15 Incredible Stops on a Los Angeles to San Francisco Road Trip

los angeles to san francisco road trip
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With its whopping 800+ miles, California is like the holy grail of road trips. Countless tourists come here each year to drive all over the state, and you can go in almost any direction in the state and have a fun drive. However, one of the top picks has to be the classic Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip along Highway 1.

I love this route so much that I’ve actually done it twice, and I have no doubt I’ll do it again in the future. The first was a quick drive along the highway with a few stops here and there, but my last time was a leisurely 5-day trip there. It’s hard to beat a drive that hugs the stunning Pacific Ocean for most of it, plus there are so many fun stops to make along the way. I always wish I had more time on this trip, so I can’t wait to go back again.

There are so many potential places to stop on this road trip from LA to San Francisco, so this article will give you all the different options to choose from. I’ll also give you my best advice to prepare for the drive based on my experience, and I’ll also give you two sample itineraries on this trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so let’s get planning!

Tips for Planning a Los Angeles to San Francisco Drive

la to sf road trip lake

I recommend planning your trip in advance when you do a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco by car so you don’t miss any stops along the way. Here are some tips to help you start crafting your itinerary.

How long is the road trip from LA to San Francisco?

One of the first questions you may have is how long is the road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco. If you were to drive straight without stopping and just take I-5, the driving time from Los Angeles to San Francisco is about six hours (which, of course, does not include the infamous LA traffic!).

However, you’ll want to do a LA to San Francisco drive on Highway 1 because there are so many beautiful places to see. You can complete the drive in about eight to ten hours if you don’t stop much, but I recommend spending several days to fully explore each area. This post includes a suggested itinerary for an LA to SF road trip, but you can make it as short or as long as you want.

How far is it from LA to San Francisco by car?

If you drive straight from Los Angeles to San Francisco on I-5, it’s about 383 miles. However, the most scenic route is along Highway 101, and that route will be about 430 miles. Believe me, it’s worth the extra miles for the views you’ll get!

What’s the best time to do a Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip?

When is the best time to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco? It depends on you and your itinerary.

The months of September through November and March through May offer milder temperatures and fewer tourists than the summer months. Typically, temperatures are more pleasant, and tourist numbers are lower than in the summer. I’ve done this trip in the spring, and it was great – sunny weather and no rain.

The months of June through August are ideal for a road trip through California if you want to soak up the state’s signature summer mood and enjoy the beaches. However, it’s also the time to visit the state, so you’ll encounter more traffic and have long waits at restaurants.

Also, think about any festivals or celebrations you might like to stop at along the journey based on the time of year. Examples include the months of September and October being ideal for a trip to the Central Coast wine areas if wine tasting is on your agenda. The best months to watch monarch butterflies are November and December.

For a longer road trip, check out the drive to Los Angeles from Seattle.

What to pack for a drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco

You’ll want to have the right items with you on a drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so check out my essentials for a road trip post for a full list.

Here are my top recommendations to bring with you:

  • Emergency roadside kit – You never know when you might need to perform a last-minute repair on your car, so it’s important to have this in your trunk during your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip.
  • Reusable water bottle – Save plastic water bottles and refill this instead during your trip.
  • Reusable coffee mug – Similarly, save paper coffee cups and instead get your morning coffee filled up in this each day.
  • USB car chargers – There are so many scenic places along the way, so make sure your phone and camera are always charged.
  • Camera – You’ll want to take hundreds of pictures, so this is essential to have.
  • Snacks – Save money by bringing your own snacks.

Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip map

I always find it helpful to visually see the places I want to stop, so here is a map of the general route and the recommended stops you’ll be checking out while driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

How to pick a rental car

There are parts of Highway 1 that are narrow and windy, so I don’t recommend picking a large vehicle if you can help it. A medium-sized vehicle is perfect for your road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco so you can fit your passengers and be able to fit into any stops you make along the way.

You can reserve a car in advance in Los Angeles and arrange to drop it off in San Francisco (or vice versa if you’re doing an SF to LA road trip). I love using Discover Cars when I travel since they always have a wide range of vehicles to choose from.

15 Places to Stop on a Los Angeles to San Francisco Road Trip

There are so many amazing places to stop when driving from LA to San Francisco, but here are my favorite ones.

1. Redondo Beach

Redondo-Beach

I recommend stopping at Redondo Beach at the beginning of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip for a relaxing start to your vacation. You can visit Redondo Pier to go shopping, stop at a brewery, get ice cream, or have lunch with a view.

You can also walk along the marina and daydream about having your own sailboat or yacht. If you’re staying at one of the hotels in the area, stop at Bluewater Grill for local seafood to enjoy while the sun goes down.

If you have time, check out what to do in Huntington Beach before you begin, known as Surf City USA.

Want to visit a national park? Go on a Sequoia road trip from San Francisco.

2. Los Angeles

los angeles

There’s plenty to do in Los Angeles, such as visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also known as the LACMA. When you first get there, take the time to walk around outside to see the unique public art. Urban Light, the sculpture with 202 lamp posts, is at the Wilshire Boulevard entrance and is so popular that people hang out all night around it.

You can also visit The Grove, which is an outdoor shopping center that’s a fun place to window shop and is also known for celebrity sightings. There are plenty of places to sit outside, and people watch or just enjoy the sun.

Feel like making a detour on your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip itinerary? The LA to Tahoe drive is a beautiful one, or you can do a road trip to Palm Springs from LA.

3. Santa Monica

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Another fun area to visit in the area is Santa Monica, which always has something going on. There are dozens of different shops to stop at if you’re in the mood for shopping.

If you prefer to be more active, you can walk along the beach and see the original Muscle Beach, where you’ll see people doing challenging tricks on rings and bars. You should also take a ride on the Ferris wheel for an incredible view of the beach from up high.

You should try both The Lobster and Huckleberry Cafe if you’re in Santa Monica. In addition to its prime location on Ocean Avenue, The Lobster has amazing fresh seafood with a California flare, along with scenic views of the Pacific Ocean. Lobster rolls, crab cakes, and artisanal cocktails are what this eatery is famous for. 

Huckleberry Cafe is on Wilshire Boulevard and serves up tasty breakfast and brunch selections. The menu at this cafe includes both sweet and savory options, such as pastries, sandwiches, and salads made using organic, locally sourced ingredients.

I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to help me plan out my trips and find fun stops along the way. Use my code “BTR5QTP” for $5 off when you sign up!

4. Malibu

malibu beach

If you came to California in hopes of spotting a celebrity, Malibu may be your best bet. Tons of Hollywood stars call Malibu home, so you may see them around at the local restaurants.

Duke’s Malibu is a popular place for Hawaiian food and tropical drinks, plus you’ll get a great view of the water. If you feel like treating yourself, stop by the infamous Nobu restaurant for Japanese food.

Surfrider Beach, located next to the historic Malibu Pier, is a popular destination for surfers and beachgoers alike. Other notable beaches in Malibu include Zuma Beach, El Matador State Beach, and Point Dume State Beach. These all offer stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and are great spots for swimming, sunbathing, and beachcombing.

Love the ocean? Check out this scenic drive from Seattle to Cannon Beach.

5. Santa Barbara

Santa-Barbara

This LA to San Francisco road trip was the first time I’d been able to stop in the town of Santa Barbara, even though I’d explored other towns around it before. It was such a cute town, and I wish I had more time to walk through all of it.

For a unique experience, drive onto Stearns Wharf (you can drive right onto the pier and park for free for 90 minutes) to have lunch at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. This is a great place to get local seafood while having an ocean view, and is also one of the most romantic getaways in the US.

Visit The Lark if you’re looking for another amazing restaurant in Santa Barbara. The Lark serves up farm-to-table cuisine in the historic Santa Barbara Fish Market structure, so you may sample the bounty of the Central Coast of California without leaving the building. They also feature a wide variety of artisanal drinks, including beer and wine.

If you’re a coffee connoisseur in Santa Barbara, you must stop by Handlebar Coffee Roasters. Situated in the heart of the Funk Zone, this coffee house roasts its own beans and serves a variety of espresso beverages, pour-overs, and cold brews. I loved stopping here to unwind on my LA to SFO road trip with a cup of coffee because of its light and airy decor.

Make sure to reserve your rental car ahead of time! I love using Discover Cars for my trips.

6. Solvang

solvang california

Want to feel like you’ve been transported to The Netherlands? Then head to the adorable city of Solvang when driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco! The Solvang Village Square is a focal point of the town that has various shops and restaurants serving both traditional Danish and other cuisines. The Bit O’ Denmark Restaurant is one I recommend that has authentic Danish fare like aebleskiver and smorrebrod.

Solvang also has plenty of amazing wineries that you’ll love if you’re a wine enthusiast. Kalyra Winery is one of the more popular ones, which was made famous by the movie Sideways. You’ll love having a glass of wine as you take a break on your road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

If you want an exciting end to a trip, go on a San Francisco to Las Vegas drive.

7. Pismo Beach

Pismo-Beach

Pismo Beach may be my favorite town on this list because I loved the relaxed, casual vibe it had. There are several beachside hotels to stay at, which I recommend splurging on for an incredible view when you wake up. My favorite thing to do here was just walking along the beach and watching both the sunrise and sunset each night.

For an adventure to put on your LA to San Francisco itinerary, head to Oceano Dunes to drive on the sand dunes. One of my favorite photographers, Chris Burkard, has his studio there, and I highly recommend stopping by to pick up a few of his works.

One Pismo Beach restaurant that’s worth checking out is Ventana Grill. Perched on a cliff above the water, this eatery offers a menu that takes inspiration from Latin America but is uniquely Californian. Highlights of the menu include chipotle shrimp tacos, chile relleno, and grilled steak with chimichurri sauce. For dessert, I recommend the churros or the chocolate tamale.

You’ll love the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite or the road trip from San Francisco to Joshua Tree if you enjoy national parks.

8. Hearst Castle

hearth castle

Save a few hours during your LA to San Francisco road trip to visit Hearst Castle, which is an incredible sight. They have multiple tours for different parts of this castle because it’s so giant. You’ll take a bus up the steep hill this is located on, but the views from the top are incredible.

I recommend doing tours of the grand rooms, but you can also see the kitchens or the bedrooms. Make sure to check out the outside as well, with its extravagant gardens and Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The drive from Los Angeles to Sequoia National Park is another fun one.

9. McWay Waterfall Trail

mcway waterfall me

There are multiple places to stop on your drive from LA to San Francisco, but this one is unique because of this iconic waterfall. Chances are you’ve seen this in photos before, as it’s mesmerizing staring at the waterfall “falling” into the Pacific Ocean.

I didn’t want to leave the waterfall, and I wished I brought my camera with me to take better photos of this! Make sure to leave time to stop here on your trip.

10. Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach

While there are a lot of beaches in California, this one stands out because the sand is purple. You do have to look closely to see the purple (and it’s really hard to see in this picture, but I promise it is!), as parts of the beach looked normal to me.

Admission is $12 to enter, but I recommend stopping here to get some photos. It’s also less crowded than many other beaches, so you’ll have more of it to yourself.

11. Bixby Creek Bridge

bixby bridge big sur drive

You’ll have to drive over this famous bridge on your LA to San Fran road trip anyways, so you might as well stop to get some pictures. The bridge was featured in Big Little Lies and several other shows, so you’ll likely recognize it. There is a safe spot to park just north of the bridge to take photos (don’t walk onto the bridge!).

12. Carmel

Carmel

Carmel is another town that had a relaxed feel that I loved. You can visit Carmel Beach if you want to walk along the sand or dip your toes in the water.

The Carmel Mission is a beautiful place to visit, and you can visit the museum to learn more about its history back in the 1800s. If you want to do a little more shopping on your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, head to Ocean Avenue to find a variety of shops.

13. Pebble Beach

pebble beach

The 17-Mile Road is an iconic destination for tourists in Pebble Beach. You’ll see beautiful Pacific Ocean vistas as you go along this path that heads toward the Pebble Beach coast. In addition to the Lone Cypress, one of the most photographed trees in the world, there are other vantage points along the trail.

Pebble Beach Golf Course is another iconic local attraction that you’ll love visiting if you’re a golfer. It’s worth going to the course, even if you don’t play golf, just to take in the breathtaking scenery of the sea and the rocky shoreline.

Dreaming of an even bigger trip? Take the drive from California to Arizona.

14. Monterey

big sur road trip monterey

Monterey is one of the best places to stop from Los Angeles to San Francisco because you can either have a relaxing time here or be active. There are plenty of wine shops to visit if you want to try out the local wine, which I highly recommend.

Old Fisherman’s Grotto is one of my go-to spots whenever I’m in Monterey. This restaurant has been open since 1950 and has many traditional seafood dishes in addition to pasta and steak. Alvarado Street Brewery is another great choice, with an extensive range of craft brews and delicious pub-style fare.

If you’re into scuba diving, you’ll want to head to Monterey Bay to take a dive in the kelp forest. This was unlike anything I’d seen before and felt like I was in a new world the further down I went. I recommend going early in the morning before it gets too windy out.

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15. San Francisco

San-Francisco

You’ve made it to the end of your trip! Staying the night and getting to know the city is a great idea before you head home. The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island are two iconic San Francisco attractions that I recommend seeing, even if they’re a bit touristy. 

You can drive across the gorgeous Golden Gate Bridge, or you can walk or ride your bike across this famous monument. One of the most infamous jails in American history was housed on Alcatraz Island, in the center of the bay. You can take a ferry to the island, where you can see the old jail cells, discover the island’s fascinating history, and enjoy stunning views over the city.

Ready for more? You’ll love going on a drive from San Francisco to San Diego.

LA to San Francisco Road Trip Itinerary: 3 Days

Here’s my itinerary so you can follow the same road trip from LA to San Francisco. You can also do this in reverse if you want to go on a San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip.

Day 1 – Los Angeles

los-angeles-to-san-francisco-road-trip-redondo-beach

On the first day of your 3 day road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, you can fly into the Los Angeles International Airport.

There are plenty of places to check out during your one day in Los Angeles, so it’s helpful to create a short list of what you want to see first. You can start by heading over to Redondo Beach to relax and spend the afternoon walking along the water.

If you want to extend your trip, you can always drive from LA to Joshua Tree National Park or even drive from LA to the Grand Canyon.

You could also go down to Costa Mesa, where you’ll find fewer crowds and plenty to do. Make sure to check out some of the best places for brunch in Costa Mesa while you’re there.

For dinner, enjoy a beautiful dinner at Sea Level @ Shade. You’ll have an amazing view of the marina and be able to watch the sun go down. If you want to take some scenic drives from Los Angeles at sunset, you have many different options.

Looking for a longer drive? Check out my itinerary for a San Francisco to Seattle road trip!

Where to Stay: The Shade Redondo Beach Hotel is a beautiful hotel right on the water and a relaxing way to start your trip.

Day 2 – Los Angeles to Pismo Beach

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The next morning, it’s time to start exploring the Route 101 drive. There are so many places to stop, so I recommend getting an early start. Just a note, it takes about 3.5 hours to drive from Los Angeles to Pismo Beach, so keep that in mind while planning your drive for the day.

If you’re looking for some good beaches to stop at, you can stop in Santa Monica to visit the various shops there and visit the pier. Malibu is another popular place to stop, and you may even see a celebrity or two out on the waves.

For lunch, head up to Santa Barbara, where you have a variety of places to stop at. There are also plenty of shops around if you want a souvenir for your trip.

If you want a different but fun experience for lunch, you can stop at Cold Spring Tavern. This is an old stagecoach stop in the mountains with a restaurant and an old village behind it. You can even see the former jail (it’s tiny!). I highly recommend stopping here on your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip. I’ll be honest – the food wasn’t amazing, but it’s a really quirky place, so worth the stop.

cold spring tavern

Before you leave Santa Barbara, you can stop by the Old Mission. The Mission is over 200 years old and has a cemetery, mausoleum, and landscaped gardens. If you want a relaxing afternoon, visit the Salt Cave for a massage or facial or a “salt cave session.”

On your way to your hotel, stop at Cachuma Lake. You can get in here for 20 minutes for free if you just want to drive around and take pictures. There are plenty of areas to have a picnic if you want to spend more time here as well.

After you’re done exploring the lake, it’s time to drive to Pismo Beach to check in to your hotel, which I think is one of the best places to visit on a LA to San Franciso road trip. 

I thought I’d catch up on some work while I was here but was quickly distracted. I had my own patio overlooking the beach and could get onto the pier or on the beach within a minute, so that’s mainly what I spent time doing. It’s hard to want to do anything else with such a gorgeous sunset.

Where to Stay: You’re literally steps away from the beach when you stay at Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

Day 3 – Pismo Beach to San Francisco

los-angeles-to-san-francisco-road-trip-pismo-beach-pier

During this part of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, take some time to explore the cute town of Pismo Beach. You can get clam chowder at Splash Cafe for a delicious lunch. 

For the next part of your trip, keep in mind that Pismo Beach to Carmel will take about 2.5 hours without stopping. On your way north, you can make a quick stop at Elephant Seal Vista Point. You’ll be able to see elephant seals basking in the sun.

After that, head over to Hearst Castle for a tour of the residence of former publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The tours cost $25-30 depending on which tour you do. 

You’re probably hungry by now, so drive about 15 minutes north to Nepenthe. This restaurant is on top of a giant hill and has a stunning view of Big Sur. There’s also a bar and boutique store available, which is a popular stop on a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip.

If you just want a snack, you can stop at Big Sur Bakery. This is also the only place around that has Wi-Fi if you need it! That said, I should also mention you probably won’t have service until you get to Carmel, so plan accordingly.

california coast road trip

Your next stop is Pfeiffer Beach, which has a sharp turn off Route 101 and then a 2-mile bumpy road to the bottom. It’s known for its sand that looks purple, depending on the lighting.

There are many pull-off spots on the Big Sur day trip, but the most famous is Bixby Creek Bridge, so make sure to stop here on the way north. I have an LA to Big Sur road trip itinerary if you’re short on time and just want to see this section.

For the last day of your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, I recommend getting a late flight out of San Francisco International Airport, so you have time to explore this stretch. It’s only about 2 hours from start to finish, but Carmel has a lot to offer.

You can start your morning relaxing on Carmel Beach or go shopping along Ocean Avenue. Another great place to stop is Point Lobos State Reserve, where you can go hiking and see wildlife. 

You can head up to Monterey to grab lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf and do a bit of shopping. I also recommend visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium while you’re there, which is one of the best aquariums in the country.

Where to Stay: If you want to be right by the water, you’ll love staying at Hotel Caza Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll have amazing views nearby.

LA to San Francisco Road Trip Itinerary: 5 Days

los angeles road trip

If you have even more time, you’ll love this longer itinerary so you can explore some of my favorite coastal towns on this drive.

Day 1: Redondo Beach to Santa Monica

Redondo Beach is a great starting point for your journey because it’s such a cute beach town in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. You’ll love checking out the many eateries and stores that line the pier and port. When I was there, I started my days with a stroll along the waterfront, admiring the boats.

Go on to Los Angeles, where you can check out the Hollywood Walk of Fame. More than 2,600 stars honoring famous actors, musicians, and other public people are on the pavement at this popular attraction. If you’re looking for more things to do, Ovation Hollywood is just a short drive away and has plenty of restaurants, stores, and attractions to keep you occupied.

Then, head farther up the coast to Santa Monica and spend the afternoon there at the beach or on the Santa Monica Pier. Grab a bite to eat to go so you can walk along the pier and people-watch. You can rent bicycles to ride down the boardwalk or along the neighboring bike trails before calling it a night.

Where to Stay: A convenient place to stay for your first night is Shore Hotel, where you’ll have a private balcony and access to the pool.

Day 2: Malibu to Santa Barbara

On day 2 of your Los Angeles to San Franciso road trip, take a trip up the coast to Malibu, a coastal town with stunning beaches. Enjoy the beautiful beach and hillside scenery as you drive down Pacific Coast Highway. Visit one of the many beaches in the area, like El Matador Beach, known for its spectacular cliffs and towering rock formations.

After lunch, travel up the coast to Santa Barbara, a picturesque town known for its Spanish colonial beauty and beautiful waterfront vistas. The historic Santa Barbara Mission is a majestic church built in the 18th century that you’ll want to stop at during your time here. You can also relax at one of the beaches, such as Butterfly Beach.

Where to Stay: You’ll love staying right on the beach at Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.

Day 3: Solvang to Pismo Beach

To kick off the day, head east to Solvang, a picturesque Danish hamlet in the Santa Ynez Valley. Windmills, Danish pastries, and wine-tasting facilities make this one of the most unique towns in California. Visit one of the surrounding vineyards for a taste, or just stroll the main street and check out all the shops and eateries.

Then keep going westward until you reach Pismo Beach, one of my personal favorite stops on this trip. Long stretches of sand, fascinating tide pools, and tons of sea life to look at make it special. You can also go for an evening walk on the promenade, or you can rent a dune buggy and speed along the sand dunes.

Where to Stay: Enjoy quick access to the pier and beach with sliding glass doors on your room at Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach

Day 4: Hearst Castle to Monterey

On the fourth day of your trip, head to Hearst Castle, a National Historic Landmark famous for its magnificent architecture, art collections, and beautiful gardens. I’m not always the biggest fan of tours, but this was one of the most surprisingly fun parts of my LA to SF road trip. You can see the castle’s Neptune Pool, Roman Pool, and the impressive Hearst Library on different guided tours.

Afterward, keep driving up the coast to Big Sur, where I highly recommend stopping at the McWay Waterfall Trail. The beautiful McWay Falls plunges 80 feet onto a private beach, and you’ll want to take plenty of pictures.

To end the night, head to Monterey, an oceanfront town with plenty of activities, restaurants, and shopping. Cannery Row is a busy seaside promenade dotted with shops and restaurants, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a world-renowned attraction displaying a wide diversity of aquatic life.

Where to Stay: Inn By the Bay Monterey is close to many popular attractions you’ll want to see.

Day 5: Pebble Beach to San Francisco

On your last day, you’ll head out from Pebble Beach to drive the magnificent 17-Mile Drive. This scenic route hugs the coastline and offers breathtaking vistas of the Pacific Ocean, nearby golf courses, and landmarks like the Lone Cypress tree. Some of the best viewpoints and scenic spots include Spanish Bay, Fanshell Beach, and Bird Cliff.

Next, visit Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, a hidden gem well worth the trek. The beach gained notoriety due to its stunning sunsets, granite rocks, and distinctive purple sand. Not far away is also the breathtaking Bixby Creek Bridge, which you’ll recognize from many popular shows and films.

San Francisco will be the final stop on your journey, and I recommend spending the night here. See the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the United States, and take a leisurely stroll down the waterfront in Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can enjoy a wide range of restaurants, shops, and even street entertainment. 

Where to Stay: You’ll love being able to be close to the action at Hilton San Francisco Union Square.

You can either fly out of the San Jose International Airport or go further north to the San Francisco International Airport when you’re ready to head home.

If you have extra days, you can also go on a road trip from Portland to San Francisco to extend your trip.

No matter how much time you have for your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip, I can guarantee you’ll enjoy all the scenery along the way!

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