The Best California Road Trip Itineraries: 13 Grand Adventures

California is built for road trips. We’ve got 163,000 square miles of mountains, desert, redwood forest, beaches and pastoral landscapes. And while driving the Pacific Coast Highway or doing a lap of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are popular (more on them below), there are a whole lot of other backroads and coastal drives that await you.

So, we’ve compiled our favorite baker’s dozen of California road trip itineraries. These CA road trip ideas cover the whole state, north, south, east and west and all of them promise stunning landscapes and epic adventures.

Palm Springs sunset road.

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  • Our 13 Fave California Road Trip Itineraries

This CA road trip planner has a lot of detail. Each itinerary has mileage info and suggested number of days along with a rough idea of which roads to take. We’re also suggesting some itinerary highlights, when to go and some top stays along the way.

We think you should read the whole thing, so that you can get itinerary ideas for multiple trips. But if you’re in a hurry, please use the table of contents to skip around to the areas which most peak your interest.

Pacific Coast Highway: SF to LA

Pacific coast highway: north coast, north coast redwoods, the central coast loop, napa/sonoma wine country drive, highway 49 gold country route, the lassen/shasta volcanic legacy highway.

  • National Park Trifecta: Yosemite, King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

Highway 395 Eastern Sierra Drive

South coast beaches: la to san diego, california deserts loop: san diego to death valley, the best of the sierra nevada scenic drive, the best california road trip itinerary (in 2 weeks).

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer State Park


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  • Start : San Francisco
  • End : Los Angeles (you can do the reverse, but pullouts are easier to do north-to-south.)
  • Miles : 460
  • # of Days : 3-6
  • Route : Highway 1 all the way down

The Pacific Coast Highway is America’s classic road trip and hand’s down the most popular California road trip itinerary. It actually runs the full length of California from the Oregon Border to San Diego. And we cover more sections of it in the North Coast and South Coast road trips below.

But the section from SF to LA is a fave Cali road trip for the sheer jaw-dropping scenery. If you need some convincing, check out our advice on why we think Big Sur is so worth it .

Just go ahead and bookmark our SF to LA PCH itinerary . It’s a 5-7 day slow roll down the coast which is optimized for epic coastal views, marine life, wine tasting and fun beaches.

On the northern section of the drive, key stops include whale watching in Monterey Bay, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the 17-mile drive through Carmel .

Once you hit Big Sur , our favorite stops include the Point Lobos State Park, Garrapata Beach, redwoods in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Beach (purple sand!), Sand Dollar Beach, the Piedras Blancas lighthouse , Hearst Castle and elephant seals at Ragged Point.

Dinosaur Cove Cove Shell Beach Pismo, with beach and tree.

After Cambria, you can head inland for wine tasting in Paso Robles or stay on the coast road. You can visit quirky Harmony town , do some fun hikes and eat cookies in Cayucos , or take on some activities in Pismo Beach , like visiting Pismo’s best beaches or doing some Edna Valley wine tasting .

In the southern section of the hike, you can visit the quirky Solvang Danish town, do yet more wine tasting in Los Olivos and swing into Santa Barbara to visit the mission and art galleries. Then it’s a long roll down Highway 1 past some of Northern LA County’s prettiest beaches.

When to Do the PCH

Summer is the busiest time to visit Big Sur . And winter is very tricky because winter storms often close Highway 1 through Big Sur. We favor April/May or September-November for the finer weather and slower pace.

Notable Places to Stay on the PCH

The Hyatt Carmel Highlands is a 5-star splurge with killer views. For something more low-key amidst the redwoods, you can also rent glamping cabins in Big Sur . Get an ocean view (with free sunsets!) at the Vespera Marriott in Pismo Beach.

Mendocino Coast Road with beach overlook

  • End : Leggett
  • Miles : 210
  • # of Days : 3-5
  • Route : Highway 1 all the way up

This northern section of the PCH is less popular than the Central California section, but it’s notable for its rugged coastline, Tule elk, some of our favorite northern California coastal towns . And if you’re thirsty, there’s no shortage of wine tasting throughout this region.

On the southern end of this road trip, notable stops include Muir Woods (reservations in advance are required), the Marin Headlands and dog-friendly Stinson Beach (one of our favorite CA hippie towns .)

Point Reyes National Seashore boat wreck.

In the mid section, Point Reyes National Seashore is worth at least a full day, with tons of hikes, Tule elk, elephant seals and the lovely cypress tunnel. There are also wine and cheese tasting rooms nearby. Cute Bodega Bay is worth a stop, as are the Sonoma Coast, Fort Ross and Salt Point State Parks.

There’s also a ton to do in and around Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Detour onto Highway 128 to visit the Anderson Valley vineyards and take a stroll through the Hendy Woods redwood groves. You can also find coast redwoods and a fern grove in Van Damme State Park , killer sunsets on the Mendocino Headlands, a quiet cove at Jug Handle beach and the skunk trail and rail bikes in Fort Bragg.

We are (arbitrarily) ending this routing in Leggett on Highway 101, but you can combine this California road trip plan with the one for the North Coast redwoods and do both as a loop.

When to Do the North Coast

This part of California receives a ton of rain between December and March. Any other months are fine and April/May and Sept/Oct are quieter times to go.

Notable Places to Stay on the North Coast

The Palace Hotel in SF is one of the city’s oldest and it offers afternoon tea in their stunning atrium lobby. For some oceanfront bathing, the Seamist cottage in Bodega Bay has an ocean front hot tup and the North Cliff hotel in Fort Bragg has ocean view bathtubs with a fireplace.

San Francisco to Redwoods National Park road trip. giant coast redwood trees

  • End : Crescent City
  • Miles : 355
  • # of Days : 4-7 days
  • Route : Highway 101/Highway 1 all the way up

This is one of our favorite California road trip itineraries for all of the forest bathing opportunities. California’s North Coast Redwoods can easily be done as a loop in conjunction with the coastal route just above. Or, if you are keen for some serious me-time in the trees, you can just focus on this particular itinerary.

This road trip covers 13 state parks, one national park and some whacky roadside attractions…all focused on Coast Redwoods. We have a very thorough redwoods road trip itinerary with a full FAQ, map, advice on the best time to visit the redwoods , and trip planning ideas.

But here are some of our favorite highlights: The Avenue of the Giants scenic drive in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the scenic Drury parkway drive in Prairie Redwoods State Park, the Roosevelt Elk in Prairie Redwoods, the wacky Trees of Mystery , the Lady Bird Johnson grove in Redwoods National park, and the groves and Boy Scout hike in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Phew, that’s a lot of trees!

Roosevelt Elk in Prairie Redwoods State Park

When to Do the North Coast Redwoods

Notable places to stay in the redwoods.

There aren’t a lot of fancy hotels in this part of California. You’ll want to look for cozy inns and places that give you forest or ocean views. You can go glamping in the woods near Trinidad, or at the Mendocino Grove , or lodge at the Lighthouse Inn in Crescent City is near Jedediah Smith and close to downtown restaurants and the actual lighthouse.

California Morro Bay beach

  • Loop : Between Monterey and Santa Barbara
  • Getting There : ~2 hours from LA to Santa Barbara or SF to Monterey
  • Miles : 506
  • #of Days : 3-5
  • Route : Highway 1, Highway 101, Highway 33

Many folks just drive down Highway 1 through Big Sur, which is certainly worth the views and the beaches. But there are some really great things to see and do on the Central Coast’s interior.

This itinerary goes down (or up) the coast and then laps back, taking some little known scenic roads. This whole region has a chill vibe and you can use that to set a leisurely pace for your road trip.

Drive…stop at a beach…drive…stop for a walk…drive…have a long lunch…drive…do a wine tasting…wash rinse repeat.

All of the key stops that we noted on the PCH itinerary above are still relevant. But some of our favorite interior stops include: wine and olive oil tasting in Paso Robles , the San Luis Obisbo Mission, eating danish in Solvang, and the Carrizo Plain National Monument (if the spring flowers are blooming).

We also recommend taking a winding scenic drive through Los Padres National Forest. It goes from Ventacopa to Ojai on Highway 33. And for that matter, it’s really fun to wander around the wine country backroads in Paso Robles and Los Olivos. Even if you aren’t into wine, the countryside is really beautiful.

Paso Robles sunset Adelaida road.

When to Do the Central Coast Loop

This route is really fun in the summer, after the June gloom fog clears. The Carizzo Plain often blooms in early April. And there are fall wine harvest festivals, which is a great time to visit Pismo Beach .

Notable Places to Stay in on the Central Coast

There’s the completely over the top Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, the Ojai Valley Inn (with spa!), and yet more glamping tents and trailers at the Flying Flag in Buellton (near Solvang).

Sonoma County vineyards and trees.

  • Start/End : Loop from San Francisco
  • Mile s: 213
  • # of Days : 3-4
  • Route : Highway 101, Highway 29, Highway 128, Highway 116

Many people just go to either Napa or Sonoma and hang out in one spot for wine tasting. But it’s worth extending your wine country stay and doing a wider loop because you’ll find lovely country drives, state parks, fine cheeses and fun on the water.

This wine country drive is a loop which starts in SF, goes up Napa Valley and down through Healdsburg, with a side trip to Guerneville before heading down Sonoma Valley. If you want to go wine tasting, especially on a weekend, it’s best to get reservations in advance.

In Napa Valley, start by taking a wander around Napa’s downtown shopping and art district. The Oakville Grocery is a great place to pick up picnic provisions and you can do a mud bath in Calistoga. From there, branch off of Highway 128 and take the slow road to the Petrified Forest and Safari West, before heading into Healdsburg.

Healdsburg has a really cute downtown with galleries, boutiques and a great indy bookstore. Heading southwest on Westside road will take you along the Russian River and past the Armstrong Woods State Park (redwoods!) to quirky Guerneville . If it’s summer you can do a lazy river float along the Russian River, or take a cedar bath at the Osmosis Day Spa. Then head south to groovy Sebastopol where there are three dairy tasting rooms from the California Cheese Trail , Finally, heading back east, taking Highway 12 down Sonoma Valley.

Take a hike in the Trione Anondel State Park or visit the Jack London State Historic Park , then taste some yummy private label Jack London wine at the Kenwood Winery. Sonoma has the well-preserved Sonoma Mission, a chill downtown square and a couple more cheese stops.

Armstrong Woods Hiking. Things to do in Guerneville California

When to Do the Napa/Sonoma Drive

This region gets a lot of rain in the winter. Which is not to say that you can’t visit during that time, but pay attention to the forecast. The fall is a fun time because of the wine harvest festivals. Any weekend from May to September is going to be very busy, so book ahead.

Notable Places to Stay in Napa/Sonoma

Go for some Buddhist vibes at Bann in Oak Knoll , Dr. Wilkinson’s spa is a quirky boutique motel with mud baths, Autocamp Russian River has the full glamping experience with luxury tents and Airstreams, or a historic ranch stay at the Beltane in Glen Ellen .

Hangtown mural in Placerville.

  • Start : Mariposa
  • End : Nevada City
  • Miles : 186
  • # of Days : 2-4
  • Route : Highway 49 all the way up

By most measures, California’s economy is one of the largest in the world. And it all started when, in 1849, gold was found in them thar hills. This historic Highway 49 route, also known as the Golden Chain Highway, takes in some of California’s well-preserved gold rush history and it has a lot of fun activities for kids and history buffs.

The key on this itinerary is to take it slow and take advantage of the many historic markers and tiny little towns along the route. Start in Mariposa, which is also the western gateway to Yosemite National park. It also has a historic park with gold rush exhibits and one of the oldest (and loveliest) county courthouses in the state.

There’s another small county museum in Coulter and a nice vista along the Don Pedro reservoir. If you’re keen on covered bridges, you can take a detour to Knights Ferry. Otherwise continue to Jamestown for the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, and then through Sonora to the Columbia State Park. It’s an oldey timey gold rush town and living museum.

Take a side trip up Highway 4 to Calaveras Big Trees State Park for some Giant Sequoia trees. Then north to Indian Grinding Rock State Park and then the adorbs little town of Sutter Creek. If you are into wine, there are a lot of places to stop in the stretch between Sutter Creek and Placerville.

North of Placerville, you’ll find the Gold Bug Park and Mine and Sutter’s Mill, which is where gold was initially found. You’ll find the Empire Mine State Park near Grass Valley along with a cute historic downtown in Nevada City, before ending the trip at Malakoff Diggins State Park .

If you have extra time, stay on Highway 49 and then take the Gold Lake Highway scenic byway to Highway 395.

Malakoff Diggins state park terrain red cliffs and trees

When to Do the Gold Country

Unless there have been heavy winter storms, you can do this drive any time of year. Although expect to find cold winter temps in some of the state parks and Nevada City.

Notable Places to Stay in Gold Country

Bed, breakfast and wine at the Hanford Inn in Sutter Creek. The National Exchange Hotel was built in the throes of the gold rush and it occupies a sweet spot in downtown Nevada City. Or you can go glamping at the Autocamp Midpines , which is just 5 miles from Mariposa.

Mount Shasta California-volcano and misty lake

  • Start : Mount Shasta
  • End : Lassen National Park
  • Route : Highway 89

The official Volcanic Legacy Scenic Highway actually starts at Crater Lake and the full drive is 500 miles. But this alternative routing is shorter and takes in the best bits of the California section. On this drive, you get a lovely mix of volcanic geology, waterfalls and charming historic communities.

This part of northern California is not nearly as popular as places like Lake Tahoe or the PCH, so you can enjoy a relaxed pace and a strong dose of outdoorsy vibe with this itinerary.

Key stops include historic Dunsmuir, Weaverville Joss House State Park, Shasta State Historic Park, Burney Falls, Bumpass Hell hydrothermal pool, Devastated Area interpretive trail and Lake Almador.

Lassen National Park Boardwalk

When to Do the Lassen/Shasta Drive

Late May through late October. The waterfalls are best in spring, but the main road through Lassen is  closed in the winter .

where to go on a road trip california

National Park Trifecta: Yosemite, King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

  • Start : Three Rivers
  • End : Groveland
  • Miles : 276
  • # of Days : 4-6
  • Route : Generals Highway, Highway 180, Highway 41, Highway 120

This California road trip itinerary is optimized for sheer awe inspiring nature.

Sequoia National Park is famous for their giant Sequoia trees and Kings Canyon has conifer forest and the deepest canyon in North America. There’s a scenic route connecting the two parks. The Generals Highway covers the best-of Sequoia National Park and Highway 180 covers the best-of Kings Canyon, including the Giant Forest, Grant Grove, and trails to Mist Falls and Zumwalt Meadow.

Yosemite is California’s most popular national park, and for good reason. It presents the best of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with pine forests, giant Sequoia groves and soaring granite peaks.

Valley highlights include the Mariposa grove, Glacier Point overlook, Vernal Falls, Mirror Lake loop, and Yosemite falls. In the upper reaches, there’s the scenic drive over Tioga pass, tons of hikes and the Merced grove. Consider cribbing part of this SF to Yosemite itinerary if you’re also keen to add on some Gold Country.

California scenic road in Kings Canyon National Park.. rocky canyon wall

When to Do the National Park Trifecta

Mid-spring through late fall is best. The parks are open throughout the year, but Tioga Pass and the higher elevations will be closed for snow. You can do Yosemite Valley in the winter , but keep an eye on the National Parks site for closures.

Notable Places to Stay on the Trifecta

The Ahwahnee is Yosemite’s historic inn and it has great views and lovely architecture. They Tenaya Lodge is located in the southern section of Yosemite, offering free park entrance and amenities for the kids. And Autocamp in Midpines is a cool glamping option near-ish to Yosemite Valley.

However you stay, even if it’s a modest motel, book early for these parks.

Dawn in the Alabama Hills Eastern Sierras

  • Start : Bridgeport
  • End : Lone Pine
  • Miles : 147
  • # of Days : 4-6 days
  • Route : Highway 395

The Eastern Sierra doesn’t get as much love as the Western Sierra (and Yosemite), but there’s a lot there for people who like crazy geology, hot springs, ghost towns and sparsely populated forests.

This drive is a straight down (or up) Highway 395 and can easily be combined with a visit to Lake Tahoe, the higher elevations of Yosemite National Park or Death Valley. We’ve got a full 5 day Eastern Sierra itinerary along with detailed stay and play guides for both Bishop and Lone Pine .

Some highlights on this itinerary include: Mono Lake and its moonscape, Bodie Ghost Town State Historic Site, the June Lake Loop, Mammoth Lakes, the Devil’s Postpile National Monument, Convict Lake , Hot Creek Geologic site, the Laws Railroad Museum, Manazar National Historic site, and the Alabama Hills.

And if that isn’t enough for you, there are about 2 million acres of National Forest lands which feature alpine lakes, scenic canyon drives and more hiking and fishing than you’ll ever have time for.

Convict Lake Highway 395 in fall

When to Do the Highway 395 Drive

Unless you are a skier, winter is not a great time as many of the forest areas and Tioga Pass (via Yosemite) will be closed. Summer is a great time to visit, but it will be hot in the southern end. This is one of our favorite California road trip itineraries for October because the fall color is unbelievable.

Notable Places to Stay in the Eastern Sierra

Just for grins, you can rend a covered wagon at the Virginia Creek Settlement motel . And if you want to pick a central spot for your base, there are tons of condo rentals in Mammoth Lakes .

Torrey Pines state park San Diego, with ocean view.

  • Start /End: Los Angeles or San Diego
  • Miles : 120
  • Route : Highway 1, I-5, Coast Highway/El Camino Real

Forget Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo and the California Missions. This SoCal road trip itinerary is all about the shoreline. And there’s 120 sweet, sweet miles of it between the Los Angeles and San Diego airports.

For this road trip, be sure to override the Google mapping instructions. It will always steer you on the large freeways and this itinerary is best done on the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) and the slower surface roads.

Key stops in greater LA include: Manhattan Beach (stroll or bike The Strand), Huntington Beach (10 miles of uninterrupted sand), Newport Beach (electric Duffy Boat rentals), Catalina Island (old school beach resort) and Laguna Beach (Crystal Cove State Park), and Dana Point (whale watching).

Key stops in greater San Diego include: Carlsbad (spring ranunculus flowers), Encinitas (Moonlight Beach), Solana Beach (San Elijo Lagoon), Torrey Pines State Reserve, and La Jolla (sea lions and tide-pooling).

Dana Point beach and coastline

When to Do the South Coast Beaches

Try to avoid the May/June gloom season. Otherwise, go for it!

Notable Places to Stay in on the South Coast

Laguna Beach House , is a unique surf-themed ocean-front stay. The Hotel del Coronado is an old-school 130 year-old luxury resort hotel with historic architectural features and a prime spot on the beach. The Sea Bird is an oceanfront hotel in Oceanside, with a spa!

Death Valley trip- Mesquite Dunes at dawn. Sand dunes in shadow

  • Start/End : San Diego
  • Miles : 822
  • # of Days : 7-8
  • Route : San Diego, Julian, Salton Sea/Bombay Beach, Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, Kelso Dunes, Death Valley National Park, Ballarat, San Diego

This is one of the best winter California road trip itineraries for its vast open landscape. The southeastern California deserts include both the Sonoran and Mohave deserts. And what to some people is a whole lot of brown, to us is a surprisingly diverse ecosystem with a lot of subtle beauty.

And this lap from San Diego (or LA) shows off the best of CA’s deserts. This itinerary has a fun mix of forest, desert, weird geology and even offbeat art projects.

The first section includes Julian (apple cider and pies), Anza Borrego (hiking and metal sculptures), Slowjamistan (a weird micronation), the Slab City squatter community and the East Jesus art installation .

Center yourself in Palm Springs, taking in the mid-century vibe, palm oasis’ and a scenic lap around the Palms to Pines drive .

Spend at least a day in Joshua Tree (two is better), using our Joshua Tree hiking guide to prioritize which areas to explore, then head into Joshua Tree town for more quirky art projects.

Ignore the Google mapping instructions for how to get to Death Valley and instead, take the slow way to Death Valley via the Amboy Crater and Kelso Dunes. Then use our Death Valley visitor’s guide to plan your time there.

On the way back to San Diego, take the Trona Wildrose road out via Ridgecrest, stopping at Ballarat Death Valley Ghost town on the way out.

Scenic vista of the Palms to Pines scenic byway. curving road in desert

When to Do the California Deserts Loop

This whole region is volcanically hot in the summer. October to April is best and going between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is a very quiet time to be in the National Parks.

Notable Places to Stay on the California Deserts Loop

In Palm Springs, go for the Fleur Noire , a low-key spot with floral murals and rosé all day. Joshua Tree town has a ton of quirky trailers and cabins to rent , and the Inn at Death Valley is a fancy historic inn right in the heart of the park.

We’ve also got camping guides for Death Valley , info on hotels and motels in and near Death Valley , and also for Joshua Tree campgrounds .

Emerald Bay Scenic Lake Tahoe Drive lake and pine trees

The two CA road trip itineraries below combine several of the plans noted above into one larger itinerary.

  • Start/End : Anywhere along the loop
  • Miles : 900-1,000
  • # of days : 12-14 days

Glue together the Yosemite/Sequoia, Highway 49 and Highway 395 road trips into one epic, mountain adventure. This itinerary does a full lap around the Sierra Nevada range, with Lake Tahoe at the north end and Lake Isabella at the south end.

After you finish up Highway 49, head over to Lake Tahoe, where you can do a scenic drive around Tahoe . Head over to Highway 395 via either historic Carson City or take Highway 88 over Monitor Pass.

Once you’ve lapped Highway 395, ignore the Google maps instructions and head back over to the western Sierra via Highway 178 and Lake Isabella.

Yosemite National Park Hetch Hetchy

When to Do the Best of the Sierra Nevada Scenic Drive

This drive is best done between late May and early November. You’ll avoid snowy road closures. For any portion of the trip that occurs on a weekend (especially in Yosemite and Tahoe), be sure to book lodging ahead.

Bixby Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway

  • Start/End : San Francisco or LA
  • Miles : ~1,000 miles
  • # of Days : at least 14, more is better

This loop combines two of the most popular road trips in California: Yosemite/Sequoia and the Pacific Coast Highway from SF to LA.

You can do the drive in either direction, however we like doing the PCH from north-to-south as it’s easier for the scenic pullouts. Do not underestimate how much driving this is, so get an early start everyday and bake in some down time.

If you have extra days and want to spend some time in San Francisco, we have travel tips for SF first timers and a local’s guide to San Francisco .

If you don’t care to visit SF, just use Highway 152 to cut over from Yosemite directly to Monterey and start down Big Sur. If you don’t care to visit LA, head northeast from Ventura, on the scenic Highway 33 through the Los Padres National Forest to Ventacopa, then east from there.

When to Do California’s Most Epic Road Trip

November through April are the worst weather for both the Sierra Nevada range and Big Sur. You’ll also get some June gloom along the coast. We like April/May or July-October for this route.

Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road. Jack Kerouac

Got that right Jack! Enjoy your epic California road trip. Whichever of these routes you take, you are sure to have a most grant adventure.

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The top 5 road trips in California

Alexis Averbuck

Sep 10, 2023 • 4 min read

Bixby Bridge on the way from San Franciso to L.A.

The ultimate California road trips take you from sea to mountains and through desert and redwoods © Oleksandr Telesniuk / 500px

Road-tripping is the ultimate way to experience California , so fill the gas tank and buckle up for unforgettable drives through scenery that tugs at your heart and soul.

Get ready for memory-making encounters as you wheel through sensuous wine country, humbling redwood forests, epic desert expanses, endless miles of coastal highway and sky-touching Sierra Nevada peaks. Just make sure that rental car has unlimited miles – you'll need 'em all.

California is the third-largest state in the US , and you could easily spend weeks navigating its rural byways, safely distant from the nerve-jangling, often-jammed interstate system. These five classic road-tripping routes are soaked in enough epic scenery to make each deliciously slow, winding mile worthwhile.

A late afternoon view of Pacific Coast Highway (aka Highway 1) on the Central California coastline in the Big Sur area.

1. Pacific Coast Highway

Best road trip for world-class ocean views & autumn trips Dana Point at Interstate 5–Hwy 101 in Leggett; 656 miles

No matter if you follow the entire 656 miles or just a short stretch of coast-hugging Hwy 1 , you'll hit the Insta jackpot. Posing options include dramatic sea cliffs, sun-soaked surfing towns, playful harbor seals and the Golden Gate Bridge .

Our top pick for classic California dreamin’ snakes along the Pacific coast, although officially, only the short, sun-loving stretch of Hwy 1 through Orange and Los Angeles Counties can legally call itself Pacific Coast Hwy (PCH). Never mind those technicalities, because equally bewitching ribbons of Hwy 1 and Hwy 101 await all along this route.

Local tip: For best results, avoid driving the PCH in the spring and summer months, when the central and northern coastline can be socked in by fog and the rainy season can initiate landslides. Instead, September and October will yield the sunniest skies and some of the best weather as you spend a week checking this beaut off your bucket list.

Scenic road in the Mojave National Preserve

2. Route 66

Best for iconic drives & weekend drives Arizona border near Needles–Santa Monica; 315 miles

Get your kicks on America's “ Mother Road ,” which brought Dust Bowl refugees, Hollywood starlets and hippies to California. Cruise from the desert to the Pacific Ocean, pulling up alongside retro relics, sleeping in a tipi hotel and fueling up in neon-lit diners.

The Golden State was the promised land at the end of a long and sometimes lonesome road. Today you motor across the Mojave Desert – a relative breeze compared to times of yore – through famous western towns, like Barstow and Daggett, into the San Bernardino National Forest. Emerge in Pasadena and Los Angeles before dead ending into Hwy 1 in Santa Monica for a grand coastal-view payoff.

3. Gold Country and California Highway 49

Best for historic hills & family road trips Oakhurst–Nevada City; 200 miles

Follow Hwy 49 through the rough-and-tumble Sierra Nevada foothills, a stronghold of gold-rush history with thrilling, mostly true tales of banditry, bordellos and bloodlust.

That highway number is significant: it commemorates the ’49ers who came seeking fame and fortune in California’s original Gold Rush. Today the route winds through Gold Country towns such as Placerville and Nevada City, past ghostly Old West mines and Victorian buildings housing inns, restaurants and museums.

You won't want to miss the blend of western history and charming wineries strung along stunning views of the Sierra Nevada. Give yourself three to four days to enjoy this outdoorsy, family-friendly road trip. Summer and early fall are ideal times to go.

Detour: Hwy 49 comes mighty close to Yosemite National Park (15 miles) and Lake Tahoe (75 miles), both wonderful jumping-off points for family camping and natural majesty.

Avenue of the Giants California

4. Avenue of the Giants

Best for road trips with kids & raw redwood brilliance Stafford–Highway 101 junction; 32 miles

The incredible 32-mile road at Humboldt Redwoods State Park is canopied by the world's tallest trees, some of which were seedlings during the Roman Empire. It’s one of the most justifiably celebrated drives in California, a place where travelers stand with jaws agape and necks craned upward. The best time is in the morning when sunlight glints off dew-drenched ferns.

The route connects a number of small towns with mid-20th-century motels, diners serving “lumberjack” meals and pull-offs packed with Harleys.

Among the majestic groves along the Avenue, like the rightly famous Rockefeller Grove and the Founders’ Grove, the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove is home to an interesting four-sided hearth, designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan. Walking trails wind through all the groves for proper tree-hugging.

A road in Death Valley disappearing into the horizon

5. Desert Solitaire in Death Valley

Best road trip for moody moonscapes & winter or spring driving Palm Springs–Death Valley; 290 miles

Tank up and load the water onboard as you road-trip from Palm Springs through Palm Desert and Joshua Tree up to Death Valley . You’ll drive where California pioneers and gold miners once rolled their wagons. 

In Death Valley National Park the magnum forces of natural and human history collide. Artists Drive is nine miles of vividly variegated desert hills, a taster of the area’s sensuous sand dunes, water-sculpted canyons, rocks moving across the desert floor, extinct volcanic craters, palm-shaded oases, soaring mountains and endemic flora.

Local tip: Go between February and April for spring wildflower blooms and cooler temperatures. Give yourself three days to soak up sites like Badwater Basin (the lowest elevation in the US), Mesquite Flat and Emigrant & Wildrose Canyons .

This article was first published Jan 19, 2011 and updated Sep 10, 2023.

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Dotted Globe

Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary: From the Pacific to the Redwoods!

where to go on a road trip california

Are you looking for the best California road trip itinerary to explore the most beautiful places in the Golden State? Our 10 days in California itinerary will take you from the rugged coast and beautiful beaches to the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. Hike the Mojave desert, sleep underneath a yucca tree, and visit the lowest place on the continent while you road trip in California. Read our 10 day California Road Trip guide now. You may also like our post on 20 Best Road Trips in the USA .

Welcome to our ultimate California road trip planner!

We created this planner to help you plan the perfect road trip around California and it contains all the essential information you need to plan your trip today including budget and costs, what to eat, where to stay, etc.

Here you will find recommendations for a variety of California itineraries as well as get more information on California road trip must-see attractions including the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Sur, Yosemite, and Los Angeles.

Our mission? To make sure you have a blast in California!

Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur is the most scenic drive in the world

Also Read: Portland to San Francisco Road Trip Itinerary California To Texas road trip planner Best Things to do in Washington State

California is our favorite destination ever.

I have been enamored with California long before I visited it.

California, San Jose, and the West coast are randomly thrown around in conversations in India – because everyone knows someone working in Silicon Valley – and you can’t help but know about this slice of America.

Growing up, I knew more about Cisco, Apple, Google, and Yahoo (remember when everyone used Yahoo?!) than San Francisco, Yosemite, and Big Sur.

And Disney – because everyone knows Disney!

where to go on a road trip california

California has such a unique history.

The oldest, tallest, and widest trees live here and guess what, they have been around since prehistoric times – yes, even dinosaurs lived among the redwood trees!

One of the lowest, aridest, and hottest places on earth is right here in California in Badwater Basin.

And as for scenic places: California has so many of them!

We love Big Sur and its rocky coast, the wildflower super blooms, blue Lake Tahoe, Mono Lake and its tufas, unique shapes of Joshua trees!

There are so many things to see in California road trip that the list just goes on!

General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park during the winter

Also Read: 24 Best Places to Visit in California in winter

Dotted Globe contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Read my full  Disclosure  here. Thank you!

And that’s why in our California road trip itinerary of 10 days, we take you around all these unique and beautiful places in the Golden State.

Our California 10 day road trip itinerary is perfect for driving around dreamy landscapes of yellow poppies, orange orchards, purple foliage, and lush green vineyards.

We have divided this California roadtrip itinerary into 4 essential stretches as per the geographic features of the state – yepp, we are that geeky – and you can customize it as you want. 

Best waterproof walking shoes for California beaches

If you are a beach person like me, then extend the Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary to 10 days.

If you are a mountain lover like my hubby, then take a 10 day road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite.

Yosemite Valley Tunnel View in the winter

Pick your favorite area and stay there as long as you want. Or follow our California in 10 days itinerary exactly as described!

As always, we have also included suggestions for if you have more or less time.

Whatever you chose, you are going to have the time of your lives – because this is California!

Balboa Park's Casa de Balboa Building in San Diego, California

“Every time I come, I’m still amazed at the breadth California has. Big Sur, Yosemite, the desert… I love it.” – Theo James, the English actor

Best of California Road Trip 10 Days Itinerary

We, like most people, have seen California in bits and pieces rather than in one go.

We first visited California almost a decade ago and did San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the theme parks.

Second time around, we visited Death Valley National Park on a road trip from Vegas.

Then I lived and worked in the Bay area in tech (oh, the irony!) and that’s when we explored the California National Parks, North Coast, and the Sierra Nevada side of the state.

Our most popular posts: 22 Best City Breaks in the USA The Best Things to do in New York on your first visit Ultimate List of Best Places to visit in the USA

The Napa Valley Sign in Napa California

Most recently, we did the San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip along the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway – oh and also road-tripped Southern California and Disney with the kids.

On our next trip – we plan to do the North Coast and Redwoods Scenic Highway AGAIN.

Yeah – that’s how much we love California – have been to many destinations several times and still can’t have enough.

The best way to tour California is obviously by driving. The state is beautiful but huge and it’s not easy planning California trip that covers all the major attractions with limited time in hand.

Huntington Beach, California is sunny and warm in winter

And planning a California road trip with kids is even more difficult – how do you prioritize between theme parks and natural attractions?

And that’s where we rush in – your knights in shining armor – delivering the ultimate 10 day California road trip itinerary. 

Our California trip planner is more like going on a series of best California road trips – each more gorgeous than the previous.

Also, we follow this road trip along two of California’s most popular routes: south on the SR1 or Pacific Coast Highway and then back north along the scenic SR 395 through Eastern California .

That’s what makes our itinerary the absolute best California driving trip planner!

You can also call it the California National Parks road trip because we will be visiting the most popular of them on an epic road trip.

We hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

where to go on a road trip california

Stretch 1: Down The Pacific Coast – 4 Days

Often enough, when someone talks about a California driving holiday, this stretch along the Pacific Coast Highway is the one they actually mean.

Constantly ranked among the top scenic drives in the world, the coastal drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles is the best of both worlds.

It combines the urban getaways of California’s two largest cities with the natural panoramas of Big Sur and the Pacific. 

If you have limited time, we would recommend spending 3 to 4 days along this route.

If you want to focus only on this coastal road trip, then just drive south on a road trip from San Francisco on SR1.

Take your own time to enjoy roadside stops like Carmel-By-The-Sea, Morro Bay, and the stunning Big Sur.

Hike or camp and explore nature.

Here’s our suggestion for this stretch of 10 day California itinerary planner.

Union Square is the heart of Christmas festivities in San Francisco

San Francisco – 1 Day

Start with our San Francisco road trip planner.

San Francisco is our favorite city to start a 10 day California trip.

The city is quite easy to fly into; the 3 airports of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland are located close by and many airlines have deals to the Bay area.

We would recommend spending a minimum of one day in San Francisco before picking up your rental car and driving south.

Or you can rent a car before, see SF, and then drive the PCH.

You can also start your 10 day road trip from Los Angeles, in that case, adjust your plans accordingly.

San Francisco street cars look charming during the holidays

Read this now! Whatever you do – don’t casually park your car at an empty garage in San Francisco. Car Break-ins in San Francisco are very common, as we discovered to our ill-fortune . On our latest trip to San Francisco, we had parked in a garage two blocks away from Pier 39 and came back to find the rear glass broken and both our children’s suitcases gone!  We had to spend quite some time to sort the issue and it left a sad memory on an otherwise awesome road trip around California in 10 days. We would recommend parking at your hotel while taking a cab or the tram to explore the city. 

San Francisco has many names – SF, San Fran, Fog City, the City by the Bay, Frisco (though don’t say that in front of locals) or simply, the City – going back to the days of the Wild West when there was nothing much in Northern California but the city.

San Francisco is colorful, vibrant, and bohemian.

It’s amongst our favorite US cities – right there at the top along with New York , Chicago , and New Orleans.

San Francisco City Hall decorated for Christmas

There are quite a few things to do in San Francisco: unsurprisingly most of them begin at or near the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco’s gigantic urban park.

Begin your visit at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center near the southern end of the bridge.

Learn interesting facts and see construction relics from the building of the Golden Gate Bridge before visiting the bridge itself.

Next walk across all 1.7 miles of this engineering marvel and icon of America.

The views of the bay from the bridge are beautiful and you feel an indescribable thrill while walking across it.

Definitely the highlight of your California travel itinerary!

where to go on a road trip california

Up for more adventure?

Bike the Golden Gate!

We have done it twice – most recently with our 3 yrs and 6 months old kids – it is a superb experience.

We love biking across to Sausalito, exploring the quaint town, and taking the ferry back to San Francisco.

You can also bike to the redwoods if you have more time.

Read our ultimate guide to biking the bridge here.

If not biking, then use the rest of your day to explore San Francisco’s highlights: Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, Lombard Street, and Ghirardelli Square.

If you want to spend more time in San Francisco, see the Painted Ladies – those famous SF houses shown in Full House!

You can also check out the city from the Twin Peaks.

The Golden Gate Park is perfect for a stroll.

Ride the cable car to Chinatown and have some dumplings and noodles for lunch.

Spend an afternoon admiring the beautiful architecture of the Palace of Fine Arts or visit the prison of Alcatraz Island.

Visit the beautiful redwood trees at Muir Woods National Monument or whale watch and hike at Point Reyes.

San Francisco is a beautiful city and you can easily spend a couple of days there as a part of your 10 day trip to California.

Read our San Francisco posts now to plan this part of the trip: San Francisco 3 to 5-day itinerary ideas 17 Best Things to do in San Francisco on your first visit

The area around San Francisco is also full of activities and tourist attractions.

Here are some suggestions if you want to spend a few more days exploring around the Bay Area during your California itinerary of 10 days:

Napa & Sonoma 

Take a day trip from San Francisco to Napa Valley along the Silverado Trail.

Sonoma County is also a great place to visit for wine lovers.

You can tour the many vineyards, taste local wines, dine at Michelin starred restaurants, and visit famous tasting rooms.

If you happen to visit in the fall, you will see beautiful fall colors in the vineyards and be able to attend grape stomping. 

San Jose is popular with millennials and those working in Silicon Valley.

You will find plenty of trendy nightclubs and bars in San Jose.

If you enjoy shopping, check out the high fashion brands on Santana Row.

For outdoor lovers, a hike to Mission Peak is a must while families will love the Winchester Mystery House.

Silicon Valley

If you love tech then you need to visit Silicon Valley.

It boasts the largest concentration of geeks and nerds – and as a fellow geek, I say it quite fondly!

Start your visit at the Computer History Museum to know everything about the machine that changed our lives.

Then see Google’s Android lawn sculptures in Mountain View or the garage where Hewlett Packard began in Palo Alto.

Visit Stanford University’s sprawling campus as well as Facebook and Apple!

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip – 2 Days

On to the next part of the 10 day road trip in California.

After seeing San Francisco, drive south along the SR1 or Pacific Coast Highway.

Over the next 2 days, you will follow the coastal route to Los Angeles while making plenty of stops along the way.

Check the coastal communities of Half Moon Bay and Davenport before reaching Santa Cruz.

If you have kids, spend some time at the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk.

Next visit Monterey and Carmel by the Sea. Hike in Point Lobos or walk the coastal bluffs at Garrapata State Park.

On the way, you will see secret beaches, hidden coves, and beautiful views. 

Wineries near paso Robles in Central California

As you begin driving PCH1 while following our 10 days in California itinerary, you understand why artists settle here, photographers and writers both wax lyrical about this region, and why the drive is called the most beautiful in the world.

We recommend staying somewhere in the vicinity of Carmel Highlands for the night.

The next day, rise early for the star attraction of the drive: the 90-mile long rugged, wild Big Sur.

Big Sur is 6 hours from Los Angeles and you have a big day ahead.

It is really hard to describe Big Sur.

Rocky cliffs, foaming waves, spring wildflowers, lighthouses, migrating whales, turquoise water, redwood trees: Big Sur has everything.

December in California is the perfect time to go whale watching near Monterey

It is gorgeous in a wild way.

In Big Sur, you will find amazing state parks, some of California’s best hiking trails, iconic beaches, and tons of marine life, including otters, elephant seals, and dolphins.

Some areas of Big Sur can be closed at any given time of the year due to floods or landslides – so we recommend checking out the PCH status before your 10 days road trip California.

Beach hiking trails in Monterey California

Read more about all the attractions including the beautiful McWay Falls in our post One day in Big Sur . 

Other attractions of the Pacific Coast Highway drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles include Monterey’s famous 17-mile drive, the seaside towns of Pismo Beach and Morro Bay, the famous Hearst Castle, Santa Barbara, and the beaches of Malibu.

For the purposes of this California Itinerary of 10 days, we would suggest 2 to 3 days on PCH.

However, if you have more time then the PCH is easily a 4 day to week-long road trip in itself.

To read more about all the awesome stops on PCH and planning a detailed itinerary, check out our article on Planning a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway . 

Also Read: Top 10 Convertible drives in the USA

where to go on a road trip california

Los Angeles – 1 Day

While San Francisco and Silicon Valley are for tech lovers, Los Angeles is for Hollywood fans.

How long to stay in Los Angeles is a tricky question.

If you only have one day in Los Angeles, start by seeing the famous Hollywood sign and then visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame to take selfies with your favorite stars.

Also, see the Kodak Theatre (now Dolby Theatre) which hosts the Oscars and tour the movie star homes on Rodeo Drive.

Venice canals at Christmas in Los Angeles

If you have more time to explore Los Angeles, we suggest starting with lunch at the Santa Monica Pier.

Then visit the Griffith Observatory and see Los Angeles from above.

Or you can take a behind the scenes VIP studio tour at one of your favorite studios: pick from Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures or Sony!

You can also check out the beautiful exhibits at the Getty Center or the beautiful modern art at the Broad.

LA also has many other top museums and a large number of attractions – read our post on Best Things to do in Los Angeles for more ideas.

For more help in planning your day, read our Los Angeles itinerary for first-time visitors .

where to go on a road trip california

Here are some suggestions to explore the area beyond Downtown Los Angeles:

No California family road trip is complete without a trip to Disney.

Both of California’s Disney Parks are located close to Los Angeles in Anaheim.

On the best California vacation itinerary, you have to meet Mickey, Goofy and other beloved cartoon characters!

Kids also get to meet Disney’s princesses in full attire at the parks.

To plan a California family vacation itinerary including a trip to Disney, read our Disney posts .

Universal Studios

To understand all about movie-making, see movie sets, and enjoy thrilling rides visit Universal Studios.

This theme park has really cool attractions and the Studio Tour will take you through sets based on Shutter Island, Jaws, King Kong, and more.

Harry Potter fans will love visiting Hogwarts and taking thrilling rides based on the books and movies – and is a must-visit if you are spending 10 days in California.

Colorful houses near Santa Cruz, California

Channel Islands National Park

For a unique experience, customize our itinerary for California 10 days and visit the remote Channel Islands.

Comprised of 5 islands, the park has excellent wildlife, sea caves, and lots of natural beauty.

You can take a ferry to the park from Ventura.

Optional: San Diego – 1 Day

From Los Angeles, you can venture on the next part of California 10 day itinerary or extend your trip down the coast by visiting San Diego.

Not many people know that San Diego is the oldest city on the West Coast.

It has beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture and lots of history. 

San Diego, California, downtown skyline

Read our post 22 Best Things to do in San Diego now to know more about this beautiful city.

If you have one day, you can visit the Historic Old Town and understand the Mexican and Wild West roots of the city.

Next, visit the famous Balboa Park with its beautiful architecture, renowned museums, and the San Diego Zoo.

Round off your time in the city by exploring the historic Gaslamp Quarter and its Victorian architecture and trendy eateries, hotels, and pubs.

This area is perfect for ending the day with dinner and drinks.

where to go on a road trip california

If you have more than a day, visit the famous San Diego Sea World and see the dolphins in action.

San Diego is home to many beautiful beaches; the Mission Beach boardwalk is very popular.

Other things to see include Mission San Diego, Sunset Cliffs Park, and the bustling waterfront area of Seaport Village.

If you have more time on 10 day itinerary California, check out the dramatic sculptures in the desert city of Borrego Springs.

Related: For more California road trip ideas, check out our post on 12 Best California road trips

Christmas decorations in Old San Diego Town California

Stretch 2: Through The Arid Californian Desert – 2 Days

Continue on the California road trip route planner through deserts of southern California.

While most people associate California primarily with the coast and then with the dense redwood forests, the state is also renowned for its unique desert landscapes.

Most of these parts of southern California have a desolate beauty.

It is full of desert cities like Palm Springs which offer unique tourist attractions for visitors.

In this post, we focus our California 10 days itinerary on exploring two of the region’s national parks: Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park.

Joshua Tree Landscape

Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day

Located partly over the Colorado desert and the Mojave desert, Joshua Tree National Park is named after the iconic Joshua tree.

This is a type of Yucca tree that is twisted, scraggly, and found only in the Mojave desert of California.

The easily recognizable tree looks even more dramatic in the desert landscape and bare rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park.

The national park is one of the most underrated California road trip destinations.

Its unique vistas have drawn photographers and artists to the park for decades.

Read our post on One Day in Joshua Tree to plan your trip.

where to go on a road trip california

There are many things to do in Joshua Tree and its otherworldly landscape.

One of the best ways to see Joshua Tree is by driving around the paved road in the park.

Campsites in Joshua Tree are spectacular and hikes through Yucca trees and cacti adventurous.

The Hidden Valley Trail is a short mile-long trail that offers great desert landscape views.

The park has many popular geological rock formations that are used for rock climbing.

The park also has a dark night sky and is good for stargazers, astronomy enthusiasts, and night sky photographers.

Wildlife and birding opportunities around the park are also numerous.

Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park at sunrise

Read more in our post 24 Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park .

While deciding how to plan a trip to California, we recommend keeping more time aside to explore the many attractions surrounding Joshua Tree.

You can easily include them on a South California road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree in this order: San Diego – Anza Borrego – Galleta Meadows – Salton Sea – Palm Springs – Joshua Tree.

Here’s some more information about these desert experiences that are worth adding to your itinerary if you have the time.

Salton Sea 

The Salton Sea is an inland lake created by flooding from an irrigation canal of the Colorado River that carries water to the Imperial Valley in 1905.

Several resort communities were built along the new lake.

However, the lake has no discharge and as a result, the water became unusually saline causing the death of marine life.

As a result, the communities were abandoned and are extremely popular with ruin photographers.

If you have teens, then definitely include Bombay Beach ruins in your California vacation itinerary – they will love to see random objects lying on the beach.

Today, the Salton Sea shoreline is filled with deteriorating structures and RV communities.

The Salton Sea is also located directly on top of the San Andreas fault and geothermal activity including mud pools are present along the coast.

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is popular for birding, boating, picnicking, and camping. 

Beautiful interior of the church at the Santa Barbara Mission in California near Christmas

Palm Springs

Palm Springs, located in the Colorado desert region, is one of the biggest Californian desert cities.

If you want a relaxing vacation, then Palm Springs is one of the best California ideas.

One of its main attractions is the Palm Springs aerial tramway which takes you up Mount San Jacinto and offers great views of the surrounding area.

Palm Springs also has many great museums, boutique stores, restaurants, and resorts.

It is one of the most popular winter vacation destinations in the USA.

If you plan to visit Palm Springs, then check out our post on 30 Best Things to do in Palm Springs, California.

Palm Springs California in amazing to visit in December

Anza Borrego and Galleta Meadows Sculptures in Borrego Springs

While California has many beautiful state parks, few know about its largest – Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

This park is at its most beautiful in the spring when the cacti flower and the desert landscape comes alive with colors.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is just two hours away from San Diego and can be seen on a San Diego Joshua Valley road trip.

In nearby Borrego Springs, you can see the unusual Galleta Meadows Estate sculptures.

These sculptures created by artist Ricardo Breceda are free to visit and beautiful works of art.

By driving all over the land you can spot dragons, serpents, wooly mammoths, and other fantastic creatures.  

Also, read our post on Planning the ultimate Southern California itinerary.

where to go on a road trip california

Coachella Valley Preserve 

Coachella’s Thousand Palms Oasis is a unique chance to see the oasis environment in the middle of the desert.

The oases directly sit on fault lines and the water seeping through the faults has given life to California Fan Palms and other big palms in the arid desert.

Wildlife including sheep, goats, bobcats, etc, also can be spotted at the oasis.

Entry to the reserve is free and it has many hiking trails plus offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.

There are also other hiking areas close to Coachella Valley Preserve including Indian Canyons where you can hike through slot canyons. 

Scenic road to Death Valley National park, California

Death Valley National Park – 1 Day

Comprising of areas of the Mojave desert and the Great Basin desert, Death Valley is vastly different than Joshua Tree National Park.

For the most part, Death Valley is devoid of vegetation and is home to a variety of geological formations including the badlands, sand dunes, and the famous salt flats.

Death Valley also has the distinction of being the lowest point in North America and is also one of the hottest and driest places in the country.

where to go on a road trip california

No trip to Death Valley National Park is complete without visiting the Badwater Basin salt flats.

The salt flats, at 282 feet below sea level, are the lowest place in North America.

Death Valley National Park has many scenic drives that are perfect for exploring around the park.

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes are good for taking a stroll, exploring the desert plants, viewing animal tracks, and sunrise/sunset photography.

The park has many interesting geological formations.

Death Valley also has a dark night sky and is great for stargazing and photographing the Milky Way.

Read our post on 14 Best Things to do in Death Valley National Park for more information.

Badlands view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park at Dusk, California

We know you are planning to roadtrip California, but we can’t talk about Death Valley without mentioning Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is also a great city to begin your road trip to California.

The distance between Vegas and Death Valley is just over 2 hours and the route is quite scenic.

In fact, it is one of our favorite road trips from Las Vegas.

You can see the Sin City and then go on a road trip through California – an epic Las Vegas Los Angeles San Francisco trip, if you will!

Or you can also go on a memorable Las Vegas Grand Canyon road trip from California.

For Las Vegas travel inspiration, read our post on 52 Best Things to do in Las Vegas .

Frozen Convict Lake surrounded by mountains on a winter day;

Stretch 3: Up Through The Sierra Nevada – 4 Days

After seeing Death Valley, take a road trip on California’s Scenic Highway 395.

This road trip is scenic whether you do it from north to south or like we recommend here, from south to north.

The best time to see the aspens turn yellow here is in fall.

The total distance from Death Valley to your final destination of Yosemite is 4 hours when the Lee Vining road to Yosemite is open in the summer.

However, we recommend keeping aside 4 days for this road trip as it has some of the most underrated road trip destinations in California including the Manzanar National Historic Site, Alabama Hills, Ancient Bristlecone pine forest, Bodie Ghost Town, etc.

For more information on these Route 395 stops, see this article .

Roads in Kings Canyon National Park in winter

For the purposes of this itinerary, we focus on the popular attractions of Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe. 

Route 395 will take you high up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, known for their spectacular beauty.

The Sierra Nevadas are home to many national and state parks including the mighty Yosemite and crystal clear high mountain lakes.

For the rest of your Californian road trip, you will be exploring the High Sierras and its many breathtaking attractions.

This is a welcome respite after the desert landscapes of Death Valley and Joshua Tree and depending on when you visit you will be able to see beautiful meadows, wildflowers, fall foliage, and even snow!

Lake Tahoe looks spectacular even in the winter

Mammoth Lakes And Mono Lake – 1 Day

Contrary to their name, Mammoth Lakes is not a lake but a winter ski town in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Mammoth Mountain is the main winter skiing area with a variety of ski runs.

In summer, it is a favorite with mountain bikers and hikers.

The town does have several beautiful lakes that are accessible only in the summer but none of them are named Mammoth.

The area has beautiful alpine meadows with wildflowers in spring and natural hot springs for some R&R.

In one day, we recommend taking the roughly one hour drive around the Lakes Basin and visiting all the lakes.

You can hike, picnic, kayak, and fish in whichever lake you like.

Or maybe just hang up a hammock and read a book by the lake.

where to go on a road trip california

Nearby Mono Lake is a saltwater lake surrounded by unique towering limestone formations called the tufa.

The lake visitor center has great information about the formation of the lake and the tufa while the short South Tufa trail is great for exploring the surrounding area.

The trail takes you along the lakeshore and among the tufas.

We suggest stopping here for an hour or so; Mono Lake accepts National Park Pass for entry.

On the way from Mammoth Lakes to Mono Lake, you will pass by June Lake and Devils Postpile Monument.

Enjoy snowshoeing on Lake Tahoe in winter

June Lake Loop Road is a great place to see the fall colors while the Devils Postpile National Monument is a unique geological formation of basalt columns.

Rainbow Falls, a 31m plunging waterfall, is another popular attraction of the monument.

Past Mono Lake, take the Lee Vining Road into Yosemite.

The official name of the road is Tioga Pass Road and it is closed in winter and spring (usually November to May) due to snow.

In that case, you can’t really visit Yosemite from the eastern side.

To know alternative routes in winter, check here . 

where to go on a road trip california

Yosemite National Park – 2 Days

Best known for its giant sequoia trees, bald granite cliffs, and spectacular waterfalls, Yosemite National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Yosemite along with Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park is known as the ‘Big Three’ and receives over 4 million visitors each year.

Yosemite is a must-stop on any Ca road trip itinerary.

The best time to visit Yosemite National Park is from the summer to fall when Tioga Pass Road is open.

Beautiful winter scenery in Yosemite National Park, California

We suggest spending 2 days in Yosemite National Park to hike, drive along scenic roads, and see the major attractions. 

On your first day, start by taking a Yosemite Valley Tour.

The Yosemite Valley is surrounded by the bald granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome.

Most of the waterfalls including Yosemite Falls are also located in the valley.

The Valley is also where most of the park services including accommodations, shuttle buses, etc are located.

The Valley has hiking trails for all difficulty levels that lead to stunning views of Yosemite.

Lower Yosemite Falls hike is a short and easy trail that goes to the base of the falls.

where to go on a road trip california

Touring the Yosemite Valley via the free shuttle bus is the easiest way to see the national park.

However, if you are visiting in summer (especially long weekends) it can get very crowded – so plan to start early in the morning.

The Valley Visitor Center has great information and exhibits about the history and geology of Yosemite, plus it is a good place to get souvenirs, postcards, and magnets.

The aptly-named Mirror Lake reflects Half Dome peak and is beautiful to visit.

However, it dries up towards the end of summer and is best seen in spring/summer. 

Another must in the Valley if you’re visiting in summer is Glacier Point.

Located along the valley rim, it can be reached only by car or private tour.

The views from Glacier Point are stellar. It is also the base for many of Yosemite’s rim hikes.

We suggest spending one day exploring the valley. Yosemite also offers paid guided tours if you prefer them.

where to go on a road trip california

On the next day, you can go up the Tioga Pass road if it is clear of snow.

This is your chance to experience Yosemite devoid of the crowds.

The shuttle bus will take you up the Tioga Pass road to Tuolumne Meadows.

To see Yosemite’s giant sequoia trees, visit the Mariposa Grove.

This area is also accessible by the park shuttle.

End your day by visiting Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village.

Photographer Ansel Adams’s stunning black and white photos of Yosemite are a great reminder of how Yosemite looked over half a century ago.

Lake Tahoe And Emerald Bay – 1 Day

If you continue along Route 395 from Yosemite, you will reach lake Tahoe.

Note: Route 395 itself does not reach Lake Tahoe, so you will be following 207 from the Nevada side. 

The deep blue water of Lake Tahoe surrounded by snow-clad mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevadas is one of California’s iconic images.

Located on the California-Nevada border, Lake Tahoe is a popular travel destination for Californians throughout the year.

In winter it is popular for snowshoeing, skiing, and sledding.

Summer in Lake Tahoe is made for biking and camping.

In fall, the area around Lake Tahoe comes alive with spectacular fall foliage and is one of the top fall drives in the country .

South Lake Tahoe or the California side is best for enjoying the outdoors and nature with family while the Nevada side has lots of casinos and is more touristy.

where to go on a road trip california

Crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe (CC 2.0 – Christian Abend )

The drive around Lake Tahoe is 72 miles long and takes about three hours.

It is highly scenic and one of the best road trips in California.

Much of the shoreline of Lake Tahoe is public and the views of the lake from the drive are stunning.

The lake looks a pretty shade of blue during the day and taking a beautiful picture of the water is a highlight of your visit.

An essential stop along the drive is the Emerald Bay State Park.

The drive here is spectacular and the views of the turquoise lake are lovely.

There are many other ways to enjoy Lake Tahoe.

You can take a helicopter tour or enjoy watersports on the lake.

The Sierra Nevada mountain ranges are an absolute delight for outdoor and nature lovers.

What you will see in these 4 days is just the tip of the iceberg.

The High Sierras have many beautiful alpine valleys, lakes, ghost towns, waterfalls, and hiking trails worth exploring.

If you can spend more time in the Sierra Nevada, then here are some other must attractions:

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks 

These are the two other national parks located in the High Sierras.

The giant sequoias surround you as you drive the park roads creating a surreal and unique experience.

The twisting and turning roads here are not for the faint-hearted (hint: carry some Dramamine!).

Both national parks have great hiking trails and lots of wildlife.

John Muir Trail

While it is not possible to hike in a short time, John Muir Trail deserves a special mention.

This is a long-distance trail in the Sierra Nevada and passes through Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks.

It is as renowned as the Appalachian or the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Bodie Ghost Town

The old mining ghost town of Bodie is an hour away from Mammoth Lakes.

Preserved as a state park, the town is full of historic saloons and deserted buildings.

While Sacramento is not in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, the city is on the way while returning to San Francisco from Lake Tahoe and makes for a great addition to our California road trip itinerary recommendations.

One of the top attractions in Sacramento is the California State Railroad Museum.

where to go on a road trip california

Stretch 4: Along The Wild North Coast

There are many things to do in Northern California including national parks, scenic drives, beautiful coastal towns, and more.

You will need another 5 days minimum to fully explore the Northern part of the state.

Hence, we do not recommend covering the North Coast if you are following this California Road Trip Itinerary for 10 Days – you simply won’t have time.

The best way to explore this region is to plan a separate road trip in the northern part of the state, the details of which you can read here in our post, Ultimate Northern California road trip itinerary .

California’s North Coast is less visited, unspoiled, and partially unexplored compared to the famous central Coast and the crowded southern coast.

The prehistoric coastal redwood trees grow in groves along the road all the way up to Oregon.

Hwy 1 ends at Leggett where it joins Hwy 101.

While the road follows the coast, for the most part, it turns inward in the area of the Lost Coast.

The remote Lost Coast as the name suggests is devoid of major highways and remains the ultimate adventure for a 10 day trip to California.

where to go on a road trip california

However, the coast is not the only unique thing about Northern California.

The northern part of the state is also home to geothermal activity.

You can climb lava tunnels at Lava Beds National Monument and see volcanic craters, domes, mud pools, etc at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Here are a few attractions of the region:

Redwoods National and State Park

The Redwoods National and State Parks were created to preserve the old-growth redwood forests.

The Redwoods are the tallest living trees on Earth and also among the oldest.

The National Park and state parks are also home to a number of endangered animals including spotted owl, species of sea lions, etc.

The unique environment of the dense redwood forests by the coast has resulted in the park being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Seeing the Redwoods covered in fog during winter or spring is a surreal experience.

Point Reyes

Point Reyes National Seashore, located in Marin County, preserves a large swath of northern California’s coastal wilderness.

Most popular attractions at Point Reyes include Alamere Falls on Wildcat Beach and Point Reyes Lighthouse.

Other attractions include the endangered tule elk herd that can be seen around Tomales Point, Native American redwood houses, earthquake trail, and dramatic cliffside beaches.

where to go on a road trip california

Avenue of the Giants

Avenue of the Giants is an over 30 miles long scenic highway that passes through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and its mighty coastal redwood trees.

Roadside attractions include tunnels cut into redwood trees, giant groves, and unique roadside attractions like a house created from a single redwood log and a Redwood RV.

We suggest hiking in the Redwood groves to experience the truly gigantic trees.

The quaint seaside town of Mendocino is quite different from the coastal towns on the Central Coast.

It reminded me of Maine and the coastal upper East coast due to its Victorian mansions painted in pretty pastel colors.

The town is a historical landmark and very pretty to wander and explore.

Nearby Mendocino Headlands State Park and Russian Gulch State Park are worth a visit.

Nearby Fort Bragg is no fort but a lumber town on the North Coast.

The famous ‘Glass Beach’ of which I’m sure you have seen pics floating around on social media is in Fort Bragg.

The beach is a part of MacKerricher State Park, a state park with amazing views of the undeveloped headlands, beaches, and tide pools.

Another popular attraction in Fort Bragg is the Skunk Train – a railroad built to haul timber logs from the redwood forests.

Other attractions on the North Coast include the pretty Victorian towns of Ferndale and Eureka, Del Norte Redwood State Park, and the seaport community of Crescent City.

More 10 Day California itinerary ideas for slow travelers

You can use our California road trip planner to customize your itinerary based on your interests. 

If you can only spend 10 days in California, then seeing all the above attractions can be overwhelming; here are a few suggestions for those who like slow travel.

California coast road trip itinerary

One great option is to go on a 10 day pacific coast highway trip or 10 day west coast road trip.

That way you can spend more time in the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles while seeing Big Sur at a leisurely pace. 

On this San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip in 10 days, you can tour the lighthouses, hike the trails, picnic on the beach, visit the wineries of the Central Coast, and enjoy nature – seriously the best road trip in California. 

You can even do the San Francisco to San Diego road trip in 10 days.

In that case, we would recommend keeping aside 2 days each for the 3 major cities and spending the rest of the time in the Big Sur region. 

This San Francisco 10 days trip lets you enjoy the beauty of the coast while visiting the Sierra Nevadas and the desert later.

California National Parks itinerary

California has 9 national parks – all of them are unique and make for an exciting California National park road trip. 

You can visit either the most popular ones or all of them, depending on how much time you want to spend in each park. 

We would suggest starting from Los Angeles, then seeing Joshua Tree and Death Valley before visiting Kings Canyon and Sequoia. 

Then see the beautiful Yosemite Valley. From Yosemite, head north to Lassen and then finally see Redwoods parks before returning to San Francisco. 

You can also see Pinnacles and Channel Islands if you have the time, to complete the national parks in California road trip. 

You can also use this route for creating your own California RV trip itinerary, since most national parks have RV campgrounds. 

Northern California road trip itinerary

Another great option for those who like slow travel is to plan a Northern California itinerary for 10 days. 

Start your road trip from San Francisco and drive along the less visited North Coast and see the majestic redwood trees. 

Drive along the Redwoods Scenic Byway before turning towards the mountains and exploring the caves at Lava Tubes National Monument. 

Visit Mount Shasta on your way to Lassen Volcanic National Park and end your trip in Sacramento, a couple of hours away from San Francisco. 

For more information on how to plan a California road trip focusing on the northern part of the state, read our in-depth post on Northern California road trip .

If you have less time: California itinerary 7 days

If you can’t spare 10 days, then we also have suggestions for 7 day California road trip routes. 

With only 7 days in california, we would recommend focusing on one region and exploring it at a leisurely pace. 

Of course, you can opt for a 7 day southern California itinerary or a 7 day California coast road trip along the PCH, but you can also consider some unique road trip ideas in California which explore its most popular attractions. 

Here are our favorites if you want to see the best of California in a week:

7 day road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite

If you are wondering how to spend a week in California but still see the most popular attractions, then this itinerary is for you. 

Start your road trip in San Francisco, see the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Mission District, Fisherman’s Wharf etc in two days. 

Then spend a day in Napa Valley and nearby Calistoga before seeing Sacramento.

In Sacramento, see the state capitol and the railroad museum then make your way to Yosemite National Park. 

Take a tour of the Yosemite Valley and see the famous El Capitan as well as the many waterfalls.

Enjoy the panoramic view from the Tunnel View Outlook. 

Then depending on the season, visit the Tuolumne Meadows area.

Return to San Francisco to complete 7 day road trip in California.

North California coast road trip

This California 1 week itinerary is perfect for slow travel. 

Land in San Francisco and take a day or two to explore it’s many attractions.

Then rent a car and drive north. 

Part of this road trip is on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 till Legett, after which you will be driving along the famous Redwood scenic byway. 

For your first stop, explore the beautiful Point Reyes.

See the lighthouse and the shipwreck, then eat oysters in Tomales Bay. 

Drive along the Avenue of the Giants and pass through the Redwood tunnels. 

Hike in the prehistoric Fern Canyon and visit the glass beach at Fort Bragg, then last stop at Eureka or Crescent City to finish the California coast 7 day itinerary.

7 Day Southern California trip itinerary

For this ca road trip planner, begin your trip with a day or two in San Diego or Los Angeles and then wind your way around Southern California’s desert attractions. 

See famous Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.

Enjoy the fantastic landscape of the Mojave desert and drink a delicious date shake.

See the sculptures in Borrego Springs. 

Then visit Anaheim and enjoy the theme parks.

There are also many things to do in Anaheim besides Disney. 

7 Day California Coast Road Trip

This is one of the most popular california driving holidays itineraries.

Follow this California road trip itinerary 7 days along the world famous Pacific Coast Highway. 

See the major cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Explore the charming mountain side towns of Pismo Beach and Morro Bay. Learn to surf and spot the elephant seals. 

Spend some time hiking and enjoying the wild, rugged vibe of Big Sur.

Take a tour of the Point Sur Lighthouse and hike down to Keyhole Rock. Go whale watching. 

If you have more time: California road trip itinerary 14 days

This two week california driving itinerary is perfect for long summer vacations, when most parts of the state including the High Sierras are completely accessible. 

Just use our main California trip planner, but add in all optional ideas including San Diego and the beautiful northern coast. 

Then see the Lassen Volcanic National Park area and visit the beautiful Burney Falls from Redding.

Spend some time in Mount Shasta and head back to San Francisco to complete California 2 week itinerary.

We hope you liked our California road trip blog.

Now you have everything ready to plan your perfect California trip itinerary, so make the most of it.

Did we miss any hidden gems in the Golden State?

Which part of the road trip did you enjoy the most? Let us know in the comments!

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California Road Trip Itinerary: 19 Must-Visit Stops!

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Let me help you plan your epic California road trip itinerary! Trust me; you’ll need all the help you can get to tackle this enormous and diverse state.

After visiting the state several times, getting blown away each time, and realizing the hype is REAL—I had to share what I did and how I did it so you can have an equally fantastic time visiting this gorgeous state. California has literally everything. There are incredible coastlines, verdant forests, unreal national parks, sparkling lakes, snow-capped peaks, and barren but beautiful deserts… What more can you ask for?!

On this California road trip, you get a taste of them ALL. While the entire state has thousands of things to do, I don’t think any of us have time for a year-long road trip just in California, although that does sound amazing.

I had to narrow it down for you to get a taste of everything in just a few weeks. So here we go; here are 19 must-visit stops on a California road trip!

Table of Contents

California Road Trip Itinerary

Where to start your california itinerary, california road trip itinerary tips, getting around on your california road trip, how long should your california road trip be, 1. kelso dunes hike, 2. explore a lava tube, where to stay near mojave desert, 3. zabriskie point, 4. artists pallete, 5. golden canyon, where to stay near death valley, 6. movie road, where to stay near alabama hills, 7. june lakes loop, where to stay near june lakes, 8. glacier point, 9. sentinel dome, 10. vernal falls, where to stay near yosemite, 14. muir woods national monument, 15. golden gate bridge, where to stay near san francisco, 11. 17 mile drive, 12. carmel by the sea, 13. point lobos, where to stay near monterey, 16. big sur, 17. pismo beach, 18. santa barbara, 19. venice beach, where to stay along highway 1, 17 legendary american road trips, your southwest road trip itinerary (1 week - 2 months), your adventurous arizona road trip, your adventurous utah road trip, seattle to san francisco west coast road trip adventures and waterfalls, your adventurous montana road trip.

As we’ve discussed, California is massive. Like literally… It’s the third-largest state in the country, and it also holds some of the country’s most epic, gorgeous, and incredible natural landscapes.

where to go on a road trip california

It’s impossible to fit everything into one trip, so while you’re planning this California road trip, you might need to also start planning your return because you’ll undoubtedly want to come back!

The main thing to note about this California Itinerary is that we will focus on the central and some southern parts of the state. If you want to check out some of the other things to do in the north, check out my Seattle to San Francisco road trip or this post on awesome things to do in Northern California .

Honestly, there isn’t much of a difference. As you’ll see below, I’ll tell you where to rent a vehicle from, and from there, you might find starting in a particular city might be cheaper than the other depending on the time of year and your vehicle choice.

It would be best if you started in a big city as it’s much easier to rent a vehicle and your pool of cars to choose from will be ideal as well. So beginning in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento would be your best choice. For me, my friend lives in LA, so I started there.

Women looking over the mountains on Yosemite road trip

With that said, we started there and immediately left the city and instead checked out LA last, which was perfect, in my opinion.

Starting in the desert, then getting into the national parks while leaving the populated cities and the coast as our refuge for the last part of our trip worked well. We had way more energy at the start of the journey, so we did the “harder” areas first, where resources were slimmer and more energy was needed.

Then towards the end of our road trip, we got tired. So being near proper stores and having the coast as a relaxing spot towards the end of our trip was awesome.

  • Download the GasBuddy app to get the cheapest gas around, any amount of money saved is worth it when road tripping California!
  • California has some intense weather and it varies so much across the state. Winter closes roads, and during the summer fires can spread quickly. Always stay up to date on the weather and nature around you.
  • With that in mind, also think about seasons. California ia great year round, but I accidentally ended up doing this road trip during one of the worst heat waves! Oops! You kind of have to be prepared for EVERYTHING in California.
  • Bring tons of water at all times. I loved having my Grayl so I can drink pretty much any water I want and it filtered it to be safe and tasty. Defintiely bring a filter water bottle!
  • Download Google Maps and the specific areas of California before you trip. I also download as another back up. It also has more trail info while Google doesn’t.
  • You’ll be in and out of service, download tons of playlists too.
  • I also starred tons of possible campsites on Google Maps just in case before the trip too so if I had no service or access to apps that need the internet, I at least have known campsites in the area starred and the ability to navigate to them.
  • Get the National Park pass ! If you plan on popping into a few national parks and spreading your time out too, then you’ll need one.

Well, you’re going to need a car, that’s for sure! Unless you have your own, there are two places I would look:

Car Rentals – You can check here for current car rental deals anywhere in the world.

Our Rv for our California road trip

Outdoorsy – The #1 site for renting vans and RVs, which are by far the best way to go! A road trip is better when you can sleep where you adventure, in my opinion. In fact, you can rent my friend’s RV that we used to do this trip right here .

Like we already discussed, you could take a whole year and probably not see it all!

The below itinerary took me about three weeks! I started in LA, and this is roughly how my weeks went…

California Itinerary Week 1 – Mojave, Death Valley, Alabama Hills

California Itinerary Week 2 – June Lakes and Yosemite

California Itinerary Week 3 – The Coast

Surfers entering the water in Monterey

Don’t forget how massive this state is, and don’t underestimate your drive times. You’ll also need to re-up your food, get gas very frequently (and pay through the nose, AH!), as well as bathroom breaks and other stops.

This road trip will take time and LOTS of driving. So while you may only spend 4-5 days total exploring, you’ll need those extra two days for driving between places, chilling, and random stops. Take this all into account when planning your road trip.

You’ll need to add even more time if you plan on adding some of these northern California stops too!

Alright, I think that’s enough prepping, let’s get into the good stuff. What to do on your California road trip!

California Road Trip Itinerary: Mojave National Preserve

Although the Mojave Desert is one of the smallest in North America, it still packs a lot of punch, and its small size means you’ll be able to witness many of its highlights with relative ease.

Joshua tree in the Mojave Desert

To many, it may seem like a pretty stark and desolate place. Still, if you look beyond the miles and miles of sand, you can uncover treasures such as the bright, colorful flowers that spring from drooping cacti, the iconic Joshua Trees that dot the horizon, accompanied by rugged mountain peaks. Just a few reasons it should be a solid first stop on your California road trip.

The Kelso Dunes are a great stop on any California itinerary if you are headed through the Mojave Desert. The undulating dunes seem to go on forever, only interrupted by the fragile plants that help to make up this unique ecosystem.

Woman on sand dunes on the Kelso Dunes Hike in the Mojave Desert on a California road trip

Although there is quite a bit of sand in the Mojave Desert, this area of dunes is pretty impressive, with the tallest dune rising to a towering 600 feet! The area is dominated by a central ridge, where many of the tallest sand dunes can be found. In total, the dunes span an area of around 45 square miles, so if you don’t find the central ridge, there is still plenty to see.

You can easily walk around, up and down the dunes all day, and get clear views in every direction. But to get to the top of Kelso Dune, you’ll need to hike up 1.5 miles through sand! Not easy.

Just past this trailhead is a campsite, so you might want to plan to hike this in the morning after you camp or perhaps hike it later in the afternoon before setting up camp for the evening. I went frolicking around the sand dune in the morning when it was a bit cooler, and it was perfect.

Ever fancied venturing inside a tube of rock created by lava? Well, that’s exactly what you can do at the Mojave Preserve. The lava tubes are a must-see in this region, taking you to a subterranean world of rock.

However, it’s not just the fact that you’re inside a lava tube that makes this spot so popular; when the light hits the holes at the top of the tubes just right, you’ll be greeted by a picture-perfect stream of sunlight that graces the cave’s floor. The way the sun breaks through the skylights is magical and worth waiting around for.

Woman under a lava tube in a cave in the Mojave Desert

You have to take a really crappy dirt road about five miles to get to this spot, but it’s worth it. Just be slow and careful. Make sure you come on a clear day, so the sun is popping through the holes and not too early or late in the day, so the sun is above the skylights. I arrived around 2 pm in June.

After walking about a quarter of a mile (depending on how close your car made it to the “trailhead”), you’ll reach a hole in the ground with a ladder leading inside. The tubes are short and sweet, as they don’t go back too far once you enter. Head in and let your eyes adjust. You’ll see the light at the back of an opening, head towards it slowly, and it will open up into a gorgeous cave cathedral!

Kelso Dunes Camping – Just past Kelso Dune Trailhead, you can find free camping. There are a few vault toilets here, and the site has a campfire ring. You have views of the dunes, and the entire sky is lit up with stars at night! Highly recommend staying here.

Shoshone RV – This is excellent camping and RV spot with a nice natural water hot spring pool. We stayed here after exploring Mojave on the way to Death Valley.

Car pulling camper van in the Mojave Desert, California

Tiny House in Sandy Valley – This charming tiny house with a rooftop deck sits in the middle of a working ranch.

The Hummingbird – A handcrafted tiny house that lets you wake up in complete tranquillity.

RELATED: Your Southwest Road Trip Itinerary (1 Week – 2 Months)

California Road Trip Itinerary: Death Valley National Park

Death Valley—the national park of extremes. It is the lowest point below sea level in North America and the hottest place on earth!

At times, this dramatic landscape can reach unbearable temperatures even for the hardiest of beachgoers, with very little rain throughout the year. Yet sometimes, the heavy rain can cause flash flooding that pours and gushes into the dry valleys.

Woman walking across Dumont Dunes, California

Death Valley is surreal, otherworldly, and at times you may feel like you are tracking across Mars. Still, with so many mind-bending and impressive features, it is unmissable on any California Road trip itinerary. There are mountains, brightly colored rock formations, miles and miles of bright white salt flats, along with plenty of viewpoints and hikes to help you take it all in.

The yellow and brown striped hills of the badlands that make up much of the Death Valley landscape have been shaped over many years by water, which may seem quite surprising as you stand there sweating in the pounding sunlight, without a drop of water in sight.

Woman looking over Death Valley from Zabrinski Point on a California road trip

We happen to be riding through Death Valley during its hottest June ever! As a Floridian who is quite used to some heat, I can assure you I have never felt this kind of heat before in my life. It was borderline unbearable and challenging to be outside for more than 10-20 minutes. Be careful visiting the area, particularly during the summer.

Want to see Death Valley in a nutshell? You pretty much can at Zabriskie Point, one of the most photographed spots in the whole of Death Valley. You’ll be able to take in an incredible view of the badlands in all their glory from this easy-to-access, elevated viewpoint.

The undulating landscape seems to spread down from the distant Black Mountains, easily visible just a few miles east of Death Valley. Looking far in the distance, the white salt plains will just be visible, with the twisting badlands spread out below you.

Woman looking over Death Valley from Zabrinski Point

One of the most noticeable points from this view is what is known as Manly Beacon, but with all the other varying landscapes, your eyes will be spoilt for choice.

Although you’ll be able to get a fantastic view from the point, which is just a short, uphill stretch from the parking area, the crowds tend to thin if you venture up into some of the surrounding hills. This is especially useful at some of the area’s busiest times, like sunrise.

From the top of the point, you’ll notice narrow trails twisting and traversing over the ridge leading you further into the alien landscape.

The colorful gem that is Artists Pallete has to be seen to be believed. Yes, the colors are as bright and vibrant as the pictures you’ve seen.

You’ll be able to pick out the pockets of bright rock in varying shades of purple, yellow, green, and oranges right from the parking lot, making it an ideal spot on any California Road trip. However, if you want a truly magical spectacle, I recommend venturing down and getting up close and personal with this glorified stone.

Artists Pallet on a California road trip

Artists Pallete can be reached relatively easily via Artists Drive. However, pay attention to the time of day you are planning to visit, as the sun’s placement can have a massive impact on the vibrancy of the colors. The best time to visit is in the late afternoon and evening, as harsh bright light can mute the colors rather than make them pop.

The road itself can sometimes feel like a bit of a rollercoaster, with lots of twists, turns, and sharp dips, but it is all just part of the fun. The road is one way and 9 miles long, so make sure you plan enough time to reach it and get back.

*NOTE: No vehicle over 25ft can drive down Artists Pallete.

But how did such a natural phenomenon come about? Well, if you combine elements such as flash floods, the heat of the desert, volcanic ash, and mineral-rich deposits, Artists Palette seems to be the outcome, a rainbow of soft pastel hues spreading across the rocks like spilled paint!

Although some may head to Golden Canyon in the hope of finding their fortune, this scenic part of the park gets its name solely from the golden hue of the rocks, and sadly not, as some might hope, what lies beneath the rock’s surface.

The Golden Canyon is a destination in itself, but the 6-mile hike to get there can be just as impressive, so much so that it is one of the most popular hikes in Death Valley and a highlight of California road trips. However, it can easily be shortened if you don’t have much time, so you can still gawk at this natural wonder.

Woman walking though Golden Canyon in Death Valley, California

In fact, just a quick look into the mouth of the canyon a few steps away from the parking area is enough to take your breath away; however, if you can dive into the labyrinth of twisting hills to take in the vast rock formations and inspiring scenery.

It’s worth mentioning we got here a bit later in the day, so we didn’t get to hike too far in. At the start of this hike, there are even warning signs not to hike after 10 am because it’s literally that hot.

It is hard not to delve into every side canyon you see, as they beckon and tempt with their colorful walls. Golden Canyon certainly has the ‘wow’ factor. It’s not just gold, it’s every shade of gold, yellow, and orange you could ever imagine, all crammed haphazardly onto the rocky walls. Visit when the light is not too bright, like early morning or late evening, to really see the canyon at its best and so you don’t roast yourself!

Furnace Creek Campground – Excellent campground right in the middle of the park! It has all the facilities needed, views over the park, but little to no shade. Make sure to check the weather before coming as you will be ROASTING when it’s hot out. Hopefully, your vehicle has air conditioning.

Stovepipe Wells Campsite – This place was a godsend when we were driving through. They had a nice pool, and it was SCORCHING outside. We happily stayed here at their basic but enough campground and vegged out in the pool to keep cool. They have a restaurant with food as well, which was convenient after a hot day adventuring.

Sunset colors in Death Valley, California

Villa Anita – A truly unique stay in the town of Tecopa that’s more like an art installation than a guesthouse.

Artist’s Oasis – A cozy home in Pahrump surrounded by pine trees and one-of-a-kind sculptures.

RELATED: Your Road Trip Essentials Packing List and Tips (+PRINTABLE Checklist! )

California Road Trip Itinerary: Alabama Hills

If you were not reading a post about the best spots on a California Road trip, you might be surprised to find out that the Alabama Hills are not found in the state of Alabama. These towering rocky peaks can actually be explored just off of Highway 395, at the base of the Eastern Sierra mountains. 

It is quite an impressive sight with some incredible rock formations, including several natural arches and towering Mount Whitney in the background. 

Woman sitting under Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills, California on a California road trip

So impressive are the sights that many Hollywood blockbusters have been filmed in the area, such as Iron Man, G.I Jane, Transformers, The Lone Ranger, and many others.

An Instagrammers delight, Movie Road has you covered for some incredible shots during your California Road Trip. There are many scenic spots dotted in the Alabama Hills, but Movie Road certainly takes the top spot. 

You’ll have prime viewing of the rocks and mountains that make up this part of California from the relatively straight road. As you start to head out onto the drive, you’ll notice the road’s surface gradually begin to change from asphalt to dirt, but it still doesn’t make for too bad driving conditions. 

Trail through the Alabama Hills in California

From the road, you’ll truly be able to take in the ever-changing colors that surround you, but arguably what is the most impressive is the clear views of Mount Whitney towering ahead. 

You can simply drive along this road and stop at the small pullouts to explore a bit closer on foot. Use Google Maps for ease if you’d like; highlights like Mobius Arch, Heart and Boot Arch, and Lone Ranger Canyon are all well marked, so you know which pull out is which! The small trails would likely total a couple of miles at most, and nothing is strenuous at all.

Numerous Campsites – There are quite a few campgrounds around Alabama Hills, making it easy to stay in the area and catch the Hills during sunrise or sunset. Tuttle Creek and Lone Pine Campground are two of the closest to the Hills.

Keough’s Hot Springs – This is just an hour north of the Alabama Hills, and again, we were looking for a way to cool off! We found a huge pool and some natural spring water pools here, plus they had a charming little campsite.

Heart Arch in the Alabama Hills, California

Mount Whitney Views – This 2-bedroom home in Lone Pine has a private deck and stunning views of the surrounding mountains.

Lone Pine Cottage – A cozy cabin in the center of the town of Lone Pine that makes a great base for exploring the Alabama Hills.

California Road Trip Itinerary: June Lakes

Is it a mirage? Could it really be water? Dust yourself off from the sandy desert and head to this little area of oasis that is the June Lakes. After days in the desert and the literal hottest place on earth, June Lakes was absolute perfection and came at a perfect time in my California road trip!

Woman sitting on rocks at June Lakes, California

The lakes are a mecca for a range of water-based activities but are also just a great place to chill out.

If you don’t fancy getting out onto the water, then just use this time to chill by the glistening lakes and enjoy paddling in the shallows; the icy water is the perfect way to cool down after days in the harsh landscapes of the desert. 

PS – TONS of people rush to Mammoth Lake since they are more popular. If that’s your scene, you can switch this out, but I’m so happy we went to June Lakes instead! We took a peek at Mammoth Lakes, and it was PACKED. We almost couldn’t fit our RV down the road near the lake. So we decided to high-tail it to June Lakes and were immediately greeted with more camping spots, plenty of space, and far fewer people. (Without sacrificing the beauty either!)

One of the best ways to see the lakes is to take the June Lake Scenic Loop, a 16-mile scenic drive, as you pass through aspens reaching up to the blue skies and crystal glacial lakes. June Lake is one of the first lakes that you’ll hit and is just a great place to chill and go for a swim, thanks to its gorgeous beach.

The shoreline around June Lakes, California

There are four sparkling lakes in total, surrounded by the tall Sierra Mountains, the others being Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake, all of which have something special to offer. 

Bring your kayak, canoe, or even try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding. If you don’t have your own gear, then you could always hire them from the retail units around the shore, such as from Mammoth Kayaks . You can boat in any of the four lakes on the loop, and again you can always hire a boat from the marina if you don’t have your own. 

Person kayak on June Lakes, California on a California road trip

Grant Lake should be your go-to for a bit of an adrenaline rush, as it is the largest of the four. Go wakeboarding, jet skiing, kneeboarding, and water skiing, and take in the scenic surroundings at speed. It is also a huge angling destination, and you can fish from the shore or by boat.

There are also tons of trails surrounding these gorgeous lakes, but all I could do was chill at the water after being in the desert for a week.

Oh Ridge and June Lakes Campground – Awesome campsites both within walking distance to June Lake! It’s a perfect spot for camping and much less crowded than the campsite we tried at Mammoth.

Silver Lake Campground – A 10-minute drive from June Lake and a short walk to the Silver Lake shoreline.

June Lake Villager Motel – Stay right by the lakes in cozy, chalet-style rooms.

Mammoth Condo – A spacious 2-bedroom condo in nearby Mammoth Lakes with stunning views of the mountains .

RELATED: How to Plan a USA Road Trip & Choosing a Vehicle

California Road Trip Itinerary: Yosemite National Park

Located high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite has to be seen to be believed. It is undoubtedly one of the most incredibly stunning places in all of California and possibly the world. The area deserves at least a few days on a California road trip itinerary, with new vistas and natural wonders around every corner!

It is hardly surprising that people come from all over the globe to visit it. There is no end to the things to do and see in the park, whether you want to stay on the valley floor and simply gawk at the waterfalls and granite cliffs that surround you or if you’re going to take the more adventurous option of hiking or climbing them.

View from Columbia Rock on a Yosemite Road trip

You may have seen many pictures of Yosemite when planning your road trip, but nothing will quite prepare you for the sheer size and scale of everything; with the rocks surrounding you towering 3000 feet high, even the trees are enormous. I honestly thought it wasn’t going to be worth the hype—but it is!

No matter what you do, be sure to visit some of the more famous landmarks, including Yosemite and Vernal Falls, the iconic Half Dome, El Capitan, and some of the more scenic viewpoints. However, all the views would be worth seeing if you had enough time.

Oh, and keep your eyes peeled for bears, especially if you’re walking the trails alone!

Glacier Point provides one of the best views of the Yosemite Valley. Seriously, you won’t get a much better vantage point than this, and it isn’t even that hard to get to. The vista that surrounds you when you reach the point will allow you to take in some of the biggest and best landmarks, such as the Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, 3214 feet above the valley floor.

Woman sitting on cliff at Glacier Point on a Yosemite road trip

Although Glacier Point is incredible, try not to get too excited thinking you’re about to witness a glacier, as unfortunately, that disappeared thousands of years ago. Still, the name at least seems to have stuck around.

If you decide to stay until the evening, not only will you have much of the commanding view to yourself for some even more incredible photos, the darkness of the night’s sky means that on a clear day, the view of the Milky Way is just about flawless.

If you’re driving from the valley, give yourself an hour to reach the point as you have to go along some long and twisting roads, but from the parking lot, it is only a short paved trail between you and the views. You could always hike from the valley floor, but if you think of the elevation gain, you’ll have some idea about how strenuous this hike is!

Just make sure you visit before the road closes at the end of the season, or you may be very disappointed. Make sure to read my Yosemite itinerary for more info and tips because the park is huge, and you’ll need some preparation to explore it better.

Reaching the top of Sentinel Dome is one of the easiest ways to see miles and miles of Yosemite landscape surrounding you. The views are 360 degrees, so you’ll get a different landscape no matter which way you turn your head.

Woman on cliff overlooking Sentinel Dome in Yosemite on a California road trip

The north arguably provides the best views, as you’ll be able to take in El Capitan and Yosemite Falls, although to the east, you should spot the iconic Half Dome and Nevada Falls.

The Sentinel Dome Trail itself is short and sweet, with nothing too remarkable to report along the way, but it is a great way to get a pretty impressive panorama from the top with relatively little effort. To get more views, pair this with Taft Point Trail for one epic loop!

Yosemite is certainly not short of waterfalls , but there is something a little bit special about Vernal Falls.

One of the best ways to see the falls is via the Mist Trail, a great way to spend half a day in Yosemite. It will not only take you to the falls but also other few scenic vistas and falls along the way too. The ascent can be very tiring, but the 317-foot waterfall smashing against the rocks will take your mind off the climb.

Hiker in front of Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park

Once you reach the falls, you have a choice to make, you can either turn around or head back the way you came, or I recommend carrying on the trail and heading back via the John Muir Loop. Not only will you get different scenery and a more leisurely descent via a series of switchbacks, but you’ll also tick off Clark Point and get views of Nevada Falls too!

RELATED: 27 Incredible Waterfall Hikes on the West Coast, USA

Yosemite Flats RV Park – This is one of the closest and cheapest places just outside the park! It was an excellent base for us. It was located just across the road from a beautiful river too!

Gazebo next to the river in Yosemite

Edna’s Hearts Desire – In the small town of Wawona, inside the entrance to Yosemite, you’ll find this delightful cottage. The one-bedroom cabin has a small patio, views of the surrounding forest, and full wood paneling inside.

Yosemite Mountain Hideaway – This one-bedroom cabin can be enjoyed at any time of year. For summers, there’s a private deck with stunning views over the valley below, and when it gets cold, you can snuggle up by the open fire.

Sage Cabin – Here you can have complete peace and quiet while still being close to the action – it’s just 15 minutes to the Valley floor. This one-bedroom cabin sleeps four and has a private deck with views over open meadows.

RELATED: Your 1-3 Day Yosemite Road Trip Itinerary

California Road Trip Itinerary: San Francisco

San Francisco is a stark difference from what some may think of as a Californian city, especially when comparing it to Santa Barbara or even LA. Yet, it has a certain rustic charm that makes you want to come back time and time again, plus all those hills will leave you with calves to die for.

The city has it all, surrounded by nature and adventure, with plenty of places to eat, drink, shop, and sightsee within its borders. Of course, there are the main tourist hotspots it would be rude not to hit up, such as Alcatraz, the famed prison on the rock, Pier 58 and the many attractions it holds, and of course the majestic Golden Gate bridge.

If you’re driving, be sure to try heading down Lombard Street, which is often called the most crooked street in the world. There is honestly a laundry list of things to do around here, but this California road trip is pretty full already! Here are the highlights…

T he dense canopy of trees in the Muir Woods is a gem of San Fran, which is why it has earned a spot on this California itinerary. The main reason to visit? The magnificent redwood trees! Some of these incredible trees are between 400 and 800 years old, and in that time, have stretched to over 250 feet tall. 

Exploring the area is easy thanks to the numerous short and flat trails that weave themselves around the thick trunks of these natural giants.

Muir Woods on our California road trip

The Bootjack Trail Loop is the one to do if it’s the redwood trees you are interested in or take the Muir Main Trail, which follows the stream, although it still has a fair few Redwoods. The normal-sized trees look miniature in response, but you should be able to make out red maples and Douglas fir, to name a few, their canopies dappled by the light above.

In the summer months, there is a shuttle that will take you directly to the woods, saving you from dealing with the traffic in the area, which is always a handy option.

Golden Gate Bridge, a true icon of San Fran, is a glimmering pathway connecting the city of San Francisco to Marin County. The impressive bridge can be seen from various points throughout the city, but there are a few viewpoints where you’ll be able to take in this vast engineering masterpiece in all its metal glory.

For an easy-to-access view, Crissy Field is a good spot, located right on the waterfront; your views will be pretty much unobstructed.

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco

Want the hilly landscape of San Fran city in the backdrop? Hawk Hill provides the perfect vista and access from the north side of the bridge. The hill offers a unique lofty vantage point that is quite different from the usual bridge pictures that you would expect to see. 

Both Baker and Marshall Beach will not disappoint either; there are so many options to choose from.

Golden Gate Camping – The state reserve has four campgrounds dotted around the Marin Headlands.

City Cottage – A tiny historical cottage hidden right in the heart of San Francisco, next to Park Presidio.

Private Garden Studio – Perfect for two, this studio features a deck surrounded by lush plants with views over the SF Bay.

Dogtown Suite – Across the Bay in Oakland you’ll find this tranquil, renovated studio, close to restaurants and a vibrant art scene.

RELATED: Seattle to San Francisco West Coast Road Trip! Adventures and Waterfalls

California Road Trip Itinerary: Monterey

Monterey is a California Coast hotspot, and for a good reason. It has a great vibe, plenty to do, and some delicious food and drink options. Delve underneath the waves to get an insight into life in the kelp beds, or head to the pier and say hello to the hundreds of sea lions before making your way to Cannery Row.

View of Monterey from Lovers Point

Spend the evening sampling the delights of the many local eateries and bars. Sure it may be touristy, but people come here for a reason, and it never feels completely overrun and is very deserving of a spot on a California itinerary.

Rocky shoreline on the 17-Mile Drive near Monterey on our California road trip

There are so many stops on Monterey’s 17 Mile Drive ; you might want to block out a whole day of your California road trip itinerary to enjoy it. The drive takes you past some of the most scenic spots in this section of coastline, including magnificent beaches, clusters of giant, impressive trees, rocky outcrops, and plenty of places to pull over and simply take in the views.

Suppose you need a little break from the natural wonders of the California coast (but really, why would you). Carmel by the Sea is a picture-perfect little town. The charming streets are the perfect place to rest up and refuel at one of the many local restaurants or bars, or get a little retail therapy in one of the many shops, be it for road trip gear or simply some souvenirs.

People at the beach in Carmel by the Sea near Monterey

If you can’t help get out and about in nature when in Carmel, there is an abundance of hiking trails in the surrounding area, such as the short and sweet Carmel Meadows Trail.

This town is just TOO adorable, and I wish we had more time here. It’s was so chill and charming; I’d love to return to stay a bit longer.

With 280 state parks in California alone, it’s hard for one to stand out from the crowd, but Point Lobos does a pretty good job of it. People come from miles around in the hope of spotting the numerous sea lions, whales, and sea birds that gather in huge numbers throughout the year. It is also considered one of the best scuba diving spots on the west coast.

Seals on the beach in Point Lobos, Monterey

Want to hike, not swim? The park is crisscrossed with several hiking trails, all of which have been carefully designed to show off the best that the park has to offer.

Some of the best include the Point Lobos Loop Trail around the park or the shorter Cypress Grove Trail. Essentially, it is the California coast, condensed into a small area that’s explorable in a day; you might as well end your road trip here (definitely don’t!).

The park gets PACKED, so parking is often impossible, and you’re left to park on the side of the road! Come early and be prepared to walk a lot.

Laguna Seca – Yes, this is a raceway and a campground in one! While this is a bit of a weird spot with nonpotable water and a raceway surrounding it, it also happens to have great views of Monterey and is one of the cheapest spots in town.

Veteran’s Memorial Park Camping – Just a mile from downtown Monterey you’ll find 50 acres of park with 40 campsites – 30 of them suitable for trailers.

Ocean Wave – The famous Cannery Row will be at your doorstep with this bright and modern condo.

Pacific Grove Cottage – Cosy guesthouse on a quiet tree-lined street, but within walking distance of all the action.

Little Jewel Box – Beautifully renovated cottage in the heart of Monterey with a private terraced garden.

READ MORE: 12 Marvelous Things To Do in Monterey, California

California Road Trip Itinerary: Highway 1

Highway 1 is the iconic American road trip road. It hugs the Pacific Ocean all the way from Dana Point to Leggett for 650 miles, with countless places to stop and gawk at the views and attractions along the way.

The most well-known and well-driven stretch is between Santa Barbara and Monterey. No matter if you’re driving from north to south or vice versa, there are some unmissable stops along the way. While Highway 1 goes through San Francisco as well, the other spots on the list aren’t nearly as major so enjoy these smaller California coastal towns all the way down until you hit the next big one, LA, where your trip will end.

As seen in the intro to countless films and TV shows, the dramatic Big Sur area is something special. At roughly 90 miles in length, Big Sur can quickly be done in a day, but it will leave you with memories that will last a lifetime.

For much of the time, the highway hugs the cliffs, passing just far enough away from the plunging cliffs, but just close enough that you still feel a little bit of a thrill. When the highway is not passing the sea, it twists its way around mighty groves of redwood trees and deep canyons.

View of Big Sur, California from the clifftops

Bixby Bridge is likely to be the most iconic sight in Big Sur. The vast bridge stretches across the rock, adding rather than taking away from the raw beauty of the landscape, hemmed in by the Santa Lucia Mountain Range behind the highway.

Avid hikers can take the trail that leads down to Partington Cove , which, although is short at just 2 miles, heading back, you’ll be scrambling up a 300-foot climb. Once you’ve reached the bottom of the path, a mysterious tunnel awaits you, and as you break through the exit, you’ll be greeted with the picturesque cove.

Pismo Beach makes for quite a destination on a California road trip with a sophisticated culinary scene, endless recreational opportunities, and beautiful landscapes.

Take a stroll along the 1200-foot long Pismo Beach Pier or the oceanfront boardwalk, which will give you a very different experience to the one at nearby Venice Beach. If you’re a beach lover, why not abandon the boardwalk and head directly onto the sand, where the hard-packed grains make it extremely easy to walk on.

Of course, it’s also a surfing haven. Check out the Sandbar Surf School for some lessons, or hop in with your board. It’s a good spot for all levels and has consistent waves that are best at high tide.

Surfers walking along Pismo Beach

You can also explore the waters by boat, so you’ll be able to get a glimpse inside the numerous sea caves. Central Coast Kayaks offer an excellent tour for this. Take to the dunes in a dune buggy for a bit of a thrill, or for those that prefer a more leisurely pace of life, a ride on horseback could be the way to go. 

One unmissable event is when thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies grace the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove between October and February.

Known lovingly by locals as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara has everything you could want from a beach escape and more on a California itinerary. Here you’ll get a beautiful climate throughout the year and some lovely beaches, all of which provide all sorts of beach-based recreational activity.

View of Santa Barbara Beach and surrounding mountain range

Each beach has its own distinct charm, so you might as well visit them all. Helping to add to the Mediterranean vibes are the red tiles that seem to cover every available roof space. You can get a great view of the city and these tiles from the lofty viewpoint of the courthouse clock tower.

Wine lovers can rejoice, as the microclimate of Santa Barbara just happens to be perfect for growing grapes, which means vineyards and wineries aplenty. As well as many vineyards out in the country, there is also an urban wine trail, where there are many different wineries within walking distance of each other.

When you think of Los Angeles, likely one of the first things that spring to mind is the Venice Beach area, but this surfing hotspot has more to offer than its reputation allows.

Take the Venice Canals, for example, tucked away behind the beach. The majority of tourists wouldn’t even know they are there, let alone visit them. Luckily my friend lives here and took me to a fantastic party here during Pride!

Me and Robin at the Venice Canals on our California road trip

As the name suggests, the canal system was built inspired by the infamous waterways in Itlay and offered a completely different side to the classic beach vibe.

Pedestrian bridges stretch their way over the canals, small houses line the waters, and there are very few tourists, apart from the odd paddleboarder who has ventured in to explore. Walking paths on both sides of the canals make for a lovely alternative to stretch your legs.

That isn’t to say that its most well-known attractions are not worth visiting as well. Probably the most famous of which is the iconic boardwalk. In the mile and half stretch, you are likely to encounter dog walkers, buskers, surfers, rollerbladers, shops, cafes, performers, tattoo artists, and a whole other assortment of exciting people and attractions.

Palm trees on Venice Beach, California

Make a stop at the fishing pier where you can watch the many surfers try to catch a wave, or even give it a go yourself, or have a game of volleyball on the courts adjacent to the pier. 

Pismo State Beach Camping – Both North Beach Campground and Oceano Campground have direct access to the beach, with hook-up sites at Oceano.

El Capitan State Beach Campground – You’ll see this popular camping spot just before you reach Santa Barbara, sitting over the bluffs at the beach.

Tuscan Estate – A private studio set on a 1 ½ acre estate in the foothills of Santa Barbara.

Hollywood Studio – Indulge in a little glam with this private studio, complete with a four-poster bed.

RELATED: 17 Legendary American Road Trips

My California road trip was EPIC! See below for more nearby road trip inspo and have an amazing time exploring California.

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The Perfect 10 Day California Road Trip Itinerary (2024 Guide)

Picture of Alesha and Jarryd

  • Last Updated: February 4, 2024

Plan the ultimate California road trip itinerary with our 10-day road trip itinerary, including all of the best national parks, cities and other attractions!

California is instantly captivating. Its major cities twinkle in the spotlight, from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles. Its natural beauty is abundant as well, from the cliffs of Big Sur to the beaches of Santa Barbara.

However, California is ever-changing, and it changes fast. Rising snow-capped mountains soar out of lifeless deserts. Roads weave through conifer forests and giant redwoods, where alpine lakes mingle among hot springs and local towns that boomed with the growth of climbing.

Metropolises and epic nature are never far apart in this state. But it’s the California road trips between them that make it the perfect state to turn on the engine and put the car in drive.

This ultimate California road trip itinerary will include the highlights of this massive west coast state. From national parks to big cities, lazy beach towns, and more, here is our guide to planning the best California road trip!

Looking for the absolute best things to do in California? Check out our complete list here !

Table of Contents

Where To Stay In Los Angeles

Where to stay in san diego, where to stay in palm springs, where to stay in mammoth lakes, where to stay in lake tahoe, where to stay in sacramento, where to stay in san francisco, where to stay in santa monica, california road trip wrap up, the perfect california road trip itinerary.

The best way to travel from northern California to southern California , or vice versa, is via an epic California road trip. Sure you can take a quick flight, but the best way to absorb all the the Golden State has to offer is by exploring on land.

This 10-day California road trip itinerary gives you a nice introduction to this beautiful state. California is massive, and 10 days is not nearly enough for seeing all of it. But in these 10 days, you’ll get to see as much as possible. Let’s get into it!

The best way to get around is to rent a car and explore on your own! We recommend Rental Cars , which has the largest range of vehicles for the best value on the market.

Los Angeles

Day 1 – Los Angeles

World-famous Los Angeles makes for the perfect place to start your California road trip itinerary. With easy access from around the world, fly into LAX, rent a car, and start exploring. Here are a few of the best things to do in Los Angeles !

  • The Griffith Observatory

Start your time in Los Angeles by getting your bearings. The Griffith Observatory offers amazing insight into the cosmos, but just as applicable are its far-reaching views across the city, the Hollywood Sign, and the Pacific Ocean.

Home to Lotus flower beds, floating swans, and paddle boats, Echo Park is a glimpse into LA’s past and current beauty. Book a paddle boat in advance to best enjoy the scenery. Afterward, pick from a smorgasbord of local food trucks.

  • The Hollywood Bowl

As the sun sets on Los Angeles, take in a show at the beloved Hollywood Bowl. The airy amphitheater has consistent events from festivals to concerts featuring a whole range of genres. With the sky a burst of colors, it’s a captivating music space.

  • Hop-on Hop-Off Bus

Getting around Los Angeles can be a nightmare. Lack of solid public transport and gridlocks can slow you down on what’s already a tight California road trip itinerary.

The Hop-on Hop-Off Bus delivers you to some of the city’s highlights, including the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sunset Strip, and Beverly Hills. You can always wait to pick up your rental car until after you explore LA!

Have more time? Check out our 3 Days in Los Angeles itinerary !

Close to Rodeo Drive, The Peninsula has a world-class restaurant, a rooftop pool, a fitness center, and a full-service spa. It’s the best option for luxury in Los Angeles!

In Venice Beach, Stay Open brings one of the best beaches in Los Angeles. Enjoy free bike rentals and WiFi so you can explore LA with ease.

Close to Hollywood Boulevard, Banana Bungalow leaves you close to the action with cheap onsite dinners plus regular free BBQs. If you’re on a budget during your California road trip, there are some great cheap hostels around the state!

Day 2 – San Diego

This drive takes 2 hours from downtown Los Angeles

After a leisurely drive from Los Angeles, discover the lovable San Diego , where sprawling parks harbor dozens of museums, galleries, and world-class zoos.

Beaches offer more than just a quick surf, in fact, you can expect to find life-changing burgers. At night, the bay glistens alongside the Gaslamp Quarter, here you can reflect on a busy first few days.

San Diego is a must on any California road trip. Here is our list of the best things to do while visiting San Diego.

San Diego

  • Mission Beach and Hodad’s

Before you make it to downtown San Diego, stop for a swim and the best burgers in America. Big call, so I’ll let you decide. Hodad’s is a gastronomic and cultural gem. While Mission Beach is the perfect way to cool off after a big drive.

  • San Diego Zoo

The extensive San Diego Zoo takes you on a journey through our natural world. Experience the Elephant Odyssey or the Polar Bear Plunge alongside 4,500 other endangered or rare animals from across the globe.

  • Balboa Park

It takes days to explore the incredible Balboa Park with a fine-tooth comb. But in such a short time, pick your favorites among the 16 museums, impressive Spanish architecture, landscaped gardens, and galleries.

  • USS Midway Museum

Covering 10 acres, the USS Midway Museum boasts 30 historic aircraft on board the famous carrier. Learn more about WWII and the Battle of Midway, and experience real cockpits alongside other interactive exhibits. Afterward, wander along the Embarcadero.

  • The Gaslamp Quarter

Once the sun has set, the Gaslamp Quarter lights up and the streets’ cobblestones glimmer under the stars. Enjoy a fun night in San Diego while exploring this romantic district home to high-end restaurants and candle-lit cocktail bars.

With four outdoor pools, half a dozen restaurants, a golf course and a spa, the five-star Fairmont Grand Del Mar has all your needs covered.

In Downtown San Diego, Motel6 offers cable TV, free Wi-Fi, and close proximity to the top adventures around the city.

Set in the Gaslamp Quarter, HI San Diego is a refurbished urban hostel with a fun atmosphere, a game room, plus self-guided tours and adventures.

Have more time? Check out our 3 Days in San Diego Itinerary !

Day 3 – Palm Springs

This drive takes 2 hours and 15 minutes from San Diego.

In southern California, Palm Springs is a gateway to epic mountain ranges and mystical deserts. Your time here is packed with hiking trails delivering memorable views and guiding you through a unique national park. But the town itself has a charming culture, shopping, and regular enchanting events.

  • Joshua Tree National Park

The main reason to visit Palm Springs is to explore Joshua Tree National Park. This intriguing national park showcases the beauty of the desert landscapes, its unique flora, which gave the park its name, plus the colors that make every use of an open canvas.

  • Downtown Palm Springs

After visiting Joshua Tree National Park, shop, eat, and walk your way through downtown Palm Springs. Adorable boutiques whisper your name with handcrafted goods looking to find a home in your road trip vehicle. On Thursday evenings, the town comes to life for its weekly VillageFest.

  • Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

With no time to hike, take a trip up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the summit of San Jacinto Peak. The stunning rise provides views across the Coachella Valley along with the Chino Canyon.

  • Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve

If you choose to avoid downtown Palm Springs, Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is a great alternative. Walk among 150-year-old trees where the desert mixes with exotic landscapes to create a spectacularly colorful ecosystem.

  • The San Jacinto Mountains

Another option is to explore the San Jacinto Mountains in greater detail. The Deer Springs Trail is a challenging, designated National Scenic trek that takes you to the San Jacinto peak for an ultimately rewarding experience through memorable desert landscapes.

Find more of the best things to do in Palm Springs here !

Close to downtown Palm Springs, The Paloma Resort is set in historic bungalows with mountain scenery and offers inspired Spanish cuisine in a former mission.

The Travelodge provides travelers with easy access to the town’s best restaurants and shopping while being a great base to explore beyond.

With free onsite parking and complimentary breakfast, the Crashpod Hostel is cozy, inexpensive, and a great place to recuperate.

Day 4 & 5 – Mammoth Lakes

This drive takes 8 hours and 15 minutes from Palm Springs, via Death Valley National Park

Today on your California road trip itinerary, drive from Palm Springs through the ethereal Death Valley. The drive along Route 395 will be unforgettable, delivering you first to Convict Lake and then to the beauty of Mammoth itself.

On the second day, explore the lakes, ride the gondola, and hit the hot springs.

Find more things to do in Southern California here !

  • Death Valley National Park

Break up your journey to Mammoth Lakes with a drive through the otherworldly Death Valley National Park. Stop by Badwater Basin and stand almost 240 feet below sea level in the depths of Death Valley.

If you love unique natural scenery, Death Valley is a must on any California road trip!

Death Valley

  • Convict Lake

Next, get a sneak peek at Convict Lake. The alpine lake is surrounded by fast-rising peaks and while it’s a sunrise hot spot, its serene beauty can be admired at any point. Just off the highway, you won’t even have to leave the car.

  • The Village at Mammoth Lakes

After an enormous and beautiful day on the road, enjoy a relaxing evening in the Village at Mammoth Lakes . Shops, restaurants, and bars combine in this classic mountain village. Enjoy a nice meal before resting up for the day ahead.

  • Stand-Up Paddleboarding

There’s no better way to enjoy the enchanting lakes than on a stand-up paddleboard. The handful of nearby bodies of water are often calm and glass-like, leading to ease of movement and the chance to feel small alongside the stunning Sierras.

  • The Minaret Vista

On your way to Devil’s Postpile, stop at the Minaret Vista to admire the eternal beauty of the Sierra Nevada. Set in the Eastern Sierra Range, these craggy mountains fall down to vast valleys and feature two soaring spires, including Clyde Minaret.

  • The Devils Postpile

A national monument, the Devils Postpile is a formation of giant basalt columns. These were created by lava which cooled over 80,000 years ago. The hexagonal columns can reach up to 60 feet in height.

  • Rainbow Falls

A part of the Devils Postpile National Monument , don’t miss out on a trek to Rainbow Falls. Walk from the post pile to discover a 100 feet waterfall whose consistent rainbows gave the fall its name. You can also walk directly here by driving to the Rainbow Fall trailhead.

  • Mammoth Mountain Gondola

It’s been a busy day of activity, so take it down a notch with a ride on the Mammoth Mountain Gondola . The ride up lands you at over 11,000 feet. The panoramic views span the Mammoth Lakes Basin.

  • Wild Willy’s Hot Spring

End your day with a recuperating experience at Wild Willy’s Hot Spring. It’s been a busy trip so far, so put your legs up in one of the two springs whose temperatures range from 95 degrees up to 105.

From Westin Monache Resort , you can take the gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain before returning to make use of your kitchenette as well as the onsite pool and hot tub.

The Tamarack Lodge dates back to the 1920s and, among the included kitchens and private fireplaces, the lodge hasn’t lost any of its charm.

The Moderne Hostel provides guests with large communal and cooking areas, including BBQ facilities, while being close to Mammoth Mountain.

Day 6 – Lake Tahoe

This drive takes 2 hours and 40 minutes from Mammoth Lakes

With one full day in Lake Tahoe, it’ll be up to you how much you explore. Do you choose to focus your day driving through Yosemite National Park on your way there or do you take the direct route to explore local hikes, parks, and lakeside towns? There’s no losing here.

  • Yosemite National Park

An option along the drive from Mammoth Lakes is the world-famous Yosemite National Park. You’ll need to make it a priority to explore well, but views of El Capitan and Half Dome make any “detour” worth it. Yosemite National Park is so famous that you may even choose to solely focus today’s exploration on that! Luckily this ultimate California road trip is customizable, and you can easily change it to allow for more time in Yosemite National Park.

  • Fallen Leaf Lake

A direct drive to Lake Tahoe leaves ample time to explore. Check out the nearby, charming Fallen Leaf Lake where you can SUP or kayak before enjoying some waterfront eats surrounded by epic mountains.

  • Eagle Rock Trail

For rewarding views of Lake Tahoe without a lengthy hike, meander down the Eagle Rock Trail. The mile-long trek is family-friendly and ends with breathtaking views of the lake with enchanting nature along the way.

  • Emerald Bay State Park

Along the west shoreline of Lake Tahoe, you’ll find the popular Emerald Bay State Park. Find hiking, swimming, and mountain biking throughout while you can also explore Vikingsholm, with its impressive Scandinavian design.

Visiting the charming mountain town of Tahoe City is a great way to ring in the evening. Along the lake’s edge, the town has elegant mountain architecture, local galleries, plenty of places to eat, and bars in which to toast to a great day.

If you need more ideas for exploring Lake Tahoe after your California road trip, here are the best things to do in Lake Tahoe !

Lake Tahoe

Live in the lap of luxury at The Ritz-Carlton , complete with on-site restaurants, spas, and a pool with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.

A stay at the Mother Nature’s Inn comes with free onsite parking, along with inclusive WiFi and Smart TV, while being close to the beach.

The sprawling Mellow Mountain Hostel is close to Heavenly for skiing, summertime gondola rides, the beach, and some of the best action in South Lake Tahoe.

Day 7 – Sacramento

This drive takes 2 hours from Lake Tahoe

Next on your California road trip, enjoy the drive from Lake Tahoe through the Eldorado National Forest on your way to Sacramento.

Take the time to explore the underrated city where farm-to-table restaurants are much more than a niche. Take in the history and, if you have energy, try your hand at some fun outdoor sports.

  • Downtown Sacramento

Culture, history, and food collide in downtown Sacramento. A surprising foodie haven and cocktail paradise, travelers will also be happy to see so many museums and galleries to visit as you’ll discover below.

  • California State Railroad Museum

Within the Old Sacramento Historic Park, the California State Railroad Museum is an ode to westward expansion and the worker’s efforts. The latter particularly focuses on the prominent role of Chinese railroad workers. Explore 19 authentic trains before traveling on one yourself.

  • The American River Trail

If you prefer to keep experiencing the state’s splendid nature, head to Discovery Park. It’s here you can explore one of America’s great bike trails, the American River Trail which spans 32 miles through brilliant scenery.

  • White Water Rafting

Add some adrenaline to your California road trip with some white water rafting. With snow melting from the Sierra Nevada, this part of California is prime for some adrenaline-pumping rafting on the American River.

Looking for more incredible things to do in Sacramento? Check out our ultimate guide here !

In central Sacramento, the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel , evokes class and provides high-end amenities with a poolside bar and hotel restaurant.

With easy access to downtown, Wyndham Garden provides a great place to recuperate before with an onsite restaurant and bar, plus free WiFi.

Save money on your California road trip with this incredible hostel! Nestled in a former Victorian mansion, HI Sacramento provides guests with a social experience with a spacious patio and complimentary breakfasts.

Day 8 & 9 – San Francisco

This drive takes 1 hour and 40 minutes from downtown Sacramento

Start your day early and head towards the stunning California coast, where you should reach San Francisco by mid-morning. From there, head to the waterfront where you’ll enjoy delicious cuisine and epic bay views.

With two days of your California road trip, take your time in San Francisco, see all the attractions, and even take a day trip to Napa Valley.

  • Embarcadero

Canvassing the waterfront of San Francisco, the Embarcadero is the perfect place to start your exploration. As you wander along the boulevard you’ll pass a number of historic piers with excellent views with many offering boat tours into the harbor and Alcatraz Island .

  • Fisherman’s Wharf

With gorgeous views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf is a fantastic lunch spot. The early fishing boats have long gone and the Dungeness crab is ready.

Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to the Hyde Street Pier and its historic ships.

  • Lombard Street

Take your mind away from the famed bridge and you’ll notice how undulating San Francisco is. We mean, it’s crazy steep. Lombard Street represents this best. Home to eight compact turns and beautiful landscaping, it’s a unique drive.

Lombard Street

  • Golden Gate Bridge

Ok, you’ve been patient. It’s time for the Golden Gate Bridge. The incredible site, of orange arches spread between two rising headlands, will be one of the most memorable parts of any California road trip. Admire it from the Presidio before walking along for amazing views of San Francisco.

  • Napa Valley

Finding time for Napa Valley with just two days in San Francisco can be tricky. But lovers of wine and captivating landscapes should make time. An hour north of San Francisco, Napa Valley has over 400 wineries covering a range of budgets and styles.

Save time and energy during your visit to Napa Valley with this half-day wine tour .

If you want more ideas, check out our list of the best things to do in San Francisco !

Your second day in San Francisco is all about nature. Start with an early morning hike up to the Twin Peaks. This slice of untouched nature offers splendid from its summit, at 922 feet.

  • Golden Gate Park

San Francisco’s own Central Park, Golden Gate Park combines historic architecture and eye-catching nature. Walk or ride along the miles of trails to discover the Dutch Windmill and Japanese Tea Garden to go alongside its Botanical Garden.

  • Ocean Beach

After a busy morning of hiking and biking, take some time to relax at Ocean Beach. The three-mile beach spreads the crowds and allows ample room to take in the Pacific Ocean, rugged coastline, and the far horizon.

  • Union Square & Chinatown

Having got enough exercise and sun on day 9 of your California road trip, take some time to indulge. Union Square is the city’s top shopping district and also home to the towering Dewy Monument. Afterward, enjoy some mouthwatering eats in SF’s famed Chinatown.

  • Oracle Park

Leave room, of course, for a ballpark hot dog as you end your second day in San Francisco at the beautiful Oracle Park. Set right on the bay, it’s a great place to catch a game of baseball as the sun sets to the west.

The high-end Fairmont Heritage Place provides guests with luxurious apartments with full kitchens and a private terrace complete with a fire pit.

Set in Union Square, Club Donatello is a four-star hotel with an onsite restaurant, and a rooftop lounge, and is close to Oracle Park. Make the most of your California road trip itinerary by choosing mid-range accommodation right near all the best attractions!

Enjoy modern amenities and a lively atmosphere at ITH Pacific Tradewinds Hostel which is close to Chinatown and the San Francisco waterfront.

Take a look at our list of the 25 best things to do in Northern California if you need more inspiration!

San Francisco

Day 10 – Santa Monica

This drive takes around 9 hours from downtown San Francisco.

After departing San Francisco, you’ll start wrapping up your California road trip by looping around and heading back down to southern California.

Make your way south on a California coast road trip where you’ll soon meet Half Moon Bay and the splendid beauty of one of the most famous roads in America. We’ve saved the best for last!

The Pacific Coast Highway is packed with highlights and epic scenery like the famous Big Sur, making it the perfect way to end your California road trip.

  • Pacific Coast Highway

One of the most iconic roads in America, no California road trip is complete without a journey down the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Yes, you can take this drive from the PNW, but the section between San Francisco and Santa Monica is highlight packed.

Read More: Plan your Pacific Coast Highway road trip with our ultimate guide !

  • Carmel By the Sea

10 minutes from the famous Monterey, Carmel By the Sea is laden with adorable seaside cottages that lead to white sand beaches. However, the architecture combines with the art scene to be the true highlight. Explore a town once home to Jack London and now over 100 art galleries.

The section of Highway 1 through Big Sur is a shock to the senses, in all the best ways. From tunnels and Pfeiffer Beach to the unforgettable Bixby Bridge, Big Sur is maybe the most scenic spot on this drive. No California road trip is complete without driving through Big Sur!

  • Santa Barbara

You’re almost done with your California road trip, so take a break in Santa Barbara ! The stunning town of Santa Barbara is known for seafood, powdery white sand beaches, and fascinating Spanish history. Though you could easily spend days in Santa Barbara, if you’re short on time you can just have a quick driving break here.

  • Santa Monica Pier

There’s no better way to end your California road trip itinerary than with a sunset viewing at the Santa Monica Pier. This iconic landmark will appear around the corner as you caress the edge of Malibu along Pacific Coast Highway . Park the car and watch the sky become ablaze before enjoying some of the pier’s rides.

Check out all the best things to do in Santa Monica here .

Enjoy the beauty of the west coast at the charming Shutters On The Beach with an onsite restaurant along with surfboard and bike rentals.

Enjoy free parking, a simple breakfast, an onsite gym, and free WiFi at the Days Inn which is close to major routes into LA.

A block back from the famed local beaches HI LA – Santa Monica is prime for the last night of your California road trip. They offer lots of fun activities, like a pub crawl and group dinners.

Santa Monica

This California road trip itinerary takes you around the state, through its major cities and best national parks. You’ll experience a mix of civilization, lush landscapes, and lifeless deserts, sometimes on the same day.

From the cliffs of Big Sur to the mountains of Yosemite to the beaches of Santa Barbara, there is so much to see in California! Even the best California road trips couldn’t really include it all, but we’ve done our best to give you a good introduction.

Ten days is short for a west coast road trip, but it’s better than nothing! As a quick and inspiring glimpse into the Golden State, it’s the perfect platter to decide what you’ll inevitably later explore in greater detail.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means if you book accommodation, tours or buy a product, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help us keep creating more free travel content to help people plan their holidays and adventures. We only recommend the best accommodations, tours and products that ourselves or our fantastic editorial team have personally experienced, and regularly review these. Thanks for your support, kind friend!

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California Road Trip: Top 15 Scenic Stops Along the Way

Best California Road Trip Stops

California is truly filled with unique treasures. Although many people associate California with Hollywood, there are so many places to explore in the Golden State ! 

Road-tripping through California could take weeks, and you still won’t see it all. That’s why we’ve put together a California road trip itinerary for you to journey your way down the coast from Northern California through the Central Coast and into Southern California. 

For this California road trip, you’ll mainly be following Highway 1 south. This famous highway gives you incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. Even beyond these stops, you’ll see amazing sights throughout your entire journey, even just from your car. 

Once you hit Santa Barbara, it’s time to head back north, but you’ll be following a more inland path. This way, you’ll be able to make time for national parks, hidden hideaways, and fresh food from California’s farmland!

This road trip takes you through some of the more hidden gems of the state, like Half Moon Bay, San Simeon, and Solvang. From wine tours to hiking trails to amusement parks, there’s so much to do at these stunning locations that you may want to spend a few days at each stop. 

But to help you get the most out of each day, we’ve picked out a few of the sights you just can’t miss seeing. Follow this carefully curated California road trip itinerary to uncover all the famous and little-known destinations California has to offer.

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase or booking through one of our links we may earn a small commission (don’t worry, it’s at no extra cost to you).

Scenic Stops Along Your California Road Trip 

1. explore golden gate park in san francisco.

Road Trip Stops in California: Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Before you venture south, start your journey in San Francisco. Known for its steep rolling hills, eclectic architecture, and fantastic food scene, you could spend your whole vacation getting to know this diverse city. But if you’re only stopping by and visiting for a few days, there should be a few highlights on your list of things to do in San Francisco . 

Take a walk along the Lands End Coastal Trail for one of the best views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Then, explore Golden Gate Park, where you’ll find beautiful places to spend an afternoon, like the Japanese Tea Garden or the Conservatory of Flowers . 

Road Trip Through California: Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Another stop to make is the Palace of Fine Arts , one of the most picturesque structures in the city. If you’d like to see the famous Painted Ladies, head to Alamo Square Park for a view like no other. Finish your eventful day off by dining in Ghirardelli Square .

Experience a Golden Gate Park Segway Tour

2. Have a Beach Day in Half Moon Bay

California Road Trip: Half Moon Bay in San Francisco

As a northern California coastal town filled with excellent surfing, clean beaches, and bright blue waters, you may end up spending your entire time in Half Moon Bay relaxing in the sand. But there’s plenty more to do in this charming town, especially if you visit in the fall. 

Located an easy 30 miles south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is known for its pumpkin patches. The farms in Half Moon Bay put on quite a show in autumn, with corn mazes, haunted hayrides, and plenty of pumpkin picking. If you’re visiting closer to winter, many of these pumpkin patches turn into Christmas tree farms, complete with hot cocoa and tons of fun for adults and little ones alike.

Road Trip Stops in California: Half Moon Bay in San Francisco

Once you’re done at the farms, head to Half Moon Bay’s historic downtown for some great dining options and stores boasting one-of-a-kind finds. Here you’ll find handcrafted trinkets, hand-cut flowers, and even baby chicks to coo over.

3. Catch Epic Waves in Santa Cruz

Road Trip Stops in California: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

Venturing an hour south of Half Moon Bay on Highway 1, your next stop should be the laidback and beachy town of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is best known for its iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk , where you can ride the historic Giant Dipper, play skeeball in a huge and classic arcade, and spend a whole day sampling delicious boardwalk eats. 

But if you’d rather spend time in the forest instead of at the beach, climb aboard a train at the Roaring Camp Railroads . Hop on the Redwood Forest Steam Train for a tour of the redwoods until you reach Bear Mountain. 

California Road Trip Stops: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

Or take the Santa Cruz Beach Train, where you’ll be taken through Henry Cowell State Park and delivered to the Santa Cruz beaches. Around the holiday season, these trains are transformed into an illuminated wonderland.

Santa Cruz also has a diverse downtown, where you’ll find delicious dining options and unique shopping opportunities, as well as live music, historic movie theaters, and more. There are so many fun things to do in this beachside beauty – you could easily spend three days in Santa Cruz .

4. Spot Majestic Sea Creatures in Monterey

California Road Trip: Majestic Sea Creatures in Monterey

Less than an hour south of Santa Cruz is Monterey, another waterfront town with a very different vibe and a must on any California road trip. You won’t find amusement park rides in Monterey, but what you will find is incredible wildlife, amazing eats, and aquatic attractions like no other. There are tons of fun things to do in Monterey !

If you only have a few days in Monterey, you’ll likely want to spend them exploring the bay itself. Climb aboard a kayak at the Monterey Bay, and you’re bound to see sea lions, seals, otters, and maybe even dolphins while you’re paddling. Or venture to Old Fisherman’s Wharf to take a whale-watching tour and see humpbacks, orcas, and many more unique types of whales that spend time in the Monterey waters. 

Road Trip Stops in California: Majestic Sea Creatures in Monterey

One of the biggest attractions in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium , a world-renowned aquarium known for its rehabilitation efforts for abandoned wildlife. Learn about how surrogate otter moms train lost pups to prepare them to be released back into the wild. 

While you’re here, you’ll spot stunning creatures from diverse habitats, from the many organisms that call kelp forests home to the bewildering beauties of the little-seen deep sea. Once you’re done exploring the aquarium, head out to Cannery Row for fine dining options with an ocean view.

5. Take in Unreal Pacific Views in Big Sur

California Road Trip: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur

Not too far from Monterey is Big Sur, a historic location on the water. Take a photo at the Bixby Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. Then, go for a hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Keep your eyes peeled for the hidden Keyhole Arch!

As you explore this gorgeous park, you’ll come across the 80-foot McWay Falls, a rushing waterfall surrounded by sandy beaches and granite cliffs. Another great hike is the Partington Cove Trail, a one-mile hike that leads you to a cove with tide pools, wildflowers, and one heck of a view.

Road Trip Through California: Bixby Bridge in Big Sur

For another unique beach experience, head to Pfeiffer Beach. Here you’ll walk along shimmering purple sand, which gets its color from manganese garnet. Check the north side of the beach near the tidepools for this naturally occurring phenomenon. 

Experience a Big Sur Guided Tour

6. Check Out the Elephant Seals in San Simeon

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Elephant Seals in San Simeon

When you stop at San Simeon, you’ll find many beautiful beaches to visit, as well as breathtaking views. But there are two locations that you have to check out if you have a short stay in this spectacular town on the water. 

The first is the real jewel of San Simeon, Hearst Castle . Started in 1919, this castle consisted of a twin-towered main building, three guesthouses, and 127 acres of terraced gardens, fountains, and pools. It’s also a museum that’s home to art and antiquities from around the world. 

California Road Trip Stops: Hearst Castle in San Simeon

There are several different types of tours available, including one that invites guests to dress in period costumes and be transported back to the age of William Randolph Hearst himself. Pick the tour that you’d like to go on most, but be sure to book in advance as space is limited.

The other stop you should make is at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery , an easily accessible rookery where you’ll spot (and hear!) thousands of elephant seals nestled in the sand. Although you’ll find elephant seals here all throughout the year, up to 17,000 seals can be found here during peak times, which occur in January, April, and October.

7. Go Kayaking in Morro Bay

Road Trip Through California: Kayaking in Morro Bay

Located just 30 miles south of San Simeon, Morro Bay is a fishing village that’s a perfect stop for people who love getting out on the water. Charter your own fishing boat or rent a paddle board to venture around the bay. 

You’re bound to spot playful otters, resting seals, and barking sea lions no matter where you go in Morro Bay. After that, ride off into the sunset on a floating tiki bar complete with 1950s-style cocktails, or paddle as the moon rises over the famous Morro Rock with a sunset kayaking tour .

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Morro Bay Kite Festival in Morro Bay

Morro Bay is often foggy, but the fog typically burns off by midday. Otherwise, the climate is very temperate, so there’s never a bad time to visit this beachside town. But two of the best times to come here are during fall’s Avocado Margarita Festival and spring’s Morro Bay Kite Festival . 

During the Avocado Margarita Festival, you’ll listen to live music in a picturesque setting while you sip on eclectic cocktails and dine on gourmet avocado treats. This festival truly is very Californian! 

During the Kite Festival, you and your family will watch as pieces of art fly overhead, flown by trained kite pilots. For even more fun for the little ones, some of these kites are packed with candy, which will drop at certain times of the day.

8. Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

Road Trip Stops in California: Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

Once the Clam Capital of the World, Pismo Beach is a beachy town filled with places for outdoor adventures. You’ll find this gem 26 miles south of Morro Bay, so it’s a great place to get out and stretch your legs during your California road trip.

From October to February, you can watch thousands of butterflies soar overhead at the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove . You can also head to Dinosaur Caves Park , a bluff park that spans 11 acres. Kids will love playing at the dinosaur-themed playground, while you’ll love sightseeing in the lush green open space. 

Road Trip Through California: Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach

For a more tranquil spot, venture over to Eldwayen Ocean Park . During low tide, you’ll spot tons of aquatic creatures here, from anemones to sea stars. But if you’re more of a daredevil, you’ll want to go to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the only place in California where motor vehicles can drive on the beach. Rent a dune buggy and go for the ride of your life!

Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

9. Wine and Dine in Santa Barbara

California Road Trip: Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara

Set 82 miles south of Pismo, Santa Barbara is one of the most popular weekend destinations in Southern California for a good reason. This gorgeous coastal town boasts beautiful beaches, gorgeous gardens, and many more amazing activities. 

Explore Lotusland , a lush and whimsical garden sitting on 37 acres and filled with a stunning collection of exotic plants once collected by famous Polish opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska. Or head to Arroyo Burro County Beach Park for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing.

Road Trip Stops in California: Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is known for its food and wine scene, so if you only have a day or two, join a wine or food tour to get the full experience of this scenic location. Take a sustainable wine tour , where you’ll go behind the scenes to see how small-production wines are made and sample them in private tasting rooms. Or go on a tasting tour to find local eats that are hidden gems to the area. 

End your day here with a show at the Lobero Theatre , the oldest continuously-performing theater in California. Or take in the sunset at Stearns Wharf, the oldest wooden wharf continuously in use in California. 

Now that you’ve made it to Santa Barbara, it’s time to venture back up the state. Although we journeyed down the coast, you’ll be heading back up more inland to mix things up!

Go on a Wine, Chocolate, and History Walking Tour

10. Be Transported to Denmark in Solvang

Road Trip Through California: Solvang

A must on any California road trip bucket list, the charming village of Solvang will make you feel like you’ve been transported across the world. This town is known for its Danish history, architecture, and treats. 

Ride along the historic horse-drawn Solvang Trolley and take in the sights of this uniquely wonderful location. As you wander along the main street, Mission Drive, you’ll gawk at colorful facades, spectacular windmills, and beautiful blooming flowers. 

California Road Trip Stops: Solvang Trolley in Solvang

Solvang features many wine-tasting rooms, fine dining establishments, and shops with one-of-a-kind treats. Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolate Inc. is a must-do for any sweets lover. Here you’ll find handcrafted chocolates of all kinds. If you’re a fan of the holidays, head to Jule Hus , where it’s Christmas all year long. 

If you’re a history buff, you’ll find many one-of-a-kind museums in Solvang. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum will take you into the life and works of this beloved Danish writer. 

To learn more about the Danish history of the area, the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art will take you through art and artifacts of Solvang’s Danish roots, all housed in a building reminiscent of 18th century Denmark farmhouse. And the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum shows off exotic and vintage motorcycles and European racing bikes, a perfect stop for a racing lover.

Book a Solvang Food & Photo Tour

11. Spend the Night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo

Continuing north for about an hour, you’ll head to San Luis Obispo, where you’ll find wine tasting, farm-to-table dining, and an entertaining downtown to explore. 

Take a tour of the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa , take a walk through the strange and wonderful Bubblegum Alley, or give your kids a day of play at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum . For a truly unique site, visit the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard, a nine-acre area packed with eclectic structures built by students at Cal Poly.

Road Trip Stops in California: Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo

If you have a night to spend in San Luis Obispo, rent a room at the Madonna Inn , a world-famous, whimsical inn with uniquely designed rooms. From rooms that look like they were built into the wall of a canyon to bright pink love shack-inspired suites, this kitschy gem is truly a one-of-a-kind find.

Book a night at the Madonna Inn

12. Go Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

California Road Trip: Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

Drive 30 miles north, and you’ll come across Paso Robles, a haven for art, culture, and wine. Visit Senserio , a 15-acre light show across rolling hills, for a spectacle unlike any other. Hike around Carrizo Plain National Monument, where the best time to explore is from March to May when the California poppies are in bloom. 

Road Trip Through California: Vineyard Paso Robles

After that, you can take a hot air balloon ride over Paso Robles’ many vineyards or rest and rejuvenate in the area’s natural hot springs. You can dine on a castle rooftop at Tooth and Nail Winery , but there are plenty more wine-tasting options in the area. Hop aboard Paso Robles’ many wine tours to get a chance to experience several of the area’s biggest and best wineries.

Experience the Wine Country Sightseeing Tour

13. Take a Hike in Pinnacles National Park

California Road Trip Stops: Pinnacles National Park in Salinas Valley

Pinnacles is a national park located just east of the Salinas Valley. About 23 million years ago, multiple volcanoes erupted, and the lava flow slid to form what would later become Pinnacles National Park. 

Throughout this gorgeous landscape, visitors can journey through chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms. This park is home to many rare creatures, like the California condor. Hikers can also venture through talus caves and come out to find towering rock spires.

Road Trip Through California: Pinnacles National Park in Salinas Valley

Because temperatures can reach the 90s and swing wildly throughout the day, it’s not recommended to hike in the Pinnacles during the peak of the summer. Although traveling here in the fall and winter can be beautiful, the best time to visit is in spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom. There are over 30 miles of hiking trails, so there’s plenty to explore here!

14. Try All the Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

California Road Trip: Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

Famously the Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy is an adorable hidden gem in Santa Clara County, roughly an hour from Pinnacles National Park. Stop at one of the many garlic stops along the road here and even try some garlic ice cream if you’re feeling adventurous. 

Follow the Road to Garlic to find restaurants and shops offering the best garlic treats Gilroy has to offer. And if you have little ones, you’ll love Gilroy Gardens , which features beautiful gardens, amusement park rides, and the living sculptures that are the Circus Trees. 

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

Just outside of Gilroy is Henry W. Coe State Park, the largest state park in northern California and home to 87,000 acres of hills and mountain ridges in the Diablo Mountain Range. Wildflowers bloom all over this park from February to March, so it’s a masterpiece of color by April. With so many trails lining the flower-covered hills, this park is a hiker’s paradise.

15. Take It Easy in the East Bay

Now that you’ve made it back up to northern California finish off your road trip in the East Bay. Lying across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, the East Bay consists of Contra Costa County and Alameda County. 

Hike your way around Tilden Regional Park, go stargazing at Chabot Space & Science Center , or dine on the water at Jack London Square in Oakland. If you’d like to see the iconic redwoods, be sure to stroll along the trails at Redwood Regional Park.

If you have young children, they’ll love Children’s Fairyland , an amusement park that looks like it came right out of a storybook. It’s conveniently located nearby the scenic Lake Merritt. This lake is also home to a large and eclectic farmers market every Saturday that’s certainly worth a stop. 

And now your California road trip has come to an end! Did we miss any of your favorite road trip stops in California? Let us know in the comments!

Planning a trip to California? Check out our favorite books and travel guides!


Best California Road Trip Stops

About the Author:

Valerie Wheatley

Val grew up in Portland, Oregon but moved to Oahu on a whim back in 2013. She sold her house and all of her belongings and bought a one-way ticket. Since then she’s taken two around-the-world trips and has visited 60-ish countries while living out of a duffel bag. Val started documenting the Wandering Wheatleys travels back in 2013 as a way to update friends and family about her whereabouts and to relay humorous daily interactions. The only readers were her mom and her mother-in-law but that didn’t stop her! These days you’ll find Val dreaming up future trips, creating new travel content, managing a team of amazing travel enthusiasts, and chasing around her two adorable but naughty kids.

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A Vanlifer’s Ultimate California Road Trip [With Local Destination Guides]

The beauty of van life is the ability to drive wherever, whenever you want. And, in our opinion, a California road trip is one of the best adventures you can go on in the United States.

There aren’t many places in the world that have deserts, mountain ranges, and white sandy beaches all in one area — this is why California comes out on top as a road trip destination. From the redwoods in the Sequoia National Park to the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California has it all. And if the Golden State wasn’t on your road trip bucket list already, it will be soon enough.

Pacific Coast Highway

As road trippers, we know that sometimes the hardest part about van life or road trips is finding a route that’s both time and fuel-efficient. It can be a tedious task, we get it.

But luckily for you, we’ve done the hard part and curated the ultimate California road trip itinerary.

Whether you plan to begin your journey in California or if you’re passing through the area, keep on reading. You won’t want to miss this California coast road trip!

Short On Time? Here’s Our California Road Trip Itinerary

If you don’t have time to read our entire guide, you can view a short version of the itinerary below; you can go ahead and jump to any section that peaks your interest. 

Also, be sure to check out our itinerary maps. So as not to overwhelm you, we’ve split the itinerary into 2 legs:

  • Redwood National Park to Los Angeles

LA to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Redwood national park to la.

California Road Trip southbound leg

The first leg largely takes you along the Pacific Coast Highway. Here is our recommended list of stops on this leg of the road trip:

Redwood National Park

Napa valley, san francisco, monterey county, santa barbara.

  • Greater Los Angeles

California road trip northbound leg

This leg will keep you on the coast until you reach San Diego; from there, you’ll head inland and north again.

These are the stops we’ll recommend for the second leg of the journey:

Palm Springs

  • Joshua Tree
  • Death Valley

Sequoia National Park

  • Lassen National Forest

Redwood National Park California Road Trip

Our California road trip starts off along the state’s north coast at the Redwood National Park. 

As I’m sure you can gather from the name, the Redwood National Park is one of the top places in the world to walk amongst some of the biggest trees on Earth. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be an ant, then you’ll have your answer after visiting Redwood. 

Some of the trees in the Redwood National Park are over 2,000 years old and stand over 300 feet tall. With countless hikes, scenic drives, and access to the beach, you can spend 2 to 3 days at the National Park, taking in all the natural beauty, wildlife, and breathtaking views. 

Scenic Drives in Redwood National Park

Sometimes, the best part about a road trip is driving along large stretches of road with valleys or coastlines rolling past your windows.

As the Redwood National Park is easily accessible, there are numerous routes you can drive along for uninterrupted views of the Pacific Ocean or the towering redwoods . Here are some of our favorites: 

  • Redwood Creek Overlook
  • Klamath River Overlook
  • Crescent Beach Overlook
  • Howland Hill Road
  • Bald Hills Road
  • Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway
  • Coastal Loop

Campgrounds in Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park California Road triT

Redwood National Park is actually split into 4 sections: the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and the Redwood National Park.

There are no hotels within the National Park boundaries , but there are 4 campsites in the 3 State Parks. It’s best to book these campsites in advance, especially if you’re visiting during the summer months. 

Visitors Centers

As with many National Parks throughout America, the Redwood National Park has a couple of visitor centers where you can learn more about the area and all of its history.

The Kuchel Visitor Center is the park’s main center, but you can also find the Hiouchi Redwoods Visitor Center in the northern section of the park.

Mendocino California

From the Redwood National Park, there is a beautiful scenic drive down Highway 1, aka Pacific Coast Highway, which takes you along vast stretches of California’s coast. Many people refer to this drive as the Lost Coast, and we find it the perfect route to the next California road trip stop of Mendocino. 

The drive is roughly 4 hours , but there are numerous campgrounds along the way to break up your time on the road. Some of the campsites are even dotted along the shores, so the journey is a destination in itself. 

When you reach Mendocino, you’re in for even more incredible hikes through spectacular state parks, strolls along the magnificent California coastline, and you can even add a little wine tasting to the itinerary if you so wish. 

State Parks in Mendocino

Mendocino Headlands Park California

These are the state parks you’ll find in Mendocino :

  • Russian Gulch State Park 
  • Mendocino Headlands State Park
  • Van Damme State Park

Other Things to Do in Mendocino

Apart from visiting parks, here are a few more things you can do while you’re exploring Mendocino :

  • Wonder through Downtown Mendocino
  • Visit the Mendocino Bay Viewpoint for that perfect photo opportunity
  • Cycle or hike along the Big River Haul Road
  • Witness incredible wildlife at the Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
  • Kayak or paddle board down the Big River
  • Head to the Point Cabrillo Light Station
  • Visit one of Mendocino’s vineyards for a wine tasting experience

Also, from November through to April, you can head out on a whale watching tour to see California gray whales .

Napa Valley California

If you didn’t manage to get any wine tasting done in Mendocino, you’re in luck. Napa Valley is one of California’s most famous wine regions , and is lined with vineyards and wineries of indescribable beauty. If you’re a wine connoisseur, we’d highly urge you to dedicate a few days for a wine country road trip through Napa County.

Of course, as you can imagine, there are numerous vineyards to explore, with the most popular being the Sattui Winery in St. Helena.

Things to Do in Napa Besides Wine Tasting

If you aren’t a fan of wine , don’t worry — there are plenty of other things to do in Napa :

  • See the vineyards and Mount Saint Helena from a bird’s eye view in a hot air balloon.
  • Ride the 36-mile round trip Napa Valley Wine Train.
  • Visit Calistoga and relax in some of the country’s best and only mud baths.
  • Walk along the streets of Downtown Napa.
  • Dine in style at one of Napa’s six Michelin Star restaurants. 
  • Hike up, Mount St. Helena. The hike is moderately challenging, but you get magnificent views of the Napa region.
  • Drive down the Silverado Trail to see the hills and vineyards of Napa.

San Francisco California

After wrapping up in Napa Valley, you’ll want to make your way down to San Francisco.  Well known throughout the world for its numerous attractions and landmarks, San Francisco is an absolute must-visit destination on your great California road trip. 

Golden Gate Bridge

When 4 engineers designed and built the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, it was the longest suspension bridge on Earth. That record has now been beaten by the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Tokyo, but the Golden Gate Bridge still remains one of the modern wonders of the world.

The bridge, which is 1.7 miles long , has become the most photographed bridge on the planet and should definitely be on your must-see list when visiting San Francisco.

If famous bridges weren’t enough, San Francisco is also home to — arguably — the world’s most notorious prison, Alcatraz. The federal prison may not house any prisoners today, but it has become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

When you visit the prison on Alcatraz Island, you can take a walk inside and see where the likes of Al Capone and George Kelly served their time . 

Ride the Cable Cars

San Francisco cable cars

San Francisco is the only place in the world with manually operated cable car systems running through its streets. 

When the first cable cars were added to their tracks in 1873, their popularity soared. But, just under 20 years later, engineers designed the first electric streetcar, and so the decline of manual cars began. 

In our opinion, the cable cars in San Francisco are an excellent way to see the city, and as they’re the last manual cable cars in the world, its an experience you won’t get elsewhere.

Visit San Francisco’s Resident Sea Lions

If you’ve heard anything about San Francisco, then you’re probably well aware of the city’s resident sea lions. You can find the California sea lion community on the docks of Pier 19 at the Fisherman’s Wharf . 

If you’re traveling with kids, then Fisherman’s Wharf is also a great place to explore as it has a high concentration of family-related activities. The USS Pampanito submarine, which took part in World War II, Madame Tussauds wax museum, and  Ripley’s Believe It or Not! are just a few of the kid-friendly attractions in Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Visit the Twin Peaks

If you’re after amazing views of the Bay Area, you need to head to the Twin Peaks. The peaks stand at 922 feet tall and are easily accessible by car or tourist bus.

After you’ve been to the top of the peaks, you can make your way back down to the 64-acre park and enjoy some quiet time. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly.

Santa Cruz California

Roughly an hour’s drive south of San Francisco is the next stop on your California road trip — Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz sure does have some character and is seen by many as the land of the mountains, surf, and laid-back vibes .

When you think of a Californian beach town, Santa Cruz is what will pop up in your head.  Surfers ripping waves in the ocean, boardwalks along the beach, and plenty of ice cream stalls dotted around the place. 

Whether you stop in Santa Cruz for just the day or if you spend the entire weekend there, you’re guaranteed a fun, relaxed, and enjoyable visit. 

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is iconic. It’s been in numerous movies mainly thanks to its old-fashioned fun fair that features a historic wooden roller coaster, The Giant Dipper. 

Everyone loves amusement parks, especially when they’re situated right alongside the beach, so spend the afternoon getting your adrenaline pumping and indulge in the Boardwalk’s many sweet treats.

Drive Along West Cliff Drive

Driving along any stretch of California’s Pacific Coast Highway is unforgettable, and the West Cliff Drive is no exception. West Cliff has some of the most beautiful views in all of Santa Cruz, and if you have time, we highly recommend getting out of your car and taking in the refreshing ocean air.

Carmel, Monterey, California

You may never have heard of Monterey County, but once your road trip is complete, you’ll most definitely want to head back. 


One of the most popular attractions in Monterey is the beach in the city of Carmel. The beach is stunning with its white sand and relatively calm waters, which makes it a great stop for families on the road.

After you’ve finished up at the beach, you need to take a stroll through the quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea town. It feels like you’ve jumped in a time machine and headed back in time. The cobblestone paths and unique buildings are an attraction of their own when visiting Monterey. 

Drive the 17 Mile Drive

The 17-mile drive down the Monterey Peninsula’s southern side is an epic road that gives you some of the most beautiful views that Monterey has to offer.

We recommend starting the drive from the Pacific Grove Gate and working your way down to Carmel to enjoy the beach and Carmel city. 

Other Things to Do in Monterey

Here are a few more activities that are worth your time while you’re in Monterey :

  • Go shopping on Cannery Row and see one of the largest populations of California sea lions.
  • Visit the award-winning Monterey Bay Aquarium.
  • Go souvenir shopping at Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Head out on one of the many whale watching tours.

Big Sur California

A short, 45-minute drive south of Monterey, is Big Sur, which is home to over 90 miles of jagged coastline and the St. Lucia Mountain Range . With this great diversity of landforms come numerous activities for nature lovers to enjoy. 

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park got its name from one of Big Sur’s beloved pioneers, Julia Pfeiffer. While walking one of the seven marked trails, you’ll encounter intriguing coves, picturesque waterfalls, and towering redwood forests. 

One of the most popular trails is the Waterfall Overlook Trail. It’s less than a mile long and takes you to the McWay Falls, which is one of Big Sur’s most popular attractions.

If you’re on the hunt for whales, this is the place to be.

From December to February and March to May, migrating gray whales frequent the waters around the Big Sur coast , with some even coming up into the cove into which the McWay Falls flows.

Pfeiffer Beach

pfieffer beach, California

If your feet are sore from hiking, or you’re just short on time, you can head to Pfeiffer Beach.

Pfeiffer offers its visitors expansive shorelines that are towered by rock formations and thick vegetation.

One of the most famous rock formations in the area is a few feet out into the ocean.

This rock is the Pfeiffer Keyhole Rock, which got its distinguishable arch from thousands of years of erosion. During low tide, you’re able to walk through the water to the rock, and if you can wait until sunset, then you’ll have an incredible photo opportunity. 

Sand Dollar Beach

Sand Dollar Beach is Big Sur’s largest stretch of unbroken sand and is said to be one of the best surfing locations in the area.

Now, we know not everyone is into surfing, so if you’re heading to the beach, you can also try your luck at beachcombing.

You see, this is where the shoreline gets its name — from sand dollars that wash up on the shore. Sand dollars are flat, burrowing sea urchins that, once dead, turn white and end up on the beach.

Santa Barbara, California

From Big Sur, your next stop will be down the coast in southern California.

Santa Barbara is home to many celebrities , including George Lucas, Ellen DeGeneres, and Drew Barrymore.

And, with celebrities settling in Santa Barbara, it must be a nice place to visit. 

This charming city, which many people nickname the American Riviera, is full of fancy shops and 5-star restaurants, along with beautiful beaches, cozy cafes, and numerous photo opportunities. 

Visit the Mission Santa Barbara

The Mission Santa Barbara is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, which makes it a must-see during your California road trip. 

In 1925, an earthquake destroyed buildings all throughout Santa Barbara. Then, during the rebuild, builders designed and constructed buildings in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, which was inspired by the Mission Santa Barbara.

Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara Pier

Santa Barbara Pier

Stearns Wharf isn’t just a great place to head to if you’re after incredible views — it also leads to the Santa Barbara Pier, which sits at the end of State Street. 

Built in 1872, the Santa Barbara Pier is the oldest working wooden wharf in California . At the time of construction, it was also the longest deep-water pier in the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Nowadays, the pier is home to numerous attractions, like the Sea Center and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Walk, Skate, or Cycle the Cabrillo Bike Path

If you want to feel like you’re in a California-based movie, you’ll want to either skate, cycle , or walk down the Cabrillo Bike Path. The path runs between some of Santa Barbara’s best beaches and has palm trees lining its edges.

Head to the Funk Zone for Some Nightlife

After a week or two on the road, you may well feel like you need a night out. If that’s the case, the Funk Zone is the perfect place to go!

The Funk Zone is full of some of Santa Barbara’s best cafes, restaurants, and entertainment venues, as well as boutique shops, art galleries, and street art displays .

Malibu California

Just over an hour down California’s Pacific Coast Highway is the beach city of Malibu.

Now, we would be lying if we said the majority of your time won’t be spent on one of Malibu’s many beaches, because, well, that’s what Malibu is known for!

Point Dume State Beach

One of Malibu’s most popular beaches, Point Dume is the perfect place to relax and unwind. If you aren’t into lying on a beach, the State Beach also has a hiking trail that offers you a short and interesting hike with views of the Santa Monica Bay, Santa Monica Mountains, and, on a clear day, Catalina Island.

Zuma Beach, Malibu, California

Zuma is another one of the city’s well-known beaches. It’s the biggest one in Malibu, so as you can imagine, it’s a hotspot for locals and tourists alike. 

The beach is a great stop for families, couples, or solo travelers; if you can, stay for the sunset . Depending on the conditions, the sky lights up with shades of orange, red, and pink.

Once you finish up in Malibu, you can drive a further 20 minutes south to Santa Monica to enjoy the Santa Monica Pier, the Santa Monica Beach, and even visit the original Muscle Beach Gym.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California

Everyone, and we mean everyone, has heard of Los Angeles. So, of course, it was a no-brainer to add to your California road trip itinerary.

LA is home to amazing entertainment, nightlife , restaurants, and theme parks, all of which certainly make it a place you don’t want to miss.

Hollywood Sign

If you head to Santa Monica, the Hollywood Sign in northern Los Angeles is on your way. The Hollywood sign is about a 30-minute drive from Santa Monica , and in our opinion, you can’t visit LA without making a trip to see the world-famous mountainside lettering. 

If you don’t want to hike up to the sign, then there are a few places you can head to that offer amazing views from down below. These include Lake Hollywood Park, the Hollywood Reservoir, and North Beachwood Drive. 

While, sadly, you can’t touch the sign, you can hike up Mount Lee to get views of Los Angeles from behind it.

There are a few options to get you to the top of the mountain; these include:

  • Walking along Mulholland Dr or Deronda Dr from Lake Hollywood Park
  • Hike the Wonderview Trail
  • From the Griffith Observatory parking lot take the Mount Hollywood Trail
  • Set off from the Bronson Caves

Stargaze at the Griffith Observatory

Griffiths Observatory LA

At the peak of Griffith Park is the Griffith Observatory, which is one of the world’s finest planetariums. If you’re interested in all things space, then the Griffith Observatory is a must-do while you’re on your California road trip visiting LA. 

The observatory has a 290-seat planetarium, giant telescopes, and educational films that teach you all about the planets, stars, and give you sneak-peek at the mysteries of the universe.  

Take a Ride on a Hop-on-Hop-off Bus

One of the easiest ways to see LA is by jumping on a hop-on hop-off bus. Not only do these buses take you to all the must-see destinations, but they also have guides to the city’s history and other relevant information.

Head Down to Venice Beach

While in LA, you’ll find yet another world-famous California destination — Venice Beach.

Venice Beach is an ideal destination for those looking to catch some waves before relaxing with a drink at one of the many bars.

Drive to Huntington City Beach

If you’re a beach lover, you’ll want to head about an hour south of Venice Beach to Huntington Beach.

On your drive, you’ll also pass through Long Beach; we highly recommend visiting all 3 beaches as they all have unique characteristics that set them apart from the rest.

Anaheim, California

This one only really applies to all the Disney lovers out there, but when there is a Disney park in the area, you just have to go.

The first-ever Disneyland Park to open was in Anaheim in 1955. Since Anaheim is only a 26 drive from Los Angeles, it is a no-brainer. 

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach, California

If you aren’t a Disney fan, your next stop after departing Los Angeles should be Laguna Beach. It’s about an hour’s drive south, but the picturesque coastline is well worth it. 

After all the outdoor activities you’ve been doing, we hope you aren’t sunburnt by this point, as Laguna Beach has lengthy stretches of sandy seashore, and many hiking trails to explore.

Head to the Beach

As Laguna Beach has seven miles of coastline, you could spend days exploring some of its many beaches. Here are some to help you make a decision:

  • Crescent Bay – Good for kayaking and sea lion spottings
  • Thalia Street Beach – Perfect for beginner surfers
  • Rockpile Beach – Ideal for experienced surfers
  • Treasure Island Beach – Amazing views and a secluded cove to explore
  • Aliso Beach – For firepits and bonfires
  • Main Beach – Basketball and volleyball nets

Hike Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park has 40 miles of trails that wind through vast sycamore and oak woodlands. You can do all sorts of activities on the trails, from mountain biking to bird watching.

San Diego, California

The southernmost destination of our California road trip takes us to San Diego.

San Diego is yet another city in California that has unforgettable beaches, vibrant nightlife , and captivating attractions. Exploring these is definitely worth your time.

Visit Balboa Park

Balboa Park is home to the San Diego Zoo, which is classed as one of the best zoos not just in the United States but in the entire world. 

What’s more, the 1,200-acre park that houses the zoo makes an ideal location for bike rides, scenic walks, and picnics.

Spend Time at Mission Beach and Pacific Beach

San Diego Beach

Mission Beach and Pacific beach connect together to form the shoreline of San Diego. With miles of sand, nearby boardwalks, and even an amusement park, you’ll always find something to keep you entertained throughout your visit. 

Although these beaches are connected and share the same coastline, they couldn’t be any more different from one another. Mission Beach has calmer waters and a more relaxed vibe in general. Pacific Beach, on the other hand, is more upbeat and lively, with restaurants, shops, and bars lining the Mission Boulevard.

Enjoy the Views at Sunset Cliffs

As I’m sure you can tell by its name, Sunset Cliffs is San Diego’s best sunset-watching location. With untouched vegetation and dramatic cliff faces, the area is picture-worthy during the day and night, but it’s best to go around sunset time.

Palm Springs, California

Now it’s time to turn around on your California road trip and head back up north to Palm Springs.

Palm Springs has a few notable attractions that deserve your attention, so it makes sense to stop here before you go on to hike Joshua Tree and Death Valley later on in the trip. 

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Once you make it to Tramway Road, you’ll come across a gondola ride that works its way from Palm Spring up into the San Jacinto Mountains.

If you’ve been struggling with the heat, the aerial tramway will be a godsend as the air temperature drops by double digits once you reach the top . 

Tahquitz Canyon

Tahquitz Canyon, California

It’s not every day you see flowing water right in the middle of a desert. But, at Tahquitz Canyon, that is exactly what you’ll see. 

The two-mile loop trail leads you to a waterfall that is tucked into the Tahquitz Canyon. If you worked up a sweat on the trail you can even take a dip in the falls to cool off .

Mount San Jacinto State Park

If you like what you saw on the Palm Spring aerial tramway, why not hike through southern California’s second-highest mountain range?

The Mount San Jacinto State Park takes you up roughly 11,000 feet above sea level and gives you impeccable views of the alpine forests and surrounding areas.

Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree National Park

We hope you rested up in Palm Springs as you’ve got some long hikes ahead of you in the Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree is around a 40-minute drive from Palm Springs and has some stark differences from the coastal towns you drove through not long ago.

Joshua Tree has over 795,000 acres of rock formations and stark desert with hiking trails a-plenty throughout. 

Hidden Valley Nature Trail

The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is one of the shorter and easily accessible hikes in Joshua Tree, and it will take you on a 1-mile loop through an opening into a large rock-walled bowl. 

Barker Dam Nature Trail

Barker Dam Joshua Tree California

The Barker Dam Nature Trail is another relatively short route that goes for 1.3 miles past Joshua trees, rocks, and bodies of water.

Many people turn around and walk the loop back once they reach the remnants of a water tank. But we recommend carrying on. Although this makes the hike shorter, you actually miss the best bit — the largest trees beyond the dam.

Ryan Mountain Hike

If you’re after a more challenging hike, then the path from Park Boulevard up the Ryan Mountain should be right up your alley. Known as the Royal Mountain Hike, this 3-mile up-and-down hike takes you up 1,000 feet of elevation. But the 360-degree views of Joshua Tree at the top are well worth it. 

Other Things to Do in Joshua Tree

Here are a few more things you can do at Joshua Tree National Park apart from hiking:

  • Visit Skull Rock
  • Drive up to Keys View Lookout Point
  • Explore the Cholla Cactus Garden
  • Marvel over Joshua Trees’ rare permanent spring, Cottonwood Spring Oasis
  • Hike the Arch Rock Trail
  • Gaze at the stars come nightfall

Stargazing at Joshua Tree National Park

What to Do After Joshua Tree

If you want to explore other natural attractions on your California road trip, make your way over to the San Bernardino National Forest. From the deserts in Joshua Tree to the 800,000 acres of woodlands in San Bernardino, you’ll truly feel like you teleported to another world and not just driven an hour down the road. 

San Bernardino is an awesome hiking location with hot springs, the Big Bear Lake, scenic drives, and wildlife encounters. But be aware, there are bears in the area.

Campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree has a large selection of campsites to choose from. However, if you’re traveling into the area with an RV or van, 2 of the best sites are the Black Rock Campground and the Cottonwood Campground as they both have drinking water and flushable toilets.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Now it’s time to head back up to northern California to explore Death Valley. And don’t worry, we know it doesn’t have the most appealing name, but the area is truly magnificent. 

Death Valley is the lowest, driest, and hottest place on Earth. If that doesn’t intrigue you, then I’m not sure what will.

An aptly-named section of the park, Furnace Creek, received the hottest temperature ever recorded in July of 1913.

Wondering what that temperature was?

Well, it was 134°F. Yikes.

Dante’s View

Dante’s View offers one of the best viewpoints at Death Valley.

There is a parking lot at the viewpoint, along with trails, to give you a different perspective of the land down below. 

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California

If you’re visiting Death Valley at sunset, you should head to Zabriskie Point. There is a short walk to the overlook, and then there are short trails that lead out into the hills.

Badwater Basin

Few can say they’ve been to the lowest point in the USA. But you can — if you visit Badwater Basin, that is! Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level and comprises wide-open salt flats.

Other Things to Do in Death Valley

If you feel that you can tolerate a bit more heat, here are a few other activities to engage in at Death Valley National Park :

  • Explore the lumpy salt flats of Devil’s Golf Course
  • Enjoy the 9-mile scenic drive down Artists Drive
  • Hike Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch
  • Walk to Darwin Falls and enjoy the natural wonder of a waterfall in the desert
  • Sled down the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
  • Visit the Ubehebe Crater and witness a once active volcano

Campgrounds in the Death Valley National Park

Campsites in Death Valley work on a first-come-first-serve basis.

That said, the Furnace Creek Campground takes reservations during its busy season.

If you plan to camp at Death Valley, remember — temperatures are scorching during the summer months, and because of this, most campsites are closed.

Sequoia National Park

Time to beat the heat of Death Valley and head west to get to some much-needed shade in the Sequoia National Park.

The Sequoia National Park is home to the world’s largest redwood, Hyperion .

Hyperion stands over 380 feet tall, and if that isn’t a reason to visit Sequoia, then I don’t know what is. 

If the height of Hyperion doesn’t impress you enough, Sequoia is also home to the largest tree by volume. The General Sherman Tree is more than 36 feet in diameter at its base. For perspective, it would take about 20 people holding hands to hug this tree.

Things to Do in the Sequoia National Park

Moro Rock Summit

Sequoia National Park offers more than just majestic redwoods for you to admire; there are plenty of attractions and activities from which to choose.

Here are some that we’d recommend:

  • Visit the Giant Forest Museum
  • Climb 390 steps to Moro Rock (the view is well worth it)
  • Drive through the Tunnel Log
  • Explore the Crystal Cave marble cavern
  • Take a dip at the Tokopah Falls
  • Drive under Tunnel Rock

Hiking Trails in the Sequoia National Park

Needless to say, there are a few excellent hiking trails at the park, too:

  • Crescent Meadow Trail
  • Big Trees Trail
  • Congress Trail

Campgrounds at the Sequoia National Park

There are 7 campgrounds dotted around the park.

That said, the best one to head to if you’re traveling in RVs or vans is the Potwisha Campground.

Potwisha can accommodate RVs up to 24 feet long, and the area has flushing toilets, water, and other amenities.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is one of America’s most famous National Parks. And for a very good reason.

The park’s vistas are stunningly beautiful and offer guests a range of activities, from hiking and biking to fishing and rock climbing. 

Yosemite Falls

One of the prettiest parts of the Yosemite National Park is the Yosemite Falls. This waterfall pours its way down over the granite wall smashing against the rocks down below.

Because of its height, you can see the waterfall from numerous areas in the park, but the best view is at the start of the Yosemite Falls hike. 

You can hike your way down the trail to reach the base of the falls with minimal effort. On particularly hot days, the mist the falls create is pleasant and refreshing, so we highly recommend this hike.

Another of Yosemite’s popular sites is the Half Dome climbing wall. Climbers from all over the country have flocked to Yosemite to tackle the giant granite wall that towers over the valley.

If you aren’t looking to climb the wall, then there are two great options that give you fantastic views of the Half Dome.

The first is at the Glacier Point Lookout, where you can see how much the rockface actually looms over the valley and the surrounding mountains.

And the second option is the Mirror Lake hiking trail, which takes you to the bottom of the rock so you can see it from an ant’s perspective.

Tunnel View

Yosemite Park Tunnel View

The most iconic Yosemite Valley view is from the Tunnel Valley, which stretches out to Bridalveil Fall, El Captain, and the Half Dome.

The best time to visit is during the afternoon, when all the walls are bathed in direct sunlight.

Other Things to Do at Yosemite

Here are a few more things for you to do while you’re at Yosemite National Park :

  • Gaze at the 3,000-foot El Captain Rock.
  • Drive an hour up to Glacier Point
  • Hike to the Bridalveil Fall
  • If you’re skilled, try climbing the rocks of Yosemite
  • Hike Tioga Road
  • Cycle along Yosemite’s 12 miles of paved paths

Campgrounds at the Yosemite National Park

Yosemite has 13 campgrounds, most of which have sites for RVs.

It’s important to book ahead as much as possible to secure yourself a camp space , as all the campgrounds in Yosemite fill up fast.

Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe

Heading further northeast on the ultimate California road trip will take you up to Lake Tahoe, where you can spend the day hiking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains or participating in water sports on the lake itself.

Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay is a small sheltered cove of Lake Tahoe that has relatively shallow water, which gives the bay its beautiful turquoise color . 

Overlooking the bay is a Scandinavian castle, Vikingsholm, which is open to the public. Guests can take a tour inside after hiking its steep one-mile trail.

Alternatively, you can jump in a kayak or get up on a paddle board and explore the lake from the water itself. 

Hiking Lake Tahoe

Some of the more beautiful hiking trails are at the lake’s southern end. These trails include:

  • Fallen Leaf Lake Trail
  • Cascade Falls Trail
  • Rubicon Trail

Partake in Winter Sports

During the winter months, Lake Tahoe transforms into a world-renowned alpine skiing destination. Even if you aren’t an avid skier, the ride to the Observation Deck via a 9,123-foot gondola gives you outstanding views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding areas. 

Other Things to Do in Lake Tahoe

When you’ve had enough of skiing and water sports, you can still find a few exciting things to do around Lake Tahoe:

  • Have a picnic at the D.L Bliss State Park
  • Relax on the sandy beaches at the Sand Harbor State Park
  • Hike the Eagle Rock Hiking Trail

Sacramento, California

Sacramento is one of our final stops on this California road trip itinerary. As the state capital, the city features plenty of historical landmarks . Below are our top picks.

California State Railroad Museum

Over 500,000 people flock to the California State Railroad Museum every year, and if you too are interested in trains, we suggest you make a stop there yourself . 

The museum is spread out over six buildings and showcases railroad cars and locomotives, along with their history, and how the railroads shaped California and its economy.

Pony Express Terminal

The endpoint of the Pony Express was in the Pony Express Terminal in Sacramento. Although the mail service is no longer around, the building was named a National Historic Landmark, which now belongs to the Wells Fargo History Museum.

American River Bike Trail

Grab a bike and cycle along 32 miles of paved roads on the American River Bike Trail. The trail runs from Discovery Park to Beal’s Point and has separate lanes for people going either way.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic Park, California

Our final stop on this California road trip will take you to the Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is around a 3-hour drive from Sacramento. And, don’t worry, Lassen is well worth it.

The Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to all 4 types of volcanos: cinder cone, plug dome, composite, and shield. And the best part is some of these volcanos are still active . 

Hikes and trails throughout the park can take you alongside volcanic gas vents, steam vents, turquoise pools of water, and boiling mud pots. Now, that’s something you don’t see every day. 

But, along with the volcanic activity in the area, there are also plenty of lakes, waterfalls, and scenic drives that you can fill your days in Lassen with. 

The Best Trails in the Lassen Volcanic National Park

Not everything comes easy, and some of the best views require some work to get there. We hope you have your hiking boots ready, as the Lassen National Park has some incredible hikes that you won’t want to miss. These include:

  • Bumpass Hell Trail – Easy
  • Sulphur Works Sidewalk Trail – Easy
  • Devils Kitchen Trail – Challenging
  • Lassen Peak Trail – Challenging
  • Cinder Cone Trail – Challenging

Other Things to Do in the Lassen Volcanic National Park

If you’re tired of hiking, you can find some time to relax and take in the natural beauty at the landmarks below:

  • Manzanita Lake 
  • Juniper Lake
  • Emerald Lake
  • Boiling Springs Lake
  • Kings Creek Falls
  • Mill Creek Falls

Finally, you can take a drive down the Lassen Park Highway and immerse yourself in the surrounding scenery from the comfort of your vehicle.

Campgrounds in Lassen Volcanic National Park

There are 7 separate campgrounds throughout Lassen, but only 3 can accommodate RVs and trailers. These 3 sites include Manzanita Lake, Summit Lake, and Butte Lake.

That said, there are no RV hookups, so make sure your RV or van is equipped with everything you’ll need during your stay. 

California Road Trip: Conclusion

California Road Trip

So, there you have it! The ultimate California road trip. We hope this itinerary has helped you shape your future trip through the beautiful state of California.

As we wrap up this article, we’d love to know your favorite parts of California. Did this itinerary help you? And is there anything we should have added to the destination or activity list? Let us know in the comment section down below!


Please note that all comments will be checked by our team before being approved.

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10 Classic California Road Trips to Drive in Your Lifetime

The coastal highway 1 route is, of course, on the list, along with many you may have never heard of..

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California is, hands down, one of the best places in the world for a road trip . It’s the third largest state in the USA, and its 164,000 square miles are packed with varied terrain highlighted by some 66 scenic byways . Along the 865 miles of coast, road-trippers will meander by remote beaches and sheer cliff vistas as well as lively urban beach communities, such as Santa Monica and Venice in Los Angeles or laid-back La Jolla in San Diego. Inland, rocky desert landscapes give way to rolling farmlands, and two-lane highways carve through quiet groves of towering sequoias before climbing into the high, rugged peaks of the 352 mountain ranges.

All of that in mind, any Californian would agree that renting a car and hitting the road is a must while visiting (or living) in the Golden State. We’ve gathered together 10 great California road trips to get you started.

Full-state California road trips

View down a long stairway to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, a short detour from Highway 1

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a short but unforgettable detour from Highway 1.

Photo by Chris LaBasco/Shutterstock

1. California’s Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)

  • Start: Dana Point (Orange County)
  • End: Leggett (Mendocino County)
  • Distance: 656 miles
  • Recommended time: At least five days, ideally one or two weeks.

Following the California coastline, the iconic State Route 1—or Highway 1—is one of the best road trips in the world . It is sometimes referred to as the Pacific Coast Highway (or “PCH”), though technically, the PCH is only a southern part of the route ; other sections of Highway 1 are known as Cabrillo Highway, Coast Highway, or Shoreline Highway. Think of Highway 1 as a collection of the state’s greatest hits.

Start off with your toes in the Pacific at Huntington Beach, or Laguna Beach, or any one of the other scenic beaches of sunny southern California , then head north. Catch Spanish colonial architecture and sip local Santa Ynez valley wines in Santa Barbara. Then follow the forested road through Big Sur, stopping often to marvel at mountains that end abruptly in sea cliffs.

Be sure to pay homage to John Steinbeck at Cannery Row in Monterey , then bundle up to cut through the fog in San Francisco . Don’t worry, it tends to clear just after you cross the Golden Gate Bridge. From there, the road gets narrower and feels more remote as it winds through the hills of Marin County. Buy some oysters at the Tomales Bay Oyster Company and picnic along the Point Reyes National Seashore .

Finish up your trip walking driftwood-strewn beaches and tree-lined trails in the sleepy coastal town of Mendocino , or if you’re feeling really intrepid, keep following the coast north. Highway 1 officially ends in Leggett, where it turns to Highway 101, but that route continues more or less along the Pacific all the way into Oregon .

Itinerary: The Best Stops for a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is home to some of the oldest living things on Earth.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is home to some of the oldest living things on Earth.

Photo by Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock

2. The Eastern Sierras (Highway 395)

  • Start: Lone Pine
  • End: South Lake Tahoe
  • Distance: 232 miles
  • Recommended time : Four to five days

While Highway 1 follows the coast, its sister trip, Highway 395, traces the Sierra Nevada range, the backbone of California. Rather than beaches and coast, this route features prehistoric forests, historic mining towns, and a variety of geological features. The drive from Lone Pine up to Lake Tahoe is only about four hours—seven if you’re starting in Los Angeles —but you’ll want to plan for a four- or five-day trip.

Kick off your journey in Lone Pine, a former mining town sandwiched between Sequoia National Park and Death Valley National Park . Spend the day hiking among the boulders, arches, and jagged peaks of the Alabama Hills , where a number of movies, including The Lone Ranger, Gladiator, and Django Unchained , were filmed, before heading north. Before you leave, pay a visit to Manzanar National Historic Site to remember and honor the 110,000 Japanese Americans who were stripped of their rights and forced into the internment camp during World War II.

In Big Pine, stop for pulled pork and ribs at Copper Top BBQ , then and take a short detour onto Highway 168 to visit Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest , home to some of the oldest living trees on the planet. Be on the lookout for hot springs once you pass the climber’s haven of Bishop: Wild Willy’s Hot Springs and Hot Creek Geologic Park are both worth a stop, but as you continue north there are plenty of secret spots that locals might share if you ask.

A bit farther along Highway 395, you’ll pass Mammoth Mountain , a popular ski resort, and then Mono Lake, with its mud-drip rock formations. Those bound for Yosemite National Park would head west here, but those continuing north might take a detour to explore the ghost town of Bodie off Highway 270. Leave Highway 395 near Topaz Lake and take Highway 89 to Truckee or South Lake Tahoe, where you can finish your trip relaxing on the shores of a place Mark Twain once referred to as the “fairest picture the whole world affords.”

Related: 5 Amazing Lake Tahoe Hotels for Any Season

Northern California road trips

Exterior of the Boonville Hotel, which sits on Boonville's one main road.

Stay the night at Boonville Hotel, which sits on Boonville’s one main road.

Photo by Jessie Beck

3. The Best of Northern California: Highway 128

  • Start: Winters
  • Distance : 140 miles
  • Recommended time : Three to four days

A road trip along Highway 128, which runs east-west from the Sacramento Valley to the Mendocino coast, means getting to experience some of the most iconic parts of Northern California: Napa and Sonoma wines, redwood forests, Mendocino seafood, Michelin-starred restaurants. The scenery—and attractions—are constantly changing along this 140-mile route.

Start your drive in the agricultural town of Winters with a visit to the region’s breweries ( Berryessa is a local favorite) and, if it’s hot out, a swim at Berryessa Lake. Once in Napa County, stop by Nichelini Family Winery , the oldest continuously operated family winery in Napa, or any number of excellent wineries in the valley . Then end your day with a stay and soak at the geothermal pools at Solage or Calistoga Motor Lodge in Calistoga. The mineral waters that flow underground in this area have long been thought to have healing powers.

Continue winetasting as you drive across Sonoma County. Aim for Healdsburg, where you could stroll the town square and eat all day, or stop and sample the olive oil at Medlock Ames . As you enter Mendocino County and approach Boonville—a small blip of a town surrounded by farms and ranches—the rolling hills and vineyards of Napa and Sonoma give way to redwoods and apple orchards. Explore both with a hike in Hendy Woods State Park and a stop at the farmstand at Philo Apple Farm right outside the park entrance. Plus, of course, enjoy more wine—this time with cheese—at Pennyroyal Farm .

The last stretch of Highway 128 is one of the most scenic, passing through an 11-mile-long “tunnel” of second-growth redwood forest, before popping out on the foggy Mendocino Coast, where travelers can spend the night and sample the freshest catch at Michelin-starred restaurant Harbor House Inn in Elk .

Itinerary: A Food- and Wine-Centric Road Trip Along California’s Highway 128

Outdoor seating next to vineyards at Clos du Val on the Silverado Trail

Be sure to add extra days to your wine country road trip to properly enjoy tastings at wineries like Clos du Val on the Silverado Trail.

Photo by Rocco Cesalin

4. Northern California Wine Country Road Trip in Napa and Sonoma

  • Start: San Francisco
  • End: San Francisco
  • Distance: 161 miles
  • Recommended time: Two or three days

Plenty of people treat Northern California wine country as a day trip from San Francisco, but go for a long weekend so that you can really savor those winetastings and pamper yourself with a stay at one of the area’s luxurious hotels .

Make a beeline from San Francisco to Domaine Carneros to start your trip sipping California bubbly. Then jogging north on Highway 121, you’ll pass through the town of Napa, where it’s worth a stop for lunch at the Oxbow Public Market . Continue northeast on Highway 121 and you’ll pass the hot springs resort Vichy Springs , or turn north instead onto the Silverado Trail, where you can hop between some of the best wineries in the area, including Clos du Val and Mumm .

The Silverado Trail ends in Calistoga. Spend the night at Solage or Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs . The next day, loop back to Sonoma via the winding Calistoga Road and Highway 12, stopping to walk off your wine at a few great state parks, including Robert Louis Stevenson State Park , Sugarloaf Ridge State Park , and Jack London State Historic Park . Dine on seasonal tamales at El Molino Central in Sonoma, or pick one of the many restaurants that ring historic Sonoma Square. Spend your second night at the Lodge at Sonoma Resort, Autograph Collection and book a dinner at Animo , a creative new addition to Sonoma’s dining scene inspired by Basque and Korean cuisine.

For your final day, there are plenty of small wineries and towns to explore in this area before you end your trip with a sunset drive back to San Francisco.

Baked gray mud next to hydrothermal site

Lassen Volcanic National Park is filled with lakes and meadows as well as with hydrothermal sites.

Photo by Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

5. Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • Start: Redding
  • End: Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Distance: 188 miles
  • Recommended time: Three to five days

Lassen Volcanic National Park and the area around it form one of the more beautiful parts of the state, especially if you’re a mountain junkie who loves craggy peaks and volcanic rock. But it’s one that even locals tend to miss, partly because, at three hours from Sacramento and five hours northeast of San Francisco, it’s harder to get to than the coast or the state’s wine countries. But those who make the trek should plan for a three-day weekend with plenty of day hikes and geologic curiosities—this is, after all, volcano country.

Starting in Redding, a bustling city on the Sacramento River, travel north on 1-5 to Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in California and a popular spot to rent a houseboat with friends . Continue north on I-5, passing through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and maybe stopping to take in the ragged spires at Castle Crags State Park , before reaching Mount Shasta, where you can stop to stroll through town or hike in the mountain’s foothills.

Then, escape from the interstate and head south on Highway 89. This section of the highway is actually part of the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, which travels from Oregon in the north down to Lassen along the Cascade Mountain Range. Take some time to hike McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park and see the 129-foot-tall waterfall that shares a name with the park. Or kayak and paddleboard on serene Lake Almanor. Finish your trip with a day, if not two, wandering through Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is filled with mud pots, geysers, lava fields, shield and cinder cone volcanoes, mountain lakes, and even a few green meadows where you’ll find wildflowers in the spring .

Hillside of evergreens in Stanislaus National Forest

Pass by forest and mountain foothills while on this history-filled road trip.

6. Gold Chain Highway (Highway 49)

  • Distance: 295 miles
  • Start: Oakhurst
  • End: Vinton
  • Recommended time: Five or six days

Follow in the footsteps of miners and prospectors through California’s Gold Country along Highway 49—a road named after the gold-seeking immigrants, or “49ers” who made their way to the state during the 1849 Gold Rush. Plan for five days to give yourself a chance to strike it rich panning for gold in the region’s rivers. You’ll want to spend time exploring the rocky meadows and pine-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevadas too.

Start off with a history lesson at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa, just north of Oakhurst. As you move north along the route, you’ll pass a number of Gold Rush–era buildings and towns—many of which you’ll have learned about at the Mining and Mineral Museum. In Coulterville, Hotel Jeffery , first built in 1851, is known for paranormal activities and claims John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt as past visitors. Jamestown’s Railtown 1897 Historic State Park gives a glimpse of what transportation was like in the late 1800s, and Columbia State Historic Park and the town of Sonora are both well-preserved mining towns.

Highway 49 passes over the South Fork of the American River near Placerville, which is a popular place for river rafting. A little farther north here, in Coloma, you can actually try your own luck with a gold pan at Sutter’s Mill in Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park . Continue up through Auburn State Recreation Area , where the north and middle forks of the American River meet, stopping in Auburn’s Old Town and later Nevada City—make this an overnight stop and book a room at The National Exchange Hotel .

From there, Highway 49 heads northeast through Tahoe National Forest, but there’s more mining history to see before you end in Vinton. Be sure to stop at Empire Mine in Grass Valley, one of the oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines in California, and Downieville, a town founded during the Gold Rush along the Yuba River and now a popular spot for downhill mountain biking, hiking, and swimming in the summer.

Central California road trips

The road outside of Fresno passing through fields

The road outside of Fresno is best explored in the spring.

Photo by Tommy Lisbin/Unsplash

7. Fresno Blossom and Fruit Trails

  • Distance: 85 miles
  • Start: Fresno
  • End: Clovis
  • Recommended time: two days

Best experienced February through September, the areas outside of Fresno erupt in color from blossoming fruit and nut trees—be sure to drive with the windows down, taking in the scent of fresh cherries, plums, and peaches. While it’s on the shorter end of California road trips, plan to stop often.

Kick things off in Fresno with a visit to the Vineyard Farmers’ Market (Wednesdays and Saturdays) to get a taste of the fresh fruit that will line your drive. Next, head to the Forestiere Underground Gardens for one of the area’s unique attractions. This hand-dug maze of courtyards and rooms was mapped and built by an Italian immigrant, Baldassare Forestiere, looking to stay cool during the summertime.

After exploring Fresno, hop in the car and start heading out of the city, first stopping at Simonian Farms , a massive fruit stand—and home to a model Old West town—that’s been managed by the same family for five generations. Continuing west, you’ll also hit the scenic town of Sanger with its hefty roster of wineries.

Keep heading west to Orange Cove, a town known for its citrus, with an optional stop to walk around the quaint downtown area in Reedley. Explore the region’s Swedish roots by admiring the Nordic architecture in Kingsburg, including a water tower modeled after a Swedish coffee pot, and pay a visit to the Sun-Maid raisin market (and the world’s largest raisin box).

The last stop, Clovis, isn’t far from where you started. It’s a haven for antique enthusiasts, who won’t want to miss exploring the town’s memorabilia shops and 6,000-square-foot antique mall.

8. Central Highlights

Vineyard on hills outside Paso Robles

Napa and Sonoma aren’t the only great wine regions of California: Paso Robles is worth a visit too.

Photo by Shutterstock

  • Distance: 185 miles
  • Start: Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • End: Paso Robles
  • Recommended time: Four days

Can’t decide between a nature or food-filled adventure for your road trip itinerary? Then hop in your car and tackle the Central Coast and San Luis Obispo County for a route that marries several of California’s best attractions: food, wine, and stunning ocean views.

Start in Carmel-by-the-Sea with a visit to 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road along the coast between Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach before following Highway 1 south to Big Sur (being mindful of road closures; it’s currently closed southbound until July 14, 2023). Among the area’s many attractions and landmarks, be sure to make a pit stop for McWay Falls, a waterfall that flows into the Pacific Ocean, Rocky Creek Bridge, and Calla Lily Valley—if you’re traveling between late January and April, you’ll find thousands of blooms overlooking the ocean here.

After admiring Big Sur’s natural attractions, drive south to San Simeon (if the road is open) stopping at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery for some seal spotting along the way. This is where you’ll find Hearst Castle, which was once home to publisher William Randolph Hearst and hosted a revolving door of celebrities in the 1920s. Make sure to visit the nearby Hearst Ranch Winery . After, continue on toward Cambria to settle in town for the night—we recommend booking a room at Oceanpoint Ranch.

Farther south, stop to take in the views of sand dunes along the coast at Morro Bay before turning inland for lunch in San Luis Obispo. Next, drive north for some winetasting in Paso Robles, where producers like Opolo , Tablas Creek , and Calcareous Vineyard make the most of the region’s chalky soil. Don’t miss Tin City , a collection of industrial buildings that house local winemakers, brewers, and distilleries, before turning in for the night at luxurious, boutique property Hotel Cheval .

You’ll end the road trip by making the drive back to San Francisco or Los Angeles—just make sure to factor in lots of pit stops for snacks and taking in the views.

Southern California road trips

The stylish cabins at Noble + Proper are an ideal place to spend a night (or two) while exploring Big Bear.

The stylish cabins at Noble + Proper are an ideal place to spend a night (or two) after ending your road trip in Big Bear.

Jenny Siegwart

9. Rim of the World Scenic Byway (State Highway 18)

  • Distance: 117 miles
  • Start: Cajon Pass
  • End: Big Bear

When most people think of Southern California, they think of beaches. But the lower half of the state has just as much stunning mountain scenery as its other half. For visitors who want to spend most of their vacation frolicking in the sand, but also want some mountain air, the relatively short Rim of the World Scenic Byway offers an easy weekend getaway to the rockier terrain of the Inland Empire.

State Highway 18 officially begins at the Cajon Pass, about an hour outside Los Angeles on Highway 138. The route heads east, passing small mountain towns and following cliff edges and skirting the peaks of the San Bernadino Mountains, which are sometimes called the “Alps of Southern California.” Take a slight detour onto route 173 to visit Lake Arrowhead, a popular escape for Angelinos, who head up to camp, hike, and ride the Lake Arrowhead Queen steamboat , and more. You can even hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail here. Back on Highway 18, at the town of Running Springs, you can take a quick, five-mile side trip up to Keller Peak Fire Lookout, where on a clear day, you might be able to spot the Pacific Ocean.

Finally, Highway 18 follows the edge of Big Bear Lake to the town of Big Bear. Book into a cabin at stylish mountain retreat, Noble + Proper , and enjoy the area’s hiking and water sports in the summer or snow sports in the winter.

Empty highway passing through Joshua Tree National Park

Some of California’s most distinctive scenery isn’t along the coasts, it’s in Joshua Tree National Park and other desert areas.

Photo by Lisa Corson

10. The Desert Drive

  • Distance: 290 miles
  • Start: San Diego
  • End: Joshua Tree National Park
  • Recommended time: Five to seven days

Plenty of travelers make the trip from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park to marvel at its spiky namesake trees. But many think of Joshua Tree as a destination and miss out on all the beautiful and sometimes quirky things the deserts of Southern California have to offer along the way. In fact, you should really spend a full five days exploring the rock formations, wildflower meadows, art installations, and architectural hot spots of this region.

Starting in San Diego, point your car northeast on Highway 163 to Highway 78 heading toward Anza-Borrego Desert State Park , famous for its wildflower super blooms in the springtime. But even when the flowers aren’t blooming, the landscape is striking, with its badlands, slot canyons, and cactus forests. Near the park entrance, keep an eye out for the 130-foot prehistoric animal sculptures created by Ricardo Breceda .

Once you’ve explored the park, you can either head north on Highway 79 and cut through Anza en route to Palm Springs —the drive through wooded Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is a nice break from the desert sun—or continue on Palm Canyon Drive toward the dying Salton Sea . Admittedly not the most scenic part of this drive, the Salton Sea is fascinating nonetheless: It’s one of the world’s largest inland seas and is rapidly drying up. Skirt the southside of the body of water, then make your way toward Slab City, an abandoned Navy base that’s become an off-grid living community, and the massive, hand-built and brightly painted art piece Salvation Mountain , just outside.

From Slab City, take Highway 111 north to Palm Springs, an oasis of midcentury modern architecture (which you can learn more about at the Palm Springs Art Museum ) that’s home to plenty of pools that provide respite from the heat. From Palm Springs, follow Highway 10 to Pioneer Town for a drink or a meal or maybe a concert at the famous saloon Pappy and Harriet’s , just outside of Joshua Tree Park. The area has long attracted artists and bohemian types, so while there’s ample natural scenery to enjoy, such as Jumbo Rocks or Skull Rock, you can visit local art galleries, the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum , and the Integratron Sound Bath too.

More: The Best Places to Eat, Stay, and Hike in Joshua Tree, California

This story was originally published in 2020. It was most recently updated on April 21, 2023. Erika Owen contributed to the reporting of this story.

A view of stone walls and lakes over Sky Road in Galway County

Finding the Universe

Travel tales, photography and a dash of humor


A Two Week California Road Trip Itinerary

Last updated: April 19, 2024 . Written by Laurence Norah - 114 Comments

The United States is pretty much the perfect country to road trip in, with great roads, cheap gas and hundreds of gorgeous destinations to choose from. It’s no wonder that a California road trip is on many visitors to-do lists!

We’ve taken a number of fantastic US road trips , including Route 66 , the Pacific Coast Highway , the Oregon Trail and a route through the Deep South , and have never failed to have an amazing time.

One of our favourite states to explore though has to be California. With a mix of an excellent climate, some of the best National Parks in the country, and world-famous cities to explore, you’re never going to run short of things to do in California.

With this in mind, I wanted to put together a classic two week California road trip itinerary, taking in some of the best that the sunshine state has to offer. I did a trip almost exactly the same as this a few years back, so I know that it’s a good one.

California Road Trip

Two weeks is also a good amount of time for a trip like this, although you could of course extend it by a few days if you wanted to see a bit more, or wanted to go a bit slower.

California Road Trip Itinerary

This California road trip itinerary has you starting and finishing in San Francisco. As it’s a loop, you could also start and finish at any other point. If you would prefer another starting location, LA would be the most logical.

The route runs anti-clockwise, but you are welcome to drive it in whichever direction you prefer!

San Francisco – 3 Days

We’re going to start our California road trip with three days in San Francisco. San Francisco is home to the second largest airport in California, so there are plenty of opportunities for getting here for both domestic and international travellers.

Tram in San Francisco streets

San Francisco, and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area is also an excellent city to base yourself for your first three days.

If you’re arriving internationally, you’re going to want a few days to adjust to the time zone difference before hopping into a car. For this reason, I’m going to recommend spending three nights in San Francisco, and picking up your hire car as you leave. You won’t want (or need!) a car while you’re in the city – parking is expensive and there are plenty of other options to get around.

You won’t be short on things to do in San Francisco, and in fact, might feel a little overwhelmed by all the choices!

Our suggestions would be to take in the Golden Gate bridge (hire a bike to get here easily), explore Chinatown, pop across to Alcatraz , revel in the tourist trap that is Fisherman’s Wharf, don’t miss golden gate park , head to the top of Nob Hill for cocktails at The Mark, hop on a cable car and, if you still have time, take a stroll at Lands End.

San Francisco Sunset

To get yourself oriented, we can also recommend taking a walking tour with the excellent SFNative folks, they know the city backwards. Finally, if you’re looking for some great photo opportunities, check out our guide to the best photography locations in San Francisco .

Accommodation wise, there are plenty of options in San Francisco. Here are some of our favourite picks for your stay, across a range of budgets.

  • HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf Hotel – found right on Fisherman’s Wharf, this budget hostel offers both dormitory and private accommodation options. There’s free breakfast and free parking, making this an excellent option for the location.
  • Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel – found in the popular Union Square district, this great value 3-star hotel has a rooftop restaurant, library, and on-site theatre. Rooms have private bathrooms and coffee makers, and breakfast is included. A paid parking garage is available nearby.
  • Parker Guest House – found in the old Mission district just behind the San Francisco mission building, this is a well reviewed and good value guesthouse offering private rooms. Free breakfast is available, and parking is available on site for a reasonable (by San Francisco standards) fee.
  • Columbus Inn – Just a few hundred yards from Lombardy Street and Fisherman’s Wharf in the North Beach district,  this 3* inn offers great value for the location. Private rooms offer en-suite and tea/coffee making facilities. There’s also free parking on site.
  • Golden Gate Hotel – a very well reviewed 3* hotel just minutes from Union Square. Continental breakfast and afternoon tea are included. Rooms are definitely on the cosy side, and some have shared bathrooms, but the price is great for the location. Paid parking available nearby.
  • Staypineapple Union Square – we stayed at this restored historic 4* 1913 hotel on a recent trip to San Francisco, and loved the mix of the old and the new. We loved the rooms, the colorful pineapple theme, and the free pineapple flavoured cupcakes certainly helped! Parking is available nearby for a fee.
  • Four Seasons Hotel – if you are after five star luxury, then consider the Four Seasons hotel. Also found in Union Square, rooms are huge, there’s an on-site restaurant, fitness centre, and many rooms have city views.

See more options for hotels in San Francisco here, as well vacation rentals on Plum Guide here and Vrbo here .

Pacific Coast Highway – 2 Days

The drive down the section of the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles is definitely one of the best road trips in the world. So it’s really a no-brainer that this would be your first destination after you pick up your hire car and head out of the city.

Pacific Coast Highway California

There are numerous highlights along the way, from cute seaside towns to gorgeous wilderness areas. Don’t miss Santa Cruz , Monterey , Big Sur and the Julia Pfeffer Burns State Park (camp here if you can!).

The latter is particularly famous for the waterfall that cascades onto the beach, a gorgeous photo opportunity.

From Big Sur head further south and take in highlights like the seals at Cambria , tasty food at San Luis Obispo, the gorgeous Pismo beach, Hearst Castle and more.

For loads more information on this stretch of highway and to help you plan the perfect coastal road trip, check out our super detailed guide to planning a  Pacific Coast Highway road trip .

California road trip - Waterfall onto beach Juiia Pfieffer Burns State Park California Big Sur

For the 2 days you’ll spend on this part of your California road trip, we recommend stopping overnight around Monterey or Carmel on your first night, and San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay or Cambria on your second night.

There are plenty of accommodation options all the way down this stretch of highway, from campsites and B&B’s to luxury hotels – it all depends on your budget and what you’re aiming for. Here are a few options to consider in our recommended towns along the way.

For your first night, we recommend one of the following:

  • If you like to camp, then there are camping options in the national parks along the route here, including the Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground . I’ve camped here and it’s lovely to be surrounded by the massive redwoods. Just be aware that it is popular, and booking in advance is a must.
  • Sandpiper Inn , Carmel – we stayed here when we visited Carmel. We enjoyed the comfortable rooms, inclusive breakfast, and proximity to the beach. Free parking is available.
  • Coachman’s Inn , Carmel – we’ve stayed at a number of the boutique hotels which are in the Four Sisters Inn collection, and they’ve all been excellent. This inn, found in the heart of Carmel Village, gets good reviews. Rooms include coffee makers and free popcorn, wine with hors d’oeuvres is served in the evenings, and breakfast is included.
  • The Inn at 1252 , Monterey – a good value inn on the way into Monterey. Rooms feature coffee makers, and a heated pool is available year round. There’s also a fitness room, free parking and free coffee.
  • The Jabberwock B&B , Monterey – just a few blocks from Cannery Row, this very well reviewed B&B offers seven lovely guest rooms, some of which have fireplaces and hot tubs. Free parking, and breakfast is included.

For your second night, we recommend one of the following:

  • Apple Farm Inn , San Luis Obispo – we really enjoyed our stay here on one of our Pacific Coast Highway road trips. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, the breakfast was fantastic, and the on-site bakery has some delicious food. There are also two pools on site, and free parking.
  • Madonna Inn , San Luis Obispo – this four star family-owned motel just to the south of SLO is a truly quirky destination, and a landmark of the central coast. Each of the 110 rooms is uniquely decorated, with pink being a key theme throughout. We didn’t stay here, but we did have dinner at the Gold Rush steak house on-site, which was fantastic.
  • Seaside Inn , Morro Bay – this 2* budget inn is one block from the waterfront. Rooms have a microwave and refrigerator, and there’s free on site parking and coffee.
  • Beach Bungalow Inn and Suites , Morro Bay – five minutes walk from the aquarium, this three star inn is very well reviewed. Comfortable rooms have fireplaces, refrigerators and coffee machines, and a hot breakfast is included as is parking.
  • Cambria Palms Motel , Cambria – this 2* motel is a couple of blocks from downtown, and offers comfortable rooms at a good price. Rooms have refrigerator and coffee machine, and free parking is available on site.
  • El Colibri Hotel & Spa , Cambria – on one of our visits to Cambria we stayed here for a couple of nights and really enjoyed it. The rooms are lovely, with fireplaces, and some have spa tubs. There’s an on-site spa, outdoor hot tub, and breakfast is available. Free parking on-site.
  • J Patrick House B&B , Cambria – this five star Irish themed inn was Cambria’s first B&B. There’s a a free wine hour, evening cookies and a full breakfast included with your stay. Each room is individually designed, and there’s free parking on site. A great pick in Cambria.

Santa Monica, LA – 2 Days

Los Angeles can be a big, confusing place, particularly after your trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. That’s why I suggest you head to Santa Monica and make that your LA base.

On the coast, and technically a separate city (it’s kind of hard to tell as LA and its surrounds are part of a fairly vast urban sprawl), you’ll have access to the wonderful beach and pier, as well as nearby Venice, most famous for its beach and people watching opportunities.

santa monica sunset

Again, there’s no shortage of things to do in LA. If you’re interested in film, you can visit the Hollywood sign, walk the Hollywood walk of fame or go on a tour of the backlot at Universal Studios .

Art lovers will find their thrills at the Getty Center , which also offers gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding city. Other highlights include Sunset Boulevard, and of course, you can hop on one of those tours of the stars homes if you’re so inclined.

LA also has plentiful accommodation options to suit all budget. Here are some of our recommended options:

  • Santa Monica Motel – we enjoyed our stay at this basic 2* motel, which is around a 10 minute walk from Santa Monica Pier. There’s free morning coffee and free parking, and rooms come with coffee makers and in-room refrigerators. It’s definitely a value option.
  • Banana Bungalow – this hostel offers shared and private accommodation, around a mile from the downtown Hollywood area. There’s free parking on-site, and reviews are positive.
  • Magic Castle Hotel – this 3* hotel is a short walk from the Hollywood walk of fame, and you get a pool, unlimited free snacks, free continental breakfast and reasonably priced parking. It’s also a short walk to the Hollywood Bowl, and only three miles from Universal Studios. We really enjoyed staying here.
  • Villa Delle Stelle – this boutique hotel in central Hollywood gets excellent reviews and will make you feel like a celebrity. Each suite is designed after a specific old Hollywood Celebrity, and guests can avail of celebrity style services such as in-room massages, private chefs and a personal trainer. Free parking is also included.
  • The Georgian Hotel – this beautiful 1933 4* Art Deco hotel is a short walk from Santa Monica pier, and offers ocean views and on-site dining. Breakfast is available, and parking is available on-site for a fee.

See more LA listings here for inspiration , as well as LA listings on Vrbo here . For a more curated apartment rental option, check out Plum Guide. You can see their LA listings here .

If you’re not excited about Los Angeles, you could also choose to skip it and head down the coast to San Diego County and the city of San Diego itself. This is a more laid back (and easily navigable!) experience compared to LA, and there’s a great deal to do here as well.

For more reading on San Diego, check out this guide to things to do in San Diego we put together.

Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day

Time to head out of the city, and the remainder of this itinerary is going to focus on exploring some of California’s unbelievable wilderness areas and National Parks. We’re going to start this off with a trip to the Joshua Tree National Park , home to those iconic shaped trees that the park is named for.

Joshua Tree

It’s a wonderful place, the meeting point of two deserts, and offers good opportunities for camping, hiking and star-gazing.

The best way to experience the park is to camp overnight in one of its many campgrounds (you should definitely reserve a spot well in advance if this is your plan), otherwise, there are various lodging opportunities outside the park if you’re not big into camping. You should also be aware that there is very limited water availability in the park (and no hookups for RV’s), so make sure you bring plenty of water and food – this is a remote desert environment after all!

Here are some suggested accommodation options in nearby Twentynine Palms.

  • 9 Palms Inn – this budget 2* property gets good reviews, and rooms come with a coffee machine, microwave and refrigerator. There’s also free parking on site.
  • El Rancho Dolores – this is a great value 3* property with a seasonal pool. Rooms have microwaves and refrigerator, and free parking is included.
  • Sunnyvale Garden Suites – a very well rated 2* hotel offering a range of suites, each of which comes with a BBQ as well as a full kitchen. There’s a hot tub and gym on site, and free parking is available.
  • Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites – this 3* chain hotel offers comfortable and well reviewed accommodation, with an outdoor heated pool and fitness centre. Rooms have coffee making facilities, microwave and small fridge, and there are BBQ facilities available for guest use.
  • Flying Point Homestead – if you want something a little bit different, check out this property. It’s actually a holiday home rather than a hotel, but one of the options is a beautiful silver streak trailer!

See more listings for Twentynine Palms and this general region on  Plum Guide here .

Note, if you want to include a detour to Las Vegas, this would be the moment to do just that. We’d suggest adding a couple of days to your trip if you want to experience the city and its surrounds as there’s a lot to see and do here. Then you can rejoin the trip at the next stop.

For more on that sort of trip, check out our two week USA road trip itinerary , which include Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

Death Valley National Park – 1 Day

Moving on from one desert environment to another desert environment – and the largest national park in the contiguous United States. Death Valley (the name was given by gold rush travellers who nearly perished here) is the hottest and driest place in North America, and has recorded the hottest ambient air temperature in the world.

Badwater basin

So, overall, a hot place.

Other than making you want to crank up the AC then, what does Death Valley offer? Well, there’s that sense of remoteness. The vast, unforgiving wilderness. The knowledge that you’d probably die fairly quickly if you happen to wander off and get lost (don’t wander off and get lost folks).

Death Valley

Truth be told, there’s plenty to do here. You can visit Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the entire North America, which actually sits 86 metres below sea level. Then there are sand dunes, salt flats, craters, colourful canyons and hiking opportunities galore.

Just be aware that this is a seriously inhospitable, and, in the summer months, unbearably hot, destination, so plan and pack accordingly . If you’re looking for more ideas on spending a day in Death Valley, check out this excellent post .

Mammoth Lakes – 1 Day

From Death Valley we’re going to head further north, up to Mammoth Lakes . This drive is quite incredible, along the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the scenery (and temperatures) will change dramatically as you ascend into this gorgeous part of the world.

Mammoth Lakes are an adventure lovers playground. You can go hiking, camping, cycling, rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing – the list goes on! There’s also a ghost town , craft beer companies, shopping opportunities – basically, pretty much everything you could imagine.

lake mono

Whilst you’re here, you should also take the opportunity to visit Lake Mono . Now a state nature reserve, Lake Mono is a million year old lake notable for the “tufa” towers, calcium carbonate structures that stand above the lake like strange modern art installations. Definitely worth a visit, and particularly photogenic at sunrise and sunset.

Yosemite National Park – 3 Days

Finally on our awesome California road trip, I’m going to suggest you spend three days exploring Yosemite National Park before heading back to San Francisco to return your hire vehicle and head home.

Vernal falls Yosemite

Yosemite is without doubt one of my favourite places in the entire United States. It’s a wonder of nature, a photographer’s paradise, and somewhere I dare anyone to visit without falling instantly in love.

There’s a lot to see and do here, which is why I’m going to suggest taking three days to get the most out of your visit. This will let you see all the highlights, as well as go for some longer hikes (or drives), and not feel too rushed.

Glacier point view Yosemite

I’ve got a full guide to the best photography locations in Yosemite , but in brief, don’t miss Yosemite Falls, the hike up to Nevada and Vernal Falls, the drive (or hike) to Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Valley View and Bridalveil Falls.

If you love longer, more challenging day hikes, then Half Dome is a seriously challenging walk (permit required), as is the walk up to the top of Yosemite Falls .

There are a range of accommodation options in Yosemite National Park, ranging from campsites to canvas-sided tent cabins, through to luxury hotels.

There are 13 campsites available in the park , with a number of these available for reservation, and the rest operated on a first come first serve basis. If you want to camp, we highly recommend booking well in advance, which you can do here .

There are also nine lodging options operated by Yosemite Hospitality inside the park, which are the only other accommodation options available in the park itself. These can be reserved up to a year in advance, and range from simple canvas cabins through to a high-end luxury hotel. These can all be reserved online in advance here .

Important –  As of 2022, Yosemite has introduced a reservation system for park entry. If you are visiting between late May and the end of September and planning on driving into or through the park between 6am and 4pm you will need to have a reservation. You can find out more and make your reservations online here .

Yosemite view of El Capitan

California Road Trip Map

We’ve put together a map of our suggested California road trip itinerary, which you can see below, and also on Google Maps here . Note that depending on the time of year, access to Yosemite can be restricted due to snow, so you have to take the longer way round.

In addition, parts of the Pacific Coast Highway are often closed due to damage caused by landslides. As such, the map should be seen as an overview rather than a definitive route. You’ll want to plan your own California road trip route that matches any current road conditions and closures.

You can check the status of the coast route (state highway 1), as well as all the other roads in the state, on the Caltrans website here .

California Road Trip Itinerary Map

California Road Trip Itinerary Overview

  • Days 1 – 3: San Francisco
  • Days 4 – 5: Pacific Coast Highway
  • Days 6 & 7: Los Angeles
  • Day 8: Joshua Tree
  • Day 9: Death Valley
  • Day 10: Mammoth Lakes
  • Days 11 – 13: Yosemite National Park
  • Day 14: Return to San Francisco

When to Take a California Road Trip

California is a fairly good year round destination, but there are a few things to be aware of when planning your trip. In the Winter months, places like Yosemite can become accessible particularly from the east side, due to snow, as you can see in the map above.

The main road in to Yosemite is the Tioga Road, and this is usually closed from November through to May or even June. In addition, parts of the park, including Glacier Point road, are often closed for a similar timeframe.

If this happens to you, you’ll have to take a serious detour to get in based on this itinerary. A better option might be to embrace the snow, and head up to Lake Tahoe for some fantastic skiing opportunities. Or, you can head east, out to Nevada and the pleasure city of Las Vegas.

big sur coastline

In summertime, the heat can be quite intense, in particular in places like Death Valley, where in the summer months temperatures can exceed 100F, and it’s not recommended to spend much time outside.

Where to Stay in California

California has a serious range of accommodation options to meet pretty much every budget, although larger cities and busier months do tend to increase the prices. We’d always recommend booking in advance for your trip if possible – in particular for national park campsites and hotels, and to get the best deals on city centre hotels.

For two people travelling together, you’re looking at a budget range of $60 – $150 per night for comfortable private en-suite accommodation, although you can obviously spend far more than that!

Our preferred option for hotel booking is, as they usually have the best prices, regularly run deals, and many properties offer good last minute cancellation policies. See their listings for California , San Francisco and Los Angeles to get you started.

We also use and recommend Plum Guide and Vrbo for vacation rentals.

For more ideas, take a look at our travel resources page for helpful hints and tips on getting the best deal on accommodation when you travel.

How to Get Around California

This is a road trip, so obviously you’re going to want a hire a car! We recommend searching for your car rental on Discover Cars here . They compare a range of providers so you can find the best deal for your trip.

Drivers with foreign licenses are allowed to drive, if your license is in a language other than English then you would be best with either an international drivers license, or a certified translation.

Another option of course is to hire a camper van or RV, which will let you stay in campgrounds and other, more out of the way areas. This can be a fun way to travel in a more self sufficient style. If this sounds like you, we recommend comparing RV rental prices at Motorhome Republic . They list all RVs from many of the major suppliers to help you find the right one for you. See their USA listings here .

We can also recommend checking out  RVShare , who offer peer to peer campervan rental – a bit like the AirBnB of RV rental! Similar options include Outdoorsy and RVEzy .

If this is your first time in the USA, or you just want a reminder of what it’s like to drive in the USA, check out our guide to driving in the USA for lots of tips!

Practicalities for a California Road trip

Travelling in the USA is relatively easy, but we wanted to share a few things to help make planning your California road trip a little easier.


The USA uses a 110v electrical system, with plugs that are either two pin or three pin. The holes are flat, and sometimes the two pin plug holes will be different sizes, so the plug will only go in one way.

If you’re coming from much of the rest of the world, including Europe, the UK or Asia, you will definitely need a travel adaptor like this . You will also need to check that your equipment supports the 110v supply, as much of the rest of the world uses a 220v supply.

In our experience, most electronics like laptops and phone chargers accept a universal voltage, whilst higher power devices like hairdryers do not. Always check the device itself, the voltage rating should be on your plug or adaptor somewhere.

Internet Access

Internet access is widely available across the USA in the form of WiFi, which can be found for free at most hotels, cafes, bars and restaurants. There are also a number of free WiFi hotspots in some of the cities on our list.

If your phone is unlocked you can pick up a pay as you go SIM in the USA. One of the better options is from Straight Talk , which you can buy in Walmart stores.

For more options on getting online when travelling, check out our guide to getting online when travelling to help you figure out the best options.

The USA uses the US dollar, and there are ATM’s available throughout. In our experience though, you can pay for nearly everything with a credit card, so you will rarely need cash. Whilst it is worth having a few bills on you, for the most part you won’t need them.

Instead, just make sure you have a credit or debit card that doesn’t charge you any foreign transaction fees and uses a fair price for currency conversions, and you should be good to go.

Water across the USA is safe to drink, unless otherwise indicated. There are drinking fountains in the majority of public locations, and we recommend you travel with a re-usable water bottle so you can just fill it up as you go.

One thing we always love about travelling in the USA is how drinking water is always brought to your table at a restaurant – something we wish was standard around the world!

For the most part, the USA is a safe destination to travel in, and we have never had any problems. Of course, every country has crime, and areas where you would be wiser to avoid, however if you practice basic safety precautions, keep your valuables out of sight and behave as you would at home, you should be fine!

Further Reading and Resources for a California Road Trip

California is a very popular destination, so there’s no shortage of research material to help you plan your trip! Here are some of my favourite resources:

  • We have a guide to things to do in San Diego
  • I’ve written a guide featuring some of my top tips for driving in the USA to help get you going on the road!
  • Wondering how much a California road trip will cost? Check out our  guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA to help you plan your trip budget.
  • Jess has a guide to driving the Pacific Coast Highway , which will give you lots of ideas for that section of the road
  • If you’re interested in California’s wine country, see our guide to visiting Napa Valley
  • Route 66 ends in California, so take a look at our guide to planning a route 66 trip , as well as our detailed 2 week Route 66 itinerary and 1 week Route 66 itinerary
  • Fodor’s Guide to California , which also includes details on a number of fantastic road trips
  • The Lonely Planet California Guide , which is great for finding things to do, places to eat and places to stay
  • A US road atlas , because sometimes you don’t want to rely on GPS!
  • If you’re planning on hiring an RV or camping, this guide to free and super cheap campgrounds will quickly pay for itself
  • The official Visit California page, which will give you more advice on what to see and when to visit
  • For more in California, see this awesome guide to places to visit in California , from fellow bloggers at yTravelBlog
  • My guide to things to do in Redding California , if you decide to head to northern California
  • Getting online when travelling in a foreign country can be daunting – check out our guide to getting online when travelling to help you figure out the best options for your trip
  • And if you’re looking for inspiration for the rest of the USA, check out our USA section , which includes a Deep south itinerary , tips for New Orleans during Mardi Gras – and lots more!

Detailed itinerary and trip planning advice for the ultimate California two week road trip, including San Francisco, LA, the Pacific Coast Highway, Death Valley, Yosemite and more!

And that sums up my perfect two week California road trip itinerary! If you’ve got any comments, suggestions or additions, do pop them in the comments below. Plus, if you liked this post, do check out the rest of my itinerary series , which will help you plan the perfect trips all around the world!

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robert feinberg says

16th December 2023 at 4:48 pm

Hello, we are planning a road trip to California in July, and using your template, but adding a few different options. we are traveling with 2 15 year olds, and they want to surf. any recommendations you can make on that, as well as stops that will be good for them? much appreciated.

Laurence Norah says

16th December 2023 at 8:26 pm

So there are a lot of surfing options all along the coast from San Francisco to San Diego. A lot will depend on the experience of your children and whether or not they are experienced surfers or are looking to learn. Also, some locations will have surfboard rentals wheras others are more remote. So it will depend what you need in that regard. However, there are good options all along the California coast, including Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Pismo, Morro Bay, Ricon Point and Surfrider beach (Malibu). I’d just recommend doing some research to ensure you match the breaks to the skill level required 🙂

Have an awesome trip!

Kim Dawtrey says

7th October 2023 at 9:39 pm

Hi Lawrence We are just home after nearly three weeks in the US on a route based on your California Road Trip, although we also went to the a Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. The information within your blog was a great help in planning our trip. Unfortunately we were unable to drive down the whole Pacific Highway due to landslide near Big Sur, but we loved the 17 mile drive and would recommend staying in Pacific Grove (we stayed in Bide-A-Wee hotel which was great). We were also unable to drive across Death Valley as the NP was closed due to the damage to the roads, we did however visit Death Valley Junction and throughly recommend a visit to Amargosa Opera House. The board outside says tours at 9.00am and 6.00pm, but the young lady in the hotel reception was more than happy to give us a tour for a donation, fascinating place and history. If you haven’t visited I can send you some photos. Another side trip we did was to Bristlecone Ancient Pine Forest, amazing place, great drive up to 10,000 feet, with fresh snow at the top! The Grand Canyon and Yosemite were certainly the highlights for us. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip, thank you for all your valuable information, if we were 40 years younger, we would love to be doing what you and Jess are doing!

8th October 2023 at 12:33 pm

Thank you so much, I’m happy to hear you had a great trip in California and beyond! Unfortunately the Pacific Coast Highway does get blocked quite regularly due to landslides, and it also sounds like unfortunate timing with Death Valley. However I am glad to hear you still had a good time overall! We haven’t visited the Amargosa Opera House, we will definitely have to add that to the list!

Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences, and safe onward travels 🙂 Jess and I love to hear from fellow adventurers who have been out exploring!

All the best,

erika liaci says

3rd July 2023 at 2:54 pm

Hi we are finalising our US Road trip to/from LAX in mid August. Would you recommend still going to the Death valley? I am a bit scared of the temperature which might be 50C? Thanks erika

4th July 2023 at 9:26 am

So I would personally probably skip Death Valley in August. It’s going to be too hot to do very much, and you would likely be able to better spend your time elsewhere. An extra day in Yosemite for example!

Have a great trip!

17th April 2023 at 11:43 am

Hi – this 2 week California road trip looks amazing. Your blog is really helpful for planning our own trip. Would it be possible to know the driving distances between each of the places please. Thanks Sam

18th April 2023 at 8:09 am

Hi Sam, thanks very much! So I didn’t put distances because in my experience they tend to change with side trips etc. Also, the Pacific Coast Highway is regularly affected by landslips so stretches of the route can be closed.

That said, as a rough guide:

From San Francisco to Santa Monica is around 500 miles From Santa Monica to Joshua Tree is around 150 miles From Joshua Tree to Death Valley is around 260 miles From Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes is around 200 miles From Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite is normally around 75 miles but this depends on the pass being open From Yosemite back to San Francisco is around 170 miles.

I hope this helps! Have a great time in California 🙂

28th January 2023 at 2:46 pm

Hi. Would you recommend Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon? We will be driving back from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas and are thinking of an extended detour north rather than going back via Kingman. Thanks

29th January 2023 at 9:07 am

It is with some dismay that I’m not able to accurately answer your question as both parks are still on my to-do list and I haven’t visited either. So rather than inaccurately answer your question I would have to say I don’t know. I definitely want to visit them both, and from the photos I have seen I don’t think you would be disappointed with either, but that’s about as much as I can say for now until I have visited both!

Sorry not to be of more help but I hope you have an amazing trip nonetheless!

Maxine says

4th August 2022 at 8:16 am

This post has been super helpful and given us great ideas for a trip we are planning with our two teenagers next summer. We want to include vegas, therefore, would you recommend that we head there after San Diego before heading back to Yosemite? Thank you

4th August 2022 at 6:06 pm

Thanks very much, glad you found the post useful! So yes, heading from San Diego or Death Valley to Las Vegas would make the most sense. I’ve actually written a trip out that is similar to this one but include Vegas (and the Grand Canyon if you wanted to also include that). That’s here:

You can save time of course by skipping the Grand Canyon 🙂 Let me know if you have any more questions, I’m happy to help. Otherwise, have a great trip!

William D Villont says

6th January 2022 at 9:03 pm

My wife and I took a California trip similar to this one except we went south to San Diego as our final destination. I really enjoyed the trip and can fully understand why you highlight this trip as one someone should surely take. We agree. My only disappointment of the trip is that, at the time, I was doing videography and that is all I took on the trip, my video camera. Now that I have gotten back into photography I wish I had taken my camera as well. We rarely get out the old video (VHS tape) and watch and I have not taken the time to transfer the VHS to DVD yet. I just gave it away, that this trip was sometime ago because I was shooting VHS. Anyway I would love to take this trip again and if this Covid thing ever goes away, maybe I will. Thanks for sharing this trip.

7th January 2022 at 11:29 am

Hi William,

I’m glad to bring back positive memories of your California trip! Interesting to hear you mostly took video. I have a similar reverse quandry when I travel, I usually only find myself able to concentrate on one medium of story telling as we go, so I focus on photos. But I often think it might be nice to have more videos. I hope you get to watch your video soon and also to take the trip again one day!

Have a lovely and safe 2022,

Delaney Blute says

1st July 2021 at 3:18 am

Hi! Thank you so much for the wonderful travel recommendations. I’m planning on taking this trip with my mother and sister, possibly leaving next late summer. Do you have a ball park recommendation for price for the entire trip for 3 people? We plan on budgeting it, but just wanted to know if you had any estimate of what this trip would cost for 3 people. Thanks so much!

1st July 2021 at 12:47 pm

Hi Delaney,

This is a great question. So it’s really hard to give a price estimate because everyone has a different travel style, and it will depend on what type of accommodation you are thinking of booking, whether you are happy to share a room for the three of you vs have individual rooms, whether you are ok with budget dining vs more expensive options and so on. I’m also not sure if you’re from the US or not, so car rental if you need to rent a car would also be a cost to consider.

I do have a guide which has a ballpark idea of costs for travel in the UK, which you can see here:

That should give you an idea of how much each element of the trip should cost you, to help you come up with a rough figure. The main costs are going to be your accommodation, gas / car rental / car parking in cities, food, and any attraction entry.

I hope this helps! Let me know if I can provide any further input, and have a great trip 🙂

Chantelle says

7th March 2020 at 2:06 pm

We have a trip booked for just short of a month in September! Your blog was really helpful, thank you!

I was wondering if you had some advice on Car vrs Camper. Is it easy to find places to stay in a camper or would you recommend a car and motels. We are happy either way just want our trip to be as stress free as possible!

7th March 2020 at 5:07 pm

Hi Chantelle!

So we have done both, and honestly, we prefer motels / B&Bs to campsites.

In the USA, campsites are a bit different to the UK in my experience. They tend to have more formal “sites” for each visitor, which means they can’t just squeeze another person in. When they are full they’re full. For National Parks especially, this means that they can book out and then you can be stuck trying to find somewhere to stay. You can of course book them in advance, so that’s an option. The other good news is that if you have a campervan all is not lost as there are places you can camp for free. However these tend not to be totally exciting, Walmart carparks for example let folks stay overnight, but this might not be the dream option.

The other thing is that if you do the math, you will find that the cost of renting a campervan + the cost of paying campsite fees will probably be a lot more than the cost of a cheap car and economy lodging. Plus if you plan on visiting a few of the cities in this itinerary a camper will be more effort than it’s worth. You didn’t mention budget so this might not be a huge factor, but I just wanted to highlight it.

I think you can see where my preference lies for this itinerary. Obviously if you love camping and want to spend more time out in the backcountry and national parks, it’s a great option. But you might find that buying a cheap tent and a couple of sleeping bags for a few nights is a better option than renting a camper 🙂

Have a great trip – let me know how it goes and what you decide to do! We have a facebook group you’re welcome to share your experiences in here:

chantelle sims says

14th March 2020 at 2:44 pm

This has been so incredibly helpful thankyou!!

My pleasure Chantelle – have a great trip!

Sharon says

16th February 2020 at 7:40 pm

Great inspiration and ideas, thanks

16th February 2020 at 9:34 pm

Our pleasure Sharon, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Thiago says

12th February 2020 at 7:45 pm

Just want to thank you for these super detailed guides, guys;

13th February 2020 at 10:48 am

Our pleasure Thiago, if you have any questions we’re happy to help 🙂 Safe travels!

Kathy Reed says

26th January 2020 at 5:51 pm

Hi – this was an amazing find! Loved all of your recommendations. Do you have any recommendations for anything just a little further north into the Redwoods. Perhaps starting in Santa Monica and going north? Though i do love the loop feature of this itinerary. Makes it so hard to decide. Thanks!

28th January 2020 at 9:19 am

We have travelled north of this itinerary as well, with our highlights including Napa Valley, Point Reyes National Park and Redding, however we’ve not put together a detailed itinerary for this sort of trip as we’ve not covered the area in enough detail. If redwoods are what you are after particularly, then on this itinerary you can see them near Santa Cruz, if you did want to follow it.

Let me know if I can offer any more advice for your trip!

4th January 2020 at 4:39 pm

Hi Great site for info ? Just would like to know what time of year would you recommend doing this road trip ive just read on here ,we’re coming from the UK so any info will help us plan Many thanks Barry

5th January 2020 at 11:25 am

It can definitely be done at any time of year, but I might avoid the depths of winter as snow can make the roads into Yosemite a challenge, plus it will be quite cold. So if you are looking for more of a summery California road trip, I might suggest May through September. We just toured California in August, and it was definitely very hot inland, as well as being busy so perhaps May/June or September would be the best time for a good combination of weather and fewer people 🙂

Debbie says

4th January 2020 at 3:03 pm

Hi We are planning this trip in April 2020! We will skip LA (Not interested) & Yosemite (We’ve already been) & we will only spend 1 day in San Francisco (we’ve already been) my question is do you think we can do the rest in 7 days?? We definitely want to do the scenic drive from San Francisco to San Diego & back to San Fran an thank you for all the wonderful information!!

5th January 2020 at 11:32 am

Hey Debbie!

Awesome 😀 So you can do the Pacific Coast Highway from SF to San Diego in a couple of days if you don’t mind going at a bit of a pace. I’d probably slow it down to 3 days though. I’m not sure if you still plan on seeing Joshua Tree and Death Valley – if you plan on going up and down the Pacific Coast Highway both ways, then you’re actually going to end up driving much more than this itinerary if you do visit Death Valley, as you’ll do about 2/3rds of the route and then turn around.

I’m not sure if you wanted to go to Las Vegas instead, but what you could do instead of going all the way back is finish in Vegas. I have noticed that many car hire firms don’t charge one way fees for trips between SF and Las Vegas, and flights out of Las Vegas are also very inexpensive. Even if you don’t want to do the whole Las Vegas thing, there are some lovely outdoor attractions in the area including the Hoover Dam and the spectacular valley of fire state park.

Anyway, just a thought. To answer your question – yes, you could do the rest in 7 days but I fear it might be a bit rushed,

30th December 2019 at 1:24 am

How many miles is this trip in total?

30th December 2019 at 3:28 pm

Around 1400 miles, but you’ll want to add on detours, side trips etc. So I’d say 1500 – 2000 to be on the safe side 🙂

Mallikarjun says

19th December 2019 at 8:51 pm

Can you please let me know the “Public Transport” options, it may be Bus, Metro or any other services in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego. I am planning for a trip in end of Jan 2020 for about 6 to 7 days to cover these cities. Or is there any travel packages you suggest for these cities. Please let me know.

Thanks, Malli

22nd December 2019 at 5:29 pm

My pleasure, and apologies for the slow response, I’ve had some site issues I’ve been working on.

For your question, are you looking for public transport between the cities, or in the cities? If the former, then I’d generally recommend the long distance bus as the best way to get between the cities in California, although you will struggle to get to more remote locations this way.

For each city you mention, there are different options. San Francisco is the easiest to get around, as there’s a great bus system as well as bikes, e-bikes and scooters. LA is a bit trickier – there are both buses and a metro, but just be aware that the distances can be quite far as the city is very spread out. So the best option is to figure out what you want to see and make sure the accommodation you pick is as close to the sights as possible.

San Diego is also easy to get around for the most part, with buses, trolleys and trains.

I hope this helps 🙂

Samantha says

28th October 2019 at 1:20 pm

Hi! this sounds amazing and I am literally looking at booking this for June next year! From looking about the only area that I am a bit unsure of is Death Valley – where is best to stay around there and if only doing a day – what would be the best suggestion of something to do? I am also thinking that we will add 1 day on to do a Vegas stay since its so close!

29th October 2019 at 8:31 am

Hi Samantha,

So when we visited we stayed just outside the valley at Panamint Springs – specifically we stayed here .

A day is enough to see the highlights of Death Valley. You’ll want to visit Badwater Basin of course, the lowest point in North America. Other highlights including the Mesquite Sand dunes, Zabriskie Point, the Devil’s Golf Course, the Artists Drive and Palette and Mosaic Canyon.

We can definitely recommend tacking on a trip to Vegas as well. We’re actually thinking of publishing a new itinerary in the coming months which includes Vegas, as it’s a popular addition 🙂

Gisele leduc says

13th October 2019 at 3:38 pm

Would like to know w ymt is there a bus trip to 14 days in calif. Where does the bus leave from in the US. And approx how much is the cost

14th October 2019 at 8:36 pm

Sorry, could you clarify? Are you looking for a tour of California?

15th October 2019 at 3:32 pm

Looking for next year we live in Ottawa Canada and would like to take a 14 day bus tour especially san Francesco and pacific route. Are there bus tours leaving let’s say from Buffalo, New York we can easily drive to these destinations. I meant leaving from New York City and Buffalo. What would be the cost and does it include meals. Thank u

Gisele Leduv says

15th October 2019 at 7:37 pm

Hi I would like to know if there are Any bus tours leaving from New York City or buffalo 14 day road trip to California especially the pacific coastland. What would be the cost for such a trip.

16th October 2019 at 8:08 pm

Hey Gisele,

I have looked but most tours that depart from New York and go to California are much longer, because the distance is so great from the east coast to the west coast. If you want a tour that focuses more on California, it would definitely be easier to get one that departs from San Francisco or Las Vegas rather than New York – is that a possibility?

vivianchoo says

5th October 2019 at 4:44 am

Good articles and good photos, Helps a lot. Thank you!

5th October 2019 at 10:16 am

My pleasure – have a great trip!

Jason Parsons says

19th August 2019 at 3:23 pm

This is a super inspiring blog. Which area did you stay in Yosemite? We are planning to complete our road trip with 3 nights in Yosemite. We will have a car and plan on day trip walks within the park.using a hotel or lodge as our base.

19th August 2019 at 4:09 pm

Thanks very much! In Yosemite we’ve stayed in a few places. On the trip with the photos in this post, we stayed in Curry Village, which were canvas tents ( ).

Jess has also stayed at the Wawona hotel, and the other lodge options are The Ahwahnee Hotel and the Yosemite Valley Lodge. I would definitely recommend staying with the park if you can as it makes it a lot easier to see everything within a short distance. The various options are at different price points though, so you’ll have to figure out which is best for you 🙂

Have an amazing trip!

julie morton says

15th June 2019 at 4:36 pm

Great article, thank you. I will be doing a similar route with my husband in September. Do you have any further guides on the Mammoth Lakes area or could you suggest somewhere to base ourselves there for a couple of nights please? We will be coming from Death Valley and then heading on to Yosemite.

15th June 2019 at 8:31 pm

Hi Julie! We don’t have anything else about Mammoth Lakes unfortunately on our blogs. We have guides to other parts of California, including Yosemite, but Mammoth Lakes is still on the to do list.

Have a great trip, sorry we couldn’t help this time!

Tara West says

2nd June 2019 at 6:30 pm

Hi there, Just found your blog. Really helpful. Thank you. We are thinking of doing a Californian road trip with our 5 month old baby in Sept. How long are the drives between the places you mention? I wouldnt want to do LA so would probably do San Diego instead. Is there anywhere you advise missing out with a baby? Thanks so much. Tara

3rd June 2019 at 6:26 pm

Our pleasure, we’re delighted to be able to help 🙂

So the drives will obviously vary depending on what you stop and see, but none of the days on the itinerary should have more than four hours driving. We’ve also not got any personal experience with traveling with a baby, however, just bear in mind that even in September Death Valley is going to be very hot. Other than that I don’t see a reason not to go to any of the locations on the list, and Death Valley will be manageable, just take care with the heat 🙂

Priya Singh says

30th April 2019 at 6:40 am

I really appreciate the work you have done, you explained everything in such an amazing and simple way.Good post. I was searched for this topic. Finally, I got the information on this blog. Thanks for the effective information.

30th April 2019 at 5:38 pm

Thanks Priya – pleased we were able to help! Have a great trip 🙂

Rafael says

5th March 2019 at 1:45 pm

Hi guys, great post. I found it really handy now as i’m planning a 3 week road trip through California (and Nevada) in a month (apr 6 to 27). We are starting in LA, just a few days and then planning to go to Joshua Tree (Mojave, is it worth it?), Las vegas, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, San Francisco, and Route 1 back to LA. It’s quite a lot of days, and i find hard to plan where to sleep every night, as i’m not sure how long would it take me to visit every national park, and even cities. So my question is, should i book in advance all different accomodation? In that case how many days should we give to the different national parks and places. As the trip gets so long, we are being really careful with our budget, and that takes me to the second question, what are the best places to stay on a budget in the different stops?

By the way, we are a group of four, planning to rent a car.

Thanks again for your post. Looking forward to read your answer!

Rafael from Uruguay

5th March 2019 at 2:50 pm

Thanks very much 🙂

So to answer your questions. I think Mojave is worth it if you like deserts and wide open spaces.

In terms of accommodation, you are not travelling at a very busy time of year, although it is easter towards the end of April. However there are no Federal holiday, so it should not be too busy. So this means you should be able to book quite last minute. The only places I would advise maybe booking in advance would be any national parks you want to stay in, which can be busy year round. So Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Death Valley, if you plan on staying inside the park, you will want to plan your accommodation in advance.

In terms of budget accommodation, the parks all have campsites, so that would likely be the cheapest option if you don’t mind camping. Some have existing tents you can hire if you don’t want to bring your own tent – Yosemite for example has some nice fixed tents which are not too expensive. For other cities, I’d advise looking at the budget motel chains like Motel 6, Red Roof Inn and so on. These can be very cheap, but do be aware they are not always very central. So you might find something like AirBnB to be more cost effective.

As you are visiting a number of parks you will probably want to buy a national parks pass, which will save you money on parks entry.

I’d also advise taking a look at my guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA, which should give you some more budgeting ideas 🙂

Let me know if you have any more questions!

c. m. crawford says

17th February 2019 at 3:22 pm

I would take extra care with possessions in the big cities in California. I left my purse in the back of my rental car, parked in a highly visible location on a beach in San Francisco, and even though there were people walking up and down the beach, the window was smashed and the purse stolen. Luckily wallet & phone were on me and the purse was even found and turned in to the police, but I had to exchange the rental car. Other than that California is awesome.

17th February 2019 at 4:34 pm

Sorry to hear that Cris! This is definitely an issue around the world, we always recommend not leaving any valuables in sight in a car as it makes for a tempting option for a thief 🙁 Glad to hear you got your purse back though!

Matthias says

9th February 2019 at 6:57 pm

Hey you guys! You have a great blog and this post inspired the route for my first trip to California with a buddy (we’re planning on doing pretty much the same route). But our plan is doing it the other way around: Also starting end ending in SF but heading to Yosemite from there and doing the trip clockwise. Would love to hear your thoughts on that idea 🙂

10th February 2019 at 6:06 pm

Hi Matthias!

The route would work either way. The only thing is that many people prefer to drive the PCH from north to south as you are on the right hand side of the road, so you get clearer views. But it’s stunning either way to be honest 🙂

Catherine Smithfield says

18th January 2019 at 4:12 pm

Hi Laurence,

Fabulous site guys… I would love some tips please my husband and I are planning a once in a lifetime trip to the USA, we fly into and out of Los Angeles , arriving 16th October and leaving 5th December. We will be spending thanksgiving with friends in Washington state . We would like to drive the Pacific highway, see some of LA, San Fran , Yosemite,Death Valley Las Vegas,- just very quick as we feel we should see it and the Grand Canyon . We love nature, beautiful landscapes, we are also foodies . Any suggestions would be very welcome , hire car v Rv , obviously due to the length of our trip I would like to be sensible on accommodation costs…is there a reliable decent hotel/motel chain you would recommend, or Airbnb. I have also been looking a5 the trusted Housesitters website but have recently come across a few very negative reviews . Many thanks catherine(UK)

18th January 2019 at 6:33 pm

Hi Catherine!

Thanks so much! We’ll do our best to help out.

So first of all, if you haven’t already, we can definitely recommend checking out the USA sections of both our websites:

Where we have loads of posts that you will find useful. Most particularly, I’d advise reading our driving in the USA , and our guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA . That latter one in particular will help you in terms of costing out the trip.

For a hire car, a normal car rental is going to be a lot cheaper than an RV, especially as you will most likely still have to rent campsite space to stay at. A standard hire car in the US will usually start at around $200 a week. Our US travel budget post has a lot more on how to find the best deal and things to watch out for.

In terms of accommodation, the US has a wide range of options. The cheaper chains include: Red Roof Inn, Motel 6, Super 8, America’s Best Value Inn, Travelodge. The next step up would be Comfort Inn and Holiday Inn.

Note that the cheaper hotels are often found a little way outside of towns, often at interstate exit ramps. It’s also worth being aware that they are nearly all franchises, and so as a result the quality can vary dramatically, so it’s always worth reading reviews before visiting.

For booking and reviews, we highly recommend . We have nearly always found this to be the cheapest option, even compared to turning up at the property, and the reviews can be a helpful guide. However, just bear in mind that cheaper hotels tend to rate worse, as folks can have high expectations!

Hopefully all this helps, let us know if you have any more specific questions we can help with!

Natasha says

9th January 2019 at 10:22 am

PS We are also planning to visit family in LA and have possible access to accommodation in Pacific Grove so should we be considering finding snow at Big Sur instead of north of San Fran? PPS Budget is going to be very tight!

9th January 2019 at 10:38 am

Hey Natasha!

So I’ll answer the Big Sur question first 🙂 Snow isn’t very common at Big Sur as it’s right by the sea, and it doesn’t usually get much except at higher elevations. The most reliable option is to head east to Tahoe or Yosemite, although that is going to be quite a drive and won’t fall into the definition of a short drive I’m afraid 🙁 The other option is to head up towards Auburn, as you get closer to the Sierra Nevada Mountains you will definitely find snow, but again, this isn’t going to be a short drive.

Whilst there is always a possibility of snow elsewhere, I wouldn’t want to guarantee it!

In terms of house swaps, the closest option we have for you is TrustedHousesitters , but that’s more of a house sitting opportunity than a home swap. I know there are home swapping platforms, but we’re not familiar with them, so I wouldn’t want to give a recommendation!

I hope you have a wonderful trip!

9th January 2019 at 2:44 pm

Thanks for the super-prompt response! Very helpful to know Big Sur is unlikely to tick the box and we hadn’t considered Auburn so I’ll find out more about that instead. Otherwise we’ll stick to Yosemite or Tahoe, which we’ve heard lots about.

9th January 2019 at 2:50 pm

My pleasure! Those two will definitely be fantastic, Yosemite in winter in particular is stunning. We have a guide to visiting Yosemite here 🙂

Also, I know real snow is ideally preferable, but there are a number of locations that generate snow that are going to be closer to San Francisco. If you google “snow in san francisco” or something similar, you should find some options!

9th January 2019 at 10:17 am

Thrilled to find your fascinating and helpful site! We live in Cape Town, and are planning a month in California between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, focussed around spending time with family in San Fran.

But my 14- and 16-year-olds have never experienced snow so we’re looking for guaranteed on-the-ground snow in early/mid December, as short a drive from SF as possible. Skiing not required, but snowman-building and perhaps some sledging would be great.

Also, can you recommend a site we might arrange a house swap through?

20th November 2018 at 8:30 pm

Hi, I’d like to know if February os a good time to make this travel. And what do you think about Sequoia National park?

27th November 2018 at 11:22 am

February would be good, just be aware that there might still be snow in Yosemite and so you’ll need to keep an eye on road closures around that area. We haven’t visited Sequoia National Park, but we have heard it is a great park, well worth visiting 🙂

12th November 2018 at 10:53 am

Hi there! This post has been really helpful as my partner and I are planning our honeymoon for April 2019 and we would love to roadtrip in the US. We have about 12 nights and would love to spend good chunks of time in San Francisco, LA or Santa Monica and some national parks. We would also love to do the Pacific Coast. We were originally thinking of flying into San Francisco and out of LA, but your post has me wondering if a roundtrip is better. Would you suggest we amend your suggested route? Which of the the national parks would be the best to visit?

12th November 2018 at 4:15 pm

Hey Neely! There are so many great National Parks, but Yosemite is definitely up there as one of my favourites. I would say a round trip is better – the route I have outlined makes a nice loop, and car hire is nearly always better value if you return the car where you picked it up 🙂

Chiara says

2nd October 2018 at 5:21 pm

Hi! I love your blog guys! We are thinking about a road trip in California next summer, and this post is a perfect inspiration! We will travel with our kids, they will be 3 and 6 and we have 3 weeks instead of 2. Do you have suggestions on how/where to use the extra days? Considering we can’t plan super long tiring car journeys and have to incorporate some activities they would enjoy too like some beach life, aquariums… Any suggestion is very welcomed! Thank you very much in advance!

4th October 2018 at 4:20 am

Hey Chiara!

So my suggestion would be to follow this itinerary, but just to go a bit slower and spend a bit more time in each place. I’d definitely suggest the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the San Diego Zoo as two great options along the way, and Universal Studios in LA is also sure to be a hit 🙂 Along the PCH you’ll also find loads of lovely beaches, so I think you’ll easily be able to stretch this two week road trip into a three week California itinerary! Have an awesome time!

4th October 2018 at 2:09 pm

Thank you very much!


19th August 2018 at 3:48 pm

Hi Im planning a road trip with my family to California from Orlando,Fl on June 2019. I want some advice where should we start.

19th August 2018 at 5:41 pm

Hi Angeline! Do you mean where to start in terms of planning? If you could let me know how long you are travelling for and what your interests are, then we can try to help. In the meantime, we can help out with some tips on driving in the USA:

And some tips on budgeting for your trip:

The overall route you take will also take you through part of our Deep South USA itinerary:

As well as parts of our Route 66 itinerary:

Which should both serve to help inform your planning on your route 🙂

Lisa Stark says

16th August 2018 at 1:20 pm

Hi, my partner and me are planning to do a road trip next September 2019, starting from San Fran and heading south, eventually arriving in San Diego over a 2 week period. Can you recommend a good car hire company, how long before we should book and some nice places to stop with boutique hotels, This will be out first time in America and I’m completely at a loss where to start planning. Many thanks. Lisa

16th August 2018 at 7:05 pm

Hey Lisa! Well, that’s a great question. There are a number of hire car companies that we recommend, you can see our list here:

It looks like you are doing a one-way trip, so just bear in mind that sometimes the “meta-search” tools that search a variety of providers don’t always account for that. So it might be easier to go direct. We’ve found that it really varies, but we’ve often had success with Enterprise and Hertz. It’s also worth bearing in mind that pick up from an airport location is nearly always more expensive than a city location, so if you can be flexible in that regard you will likely save a bit of money. Especially somewhere like San Francisco, as you don’t really need the car for the city and it will just end up costing you in car parking fees and wasted rental fees for a car you aren’t using.

For hotel and car bookings, I’d usually say the further in advance the better so you have everything sorted and don’t have to worry about it. In terms of stops, your route pretty much follows the Pacific Coast Highway, and we have a super comprehensive guide to all the towns along the route which you can see here:

That also has planning tips and suggestions. I’d also advise reading our tips for driving in the USA:

And our guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA:

In terms of other things to think about, I’m not sure which country you are coming from, but definitely consider getting a travel credit card that won’t charge you for foreign transaction fees, and maybe a SIM card that offers roaming in the USA. Three in the UK has a pretty good deal for SIM cards that offer free data in the USA.

Hopefully this helps a bit, let me know if you have other questions. It gives me an idea to put together a first timers guide to travelling in the USA 🙂

6th August 2018 at 12:24 pm

This is a great read, thank you for sharing. My partner and I are looking to do a similar trip in October this year. However, we are slightly confused on the route (and in what order) to do it all in. We want to do 14 nights and start in San Francisco and either end in San Diego or Vegas. (Everyone says Vegas is a must see at least once and although not on the top of our list, we thought we could add it on the end).

Our initial thoughts are 3 nights in San Fran, 2 in Yosemite, 1 in Monterey, 1 in Santa Barbara. 3 in la, 2 in San Diego and 2 in Vegas. Does this sound too ambitious? And any thoughts on in what order we would do this? I would appreciate anyones input on this. Thank you in advance!

6th August 2018 at 12:58 pm

My pleasure. So the only slight niggle in your itinerary is that Yosemite is the opposite direction to the Pacific Coast Highway, so that will add a bit of driving time to your route (it’s about 3 – 4 hours each way from San Francisco). I definitely recommend Yosemite, it’s just going to take a bit of time to do it on this trip. Overall your route is certainly do-able, as long as you don’t mind a fair bit of driving. I like that you are scheduling multiple nights in the various locations, that will give you more time to enjoy without rushing. I’d say that your order is pretty good, I can’t think of a better way to do it.

6th August 2018 at 1:27 pm

Thank you for taking the time reply! I am glad it sounds doable. I think the multiple stops should help to break up the drive (I won’t be doing it my other half has that pleasurable job =) ). Yes Yosemite is the one we are are a bit confused about as when to add it. Before or after San Fran and at what point as you say it is out of the way, but is a must for us, and we don’t want to miss anything on the drive down from San Fran to La, so a tricky one. Thank you for your input, much appreciated!

Tim Shakespeare says

24th July 2018 at 9:42 am

Hi there, my wife and I are coming mid October to California for a road trip celebrating my 50th. We start in SF, only for 2 days, then have 3 days before we get to Yosemite. Have you any recommendations of where to visit in that time, we don’t mind going in any direction before heading towards Yosemite? We then head to Las Vegas for my actual birthday for 3 days then onto LA for a further 4 days, any suggestions of where to spend time between the cities?

24th July 2018 at 9:42 pm

Hey Tim! Well, it really depends on what you are interested in! Obviously you’re not too far from Napa Valley if it’s wine you’re after, or you could head north to Redding, where there’s some beautiful scenery. A sojourn along the Pacific Coast Highway, or at least part of it, is also an option – there are so many cute towns along that route to check out (see our guide here:

Between Vegas and LA, the obvious choices are Joshua Tree National Park, and the whole Mojave Desert is pretty impressive. I’m assuming you’ll stop at Death Valley from Yosemite, but if not, you could head up that way. Another option is to head south from Vegas and find Route 66, and follow then into LA, which is a fun option. You can see more on Route 66 here:

Hope this helps a bit! Have a great trip and happy birthday!

tim shakespeare says

27th July 2018 at 2:56 pm

Thanks Laurance, that info is really useful

28th July 2018 at 4:08 pm

My pleasure 🙂

Paula Lambie says

20th July 2018 at 2:35 pm

Hi Laurence, Absolutely loved your article. We are a group of 6 friends that are coming from Trinidad and want to stay about 7-8 days on a road trip starting in LA and possibly leaving from San Fran. We are coming around the end of Feb 2019 and leaving around March 6 or 7th. Still in the planning stages and would appreciate any advice or recommendations. I want to include Yosemite and Sequoia but don”t know if it is feasible with the time period we are looking at. Any advice would greatly be appreciated. Take care.

22nd July 2018 at 9:09 pm

Thanks very much. So Yosemite would be feasible, but you have to bear in mind that in February and March it can still be quite snowy in the park, and it’s also a four hour drive each way from San Francisco, so that’s going to eat up a lot of your time. My suggestion would be to definitely do the Pacific Coast Highway over two or three days, and then depending on your interests, either some time in places like the Joshua Tree, or the cities like LA, San Francisco or San Diego. Another option is to go further north of San Francisco, although Yosemite is a really incredible place and well worth the effort to get out there!

Hope this helps, have a great trip!

Louisa says

12th June 2018 at 6:03 pm

Hi Laurence, We are a family of 5 holidaying in California in August and staying San Francisco (3 nights) -Yosemite (3 nights)-Monterey (2 nights)-Santa Barbara (1 night) and at the moment San Diego (2 nights) and LA (3 nights). I am wondering if we are being over ambitious at the end of the holiday and should just stay in LA rather than driving down to San Diego and back to LA for our flight back? Is San Diego a must see? I am torn between wanting to see it all while we are in California but not overdoing it and rushing too much. What are the travel times likely to be realistically between Santa Barbara, LA and San Diego at that time of year? Thank you for any advice.

13th June 2018 at 11:07 am

Hey Louisa!

I think San Diego is worth visiting, and as you have 3 nights already in LA I don’t think you’ll have too much rush. I will be honest and say that I don’t know exactly what the travel times at that time of year will be, but I find that Google usually estimates travel times pretty well – just avoid the peak rush hours and you should generally be fine 🙂

Shelley says

14th May 2018 at 9:00 am

Hi Laurence, Great website! We are booking a 3 week trip over Christmas. LA to San Francisco, via Vegas/Death Valley etc. Weather wise, what should we expect, particularly with Yosemite? Is there anywhere along the coast which is worth stopping off between LA and San Francisco for a night? Many thanks Shelley from Sydney

14th May 2018 at 2:53 pm

Hi Shelley!

Thanks for your comment – sounds like you have a wonderful trip planned. So, Yosemite in particular can be tricky in winter. It can be accessed, but you need to be aware that it will obviously be quite snowy, and access isn’t possible from all sides – the route I have laid out for example you would have to alter a bit in order to access Yosemite in winter, as the Tioga Road is closed. You also usually can’t get up to Glacier point in winter. But the major attractions in the valley are accessible. For more on visiting Yosemite in Winter, you can check out this guide to Yosemite in a day that Jess wrote:

There is a lot to see and do on the Pacific Coast Highway, certainly enough to fill a day or two. There are lots of towns to stop at, and which you choose really depends what you are into. Cambria is a favourite of ours, but there’s a lot to see and do. This post breaks down all the highlights, so you can make an informed decision 🙂

Have a fabulous trip!

Lis Brown says

1st May 2018 at 11:15 pm

Hi Laurence, great post and photos! My husband and I are planing to do 2 weeks driving trip in California, i love all your suggested destinations, I may do the same trip as yours. However, I will be 4 months pregnant (planning to go in May) during the trip, may I know if the in-land route/parks and lake visits are suitable for me and accessible by car or light walking/ light hiking? your trip is start from san francisco and end there too, am i right? thanks in advance!

2nd May 2018 at 8:24 pm

Hi Lis! Thanks very much 😀 The trip does start and end in San Francisco yep.

For your question – I have to admit to not being an expert as we’ve not had any kids, however there is definitely light hiking in the majority of places. Just be aware it can get very hot in some parts of California, so do take plenty of water along. My advice would be to check the websites for the national parks you want to visit and see what hiking routes they have – I think you should be fine, but it’s always best to check as one persons “light hike” is another persons marathon 😉

Theresa says

10th April 2018 at 1:59 am

This looks like a great route, but I was really hoping to see Sequoia National Park. Any advice?

13th April 2018 at 6:16 pm

Hi Theresa! Thanks very much! As that’s in the north, you’d want to add it on near San Francisco. So you could either spend less time in the city, or lose a day somewhere else on the route. It’s hard to give specific advice without knowing your exact interests, but as you sound like you prefer nature to cities, perhaps spending less time in the cities might work better for you? Have a great trip!

15th April 2018 at 5:51 pm

Thanks for your reply. Sequoia National Park is south of Yosemite on the map (Redwood National Park is north of San Francisco). It doesn’t appear that there is road access to Sequoia NP on your route which heads north on 395. I did more research and verified that is the case.

18th April 2018 at 6:22 am

Hi! My apologies, I was thinking of the redwoods to the north of San Francisco and got a bit confused – but that is another option if you can’t make it to Sequoia. Road access can be a challenge due the mountains, and also in winter some of the roads into Yosemite are closed due to snow. So you might have to alter the route a fair bit to make it to Sequoia if that’s a priority 🙂

Jacques says

5th April 2018 at 10:41 pm

Hi Lawrence , we are also considering tyis roadtrip this month. Were from Canada. Assuming we are on the road a giving day with no reservations for a room the same night , by what time do we need to confirm a room or is there plenty of options once arriving early evening. Thank for everything.

6th April 2018 at 5:09 pm

Hi Jacques! At this time of year for the most part you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a room at the last minute. It does depend a little on what level of accommodation you are after, but for quick and easy motels we found they had lots of availability in general. We do definitely advise always checking prices online somewhere like though, as we nearly always got better deals that way compared to turning up – often the person at the desk didn’t have the power to actually match a price. So do keep that in mind 🙂 Have a great trip, and let me know how it goes!

Jacques Gauthier says

20th May 2018 at 1:13 am

Hi Lawrence ! We decided to take two weeks to travel from San Francisco to LA (Manhattan Beach) . We travel along the coast for these 14 days and enjoyed it tremendously. Next trip will be the National Parks .

Thank you .

20th May 2018 at 2:36 pm

13th March 2018 at 1:27 pm

We are hoping to do everything in your itinerary plus San Diego, we will only have 15 nights and would like to spend at least 2 full days in San Diego and 2 full days in SF, do you think this is reasonable without spending too long out of the 15 days in the car?

13th March 2018 at 8:34 pm

I think that should be do-able yes, if you are focused and don’t get too distracted 😉 Have an awesome trip!

Jacqueline says

19th February 2018 at 4:25 pm

Hi! I am planning a trip with my 10 year old son and love the looks of your itinerary. What would you suggest budget wise for this trip (minus flights) for the two of us?

Thanks, Jacqueline

19th February 2018 at 6:03 pm

Hi Jacqueline! It’s quite tricky to put a budget together on a case by case basis because everyone has different styles and standards of travelling. I’d suggest taking a look at my guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA, which covers pretty much all the areas you need to consider, and should give you some ballpark figures 🙂

Let me know if you still have questions after checking that out 😀

Gai Pendlebury says

12th October 2017 at 11:04 pm

Thank you — what a great and helpful site you have made.We are flying into San francisco from Australia in April.We only have 10 nights.Your suggestions are great — we will miss the LA part.Happy for anyone hear to put in their opinions for an itinerary!We will spent 4 or 5 nights in San fran and 3 in yosemite but the 3 nights are up for grabs –we have done Big Sir before so probs wont go south on the coast.I am thinking maybe Lake tahoe,gold rush towns …love to walk,history, beautiful scenery and quaint American towns.Happy to drive long distances– thank you –your photos are wonderful!

Laurence says

13th October 2017 at 10:33 am

Our pleasure – thanks for commenting to let us know, it’s always appreciated. Sounds like you have some good plans already – one idea might be to head north for Shasta Cascade region and see the caves / redwoods. I have a post about that region on the site too 🙂 Have a fabulous trip!

14th October 2017 at 5:09 am

Thank for that .I will look into it a bit more — I am really impressed with your links for such like 12 best spots for photographing San Fran or Yosemite. So helpful to know where to go to get those great shots!

Jules Selby says

28th August 2017 at 10:24 pm

We are planning two weeks but thinking of hiring an RV instead of hotels, what do you think?

28th August 2017 at 10:43 pm

An RV is definitely a good idea, but do be aware that they can be pricey, and you often have to pay for camping on top of that as well – although there are a lot of places you can camp for free in the US! So really it’s up to you – we’ve done both, and RV’ing is definitely a lot of fun!

Bob Steiner, Jr says

25th June 2017 at 4:07 am

You can’t drive a highway 1 through Big Sur. The highest us closed and detours long and winding over dirt roads

25th June 2017 at 1:32 pm

Thanks for pointing this out. Do you know how long the road will be closed? I’ll put a note in the post.

Erica Landry Napolitano says

16th April 2017 at 7:52 pm

This is some great advice for our upcoming trip. We have almost three weeks out in CA and these will be some great spots! Traveling with an 8 and 10 year old this still seems doable! Thanks.

16th April 2017 at 7:54 pm

My pleasure, have an awesome trip!

Jenna Francisco says

17th September 2016 at 5:18 am

So many good ideas here, and I agree that visitors should plan at least 3 days in San Francisco and Yosemite. One suggestion I’d make related to the “when to visit CA” section–SF and much of the coast are cold and foggy in the summer, so it’s a good idea for visitors to dress in layers and expect lots of fog in summer, that way they won’t be disappointed!

Sarah @ Endless Distances says

14th August 2016 at 1:16 pm

Wow this is so exhaustive!! I’ve don’t the pch before and it’s a dream. I would also definitely recommend staying in Santa Barbara – and the Mexican street food!!!

20th August 2016 at 8:28 pm

Thanks Sarah! It’s a fun place to road trip for sure – thanks for the recommendation!

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The Planet D: Adventure Travel Blog

The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary

Written By: The Planet D

Road Trips , United States

Updated On: February 8, 2024

This California road trip itinerary will take you along incredible the famous Pacific Coast highway, through deserts, and around lakes and mountains. It is one of the most diverse road trips you can take in the United States.

We have personally driven these roads and highways on different road trips in California and we visited all the sights recommended. This two week itinerary can easily be mixed and matched to create different California road trips as long or short as you like.

California Road Trip Itinerary

Make sure to download your Pacific Coast highway Self Drive tour before embarking on your California road trip. Explore the California Coast at your own pace as you follow the app to discover monuments, towns, and points of interest along the route. It will track your route and play automatically to tell you about your stops as you drive from Monterey to Pismo Beach.

Table of Contents

California Road Trip Map

california road trip itinerary map

1. San Francisco – 2 Days

We’ve planned the initial stage of our California road trip itinerary from San Francisco . It is easy to fly into from all major hubs and car rentals can be picked up directly at the airport. Plus, traffic in San Francisco isn’t as congested as it is in Los Angeles making it the perfect start for any California road trip itinerary.

California road trip golden gate bridge

Spending two days in San Francisco will give you the chance to see all the iconic sites like the incredible Golden Gate Bridge before moving South. We have an excellent 72 hours in San Francisco guide where you can plan your entire stay in San Francisco .

  • Tip: When we visited San Francisco for the first time, we bought a  City Pass  and explored all the neighborhoods by bus. It was a great way to get acquainted with the layout of the city and have the option to hop on and hop off whenever we wanted with a 24 or 48-hour pass.
  • Click here to search all the car rental agencies and get the best price for your California Road Trip!

Things to do in San Francisco

road trip california palace of the arts

  • San Francisco Cable Car
  • Golden Gate Park – one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge
  • The Painted Ladies – made famous by Full House
  • Hippie district of Haight Ashbury and China Town
  • Palace of the arts
  • See our complete guide to the Best Hikes in San Francisco

Make sure to get out on the Bay to see the city when in San Francisco, this Golden Gate Bay Cruise let’s you see many of San Francisco’s top attractions. You’ll cruise along the waterfront, sail under the Golden Gate Bay Bridge, go around Alcatraz and see the former hippy enclave of Sausalito. Whatch for marine life such as sea lions, dolphins and whales as you cruise the Marin Headlands wildlife reserves.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

For first-time visitors to San Francisco, we suggest staying near Fisherman’s Wharf. You will be close to all the iconic places in the city.

  • Luxury: Argonaut Hotel – A 4-star hotel located next to the SF Maritime National Historic Park for about $300 per night. TripAdvisor /
  • Mid-Range: Pier 2620 Hotel – This eco-friendly hotel is close to the beach. It is a new and modern design, with a fitness center. $200 per night TripAdvisor /
  • Budget: Hotel Zephyr – This boutique has nautical-themed rooms, central, near Pier 39, Lombard Street, and Ghirardelli Square. TripAdvisor /
  • Read our full guide for San Francisco Neighborhoods and Accommodation Where to Stay in San Francisco 

2. Monterey / Carmel By the Sea – 1 Day

Drive just 2 hours and 45 minutes from San Francisco to Monterrey

California Roat Trip stop: Monterey

After leaving San Francisco, we make our way down the Pacific Coast Highway to Monterey. You can stay either stay in Monterey or Carmel by the Sea. Monterey and Carmel by the Sea are only 10 minutes from each other. We stayed at Carmel by the Sea and it was a great location to get around Big Sur.

When visiting Monterey, you’ll want to get out on the water as it is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. This Monterey Bay tour departs from Old Fisherman’s Wharf to set sail for some whale watching. You’ll see Californian Sea Lions basking in the harbor as you pass Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. 

Things to See and Do

The Ghost Tree of 17 Mile Drive

  • Cycling 17 Mile Drive – If there is one thing to do in Carmel before moving on, you must take a tour of 17-Mile Drive. We had a blast on e-Bikes with Big Sur Adventures . Read about our full experience at 17-Mile Drive – California’s Most Scenic Drive. 
  • Cannery Row – The Historic Cannery Row has been transformed from old warehouses to colorful buildings lining the waterfront filled with eateries and shops.
  • Monterey Aquarium – The Monterey Aquarium is the centerpiece of the city where they study the waters of Monterey Bay and tackle the oceans health problems.
  • Kayaking Monterey Bay – Don’t miss getting on the water in Monterey. We highly recommend taking a kayaking tour of Monterey Bay with Adventures by the Sea to view sea otters and sea lions.
  • Surfing Carmel – Beginners will love the easy break and sandy shallow waters of Carmel Bay. We spent the morning taking a lesson with the Carmel Surf Company

Hotels and AirBnBs in Monterrey

The Hideaway – Centrally Located on Juniper Street, a short walk to restaurants, and just a few blocks from the beach. This luxury boutique hotel has in-room fireplaces and offers a modern design. TripAdvisor /

Suggested Place to Eat – La Belana Cucina Toscana takes you straight to the heart of Tuscany with a traditional setting. Sit outside on the heated patio and enjoy a fresh farm to table menu drizzled in olive oil and truffles.

4. Big Sur – 1 Day

Continue down the Pacific Coast Highway 1 for an hour from Monterrey to Big Sur .

california road trip mcway falls

The Pacific Coast Highway is the Grand Dame of all California road trips. We suggest a minimum of 2 days exploring the coast along Big Sur. You can easily keep your base in Monterey to explore these sights.

A great compliment to your Big Sur road trip is to download this Pacific Coast Highway Self Drive tour. The app showcases the top scenic stops and views from Monterey to Pismo Beach. It tracks your route and the audio guide plays commentary to tell you stories and suggest points of interest. On this leg, you’ll see places like Garrapata State Park, Pfeiffer Canyon, McWay Falls, and the Bixby Bridge.

Considered by many the world’s most scenic drives, The Big Sur portion of California Coastal Drive on Highway 1 is a must for any road trip lover. In our opinion, all California road trips should include this leg as there are so many gorgeous stops from sea cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Things to See in Big Sur

California Road Trip Bixby Bridge

  • Bixby Bridge – Don’t miss stopping at the Bixby Bridge. Made famous by many a film and TV Show (most recently Big Little Lies . Tip : Go for sunrise no tourists were there at all when we were up before dawn.
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – This a good place to go for hikes and walk along the trails. It’s most famous for the McWay Waterfalls and offers beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Pfeiffer Beach – One of the best beaches on the route. Pfeiffer Beach is a bit of a drive off the main highway down a narrow and bumpy road, so it attracts fewer tourists than other viewpoints on Highway 1. Check out: 24 Of The Best Beaches in California
  • Garrapata State Park – Hiking trails along the coast, Karst formations, sea arches, and jagged rocks make for extraordinary views of a rugged coastal landscape at Garrapata State Park. For a complete breakdown of photography stops with GPS Co-ordinates visit our Photography Guide to Big Sur

Where to Stay in Big Sur – Ventana Resort

When exploring Big Sur we made a home base at Ventana Resort and spent two days exploring the surrounding area. We spent one night in  their glamping tents  and one night in a luxurious suite overlooking the ocean. Ventana is the perfect base for exploring Big Sur as it’s in the heart of everything.

Check out our guide to The Best Places to Camp in Big Sur

Where to eat in Big Sur

The views at Ventana are spectacular

  • The Sur House – Located at  Ventana Big Sur , The Sur House is an upscale dining establishment using locally sourced cuisine created by Executive Chef, Paul Corsentino. $90 Fix menu offers a divine three-course meal. Location: 48123 Highway 1
  • Big Sur River Inn – The  Big Sur River Inn  was the first hotel and restaurant in the area. Enjoy the photographs from a bygone era dating back to 1932.
  • Nepenthe – Open since 1949,  Nepenthe  is a staple of Big Sur attracting artists, poets, and travelers to its 800-foot sea cliff views. Location: 48510 Highway One
  • Big Sur Roadhouse – This locally run eatery has a funky vibe with family-style seating. Designer Steve Justrich transformed the roadhouse into a unique design that they claim as homegrown modernism.

5. Coastal Highway Stops

This drive takes 3 hours from Big Sur to Santa Maria, but take you time to see all the sights.

southern california road trip

We continue down the coast from Big Sur to the charming town of Santa Maria, which is one of our favorite California road trip stops. Be sure to give ample time for breaks on this route. There is still a lot more to see on this portion of the California Coast and you can easily spend a day exploring the sites as you make your way to your next overnight stop. 

  • Hearst Castle – Built by San Simeon, this incredible estate was built on 127 acres on a hill overlooking San Simeon. Pop in for a tour of America’s castle before driving on to spend the night in the lovely town of Santa Maria.
  • Morrow Bay – Another beautiful beach, Morrow Bay’s main attraction is Morrow Rock, a 180-meter tall volcanic plug standing proud offshore.
  • Pismo Beach is another place to stop if you still have time before spending the night in Santa Maria.

6. Santa Maria – 1 Day

santa maria wine country

So it is a good time to park your car and get out to explore the nearby vineyards for a proper “Sideways” wine tour experience. We have it as one day on your California road trip itinerary, but if you can spend two days here, we recommend it.

Things to do in Santa Maria

dune buggy adventure california

  • Wine Tours – There are several vineyards to choose. Hire a private car through Gold Coast Executive Transportation to take you on a wine tour. We had an amazing time touring Wine Caves of  Cottonwood Canyon .
  • Dune Buggy Adventure – To explore even more of the highest dunes in the world, go on a Dune Buggy adventure with  Steve’s ATV Rentals, 332 Pier Ave. Oceano.  Get in a dune buggy and hit the dunes.
  • Hidden Hollywood – Don’t miss this very cool Hidden Hollywood at the Dunes Center museum in Guadalupe Cecil B. Demille created an entire set of the pyramids of Egypt in the middle of the California Sand Dunes. He didn’t want anyone to use his set again, so he buried it in the desert and didn’t tell anyone where it was. It was nearly forgotten by everyone, until the 1990s when the director, Peter Brosnan decided to search for the hidden city.

Hotels and AirBnBs in Santa Maria

Check in to the historic Santa Maria Inn in the center of town. It has been a staple in Santa Maria since 1917. Be sure to peruse the halls to see legendary movie stars that have stayed here.

  • Santa Maria Style Barbecue – If you want to try authentic Santa Maria Style Barbecue, go to Far Western Tavern Tavern in Orcutt.

7. Santa Barbara – 1 Day

Today we drive a short distance of just 1 hour from Santa Maria

california coast road trip | deb and Dave

Continuing on through wine country and making our way through our California road trip itinerary, we arrive in Santa Barbara for a night before stopping in Los Angeles.

Santa Barbara is considered one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions with nine different wine routes to explore. It is a popular escape from Los Angeles, and there are many things to do here.

Things to do in Santa Barbara

biltmore four seasons santa barbara

  • Sunset Sail – We suggest a sailing trip to enjoy the beautiful sunset and the California Coast followed by dinner on a patio by the waterfront.
  • Stearns Wharf – Historic deep-water pier dating back to 1871.
  • Shopping – Santa Barbara is all about the upscale experience, stroll the Spanish style shops lining State Street.
  • Museums – Check out the many museums. The Museum of Art, MOXI – The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation and Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center.

Santa Barbara Hotels and AirBnBs

We stayed at the luxurious Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara. This estate is the perfect place to relax after all that driving.

8. Los Angeles – 2 Days

It’s an hour and a half to Los Angeles so you can start enjoying the city immediately

los angeles sunset

Click here for map CA coast

We’ve come to the next metropolis on our California Road Trip and it is time to explore L.A. Los Angeles is a good place to start for southern California road trips. Who doesn’t love Los Angeles? There are so many things to do in LA , that you could have your entire California road trip right here.

Things to do in Los Angeles

Hollywood Sign California Road Trip

The possibilities are endless for sightseeing in L.A. so you can decide how long you want to stay here. From Universal Studios and Disneyland to hiking up to see the Hollywood sign or follow the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You must get out to see the beaches of Los Angeles. Our favorite beach is Manhattan Beach where you can see the famous 90210 beach house. But everyone loves popping over to Venice Beach too. I hope you’ve rented a nice car to drive along Rodeo Drive but if not, don’t worry, you’ll fit right in with the Bohemian atmosphere of Venice Beach. Read 25 Best Things to Do in Los Angeles – Hollywood, Hikes, And More

  • Note: You seriously need a car to explore L.A. It is spread out and it was made for driving.
  • Check out our post: Where to Stay in Los Angeles – 4 Hotels to Make You Feel Like a Star. 

Option: Continue to San Diego – Or Turn North

From Los Angeles you can continue south to San Diego or start heading north to make your way back to San Francisco.

  • The Best Things to Do in San Diego – A Local’s Guide to the City
  • Where To Stay In San Diego – The Best Neighborhoods & Areas

For our road trip, we turned north up towards the National Parks .

9. Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day

From Los Angeles we drive two hours to the iconic Joshua Tree National Park .

california road trip joshua tree national park

Get the link to this portion of your road trip ideas in California.

Joshua Tree National Park is where two deserts meet: The Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. There are lookout points and there’s even a cactus garden. You can camp overnight in Joshua Tree and there’s also rock climbing. It’s one of the premier places on earth for bouldering. We only suggest spending a day here on this California Road Trip Itinerary, but if you have more time, put a tent in the back of your car and spend a couple of days hiking Joshua Tree and exploring more of California

10. Death Valley National Park

It takes about 2 hours to drive through non stop

Death Valley California road Trip

If you are planning a California road trip, you must try to include a day driving through Death Valley. It’s very hot, dry, and it’s a beautiful drive, but this portion of your California road trips planner should involve some precautionary steps. The average temperature is 48 degrees Celcius. (120F) Luckily there are enough stops at viewpoints along the road that keep you from having to trek too far for viewing in the heat.

  • Safety in Death Valley : Pack plenty of water, cover-up, and wear sunscreen.
  • Get the Google maps of  road trips California with a detour to Vegas .

11. Yosemite National Park – 2 Days

From Death Valley we drive 7 hours to Yosemite National Park

California Road Trip: Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of the Big 3 National Parks in the USA and it did not disappoint. It is where the legendary photographer Ansel Adams set up shop and took some of the most recognizable nature photographs of all time.

Things to See in Yosemite

Yosemite has all those iconic formations that you’ve all heard of like “The Nose” and “El Capitan”. Here you’ll find Bridalveil Falls, and the famous Tunnel View Lookout. Glacier Point is another not-to-miss stop. It’s also a place for adventurers to get out an enjoy nature. There are so many hiking trails you will need days to complete them all. Read more at Things to do in Yosemite National Park

california road trip mariposa valley

En route to Yosemite, be sure to stop at Sequoia National Forest. We combined our stay in Yosemite with seeing the sequoias as they are less than an hour away. A highlight for us was taking the park tour to see the Grand Sequoia Trees of Mariposa Grove. It is a bit of a drive from Yosemite, but hey, you’re on a road trip so it’s right up your alley!

When booking accommodation in Yosemite, plan in advance. During high season, things sell out fast! Curry Village has a range of canvas tents and wooden cabins plus hotel rooms. Accommodation range from basic tents with shared bathrooms to private hotel rooms with bathrooms. Check out TripAdvisor for prices .

  • Yosemite Valley Lodge is a great location to make a base in Yosemite. There’s free parking, free Internet and a pool. Read more: Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park

12. Lake Tahoe – 2 Days

From Yosemite it is 2 hours and 30 minutes to Tahoe.

lake tahoe california trips

There are two major tourist areas to make a base in both South and North Lake Tahoe. The south is certainly the busier of the two sides of the lake with casinos, nightclubs and lots of people. While the north side of the lake is all about nature, quiet family run lodges and rugged and historic ski hills, the South sits directly on the Nevada border and feels kitschy and commercial.

Things to do in Lake Tahoe

Emerald Bay, south Lake Tahoe

  • Scenic Drive – The best views most certainly happen when driving between South and North Tahoe via Emerald Bay State Park. It takes an entire day to really explore the lake and you must give a lot of time for sightseeing at Emerald Bay.
  • Emera l d Bay State Park – Emerald Bay has several different scenic stops and each one is a must! When you pull over, be sure to get out of your car and hike to the viewpoints. They get more spectacular with each turn! Hike down to the bay and see the famous Vikingsholm Castle or go on a lake cruise.
  • Camp Richardson – If you are up for more hiking, there are trails all around Camp Richardson that are less steep than the hike down from Emerald Bay. They also offer hotel and cabins for lodging.
  • Skiing – Sugar Bowl Ski Resort is the closest skiing to San Francisco and receives the most snowfall out of all the hills in California. After driving up the long and winding road, we stopped for a magnificent view of Donner Lake. North Star offers the luxury end of the spectrum of skiing with the only slope-side five-star lodging in the area, and don’t forget Mt.Rose offering Tahoe’s Highest Base elevation. Heavenly Mountain located in South Tahoe.
  • Read Things to do in Lake Tahoe in Winter

Hotels and AirBnBs in Lake Tahoe

Where to stay in Lake Tahoe Cedar Crest Cottages

  • There are plenty of lodging options in North Lake Tahoe and a good stay for families would definitely be our lodge at Cedar Crest Cottages .
  • Sunnyside Resort is a welcoming resort located on the Shore of Lake Tahoe. Your stay includes continental breakfast and afternoon tea.

Where to Eat – We loved our meal and the friendly staff at  Sunnyside Restaurant and Resort  located at 1850 W Lake Blvd, Tahoe City. It has been a Sunnyside tradition since 1965.

13. Sacramento – Bonus Night


It’s about a five-hour drive from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, so if you want to split up the 5-hour drive we suggest stopping in Sacramento . Even if it’s not on your California road trip itinerary from the start, it’s worth the time to see all of this history. The state capital of California is worth a visit even if you only see the historic downtown landmark of Old Sacramento. This 28-acre district is filled with old town saloons and bars taking you back to the 1800s.

Where to Stay in Sacramento

A great place to stay is  The Kimpton Sawyer Hotel  that is just a short 15-minute walk from Old Town. This new upscale hotel is located in the heart of Sacramento overlooking the Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings.

How much does it cost to Road Trip in California?

As you’ve seen, your California road trip itinerary can move in a lot of different directions. There were a lot of stops we didn’t even make because this state is so enormous. As such, the cost can vary greatly depending on lodging.

Accommodation – If you stay in a campground you will pay $35 per night but you can also spend up to $1000 per night in luxury lodges like Ventana in Big Sur or the Four Seasons in Santa Barbara.

This road trip is 1500 miles in total . If the average car gets 20 miles per gallon and the average cost of fuel is $3.50 per gallon, you can expect to pay $262 in fuel for this trip.

Meals too can have a broad range. If you want a multicourse meal at some of the luxury hotels, you can spend up to $200. but you can also hit roadside diners for $20. We mixed and matched packing lunches, eating in diners and sometimes splurging on gourmet meals. We suggest you do the same to make the most of your trip.

If you can get breakfasts included and pack sandwiches and waters for lunch, you have just saved a lot of money for a romantic dinner out.

Full Map of Our Road Trip in California

California Road Trip Map

Whatever route you choose, you will go through some of the best  scenery in all of California . We hope to have given enough information to create your own tour by offering these California road trip ideas.

california road trip itinerary

You have now completed the route and can make your way back to The San Francisco Bay area to return your rental car. Or feel free to stick around California. There are so many places to visit , you can spend months exploring.

Did you enjoy this California Trip Planner? Why not pin it to use as a reference for future road trips.

California Road Trip Itinerary

And that ladies and gentlemen are our picks for the best road trips California has to offer. So, now you are ready to hit the road with a solid plan of all the things to do in California!

To see our full itinerary through California check out  Follow ThePlanetD from Oceans to Mountains  on the Visit California Website.

  • Things to do in Napa Valley
  • 16 Best Cities in California
  • 27 Best Beaches in California
  • 15 Best Hikes in California – Inspiration to Get Outdoors

You may also like these other great road trips:

  • 25 of The Best Road Trips in the World – That We’ve Taken
  • 13 of the Best Canadian Road Trips – That We’ve Done
  • Arizona Road Trip – The Ultimate 10 Day Itinerary
  • Dempster Highway Road Trip – Yes You Can Drive to the Arctic
  • The Cowboy Trail – A Southern Alberta Road Trip
  • Driving the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper Alberta

Our trip to California was in partnership with Visit California. For more information on California travel and itineraries,  visit their website. As usual, all opinions are our own.

Travel Planning Resources

Looking to book your next trip? Why not use these resources that are tried and tested by yours truly.

Flights: Start planning your trip by finding the best flight deals on Skyscanner

Book your Hotel: Find the best prices on hotels with these two providers. If you are located in Europe use and if you are anywhere else use TripAdvisor

Find Apartment Rentals: You will find the cheapest prices on apartment rentals with VRBO . 

Travel Insurance: Don't leave home without it. Here is what we recommend:

  • Allianz - Occasional Travelers.
  • Medjet - Global air medical transport and travel security.

Need more help planning your trip? Make sure to check out our Resources Page where we highlight all the great companies that we trust when we are traveling.

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49 thoughts on “The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary”

Wow, what a great itinerary! I remember my California road trip like it was yesterday – an unforgettable experience. Starting in San Francisco was a smart choice – it’s such a diverse city with so much to see and do. I couldn’t get enough of the panoramic views from Golden Gate Park! And that City Pass was definitely a worthwhile investment. Made getting around the city super convenient. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway was absolutely stunning. It’s a journey I think everyone should experience at least once. For anyone planning this road trip, don’t rush it! Take your time and really soak in the breathtaking views. It’s worth every second.

Oh wow! This is a great itinerary. Super detailed – thank you. We love California.

Thank You for sharing! This detail very use full for me!

This is really an ultimate road trip! I live in CA and have done so much of this but only little bits at a time. Beautiful photos!

This California road trip is really amazing and very useful for road trippers. Thank you for sharing.

Thanks Sharon, I’m glad we could help! And have a great road trip! When do you leave for California?

This is incredible and you travel photography is totally shocking! In spite of the fact that I live in California, there are a few places on your excursion that I haven’t visited at this point! I’m anticipating getting to Lake Tahoe and Death Valley sooner rather than later! A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing!

You are going to love Lake Tahoe. In the winter it’s a great destination. They really have it figured out as a four season destination. Make sure to bring plenty of water for Death Valley. I am sure you are used to the heat, but we were amazed with how hot it actually was.

Santa Barbara, California is a nice place to vacation and travel to often.

Santa Barbara is gorgeous. I’ve always wanted to go there since the soap opera called Santa Barbara. It didn’t disappoint.

I’m looking forward to getting to Lake Tahoe and Death Valley in the near future! Thanks for sharing!

Enjoy! They are two great and very different locations.

Super detailed – thank you!

Thanks, I’m glad we could help!

This is a great itinerary! There is so much to see in California. I have been creating CA road trip itineraries for 4 years of different duration and covering various interests. I currently have 35 and counting on my blog.

Oh wow! There are so many places to see in California, it really does take years. This road trip planner is from several different trips we’ve taken as well. It would be a dream to do it all again at one time!

I could not agree with you more about California being one of (if not the) best destinations for a road trip. Have you ever thought of renting a campervan to make the trip? It really makes the trip all the more immersive when you can stop and sleep right in the middle of it instead of having to venture off the beaten path to find lodging. And in most cases, you can do that in Cali. I recommend Travellers-Autobarn for an awesome campervan rental. They have locations in San Francisco and LA. I put their link in the website field. Happy Trails!

A campervan would be amazing. We love camping and meeting people on the road and we find that campgrounds are so much fun. Thanks for the tip!

Good to see wonderful snapshot of California and California road trip itinerary.

Thank you for sharing with us.

Great guide. Brings back so many California road trip memories. Planning one now with kids in tow!

Thanks! We love California

California is just amazing and blog was so informative about the Joshua Tree,Los angles ,South Lake Tahoe,Yosemite,Death Valley i love these kinda places actually nice write-up thanks or posting!

This post made me move towards road trip to California. Incredible post along with awesome photograph which is central attraction of the blog. Reading this post made my day. I wish I could travel like you without any worry of time.

Appreciate it for your great effort that made my day with motivation.

I hope you get the chance to road trip in California. We also have a photography guide to Big Sur with all the GPS coordinates so you can make the most of yoru trip.

A California road trip has been on the top of my travel bucket list for so long and this post hasn’t changed my mind. I’ve been to both LA and SF but would love to see all the amazing scenery in between.

Two great locations! You already have a great start to your road trip? Where would you like to go next?

This post makes me want to move home and go on a road trip! Thanks for giving me so many places to book mark. Can’t want to visit Cali again now!

Lucky you being from California. It is one of the greatest states in our opinion 🙂

Yes indeed it is great

This is great and you photography is absolutely stunning! Although I live in California, there are several places on your road trip that I haven’t visited yet! I’m looking forward to getting to Lake Tahoe and Death Valley in the near future! Thanks for sharing!

Wow, that is a serious road trip, filled with so many gorgeous things! When I was growing up, we did the Highway 1 trip several times, and I have so many great memories of it. This route takes you to all kinds of places I am yet to explore! Love it!

This is some great advice for our upcoming trip. I’m currently planning a road trip from San Francisco, so this is super helpful! Beautiful pictures you captured. Thank you so much for sharing this post.

I just want to tell that your photographs are really very inspiring and they just got me. I wanted to meander in the streets of this state. Thank you for taking us on this part.

Okay … just read over all the comments and I see a lot of people don’t care for Las Vegas. Fair enough. Please don’t right the whole city off as wasteful and uncaring for the environment. I’d ask you to please be open minded and learn more about our city before jumping to that conclusion. There’s more to Las Vegas than the four miles people know as the Strip.

Get in touch regarding Las Vegas and anything you want to know about the Southwest. I’ve lived in Vegas for five years and know the Southwest well. Would love to chat about your plans and provide recommendations/answer questions. You know where to find me!

We’ve been living in the bay area our whole lives and still haven’t done this route. SF direct to LA yes, but not this kind. Sounds like an adventure! I heard you two were at a Travel Massive event in SF late last year no? It was at a beer shop I believe. We were there too!

Hi. That trip sounds amazing. I’ve actually been to all those places on a Trek America tour. Alcatraz is a must see, there is plenty to do in Vegas without gambling and if you get the chance to take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon do it because the views are to die for. You’ll have a blast! l look forward to reading about it.

You guys are going to have such a great trip! I’m from the SF area, went to college in LA and spent several summers on family backpacking trips in Yosemite, so I have to admit I’m actually a little jealous. Enjoy it extra for me, please!

Too bad you will be missing Lake Tahoe! One of the most beautiful places in the country! You definitely have to plan a trip to visit here at some point 🙂

Did a similar road trip last year and Cam is right, you need to stop by Sequoia National Park and see the General Sherman Tree (it’s basically on the way from Yosemite to Bakersfield!). With that said, still looks like tons of fun and I’m sure it’ll be a blast!

Thanks for the report : ) We will be doing about the saem route in September: Denver-Ouray-Arches-Bryce-Zion-Grand Canyon-Las Vegas-Death Valley-Mammoth Lakes-Yosemite-SFO 🙂

— Anton Way Any Way – Airfare search done right

Sounds like a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to do a west coast road trip. I have driven from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas, and I definitely did not spend enough time at the Grand Canyon. Las Vegas is fun, and as for shows any Cirque du Soleil show will be a good bet. I saw O which was fantastic.

Seriously–you are driving right by some really amazing places with no time to stop. You have to add several more days and visit Sequoia National Park (world’s largest trees), and Death Valley National Park.They are both incredible! Las Vegas is soulless and weird and there’s nothing to do if you don’t like gambling (my friend Jane who lives there slaps me every time I say that–well, not really, but I can tell she wants to). Replace your time in Las Vegas with time in Sedona, Arizona, about an hour’s drive south of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Plus, Zion isn’t all that far from Bryce Canyon National Park, which is way better! How’s that for unsolicited advice!

If you want to get out of California, these are all great suggestions. We need a year to really visit California and all the great States that Surround it.

Wha?! You’ve never been to Vegas…? Looks like a fun road trip, we’ve done a couple Californian road trips but we’ve never made it to Utah or Arizona. We originally planned to due a Utah, AZ, NV, CO road trip combined with TBEX this year, but Baby B is not a fan of long car trips, so that ones on the shelf for a few years

What a great route, including some mind-blowing scenery. Don’t spend too long in Vegas. We were disgusted by the excess and waste also. A sidetrip to the Hoover Dam would be an eye-opener as to just how much water is being sucked up. The water of Lake Mead will be so low by 2017 that they dam may not be able to produce any power.

Whoa! I met Felipe from Twtvite in Berlin last summer. Cool guy! Sounds like the road trip will be a blast. Zion National Park is amazing!

You’re not doing Highway 1 at all????

That’s by far one of my favourite road trips, between SF and LA!

Thanks for your great and motivating article.

Bearfoot Theory

California Road Trip: 15 Stops For Outdoor Adventure

Start planning your next adventure with this roundup of the best California road trip stops.

See the best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

A California road trip is on many adventurer’s bucket lists. There are endless opportunities for outdoor fun in the Golden State including hiking, backpacking, kayaking, swimming, biking not to mention 9 National Parks – more than any other state. Wherever you go, there is adventure for everyone.

But with so much to offer, how do you choose the best road trip stops? In this post, we share our favorite California road trip destinations including some well-known spots as well as a few off-the-beaten-path gems. So pack your bathing suit and hiking boots, it’s time to hit the road!

Start planning your California road trip with these 15 must-visit stops for outdoor adventurers.

California Road Trip Stops – Mapped

Coastal California Road Trip Stops

1. highway 1.

Highway 1 is one of California’s most popular road trip highlights, and for good reason. Stretching for 656 miles from Los Angeles to just north of Fort Bragg, Highway 1 hugs the Pacific coast and offers incredible views of rugged coastline and desolate beaches. It also passes through small coastal towns and provides plenty of opportunities for hiking and sightseeing.

Many people drive the full length of Highway 1 for their California road trip adventure, but you can also do a shorter stretch to make room for other stops. Check out our guide to the best time to visit California’s Central Coast to start planning.

California Highway 1 // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

Located in the lush hills above Ventura, Ojai is a small town with lots to do and see. While slightly touristy, the boutiques, restaurants, and shops that line the main street are fun to visit and explore. If you’re ready for outdoor adventure, grab some bikes and head to the Ojai Valley Trail . This paved and gravel path meanders through the stunning Ojai Valley and eventually ends in the oceanside town of Ventura 15 miles away. There are also tons of hiking trails in Valley View Preserve just a few miles outside of town.

For more things to do and see in Ojai, check out day 3 of our Central California Coast Road Trip Itinerary .

Downtown Ojai California

3. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is a beautiful coastal town that’s full of Mediterranean style architecture, cute boutiques and restaurants, and outdoor adventure for everyone. Spend the day at one of the city’s beautiful beaches, walk the pier, bike the coastal bike path, hike in the Santa Ynez Mountains for expansive views of town, and wind down with dinner and drinks in the Funk Zone where you’ll find plenty of local wineries and breweries to choose from. For some history, visit Mission Santa Barbara and the Presidio .

Santa Barbara California

While the entire drive along Highway 1 is scenic, you will be blown away by Big Sur. This stretch of road will have you perched high alongside cliffs with expansive views of the Pacific Ocean below. Big Sur is a great place to spend a few days on your California road trip with lots of hiking trails and beautiful beaches all among coast redwood trees and other pines.

Grab breakfast to go at the Big Sur Bakery and visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park where you’ll see the famous McWay Falls drop into the ocean. Andrew Molera State Park has some of our favorite hiking trails in the area. As for beaches, watch for wildlife at Garrapata State Park and lake a long walk on Sand Dollar Beach . Pfeiffer Beach is a popular destination as well but can be difficult to access due to limited parking. Big Sur is very popular so be sure to book your campsites or other lodging in advance.

McWay Falls in Big Sur California

5. Monterey

Monterey is a small seaside town on the California coast that is famous for its world-renowned aquarium as well as its dedication to creating a sustainable and eco-friendly community. At the Monterey Aquarium , see marine life up close as you learn about regional marine habitats, ongoing research, and conservation efforts including the Sustainable Seafood Watch Program. Tickets are available online and should be reserved well ahead of time (in-person tickets are not available for 2021).

If you want to stretch your legs, check out the free self-guided audio walking tour along Cannery Row or the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail to learn more about the natural and human history of the area. Other outdoor activities in Monterey include mountain biking or hiking at Fort Ord National Monument , whale watching, tide-pooling, kayaking, surfing, scuba diving, or just relaxing at one of Monterey’s many beautiful sandy beaches.

Whale Watching // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

6. The Redwoods

A road trip to California wouldn’t be complete without a stop to experience California’s majestic redwood trees. There are several places along the northern California coast where you can view old-growth redwood forests, but one of the best is Humboldt Redwoods State Park which has the largest expanse of ancient redwoods left on the planet. Within the park, drive the impressive 31-mile Avenue of the Giants, hike along one of the many hiking trails, swim in the Eel river, and spend the night among the redwoods at one of the picturesque campsites.

Farther north are the Redwood National and State Parks, a string of protected beaches, grasslands, and forests. Hike through dense old-growth forest at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park , visit the magical Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park , look for Roosevelt elk in Elk Prairie , and marvel at the towering trees along the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail in Redwood National Park .

Redwoods // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

Southern California Road Trip Stops

7. joshua tree national park.

Joshua Tree National Park is a must-visit on any southern California road trip. Located about 2 hours east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree is famous for its unique desert landscape strewn with huge boulders and Dr. Suess-like Joshua Trees. There is plenty to do and see in the park including numerous hikes, backpacking routes, bouldering and climbing, star-gazing, and even wildflower viewing in the spring months. Joshua Tree can get busy so be sure to book your campsite ahead of time.

Joshua Tree National Park // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

8. Death Valley National Park

Visit the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park. At 282 ft below sea level, this salt flat is a unique and surreal experience. In fact, most of Death Valley is a unique experience. Take in the sweeping vistas atop Dante’s View, hike along the ridges of the Mesquite sand dunes, visit the mineral colored hills on Artist’s Drive, and explore the hidden oasis of Darwin Falls, among many other outdoor adventures.

You’ll want to spend a least a few days in Death Valley, so be sure to follow our 3-Day Death Valley National Park Itinerary to hit all the best spots!

Death Valley National Park // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

High Sierra Road Trip Stops

9. sequoia & kings canyon national parks.

Located in the southern Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are two separate parks, but due to their proximity to one another, they’re often visited together.

Sequoia National Park is home to two notable natural wonders: Mt. Whitney , the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet above sea level and the General Sherman Tree , the largest tree in the world by volume. Both are impressive sights!

Kings Canyon National Park to the north of Sequoia is also home to the giant trees including the largest remaining grove on the planet at Redwood Canyon . The landscape in Kings Canyon rivals that of Yosemite with towering granite canyon walls, lush meadows, and the picturesque King River that flows throughout the park.

While both parks together make up a whopping 865,964 acres, over 90% of that land is designated wilderness with no roads or vehicle access. There are numerous opportunities for incredible overnight backpacking trips in the backcountry, though, if you want to plan for that on your California road trip.

Kings Canyon National Park // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

10. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is famed for its stunning scenery, towering granite cliff walls (including the monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome), gushing waterfalls, and endless opportunities for hiking, climbing, and sightseeing. The overlooks at Tunnel View and Glacier Point are jaw dropping and once you visit those, grab your hiking shoes and hit the trails. We’ve rounded up the Best Hikes in Yosemite and put together a complete guide on Things to do in Yosemite so you can make the most of your visit.

Yosemite National Park // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

11. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is an outdoor adventure stop for everyone with summer water-based activities like kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and swimming as well as trail adventures including hundreds of miles of hiking paths and mountain biking singletrack. There are also plenty of great restaurants to eat at, music venues, shops, and more.

While the shores of Lake Tahoe do tend to get busy in the summer, it’s still worth a stop on your California road trip to take a dip in the crystal clear water and enjoy a hike on one of the many trails. Kristen visited Lake Tahoe several years ago for a Phish concert, but ended up staying for two weeks! I’ve visited the area several times to mountain bike and one of my favorite rides is the epic 24-mile Tahoe Rim & Flume Trail .

Lake Tahoe // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

12. Mammoth Lakes, CA

Mammoth Lakes is a small ski resort town nestled at the base of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s a year-round destination with outdoor adventure for every season. Summer and fall are the best times to visit if you plan on hiking. Mammoth Lakes has some of the best access to backcountry trails and alpine lakes in the Eastern Sierra! Check out our post on the Best Hikes in Mammoth Lakes for a local’s recommendation on the most scenic trails.

If you’re a mountain biker, Mammoth Lakes is also home to the Mammoth Mountain Bike Park which has over 80 miles of singletrack to explore. If you’re not into mountain biking, you can still take the gondola to the top and enjoy the incredible views out over the Minarets and the backside of Yosemite Valley.

Mammoth Lakes // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

13. Ancient Bristlecone Forest

Walk among some of the oldest trees in the world at the Ancient Bristlecone Forest above Bishop, California. Some of these trees exceed 4000 years of age and are characterized by their twisted and gnarled trunks and limbs that have been shaped by years of harsh wind.

Visit the Schulman Grove Visitor Center to learn more about these amazing trees and then hike along one of the nearby self-guided hiking trails. You’ll be hiking above 10,000ft, so be sure to bring sun protection and lots of water.

You can also visit the Patriarch Grove 13-miles north on a rough dirt road, which is home to the largest Bristlecone in the world, the Patriarch Tree.

The road into the Ancient Bristlecone Forest is closed in the winter due to snow. Also, make sure you have a full tank of gas before setting off.

Bristlecone Forest // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

Northern California Road trip stops

14. lassen volcanic national park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is an intriguing stop for any northern California road trip. Rich in hydrothermal sites including roaring fumaroles (steam and volcanic-gas vents), bubbling mud pots, boiling pools, and steaming ground, it’s a one-of-a-kind destination. Visit Bumpass Hell and Sulphur Works to get a glimpse of volcanism in action and take a walk along one of the short loops to explore steam vents and boiling pools.

Always stay on the main hiking trails to avoid getting severely burned or injured. Some cauldrons can reach temperatures of over 125 degrees!

Once you’ve visited the hydrothermal sites, Lassen Volcanic National Park is also home to many coldwater lakes for swimming or paddleboarding, numerous trails for day hiking, and opportunities for backcountry wilderness backpacking.

Lassen Volcanic National Park // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

15. Lava Beds National Monument

Located in northern California near the Oregon state line, Lava Beds National Monument is home to many interesting geological and historical sites. With more than 800 caves, several Native American rock art depictions, historic battlefields, and volcanic landscapes, there’s high desert outdoor adventure for everyone.

One of the most popular ways to explore the area is through the numerous caves and lava tubes . These caves were formed thousands of years ago as lava flowed from Medicine Lake Volcano and cooled throughout the surrounding plains. There are caves for all levels of exploration from least challenging to most challenging. Be sure to bring proper equipment like flashlights, helmets, warm clothing layers, and maps.

Lava Beds National Monument // The best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

What are your favorite California road trip stops? Which ones are on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments below!

See the best California road trips stops for outdoor adventure including California's National Parks, monuments, coastal towns, and more.

After college and a few stints abroad, Becky landed a job with a fleet of National Geographic cruise ships, spending the next 10 years sailing the world. She now adventures from the seat of her bike (and a RAM ProMaster), helping us keep all of our content up to date and relevant here at Bearfoot Theory. Her blog — Two Wheeled Wanderer, — inspires more people to explore the world on two wheels.

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Your Trip Starts Here

Southern California Road Trips

by DayTrippen

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Southern California Road Trips

Angeles Crest Highway

30 miles. Are you searching for an enjoyable and fast road trip near Los Angeles? Look no further than the Angeles Crest Highway! Beginning at the City of La Canada, this highway traverses the rugged terrain of the San Gabriel Mountains and reaches a height of over 10,000 feet at its peak. You may catch glimpses of the Antelope Valley in the distance as you go along the road.

Mulholland Highway Road Trip Points of Interest

Mulholland Highway Road Trip

50 miles. Mulholland Highway is a scenic drive where weekend warriors and Hollywood’s famous rub elbows on any given weekend. Winding its way through the Santa Monica Mountains, Mulholland Highway is named after William Mulholland, constructed in the 1920s and billed as the highway “to take Angelinos from the city to the ocean.”

where to go on a road trip california

Highway 39 San Gabriel Canyon

The distance for a round trip from the San Gabriel Canyon Gateway Center to Crystal Lake is almost 45 miles. We recommend buying an Adventure Pass, which costs only five dollars. San Gabriel Canyon is a well-liked destination to escape the summer heat and can become quite crowded. Planning a visit during Spring or Fall is advisable for the best experience.

Ortega Highway Road Trip

Ortega Highway 74

60 miles. California Route 74, or Ortega Highway, stretches just over 21 miles from beautiful San Juan Capistrano in the west to growing Lake Elsinore Valley in the east. The road has a lot of tight turns and changes in elevation. There are numerous turnouts for taking breaks and pictures for those who want to enjoy the scenery.

Highway 126  Heritage Valley

Highway 126  Heritage Valley

70 miles. State Route 126 connects Interstate 5 in Santa Clarita to U.S. Route 101 in Ventura. Highway 126 passes through the towns of Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, and the national landmark of Spanish Rancho Camulos, all bursting with citrus and avocado orchards, roadside stands, as well as historic landmarks, antique airplanes, and railroad history.

Lake Arrowhead Road Trip

Lake Arrowhead

80 miles. Lake Arrowhead, also known as “the Alps of Southern California,” offers abundant opportunities for outdoor adventure or a peaceful retreat to unwind with a book after a hectic day. Whether you seek a romantic escape from Los Angeles, a laid-back family road trip, or an exhilarating outdoor adventure, Lake Arrowhead has something to offer.

National Old Trails Highway Road Trip

National Old Trails Highway

Take a road trip along National Trails Highway. Only a few ghostly shadows remain of the many towns that used to service travelers along the mother road. We journey 175 miles from Victorville to Needles, California, along this iconic highway through the Mojave Desert.

Oak Glen Southern California Road Trips

Oak Glen San Bernardino Mountains

90 miles. Your first stop in Oak Glen should be for what else, apples! Many local orchards offer the chance to bring the family and handpick a basket. But first, drop by the Oak Glen School House Museum and Park on South Oak Glen Road.

Ojai Valley

Ojai Valley

90 miles. Ojai is located in the middle of a mountain range that runs east to west, giving it a one-of-a-kind sunset that is hard to find in other towns. This sunset, known as the “Pink Moment,” is a stunning display of the sun setting over the Pacific Coast that is reflected onto the mountainside. The result is a beautiful pink glow that lasts for several minutes on the Topatopa Bluffs, located at the eastern end of the Ojai Valley.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

100 miles. A great way to get acquainted with Santa Barbara is by renting a beach cruiser from one of the rental shops lining the beach near Stearns Wharf. There are miles of bike paths to explore; however, most people follow the trail from Stearns Wharf to Shoreline Park and back.

Palm Springs

Palm Springs

110 miles. When checking off the list of reasons, you should plan a visit to Palm Springs, including the sunshine, outstanding resorts, shopping, outdoor adventures, museums, and spectacular scenery. This beautiful oasis in the Mojave Desert has it all.

Santa Ynez Valley Day Trip Things To Do

Santa Ynez Valley

130 miles. Set among the stunning Santa Ynez Mountains to the south and the San Rafael Mountains to the north; the Santa Ynez Valley consists of six unique and diverse communities that make up the Santa Barbara wine country.

Calico Ghost Town

Calico Ghost Town

130 miles. Calico is perched upon a hill overlooking the Mojave Desert, and on a clear day, you can see for miles. Calico is a fun place to visit, and if you are lucky, you might even see a gunfight on the main street. At its height, Calico boasted a population of 1,200 people and over 500 silver mines. Today Calico is mainly populated by tourists.


Solvang Village

140 miles. If you’re taking a day trip to Solvang, you can try the local wines at wine-tasting cellars in the town. Additionally, the city offers Danish bakeries, restaurants, antique stores, museums, and friendly shopkeepers dressed in authentic Danish costumes.

Julian Road Trip

Julian California

140 miles. Julian is a popular year-round road trip with shops ranging from tawdry tourists to normal small-town fixtures like hardware and drug stores, antique malls, book boutiques, and restaurants. The   downtown district is only about three blocks long and four blocks wide, making the town small enough to walk easily.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

140 miles. Joshua Tree National Park Day sits on the border of Riverside and San Bernardino counties and covers nearly 800,000 acres. While seeing many of the park’s attractions in one day is possible, we recommend camping there for at least one night. If camping is not your thing, Palm Springs offers numerous hotels and is not too far away.

Lake Isabella- Kern River

Lake Isabella- Kern River

160 miles. Lake Isabella is Nestled in what is known as the Kern River Valley between two sections of the Sequoia National Forest. From fishing to boating, camping to picnicking, the lake offers some of the best fresh-water recreation experiences.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

150 miles. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park eroded badlands provide a different view into the region’s tropical past. The inland of southeastern California was not always a desert. Fossils found include preserved plants, a variety of invertebrate shells, animal tracks, and a vast array of bones and teeth.

Rosarito Beach Mexico

Rosarito Beach Mexico

150 miles. Rosarito Beach is a charming destination that offers a rich cultural experience and a variety of activities. Here, you can enjoy world-class surfing, rent a jet ski, savor authentic Baja cuisine, or explore the bustling nightlife at one of the area’s famous nightclubs. Come and escape to a world of Old World charm and adventure.

Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

200 miles. Tucked side by side in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, east of the San Joaquin Valley. Both parks are connected by a single road that provides nearly 866,000 acres of outdoor adventure in the “Land of the Giants.”

Alabama Hills Owens Valley

Alabama Hills Owens Valley

210 miles. Take a drive in the Alabama Hills’ “movie flats” and walk in the footsteps of the Lone Ranger, Russell Crowe, Gene Autry, and Mel Gibson. Or enjoy the natural beauty of one of California’s most delightfully weird outdoor destinations while hiking, biking, or climbing.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

240 miles. This huge estate is about five miles inland and sits atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Hearst Castle is surrounded by a 40,000-acre ranch, some of which is still owned by the Hearst family. Cars are not allowed to drive up the hill to Hearst Castle. You must board one of the buses (included with the tour) and then take the winding road to the estate.

Big Sur Coast

Big Sur Coast

260 miles. Big Sur, California, is one of the most beautiful regions globally. There are many places to stop, look at the scenery, take photographs, or explore the beaches and waterfalls. Many people make it a day trip to drive up this scenic coast. This drive along Pacific Coast Highway is a picturesque adventure for your bucket list.

Las Vegas Nevada

Las Vegas Nevada

270 miles. Las Vegas and the surrounding area offer so much more than casinos. Las Vegas provides numerous scenic treasures within driving easy distance of the city. Ghost towns, state parks, snow-covered mountains, and spectacular desert destinations.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

290 miles. Some tourists visit in the summer just for bragging rights about experiencing the 100 degrees plus heat. During the spring, the valley floor can be covered with wildflowers. Winters are cold, and summers are scorching hot. Whatever time of the year you visit Death Valley, there is an almost endless list of remarkable points of interest.

Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes

310 miles. Summertime in Mammoth Lakes offers visitors various activities, attractions, and events. Wintertime Mammoth is one of the largest ski resorts in the area, with four lodges, three gondolas, 25 other chairlifts, and 150 named trails.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

310 miles. Yosemite is a beautiful spot to visit year-round. From the bustling summer season to the quiet, snow-covered winter months, the beauty of Yosemite changes with each season. Year-round camping options visit Yosemite are fun and affordable.

California Train Rides

Knott’s berry farm, living desert zoo.

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Everything looks great. Is this an organized club or do people just pick and choose the various functions and then pay. If this is not similar to the MEETUP Groups do people at least know at lest a few others attending? Very interested, retired, and ready depending on how it works Please enlighten. Thank You Steven Feiles

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These are just suggestions for road trips. We do not offer guided trips. Meetup would be a good place to find groups interested in going on road trips together.

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The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip Itinerary

last Updated: March 27, 2024 big sur california carmel central coast half moon bay highway 1 Los Angeles monterey orange county pismo beach road trip san francisco santa barbara santa cruz santa monica solvang

FYI: Affiliate links may be sprinkled throughout the awesome, free content you see below. I’ll receive a small commission when you purchase from my links (at no extra cost to you), which I’ll totally blow on adult things like boba tea and avocado toast. As always, thanks for the support.

Planning a California coast road trip?! Taking a drive down the PCH?! You’re in the right place!  I’ve got loads of info for you!

A road trip down the California Coast on the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) is an unforgettable way to see so much of what the state has to offer. 

From waterfalls and castles (yes, really), to spectacular beaches and theme parks, there’s absolutely no shortage of things to do on the California Coast. 

where to go on a road trip california

Whether you’ve got a weekend or a few weeks to travel, you can fill your time with a wide array of California experiences. Let’s get this Pacific Coast Highway road trip under way!

Being one of the most scenic drives in the world (and rightfully so), I advise you to take your sweet time to really savor all the charming beauty of this west coast road trip down California.

And before we go into it, if you’ve got even more time in California and you’d like to visit a few spots off the coast, check out my latest post: 45 (Extremely) Beautiful Places in California   (opens in new tab, don’t worry!) << lots more itinerary inspiration for your California road trip!

Griffith Observatory in LA, California

Recommended Route down the California Coast

  • Stop 1:  San Francisco, California
  • Stop 2:  Half Moon Bay
  • Stop 3:  Santa Cruz
  • Stop 4:  Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • Stop 5:  Big Sur
  • Stop 6:  San Simeon
  • Stop 7:  San Luis Obispo/Pismo Beach
  • Stop 8:  Solvang
  • Stop 9:  Santa Barbara
  • Stop 10:  Ventura  → Channel Islands
  • Stop 11:  Malibu
  • Stop 12:  Los Angeles/Santa Monica
  • Stop 13:  Anaheim
  • Stop 14:  Orange County
  • Stop 15:  San Diego
ALL 75 of my favorite PCH stops RIGHT over here ! There’s tons of ideas in this California coast road trip itinerary, but those are my absolute favorites.

Note that the number of stops you’ll be able to make highly depends on how much time you have allotted for this California road trip.

Suggested One-Week Itinerary: If you have a week or so for this drive down the California Coast, I recommend a day in SF (depending on whether you’ve been or not), a day in Carmel/Monterey, a day in Big Sur , stopping at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, dune-bashing (if that’s your thing) in Pismo Beach, a day in Santa Barbara, stopping in Malibu en route of LA, checking out the main sights of LA/Santa Monica , then some beach time in Orange County .

Yes , it’ll be pretty jam-packed , but highly doable if you plan your drives correctly. You can really spend an infinite amount of time on the California Coast, so it’s hard to say exactly how long this road trip will take. It highly depends on your interest, how much time you wanna spend in the cities, and how much driving per day you wanna do.

Note that you can drive directly from San Francisco to LA in roughly 6 hours, but this route (via Highway 101 and Highway 5) will take you inland, meaning you’ll miss out on so much of the Central Coast. 

If you’re planning to drive round trip, I highly recommend that you drive South down the coast via Highway 1 – the Pacific Coast Highway , and then venture back up North via Highway 5 and Highway 101. 

You can drive either way (from SF to LA/San Diego -or- LA/San Diego to SF), but I prefer driving South, starting in the SF Bay Area and making my way down to LA/SD.  Pssst: the views are better this way as the car will be closer to the water. 😉

Renting a Car: Since this is in fact a  road trip , you’ll need a vehicle to get you from place to place! Worth mentioning so you don’t forget to account for the cost of a rental car when following this California coast road trip itinerary!

I like to search  via this site  in order to compare rental companies to see who has the best price.

Note that many rental car shops charge extra for returning their cars at different pick up/drop off locations – just something to keep in mind (it may be worth the extra 6 hour drive back to your original starting point to avoid this pesky fee).

Search for the cheapest car rentals over here !

lands end hike san francisco


First things first, if you’re not a resident of San Francisco (or LA), you’ll of course need to get yourself there. Since SFO is a major international airport, and a hub for many airlines, you can easily find cheap airfare within the states. 

I swear by  Skyscanner  and  Google Flights , and always always  always  use these two sites when looking for airfare.  The option to watch prices and get email notifications are top notch and one of my favorite features of the two. 

Always check budget airlines that may not be listed, especially if you are coming from other areas of the US with shorter flight times.  A great list of budget airlines can be found  here .

If you’ll be following this  itinerary and heading south (without driving the direct 6+ hours back to  San Francisco ), you’ll want to book two one-way tickets. 1) HOME → SFO, 2) LAX→ HOME. Make sure to search for one-way flights when booking tickets.

Totally your call, but I suggest flying round trip from the same airport so you can avoid one-way drop off rental car fees.

When to Drive Down the California Coast

Keep in mind that the summer months (June, July, and August) are usually rather foggy in San Francisco and down the California coast.  Because of this, some mornings will be pretty damp and misty.  For best weather and best chance of sunshine, plan for a road trip in either late September or October. 

If summer is your only option, you may get lucky with clear skies, but don’t count on it.  However, with this in mind, the fog usually clears up by mid-morning/afternoon.  Normal summer temps are in the low-60’s to mid-70’s, so bring a jacket and reconsider that convertible!  “May Grey, June Gloom” is a real thing out here.

*All drive times are approximations.  Traffic can be heavy at some points along the drive, and you’ll likely be getting out of your car occasionally to take photos along the way.

Stumped on what to pack for a California road trip itinerary? Check out this ultimate road trip essentials packing guide (opens in new tab)!

What to Pack for your Pacific coast highway road trip (rotate sideways on Mobile)

Now let’s get this California coast road trip planning on it’s way!

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary:

1) start in san francisco.

Ahhh, SF, my favorite city; although technically I’m biased because I chose to move to the city by the bay from NYC a few years ago. 😉

A few San Francisco must do’s include either walking or driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf (and stuffing your face with an ice cream sundae at Ghirardelli’s), getting spooked at Alcatraz Island (go on the night tour!), relaxing with some coffee in Union Square, walking down twisty Lombard Street, and riding a cable car. 

where to go on a road trip california

Get some great views at either Twin Peaks or the top of Coit Tower, check out the Painted Ladies, commonly known as the “Full House” houses, and nosh on some sourdough bread, fresh pasta in North Beach, and a burrito in the Mission District.

Other things to do in San Francisco include taking a panoramic night tour of city , cruise around the bay in a catamaran (champagne included!), see the Golden Gate Bridge from above  on a seaplane tour , and taking a day trip to Napa Valley (not to be missed on any PCH road trip !)

Visiting San Francisco for the first time? Read THIS  and THIS .  🙂 And make sure to check out this perfect 3-day SF itinerary !

where to go on a road trip california

Beware, parking is not the greatest (and garages are expensive), and public transportation is somewhat lacking.  I’ve lived here for 4 years now and still don’t love touring the city via car.

I recommend playing tourist and taking a full tour of the city  instead of trying to do everything on your own.  Or rent bikes , electric bikes (!!!), or even a really fun (and kind of cheesy) goCar  if you’d prefer to fly solo. Uber is always a good suggestion, and with my discount code  (jessicak148), you can get a few bucks off your first ride!

where to go on a road trip california

Read More about San Francisco:

  • A First Time Visitors Guide to San Francisco
  • The Ultimate San Francisco Food Bucket List
  • Hiking in San Francisco: A Coastal Walk through Lands’ End
  • 25 Spectacular Day Trips from San Francisco
  • Best Places to Photograph the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Best Desserts in SF (All my Favorite Spots)

Where to Stay in San Francisco

  • Intercontinental San Francisco (up-scale luxury and fantastic restaurant)
  • Hotel Carlton (travel themed and around the block from Mr. Holmes Bakehouse)

2) Half Moon Bay (45 minutes from SF)

Your first official stop on your California coast road trip (unless you wanna make a few stops in Pacifica /Pescadero – I’ve got a whole road trip guide from San Francisco to Santa Cruz here )!  Say goodbye to the city and venture on over to Half Moon Bay, a cozy little seaside village right on the coast. 

where to go on a road trip california

You could easily plan a full day’s worth of activities here, but I suggest spending either a morning or afternoon, unless you want to take the plunge and stay at the ever-so-beautiful Ritz Carlton . 

A few must do’s: go for a stroll on one of the many beaches that dot this area of the coastline (my favorites: Poplar, Mavericks, and Miramar), wander around Half Moon Bay Main Street, walk the coastal trail, and indulge in a lobster roll from Sam’s Chowder House.

where to go on a road trip california

Read More about Half Moon Bay:

  • The Weekend Guide to Half Moon Bay
  • 12 Reasons to Love the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay
  • All My Favorite Beaches in Half Moon Bay

3) Santa Cruz (1 hour from Half Moon Bay)

shark fin cove santa cruz

Drive a bit further on Highway 1 and you’ll reach Santa Cruz, where I suggest stopping for a few hours .  Walk on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, ride the Giant Dipper and/or the Ferris Wheel right on the beach, and stop for a snack or two (churros and funnel cake are my favorites).  You can also head to Shark Fin Cove if you’re looking for a unique beach!

Also, don’t miss the Mystery Spot, which I won’t give away for obvious reasons, and make sure you try Marianne’s before heading out (the absolute BEST ice cream in the area).

where to go on a road trip california

Read More about Santa Cruz:

15+ Things to do in Santa Cruz

4) Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea (45 minutes from Santa Cruz)

Next up on our Pacific Coast Highway road trip – Monterey and Carmel! California is just full of sweet little seaside towns, and this area, despite being rather touristy, is definitely one to stop at. 

Monterey and Carmel are only a few miles apart, and I highly suggest spending the night in either of these towns (Monterey being the more affordable option) while on your California coast road trip.

Looking for the best road trips in California? Whether you’ve got a long weekend or a full 2 weeks to explore, look no further - this huge post covers over 15 of the best California road trips!

A few recommended activities and bites: bundle up on a whale watching tour , indulge in clam chowder at Old Fisherman’s wharf, walk around Cannery Row, and spend a few hours at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (included in the San Francisco CityPASS if you’ve gotten it previously).

Don’t miss a walk around the charming little town of Carmel, cruising around the area in a Sea Car , watching the sunset at Carmel Beach Park, and stopping at the viewpoints along the 17 Mile Drive. 

where to go on a road trip california

On our most recent visit, I couldn’t stop raving about the food, with my favorites being the Monterey Crepe Company, Red’s Donuts, and The Poke Lab.  I really should make an-depth guide to Monterey soon!

Read More about Monterey/Carmel:

  • Why I Want to Move to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
  • Monterey and the 17 Mile Drive

Where to Stay in Monterey:

  • Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa (located on a golf course!)
  • Holiday Inn Express Monterey-Cannery Row (wonderful location)
  • The Monterey Tides Hotel (right on the beach!)

5) Big Sur (50 minutes from Monterey)

Next up: Big Sur , famous for a reason and many people’s favorite stop on this California coast road trip itinerary. Most people are surprised at how little “civilization” is around here – no traffic lights, strip malls, or banks. 

where to go on a road trip california

It’s more of a state of mind rather than a specific point on a map, encompassing about 90 sunny Californian miles down the coast. 

With this being said, plan to drive down the coast and consider setting up camp/hotel in another location, unless you want to fork over some big bucks for a luxury hotel.  I recommend everyone spend a bit of time in Big Sur on a California coast road trip (at least half a day)– it’s too remarkable to miss!

Heading to California and wondering what to do in Big Sur? Read on for my favorite Big Sur activities, where to stay, and (most importantly), what and where to eat! This Big Sur road trip itinerary will have you booking flights to California ASAP, promise!

You’ll be stopping on the side of the highway so many times you’ll lose count – the coast line is just that spectacular!  It’s known for its winding turns, seaside cliffs, and breathtaking views of the often misty coastline. 

A few must-do’s here in Big Sur : see McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, wiggle your toes in purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach (yes, parts of it really are purple, I was surprised too…), marvel at the Bixby Creek Bridge, and check out all the views from Point Lobos. OH, and if you’re visiting between February and April, definitely find the hidden blooms at Calla Lily Valley !

Read More on Big Sur

  • A Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary: What to See, Do, Eat, and Enjoy

Where to Stay in Big Sur (Super Duper Beautiful Luxury Spots)

  • Post Ranch Inn  (cliff-top hotel with a gorgeous spa)
  • Ventana Inn  (luxe wilderness resort, with lots of privacy)
  • Hyatt Carmel Highlands  (overlooking Big Sur)

6) San Simeon (2 – 4 hours drive, depending on how many stops you make in Big Sur)

Did you think you’d be stopping at a castle on your California coast road trip?  When I first learned about Hearst Castle, I was mesmerized.  Being a historic landmark on the coast, tours do fill up in advance, so be sure to book your spot ahead of time . 

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

First time visiting?  Sign up for the Grand Rooms Tour – and that’s exactly what you’ll see – plenty of spectacularly ornate rooms, plus lots of time to explore the absolutely stunning grounds. 

Non-negotiable on any California Coast road trip, in my opinion.  Be sure to look out for the zebra on the side of the highway as you enter/leave.  Bizarre, opulent, and oddly satisfying.

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

And while you’re in the area, make sure to stop at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, a popular spot to observe elephant seals with its own boardwalk and viewing areas. 

The best times to visit the rookery are in late January, late April, and late October, but visits are encouraged year round.  Have you seen an elephant seal use their large, inflatable noses to make noise?  It’s pretty wild!

7) San Luis Obispo/Pismo Beach/Morro Bay/Paso Robles (45 minutes from San Simeon)

So there’s kinda a lot to do in this little area – so best to pick and choose your favorites (if not, you can easily spend a whole week here!). 

In SLO (what locals refer to as San Luis Obispo), sip pink drinks at the Madonna Inn , stuff your face with bbq are Firestone Grill, blow bubbles at the Bubble Gum Wall in downtown, and grab donuts at SLO Donut Company (SloDoCo). All my favorites, and I can’t image an afternoon not doing any of these.

where to go on a road trip california

Looking to stretch your legs?  Opt for the Bluff Trail at Montaña de Oro State Park, a 3.4 mile round trip relatively flat path with (better-than-okay) ocean views.

Thought Napa/Sonoma were the only wine countries in California? Winos – you’re in luck.  This part of your California coast road trip (in Paso Robles ) features over 100 wineries, and deciding which to visit is the hardest part! 

The DAOU Vineyards gets constant praise, and with it’s wonderful wine, olive oil, and views, it’s hard to beat!

2019 Year in Review - SLO

Want someone else to take you around? Probably a good idea if you’ll be drinking lots of wine! Hop on a full-day hop-on, hop-off wine tasting tour (yes, they exist!) and you can choose your own itinerary in Paso Robles Wine Country.

Or take the easy way out and let someone else decide for you on this  Ultimate Wine Experience in San Luis Obispo (foodie lunch and 3-5 wineries included!).

You need to include a dune buggy ride on Pismo Beach on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip ! One of the most epic things to do in this area! More info on that here . Nowhere else in California can you drive a vehicle on a public beach!

where to go on a road trip california

Before getting to SLO, you may as well make a pit stop in Moro Bay. If the weather cooperates (always a gamble over here), you’ll be rewarded with views of the giant monolith. Be sure to walk around the nearby beach to find sand dollars, and grab a cinnamon bun from one of the local bakeries.

If you’re thinking of stopping here for the night (or have had too much to drink…), consider staying at no other than the wildly famous Madonna Inn .  But be sure to save your breakfast appetite for SLO’s legendary Big Sky Café.  Oh, and there’s always beach time as well if the weather cooperates.

8) Solvang (1 hour from San Luis Obispo)

A bit in-land, but well worth the few miles off the highway.  This cute little area will feel as if you’ve been transplanted to a Danish village, with authentic Dutch bakeries and international cuisine.  Worth a quick pit stop, for the pastries alone (try the aebleskiver – pancake puffs). 🙂  

Stroll the village to spot Danish icons including the Little Mermaid Fountain, a handful of historic windmills, the giant red clog, and Round Tower.  There’s also two historic churches to check out, Old Mission Santa Ines and Bethania Lutheran.

Looking for something a bit more active? See the unique architecture of the only Danish city in The West via segway tour ! They are so much fun and an easy way to get around!

9) Santa Barbara (45 minutes from Solvang)

An absolute must-stop on any Pacific Coast Highway road trip !  Here in Santa Barbara – dubbed the American Riviera – you’ll find widespread beaches and a truly relaxed atmosphere. 

Downtown you’ll find Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs, which accurately reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage.

where to go on a road trip california

And the food! Oh, the food here! Consider joining a historic Santa Barbara Food Tasting Tour  to get a true feel for what the locals love here (hint hint: includes Northern Italian dishes, gourmet cheese, local wine and handcrafted chocolates… yum).

Rather take a beer tour? Sign up for the  Self-Guided Santa Barbara Lagoon Loop Craft Beer Trail  (yes, it’s a thing down here).

where to go on a road trip california

Don’t miss Old Mission Santa Barbara, a historic church known for its beauty, a panoramic view of the city from the Clock Tower observation deck of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and the Santa Barbara Public Market. 

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

Save some time for Stearn’s Wharf and then beach it up, you deserve it!  If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m all about that ice cream – satisfy your sweet tooth at McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams (worth the wait and then some).

And whatever you do, don’t leave Santa Barbara without taking a surf lesson  (<– reserve your spot now, as they can fill up pretty quickly during the warmer months).

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara:

  • Inn by the Harbor (romantic and Mediterranean two blocks from the waterfront)

Recommended Tours in Santa Barbara:

  • El Paseo Wine and Photo Tour
  • Santa Barbara Amazing Scavenger Hunt Adventure
  • Santa Barbara Funk Zone: Food and Photo Tour

10) Ventura for Channel Islands National Park (40 minutes from Santa Barbara)

Usually not very common on a ‘traditional’ California coast road trip, but I couldn’t leave this destination off the list.  In Ventura, be sure to check out Mission San Buenaventura, Olivas Adoble, and Oxnard Beach Part. 

This vibrant town is the unexpected spot to make your way to Channel Islands National Park, located just off the coast via ferry, plane, or private boat.

Take a break from the crazy urban life and go for a hike on the Channel Islands, literally!  The park is comprised of 5 islands and their surrounding mile of ocean, so it’s best to decide beforehand where and what to go/do. 

Head to Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island for some of the best views of the National Park, and/or you can snorkel/dive/kayak in Landing Cove (Anacapa Island) or at Scorpion Anchorage (Santa Cruz Island).  If you’re on Santa Cruz Island, be sure to check out Cavern Point, which provides a spectacular view after a short hike.  You can even go whale watching around here!

FYI – there is NO transportation available on the islands – you have to either walk, kayak, or cruise around via private boat.  Bicycles are not allowed.  Plan a day trip here from Ventura to get your nature fix.

Recommended Channel Islands Tours

  • Channel Islands Full-Day Private Sailing Trip

11) Malibu (50 minutes from Ventura)

Just the name “Malibu” sounds exotic and beachy to me.  Here on your California coast road trip you’ll find wide stretches of beaches, celebrity homes, and The Getty Villa (which is said to be absolutely stunning). 

But Malibu is more than just that, including stunning canyons, horse ranches, waterfront restaurants, acres of land, and lots and lots of hiking trails. You can also take a private surf lesson if you missed out in Santa Barbara!

Looking for the best road trips in California? Whether you’ve got a long weekend or a full 2 weeks to explore, look no further - this huge post covers over 15 of the best California road trips!

A few spots not to miss: Paradise Cove (the only restaurant you can actually drink on the beach), Geoffrey’s Malibu for a wonderful lunch view (get some fresh seafood here!), Point Dume Beach (you’ll always see dolphins!), Malibu Pier, a tour of celebrity homes , and wide and sandy Zuma Beach, known for its excellent surf. 

Don’t leave without some gelato from Grom Gelateria, the absolute best of the best! And if you’re a sucker for fantastic views like me, don’t miss out on a Malibu scenic airplane tour ! Your pictures will be epic, I promise!

12) Los Angeles/ Santa Monica (50 minutes from Malibu)

I highly suggest you spend at least 2-3 days here as there is just SO much to do .  You’ll want to divide your time between Downtown LA (DTLA) and Santa Monica/Venice Beach, with possible other stops to make as well.  

Heading to Southern California soon? Make sure to check out these hot spots in LA, Santa Monica, and Venice, including the best food, murals, and museums! LA and Santa Monica are full of character and are super trendy!

After checking out all the necessary tourist hot spots , you’ll have more time to envelope yourself in the “true” feeling of Los Angeles. Promise me you won’t miss a Warner Brothers Hollywood Studio Tour !

In DTLA , I highly suggest the Broad Museum (FREE, but usually a long wait time), getting an egg sandwich at Eggslut, The Last Bookstore, macaroons at Bouttega Louie, and culture and snacks in Little Tokyo.

Don’t feel like walking? Take a segway tour of DTLA ! Don’t feel like figuring out public transportation? A hop-on, hop-off bus of the LA area is always the way to go!

Heading to Southern California soon? Make sure to check out these hot spots in LA, Santa Monica, and Venice, including the best food, murals, and museums! LA and Santa Monica are full of character and are super trendy!

In Santa Monica and Venice , be sure to check out the Santa Monica Boardwalk (ride the ferris wheel and/or the coaster during sunset), Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice Canals, and the Venice Beach Boardwalk. 

In addition, you can’t miss the Urban Lights exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)!  You’ll find pretty cool murals all around the area as well if that’s your type of thing (it most definitely is mine)!

Hike in the Hollywood Hills , take an airplane tour of Santa Monica and the coastline , go on a tour of some movie stars’ homes ,

Heading to Southern California soon? Make sure to check out these hot spots in LA, Santa Monica, and Venice, including the best food, murals, and museums! LA and Santa Monica are full of character and are super trendy!

Read More about Los Angeles/Santa Monica:

  • The Ultimate SoCal Guide: 25 “Very LA” Things to do in Los Angeles, California
  • The Perfect Way to Spend A Day (or Two) in LA
  • The Cool Girl’s Guide to LA: What to See, Do, Eat, and Enjoy

Where to Stay in Los Angeles/Santa Monica

  • The Orlando Hotel (middle of West Hollywood and lots of great Mexican nearby!)
  • HI Hostel (perfect for solo travelers, and around the block from the beach)

13) Anaheim for Disneyland (45 minutes from LA)

Disney lovers will enjoy this spot for sure, but just for the record, Disneyland is not as large and/or “wow!!!!” as Disney World.  I had a Disney-fanatic-friend visit Disneyland a few months back and she was not impressed to say the least. 

where to go on a road trip california

Save this stop if you’ve never been to the location in Florida, or if you can’t stand not to check it out for yourself.  Regardless, you’ll have a grand ol’ time on the rollercoasters and indulging in all things Mickey.

A few parks to check out (click to buy tickets): Universal Studios Hollywood , Disneyland Park , Adventure City, and Disney California Adventure Park.

I highly recommend getting these theme park tickets in advance to by-pass any super-long lines and spend more time in the parks. You’ll save yourself lots of time, that’s for sure!

  • Universal Studios Hollywood 1-Day Ticket with Options
  • Anaheim: Disneyland Resort 1-Day Entrance Ticket

14) Orange County: Huntington Beach/Newport Beach/Laguna Beach (35 minutes from Anaheim)

This stretch of coast is absolutely BEAUTIFUL and should not be missed if your itinerary has you driving down to San Diego (or even as an extra stop from the LA/Ahaheim area). 

laguna beach in february

Here you’ll find manicured beach towns, a hell of a lot of beautiful people, and even more beautiful stretches of sand with mesmerizing sunsets. 

The beaches are plentiful, but my favorites include Huntington Beach , Newport Beach, and Laguna Beach, all within a few miles of each other.  We recently spent a bit of time in San Clemente , and fell in love with the town! Don’t miss gelato at Gelato Paradiso and the views from Heisler Park and Dana Point.

laguna beach pier

You won’t want to skip “The OC” on your California coast road trip – I can promise you that!

Read More about Orange County/Southern California

  • My Birthday in Sunny Southern California
  • 4 Days in Huntington Beach: Everything You Need to Know
  • The Complete Guide to San Clemente

Want to extend your PCH road trip?!

15 Best Places to See Redwoods Near San Francisco - all the popular spots plus a few others!

1) GO FURTHER SOUTH! You could choose to venture even further south to San Diego, as there’s lots and lots to do! Watch this space for updates and more information on California, including best things to do in San Diego as well!

2) START UP NORTH! Interested in starting this Pacific Coast Highway road trip a bit north of San Francisco? Check out the drive from San Francisco to Mendocino , highly recommended in my opinion if you’ve got a few more days to explore! A weekend in Mendocino is the perfect way to start your trip! And if you’re looking for some redwoods, you’ll find lots around here !

3) HEAD ALL THE WAY TO SEATTLE! Yes, it’s possible! If you have ample extra time, say another week (or more), check all these stops on a San Francisco to Seattle road trip ! Crater Lake and donuts, anyone?!

Have you ever take a California coast road trip?!  Is taking a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway on your bucket list?!

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July 30, 2020 at 5:32 pm

Totally agree! I added Santa Barbara last minute to my road trip and you are so right – you don’t want to miss out on this city. The weather was as close to perfect as you can get. It really makes you want to spend as much time outside as possible.

If you are looking for bike rentals I would suggest Cal Coast Adventures as they offer tons of biking options. Beach cruisers to mountain bikes – they really have it all!

Another bucket list item I was able to check off was learning to surf with Santa Barbara Surf School. The instructors were so knowledgeable about ocean life and safety and I stood up on my first wave.

It was an experience I’ll never forget. Can’t wait to make my way back to Santa Barbara!

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October 20, 2020 at 8:22 am

I wanted to thank you for all your great advice and suggestions. My husband and I decided to take a spontaneous 4-day weekend road trip down the PCH. We flew in to San Francisco from Minneapolis and, thanks to your posts, were able to experience some amazing sights. We flew in later in the day, so we stayed in Pacifica for the night. We were right on the beach and saw our first California sunset there! I rolled my eyes at your Taco Bell suggestion (in a another post), but we decided to try it (as my husband is a Mt. Dew lover!). What a fun experience … a Mt. Dew margarita, a Grande Burrito and an awesome ocean view!!

The next day we started our journey down 1 and made it from Half Moon Bay down to Santa Barbara and then back up to San Francisco. We had a fabulous experience, thanks to both beautifully sunny, warm October weather and your insight and suggestions (on this post and several others). We packed in a lot, but it was a trip of a lifetime and made more special with your help!

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November 15, 2020 at 7:04 pm

Hi Alison – so glad you had such a special trip! I absolutely LOVE the PCH and California in general so I'm so happy my posts were helpful! Hope you get back to CA sooner than later! And yes – we love that Mountain Dew marg, haha!

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December 22, 2020 at 12:11 am

Great itinerary and very nice hotel recommendations. I really enjoyed reading this. On stop #10, Ventura, consider stopping by the Hollywood Beach Salon – Spa – Boutique for some relaxation overlooking the beautiful Channel Islands Harbor!

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January 18, 2021 at 1:05 pm

I also want to golf at Pebble

January 19, 2021 at 10:23 am

That would be such an experience! It's on my husband's bucket list for sure!

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January 22, 2021 at 7:15 am

Hi, I live in Westminster near Anaheim and am going to visit my daughter in Monterey from 2/5-2/7. This is a short trip. I am thinking take the fastest route there and on the way back make short stops at some of the places you recommended. I will have my 3 kids with me in their 20s and possibly my Australian Shepherd. I was wondering what you recommend? The trip back has to be done in one day. I'm a little nervous about driving to since I tend to get lost lol. Thank you

January 22, 2021 at 1:52 pm

Hi Mary! I recommend stopping in Paso Robles, Morro Bay, and San Luis Obispo. These 3 spots are all so different from each other and aren't too far apart. Morro Bay is on the coast (look out for adorable sea otters), Paso has delicious wines (just make sure they aren't take out only right now), and SLO is a fun town to walk around (don't miss the bubble gum wall!).

Also, I'd opt to take the 101 (and NOT highway 1) driving down from Monterey to Paso since the drive from Monterey through Big Sur to Cambria is literally on the side of a cliff and takes forever.

Have fun!!!

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The 5 Best National Park Road Trips in the U.S.

From western landscapes to the Blue Ridge Parkway, our national park expert maps out five beautiful road trips—all doable in a week


Heading out the door? Read this article on the Outside app available now on iOS devices for members! >","name":"in-content-cta","type":"link"}}'>Download the app .

Here’s the dream: Quit your job and hit all 64 national parks in one huge multi-month road trip where you live mostly in a van and finally see all of these iconic landscapes for yourself. To call that dream unrealistic is an understatement, at least for me, for a variety of reasons (see “quit job,” above), though it’s been accomplished by an Outside writer.

The closest I’ve ever come was in my 20s, spending a month driving around the Rocky Mountains and American Southwest in my VW Jetta during summer break from graduate school. A decade or so later, I re-created that trip with my wife and our then four-year-old twins. Both experiences were awesome. One of them had more tantrums.

You can plan a great park trip that captures the open-road spirit on a smaller scale. Below, I’ve outlined five itineraries that take in multiple parks, all within a week. I picked a variety of terrain—lonely desert basins, ice-cold swimming holes, perfect hikes, and cultural wonders. There are one or two classic routes.

But mostly, I chose these because they go to parks that don’t get the massive amount of attention some of their cousins receive. So gas or charge up and go.

1. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains

Virginia/north carolina, distance: 470 miles, duration: four-plus days.

Appalachian Trail Shenandoah National Park

This trip is in my backyard, so I’m biased, but it’s also awesome, because the entire 470-plus-mile route is within a national-park unit. The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for 469 miles along the peaks and valleys of the Southern Appalachian mountain range, connecting two of the country’s most-visited national parks, Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina/Tennessee and Shenandoah in Virginia.

view from overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Driving the entire length of the parkway is slow (speed limit is between 25 and 45 miles per hour) and full of curves in the road, and also overlooks,  side hikes to swimming holes, and mountain hikes through a lush landscape with elevations that top 6,000 feet. And that’s just the road between the two great national parks.

bike rider on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Heading south on the parkway, you will find picnic areas, trailheads, and scenic views. Give yourself at least a couple of days to complete the road alone, making sure to hike the three-mile out-and-back Sharp Top Trail in the Peaks of Otter area near Bedford, Virginia, which leads to a panoramic view of the Shenandoah Valley and the Allegheny Mountains. When you get to North Carolina, hit Grandfather Mountain State Park, where you can climb the 7.6-mile out-and-back Profile Trail , scrambling along outcroppings and climbing ladders to the summit of the 5,964-foot Callaway Peak.

Stony Man Summit at Shenandoah National Park

Adventures in Shenandoah: Located just 70 miles west of Washington, D.C, Shenandoah National Park is home to 200,000 acres of 4,000-foot peaks, dense hardwood forest, waterfalls, and historic farmland. The most popular hike is also one of the park’s toughest; Old Rag Circuit is a 9.2-mile loop that requires rock scrambling with some use of your hands to reach Old Rag Mountain, which offers 360-degree views of the park and surrounding farmland. You need a permit to hike the mountain between March 1 and November 30. It’s only $2, but permits are limited to 800 a day, so get them up to 30 days in advance .

Upper Whiteoak Falls Loop via Cedar Run Trail, Virginia

If you’re looking to cool off, hike the Whiteoak Canyon/Cedar Run Circuit , an 8.1-mile loop that gains 3,000 feet while traversing two tight gorges packed with waterfalls and swimming holes. Lower and Upper Whiteoak Canyon Falls are the highlights, as Upper Falls drops 86 feet between narrow canyon walls, and Lower Falls has a primo plunge pool.

Adventures in Great Smoky Mountains : The Smokies comprise a mix of rocky streams stacked with waterfalls and swimming holes, and steep slopes thick with vegetation. It’s hard to get across just how green this park is. On the northern end, you’ll find Midnight Hole, a deep, cold swimming hole at the base of a small waterfall. The pool is lined with 15-foot boulders, and locals like to jump from them into the deep part. Access is via the easy three-mile out-and-back Big Creek Trail . If you want to ditch the crowds (GSMNP gets 14 million visitors a year), hike deeper into the park. Ramsey Cascades Trail is an eight-mile round trip through stands of old-growth tulip poplars to the 100-foot Ramsey Cascade, the tallest waterfall inside the park.

A few historic fire lookout towers still stand inside the park, but the most scenic is Mount Cammerer, a circular wooden building perched on a rocky outcropping, nearly 5,000 feet in elevation, offering views of 5,000- and 6,000-foot peaks as well as the Pigeon River Gorge. Hike this 11.6-mile out and back from Big Creek Parking Area, and you will do a piece of the Appalachian Trail, enjoying scenic stretches along Big Creek before climbing to the ridgeline.

Glamping or camping at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Stay : In Shenandoah, Big Meadows is a historic stone-and-chestnut lodge in the middle of the park. Choose from lodge rooms or rustic cabins (from $251 a night ), and wander the mile to Big Meadow after dark for stargazing . Lodges and campgrounds are spaced all along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, so it’s easy to break the journey up into chunks if you’re not in a hurry. Julian Price Campground is one of the most popular overnights ($20 per night, reserve six months in advance). The 190-site facility sits next to Julian Price Lake, where you can rent canoes . Under Canvas has a glamping resort on 182 acres of hardwood forest near the Gatlinburg entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Each fully furnished safari-style tent has a private bathroom, and the place features live music, campfires at night, and yoga in the morning, not to mention an on-site restaurant with seasonal dishes and craft beer.

2. Joshua Tree to Death Valley, California

Distance: 250 miles, duration: at least three days.

Joshua Tree entrance sign with wildflowers

This route will take you to an underappreciated gem.

Is it weird to spend several days in Southern California and not go to the beach? Well, this desert romp is packed with so much wild terrain you won’t miss the Pacific Ocean. Joshua Tree National Park is 800,000 acres of sandstone boulders, crusty desert floor, and stands of the eponymous trees, while 250 miles north, Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48, at 3.5 million acres. Inside are 14,000-foot peaks, expansive craters, dunes, and slot canyons.

Person hikes down a canyon in Death Valley National Park

Weather is a factor with this itinerary because both parks are in the desert and hot as hell in the middle of summer (temps can reach 120 degrees). So consider this a late-spring or early-fall trip. (If you ever go in summer, do all of your adventures at dawn, take a ton of water, and be back at your place or camp before lunch. Also tell someone exactly where you are going.)

The 250-mile drive is mostly two-lane highway that offers a mix of desolate beauty (you’ll drive between Leghorn Lakes Wilderness and Sheephole Valley Wilderness) and California weirdness (the World’s Largest Thermometer is on this route). Want more adventure? As you drive between these two standout parks, try a pitstop at Mojave National Preserve, which has the largest grove of Joshua Trees in the world, natural springs, and towering dunes.

You can fly into Las Vegas or Los Angeles. L.A. to Joshua Tree is about 150 miles and not terribly interesting, so let’s just go straight to the park.

Lost Horse Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

Adventures in Joshua Tree : J-Tree is a bucket-list rock-climbing destination, but the hiking is easily as good, and just being in the place is amazing. The 2.5-mile Split Rock Trail gives hikers a chance to see and scramble on some of the park’s signature boulders, including Split Rock, a 20-foot-tall formation with a fissure in the middle, and to explore a few small caves. If you want to see a lot of Joshua Trees (who doesn’t?), hike the Panorama Loop in Black Rock Canyon, a 6.5-mile lollipop that traverses one of the densest groves of Joshua Trees in the park, or sections of ridgeline trail, with long-range views of the 11,000-foot peaks inside the nearby Sand to Snow National Monument .

Panorama Loop, Joshua Tree

Adventures in Mojave National Preserve: Just 70 miles north of Joshua Tree, Mojave NP offers a convenient diversion on your way to Death Valley. Stretch your legs by hiking the three-mile out-and-back trail into Kelso Dunes , a 45-square-mile field with mounds of sand that rise 650 feet from the valley floor. The Kelso Dunes actually produce “booming,” which is a deep, rumbling vibration that you can hear and feel from the crest of one. Be aware that hiking in dunes is tough, as the sand shifts below your feet with every step.

Kelso Dunes Mojave National Preserve

Adventures in Death Valley : You hiked dunes in Mojave, so in Death Valley National Park, let’s focus on the canyons and peaks. Fall Canyon is a six-mile out and back through a slot canyon so narrow that at points you can touch both sides from the middle.

Fall Canyon

If it’s your first time to the park, you’re obligated to visit Badwater Salt Flats, the lowest and hottest point in the U.S. There’s no designated trail through the flats, so wander at will through the flat, crispy valley, flanked by the Panamint Mountains and Black Mountains.

Salt Flats in Death Valley National Park

Stay: The Inn at Death Valley is a historic lodge located inside the park, with five-star accommodations. Consider this an oasis in the desert, complete with a spring-fed swimming pool (from $359 a night). At Joshua Tree, try to reserve a spot at Indian Cove Campground , which has sites tucked between massive boulders. There are no hookups, but RVs are allowed ($25 a night). If you can’t score an advance reservation there, Hidden Valley Campground has first come/first serve sites ($15 a night). Also, Field Station is opening a new location outside of Joshua Tree in May, with campsites for van-lifers and private rooms, all of which have access to the property’s gear shop, coffee shop and communal spaces (rooms from $127 a night).

3. White Sands National Park, Carlsbad Caverns, and Guadalupe Mountains National Park

New mexico and texas, distance: 300 miles, duration: four to five days.

stagecoach station ruins at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Want variety? This trip has a trio of national parks that are close geographically, but a world apart in terms of terrain. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is all about the subterranean, protecting 119 caves, the biggest of which are open to exploration. Guadalupe Mountains National Park covers a swath of 8,000-foot peaks in West Texas, and those include eight of the 10 tallest in the entire state. White Sand Dunes National Park is home to a 275-square-mile gypsum dune field that rolls towards the horizon in a series of white tidal waves.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

All three parks are within a couple hundred miles of each other, and El Paso serves as an ideal starting point to fly into the area and rent a car. These parks don’t see the crowds that some of the big-ticket units draw in summer, so there’s a better chance for quiet and good campsites. The three also have totally different climates. White Sand Dunes is hot (but not like J-Tree or Death Valley), Carlsbad is underground, and Guadalupe is chilly.

Other than a brief period where you skirt around the edge of El Paso, you’re driving mostly two-lane highways with a real “middle of nowhere” vibe between the parks. Think sand and scrub brush for as far as the eye can see.

where to go on a road trip california

Adventures in White Sand Dunes: Alkali Flat Trail is a five-mile loop through the heart of the sand dunes, following red trail markers. You’re climbing and descending 60-foot dunes the entire time, so pace yourself and expect your legs to be worked at the end. Bring a sled (sold at the visitors’ center if you don’t have your own), as you’re allowed to slide down the steepest slopes along the route.

Adventures in Guadalupe Mountains National Park : The signature adventure is hiking the 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak , with a craggy, treeless summit, the tallest in the state of Texas. The views stretching east over the plains are endless, but to earn them you will climb 3,000 feet in just over four miles. Bring a jacket, as the summit is notoriously windy. But the real treat of Guadalupe Mountains is Devil’s Hall Trail , a four-mile out-and-back that’s rocky with mandatory scrambling to traverse a dry river wash. Towards the end, you’ll climb Hiker’s Staircase, an easy hand-over-hand natural rock ladder out of the wash and into a narrow slot canyon.

Natural entrance Carlsbad Caverns

Adventures in Carlsbad Caverns : Start with a self-guided tour of the Big Room, the largest single-cave chamber in the U.S., loaded with bizarre stalactites and stalagmites. An elevator could deliver you into the cave, but instead walk the switchbacks down via the Natural Entrance, and feel what it’s like to go from the surface into the cold, dark underground. The full hike down the Natural Entrance and into the Big Room is 2.5 miles and should take a few hours; without the walk in, the hike is 1.25 miles, with a .6-mile shortcut also possible, and parts of the Big Room are wheelchair accessible . If you want something spicier, sign up for a ranger-led tour of Lower Cave , which requires descending 60 feet of ladders and ropes to a series of smaller rooms with crazy rock features, like the skinny, tall “Texas Toothpick” or “cave pearls,” which look like clusters of eggs ($20, reservations required).

Sherwood Forest, Carlsbad Caverns

Where to Stay: Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns are close enough that one campground works as a base camp to explore both. Check out Pine Springs Campground in Guadalupe Mountains, which has 20 tent sites and 13 RV sites you can reserve in advance ($20 a night). A number of hiking trails (including Devil’s Hall) begin here. The closest campground to White Sands is in Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, which has private desert sites ($10 per night). The backcountry campsites in White Sands are closed indefinitely, but nearby Alamogordo has a variety of chain hotels.

4. Denali National Park to Kenai Fjords National Park

Distance: 400 miles, duration: five-plus days, but if you’re flying all the way to alaska, take your time.

Two people on bikes gaze at Denali

Alaska is an awe-inspiring collection of giant mountains, permanent ice fields, and jagged coast, and Denali and Kenai Fjords national parks encapsulate choice slices of that unique topography. Denali National Park covers more than 6 million acres of Alaska’s interior, including the 20,310-foot Denali, but also the tundra and spruce forest that surround it and attract big-time wildlife like caribou and brown bears. Kenai Fjords National Park couldn’t be more different; instead of forest and towering peaks, it’s home to 600,000 acres of glaciers, inlets, bays, and islands. More than half of the park is covered in snow and ice year round, and the majority is accessed by water. While much of Alaska isn’t conducive to road trips because of a lack of roads, these two parks are less than 400 miles apart and connected by highways.

Williwaw Lakes Trail, Chugach State Park, Anchorage, Alaska

The two-lane blacktop between the main destinations rolls out like a highlight reel of Alaska, offering views of Denali’s snow-capped peaks at one point and the Cook Inlet at another. Keep an eye out for Beluga whales, which live and breed in the inlet. Chugach State Park , with its 3,000-foot mountains, is also on the route.

A visitor can fly into Anchorage, halfway between the two parks. You’ll basically have to ditch the car at each destination, as car travel is limited in both parks. There are few roads in Kenai, and the main road through Denali is limited to shuttle traffic to minimize impact on the landscape. But that’s part of the charm here.

Denali National Park and Preserve

Adventures in Denali: Denali isn’t a “drive through” park. In fact, private vehicles aren’t allowed past mile 15 of the scenic Denali Park Road, though bikes get the green light. To ride in, start at the Savage River Visitor Center (mile 15) and bike to Sable Pass between miles 37 and 42, where the final 1,500-foot climb to the pass is rewarded by views that stretch all the way to Denali itself. But Sable Pass is best known for its wildlife. Mostly treeless and full of berry bushes, it attracts brown bears, caribou, and Dall sheep, which often graze in the tundra near the road. From the top of the pass, you can turn around and bike back, or, if you pre-arrange it, hop on the free Savage River Shuttle , which has bike racks. Bike Denali offers rentals (starting at $75 per day).

Or consider a guided rafting trip on the Nenana River, a glacier-fed stream that forms the eastern border of Denali. Book a mild or wild day trip with Denali Raft Adventures . The 11-mile canyon run is packed with class IV rapids with names like “Coffee Grinder,” and the full ride, for ages 12 and up, is a brisk two hours. A different short option, the two-hour-long Wilderness Run, is ideal for young families, as it contains mostly class I-II rapids and offers a good chance to see wildlife like moose and caribou. (From $130 a person, May through September).

Adventures in Kenai: Kenai is a coastal park with most of its goods accessed via boat, but land lovers have options, too. Hike on the edge of the Harding Ice Field , the largest permanent ice field in the U.S., stretching for 700 square miles and feeding Exit Glacier, which forms a half-mile-wide river of ice that melts into Exit Creek. Start at the Exit Glacier Nature Center and hike the 8.2-mile out-and-back Harding Icefield Trail , which climbs a total of 3,000 feet through the surrounding forest to gigantic views of the icefield. If you really want to throw yourself into the landscape, book an intro-to-ice climbing trip with Exit Glacier Guides , exploring crevasses and climbing pitches of vertical ice with use of rope, crampons, and axes ($249 per person).

Harding Glacier Trail Gaia

For a water-borne adventure, head to Bear Glacier Lagoon, 12 miles south of Seward, where a thin beach separates a glacier-fed lake from the Gulf of Alaska. The lake sits in a deep bowl rising to green ridges, and the water is littered with house-sized icebergs. Liquid Adventures offers fully outfitted day trips to the lagoon ($550 per person).

kayaking in Bear Lake Lagoon, Kenai Fjords National Park

Where to Stay : In Denali, book a spot at Savage River Campground , which has 32 sites tucked into a spruce forest ($49 a night). Located on mile 13 on the Denali Park Road, it’s easy to reach with a car (some campgrounds in Denali are only accessible by shuttle bus), but the real prize is access to Savage River and incredible views of Denali via a short gravel-road walk. Reservations are recommended, but not required. In Kenai, Exit Glacier Campground has 12 walk-in tent sites, first-come, first-served. They’re free, but fill up most nights during July and August. The Seward Adventure Lodge , in the middle of downtown Seward, is a seven-room mid-century-era motel with renovated rooms located just minutes from the edge of Kenai ($190 per night, two night minimum).

5. Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks

Distance: 160 miles, duration: three days.

Mesa Verde National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park gets most of the love in Colorado, and while it’s incredible, the Centennial State has other unforgettable national-park units. Mesa Verde National Park and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park are nestled into the southwest corner of the state, proximal enough to make for an ideal weekend road trip. Mesa Verde is a cultural treasure, containing more than 5,000 archaeological sites, including the early cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is altogether different, enveloping a nearly 2,500-foot-deep gorge surrounding the Gunnison River. It’s a deep, dark chasm with sheer vertical walls, rugged hiking and climbing, boating, and world-class trout fishing.

iconic mountain town of Telluride

You can fly into Durango to kick the trip off, and Telluride is smack dab in the middle of the route between parks if you want to throw in a visit to a classic mountain town. The Jud Weibe Trail , a locals’ favorite and handy but fantastic afternoon outing, offers views of the ski area and entire valley on varied and forested terrain.

The majority of this road trip cruises through San Juan National Forest on a highway with views of some of Colorado’s tallest and most iconic peaks, including the 14,158-foot Mount Sneffels and 14,023-foot Wilson Peak. You’ll pass right through Telluride, but you can also make a 22-mile roundtrip detour to Ouray to soak in the hot springs.

Mount Sneffels from Yankee Boy Basin, Colorado

Adventures in Mesa Verde: Get your bearings by driving the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road, which winds along past excavated mesa-top villages, with overlooks to see cliff dwellings, including the Cliff Palace, which archaeologists believe could house up to 100 people. There are 30 miles of hiking trails inside the park, so you can see a lot of the area in a day. If you’re limited on time, hike the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Point Trail , which will have you squeezing through boulder passages and traversing cliffside singletrack to a large petroglyph panel. To see the cliff dwellings up close, reserve a spot on a ranger-led Cliff Dwelling Tour ($8 per person, reservations possible 14 days in advance). The Balcony House Tour is the most adventurous: you ascend a cliff face into the 700-year-old dwelling via a series of ladders, then worm through a narrow tunnel that connects rooms.

Canyon Descent, Tomichi Route, Black Canyon National Pari

Adventures in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison : The BCOG is a tough canyon to navigate, as there are no bridges connecting the North Rim and South Rim, so it’s a circuitous two-hour drive between the two sides of the park. The South Rim is the more developed, with a dozen overlooks, a visitors’ center, and an 88-site campground. The North Rim is more primitive, with a gravel road providing access to a few developed trails and a handful of overlooks. Both sides are stunning, but I’m pointing you to the South Rim for its hiking and scrambling routes. If you want to stretch your legs and enjoy the view, stroll the two-mile Rim Rock Nature Trail for shots of the canyon and river below. But you’re here for the scramble to the bottom of the gorge via the unmarked Tomichi Route , which drops 1,960 feet in just one mile (the park allows use of the trail and offers a video about it). There’s a lot of down climbing and loose rock, but at the bottom you’ll have the Gunnison River all to yourself. Bring a fly rod; the Gunnison is a gold-medal trout stream. This is a full-day adventure, and you’ll need a permit (free) to descend into the canyon. Get one at the South Rim Visitor Center.

Gunnison River, Black Canyon

Where to Stay : Both parks have large campgrounds, if you want to keep it simple and budget friendly. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s South Rim Campground is convenient (only a mile from the visitors’ center), but don’t expect a ton of privacy ($20 a night, reservations recommended). The North Rim has a smaller campground , with 13 sites separated by piñon and juniper trees ($20 a night, first-come, first-served). Morefield Campground , in Mesa Verde, is large, with 267 sites within a broad, grassy canyon ($38 a night, reserve in advance).

If you want to spend a night in Telluride, check out The Bivvi , an upscale hostel with private or shared rooms that caters to road trippers (from $40 per night).

Graham Averill is Outside magazine’s national parks columnist. He’s currently trying to convince his 15-year-old twins to re-create the national parks road trip they undertook a decade ago. It’s not going well.

man in van Joshua Tree National Parl

For more by this writer:

The 9 Most Fun Adventure Lodges in North America
The 9 Best Gateway Towns to U.S. National Parks
The 8 Most Adventurous States in America. Number 1 Is …
11 Remote Destinations That Are Definitely Worth the Effort to Visit
  • Denali National Park and Preserve
  • Fly Fishing
  • Joshua Tree National Park

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Mechanic Insider

Mechanic Insider

15 Must-Visit U.S. Road Trips for Every Car Lover

Posted: May 6, 2024 | Last updated: May 6, 2024

<p><strong>Fuel your passion for cars with these epic road trips across the United States. Are you ready to hit the road and experience the thrill of these top destinations?</strong></p>

Fuel your passion for cars with these epic road trips across the United States. Are you ready to hit the road and experience the thrill of these top destinations?

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Doug Meek</p>  <p><span>Cruise along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway for stunning ocean views, winding roads, and picturesque coastal towns. Start your journey in Los Angeles and make your way up to San Francisco, taking in breathtaking scenery along the way.</span></p>

1. Pacific Coast Highway, California

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Doug Meek

Cruise along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway for stunning ocean views, winding roads, and picturesque coastal towns. Start your journey in Los Angeles and make your way up to San Francisco, taking in breathtaking scenery along the way.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Zack Frank</p>  <p><span>Experience the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains on this scenic drive through North Carolina and Virginia. With miles of twisting roads and panoramic vistas, it’s the perfect route for car enthusiasts who love a good mountain drive.</span></p>

2. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Zack Frank

Experience the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains on this scenic drive through North Carolina and Virginia. With miles of twisting roads and panoramic vistas, it’s the perfect route for car enthusiasts who love a good mountain drive.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Nyokki</p>  <p><span>Take a trip down memory lane on historic Route 66, the legendary highway that stretches from Illinois to California. Along the way, you’ll pass through charming small towns, quirky roadside attractions, and iconic landmarks that capture the spirit of Americana.</span></p>

3. Route 66, Illinois to California

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Nyokki

Take a trip down memory lane on historic Route 66, the legendary highway that stretches from Illinois to California. Along the way, you’ll pass through charming small towns, quirky roadside attractions, and iconic landmarks that capture the spirit of Americana.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mihai_Andritoiu</p>  <p><span>Venture into the heart of Glacier National Park on Going-to-the-Sun Road, a scenic drive that winds through towering mountains and alpine meadows. With hairpin turns and awe-inspiring vistas, it’s a must-visit destination for any car lover seeking adventure.</span></p>

4. Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mihai_Andritoiu

Venture into the heart of Glacier National Park on Going-to-the-Sun Road, a scenic drive that winds through towering mountains and alpine meadows. With hairpin turns and awe-inspiring vistas, it’s a must-visit destination for any car lover seeking adventure.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mia2you</p>  <p><span>Hop on the Overseas Highway and journey through the Florida Keys, where turquoise waters and swaying palm trees create a tropical paradise. With miles of bridges and causeways connecting the islands, it’s a road trip like no other.</span></p>

5. Overseas Highway, Florida

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mia2you

Hop on the Overseas Highway and journey through the Florida Keys, where turquoise waters and swaying palm trees create a tropical paradise. With miles of bridges and causeways connecting the islands, it’s a road trip like no other.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Eddie J. Rodriquez</p>  <p><span>Follow the mighty Mississippi River on the Great River Road, a scenic route that stretches from Minnesota to Louisiana. Along the way, you’ll encounter charming river towns, historic landmarks, and breathtaking views of America’s heartland.</span></p>

6. Great River Road, Mississippi River

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Eddie J. Rodriquez

Follow the mighty Mississippi River on the Great River Road, a scenic route that stretches from Minnesota to Louisiana. Along the way, you’ll encounter charming river towns, historic landmarks, and breathtaking views of America’s heartland.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Kris Wiktor</p>  <p><span>Buckle up for a thrilling ride on the Million Dollar Highway, a scenic byway that traverses the rugged terrain of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. With steep cliffs, hairpin turns, and jaw-dropping vistas, it’s a road trip that will leave you breathless.</span></p>

7. Million Dollar Highway, Colorado

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Kris Wiktor

Buckle up for a thrilling ride on the Million Dollar Highway, a scenic byway that traverses the rugged terrain of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. With steep cliffs, hairpin turns, and jaw-dropping vistas, it’s a road trip that will leave you breathless.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Bob Pool</p>  <p><span>Embark on a journey along Highway 101 and explore the stunning coastline of Oregon. From rugged cliffs to sandy beaches, this scenic drive offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration.</span></p>

8. Highway 101, Oregon

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Bob Pool

Embark on a journey along Highway 101 and explore the stunning coastline of Oregon. From rugged cliffs to sandy beaches, this scenic drive offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Collins Unlimited</p>  <p><span>Discover the beauty of coastal Maine on Route 1, a scenic highway that winds through charming fishing villages, historic lighthouses, and picturesque harbors. With fresh seafood and breathtaking views, it’s the perfect road trip for any car lover.</span></p>

9. Route 1, Maine

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Collins Unlimited

Discover the beauty of coastal Maine on Route 1, a scenic highway that winds through charming fishing villages, historic lighthouses, and picturesque harbors. With fresh seafood and breathtaking views, it’s the perfect road trip for any car lover.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / benemale</p>  <p><span>Experience the wonders of southern Utah on Route 12, a scenic highway that passes through some of the state’s most iconic national parks and monuments. From red rock canyons to towering mesas, it’s a road trip that showcases the natural beauty of the American West.</span></p>

10. Route 12, Utah

Image Credit: Shutterstock / benemale

Experience the wonders of southern Utah on Route 12, a scenic highway that passes through some of the state’s most iconic national parks and monuments. From red rock canyons to towering mesas, it’s a road trip that showcases the natural beauty of the American West.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Melinda Fawver</p>  <p><span>Test your driving skills on the Tail of the Dragon, an exhilarating stretch of road with 318 curves in just 11 miles. Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, it’s a favorite destination for car enthusiasts looking for an adrenaline-pumping ride.</span></p>

11. Tail of the Dragon, North Carolina and Tennessee

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Melinda Fawver

Test your driving skills on the Tail of the Dragon, an exhilarating stretch of road with 318 curves in just 11 miles. Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, it’s a favorite destination for car enthusiasts looking for an adrenaline-pumping ride.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Sam Spicer</p>  <p><span>Experience the thrill of high-altitude driving on the Beartooth Highway, a scenic route that climbs over the Beartooth Pass in Montana and Wyoming. With sweeping views of snow-capped peaks and alpine lakes, it’s a road trip that will take your breath away.</span></p>

12. Beartooth Highway, Montana and Wyoming

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Sam Spicer

Experience the thrill of high-altitude driving on the Beartooth Highway, a scenic route that climbs over the Beartooth Pass in Montana and Wyoming. With sweeping views of snow-capped peaks and alpine lakes, it’s a road trip that will take your breath away.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / Dirk Daniel Mann</p>  <p><span>Known as the “Tail of the Dragon’s Little Brother,” Route 129 offers a challenging drive with 318 curves in just 11 miles. Located on the border of Georgia and North Carolina, it’s a popular destination for motorcyclists and car enthusiasts alike.</span></p>

13. Route 129, Georgia and North Carolina

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Dirk Daniel Mann

Known as the “Tail of the Dragon’s Little Brother,” Route 129 offers a challenging drive with 318 curves in just 11 miles. Located on the border of Georgia and North Carolina, it’s a popular destination for motorcyclists and car enthusiasts alike.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / fandangle</p>  <p><span>Explore the diverse landscapes of Oregon on Route 20, a scenic highway that stretches from the Pacific Coast to the Idaho border. From lush forests to high desert plains, this road trip offers something for every nature-loving car enthusiast.</span></p>

14. Route 20, Oregon

Image Credit: Shutterstock / fandangle

Explore the diverse landscapes of Oregon on Route 20, a scenic highway that stretches from the Pacific Coast to the Idaho border. From lush forests to high desert plains, this road trip offers something for every nature-loving car enthusiast.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / maloff</p>  <p><span>Experience the beauty of Vermont on Route 9, a scenic highway that winds through the Green Mountains and picturesque countryside. With charming small towns, covered bridges, and rolling hillsides, it’s the perfect road trip for those who love classic New England scenery.</span></p>

15. Route 9, Vermont

Image Credit: Shutterstock / maloff

Experience the beauty of Vermont on Route 9, a scenic highway that winds through the Green Mountains and picturesque countryside. With charming small towns, covered bridges, and rolling hillsides, it’s the perfect road trip for those who love classic New England scenery.

<p class="wp-caption-text">Image Credit: Shutterstock / PV productions</p>  <p><span>Ready to embark on your next adventure? These top U.S. road trips offer unforgettable experiences for car lovers of all ages. So grab your keys, buckle up, and get ready to hit the open road in search of adventure and excitement. With so many epic destinations to explore, the journey is just beginning!</span></p> <p><span>The post – <a href="">15 Must-Visit U.S. Road Trips for Every Car Lover</a> – first appeared on </span><a href=""><span>Mechanic Insider</span></a><span>.</span></p> <p><span>Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Soloviova Liudmyla.</span></p> <p><span>For transparency, this content was partly developed with AI assistance and carefully curated by an experienced editor to be informative and ensure accuracy.</span></p>

Hit the Road and Fuel Your Passion

Image Credit: Shutterstock / PV productions

Ready to embark on your next adventure? These top U.S. road trips offer unforgettable experiences for car lovers of all ages. So grab your keys, buckle up, and get ready to hit the open road in search of adventure and excitement. With so many epic destinations to explore, the journey is just beginning!

The post – 15 Must-Visit U.S. Road Trips for Every Car Lover – first appeared on Mechanic Insider .

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Soloviova Liudmyla.

For transparency, this content was partly developed with AI assistance and carefully curated by an experienced editor to be informative and ensure accuracy.

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10 of the Best U.S. Road Trips for Families

Create memories with your kids on these short but sweet journeys that feature stunning scenery and unique landmarks.

Elizabeth Rhodes is a special projects editor at Travel + Leisure , covering everything from luxury hotels to theme parks to must-pack travel products. Originally from South Carolina, Elizabeth moved to New York City from London, where she started her career as a travel blogger and writer.

where to go on a road trip california

A road trip is a classic American vacation, but it takes planning to make it great — especially when little ones are involved. To help you plan your family's next journey, we've rounded up some of the best road trips around the United States for families with kids, from quick, single-day jaunts to journeys that can take more than a week. With stops the whole crew will enjoy, these drives are sure to create memories that will last a lifetime.

Charleston, South Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia

Explore two popular southern cities on one trip with this short-distance getaway. The drive from Charleston straight to Savannah takes just under two hours, but we'd recommend taking a few days for this itinerary so you can stop to enjoy the outstanding hotels and beaches along the way. You can stay at The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island an hour south of Charleston, or fill up the tank for a beach day at Hilton Head , only an hour farther. Once you've passed through Savannah, drive one more hour south for a stay at The Cloister at Sea Island . This five-star resort is another good option for families, with plenty of swimming, fishing, and nature walks.

San Diego to Los Angeles, California

At right around two hours, this drive is easy for parents and just long enough to be exciting for the kids. San Diego, Los Angeles, and the stretches of coast in between them are packed with beaches and attractions the family will love, like the San Diego Zoo, Legoland California, and Disneyland , about a 30-minute from downtown L.A. in Anaheim.

New York City or Boston to Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Whether you choose to stay in a shingled cottage or beachfront apartment, your kids will fall hard for the Cape . Wellfleet is a particularly great destination for families, reachable in two hours from Boston or five hours from New York City. You'll want to stop in other charming towns along the way, like Falmouth and Chatham, before settling in the sands of the Outer Cape. Once you're there, no trip is complete without a visit to Mac's on the Pier , where you can gaze out at the harbor and feast on whole belly clams. Exploring one of the Cape's kettle ponds, which families often have all to themselves, is also a must, as is checking out the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary , home to five miles of trails and salt marshes.

Pacific Coast Highway, California

Beginning in Orange County's Dana Point and reaching north to San Francisco, this popular drive can be completed in under eight hours. But why keep it short? With many major stops — from sprawling Los Angeles to Carmel-by-the-Sea — you could make this road trip last for days. Driving northward, head to the top of the Topanga Lookout in Malibu for incredible views of the San Fernando Valley. Then, a few hours north in Santa Ynez wine country, relax with a glass of vino as you plot your visit to Hearst Castle, where the kids can marvel at the mansion's many fountains and statues.

New York City to Philadelphia to the Poconos

At Woodloch Resort in the Pocono Mountains, you'll feel like you're back at summer camp — in a good way. On and off the property, there's plenty to do, including golf, paintball, fishing, and more. A variety of accommodation options are available, too, perfect for families of any size. Whether or not you're headed to the Woodloch, though, the Poconos are an easy getaway for East Coasters. New York City is about a two-hour drive and Philadelphia is about three hours; the two cities can easily be combined with a Poconos visit for a fun multiday adventure.

Boston, Massachusetts, to Stowe, Vermont

Stowe, Vermont, is a great destination in all seasons for families road tripping within New England. Just three hours from Boston, the town offers some of the East Coast's best skiing in wintertime and an abundance of outdoor adventure in summer. On your warm-weather visit, cool off with the kids at the Waterbury Reservoir in Waterbury Center State Park , or enjoy the fresh mountain air with a hiking or biking excursion.

There are few roads as iconic as Route 66 , so why not take your kids on this classic American trip? Whether you embark on the full journey from Chicago to Los Angeles or opt for a smaller portion of the road, you're bound have a memorable time. Little ones will love the route's kitschy roadside attractions (world's biggest ketchup bottle, anyone?), while adults will be wowed by the scenery, from the wide-open spaces of west Texas to the mountains of Santa Fe .

Tucson to the Grand Canyon, Arizona

Lauren Breedlove/Travel + Leisure

Take in some of the country's best views on a multiday road trip through Arizona . Start in Tucson and visit Saguaro National Park to see the namesake cacti before heading to Scottsdale. Next up, drive to the stunning, red rock-surrounded town of Sedona. Finally, continue north to Grand Canyon National Park for a couple of days in the great outdoors, reveling in this massive natural wonder.

Rocky Mountain Loop from Denver

If you'd like to swap red rocks for snowy mountaintops, set off on a Colorado road trip through some of the state's incredible national parks and charming small towns. From Denver, head northwest to Boulder and Estes Park, a perfect home base for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park . Drive farther into the mountains to check out towns like Glenwood Springs, Telluride, and Durango, all located in the western part of the state. Spend a day at Mesa Verde National Park , home to ancient Native cave dwellings that will fascinate kids and grown-ups alike before turning back east. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Colorado Springs are great stops en route back to Denver.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Beautiful year-round but especially colorful in spring and fall, the Blue Ridge Parkway makes for an excellent family road trip. Connecting Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park , the Blue Ridge Parkway offers scenic mountain and foliage views across the Appalachian landscapes of Virginia and North Carolina. Plus, there are plenty of great hikes for all skill levels and places to camp along the parkway if you want to spend a few nights under the stars.

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