San Diego is well known for its beautiful beaches, parks, and great weather. With scenic routes along the coast or through mountain ranges, there are many picturesque ways to drive to San Diego. Choosing the most scenic route depends on your starting point, whether you want to stick to major highways or meander on backroads, and how much time you want to spend on the drive.
Some quick answers to common questions about scenic routes to San Diego:
- From Los Angeles, the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) offers ocean views nearly the entire drive.
- From Phoenix, Highway 8 passing through San Diego’s East County mountains provides beautiful desert and mountain scenery.
- The I-5 south from Orange County is quicker but less scenic than the Pacific Coast Highway.
- For a route through wine country, take I-5 to Highway 46 West at Paso Robles.
- An extremely scenic inland route from Los Angeles is I-10 to Highway 74 winding through the San Jacinto Mountains.
Coastal Route – Pacific Coast Highway
For those starting their drive in Los Angeles, the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) down the coast is a popular choice. This route takes you along beaches, bluffs, and ocean vistas for nearly the entire drive from LA to San Diego. The roughly 2 hour and 30 minute drive hugs the shoreline most of the way.
After leaving the LA area, you’ll pass the surf town of Huntington Beach, the resort community of Laguna Beach, then Crystal Cove State Park with its sandy beaches and coastal woodlands. Continuing south you’ll enter Orange County and drive past Newport Beach before crossing over into San Diego County.
The next stretch winds along the coast with long stretches of unobstructed ocean views. You’ll drive through the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton then the classic surf town of Oceanside. The town of Del Mar known for its picturesque beaches, Horse racing at the Del Mar Racetrack, and Torrey Pines State Reserve come next on the route.
The final stretch takes you through La Jolla with its upscale shops and restaurants, then through Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, and Mission Bay Park before reaching downtown San Diego. The many beach towns, state parks, and coastline outlooks make the Pacific Coast Highway the ultimate scenic coastal drive to San Diego.
Stops Along the Pacific Coast Highway
Some top spots to stop for photos or to take a break along the Pacific Coast Highway route include:
- Bixby Bridge – Historic bridge south of Big Sur with iconic coastline views.
- Point Mugu State Park – Hiking trails leading to rocky outcroppings with ocean vistas.
- Crystal Cove State Park – Cottages on the beach and interpretive trails.
- Huntington Beach Pier – Walk out on this long pier for expansive ocean views.
- Laguna Beach Heisler Park – Scenic overlooks of the rocky coves and tide pools.
- Swami’s Beach Park – Popular surf spot with a picturesque cobblestone beach.
- Oceanside Pier – Historic wooden pier with views up and down the coast.
Inland Mountain Route – Highway 8
For those coming from eastern areas like Phoenix, the scenic Highway 8 through San Diego’s East County mountains is a nice alternative to take. The approximately 5 hour drive from Phoenix includes long stretches through the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts before climbing into pine-forested mountains and descending into San Diego.
From Phoenix, you’ll drive west on I-8 through the desert for around 160 miles. You’ll pass areas like Yuma and El Centro before turning north on Highway 8 at El Cajon. Now the route starts gaining elevation into the Laguna Mountains, passing between Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Cleveland National Forest.
The next 60 miles include some of the best mountain scenery on the drive. You’ll wind through forests of oak, pine, and cedar at elevations over 5,000 feet. There are several spots to stop for short hikes to mountain meadows or panoramic views across the desert below. The road then descends along lovely wooded streams into Alpine and finally the suburbs east of San Diego.
While not as quick as sticking to the interstates, Highway 8 provides a perfect blend of desert, mountains, and forests for an incredibly scenic drive into San Diego from the east.
Stops Along Highway 8
Some top spots to stop for photos or short hikes along Highway 8 include:
- Cuyamaca Rancho State Park – Hike to Stonewall Peak or Green Valley Falls.
- Lake Morena County Park – Oak woodlands surrounding a mountain lake.
- Mount Laguna – Hiking trails loop through pine forests with valley views.
- Lake Cuyamaca – Rent a boat or hike through oak forests around this reservoir.
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – Vast desert landscape and wildflower blooms in spring.
Quick Drive on I-5
The fastest and most direct route from Los Angeles or Orange County to San Diego is via I-5. While not as scenic as the coastal or mountain alternatives, I-5 is the quickest route and still offers some nice views. This mostly freeway route takes around 2 to 2 and a half hours.
I-5 runs inland through Camp Pendleton providing glimpses of the ocean to the west. Further south you’ll pass La Jolla and Del Mar with views to the beaches. If you want to make the drive more interesting, consider exiting in Oceanside or Del Mar to grab lunch on the coast before continuing south on the freeway.
While I-5 may be quicker, keep in mind the Pacific Coast Highway only adds around 30 minutes for a much more scenic coastal experience. Highway 8 through the mountains takes several hours longer but is worthwhile for the beautiful desert and forest scenery.
Wine Country Route – Highway 46
For an alternative route from Los Angeles or the Central Coast, consider driving I-5 south to Paso Robles then taking Highway 46 West. This route winds through the wine country of Paso Robles and vineyards surrounding Solvang before joining up with Highway 101 near Santa Barbara.
After turning west on Highway 46, you’ll pass through oak woodlands and rolling vineyards in the Paso Robles wine region. Be sure to consider stopping at winery tasting rooms or taking a break under the shady oaks. Further west, you’ll climb over the Santa Lucia Mountains which separate the Central and Southern Coast.
Dropping down from the mountains, you’ll reach the lovely Danish-inspired town of Solvang in the Santa Ynez wine country. This is another good spot for tasting local wines or simply strolling the charming main street. From Solvang, it’s a quick drive south to rejoin Highway 101 for the remaining 70 miles to San Diego.
While adding a couple hours from the direct I-5 route, Highway 46 takes you through some of California’s most acclaimed wine regions and beautiful mountain scenery. It’s easily combined with the Pacific Coast Highway south of Santa Barbara for an especially scenic drive into San Diego.
Stops Along Highway 46
Top spots to stop along Highway 46 include:
- Paso Robles Wine Region – Over 200 wineries to tour and taste.
- Lake San Antonio Recreation Area – Hiking and camping by a scenic lake.
- Solvang – Danish village with boutique shops and restaurants.
- Nojoqui Falls Park – Short hike to an 80-foot waterfall.
- Santa Ynez Wine Country – Vineyards and wineries between Solvang and Santa Barbara.
Scenic and Adventurous Route – Highway 74
For an exceptionally scenic and adventurous inland route from Los Angeles to San Diego, consider highways I-10 and CA-74. I-10 is taken 80 miles east to Highway 74 which winds downhill through the San Jacinto Mountains into Palm Springs.
After exiting I-10, you’ll drive 40 miles through rural desert and the San Bernardino National Forest before beginning the curvy descent down the mountains. This portion of Highway 74 is known as the Pines to Palms Scenic Byway for its changes in landscapes. You’ll drive past forests of pine, oak, and cedar before emerging in Palm Desert’s palm oasis.
The road is steep and winding with sheer cliffs and no guard rails in portions, so take caution driving. There are several turnouts along the way to stop and appreciate the sweeping mountain views. The downhill route drops nearly 8,000 feet in elevation in just 45 miles for an exciting driving experience.
After passing through Palm Desert, you can continue on Highway 74 south to Highway 111 which leads to I-5 just north of San Diego. Or for a more scenic finish, take the 60 mile Palms to Pines Scenic Byway along Highway 74 from Palm Desert back west into San Diego’s mountains.
Stops Along Highway 74
Top stops for short hikes or photos along this mountainous route include:
- Vista Point – Panoramic views from Hemet to Palm Springs.
- Hurkey Creek Park – Shaded picnic area next to mountain streams.
- Long Valley – Alpine meadows with wildflowers in spring.
- Lake Hemet – Scenic reservoir popular for fishing and boating.
- Palm Desert Aerial Tramway – Ride up Mt. San Jacinto for sweeping valley views.
Whether you’re looking for an oceanfront drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, mountain scenery through the Lagunas or San Jacintos, or just the fastest route on I-5, there are scenic options for driving from Los Angeles or inland cities to San Diego. Stopping to enjoy wine country, quaint beach towns, or hiking to sweeping overlooks can make the drive an integral part of your trip.
No matter which route you choose, the diverse landscapes surrounding San Diego provide beautiful backdrops. Focus on the journey as well as the destination and you may find the perfect scenic road trip into this picturesque coastal city.