Are you looking for the best road trips in California? California is full of amazing routes from the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur and the Northern California Coast Road to Tioga Pass in Yosemite and Volcanic National Scenic Byway. Check out these scenic, memorable drives in California that best explore the natural attractions of the golden state. You may also like our post 10 days in California Itinerary.
It’s no secret, we love California! From our first visit almost 10 years ago to our most recent one 3 months back, we have been on innumerable road trips in the Golden State. I also lived in California for a few years in the Bay area and have come to love the splendid natural scenery here. Considering the sheer variety of landscapes and unique roadside attractions in the middle of nowhere, California is the ultimate dream destination for road trippers. Here are our favorite road trips in California that you must add to your bucket list.
Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles
The #1 road trip in California! This gorgeous road trip is best when done from North to South as most attractions will be on your right side. The route passes through the seaside towns of Monterey and Carmel-By-The-Sea before entering the 90 miles scenic area of Big Sur.
In Big Sur, you will find everything from jaw-dropping views, delicious seafood, coastal Redwoods, stunning beaches, secret coves, and lots of wildlife. The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the highlights as is McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. We also recommend stopping by the scenic Point Sur Lighthouse while in Big Sur. You can also read our Big Sur travel guide here.
Past Big Sur, continue south to the hip town of San Luis Obispo and sip in the wineries of Paso Robles. Take a short trip to Denmark in Solvang, California. See the mission in Santa Barbara before ending your road trip in Los Angeles. For more information, read our complete guide to Pacific Coast Highway road trip now.
The North California Coast drive from San Francisco to Mendocino
This road trip along the Northern California coast is incredibly scenic and less popular compared to the famous Big Sur road trip. Start your road trip from San Francisco and stop at Point Reyes National Seashore. The Point Reyes lighthouse and the Cypress tunnel are worth a visit while the easy hiking trails lead you to scenic views.
After Point Reyes, stop in Tomales Bay to eat the famous oysters. Your next stop is in Bodega Bay. The area is perfect for water activities including paddle boarding, kayaking as well as hiking, kite flying, and relaxing on the beach. Stay the night in the romantic village of Mendocino. Next day, see the photogenic bridge in Russian Gulch State Park and hike the Pygmy Forest trail in Van Damme State Park. Walk along the bluff trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park. End your road trip at the famous Glass Beach in Fort Bragg – this beach was formed from sea glass created due to trash dumped in the ocean.
Along this Northern California coastal road trip, you will see lots of wildlife including whales, sea otters, elephant seals, seagulls, and other resident birds as well as migratory birds, deer, elk, and if you are lucky, even bears. You will also see the famous redwood trees, but for the most famous trees road trip on the Redwoods Highway (see below). For a detailed road trip itinerary, read our post on Northern California Coastal Route 1.
Redwoods Highway from Eureka to Crescent City
California’s Coastal Redwoods are not only some of the tallest trees on earth but actually have been here since prehistoric times. The Redwoods Highway in northern California takes you through these towering trees and along the foggy north coast. Along the highway, you will find unique attractions such as 3 different drive-through redwood trees including the famous Shrine Drive-thru Tree near Myers Flat and the Chandelier tree of Leggett, an entire RV made from redwood, a massive fallen redwood tree known as the Dyerville Giant, and the One Log House.
The best attraction along the Redwoods Highway is, however, the Avenue of Giants scenic drive. This 31-mile long road is dramatic and passes through groves of the biggest and tallest Redwoods in California. The road is winding and has panoramic views at every turn. Often, the fog rolls in and visitors are treated to an eerie show by these prehistoric trees. Visitors can get a map at the visitor center and then look for the massive redwood groves along the route. We recommend devoting 2 to 3 hours for the Avenue of the Giants drive.
Apart from the redwood trees, you will also find spectacular natural areas such as Humboldt Bay and opportunities for hiking, biking, and photography throughout the drive. The cities of Eureka and Crescent City are gateway cities to Redwoods National and State Parks and have many tourist attractions. Don’t forget to hike the enchanting Fern Canyon which was the filming location for the movie Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway from Lava Beds National Monument to Lassen Volcanic National Park
Much of northern California has been shaped by years and years of geothermal activity and the best way to experience it is by driving the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. This Scenic Byway extends from Oregon to California but it is the Californian section that is the most dramatic. We suggest starting your visit near the Oregon border at Lava Beds National Monument and driving down up to the Lassen Volcanic National Park, one of California’s most underrated national parks.
Lava Beds is famous for its lava tube caves. These tunnels/tube caves were formed by molten lava flowing beneath the surface and exiting out through the caves. Most of the developed caves are located along the Cave Loop near the visitor center. Visitors can borrow helmets and flashlights at the visitor center and explore the tube caves. Some of the easy caves include Skull Cave while the Catacombs Cave is challenging and fun.
After visiting Lava Beds, stop at the volcanic dome of Mount Shasta. Mount Shasta City located on the slope of the peak is a charming city and is an excellent base for hiking, biking, and exploring the area. The views of the surrounding area from the city are excellent. Mount Shasta City also has many romantic hotels and restaurants, it makes the perfect stop for spending a night on this scenic drive.
After leaving Mount Shasta City, visit the MacArthur-Burney Falls. These cascading falls are very pretty, especially in spring and good for hiking with the kids. After visiting the falls, you can visit Lake Shasta and stay on a houseboat or book a hotel room in Redding. While in Redding, visit the iconic sundial bridge across the Sacramento River. For your last stop along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, stop at Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the park, you can see a variety of volcanic activity including boiling mud pots, hot springs, and bubbling geysers. You can read more about this trip in the post 7 days in Northern California.
SR 395 from Death Valley to Lake Tahoe
If you want a road trip through California’s off-the-beaten-path attractions, then SR 395 is the road you need. This is definitely one of California’s most underrated road trips. Most people come across SR 395 while traveling from east-west or vice versa but very few tourists drive its most scenic length from Death Valley to Lake Tahoe.
We recommend starting your SR 395 road trip in Death Valley National Park – the lowest, hottest, and driest place in the country. Things to see in Death Valley include the Badwater Basin, Dante’s View, and the Mesquite sand dunes. After leaving Death Valley, drive towards the Sierra Nevadas and Mammoth Lakes area. On the way, take detours at Lone Pine and Devil’s Postpile National Monument. In Lone Pine, you will find several things to do the most popular of which are Manzanar National Historic Site, a Japanese internment camp from WWII era and Alabama Hills, an otherworldly landscape of colorful mounds. Also must visit is Mt. Whitney trailhead.
After reaching Mammoth Lakes, soak in the area’s resort atmosphere. If visiting in winter, you will find the area full of skiers. There are many things to do around Mammoth Lakes including exploring the area’s many lakes on a side trip, hiking, biking, and simply enjoying the stunning scenery. Next head up for Lake Tahoe. Along the way, you can visit the mining ghost town of Bodie and the dramatic Mono Lake. On arriving in Lake Tahoe, visit the Emerald Bay State Park for its amazing views. This road trip along scenic Highway SR 395 is even more spectacular in fall as the leaves change color in the Sierra Nevadas.
Loop around Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of our favorite lakes in California. It is stunning in summer and super fun in winter The lake straddles the state line between California and Nevada and is in both the states. That means, to complete the road trip around the lake you need to go into Nevada – so this scenic drive is not strictly California, but hey it’s gorgeous all the same!
Driving around Lake Tahoe is an amazing experience. The drive takes about 3 hrs and is 72 miles long but we would recommend spending a day or two to stop at various viewpoints, hike a bit, and see tourist attractions along the way. In addition to that, the roads twist and turn – so you need to drive cautiously. We recommend filling up on gas and packing a picnic lunch to save time. There are many perfect picnic spots along the way.
We recommend starting either at Tahoe City or Emerald Bay. Emerald Bay State Park is a must-visit for its hikes, stunning views, and the castle Vikingsholm. After checking out Emerald Bay, continue driving around it towards Nevada. As soon as you cross into the state, at the aptly named, Stateline, you will see casinos welcoming you.
Continue past the casinos and resort cities to complete the round trip. Stop at the many gorgeous beaches, take a cruise on the lake or paddle boat in Lake Tahoe. Also, don’t forget to visit the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. This drive is gorgeous in all seasons: in summer, you will find the blue lake and tourists while fall brings out the exceptional scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. In winter, you will be driving in a winter wonderland and have access to skiing, snowshoeing, and snowboarding.
Napa Valley wine road trip along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail
While Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail is pretty famous, we love Highway 29 just as much! And that’s why we would recommend going to Napa on the Silverado Trail and returning via Highway 29 (or vice versa) to experience attractions along both the roads.
Driving the Silverado Trail is an amazing experience. This route is 30 miles long and links the towns of Napa and Calistoga. Vineyards dot both sides of the road and big shady trees provide a much-needed respite from the hot California sun. Many famous wineries are located along the Silverado Trail – which means lots of time to wander through the vineyards, take tours of the wineries, and indulge in wine tasting. Also, many romantic hotels and restaurants are located en route. Some of the popular wineries along the Silverado Trail include Darioush Winery, Miner Family Winery, Quintessa, Silverado vineyards, Chimney Rock, and Joseph Phelps vineyards.
After you have had your fill of Silverado Trail, drive along Highway 29 (SR 29). This is the main road through Napa and busier than the Silverado Trail. Many of Napa Valley’s small towns are located along Highway 29. Our favorite towns include Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga. Along Highway 29, you will also find the best tasting rooms: Mondavi and Beringer are some of the most popular ones. Many state parks including Bale Grist Mill State Park are also located along Highway 29.
If you are doing a day trip to Napa Valley from San Francisco, we would recommend driving north in the morning via Highway 29 – that way you skip most of the afternoon traffic and returning via the Silverado Trail.
San Diego to Joshua Tree road trip
This is our favorite road trip in Southern California. It takes you from the beaches of the Pacific to the Californian desert region. You can read more about this incredible road trip in our article Ultimate Southern California road trip itinerary.
Start your trip in San Diego and after checking out the highlights of the city, head out to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Here you will find hiking trails through badlands, explore slot canyons, and spot the desert flora and fauna. If you happen to visit in spring, you will see a profusion of wildflowers dotting the landscape at Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Next visit the Galleta Meadows sculptures in Borrego Springs. These sculptures by artist Ricardo Breceda are on private land but open to the public. You can see the fantastic creatures in the desert including dragons, dinosaurs, camels, mammoths, and more. The sculptures are great photo ops and totally Instagram worthy.
From Borrego Springs, visit the area of the Salton Sea and Bombay Beach. The Salton Sea is a highly saline lake while Bombay Beach is an abandoned resort community that sprung up on the lakeshore. Finally, make your way towards Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park. Palm Springs is great for a luxe weekend. We love walking along Palm Canyon Blvd and seeing the Walk of stars and visiting the different stores. Palm Springs also has many famous, colorful doors which are worth an Instagram photo-op themselves. Palm Springs also has many cultural attractions including some of California’s best museums. For more attractions, read our Palm Springs travel guide.
Nearby Joshua Tree is an otherworldly dramatic landscape of the yucca trees, cacti, and big rocks. Visitors can hike, scramble over boulders, backpack, camp, and birdwatch in this beautiful environment. Keyes View is the highest point in the park and the views from up here are amazing. You can see the San Andreas faultline clearly from the Keyes View. To know more, read our post on 16 Best things to do in Joshua Tree.
Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park
Tioga Pass Road in Yosemite National Park is one of the fabulous drives in the Sierra Nevada region. This road is 59 miles long and takes about 2 to 3 hours to drive at a leisurely pace through the park. Tioga Pass Road is only open from late May to October, depending on snow conditions. We recommend checking the road conditions before your visit.
Tioga Road is hands down the best in summer: wildflowers carpet the meadows, the lakes shine blue, and the snowy mountain peaks provide a stunning backdrop. As the road climbs above the Yosemite Valley, you are assured stunning views of the national park. The best view by far is from Olmsted Point. You will be able to see Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest along with the mountain lakes after the Olmsted Point hike.
As the road crosses the Tuolumne Meadows, you are treated to enchanting panoramas reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. Other points of interest along the Tioga Pass Road include Tenaya lake, Tenaya Peak, the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, and Lembert Dome. There are also many trailheads located along Tioga Road including the Lukens Lake trail and Cathedral Lake trail.
Death Valley Scenic Byway
The Death Valley Scenic Byway passes through some of the aridest and lowest areas in the country. On this remote road, you will find unique landscapes and geological forms. The road is 81 miles long and spectacular. Start your Death Valley adventure by looking for signs for SR 190 in Darwin, California. Darwin was a 19th-century mining town; lead and silver mines dominated the area. Today the town remains a ghost town and a great first stop on your way to Death Valley National Park.
Inside Death Valley National Park, the scenic SR 190 curves as it descends into Death Valley. The road climbs down to the dryest, lowest place in the world: Badwater flat. A highlight of the Death Valley Scenic Byway is the Badwater Basin. The SR 190 goes along the basin and is so straight that you can see the road stretch ahead for miles. This is one of the iconic shots of Death Valley – Badwater Basin on one side with the road shining silver in the sun.
Other things to do on the Death Valley Scenic Byway include seeing the Mesquite sand dunes, Dante’s View, Scotty’s Castle, etc. On the way, watch out for desert wildlife including coyotes, bobcats, Badgers, kangaroo rats, and rattlesnakes as well as multicolored landscapes. If visiting in spring, you will see the desert floor blooming with wildflowers and blooming cacti.
If you can’t drive the PCH in its entirety, then we would recommend driving along the 17-Mile drive in Monterey to experience the same dramatic scenery, the rugged coast, wildlife, and pristine beaches. You will also find a few added attractions such as well-maintained golf courses, seafood joints, charming houses, mansions, boardwalks, and more.
This scenic road passes through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Monterey. The 17-Mile Drive is not free and you will need to pay $10.5 per car, but if you spend at any of the restaurants or staying in an inn on the 17 Mile Drive then you can get reimbursed for the entry.
Some of the must road trip stops along the route include the Lone Cypress, Spanish Bay Beach, Point Joe, etc. Spanish Bay Beach is a beautiful beach named after the Spanish explorers that first landed in the area in the 18th century. Point Joe has exceptional views over the rugged coast, submerged rocks, and frothing waves. At Bird Rock, you can watch for wildlife and birds, including seagulls, seals, sea lions, pelicans, gray whales, etc. The Lone Cypress tree standing over the cliffs is dramatic and one of the photo highlights of the area.
If you plan to explore California in an RV, then check this useful post on renting one.
Route 66 in California
Route 66 is the ultimate road trip in the US. While the epic route starts in the Windy City of Chicago, it ends right in California at the Santa Monica Pier. The stretch of Route 66 that passes through California has many interesting stops and makes for a great short road trip by itself. Here’s something to know before you do this route: you won’t actually find SR 66 on maps: most parts of it have been replaced by other roads. However, you can retrace the old route by following our guide.
Start your Route 66 California trip near the Arizona – California state line in Needles. Check out the Route 66 Motel and the now-abandoned El Garces Hotel. Then take the I-40 to Barstow. On the way, you will see many ghost towns including Amboy. The nearby Amboy Crater was an old Route 66 attraction. In Barstow, visit the Route 66 Mother Road museum, a few historic motels, and the Bottle Tree Ranch.
Continuing west, there’s another Route 66 museum in Victorville and the MacDonald’s museum in San Bernardino. This was also the site of the first Mac Donald’s in the country and inside you will find many of Mac Donald’s artifacts including mascots, posters, etc. Also in San Bernardino is the iconic tipi-shaped Wigwam motels which were built along Route 66.
Then you will pass through the ever-expanding city of Los Angeles. In the old days, Los Angeles was quite different and none of the original attractions have remained as the city grew. However, it is interesting to know, the same hopes and dreams that brought people to Los Angeles along Route 66 still bring wannabe models and movie stars to the city today. End your road trip at the iconic ‘End of Route 66′ sign at Santa Monica Pier.
Did you like our article on Best road trips in California? How many have you been on? We would love to know your favorite, so leave us a note. Did we miss out any awesome road trips in California? Let us know in comments.