California is beautiful — no one can deny that — but flying into one city and staying put for the entirety of your vacation will hardly expose you to the profusion of the Golden State’s magnificent scenery. Therefore, road tripping is a popular way to see Cali among locals and visitors alike. Indeed, the abundance of well-maintained highways with scenic views certainly makes California one of the most exciting places to explore by car.
However, seeing California’s splendor isn’t as easy as revving your engine. You must carefully plan every leg of your journey to ensure you see the places you most care about. Here is a handy guide to the best road trips in the Golden State, from south to north and back again.
During the American migration west between the 1930 and 1960s, so many people traveled Route 66 that novelist John Steinbeck dubbed it “the Mother Road.” Though much of the original legendary highway has disintegrated, eager road trippers can patch together the path using remaining landmarks.
You will start in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park and a preserve for the indigenous bighorn sheep. Moving north and east, your next stop is Palm Springs, where you can relax and refresh after hours of desert driving. You will pass through other iconic wilderness areas, Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve, before exploring Barstow and San Bernardino. As you drive the final stretch into Los Angeles County, you can feel a welcome rush as you pass through beautiful Pasadena and into Santa Monica. The Santa Monica beachside is a nice place to stay for the night. If you’re one to plan ahead, Expedia and other travel sites tend to have a lot of options in this area.
There are few routes more breathtaking than the Highway 1, with its outstanding coastal views of the serene Pacific Ocean. This road trip is a classic — one that any self-proclaimed road tripper would be loath to miss.
San Diego is the sunniest place on the golden coast and the best starting point for a drive up the California 1, but if you want to skip the drive south, you can just as easily begin your journey in Los Angeles’s Huntington Beach. Hugging the coast, you’ll drive through Santa Barbara’s wine country and beautiful, natural Big Sur. At the northern stretches of the Central Coast, you will see the beaches of Monterey and Carmel, and after passing through cozy Santa Cruz, you will follow the 1 straight into San Francisco.
San Francisco Loop
San Francisco is a devoted driver’s dream-come-true, with hills, bridges, and lots to see. The Bay Area is exceedingly diverse, and iconic monuments mix effortlessly with natural beauty to make this short, regional road trip endlessly exciting.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a scenic view of the bright red Golden Gate Bridge, and this route takes you over the bridge for even more memorable sight-seeing. On the other side, the Muir Woods are remarkably quiet in comparison to the dense city a few miles away. Heading north, you’ll pass through Point Reyes, a seashore teeming with extraordinary wildlife (including whales), and to the west you’ll run into Napa and Sonoma — some of the best wine countries in the world. On the southern stretch of the loop, you’ll drive through Oakland, San Jose, and Silicon Valley, ending up back in sunny San Francisco.
North Coast Voyage
After seeing the southern and central coasts from the legendary Highway 1, you should be dying to experience Cali’s north coast, with is less-traveled and more romantic than the adventure to the south. Perfect for an intimate couple’s trip or an invigorating family vacation, this route is sure to please.
From San Francisco, you’ll travel north through familiar Point Reyes to the hamlet of Mendocino, which offers picturesque views of the sea and forest. You’ll begin to encounter the magnificent redwoods, and soon you will journey on the great Avenue of the Giants. Amidst the redwood state parks, the village of Ferndale is a charming rest spot, as is the quaint town of Eureka. You can finish your northward trek in Crescent City, whose twin lighthouses signal your destination.
While the coastline is undoubtedly one of California’s best and features, there is plenty more to explore inland. The Central Valley contains miles upon miles of beautiful orchards and vineyards, not to mention relatively empty stretches of highway through stunning mountains and forests. It could take decades for even the most avid road tripper to discover all of California’s secrets — but it is unquestionably a noble and satisfying pursuit.