Distance: 382 miles (city center to city center)
Driving Time: 6 hours, depending on traffic and how often you stop
If you just want to get between Los Angeles and San Francisco as fast as possible, I-5 is the way to go. However, this fastest route is also by far the least interesting. Kids (and adults with a low tolerance for boredom) should bring something along to keep themselves amused.
I-5 is the default route chosen by most map software and GPS systems, but don't trust them to tell you all the details you'll find below. They won't tell you where to close your outside air vents to avoid a big stink either.
Leaving from Los Angeles, these are the basic directions:
From Los Angeles to San Francisco: The best way to get out of LA depends on where you are. Use your mobile app or GPS - or if you're using a paper map, navigate to Santa Clarita, which is on I-5. Once you get onto I-5 north toward Sacramento, you only make two highway changes: I-580 West and then I-80 toward San Francisco.
From San Francisco to Los Angeles: Leave San Francisco going east across the Bay Bridge, following I-80 to I-580. Then take I-5 south. Depending on your end destination, stay on I-5 toward downtown and San Diego or exit onto US Hwy 101 or I-405 to get to other parts of Los Angeles.
Driving on I-5
Just north of the Los Angeles basin, I-5 crosses the Transverse Range mountains through the Tejon Pass (elevation 4,144 feet). High winds and occasional winter snow can close the highway and it's better to know about these closures before you start your trip, so you can use US Hwy 101 instead. One of the easiest ways to find out is to call the CalTrans highway condition hotline at 800-427-ROAD or check conditions on their website at dot.ca.gov
November through February, the San Joaquin Valley is subject to heavy "tule" fog (also called radiation fog), which forms on cold, clear, windless nights. It cuts visibility to as little as a few feet, making driving difficult and dangerous.
I-5 is a major corridor for trucks. You'll see all kinds of things being transported, from large equipment to onions and tomatoes.
A hazard of a different kind lurks between Fresno County mile marker 21 and the Hwy 198/Harris Ranch exit. A large (and ever-growing) cattle feed lot located next to the highway generates quite a stink. We recommend setting your air intake to recirculate as you pass those landmarks to keep it out of your vehicle. Just in case you need it, here's how to read a California mileage marker.
You'll find an exit with gas, food and sometimes lodging about every 30 miles or so.Those with the largest selection of eating places include Gorman, the Laval Rd exit at Grapevine, Kettleman City and Los Banos.
You'll find several state-run rest areas along I-5. They have toilets, pay phones, picnic tables and a place to walk your dog. They're shown on the maps at the bottom of the page.
What's That? Things You'll See Along the Way
A number of curious and unique sights appear along I-5 - or maybe we just think they're unique because there's so little else to see. These are some of the most unusual, in order from Los Angeles to San Francisco:
- The water cascading downhill on the east side of the highway near the town of Sylmar is part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Completed in 1913, it runs over 200 miles from the Owens River to carry water to the city.
- When Six Flags Magic Mountain opened in 1971, the area surrounding it was more or less unused, giving you an idea of how much the Los Angeles metro area has expanded.
- You might think you're in England north of the town of Castaic, where you'll see oncoming traffic unexpectedly passing on your right. There's a simple explanation: crossing the roadways allows the uphill part of the road to follow a more gradual climb.
- Named for the creek which runs through it or for grapevines that once grew in the area depending on who you ask, The Grapevine is the longest, steepest section of I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a 6% grade (about a 1,500-foot drop) over 5 miles on the north end.
Tejon Ranch is the largest contiguous expanse of private land in California, its 422 square miles larger than the City of Los Angeles. Founded in 1843 as a Spanish Land Grant, Tejon Ranch is still largely a ranching and farming business.
Fort Tejon nearby was built in 1854 and abandoned 10 years later. They feature interesting Living History demonstrations the first Saturday of the month and Civil War Battle Demonstrations the third Sunday from May to September, a fun way diversion during a leg-stretch stop.
- Those big pipes climbing the hill on the west side of I-5 just north of The Grapevine are also part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
- A highway pullout might seem a strange place to go bird-watching, but we've seen yellow-billed magpies (large relatives of crows found only in California) in the trees around the Buttonwillow Rest Stop.
- The San Joaquin Valley is one of the state's richest agricultural areas, generating as much as 12% of the total U.S. agriculture production. Some of the crops you may see growing along I-5 include table grapes, raisin grapes, citrus, almonds and pistachios.
- The Dos Amigos Vista Point overlooks a pumping station on the California Aqueduct, another system of canals, tunnels, and pipelines carrying water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Southern California.
If you're in a hurry to get there, you may not be in the mood for a side trip, but as long as you're going so close to them, you should know about these interesting diversions:
Antelope Valley: California poppies abound here when the conditions are right, with peak bloom between mid-February and mid-May, making it well worth a detour. Exit at Hwy 138 east, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles.
Vasquez Rocks: These odd rock formations have appeared in over 100 movies and television shows, including the Star Trek films and television series, a herd of 1950s and '60s Westerns and The Flintsones movie. You'll find them 14 miles off I-5 on CA Hwy 14, about 45 miles north of Los Angeles.