13 California Road Trips You Should Try to Take at Least Once
The Golden State has it all, from snow-covered mountains to majestic forests to metropolises and miles and miles of ocean views—and there's no better way to see it than on a California road trip.
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Dreaming of a California road trip? Of course, you are because who wouldn’t want to hit the open road to explore unbeatable beaches, matchless mountains, divine deserts, national parks, bustling big cities, quaint seaside villages, lush lakes, historic sites, artist colonies, and wonderful wine countries? A number of iconic drives start or end there, including historic Route 66.
“The sheer variety of experiences in California, along with our state’s diverse natural beauty, makes it the ideal destination for road trips,” Caroline Beteta, Visit California president and CEO, says. “From iconic coastal drives to adventures that lead off the beaten path, there’s something for everyone to discover.” To wit: The state’s one of the only places in the world where you can spend time at the beach, in the mountains, and in the desert in the span of a few hours. It’s got road trips perfect for surfers, hikers, bikers, day drinkers, eaters, museum lovers, kayakers, history hounds, birders, beach bums, landscape photographers, and even banana enthusiasts. So what are you waiting for? Peruse the following guide to the best 13 California road trips, brush up on how to budget for a road trip, double-check your road trip essentials checklist, and give the green light to an asphalt adventure.
Highway 1 AKA The Pacific Coast Highway
Route distance: Roughly 650 miles
Suggested length of time: 2 weeks
This is hands-down the most iconic California road trip and potentially the nation’s most epic. It goes (almost) from one end of the state to the other starting in Leggett and finishing in Capistrano Beach in Orange County. (It can be driven in either direction, but going north to south is preferred as the car will always be on the water’s edge.) There’s something new to see at with every turn including Hearst Castle, wildlife, Morro Rock and Pebble Beach’s 17-Mile Drive, stunning sunsets, ethereal foggy mornings, dramatic sea cliffs, Monarch butterfly groves, quirky enclaves such as Big Sur and Mendocino, lighthouses, piers, college towns like San Luis Obispo, big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the Queen Mary (on which you can spend the night). There’s also plenty to eat and drink: buttery clam chowders, Santa Maria-style BBQ, Tomales Bay oysters, craft breweries, hot sourdough, avocados and olive oil, cheese, wine, and Santa Barbara spot prawns and uni. Accommodations range from campgrounds to lux lodging like The Ritz-Carlton, Bacara. There’s so much to see—driving without stopping even takes just shy of a day—that if you have anything shorter than a week (or two), break up the drive into smaller more digestible sections. You don’t want to miss a thing when it comes to your California coastal road trip so continue reading for shorter, more manageable road trip ideas along the Highway 1 route. These unique sights are must-sees on any Highway 1 coastal road trip.
Highway 1 Discovery Route & Big Sur
Frederick Thelen/Getty Images
Route distance: 250 miles
Suggested length of time: 2-3 days
If you don’t have enough time to drive all of Highway 1, pick a section of it for your road trip or a weekend getaway. Not all parts of the PCH were created equal and San Luis Obispo County and Big Sur would argue that their sections pack the most road trip punch, partially because more than half the rocky coastline is protected here which means the majority of the scenery isn’t obstructed by developments. We’d suggest spending a day in SLO city first, making stops in Bubblegum Alley, the Mission, and one of the hot springs day spas. Sleep in the one-of-a-kind Madonna Inn, one of the more unusual hotels you’ll ever see. As you drive the serpentine route, take your time to admire Mother Nature’s handiwork in the crashing waves, sprawling kelp forests, sculptural cypress trees, pristine miniature coves, ephemeral cascades, lush peaks, coastal forests with babbling brooks and vibrant yellow banana slugs, and snorting behemoth elephant seals alternating between fighting and loving in San Simeon (which is also home to man-made eye candy, Hearst Castle), and otters floating in Morro Bay harbor with Morro Rock (The “Gibraltar of the Pacific” formed 23 million years ago from an extinct volcano plug.) as their impressive background. Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, a 3,500-acre peel-out playground, encourages you to stay behind the wheel a little longer while charming towns like Cayucos and Cambria entice you to hit the brakes with shopping, small-batch cheeses at creamery tours, pier strolls, olallieberry pies, avocado farm tours where you’re free to take fallen fruit, seaweed foraging classes, and soft brown butter cookies.
Highway 1: Monterey to San Francisco
Route distance: 122 miles
Suggested length of time: 2-3 days
Another section of Highway 1 that we recommend breaking out is this bay-to-bay snippet that is one of the best weekend getaways or daytrips in California. Get lit in Steinbeck country first. Monterey has Cannery Row, which features historic buildings mentioned in his novel of the same name. Salinas has the National Steinbeck Center and his boyhood home, a stately Victorian that is now a restaurant. If you prefer fish to fiction, there’s the gold-standard Monterey Bay Aquarium and kayaking around Elkhorn Slough Estuary where otters play mere feet from your raft. Swing through Capitola to shop the charming downtown’s independently owned boutiques like Ethos which specializes in low-waste living products and grab a slice at local institution Pizza My Heart before bunking down at the surf-chic Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, home to the famous Beach Boardwalk seen in both The Lost Boys and Us. Feast on flaky pastries at The Buttery. Plan for a picnic and heavy petting at the Harley Farms Goat Dairy. Half Moon Bay is known for its prize pumpkin festival and bustling main street with stores like home goods haven Jupiter and Main and farm-to-table eateries housed in buildings from the 1800s. Sleep in “oceanic opulence” after roasting gourmet s’mores in your patio’s personal fire at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2021. Between HMB and San Francisco, stretch your legs on the Devil’s Slide Trail. Formerly a landslide-prone part of Highway 1, it’s now a craggy cliffside car-free path hovering above the Pacific. End your coastal road trip in The Presidio in San Francisco, a former military compound turned national park with hiking, biking, a beach, the Walt Disney Family Museum, several Andy Goldsworthy statues, and elegant rooms overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. If you have PTO to spare, add extra days to do and see more like sipping Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons at one of the 70 wineries in Santa Cruz’s Mountains AVA or popping over the ridges to tour the wacky Winchester Mystery House in San Jose or the Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley (naturally!).
Highway 1: Marin to Mendocino
Route distance: 163 miles one way
Suggested length of time: 5 days
This itinerary is yet another California coast road trip and another section of Highway 1, but it is also worth doing at least once in your life as it showcases a different type of seaside California scenery. It’s generally greener, wetter, cooler, more rugged, and the good kind of moody when the fog rolls in and sits low on the mountainsides keeping grazing cows company. You won’t regret seeking out hotels or home rentals with hot tubs or fireplaces. Marin County, home of moneyed hippies, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods National Monument, and Cowgirl Creamery, is just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and is a great starting point. Sausalito has lots of art galleries and a throwback houseboat community. The eastern shore of Tomales Bay is a series of small towns, B&Bs, and shellfish farms. You simply can’t pass through the area and not shuck their signature oysters. If you’re bananas for bivalves, stay overnight at the pearl of a property, Nick’s Cove. Continue through Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed much of The Birds, and Jenner, which is a good place to kayak as the Russian River meets the Pacific here. Timber Cove Resort is another good choice for overnighting with in-room record players, pour-over coffee setups, and ping pong. There are tons of places to pull over to enjoy the ocean views or take a hike like Salt Point State Park, Horseshoe Cove, Stewarts Point State Marine Conservation Area, Green Cove seal rookery, Gualala, and Bowling Ball Beach, and Point Arena Light House. Elk is like a Big Sur mini-me with its art galleries, rugged beaches, quirky locals, and fine dining including decadent breakfasts at Queenies Roadhouse Café and the to-go bites found at the Elk Store. Another good detour, especially for cheese and beer lovers, is Boonville, 30 miles inland on Highway 128. As you drive into bluff-top Mendocino, you’ll get the postcard view of old Victorian buildings perched atop the windswept bluffs. On your Mendocino and Fort Bragg checklist: candy cap mushroom ice cream, Glass Beach, finding the Murder She Wrote house, riding the Skunk Train to Willits, hiking in myriad state parks, and trying to spot sea creatures and birds while canoeing up the river. You can’t go wrong with most of the places to stay in town, but we also highly recommend The Stanford Inn if you are plant-based and Brewery Gulch Inn for its included afternoon appetizer hour and knockout breakfasts.
Highway 1: Malibu to San Diego
Route distance: 157 miles
Suggested length of time: Four days
One of the best things about taking Southern California road trips is that the year-round Mediterranean climate is a silent welcome copilot and what better way to make hay in the sunshine than a whirlwind tour of Southern California’s beaches—this route is a favorite foodie road trip. There are plenty to choose from. Many are where urban centers meet the ocean like Santa Monica, Carlsbad, Laguna Beach, and Long Beach. Some like Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve offer more natural panoramas, more wildlife, and slightly more solitude as you stroll the long stretches of sand. You can also take in all the California scenery from the air if you dare as it’s one of the best paragliding spots in the United States. Many offer superior surf breaks like The Wedge in Newport Beach, Cardiff Reef in Encinitas, and Blacks Beach near La Jolla, the latter of which is only for experienced boarders and grownups as it’s quite dangerous and is the region’s biggest nude beach. Huntington Beach is the Surf City of Beach Boys lore and is home to pro contests, the International Surfing Museum, a 1,850-foot historic pier, and the world’s largest surfboard. Go for nature walks in coastal preserves like Bolsa Chica. Kayak around the brackish Agua Hedionda Lagoon through Carlsbad’s California Watersports or La Jolla’s sea caves and shark community with Everyday California rentals. In the winter months, you might even get up close and personal with migrating gray whales. Most of the beaches are on or just off Highway 1. Once you reach San Diego, the Craft Beer Capital of America, belly up to the bar at any of the 160 breweries like Modern Times, Thorn Brewing, or Stone. Stay at least one night in Malibu at The Surfrider, a 1953 gem recently saved by a genius redesign heavy on natural fibers and light wood, and align your roof deck dinner reservation with sunset. The hotel can help arrange wine outings, beach days, and visits to The Getty Villa.
Rim of the World Scenic Byway
Focqus, LLC/Getty Images
Route distance: 132 miles
Suggested length of time: Three days
Offering four seasons of fun is this Southern California road trip idea that takes you winding through the San Bernardino Mountains from Cajon Pass to San Gorgonio Pass to see two popular lake destinations, Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, along highways 138, 18, and 38. Winter, the high season, offers skiing, snowboarding, and tubing at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit resorts. (Don’t forget tire chains. Here’s what to do in scary driving situations you might encounter in this road trip destination including a deer prancing onto the road or icy conditions.) Spring and summer are perfect for fishing, swimming, horseback riding, hiking (Heart Rock Trail deposits hikers at the top of 20-foot Seeley Creek Falls near Crestline), and mountain biking. Witness the color change and Oktoberfest in Autumn. Another great way to leaf peep is aboard a perimeter tour on the vintage paddleboat, the Lake Arrowhead Queen. This is a good option for families as the villages on the lakes have bowling, go-karts, ropes courses, escape rooms, and Big Bear has one of the few alpine zoos in the United States. Bunk down in one of the many cabins that line the shorelines or at Noon Lodge, the units of which have Wes Anderson vibes and kitchenettes. Once you’ve had your fill of this woodsy wonderland, drive down the mountain via Oak Glen Road. Come fall, the foothills, dotted with apple orchards like Willowbrook and Rileys, are alive with the sound of u-pick parties and harvest festivals. Be sure to indulge in Snow-Line Orchard’s cider donuts and fresh-pressed apple cider. This loop is designed to begin and end in San Bernardino, which is under 100 miles from major airports in Los Angeles and Orange County. A fun detour on the way is a replica of the first In-N-Out Burger, which became California’s first drive-thru hamburger stand in 1948.
Route distance: 613 miles
Suggested length of time: Four or six days
Of all the awesome California road trips, navigating the state’s eastern spine and an option for a border-to-border road trip is probably the most underrated despite being the gateway to a host of state superlatives, including Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain; Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America; hottest temperature recorded on Earth in Death Valley National Park—pick up your National Park Pass first; Mammoth Lakes, a spectacular ski town; Bodie, one of the most well-preserved ghost towns, and Manzanar National Historic Site, a WWII Japanese internment camp. Other highlights include Manzanar National Historic Site, the Joshua tree of U2 album cover fame, unique geology and habitats (the gnarled limestone tufas of Mono Lake, basalt columns at Devil’s Postpile, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest), and the Alabama Hills, a popular filming location seen in The Lone Ranger, Django Unchained, and hundreds of other projects. Movie buffs should pitstop in Lone Pine to learn more at the Museum of Western Film History. The desolation and lack of popularity work in the favor of anyone who decides to embark on this rewarding quest. There’s minimal traffic on the highway or hiking trails. it will be easier to score a primo room near the spring-fed pool at the Inn at Death Valley or with a view of the lake at the Tamarack Lodge in Mammoth. Also easier to get a table at what might be the world’s best bowling alley restaurant, the French-leaning brasserie at Mammoth Rock ‘N’ Bowl. Easily added to a Lake Tahoe visit or can be accessed from LA fairly easily as well. Also important to note that some parts of this California road trip are affected by seasonal snow closures.
Napa Valley & Sonoma County Loop
Route distance: 110 miles
Suggested length of time: Three days
We know you’ll have a grape time cruising through California’s premiere wine countries. This road trip loops through both the Napa Valley and Sonoma County, together home to almost 1000 wineries, many of which have gotten creative with the tasting room experience in order to best deliver consummate Cabs and other perfect pours from the barrel to your amused bouche. HALL has a museum-level art collection on display. Round Pond has a variety of food pairings on a serene terrace warmed by a fireplace. Jordan offers picnic-vineyard hike combos, with some of the food being grown in their on-site chef’s garden. Some even offer aerial trams, helicopter rides, and yoga classes in the vines. While drinking is the region’s preferred pastime, it is far from the only reason to visit. Beyond the bucolic splendor of rolling hills, blooming mustard, and lazy rivers worth tubing down, there’s the rejuvenating mud baths in Calistoga, splendid shopping on Main Street in St. Helena, the walkability of Healdsburg’s town center, lavish hotels like Carneros Resort and Spa, h2hotel, and the brand new Montage Healdsburg, and plenty of places to have the best meal of your life every four hours like Single Thread, French Laundry, Valette, Bistro Jeanty, and Oenotri. Depending on traffic, the described Northern California road trip loop is about an hour and a half (62 miles) from San Francisco International Airport.
National Park Trio
Route distance: Approximately 500 miles
Suggested length of time: A week
The Golden State is lousy with national parks, three of which are in fairly close proximity of each other—Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia—although not directly connected so the drive is quite circuitous and requires doubling back through the Central Valley and Fresno. (Bright side? It doubles the times you can eat in the Mexican food mecca.) All offer a never-ending supply of photogenic panoramas, snow-capped mountains, alpine adventures, fresh air, ice capades in winter, infinite tranquility, and possible bear sightings. The Yosemite Valley is known for its waterfalls (including one that looks like a fire fall at sunset in February) and contributions to the field of rock climbing like Half Dome, but also features flowering meadows, churning rivers, and a grand vintage lodge. Kings Canyon and Sequoia butt up to each other and are usually presented as a package deal connected by the Generals Highway. They contain General Grant, the second largest Sequoia in the world, and General Sherman, the world’s largest living tree and largest living organism (by volume) on the planet, respectively. The Majestic Mountain Loop is a newly organized three-day motoring itinerary that hits the major highlights of all three. If fit enough, hike 11.5 miles to rough it in the Bearpaw High Sierra tent camp. Elevate your weekend getaway in California.
Top Of The State Trek
Route distance: 550 miles
Suggested length of time: Five days
Drive back in geologic time with the most northern of the best California road trip destinations. (In fact, it’s so remote and northern that you have to cross the border into Oregon for a section of it.) Start in Redding with a walk across Santiago Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge, a cantilevered marvel made of glass, steel, and cables. Spend time in dense forests (Six Rivers, Klamath, Shasta-Trinity) full of ancient trees, salmon runs, and roadside swimming holes. Lake Shasta, a popular choice for houseboat vacations, features a natural wonder, limestone caves, and a manmade wonder, the Shasta Dam. The jagged peaks of Lassen Volcanic National Park are a clue to its eruptive past as are the steaming fumaroles, mud pots, and Butte Lake-adjacent cinder cones. There’s snow in winter, wildflowers in spring, and fishing and other lake activities in summer and fall. Continue your explosive expedition at Lava Beds National Monument where you can wind through a labyrinth of 800-plus caves and tunnels once used as hideouts for the Modoc Nation during a war with the U.S. Army. You’ll need a flashlight. Learn more about Modoc art, the history of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, and bats in this beautiful outdoor classroom. Add a few extra days to drive west to the coast to wander driftwood-littered beaches, redwood groves, and old-timey logging towns like Eureka, Ferndale, Fortuna, Arcata, and Trinidad. It can be cost-prohibitive to fly into a smaller regional airport like the one in Redding. To save money, factor in the added drive time (two hours and some change) from Sacramento International Airport. Learn the best cars to rent for a road trip.
San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park
Route distance: 225 miles
Suggested length of time: Weekend to five days
As biomes go, deserts get a generally bad rap, but taking a spin from the sandy shores of San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park is anything but dry. This Southern California road trip is spiritual, stylish, and outdoorsy. The first stop as you head east over the San Jacinto Range is Julian, a nostalgic town with u-pick apple orchards and the famous Julian Pie Company where you can likely guess the specialty. Press on through vista-filled mountain passes to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park. Every spring it’s one of the most reliable spots to peep a super bloom. It has great hiking with chances to see 2,000-year-old petroglyphs and pictographs or bighorn sheep. Nearby Galleta Meadows contains 130 mammoth steel sculptures by Ricardo Breceda. Borrego Springs, an artist colony, is a good place to stop for lunch and gallery hopping. The Salton Sea’s got excellent birding as it sits in the Pacific Flyway and a kooky banana museum. Palm Springs reveres its mid-century modern architecture (take a tour with Kurt Cyr at Mod Squad) and Rat Pack roots (eat a steak at Melvyn’s; hit a tiki bar like Bootlegger Tiki) but embraces the edginess and flair of Coachella, Desert X, and a large LGBTQ community (drag shows are another post-sunset activity). Spend a day opting outside at JTNP, slightly larger than Rhode Island and full of strange Seussian trees, and don’t leave before the stars come out as it’s a certified dark skies park. Enjoy live music and chili at Pappy and Harriet’s after wandering around the old western movie studio, Pioneertown, next door. The region is littered with boho Airbnbs, massive resorts with water parks on site like the Omni Rancho Las Palmas who added Splashtopia last year, and design-forward hotels, including Kimpton’s Rowan and Parker).
Santa Barbara & The Santa Ynez Valley Sojourn
Damien VERRIER/Getty Images
Route distance: 110 miles
Suggested length of time: Three to four days
Wine down with a weekend getaway to Santa Barbara and Sideways country, Southern California’s best entry in the winemaking game and a day drinker’s paradise thanks to roughly 300 producers including Jonata, Bien Nacido, Foxen, and Au Bon Climat bottling prized Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs in six AVAs. Start on the American Riviera, so nicknamed for its copycat geography (it’s situated between the sparkling sea and near-vertical mountains.), Mediterranean weather, and appreciation of the finer things in life including seasonal food and fresh seafood, libations, and the arts. Shop State Street, bike along the wharf and beachfront promenade, sip along the SB Urban Wine Trail, eat and hang in the Funk Zone, and then relax in a giant soaking tub at Belmond El Encanto. Once recharged, drive up the 101 along the coast with the windows down ’til you hit Buellton, one of the six small towns that make up the Santa Ynez Valley. Get there by lunchtime to smash house-butchered charcuterie at Industrial Eats before spending the afternoon seeking retail therapy and hitting some tasting rooms in Los Olivos. Pick up Danish desserts and take selfies with windmills in the Scandinavian village of Solvang, one of the most European-esque towns in America. Other attractions include lavender farms, Ostrich Land, and horseback riding with Vino Vaqueros. The sheer number of cool accommodations—The Winston, Vinland Hotel, Skyview Los Alamos, and a decked-out Airstream at Flying Flags RV Resort—and tasty restaurants— Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, First & Oak, and Mad & Vin—will make you want to extend your trip. Speaking of extensions, add Ojai, an agriculture- and art-powered foothills community turned hipster haven, and Ventura, a family-friendly beach town with a taco trail and Channel Islands tours, to the itinerary if you have a couple of extra days.
Sacramento to Lake Tahoe
Route distance:185 miles
Suggested length of time: A weekend
Start by spending a day in California’s capital—touring the Capitol, chugging through North America’s best railroad museum, or strolling along the Old Sacramento Waterfront where restored Gold Rush-era buildings now house restaurants, comedy clubs, museums, and novelty shops. As it sits at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, the city also offers chances to get in and on the water, a thankful relief when the blistering summer heat reaches its zenith. Jump on the 80 and head deep into the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains. Foothills towns like Auburn, Truckee, and Columa, an 18-mile detour that deposits you to the site of the 1848 precious metal discovery that set off a mass migration and changed the course of the state, are steeped in mining and panning history. Shortly, the azure lake, stunning in its size and clarity (the elevation and depth prevent algae growth), will spread out before you. Your time by the lake can be a mix of history (Donner Party Memorial, the 1930s summer mansion Vikingsholm, the site where they filmed Bonanza), scenery (boulder beaches, granite rock faces, big pines, pristine beaches, blue skies in places like D.L Bliss and Emerald Bay state parks), and adventure (snow sports at Squaw Valley, Heavenly, Northstar, hot air balloon rides, aerial trams, SUP). Completing the full lake loop means you’ll dip temporarily into Nevada, which opens up opportunities to hit a casino like Harrah’s and perchance win back the money you spent on this jaunt or finance future California road trips.
While the Golden State offers some of the most diverse road trip destinations and California scenery is hard to top, the other 49 states are not without merit when it comes hitting the open road.
For more on where to go and what to see around the country by car, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.