One mom’s insider tips for driving I-5 and zooming from NorCal to SoCal – or vice versa.
By Maryann Thompson
Having lived the first half of my life in Los Angeles and the second half in San Francisco, I have driven back and forth between the two cities about a thousand times – often on my own and often with kids in the back seat. If you’re dreading a road trip down (or up) the state, don’t worry: There are several things you can do to make the trip fast and easy.
First, you have to accept the fact that the fastest way to get between SF and LA is to drive “The 5.” Complainers say the famous Central Valley artery is unattractive and takes forever. But the 400ish-mile-distance between the two cities means it takes almost as much time to fly as it does to drive. When you factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, clear security, check-in, fly, and take ground transportation to your destination – which typically necessitates renting a car – you’re talking, best case, a 4-5 hour “flight time.”
We drive SF-LA door-to-door in 6 to 7 hours, depending on where we start and end in each metro area, which makes the few hours saved by flying amazingly costly. If you have more than two people traveling, driving will always be hundreds of dollars less expensive than flying – especially with today’s low gasoline prices.
But don’t think you can just waltz out to your car with your kids and your bags and get up or down the state in 6-7 hours. You must follow two simple rules to avoid an 8-10 hour trip.
Two Rules for Driving I-5
1. Leave Early. No, 8am is not early. Neither is 7am. We leave at 6am for SF to LA trips and 5am for LA to SF trips. On prime holiday weekends, go an hour earlier. Trust me. We have pulled onto Interstate 5 from 580 at 7am and hit stopped traffic on the Saturday before Christmas. The early departure gives you a head start on other travelers, helps you avoid rush hour traffic, and lets you see sunrise in the San Joaquin Valley – the prettiest time of day apart from sunset. We pack the car the night before, prep coffee and snacks, and get on the road as early as we can. Plus, by moving kids directly from bed to the car when they’re half asleep, they are fuzzyheaded for a good hour or two before they realize they should be complaining.
2. Stop Once. Stopping is for losers – or so says my husband Don. Okay, it might not be for losers but it is most certainly for people who want to spend an entire day of their family vacation driving across the state. Don is ruthless about not stopping but there is wisdom in his ways. Every gas/bathroom break eats up 30 minutes. We pack each kid a Ziploc of dry cereal and a small cup of water to start the drive. (Remember: Your children will not die of thirst on the way, but if you let them drink an unlimited amount of beverages in the car, they will tell you they need to stop at every exit.) We aim for a stop 2+ hours out – typically a gas station in Firebaugh, Kettleman City or Buttonwillow – so that we can make the rest of the trip without having to stop again for gas. We use the restroom, fill the gas tank, let the kids pick out another snack, get back on the road, and use all our powers to resist the urge to stop again.
Follow the rules and you’ll be eating a late lunch at Disneyland or Fisherman’s Wharf – depending on which direction you’re heading! Read on for a bit more advice to make the journey easier.
More Tips to Optimize Your 5 Drive
“Don’t Drive” Times Don’t start your drive on Friday or Sunday evenings. Really. You will get there faster by leaving at 5am or 6am the next morning. I have also given up driving at night. Falling asleep is a real possibility – for the drivers, unfortunately, not the kids – and the traffic is not that much lighter because of the many trucks that frequent 5.
Mind the Weather Check current conditions before you leave. There can be everything from snowstorms to brush fires on this route. Winter’s blindingly thick tule fog can cover the valley and it might very well be the scariest condition you’ve ever encountered when driving. Driving rainstorms and blistering heat are also part of the Interstate 5 equation – oh, and “cone zone” construction areas occur all year. If there’s a major problem on “The Grapevine” – the nickname for the Tejon Pass mountain area between LA and the Central Valley – your best bet is to postpone your trip for a whole day if your schedule allows it. The pass’ alternate routes are quite lengthy and impossibly crowded when the pass is blocked – and that translates to a 12+ hour trip. Ugh.
Stop Before You Hit Town If you are driving south through LA to Orange County or San Diego, try to make your bathroom breaks at the top of the Grapevine or at one of the first exits in Santa Clarita after coming down the mountain. The heart of LA is not set up for quick gas/bathroom/food stops off the highway. In fact, you will drive quite a while to find a bathroom you would want your child to use. The same goes for heading into the Bay Area: Try to stop before you hit 680 in Livermore or Dublin because Oakland and SF are not set up for quick traveler bathroom breaks either.
Use Waze through Town Waze has given drivers what we always dreamed of: Insight into current traffic conditions that enables you to alter your route in advance to avoid jams. It is a good idea to check Waze for the best route when you come down the Grapevine into LA because there are always alternate routes to where you’re going. Interestingly, we recently started traveling the 5 all the way through LA sometimes – a route everyone avoided for decades – because as other freeways have become more crowded, Waze often shows 5 to be just as fast. In the Bay Area, we don’t have as many route options but just knowing which freeway is currently moving fastest can shave 20 minutes off your trip. Be sure to check the specifics of the different routes Waze recommends before choosing one, however, because sometimes it will direct you off the freeway in a less desirable part of town. You may or may not be fine with that but it pays to have a look at the exact route in advance.
The Waze community also enlightens you of speed traps and accidents. After years of avoiding major traffic jams driving 5, last summer, I came to an abrupt stop mid-valley. I checked Waze and a user had actually posted a photo of the problem: A jackknifed produce truck lying across both southbound lanes. It was in a spot where there was nothing to do but just turn off the car and wait 90 minutes for them to clear the truck. Strangely, it felt liberating to simply know the reason for the hold-up and that I would be relaxing in that spot for a while.
Consider a Radar Detector By no means do I advocate driving 100 miles an hour with your children in the car. But the speed limit on the rural parts of I-5 is 70mph and if you go 70mph, you will be one of the slowest cars on the road. So to stay with the flow of traffic at 75-80mph and not get an expensive speeding ticket, it is not a bad idea to have a radar detector. I’m sure the one we received as a hand-me-down from my father-in-law has prevented us from getting a dozen tickets over the years. Radar detectors are legal in California (and most states) but you cannot mount it on the windshield. And regardless of how fast you travel, be sure to stay in the slow – right hand – lane for the whole ride unless you are passing. The speed demons will thank you.
Enjoy the Sights I-5 may not be famous for sightseeing but there is actually a lot to see. I look forward to the windmills on the Altamont Pass, hot air balloons at sunrise near Tracy and rolling yellow (even green!) hills all the way.
I love to see the old windmills on ranchland with cattle grazing nearby. In the mornings and evenings, hawks and ground squirrels sit on fence posts and telephone poles as you zoom past. The high country on the Grapevine and shoreline of Pyramid Lake make for a dramatic change of scenery – and I always gasp at that first peek of LA’s sprawl when you descend.
It is fun to try to identify the crops in the fields and their transport trucks through the seasons: The flowering almond and peach trees in spring, the corn, tomatoes and grapes in summer, the pomegranates and cotton in fall, and the citrus in winter. My Grandpa Jones used to help us count the tomato trucks as we drove to visit family in Sacramento. The number can reach 100 during the prime summer harvest!
And if you have a child who loves trucks, driving 5 may just turn out to be the best day of his or her life. You will see everything from semis towing other semis to wide-load tractor-trailers transporting two halves of a mobile home to military transport to a golf cart carrier?! Bliss!
Car Activities Optional When my kids were young, I used to spend a lot of time packing reading books, audiobooks, puzzle books, snacks and games to keep them busy for the drive. Most of it went untouched. These days, iPads and iPhones are pretty much sufficient distractions for a half-day in the car.
Pretty Picnic Stops Exist The nice thing about The 5 is that you don’t have to feel guilty about not stopping. But if you are up for a break along the way, there are some very beautiful and interesting spots to stop and picnic or stretch your legs. I recommend avoiding the rest stops, vista points and major transit hubs like Pea Soup Andersen’s or Harris Ranch. Check out Fort Tejon (camels were in California – whaaa?), the Tule Elk Reserve (just don’t expect to see any elk close up, though), the Eisenberg Crane Reserve to see the sandhill cranes or the Kern National Wildlife Refuge (avoid Wednesday & Sunday visits during winter’s duck hunting season!) or for a dose of nature.
If you’re looking to follow the two rules to “get there” as fast as possible and want to make just one kid-friendly stop, make it the massive Bravo Farms complex behind In-n-Out in Kettleman City. What was an empty lot of tumbleweeds 10 years ago is now made up like a street from the Old West. Inside, they’ve got a small “farmer’s” market with local produce and deli items, ice cream, a BBQ restaurant with outdoor seating, and endless shopping opportunities. To avoid whining and pleading in the toy and candy shops, park on the far east side to direct your little ones straight out to the fully enclosed, “Radiator Springs”-style playground. It’s so cute, you might not even need to drive on to Disneyland.
by Maryann Jones Thompson, Updated June 2021
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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, best way from la to sf, family road trip, california road trip, best way from sf to la, how to drive i-5