932, the herd now has permanent protection here. The park has a picnic area where you can have a quick bite. You might catch a glimpse of the yellow-billed magpie that is only found in this small sliver of the central valley. The reserve is only about 8 miles off I-5. So it’s not too far out of the way for a good nature stop.
At the summit of the Grapevine is Fort Tejon. The fort was established in 1854 but was only occupied for 10 years. Now restored adobes and the parks museum feature exhibits on local history and army life at the fort.
And There Are Some Good Eats On The Drive From SF To LA
Did you get an early start out of the SF-Bay Area to avoid traffic, and now your tummy is screaming for some food? Try Eddies Famous Café in Los Banos. Rated four stars on Yelp, Eddie’s is Famous for Breakfast. Homemade sausage, pancakes, biscuits, and cinnamon rolls are tops on the menu. Take CA-152 east about 7 miles from I-5; Eddies is on the south side.
Want a more sophisticated sit-down meal to break up your drive? Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant is the place to go. You can get pretty much anything you’re craving here, but Harris is known for their beef. It is a cattle ranch, after all. You don’t go to a fish house for a steak, and you don’t order fish at a steak house.
You will find every type of fast food at most stops on I-5. But if you are looking for something different but still in a hurry, try Tita’s Pupuseria Lonchera (Taco Truck). Tita’s is parked on the west side of I-5 across the street from the Chevron station. Serving up authentic Salvadoran Pupusas, Plantanos con Frijoles y Crema, and Calabaza y Queso along with all the Tacos you can think of. Tita’s is a great lunch stop.
I-5 Is The Fastest Drive, But There Are Some Times You Don’t Want To Be On The Road
Driving I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco is the fastest route. But you need to plan your drive.
Because many Californians have family at either end of this trip, Holiday travel is pretty congested on I-5. Give yourself and your family a bit more time and leave on a Thursday instead of Friday. If you are going for Thanksgiving, maybe take the week off and head out on Monday or Tuesday. But remember, the return traffic on Sunday will be just as bad.
Also, Disneyland and Universal Studios are in LA. And just a bit south of LA are SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo in San Diego. This means many families take this trek to get to “the happiest place on earth” and other fun attractions. School holidays and summer bring a lot more traffic.
Avoid rush hour traffic. There are some horribly congested areas during morning and evening rush hour on either end of the drive. It’s never pleasant to be in bumper to bumper traffic.
Usually, this will mean getting an early start for your drive. If you are an early bird and love the idea of hitting the road at say 6 am, you will likely be at your destination in the early afternoon.
A word of caution for night owls, though. I-5 is heavily used by big trucks, “eighteen-wheelers.” It can be pretty intimidating to have these trucks rushing past you every few minutes in the dark.
Road Concerns Along I-5 Between SF And LA
I-5 is only two lanes in each direction. Trucks are usually in the slow (right lane). But now and then, a slightly faster truck will want to pass a somewhat slower truck. When this happens, it usually results in many passenger vehicles being stuck behind a truck.
Some times it smells. The Harris Ranch feedlot covers over 800 acres and can accommodate up to 250,000 head of cattle right next to I-5. It can be ripe at times. You will probably want to have your vehicles air on recirculate between exits 349 (north end) and 334 (south end).
People drive fast on I-5! I don’t mean a little fast, but really fast. The legal speed limit is 70 mph, but most are going more than 80 mph. If you don’t drive this fast, staying in the right lane would seem to make sense.
However, the trucks are usually in the right lane, and they only drive a max of 65 mph. We tend to stay in the left lane and keep an eye on the rearview mirror for those rushing to overtake us.
All along the Interstate, you will encounter windy conditions. The land on either side of the highway is mostly agricultural; blowing dust from these fields can reduce visibility and make the trip less than pleasant.
Another issue that lowers visibility is the low lying fog, known as Tule (rhymes with newly) fog. In the Central Valley, from last fall to early spring, tule fog forms after a rainfall. This fog forms at ground level and is very dense, cutting visibility to less than a few feet. This fog has caused many chain-reaction pile-ups.
I promised you at the top of this post; I’d give you more detail on “the Grapevine” later; well, here it is.
“The Grapevine” gets its nickname from its northern anchor and is the most daunting part of the drive. This five-mile stretch of I-5 runs between the summit of the Tejon Pass and the town of Grapevine.
In the United States, the maximum grade for Federally-funded highways is 6%. Some exceptions allow a grade to be as much as 7%, but you don’t see those much. The Grapevine is at 6% for five miles. That’s a long drive for such a steep roadway.
In the winter, the Grapevine is subject to severe weather, certainly rain, and some time snow. This will cause icy conditions on the roadway, and often, the Highway Patrol will close down this section of I-5.
When the Grapevine is closed, there is an alternate route. But this route often takes longer to travel than waiting for I-5 to re-open.
Use a good Road App like Waze or check with CalTrans for highway conditions. You may be better off waiting a day for your trip or driving one of the alternate highways than trying to get past the Grapevine in the snow.
You Have Choices When Driving From SF To LA
One alternative is the medium time route, better known as “the 101” (California Highway 101). You can do some sightseeing and still get to Southern California in a day.
On the 101, you will be just east of the coastal range for a large part of the drive. So while you won’t see the ocean, you will have trees and, in general, a more scenic route. The usual time on this route: probably 10 hours with minimal stops.
If you have the luxury of time, driving Highway 1 – the California Coastal Highway is a scenic wonderland. The coastal route is not one you should rush through.
You will go through Monterey Bay, Big Sur, San Simeon (Hearst Castle), San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Malibu before reaching Los Angeles. Each of these Cities is worthy of a long stopover. This trip is a beautiful long weekend getaway all by itself.
But Why Not Just Fly?
Many consider flying the fastest way between SF and LA, and it is. But there are a couple of reasons people feel driving is a better choice.
The time and hassle it actually takes to fly to Los Angeles can be frustrating. When you add in getting to the airport and then to your final destination at the other end, the total time spent is at least 3 hours and 40 minutes.
The time it takes to drive to or from LA is around 6 hours and 15 minutes (400 miles @ 65 miles per hour). Yes, driving takes a little longer, but it is usually cheaper and can be more efficient.
Cost is often a determining factor. If two or more people are going to the same place, flying can be pricey. You can usually get a $99 fare one way on Southwest Airlines, round-trip totals $198 per person. And you still will need transportation in LA.
The drive from SF to LA is around 800 miles round trip. This mileage is high if you look at Google Maps, but we will use this number for the sake of easy math.
If your car gets 25 miles per gallon, you will need about 32 gallons of gas for this trip. Using AAA’s average gas price for California (today’s average is $3.35 per gallon), this drive will cost you around $110.00.
Total cost for two people to fly: $396.00;
Total cost for two or more people to drive: $110.00.
If you are in a hurry to get between San Francisco and Los Angeles but want your car, driving I-5 makes time and sense.