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10 Best Road Trips in California

Who doesn’t like a good old fashioned road trip?

Especially when you’re in a place like California with SO MANY options.

From the rugged coastline of Northern California to the sunny shores of Southern California, the Golden State offers a kaleidoscope of landscapes and experiences.

Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a history buff, or simply seeking some relaxation, California’s diverse road trips really do have something for EVERYONE.

So, fasten your seatbelts, roll down the windows, and let’s embark on a journey filled with stunning vistas, charming towns, and endless possibilities.

Time to reveal the best road trips in California…

You might be surprised by what’s on this list. ūüßź

Let’s start with Northern California then make our way south.

Northern California

1. Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) Road Trip

big sur pacific coast highway roadtrip
Road in Big Sur – Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway offers an unforgettable journey with its breathtaking ocean views.

Travelers can start from San Francisco, cruising along the rugged coastline before ending at Los Angeles.

(Or do it the other way round)

Key stops include the Golden Gate Bridge and the artistic community of Big Sur.

Here’s a round-up of the highlights:

  • Santa Monica: Famous for its pier and beach, it’s a vibrant start (or end) point near Los Angeles.

  • Malibu: Known for its beautiful beaches and celebrity homes.

  • Santa Barbara: Offers a charming downtown and lovely beaches.

  • San Luis Obispo: A quaint town with a historic mission and vibrant downtown.

  • Big Sur: This stretch is particularly famous for its breathtaking cliffs and views of the Pacific Ocean.

  • Carmel-by-the-Sea: Known for its fairy-tale cottages and beautiful beaches.

  • Monterey: Home to the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium and historic Cannery Row.

  • Santa Cruz: Offers a classic boardwalk and a laid-back beach vibe.

Visitors can explore quaint coastal towns and enjoy fresh seafood.

The best time to visit is from late spring to early fall.

2. Redwood National and State Parks Road Trip

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

This road trip takes you through the towering Redwood forests of Northern California, giving you a journey through some of the tallest trees on Earth.

An ideal starting point would be Crescent City or Eureka and you could end the trip near Orick.

Here are some key spots and highlights along the route:

  • Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park: Known for its dense, old-growth forests.

  • Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway: A stunning drive through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

  • Fern Canyon: Famous for its high, fern-covered walls, located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

  • Lady Bird Johnson Grove: A beautiful grove with an easy loop trail, perfect for families.

  • Avenue of the Giants: A scenic drive through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, offering some of the best redwood vistas.

The journey is filled with scenic drives and hiking trails among ancient trees.

For nature lovers it’s an absolute dream!

The parks are open year-round, but the best visiting times are during the mild summer months.

3. Lake Tahoe Circle Tour

Emerald Bay lake tahoe
Emerald Bay – Lake Tahoe

The Lake Tahoe Circle Tour showcases the stunning beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Ideal starting points for this circular tour are often Tahoe City or South Lake Tahoe, but you can start from any point around the lake.

Here are some key spots and highlights along the route:

  • Incline Village: Begin from Reno and head to Incline Village, a picturesque community with shopping, dining, and stunning views of Lake Tahoe‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Kings Beach: Known for its sandy beach and charming mountain town atmosphere, it’s perfect for a relaxed stroll and beach activities‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Tahoe City: A larger town in Tahoe, offering scenic walks across Fanny Bridge and along the Truckee River Bike Trail‚Äč‚Äč.

  • D. L. Bliss State Park: Offers hiking trails with alpine views and the Rubicon Point Light‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Emerald Bay State Park Lookout: A must-visit for its panoramic views and the hike to Eagle Falls‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Sugar Pine Point State Park: Nine miles from Tahoe City, this park is known for its hiking trails and beautiful beaches‚Äč‚Äč.

Visitors can enjoy activities like boating in summer and skiing in winter.

This road trip offers panoramic views of Emerald Bay and opportunities for hiking.

The area is accessible throughout the year, with each season offering different experiences so it really does offer something for everyone.

For more details use the following websites as a good resource:

Central California

4. Yosemite National Park Road Trip

glacier point yosemite
Glacier Point – Yosemite National Park

Come on you can’t have a California road trip list without Yosemite on there!

Yosemite National Park offers a mesmerizing experience with its iconic granite cliffs and waterfalls.

It typically begins at the park’s entrance on Highway 41 just north of Oakhurst, offering a comprehensive exploration of the park’s main attractions‚Äč‚Äč.

Here are just some of the highlights:

  • Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias: The first stop, home to the Grizzly Giant and the Columbia tree, the tallest in the grove‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Wawona Hotel: A historic Victorian-era mountain resort, offering dining and entertainment options‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Tunnel View: A famous viewpoint offering stunning views of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Yosemite Valley: Drive alongside the Merced River, exploring the valley’s main attractions like Bridalveil Fall and Yosemite Falls‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Mist Trail: A popular hike offering close views of the massive Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Glacier Point: A lookout spot providing one of the best views of Half Dome, along with sections of Yosemite Valley and the high country‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Hetch Hetchy Reservoir: An area perfect for hiking and enjoying the tranquility away from the crowds, with points of interest like O‚ÄôShaughnessy Dam and Wapama Fall‚Äč‚Äč.

This road trip can be tailored to your time availability, but ideally, it’s recommended to have at least 3 full days to visit all the key stops.

At the end of the road trip, you can exit the park from any of its gates‚Äč‚Äč.

The best times to visit are late spring and early fall for milder weather.

For planning and seasonal information Check out the following websites:

5. Napa Valley Wine Country Road Trip

napa valley vineyard
Napa Valley Vineyard

A trip through Napa Valley is a journey into the heart of California’s wine country.

Travelers can visit world-renowned wineries and taste exquisite wines.

The region is also known for its gourmet cuisine and picturesque vineyards.

The ideal starting point is downtown Napa in the south, which offers shopping, restaurants, wine bars, and the Napa Valley Opera House‚Äč‚Äč.

Here are some of the highlights of this trip:

  • Scenic Route from Downtown Napa: Travel east on Route 121 through the foothills, past Monticello Rocks and Old Man Rock.

    Explore Lake Hennessey and Napa County Regional Park for hiking and kayaking‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Silverado Trail: Head north towards Calistoga, enjoying views of vineyards along a less trafficked route‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Detour to St. Helena: Visit the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum for a blend of education and inspiration. St. Helena offers great dining options‚Äč‚Äč.

  • End in Calistoga: Known for its spas, Calistoga also offers the Oat Hill Mine Trail for hiking, or an early-morning hot air balloon experience for a different kind of adventure‚Äč‚Äč.

Napa Valley is charming year-round, with harvest season in the fall being especially popular.

Visitor information and winery details can be found on the Napa Valley tourism website.

6. Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon Road Trip

Zumwalt Meadow & General Sherman Tree, California
Zumwalt Meadow (Left) & General Sherman Tree (Right), California

This road trip leads to the awe-inspiring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Visitors can see the colossal General Sherman Tree and the impressive Kings Canyon.

The parks offer hiking trails, cave tours, and breathtaking mountain vistas.

The road trip typically begins from Fresno, taking Highway 180 towards Kings Canyon National Park.

In the park, there are two main roads: one leading into Sequoia National Park and the other into Kings Canyon‚Äč‚Äč.

If you choose to go towards Kings Canyon you’ll see:

  • General Grant Grove: This is the first major point of interest, featuring the General Grant tree, the second largest tree in the world by volume‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Hume Lake: A 15-minute detour off the scenic byway, Hume Lake is a beautiful and expansive lake, offering a serene environment for exploration‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Boyden Cavern: Located at the bottom of the canyon, Boyden Cavern offers guided tours of a privately owned cave‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Grizzly Falls: A stunning waterfall easily accessible with a short hike, also featuring a picnic area‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Roaring River Falls: Another easily accessible waterfall, offering a different yet equally impressive experience‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Zumwalt Meadow: Accessible via a half-mile trail, this meadow offers a tranquil setting with an impressive suspension bridge‚Äč‚Äč.

If you choose to go toward Sequoia National Park instead, the following steps are highly recommended:

  • General Sherman Tree: The largest known living tree in the world, located in the Giant Forest‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Giant Forest Museum: An educational stop to learn about the park’s history and ecosystems‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Moro Rock: A granite dome offering panoramic views, accessible by a popular hiking trail‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Tokopah Falls: A beautiful waterfall reached by a scenic 4-mile round-trip hike‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Tunnel Log: A unique attraction where you can drive through a fallen sequoia tree‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Tunnel Rock: A picturesque spot for photos, located along the Generals Highway‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Crescent Meadow: A beautiful meadow fringed by sequoias, ideal for wildlife spotting‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Muir Grove: A secluded grove offering a peaceful hike among old-growth sequoias‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Hanging Rock: A short hike leading to stunning views of Moro Rock and the surrounding area‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Beetle Rock: A great spot for a picnic with views over the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Little Baldy: A scenic hike leading to panoramic views from the top of a granite dome‚Äč‚Äč.

Although open year-round, the best time to visit is from late spring to early fall.

Southern California

7. Death Valley Scenic Road Trip

dantes view death valley
Dante’s View – Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is known for its extreme landscapes and unique geological features.

Visitors can explore the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin and see the colorful Artist’s Palette.

Here’s a list of some of the highlights:

  • Dante‚Äôs View: Start your trip with a visit to Dante‚Äôs View, located 5,476 feet above sea level.

    This viewpoint offers a breathtaking panorama of Death Valley, including Telescope Peak and Badwater Basin‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Badwater Basin: Descend to the lowest point in the US at -282 feet below sea level.

    The area is known for its salt formations and crystal landscapes. It’s best visited early in the day to avoid the heat and crowds‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Natural Bridge: A short, 2-mile round-trip trail leads you to a stunning natural bridge, showcasing the unique geology of the area‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Devil‚Äôs Golf Course: An unusual and fascinating lunch spot, characterized by its rough terrain and salt formations‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Zabriskie Point: End your day with a sunset at Zabriskie Point, offering dramatic views of the golden hills and shadows playing over the landscape‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Hells Gate ‚Äď Devils Cornfield: Start at Death Valley National Park Information Area and enjoy mesmerizing views at Hells Gate and Devils Cornfield‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Ubehebe Crater: A massive volcanic crater surrounded by the Cottonwood Mountains, offering an accessible trail to the crater‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: A landscape of diverse dune formations, including star-shaped, linear, and crescent dunes‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Mosaic Canyon: Hike the Mosaic Canyon Trail, which is moderately difficult but offers stunning geological formations‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Darwin Falls: A surprising waterfall in the middle of the desert, offering a refreshing break from the heat‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Aguereberry Point: A breathtaking viewpoint accessible by car, offering expansive views of Death Valley‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Artists Palette: Explore this distinctive attraction along the Artists Drive Scenic Loop for its stunning colors and landscapes‚Äč‚Äč.

The park is also famous for its star-filled night skies and desert wildlife.

The best time to visit is during the cooler months from November to March.

For safety tips and park information, the Death Valley National Park website is essential.

8. Joshua Tree National Park Road Trip

Arch Rock Joshua Tree National Park
Arch Rock – Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park showcases the unique beauty of the Mojave Desert.

The park is named for its distinctive Joshua trees and offers spectacular rock formations.

The trip typically begins at the north-west entrance station of the park from the town of Joshua Tree, taking you through the park’s main road, Park Boulevard, into Hidden Valley‚Äč‚Äč.

Notable stops on this road trip include:

  • Arch Rock Nature Trail and Arch Rock: A short trail leading to a granite arch known as Arch Rock, starting from White Tank Campground‚Äč‚Äč.

    Known for its impressive boulder formations, Arch Rock is a must-visit spot showcasing the park’s incredible natural arches‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Cholla Cactus Garden: A photographer‚Äôs dream, especially during sunrise or sunset when the cacti glow a golden color‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Hidden Valley Trail: A must-do hike combining all the best features of the park, including Joshua trees, giant boulders, and diverse plant life‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Barker Dam Trail: This trail takes you to an oasis in the desert, particularly beautiful after rainfall‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Keys View: Offers expansive views of Coachella Valley, San Jacinto Peak, and San Gorgonio Mountain, and on clear days, the Salton Sea‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Hall of Horrors: Popular for rock climbing and exploring enormous boulders, with a hidden hallway resembling a small slot canyon‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Cottonwood Springs: The final stop, featuring a short hike to a fan palm oasis, and the Cottonwood Springs Visitor Center

The ideal visiting times are during spring and fall when temperatures are milder.

Visitor guides and information can be found on the park’s official website.

9. Big Bear Lake Road Trip

big bear lake san bernadino
Big Bear Lake – San Bernadino

Big Bear Lake is a popular mountain getaway in the San Bernardino National Forest.

It offers outdoor activities like hiking, boating, and skiing.

Visitors can enjoy the charming village and beautiful lake views.

The loop covers approximately 29 miles, starting at the heart of Big Bear Lake Village and winding along North Shore Drive.

Here are six highlights on this route:

  • Stanfield Preserve: A nature sanctuary with trails through forests and boardwalks, offering stunning views of Big Bear Lake‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Alpine Pedal Path: A 3.2-mile paved path perfect for biking or walking, with panoramic views of the lake and mountains‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Big Bear Discovery Center: An educational hub focusing on local flora, fauna, and history, offering interactive exhibits and programs‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Fawnskin: A quaint mountain hamlet known for its rustic charm, small-town ambiance, and serene lakeside views‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Big Bear Lake Dam: An engineering marvel providing expansive views of the lake, blending human ingenuity with natural beauty‚Äč‚Äč.

  • Boulder Bay Park: A tranquil oasis with picnic areas, a short trail, and beautiful lakeside views, ideal for a relaxing stop‚Äč‚Äč.

The area is a year-round destination, with each season providing unique experiences.

More details are available on the Big Bear Lake tourism website.

10. San Diego to LA Coastal Road Trip

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

The San Diego Coastal Road Trip takes you through some of Southern California’s most scenic beaches and coastal towns.

Highlights include La Jolla Cove, Coronado Island, and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.

Here are some other notable stops:

  • Carlsbad: Offers Tamarack Surf Beach, South Carlsbad State Beach, and the Legoland California theme park.

  • Laguna Beach: Famous for its art galleries, beaches, and coves. Main Beach and Crystal Cove State Park are highlights.

  • Long Beach: Home to the RMS Queen Mary museum ship and the Aquarium of the Pacific.

  • Pasadena: Known for Old Pasadena, the Norton Simon Museum, and the Rose Bowl stadium.

  • La Jolla: Explore the beautiful coastline, visit La Jolla Cove to see seals and sea lions, and enjoy the upscale shops and dining in the village.

  • Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve: Hike the trails and take in the stunning ocean views amidst the unique Torrey Pines trees.

  • Del Mar: Relax on the sandy beaches, visit the Del Mar Racetrack (seasonal), and explore the charming village.

Related Reading: 17 Things To Do From Los Angeles to San Diego

The trip is perfect for beach activities, surfing, and exploring vibrant neighborhoods.

San Diego’s coast is enjoyable throughout the year, with summer being particularly lively.

Megan Jones is a travel expert and founder of Traveller's Elixir who has been travelling the world full time since 2021. Megan's travel tips been featured in numerous media outlets including Metro, Timeout, Thrillist and more.

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