Ultimate Road Trip: Yosemite from San Diego

Yosemite from San Diego Road Trip

This post is for adventure addicts going on a road trip to Yosemite from San Diego. For those of you willing to stop along the way and take it slow while driving to California’s most beautiful national park. These memories will last a lifetime.

Having done the drive myself twice now, this post will go over recommended stops as you drive to Yosemite from San Diego. Of course, it’s your road trip so do it all or do none of it- it’s up to you. 

Quick Facts: Yosemite from San Diego

  • 7 hour drive without stops
  • 425+ miles from point A (San Diego) to point B (Yosemite) with no stops
  • Recommended to stay at least 2 nights in the park
  • Yosemite’s entrance fee: $35 per vehicle
  • Great for a week long road trip

When I first road tripped to Yosemite from San Diego, I went up the coast to San Francisco then east to Yosemite. I only spent 1 day in the park sightseeing with minimal hiking. I barely scratched the surface of what this park has to offer. But I was in college and my budget/ class schedule only allowed for so much time off. Knowing what I know now, here’s how I would plan this trip if I were to do it all over again.

Day 1: San Diego

Yosemite From San Diego Roadtrip Day 1 in San Diego

San Diego is known for its beautiful beaches, active lifestyle, and great food. There are tons of activities to do while visiting San Diego, many of them are by the coast. You can easily spend a week in San Diego and never get bored. From concerts on the water to museums and hiking, there’s something for everyone. 

Top Things to Do:

  • Hike at Torrey Pines Natural Reserve (Check out Beach Trail)
  • Catch the sunset at Sunset Cliffs
  • Go kayaking or snorkeling at La Jolla Shores
  • Paddle boarding at Mission Bay
  • Check out Cabrillo National Monument
  • Walk through Balboa Park (tons of museums!)
  • Catch a ball game at Petco Park
  • Visit the San Diego Zoo
  • Walk around Coronado Island
  • Watch a show at Rady’s Shell or Humphreys 

For a list of Dog Friendly Hikes in San Diego click here.

Day 2: Los Angeles

Santa Monica Pier

Having grown up in LA, I can tell you a lot about this big city. For this road trip, I recommend sticking to the coast. Malibu, Venice Beach, and the Santa Monica Pier are all worth a visit while road tripping to Yosemite from San Diego.

Venice Beach is known for its bustling boardwalk and skate park on the beach. The street performers always put on a good show as well. I also recommend checking out the Venice canals. They are walking distance from the boardwalk and provide a more peaceful landscape. 

You would probably recognize Santa Monica Pier from the ginormous Ferris wheel on the pier (pictured above). The pier is the primary attraction in this beach town. 

If you continue down PCH, you’ll hit Malibu pretty soon. Such a beautiful stretch of coastline. We stopped for lunch at Malibu Seafood. It’s right off PCH and well known for its fresh seafood. 

Top Things to Do:

  • Visit the Griffith Observatory
  • Visit the Getty Center
  • Hike to the Hollywood sign
  • Lounge on Zuma beach
  • Grab lunch at Grand Central Market in downtown LA
  • Catch a live sports event or concert at Staples Center
  • Visit an amusement park: Disneyland, California Adventure, Universal Studios, or Six Flags

Day 3: Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara coast line

Santa Barbara is a fun beach town about 2 hours north of Los Angeles. Great surf, great beaches, and amazing wine. This town is all about surfing and sunbathing. 

Top Things to Do:

  • Visit East Beach
  • Dog friendly beach: Arroyo Burro Beach
  • Check out Stearns Wharf (shopping, eating, people watching)
  • Rent a bike (surrey or ebike) from Wheel Fun Rentals
  • Go parasailing
  • Dine at Santa Barbara Public Market
  • Horseback riding at Circle Bar B
  • Explore the Danish town of Solvang

You’ll start to notice the seafood gets better and better the closer you get to Monterey. I had some of the best seafood on this stretch of my road trip to Yosemite from San Diego. 

Day 4: Big Sur

Bixby Bridge

Big Sur is such a beautiful, unique part of California. This stop will be a highlight on your road trip to Yosemite from San Diego. Where else can you see a waterfall on the beach? Big Sur will take your breath away. It’s worthy of a camping trip on its own. When you drive through on Hwy 1 be sure to roll your windows down, turn up the music, and enjoy the ride. 

Top Things to Do:

  • Photograph the Bixby Bridge
  • Hike in Julia Pfieffer State Park
  • Visit Sand Dollar Beach
  • Dine at Nepenthe Restaurant (great views!)
  • Stretch your legs and hike Valley View Overlook (short 2 miles with great views)
  • Camp at Los Padres National Forest (reservations required)
  • Check out the Point Sur Lighthouse
  • Eat at Big Sur Bakery

Day 5: Monterey

Old Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey

After your jaw dropping day exploring Big Sur’s beautiful landscape, the next beach town on your road trip to Yosemite from San Diego is Monterey, CA.

Top Things to Do:

  • Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • Walk, dine, and window shop at Cannery Row
  • Hike at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
  • Catch the sunset from Carmel Mission Ranch 
  • Explore the beach town next door- Carmel By The Sea
  • Eat fresh seafood at Old Fisherman’s Wharf

Monterey is a much quieter beach town compared to Los Angeles and even Santa Barbara. There’s less crowds, lots of marine life, and scenic rocky beaches. Very different from the sandy beaches of Malibu. The town has a slower vibe to it compared to most of southern California. 

Day 6: San Francisco 

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Over the years, San Francisco has changed a lot, especially after C*VID but some things about this bustling city will always be the same. San Francisco is home to great food, music, and lots of culture. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is known well across the country. While there’s tons of things to do in the city, there’s also lots of hiking and natural beauty on the outskirts of town as well. 

Top things to do:

  • Visit the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Walk, dine, and window shop at Pier 39 + Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Ride a cable car
  • Catch a show
  • Explore Old Mission
  • Explore China Town
  • Have a night out on the town
  • Watch a Giants game
  • Hike at Muir Woods National Park
  • Drive on Lombard Street
  • Take a walking tour

This will be one of the biggest cities on your road trip to Yosemite from San Diego, besides LA. If big cities aren’t your thing, then spend an extra day in Monterey or just head straight to Yosemite.

Day 7: Yosemite

Yosemite from San Diego- Vernal Falls

The final stop on your road trip to Yosemite from San Diego. This national park will leave you absolutely speechless. It gets 4 million visitors a year for good reason!

There are countless waterfalls and hikes to keep you busy for days! I highly recommend camping to completely immerse yourself in Yosemite’s natural beauty. Reservations need to be made 5+ months in advance. Keep in mind that Yosemite National Park is not dog friendly. Dogs are only allowed in certain campgrounds and on paved roads, limiting you to scenic viewpoints and turnouts only. Be sure to monitor road closures and flooding (especially in spring). 

You’ll avoid the crowds if you visit Yosemite in the winter but the best time to see the waterfalls is during spring. After the snow melts the waterfalls are at its fullest. 

Top things to do:

  • Rent bikes and ride around the park
  • Swim and float in the Merced River
  • Hike Lower Falls, Upper Yosemite Falls, or Valley Loop
  • Climbing and bouldering
  • Drive to scenic lookouts (Tunnel View, El Capitan Bridge)
  • Explore Mariposa Grove
  • Drive on Glacier Point Road
  • Check out Curry Village
  • Hike Mirror Lake

While you can see a lot driving through Yosemite National Park, the best way to explore this park is by foot. Find a hike to do, at your comfort level, and hit the trails.

If you are planning to arrive during peak season (Memorial Day- Labor Day) I highly suggest you take the FREE shuttle around the village when you can. This will save you the headache and time of trying to find parking. 

For a more in depth visitor’s guide to Yosemite, check out Bound To Explore: Yosemite Trip Planner.

Camping In Yosemite

Camp 4 in Yosemite

There’s no shortage of campgrounds in Yosemite! Located in different parts of the park, here is a list of all the campgrounds:

  • Upper Pines (Yosemite Valley)
  • Lower Pines  (Yosemite Valley)
  • North Pines  (Yosemite Valley)
  • Camp 4  (Yosemite Valley) pictured above
  • Wawona (South of Yosemite Valley)
  • Bridalveil Creek (South of Yosemite Valley)
  • Yosemite Creek (North of Yosemite Valley)
  • Hogdon Meadow (North of Yosemite Valley)
  • Tamarack Flat (North of Yosemite Valley)
  • Crane Flat (North of Yosemite Valley)
  • White Wolf (North of Yosemite Valley)
  • Porcupine Flat (North of Yosemite Valley)
  • Tuolumne Meadows (North of Yosemite Valley)

The campgrounds located in Yosemite Valley will put you at the center of all the main tourist attractions like Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Tunnel View, and Mirror Lake. But they book up fast. Reservations are required 5+ months in advance. Not all the campgrounds are open year round due to snow and road closures. Check out Yosemite’s website for more information- https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm

Honorable Mentions

Included here is a list of destinations that are worth the stop if you have extra time or if there’s something on this itinerary that you’d like to swap out. These are towns/ parks that I fell in love with and would recommend for any California road trip. 

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park Giant Forest

This national park will leave you feeling humble and small, surrounded by huge sequoia trees. There are more than 800 miles of hiking trails to explore. There’s a hike here for everyone. I highly recommend you check out the Giant Forest, home to 8,000 trees and the famous General Sherman. This tree is 275 feet tall and 3,000 years old. Kings Canyon National Park is also nearby and you have the extra time worth a visit. It’s doable to visit both parks in the same day.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has an amazing surf culture and energetic downtown. There’s even a small surf museum! Home to a university, there’s a younger vibrant crowd in this beach city. I highly recommend you ride the steam train through the redwoods (https://roaringcamp.com/). You can also hike next to these giant redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. You’ll find a nice balance of city and nature in Santa Cruz.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

Great in the winter for snowboarding and skiing. Even better in the summer for lake days and hiking. Such an outdoorsy town, there’s no shortage of activities to keep you moving and exploring. 

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree Cholla Cactus Garden

A climbing and bouldering paradise. This desert landscape is filled with huge boulders and tons of climbing routes for all levels. If you’re not into climbing/ bouldering there are tons of other hikes in the park. Pictured above is Cholla Cactus Garden.

This desert landscape is very different from the California beach life. It’s beautiful in a different way. I’ve seen the most amazing sunrises and sunsets here. The stargazing at night is hard to beat. A 2 ½ hour drive from San Diego, makes Joshua Tree National Park a convenient camping getaway. 

Final Thoughts

Yosemite from San Diego: tunnel view

This road trip to Yosemite from San Diego is an epic adventure. One you’ll be talking about for years to come. With all the added stops listed above, the drive to Yosemite from San Diego becomes about an 800 mile road trip. A road trip is what you make it- so if there’s something on this list you’re not into then don’t do it. 🙂

If you have any questions feel free to email me: wendy@gohikingsandiego.com or message me on IG: @gohikingsandiego. I’m happy to help.

Happy hiking!

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