There are many ways to conduct your road trip in California. From Southern to Northern California or the other way around, by renting a car, a camper van, an RV, taking buses, hiking… One thing is certain: California is a gorgeous State you won’t regret visiting!
We had the most amazing time there when we were doing a road trip in the USA, and since we didn’t have the time to see all of the best spots, we asked other travel bloggers to fill in the blanks. It only made us want to go back so much more!!
On this California Road Trip itinerary, we decided to go from South to North because it’s how we did it, but of course you can start anywhere you want and go on the direction you prefer!
1. San Diego: the starting point of your Californian road trip
Start your California Road Trip itinerary from San Diego, one of our favorite places in the US. It’s a beautiful place perfect to get into the Californian vibes by spending an outrageous amount of time on the gorgeous beaches of the city, surfing or swimming with wild sea lions, eating delicious Mexican food (we ate the best burrito ever in San Diego, to this day!) and having fun in one of the many bars downtown in the evening.
You’ll find San Diego really laid-back and that it has quite a lot to offer!
— Additional stop between San Diego and Joshua Tree NP or Los Angeles —
If you want to stop between San Diego and Joshua Tree NP, you should consider visiting Orange County!
2. Joshua Tree National Park
We wish we could have visited many NPs in the States, however we didn’t stay long enough for that… So here’s Scott from Take Back Road‘s account of Joshua Tree National Park.
If you are taking a road trip in Southern California and appreciate the great outdoors, make time to spend a few hours exploring Joshua Tree National Park. Though it provides a powerful Wild West atmosphere, Joshua Tree was traditionally overshadowed by its more well-known regional neighbors (Death Valley, Grand Canyon, and others).
Joshua Tree is finally getting the recognition and appreciation it deserves as a stark and captivating national park. At a sizeable 790,000 acres, the park offers a dynamic range of areas to explore, including its famous Joshua tree (or “yucca palms”) forests, massive rock formations and rock climbing locations, and breathtaking expanses of desert wilderness for hiking.
If you’re able to spend a full day there, or perhaps camp overnight, I strongly recommend you don’t act like the majority of visitors, who only drive the loop on Park Road between Joshua Tree (the town) and Twenty Nine Palms. You should also explore the full length of the park via Pinto Basin Road. Both roads feature an abundance of trailheads to hike and offer multiple campsites to pitch a tent or park your camper. If you like stargazing, the dark skies over the desert are a perfect place to pitch your tent – and make sure to bring your tripod, camera, and/or telescope! Provisions are minimal, so make sure to prepare in advance, and if you want to avoid the blistering heat of summer, plan your visit for late March or early October.
3. Los Angeles
The next stop on our California Road Trip itinerary is the unmissable Los Angeles. It’s one of these places that you either love or hate. For us, it’s been love at first sight: we enjoyed every minute spent in LA and can’t wait to go back to explore more!
Honestly, Los Angeles has it all: the laid-back atmosphere, the glamorous Beverly Hills, the hiking to the Hollywood sign, the beaches in Venice and Santa Barbara, the nerdy with UCLA, the movie stars and studios… You’ll have an amazing time exploring the different sides of the city of angels!
We stayed in a guest house in West Hollywood and it was absolutely perfect. We loved the proximity with Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard where you can easily find vegan eats and cool bars.
4. Santa Barbara
Since we didn’t have the time to stop in Santa Barbara on our road trip, we asked Michael of the blog The World Was Here First to tell us all about this place.
One of the best places to stop on a California road trip is the picturesque seaside town of Santa Barbara. You can easily spend a day or two in Santa Barbara enjoying outdoor activities, urban wine tasting and the thriving food scene in the city.
One of the best things to do in Santa Barbara is to stroll around Stearns Wharf and along Santa Barbara’s main beach. This is an ideal spot to hire a bicycle or get onto the water if the weather allows it by renting a surfboard or kayak! There are also a number of fantastic hikes in the mountains surrounding the area.
In the afternoon, make sure to take the time to explore the Funk Zone area downtown which has a number of great shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s also where you can find a number of wine tasting rooms that make up Santa Barbara’s famous Urban Wine Trails. The Urban Wine Trails consist of 28 wineries spread around different neighbourhoods of the town that offer tasting flights or the ability to simply order a glass or two! A couple of our favourites were the Deep Sea Tasting Room on Stearns Wharf and Area 5.1 Tasting Room in the Funk Zone.
— Additional stop between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo —
If you still have plenty of time and don’t mind making a HUGE detour, you should definitely consider exploring Death Valley. It terms of itinerary, it’s best to do it in between these two stops!
5. San Luis Obispo
Here are the recommendations of things to do on your stop in San Luis Obispo by Abi from the blog Happy Go Abi. Can’t wait to visit that town!
On a California road trip, a stop in San Luis Obispo (SLO) is a must! It is filled with the charm of a small town, with cute downtown shops and restaurants, and is also a perfect place to visit if you love nature and exploring the coast.
Some of the best things to do in San Luis Obispo include visiting Bubblegum Alley and adding your own gum to the walls, as well as going to Sunset Drive-in theater at night to watch a double feature. Wandering the town and parks and exploring the Mission is also an excellent way to spend an evening!
If you have a little extra time during your road trip stop, you should spend some time hiking on the beautiful trails nearby. Bishop Peak or the Montaña de Oro area are both lovely choices and provide dramatic views.
And of course, even if you aren’t staying the night, you should check out the world-famous Madonna Inn. Its overpoweringly pink lobby and grounds make it a local icon that people travel far and wide to see. Everything—from the rooms, to the tennis courts, to the bathrooms—is decorated luxuriously and mostly in pink…so you should see it, if only to say that you have!
With so much to see and do in the SLO area, you may find yourself wanting to stay longer—or even wanting to come back time and time again. That’s part of its small-town charm and why you should definitely stop here on your next California road trip!
6. Big Sur
It’s doubtful you haven’t heard of Big Sur by now, and we honestly can’t believe we missed this spot! So here’s all you should know about this town, by Sara from the blog Our Kind of Crazy.
If you’re on a road trip in California, you have to make a stop in Big Sur! Big Sur is located in Central California, just south of Monterey. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH- Highway 1) has some of the most amazing views in California, and Big Sur is right along that route. It’s such a fun drive, with views you won’t soon forget.
Big Sur has beautiful cliffs to the ocean, and has several spots for you to pull over and enjoy the scenery. We recommend stopping at the 80-foot waterfall, McWay Falls in the McWay Cove. It’s easy to get there too. Just park your car in the designated spots and take a short hike down to the cove. You’ll see the waterfall across the way, and can get some great photos of the ocean there too. Sunset is our favorite time to stop here.
Big Sur also has a cute little town where you can grab a bite on your way to your next destination. If you’re driving the PCH on your California road trip, be sure to head to Big Sur during daylight hours, you wouldn’t want to miss all the beauty. It’s definitely worth the stop, as well as the drive through!
— Additional stop between Big Sur and Monterey —
In-between Big Sur and Monterey, you could also stop by the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and not regret it!
We asked Julie of The Bamboo Traveler to tell us all about our next stop: Monterey.
How would you like to go kayaking alongside sea otters, sip wine while watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, or wander around California’s most historic city? You can do all of these in beautiful Monterey.
Monterey is located along California’s rugged central coast, 189 kilometers (118 miles) south of San Francisco. You can easily get to Monterey by taking either Highway 101 or the iconic Highway 1.
Situated along the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Monterey is all about the ocean and its wildlife. To learn more about it, you could make a stop to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can get a close-up view of mysterious jelly fish or watch a spectacle of frolicking sea otters. Better yet, get really up close and personal with marine life by kayaking through Monterey Bay. It’s not unheard of for sea otters to try climbing into your kayak! Another way to experience the amazing marine creatures is to go on a whale watching tour. Depending on the season, you can see humpback whales, grey whales, dolphins, and even killer whales.
Not only does Monterey have the ocean to draw in visitors, its wine is also another reason to visit. You can spend a leisurely afternoon driving around Carmel Valley visiting various wineries, or more simply stroll around Carmel going from one wine tasting room to another.
Lastly, as the capital of California under the Spanish, the port of entry for all of California under Mexico, and finally the place where the United States declared California as part of the U.S, Monterey is also a history lover’s dream. You can easily spend an afternoon wandering downtown Monterey visiting some of California’s most important historic buildings.
8. Elkhorn Slough
On your next California road trip, spend a few hours (or a whole day!) at Elkhorn Slough to check out some local wildlife. This National Estuarine Research Reserve in Watsonville is a one-stop-shop for both hiking and kayaking. It has 5 miles of trails, and if you opt to take the 2-mile South Marsh Loop, you’re likely to see dozens of waterfowl and shorebirds – and maybe even some acorn woodpeckers at the Old Rookery!
For a little more adventure, head to nearby Moss Landing for a paddle around the slough. Hop on a kayak and head down the slough where you’ll have the best chance of seeing wildlife. It’s not uncommon to have an up-close otter or seal encounter… eeeek!
Be aware that (fortunately!) the laws are very strict about wildlife harassment: don’t approach animals, keep a minimum distance of 5 boat-lengths, and don’t feed them. That said, they are curious as can be, and will likely pop up beside you without warning! As long as you don’t intentionally disturb them, you’re good. Just stop paddling, enjoy observing their antics, and let them move on at their pace.
In the (unlikely) event you miss out on seeing critters, Elkhorn Slough is still a can’t miss. It’s a unique tidal salt marsh that’s the second largest in the state, and it’s a designated Wetland of International Importance. It’s a huge bird migration corridor within the Pacific flyway, and a very important Northern California ecosystem. If nature is your jam, this is the place. From a former wildlife biologist, have fun!
9. Santa Cruz
From Elkhorn Slough or Monterey, the next stop on your California road trip itinerary should be Santa Cruz, the quirky shore town both your kids, and your inner child will love, as described by Harmony Skillman from the blog Momma To Go.
Santa Cruz is located on the north end of Monterey Bay, 75 miles south of San Francisco and right off Highway 1.
The town is famous for its boardwalk and amusement park that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Here you will find all sorts of carnival rides, including the Giant Dipper, the fifth oldest roller coaster in the US! If tasty treats are more your speed, you can find any and all of your favorite fried foods here! I’m partial to the Gilroy Garlic Fries, an amazing Boardwalk staple.
A coastal town, Santa Cruz has some great beaches – check out Natural Bridges State Park for gorgeous sunsets or try your hand at surfing at Cowell Beach. Many local outlets offer lessons and wet suits as the Santa Cruz water temp stays cold year-round.
After a day of rides and beach fun, head downtown for a stroll along Pacific Avenue. Here you will find an eclectic mix of boutiques, book stores, coffee shops, restaurants and nightlife! I’m partial to the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and The Saturn Café! [note from TakeYourBag: us too! GO to Saturn Café!!]
Santa Cruz is also a liberal college town, so head to UC Santa Cruz – located up on the hill, where a quick drive through campus will offer spectacular views of the city and bay!
10. San Francisco
You’re probably not going to want to omit a visit to San Francisco on your road trip in California. This versatile city is widely popular, and especially famous for its Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is a cultural hub and caters to a large panel of tastes. Take some time to study the different parts of town to see where you’ll have the most amazing time during your stay!
Since it’s easy to find flights to SFO, San Francisco tends to be a popular departure point for a road trip in California (especially if you’re planning to only do a Northern California road trip, or a Southern California road trip and not the whole coast). It’s also a city from where you can go a great day trips to visit the neighbouring city of Oakland (where we stayed while in SF because the accommodation prices were insane – and we were hosted by friends), or to explore Berkeley and its famous university.
11. Yosemite National Park
For the next stop on our California road trip itinerary, we’re momentarily leaving the coast to head to the amazing Yosemite National Park, as told by Caitlyn from PostCards from Cait. Follow her on Facebook!
I’ve done several California road trips and while I loved exploring the cities, mountains, deserts, and beaches, Yosemite National Park is the one stop that really blew me away!
In Yosemite, you’ll experience glacier-carved valleys, massive granite domes, awe-inspiring waterfalls, abundant wildlife, and ancient groves.
An easy, 1 mile hike will take you to the base of Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America at 2,425 feet.
Scenic drives will take you to famous viewpoints, such as Tunnel View Overlook and Glacier Point. These overlooks will offer you spectacular panoramic views of the towering cliffs and rock formations that rise up thousands of feet from the valley floor.
In Mariposa Grove, you can walk among hundreds of giant sequoias, some of the oldest and largest living things on Earth.
With over 750 miles of hiking trails in the park, there is something for all levels and abilities in Yosemite National Park. In addition to hiking, the park offers plenty of other activities and things to do including biking, climbing, camping, rafting, or simply enjoying a scenic drive. If you want to see some of the best views in the country, add Yosemite National Park to your California road trip itinerary!
— Additional stop between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe —
If you have a bit more time and want to see more gorgeous landscapes, head to Mammoth Lakes between your visit to Yosemite NP and your trip to Lake Tahoe.
12. Lake Tahoe
Our next stop on this epic California road trip itinerary is another off coast spot that you really shouldn’t miss if you have the time to go: the gorgeous Lake Tahoe, as described by Meg from Fox in the Forest. Don’t forget to check her Instagram feed!
Located on the border between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe offers world-renowned alpine beauty. Smack in the middle of the Sierra Mountain Range, Lake Tahoe is the perfect place to see the mountains cascade down into sapphire colored waters.
There are plenty of options for travelers and adventurers year-round. In winter, the Tahoe Basin is a skier’s paradise with 13 ski resorts. The summer time offers the best times for outdoor recreation.
Head to the Desolation Wilderness on the southern end of the lake for stunning granite formations and a bird’s eye view of the iconic Emerald Bay. Intrepid hikers should head to Mt Rose, the highest mountain on the Nevada side of the Lake. If you like to camp in the wild, consider doing part or all of the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile loop trail that circumnavigates the lake.
You can also go and cool off at the water’s edge and take a dip in one of America’s deepest lakes (the depth and the crystal-clear waters are where Tahoe gets its shimmery blue). There are plenty of public beaches that dot the lake, or you can opt to scramble down some rocks and discover secret coves. Water activities include boating, kayaking, swimming, even sea planes land on the lake! For a luxury experience, watch the sunset from the Hyatt Regency Catamaran.
South Lake Tahoe offers more of a city feel, with high-rise buildings, casinos and entertainment. For a more tranquil experience, head to North Lake Tahoe and immerse yourself in the small mountain town lifestyle.
13. Napa Valley
There’s little chances that you’ve never heard of Napa Valley, and the reason is that it’s the place to go to in the States for a great wine-tasting experience, or to have a relaxing vacation lost in the vineyards.
If that’s your thing, there are plenty of options to choose from in Napa Valley, and even more organised tours if you don’t know where to start.
On our Northern California road trip, we went to a cute little town called Yountville, that gave us a great feel of what Napa Valley is all about!
Mendocino is one of the most underrated stops along the Pacific Coast Highway. It is located about halfway between San Francisco and the border to Oregon.
The sleepy seaside town is known for beautiful hikes along the coast, a cutesy downtown area, and a historic Chinese temple. You can also go kayaking and visit sea caves hidden inside those beautiful coastal cliffs right off of the Pacific Ocean.
Mendocino’s got some of the prettiest state parks in California. For a beautiful view of the Pacific, be sure to check out Mendocino Headlands State Park. It’s located just west of downtown, right by the ocean. Drive further north and in less than 10 minutes, you’ll reach Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park. There you can hike to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse and explore the inside during open hours.
Downtown Mendocino has a few bed and breakfasts as well as the Kelley House Museum and the Temple Kwan Tai Museum. The Kelley House Museum is a historic ocean view home with gardens and a pond on the property. Their guided tours provide you with amazing insight into the rich history of Mendocino. Temple Kwan Tai Museum is a Taoist temple dedicated to the Chinese god of war, Kwan Tai. The temple was erected in the 1850s by Chinese immigrants from Guangdong and is one of the oldest temples in rural California.
15. Redwood National Park
Walking under a canopy of trees in Redwood National and State Parks is nothing short of a magical experience! Yes – parks, plural. They’re actually a network of state and national parks that contain about half of all the redwood trees that are left in the US… some of which are thought to be 2,000 years old!
When I first visited, I sounded like a broken record… “Oh my Lord, that’s the tallest tree I’ve ever seen! … no, that one is! … no, that one is!” Sadly, past logging efforts decimated most redwood stands, but the ones found in these northern California parks are now well-protected. The parks have even been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I recently took my son to share the experience with me, and he was equally impressed. We went on a few short hikes, but there are literally hundreds of miles of trails to choose from. Whether you have just a few minutes to spare, or several days to spend, there are tons of opportunities to experience these majestic giants at your own pace.
The beams of sunlight that break through the tree over cover makes for a heavenly sight. A visit to the Redwood Parks is definitely a bucket list item!
16. Mount Shasta Region
The Mount Shasta region is a must visit area to be included in any California road trip itinerary, as told by Allison of the blog She Dreams of Alpine. To know more, don’t forget to check her post on climbing Mount Shasta and her Instagram feed!
The iconic peak Mount Shasta stands as one of California’s tallest mountains. In fact, Mount Shasta is actually a volcanic peak and is the second tallest one in the Cascade Range. Located about 5 hours North of San Francisco, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest area makes for a great stop close to the Oregon border.
This region is filled with beautiful trails, lakes and volcanic buttes and is full of amazing outdoor recreation opportunities, camping, and hiking trails for all levels. Many people visit this region with their sights set on climbing Mount Shasta, but others come to enjoy the charms of this quiet small town nestled in Northern California’s beautiful outdoor wilderness.
Whether you come to hike one of the beautiful trails in this region or to tackle the epic Mount Shasta Peak, you are bound to love this Northern California classic road trip stop.
The end of this epic California road trip itinerary!
That’s it! With these stops, it’s impossible for you not to have a great time in California and discover amazing places you could only have dreamt about!