California is the perfect destination for families, couples and solo adventurers looking to explore everything from national parks to iconic beaches. California is massive which means at some point or another you will find yourself driving around it. For those looking to get out and explore, California is your ideal destination. Below we share some of our favorite road trips in California and some we hope to take soon.
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11 Unforgettable Road Trips in California
The golden state is one of the most dreamed about destinations in the US for many reasons – namely it’s beautiful road trip options. California is filled with opportunities to explore on and off the beaten path, from the famous Pacific Coast Highway to lesser known gems such as Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierras, we share the best places to go on your ultimate road trip guide through California. You will find yourself visiting cool cities, quirky small towns, iconic national parks and the most picturesque beaches you can find.
California Pacific Coast Highway 1
Hands down the most iconic road trip in California is the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We have done this road trip several times and it never gets old. You can do this route in a few days, but we highly recommend taking it slow to really take in all that is on offer.
Starting in the Bay Area and heading south, roadtrippers will start off exploring Santa Cruz and the Monterey Aquarium to the 17 mile drive from Carmel. From here, you can hike on the majestic cliffs of Big Sur before heading on to Highway 101 for a bit of a detour. There is so much to see that even a week doesn’t allow you enough time to fully experience it! While on the route, don’t miss the elephant seals in San Simeon, Madonna Inn and Pismo Beach. Don’t forget Hearst Castle, Cannery Row in Monterey and so many other amazing things along the way. Continue on to Santa Monica to finish up or head further down to San Diego by train or car!
California Road Trip on Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierras
One of the least known, but in our opinion best California road trips for visitors to the state is Highway 395 running through the Eastern Sierra mountains. This is a great trip to take almost any time of year if you can handle the extreme heat in mid summer or snow in winter! No matter the season, this region offers unexpected natural beauty with volcanic rock, limestone tufa towers and snow covered mountains.
This California road trip route offers a lot of the state’s best destinations, like Death Valley, Alabama Hills, the state’s best bakery in Bishop, amazing natural hot springs, Mono Lake and Bodie Ghost Town. All of these locations are stunning and offer some of the best hikes in California. In winter you can spend time at Mammoth Lakes to enjoy skiing at several resorts. Ghost towns, jalapeno cheddar bread, hot springs and old western movie photo ops – what more could you ask for!
All Roads Lead to Yosemite
For residents and visitors alike, Yosemite National Park is often a top destination while in California. Luckily this famous national park can be easily reached from both northern California and southern California cities making it a great destination for most Californians. Depending where you are driving from, you can take in the sights of San Francisco before heading east to the landscape Ansel Adams made famous or head north from Los Angeles making your way through Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Parks before arriving to Yosemite.
Regardless which route you choose, all roads lead to Yosemite! You can venture through California’s Gold Country taking in small ghost towns from Lake Tahoe to the northern stretches of Yosemite, stop in small valley towns like Visalia to soak up the agriculture tourism of the state or make Yosemite your road trip by exploring the different areas of the park often ignored by visitors. Whatever you do, get your permits for half dome before you set out on your amazing California road trip adventure.
Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park
One of the most beautiful parts of California is in the Shasta Cascade region around Redding. Using Redding as a base, you can do an amazing northern California road trip around this scenic area taking in the amazing McArthur-Burney Falls, Shasta Lake and of course end at the mud pots and steaming geysers of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
To start your road trip, head out from Redding to Shasta Lake. You can visit for the day or camp in the area. From the lake, head to Mount Shasta and the Castle Crags State park. The next part of your road trip will take you along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway where you will visit Burney Falls – one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the state. Again you can camp here or look for nearby lodging. For those who don’t want to move around, Redding is a good base even though it will include a bit of back and forth each day.
To find the best accomodation along your route, enter your dates below to find out what is available – from VRBOs to hotels and more!
Southern California Beach Road Trip
For those looking for less adventure and more relaxation time, a perfect road trip is to go beach hopping on the California coast. There is no better place to do this than in Southern California. Pick and choose how long of a trip you want by starting and stopping in different locations. We love the beaches in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Malibu and then down to Orange County. In SLO, make bonfires on the beach before you ride sand dune buggies. In Santa Barbara, check out the locals beaches of El Capitán, Refugio, or Gaviota before heading to relax in Oxnard. While in Oxnard, make sure to take a day trip to the Channel Islands. Malibu is our go to for tide pools, camping and endless hikes. One of the best hikes in the area is to the M.A.S.H. site – great for fans of the TV show.
Once you reach Los Angeles and Orange County, you have a myriad of great beach towns to choose from. Dana Point which offers excellent whale-watching, art filled Laguna Beach, tide pooling at Crystal Cove and surf city Huntington Beach. If you can make it all the way down to La Jolla, don’t miss seal beach!
San Francisco to Fort Bragg
This stretch of the Pacific Coast highway heading up north from San Francisco offers as much beauty as its Central Coast counterpart, with less crowds! This road trip starts when you cross the Golden Gate Bridge heading into Sausalito and Marin County. Here you will come across coastal hills and the redwoods of Muir Woods. Continuing on are dramatic ocean views and remote beaches like Point Reyes.
From there, you move into the Napa Valley wine country area for wine tasting. See the Napa Silverado road trip for ideas on what to see and do there. At this point, the coastline becomes more foggy and craggy as you head up to Mendocino Headlands State Park. End your trip at Fort Bragg exploring Glass Beach or continue a few more hours up the coast to the Redwoods National Park or venture off to Redding to complete that road trip mentioned above!
Napa Valley Exploration
While I wouldn’t necessarily call this a road trip, you can easily spend a long weekend or more explore Napa Valley along the Silverado Trail. This trail runs parallel to the busier state highway (29), but offers easy access to some of the best wineries in the state. Start in the town of Napa and work your way north, stopping at wineries such as Reynolds Family Winery, Clos du Val, and Mumm Napa. To fully experience different areas, stay a night or two at some of the fabulous local hotels, like Auberge du Soleil, Solage Calistoga, or Meadowood Napa Valley.
For those with an interest in Charlie Brown, make sure to detour to Santa Rosa to explore the origins of this famous cartoon character!
Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park
We mentioned above that all roads lead to Yosemite and here is another one of the most epic road trips in California takes in two beautiful destinations from the start to end – Lake Tahoe to Yosemite. This Sierra Nevada route takes the northern section of Highway 395 starting at South Lake Tahoe, near the idyllic Emerald Bay State Park, and heading south toward Mono Lake to see the bizarre, ghostlike towers.
Instead of continuing on Highway 395 towards Lone Pine and Alabama Hills, this route ventures off on Highway 120 aka Tioga Pass heading towards the northern portions of Yosemite National Park. This route is best in spring and summer as the Tioga pass is closed from November to May.
Exploring North Yosemite provides a different view for visitors like the chance to see Tuolumne Meadows, Wapama Falls, and hiking at the Tuolumne or Merced groves, both lined with giant sequoias. You can continue your adventure further into Yosemite to Yosemite Valley to see the top tourist sites in the park.
California’s Agri-Tourism Road Trip
Not often recognized, California is a top agriculture state offering a rainbow of colors in late winter with blossoming fruit and nut trees. One of the most unique road trips in California takes you through the middle of the state starting in Fresno and follows this Fruittrail through small unknown towns like Sanger, Orange Cove and Fowler. Stop in at Simonian Farms, sip wine at Cedar View Winery and check out the old style trains at Hillcrest Farm.
While not many from out of state will want to venture into this neck of the woods for the once in a lifetime trip to California, this is a good trip to combine with a visit to Yosemite and/or Sequoia National Parks to add a little something different to your visit. This is not a long trip, often only taking an hour drive at a time, perfect for a weekend.
San Bernardino Scenic Views
Looking for a short road trip? If you are located in Southern California, a great trip often dubbed “Rim of the World” takes in the cliffs and small towns of San Bernardino Mountains. Main stops on this mini-road trip are Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead as State Highway 18 winds around 100 miles taking in scenic views. Take time to check out the mellow, half-mile educational Sequoia Trail at Heaps Peak Arboretum.
For big views, keep driving to the town of Running Springs to Keller Peak Fire Lookout, which offers expansive views of mountains, lakes, and maybe even the Pacific Ocean if it’s a clear day. Make Big Bear your home based where you can eat delicious food, play on the lake and hike beautiful trails.
San Diego to Joshua Tree – Beach to Desert
One of the most amazing aspects of being on the West Coast is having access to everything from beautiful beaches to stunning desert landscapes and snowy mountains. There are several great road trips in California that begin in the south taking in both of these differing views. One of the best starts on the beaches of San Diego heading into the Cuyamaca Mountains towards Julian. Julian is a cute town known for it’s apple crops and great camping!
From here, head to Anza-Borrego State Park to see wildflowers before heading to the unique Salton Sea area. Here you can see the quirky at Salvation Mountain and the stinky shores of the Salton Sea before making your way to Joshua Tree or Palm Springs.
For those that want to soak in hot springs or want to relax with resort life, Palm Springs is your place. For those wanting more nature, head to Joshua Tree National Park for beautiful hikes and scenic landscapes.
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