Best route from LA to Bay Area?
August 21, 2014 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on a long drive

Planning to head up to Hayward tomorrow, leaving from the Glendale/Burbank area. I know that the 5 is the most efficient, but I can take some time and wouldn't mind driving a more scenic route at least part of the way. Doing the 5 all the way seems unbearably boring. I'll be leaving around 6am so hopefully I'll cover some ground before traffic gets really nasty. Hoping to be there by late afternoon. I've never done the drive alone, so I don't know if this is madness. Also, any other little tips or hacks for making the long drive more enjoyable would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance!
posted by sprezzy to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've done this a lot over the last 20 years, same drive. The PCH is beautiful, but does take an awfully long time. The 101 is more attractive than the 5. The 5 is quickest, and honestly, the best route. Yeah, it's boring, but load up an MP3 player with some good podcasts and music and listen on the way, and it's not that big a deal. If you leave by 6, you'll get to the Bay Area at lunchtime, and you can use the extra time you would have spent in the car (even on a nicer drive) having a good lunch somewhere nice at your destination.
posted by Pacrand at 1:30 PM on August 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

PCH is scenic (Big Sur) but very long.

The 101 appears to be a nice compromise of speed and views, until you hit traffic in Silicon Valley.

The 5 is, as you say, unpleasant and unbelievably smelly, but it is the fastest by a large margin.

Unless you really really want to see Big Sur, my personal strategy now is just to take the 5 and get it over with. None of the other routes are interesting enough to make it worth the trouble, for me. The real scenic beauty in California, for me, is north of the Bay Area. If you ever get a chance to drive the 1 north from San Francisco, you must do it. But even the 5 is nice once you pass Sacramento.

As far as being "crazy," it's not. It's just a long drive. Not even really that long, at least by the standards of road trips I've done.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:31 PM on August 21, 2014

Another plus of the 5, btw, is frequent rest stops. My long drive strategy is to stop at every rest stop. Since they're right off the freeway you lose almost no time, and getting out to stretch your legs or drink something for a few minutes is the best way I know of to stay reasonably awake, alert and sane.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:33 PM on August 21, 2014

Response by poster: Haha the "crazy" part was more in reference to considering going up PCH. I imagined it might be longer but feasible, but apparently it would take much longer than I thought.
posted by sprezzy at 1:33 PM on August 21, 2014

The worst part about trying to use the PCH for anything other than a pleasure drive is that you'll get stuck behind slow-moving tourists again and again and again and it stops being fun pretty quick. The one time I tried to do it I gave up and cut over to the 5.
posted by something something at 1:35 PM on August 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, PCH is gorgeous but it's really, really the long way to go. I kind of hate the 5 (specifically, I hate the Grapevine; long straight stretches of nothing don't bug me as much), so unless I'm in a rush I usually take the 101.
posted by scody at 1:50 PM on August 21, 2014

I've taken 5, 99, and 1/101 when my A/C went out in San Diego and I couldn't face the drive up 5 in the summer.

5: Straight, boring, good for audiobooks.
1/101: Annoying, can't really look at the scenery, cooler, WAYYYY longer.
99: Requires more "active" driving than 5, but has a lot more places to pull over if you want than 5 does. There are a lot of good recs on Chowhound and Trip Advisor etc. We thought Kingsburg was interesting, for example, and there are other things to do. Plus when you're driving by yourself, being able to pull over and get coffee or go to the bathroom whenever you want is great.
posted by wintersweet at 1:54 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Family BlahLaLa drives beteween LA and Northern Cal several times a year, and honestly we just do the 5, with a bevvy of good podcasts to listen to. PCH takes FOR. EVER. The 101 is great but still takes a really, really long time. Doing the 5 is just an experience you do, you get through it, and then you're there! Yippee!

Also, leaving really early is a good strategy, especially this time of year when the route is really hot. Caffeinate yourself appropriately and hit the road!
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:11 PM on August 21, 2014

I have made the drive from SoCal all the way up to Redding every year the past few years and every couple of years for DECADES before that routine started (prodigal son!) and I've always taken the 5 because that was how it was done.

Last time I took 99 because my wife booked a motel room in the wrong chain motel location, and man! it was a breeze. In recent years they've added a THIRD lane in several long stretches of road (and building more!), and it is possible to fly for mile after mile. On the return trip we drove straight through without an overnight, and it saved maybe an hour? The 5 gets super heavy and dense on holiday weekends and everybody is antsy to skip ahead of the folks waiting patiently in the fast lane to pass a truck, which slows the passing lane even more, and it's a terrible way to spend an afternoon, and if there's wreck, oof, you're screwed. Plus, the 99 is a lot more interesting than the 5.

It's convenient for me because it bounces me right into Sacramento where I can catch the 5 for the rest of the trip up north. It won't be quite as convenient for you as you're headed to the bay area. BUT. You're still in luck because you're going to the East Bay and you can cut back west somewhere south of Sacramento and reconnect with the 5. Maybe right about where that Pea Soup Andersen's is.

Other than that, I'd consider doing the 101 and cutting over to the 5 around Monterey, which would scooch you around San Jose. Plus those roads that cross the coast range there aren't much traveled and kinda fun to drive.
posted by notyou at 2:17 PM on August 21, 2014

I've done the drive a bazillion times, some of them when the only thing on 5 was Button Willow and even THAT was a well for radiator water and a Limeade stand (I'm not kidding.)

101 is fun if you've got nothing but time and you plan on stopping every hour or so, it's NOT a great way to get to the bay area if you only have a certain number of hours to do it.

I've tried PCH and there's always a rock slide or some other bit of nature blocking the road.

So take the 5 and stop at Pea Soup Andersens in Santa Nella, and Casa De Fruita iin Hollister.

Enjoy the trip!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:25 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My semi-scenic route is to take the 5 over the Grapevine to 46, check out the James Dean Memorial where it meets the 41, to 101 in Paso Robles, which is quite direct to San Jose, where you catch 880 to Hayward. Alternate last leg is taking 680 from SJ to Fremont and Mission/Foothill to Hayward, which has it's own kind of history, though its scenic-ness is a matter of taste.
posted by rhizome at 3:32 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everyone should make the trip to or from SoCal to NorCal along the 1 once in their life. Then you can jam on the 5 the next times without wondering what you're missing. If you have the time and go now you will have a lot of daylight; leave at 6am and you'll catch a lot of scenery during the day. Cut corners and save time by taking the 101 between L.A. and Ventura, and making your way over to over to the 101 or 5 once it's dark out.
posted by Room 641-A at 3:33 PM on August 21, 2014

I can't believe that no one has mentioned the 99 up through the Central Valley (on preview I see notyou referred to it). You're still stuck with the 5 through the Grapevine, but then it splits off just north of all the gas stations and fast food places - just stay to the left.

Everyone should travel up the 99 once in their lifetimes. CA's agricultural heartland, lots of history, and 99 (which is what you should call it once you get through the Grapevine) is a fine freeway, 70 MPH limit most of the time. A lot of small towns to hold your interest, the Sun Maid Raisin factory in Kingsburg, and lots and lots of farmland. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to see a crop duster doing its thing. On a clear day you'll have the Coast range to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east.

Cut over to the South Bay Area at 152 north of Madera, which will get you to Gilroy and San Jose, then up 880 to Hayward.
posted by DandyRandy at 3:54 PM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding mattdidthat's route as the best "have fun and see beautiful stuff" route. For the full experience, add a stop at a winery near San Luis Obispo. Nice place for an overnight, too. Google Maps estimates that scenic route is 8.5 hours. Going straight up I–5 is 5.25 hours. In my experience that's about right.
posted by Nelson at 10:05 AM on August 22, 2014

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