Are you looking for the best California road trip itinerary to explore the most beautiful places in the Golden State? Our 10 days in California itinerary will take you from the rugged coast and beautiful beaches to the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. Hike the Mojave desert, sleep underneath a yucca tree, and visit the lowest place on the continent while you road trip in California. Read our 10 day California Road Trip guide now. You may also like our post on 20 Best Road Trips in the USA.
Welcome to our ultimate California road trip planner! We created this planner to help you plan the perfect road trip around California and it contains all the essential information you need to plan your trip today including budget and costs, what to eat, where to stay, etc. Here you will find recommendations for a variety of California itineraries as well as get more information on California road trip must-see attractions including the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Sur, Yosemite, and Los Angeles. Our mission? To make sure you have a blast in California!
California is our favorite destination ever. I have been enamored with California long before I visited it. California, San Jose, and the West coast are randomly thrown around in conversations in India – because everyone knows someone working in Silicon Valley – and you can’t help but know about this slice of America. Growing up, I knew more about Cisco, Apple, Google, and Yahoo (remember when everyone used Yahoo?!) than San Francisco, Yosemite, and Big Sur. And Disney – because everyone knows Disney!
California has such a unique history. The oldest, tallest, and widest trees live here and guess what, they have been around since prehistoric times – yes, even dinosaurs lived among the redwood trees! One of the lowest, aridest, and hottest places on earth is right here in California in Badwater Basin.
And as for scenic places: California has so many of them! We love Big Sur and its rocky coast, the wildflower super blooms, blue Lake Tahoe, Mono Lake and its tufas, unique shapes of Joshua trees – there are so many things to see in California road trip that the list just goes on!
And that’s why in our California road trip itinerary of 10 days, we take you around all these unique and beautiful places in the Golden State. Our California 10 day road trip itinerary is perfect for driving around dreamy landscapes of yellow poppies, orange orchards, purple foliage, and lush green vineyards.
We have divided this California roadtrip itinerary into 4 essential stretches as per the geographic features of the state – yepp, we are that geeky – and you can customize it as you want.
Best waterproof walking shoes for California beaches
If you are a beach person like me, then extend the Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary to 10 days. If you are a mountain lover like my hubby, then take a 10 day road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite. Pick your favorite area and stay there as long as you want. Or follow our California in 10 days itinerary up to the T. As always, we have also included suggestions for if you have more or less time. Whatever you chose, you are going to have the time of your lives – because this is California!
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“Every time I come, I’m still amazed at the breadth California has. Big Sur, Yosemite, the desert… I love it.”
– Theo James, the English actor
Best of California Road Trip 10 Days Itinerary
We, like most people, have seen California in bits and pieces rather than in one go. We first visited California almost a decade ago and did San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the theme parks. Second time around, we visited Death Valley National Park on a road trip from Vegas. Then I lived and worked in the Bay area in tech (oh, the irony!) and that’s when we explored the California National Parks, North Coast, and the Sierra Nevada side of the state.
Most recently, we did the San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip along the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway – oh and also road-tripped Southern California and Disney with the kids. On our next trip – we plan to do the North Coast and Redwoods Scenic Highway AGAIN. Yeah – that’s how much we love California – have been to many destinations several times and still can’t have enough.
The best way to tour California is obviously by driving. The state is beautiful but huge and it’s not easy planning California trip that covers all the major attractions with limited time in hand. And planning a California road trip with kids is even more difficult – how do you prioritize between theme parks and natural attractions? And that’s where we rush in – your knights in shining armor – delivering the ultimate 10 day California road trip itinerary.
Our California trip planner is more like going on a series of best California road trips – each more gorgeous than the previous. Also, we follow this road trip along two of California’s most popular routes: south on the SR1 or Pacific Coast Highway and then back north along the scenic SR 395 through Eastern California. You can also call it the California National Parks road trip because we will be visiting the most popular of them on an epic road trip. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do!
Stretch 1: Down The Pacific Coast – 4 Days
Often enough, when someone talks about a California driving holiday, this stretch along the Pacific Coast Highway is the one they actually mean. Constantly ranked among the top scenic drives in the world, the coastal drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles is the best of both worlds. It combines the urban getaways of California’s two largest cities with the natural panoramas of Big Sur and the Pacific.
If you have limited time, we would recommend spending 3 to 4 days along this route. If you want to focus only on this coastal road trip, then just drive south on a road trip from San Francisco on SR1. Take your own time to enjoy roadside stops like Carmel-By-The-Sea, Morro Bay, and the stunning Big Sur. Hike or camp and explore nature. Here’s our suggestion for this stretch of 10 day California itinerary.
San Francisco – 1 Day
San Francisco is our favorite city to start a 10 day California trip. The city is quite easy to fly into; the 3 airports of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland are located close by and many airlines have deals to the Bay area. We would recommend spending a minimum of one day in San Francisco before picking up your rental car and driving south. Or you can rent a car before, see SF, and then drive the PCH. You can also start your 10 day road trip from Los Angeles, in that case, adjust your plans accordingly.
Read this now! Whatever you do – don’t casually park your car at an empty garage in San Francisco. Car Break-ins in San Francisco are very common, as we discovered to our ill-fortune. On our latest trip to Frisco, we had parked in a garage two blocks away from Pier 39 and came back to find the rear glass broken and both our children’s suitcases gone! We had to spend quite some time to sort the issue and it left a sad memory on an otherwise awesome road trip around California in 10 days. We would recommend parking at your hotel while taking a cab or the tram to explore the city.
San Francisco has many names – SF, San Fran, Fog City, the City by the Bay, Frisco (though don’t say that in front of locals) or simply, the City – going back to the days of the Wild West when there was nothing much in Northern California but the city. San Francisco is colorful, vibrant, and bohemian. It’s amongst our favorite US cities – right there at the top along with New York, Chicago, and New Orleans.
There are quite a few things to do in San Francisco: unsurprisingly most of them begin at or near the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco’s gigantic urban park.
Begin your visit at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center near the southern end of the bridge. Learn interesting facts and see construction relics from the building of the Golden Gate Bridge before visiting the bridge itself. Next walk across all 1.7 miles of this engineering marvel and icon of America. The views of the bay from the bridge are beautiful and you feel an indescribable thrill while walking across it. Definitely the highlight of your California travel itinerary.
Up for more adventure? Bike the Golden Gate! We have done it twice – most recently with our 3 yrs and 6 months old kids – it is a superb experience. We love biking across to Sausalito, exploring the quaint town, and taking the ferry back to San Francisco. You can also bike to the redwoods if you have more time. Read our ultimate guide to biking the bridge here.
If not biking, then use the rest of your day to explore San Francisco’s highlights: Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, Lombard Street, and Ghirardelli Square.
If you want to spend more time in San Francisco, see the Painted Ladies – those famous SF houses shown in Full House! You can also check out the city from the Twin Peaks. The Golden Gate Park is perfect for a stroll. Ride the cable car to Chinatown and have some dumplings and noodles for lunch.
Spend an afternoon admiring the beautiful architecture of the Palace of Fine Arts or visit the prison of Alcatraz Island. Visit the beautiful redwood trees at Muir Woods National Monument or whale watch and hike at Point Reyes. San Francisco is a beautiful city and you can easily spend a couple of days there as a part of your 10 day trip to California.
Read our San Francisco posts now to plan this part of the trip:
San Francisco 3 to 5-day itinerary ideas
17 Best Things to do in San Francisco on your first visit
The area around San Francisco is also full of activities and tourist attractions. Here are some suggestions if you want to spend a few more days exploring around the Bay Area during your California itinerary of 10 days:
Napa & Sonoma
Take a day trip from San Francisco to Napa Valley along the Silverado Trail. Sonoma County is also a great place to visit for wine lovers. You can tour the many vineyards, taste local wines, dine at Michelin starred restaurants, and visit famous tasting rooms. If you happen to visit in the fall, you will see beautiful fall colors in the vineyards and be able to attend grape stomping.
San Jose is popular with millennials and those working in Silicon Valley. Here’s a fun fact: I and the hubby studied engineering and about a third of our graduating class is settled in San Jose. You will find plenty of trendy nightclubs and bars in San Jose. If you enjoy shopping, check out the high fashion brands on Santana Row. For outdoor lovers, a hike to Mission Peak is a must while families will love the Winchester Mystery House.
If you love tech then you need to visit Silicon Valley. It boasts the largest concentration of geeks and nerds – and as a fellow geek, I say it quite fondly! Start your visit at the Computer History Museum to know everything about the machine that changed our lives. Then see Google’s Android lawn sculptures in Mountain View or the garage where Hewlett Packard began in Palo Alto. Visit Stanford University’s sprawling campus as well as Facebook and Apple!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip – 2 Days
On to the next part of the 10 day road trip in California. After seeing San Francisco, drive south along the SR1 or Pacific Coast Highway. Over the next 2 days, you will follow the coastal route to Los Angeles while making plenty of stops along the way. Check the coastal communities of Half Moon Bay and Davenport before reaching Santa Cruz.
If you have kids, spend some time at the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk. Next visit Monterey and Carmel by the Sea. Hike in Point Lobos or walk the coastal bluffs at Garrapata State Park. On the way, you will see secret beaches, hidden coves, and beautiful views.
As you begin driving PCH1 while following our 10 days in California itinerary, you understand why artists settle here, photographers and writers both wax lyrical about this region, and why the drive is called the most beautiful in the world. We recommend staying somewhere in the vicinity of Carmel Highlands for the night.
The next day, rise early for the star attraction of the drive: the 90-mile long rugged, wild Big Sur. Big Sur is 6 hours from Los Angeles and you have a big day ahead. It is really hard to describe Big Sur. Rocky cliffs, foaming waves, spring wildflowers, lighthouses, migrating whales, turquoise water, redwood trees: Big Sur has everything. It is gorgeous in a wild way.
In Big Sur, you will find amazing state parks, some of California’s best hiking trails, iconic beaches, and tons of marine life, including otters, elephant seals, and dolphins. Some areas of Big Sur can be closed at any given time of the year due to floods or landslides – so we recommend checking out the PCH status before your 10 days road trip California. Read more about all the attractions including the beautiful McWay Falls in our post One day in Big Sur.
Other attractions of the Pacific Coast Highway drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles include Monterey’s famous 17-mile drive, the seaside towns of Pismo Beach and Morro Bay, the famous Hearst Castle, Santa Barbara, and the beaches of Malibu.
For the purposes of this California Itinerary of 10 days, we would suggest 2 to 3 days on PCH. However, if you have more time then the PCH is easily a 4 day to week-long road trip in itself. To read more about all the awesome stops on PCH and planning a detailed itinerary, check out our article on Planning a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Also Read: Top 10 Convertible drives in the USA
Los Angeles – 1 Day
While San Francisco and Silicon Valley are for tech lovers, Los Angeles is for Hollywood fans. How long to stay in Los Angeles is a tricky question. If you only have one day in Los Angeles, start by seeing the famous Hollywood sign and then visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame to take selfies with your favorite stars. Also, see the Kodak Theatre (now Dolby Theatre) which hosts the Oscars and tour the movie star homes on Rodeo Drive.
If you have more time to explore Los Angeles, we suggest starting with lunch at the Santa Monica Pier. Then visit the Griffith Observatory and see Los Angeles from above. Or you can take a behind the scenes VIP studio tour at one of your favorite studios: pick from Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures or Sony!
You can also check out the beautiful exhibits at the Getty Center or the beautiful modern art at the Broad. LA also has many other top museums and a large number of attractions – read our post on Best Things to do in Los Angeles for more ideas.
For more help in planning your day, read our Los Angeles itinerary for first-time visitors.
Here are some suggestions to explore the area beyond Downtown Los Angeles:
No California family road trip is complete without a trip to Disney. Both of California’s Disney Parks are located close to Los Angeles in Anaheim. Meet Mickey, Goofy and other beloved cartoon characters and see Disney’s princesses in full attire at the parks. To plan a California family vacation itinerary including a trip to Disney, read our Disney posts.
To understand all about movie-making, see movie sets, and enjoy thrilling rides visit Universal Studios. This theme park has really cool attractions and the Studio Tour will take you through sets based on Shutter Island, Jaws, King Kong, and more. Harry Potter fans will love visiting Hogwarts and taking thrilling rides based on the books and movies – and is a must-visit if you are spending 10 days in California.
Channel Islands National Park
For a unique experience, customize our itinerary for California 10 days and visit the remote Channel Islands. Comprised of 5 islands, the park has excellent wildlife, sea caves, and lots of natural beauty. You can take a ferry to the park from Ventura.
Optional: San Diego – 1 Day
From Los Angeles, you can venture on the next part of California 10 day itinerary or extend your trip down the coast by visiting San Diego. Not many people know that San Diego is the oldest city on the West Coast. It has beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture and lots of history.
If you have one day, you can visit the Historic Old Town and understand the Mexican and Wild West roots of the city. Next, visit the famous Balboa Park with its beautiful architecture, renowned museums, and the San Diego Zoo. Round off your time in the city by exploring the historic Gaslamp Quarter and its Victorian architecture and trendy eateries, hotels, and pubs. This area is perfect for ending the day with dinner and drinks.
If you have more than a day, visit the famous San Diego Sea World and see the dolphins in action. San Diego is home to many beautiful beaches; the Mission Beach boardwalk is very popular. Other things to see include Mission San Diego, Sunset Cliffs Park, and the bustling waterfront area of Seaport Village. If you have more time on 10 day itinerary California, check out the dramatic sculptures in the desert city of Borrego Springs.
Related: For more California road trip ideas, check out our post on 12 Best California road trips
Stretch 2: Through The Arid Californian Desert – 2 Days
While most people associate California primarily with the coast and then with the dense forests, the state also has unique desert landscapes. While most of these parts have a desolate beauty and desert cities like Palm Springs offer unique tourist attractions, we focus our California 10 days itinerary on exploring two of the region’s national parks: Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park.
Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day
Located partly over the Colorado desert and the Mojave desert, Joshua Tree National Park is named after the iconic Joshua tree – a type of Yucca tree that is twisted, scraggly, and found only in the Mojave desert of California. The easily recognizable tree looks even more dramatic in the desert landscape and bare rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park.
The national park is one of the most underrated California road trip destinations – its unique vistas have drawn photographers and artists to the park for decades. Read our post on One Day in Joshua Tree to plan your trip.
There are many things to do in Joshua Tree and its otherworldly landscape. One of the best ways to see Joshua Tree is by driving around the paved road in the park. Campsites in Joshua Tree are spectacular and hikes through Yucca trees and cacti adventurous. The Hidden Valley Trail is a short mile-long trail that offers great desert landscape views.
The park has many popular geological rock formations that are used for rock climbing. The park also has a dark night sky and is good for stargazers, astronomy enthusiasts, and night sky photographers. Wildlife and birding opportunities around the park are also numerous. Read more in our post 24 Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
While deciding how to plan a trip to California, we recommend keeping more time aside to explore the many attractions surrounding Joshua Tree. You can easily include them on a South California road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree in this order: San Diego – Anza Borrego – Galleta Meadows – Salton Sea – Palm Springs – Joshua Tree. Here’s some more information about these desert experiences that are worth adding to your itinerary if you have the time.
The Salton Sea is an inland lake created by flooding from an irrigation canal of the Colorado River that carries water to the Imperial Valley in 1905. Several resort communities were built along the new lake. However, the lake has no discharge and as a result, the water became unusually saline causing the death of marine life. As a result, the communities were abandoned and are extremely popular with ruin photographers.
If you have teens, then definitely include Bombay Beach ruins in your California vacation itinerary – they will love to see random objects lying on the beach. Today, the Salton Sea shoreline is filled with deteriorating structures and RV communities. The Salton Sea is also located directly on top of the San Andreas fault and geothermal activity including mud pools are present along the coast. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is popular for birding, boating, picnicking, and camping.
Palm Springs, located in the Colorado desert region, is one of the biggest Californian desert cities. One of its main attractions is the Palm Springs aerial tramway which takes you up Mount San Jacinto and offers great views of the surrounding area. Palm Springs also has many great museums, boutique stores, restaurants, and resorts. It is one of the most popular winter vacation destinations in the USA. If you plan to visit Palm Springs, then check out our post on 30 Best Things to do in Palm Springs, California.
Anza Borrego and Galleta Meadows Sculptures in Borrego Springs
While California has many beautiful state parks, few know about its largest – Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This park is at its most beautiful in the spring when the cacti flower and the desert landscape comes alive with colors. Anza Borrego Desert State Park is just two hours away from San Diego and can be seen on a San Diego Joshua Valley road trip.
In nearby Borrego Springs, you can see the unusual Galleta Meadows Estate sculptures. These sculptures created by artist Ricardo Breceda are free to visit and beautiful works of art. By driving all over the land you can spot dragons, serpents, wooly mammoths, and other fantastic creatures.
Also, read our post on Planning the ultimate Southern California itinerary.
Coachella Valley Preserve
Coachella’s Thousand Palms Oasis is a unique chance to see the oasis environment in the middle of the desert. The oases directly sit on fault lines and the water seeping through the faults has given life to California Fan Palms and other big palms in the arid desert. Wildlife including sheep, goats, bobcats, etc, also can be spotted at the oasis.
Entry to the reserve is free and it has many hiking trails plus offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. There are also other hiking areas close to Coachella Valley Preserve including Indian Canyons where you can hike through slot canyons.
Death Valley National Park – 1 Day
Comprising of areas of the Mojave desert and the Great Basin desert, Death Valley is vastly different than Joshua Tree National Park. For the most part, Death Valley is devoid of vegetation and is home to a variety of geological formations including the badlands, sand dunes, and the famous salt flats. Death Valley also has the distinction of being the lowest point in North America and is also one of the hottest and driest places in the country.
No trip to Death Valley National Park is complete without visiting the Badwater Basin salt flats. The salt flats, at 282 feet below sea level, are the lowest place in North America. Death Valley National Park has many scenic drives that are perfect for exploring around the park.
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes are good for taking a stroll, exploring the desert plants, viewing animal tracks, and sunrise/sunset photography. The park has many interesting geological formations. Death Valley also has a dark night sky and is great for stargazing and photographing the Milky Way. Read our post on 14 Best Things to do in Death Valley National Park for more information.
We know you are planning to roadtrip California, but we can’t talk about Death Valley without mentioning Las Vegas. Las Vegas is also a great city to begin your road trip to California. The distance between Vegas and Death Valley is just over 2 hours and the route is quite scenic. In fact, it is one of our favorite road trips from Las Vegas.
You can see the Sin City and then go on a road trip through California – an epic Las Vegas Los Angeles San Francisco trip, if you will! Or you can also go on a memorable Las Vegas Grand Canyon road trip from California. For Las Vegas travel inspiration, read our post on 52 Best Things to do in Las Vegas.
Stretch 3: Up Through The Sierra Nevada – 4 Days
After seeing Death Valley, take a road trip on California’s Scenic Highway 395. This road trip is scenic whether you do it from north to south or like we recommend here, from south to north. The best time to see the aspens turn yellow here is in fall. The total distance from Death Valley to your final destination of Yosemite is 4 hours when the Lee Vining road to Yosemite is open in the summer.
However, we recommend keeping aside 4 days for this road trip as it has some of the most underrated road trip destinations in California including the Manzanar National Historic Site, Alabama Hills, Ancient Bristlecone pine forest, Bodie Ghost Town, etc. For more information on these Route 395 stops, see this article. For the purposes of this itinerary, we focus on the popular attractions of Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe.
Route 395 will take you high up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, known for their spectacular beauty. The Sierra Nevadas are home to many national and state parks including the mighty Yosemite and crystal clear high mountain lakes.
For the rest of your Californian road trip, you will be exploring the High Sierras and its many breathtaking attractions. This is a welcome respite after the desert landscapes of Death Valley and Joshua Tree and depending on when you visit you will be able to see beautiful meadows, wildflowers, fall foliage, and even snow!
Mammoth Lakes And Mono Lake – 1 Day
Contrary to their name, Mammoth Lakes is not a lake but a winter ski town in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Mammoth Mountain is the main winter skiing area with a variety of ski runs. In summer, it is a favorite with mountain bikers and hikers. The town does have several beautiful lakes that are accessible only in the summer but none of them are named Mammoth. Go figure!
The area has beautiful alpine meadows with wildflowers in spring and natural hot springs for some R&R. In one day, we recommend taking the roughly one hour drive around the Lakes Basin and visiting all the lakes. You can hike, picnic, kayak, and fish in whichever lake you like. Or maybe just hang up a hammock and read a book by the lake.
Nearby Mono Lake is a saltwater lake surrounded by unique towering limestone formations called the tufa. The lake visitor center has great information about the formation of the lake and the tufa while the short South Tufa trail is great for exploring the surrounding area. The trail takes you along the lakeshore and among the tufas. We suggest stopping here for an hour or so; Mono Lake accepts National Park Pass for entry.
On the way from Mammoth Lakes to Mono Lake, you will pass by June Lake and Devils Postpile Monument. June Lake Loop Road is a great place to see the fall colors while the Devils Postpile National Monument is a unique geological formation of basalt columns. Rainbow Falls, a 31m plunging waterfall, is another popular attraction of the monument.
Past Mono Lake, take the Lee Vining Road into Yosemite. The official name of the road is Tioga Pass Road and it is closed in winter and spring (usually November to May) due to snow. In that case, you can’t really visit Yosemite from the eastern side. To know alternative routes in winter, check here.
Yosemite National Park – 2 Days
Best known for its giant sequoia trees, bald granite cliffs, and spectacular waterfalls, Yosemite National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yosemite along with Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park is known as the ‘Big Three’ and receives over 4 million visitors each year.
Yosemite is a must-stop on any Ca road trip itinerary. The best time to visit Yosemite National Park is the summer and fall, when Tioga Pass Road is open. We suggest spending 2 days in Yosemite National Park to hike, drive along scenic roads, and see the major attractions.
On your first day, start by taking a Yosemite Valley Tour. The Yosemite Valley is surrounded by the bald granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. Most of the waterfalls including Yosemite Falls are also located in the valley.
The Valley is also where most of the park services including accommodations, shuttle buses, etc are located. The Valley has hiking trails for all difficulty levels that lead to stunning views of Yosemite. Lower Yosemite Falls hike is a short and easy trail that goes to the base of the falls.
Touring the Yosemite Valley via the free shuttle bus is the easiest way to see the national park, however, if you are visiting in summer (especially long weekends) it can get very crowded – so plan to start early in the morning.
The Valley Visitor Center has great information and exhibits about the history and geology of Yosemite, plus it is a good place to get souvenirs, postcards, and magnets. The aptly-named Mirror Lake reflects Half Dome peak and is beautiful to visit. However, it dries up towards the end of summer and is best seen in spring/summer.
Another must in the Valley if you’re visiting in summer is Glacier Point. Located along the valley rim, it can be reached only by car or private tour. The views from Glacier Point are stellar. It is also the base for many of Yosemite’s rim hikes. We suggest spending one day exploring the valley. Yosemite also offers paid guided tours if you prefer them.
On the next day, you can go up the Tioga Pass road if it is clear of snow. This is your chance to experience Yosemite devoid of the crowds. The shuttle bus will take you up the Tioga Pass road to Tuolumne Meadows.
To see Yosemite’s giant sequoia trees, visit the Mariposa Grove. This area is also accessible by the park shuttle. End your day by visiting Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village. Photographer Ansel Adams’s stunning black and white photos of Yosemite are a great reminder of how Yosemite looked over half a century ago.
Lake Tahoe And Emerald Bay – 1 Day
If you continue along Route 395 from Yosemite, you will reach lake Tahoe. Note: Route 395 itself does not reach Lake Tahoe, so you will be following 207 from the Nevada side.
The deep blue water of Lake Tahoe surrounded by snow-clad mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevadas is one of California’s iconic images. Located on the California-Nevada border, Lake Tahoe is a popular travel destination for Californians throughout the year.
In winter it is popular for snowshoeing, skiing, and sledding. Summer in Lake Tahoe is made for biking and camping. In fall, the area around Lake Tahoe comes alive with spectacular fall foliage and is one of the top fall drives in the country. South Lake Tahoe or the California side is best for enjoying the outdoors and nature with family while the Nevada side has lots of casinos and is more touristy.
Crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe (CC 2.0 – Christian Abend)
The drive around Lake Tahoe is 72 miles long and takes about three hours. It is highly scenic and one of the best road trips in California. Much of the shoreline of Lake Tahoe is public and the views of the lake from the drive are stunning. The lake looks a pretty shade of blue during the day and taking a beautiful picture of the water is a highlight of your visit.
An essential stop along the drive is the Emerald Bay State Park. The drive here is spectacular and the views of the turquoise lake are lovely. There are many other ways to enjoy Lake Tahoe. You can take a helicopter tour or enjoy watersports on the lake.
The Sierra Nevada mountain ranges are an absolute delight for outdoor and nature lovers. What you will see in these 4 days is just the tip of the iceberg. The High Sierras have many beautiful alpine valleys, lakes, ghost towns, waterfalls, and hiking trails worth exploring. If you can spend more time in the Sierra Nevada, then here are some other must attractions:
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
These are the two other national parks located in the High Sierras. The giant sequoias surround you as you drive the park roads creating a surreal and unique experience. The twisting and turning roads here are not for the faint-hearted (hint: carry some Dramamine!). Both national parks have great hiking trails and lots of wildlife.
John Muir Trail
While it is not possible to hike in a short time, John Muir Trail deserves a special mention. This is a long-distance trail in the Sierra Nevada and passes through Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. It is as renowned as the Appalachian or the Pacific Crest Trail.
Bodie Ghost Town
The old mining ghost town of Bodie is an hour away from Mammoth Lakes. Preserved as a state park, the town is full of historic saloons and deserted buildings.
While Sacramento is not in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, the city is on the way while returning to San Francisco from Lake Tahoe and makes for a great addition to the California road trip itinerary. One of the top attractions in Sacramento is the California State Railroad Museum.
Stretch 4: Along The Wild North Coast
There are many things to do in Northern California including national parks, scenic drives, beautiful coastal towns, and more. You will need another 5 days minimum to fully explore the Northern part of the state. Hence, we do not recommend covering the North Coast if you are following this California Road Trip Itinerary for 10 Days – you simply won’t have time.
The best way to explore this region is to plan a separate road trip in the northern part of the state, the details of which you can read here in our post, Ultimate Northern California road trip itinerary.
California’s North Coast is less visited, unspoiled, and partially unexplored compared to the famous central Coast and the crowded southern coast. The prehistoric coastal redwood trees grow in groves along the road all the way up to Oregon. Hwy 1 ends at Leggett where it joins Hwy 101.
While the road follows the coast, for the most part, it turns inward in the area of the Lost Coast. The remote Lost Coast as the name suggests is devoid of major highways and remains the ultimate adventure for a 10 day trip to California.
However, the coast is not the only unique thing about Northern California. The northern part of the state is also home to geothermal activity. You can climb lava tunnels at Lava Beds National Monument and see volcanic craters, domes, mud pools, etc at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Here are a few attractions of the region:
Redwoods National and State Park
The Redwoods National and State Parks were created to preserve the old-growth redwood forests. The Redwoods are the tallest living trees on Earth and also among the oldest. The National Park and state parks are also home to a number of endangered animals including spotted owl, species of sea lions, etc. The unique environment of the dense redwood forests by the coast has resulted in the park being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seeing the Redwoods covered in fog during winter or spring is a surreal experience.
Point Reyes National Seashore, located in Marin County, preserves a large swath of northern California’s coastal wilderness. Most popular attractions at Point Reyes include Alamere Falls on Wildcat Beach and Point Reyes Lighthouse. Other attractions include the endangered tule elk herd that can be seen around Tomales Point, Native American redwood houses, earthquake trail, and dramatic cliffside beaches.
Avenue of the Giants
Avenue of the Giants is an over 30 miles long scenic highway that passes through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and its mighty coastal redwood trees. Roadside attractions include tunnels cut into redwood trees, giant groves, and unique roadside attractions like a house created from a single redwood log and a Redwood RV. We suggest hiking in the Redwood groves to experience the truly gigantic trees.
The quaint seaside town of Mendocino is quite different from the coastal towns on the Central Coast. It reminded me of Maine and the coastal upper East coast due to its Victorian mansions painted in pretty pastel colors. The town is a historical landmark and very pretty to wander and explore. Nearby Mendocino Headlands State Park and Russian Gulch State Park are worth a visit.
Nearby Fort Bragg is no fort but a lumber town on the North Coast. The famous ‘Glass Beach’ of which I’m sure you have seen pics floating around on social media is in Fort Bragg. The beach is a part of MacKerricher State Park, a state park with amazing views of the undeveloped headlands, beaches, and tide pools. Another popular attraction in Fort Bragg is the Skunk Train – a railroad built to haul timber logs from the redwood forests.
Other attractions on the North Coast include the pretty Victorian towns of Ferndale and Eureka, Del Norte Redwood State Park, and the seaport community of Crescent City.
We hope you liked our California road trip blog. Now you have everything ready to plan your perfect California trip itinerary, so make the most of it. Did we miss any hidden gems in the Golden State? Which part of the road trip did you enjoy the most? Let us know in the comments!