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17 Things To Do From Los Angeles to San Diego: Epic SoCal Road Trip 🤯

Fancy an epic California road trip? You’re in luck!

Los Angeles and San Diego are two of California’s most iconic cities so why not embark on a memorable road trip between them.

This ultimate road trip itinerary will guide you along the scenic Pacific Coast, unveiling 17 must-see stops that promise to blow you away.

From breathtaking beaches to hidden waterfalls and even the odd seal or two, this is the ultimate Southern California road trip.

1. Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Pier is a bustling landmark that extends out into the Pacific Ocean, famed for its iconic Ferris wheel that lights up the night sky. 

This historic pier, which originally opened in 1909, offers a variety of attractions including an amusement park, an aquarium and even a classic carousel. 

There’s also a wide range of dining options from casual seafood stands to sit-down restaurants with ocean views. 

Insider tip: visit the pier at sunset for breathtaking views and a less crowded experience!

2. Point Vicente Lighthouse

Point Vicente Lighthouse stands atop a cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes and has been shining its light across the ocean since 1926. 

This beautiful lighthouse isn’t just for ships – it’s also a great place for visitors to enjoy amazing views of the ocean and watch whales during their migration seasons in winter and spring. 

Next to the lighthouse, there’s also an Interpretive Center where you can learn about the area’s wildlife and the lighthouse’s history. 

The area around the lighthouse is perfect for taking photos or just relaxing. It’s super scenic!

3. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is a 1,300-acre natural reserve that offers a peaceful escape into nature. It’s a true hidden gem!

This expansive area features a variety of habitats from open water to mudflats and even coastal dunes.

It’s also home to a diverse range of birds and marine life, making it a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts and bird watchers. 

With its easy walking trails and informative signs, visitors can learn all about the local ecosystems and the importance of conservation. 

A handy tip: bring binoculars if you have them, as you’ll get a closer look at the incredible variety of birds that call Bolsa Chica their home.

4. Balboa Island

Balboa Island is a charming man-made island located in Newport Beach and is known for its quaint shops, waterfront homes and the famous Balboa Island Ferry. 

Walking around the island, visitors can enjoy delicious treats like the famous Balboa Bar which is ice cream dipped in chocolate and covered with your choice of toppings. 

The island’s Marine Avenue is lined with boutiques and cafes, perfect for a leisurely day of shopping and dining. 

For those who love the water, the calm bay also offers a great opportunity for paddle boarding or kayaking. 

Also make sure to take a leisurely walk around the island’s perimeter on the scenic boardwalk which offers stunning views!

5. Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach is a picturesque seaside city with over 20 unique beaches and coves, each offering something unique, from surfing at Thalia Street Beach to tide pooling at Crystal Cove. 

My personal favorite is Crescent Bay Beach which features golden sands, hidden caves and is surrounded by towering cliffs. It’s truly breathtaking.

Art lovers will adore Laguna Beach as the city is also known for its numerous galleries, summer art festivals and the famous Pageant of the Masters. 

Pro tip: venture up to the Top of the World or Heisler Park for breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and a glimpse of the stunning sunsets that Laguna Beach is famous for.

6. Dana Point

Nestled halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, this coastal city is known for its beautiful harbor, excellent surfing opportunities and as a premier location for whale watching.

The Dana Point Harbor is a hub of activity, with shops, restaurants and opportunities to embark on sailing, fishing or dolphin/whale-watching tours. 

For surfers, the beaches around Dana Point, like Salt Creek Beach and Doheny State Beach, provide some of the best waves in the area. 

It’s also worth visiting the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area for a scenic hike that offers stunning views of the ocean and a chance to explore the natural beauty of the coastline.

7. Ortega Falls

Ortega Falls is a hidden natural wonder tucked away in the Santa Ana Mountains, just off Highway 74. 

This hidden gem is most spectacular after heavy rainfall, when the water cascades over the rocks, creating a breathtaking waterfall amidst the rugged landscape. 

The hike to the falls is relatively short (just 10 minutes) but can be rocky and steep in places. There’s no official trail here so it’s important to tread carefully.

Whilst the falls can dwindle during dry seasons, the surrounding scenery remains stunning year-round, offering a peaceful retreat into nature. 

Visit in the late winter or early spring for the best chance to see the waterfall at its most vibrant and always wear sturdy shoes for the hike.

Please note: there is a car park but you do need to display an ‘Adventure Pass’ for parking.

8. Lake Elsinore

Lake Elsinore is Southern California’s largest natural freshwater lake, reaching around 3,000 acres in size! 

Not only is it breathtakingly beautiful, it also offers a huge range of outdoor activities. 

The lake welcomes boating, fishing, wakeboarding and jet skiing, providing endless fun on the water. 

Surrounding the lake, visitors can find hiking trails, motocross tracks and skydiving opportunities as well.

For an unforgettable experience, visit during the super bloom season when the nearby hillsides are filled with colorful wildflowers!

9. Temecula

Temecula, nestled in the rolling hills of Southern California’s wine country, is a delightful destination known for its award-winning vineyards and historic Old Town.

This picturesque city is perfect for wine enthusiasts as it offers guided tours and tastings at over 40 wineries that boast a variety of exquisite wines. 

Old Town Temecula brings history to life with its wooden sidewalks, antique shops and rustic buildings. It even hosts lively events and a weekly farmers’ market. 

For those seeking adventure, hot air balloon rides provide an epic bird’s eye view of the valleys and vineyards below.

10. Palomar Mountain

This epic mountain is home to the world-famous Palomar Observatory which houses the giant Hale Telescope.

It offers a unique opportunity for stargazing and exploring the mysteries of the universe. 

The surrounding Palomar Mountain State Park provides a network of hiking trails that wind through lush forests, tranquil meadows and babbling creeks.

Camping sites are available for those wishing to immerse themselves fully in the serene natural beauty of the area. 

A must-do for visitors is to drive along the scenic East Grade Road which offers spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding landscape and the valley below.

11. Hellhole Canyon County Preserve

The Hellhole Canyon Preserve is a 1,907-acre rugged and beautiful area of wilderness. It’s ideal for hikers, bird watchers and anyone looking to explore the outdoors.

The main hiking trail descends along a creek, through a forested area and then rises back out of the creek and up a mountain. 

The effort is worth it as you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the surrounding area and even as far as the Pacific Ocean on a clear day.

My personal highlight is the 20-ft Maidenhair Falls which is especially striking during the wetter seasons. 

Wildlife is also abundant here and you’ll have the chance to spot deer, coyotes and a variety of birds in their natural habitat. 

Please note that the preserve is closed in August due to the extreme heat. It’s also closed from Tuesday – Thursday every week.

12. Carlsbad

Carlsbad is a coastal city, known for its picturesque beaches, charming village atmosphere and family-friendly attractions. 

In Carlsbad, you’ll find miles of sandy shores perfect for hiking, surfing and beachcombing. Tamarack Surf Beach and South Carlsbad State Beach are the two most famous ones.

The city is also home to the world-renowned Legoland California which is ideal for families and features a variety of rides, a water park and an aquarium.

Carlsbad Village, which is the city’s downtown area, offers a variety of shops, restaurants and cafes, all within walking distance of the ocean. 

A local secret: visit the Carlsbad Flower Fields in spring to witness the breathtaking bloom of the colorful ranunculus flowers. It covers 50-acres!

13. Del Mar

Nestled along the Pacific Ocean, Del Mar offers pristine beaches including Del Mar City Beach which is perfect for swimming, surfing and sunbathing.

The town’s historic seaside village is lined with boutique shops, gourmet restaurants and cozy cafes, providing a perfect setting for a leisurely day of exploration and relaxation. 

The Del Mar Fairgrounds, home to the racetrack, hosts the annual San Diego County Fair and a variety of other events throughout the year, drawing crowds for fun and entertainment. 

Insider tip: Make sure to catch a sunset at Powerhouse Park, where the views over the ocean are simply unforgettable!

14. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a 2,000-acre coastal park known for its rugged coastline, unique Torrey Pine trees and breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. 

This protected reserve offers a range of trails that wind through unspoiled landscapes, sandy cliffs and Torrey Pine forests. It’s perfect for hiking.

Among its trails, the Guy Fleming Trail is one of the most popular. It’s relatively easy, takes just 17 minutes to complete and features stunning ocean views.

You can also commonly spot native animals and birds in their natural habitat here.

I’d recommend visiting the reserve early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds!

15. La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove is a small, sheltered beach in San Diego renowned for its crystal-clear waters, abundant marine life and dramatic sea cliffs. 

This natural beauty spot is a paradise for snorkelers, scuba divers and swimmers, who can explore its underwater world teeming with colorful fish, sea lions and even leopard sharks in the warmer months. 

The Cove is also a favorite among photographers and nature lovers, who are drawn to its breathtaking sunsets and the playful sea lions basking on the rocks. 

Just steps away, the charming streets of La Jolla offer chic boutiques, art galleries and gourmet dining, making it easy to spend a whole day in this coastal gem. 

Insider tip: Don’t forget to walk along the coastal trail for panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and the chance to spot dolphins frolicking in the waves.

16. Balboa Park

Located in the heart of San Diego, this iconic park is home to 18 museums, beautiful gardens and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. It’s actually one of the best things to do in San Diego.

Visitors can wander through lush landscapes, marvel at the stunning Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and enjoy outdoor performances at one of the many theaters. 

The park’s diverse museums cover everything from art and science to aviation and natural history, ensuring there’s something to captivate every interest. 

Insider tip: Visit at 2pm on a Sunday to hear the free organ concert that takes place every week inside the park.

17. Coronado Beach

Coronado Beach stretches along the picturesque oceanfront of Coronado Island, just across the bay from San Diego.

This expansive beach is famous for its sparkling golden sands and gentle waves.

There’s ample space for sunbathing, beach games, sandcastle building and leisurely strolls along the water’s edge. 

The calm waters also make it an ideal spot for swimming and paddleboarding with stunning views of the San Diego skyline adding to the peaceful atmosphere.

The historic Hotel del Coronado provides a majestic backdrop to the beach with its Victorian architecture.

A heads up though…this hotel is thought to be one of California’s most haunted places!

Coronado Beach is not to be missed as it’s consistently voted as one of California’s best beaches.

And that’s it!

That’s all of the best things to do between Los Angeles and San Diego. This would make a really epic road trip.

Sophie Davis

Born and raised in the Bay area of California, Sophie is a California native. She joined our team in 2023 to create travel guides on California.

Learn more about the Traveller's Elixir Team.

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