The California portion of US 101 is one of the last remaining and longest US Routes still active. Running from Los Angeles to the Oregon border, US 101 covers over 808 miles. It is the longest highway of any kind in California. Depending on which city you start from in the Bay Area, the portion of the road from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101 is about 440 miles.
Interstate 5 (aka “I-5” or “the 5”) is the fastest way to drive from SF to LA. Running through the heart of the central valley, “the 5” is not a scenic route. It is flat and straight, with agricultural fields stretching seemingly into infinity to the east and west. No hills, no mountains, no trees, no vistas. Because of the topography, this route is also heavily used by commercial vehicles.
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)
By contrast, US 101 runs along the coastal range, and in parts, meets up with California State Route 1 and tracks along the Pacific coast. Fewer commercial trucks make 101 more appealing for leisure drivers.
Some of the stretches of 101 are freeways with no cross traffic. But a large amount of the highway is an “expressway,” meaning there are cross-roads. Significant portions of US 101 between the Los Angeles area and the San Francisco Bay Area follow El Camino Real (the Royal Road), the historic road connecting the former Alta California’s 21 missions.
The difference between San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101 or driving I-5 can be as little as two hours. But, most people using the 101 stop more often and for a little longer.
Typically, driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101 will take between eight and ten hours. If you are traveling with youngsters or looking for a relaxing drive with great places to stop and stretch, US 101 is the way to go.
From NorCal to SoCal – Good Places to Stop
Since I live in Northern California (NorCal as we call it), this list of places to stop is ordered from North to South. If you are traveling South to North, just read from the bottom up. In some cases, your travel direction makes it is easier to stop at a point of interest. I’ve noted these locations in the text below. However, you can access all stops from either direction.
After you’ve been on the road for a couple of hours, you probably have some little ones or a significant other who are looking for a “Bio Break.” Here are a few options.
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Early Places for Breaks When Driving San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101
As you head south, San Jose is the first major city you pass through. Generally, you won’t stop here; after all, you really just got on the road. But, here in the heart of Silicone Valley, there are some interesting sights. If you don’t live in San Jose but will be staying in the Bay Area for a while (or you live here), check out Visit San Jose and learn more.
The unofficial start of the agricultural area along 101 is Gilroy, and that means GARLIC! It is crazy busy here during the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
Suppose you aren’t attending the festival but still want garlic; in that case, you will find it at The Garlic Shoppe. Located on the east side of 101 just south of Gilroy, the “Shoppe” is most easily accessed when driving north.
Gilroy is a good last stop when driving northbound on the 101. If you hit this area later in the day, around 5:00 pm or so. You can do a little shopping at the Premium Outlets and get a bite to eat while waiting for the crazy Bay Area rush hour traffic to subside.
About an hour and a half down the road is the small town of San Juan Bautista. This offers a chance to see one of the Spanish Missions but is a slight detour off the 101. Take the exit for CA 129 (San Juan Highway) and head southeast for about five miles. As you get into town, you will see signs directing you to the Mission. San Juan Bautista and the Mission give you a glance back in time to life in the 1800s.
After a quick visit, head south a few blocks more to CA 156 west. This route will take you back to the 101 in about 3 – 4 miles.
On the “Mission Road?”
The drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101 roughly follows the Old El Camino Real – The Mission Road, making for many fun stops. But, if you blew past Gilroy and chose not to make the detour to see the Mission in San Juan Bautista, your next opportunity for a stop is Salinas.
This town was home to the famous author John Steinbeck, and there is a museum here dedicated to his life and works. The house Steinbeck was born in is now a restaurant and showcases his life in the early 1900s. Stop for a bite to eat here if you are a Steinbeck buff.
But for the most part, Salinas is really just a good place to get gas before the least exciting part of this drive as you head down to Paso Robles.
Driving along the 101 from Salinas to Paso Robles can be lackluster. However, if you are on a quest to see more Missions, you can do that in a couple easy stops. About a mile south of Soledad, take Arroyo Seco Road west to Fort Romie Road head north to Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad. This Mission is best accessed when driving south.
Even easier access is afforded to Mission San Miguel Archangel in San Miguel just north of Paso Robles. Going southbound, take the Mission Street exit from 101 and drive south a couple of miles till you are almost at the end of town. If you are headed northbound, the San Miguel exit drops you smack dab at the Mission.
Founded in 1797, this Mission appears today much the same as when it was built. The frescos are the original paintings done under the direction of Esteban Munras.
After your visit to San Miguel Arcangel, continuing south on Mission Street will lead you back on to the 101.
Time To Get “Sideways” Between San Francisco and Los Angeles Via Highway 101
From Paso Robles all the way down to Santa Ynez, you will see the not so subtle signs of the Central Coast Wine Growing Region. Have you seen the movie “Sideways”? If so, you are probably aware of the many wineries and tasting rooms you can stop and visit along the way. But remember, if you are the designated driver, it’s best to take your libations home to your final stop.
San Luis Obispo is, of course, known for its Mission. But it’s also for the famous Madonna Inn. This unique hotel/motel spa and restaurant is great to stop for lunch or overnight if you’re so inclined. With the color pink being its theme, don’t miss having a slice of the Pink Champagne Cake!
As you continue your drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101 from San Luis Obispo, you finally see your first brief section of the Pacific Coast. Avila Beach is a cute town with a calm beach about five miles off the highway.
However, Pismo Beach is right on the highway and provides excellent options for fresh air and ocean views. Exit the highway at Spyglass Drive and turn left onto Shell Beach Road. There are numerous diners and delis along Spyglass to stop and grab a bite to eat. You can eat in or take a sandwich to the beach and have a picnic!
Dinosaur Caves Park is right off Spyglass and sits on bluffs above the ocean, so no beach here. But there is a playground and picnic areas and great views. Getting back on the 101 from here is simple. Shell Beach Road has become Price Street, and right outside of the park, there is a southbound entrance to 101. Visiting Pismo is easiest when touring in the southbound direction.
Stay on the 101 or Take A Short Cut To Santa Barbara?
At Los Alamos, you will come to the junction of US 101 and CA 154. 101 takes you out to the coast, and 154 takes you inland. Getting to Santa Barbara on CA 154 is quicker. Still, if you are not pushed for time and driving southbound, I recommend staying on the 101; here’s why.
The 101 from Las Cruces to Goleta in Santa Barbara County is designated a scenic highway by the California Department of Transportation. This designation means that there are substantial sections of the route passing through a “memorable landscape” with no “visual intrusions.”
Here, Highway 101 runs along the Pacific coast, affording unobstructed ocean views for those driving southbound. There are two accessible beach stops along the road, Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches.
An easy on / off stop when heading southbound is Refugio State Beach. There are campsites at both beaches. El Capitan has designated RV sites at Del Mar and Ocean Mesa. While Refugio accepts RV’s 30 feet and smaller, there are no hook-up facilities.
Take the Shortcut When Heading Northbound
For a change in scenery and a little short cut, take CA 154 north out of Santa Barbara. When you reach CA 246, head west to Solvang, the Danish Capital of America. Founded in 1911 by Danish-American educators, this town, with its Danish-style architecture and culture, makes an excellent stop for lunch or even overnight.
On the east side of Solvang is Mission Santa Ines (yes, another opportunity to see a 200 plus-year-old church). And two miles to the west is Buelton, the home of Andersen Pea Soup which is right next door to the 101.
The Last Quarter of the Drive From San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101
Santa Barbara is a beautiful town with much to see. It’s deserving of a weekend getaway in its own right. As is typical of college towns and beach towns, there are tons of activities, cultural events, and great dining. Check out this Santa Barbara site to help you decide what to do!
However, I recommend Lookout Park just south of Santa Barbara for a quick stop to stretch your legs. Take the Wallace Avenue exit from the 101, pull into the park, and walk the ocean side in minutes.
The park is dog friendly and even has a DIY doggy cleaning station if your pooch couldn’t resist running into the ocean. Getting back on the 101 is just as easy; exit the park, turn right, and on the 101 you go.
You’re in the home stretch now; Santa Barbara to DTLA (DownTown LA) is just 95 miles. But if you need to stop, Camarillo is the last easy off, easy on stop before you get into “LA” with all its freeways. If you need a pitstop, bio–break, or need to ready your head for the crazy driving in LA, a quick stop here will do the trick.
Like Gilroy to the North, if your timing is off and you find yourself hitting LA in rush hour, you can stop in Camarillo and waste a bit of time. Plus, you can do some last-minute shopping at the Camarillo Premium Outlets to pick up gifts for the fam!
When You Are Not In A Hurry – San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101 Is The Way To Go
I live in California and know that most of us Californians are always in a hurry to get where ever it maybe we are going. I’ve been up and down the middle of this state more times than I ever thought I would. From this experience, I choose to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Highway 101 whenever possible. Try it the next time you are making this journey, and let me know if you feel the same.