The Perfect 10 Day California Road Trip Itinerary (2023 Guide)

Plan the ultimate California road trip itinerary with our 10-day road trip itinerary, including all of the best national parks, cities and other attractions!

California is instantly captivating. Its major cities twinkle in the spotlight, from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles. Its natural beauty is abundant as well, from the cliffs of Big Sur to the beaches of Santa Barbara.

However, California is ever-changing, and it changes fast. Rising snow-capped mountains soar out of lifeless deserts. Roads weave through conifer forests and giant redwoods, where alpine lakes mingle among hot springs and local towns that boomed with the growth of climbing.

Metropolises and epic nature are never far apart in this state. But it’s the California road trips between them that make it the perfect state to turn on the engine and put the car in drive.

This ultimate California road trip itinerary will include the highlights of this massive west coast state. From national parks to big cities, lazy beach towns, and more, here is our guide to planning the best California road trip!

Looking for the absolute best things to do in California? Check out our complete list here !

Table of Contents

Where To Stay In Los Angeles

Where to stay in san diego, where to stay in palm springs, where to stay in mammoth lakes, where to stay in lake tahoe, where to stay in sacramento, where to stay in san francisco, where to stay in santa monica, california road trip wrap up, the perfect california road trip itinerary.

The best way to travel from northern California to southern California , or vice versa, is via an epic California road trip. Sure you can take a quick flight, but the best way to absorb all the the Golden State has to offer is by exploring on land.

This 10-day California road trip itinerary gives you a nice introduction to this beautiful state. California is massive, and 10 days is not nearly enough for seeing all of it. But in these 10 days, you’ll get to see as much as possible. Let’s get into it!

The best way to get around is to rent a car and explore on your own! We recommend Rental Cars , which has the largest range of vehicles for the best value on the market.

Los Angeles

Day 1 – Los Angeles

World-famous Los Angeles makes for the perfect place to start your California road trip itinerary. With easy access from around the world, fly into LAX, rent a car, and start exploring. Here are a few of the best things to do in Los Angeles !

  • The Griffith Observatory

Start your time in Los Angeles by getting your bearings. The Griffith Observatory offers amazing insight into the cosmos, but just as applicable are its far-reaching views across the city, the Hollywood Sign, and the Pacific Ocean.

Home to Lotus flower beds, floating swans, and paddle boats, Echo Park is a glimpse into LA’s past and current beauty. Book a paddle boat in advance to best enjoy the scenery. Afterward, pick from a smorgasbord of local food trucks.

  • The Hollywood Bowl

As the sun sets on Los Angeles, take in a show at the beloved Hollywood Bowl. The airy amphitheater has consistent events from festivals to concerts featuring a whole range of genres. With the sky a burst of colors, it’s a captivating music space.

  • Hop-on Hop-Off Bus

Getting around Los Angeles can be a nightmare. Lack of solid public transport and gridlocks can slow you down on what’s already a tight California road trip itinerary.

The Hop-on Hop-Off Bus delivers you to some of the city’s highlights, including the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sunset Strip, and Beverly Hills. You can always wait to pick up your rental car until after you explore LA!

Have more time? Check out our 3 Days in Los Angeles itinerary !

Close to Rodeo Drive, The Peninsula has a world-class restaurant, a rooftop pool, a fitness center, and a full-service spa. It’s the best option for luxury in Los Angeles!

In Venice Beach, Stay Open brings one of the best beaches in Los Angeles. Enjoy free bike rentals and WiFi so you can explore LA with ease.

Close to Hollywood Boulevard, Banana Bungalow leaves you close to the action with cheap onsite dinners plus regular free BBQs. If you’re on a budget during your California road trip, there are some great cheap hostels around the state!

Day 2 – San Diego

This drive takes 2 hours from downtown Los Angeles

After a leisurely drive from Los Angeles, discover the lovable San Diego , where sprawling parks harbor dozens of museums, galleries, and world-class zoos.

Beaches offer more than just a quick surf, in fact, you can expect to find life-changing burgers. At night, the bay glistens alongside the Gaslamp Quarter, here you can reflect on a busy first few days.

San Diego is a must on any California road trip. Here is our list of the best things to do while visiting San Diego.

San Diego

  • Mission Beach and Hodad’s

Before you make it to downtown San Diego, stop for a swim and the best burgers in America. Big call, so I’ll let you decide. Hodad’s is a gastronomic and cultural gem. While Mission Beach is the perfect way to cool off after a big drive.

  • San Diego Zoo

The extensive San Diego Zoo takes you on a journey through our natural world. Experience the Elephant Odyssey or the Polar Bear Plunge alongside 4,500 other endangered or rare animals from across the globe.

  • Balboa Park

It takes days to explore the incredible Balboa Park with a fine-tooth comb. But in such a short time, pick your favorites among the 16 museums, impressive Spanish architecture, landscaped gardens, and galleries.

  • USS Midway Museum

Covering 10 acres, the USS Midway Museum boasts 30 historic aircraft on board the famous carrier. Learn more about WWII and the Battle of Midway, and experience real cockpits alongside other interactive exhibits. Afterward, wander along the Embarcadero.

  • The Gaslamp Quarter

Once the sun has set, the Gaslamp Quarter lights up and the streets’ cobblestones glimmer under the stars. Enjoy a fun night in San Diego while exploring this romantic district home to high-end restaurants and candle-lit cocktail bars.

With four outdoor pools, half a dozen restaurants, a golf course and a spa, the five-star Fairmont Grand Del Mar has all your needs covered.

In Downtown San Diego, Motel6 offers cable TV, free Wi-Fi, and close proximity to the top adventures around the city.

Set in the Gaslamp Quarter, HI San Diego is a refurbished urban hostel with a fun atmosphere, a game room, plus self-guided tours and adventures.

Have more time? Check out our 3 Days in San Diego Itinerary !

Day 3 – Palm Springs

This drive takes 2 hours and 15 minutes from San Diego.

In southern California, Palm Springs is a gateway to epic mountain ranges and mystical deserts. Your time here is packed with hiking trails delivering memorable views and guiding you through a unique national park. But the town itself has a charming culture, shopping, and regular enchanting events.

  • Joshua Tree National Park

The main reason to visit Palm Springs is to explore Joshua Tree National Park. This intriguing national park showcases the beauty of the desert landscapes, its unique flora, which gave the park its name, plus the colors that make every use of an open canvas.

  • Downtown Palm Springs

After visiting Joshua Tree National Park, shop, eat, and walk your way through downtown Palm Springs. Adorable boutiques whisper your name with handcrafted goods looking to find a home in your road trip vehicle. On Thursday evenings, the town comes to life for its weekly VillageFest.

  • Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

With no time to hike, take a trip up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the summit of San Jacinto Peak. The stunning rise provides views across the Coachella Valley along with the Chino Canyon.

  • Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve

If you choose to avoid downtown Palm Springs, Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is a great alternative. Walk among 150-year-old trees where the desert mixes with exotic landscapes to create a spectacularly colorful ecosystem.

  • The San Jacinto Mountains

Another option is to explore the San Jacinto Mountains in greater detail. The Deer Springs Trail is a challenging, designated National Scenic trek that takes you to the San Jacinto peak for an ultimately rewarding experience through memorable desert landscapes.

Find more of the best things to do in Palm Springs here !

Close to downtown Palm Springs, The Paloma Resort is set in historic bungalows with mountain scenery and offers inspired Spanish cuisine in a former mission.

The Travelodge provides travelers with easy access to the town’s best restaurants and shopping while being a great base to explore beyond.

With free onsite parking and complimentary breakfast, the Crashpod Hostel is cozy, inexpensive, and a great place to recuperate.

Day 4 & 5 – Mammoth Lakes

This drive takes 8 hours and 15 minutes from Palm Springs, via Death Valley National Park

Today on your California road trip itinerary, drive from Palm Springs through the ethereal Death Valley. The drive along Route 395 will be unforgettable, delivering you first to Convict Lake and then to the beauty of Mammoth itself.

On the second day, explore the lakes, ride the gondola, and hit the hot springs.

Find more things to do in Southern California here !

  • Death Valley National Park

Break up your journey to Mammoth Lakes with a drive through the otherworldly Death Valley National Park. Stop by Badwater Basin and stand almost 240 feet below sea level in the depths of Death Valley.

If you love unique natural scenery, Death Valley is a must on any California road trip!

Death Valley

  • Convict Lake

Next, get a sneak peek at Convict Lake. The alpine lake is surrounded by fast-rising peaks and while it’s a sunrise hot spot, its serene beauty can be admired at any point. Just off the highway, you won’t even have to leave the car.

  • The Village at Mammoth Lakes

After an enormous and beautiful day on the road, enjoy a relaxing evening in the Village at Mammoth Lakes . Shops, restaurants, and bars combine in this classic mountain village. Enjoy a nice meal before resting up for the day ahead.

  • Stand-Up Paddleboarding

There’s no better way to enjoy the enchanting lakes than on a stand-up paddleboard. The handful of nearby bodies of water are often calm and glass-like, leading to ease of movement and the chance to feel small alongside the stunning Sierras.

  • The Minaret Vista

On your way to Devil’s Postpile, stop at the Minaret Vista to admire the eternal beauty of the Sierra Nevada. Set in the Eastern Sierra Range, these craggy mountains fall down to vast valleys and feature two soaring spires, including Clyde Minaret.

  • The Devils Postpile

A national monument, the Devils Postpile is a formation of giant basalt columns. These were created by lava which cooled over 80,000 years ago. The hexagonal columns can reach up to 60 feet in height.

  • Rainbow Falls

A part of the Devils Postpile National Monument , don’t miss out on a trek to Rainbow Falls. Walk from the post pile to discover a 100 feet waterfall whose consistent rainbows gave the fall its name. You can also walk directly here by driving to the Rainbow Fall trailhead.

  • Mammoth Mountain Gondola

It’s been a busy day of activity, so take it down a notch with a ride on the Mammoth Mountain Gondola . The ride up lands you at over 11,000 feet. The panoramic views span the Mammoth Lakes Basin.

  • Wild Willy’s Hot Spring

End your day with a recuperating experience at Wild Willy’s Hot Spring. It’s been a busy trip so far, so put your legs up in one of the two springs whose temperatures range from 95 degrees up to 105.

From Westin Monache Resort , you can take the gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain before returning to make use of your kitchenette as well as the onsite pool and hot tub.

The Tamarack Lodge dates back to the 1920s and, among the included kitchens and private fireplaces, the lodge hasn’t lost any of its charm.

The Moderne Hostel provides guests with large communal and cooking areas, including BBQ facilities, while being close to Mammoth Mountain.

Day 6 – Lake Tahoe

This drive takes 2 hours and 40 minutes from Mammoth Lakes

With one full day in Lake Tahoe, it’ll be up to you how much you explore. Do you choose to focus your day driving through Yosemite National Park on your way there or do you take the direct route to explore local hikes, parks, and lakeside towns? There’s no losing here.

  • Yosemite National Park

An option along the drive from Mammoth Lakes is the world-famous Yosemite National Park. You’ll need to make it a priority to explore well, but views of El Capitan and Half Dome make any “detour” worth it. Yosemite National Park is so famous that you may even choose to solely focus today’s exploration on that! Luckily this ultimate California road trip is customizable, and you can easily change it to allow for more time in Yosemite National Park.

  • Fallen Leaf Lake

A direct drive to Lake Tahoe leaves ample time to explore. Check out the nearby, charming Fallen Leaf Lake where you can SUP or kayak before enjoying some waterfront eats surrounded by epic mountains.

  • Eagle Rock Trail

For rewarding views of Lake Tahoe without a lengthy hike, meander down the Eagle Rock Trail. The mile-long trek is family-friendly and ends with breathtaking views of the lake with enchanting nature along the way.

  • Emerald Bay State Park

Along the west shoreline of Lake Tahoe, you’ll find the popular Emerald Bay State Park. Find hiking, swimming, and mountain biking throughout while you can also explore Vikingsholm, with its impressive Scandinavian design.

Visiting the charming mountain town of Tahoe City is a great way to ring in the evening. Along the lake’s edge, the town has elegant mountain architecture, local galleries, plenty of places to eat, and bars in which to toast to a great day.

If you need more ideas for exploring Lake Tahoe after your California road trip, here are the best things to do in Lake Tahoe !

Lake Tahoe

Live in the lap of luxury at The Ritz-Carlton , complete with on-site restaurants, spas, and a pool with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.

A stay at the Mother Nature’s Inn comes with free onsite parking, along with inclusive WiFi and Smart TV, while being close to the beach.

The sprawling Mellow Mountain Hostel is close to Heavenly for skiing, summertime gondola rides, the beach, and some of the best action in South Lake Tahoe.

Day 7 – Sacramento

This drive takes 2 hours from Lake Tahoe

Next on your California road trip, enjoy the drive from Lake Tahoe through the Eldorado National Forest on your way to Sacramento.

Take the time to explore the underrated city where farm-to-table restaurants are much more than a niche. Take in the history and, if you have energy, try your hand at some fun outdoor sports.

  • Downtown Sacramento

Culture, history, and food collide in downtown Sacramento. A surprising foodie haven and cocktail paradise, travelers will also be happy to see so many museums and galleries to visit as you’ll discover below.

  • California State Railroad Museum

Within the Old Sacramento Historic Park, the California State Railroad Museum is an ode to westward expansion and the worker’s efforts. The latter particularly focuses on the prominent role of Chinese railroad workers. Explore 19 authentic trains before traveling on one yourself.

  • The American River Trail

If you prefer to keep experiencing the state’s splendid nature, head to Discovery Park. It’s here you can explore one of America’s great bike trails, the American River Trail which spans 32 miles through brilliant scenery.

  • White Water Rafting

Add some adrenaline to your California road trip with some white water rafting. With snow melting from the Sierra Nevada, this part of California is prime for some adrenaline-pumping rafting on the American River.

Looking for more incredible things to do in Sacramento? Check out our ultimate guide here !

In central Sacramento, the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel , evokes class and provides high-end amenities with a poolside bar and hotel restaurant.

With easy access to downtown, Wyndham Garden provides a great place to recuperate before with an onsite restaurant and bar, plus free WiFi.

Save money on your California road trip with this incredible hostel! Nestled in a former Victorian mansion, HI Sacramento provides guests with a social experience with a spacious patio and complimentary breakfasts.

Day 8 & 9 – San Francisco

This drive takes 1 hour and 40 minutes from downtown Sacramento

Start your day early and head towards the stunning California coast, where you should reach San Francisco by mid-morning. From there, head to the waterfront where you’ll enjoy delicious cuisine and epic bay views.

With two days of your California road trip, take your time in San Francisco, see all the attractions, and even take a day trip to Napa Valley.

  • Embarcadero

Canvassing the waterfront of San Francisco, the Embarcadero is the perfect place to start your exploration. As you wander along the boulevard you’ll pass a number of historic piers with excellent views with many offering boat tours into the harbor and Alcatraz Island .

  • Fisherman’s Wharf

With gorgeous views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf is a fantastic lunch spot. The early fishing boats have long gone and the Dungeness crab is ready.

Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to the Hyde Street Pier and its historic ships.

  • Lombard Street

Take your mind away from the famed bridge and you’ll notice how undulating San Francisco is. We mean, it’s crazy steep. Lombard Street represents this best. Home to eight compact turns and beautiful landscaping, it’s a unique drive.

Lombard Street

  • Golden Gate Bridge

Ok, you’ve been patient. It’s time for the Golden Gate Bridge. The incredible site, of orange arches spread between two rising headlands, will be one of the most memorable parts of any California road trip. Admire it from the Presidio before walking along for amazing views of San Francisco.

  • Napa Valley

Finding time for Napa Valley with just two days in San Francisco can be tricky. But lovers of wine and captivating landscapes should make time. An hour north of San Francisco, Napa Valley has over 400 wineries covering a range of budgets and styles.

Save time and energy during your visit to Napa Valley with this half-day wine tour .

If you want more ideas, check out our list of the best things to do in San Francisco !

Your second day in San Francisco is all about nature. Start with an early morning hike up to the Twin Peaks. This slice of untouched nature offers splendid from its summit, at 922 feet.

  • Golden Gate Park

San Francisco’s own Central Park, Golden Gate Park combines historic architecture and eye-catching nature. Walk or ride along the miles of trails to discover the Dutch Windmill and Japanese Tea Garden to go alongside its Botanical Garden.

  • Ocean Beach

After a busy morning of hiking and biking, take some time to relax at Ocean Beach. The three-mile beach spreads the crowds and allows ample room to take in the Pacific Ocean, rugged coastline, and the far horizon.

  • Union Square & Chinatown

Having got enough exercise and sun on day 9 of your California road trip, take some time to indulge. Union Square is the city’s top shopping district and also home to the towering Dewy Monument. Afterward, enjoy some mouthwatering eats in SF’s famed Chinatown.

  • Oracle Park

Leave room, of course, for a ballpark hot dog as you end your second day in San Francisco at the beautiful Oracle Park. Set right on the bay, it’s a great place to catch a game of baseball as the sun sets to the west.

The high-end Fairmont Heritage Place provides guests with luxurious apartments with full kitchens and a private terrace complete with a fire pit.

Set in Union Square, Club Donatello is a four-star hotel with an onsite restaurant, and a rooftop lounge, and is close to Oracle Park. Make the most of your California road trip itinerary by choosing mid-range accommodation right near all the best attractions!

Enjoy modern amenities and a lively atmosphere at ITH Pacific Tradewinds Hostel which is close to Chinatown and the San Francisco waterfront.

Take a look at our list of the 25 best things to do in Northern California if you need more inspiration!

San Francisco

Day 10 – Santa Monica

This drive takes around 9 hours from downtown San Francisco.

After departing San Francisco, you’ll start wrapping up your California road trip by looping around and heading back down to southern California.

Make your way south on a California coast road trip where you’ll soon meet Half Moon Bay and the splendid beauty of one of the most famous roads in America. We’ve saved the best for last!

The Pacific Coast Highway is packed with highlights and epic scenery like the famous Big Sur, making it the perfect way to end your California road trip.

  • Pacific Coast Highway

One of the most iconic roads in America, no California road trip is complete without a journey down the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Yes, you can take this drive from the PNW, but the section between San Francisco and Santa Monica is highlight packed.

Read More: Plan your Pacific Coast Highway road trip with our ultimate guide !

  • Carmel By the Sea

10 minutes from the famous Monterey, Carmel By the Sea is laden with adorable seaside cottages that lead to white sand beaches. However, the architecture combines with the art scene to be the true highlight. Explore a town once home to Jack London and now over 100 art galleries.

The section of Highway 1 through Big Sur is a shock to the senses, in all the best ways. From tunnels and Pfeiffer Beach to the unforgettable Bixby Bridge, Big Sur is maybe the most scenic spot on this drive. No California road trip is complete without driving through Big Sur!

  • Santa Barbara

You’re almost done with your California road trip, so take a break in Santa Barbara ! The stunning town of Santa Barbara is known for seafood, powdery white sand beaches, and fascinating Spanish history. Though you could easily spend days in Santa Barbara, if you’re short on time you can just have a quick driving break here.

  • Santa Monica Pier

There’s no better way to end your California road trip itinerary than with a sunset viewing at the Santa Monica Pier. This iconic landmark will appear around the corner as you caress the edge of Malibu along Pacific Coast Highway . Park the car and watch the sky become ablaze before enjoying some of the pier’s rides.

Check out all the best things to do in Santa Monica here .

Enjoy the beauty of the west coast at the charming Shutters On The Beach with an onsite restaurant along with surfboard and bike rentals.

Enjoy free parking, a simple breakfast, an onsite gym, and free WiFi at the Days Inn which is close to major routes into LA.

A block back from the famed local beaches HI LA – Santa Monica is prime for the last night of your California road trip. They offer lots of fun activities, like a pub crawl and group dinners.

Santa Monica

This California road trip itinerary takes you around the state, through its major cities and best national parks. You’ll experience a mix of civilization, lush landscapes, and lifeless deserts, sometimes on the same day.

From the cliffs of Big Sur to the mountains of Yosemite to the beaches of Santa Barbara, there is so much to see in California! Even the best California road trips couldn’t really include it all, but we’ve done our best to give you a good introduction.

Ten days is short for a west coast road trip, but it’s better than nothing! As a quick and inspiring glimpse into the Golden State, it’s the perfect platter to decide what you’ll inevitably later explore in greater detail.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means if you book accommodation, tours or buy a product, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help us keep creating more free travel content to help people plan their holidays and adventures. We only recommend the best accommodations, tours and products that ourselves or our fantastic editorial team have personally experienced, and regularly review these. Thanks for your support, kind friend!

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About the Author - Alesha and Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award-winning writers and professional photographers behind this blog. We have been travelling the world together since 2008, with a passion for adventure travel and sustainable tourism. Through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. As one of the world's leading travel journalists, our content and adventures have been featured by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Business Insider, Washington Post, Yahoo!, BuzzFeed, Channel 7, Channel 10, ABC, The Guardian, and plenty other publications. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook , YouTube and Instagram .

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The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary

Written By: The Planet D

Road Trips , United States

Updated On: April 17, 2023

This California road trip itinerary will take you along incredible the famous Pacific Coast highway, through deserts, and around lakes and mountains. It is one of the most diverse road trips you can take in the United States.

We have personally driven these roads and highways on different road trips in California and we visited all the sights recommended. This two week itinerary can easily be mixed and matched to create different California road trips as long or short as you like.

California Road Trip Itinerary

Make sure to download your Pacific Coast highway Self Drive tour before embarking on your California road trip. Explore the California Coast at your own pace as you follow the app to discover monuments, towns, and points of interest along the route. It will track your route and play automatically to tell you about your stops as you drive from Monterey to Pismo Beach.

Table of Contents

California Road Trip Map

1. san francisco – 2 days.

We’ve planned the initial stage of our California road trip itinerary from San Francisco . It is easy to fly into from all major hubs and car rentals can be picked up directly at the airport. Plus, traffic in San Francisco isn’t as congested as it is in Los Angeles making it the perfect start for any California road trip itinerary.

Spending two days in San Francisco will give you the chance to see all the iconic sites like the incredible Golden Gate Bridge before moving South. We have an excellent 72 hours in San Francisco guide where you can plan your entire stay in San Francisco .

  • Tip: When we visited San Francisco for the first time, we bought a  City Pass  and explored all the neighborhoods by bus. It was a great way to get acquainted with the layout of the city and have the option to hop on and hop off whenever we wanted with a 24 or 48-hour pass.
  • Click here to search all the car rental agencies and get the best price for your California Road Trip!

Things to do in San Francisco

  • San Francisco Cable Car
  • Golden Gate Park – one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge
  • The Painted Ladies – made famous by Full House
  • Hippie district of Haight Ashbury and China Town
  • Palace of the arts
  • See our complete guide to the Best Hikes in San Francisco

Make sure to get out on the Bay to see the city when in San Francisco, this Golden Gate Bay Cruise let’s you see many of San Francisco’s top attractions. You’ll cruise along the waterfront, sail under the Golden Gate Bay Bridge, go around Alcatraz and see the former hippy enclave of Sausalito. Whatch for marine life such as sea lions, dolphins and whales as you cruise the Marin Headlands wildlife reserves.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

For first-time visitors to San Francisco, we suggest staying near Fisherman’s Wharf. You will be close to all the iconic places in the city.

  • Luxury: Argonaut Hotel – A 4-star hotel located next to the SF Maritime National Historic Park for about $300 per night. TripAdvisor / Booking.com
  • Mid-Range: Pier 2620 Hotel – This eco-friendly hotel is close to the beach. It is a new and modern design, with a fitness center. $200 per night TripAdvisor / Booking.com
  • Budget: Hotel Zephyr – This boutique has nautical-themed rooms, central, near Pier 39, Lombard Street, and Ghirardelli Square. TripAdvisor / Booking.com
  • Read our full guide for San Francisco Neighborhoods and Accommodation Where to Stay in San Francisco 

2. Monterey / Carmel By the Sea – 1 Day

Drive just 2 hours and 45 minutes from San Francisco to Monterrey

After leaving San Francisco, we make our way down the Pacific Coast Highway to Monterey. You can stay either stay in Monterey or Carmel by the Sea. Monterey and Carmel by the Sea are only 10 minutes from each other. We stayed at Carmel by the Sea and it was a great location to get around Big Sur.

When visiting Monterey, you’ll want to get out on the water as it is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. This Monterey Bay tour departs from Old Fisherman’s Wharf to set sail for some whale watching. You’ll see Californian Sea Lions basking in the harbor as you pass Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. 

Things to See and Do

  • Cycling 17 Mile Drive – If there is one thing to do in Carmel before moving on, you must take a tour of 17-Mile Drive. We had a blast on e-Bikes with Big Sur Adventures . Read about our full experience at 17-Mile Drive – California’s Most Scenic Drive. 
  • Cannery Row – The Historic Cannery Row has been transformed from old warehouses to colorful buildings lining the waterfront filled with eateries and shops.
  • Monterey Aquarium – The Monterey Aquarium is the centerpiece of the city where they study the waters of Monterey Bay and tackle the oceans health problems.
  • Kayaking Monterey Bay – Don’t miss getting on the water in Monterey. We highly recommend taking a kayaking tour of Monterey Bay with Adventures by the Sea to view sea otters and sea lions.
  • Surfing Carmel – Beginners will love the easy break and sandy shallow waters of Carmel Bay. We spent the morning taking a lesson with the Carmel Surf Company

Hotels and AirBnBs in Monterrey

The Hideaway – Centrally Located on Juniper Street, a short walk to restaurants, and just a few blocks from the beach. This luxury boutique hotel has in-room fireplaces and offers a modern design. TripAdvisor / Booking.com

Suggested Place to Eat – La Belana Cucina Toscana takes you straight to the heart of Tuscany with a traditional setting. Sit outside on the heated patio and enjoy a fresh farm to table menu drizzled in olive oil and truffles.

4. Big Sur – 1 Day

Continue down the Pacific Coast Highway 1 for an hour from Monterrey to Big Sur .

The Pacific Coast Highway is the Grand Dame of all California road trips. We suggest a minimum of 2 days exploring the coast along Big Sur. You can easily keep your base in Monterey to explore these sights.

A great compliment to your Big Sur road trip is to download this Pacific Coast Highway Self Drive tour. The app showcases the top scenic stops and views from Monterey to Pismo Beach. It tracks your route and the audio guide plays commentary to tell you stories and suggest points of interest. On this leg, you’ll see places like Garrapata State Park, Pfeiffer Canyon, McWay Falls, and the Bixby Bridge.

Considered by many the world’s most scenic drives, The Big Sur portion of California Coastal Drive on Highway 1 is a must for any road trip lover. In our opinion, all California road trips should include this leg as there are so many gorgeous stops from sea cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Things to See in Big Sur

  • Bixby Bridge – Don’t miss stopping at the Bixby Bridge. Made famous by many a film and TV Show (most recently Big Little Lies . Tip : Go for sunrise no tourists were there at all when we were up before dawn.
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – This a good place to go for hikes and walk along the trails. It’s most famous for the McWay Waterfalls and offers beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Pfeiffer Beach – One of the best beaches on the route. Pfeiffer Beach is a bit of a drive off the main highway down a narrow and bumpy road, so it attracts fewer tourists than other viewpoints on Highway 1. Check out: 24 Of The Best Beaches in California
  • Garrapata State Park – Hiking trails along the coast, Karst formations, sea arches, and jagged rocks make for extraordinary views of a rugged coastal landscape at Garrapata State Park. For a complete breakdown of photography stops with GPS Co-ordinates visit our Photography Guide to Big Sur

Where to Stay in Big Sur – Ventana Resort

When exploring Big Sur we made a home base at Ventana Resort and spent two days exploring the surrounding area. We spent one night in  their glamping tents  and one night in a luxurious suite overlooking the ocean. Ventana is the perfect base for exploring Big Sur as it’s in the heart of everything.

Check out our guide to The Best Places to Camp in Big Sur

Where to eat in Big Sur

  • The Sur House – Located at  Ventana Big Sur , The Sur House is an upscale dining establishment using locally sourced cuisine created by Executive Chef, Paul Corsentino. $90 Fix menu offers a divine three-course meal. Location: 48123 Highway 1
  • Big Sur River Inn – The  Big Sur River Inn  was the first hotel and restaurant in the area. Enjoy the photographs from a bygone era dating back to 1932.
  • Nepenthe – Open since 1949,  Nepenthe  is a staple of Big Sur attracting artists, poets, and travelers to its 800-foot sea cliff views. Location: 48510 Highway One
  • Big Sur Roadhouse – This locally run eatery has a funky vibe with family-style seating. Designer Steve Justrich transformed the roadhouse into a unique design that they claim as homegrown modernism.

5. Coastal Highway Stops

This drive takes 3 hours from Big Sur to Santa Maria, but take you time to see all the sights.

We continue down the coast from Big Sur to the charming town of Santa Maria, which is one of our favorite California road trip stops. Be sure to give ample time for breaks on this route. There is still a lot more to see on this portion of the California Coast and you can easily spend a day exploring the sites as you make your way to your next overnight stop. 

  • Hearst Castle – Built by San Simeon, this incredible estate was built on 127 acres on a hill overlooking San Simeon. Pop in for a tour of America’s castle before driving on to spend the night in the lovely town of Santa Maria.
  • Morrow Bay – Another beautiful beach, Morrow Bay’s main attraction is Morrow Rock, a 180-meter tall volcanic plug standing proud offshore.
  • Pismo Beach is another place to stop if you still have time before spending the night in Santa Maria.

6. Santa Maria – 1 Day

So it is a good time to park your car and get out to explore the nearby vineyards for a proper “Sideways” wine tour experience. We have it as one day on your California road trip itinerary, but if you can spend two days here, we recommend it.

Things to do in Santa Maria

  • Wine Tours – There are several vineyards to choose. Hire a private car through Gold Coast Executive Transportation to take you on a wine tour. We had an amazing time touring Wine Caves of  Cottonwood Canyon .
  • Dune Buggy Adventure – To explore even more of the highest dunes in the world, go on a Dune Buggy adventure with  Steve’s ATV Rentals, 332 Pier Ave. Oceano.  Get in a dune buggy and hit the dunes.
  • Hidden Hollywood – Don’t miss this very cool Hidden Hollywood at the Dunes Center museum in Guadalupe Cecil B. Demille created an entire set of the pyramids of Egypt in the middle of the California Sand Dunes. He didn’t want anyone to use his set again, so he buried it in the desert and didn’t tell anyone where it was. It was nearly forgotten by everyone, until the 1990s when the director, Peter Brosnan decided to search for the hidden city.

Hotels and AirBnBs in Santa Maria

Check in to the historic Santa Maria Inn in the center of town. It has been a staple in Santa Maria since 1917. Be sure to peruse the halls to see legendary movie stars that have stayed here.

  • Santa Maria Style Barbecue – If you want to try authentic Santa Maria Style Barbecue, go to Far Western Tavern Tavern in Orcutt.

7. Santa Barbara – 1 Day

Today we drive a short distance of just 1 hour from Santa Maria

Continuing on through wine country and making our way through our California road trip itinerary, we arrive in Santa Barbara for a night before stopping in Los Angeles.

Santa Barbara is considered one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions with nine different wine routes to explore. It is a popular escape from Los Angeles, and there are many things to do here.

Things to do in Santa Barbara

  • Sunset Sail – We suggest a sailing trip to enjoy the beautiful sunset and the California Coast followed by dinner on a patio by the waterfront.
  • Stearns Wharf – Historic deep-water pier dating back to 1871.
  • Shopping – Santa Barbara is all about the upscale experience, stroll the Spanish style shops lining State Street.
  • Museums – Check out the many museums. The Museum of Art, MOXI – The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation and Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center.

Santa Barbara Hotels and AirBnBs

We stayed at the luxurious Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara. This estate is the perfect place to relax after all that driving.

8. Los Angeles – 2 Days

It’s an hour and a half to Los Angeles so you can start enjoying the city immediately

Click here for map CA coast

We’ve come to the next metropolis on our California Road Trip and it is time to explore L.A. Los Angeles is a good place to start for southern California road trips. Who doesn’t love Los Angeles? There are so many things to do in LA , that you could have your entire California road trip right here.

Things to do in Los Angeles

The possibilities are endless for sightseeing in L.A. so you can decide how long you want to stay here. From Universal Studios and Disneyland to hiking up to see the Hollywood sign or follow the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You must get out to see the beaches of Los Angeles. Our favorite beach is Manhattan Beach where you can see the famous 90210 beach house. But everyone loves popping over to Venice Beach too. I hope you’ve rented a nice car to drive along Rodeo Drive but if not, don’t worry, you’ll fit right in with the Bohemian atmosphere of Venice Beach. Read 25 Best Things to Do in Los Angeles – Hollywood, Hikes, And More

  • Note: You seriously need a car to explore L.A. It is spread out and it was made for driving.
  • Check out our post: Where to Stay in Los Angeles – 4 Hotels to Make You Feel Like a Star. 

Option: Continue to San Diego – Or Turn North

From Los Angeles you can continue south to San Diego or start heading north to make your way back to San Francisco.

  • The Best Things to Do in San Diego – A Local’s Guide to the City
  • Where To Stay In San Diego – The Best Neighborhoods & Areas

For our road trip, we turned north up towards the National Parks .

9. Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day

From Los Angeles we drive two hours to the iconic Joshua Tree National Park .

Get the link to this portion of your road trip ideas in California.

Joshua Tree National Park is where two deserts meet: The Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. There are lookout points and there’s even a cactus garden. You can camp overnight in Joshua Tree and there’s also rock climbing. It’s one of the premier places on earth for bouldering. We only suggest spending a day here on this California Road Trip Itinerary, but if you have more time, put a tent in the back of your car and spend a couple of days hiking Joshua Tree and exploring more of California

10. Death Valley National Park

It takes about 2 hours to drive through non stop

If you are planning a California road trip, you must try to include a day driving through Death Valley. It’s very hot, dry, and it’s a beautiful drive, but this portion of your California road trips planner should involve some precautionary steps. The average temperature is 48 degrees Celcius. (120F) Luckily there are enough stops at viewpoints along the road that keep you from having to trek too far for viewing in the heat.

  • Safety in Death Valley : Pack plenty of water, cover-up, and wear sunscreen.
  • Get the Google maps of  road trips California with a detour to Vegas .

11. Yosemite National Park – 2 Days

From Death Valley we drive 7 hours to Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of the Big 3 National Parks in the USA and it did not disappoint. It is where the legendary photographer Ansel Adams set up shop and took some of the most recognizable nature photographs of all time.

Things to See in Yosemite

Yosemite has all those iconic formations that you’ve all heard of like “The Nose” and “El Capitan”. Here you’ll find Bridalveil Falls, and the famous Tunnel View Lookout. Glacier Point is another not-to-miss stop. It’s also a place for adventurers to get out an enjoy nature. There are so many hiking trails you will need days to complete them all. Read more at Things to do in Yosemite National Park

En route to Yosemite, be sure to stop at Sequoia National Forest. We combined our stay in Yosemite with seeing the sequoias as they are less than an hour away. A highlight for us was taking the park tour to see the Grand Sequoia Trees of Mariposa Grove. It is a bit of a drive from Yosemite, but hey, you’re on a road trip so it’s right up your alley!

When booking accommodation in Yosemite, plan in advance. During high season, things sell out fast! Curry Village has a range of canvas tents and wooden cabins plus hotel rooms. Accommodation range from basic tents with shared bathrooms to private hotel rooms with bathrooms. Check out TripAdvisor for prices .

  • Yosemite Valley Lodge is a great location to make a base in Yosemite. There’s free parking, free Internet and a pool. Read more: Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park

12. Lake Tahoe – 2 Days

From Yosemite it is 2 hours and 30 minutes to Tahoe.

There are two major tourist areas to make a base in both South and North Lake Tahoe. The south is certainly the busier of the two sides of the lake with casinos, nightclubs and lots of people. While the north side of the lake is all about nature, quiet family run lodges and rugged and historic ski hills, the South sits directly on the Nevada border and feels kitschy and commercial.

Things to do in Lake Tahoe

  • Scenic Drive – The best views most certainly happen when driving between South and North Tahoe via Emerald Bay State Park. It takes an entire day to really explore the lake and you must give a lot of time for sightseeing at Emerald Bay.
  • Emera l d Bay State Park – Emerald Bay has several different scenic stops and each one is a must! When you pull over, be sure to get out of your car and hike to the viewpoints. They get more spectacular with each turn! Hike down to the bay and see the famous Vikingsholm Castle or go on a lake cruise.
  • Camp Richardson – If you are up for more hiking, there are trails all around Camp Richardson that are less steep than the hike down from Emerald Bay. They also offer hotel and cabins for lodging.
  • Skiing – Sugar Bowl Ski Resort is the closest skiing to San Francisco and receives the most snowfall out of all the hills in California. After driving up the long and winding road, we stopped for a magnificent view of Donner Lake. North Star offers the luxury end of the spectrum of skiing with the only slope-side five-star lodging in the area, and don’t forget Mt.Rose offering Tahoe’s Highest Base elevation. Heavenly Mountain located in South Tahoe.
  • Read Things to do in Lake Tahoe in Winter

Hotels and AirBnBs in Lake Tahoe

  • There are plenty of lodging options in North Lake Tahoe and a good stay for families would definitely be our lodge at Cedar Crest Cottages .
  • Sunnyside Resort is a welcoming resort located on the Shore of Lake Tahoe. Your stay includes continental breakfast and afternoon tea.

Where to Eat – We loved our meal and the friendly staff at  Sunnyside Restaurant and Resort  located at 1850 W Lake Blvd, Tahoe City. It has been a Sunnyside tradition since 1965.

13. Sacramento – Bonus Night

It’s about a five-hour drive from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, so if you want to split up the 5-hour drive we suggest stopping in Sacramento . Even if it’s not on your California road trip itinerary from the start, it’s worth the time to see all of this history. The state capital of California is worth a visit even if you only see the historic downtown landmark of Old Sacramento. This 28-acre district is filled with old town saloons and bars taking you back to the 1800s.

Where to Stay in Sacramento

A great place to stay is  The Kimpton Sawyer Hotel  that is just a short 15-minute walk from Old Town. This new upscale hotel is located in the heart of Sacramento overlooking the Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings.

How much does it cost to Road Trip in California?

As you’ve seen, your California road trip itinerary can move in a lot of different directions. There were a lot of stops we didn’t even make because this state is so enormous. As such, the cost can vary greatly depending on lodging.

Accommodation – If you stay in a campground you will pay $35 per night but you can also spend up to $1000 per night in luxury lodges like Ventana in Big Sur or the Four Seasons in Santa Barbara.

This road trip is 1500 miles in total . If the average car gets 20 miles per gallon and the average cost of fuel is $3.50 per gallon, you can expect to pay $262 in fuel for this trip.

Meals too can have a broad range. If you want a multicourse meal at some of the luxury hotels, you can spend up to $200. but you can also hit roadside diners for $20. We mixed and matched packing lunches, eating in diners and sometimes splurging on gourmet meals. We suggest you do the same to make the most of your trip.

If you can get breakfasts included and pack sandwiches and waters for lunch, you have just saved a lot of money for a romantic dinner out.

Full Map of Our Road Trip in California

Whatever route you choose, you will go through some of the best  scenery in all of California . We hope to have given enough information to create your own tour by offering these California road trip ideas.

You have now completed the route and can make your way back to The San Francisco Bay area to return your rental car. Or feel free to stick around California. There are so many places to visit , you can spend months exploring.

Did you enjoy this California Trip Planner? Why not pin it to use as a reference for future road trips.

And that ladies and gentlemen are our picks for the best road trips California has to offer. So, now you are ready to hit the road with a solid plan of all the things to do in California!

To see our full itinerary through California check out  Follow ThePlanetD from Oceans to Mountains  on the Visit California Website.

  • Things to do in Napa Valley
  • 16 Best Cities in California
  • 27 Best Beaches in California
  • 15 Best Hikes in California – Inspiration to Get Outdoors

You may also like these other great road trips:

  • 25 of The Best Road Trips in the World – That We’ve Taken
  • 13 of the Best Canadian Road Trips – That We’ve Done
  • Arizona Road Trip – The Ultimate 10 Day Itinerary
  • Dempster Highway Road Trip – Yes You Can Drive to the Arctic
  • The Cowboy Trail – A Southern Alberta Road Trip
  • Driving the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper Alberta

Our trip to California was in partnership with Visit California. For more information on California travel and itineraries,  visit their website. As usual, all opinions are our own.

Travel Planning Resources

Looking to book your next trip? Why not use these resources that are tried and tested by yours truly.

Flights: Start planning your trip by finding the best flight deals on Skyscanner

Book your Hotel: Find the best prices on hotels with these two providers. If you are located in Europe use Booking.com and if you are anywhere else use TripAdvisor

Find Apartment Rentals: You will find the cheapest prices on apartment rentals with VRBO . 

Travel Insurance: Don't leave home without it. Here is what we recommend:

  • Allianz - Occasional Travelers.
  • Medjet - Global air medical transport and travel security.

Need more help planning your trip? Make sure to check out our Resources Page where we highlight all the great companies that we trust when we are traveling.

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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine , the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

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49 thoughts on “The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary”

Wow, what a great itinerary! I remember my California road trip like it was yesterday – an unforgettable experience. Starting in San Francisco was a smart choice – it’s such a diverse city with so much to see and do. I couldn’t get enough of the panoramic views from Golden Gate Park! And that City Pass was definitely a worthwhile investment. Made getting around the city super convenient. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway was absolutely stunning. It’s a journey I think everyone should experience at least once. For anyone planning this road trip, don’t rush it! Take your time and really soak in the breathtaking views. It’s worth every second.

Oh wow! This is a great itinerary. Super detailed – thank you. We love California.

Thank You for sharing! This detail very use full for me!

This is really an ultimate road trip! I live in CA and have done so much of this but only little bits at a time. Beautiful photos!

This California road trip is really amazing and very useful for road trippers. Thank you for sharing.

Thanks Sharon, I’m glad we could help! And have a great road trip! When do you leave for California?

This is incredible and you travel photography is totally shocking! In spite of the fact that I live in California, there are a few places on your excursion that I haven’t visited at this point! I’m anticipating getting to Lake Tahoe and Death Valley sooner rather than later! A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing!

You are going to love Lake Tahoe. In the winter it’s a great destination. They really have it figured out as a four season destination. Make sure to bring plenty of water for Death Valley. I am sure you are used to the heat, but we were amazed with how hot it actually was.

Santa Barbara, California is a nice place to vacation and travel to often.

Santa Barbara is gorgeous. I’ve always wanted to go there since the soap opera called Santa Barbara. It didn’t disappoint.

I’m looking forward to getting to Lake Tahoe and Death Valley in the near future! Thanks for sharing!

Enjoy! They are two great and very different locations.

Super detailed – thank you!

Thanks, I’m glad we could help!

This is a great itinerary! There is so much to see in California. I have been creating CA road trip itineraries for 4 years of different duration and covering various interests. I currently have 35 and counting on my blog.

Oh wow! There are so many places to see in California, it really does take years. This road trip planner is from several different trips we’ve taken as well. It would be a dream to do it all again at one time!

I could not agree with you more about California being one of (if not the) best destinations for a road trip. Have you ever thought of renting a campervan to make the trip? It really makes the trip all the more immersive when you can stop and sleep right in the middle of it instead of having to venture off the beaten path to find lodging. And in most cases, you can do that in Cali. I recommend Travellers-Autobarn for an awesome campervan rental. They have locations in San Francisco and LA. I put their link in the website field. Happy Trails!

A campervan would be amazing. We love camping and meeting people on the road and we find that campgrounds are so much fun. Thanks for the tip!

Good to see wonderful snapshot of California and California road trip itinerary.

Thank you for sharing with us.

Great guide. Brings back so many California road trip memories. Planning one now with kids in tow!

Thanks! We love California

California is just amazing and blog was so informative about the Joshua Tree,Los angles ,South Lake Tahoe,Yosemite,Death Valley i love these kinda places actually nice write-up thanks or posting!

This post made me move towards road trip to California. Incredible post along with awesome photograph which is central attraction of the blog. Reading this post made my day. I wish I could travel like you without any worry of time.

Appreciate it for your great effort that made my day with motivation.

I hope you get the chance to road trip in California. We also have a photography guide to Big Sur with all the GPS coordinates so you can make the most of yoru trip. https://theplanetd.com/visual-guide-to-big-sur-coastal-drive-california/

A California road trip has been on the top of my travel bucket list for so long and this post hasn’t changed my mind. I’ve been to both LA and SF but would love to see all the amazing scenery in between.

Two great locations! You already have a great start to your road trip? Where would you like to go next?

This post makes me want to move home and go on a road trip! Thanks for giving me so many places to book mark. Can’t want to visit Cali again now!

Lucky you being from California. It is one of the greatest states in our opinion 🙂

Yes indeed it is great

This is great and you photography is absolutely stunning! Although I live in California, there are several places on your road trip that I haven’t visited yet! I’m looking forward to getting to Lake Tahoe and Death Valley in the near future! Thanks for sharing!

Wow, that is a serious road trip, filled with so many gorgeous things! When I was growing up, we did the Highway 1 trip several times, and I have so many great memories of it. This route takes you to all kinds of places I am yet to explore! Love it!

This is some great advice for our upcoming trip. I’m currently planning a road trip from San Francisco, so this is super helpful! Beautiful pictures you captured. Thank you so much for sharing this post.

I just want to tell that your photographs are really very inspiring and they just got me. I wanted to meander in the streets of this state. Thank you for taking us on this part.

Okay … just read over all the comments and I see a lot of people don’t care for Las Vegas. Fair enough. Please don’t right the whole city off as wasteful and uncaring for the environment. I’d ask you to please be open minded and learn more about our city before jumping to that conclusion. There’s more to Las Vegas than the four miles people know as the Strip.

Get in touch regarding Las Vegas and anything you want to know about the Southwest. I’ve lived in Vegas for five years and know the Southwest well. Would love to chat about your plans and provide recommendations/answer questions. You know where to find me!

We’ve been living in the bay area our whole lives and still haven’t done this route. SF direct to LA yes, but not this kind. Sounds like an adventure! I heard you two were at a Travel Massive event in SF late last year no? It was at a beer shop I believe. We were there too!

Hi. That trip sounds amazing. I’ve actually been to all those places on a Trek America tour. Alcatraz is a must see, there is plenty to do in Vegas without gambling and if you get the chance to take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon do it because the views are to die for. You’ll have a blast! l look forward to reading about it.

You guys are going to have such a great trip! I’m from the SF area, went to college in LA and spent several summers on family backpacking trips in Yosemite, so I have to admit I’m actually a little jealous. Enjoy it extra for me, please!

Too bad you will be missing Lake Tahoe! One of the most beautiful places in the country! You definitely have to plan a trip to visit here at some point 🙂

Did a similar road trip last year and Cam is right, you need to stop by Sequoia National Park and see the General Sherman Tree (it’s basically on the way from Yosemite to Bakersfield!). With that said, still looks like tons of fun and I’m sure it’ll be a blast!

Thanks for the report : ) We will be doing about the saem route in September: Denver-Ouray-Arches-Bryce-Zion-Grand Canyon-Las Vegas-Death Valley-Mammoth Lakes-Yosemite-SFO 🙂

— Anton Way Any Way – Airfare search done right http://www.wayanyway.com

Sounds like a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to do a west coast road trip. I have driven from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas, and I definitely did not spend enough time at the Grand Canyon. Las Vegas is fun, and as for shows any Cirque du Soleil show will be a good bet. I saw O which was fantastic.

Seriously–you are driving right by some really amazing places with no time to stop. You have to add several more days and visit Sequoia National Park (world’s largest trees), and Death Valley National Park.They are both incredible! Las Vegas is soulless and weird and there’s nothing to do if you don’t like gambling (my friend Jane who lives there slaps me every time I say that–well, not really, but I can tell she wants to). Replace your time in Las Vegas with time in Sedona, Arizona, about an hour’s drive south of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Plus, Zion isn’t all that far from Bryce Canyon National Park, which is way better! How’s that for unsolicited advice!

If you want to get out of California, these are all great suggestions. We need a year to really visit California and all the great States that Surround it.

Wha?! You’ve never been to Vegas…? Looks like a fun road trip, we’ve done a couple Californian road trips but we’ve never made it to Utah or Arizona. We originally planned to due a Utah, AZ, NV, CO road trip combined with TBEX this year, but Baby B is not a fan of long car trips, so that ones on the shelf for a few years

What a great route, including some mind-blowing scenery. Don’t spend too long in Vegas. We were disgusted by the excess and waste also. A sidetrip to the Hoover Dam would be an eye-opener as to just how much water is being sucked up. The water of Lake Mead will be so low by 2017 that they dam may not be able to produce any power.

Whoa! I met Felipe from Twtvite in Berlin last summer. Cool guy! Sounds like the road trip will be a blast. Zion National Park is amazing!

You’re not doing Highway 1 at all????

That’s by far one of my favourite road trips, between SF and LA!

Thanks for your great and motivating article.

The top 5 road trips in California

Alexis Averbuck

Sep 10, 2023 • 4 min read

Bixby Bridge on the way from San Franciso to L.A.

The ultimate California road trips take you from sea to mountains and through desert and redwoods © Oleksandr Telesniuk / 500px

Road-tripping is the ultimate way to experience California , so fill the gas tank and buckle up for unforgettable drives through scenery that tugs at your heart and soul.

Get ready for memory-making encounters as you wheel through sensuous wine country, humbling redwood forests, epic desert expanses, endless miles of coastal highway and sky-touching Sierra Nevada peaks. Just make sure that rental car has unlimited miles – you'll need 'em all.

California is the third-largest state in the US , and you could easily spend weeks navigating its rural byways, safely distant from the nerve-jangling, often-jammed interstate system. These five classic road-tripping routes are soaked in enough epic scenery to make each deliciously slow, winding mile worthwhile.

A late afternoon view of Pacific Coast Highway (aka Highway 1) on the Central California coastline in the Big Sur area.

1. Pacific Coast Highway

Best road trip for world-class ocean views & autumn trips Dana Point at Interstate 5–Hwy 101 in Leggett; 656 miles

No matter if you follow the entire 656 miles or just a short stretch of coast-hugging Hwy 1 , you'll hit the Insta jackpot. Posing options include dramatic sea cliffs, sun-soaked surfing towns, playful harbor seals and the Golden Gate Bridge .

Our top pick for classic California dreamin’ snakes along the Pacific coast, although officially, only the short, sun-loving stretch of Hwy 1 through Orange and Los Angeles Counties can legally call itself Pacific Coast Hwy (PCH). Never mind those technicalities, because equally bewitching ribbons of Hwy 1 and Hwy 101 await all along this route.

Local tip: For best results, avoid driving the PCH in the spring and summer months, when the central and northern coastline can be socked in by fog and the rainy season can initiate landslides. Instead, September and October will yield the sunniest skies and some of the best weather as you spend a week checking this beaut off your bucket list.

Scenic road in the Mojave National Preserve

2. Route 66

Best for iconic drives & weekend drives Arizona border near Needles–Santa Monica; 315 miles

Get your kicks on America's “ Mother Road ,” which brought Dust Bowl refugees, Hollywood starlets and hippies to California. Cruise from the desert to the Pacific Ocean, pulling up alongside retro relics, sleeping in a tipi hotel and fueling up in neon-lit diners.

The Golden State was the promised land at the end of a long and sometimes lonesome road. Today you motor across the Mojave Desert – a relative breeze compared to times of yore – through famous western towns, like Barstow and Daggett, into the San Bernardino National Forest. Emerge in Pasadena and Los Angeles before dead ending into Hwy 1 in Santa Monica for a grand coastal-view payoff.

3. Gold Country and California Highway 49

Best for historic hills & family road trips Oakhurst–Nevada City; 200 miles

Follow Hwy 49 through the rough-and-tumble Sierra Nevada foothills, a stronghold of gold-rush history with thrilling, mostly true tales of banditry, bordellos and bloodlust.

That highway number is significant: it commemorates the ’49ers who came seeking fame and fortune in California’s original Gold Rush. Today the route winds through Gold Country towns such as Placerville and Nevada City, past ghostly Old West mines and Victorian buildings housing inns, restaurants and museums.

You won't want to miss the blend of western history and charming wineries strung along stunning views of the Sierra Nevada. Give yourself three to four days to enjoy this outdoorsy, family-friendly road trip. Summer and early fall are ideal times to go.

Detour: Hwy 49 comes mighty close to Yosemite National Park (15 miles) and Lake Tahoe (75 miles), both wonderful jumping-off points for family camping and natural majesty.

Avenue of the Giants California

4. Avenue of the Giants

Best for road trips with kids & raw redwood brilliance Stafford–Highway 101 junction; 32 miles

The incredible 32-mile road at Humboldt Redwoods State Park is canopied by the world's tallest trees, some of which were seedlings during the Roman Empire. It’s one of the most justifiably celebrated drives in California, a place where travelers stand with jaws agape and necks craned upward. The best time is in the morning when sunlight glints off dew-drenched ferns.

The route connects a number of small towns with mid-20th-century motels, diners serving “lumberjack” meals and pull-offs packed with Harleys.

Among the majestic groves along the Avenue, like the rightly famous Rockefeller Grove and the Founders’ Grove, the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove is home to an interesting four-sided hearth, designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan. Walking trails wind through all the groves for proper tree-hugging.

A road in Death Valley disappearing into the horizon

5. Desert Solitaire in Death Valley

Best road trip for moody moonscapes & winter or spring driving Palm Springs–Death Valley; 290 miles

Tank up and load the water onboard as you road-trip from Palm Springs through Palm Desert and Joshua Tree up to Death Valley . You’ll drive where California pioneers and gold miners once rolled their wagons. 

In Death Valley National Park the magnum forces of natural and human history collide. Artists Drive is nine miles of vividly variegated desert hills, a taster of the area’s sensuous sand dunes, water-sculpted canyons, rocks moving across the desert floor, extinct volcanic craters, palm-shaded oases, soaring mountains and endemic flora.

Local tip: Go between February and April for spring wildflower blooms and cooler temperatures. Give yourself three days to soak up sites like Badwater Basin (the lowest elevation in the US), Mesquite Flat and Emigrant & Wildrose Canyons .

This article was first published January 2011 and updated September 2023

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californiacrossings.com

The Best California Road Trip Itineraries: 13 Grand Adventures

California is built for road trips. We’ve got 163,000 square miles of mountains, desert, redwood forest, beaches and pastoral landscapes. And while driving the Pacific Coast Highway or doing a lap of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are popular (more on them below), there are a whole lot of other backroads and coastal drives that await you.

So, we’ve compiled our favorite baker’s dozen of California road trip itineraries. These CA road trip ideas cover the whole state, north, south, east and west and all of them promise stunning landscapes and epic adventures.

Palm Springs sunset road.

(This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)

  • Our 13 Fave California Road Trip Itineraries

This CA road trip planner has a lot of detail. Each itinerary has mileage info and suggested number of days along with a rough idea of which roads to take. We’re also suggesting some itinerary highlights, when to go and some top stays along the way.

We think you should read the whole thing, so that you can get itinerary ideas for multiple trips. But if you’re in a hurry, please use the table of contents to skip around to the areas which most peak your interest.

Pacific Coast Highway: SF to LA

Pacific coast highway: north coast, north coast redwoods, the central coast loop, napa/sonoma wine country drive, highway 49 gold country route, the lassen/shasta volcanic legacy highway.

  • National Park Trifecta: Yosemite, King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

Highway 395 Eastern Sierra Drive

South coast beaches: la to san diego, california deserts loop: san diego to death valley, the best of the sierra nevada scenic drive, the best california road trip itinerary (in 2 weeks).

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer State Park

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  • Start : San Francisco
  • End : Los Angeles (you can do the reverse, but pullouts are easier to do north-to-south.)
  • Miles : 460
  • # of Days : 3-6
  • Route : Highway 1 all the way down

The Pacific Coast Highway is America’s classic road trip and hand’s down the most popular California road trip itinerary. It actually runs the full length of California from the Oregon Border to San Diego. And we cover more sections of it in the North Coast and South Coast road trips below.

But the section from SF to LA is a fave Cali road trip for the sheer jaw-dropping scenery. If you need some convincing, check out our advice on why we think Big Sur is so worth it .

Just go ahead and bookmark our SF to LA PCH itinerary . It’s a 5-7 day slow roll down the coast which is optimized for epic coastal views, marine life, wine tasting and fun beaches.

On the northern section of the drive, key stops include whale watching in Monterey Bay, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the 17-mile drive through Carmel .

Once you hit Big Sur , our favorite stops include the Point Lobos State Park, Garrapata Beach, redwoods in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Beach (purple sand!), Sand Dollar Beach, the Piedras Blancas lighthouse , Hearst Castle and elephant seals at Ragged Point.

Dinosaur Cove Cove Shell Beach Pismo, with beach and tree.

After Cambria, you can head inland for wine tasting in Paso Robles or stay on the coast road. You can visit quirky Harmony town , do some fun hikes and eat cookies in Cayucos , or take on some activities in Pismo Beach , like visiting Pismo’s best beaches or doing some Edna Valley wine tasting .

In the southern section of the hike, you can visit the quirky Solvang Danish town, do yet more wine tasting in Los Olivos and swing into Santa Barbara to visit the mission and art galleries. Then it’s a long roll down Highway 1 past some of Northern LA County’s prettiest beaches.

When to Do the PCH

Summer is the busiest time to visit Big Sur . And winter is very tricky because winter storms often close Highway 1 through Big Sur. We favor April/May or September-November for the finer weather and slower pace.

Notable Places to Stay on the PCH

The Hyatt Carmel Highlands is a 5-star splurge with killer views. For something more low-key amidst the redwoods, you can also rent glamping cabins in Big Sur . Get an ocean view (with free sunsets!) at the Vespera Marriott in Pismo Beach.

Mendocino Coast Road with beach overlook

  • End : Leggett
  • Miles : 210
  • # of Days : 3-5
  • Route : Highway 1 all the way up

This northern section of the PCH is less popular than the Central California section, but it’s notable for its rugged coastline, Tule elk, some of our favorite northern California coastal towns . And if you’re thirsty, there’s no shortage of wine tasting throughout this region.

On the southern end of this road trip, notable stops include Muir Woods (reservations in advance are required), the Marin Headlands and dog-friendly Stinson Beach (one of our favorite CA hippie towns .)

Point Reyes National Seashore boat wreck.

In the mid section, Point Reyes National Seashore is worth at least a full day, with tons of hikes, Tule elk, elephant seals and the lovely cypress tunnel. There are also wine and cheese tasting rooms nearby. Cute Bodega Bay is worth a stop, as are the Sonoma Coast, Fort Ross and Salt Point State Parks.

There’s also a ton to do in and around Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Detour onto Highway 128 to visit the Anderson Valley vineyards and take a stroll through the Hendy Woods redwood groves. You can also find coast redwoods and a fern grove in Van Damme State Park , killer sunsets on the Mendocino Headlands, a quiet cove at Jug Handle beach and the skunk trail and rail bikes in Fort Bragg.

We are (arbitrarily) ending this routing in Leggett on Highway 101, but you can combine this California road trip plan with the one for the North Coast redwoods and do both as a loop.

When to Do the North Coast

This part of California receives a ton of rain between December and March. Any other months are fine and April/May and Sept/Oct are quieter times to go.

Notable Places to Stay on the North Coast

The Palace Hotel in SF is one of the city’s oldest and it offers afternoon tea in their stunning atrium lobby. For some oceanfront bathing, the Seamist cottage in Bodega Bay has an ocean front hot tup and the North Cliff hotel in Fort Bragg has ocean view bathtubs with a fireplace.

San Francisco to Redwoods National Park road trip. giant coast redwood trees

  • End : Crescent City
  • Miles : 355
  • # of Days : 4-7 days
  • Route : Highway 101/Highway 1 all the way up

This is one of our favorite California road trip itineraries for all of the forest bathing opportunities. California’s North Coast Redwoods can easily be done as a loop in conjunction with the coastal route just above. Or, if you are keen for some serious me-time in the trees, you can just focus on this particular itinerary.

This road trip covers 13 state parks, one national park and some whacky roadside attractions…all focused on Coast Redwoods. We have a very thorough redwoods road trip itinerary with a full FAQ, map, advice on the best time to visit the redwoods , and trip planning ideas.

But here are some of our favorite highlights: The Avenue of the Giants scenic drive in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the scenic Drury parkway drive in Prairie Redwoods State Park, the Roosevelt Elk in Prairie Redwoods, the wacky Trees of Mystery , the Lady Bird Johnson grove in Redwoods National park, and the groves and Boy Scout hike in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Phew, that’s a lot of trees!

Roosevelt Elk in Prairie Redwoods State Park

When to Do the North Coast Redwoods

Notable places to stay in the redwoods.

There aren’t a lot of fancy hotels in this part of California. You’ll want to look for cozy inns and places that give you forest or ocean views. You can go glamping in the woods near Trinidad, or at the Mendocino Grove , or lodge at the Lighthouse Inn in Crescent City is near Jedediah Smith and close to downtown restaurants and the actual lighthouse.

California Morro Bay beach

  • Loop : Between Monterey and Santa Barbara
  • Getting There : ~2 hours from LA to Santa Barbara or SF to Monterey
  • Miles : 506
  • #of Days : 3-5
  • Route : Highway 1, Highway 101, Highway 33

Many folks just drive down Highway 1 through Big Sur, which is certainly worth the views and the beaches. But there are some really great things to see and do on the Central Coast’s interior.

This itinerary goes down (or up) the coast and then laps back, taking some little known scenic roads. This whole region has a chill vibe and you can use that to set a leisurely pace for your road trip.

Drive…stop at a beach…drive…stop for a walk…drive…have a long lunch…drive…do a wine tasting…wash rinse repeat.

All of the key stops that we noted on the PCH itinerary above are still relevant. But some of our favorite interior stops include: wine and olive oil tasting in Paso Robles , the San Luis Obisbo Mission, eating danish in Solvang, and the Carrizo Plain National Monument (if the spring flowers are blooming).

We also recommend taking a winding scenic drive through Los Padres National Forest. It goes from Ventacopa to Ojai on Highway 33. And for that matter, it’s really fun to wander around the wine country backroads in Paso Robles and Los Olivos. Even if you aren’t into wine, the countryside is really beautiful.

Paso Robles sunset Adelaida road.

When to Do the Central Coast Loop

This route is really fun in the summer, after the June gloom fog clears. The Carizzo Plain often blooms in early April. And there are fall wine harvest festivals, which is a great time to visit Pismo Beach .

Notable Places to Stay in on the Central Coast

There’s the completely over the top Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, the Ojai Valley Inn (with spa!), and yet more glamping tents and trailers at the Flying Flag in Buellton (near Solvang).

Sonoma County vineyards and trees.

  • Start/End : Loop from San Francisco
  • Mile s: 213
  • # of Days : 3-4
  • Route : Highway 101, Highway 29, Highway 128, Highway 116

Many people just go to either Napa or Sonoma and hang out in one spot for wine tasting. But it’s worth extending your wine country stay and doing a wider loop because you’ll find lovely country drives, state parks, fine cheeses and fun on the water.

This wine country drive is a loop which starts in SF, goes up Napa Valley and down through Healdsburg, with a side trip to Guerneville before heading down Sonoma Valley. If you want to go wine tasting, especially on a weekend, it’s best to get reservations in advance.

In Napa Valley, start by taking a wander around Napa’s downtown shopping and art district. The Oakville Grocery is a great place to pick up picnic provisions and you can do a mud bath in Calistoga. From there, branch off of Highway 128 and take the slow road to the Petrified Forest and Safari West, before heading into Healdsburg.

Healdsburg has a really cute downtown with galleries, boutiques and a great indy bookstore. Heading southwest on Westside road will take you along the Russian River and past the Armstrong Woods State Park (redwoods!) to quirky Guerneville . If it’s summer you can do a lazy river float along the Russian River, or take a cedar bath at the Osmosis Day Spa. Then head south to groovy Sebastopol where there are three dairy tasting rooms from the California Cheese Trail , Finally, heading back east, taking Highway 12 down Sonoma Valley.

Take a hike in the Trione Anondel State Park or visit the Jack London State Historic Park , then taste some yummy private label Jack London wine at the Kenwood Winery. Sonoma has the well-preserved Sonoma Mission, a chill downtown square and a couple more cheese stops.

Armstrong Woods Hiking. Things to do in Guerneville California

When to Do the Napa/Sonoma Drive

This region gets a lot of rain in the winter. Which is not to say that you can’t visit during that time, but pay attention to the forecast. The fall is a fun time because of the wine harvest festivals. Any weekend from May to September is going to be very busy, so book ahead.

Notable Places to Stay in Napa/Sonoma

Go for some Buddhist vibes at Bann in Oak Knoll , Dr. Wilkinson’s spa is a quirky boutique motel with mud baths, Autocamp Russian River has the full glamping experience with luxury tents and Airstreams, or a historic ranch stay at the Beltane in Glen Ellen .

Hangtown mural in Placerville.

  • Start : Mariposa
  • End : Nevada City
  • Miles : 186
  • # of Days : 2-4
  • Route : Highway 49 all the way up

By most measures, California’s economy is one of the largest in the world. And it all started when, in 1849, gold was found in them thar hills. This historic Highway 49 route, also known as the Golden Chain Highway, takes in some of California’s well-preserved gold rush history and it has a lot of fun activities for kids and history buffs.

The key on this itinerary is to take it slow and take advantage of the many historic markers and tiny little towns along the route. Start in Mariposa, which is also the western gateway to Yosemite National park. It also has a historic park with gold rush exhibits and one of the oldest (and loveliest) county courthouses in the state.

There’s another small county museum in Coulter and a nice vista along the Don Pedro reservoir. If you’re keen on covered bridges, you can take a detour to Knights Ferry. Otherwise continue to Jamestown for the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, and then through Sonora to the Columbia State Park. It’s an oldey timey gold rush town and living museum.

Take a side trip up Highway 4 to Calaveras Big Trees State Park for some Giant Sequoia trees. Then north to Indian Grinding Rock State Park and then the adorbs little town of Sutter Creek. If you are into wine, there are a lot of places to stop in the stretch between Sutter Creek and Placerville.

North of Placerville, you’ll find the Gold Bug Park and Mine and Sutter’s Mill, which is where gold was initially found. You’ll find the Empire Mine State Park near Grass Valley along with a cute historic downtown in Nevada City, before ending the trip at Malakoff Diggins State Park .

If you have extra time, stay on Highway 49 and then take the Gold Lake Highway scenic byway to Highway 395.

Malakoff Diggins state park terrain red cliffs and trees

When to Do the Gold Country

Unless there have been heavy winter storms, you can do this drive any time of year. Although expect to find cold winter temps in some of the state parks and Nevada City.

Notable Places to Stay in Gold Country

Bed, breakfast and wine at the Hanford Inn in Sutter Creek. The National Exchange Hotel was built in the throes of the gold rush and it occupies a sweet spot in downtown Nevada City. Or you can go glamping at the Autocamp Midpines , which is just 5 miles from Mariposa.

Mount Shasta California-volcano and misty lake

  • Start : Mount Shasta
  • End : Lassen National Park
  • Route : Highway 89

The official Volcanic Legacy Scenic Highway actually starts at Crater Lake and the full drive is 500 miles. But this alternative routing is shorter and takes in the best bits of the California section. On this drive, you get a lovely mix of volcanic geology, waterfalls and charming historic communities.

This part of northern California is not nearly as popular as places like Lake Tahoe or the PCH, so you can enjoy a relaxed pace and a strong dose of outdoorsy vibe with this itinerary.

Key stops include historic Dunsmuir, Weaverville Joss House State Park, Shasta State Historic Park, Burney Falls, Bumpass Hell hydrothermal pool, Devastated Area interpretive trail and Lake Almador.

Lassen National Park Boardwalk

When to Do the Lassen/Shasta Drive

Late May through late October. The waterfalls are best in spring, but the main road through Lassen is  closed in the winter .

california road trip in october

National Park Trifecta: Yosemite, King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

  • Start : Three Rivers
  • End : Groveland
  • Miles : 276
  • # of Days : 4-6
  • Route : Generals Highway, Highway 180, Highway 41, Highway 120

This California road trip itinerary is optimized for sheer awe inspiring nature.

Sequoia National Park is famous for their giant Sequoia trees and Kings Canyon has conifer forest and the deepest canyon in North America. There’s a scenic route connecting the two parks. The Generals Highway covers the best-of Sequoia National Park and Highway 180 covers the best-of Kings Canyon, including the Giant Forest, Grant Grove, and trails to Mist Falls and Zumwalt Meadow.

Yosemite is California’s most popular national park, and for good reason. It presents the best of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with pine forests, giant Sequoia groves and soaring granite peaks.

Valley highlights include the Mariposa grove, Glacier Point overlook, Vernal Falls, Mirror Lake loop, and Yosemite falls. In the upper reaches, there’s the scenic drive over Tioga pass, tons of hikes and the Merced grove. Consider cribbing part of this SF to Yosemite itinerary if you’re also keen to add on some Gold Country.

California scenic road in Kings Canyon National Park.. rocky canyon wall

When to Do the National Park Trifecta

Mid-spring through late fall is best. The parks are open throughout the year, but Tioga Pass and the higher elevations will be closed for snow. You can do Yosemite Valley in the winter , but keep an eye on the National Parks site for closures.

Notable Places to Stay on the Trifecta

The Ahwahnee is Yosemite’s historic inn and it has great views and lovely architecture. They Tenaya Lodge is located in the southern section of Yosemite, offering free park entrance and amenities for the kids. And Autocamp in Midpines is a cool glamping option near-ish to Yosemite Valley.

However you stay, even if it’s a modest motel, book early for these parks.

Dawn in the Alabama Hills Eastern Sierras

  • Start : Bridgeport
  • End : Lone Pine
  • Miles : 147
  • # of Days : 4-6 days
  • Route : Highway 395

The Eastern Sierra doesn’t get as much love as the Western Sierra (and Yosemite), but there’s a lot there for people who like crazy geology, hot springs, ghost towns and sparsely populated forests.

This drive is a straight down (or up) Highway 395 and can easily be combined with a visit to Lake Tahoe, the higher elevations of Yosemite National Park or Death Valley. We’ve got a full 5 day Eastern Sierra itinerary along with detailed stay and play guides for both Bishop and Lone Pine .

Some highlights on this itinerary include: Mono Lake and its moonscape, Bodie Ghost Town State Historic Site, the June Lake Loop, Mammoth Lakes, the Devil’s Postpile National Monument, Convict Lake , Hot Creek Geologic site, the Laws Railroad Museum, Manazar National Historic site, and the Alabama Hills.

And if that isn’t enough for you, there are about 2 million acres of National Forest lands which feature alpine lakes, scenic canyon drives and more hiking and fishing than you’ll ever have time for.

Convict Lake Highway 395 in fall

When to Do the Highway 395 Drive

Unless you are a skier, winter is not a great time as many of the forest areas and Tioga Pass (via Yosemite) will be closed. Summer is a great time to visit, but it will be hot in the southern end. This is one of our favorite California road trip itineraries for October because the fall color is unbelievable.

Notable Places to Stay in the Eastern Sierra

Just for grins, you can rend a covered wagon at the Virginia Creek Settlement motel . And if you want to pick a central spot for your base, there are tons of condo rentals in Mammoth Lakes .

Torrey Pines state park San Diego, with ocean view.

  • Start /End: Los Angeles or San Diego
  • Miles : 120
  • Route : Highway 1, I-5, Coast Highway/El Camino Real

Forget Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo and the California Missions. This SoCal road trip itinerary is all about the shoreline. And there’s 120 sweet, sweet miles of it between the Los Angeles and San Diego airports.

For this road trip, be sure to override the Google mapping instructions. It will always steer you on the large freeways and this itinerary is best done on the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) and the slower surface roads.

Key stops in greater LA include: Manhattan Beach (stroll or bike The Strand), Huntington Beach (10 miles of uninterrupted sand), Newport Beach (electric Duffy Boat rentals), Catalina Island (old school beach resort) and Laguna Beach (Crystal Cove State Park), and Dana Point (whale watching).

Key stops in greater San Diego include: Carlsbad (spring ranunculus flowers), Encinitas (Moonlight Beach), Solana Beach (San Elijo Lagoon), Torrey Pines State Reserve, and La Jolla (sea lions and tide-pooling).

Dana Point beach and coastline

When to Do the South Coast Beaches

Try to avoid the May/June gloom season. Otherwise, go for it!

Notable Places to Stay in on the South Coast

Laguna Beach House , is a unique surf-themed ocean-front stay. The Hotel del Coronado is an old-school 130 year-old luxury resort hotel with historic architectural features and a prime spot on the beach. The Sea Bird is an oceanfront hotel in Oceanside, with a spa!

Death Valley trip- Mesquite Dunes at dawn. Sand dunes in shadow

  • Start/End : San Diego
  • Miles : 822
  • # of Days : 7-8
  • Route : San Diego, Julian, Salton Sea/Bombay Beach, Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, Kelso Dunes, Death Valley National Park, Ballarat, San Diego

This is one of the best winter California road trip itineraries for its vast open landscape. The southeastern California deserts include both the Sonoran and Mohave deserts. And what to some people is a whole lot of brown, to us is a surprisingly diverse ecosystem with a lot of subtle beauty.

And this lap from San Diego (or LA) shows off the best of CA’s deserts. This itinerary has a fun mix of forest, desert, weird geology and even offbeat art projects.

The first section includes Julian (apple cider and pies), Anza Borrego (hiking and metal sculptures), Slowjamistan (a weird micronation), the Slab City squatter community and the East Jesus art installation .

Center yourself in Palm Springs, taking in the mid-century vibe, palm oasis’ and a scenic lap around the Palms to Pines drive .

Spend at least a day in Joshua Tree (two is better), using our Joshua Tree hiking guide to prioritize which areas to explore, then head into Joshua Tree town for more quirky art projects.

Ignore the Google mapping instructions for how to get to Death Valley and instead, take the slow way to Death Valley via the Amboy Crater and Kelso Dunes. Then use our Death Valley visitor’s guide to plan your time there.

On the way back to San Diego, take the Trona Wildrose road out via Ridgecrest, stopping at Ballarat Death Valley Ghost town on the way out.

Scenic vista of the Palms to Pines scenic byway. curving road in desert

When to Do the California Deserts Loop

This whole region is volcanically hot in the summer. October to April is best and going between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is a very quiet time to be in the National Parks.

Notable Places to Stay on the California Deserts Loop

In Palm Springs, go for the Fleur Noire , a low-key spot with floral murals and rosé all day. Joshua Tree town has a ton of quirky trailers and cabins to rent , and the Inn at Death Valley is a fancy historic inn right in the heart of the park.

We’ve also got camping guides for Death Valley , info on hotels and motels in and near Death Valley , and also for Joshua Tree campgrounds .

Emerald Bay Scenic Lake Tahoe Drive lake and pine trees

The two CA road trip itineraries below combine several of the plans noted above into one larger itinerary.

  • Start/End : Anywhere along the loop
  • Miles : 900-1,000
  • # of days : 12-14 days

Glue together the Yosemite/Sequoia, Highway 49 and Highway 395 road trips into one epic, mountain adventure. This itinerary does a full lap around the Sierra Nevada range, with Lake Tahoe at the north end and Lake Isabella at the south end.

After you finish up Highway 49, head over to Lake Tahoe, where you can do a scenic drive around Tahoe . Head over to Highway 395 via either historic Carson City or take Highway 88 over Monitor Pass.

Once you’ve lapped Highway 395, ignore the Google maps instructions and head back over to the western Sierra via Highway 178 and Lake Isabella.

Yosemite National Park Hetch Hetchy

When to Do the Best of the Sierra Nevada Scenic Drive

This drive is best done between late May and early November. You’ll avoid snowy road closures. For any portion of the trip that occurs on a weekend (especially in Yosemite and Tahoe), be sure to book lodging ahead.

Bixby Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway

  • Start/End : San Francisco or LA
  • Miles : ~1,000 miles
  • # of Days : at least 14, more is better

This loop combines two of the most popular road trips in California: Yosemite/Sequoia and the Pacific Coast Highway from SF to LA.

You can do the drive in either direction, however we like doing the PCH from north-to-south as it’s easier for the scenic pullouts. Do not underestimate how much driving this is, so get an early start everyday and bake in some down time.

If you have extra days and want to spend some time in San Francisco, we have travel tips for SF first timers and a local’s guide to San Francisco .

If you don’t care to visit SF, just use Highway 152 to cut over from Yosemite directly to Monterey and start down Big Sur. If you don’t care to visit LA, head northeast from Ventura, on the scenic Highway 33 through the Los Padres National Forest to Ventacopa, then east from there.

When to Do California’s Most Epic Road Trip

November through April are the worst weather for both the Sierra Nevada range and Big Sur. You’ll also get some June gloom along the coast. We like April/May or July-October for this route.

Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road. Jack Kerouac

Got that right Jack! Enjoy your epic California road trip. Whichever of these routes you take, you are sure to have a most grant adventure.

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A Two Week California Road Trip Itinerary

Last updated: June 3, 2022 . Written by Laurence Norah - 114 Comments

The United States is pretty much the perfect country to road trip in, with great roads, cheap gas and hundreds of gorgeous destinations to choose from. It’s no wonder that a California road trip is on many visitors to-do lists!

We’ve taken a number of fantastic US road trips , including Route 66 , the Pacific Coast Highway , the Oregon Trail and a route through the Deep South , and have never failed to have an amazing time.

One of our favourite states to explore though has to be California. With a mix of an excellent climate, some of the best National Parks in the country, and world-famous cities to explore, you’re never going to run short of things to do in California.

With this in mind, I wanted to put together a classic two week California road trip itinerary, taking in some of the best that the sunshine state has to offer. I did a trip almost exactly the same as this a few years back, so I know that it’s a good one.

California Road Trip

Two weeks is also a good amount of time for a trip like this, although you could of course extend it by a few days if you wanted to see a bit more, or wanted to go a bit slower.

California Road Trip Itinerary

This California road trip itinerary has you starting and finishing in San Francisco. As it’s a loop, you could also start and finish at any other point. If you would prefer another starting location, LA would be the most logical.

The route runs anti-clockwise, but you are welcome to drive it in whichever direction you prefer!

San Francisco – 3 Days

We’re going to start our California road trip with three days in San Francisco. San Francisco is home to the second largest airport in California, so there are plenty of opportunities for getting here for both domestic and international travellers.

Tram in San Francisco streets

San Francisco, and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area is also an excellent city to base yourself for your first three days.

If you’re arriving internationally, you’re going to want a few days to adjust to the time zone difference before hopping into a car. For this reason, I’m going to recommend spending three nights in San Francisco, and picking up your hire car as you leave. You won’t want (or need!) a car while you’re in the city – parking is expensive and there are plenty of other options to get around.

You won’t be short on things to do in San Francisco, and in fact, might feel a little overwhelmed by all the choices!

Our suggestions would be to take in the Golden Gate bridge (hire a bike to get here easily), explore Chinatown, pop across to Alcatraz , revel in the tourist trap that is Fisherman’s Wharf, don’t miss golden gate park , head to the top of Nob Hill for cocktails at The Mark, hop on a cable car and, if you still have time, take a stroll at Lands End.

San Francisco Sunset

To get yourself oriented, we can also recommend taking a walking tour with the excellent SFNative folks, they know the city backwards. Finally, if you’re looking for some great photo opportunities, check out our guide to the best photography locations in San Francisco .

Accommodation wise, there are plenty of options in San Francisco. Here are some of our favourite picks for your stay, across a range of budgets.

  • HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf Hotel – found right on Fisherman’s Wharf, this budget hostel offers both dormitory and private accommodation options. There’s free breakfast and free parking, making this an excellent option for the location.
  • Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel – found in the popular Union Square district, this great value 3-star hotel has a rooftop restaurant, library, and on-site theatre. Rooms have private bathrooms and coffee makers, and breakfast is included. A paid parking garage is available nearby.
  • Parker Guest House – found in the old Mission district just behind the San Francisco mission building, this is a well reviewed and good value guesthouse offering private rooms. Free breakfast is available, and parking is available on site for a reasonable (by San Francisco standards) fee.
  • Columbus Inn – Just a few hundred yards from Lombardy Street and Fisherman’s Wharf in the North Beach district,  this 3* inn offers great value for the location. Private rooms offer en-suite and tea/coffee making facilities. There’s also free parking on site.
  • Golden Gate Hotel – a very well reviewed 3* hotel just minutes from Union Square. Continental breakfast and afternoon tea are included. Rooms are definitely on the cosy side, and some have shared bathrooms, but the price is great for the location. Paid parking available nearby.
  • Staypineapple Union Square – we stayed at this restored historic 4* 1913 hotel on a recent trip to San Francisco, and loved the mix of the old and the new. We loved the rooms, the colorful pineapple theme, and the free pineapple flavoured cupcakes certainly helped! Parking is available nearby for a fee.
  • Four Seasons Hotel – if you are after five star luxury, then consider the Four Seasons hotel. Also found in Union Square, rooms are huge, there’s an on-site restaurant, fitness centre, and many rooms have city views.

See more options for hotels in San Francisco here, as well vacation rentals on Plum Guide here and Vrbo here .

Pacific Coast Highway – 2 Days

The drive down the section of the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles is definitely one of the best road trips in the world. So it’s really a no-brainer that this would be your first destination after you pick up your hire car and head out of the city.

Pacific Coast Highway California

There are numerous highlights along the way, from cute seaside towns to gorgeous wilderness areas. Don’t miss Santa Cruz , Monterey , Big Sur and the Julia Pfeffer Burns State Park (camp here if you can!).

The latter is particularly famous for the waterfall that cascades onto the beach, a gorgeous photo opportunity.

From Big Sur head further south and take in highlights like the seals at Cambria , tasty food at San Luis Obispo, the gorgeous Pismo beach, Hearst Castle and more.

For loads more information on this stretch of highway and to help you plan the perfect coastal road trip, check out our super detailed guide to planning a  Pacific Coast Highway road trip .

California road trip - Waterfall onto beach Juiia Pfieffer Burns State Park California Big Sur

For the 2 days you’ll spend on this part of your California road trip, we recommend stopping overnight around Monterey or Carmel on your first night, and San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay or Cambria on your second night.

There are plenty of accommodation options all the way down this stretch of highway, from campsites and B&B’s to luxury hotels – it all depends on your budget and what you’re aiming for. Here are a few options to consider in our recommended towns along the way.

For your first night, we recommend one of the following:

  • If you like to camp, then there are camping options in the national parks along the route here, including the Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground . I’ve camped here and it’s lovely to be surrounded by the massive redwoods. Just be aware that it is popular, and booking in advance is a must.
  • Sandpiper Inn , Carmel – we stayed here when we visited Carmel. We enjoyed the comfortable rooms, inclusive breakfast, and proximity to the beach. Free parking is available.
  • Coachman’s Inn , Carmel – we’ve stayed at a number of the boutique hotels which are in the Four Sisters Inn collection, and they’ve all been excellent. This inn, found in the heart of Carmel Village, gets good reviews. Rooms include coffee makers and free popcorn, wine with hors d’oeuvres is served in the evenings, and breakfast is included.
  • The Inn at 1252 , Monterey – a good value inn on the way into Monterey. Rooms feature coffee makers, and a heated pool is available year round. There’s also a fitness room, free parking and free coffee.
  • The Jabberwock B&B , Monterey – just a few blocks from Cannery Row, this very well reviewed B&B offers seven lovely guest rooms, some of which have fireplaces and hot tubs. Free parking, and breakfast is included.

For your second night, we recommend one of the following:

  • Apple Farm Inn , San Luis Obispo – we really enjoyed our stay here on one of our Pacific Coast Highway road trips. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, the breakfast was fantastic, and the on-site bakery has some delicious food. There are also two pools on site, and free parking.
  • Madonna Inn , San Luis Obispo – this four star family-owned motel just to the south of SLO is a truly quirky destination, and a landmark of the central coast. Each of the 110 rooms is uniquely decorated, with pink being a key theme throughout. We didn’t stay here, but we did have dinner at the Gold Rush steak house on-site, which was fantastic.
  • Seaside Inn , Morro Bay – this 2* budget inn is one block from the waterfront. Rooms have a microwave and refrigerator, and there’s free on site parking and coffee.
  • Beach Bungalow Inn and Suites , Morro Bay – five minutes walk from the aquarium, this three star inn is very well reviewed. Comfortable rooms have fireplaces, refrigerators and coffee machines, and a hot breakfast is included as is parking.
  • Cambria Palms Motel , Cambria – this 2* motel is a couple of blocks from downtown, and offers comfortable rooms at a good price. Rooms have refrigerator and coffee machine, and free parking is available on site.
  • El Colibri Hotel & Spa , Cambria – on one of our visits to Cambria we stayed here for a couple of nights and really enjoyed it. The rooms are lovely, with fireplaces, and some have spa tubs. There’s an on-site spa, outdoor hot tub, and breakfast is available. Free parking on-site.
  • J Patrick House B&B , Cambria – this five star Irish themed inn was Cambria’s first B&B. There’s a a free wine hour, evening cookies and a full breakfast included with your stay. Each room is individually designed, and there’s free parking on site. A great pick in Cambria.

Santa Monica, LA – 2 Days

Los Angeles can be a big, confusing place, particularly after your trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. That’s why I suggest you head to Santa Monica and make that your LA base.

On the coast, and technically a separate city (it’s kind of hard to tell as LA and its surrounds are part of a fairly vast urban sprawl), you’ll have access to the wonderful beach and pier, as well as nearby Venice, most famous for its beach and people watching opportunities.

santa monica sunset

Again, there’s no shortage of things to do in LA. If you’re interested in film, you can visit the Hollywood sign, walk the Hollywood walk of fame or go on a tour of the backlot at Universal Studios .

Art lovers will find their thrills at the Getty Center , which also offers gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding city. Other highlights include Sunset Boulevard, and of course, you can hop on one of those tours of the stars homes if you’re so inclined.

LA also has plentiful accommodation options to suit all budget. Here are some of our recommended options:

  • Santa Monica Motel – we enjoyed our stay at this basic 2* motel, which is around a 10 minute walk from Santa Monica Pier. There’s free morning coffee and free parking, and rooms come with coffee makers and in-room refrigerators. It’s definitely a value option.
  • Banana Bungalow – this hostel offers shared and private accommodation, around a mile from the downtown Hollywood area. There’s free parking on-site, and reviews are positive.
  • Magic Castle Hotel – this 3* hotel is a short walk from the Hollywood walk of fame, and you get a pool, unlimited free snacks, free continental breakfast and reasonably priced parking. It’s also a short walk to the Hollywood Bowl, and only three miles from Universal Studios. We really enjoyed staying here.
  • Villa Delle Stelle – this boutique hotel in central Hollywood gets excellent reviews and will make you feel like a celebrity. Each suite is designed after a specific old Hollywood Celebrity, and guests can avail of celebrity style services such as in-room massages, private chefs and a personal trainer. Free parking is also included.
  • The Georgian Hotel – this beautiful 1933 4* Art Deco hotel is a short walk from Santa Monica pier, and offers ocean views and on-site dining. Breakfast is available, and parking is available on-site for a fee.

See more LA listings here for inspiration , as well as LA listings on Vrbo here . For a more curated apartment rental option, check out Plum Guide. You can see their LA listings here .

If you’re not excited about Los Angeles, you could also choose to skip it and head down the coast to San Diego County and the city of San Diego itself. This is a more laid back (and easily navigable!) experience compared to LA, and there’s a great deal to do here as well.

For more reading on San Diego, check out this guide to things to do in San Diego we put together.

Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day

Time to head out of the city, and the remainder of this itinerary is going to focus on exploring some of California’s unbelievable wilderness areas and National Parks. We’re going to start this off with a trip to the Joshua Tree National Park , home to those iconic shaped trees that the park is named for.

Joshua Tree

It’s a wonderful place, the meeting point of two deserts, and offers good opportunities for camping, hiking and star-gazing.

The best way to experience the park is to camp overnight in one of its many campgrounds (you should definitely reserve a spot well in advance if this is your plan), otherwise, there are various lodging opportunities outside the park if you’re not big into camping. You should also be aware that there is very limited water availability in the park (and no hookups for RV’s), so make sure you bring plenty of water and food – this is a remote desert environment after all!

Here are some suggested accommodation options in nearby Twentynine Palms.

  • 9 Palms Inn – this budget 2* property gets good reviews, and rooms come with a coffee machine, microwave and refrigerator. There’s also free parking on site.
  • El Rancho Dolores – this is a great value 3* property with a seasonal pool. Rooms have microwaves and refrigerator, and free parking is included.
  • Sunnyvale Garden Suites – a very well rated 2* hotel offering a range of suites, each of which comes with a BBQ as well as a full kitchen. There’s a hot tub and gym on site, and free parking is available.
  • Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites – this 3* chain hotel offers comfortable and well reviewed accommodation, with an outdoor heated pool and fitness centre. Rooms have coffee making facilities, microwave and small fridge, and there are BBQ facilities available for guest use.
  • Flying Point Homestead – if you want something a little bit different, check out this property. It’s actually a holiday home rather than a hotel, but one of the options is a beautiful silver streak trailer!

See more listings for Twentynine Palms and this general region on  Plum Guide here .

Note, if you want to include a detour to Las Vegas, this would be the moment to do just that. We’d suggest adding a couple of days to your trip if you want to experience the city and its surrounds as there’s a lot to see and do here. Then you can rejoin the trip at the next stop.

For more on that sort of trip, check out our two week USA road trip itinerary , which include Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

Death Valley National Park – 1 Day

Moving on from one desert environment to another desert environment – and the largest national park in the contiguous United States. Death Valley (the name was given by gold rush travellers who nearly perished here) is the hottest and driest place in North America, and has recorded the hottest ambient air temperature in the world.

Badwater basin

So, overall, a hot place.

Other than making you want to crank up the AC then, what does Death Valley offer? Well, there’s that sense of remoteness. The vast, unforgiving wilderness. The knowledge that you’d probably die fairly quickly if you happen to wander off and get lost (don’t wander off and get lost folks).

Death Valley

Truth be told, there’s plenty to do here. You can visit Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the entire North America, which actually sits 86 metres below sea level. Then there are sand dunes, salt flats, craters, colourful canyons and hiking opportunities galore.

Just be aware that this is a seriously inhospitable, and, in the summer months, unbearably hot, destination, so plan and pack accordingly . If you’re looking for more ideas on spending a day in Death Valley, check out this excellent post .

Mammoth Lakes – 1 Day

From Death Valley we’re going to head further north, up to Mammoth Lakes . This drive is quite incredible, along the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the scenery (and temperatures) will change dramatically as you ascend into this gorgeous part of the world.

Mammoth Lakes are an adventure lovers playground. You can go hiking, camping, cycling, rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing – the list goes on! There’s also a ghost town , craft beer companies, shopping opportunities – basically, pretty much everything you could imagine.

lake mono

Whilst you’re here, you should also take the opportunity to visit Lake Mono . Now a state nature reserve, Lake Mono is a million year old lake notable for the “tufa” towers, calcium carbonate structures that stand above the lake like strange modern art installations. Definitely worth a visit, and particularly photogenic at sunrise and sunset.

Yosemite National Park – 3 Days

Finally on our awesome California road trip, I’m going to suggest you spend three days exploring Yosemite National Park before heading back to San Francisco to return your hire vehicle and head home.

Vernal falls Yosemite

Yosemite is without doubt one of my favourite places in the entire United States. It’s a wonder of nature, a photographer’s paradise, and somewhere I dare anyone to visit without falling instantly in love.

There’s a lot to see and do here, which is why I’m going to suggest taking three days to get the most out of your visit. This will let you see all the highlights, as well as go for some longer hikes (or drives), and not feel too rushed.

Glacier point view Yosemite

I’ve got a full guide to the best photography locations in Yosemite , but in brief, don’t miss Yosemite Falls, the hike up to Nevada and Vernal Falls, the drive (or hike) to Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Valley View and Bridalveil Falls.

If you love longer, more challenging day hikes, then Half Dome is a seriously challenging walk (permit required), as is the walk up to the top of Yosemite Falls .

There are a range of accommodation options in Yosemite National Park, ranging from campsites to canvas-sided tent cabins, through to luxury hotels.

There are 13 campsites available in the park , with a number of these available for reservation, and the rest operated on a first come first serve basis. If you want to camp, we highly recommend booking well in advance, which you can do here .

There are also nine lodging options operated by Yosemite Hospitality inside the park, which are the only other accommodation options available in the park itself. These can be reserved up to a year in advance, and range from simple canvas cabins through to a high-end luxury hotel. These can all be reserved online in advance here .

Important –  As of 2022, Yosemite has introduced a reservation system for park entry. If you are visiting between late May and the end of September and planning on driving into or through the park between 6am and 4pm you will need to have a reservation. You can find out more and make your reservations online here .

Yosemite view of El Capitan

California Road Trip Map

We’ve put together a map of our suggested California road trip itinerary, which you can see below, and also on Google Maps here . Note that depending on the time of year, access to Yosemite can be restricted due to snow, so you have to take the longer way round.

In addition, parts of the Pacific Coast Highway are often closed due to damage caused by landslides. As such, the map should be seen as an overview rather than a definitive route. You’ll want to plan your own California road trip route that matches any current road conditions and closures.

You can check the status of the coast route (state highway 1), as well as all the other roads in the state, on the Caltrans website here .

California Road Trip Itinerary Map

California Road Trip Itinerary Overview

  • Days 1 – 3: San Francisco
  • Days 4 – 5: Pacific Coast Highway
  • Days 6 & 7: Los Angeles
  • Day 8: Joshua Tree
  • Day 9: Death Valley
  • Day 10: Mammoth Lakes
  • Days 11 – 13: Yosemite National Park
  • Day 14: Return to San Francisco

When to Take a California Road Trip

California is a fairly good year round destination, but there are a few things to be aware of when planning your trip. In the Winter months, places like Yosemite can become accessible particularly from the east side, due to snow, as you can see in the map above.

The main road in to Yosemite is the Tioga Road, and this is usually closed from November through to May or even June. In addition, parts of the park, including Glacier Point road, are often closed for a similar timeframe.

If this happens to you, you’ll have to take a serious detour to get in based on this itinerary. A better option might be to embrace the snow, and head up to Lake Tahoe for some fantastic skiing opportunities. Or, you can head east, out to Nevada and the pleasure city of Las Vegas.

big sur coastline

In summertime, the heat can be quite intense, in particular in places like Death Valley, where in the summer months temperatures can exceed 100F, and it’s not recommended to spend much time outside.

Where to Stay in California

California has a serious range of accommodation options to meet pretty much every budget, although larger cities and busier months do tend to increase the prices. We’d always recommend booking in advance for your trip if possible – in particular for national park campsites and hotels, and to get the best deals on city centre hotels.

For two people travelling together, you’re looking at a budget range of $60 – $150 per night for comfortable private en-suite accommodation, although you can obviously spend far more than that!

Our preferred option for hotel booking is booking.com, as they usually have the best prices, regularly run deals, and many properties offer good last minute cancellation policies. See their listings for California , San Francisco and Los Angeles to get you started.

We also use and recommend Plum Guide and Vrbo for vacation rentals.

For more ideas, take a look at our travel resources page for helpful hints and tips on getting the best deal on accommodation when you travel.

How to Get Around California

This is a road trip, so obviously you’re going to want a hire a car! We nearly always hire cars for our US road trips through Enterprise . We generally find they have the most competitive prices and widest choice of locations, plus if you’re thinking of a one way trip they have reasonable fees for doing that.

If you’d prefer to compare prices across a range of providers, then we recommend Rentalcars.com .

Drivers with foreign licenses are allowed to drive, if your license is in a language other than English then you would be best with either an international drivers license, or a certified translation.

Another option of course is to hire a camper van or RV, which will let you stay in campgrounds and other, more out of the way areas. This can be a fun way to travel in a more self sufficient style. If this sounds like you, we recommend comparing RV rental prices at Motorhome Republic . They list all RVs from many of the major suppliers to help you find the right one for you. See their USA listings here .

We can also recommend checking out  RVShare , who offer peer to peer campervan rental – a bit like the AirBnB of RV rental! Similar options include Outdoorsy and RVEzy .

If this is your first time in the USA, or you just want a reminder of what it’s like to drive in the USA, check out our guide to driving in the USA for lots of tips!

Practicalities for a California Road trip

Travelling in the USA is relatively easy, but we wanted to share a few things to help make planning your California road trip a little easier.

Electricity

The USA uses a 110v electrical system, with plugs that are either two pin or three pin. The holes are flat, and sometimes the two pin plug holes will be different sizes, so the plug will only go in one way.

If you’re coming from much of the rest of the world, including Europe, the UK or Asia, you will definitely need a travel adaptor like this . You will also need to check that your equipment supports the 110v supply, as much of the rest of the world uses a 220v supply.

In our experience, most electronics like laptops and phone chargers accept a universal voltage, whilst higher power devices like hairdryers do not. Always check the device itself, the voltage rating should be on your plug or adaptor somewhere.

Internet Access

Internet access is widely available across the USA in the form of WiFi, which can be found for free at most hotels, cafes, bars and restaurants. There are also a number of free WiFi hotspots in some of the cities on our list.

If your phone is unlocked you can pick up a pay as you go SIM in the USA. One of the better options is from Straight Talk , which you can buy in Walmart stores.

For more options on getting online when travelling, check out our guide to getting online when travelling to help you figure out the best options.

The USA uses the US dollar, and there are ATM’s available throughout. In our experience though, you can pay for nearly everything with a credit card, so you will rarely need cash. Whilst it is worth having a few bills on you, for the most part you won’t need them.

Instead, just make sure you have a credit or debit card that doesn’t charge you any foreign transaction fees and uses a fair price for currency conversions, and you should be good to go.

Water across the USA is safe to drink, unless otherwise indicated. There are drinking fountains in the majority of public locations, and we recommend you travel with a re-usable water bottle so you can just fill it up as you go.

One thing we always love about travelling in the USA is how drinking water is always brought to your table at a restaurant – something we wish was standard around the world!

For the most part, the USA is a safe destination to travel in, and we have never had any problems. Of course, every country has crime, and areas where you would be wiser to avoid, however if you practice basic safety precautions, keep your valuables out of sight and behave as you would at home, you should be fine!

Further Reading and Resources for a California Road Trip

California is a very popular destination, so there’s no shortage of research material to help you plan your trip! Here are some of my favourite resources:

  • We have a guide to things to do in San Diego
  • I’ve written a guide featuring some of my top tips for driving in the USA to help get you going on the road!
  • Wondering how much a California road trip will cost? Check out our  guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA to help you plan your trip budget.
  • Jess has a guide to driving the Pacific Coast Highway , which will give you lots of ideas for that section of the road
  • If you’re interested in California’s wine country, see our guide to visiting Napa Valley
  • Route 66 ends in California, so take a look at our guide to planning a route 66 trip , as well as our detailed 2 week Route 66 itinerary and 1 week Route 66 itinerary
  • Fodor’s Guide to California , which also includes details on a number of fantastic road trips
  • The Lonely Planet California Guide , which is great for finding things to do, places to eat and places to stay
  • A US road atlas , because sometimes you don’t want to rely on GPS!
  • If you’re planning on hiring an RV or camping, this guide to free and super cheap campgrounds will quickly pay for itself
  • The official Visit California page, which will give you more advice on what to see and when to visit
  • For more in California, see this awesome guide to places to visit in California , from fellow bloggers at yTravelBlog
  • My guide to things to do in Redding California , if you decide to head to northern California
  • Getting online when travelling in a foreign country can be daunting – check out our guide to getting online when travelling to help you figure out the best options for your trip
  • And if you’re looking for inspiration for the rest of the USA, check out our USA section , which includes a Deep south itinerary , tips for New Orleans during Mardi Gras – and lots more!

Detailed itinerary and trip planning advice for the ultimate California two week road trip, including San Francisco, LA, the Pacific Coast Highway, Death Valley, Yosemite and more!

And that sums up my perfect two week California road trip itinerary! If you’ve got any comments, suggestions or additions, do pop them in the comments below. Plus, if you liked this post, do check out the rest of my itinerary series , which will help you plan the perfect trips all around the world!

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robert feinberg says

16th December 2023 at 4:48 pm

Hello, we are planning a road trip to California in July, and using your template, but adding a few different options. we are traveling with 2 15 year olds, and they want to surf. any recommendations you can make on that, as well as stops that will be good for them? much appreciated.

Laurence Norah says

16th December 2023 at 8:26 pm

So there are a lot of surfing options all along the coast from San Francisco to San Diego. A lot will depend on the experience of your children and whether or not they are experienced surfers or are looking to learn. Also, some locations will have surfboard rentals wheras others are more remote. So it will depend what you need in that regard. However, there are good options all along the California coast, including Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Pismo, Morro Bay, Ricon Point and Surfrider beach (Malibu). I’d just recommend doing some research to ensure you match the breaks to the skill level required 🙂

Have an awesome trip!

Kim Dawtrey says

7th October 2023 at 9:39 pm

Hi Lawrence We are just home after nearly three weeks in the US on a route based on your California Road Trip, although we also went to the a Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. The information within your blog was a great help in planning our trip. Unfortunately we were unable to drive down the whole Pacific Highway due to landslide near Big Sur, but we loved the 17 mile drive and would recommend staying in Pacific Grove (we stayed in Bide-A-Wee hotel which was great). We were also unable to drive across Death Valley as the NP was closed due to the damage to the roads, we did however visit Death Valley Junction and throughly recommend a visit to Amargosa Opera House. The board outside says tours at 9.00am and 6.00pm, but the young lady in the hotel reception was more than happy to give us a tour for a donation, fascinating place and history. If you haven’t visited I can send you some photos. Another side trip we did was to Bristlecone Ancient Pine Forest, amazing place, great drive up to 10,000 feet, with fresh snow at the top! The Grand Canyon and Yosemite were certainly the highlights for us. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip, thank you for all your valuable information, if we were 40 years younger, we would love to be doing what you and Jess are doing!

8th October 2023 at 12:33 pm

Thank you so much, I’m happy to hear you had a great trip in California and beyond! Unfortunately the Pacific Coast Highway does get blocked quite regularly due to landslides, and it also sounds like unfortunate timing with Death Valley. However I am glad to hear you still had a good time overall! We haven’t visited the Amargosa Opera House, we will definitely have to add that to the list!

Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences, and safe onward travels 🙂 Jess and I love to hear from fellow adventurers who have been out exploring!

All the best,

erika liaci says

3rd July 2023 at 2:54 pm

Hi we are finalising our US Road trip to/from LAX in mid August. Would you recommend still going to the Death valley? I am a bit scared of the temperature which might be 50C? Thanks erika

4th July 2023 at 9:26 am

So I would personally probably skip Death Valley in August. It’s going to be too hot to do very much, and you would likely be able to better spend your time elsewhere. An extra day in Yosemite for example!

Have a great trip!

17th April 2023 at 11:43 am

Hi – this 2 week California road trip looks amazing. Your blog is really helpful for planning our own trip. Would it be possible to know the driving distances between each of the places please. Thanks Sam

18th April 2023 at 8:09 am

Hi Sam, thanks very much! So I didn’t put distances because in my experience they tend to change with side trips etc. Also, the Pacific Coast Highway is regularly affected by landslips so stretches of the route can be closed.

That said, as a rough guide:

From San Francisco to Santa Monica is around 500 miles From Santa Monica to Joshua Tree is around 150 miles From Joshua Tree to Death Valley is around 260 miles From Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes is around 200 miles From Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite is normally around 75 miles but this depends on the pass being open From Yosemite back to San Francisco is around 170 miles.

I hope this helps! Have a great time in California 🙂

28th January 2023 at 2:46 pm

Hi. Would you recommend Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon? We will be driving back from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas and are thinking of an extended detour north rather than going back via Kingman. Thanks

29th January 2023 at 9:07 am

It is with some dismay that I’m not able to accurately answer your question as both parks are still on my to-do list and I haven’t visited either. So rather than inaccurately answer your question I would have to say I don’t know. I definitely want to visit them both, and from the photos I have seen I don’t think you would be disappointed with either, but that’s about as much as I can say for now until I have visited both!

Sorry not to be of more help but I hope you have an amazing trip nonetheless!

Maxine says

4th August 2022 at 8:16 am

This post has been super helpful and given us great ideas for a trip we are planning with our two teenagers next summer. We want to include vegas, therefore, would you recommend that we head there after San Diego before heading back to Yosemite? Thank you

4th August 2022 at 6:06 pm

Thanks very much, glad you found the post useful! So yes, heading from San Diego or Death Valley to Las Vegas would make the most sense. I’ve actually written a trip out that is similar to this one but include Vegas (and the Grand Canyon if you wanted to also include that). That’s here:

https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/2-week-usa-road-trip-itinerary/

You can save time of course by skipping the Grand Canyon 🙂 Let me know if you have any more questions, I’m happy to help. Otherwise, have a great trip!

William D Villont says

6th January 2022 at 9:03 pm

My wife and I took a California trip similar to this one except we went south to San Diego as our final destination. I really enjoyed the trip and can fully understand why you highlight this trip as one someone should surely take. We agree. My only disappointment of the trip is that, at the time, I was doing videography and that is all I took on the trip, my video camera. Now that I have gotten back into photography I wish I had taken my camera as well. We rarely get out the old video (VHS tape) and watch and I have not taken the time to transfer the VHS to DVD yet. I just gave it away, that this trip was sometime ago because I was shooting VHS. Anyway I would love to take this trip again and if this Covid thing ever goes away, maybe I will. Thanks for sharing this trip.

7th January 2022 at 11:29 am

Hi William,

I’m glad to bring back positive memories of your California trip! Interesting to hear you mostly took video. I have a similar reverse quandry when I travel, I usually only find myself able to concentrate on one medium of story telling as we go, so I focus on photos. But I often think it might be nice to have more videos. I hope you get to watch your video soon and also to take the trip again one day!

Have a lovely and safe 2022,

Delaney Blute says

1st July 2021 at 3:18 am

Hi! Thank you so much for the wonderful travel recommendations. I’m planning on taking this trip with my mother and sister, possibly leaving next late summer. Do you have a ball park recommendation for price for the entire trip for 3 people? We plan on budgeting it, but just wanted to know if you had any estimate of what this trip would cost for 3 people. Thanks so much!

1st July 2021 at 12:47 pm

Hi Delaney,

This is a great question. So it’s really hard to give a price estimate because everyone has a different travel style, and it will depend on what type of accommodation you are thinking of booking, whether you are happy to share a room for the three of you vs have individual rooms, whether you are ok with budget dining vs more expensive options and so on. I’m also not sure if you’re from the US or not, so car rental if you need to rent a car would also be a cost to consider.

I do have a guide which has a ballpark idea of costs for travel in the UK, which you can see here: https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/how-much-does-it-cost-to-travel-in-usa/

That should give you an idea of how much each element of the trip should cost you, to help you come up with a rough figure. The main costs are going to be your accommodation, gas / car rental / car parking in cities, food, and any attraction entry.

I hope this helps! Let me know if I can provide any further input, and have a great trip 🙂

Chantelle says

7th March 2020 at 2:06 pm

We have a trip booked for just short of a month in September! Your blog was really helpful, thank you!

I was wondering if you had some advice on Car vrs Camper. Is it easy to find places to stay in a camper or would you recommend a car and motels. We are happy either way just want our trip to be as stress free as possible!

7th March 2020 at 5:07 pm

Hi Chantelle!

So we have done both, and honestly, we prefer motels / B&Bs to campsites.

In the USA, campsites are a bit different to the UK in my experience. They tend to have more formal “sites” for each visitor, which means they can’t just squeeze another person in. When they are full they’re full. For National Parks especially, this means that they can book out and then you can be stuck trying to find somewhere to stay. You can of course book them in advance, so that’s an option. The other good news is that if you have a campervan all is not lost as there are places you can camp for free. However these tend not to be totally exciting, Walmart carparks for example let folks stay overnight, but this might not be the dream option.

The other thing is that if you do the math, you will find that the cost of renting a campervan + the cost of paying campsite fees will probably be a lot more than the cost of a cheap car and economy lodging. Plus if you plan on visiting a few of the cities in this itinerary a camper will be more effort than it’s worth. You didn’t mention budget so this might not be a huge factor, but I just wanted to highlight it.

I think you can see where my preference lies for this itinerary. Obviously if you love camping and want to spend more time out in the backcountry and national parks, it’s a great option. But you might find that buying a cheap tent and a couple of sleeping bags for a few nights is a better option than renting a camper 🙂

Have a great trip – let me know how it goes and what you decide to do! We have a facebook group you’re welcome to share your experiences in here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/travelloversandphotography/

chantelle sims says

14th March 2020 at 2:44 pm

This has been so incredibly helpful thankyou!!

My pleasure Chantelle – have a great trip!

Sharon says

16th February 2020 at 7:40 pm

Great inspiration and ideas, thanks

16th February 2020 at 9:34 pm

Our pleasure Sharon, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Thiago says

12th February 2020 at 7:45 pm

Just want to thank you for these super detailed guides, guys;

13th February 2020 at 10:48 am

Our pleasure Thiago, if you have any questions we’re happy to help 🙂 Safe travels!

Kathy Reed says

26th January 2020 at 5:51 pm

Hi – this was an amazing find! Loved all of your recommendations. Do you have any recommendations for anything just a little further north into the Redwoods. Perhaps starting in Santa Monica and going north? Though i do love the loop feature of this itinerary. Makes it so hard to decide. Thanks!

28th January 2020 at 9:19 am

We have travelled north of this itinerary as well, with our highlights including Napa Valley, Point Reyes National Park and Redding, however we’ve not put together a detailed itinerary for this sort of trip as we’ve not covered the area in enough detail. If redwoods are what you are after particularly, then on this itinerary you can see them near Santa Cruz, if you did want to follow it.

Let me know if I can offer any more advice for your trip!

4th January 2020 at 4:39 pm

Hi Great site for info ? Just would like to know what time of year would you recommend doing this road trip ive just read on here ,we’re coming from the UK so any info will help us plan Many thanks Barry

5th January 2020 at 11:25 am

It can definitely be done at any time of year, but I might avoid the depths of winter as snow can make the roads into Yosemite a challenge, plus it will be quite cold. So if you are looking for more of a summery California road trip, I might suggest May through September. We just toured California in August, and it was definitely very hot inland, as well as being busy so perhaps May/June or September would be the best time for a good combination of weather and fewer people 🙂

Debbie says

4th January 2020 at 3:03 pm

Hi We are planning this trip in April 2020! We will skip LA (Not interested) & Yosemite (We’ve already been) & we will only spend 1 day in San Francisco (we’ve already been) my question is do you think we can do the rest in 7 days?? We definitely want to do the scenic drive from San Francisco to San Diego & back to San Fran an thank you for all the wonderful information!!

5th January 2020 at 11:32 am

Hey Debbie!

Awesome 😀 So you can do the Pacific Coast Highway from SF to San Diego in a couple of days if you don’t mind going at a bit of a pace. I’d probably slow it down to 3 days though. I’m not sure if you still plan on seeing Joshua Tree and Death Valley – if you plan on going up and down the Pacific Coast Highway both ways, then you’re actually going to end up driving much more than this itinerary if you do visit Death Valley, as you’ll do about 2/3rds of the route and then turn around.

I’m not sure if you wanted to go to Las Vegas instead, but what you could do instead of going all the way back is finish in Vegas. I have noticed that many car hire firms don’t charge one way fees for trips between SF and Las Vegas, and flights out of Las Vegas are also very inexpensive. Even if you don’t want to do the whole Las Vegas thing, there are some lovely outdoor attractions in the area including the Hoover Dam and the spectacular valley of fire state park.

Anyway, just a thought. To answer your question – yes, you could do the rest in 7 days but I fear it might be a bit rushed,

30th December 2019 at 1:24 am

How many miles is this trip in total?

30th December 2019 at 3:28 pm

Around 1400 miles, but you’ll want to add on detours, side trips etc. So I’d say 1500 – 2000 to be on the safe side 🙂

Mallikarjun says

19th December 2019 at 8:51 pm

Can you please let me know the “Public Transport” options, it may be Bus, Metro or any other services in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego. I am planning for a trip in end of Jan 2020 for about 6 to 7 days to cover these cities. Or is there any travel packages you suggest for these cities. Please let me know.

Thanks, Malli

22nd December 2019 at 5:29 pm

My pleasure, and apologies for the slow response, I’ve had some site issues I’ve been working on.

For your question, are you looking for public transport between the cities, or in the cities? If the former, then I’d generally recommend the long distance bus as the best way to get between the cities in California, although you will struggle to get to more remote locations this way.

For each city you mention, there are different options. San Francisco is the easiest to get around, as there’s a great bus system as well as bikes, e-bikes and scooters. LA is a bit trickier – there are both buses and a metro, but just be aware that the distances can be quite far as the city is very spread out. So the best option is to figure out what you want to see and make sure the accommodation you pick is as close to the sights as possible.

San Diego is also easy to get around for the most part, with buses, trolleys and trains.

I hope this helps 🙂

Samantha says

28th October 2019 at 1:20 pm

Hi! this sounds amazing and I am literally looking at booking this for June next year! From looking about the only area that I am a bit unsure of is Death Valley – where is best to stay around there and if only doing a day – what would be the best suggestion of something to do? I am also thinking that we will add 1 day on to do a Vegas stay since its so close!

29th October 2019 at 8:31 am

Hi Samantha,

So when we visited we stayed just outside the valley at Panamint Springs – specifically we stayed here .

A day is enough to see the highlights of Death Valley. You’ll want to visit Badwater Basin of course, the lowest point in North America. Other highlights including the Mesquite Sand dunes, Zabriskie Point, the Devil’s Golf Course, the Artists Drive and Palette and Mosaic Canyon.

We can definitely recommend tacking on a trip to Vegas as well. We’re actually thinking of publishing a new itinerary in the coming months which includes Vegas, as it’s a popular addition 🙂

Gisele leduc says

13th October 2019 at 3:38 pm

Would like to know w ymt is there a bus trip to 14 days in calif. Where does the bus leave from in the US. And approx how much is the cost

14th October 2019 at 8:36 pm

Sorry, could you clarify? Are you looking for a tour of California?

15th October 2019 at 3:32 pm

Looking for next year we live in Ottawa Canada and would like to take a 14 day bus tour especially san Francesco and pacific route. Are there bus tours leaving let’s say from Buffalo, New York we can easily drive to these destinations. I meant leaving from New York City and Buffalo. What would be the cost and does it include meals. Thank u

Gisele Leduv says

15th October 2019 at 7:37 pm

Hi I would like to know if there are Any bus tours leaving from New York City or buffalo 14 day road trip to California especially the pacific coastland. What would be the cost for such a trip.

16th October 2019 at 8:08 pm

Hey Gisele,

I have looked but most tours that depart from New York and go to California are much longer, because the distance is so great from the east coast to the west coast. If you want a tour that focuses more on California, it would definitely be easier to get one that departs from San Francisco or Las Vegas rather than New York – is that a possibility?

vivianchoo says

5th October 2019 at 4:44 am

Good articles and good photos, Helps a lot. Thank you!

5th October 2019 at 10:16 am

My pleasure – have a great trip!

Jason Parsons says

19th August 2019 at 3:23 pm

This is a super inspiring blog. Which area did you stay in Yosemite? We are planning to complete our road trip with 3 nights in Yosemite. We will have a car and plan on day trip walks within the park.using a hotel or lodge as our base.

19th August 2019 at 4:09 pm

Thanks very much! In Yosemite we’ve stayed in a few places. On the trip with the photos in this post, we stayed in Curry Village, which were canvas tents ( https://www.nationalparkreservations.com/lodge/yosemite-curry-village/ ).

Jess has also stayed at the Wawona hotel, and the other lodge options are The Ahwahnee Hotel and the Yosemite Valley Lodge. I would definitely recommend staying with the park if you can as it makes it a lot easier to see everything within a short distance. The various options are at different price points though, so you’ll have to figure out which is best for you 🙂

Have an amazing trip!

julie morton says

15th June 2019 at 4:36 pm

Great article, thank you. I will be doing a similar route with my husband in September. Do you have any further guides on the Mammoth Lakes area or could you suggest somewhere to base ourselves there for a couple of nights please? We will be coming from Death Valley and then heading on to Yosemite.

15th June 2019 at 8:31 pm

Hi Julie! We don’t have anything else about Mammoth Lakes unfortunately on our blogs. We have guides to other parts of California, including Yosemite, but Mammoth Lakes is still on the to do list.

Have a great trip, sorry we couldn’t help this time!

Tara West says

2nd June 2019 at 6:30 pm

Hi there, Just found your blog. Really helpful. Thank you. We are thinking of doing a Californian road trip with our 5 month old baby in Sept. How long are the drives between the places you mention? I wouldnt want to do LA so would probably do San Diego instead. Is there anywhere you advise missing out with a baby? Thanks so much. Tara

3rd June 2019 at 6:26 pm

Our pleasure, we’re delighted to be able to help 🙂

So the drives will obviously vary depending on what you stop and see, but none of the days on the itinerary should have more than four hours driving. We’ve also not got any personal experience with traveling with a baby, however, just bear in mind that even in September Death Valley is going to be very hot. Other than that I don’t see a reason not to go to any of the locations on the list, and Death Valley will be manageable, just take care with the heat 🙂

Priya Singh says

30th April 2019 at 6:40 am

I really appreciate the work you have done, you explained everything in such an amazing and simple way.Good post. I was searched for this topic. Finally, I got the information on this blog. Thanks for the effective information.

30th April 2019 at 5:38 pm

Thanks Priya – pleased we were able to help! Have a great trip 🙂

Rafael says

5th March 2019 at 1:45 pm

Hi guys, great post. I found it really handy now as i’m planning a 3 week road trip through California (and Nevada) in a month (apr 6 to 27). We are starting in LA, just a few days and then planning to go to Joshua Tree (Mojave, is it worth it?), Las vegas, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, San Francisco, and Route 1 back to LA. It’s quite a lot of days, and i find hard to plan where to sleep every night, as i’m not sure how long would it take me to visit every national park, and even cities. So my question is, should i book in advance all different accomodation? In that case how many days should we give to the different national parks and places. As the trip gets so long, we are being really careful with our budget, and that takes me to the second question, what are the best places to stay on a budget in the different stops?

By the way, we are a group of four, planning to rent a car.

Thanks again for your post. Looking forward to read your answer!

Rafael from Uruguay

5th March 2019 at 2:50 pm

Thanks very much 🙂

So to answer your questions. I think Mojave is worth it if you like deserts and wide open spaces.

In terms of accommodation, you are not travelling at a very busy time of year, although it is easter towards the end of April. However there are no Federal holiday, so it should not be too busy. So this means you should be able to book quite last minute. The only places I would advise maybe booking in advance would be any national parks you want to stay in, which can be busy year round. So Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Death Valley, if you plan on staying inside the park, you will want to plan your accommodation in advance.

In terms of budget accommodation, the parks all have campsites, so that would likely be the cheapest option if you don’t mind camping. Some have existing tents you can hire if you don’t want to bring your own tent – Yosemite for example has some nice fixed tents which are not too expensive. For other cities, I’d advise looking at the budget motel chains like Motel 6, Red Roof Inn and so on. These can be very cheap, but do be aware they are not always very central. So you might find something like AirBnB to be more cost effective.

As you are visiting a number of parks you will probably want to buy a national parks pass, which will save you money on parks entry.

I’d also advise taking a look at my guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA, which should give you some more budgeting ideas 🙂

https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/how-much-does-it-cost-to-travel-in-usa/

Let me know if you have any more questions!

c. m. crawford says

17th February 2019 at 3:22 pm

I would take extra care with possessions in the big cities in California. I left my purse in the back of my rental car, parked in a highly visible location on a beach in San Francisco, and even though there were people walking up and down the beach, the window was smashed and the purse stolen. Luckily wallet & phone were on me and the purse was even found and turned in to the police, but I had to exchange the rental car. Other than that California is awesome.

17th February 2019 at 4:34 pm

Sorry to hear that Cris! This is definitely an issue around the world, we always recommend not leaving any valuables in sight in a car as it makes for a tempting option for a thief 🙁 Glad to hear you got your purse back though!

Matthias says

9th February 2019 at 6:57 pm

Hey you guys! You have a great blog and this post inspired the route for my first trip to California with a buddy (we’re planning on doing pretty much the same route). But our plan is doing it the other way around: Also starting end ending in SF but heading to Yosemite from there and doing the trip clockwise. Would love to hear your thoughts on that idea 🙂

10th February 2019 at 6:06 pm

Hi Matthias!

The route would work either way. The only thing is that many people prefer to drive the PCH from north to south as you are on the right hand side of the road, so you get clearer views. But it’s stunning either way to be honest 🙂

Catherine Smithfield says

18th January 2019 at 4:12 pm

Hi Laurence,

Fabulous site guys… I would love some tips please my husband and I are planning a once in a lifetime trip to the USA, we fly into and out of Los Angeles , arriving 16th October and leaving 5th December. We will be spending thanksgiving with friends in Washington state . We would like to drive the Pacific highway, see some of LA, San Fran , Yosemite,Death Valley Las Vegas,- just very quick as we feel we should see it and the Grand Canyon . We love nature, beautiful landscapes, we are also foodies . Any suggestions would be very welcome , hire car v Rv , obviously due to the length of our trip I would like to be sensible on accommodation costs…is there a reliable decent hotel/motel chain you would recommend, or Airbnb. I have also been looking a5 the trusted Housesitters website but have recently come across a few very negative reviews . Many thanks catherine(UK)

18th January 2019 at 6:33 pm

Hi Catherine!

Thanks so much! We’ll do our best to help out.

So first of all, if you haven’t already, we can definitely recommend checking out the USA sections of both our websites:

https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/category/destinations/north-america/usa/ https://independenttravelcats.com/category/travel-destinations/united-states/

Where we have loads of posts that you will find useful. Most particularly, I’d advise reading our driving in the USA , and our guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA . That latter one in particular will help you in terms of costing out the trip.

For a hire car, a normal car rental is going to be a lot cheaper than an RV, especially as you will most likely still have to rent campsite space to stay at. A standard hire car in the US will usually start at around $200 a week. Our US travel budget post has a lot more on how to find the best deal and things to watch out for.

In terms of accommodation, the US has a wide range of options. The cheaper chains include: Red Roof Inn, Motel 6, Super 8, America’s Best Value Inn, Travelodge. The next step up would be Comfort Inn and Holiday Inn.

Note that the cheaper hotels are often found a little way outside of towns, often at interstate exit ramps. It’s also worth being aware that they are nearly all franchises, and so as a result the quality can vary dramatically, so it’s always worth reading reviews before visiting.

For booking and reviews, we highly recommend Booking.com . We have nearly always found this to be the cheapest option, even compared to turning up at the property, and the reviews can be a helpful guide. However, just bear in mind that cheaper hotels tend to rate worse, as folks can have high expectations!

Hopefully all this helps, let us know if you have any more specific questions we can help with!

Natasha says

9th January 2019 at 10:22 am

PS We are also planning to visit family in LA and have possible access to accommodation in Pacific Grove so should we be considering finding snow at Big Sur instead of north of San Fran? PPS Budget is going to be very tight!

9th January 2019 at 10:38 am

Hey Natasha!

So I’ll answer the Big Sur question first 🙂 Snow isn’t very common at Big Sur as it’s right by the sea, and it doesn’t usually get much except at higher elevations. The most reliable option is to head east to Tahoe or Yosemite, although that is going to be quite a drive and won’t fall into the definition of a short drive I’m afraid 🙁 The other option is to head up towards Auburn, as you get closer to the Sierra Nevada Mountains you will definitely find snow, but again, this isn’t going to be a short drive.

Whilst there is always a possibility of snow elsewhere, I wouldn’t want to guarantee it!

In terms of house swaps, the closest option we have for you is TrustedHousesitters , but that’s more of a house sitting opportunity than a home swap. I know there are home swapping platforms, but we’re not familiar with them, so I wouldn’t want to give a recommendation!

I hope you have a wonderful trip!

9th January 2019 at 2:44 pm

Thanks for the super-prompt response! Very helpful to know Big Sur is unlikely to tick the box and we hadn’t considered Auburn so I’ll find out more about that instead. Otherwise we’ll stick to Yosemite or Tahoe, which we’ve heard lots about.

9th January 2019 at 2:50 pm

My pleasure! Those two will definitely be fantastic, Yosemite in winter in particular is stunning. We have a guide to visiting Yosemite here 🙂

Also, I know real snow is ideally preferable, but there are a number of locations that generate snow that are going to be closer to San Francisco. If you google “snow in san francisco” or something similar, you should find some options!

9th January 2019 at 10:17 am

Thrilled to find your fascinating and helpful site! We live in Cape Town, and are planning a month in California between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, focussed around spending time with family in San Fran.

But my 14- and 16-year-olds have never experienced snow so we’re looking for guaranteed on-the-ground snow in early/mid December, as short a drive from SF as possible. Skiing not required, but snowman-building and perhaps some sledging would be great.

Also, can you recommend a site we might arrange a house swap through?

20th November 2018 at 8:30 pm

Hi, I’d like to know if February os a good time to make this travel. And what do you think about Sequoia National park?

27th November 2018 at 11:22 am

February would be good, just be aware that there might still be snow in Yosemite and so you’ll need to keep an eye on road closures around that area. We haven’t visited Sequoia National Park, but we have heard it is a great park, well worth visiting 🙂

12th November 2018 at 10:53 am

Hi there! This post has been really helpful as my partner and I are planning our honeymoon for April 2019 and we would love to roadtrip in the US. We have about 12 nights and would love to spend good chunks of time in San Francisco, LA or Santa Monica and some national parks. We would also love to do the Pacific Coast. We were originally thinking of flying into San Francisco and out of LA, but your post has me wondering if a roundtrip is better. Would you suggest we amend your suggested route? Which of the the national parks would be the best to visit?

12th November 2018 at 4:15 pm

Hey Neely! There are so many great National Parks, but Yosemite is definitely up there as one of my favourites. I would say a round trip is better – the route I have outlined makes a nice loop, and car hire is nearly always better value if you return the car where you picked it up 🙂

Chiara says

2nd October 2018 at 5:21 pm

Hi! I love your blog guys! We are thinking about a road trip in California next summer, and this post is a perfect inspiration! We will travel with our kids, they will be 3 and 6 and we have 3 weeks instead of 2. Do you have suggestions on how/where to use the extra days? Considering we can’t plan super long tiring car journeys and have to incorporate some activities they would enjoy too like some beach life, aquariums… Any suggestion is very welcomed! Thank you very much in advance!

4th October 2018 at 4:20 am

Hey Chiara!

So my suggestion would be to follow this itinerary, but just to go a bit slower and spend a bit more time in each place. I’d definitely suggest the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the San Diego Zoo as two great options along the way, and Universal Studios in LA is also sure to be a hit 🙂 Along the PCH you’ll also find loads of lovely beaches, so I think you’ll easily be able to stretch this two week road trip into a three week California itinerary! Have an awesome time!

4th October 2018 at 2:09 pm

Thank you very much!

ANGELINE MONTIJO says

19th August 2018 at 3:48 pm

Hi Im planning a road trip with my family to California from Orlando,Fl on June 2019. I want some advice where should we start.

19th August 2018 at 5:41 pm

Hi Angeline! Do you mean where to start in terms of planning? If you could let me know how long you are travelling for and what your interests are, then we can try to help. In the meantime, we can help out with some tips on driving in the USA:

https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/tips-for-driving-in-usa/

And some tips on budgeting for your trip:

The overall route you take will also take you through part of our Deep South USA itinerary:

https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/usa-deep-south-road-trip-itinerary/

As well as parts of our Route 66 itinerary:

https://independenttravelcats.com/2-week-route-66-itinerary-ultimate-american-road-trip/

Which should both serve to help inform your planning on your route 🙂

Lisa Stark says

16th August 2018 at 1:20 pm

Hi, my partner and me are planning to do a road trip next September 2019, starting from San Fran and heading south, eventually arriving in San Diego over a 2 week period. Can you recommend a good car hire company, how long before we should book and some nice places to stop with boutique hotels, This will be out first time in America and I’m completely at a loss where to start planning. Many thanks. Lisa

16th August 2018 at 7:05 pm

Hey Lisa! Well, that’s a great question. There are a number of hire car companies that we recommend, you can see our list here: https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/travel-resources/#Car-Rental

It looks like you are doing a one-way trip, so just bear in mind that sometimes the “meta-search” tools that search a variety of providers don’t always account for that. So it might be easier to go direct. We’ve found that it really varies, but we’ve often had success with Enterprise and Hertz. It’s also worth bearing in mind that pick up from an airport location is nearly always more expensive than a city location, so if you can be flexible in that regard you will likely save a bit of money. Especially somewhere like San Francisco, as you don’t really need the car for the city and it will just end up costing you in car parking fees and wasted rental fees for a car you aren’t using.

For hotel and car bookings, I’d usually say the further in advance the better so you have everything sorted and don’t have to worry about it. In terms of stops, your route pretty much follows the Pacific Coast Highway, and we have a super comprehensive guide to all the towns along the route which you can see here:

https://independenttravelcats.com/planning-a-california-pacific-coast-highway-road-trip-from-san-francisco-to-los-angeles/

That also has planning tips and suggestions. I’d also advise reading our tips for driving in the USA: https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/tips-for-driving-in-usa/

And our guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA: https://www.findingtheuniverse.com/how-much-does-it-cost-to-travel-in-usa/

In terms of other things to think about, I’m not sure which country you are coming from, but definitely consider getting a travel credit card that won’t charge you for foreign transaction fees, and maybe a SIM card that offers roaming in the USA. Three in the UK has a pretty good deal for SIM cards that offer free data in the USA.

Hopefully this helps a bit, let me know if you have other questions. It gives me an idea to put together a first timers guide to travelling in the USA 🙂

6th August 2018 at 12:24 pm

This is a great read, thank you for sharing. My partner and I are looking to do a similar trip in October this year. However, we are slightly confused on the route (and in what order) to do it all in. We want to do 14 nights and start in San Francisco and either end in San Diego or Vegas. (Everyone says Vegas is a must see at least once and although not on the top of our list, we thought we could add it on the end).

Our initial thoughts are 3 nights in San Fran, 2 in Yosemite, 1 in Monterey, 1 in Santa Barbara. 3 in la, 2 in San Diego and 2 in Vegas. Does this sound too ambitious? And any thoughts on in what order we would do this? I would appreciate anyones input on this. Thank you in advance!

6th August 2018 at 12:58 pm

My pleasure. So the only slight niggle in your itinerary is that Yosemite is the opposite direction to the Pacific Coast Highway, so that will add a bit of driving time to your route (it’s about 3 – 4 hours each way from San Francisco). I definitely recommend Yosemite, it’s just going to take a bit of time to do it on this trip. Overall your route is certainly do-able, as long as you don’t mind a fair bit of driving. I like that you are scheduling multiple nights in the various locations, that will give you more time to enjoy without rushing. I’d say that your order is pretty good, I can’t think of a better way to do it.

6th August 2018 at 1:27 pm

Thank you for taking the time reply! I am glad it sounds doable. I think the multiple stops should help to break up the drive (I won’t be doing it my other half has that pleasurable job =) ). Yes Yosemite is the one we are are a bit confused about as when to add it. Before or after San Fran and at what point as you say it is out of the way, but is a must for us, and we don’t want to miss anything on the drive down from San Fran to La, so a tricky one. Thank you for your input, much appreciated!

Tim Shakespeare says

24th July 2018 at 9:42 am

Hi there, my wife and I are coming mid October to California for a road trip celebrating my 50th. We start in SF, only for 2 days, then have 3 days before we get to Yosemite. Have you any recommendations of where to visit in that time, we don’t mind going in any direction before heading towards Yosemite? We then head to Las Vegas for my actual birthday for 3 days then onto LA for a further 4 days, any suggestions of where to spend time between the cities?

24th July 2018 at 9:42 pm

Hey Tim! Well, it really depends on what you are interested in! Obviously you’re not too far from Napa Valley if it’s wine you’re after, or you could head north to Redding, where there’s some beautiful scenery. A sojourn along the Pacific Coast Highway, or at least part of it, is also an option – there are so many cute towns along that route to check out (see our guide here: https://independenttravelcats.com/planning-a-california-pacific-coast-highway-road-trip-from-san-francisco-to-los-angeles/

Between Vegas and LA, the obvious choices are Joshua Tree National Park, and the whole Mojave Desert is pretty impressive. I’m assuming you’ll stop at Death Valley from Yosemite, but if not, you could head up that way. Another option is to head south from Vegas and find Route 66, and follow then into LA, which is a fun option. You can see more on Route 66 here: https://independenttravelcats.com/2-week-route-66-itinerary-ultimate-american-road-trip/

Hope this helps a bit! Have a great trip and happy birthday!

tim shakespeare says

27th July 2018 at 2:56 pm

Thanks Laurance, that info is really useful

28th July 2018 at 4:08 pm

My pleasure 🙂

Paula Lambie says

20th July 2018 at 2:35 pm

Hi Laurence, Absolutely loved your article. We are a group of 6 friends that are coming from Trinidad and want to stay about 7-8 days on a road trip starting in LA and possibly leaving from San Fran. We are coming around the end of Feb 2019 and leaving around March 6 or 7th. Still in the planning stages and would appreciate any advice or recommendations. I want to include Yosemite and Sequoia but don”t know if it is feasible with the time period we are looking at. Any advice would greatly be appreciated. Take care.

22nd July 2018 at 9:09 pm

Thanks very much. So Yosemite would be feasible, but you have to bear in mind that in February and March it can still be quite snowy in the park, and it’s also a four hour drive each way from San Francisco, so that’s going to eat up a lot of your time. My suggestion would be to definitely do the Pacific Coast Highway over two or three days, and then depending on your interests, either some time in places like the Joshua Tree, or the cities like LA, San Francisco or San Diego. Another option is to go further north of San Francisco, although Yosemite is a really incredible place and well worth the effort to get out there!

Hope this helps, have a great trip!

Louisa says

12th June 2018 at 6:03 pm

Hi Laurence, We are a family of 5 holidaying in California in August and staying San Francisco (3 nights) -Yosemite (3 nights)-Monterey (2 nights)-Santa Barbara (1 night) and at the moment San Diego (2 nights) and LA (3 nights). I am wondering if we are being over ambitious at the end of the holiday and should just stay in LA rather than driving down to San Diego and back to LA for our flight back? Is San Diego a must see? I am torn between wanting to see it all while we are in California but not overdoing it and rushing too much. What are the travel times likely to be realistically between Santa Barbara, LA and San Diego at that time of year? Thank you for any advice.

13th June 2018 at 11:07 am

Hey Louisa!

I think San Diego is worth visiting, and as you have 3 nights already in LA I don’t think you’ll have too much rush. I will be honest and say that I don’t know exactly what the travel times at that time of year will be, but I find that Google usually estimates travel times pretty well – just avoid the peak rush hours and you should generally be fine 🙂

Shelley says

14th May 2018 at 9:00 am

Hi Laurence, Great website! We are booking a 3 week trip over Christmas. LA to San Francisco, via Vegas/Death Valley etc. Weather wise, what should we expect, particularly with Yosemite? Is there anywhere along the coast which is worth stopping off between LA and San Francisco for a night? Many thanks Shelley from Sydney

14th May 2018 at 2:53 pm

Hi Shelley!

Thanks for your comment – sounds like you have a wonderful trip planned. So, Yosemite in particular can be tricky in winter. It can be accessed, but you need to be aware that it will obviously be quite snowy, and access isn’t possible from all sides – the route I have laid out for example you would have to alter a bit in order to access Yosemite in winter, as the Tioga Road is closed. You also usually can’t get up to Glacier point in winter. But the major attractions in the valley are accessible. For more on visiting Yosemite in Winter, you can check out this guide to Yosemite in a day that Jess wrote: https://independenttravelcats.com/planning-day-yosemite-national-park-introduction-yosemite-valley/

There is a lot to see and do on the Pacific Coast Highway, certainly enough to fill a day or two. There are lots of towns to stop at, and which you choose really depends what you are into. Cambria is a favourite of ours, but there’s a lot to see and do. This post breaks down all the highlights, so you can make an informed decision 🙂

Have a fabulous trip!

Lis Brown says

1st May 2018 at 11:15 pm

Hi Laurence, great post and photos! My husband and I are planing to do 2 weeks driving trip in California, i love all your suggested destinations, I may do the same trip as yours. However, I will be 4 months pregnant (planning to go in May) during the trip, may I know if the in-land route/parks and lake visits are suitable for me and accessible by car or light walking/ light hiking? your trip is start from san francisco and end there too, am i right? thanks in advance!

2nd May 2018 at 8:24 pm

Hi Lis! Thanks very much 😀 The trip does start and end in San Francisco yep.

For your question – I have to admit to not being an expert as we’ve not had any kids, however there is definitely light hiking in the majority of places. Just be aware it can get very hot in some parts of California, so do take plenty of water along. My advice would be to check the websites for the national parks you want to visit and see what hiking routes they have – I think you should be fine, but it’s always best to check as one persons “light hike” is another persons marathon 😉

Theresa says

10th April 2018 at 1:59 am

This looks like a great route, but I was really hoping to see Sequoia National Park. Any advice?

13th April 2018 at 6:16 pm

Hi Theresa! Thanks very much! As that’s in the north, you’d want to add it on near San Francisco. So you could either spend less time in the city, or lose a day somewhere else on the route. It’s hard to give specific advice without knowing your exact interests, but as you sound like you prefer nature to cities, perhaps spending less time in the cities might work better for you? Have a great trip!

15th April 2018 at 5:51 pm

Thanks for your reply. Sequoia National Park is south of Yosemite on the map (Redwood National Park is north of San Francisco). It doesn’t appear that there is road access to Sequoia NP on your route which heads north on 395. I did more research and verified that is the case.

18th April 2018 at 6:22 am

Hi! My apologies, I was thinking of the redwoods to the north of San Francisco and got a bit confused – but that is another option if you can’t make it to Sequoia. Road access can be a challenge due the mountains, and also in winter some of the roads into Yosemite are closed due to snow. So you might have to alter the route a fair bit to make it to Sequoia if that’s a priority 🙂

Jacques says

5th April 2018 at 10:41 pm

Hi Lawrence , we are also considering tyis roadtrip this month. Were from Canada. Assuming we are on the road a giving day with no reservations for a room the same night , by what time do we need to confirm a room or is there plenty of options once arriving early evening. Thank for everything.

6th April 2018 at 5:09 pm

Hi Jacques! At this time of year for the most part you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a room at the last minute. It does depend a little on what level of accommodation you are after, but for quick and easy motels we found they had lots of availability in general. We do definitely advise always checking prices online somewhere like booking.com though, as we nearly always got better deals that way compared to turning up – often the person at the desk didn’t have the power to actually match a price. So do keep that in mind 🙂 Have a great trip, and let me know how it goes!

Jacques Gauthier says

20th May 2018 at 1:13 am

Hi Lawrence ! We decided to take two weeks to travel from San Francisco to LA (Manhattan Beach) . We travel along the coast for these 14 days and enjoyed it tremendously. Next trip will be the National Parks .

Thank you .

20th May 2018 at 2:36 pm

13th March 2018 at 1:27 pm

We are hoping to do everything in your itinerary plus San Diego, we will only have 15 nights and would like to spend at least 2 full days in San Diego and 2 full days in SF, do you think this is reasonable without spending too long out of the 15 days in the car?

13th March 2018 at 8:34 pm

I think that should be do-able yes, if you are focused and don’t get too distracted 😉 Have an awesome trip!

Jacqueline says

19th February 2018 at 4:25 pm

Hi! I am planning a trip with my 10 year old son and love the looks of your itinerary. What would you suggest budget wise for this trip (minus flights) for the two of us?

Thanks, Jacqueline

19th February 2018 at 6:03 pm

Hi Jacqueline! It’s quite tricky to put a budget together on a case by case basis because everyone has different styles and standards of travelling. I’d suggest taking a look at my guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA, which covers pretty much all the areas you need to consider, and should give you some ballpark figures 🙂

Let me know if you still have questions after checking that out 😀

Gai Pendlebury says

12th October 2017 at 11:04 pm

Thank you — what a great and helpful site you have made.We are flying into San francisco from Australia in April.We only have 10 nights.Your suggestions are great — we will miss the LA part.Happy for anyone hear to put in their opinions for an itinerary!We will spent 4 or 5 nights in San fran and 3 in yosemite but the 3 nights are up for grabs –we have done Big Sir before so probs wont go south on the coast.I am thinking maybe Lake tahoe,gold rush towns …love to walk,history, beautiful scenery and quaint American towns.Happy to drive long distances– thank you –your photos are wonderful!

Laurence says

13th October 2017 at 10:33 am

Our pleasure – thanks for commenting to let us know, it’s always appreciated. Sounds like you have some good plans already – one idea might be to head north for Shasta Cascade region and see the caves / redwoods. I have a post about that region on the site too 🙂 Have a fabulous trip!

14th October 2017 at 5:09 am

Thank for that .I will look into it a bit more — I am really impressed with your links for such like 12 best spots for photographing San Fran or Yosemite. So helpful to know where to go to get those great shots!

Jules Selby says

28th August 2017 at 10:24 pm

We are planning two weeks but thinking of hiring an RV instead of hotels, what do you think?

28th August 2017 at 10:43 pm

An RV is definitely a good idea, but do be aware that they can be pricey, and you often have to pay for camping on top of that as well – although there are a lot of places you can camp for free in the US! So really it’s up to you – we’ve done both, and RV’ing is definitely a lot of fun!

Bob Steiner, Jr says

25th June 2017 at 4:07 am

You can’t drive a highway 1 through Big Sur. The highest us closed and detours long and winding over dirt roads

25th June 2017 at 1:32 pm

Thanks for pointing this out. Do you know how long the road will be closed? I’ll put a note in the post.

Erica Landry Napolitano says

16th April 2017 at 7:52 pm

This is some great advice for our upcoming trip. We have almost three weeks out in CA and these will be some great spots! Traveling with an 8 and 10 year old this still seems doable! Thanks.

16th April 2017 at 7:54 pm

My pleasure, have an awesome trip!

Jenna Francisco says

17th September 2016 at 5:18 am

So many good ideas here, and I agree that visitors should plan at least 3 days in San Francisco and Yosemite. One suggestion I’d make related to the “when to visit CA” section–SF and much of the coast are cold and foggy in the summer, so it’s a good idea for visitors to dress in layers and expect lots of fog in summer, that way they won’t be disappointed!

Sarah @ Endless Distances says

14th August 2016 at 1:16 pm

Wow this is so exhaustive!! I’ve don’t the pch before and it’s a dream. I would also definitely recommend staying in Santa Barbara – and the Mexican street food!!!

20th August 2016 at 8:28 pm

Thanks Sarah! It’s a fun place to road trip for sure – thanks for the recommendation!

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Dotted Globe

Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary: From the Pacific to the Redwoods!

california road trip in october

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!

Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur is the most scenic drive in the world

Also Read: Portland to San Francisco Road Trip Itinerary California To Texas road trip planner Best Things to do in Washington State

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 road trip in october

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!

General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park during the winter

Also Read: 24 Best Places to Visit in California in winter

Dotted Globe contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Read my full  Disclosure  here. Thank you!

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.

Yosemite Valley Tunnel View in the winter

Pick your favorite area and stay there as long as you want. Or follow our California in 10 days itinerary exactly as described!

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!

Balboa Park's Casa de Balboa Building in San Diego, California

“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.

Our most popular posts: 22 Best City Breaks in the USA The Best Things to do in New York on your first visit Ultimate List of Best Places to visit in the USA

The Napa Valley Sign in Napa California

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.

Huntington Beach, California is sunny and warm in winter

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 .

That’s what makes our itinerary the absolute best California driving trip planner!

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!

california road trip in october

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 planner.

Union Square is the heart of Christmas festivities in San Francisco

San Francisco – 1 Day

Start with our San Francisco road trip planner.

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.

San Francisco street cars look charming during the holidays

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 San Francisco, 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.

San Francisco City Hall decorated for Christmas

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!

california road trip in october

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.

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.

Silicon Valley

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!

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California

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. 

Wineries near paso Robles in Central California

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.

December in California is the perfect time to go whale watching near Monterey

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.

Beach hiking trails in Monterey 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

california road trip in october

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.

Venice canals at Christmas in Los Angeles

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 .

california road trip in october

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.

On the best California vacation itinerary, you have to meet Mickey, Goofy and other beloved cartoon characters!

Kids also get to meet 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 .

Universal Studios

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.

Colorful houses near Santa Cruz, 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. 

San Diego, California, downtown skyline

Read our post 22 Best Things to do in San Diego now to know more about this beautiful city.

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.

california road trip in october

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

Christmas decorations in Old San Diego Town California

Stretch 2: Through The Arid Californian Desert – 2 Days

Continue on the California road trip route planner through deserts of southern California.

While most people associate California primarily with the coast and then with the dense redwood forests, the state is also renowned for its unique desert landscapes.

Most of these parts of southern California have a desolate beauty.

It is full of desert cities like Palm Springs which offer unique tourist attractions for visitors.

In this post, 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 Landscape

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.

This is 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.

california road trip in october

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.

Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park at sunrise

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.

Salton Sea 

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. 

Beautiful interior of the church at the Santa Barbara Mission in California near Christmas

Palm Springs

Palm Springs, located in the Colorado desert region, is one of the biggest Californian desert cities.

If you want a relaxing vacation, then Palm Springs is one of the best California ideas.

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.

Palm Springs California in amazing to visit in December

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.

california road trip in october

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. 

Scenic road to Death Valley National park, California

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.

california road trip in october

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.

Badlands view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park at Dusk, California

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 .

Frozen Convict Lake surrounded by mountains on a winter day;

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 .

Roads in Kings Canyon National Park in winter

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!

Lake Tahoe looks spectacular even in the winter

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.

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.

california road trip in october

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.

Enjoy snowshoeing on Lake Tahoe in winter

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 . 

california road trip in october

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 from the summer to fall when Tioga Pass Road is open.

Beautiful winter scenery in Yosemite National Park, California

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.

california road trip in october

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.

california road trip in october

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.

california road trip in october

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 our California road trip itinerary recommendations.

One of the top attractions in Sacramento is the California State Railroad Museum.

california road trip in october

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.

california road trip in october

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

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.

california road trip in october

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.

More 10 Day California itinerary ideas for slow travelers

You can use our California road trip planner to customize your itinerary based on your interests. 

If you can only spend 10 days in California, then seeing all the above attractions can be overwhelming; here are a few suggestions for those who like slow travel.

California coast road trip itinerary

One great option is to go on a 10 day pacific coast highway trip or 10 day west coast road trip.

That way you can spend more time in the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles while seeing Big Sur at a leisurely pace. 

On this San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip in 10 days, you can tour the lighthouses, hike the trails, picnic on the beach, visit the wineries of the Central Coast, and enjoy nature – seriously the best road trip in California. 

You can even do the San Francisco to San Diego road trip in 10 days.

In that case, we would recommend keeping aside 2 days each for the 3 major cities and spending the rest of the time in the Big Sur region. 

This San Francisco 10 days trip lets you enjoy the beauty of the coast while visiting the Sierra Nevadas and the desert later.

California National Parks itinerary

California has 9 national parks – all of them are unique and make for an exciting California National park road trip. 

You can visit either the most popular ones or all of them, depending on how much time you want to spend in each park. 

We would suggest starting from Los Angeles, then seeing Joshua Tree and Death Valley before visiting Kings Canyon and Sequoia. 

Then see the beautiful Yosemite Valley. From Yosemite, head north to Lassen and then finally see Redwoods parks before returning to San Francisco. 

You can also see Pinnacles and Channel Islands if you have the time, to complete the national parks in California road trip. 

You can also use this route for creating your own California RV trip itinerary, since most national parks have RV campgrounds. 

Northern California road trip itinerary

Another great option for those who like slow travel is to plan a Northern California itinerary for 10 days. 

Start your road trip from San Francisco and drive along the less visited North Coast and see the majestic redwood trees. 

Drive along the Redwoods Scenic Byway before turning towards the mountains and exploring the caves at Lava Tubes National Monument. 

Visit Mount Shasta on your way to Lassen Volcanic National Park and end your trip in Sacramento, a couple of hours away from San Francisco. 

For more information on how to plan a California road trip focusing on the northern part of the state, read our in-depth post on Northern California road trip .

If you have less time: California itinerary 7 days

If you can’t spare 10 days, then we also have suggestions for 7 day California road trip routes. 

With only 7 days in california, we would recommend focusing on one region and exploring it at a leisurely pace. 

Of course, you can opt for a 7 day southern California itinerary or a 7 day California coast road trip along the PCH, but you can also consider some unique road trip ideas in California which explore its most popular attractions. 

Here are our favorites if you want to see the best of California in a week:

7 day road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite

If you are wondering how to spend a week in California but still see the most popular attractions, then this itinerary is for you. 

Start your road trip in San Francisco, see the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Mission District, Fisherman’s Wharf etc in two days. 

Then spend a day in Napa Valley and nearby Calistoga before seeing Sacramento.

In Sacramento, see the state capitol and the railroad museum then make your way to Yosemite National Park. 

Take a tour of the Yosemite Valley and see the famous El Capitan as well as the many waterfalls.

Enjoy the panoramic view from the Tunnel View Outlook. 

Then depending on the season, visit the Tuolumne Meadows area.

Return to San Francisco to complete 7 day road trip in California.

North California coast road trip

This California 1 week itinerary is perfect for slow travel. 

Land in San Francisco and take a day or two to explore it’s many attractions.

Then rent a car and drive north. 

Part of this road trip is on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 till Legett, after which you will be driving along the famous Redwood scenic byway. 

For your first stop, explore the beautiful Point Reyes.

See the lighthouse and the shipwreck, then eat oysters in Tomales Bay. 

Drive along the Avenue of the Giants and pass through the Redwood tunnels. 

Hike in the prehistoric Fern Canyon and visit the glass beach at Fort Bragg, then last stop at Eureka or Crescent City to finish the California coast 7 day itinerary.

7 Day Southern California trip itinerary

For this ca road trip planner, begin your trip with a day or two in San Diego or Los Angeles and then wind your way around Southern California’s desert attractions. 

See famous Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.

Enjoy the fantastic landscape of the Mojave desert and drink a delicious date shake.

See the sculptures in Borrego Springs. 

Then visit Anaheim and enjoy the theme parks.

There are also many things to do in Anaheim besides Disney. 

7 Day California Coast Road Trip

This is one of the most popular california driving holidays itineraries.

Follow this California road trip itinerary 7 days along the world famous Pacific Coast Highway. 

See the major cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Explore the charming mountain side towns of Pismo Beach and Morro Bay. Learn to surf and spot the elephant seals. 

Spend some time hiking and enjoying the wild, rugged vibe of Big Sur.

Take a tour of the Point Sur Lighthouse and hike down to Keyhole Rock. Go whale watching. 

If you have more time: California road trip itinerary 14 days

This two week california driving itinerary is perfect for long summer vacations, when most parts of the state including the High Sierras are completely accessible. 

Just use our main California trip planner, but add in all optional ideas including San Diego and the beautiful northern coast. 

Then see the Lassen Volcanic National Park area and visit the beautiful Burney Falls from Redding.

Spend some time in Mount Shasta and head back to San Francisco to complete California 2 week itinerary.

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!

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10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips

Follow these classic routes for magical scenery and worthy stops

Editor's note: Check out more than 50 amazing road trip itineraries on our California Road Trip Republic hub, filled with inspiration and ideas for your next adventure. 

The Highway 1, aka Pacific Coast Highway, road trip that passes through Big Sur on California’s Central Coast is perhaps the most famous scenic drive in the Golden State. But it’s not the only scenic, unforgettable road trip in California—by far.  Consider one of these 10 classic road trips, rich with magical scenery like pounding surf, rolling hills, waterfalls, and plenty of wineries. Most make for a great weekend or even day trip. Choose your favorites from these trips, listed north to south—then roll down the windows and get going.

Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park Length: 188 miles Prime Seasons: Spring and Summer

The northeastern Shasta Cascade region reveals a lot of California’s best-kept secrets. Start in Redding and head up I-5 to Shasta Lake — the largest reservoir in California, and a hotbed for fishing and water sports . From there, drive past the 14,162-foot Mount Shasta ; seeing it for the first time, John Muir once wrote, made his “blood turn to wine.” While you’re in the area, don’t miss the spires at Castle Crags State Park . Next, head south on Highway 89, which is part of the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway , and go to  McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park , home to the 129-foot, fern-draped Burney Falls. Finish at lovely, placid Lake Almanor, which neighbors the bubbling mud pots and steaming geysers of Lassen Volcanic National Park .

Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg Length: 175 miles Prime Season: November through April

This stretch of the highway, heading up the North Coast from San Francisco, offers as much windswept beauty as its Central Coast counterpart. It starts when you cross the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito and Marin County, where you’ll encounter the coastal hills and redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument , followed by the dramatic sea cliffs and remote beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore .

From there, cruise through the rolling vineyards of Napa Valley and Sonoma County ’s wine country. Then explore the seemingly untouched beauty of the North Coast—from the craggy coastline at Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands to the rugged terrain at Mendocino Headlands State Park and the quaint, Victorian-style town of Mendocino . Next, head north on Highway 1 to Fort Bragg and explore MacKerricher State Park to see seals, migrating whales (from November through April), and Glass Beach, which looks like it’s covered with jewels.

Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail Length: 29 miles Prime Season: Year-round

T his road was constructed in 1852 to link the towns of Napa and Calistoga. Today, the Silverado Trail runs parallel to the more bustling State Highway 29, with easy access to some of the best wineries in the Golden State. Start in the town of Napa and work your way north, stopping at wineries such as Reynolds Family Winery , Clos du Val in the Stags Leaps District, and the bubbly-rich Mumm Napa. To keep a leisurely pace, stay a night or two at one of the fabulous local hotels, like Auberge du Soleil , Solage Calistoga , or Meadowood Napa Valley .

Lake Tahoe to Lone Pine or Yosemite National Park Length: 234 miles on the Lone Pine route, 215 miles on the Yosemite route Prime Season: Year-round on the Lone Pine route, May–November (weather permitting) on the Yosemite route

Highway 395 is the High Sierra’s main thoroughfare filled with endless scenic wonders—from fields of volcanic rock to waterfalls and eerie limestone tufa towers. Any piece of this trip could be its own multiday adventure. Start at South Lake Tahoe , near the idyllic Emerald Bay State Park , and head south toward Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve to see the bizarre, ghostlike towers. 

Continue to   Mammoth Lakes , where you’ll find family-friendly skiing and snowboarding during winter, and hiking and mountain biking in the summer. From there, keep driving south to Bishop (pick up some of the acclaimed Sheepherder’s bread and sandwiches at E rick Schat’s Bakkery ) and then Lone Pine, the setting for many an old western movie, and near the photo-op-magnet, eight-foot Mobius Arch in Alabama Hills .

For an alternate route that will give you a view of Yosemite National Park’s natural scenery, divert off Highway 395 to the seasonal Highway 120, aka Tioga Pass, which is typically open May through November (check the park's website for the latest opening information and history) . Exploring North Yosemite  offers the chance to see beauties like Tuolumne Meadows , Wapama Falls, and hiking (or winter snowshoeing) at the Tuolumne or Merced groves, both lined with giant sequoias . Head to Yosemite Valley for a longer adventure in the park, or continue on to explore the quaint Gold Rush towns of Groveland and Coulterville.

Sierra Vista Scenic Byway Length: 90 miles Prime Season: June through October

This drive along forest roads offers a window into what the High Sierra looked like roughly a century ago—which means you’ll traverse a few dirt roads, too. Start on Forest Road 81 near the town of North Fork—45 miles northeast of Fresno—and follow the route for about 90 miles. Views include plenty of peaks, g ranite domes, and conifer forests; p rime stops include Jesse Ross Cabin , which dates back to the 1860s; and the 2,700-year-old Bull Buck Tree , one of the world’s oldest sequoia trees. Reward yourself with a slice of pie at the rustic Jones General Store.

Fresno Blossom and Fruit Trails Length: 62 miles Prime Season: February through September

In late winter, this loop east of Fresno becomes a rainbow of pastels across the acres of blossoming fruit and nut trees—like almonds, peaches, plums, and cherries. By early summer, the local fruit markets are stocked with the juicy harvest. Start in Fresno, east of Highway 99, and follow the route , including State Route 180, through the charming towns of Sanger, Orange Cove, Reedley, Kingsburg, and Fowler. Don’t miss stops like Fresno’s Simonian Farms , a 1901 fruit stand housed in a giant red barn; the aromatic Orange Blossom Trail from Orange Cove; and Cedar View Winery in Sanger, where you can taste the red wines made with rare Alicante Bouschet grapes. Give the town of Selma its props as the Raisin Capital of the World, and check out the old-style trains and fruit orchards at Reedley’s Hillcrest Farm .

Highway 101 from Malibu to Lompoc Length: 120 miles Prime Season: Year-round

This stretch of Highway 101—which overlaps with parts of Highway 1—gives you a greatest-hits road trip of both beach and wine country. Start in iconic Malibu , where the highway runs along the base of the rugged Santa Monica Mountains before passing through Oxnard, Ventura, and then idyllic Santa Barbara . Look west, out over the water, for signs of Channel Islands National Park and walk in the sand on one of Santa Barbara’s local beaches , such as El Capitán, Refugio, or Gaviota. The highway then turns inland through rolling ranchlands, bound for Lompoc. Most famous for its summer flower fields, Lompoc also has excellent Pinot Noir. Sample a few at the Lompoc Wine Ghetto , a collection of tasting rooms run by leading boutique producers.

Rim of the World Scenic Byway Length: 117 miles Prime Season: Year-round

Fo r more than 100 miles, narrow State Highway 18 winds around the cliffs of the San Bernardino Mountains, through small villages on the way to Big Bear Lake , and offering such panoramic views that it’s been dubbed The Rim of the World . Prime stops include Lake Arrowhead   (a slight detour onto State Route 173), and the mellow, half-mile educational Sequoia Trail  at Heaps Peak Arboretum . For big views, keep driving to the town of Running Springs and take the winding, five-mile drive up to Keller Peak Fire Lookout, with expansive views of mountains, lakes, and—on a clear day—the Pacific Ocean. Keep heading to  Big Bear   fo r water sports and hiking in the summer, or snow play in the winter—and great homemade fudge year-round at the  North Pole Fudge & Ice Cream Co .

Surf Safari through Orange County Length: 30 miles Prime Season: Year-round

This endless-summer drive through Orange County starts at the southern origin of Highway 1: Dana Point , a harbor town with excellent whale-watching during winter. Head north to cruise through art-gallery-lined Laguna Beach , home of summer’s Pageant of the Masters Tournament , then stop for a walk on one of the state’s prettiest beaches at Crystal Cove State Park . Next, head to Newport Beach , known for both its yacht- filled harbor and its tempting frozen bananas and creamy Balboa Bars. Finally, cruise through Huntington Beach —dubbed Surf City USA—and try catching a wave yourself, or watch the experts from the bustling Huntington Pier.

Beach-to-Desert Drive from San Diego Length: 90 miles Prime Seasons: Late Winter and Spring

Bounce from the coast to the mountains and then the desert in this scenery-packed trip across Southern California. From the beaches of La Jolla or Del Mar , take State Road 56 east to  Highway 67, which winds through rural Ramona, dotted with farm stands. Then turn onto Highway 78 a nd into the Cuyamaca Mountains  toward Julian , the mountain town known for its apple crops (and, hence, lots of pie, like those at Julian Cafe and Bakery ). Then ease back down the road’s twists and turns into the desert, where the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is home to an explosive wildflower bloom every year, around February and March. Stay the night at a local hotel like La  Casa del Zorro , and be sure to stay up late: Borrego Springs is an International Dark Sky Community known for its epic stargazing .

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California Road Trip: Top 15 Scenic Stops Along the Way

California is truly filled with unique treasures. Although many people associate California with Hollywood, there are so many places to explore in the Golden State ! 

Road-tripping through California could take weeks, and you still won’t see it all. That’s why we’ve put together a California road trip itinerary for you to journey your way down the coast from Northern California through the Central Coast and into Southern California. 

For this California road trip, you’ll mainly be following Highway 1 south. This famous highway gives you incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. Even beyond these stops, you’ll see amazing sights throughout your entire journey, even just from your car. 

Once you hit Santa Barbara, it’s time to head back north, but you’ll be following a more inland path. This way, you’ll be able to make time for national parks, hidden hideaways, and fresh food from California’s farmland!

This road trip takes you through some of the more hidden gems of the state, like Half Moon Bay, San Simeon, and Solvang. From wine tours to hiking trails to amusement parks, there’s so much to do at these stunning locations that you may want to spend a few days at each stop. 

But to help you get the most out of each day, we’ve picked out a few of the sights you just can’t miss seeing. Follow this carefully curated California road trip itinerary to uncover all the famous and little-known destinations California has to offer.

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase or booking through one of our links we may earn a small commission (don’t worry, it’s at no extra cost to you).

Scenic Stops Along Your California Road Trip 

1. explore golden gate park in san francisco.

Road Trip Stops in California: Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Before you venture south, start your journey in San Francisco. Known for its steep rolling hills, eclectic architecture, and fantastic food scene, you could spend your whole vacation getting to know this diverse city. But if you’re only stopping by and visiting for a few days, there should be a few highlights on your list of things to do in San Francisco . 

Take a walk along the Lands End Coastal Trail for one of the best views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Then, explore Golden Gate Park, where you’ll find beautiful places to spend an afternoon, like the Japanese Tea Garden or the Conservatory of Flowers . 

Road Trip Through California: Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Another stop to make is the Palace of Fine Arts , one of the most picturesque structures in the city. If you’d like to see the famous Painted Ladies, head to Alamo Square Park for a view like no other. Finish your eventful day off by dining in Ghirardelli Square .

Experience a Golden Gate Park Segway Tour

2. Have a Beach Day in Half Moon Bay

California Road Trip: Half Moon Bay in San Francisco

As a northern California coastal town filled with excellent surfing, clean beaches, and bright blue waters, you may end up spending your entire time in Half Moon Bay relaxing in the sand. But there’s plenty more to do in this charming town, especially if you visit in the fall. 

Located an easy 30 miles south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is known for its pumpkin patches. The farms in Half Moon Bay put on quite a show in autumn, with corn mazes, haunted hayrides, and plenty of pumpkin picking. If you’re visiting closer to winter, many of these pumpkin patches turn into Christmas tree farms, complete with hot cocoa and tons of fun for adults and little ones alike.

Road Trip Stops in California: Half Moon Bay in San Francisco

Once you’re done at the farms, head to Half Moon Bay’s historic downtown for some great dining options and stores boasting one-of-a-kind finds. Here you’ll find handcrafted trinkets, hand-cut flowers, and even baby chicks to coo over.

3. Catch Epic Waves in Santa Cruz

Road Trip Stops in California: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

Venturing an hour south of Half Moon Bay on Highway 1, your next stop should be the laidback and beachy town of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is best known for its iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk , where you can ride the historic Giant Dipper, play skeeball in a huge and classic arcade, and spend a whole day sampling delicious boardwalk eats. 

But if you’d rather spend time in the forest instead of at the beach, climb aboard a train at the Roaring Camp Railroads . Hop on the Redwood Forest Steam Train for a tour of the redwoods until you reach Bear Mountain. 

California Road Trip Stops: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

Or take the Santa Cruz Beach Train, where you’ll be taken through Henry Cowell State Park and delivered to the Santa Cruz beaches. Around the holiday season, these trains are transformed into an illuminated wonderland.

Santa Cruz also has a diverse downtown, where you’ll find delicious dining options and unique shopping opportunities, as well as live music, historic movie theaters, and more. There are so many fun things to do in this beachside beauty – you could easily spend three days in Santa Cruz .

4. Spot Majestic Sea Creatures in Monterey

California Road Trip: Majestic Sea Creatures in Monterey

Less than an hour south of Santa Cruz is Monterey, another waterfront town with a very different vibe and a must on any California road trip. You won’t find amusement park rides in Monterey, but what you will find is incredible wildlife, amazing eats, and aquatic attractions like no other. There are tons of fun things to do in Monterey !

If you only have a few days in Monterey, you’ll likely want to spend them exploring the bay itself. Climb aboard a kayak at the Monterey Bay, and you’re bound to see sea lions, seals, otters, and maybe even dolphins while you’re paddling. Or venture to Old Fisherman’s Wharf to take a whale-watching tour and see humpbacks, orcas, and many more unique types of whales that spend time in the Monterey waters. 

Road Trip Stops in California: Majestic Sea Creatures in Monterey

One of the biggest attractions in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium , a world-renowned aquarium known for its rehabilitation efforts for abandoned wildlife. Learn about how surrogate otter moms train lost pups to prepare them to be released back into the wild. 

While you’re here, you’ll spot stunning creatures from diverse habitats, from the many organisms that call kelp forests home to the bewildering beauties of the little-seen deep sea. Once you’re done exploring the aquarium, head out to Cannery Row for fine dining options with an ocean view.

5. Take in Unreal Pacific Views in Big Sur

California Road Trip: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur

Not too far from Monterey is Big Sur, a historic location on the water. Take a photo at the Bixby Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. Then, go for a hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Keep your eyes peeled for the hidden Keyhole Arch!

As you explore this gorgeous park, you’ll come across the 80-foot McWay Falls, a rushing waterfall surrounded by sandy beaches and granite cliffs. Another great hike is the Partington Cove Trail, a one-mile hike that leads you to a cove with tide pools, wildflowers, and one heck of a view.

Road Trip Through California: Bixby Bridge in Big Sur

For another unique beach experience, head to Pfeiffer Beach. Here you’ll walk along shimmering purple sand, which gets its color from manganese garnet. Check the north side of the beach near the tidepools for this naturally occurring phenomenon. 

Experience a Big Sur Guided Tour

6. Check Out the Elephant Seals in San Simeon

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Elephant Seals in San Simeon

When you stop at San Simeon, you’ll find many beautiful beaches to visit, as well as breathtaking views. But there are two locations that you have to check out if you have a short stay in this spectacular town on the water. 

The first is the real jewel of San Simeon, Hearst Castle . Started in 1919, this castle consisted of a twin-towered main building, three guesthouses, and 127 acres of terraced gardens, fountains, and pools. It’s also a museum that’s home to art and antiquities from around the world. 

California Road Trip Stops: Hearst Castle in San Simeon

There are several different types of tours available, including one that invites guests to dress in period costumes and be transported back to the age of William Randolph Hearst himself. Pick the tour that you’d like to go on most, but be sure to book in advance as space is limited.

The other stop you should make is at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery , an easily accessible rookery where you’ll spot (and hear!) thousands of elephant seals nestled in the sand. Although you’ll find elephant seals here all throughout the year, up to 17,000 seals can be found here during peak times, which occur in January, April, and October.

7. Go Kayaking in Morro Bay

Road Trip Through California: Kayaking in Morro Bay

Located just 30 miles south of San Simeon, Morro Bay is a fishing village that’s a perfect stop for people who love getting out on the water. Charter your own fishing boat or rent a paddle board to venture around the bay. 

You’re bound to spot playful otters, resting seals, and barking sea lions no matter where you go in Morro Bay. After that, ride off into the sunset on a floating tiki bar complete with 1950s-style cocktails, or paddle as the moon rises over the famous Morro Rock with a sunset kayaking tour .

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Morro Bay Kite Festival in Morro Bay

Morro Bay is often foggy, but the fog typically burns off by midday. Otherwise, the climate is very temperate, so there’s never a bad time to visit this beachside town. But two of the best times to come here are during fall’s Avocado Margarita Festival and spring’s Morro Bay Kite Festival . 

During the Avocado Margarita Festival, you’ll listen to live music in a picturesque setting while you sip on eclectic cocktails and dine on gourmet avocado treats. This festival truly is very Californian! 

During the Kite Festival, you and your family will watch as pieces of art fly overhead, flown by trained kite pilots. For even more fun for the little ones, some of these kites are packed with candy, which will drop at certain times of the day.

8. Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

Road Trip Stops in California: Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

Once the Clam Capital of the World, Pismo Beach is a beachy town filled with places for outdoor adventures. You’ll find this gem 26 miles south of Morro Bay, so it’s a great place to get out and stretch your legs during your California road trip.

From October to February, you can watch thousands of butterflies soar overhead at the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove . You can also head to Dinosaur Caves Park , a bluff park that spans 11 acres. Kids will love playing at the dinosaur-themed playground, while you’ll love sightseeing in the lush green open space. 

Road Trip Through California: Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach

For a more tranquil spot, venture over to Eldwayen Ocean Park . During low tide, you’ll spot tons of aquatic creatures here, from anemones to sea stars. But if you’re more of a daredevil, you’ll want to go to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the only place in California where motor vehicles can drive on the beach. Rent a dune buggy and go for the ride of your life!

Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

9. Wine and Dine in Santa Barbara

California Road Trip: Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara

Set 82 miles south of Pismo, Santa Barbara is one of the most popular weekend destinations in Southern California for a good reason. This gorgeous coastal town boasts beautiful beaches, gorgeous gardens, and many more amazing activities. 

Explore Lotusland , a lush and whimsical garden sitting on 37 acres and filled with a stunning collection of exotic plants once collected by famous Polish opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska. Or head to Arroyo Burro County Beach Park for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing.

Road Trip Stops in California: Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is known for its food and wine scene, so if you only have a day or two, join a wine or food tour to get the full experience of this scenic location. Take a sustainable wine tour , where you’ll go behind the scenes to see how small-production wines are made and sample them in private tasting rooms. Or go on a tasting tour to find local eats that are hidden gems to the area. 

End your day here with a show at the Lobero Theatre , the oldest continuously-performing theater in California. Or take in the sunset at Stearns Wharf, the oldest wooden wharf continuously in use in California. 

Now that you’ve made it to Santa Barbara, it’s time to venture back up the state. Although we journeyed down the coast, you’ll be heading back up more inland to mix things up!

Go on a Wine, Chocolate, and History Walking Tour

10. Be Transported to Denmark in Solvang

Road Trip Through California: Solvang

A must on any California road trip bucket list, the charming village of Solvang will make you feel like you’ve been transported across the world. This town is known for its Danish history, architecture, and treats. 

Ride along the historic horse-drawn Solvang Trolley and take in the sights of this uniquely wonderful location. As you wander along the main street, Mission Drive, you’ll gawk at colorful facades, spectacular windmills, and beautiful blooming flowers. 

California Road Trip Stops: Solvang Trolley in Solvang

Solvang features many wine-tasting rooms, fine dining establishments, and shops with one-of-a-kind treats. Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolate Inc. is a must-do for any sweets lover. Here you’ll find handcrafted chocolates of all kinds. If you’re a fan of the holidays, head to Jule Hus , where it’s Christmas all year long. 

If you’re a history buff, you’ll find many one-of-a-kind museums in Solvang. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum will take you into the life and works of this beloved Danish writer. 

To learn more about the Danish history of the area, the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art will take you through art and artifacts of Solvang’s Danish roots, all housed in a building reminiscent of 18th century Denmark farmhouse. And the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum shows off exotic and vintage motorcycles and European racing bikes, a perfect stop for a racing lover.

Book a Solvang Food & Photo Tour

11. Spend the Night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo

Continuing north for about an hour, you’ll head to San Luis Obispo, where you’ll find wine tasting, farm-to-table dining, and an entertaining downtown to explore. 

Take a tour of the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa , take a walk through the strange and wonderful Bubblegum Alley, or give your kids a day of play at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum . For a truly unique site, visit the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard, a nine-acre area packed with eclectic structures built by students at Cal Poly.

Road Trip Stops in California: Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo

If you have a night to spend in San Luis Obispo, rent a room at the Madonna Inn , a world-famous, whimsical inn with uniquely designed rooms. From rooms that look like they were built into the wall of a canyon to bright pink love shack-inspired suites, this kitschy gem is truly a one-of-a-kind find.

Book a night at the Madonna Inn

12. Go Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

California Road Trip: Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

Drive 30 miles north, and you’ll come across Paso Robles, a haven for art, culture, and wine. Visit Senserio , a 15-acre light show across rolling hills, for a spectacle unlike any other. Hike around Carrizo Plain National Monument, where the best time to explore is from March to May when the California poppies are in bloom. 

Road Trip Through California: Vineyard Paso Robles

After that, you can take a hot air balloon ride over Paso Robles’ many vineyards or rest and rejuvenate in the area’s natural hot springs. You can dine on a castle rooftop at Tooth and Nail Winery , but there are plenty more wine-tasting options in the area. Hop aboard Paso Robles’ many wine tours to get a chance to experience several of the area’s biggest and best wineries.

Experience the Wine Country Sightseeing Tour

13. Take a Hike in Pinnacles National Park

California Road Trip Stops: Pinnacles National Park in Salinas Valley

Pinnacles is a national park located just east of the Salinas Valley. About 23 million years ago, multiple volcanoes erupted, and the lava flow slid to form what would later become Pinnacles National Park. 

Throughout this gorgeous landscape, visitors can journey through chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms. This park is home to many rare creatures, like the California condor. Hikers can also venture through talus caves and come out to find towering rock spires.

Road Trip Through California: Pinnacles National Park in Salinas Valley

Because temperatures can reach the 90s and swing wildly throughout the day, it’s not recommended to hike in the Pinnacles during the peak of the summer. Although traveling here in the fall and winter can be beautiful, the best time to visit is in spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom. There are over 30 miles of hiking trails, so there’s plenty to explore here!

14. Try All the Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

California Road Trip: Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

Famously the Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy is an adorable hidden gem in Santa Clara County, roughly an hour from Pinnacles National Park. Stop at one of the many garlic stops along the road here and even try some garlic ice cream if you’re feeling adventurous. 

Follow the Road to Garlic to find restaurants and shops offering the best garlic treats Gilroy has to offer. And if you have little ones, you’ll love Gilroy Gardens , which features beautiful gardens, amusement park rides, and the living sculptures that are the Circus Trees. 

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

Just outside of Gilroy is Henry W. Coe State Park, the largest state park in northern California and home to 87,000 acres of hills and mountain ridges in the Diablo Mountain Range. Wildflowers bloom all over this park from February to March, so it’s a masterpiece of color by April. With so many trails lining the flower-covered hills, this park is a hiker’s paradise.

15. Take It Easy in the East Bay

Now that you’ve made it back up to northern California finish off your road trip in the East Bay. Lying across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, the East Bay consists of Contra Costa County and Alameda County. 

Hike your way around Tilden Regional Park, go stargazing at Chabot Space & Science Center , or dine on the water at Jack London Square in Oakland. If you’d like to see the iconic redwoods, be sure to stroll along the trails at Redwood Regional Park.

If you have young children, they’ll love Children’s Fairyland , an amusement park that looks like it came right out of a storybook. It’s conveniently located nearby the scenic Lake Merritt. This lake is also home to a large and eclectic farmers market every Saturday that’s certainly worth a stop. 

And now your California road trip has come to an end! Did we miss any of your favorite road trip stops in California? Let us know in the comments!

Planning a trip to California? Check out our favorite books and travel guides!

Coast California Travel Guide by Lonely Planet

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Best California Road Trip Stops

About the Author:

Valerie Wheatley

Val grew up in Portland, Oregon but moved to Oahu on a whim back in 2013. She sold her house and all of her belongings and bought a one-way ticket. Since then she’s taken two around-the-world trips and has visited 60-ish countries while living out of a duffel bag. Val started documenting the Wandering Wheatleys travels back in 2013 as a way to update friends and family about her whereabouts and to relay humorous daily interactions. The only readers were her mom and her mother-in-law but that didn’t stop her! These days you’ll find Val dreaming up future trips, creating new travel content, managing a team of amazing travel enthusiasts, and chasing around her two adorable but naughty kids.

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An Epic Northern California Road Trip Itinerary (Guide + Tips From A Local)

last Updated: January 19, 2024 california Northern California

FYI: Affiliate links may be sprinkled throughout the awesome, free content you see below. I’ll receive a small commission when you purchase from my links (at no extra cost to you), which I’ll totally blow on adult things like boba tea and avocado toast. As always, thanks for the support.

Planning an epic Northern California road trip and looking for the best stops to make?! I’m here to show you all the highlights (think redwoods, deep blue lakes, and freshly shucked oysters)! You’ll be wondering why you didn’t take this road trip to Northern California sooner! 

Planning an epic Northern California road trip and looking for the best stops to make?! I’m here to show you all the highlights (think redwoods, deep blue lakes, and freshly shucked oysters)!

What comes to mind when you picture NorCal? If you said towering redwoods , the granite peaks of Yosemite, and delicious wine regions, you wouldn’t be wrong! But we’ve also got a snow-capped dormant volcano (true story), that dramatic Pacific coastline, plenty of Victorian-era houses, and even the capital of California (no, it’s not LA or SF).

As I’m sure you could’ve guessed, Northern California is HUGE. And with that comes tons of diversity, in both its urban areas and stunning landscapes. You could spend months road tripping to Northern California and still not see it all. You will however feel that relaxed Californian attitude after just a few days in the state.

Planning an epic Northern California road trip and looking for the best stops to make?! I’m here to show you all the highlights (think redwoods, deep blue lakes, and freshly shucked oysters)!

The area is so massive I even wrote a guide with over 300 things to do in NorCal ! While we won’t be knocking out all 300, we will be crossing off not one, not two, but THREE national parks in California on this Northern California road trip. I told you the itinerary I planned out is epic. 

→ Read Next: The BEST Road Trips in California (so many great ideas in here!)

I’ve lived in California for over 5 years now, and explore the Golden State every chance I get. Although I haven’t completed this entire NorCal road trip I’m suggesting in one go, I’ve been to all the stops — some, even multiple times! I’ve taken all my tips and included them in what I feel is the ultimate Northern California road trip itinerary → perfect for you all looking to explore the northern half of the state!

→ Psst: Check out my road trip packing guide for must-have items and other handy tips and tricks (helpful even if you’re an experienced road tripper, promise!)

Northern California Road Trip Itinerary Overview

  • Start : San Francisco
  • Stop #1: Yosemite National Park
  • Stop #2: Lake Tahoe
  • Stop #3: Sacramento
  • Stop #4: Lassen Volcanic National Park + Burney Falls
  • Stop #5: Redding/Mount Shasta
  • Stop #6: Eureka/Trinidad
  • Stop #7: Redwood National and State Parks
  • Stop #8: Mendocino/Fort Bragg
  • Stop #9: Napa /Sonoma
  • Stop #10: Point Reyes
  • End : San Francisco

Why take a Northern California road trip?!

Planning an epic Northern California road trip and looking for the best stops to make?! I’m here to show you all the highlights (think redwoods, deep blue lakes, and freshly shucked oysters)!

Well for starters, NorCal is absolutely breathtaking. As I mentioned before, there’s craggy coastlines, towering redwoods, and delicious oyster picnics!

In addition, the state is just too damn huge to road trip through all at once. I mean, maybe if you had a month plus that’d be slightly doable. While I’m beyond obsessed with the Pacific Coast Highway and southern California , a trip to Northern California is oh so different.

If you’re looking to get a bit off the beaten path and delve from the ordinary, a road trip to Northern California will be perfect for you. 

How Long Will this Road Trip in Northern California take?

This is a super tricky question, because you could honestly spend months exploring NorCal! I say, plan for as long as you’ve got! If you wanna see all the stops on this Northern California road trip itinerary I’ve planned, aim for at least 3 weeks. You can probably do it in 2, but it’ll be super crammed and you’ll do too much driving vs. exploring in my opinion.

california road trip in october

If you’ve got less than 2 weeks, I’d pick out a few spots below which pique your interest the most. Look at the map below and try to keep the places you pick close-ish together.

Only have a week or so? Leave off Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe. While they’re actually some of my favorite places in Northern California, these two spots are a bit further away from the others, so it doesn’t make sense to include them on a shorter trip. You can easily spend 3-4 days in each, so best to save them for another trip when you can really give them the time they deserve. 

Things to Know Before Driving Around Northern California

california road trip in october

Getting to San Francisco

First things first, if you’re not a resident of San Francisco, you’ll of course need to get yourself there (stop #1). Since SFO is a major international airport, and a hub for many airlines, you can easily find cheap airfare within the states. You can start this NorCal road trip in Sacramento, but I have a feeling you’ll probably find cheaper airfare to San Francisco.

Renting a Car

Since this is in fact a road trip , you’ll need a vehicle to get you from place to place! Worth mentioning so you don’t forget to account for the cost of a rental car when following this Northern California road trip itinerary! I like to search via this site in order to compare rental companies to see who has the best price (and frequently save a fair bit of money!).

Filling up on Gas

While this Northern California road trip makes a bunch of stops in highly visited areas, it does take you through some more rural spots. Because of that, you’ll wanna make sure to fill up when you see a station if you’re getting to about ½ a tank. 

Some areas will be much more expensive than others, but if you’re not from California, you’ll find that gas prices are probably (much) higher than you’re used to regardless. Gas is the highest in the nation (on par with gas in Hawaii), so just take this account when planning your NorCal road trip budget.

I like to use the app GasBuddy to check out locations and prices of gas stations nearby. Google Maps has also started including gas prices for stations as well.

Planning an epic Northern California road trip and looking for the best stops to make?! I’m here to show you all the highlights (think redwoods, deep blue lakes, and freshly shucked oysters)!

Traffic in Northern California

While you’ll definitely encounter traffic in certain areas (Bay Area, Sacramento, and likely, Lake Tahoe), you’ll be pleasantly surprised that most of Northern California isn’t super crowded. Yes, there’ll be other cars on the road, but 2352342 times less than in southern California. 

Do note you’ll encounter one-lane roads on certain state highways and other smaller areas. Be patient, let locals pass you, and always pull over at pullouts if you’re driving slower than others. Don’t be that driver with a long line of cars behind them (just please don’t — it aggravates everyone).

Toll Roads in Northern California

You’ll come across some toll roads (and bridges) on this road trip to Northern California. We use FastTrack to automatically pay tolls (kinda like EZ Pass on the East Coast). Some tolls will not take cash, including the drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. If you’re not using a FastTrack, you’ll need to look out for bills in the mail, sent to the address linked to the license plate.

Renting a car? I highly recommend asking your car rental company about any toll collection policies ahead of time so there’s no surprises when you return the car. It may be wise to rent a FastTrack from them, but they can sometimes be pretty expensive (depending on the way the rental agency rents them out).

What to Pack for a Northern California Road Trip

Definitely pack a light, waterproof jacket (especially for the coast), and plan to wear layers for outdoor activities (the weather changes fast here). A reusable water bottle will be perfect — the tap water here in California is delicious and definitely drinkable! Keep a cooler in the car for picnic lunches when exploring more remote areas.

And if you plan on doing any hiking, you’ll wanna take along some hiking shoes with good traction. The trails can get slippery, especially during the misty morning.

When to Take this NorCal road trip 

Such a difficult question! But no matter the season, the weather changes quickly in Northern California. If you have ultimate flexibility, I’d choose September or October. Easily. The summer crowds are gone, the sun is out and about, and the leaves are just starting to change colors (in some spots). 

Planning an epic Northern California road trip and looking for the best stops to make?! I’m here to show you all the highlights (think redwoods, deep blue lakes, and freshly shucked oysters)!

SF experiences an Indian Summer, meaning summer comes late in the city (August – October). Expect fog and chilly weather from May – July. Lassen National Park is best in late summer as well, as it’s usually still pretty snowy in June (meaning the popular trails may still be closed). 

Sacramento will be hotter than all the other destinations on this Northern California road trip, with Lake Tahoe seeing similar temps. The weather on the NorCal coast is finicky at best, but you’ll see lots of sun in early – late Fall (with the most rain December through February).

Where to Stay in Northern California

There’s an abundance of hotels everywhere in NorCal, but why not choose a few unique and exciting AirBnBs as well? Mix it up a bit! Psst: I’ll go into more detail below each stop on this road trip in Northern California, but here’s a few unique spots I’m dying to check out for myself:

  • Cozy A-Frame Cabin In The Redwoods (Inverness): Imagine being surrounded by redwoods, yet only a few minutes drive from the coast and wineries. This bohemian A-Frame cabin is great for a small group of friends, small families, and couples who just wanna get away from it all.
  • Floating Houseboat (Sausalito): Get the unique Sausalito houseboat experience here! With sweeping views of the bay, the surrounding rolling hills, and in the distance, the majestic slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, I can’t think of a better night in Sausalito. What an experience!
  • Japanese-Inspired Oceanfront Retreat (Stinson Beach): Serene and private, this Japanese inspired retreat is just a 3 minute walk to town, the beach and trails! Wear your yukata (kimono) to the inside/outside bathhouse to experience a Japanese soaking tub. Sleep to the sound of waves, wake to bird songs.

If you want to go camping on your road trip in Northern California, that’s totally doable too! You can camp in state parks, in national forests, and on BLM land — and of course there’s designated camping spots! Always double check camping is allowed, and be mindful that you may need to reserve campsites. I’m not an avid camper so don’t have much info for you, but there’s tons of resources online. 

Northern California Road Trip Map

Here’s a Northern California road trip map to get you started! I find seeing all the destinations plotted on a map always helps me visualize my overall journey.

By following this route, you’ll see it takes roughly 26 hours (yes, TWENTY SIX hours!) to make the trip from San Francisco to Point Reyes (with all the stops in between of course). Take that into account when planning your trip (you don’t wanna be driving all day!).

Northern California road trip map

Other road trip posts you may enjoy:

  • Complete Pacific Coast Highway Guide (all my favorite stops – yes, all 75 of them!)
  • BEST Road Trips in California (so many great ideas in here!)
  • Utah’s National Park Road Trip Guide (plus Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon)
  • New York City to San Francisco (the ultimate cross-country road trip!)
  • Mini Road Trips from San Francisco (perfect when you don’t have enough time to do this full road trip in Northern California) 

The Complete Northern California Road Trip Itinerary

Start: san francisco (1-3 days).

If you’ve never been to the City by the Bay before (San Francisco!), you need to spend a few days here! I’m partially biased, but it’s one of the best cities in the world (I moved here for a reason)! 

california road trip in october

The city is SO diverse and there’s culture around each and every corner. With so many neighborhoods to explore and tons of beautiful look out spots with views of the famed Golden Gate Bridge, I promise you’ll never get bored. 

I’m listing out a few of my favorites below AND sharing my complete 3-day San Francisco itinerary to help you plan your perfect trip. In all honesty, there’s just too much to do here (not a bad thing), so just pick and choose what sounds interesting to you. And don’t forget to save some time for foodie excursions — the city is FULL of delicious eats!

Top things to do in San Francisco:

  • Walk around the Mission District to see the thought-provoking murals (at Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley), and then devour a HUGE Mission Burrito (at either El Farolito or La Taqueria)
  • Get some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge at either Crissy Field, Baker Beach, and Golden Gate Overlook, and/or walk over the bridge itself (just remember, it’s 2 miles each way!). Wanna see my all-time favorite view of the bridge? Head over to Battery Spence r!
  • Drive or walk down Lombard Street, famous for its steep section with EIGHT hairpin turn
  • Get a workout on some of my favorite steps and stairs , including the Lyon Street Steps (the whole neighborhood is gorgeous), the Hidden Garden Steps, and the 16 Avenue Mosaic Staircase 

california road trip in october

  • Explore the ethnic neighborhoods of North Beach and Chinatown — stroll down Grant Avenue (don’t miss the Dragon Gate), sip Chinese mai tais at LiPo Cocktail Lounge, and indulge in egg tarts from Golden Gate Bakery (if they’re open), and grab a slice of Sicilian at Golden Boy Pizza and a cannoli at Stella Pastry 
  • Spend the day in Golden Gate Park waving hello to the bison, snagging free views from the Hamon Observation Tower (within the de Young Museum), walking around Stow Lake, sipping tea at the Japanese Tea Garden, getting your science on at the Cal Academy, and cooling off with some froyo from Twirl & Dip 
  • Sign up for a tour of Alcatraz — you’ll take the ferry over and then wander the grounds on an audio tour, seeing the old jail cells, and learning about the history of the famous prison. It’s educational, historical, creepy, and impressive all in one.
  • Be a tourist at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 to watch the sea lions play, get some mini donuts, have lunch at Boudins with some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, and take some cheesy tourist pics. The famous Ghirardelli ice cream sundaes aren’t too far from here, either!

What/Where to Eat:

  • A ginormous mission burrito at either El Farolito or La Taqueria (can’t go wrong with either)
  • Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) and green onion pancakes on Taraval Street — we love both Kingdom of Dumpling and Dumpling Kitchen. The pan fried dumplings are my all-time favorite.
  • A few scoops at Bi-Rite and a cannoli at Stella’s (two of my all-time favorite sweet treats in San Francisco )

california road trip in october

  • Slurp up some ramen in Japantown (Marufuku, Ramen Yamadaya, and Hinodeya Ramen Bar are all fan favorites), then try a few Japanese desserts afterwards (mochi from Benkyodo, donuts from Mochill Mochidonut, a cute character crepe from Belly Good Cafe & Crepes, and taiyaki ice cream from Uji Time)
  • Some authentic Italian at Original Joe’s — always get the ravioli as your side and save some room for butter cake for dessert!
  • One of these super-fun restaurants in San Francisco (I have way too many suggestions to list them all here in this Northern California road trip guide)

Where to Stay:

There’s no shortage of accommodation options in San Francisco, BUT where you stay will GREATLY impact your few days in the city. I can’t stress this enough – all the neighborhoods are drastically different with entirely different vibes.

I recommend staying in the following neighborhoods: Hayes Valley, North Beach, Pacific Heights, the Marina, and Nob Hill. There’s tons of great restaurants over here, and these neighborhoods are pretty central to lots going on. Some popular faves:

  • Hotel Vitale (a Joie de Vivre boutique hotel right on the waterfront)
  • The Proper Hotel (retro and eclectic with inspired touches of the Old World)
  • Hotel Kabuki (a chic, beautiful boutique hotel in Japantown with zen-like public spaces)
  • Complete 3 Days in San Francisco Itinerary
  • 125 Things to do in SF (my ultimate Bay Area bucket list)
  • Best Spots to See the Golden Gate Bridge
  • My Favorite Dessert Spots in SF
  • Day Trip to Muir Woods from San Francisco

Stop #1: Yosemite National Park (2-4 Days)

DRIVE TIME from SF to Yosemite: ~4 Hours (~190 miles)

Nature lovers, rejoice. We’re off to the Sierra Nevada mountains — Yosemite National Park, to be exact! 

california road trip in october

The park is famous for its granite formations, incredible cliffs, gushing waterfalls, deep valleys, and ancient sequoia groves. It’s majestic, awe-inspiring, grand, and utterly magnificent. There’s simply not enough adjectives to truly capture the spirit of the park. It’s a true work of art! No wonder Ansel Adams (a famous environmentalist and photographer) based so many of his pieces on the place!

Yosemite is regarded as California’s most attractive National Park. I mean, there’s a reason over 4 million people visit each year. As soon as you arrive, you’ll be blown away by Yosemite’s sheer size and magnitude — I promise. 

Since Yosemite is downright huge (roughly 1,200 miles), you’ll want a plan of attack before you visit. You’ll probably spend most of your time in Yosemite Valley checking out the iconic viewpoints and landmarks — including Half Dome and El Capitan, but don’t miss other parts of the parks as well!

Top Things To Do in Yosemite:

  • Go hiking, of course! The Mist Trail, Four Mile Trail, and Half Dome (lottery permit required) are all great half-day/full-day (moderate-strenuous) options.
  • Check out the sweeping panoramic view at Tunnel View; by far Yosemite’s most iconic spot, and no hiking required! You’ll see landmarks like El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and even Half Dome from here.

california road trip in october

  • Go for an easy stroll around Mirror Lake, a small, glacial lake known for its picturesque backdrop of granite domes (aka — don’t miss it)
  • Take an epic drive on Glacier Point Road (weather and season permitting) for some of the best views in all of Yosemite, including the aptly named Glacier Point. This is also where you’ll find the 2-mile trailhead for Taft Point (beautiful for sunset).
  • Get an up-close view of Yosemite Falls via the Upper Yosemite Falls trail, Lower Yosemite Falls trail, or even from Cook’s Meadow! It’s the tallest waterfall in North America at 2,424 feet!
  • Walk along the giant sequoias at Tuolumne and/or Mariposa Groves — both worthy of some time. Look up; you’ll feel so tiny and humbled in their presence! Don’t miss the Grizzly Giant — the oldest and tallest tree in all of Yosemite.
  • Experience Yosemite without the crowds at the Hetch Hetchy area, including the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is probably the most beautiful dam you’ll ever damn see.

You don’t come to Yosemite for the food (spend longer in SF to check out all my favorite restaurants). But thankfully, the park has more food facilities than other national parks!

The lodges within the park have a bunch of dining options, including the Ahwahnee Dining Room (it’s gorgeous), the Yosemite Valley Lodge Food Court (for quick, casual meals), Mountain Room and Bar (slightly upscale), and even a Starbucks.

I recommend planning a picnic instead though!

So, here’s the thing with Yosemite. If you’re trying to cut costs, you’ll need to stay roughly 45 minutes to an hour outside of the park (sometimes longer). And combined with the driving within Yosemite itself, it makes for some long driving days. 

If you can swing it, I’d stay within the park itself at one of the few lodges — or, go camping! Inside the park there’s The Ahwahnee Hotel (completely bucket-list worthy), Yosemite Valley Lodge (near Yosemite Falls!), and Curry Village (camping vibes but not actual camping). There’s also a whole slew of campsites within the park. 

We’ve stayed at Rush Creek Lodge (literally minutes outside the entrance to the park) and LOVED it! Psst: You’ll need to make reservations way in advance for any of those, including camping, especially if you’re visiting in summer.

  • One Day in Yosemite (I highly recommend longer though!)
  • Visiting Yosemite in Winter (it’s a winter wonderland for sure!)

Stop #2: Lake Tahoe (2-4 Days)

DRIVE TIME from Yosemite to Lake Tahoe: ~ 4 hours, 45 minutes (~205 miles)

Lake Tahoe is a dream come true. There’s fresh mountain air, brisk turquoise water, scenic short hikes, and epic sunsets. It’s actually the largest alpine lake in all of North America. There’s nothing much better than a few days in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, in my opinion. Making Tahoe the perfect stop on any Northern California road trip.

california road trip in october

How long you stay solely depends on what you wanna do and how much time relaxing you wanna have. There’s hiking, driving around the lake , stand-up paddling, kayaking, boating, biking, lakeside strolls, and more. We love to visit the State Parks (D.L. Bliss, Sand Harbor, and Emerald Bay), walk the East Shoreline Trail, and stop at the various viewpoints.

Just FYI — the water is COLD, even when the sun is high in the sky and shining. Don’t plan on doing much swimming here unless you’re used to brisk, chilly waters!

Top Things To Do at Lake Tahoe:

  • Go stand up paddling (SUP) or kayaking in the aqua colored waters of Sand Harbor (the water is so super clear and the rocks/smooth granite boulders are amazing!). This is my favorite spot in all of Lake Tahoe — don’t miss it; just get there early to beat the crowds!
  • Visit Emerald Bay State Park and make the steep one mile hike down to Vikingsholm Castle Historic Site, a castle with Scandinavian architecture that you can tour.
  • Go on a hike! There’s no shortage of trails here at Lake Tahoe, ranging from super short ones like Eagle Rock Trail and Cave Rock, to longer, more strenuous hikes including the Rubicon Trail (popular and famous for a reason) and the short but steep Vikingsholm Trail.

california road trip in october

  • Go for a wander on the newly-completed East Shoreline Trail, taking you from Incline Village all the way to Sand Harbor — but you don’t need to walk the entirety to see spectacular landscapes. This is a must for anyone looking for those epic views of Lake Tahoe.
  • Gawk at all the huge yachts in the Tahoe City Marina — we love picking out our favorites and guessing prices (haha).
  • Drive around Lake Tahoe , stopping at all the viewpoints and different beaches along the way (my favorites including Hidden Beach, Memorial Point Scenic Overlook, Zephyr Cove, and Secret Cove)
  • Go skiing/snowboarding and/or snow-tubing at one of 6 ski resorts, popular ones being Heavenly Mountain and Squaw Valley (weather and snow permitting of course!) Psst – the donuts and hot cocoa in Heavenly Village are delicious!

You may be surprised, but there’s actually a ton of great food (and coffee) in the area! We love Base Camp Pizza, Himmel Haus, Ten Crows BBQ (we’ve eaten here so many times), and The Hangar! Other options include Inclined Burgers and Brews, Tahoe Pourhouse, Glazed and Confused (for donuts!), and Free Bird and I.V. Coffee Lab (for coffee).

Where to Stay: 

Thankfully, there’s lots of hotel and accommodation options in Lake Tahoe. The major towns (where you’ll find most of these places to stay) are in South Lake Tahoe, Incline Village, Kings Beach, Tahoe City, and Truckee. A few recommendations below:

  • South Lake Tahoe : Hotel Azure , Basecamp Tahoe South , Hard Rock Hotel & Casino , Hotel Becket
  • North Lake Tahoe (including Incline Village and Tahoe City): Hyatt Regency , Franciscan Lakeside Lodge , and Basecamp Tahoe City
  • Truckee (a few minutes northwest of Tahoe): Northstar Lodge , Walk Resorts Lake Tahoe
  • Driving around Scenic Lake Tahoe (all my favorite stops)

Stop #3: Sacramento (1-2 Days)

DRIVE TIME from Lake Tahoe to Sacramento: ~2 hours (~110 miles)

Sacramento, the State Capital of California, kinda gets brushed off as just another city, but it’s recently become pretty cool! There’s now microbreweries, trendy boutiques, elegant Victorian-era homes, leafy parks, and farm-to-fork cuisine, all blending seamlessly into a chic urban vibe. It’s seriously underrated!

california road trip in october

I mean, a few of my friends have even bought houses here, so I guess it’s not all bad! 

History lovers will fall in love with all things state capitol, as there’s the Capitol Museum, Old Sacramento Waterfront, California State Railroad Museum, and Sacramento History Museum.

Local Tip → if you’re doing your Northern California road trip in the fall (the best time in my opinion), you’ll be passing through Placerville on your way from Tahoe to Sacramento. Do yourself a favor and stop in Apple Hill for some festive fall treats, like caramel apple pecan pie, apple cider milkshake, and apple cider donuts. Mmmm….

Top Things To Do in Sacramento:

  • Walk alongside the Sacramento River at RiverWalk Park, then cross over the iconic yellow Tower Bridge into the Old Sacramento Waterfront District
  • Visit California’s State Capitol building → you can even take a tour (available every day between 9am-4pm). Don’t miss the gorgeous grounds surrounding the building, and pay a visit to the museum as well

california road trip in october

  • Join the coffee culture (it’s a big thing here in Sac) — lots of coffee shop recs below!
  • Admire some statement art pieces (and learn some history, too!) at the Crocker Art Museum, a staple of Sacramento Art and Culture
  • Visit Old Sac(ramento) for some old timey, western vibes (and don’t miss the California Railroad Museum!). It’s full of Gold Rush-era buildings, cobblestone streets, and even horse-drawn carriages.
  • Hunt for colorful murals around town; there’s constantly new pieces from the Wide Open Walls and Sacramento Mural Festival (my kinda festival!). Don’t miss the Lady Bird mural at 901 16th Street, Michelle Obama Mural at 1409 Del Paso Blvd, and the Here Comes the Sun mural at 1818 X Street

What/Where To Eat:

As mentioned above, Sac is now a haven for foodies! There’s a whole bunch of trendy brunch spots, hip coffee spots, and eclectic dining for dinner. I’m adding an extra section for coffee because there’s just so many great coffee shops! Here’s our favorites, and where we can’t wait to indulge in next: 

california road trip in october

FOOD/DRINK: Yard House (modern and casual, yet upscale at the same time, with over 100 draft brews and craft cocktails), Punch Bowl Social Sacramento (for some bomb chicken and waffles), Fizz Champagne & Bubbles Bar (go for some wine and charcuterie), The Bank (upscale food court in a refurbished bank),  Beast + Bounty (hip Californian restaurant), Hook and Ladder (another Californian restaurant)

COFFEE: Temple Coffee Roasters (an absolute must!), Vampire Penguin on K, Goodside Coffee, Pachamama Coffee, Camellia Coffee Roasters, Naked Coffee Roasting & Cafe

Sac is larger than many think, with many different neighborhoods. You’ll wanna stay in Downtown Sacramento, the quintessential business district, located right in the city center! I’ve heard great things about the following hotels:

  • Kimpton Sawyer Hotel : a stylish hotel with a pool and chic dining, plus in-room yoga mats
  • The Citizen Hotel, Autograph Collection : sophisticated and elegant lodging with a stylish restaurant, bar, and fitness center 
  • Hyatt Regency Sacramento : contemporary rooms, posh dining, and a cocktail bar (plus an outdoor pool and spa)
  • The Inn & Spa at Parkside : stately mansion with elegant rooms and gourmet breakfasts (!!!)

Stop #4: Lassen Volcanic National Park + Burney Falls (2-3 Days)

DRIVE TIME from Sacramento to Lassen: ~3 hours (160 miles)

From steaming hot springs and bubbling mud pots, to piping fumaroles and remnants of volcanic activity. That, my friends, is Lassen Volcanic National Park in a nutshell .  I just couldn’t believe how bad certain parts of the park smelled (due to the sulphur, which smells juuuust like rotten eggs).

california road trip in october

While Lassen is definitely a little less discovered than other parks, I highly recommend adding it to your Northern California road trip itinerary. It’s even called a mini Yellowstone, boasting similar natural phenomena to the (super crowded) park in Wyoming.

Promise me you won’t miss nearby Burney Falls — it’s my all-time favorite waterfall in California (well, maybe besides McWay Falls in Big Sur ). 

Top Things to Do in Lassen Volcanic National Park:

  • Make short stops at Lake Helen, Emerald Lake, and Manzanita Lake (for stunning reflections of the Lassen Volcano)
  • Smell the sulphur at Sulphur Works – an active hydrothermal area. And when I say active, you have no idea how active! Walk over to the bubbling mud pot and steaming vents, and you’ll see what I mean!

california road trip in october

  • Hike the Bumpass Hell Trail, a three mile round-trip hike leading to a boardwalk full of all kinds of crazy things. Here you can listen to bubbling mudpots, watch the steam escape from a fumarole (named Big Boiler), marvel at the unusual multi-colored soil, and watch the boiling pools of water. Note that the trail typically does’t open until mid-June/early July due to high snowfall in the winter months.
  • Marvel at Burney Falls (it’s been called the eighth wonder of the world for a reason!). I even dubbed it as one of the most beautiful places in California . I recommend doing the short loop hike that takes you down past the falls.

Unfortunately, there’s a serious lack of food options in the national park (to be expected) and between the waterfalls. I encourage you to bring our own picnic lunches (we typically buy sandwiches at a grocery store near our hotel).

There’ll be plenty of food options in Redding if you decide to stay there (next stop on our list anyways, so might as well condense the number of times you unpack!).

While it’s not impossible to find hotel accommodation located directly in the park, your best bet is to stay in Redding/Anderson (45 miles west of the park) or Chester (30 miles south of the park). 

  • Redding: TownePlace Suites Redding , Fairfield Inn and Suites , Hilton Garden Inn
  • AirBnBs closer to Lassen Volcanic: Touch of Home , TeePee Tent (quite a unique stay!), Cozy Log Cabin

MORE INFO: 

  • The Complete Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park 

Stop #5: Redding/Mount Shasta (1-2 Days)

DRIVE TIME from Lassen to Redding: ~1 hour (~50 miles)

Longing for some sunshine? With over 300 sunny days, you’re bound to find some warm air in Redding (and fun fact: surprisingly, it’s actually the 2nd sunniest city in the US!). 

california road trip in october

Redding icons include a giant sundial (morphed into a bridge), million-year-old caves, and spectacular views of Mt. Shasta from Castle Crags State Park. And plus, Downtown Redding has no shortage of public art spaces, music performances, and hot dining spots.

On the flip side, the rugged 14k-foot volcanic mountain of Mount Shasta is just begging to be explored; there’s backcountry skiing, climbing, and tons of panoramic views. And the skiing is almost half the price of similar conditions in Tahoe – win win.

Redding and Mount Shasta are about an hour away from each other, so definitely plan out your day/days in advance so you’re not zigzagging back and forth!

Top Things to Do in Redding and Mount Shasta:

  • Walk across the Sundial Bridge and check out the Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Trust me, this ain’t your average bridge — the glass block walkway and soaring white tower and suspension cables are pretty cool. (Redding)
  • Sign up for a free, ranger-led kayak tour around Whiskeytown Lake — the Moonlight Tour would be an epic thing to add to your road trip to Northern California. (Redding)
  • The Shasta Dam, across the Sacramento River, is not to be missed (and there’s a FREE tour)! The architecture is pretty grand, and the Shasta Dam is the second largest in the states after the Hoover Dam in Nevada. (Redding)

california road trip in october

  • Take a short catamaran ride on Shasta Lake en route to the limestone caves of Shasta Caverns, where stalactites, helictites, and rare formations await (between Redding and Shasta)
  • Hike (or drive) around McCloud Falls, a series of three waterfalls each easily accessible from the parking lot. My favorite’s Middle Falls! (Shasta)
  • Get your hike on at Castle Crags State Park, admiring the 6,000-feet tall crags. If you squint really hard, you may even see Mt. Shasta from the very top! (Shasta)
  • Spend your whole day with stunning views of Mount Shasta from Castle Lake Road (Shasta)

The culinary scene is alive and well in Redding! Locals have a ton of old favorites, and there’s always new chefs popping up in town.

Here’s my top picks for food and desserts in Redding and around → Anthony’s Mediterranean Grill, The Parlor Ice Cream (for ice cream donut puffs), Dutch Brothers Coffee, Deja Vu (for breakfast/brunch), Taste & See Creamery (creative ice cream flavors), Cinders Wood Fired Pizza, and Jack’s Donuts (for more sweets). 

I’ve also heard Le Testimony Organic Bistro, Evergreen (for coffee), Theory Collaborative (for coffee), Mosaic (California-inspired), and Yak’s On The 5 (with a cult following!) are all really tasty!

It may be wise to stay at the same spot as you did for Lassen, if you’re like me and hate moving around every night or two.

  • Mount Shasta: Mount Shasta Resort , McCloud Mercantile Hotel , Best Western Plus Tree House

Stop #6: Eureka/Trinidad (2-3 Days)

DRIVE TIME from Redding to Eureka: ~3 hours (~150 miles)

Imagine spending your time amongst the lush greenery of the towering redwoods, walking around old victorian architecture, and gazing at rugged and remote ocean landscapes. That’s Eureka in a nutshell ! 

california road trip in october

The landscapes are stunning, there’s lots of talented local artists (hello colorful street art!), and the coast is craggy in this vibrant seaport city. It’s the quintessential California coastal town. 

And Trinidad is only a few miles north — I was OBSESSED with basically everything about it. Definitely don’t miss this spot. The rocky coastal landscapes are insane.

Top Things To Do in Eureka and Trinidad:

  • Slather on the sunscreen and make the steep trek down to College Cove Beach — don’t miss the caves filled with starfish and sea anemone (or take the coastal trail above the beach to find the secret swing) (Trinidad)
  • Soak up the rugged coastline on the Trinidad Fishing Pier over Trinidad Harbor, a popular crabbing spot with even more spectacular views (Trinidad)

california road trip in october

  • Wander around the handsomely restored Old Town district, and feel like you’re still in the Victorian era. Don’t miss the dozens of ornate 19th century Victorian homes, including the Carson Mansion and the Pink Lady! (Eureka) 
  • Take a morning stroll along the Giant Sequoias at Sequoia Park, filled with tons of towering trees and even more cute pups (Eureka) 
  • Go for the full flight of ciders (or go easy with an “ample sample”) at Humboldt Cider Company Tap Room (Eureka)
  • Spend an afternoon wandering around the tiny town of Ferndale, a former dairy capital with Victorian-era ‘butterfat mansions

There’s a whole slew of dining options in Eureka and whole area, with my favorites below:

california road trip in october

  • Coffee:  Jitter Bean Coffee Co, Old Town Coffee & Chocolates, Gold Rush Coffee on Broadway, and Dutch Brother’s
  • Breakfast: Renata’s Creperie (Arcata), Los Bagels (Eureka, Arcata), The Greene Lily (Eureka), Ramone’s Bakery & Cafe (multiple locations)
  • Lunch/Dinner: Oaxaca Grill Restaurant (Eureka), Sixth and E Neighborhood Eatery (Eureka), Surfside Burger Shack (Eureka), Humboldt Bay Social Club (Samoa), Samoa Cookhouse (Samoa), Campground (Arcata)

Being one of the major towns on the NorCal coast, there’s tons of accommodation options in Eureka and nearby.

  • Eureka: Carter House Inns (upscale lodging with Queen Anne architectural charm), Inn at 2nd & C (a largely restored hotel from the 1880’s with an old-school vibe),  Holiday Inn Express & Suites Eureka , Best Western Plus Humboldt Bay Inn , and Eureka Inn Trademark by Wyndam .
  • AirBnBs in Eureka: Chic Eureka Studio (a chic and modern 500sq ft upstairs studio), this Modern Studio Loft (Newly renovated space with sleeping loft and fully stocked kitchen)
  • AirBnbs Nearby: The Ranch House at Humboldt Bay Social Club (the crown jewel of a 22-acre bayfront property), 1952 Airstream Dream (Stay in a piece of history – this 1952 Airstream offers modern comforts with a historic feel), or check out this Enchanting Dome House in the Redwoods (nestled in 5 acres of redwoods yet still so close to the beach!)

More Resources: 

  • Weekend Getaway to Scenic Trinidad and Eureka 

Stop #7: Redwood National and State Parks (1-2 Days)

DRIVE TIME from Eureka to Redwood Parks: ~1 hour, 15 minutes (~50 miles)

Ancient and mysterious. Stately and powerful. Cool and dark and damp and pungent. I could go on and on with ways to describe these old-growth redwood trees. The redwoods are a true icon of NorCal — meaning, you won’t wanna miss them on your road trip to Northern California! I mean, the Northern California coast is the ONLY place in the WORLD you’ll find these coastal redwoods.

california road trip in october

A lot of people get this confused, so I’ll clear this up right away — Redwood National and State Parks are actually a few parks in one, located on the coast in Northern California in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The parks include: 

  • Redwood National Park
  • Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
  • Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
  • Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

An hour north outta the way (you’ll have to drive through Eureka to get back south to SF), but well worth the detour. I mean, this Northern California road trip has already brought you so close!

If you’re not feeling the extra driving, you could always hit up the Avenue of the Giants on your way to Mendocino or Muir Woods on your way back to San Francisco. You can also drive through a 315-foot redwood tree at Leggett’s Drive-Thru Tree Park (don’t forget to take a photo!) on the way back from Mendocino.

Psst: For this NorCal road trip, I’d stick to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Redwood National Park. The other two (Del Norte Coast and Jedediah Smith) are further north, adding extra driving time to your route.

Top Things to Do in Redwood National and State Parks:

  • Apply for a permit to hike the never-crowded Tall Trees Grove Trail — only 50 cars are allowed in per day
  • Find “Atlas”, one of the widest trees in the park at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, or just stroll around the 75 miles of trails amid old-growth redwoods 

california road trip in october

  • Wander through the fairy tale forest of the short yet stunning Fern Canyon , an unusual vertical-walled river canyon covered in leafy ferns (Fun Fact: Part of the 3rd Jurassic Park movie was filmed here!)
  • Hike through a lush rainforest to a suspension bridge overlooking Trillium Falls — it’s absolutely mesmerizing 

Again, like other national parks in California, there’s not many options for food within the parks themselves. You’ll wanna bring along a picnic and/or have a big breakfast in Eureka/Trinidad.

Where to Stay: I recommend staying at the same accommodation in either Trinidad or Eureka, and making a day trip (or two) — depending on how much hiking you wanna do. Or, you could go camping in the parks if that’s your style!

Read Next: 

  • 15 Places to See Redwoods and Giant Sequoias in California 
  • Hiking the Fern Canyon Trail (everything you need to know)

Stop #8: Mendocino/Fort Bragg (2-3 Days)

DRIVE TIME from the Redwoods to Mendocino: ~4 hours (~190 miles)

*If you’re staying in Eureka, it’ll be approximately 3 hours to get to Mendocino from here.

Get ready for misty mornings, dense redwood forests, and fern-covered canyons – Mendocino is any nature lover’s perfect weekend getaway! There’s stunning shorelines, mushroom ice cream (yup – I said mushroom), secluded beaches, sleepy sea lions, and magical sea caves. 

california road trip in october

Since the drive from the redwoods to Mendocino will be one of the longest on this Northern California road trip, why not break it up? Go for one last breakfast in Eureka, and then you can stop at the Avenue of the Giants on the way (about half the way in Weott).

Drive slowly through the Avenue of the Giants, a scenic 30 mile highway running through 50,000 acres of redwood groves in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Put on your boots and walk through the clover-lined mini trails in the park (don’t miss the Founder’s Tree and Dyerville Giant)!

Top Things To Do in Mendocino and Fort Bragg:

  • Spot the rainbow of sea glass on Glass Beach within MacKerricher State Park (but don’t take any with you)
  • Smell the rhododendrons, begonias, and other beauties at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, then head to the water for great views of the rocky coastline 

california road trip in october

  • Sip wine with a view of the rocky Mendocino coast at Pacific Star Winery (one of the best places to stop on this Northern California road trip for wine and nature lovers!)
  • Check out the numerous (and gorgeous!) state parks in the area, including Van Damme, Russian Gulch, Jug Handle, and Mendocino Headlands
  • Climb aboard the world-famous Skunk Train in Fort Bragg , and ride into the nearby lush redwood forests. There’s two-passenger railbikes if you’re looking for something a bit more active. 
  • Cowlicks Ice Cream: Possibly the best ice cream I’ve ever had. The line is long but the portions more than make up for it.
  • Frankie’s: This small restaurant is known for both their pizza and ice cream (can’t go wrong with either — this is where we get mushroom ice cream!)
  • MacCallum House: I heard people raving about the atmosphere and food → Definitely the spot to be for a cute brunch.  Kinda expensive, but kinda worth it.

california road trip in october

  • Patterson’s Pub: A local favorite in the area. Prices are good, beers are flowing, and you’re sure to find an interesting crowd at the bar.
  • Wild Fish: Wanna surprise your partner with an amazing meal and ocean views? Make a reservation (the place is super tiny) at Wild Fish, a super romantic fine-dining restaurant. We love it here!
  • Little River Inn: Another good place for a romantic dinner in a super charming spot

Where To Stay:

  • Glendeven Inn & Lodge (my top pick). If you’re looking for a romantic place to stay, look no further than the Glendeven Inn. I can’t stop gushing about our stay there, I really can’t! Expect an in-room wood-burning fireplace, homemade breakfasts, and a location surrounded by the lush Van Damme State Park.
  • Sea Rock Inn : We also passed by the cottages at Sea Rock Inn after walking around the Headlands, and I think we wanna check that place out next time we visit!
  • Heritage House : A romantic seaside escape in a historic Gold Rush farmhouse?! Yes please! 

More resources: 

  • The Weekend Guide to Mendocino and Fort Bragg 

Stop #9: Napa/Sonoma (2-3 Days)

DRIVE TIME from Mendocino to Napa: ~2 ½ hours (~115 miles)

Everyone’s heard of Napa. I mean, there’s wine – what’s not to love?! But haha, Napa is so much more than that – imagine lush rolling hills, miles and miles of vineyards, generous tasting pours, and some truly amazing restaurants (including the ridiculously-priced but highly sought-after French Laundry). It would be a shame not to include it on your road trip to Northern California!

napa 10 Vineyards to Visit on Your Next Trip to Napa Valley | www.apassionandapassport.com october-61

While Napa is more glam-worthy, Sonoma is more spread out and expansive (at almost double the size of Napa!), with a much more chill vibe. Sonoma’s kinda like the gloriously laid-back sister of nearby Napa Valley, and we love it!

Sonoma even grows tons more varieties of grapes, meaning a larger selection of wines (although Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and pinot noir are the most abundant)!

While we love both areas, I’d honestly pick either Napa Valley or Sonoma. It’s just just too spread out to do it all. My favorite towns in Sonoma are Petaluma and Healdsburg/Guerneville, while we enjoy winery hopping all over Napa Valley.

Top Things To Do in Napa

  • Sip wine in a real-life castle at Castello di Amorosa (inspired by a castle in Tuscany), and then say hi to the baby goats on property!
  • Stomp on grapes in a wine barrel at Sterling Vineyard (one of the messiest things to do in on this Northern California road trip), after taking the gondola up the hill for stunning vineyard views

california road trip in october

  • Gather supplies and feast on a gourmet picnic under the shady oak trees at V. Sattui with meats, cheeses, and even cheesy jalapenos! 
  • Board the Napa Valley Wine Train for spectacular vineyard views while feasting on a first-class meal
  • Float away in a hot air balloon above the vineyards of Napa Valley – and yes, it’s just as magical as it sounds!
  • Cool off in a CAVE and learn about the winemaking process and see where barrels are stored on a winery cave tour 

Top Things To Do in Sonoma

  • Walk along the Petaluma waterfront, and grab a slice of pie from Petaluma Pie Company and/or an ice/soft serve combo from Wicked Slush (one of my favorite day trips from San Francisco )
  • Sip some wine and snack on gourmet foods in a modern castle at Ledson Winery & Vineyards (the grounds are spectacular!)

california road trip in october

  • Bring your blow-up floatie or inner tube and float down the Russian River (or just relax at Johnson’s Beach, one of the most popular things to do in Northern California, and more specifically, Guerneville !)
  • Hike among the majestic sequoia trees at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve – they’re over 500 years old and over 200 feet tall!
  • Go wine tasting in Alexander Valley, one of the best cabernet sauvignon growing regions in the world
  • Learn about California history by checking out the Mission San Francisco Solano, the barracks, Toscano Kitchen, and other exhibits at the Sonoma State Historic Park (all in a span of 3 blocks)

The dining options are nearly endless here – from $500 multi-course michelin-star meals to a bustling marketplace full of trendy eateries! There’s tons of wine country casual hot spots to choose from.

In Napa we LOVE checking out the Oxbow Public Market, getting breakfast at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon (worth waiting in line for), having dinner on the outdoor patio at Bistro Don Giovanni, and having picnics at whatever vineyards allow it!

Sonoma is well-known for The Girl & The Fig (still on my must-eat list), Sunflower Caffe (one of my favorites!), my friends restaurant Sugo Trattoria (get the bruschetta – it’s so good), and KINSmoke (a southern bbq place).

Where to stay:

Accommodation in Napa Valley tends to be on the expensive side, especially during summer and fall. But don’t let that deter you — even if you can spend just one night I say go for it!

Napa: We’ve stayed at and love the Andaz Napa , and I’ve heard great things about River Terrace Inn , Hotel Yountville (the pool area looks divine!), and SENZA Hotel . And of course the Four Seasons Resort Napa Valley is on my bucket list.

Sonoma: Check out the Ledson Hotel (upscale and elegant), Sonoma Hotel (historic!), El Dorado Hotel (chic with fine dining), and Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country .

There’s also quite a few unique stays in this area if that’s something you’re interested in:

  • Sleep in a tent and go glamping at Wildhaven Sonoma Glamping (Sonoma)
  • Feed the giraffes and stay in an upscale tent on a 400-acre wildlife preserve at Safari West , also known as the “Sonoma Serengeti” (Sonoma)
  • Stay in a modern Craftsman-style bungalow with a fireplace at The Bungalows at Calistoga — I want to stay here so bad! (Napa)

Stop #10: Point Reyes National Seashore (1-2 Days)

DRIVE TIME from Napa to Point Reyes: ~1 hour, 45 minutes (~75 miles)

By now you’re probably exhausted from all the running around on this Northern California road trip (told ya there’s lots to do here!). BUT, I promise a day (or two!) in Point Reyes is well worth your time, especially if you’re up for a (stunning) coastal hike and some grilled oysters!

california road trip in october

The area is known for its charming small town (Point Reyes Station), some of the best oysters in all of California, award-winning cheese, and green coastal landscapes. It honestly kinda looks like something outta an Ireland fantasyland (from my speculations, since, ermmmm, I haven’t made it to Ireland just yet).

FYI — Point Reyes is one of the foggiest, rainiest, and windiest places in all of the Bay Area. You’ll wanna dress in layers and keep a waterproof jacket in the car no matter when you visit. Unfortunately, the weather’s wildly unpredictable over here!

Top Things To Do in Point Reyes

  • Walk down the equivalent of a 30-story building to the Point Reyes Lighthouse (one of the most strenuous things to do on this Northern California road trip by far!) Work those glutes!
  • Find the Inverness Shipwreck (psst – it’s behind a small grocery store in Inverness, or simply put “Point Reyes Shipwrecks” into Google Maps). Don’t attempt to climb it — it’s old and unsteady and unfortunately deteriorating! Just admire from afar.

california road trip in october

  • Have an oyster picnic! It’s exactly what it sounds like! Feast on freshly harvested oysters (and even shuck and grill them yourself!) at Hog Island Oyster Company and/or Tomales Bay Oyster Company.
  • Walk the (mostly flat!) 9.6 miles of the Tomales Point Trail or the much shorter 1.9 mile Chimney Rock Trail. Both are absolutely beautiful, and kinda hidden gems of Northern California. You’ll be able to see elephant seals on the beach below the Chimney Rock Trail (in the winter season), and Tule Elk on the Tomales Point Trail!
  • Up your instagram game with a photo under the Cypress Tree Tunnel (but be sure to get there early – it’s popular with photographers and tourists).
  • If there’s only one thing you eat in Point Reyes, make it oysters — this part of the coast is known for them for a reason! Check out either Hog Island, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, and if all else fails, The Marshall Store.
  • Bovine Bakery: A local jaunt with a sustainable focus, with artisan pastries, cookies, pizza, and fair-trade coffee. A great little spot for breakfast or lunch (PS: the morning buns and rare savory scones are heavenly).
  • Sir and Star at the Olema: If you’re looking for locally focused California fare, you need to make a reservation here. Sit by the fireplace, sip some wine, and order the beignets along with your dinner.

Surprisingly, despite its location, Point Reyes has more accommodation options than you probably think. You’ll find bed and breakfasts, hotels, cottages, and some epic AirBnbs around here. A few worth noting:

  • Olema House at Point Reyes : It’s intimate and tranquil, — and plus, it’s surrounded by national forests!
  • Nick’s Cove and Cottages : Nostalgic and welcoming and located right on the water!
  • AppleGarden Cottage: A private bed-and-breakfast (located on a working farm!) just outside of Tomales/Point Reyes
  • Straus Home Ranch : A beautifully renovated 150 year old farmhouse nestled between eucalyptus and cypress trees

End: San Francisco

DRIVE TIME from Point Reyes to San Francisco: 1 ½ hours (~60 miles)

california road trip in october

Woo — officially made it back from our Northern California road trip! If you’ve got another day or two, continue checking out SF ( there’s loads to do ), or take a day trip ( I’ve got lots of good options here )! Some of my favorites and where I love bringing visitors: Muir Woods , Sausalito , Battery Spencer , and Half Moon Bay / Pacifica . 

Hope this helps you plan your Northern California road trip! Have a few oysters and ice creams for me!

Loo king for more California content? Explore my other California guides here!

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June 2, 2023 at 5:11 pm

Definitely agree that Lake Tahoe is a dream come true! Those crystal clear waters and fresh air can’t be beat!

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July 19, 2023 at 9:36 am

I’m from the east coast and planning a trip to northern California and this is extremely helpful. Thank you so much!

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California , Road Trips

The Ultimate 10-Day California Road Trip Itinerary

California does not cease to impress with its diverse landscape. The classic Highway 1 road trip is an option for those who have less time, though to get a better understanding of California , it’s important to see both the coast and venture further inland. Here’s a California road trip itinerary that will take you from the ocean to the desert to the mountains and back to the ocean.

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redwood trees california

Best Time To Plan a California Road Trip

September to early October is an ideal time to plan your trip. During this time, California is experiencing late summer weather in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the national parks are less crowded.

Summer weather can be cold, especially since San Francisco tends to be extra foggy during the summer months, and Los Angeles experiences June Gloom, where days can be chilly and overcast.

California has a Mediterranean climate, which gives the state dry summers and rainy winters. Right before the rainy season starts in mid to late October, it’s important to take advantage of the ideal seasonal weather around the state.

May is also a good time to plan a California trip, but depending on the severity of the rainy season, roads to national parks like Yosemite can still be closed.

Defining the Pacific Coast Highway

Note that the Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 1 are often used interchangeably. This main stretch of coastal road is officially called California’s Highway 1 (starting a bit north of San Francisco), where the Pacific Coast Highway, is the portion that starts from roughly Oxnard all the way to the end in Dana Point in Southern California.

If you do decide to plan a PCH trip in the late spring/early summer there’s a good chance the coastline will be foggy, especially in Southern California, which the locals lovingly refer to as June Gloom. Winter and spring can also be an option if the weather is sunny but be forewarned that if it’s rainy there can be road closures due to dangers like mudslides.

Renting A Car For Your California Road Trip

The best rental car prices are at the airport (SFO or LAX in this case) and I usually do a search on this site   that sorts through the top rental car companies like Hertz, Enterprise, and Avis to get the best deal. You can rent a car in San Francisco and then leave it in Los Angeles, though it will cost a bit more it’s well worth it.

California Road Trip Map

I recommend starting and ending in San Francisco for your California road trip itinerary, just because it’s a smaller, more manageable city than Los Angeles. You will not have to deal with the headache of Los Angeles traffic (though San Francisco does have its fair share of backups). You can also ditch your car and use public transportation to easily zip around the city before spending the next week and a half on the road.

california road trip map

10-Day California Road Trip Itinerary

This guide starts from San Francisco and heads down the coast. If you’re starting out in Los Angeles, just do the reverse route. Here’s the itinerary:

Day 1 & 2 – San Francisco

Day 3 – big sur.

Day 4 & 5 – Santa Barbara

Day 6 & 7 -Los Angeles

Day 8 – Joshua Tree

Day 9 – Yosemite National Park

Day 10 – lake tahoe.

The City By The Bay is a great place to get your bearings, spoil yourself at all the good food and visit the diverse neighborhoods that each feels like entering a different world. You can get in plenty of steps in this walkable city, where you can quickly log in your daily 10,000 before you know it.

Start your day with this well-loved San Francisco Love Tour that brings guests around on a 70-era VW bus. The tour is 2 hours and stops at popular sights like Haight Ashbury, downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, and the Mission to name a few.

After your tour, head to Crissy Field for top views of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as Lands End for more spectacular bridge views.

On the second day, make your way to Golden Gate Park , where you can visit the California Academy of Sciences if you’re interested in natural history or art at the de Young . Afterward, go to the Japanese Tea Garden next door, the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S.

Treat yourself to a dim sum brunch at Dragon Beaux (or hot pot in the evenings) in the Outer Richmond, get your fill of carbs at Tartine Bakery in the Mission, and eat your way through the Ferry Building restaurants , with a view of the Bay Bridge in the background. For dinner, try Foreign Cinema, if you want to get fancy.

Where to stay in San Francisco

  • Holiday Inn Express and Suites Fisherman’s Wharf   – a great mid-range central option near Pier 39.
  • Marriott Courtyard San Francisco Union Square – a solid choice downtown.

Travel tip: take BART back to the airport to pick up your rental car right before you hit the road. Having a car in San Francisco for the few days you’re visiting is usually a bigger headache than it’s worth with parking. Local public transportation and ride-sharing services will get you everywhere you need to go.

sutro baths san francisco california

The beautiful city of San Francisco should definitely be on your 10-day California road trip itinerary.

The first stop on this road trip is one of the most picturesque portions of the California coast . Be warned that the roads are especially windy on this part of the highway, so make sure to take motion sickness medication if you need to.

PCH stops along the way to Big Sur

  • Half Moon Bay’s Mavericks Beach (of Mavericks surf competition fame), though you will probably not see the monster waves which make rare appearances only during the wintertime.
  • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the adjacent beach, which is a lot calmer than the boardwalk and a great break from the sensory overload.
  • Cannery Row , the city’s main drag that used to be filled with sardine canneries back in the day.

The Bixby Bridge is the most iconic sight in Big Sur, standing at 260 feet above Bixby Creek. There’s plenty of parking on both sides of the bridge to pull off and take photos from nearby vantage points.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a massive state park home to McWays Falls , an 80-foot waterfall that cascades into the Pacific Ocean. There are also numerous other hiking trails throughout the park ranging from easy strolls to strenuous full-on hikes.

Pfeiffer Beach feels almost otherworldly with its lavender-colored sand and keyhole rock formations jutting dramatically out of the Pacific Ocean.

Big Sur Bakery is a solid spot to stop for breakfast, including freshly-made baked goods and strong coffee. Big Sur Deli is a great spot to pick up sandwiches on the go.

Where to stay in Big Sur

  • For an affordable option, Big Sur Lodge is located in Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park, with cottage-style rooms and the Homestead Restaurant on the property which uses local ingredients for its menu.
  • For a taste of luxury,  Ventana Big Sur just outside of Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park is where you go to get properly pampered.

bixby bridge big sur california

Day 4 – Santa Barbara

This day is going to be one of the longer ones on your California road trip itinerary, and it’s recommended that you start as early as possible. It’s also one of the most scenic portions of the road trip, starting at Big Sur and ending in the beautiful seaside city of Santa Barbara .

You definitely don’t want to rush your way through.

PCH stops along the way to Santa Barbara

  • San Simeon’s Hearst Castle  to witness true extravagance (make a tour reservation beforehand)
  • Morro Rock looming at the entrance of the harbor to Morro Bay
  • San Luis Obispo , a college town where the tri-tip is not to be missed at Firestone Grill

One of my favorite ways to see Santa Barbara is through a bike tour, where you can view the city’s main sights like State Street and the Santa Barbara Mission on wheels. I highly recommend the Santa Barbara Electric Bike Tour , where the electric bike cruisers allow for easy mobility.

Sip local wines on the Urban Wine Trail , including the Funk Zone , which is a revitalized industrial area of town that has numerous wine tastings, cafés, and galleries. Get some sun at the city’s East Beach , while enjoying panoramic views of the Pacific. Wander around Ganna Walska Lotusland , a botanical garden located on the Montecito estate of a Polish singer.

Stroll down State Street downtown and then drive to nearby Los Agaves for some solid Mexican food. Get a scoop or two of ice cream at McConnell’s on State Street.

Where to stay in Santa Barbara

  • Sunset Motel is located close to downtown, is spotless, and comes with a complimentary breakfast.
  • The Lavender Inn by the Sea   is a cozy boutique hotel that is a few blocks from the beach and includes a free continental breakfast.

santa barbara california

Day 5 & 6 -Los Angeles

Welcome to Southern California! This sprawling city is not to be missed and two days will give you an introduction to a city that has many different sides. Los Angeles is roughly divided up into West, Central, Downtown, East, South, and The Valley.

If you want to experience beach life, the Westside (Santa Monica, Venice) is where you should go, but also keep in mind that there is a lot more to the city than these beachside neighborhoods.

To get your bearings, take a comprehensive guided tour that allows you to see popular LA sights like downtown, Griffith Park, Hollywood, Beverley Hills, and Koreatown. One of my favorites is this Grand City Tour of Los Angeles , which is a 5-hour long tour through the city in a 12-person van that allows for a more intimate feel.

Another favorite is the Downtown LA Food Tour , which stops at food havens like Grand Central Market, but also iconic landmarks like The Bradbury Building.

On the last day, drive down the coast to Malibu and spend the day beach-hopping at local gems like Point Dume , El Matador , and Zuma.

Immerse yourself in everything Hollywood, by taking a tour at a movie studio , or if you have the energy (and money) head to Universal Studios Hollywood , which is home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Eat a Turkish-inspired brunch at Kismet , grab a sandwich and baked goods at Gjusta in Venice or steaming bowls of ramen in Japantown (there is also a branch in Sawtelle) at the ever-popular Daikokuya .

Where to stay in Los Angeles

Ideally, if you’re planning to visit all around Los Angeles, the central part of the city is a good spot to call home. A home base in the greater Hollywood area for example will give you easier access to the west and east parts of  LA, instead of staying on the Westside and having to drive all the way across town to sights on the Eastside or vice versa.

  • The Trylon Hotel is a great reasonably-priced hotel in Hollywood.
  • If you want to be beachside, The Gateway Hote l , is a mid-range hotel less than two miles from the beach and Santa Monica Pier, with free parking.

Travel tip: Plan your LA itinerary around neighborhoods that are close to each other to minimize driving across town. This means meals too. LA is a big city and driving from Santa Monica to Downtown in weekday rush hour traffic is not for the faint of heart.

santa monica california

Day 7 – Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is such an unexpectedly beautiful part of California, where the rugged landscape often feels more like a remote planet than a desert two hours drive east of Los Angeles.

The best way to experience the park is to get out and explore it on your own two feet by taking advantage of all the hiking trails . Skull Rock is a popular 1.7-mile trail that takes hikers past the giant skull rock formation, whose eye sockets formed out of centuries of erosion from the rain.

Hidden Valley features a 1-mile loop trail that goes through a valley sheltered by rock formations For more trails, check out this post .

There are no grocery stores within the park, but there is a café at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, where you can pick up boxed lunches. There are eight picnic areas within the park: Black Rock, Split Rock, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Indian Cove, Cap Rock, Live Oak, and Quail Springs.

Within the town of Joshua Tree here are some good options for food, including Pie For The People for outstanding pizzas at a spot located right outside the park’s west entrance. Royal Siam Thai Cuisine is a local favorite that’s perfect for a post-hike celebratory meal of green curry and pad see ew.

Joshua Tree Health Foods by the West Entrance is a great place to pick up healthy snacks and drinks before heading into the park. Joshua Tree Coffee Company is a great spot to pick up some strong morning fuel (try the vanilla latte).

Where to stay in Joshua Tree

Within the park itself there are nine campgrounds to stay at, where during the busy season of October through May, they are first-come, first-serve, except Black Rock and Indian Cove. During the quieter summer months, all campground grounds are first-come, first-serve.

Most sites only allow tents, except for Indian Cove Group Campground, which allows small RVs.

Though the park only has camping options, the nearby town of Joshua Tree has some good lodging options.

  • Joshua Tree Inn & Motel this hacienda-style inn is located a mere five miles from the park entrance and has a lot of historical charm. Each room has a patio to relax on after a long day of exploring.
  • Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway -a family-owned spot that is filled with personality and hospitality, and boasts clean spacious rooms with kitchenettes to prepare a packed lunch in for the trails.

Entrance fee: $30 for a 7-day vehicle pass as of February 7, 2023.

joshua tree california

Day 8 – Death Valley National Park

If you want to really understand California’s contrasting landscapes, Death Valley’s bone-dry desert landscape is not to be missed. It’s best to avoid going during the summer when the temperatures can easily reach 110 degrees and over.

Stop by the Furnace Creek area which includes the park’s visitor center, restaurants, and gas stations. Visit Zabriskie Point , one of the most popular lookout points in the park, where you can hike from the Badlands Loop or just drive up and soak in the view.

Experience the Badwater Basin , the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level, where you can view the mysterious salt flat from the parking lot.

The Racetrack with the magical moving rocks is also worth a mention (though it’s highly recommended to not go with a regular rental car due to the rough road).

For a sit-down meal, the Panamint Springs Resort Restaurant has solid burgers and fries, as well as massive salads.

Where to stay in Death Valley

There are limited accommodations in the park and not all places are open year-round. That being said The Oasis at Death Valley is home to two of the best hotels in the area:

  • The Inn at Death Valley is more luxury travel
  • Ranch at Death Valley has a more casual setting

Travel tip: Do not underestimate the dry desert heat and be prepared with plenty of water (at least a gallon per person/per day). Make sure to fill up on gas before entering the park, since it’s expensive and limited to areas like Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs.

death valley california

It’s hard to plan a California road trip and not include this iconic national park . The trick to having a successful trip to Yosemite is meticulous planning and more planning.

The best time to visit is May or September when there are fewer crowds and the weather isn’t too hot. The difference between these two times is that during May the waterfalls will be in full flow as the snow melts, but in September there isn’t as much water after a dry summer, but the scenery is still stunning.

On your way into the park turn onto CA Highway 41, and follow the sign that is marked Bridalveil Fall. Right before you reach the Wawona Tunnel, pull off into the parking lot and you’ll be rewarded with the classic Tunnel View that Ansel Adams made famous and includes El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Half Dome.

Once in the valley, start at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center , to get your bearings. Explore the valley, whether you go on the walking paths of Tuolumne Meadows (open from late May or early June to November, depending on the season), the easy Yosemite Falls 1-mile loop trail, or the more strenuous Glacier Point hike.

Nearby Mono Lake , with towering limestone formations, is also worth the stop as well.

The food in the valley itself is not particularly noteworthy, but there’s the historic The Ahwahnee for brunch with a view, where reservations are recommended. For a more casual meal, there’s Degnan’s Kitchen for reliable sandwiches and pizza.

Where to stay in Yosemite

If you have limited time in Yosemite, it’s highly recommended you stay inside the valley, since it takes about an hour or more to get from the entrance to the valley if you stay outside.

  • For luxury digs, The Ahwahnee in the valley is a popular choice.
  • If you prefer more rustic accommodations, the Half Dome Village is worth checking out for its heated tent cabins.

Travel tip: There are multiple park entrances depending on where you’re coming from. If you are driving from Death Valley, you will most likely enter from the South entrance. Make sure to always double-check road closures the day before, since things can change quickly.

Entrance fee : $35 for a 7-day vehicle pass as of February 7, 2023.

yosemite california

Head to the Bay Area’s favorite mountain getaway, where in the winter it’s popular for winter sports and the summer for outdoor activities around the lake.

There are two sides of Tahoe: the North Shore is quieter, more spread out, and nature-oriented, while the South Shore has a more touristy vibe with a lively nightlife with the bars, casinos, and resorts of Stateline and South Tahoe. The distance between the two locations is around an hour, so it’s important to choose which area best suits your needs.

Plan a day hike in either Emerald Bay State Park or neighboring D.L. Bliss State Park in the southwestern corner of the lake. If you prefer a more sedentary activity, float down the Truckee River, which flows out of the northwestern corner of the lake.

Visit the Alpine Village at Squaw Valley , where there are shops, restaurants, and free summer concerts. During the summer, visit King’s Beach in North Tahoe, a family-friend stretch of sand, where you can rent SUPs or kayaks to bob on the lake for a few hours.

Artemis Lakefront Café is a great place to grab Mediterranean food with a lake view on the South Shore. There are two Artemis cafes, so make sure to choose the one at Ski Run Marina for a memorable view. Fire Sign Café is a reliable choice on the North Shore in Tahoe City for brunch.

Where to stay in Lake Tahoe

  • For the South Shore, the boutique hotel Basecamp South is a lively spot to call home for a few days.
  • On the North Shore, the Best Western Plus Truckee has a reasonable price and includes breakfast. There are also vacation rentals in popular areas like Incline Village and Kings Beach as well in North Tahoe.

Travel tip: double-check park closures, since some close in September, but it depends on the weather. Also, make sure not to overdo it, since the 6,255-foot elevation can affect some people, especially during physical activity.

The drive back to San Francisco is 3.5-4 hours, depending on traffic/weather conditions.

lake tahoe california

Alternative California Road Trip Itinerary for 7 Days

If time only allows a week-long trip, you can easily shorten this 10-day itinerary by spending only one day in San Francisco and Los Angeles, driving through Big Sur to spend the night in Santa Barbara, and choosing between Death Valley and Joshua Tree. A 7-day California road trip might be a bit tight, but you will still get a solid introduction to some of California’s most beautiful destinations.

pacific coast highway coast

Alternative California Destinations

Here are some additional destinations that you can add to your itinerary if you have a few days extra on your road trip or want to substitute for example Los Angeles with San Diego if you have already been to LA before.

For everything indulgent, this Northern California city is the best place to go for wine, food, and relaxation. Visit the historic Downtown Riverfront Promenade and make sure not to miss the Napa River Inn and the surrounding beautiful artwork including Alan Shepp’s Mosaic Fountain in Riverbend Plaza.

Rent a bike and head out on the Napa River Trail , which winds its way along the river for 4.2 miles.

napa valley

Sonoma may not have the world-renown fame of its larger neighbor, but it definitely has more charm. The walkable downtown is centered around Sonoma Plaza with wineries, cafes (try the Sunflower Caffe for brunch), and boutiques to browse.

Afterward, walk around the neighborhoods surrounding downtown and admire the homes and sometimes even see horses grazing around.

sonoma ca

The capital of California is a lot more than its political roots (though a visit to the California State Capitol Museum is well worth a visit). There’s trendy Midtown with its tree-lined streets and the beautiful homes of  East Sacramento .

My favorite corner of Sacramento is Curtis Park, a picturesque residential neighborhood that is home to Gunther’s Ice Cream and Pangaea Bier Cafe .

tower bridge sacramento

Monterey’s swanky neighbor is known for its rich artistic community, where writers and artists live and work (director/actor Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel at one time). Dogs are revered in this town, and there are plenty of places to cater to any pups in tow, including Diggidy Dog , for dog treats and toys.

For humans, Cafe Luna downtown is worth stopping by for the breakfast sushi and wonton ramen.

carmel by the sea

This town was formed by a group of Danish settlers who were tired of Midwest winters and were looking for sunnier prospects out west, hence the name Solvang (sunny field). Stroll down Alisal Road to admire the Danish architecture and make sure to pick up aebelskivers (Danish pancakes puffs) at Solvang Restaurant’s to-go window.

Stop at Copenhagen Sausage Garden to counteract all that sugar with a cold beer and savory sausages.

downtown solvang

Carpinteria

This small beach city on the Central Coast is a great alternative for those that want to avoid the tourists or the college student crowds of Santa Barbara. Take a walk on Carpinteria State Beach , and later head over to The Spot , a Carpinteria institution for hamburgers and fries.

If you want to stay inland, Seaside Gardens, a nursery/botanical garden hybrid boasts an extensive and unusual plant selection.

carpinteria beach

This coastal city has plenty to see and do, including the Ventura Pier , and a little ways down the San Buenaventura State Beach , which boasts less crowds with beautiful views. Afterward, grab a bite to eat at Cafe Nouveau , which serves both traditional American brunch items and those with a Creole twist, like their maple bacon beignets.

ventura pier

Pacific Palisades

Tucked in between Malibu and Santa Monica, this affluent seaside community is worth stopping at the Getty Villa for ancient art, rich architecture, and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.

For some extra fuel, head over to the Palisades Village , a pristine outdoor shopping mall and get an ice coffee at Alfred’s Coffee and make sure to check out the Instagram flower wall if that’s your thing.

getty villa pacific palisades

Redondo Beach

Redondo Beach Pier is fun to walk down and browse the shops for souvenirs and spot playful seals frolicking in the harbor below.

Jus’ Poke is a must for some authentic Hawaiian poke. The shoyu-flavored one is my favorite, with a side of brown rice and seaweed salad. There is also a solid selection of Hawaiian Sun drinks (try the guava).

redondo beach pier

Take a tour of the Queen Mary , a historic ocean liner that is rumored to be haunted and also has a hotel, restaurants, and bars to enjoy. Rent a kayak and leisurely float through Naples Island , which is similar to the Venice Canals in Venice Beach with envious waterfront homes.

If you have more time, take the Catalina Express for a day trip to this popular island that always is reminiscent of old Hollywood glamour.

queen mary long beach

Huntington Beach

Your first stop in this surf-obsessed beach town should be to catch all the action and watch the surfers from the iconic Huntington Beach Pier . Afterward, learn all about why this town has been nicknamed Surf City, USA, at the International Surfing Museum and view the world’s largest surfboard.

huntington beach

Newport Beach

Known for its picture-perfect piers: Newport Beach Pier and Balboa Pier , there is no shortage of activities to fill your visit. For an adrenaline rush, head to the Wedge , where you can watch surfers ride up to 20-foot waves.

Escape to Balboa Island on the ferry and walk around the town with a frozen banana in hand from Sugar ‘N Spice . Head to Mama D’s Italian Kitchen for homemade spinach ravioli and their famous pink sauce.

newport beach

Laguna Beach

As a major art community, this Orange County beach town is home to many notable galleries. The Laguna Art Museum is worth visiting to view an impressive collection of art from around the state. Soak in the coastal beauty of Laguna Beach by heading to Main Beach , just steps away from the city center.

Drop by Nick’s Laguna Beach for a blackened fish sandwich or the grilled steakhouse salad.

laguna beach

LEGOLAND California may be this coastal city’s claim to fame, but there is a lot more than this popular theme park to do in the area. Every spring, the Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch boasts 50 acres of vibrant blooms. There is also the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa , where you can indulge in an afternoon of self-care or perfect your swing on the golf courses.

For music enthusiasts, the Museum of Making Music , is a great spot to learn about how instruments are made, as well as try your hand at making your own music.

carlsbad ca

This eclectic seaside surf town has stunning beaches like Moonlight State Beach and Swami’s to spend a lazy afternoon lounging on and watch surfers do their thing. Further inland, the San Diego Botanic Garden has over 4,000 different plants from around the world, including rare bamboo groves and an intriguing undersea succulent garden.

Head back to town and walk along historic downtown Encinitas to browse the boutique stores and cafes.

mural downtown encinitas

Solana Beach

For a quick San Diego day trip, this coastal beach town boasts a strong community feel. A whole afternoon can easily be spent at the Cedros Design District , where you can shop for home interior goods, stop into a café for a quick pick-me-up or browse the numerous art galleries.

For outdoor adventures, Fletcher Cove Beach is a sheltered inlet where you can take a swim or surf. Every summer, the Fiesta De Sol marks the beginning of the season, with live music, local art, and specialty foods.

solana beach ca

One of the wealthier communities of North County, this glitzy beach town is known for events like the Del Mar Horse Races and San Diego County Fair located on the Del Mar Fairgrounds during the summertime. Spend the afternoon at picturesque beaches like Del Mar City Beach , and pup-friendly Dog Beach .

Every year in September, the city hosts the Taste of Del Mar , which features local artists in a free art walk, along with culinary highlights from nearby restaurants and live music.

del mar ca

California’s southernmost city is known for its many stunning beaches, delicious food, and laid-back attitude. Start your day out at Balboa Park , where you can go to one of the many museums including the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Space and Air Museum .

Afterward, go to La Jolla where you can explore tide pools or just walk along the ocean and watch playful seals and sea lions. For dinner (and dessert) head to Little Italy , where you can find anything from breweries to traditional Italian.

san diego skyline

Palm Springs

Head to this glam dessert town to spend a day cooling off at the Arrive Hotel , where anyone can use the pool free of charge. Hop on the rotating Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to take in panoramic views of Coachella Valley below and hike around the trails once you reach the top.

Walk along Palm Canyon Drive to browse the art galleries, antique shops, and retro-themed furniture stores. Make sure to stop by the Cabazon Dinosaurs on your way to Palm Springs to snap a pic with the life-sized dinos.

palm springs

Head inland to indulge in a day of wine tasting in Temecula Valley Wine Country, with over forty wineries to taste some of the region’s best vino. Walk along the historic Old Town where you can browse shops and cafes that are housed along the wooden boardwalk and get a glimpse of the town’s Old West roots.

Go up in a hot air balloon at sunrise to see the expanse of vineyards from above or stay on the ground and play a round of golf. If you want to be a bit more active, rent a bike and spend the day biking through the vineyards.

temecula ca

There you have it. A California road trip that takes you from the coast, through the desert and mountains, and back to the ocean. Of course, you can mix and match the schedule so it fits your personal time frame.

You can extend your stay in places like Yosemite or Joshua Tree, if you have more time you can add on stops at places like Palm Springs if you want to experience this luxurious desert town where many Angelenos escape to on the weekend.

You can also stay in Los Angeles longer and explore all the different neighborhoods, and continue to eat your way through the city. It’s completely up to you.

Sources: Death Valley photo

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April 3, 2021 at 3:39 am

Amazing! I know nothing about traveling all over the country, what a wonderful looking place to explore.

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April 9, 2021 at 5:15 pm

Thank you! I hope you get to visit California one day.

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July 25, 2021 at 12:34 pm

Hi this a great bit of info. extremely useful we live in Manchester Uk and (assuming no covid restrictions) are looking to do this trip in April 2022 with two kids 12 and 17. so just starting to plan now.

July 26, 2021 at 10:08 am

Thanks Mark! Glad to hear it helped. April is a great time to take a California road trip.

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September 23, 2021 at 10:10 am

How would this trip be in the beginning of April? The 1st week of April is our spring break. Do the fires impact this trip at all?

September 28, 2021 at 2:16 am

Hi! Early April should be an ideal time to visit. You don’t need to worry about fires, since those typically happen in late summer when it’s drier. The only thing that you need to keep an eye on is late-season rain/flooding when driving down Highway 1, since there can be landslides that cause road closures. This government website is helpful for checking highway closures: roads.dot.ca.gov. Have a great trip!

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December 21, 2021 at 8:49 pm

This California road trip guide is incredibly helpful. You’ve really thought through everything you need to know before planning a trip. Thank you for this helpful resource. Saving this guide for later!

December 22, 2021 at 11:40 am

Thank you! I’m glad you found it helpful!

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March 4, 2023 at 4:44 am

I always look forward to your newsletter and reading about your California adventures! A PCH tour is definitely on our bucket list. I loved your 10 day itinerary & hope to put it to good use one day soon. I have visited California a couple of times years ago. I’ve never seen a prettier place – although the traffic was like no place I’ve ever been!!! Enjoy & stay safe.

March 6, 2023 at 4:22 pm

Thanks Carol! I hope you get to come back to California soon and drive along the beautiful PCH. And yes the traffic around LA still baffles me even after living in the area for years ha.

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May 30, 2023 at 4:41 pm

How would this trip look in the end of December weather wise?

May 31, 2023 at 10:01 pm

Usually, there’s a good chance of rain at the end of December, especially in Northern California. Last year was very rainy, but that was an exception. Weather in Southern California is mild and in my opinion great for visiting. Just be prepared for everything and bring layers!

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June 8, 2023 at 3:10 am

very perfect article thanks for sharing it with us

June 8, 2023 at 3:46 pm

Thank you Gerald!

' src=

August 9, 2023 at 8:57 am

woow this pretty much gives all the insights about carlifornia , thanks for putting this pieces together.

August 9, 2023 at 10:55 am

Thanks, glad you found this helpful Bosco!

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November 10, 2023 at 3:44 am

very perfect article thanks for sharing it with us.

November 10, 2023 at 10:34 am

Thanks, glad you enjoy it!

' src=

December 15, 2023 at 3:25 am

very perfect article thanks a lot

December 15, 2023 at 11:17 am

Thanks Mike!

January 4, 2024 at 6:55 am

very nice article thanks a lot

January 4, 2024 at 10:16 am

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Go Travel California

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Itineraries

12 epic california road trip routes.

(This post was originally published on Savored Journeys .)

California has a land area of over 155,000 square miles, nearly 850 miles of coastline and beaches, countless miles of desert, mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, and immensely beautiful scenery. The best possible way to experience it all is on an epic California road trip.

Whether you have a few days or a few weeks to spend, there is a California road trip itinerary that will suit you. In this post, we’ve compiled 12 possible itineraries that will take you from the top of the state to the bottom. Choose your journey and piece together routes to form your perfect California road trip.

» See a few of these Ultimate California Bucket List places along the way!

Bixby Bridge

» Enjoy your road trip with these 46 Best California Road Trip Songs .

The road will take you along some of the most stunning coastal roads, deep into National Park forests, into the mountains and, of course, to some of California’s biggest cities. It’ll be one of the most enjoyable journeys you’ve ever taken.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: Los Angeles to San Francisco (524 miles)
  • Highway 395 Road Trip: Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes (450 miles)
  • Santa Barbara to Paso Robles (120 miles)
  • San Luis Obispo to Monterey (280 miles)
  • San Francisco to Lake Tahoe (200 miles)
  • San Francisco to Mendocino (176 miles)
  • Mendocino to Redwoods National Park (240 miles)
  • San Francisco to Yosemite National Park (170+ miles)
  • Yosemite National Park to Lassen Volcanic National Park (900 miles)
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park to Shasta Trinity National Park (150 miles)
  • Yosemite National Park to Death Valley National Park (515 miles)
  • Death Valley National Park to Joshua Tree National Park (250 miles)

» Looking for more inspiration along the route? Check out all our guides to San Francisco , Los Angeles , Santa Barbara and San Diego. Find the best beaches in Monterey , waterfalls in Southern California , and national parks.

Table of Contents

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: Los Angeles to San Francisco

Distance: 524 miles Suggested Duration: 3-4 days

  • Malibu Beach
  • Pismo Beach
  • Monterey Bay
  • Carmel-by-the-Sea

See hotels in Los Angeles | Santa Barbara | Monterey

If you’re looking for the quintessential California road trip then you cannot go wrong with  driving the Pacific Coast Highway  from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Also referred to as the Highway 1, this coastal road will take you by some of the most iconic towns and jaw-dropping scenery in California and it is truly a trip to be remembered.

The drive along Highway 1 is about 450 miles total and it’s recommended that you plan to spend three to four days enjoying the highlights of this iconic road trip. This will allow you to take your time and really experience the beauty of the California coast without feeling too rushed.

california road trip in october

» You might be interested in the Best California Wine Regions to Visit and 9 Beautiful Waterfalls in Southern California .

Some of the highlights of a PCH road trip include visiting the beaches of Malibu, exploring hip and cool Santa Barbara, and checking out iconic Central Coast seaside towns like Pismo Beach . Venture a little further for a stop at Morro Bay and the wine region of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. 

Of course, another highlight of the PCH is visiting the incredible natural area of Big Sur and taking in it’s stunning scenery with a hike , from imposing California redwood forests to dramatic cliff sides, there are few places in the country more beautiful.

Moving a little bit further north, the Monterey Bay area including the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey both have a lot to offer travelers.

The final stop is San Francisco and the beautiful Bay Area, where you’ll also want to spend a few days exploring, taking time to see the Golden Gate Bridge, visit Alcatraz, and walk along the Pier at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Also try our longer San Francisco to San Diego road trip route that traverses the route the other way around.

» Try this tour : San Francisco Bay Sailing Cruise

Highway 395 Road Trip: Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes

Distance: 450 miles Suggested Duration: 4 days

  • Red Rock Canyon State Park
  • Mammoth Lakes

See hotels in Los Angeles | Lone Pine | Lake Tahoe

This road trip, from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lake along Highway 395, ending at Lake Tahoe, is considered one of the best road trip in the nation. The route takes you through mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, beautiful waterfalls, and canyons.

The best time to go for this road trip is during fall or late spring when roads are open. Be aware that many of the smaller roads are closed in winter.

Alabama Hills

The road trip begins in Los Angeles, where we recommend spending at least a few days to see the sights. When you’re ready to drive, head north to Red Rock Canyon State Park. You’ll see some of the colorful rock formations on either side of Hwy 14.

Stop in Lone Pine for small-town USA charm. There are numerous things to do there for outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs, and Western movie fans, plus the scenery is stunning. You might also want to drive the Whitney Portal Road in the Alabama Hills (13 miles of unbelievable scenery!).

The next stop is Mammoth Lakes , which is a destination in itself. In winter, the Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain ski areas are very popular. In summer, you can hike the various trails, go fly fishing, rock climbing , ride the scenic gondola up to the summit, or go shopping in the Village.

The fun-filled journey culminates with the beautiful sight of Lake Tahoe. It is the calm centerpiece of the action, the largest alpine lake in North America and famous for its amazingly clear water. There are activities all around Lake Tahoe, from north to south, so be sure to save time to explore the area.

Always remember when hiking or visiting national parks to take a day pack with essentials like water, sunglasses, hat, smartphone and charging brick, and first aid supplies.

» Try this tour: Full-Day Iconic Sights of LA, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Beaches and More

Central California Road Trips

Santa barbara to paso robles.

Distance: 120 miles Suggested Duration: 1-5 days

  • San Luis Obispo
  • Montana de Oro State Park
  • Paso Robles

See hotels in Santa Barbara | Pismo Beach | Paso Robles

Road tripping within central California into wine country is a great addition to your travel plans if you like wine tasting, mountain scenery, or the seaside — this area has all three!

While the route from Santa Barbara is only about 120 miles or 2 hours each way, this is an area you could easily spend all week. There are vineyards and tasting rooms the entire length of the journey, with the  wineries in Paso Robles  being some of the best well-known.

Halter Ranch Vineyards

Start in Santa Barbara, a perpetual favorite, with many wineries and tasting rooms. It’s also a great base to hike in the Santa Ynez mountains and then surf in the Pacific, all in the same day.

From there, head north to Solvang: this quaint, Danish-themed town has great food from bakeries to restaurants. You won’t want to miss the aebleskiver (a jam-filled donut) at Solvang Restaurant. A jeep tour here is also a must!

Continuing from Solvang, you’ll hit Pismo Beach, where there’s great hiking and biking in the Pismo Reserve. Further north, there’s San Luis Obispo with its historical mission, walkable downtown, and scenic Montana de Oro State Park.

From here, it’s a scenic half-hour drive inland to Paso Robles, with small towns and interesting architecture along the way for the perfect road trip.

Spend at least a day wine tasting in Paso Robles in both the valley and up in the scenic mountainside.

» Try this tour: Downtown Santa Barbara Food Tour

San Luis Obispo to Monterey

Distance: 280 miles Suggested Duration: 5-7 days

  • Hearst Castle
  • Big Sur 90-mile drive

See hotels in San Luis Obispo | Near Hearst Castle | Monterey

Central Coast is one of the most beautiful parts of California. With its rocky shoreline, amazing wildlife (hello whales and sea otters) and beautiful secluded beaches, this less-discovered side of the Golden State is a true gem.

The full road trip across central California spans just 160 miles, but there are many stops along the way, including a few lovely cities, beaches, and the famous Big Sur drive.

Bixby Bridge

Highlights 

Begin your trip in San Luis Obispo , a town nicknamed “The Happiest City in America,” where you can enjoy the laid-back atmosphere, hike the dormant volcanoes (aka Seven Sisters) and take in the panoramic views of the ocean. 

From San Luis Obispo, continue north. If you have extra time, you can stop off in Paso Robles for a day of wine tasting in the gorgeous countryside.

Then head toward Hearst Castle, a National Historic Landmark located near San Simeon . I recommend purchasing one of the tours to see the interior of the castle and learn its fascinating history. 

Next stop is the magnificent Big Sur, a scenic 90-mile drive, that boasts some of the most beautiful views in California.

This scenic drive stretches for approximately 90, and while it might be tempting to jam-pack everything into one day, you should take your time and enjoy this iconic destination simply because there is so much to do here! 

Hearst Castle

The top places along Big Sur are Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (home to McWay Waterfalls), Cypress Grove Trail, the Bixby Bridge and The Los Padres National Forest.

But don’t try to cram your Big Sur drive in just one day. This place offers way too many amazing spots, so you should set aside about at least 2-3 days, especially if you are going to visit it for the first time.

Be sure to save a few hours to stroll though the cute oceanfront town of Carmel-by-the-Sea , where you’ll find lots of great wine-tasting rooms. Then take the beautiful 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove to Monterey. Enjoy miles of scenic beaches , bluffs, and overlooks that will leave your jaw on the floor. 

Monterey has a nice waterfront area to walk along as well, which culminates in the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. 

» Try this tour: Half-Day Whale Watching Tour From Monterey

Road Trips Departing From San Francisco

San francisco to lake tahoe.

Distance: 200 miles Suggested Duration: 2-3 days

  • Old Town Sacramento
  • Truckee (north shore of Lake Tahoe)
  • Squaw Valley ski resort
  • Emerald Bay State Park

See hotels in San Francisco | Sacramento | South Lake Tahoe

One of the most popular road trips in California is a visit to the Lake Tahoe area, near the Sierra Mountains and bordering Nevada. This road trip is a typical weekend getaway from San Francisco, and other Northern California destinations, with a distance of approximately 200 miles. It’s a three-and-a half-hour drive direct, but longer with some stops along the way.

There are two actual routes into Lake Tahoe, branching at Sacramento . You can travel by Hwy 80 which leads to the northern part of the lake, through Truckee, or Hwy 50 going to the southern part of Lake Tahoe. Both routes are spectacular and scenic. There are numerous gold rush towns in California that are still thriving and open to the public. You should definitely check out one or two along the way.

When building a road trip along this route, we suggest taking the northern route into Lake Tahoe and driving south along the lake. You can then take the southern route back to San Francisco, if you’re making a round trip.

Lake Tahoe

Fun places to stop for a bite or explore along the way to Lake Tahoe include visiting Old Sacramento with its Gold Rush-era buildings and cobblestone streets, the foothill community of Auburn for more Gold Rush-era history, and grabbing a hearty meal at Truckee , which is a cool western alpine town worth exploring on the north shore of Tahoe.

Once at the lake, you can easily do the loop route around the lake to explore some of the cool towns, beaches, casinos and beautiful landscape to visit in the area on your road trip.

Each side of the lake has its own attractions and appeal. On the north shore. Along the southwest shore is Emerald Bay State Park with incredible views. You can go alpine skiing in Squaw Valley or take the 2.4-mile scenic Heavenly Gondola Ride. Hike the Rubicon Trail on the south side, or go on a boat cruise.

Lake Tahoe Tours You May Enjoy:

  • 2 Hour Small Group Sailing Cruise Lake Tahoe
  • Emerald Bay Helicopter Tour of Lake Tahoe

San Francisco to Mendocino

Distance: 176 miles Suggested Duration: 1-2 days

  • Sonoma Valley wineries
  • Geyserville (Francis Ford Coppola Winery)
  • Mendocino Headlands State Park

See hotels in San Francisco | Sonoma | Mendocino

A drive from San Francisco to Mendocino is one of the best road trips in California. San Francisco is one of the most popular places to visit in the world, with good reason. It is a beautiful city with so much to do, see and eat, like the famous Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, to exciting neighborhoods like Chinatown, The Castro and Mission District. 

Golden Gate Bridge

When you are ready to leave San Francisco, head north over the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Stay in the right lane and pull into the lookout point at the end of the bridge, for one of the most stunning views ever. 

Continue north for 15 minutes and you’ll reach Mill Valley. Stop at Muir Woods for a beautiful hike through the old-growth redwoods, a national monument since 1908.

Drive north to the city of San Rafael for a Puerto Rican lunch at one of the most popular restaurants, Sol Food .  If you would rather a cafe, have lunch at MH Bread & Butter in the nearby town of San Anselmo.

Continue north 20 minutes to the historic downtown of Petaluma, once known as the “egg capital of the world.” Downtown you can see the historical buildings from the late 1800’s, boutiques, shops, and restaurants. Another highlight is to take a tour at the McAvoy Olive Oil Company. Stop for a delicious pastry or dessert and coffee at Della Fattoria.

Sonoma Vineyard

From Petaluma up through Geyserville, be sure to save time for some wine tasting along the way from Petaluma up through Geyserville. There are dozens of wineries to stop at along the way.

In Geyserville, you can experience some of the best of Sonoma County wines at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery (owned by the famous movie director.)

Drive north until you reach Mendocino, one of the most beautiful coastal towns in Northern California. Be sure to visit Mendocino Headlands State Park for hikes past stunning coastal scenery and Russian Gulch State Park to see the waterfall.

» Try this tour: Small-Group Wine-Tasting Tour through Sonoma Valley

Mendocino to Redwoods National Park

Distance: 240 miles Suggested duration: 4 days

  • Humboldt Redwood State Park
  • Avenue of the Giants Auto Tour
  • Redwoods National Park

See hotels in Mendocino | Eureka

Mendocino to Redwoods National Park is one of the most spectacular 5 hour drives in the world. It will take you through the most beautiful 240 miles on scenic Highway 101, alternating between coastal views and redwood forests.

The entire drive is only 5 hours long but with so many things to see along the way, you can easily spend a 2-4 days on this stretch alone. 

Redwood National park

Mendocino is a beautiful town, worth staying the night in a home along the coast. If the weather isn’t too cold (which is rare), you’ll have a blast on the beach. The town also has some great foodie places to choose from. 

Just north of Mendocino is Fort Bragg which offers many attractions for the family including the famous Skunk train, glass beach and sea glass museum. But if your short on time and need to complete the drive to the border on the same day, keep driving and you’ll be rewarded by the most majestic redwood forests in the world. 

First you’ll pass through the Humboldt Redwood State Park. Some favorite locations in the park includes the Founders Grove Nature Trail, the 32-mile Avenue of the Giants Auto Tour, and the Humboldt Redwoods Visitor Center. You can pick a brochure for the 32-mile auto tour if you’re in a hurry or spend hours on the hikes. If you’re driving in spring, you’ll want to stop in the meadows to see some of California’s gorgeous wildflowers .

At about  half-way point, you’ll reach the city of Eureka. You might want to take a break, replenish food or visit sights such as the Carson mansion or the Discovery Center. 

Beyond Eureka, the rest of the drive is along the Pacific Ocean. It’s arguably one of the most spectacular coastal drive. Try to keep your eyes on the road and stop along the way to soak in the views and the breeze. 

Further along you’ll go through the magnificent Redwoods National and State Park . It is awesome for camping, hiking or simply stopping for lunch. The entire drive through the forests is like driving through a magical kingdom. 

San Francisco to Yosemite National Park

Distance: 170-260 miles Suggested Duration: 4 days

  • Tuolumne County
  • Sonora Pass
  • Yosemite Valley

See hotels in San Francisco | Yosemite West

One of the most popular road trips in California is the route from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park. This encompasses two of the State’s most wonderful travel destinations – the glorious city of San Fran and one of the most popular National Parks in the United States. The 4-hour drive is also one of the most scenic routes in the country, with meandering mountainous roads cutting through the forest of redwood trees.

Yosemite is roughly 170 miles from the city and the drive can be broken up into plenty of scenic stops along the way. If you stop at our recommended locations, the drive will increase to roughly 260 miles.

Glacier Point

There are few better places to start a road trip than in the Golden Gate city and I recommend spending a  few days in San Francisco  before you travel down to Yosemite, (make sure to visit Pier 39 and take a trip to Alcatraz).

The first of these is the historic town of Oakdale, the cowboy capital of California. Located 1 hour 45-minutes from Pier 39, Oakdale is home to an impressive cowboy museum, a scenic reservoir and a delicious Mexican restaurant if you’re feeling a bit peckish.

The next stop is the gateway to Yosemite, Tuolumne County. A further 42 miles and 52-minute drive from Oakdale, you’ll find this beautiful slice of natural paradise. I recommend spending the night here and continuing on to Yosemite tomorrow because there’s just so many great things to do.

Make sure to photograph the views from the Sonora Pass, participate in some Gold Rush-era experiences such as a train ride at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and view the fantastic Column of Giants.

The final leg of the journey is to continue on to Yosemite. The park has some of the best hikes in the world such as Yosemite Valley and the striking cascades of Yosemite Falls. The Half Dome is another of the park’s most popular places to visit.

» Try this tour: Full-Day Small Group Yosemite & Glacier Point Tour Including Hotel Pickup

Yosemite National Park to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Distance: 900 miles Suggested duration: 5-7 days

  • Yosemite National Park
  • Russian River
  • Glass Beach at Fort Bragg
  • Burney Falls
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park

See hotels in Yosemite | San Francisco | Fort Bragg | Eureka | Redding

A northern California road trip is one of the top road trips you can take in California! This trip will take you just under 900 miles to complete. It starts in Yosemite National Park and ends at Lava Beds National Monument.

If you’ve already been through San Francisco, you can travel up through Sacramento, for a different route.

Burney Falls

Starting at the majestic Yosemite National Park you can hike right next to a waterfall on the Mist Trail and take in the amazing views from Glacier Point. From here head over to San Francisco to check out the city and Muir woods.

Next head up the coast to the Russian River area for one of the best beers in the county at the Russian River Brewing Company and walk on glass beach in Fort Bragg.

Continue up the coast to the unbelievable Redwoods National and State parks where you can drive through a tree and stair up in awe at these giant trees. Then cut back inland to explore the most beautiful waterfall in California: Burney Falls. Continue on to Lassen Volcanic National Park to learn all about volcanoes before finishing your trip by hiking through Lava tubes at Lava Beds National Monument.

Northern California does not disappoint with its grandeur and magnificence at every turn. Pack up the car and head out to explore this unbelievable part of California! 

Lassen Volcanic National Park to Shasta-Trinity National Forest

Distance: 150 miles Suggested Duration: 2-3 days

  • Black Butte
  • Lake Shastina
  • Shasta-Trinity National Forest

See hotels in Redding | Mount Shasta

Beginning in Lassen Volcanic National Park and adventuring up to  Shasta-Trinity National Forest , you’ll experience some of the more hidden gems on this California road trip.

Some stops you’ll want to add to your road trip itinerary include McCloud Falls, Mossbrae Falls, Heart Lake, Black Butte and Lake Shastina.

Highway with Mt Shasta in the distance

Visiting all of these stops from Lassen Volcanic NP to Shasta-Trinity National Forest will take a total drive time of 3 hours 13 minutes over 147 miles.  To really explore this area you’ll want at least a few days, but the longer the better!

Lassen Volcanic NP is a treasure trove of geologic wonders, including bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles and other unique volcanic structures. Add to this pristine mountain lakes, tumbling waterfalls and jagged mountain peaks, and you’ll soon be entranced by this parks often overlooked beauty.

After Lassen, your next stop will be possibly the most beautiful waterfall in California; Burney Falls located in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. As well as marvelling at the 129-ft high cascading falls, there are also some incredible hikes here, as well as camping and lodging.

Your final stop will be Shasta-Trinity National Forest.  This National Forest encompasses an enormous 2.2 million acres with an almost infinite amount of wilderness walks available.

Yosemite National Park to Death Valley National Park

Distance: 515 miles Suggested duration: 5-7 days

  • Mariposa Grove
  • Sequoia National Park
  • Kings Canyon National Park
  • Furnace Creek
  • Death Valley National Park

See hotels near Yosemite | near Sequoia | near Death Valley

A classic Californian road trip that takes in four of the state’s legendary national parks is the trip from Yosemite to Death Valley. The driving distance from Yosemite to Death Valley is 515 miles.

It’s often done as part of a longer road trip from San Francisco through to Las Vegas, which is is 830 miles in total.

Yosemite National Park

There is  plenty to see and do in Yosemite , and you should aim to spend at least two to three days.  There are several epic drives in the park, including the route over the Tioga Pass, and the winding road up to Glacier Point.  Along the way, you can take in famous views of the granite peaks from Tunnel View and Olmsted View.

The route out of Yosemite takes you past the famous Victorian-era Wawona hotel and the Mariposa Grove, where you can see your first sequoia trees. From there, it is a straight three-hour drive via Fresno to Sequoia National Park. 

You can easily spend another couple of days exploring Sequoia National Park and the adjacent Kings Canyon National Park.  The parks are home to most of the world’s biggest trees, including the General Sherman Tree (the largest tree in the world) and the General Grant Tree (the world’s second biggest).  The road between them is called the Generals Highway, and there are multiple scenic viewpoints along the way, as well as trailheads to get out and see more of the giant forest.

The last leg of the road trip is a 6.5-hour-drive from Sequoia to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park . Stop off in Bakersville for something to eat and to fill up on snacks and gas.  You can take Hwy 58 and pass a wind farm near Tehachapi, or the more winding Hwy 178 and see Lake Isabella along the way. 

Spend another couple of days in Death Valley visiting the lowest place in North America (Badwater Basin), sand dunes at Mesquite Flat, slot canyons, abandoned mines, a volcanic crater, etc. before driving another 2.25 hours to Las Vegas.

Death Valley National Park to Joshua Tree National Park

Distance: 250 miles Suggested Duration: 2-3 days

  • Furnace Creek (Death Valley National Park)
  • Artist’s Palette Drive
  • Golden Canyon
  • Badwater Basin
  • Kelso Dunes
  • Amboy Crater
  • Joshua Tree National Park

See hotels near Death Valley | near Joshua Tree

Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks are among the most popular things to do on an epic California road trip. The distance between the two is a 252 mile, 4.5 hour drive and many people just bomb through it, hurrying to get from one park to the next. But you may want to slow down cowboy, because there is some pretty interesting stuff to see between the two parks.

Death Valley National Park

Start in Furnace Creek in the core of Death Valley. Use this Death Valley guide to plan your trip and then head south down Badwater Basin road on Highway 178. Stop at the Artist’s Palette Drive, Golden Canyon, and Badwater Basin before continuing south on the scenic road out of the park.

Make a quick pit stop in Tecopa (to see the world’s tallest thermometer) and then take Highway 127 into the Mohave National Preserve. Stop at the Kelso Dunes, which sign-posted nature preserve with hiking opportunities. 

After you cross the National Trails Highway, take a short detour to the Amboy Crater. It’s a BLM landmark and one of the largest volcanic fields in the US. Take Amboy road south and head west into Joshua Tree town.

Before you go into the National Park, be sure to stop into the Noah Purifoy Museum ,  which is an outdoor sculpture garden of “assemblage sculptures” and the World Famous Crochet Museum (because Joshua Tree town is full of quirky art).

Then go into  Joshua Tree National Park for hiking , exploring old mining infrastructure and sunset at Key’s View. 

These California road trips will take you to all corners of the state, along the coast, and into the varied National Parks that make California so unique and interesting. You could easily spend weeks traversing this beautiful state.

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Laura in California

Laura is a travel fanatic who loves seeing and doing new things. She lives in Ventura, CA, and spends a lot of time exploring California’s cities, beaches, and national parks.

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Where to See California's Fall Foliage in Every Region

Where to See California's Fall Foliage in Every Region

There’s no better way to feel the fresh fall freedom than by taking a leaf-peeping road trip across California.

Rachael Medina

October 08, 2020

Cool breezes now fill the morning air, pumpkin spice items line the shelves of every supermarket, and sweaters make their way into daily wardrobes—even if it’s not quite cold enough to fully justify wearing them mid-day. Whether you’re adapting to the latest fall style trends, incorporating Pantone autumn color accents into your home, or thinking about your California-inspired Halloween costume , there’s no denying fall is here. And that can only mean one thing: California fall foliage is about to appear.

It’s a wondrous time of year, when the holiday stress hasn’t quite set in yet and the post-summer routine starts to feel normal, allowing peaceful bliss to take hold. This sensation is complemented by the child-like curiosity and playfulness provoked by the trees changing colors and releasing their leaves. From jumping in piles of leaves to picnicking amongst the trees , there’s a sense of freedom that sparks as soon as the California foliage starts to change. And there’s no better way to feel the fresh fall freedom than by taking a leaf-peeping road trip across California. 

But before we dive into the best places to see California fall colors , do you know why the leaves transform into so many beautiful shades during this time of year? As it turns out, the shorter days and resulting lack of sun stop the production of chlorophyll, allowing the leaves to display their other compounds. Carotenoids, for example, are present in most leaves and reflect yellow and red lights from the sun, producing a brilliant orange color to the eye. Similarly, flavonols are always present in leaves, but their egg-yolk hue is only discernible once the chlorophyll’s green coloration begins to fade. The production of anthocyanin, meanwhile, is actually spurred on by the autumn weather, resulting in a variety of reds and purples that provide some of the most stunning foliage. 

GET AWAY TO SEE CALIFORNIA'S FALL COLORS

While there are likely several trees with autumnal hues lining your neighborhood and local parks, there are plenty of places to see the iconic California fall foliage and embrace the season. Whether you want to embark on a road trip to the mountains, take a scenic Bay Area drive , or cruise through lush forests, these are the best places to see the Golden State’s autumn hues. 

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PLACES WITH STUNNING FALL COLORS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA 

california road trip in october

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK 

Getting there: From the Bay Area, cruise along 680 until it turns into 580. Then, hop on the 5 to get to CA-120 West, which takes you directly to the park. The entire drive takes about 3.5 hours. 

Yosemite National Park is soaked in beauty year-round , yet it is often overlooked once the season of summer vacations and backpacking trips is over. This is a shame because the park is home to some of the state’s best fall foliage and is at its prime during leaf-peeping season. Featuring everything from pink dogwood and yellow cottonwoods to orange-hued black oaks and golden bigleaf maples, Yosemite’s fall foliage is unbeatable. 

On your trip to see Mono County’s fall colors, embrace the lack of tourists and take advantage of the park’s tall mountain peaks so you can truly appreciate your surroundings. Traverse the picturesque Horsetail Falls at golden hour, and you’ll see the valley flicker with reds and yellows as if set ablaze by autumn’s forces. 

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california road trip in october

BISHOP CREEK CANYON 

Getting there: Drive south on the 395 from Yosemite National Park for about an hour and a half, admiring the spectacular views along the way.

Encompassed by the Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, close to portions of the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, Bishop Creek Canyon is the secluded natural wonder you’ve been looking for and is one of the prime places to view Eastern Sierra fall colors . Set out on your own fall-foliage tour throughout the area, making sure to stop at Treasure Lakes, Lake Sabrina, and Bishop Pass. Because the expanse is surrounded by rugged mountain ranges, there’s something different to see around every corner. The northern edge tends to fill with orange hues, while the southern end comes alive with bursts of yellow among the granite. And in between, there is plenty of green foliage to keep your attention. 

california road trip in october

LAKE TAHOE 

Getting there: Take 50 East from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe. The drive takes roughly two hours and winds along mountainsides, offering picture-perfect views of fall foliage along the way.

Like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe is full of verdant forests, making it a highly photogenic landscape throughout the year and one of the most epic vacay spots . But in the fall, green pines are interspersed with golden quaking aspens, pink dogwoods, yellow-hued bigleaf maples, and orangey black oaks, forming a hodgepodge of colors. 

Make your way ever-so-slightly south to Hope Valley to view the fall foliage as early as mid-September. The forests here are densely packed, making the brightly colored leaves appear like fireworks in the night sky. Or, immerse yourself in the region’s autumn celebration by hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail , where you’ll spend a week or more surrounded by nothing but beauty. Either way, a drive from Truckee to South Lake Tahoe is necessary in order to see fall foliage in all its glory.  

california road trip in october

Getting there: Cruise from South Lake Tahoe on the 89 until it meets up with the 395. Lasting just under three hours, the drive south leads you past hot springs, majestic mountains, and shimmering lakes.

Triangulated between Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite, June Lake is transformed during the fall. Travelers can spot the golden trees and colorful aspen lining the shores by hiking the June Lake Loop. This scenic, 16-mile pathway leads you by a handful of lakes, past sagebrush, and through the ever-changing wilderness. Pitch your tent at June Lake Campground to enjoy close proximity to the lake while viewing June Lake’s fall colors during your vacay. For more leaf-peeping, make a 20-minute drive to admire Mammoth Lake’s fall colors and explore the mountain town . 

california road trip in october

SHASTA CASCADE 

Getting there: Start the 4.5-hour journey along the coast in the beautifully rugged region of Point Reyes . Find your way east toward the 505, which leads to the 5, and take in the scenery as you drive up toward the lake. 

Bushy pines meet mountain hemlocks, fir trees, and maples for a dazzling display of fall foliage in the Shasta Cascade . The area’s quaking aspens and oaks line Lake Shasta as patches of brilliant reds and oranges stipple in to frame of Mount Shasta. Watch the beauty of the autumn leaves falling as their reflections shine off the lake, and hike up into the mountains to get the best views in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest .

california road trip in october

SOUTH YUBA RIVER STATE PARK 

Getting there: Travel north on the 70 from Sacramento toward Yuba City before jumping on 20 East. This scenic drive usually lasts 1.5 hours and will lead to a stunning combination of rivers, mountains, and fall foliage. 

As one of the top places in California for floating trips , the Yuba River gets lots of love during the summertime, but the region is equally gorgeous once the temperatures start to drop. Indeed, Nevada County comes to life with bursts of autumnal hues, which even turn the hazardous poison oak into crimson works of art. The region is distinct for its variety of ecological zones, leading to an impressive range of foliage. Look around at the oaks, pines, and grasslands lighting up the hills and riverbanks with swatches of color. 

california road trip in october

MUIR WOODS 

Getting there:   To savor the calming fall colors in the Bay Area, hop on the 17 from Santa Cruz, and drive inland until the road meets up with 280 North. You’ll eventually find your way to Highway 1, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, pass by the waterfront town of Sausalito , and wind through the wilderness to Muir Woods National Monument. The road trip should take approximately 2.5 hours.

Hike your way through Muir Woods , admiring the giant redwood trees and lush ferns surrounding you, until you reach Mount Tamalpais State Park. Climb the tallest peaks to see breathtaking views of the trees along the coast as they shed their summery green colors and transform into fall’s reds and yellows.

california road trip in october

CALISTOGA 

Getting there: Cruise south from Mendocino along the Pacific Coast Highway until it meets the 128. You’ll eventually enter Napa Valley and see its sweeping vineyards, ending the roughly 2.5-hour road trip.

The Napa County town of Calistoga provides an entirely different way to experience fall foliage. Whether you’re walking amongst the vineyards to see the vibrant reds and oranges of the grapevines or hiking through the hillsides to see the calming yellow tones of the oak trees, fall is everywhere in Calistoga. For an extra-special experience, hop in a hot-air balloon to see Calistoga in a whole new way. 

VISIT THESE SPOTS TO SEE FALL FOLIAGE IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

california road trip in october

ORTEGA HIGHWAY 

Getting there: Travel from San Juan Capistrano to Palm Springs on the 74 for 4.5 hours. This drive winds from the beach, through forested regions, and into the desert to highlight California’s diverse landscapes.

Driving between San Juan Capistrano and Palm Springs, it is fascinating to see how differently autumn shows its colors throughout the state. Taking you from the palm trees by the ocean, through fragrant pine forests, and into the arid desert, this road trip allows you to truly see it all. As an additional benefit, this highway is said to be haunted, so October is the perfect time to tackle it.

california road trip in october

JULIAN 

Getting there: Start in San Diego and head east on the 94 before merging onto the 8. From here, venture north on the 79 until the 1.5-hour journey ends. 

This quaint mountain town is an ideal destination to experience the fall foliage of Southern California . With oak and pine forests speckling the hillsides with color, historic buildings from the gold-mining days, and homemade apple pies galore, Julian seems to pop right out of a Hallmark movie—and it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a locale in northern San Diego County. Spend a day picking apples at one of the many orchards, photographing the fall foliage, and cozying up with a mug of cider . 

california road trip in october

BIG BEAR 

Getting there: Take the 274 to the 18 from the desert of Joshua Tree National Park, continuing on until you see the stunning Big Bear Lake. This 1.5-hour journey takes you down into the barren landscape of the valley floor and up into the tree-lined mountains.

Driving from Joshua Tree , it’s easy to see fall creeping in as the mountains come into focus. Unlike the northern portions of the state, Big Bear’s fall foliage peaks in mid-October and early November, but when it comes, it’s undeniably gorgeous. Gold, amber, crimson, and maroon colors cover everything in sight and reflect off the surface of Big Bear Lake. The area’s multitudinous hiking trails provide the ideal opportunity to admire the beauty of fall—luckily, there are no bad views here. 

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8 Amazing California Road Trips That Take You From Big Sur to the Sierras

Whether you're seeking beaches or mountains, deserts or small towns, these California road trips deliver.

Evie Carrick is a writer and editor who’s lived in five countries and visited well over 50. She now splits her time between Colorado and Paris, ensuring she doesn't have to live without skiing or L'As du Fallafel.

california road trip in october

When it comes to road trips , California is hard to top. The land of fair weather and car culture always seems to deliver that carefree, top-down experience. And due to its size — California is the third-largest U.S. state — there's plenty of terrain to explore. You can start at the ocean and end up in the mountains, or spend an entire weekend exploring the California desert.

All it takes is a solid playlist, some road-trip friendly snacks, and a little planning to get out of your routine and on the road. To get you started, we've outlined some of California's best road trips — from multiday to multiweek adventures that criss-cross practically every part of the state (and kick off in major, easy-to-access cities).

Start: San Francisco

End: Los Angeles

Distance: Approximately 440 miles

Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH), snakes along the California coastline delivering almost 656 miles of ocean views along with plenty of nature (hello, elephant seals) and some of the state's most interesting sites.

Technically, the route runs from the city of Leggett to Dana Point, south of Los Angeles , but many people cut the 656-mile drive short by starting in San Francisco . If you're leaving from the Golden City, fuel up with a to-go brew from Snowbird Coffee before hopping on Highway 1. From there, slowly make your way south, stopping in Santa Cruz to watch (or catch) the surf.

The next section of road — connecting Carmel-by-the-Sea to Big Sur — is particularly stunning, so you'll want to take your time. Book a stay at the expansive Carmel Valley Ranch or the adults-only Alila Ventana Big Sur . When you get back on the road, spend an afternoon at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park , or continue on to San Simeon to see the elephant seal rookery . (One practical note: Landslides sometimes close sections of Highway 1 in this region, so it's a good idea to check road conditions before your trip in case of potential detours.) Before finishing up your journey in LA, spend a day or two relaxing on the beaches of Santa Barbara or exploring the area's vineyards.

Highway 395

Start: Los Angeles

End: Mammoth Lakes

Distance: Approximately 330 miles

This stretch of highway connects Southern California with the Eastern Sierra mountains up north. Most people start this iconic road trip in LA, making their way out of the city and into the natural world of lakes, hikes, and bizarre roadside attractions. You won't want to miss a visit to Alabama Hills , a formation of rounded rocks at the base of the Sierra Nevada, or the area's famous Mobius Arch, which perfectly frames Mount Whitney. Before leaving, drop by the Manzanar National Historic Site , a memorial of the American concentration camp where more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

Further north, grab a hearty meal at Copper Top BBQ , home of mouthwatering pulled pork, then make your way to see some of the oldest living trees in the world at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest . From there, keep an eye out for hidden hot springs — or stop at the slightly more established Wild Willy's Hot Springs. Also in this final stretch of the drive lies Mammoth Mountain ski resort, perfect if you're passing through in the wintertime. If you're up for extending your trip, continuing past Mammoth Lakes can take you to Mono Lake , a super-salty body of water that was formed at least 760,000 years ago, and to Travertine Hot Springs in Bridgeport.

Carlsbad to the Lost Sierra

Start: Carlsbad

Distance: Approximately 888 miles

This California road trip will transport you to some of the state's best attractions, with plenty of food and fun along the way. From the sandy beaches of Carlsbad, head north along the coast to Malibu and spend a night at the Malibu Beach Inn . The next day, drink plenty of water on your way to Solvang , a Danish village that's rich in wineries and hard-to-top farm-to-table fare.

From Solvang, continue north to the coastal town of Monterey, where you can put up your feet for a few days at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa while making day trips to iconic Californian destinations like Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Pebble Beach . After Monterey, make your way through Napa Valley for more wine, or spend the day hiking and biking in the valley's Alston Park .

Finally, go through Sacramento before arriving at the Lost Sierra , an under-the-radar area of pristine forest, dramatic peaks, and crystalline lakes just north of Tahoe . Here, you can camp out at Nakoma Resort while spending your days exploring the Lakes Basin Recreation Area of Plumas National Forest .

Northern California Wine Country

Distance: Approximately 180 miles

Sure, you can do a one-day road trip from San Francisco to Napa Valley, but where's the fun in that? To really experience Northern California's wine country, you'll want to find a great home base (we recommend the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa , where you can rest after a long day of driving).

From San Francisco, head northeast, making a quick stop at Domaine Carneros to grab a flute of bubbly as you reach Napa. Here, plan a stop at the nearby William Hill Estate Winery for a tasting and tour of the sprawling estate. When you need more sustenance than wine and nibbles, stop by Oxbow Public Market for a hearty meal.

After a night of rest, head north to Calistoga's Castello di Amorosa , a 14th-century-style castle built using medieval methods and antique bricks. Here, you can make a reservation to sample wine and explore the castle grounds. To top off the trip, book a meal and tasting at Sequoia Grove , a family-owned winery situated in — what else — a grove of sequoia trees.

Before heading back to the city, ease into the naturally carbonated hot waters at Vichy Springs Resort , which was established in 1854, or hike through the resort's 700 private acres.

Rim of the World Scenic Byway

End: Big Bear Lake

Distance: Approximately 120 miles

This California road trip may be a bit shorter than some of the others on this list, but it makes up for it with beauty. The Rim of the World Scenic Byway travels inland from the Southern California coast to the city of Big Bear Lake , home to ski resorts and endless lake-based fun.

From LA, you'll want to head east, then north between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains to reach Cajon Pass on State Route 138. Make a stop at the off-highway Silverwood Lake Overlook before taking a detour to the community of Lake Arrowhead. Here, spend a few days kicking back at the Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa . You can hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail , kayak across the lake, and view the coast from your perch on the Lake Arrowhead Queen steamboat.

Once you arrive in Big Bear Lake , grab a bite at Tropicali , which serves up a blend of California and Hawaiian cuisine. Then, tackle the Castle Rock Trail to catch unparalleled views of Big Bear Lake.

Southern California Beaches Road Trip

Tobiah Lui/Travel + Leisure

Start: San Diego

End: Malibu

Distance: Approximately 175 miles

If you're craving a beach vacation, head to Southern California , home to some of the country's best sandy shores and unbeatable balmy weather. In San Diego , spend the morning reading and people-watching in La Jolla Cove before making your way to the nearby Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve , a coastal park that has managed to retain its wild feel. From La Jolla, continue north to get your fill of Orange County's beach towns — Newport Beach, Laguna Beach , and Huntington Beach. (Trust us, you'll want to spend a few days here.) Grab a surfboard and ride the waves, or walk the pier and watch for sea life from above.

For your final beach foray , book a couple of nights in Malibu , so you have plenty of time to explore Zuma Beach , Leo Carrillo State Park , and the cliffs of Point Dume . When you need a break from beaches, feed your seafood cravings at Neptune's Net before venturing out on a hike in Corral Canyon .

California State Park Road Trip

Start: Sacramento

End: Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park

Distance: Approximately 800 miles

While California's national parks — most notably Yosemite and Joshua Tree — get all the attention, many people overlook the smaller, less-visited state parks. That's not the case on this Northern California road trip, where the state parks take center stage as you zig and zag across less-traveled landscapes.

Start your journey in Sacramento and make your way east to the first park on this road trip: Emerald Bay State Park . Check out Eagle Falls, enjoy the views over Lake Tahoe, and, if you're there between June and September, visit Vikingsholm , a 38-room Scandinavian-inspired mansion. Head north from there to Plumas-Eureka State Park , where you'll learn everything you ever wanted to know (and then some) about the California Gold Rush. After a few days of exploring the area, travel back west toward the coast — a five-and-a-half-hour drive that'll require a fuel up at From the Hearth Kitchen & Pie Shop in Red Bluff.

When you're close to the ocean, you'll run into Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park , a 400-acre oasis with groves of old-growth redwood trees. After a night or two spent under the redwoods and alongside the river, make your way north to Humboldt Lagoons State Park on the coast. Here, you'll find coastal lagoons, wetlands, and estuaries, before making your way east toward Redding.

Continue north to Castle Crags State Park , home to dramatic and ragged rock formations (and great camping and hiking). Your final stop on this excursion is well worth the final push: Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park , a tiny area (mainly water) that's just four miles long and no more than one mile wide. The park is only accessible by boat and has areas covered by the remnants of lava flows, plus stunning views of Mount Shasta.

San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park

Irjaliina Paavonpera/Travel + Leisure

End: Joshua Tree National Park

Distance: Approximately 387 miles

When most people think of California, they picture beaches, but in reality, a good chunk of the state is covered in awe-inspiring desert. To get your fill of the sweeping arid landscape, start in San Diego and head northeast toward State Route 78. Make your way to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — home of the famous springtime superbloom — and explore the park's slot canyons and cactus forests. From there, travel to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument , where you can experience extensive backcountry trails, snow-capped mountains, and miles of emptiness.

Once you've spent enough time reveling in some of California's open space, make a detour south toward the Salton Sea , a vast saline body of water. Head to the eastern shore for views of the iconic Salvation Mountain , a hand-painted, love-inspired work of art that's worth a visit (and a few photos). From there, turn around and go north toward Palm Springs (or, if you have time, drive around the sea before traveling north). Once you arrive in Palm Springs, book a stay at the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs and rest for a day or two before venturing into the expansive Joshua Tree National Park .

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30 Hidden-Gem American Road Trips You Can Take in Just One Day

Posted: October 10, 2023 | Last updated: October 10, 2023

<p>If you're planning a road trip this summer, you won't be alone. Many people will be <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/business/travel/summer-travel-flights-costs-saving-money-rcna81633">driving than flying</a> after the air travel debacles of the past year and the possibility of more meltdowns this year. And while many travelers are familiar with more lengthy road trips such as Route 66 and California's Highway 1, the country is dotted with under-the-radar alternatives that offer plenty of excitement and less mileage. If you're one of the many trippers looking to hit the road for some new discoveries, here are some shorter options. </p>

On the Road Again

While many travelers are familiar with more lengthy road trips such as Route 66 and California's Highway 1, the country is dotted with under-the-radar alternatives that offer plenty of excitement and less mileage. If you're one of the many trippers looking to hit the road for some new discoveries, here are some shorter options. 

Editor's note: We regularly update our stories to make sure they're current. This story was updated in October 2023.

california road trip in october

Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway

New Mexico This roughly 150-mile loop starts approximately 40 miles north of Albuquerque and winds its way east toward Santa Fe through the scenic Santa Fe National Forest and Valles Caldera National Preserve. You'll spot towering volcanic cliffs rising above the path of the Jemez River, plus a colorful dam and hot springs pools. 

<p>Extending north from Milwaukee up the coast of Lake Michigan, this 191-mile roadway deposits travelers at the northern tip of Wisconsin's intoxicating Door County peninsula. Often referred to as the "Cape Cod of the Midwest," Door County is packed with parks and beaches that provide plenty of opportunities to get out of the car and breathe in the fresh lake air.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/55-surprising-facts-about-americas-beaches/">55 Surprising Facts About America's Beaches</a></p>

Wisconsin Highway 57

Extending north from Milwaukee up the coast of Lake Michigan, this 191-mile roadway deposits travelers at the northern tip of Wisconsin's intoxicating Door County peninsula. Often referred to as the "Cape Cod of the Midwest," Door County is packed with parks and beaches that provide plenty of opportunities to get out of the car and breathe in the fresh lake air. 

<p><b>New York</b><br> This 30-mile scenic byway explores some of the most stunning terrain in New York's almost incomprehensibly massive 6.1 million-acre Adirondack Park. Also known as New York State Route 73, the byway passes through more than 40 of the highest peaks in the region as it makes its way southeast from the laid-back resort town of Lake Placid.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/best-of-new-york-state/">The Best Cheap & Free Stuff New York State Offers</a></p>

High Peaks Scenic Byway

New York This 30-mile scenic byway explores some of the most stunning terrain in New York's almost incomprehensibly massive 6.1 million-acre Adirondack Park. Also known as New York State Route 73, the byway passes through more than 40 of the highest peaks in the region as it makes its way southeast from the laid-back resort town of Lake Placid.

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<p><b>Iowa</b><br>This laid-back 105-mile route traverses abundant historic sights in the rolling hills of southeast Iowa, extending west from the town of Donnellson. Along the way, you'll pass through 15,000 acres of public land including two state forests, three state parks, and parts of the Des Moines River. Be sure to snap photos of Iowa's oldest courthouse, a log cabin church from the 1850s, and Iowa's only Civil War battle site — the northernmost battle of the war.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/best-national-monuments/">32 National Monuments Everyone Should Visit at Least Once</a> </p>

Historic Hills Scenic Byway

Iowa This laid-back 105-mile route traverses abundant historic sights in the rolling hills of southeast Iowa, extending west from the town of Donnellson. Along the way, you'll pass through 15,000 acres of public land including two state forests, three state parks, and parts of the Des Moines River. Be sure to snap photos of Iowa's oldest courthouse, a log cabin church from the 1850s, and Iowa's only Civil War battle site — the northernmost battle of the war.

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<p><b>Kansas</b><br> With rugged canyons and vibrant red-hued mesas, this roughly 42-mile trail shows off a landscape one might not immediately associate with the state of Kansas. Proving that not all of the Jayhawk State is flat farmland, this southern Kansas route heading west from the town of Medicine Lodge also features a wealth of Native American historic sights and ample outdoor recreation near Coldwell Lake.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/bucket-list-vacations-15515/">50 Affordable Vacations to Add to Your Bucket List</a> </p>

Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway

Kansas With rugged canyons and vibrant red-hued mesas, this roughly 42-mile trail shows off a landscape one might not immediately associate with the state of Kansas. Proving that not all of the Jayhawk State is flat farmland, this southern Kansas route heading west from the town of Medicine Lodge also features a wealth of Native American historic sights and ample outdoor recreation near Coldwell Lake.

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<p><b>Minnesota</b><br> With nearly two dozen scenic byways, the Land of 10,000 Lakes is a highly underrated road trip destination. Among the state's best options is the 124-mile St. Croix Scenic Byway starting at Point Douglas outside Minneapolis and extending north along the path of the beautiful St. Croix River to the town of Sandstone. Watch as the wild river valleys in the south transition into more rugged bluffs as you head north.</p><p><b>Related:</b>   <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/road-trip-attractions/">76 Attractions to See While Driving Across the Country</a></p>

St. Croix Scenic Byway

Minnesota With nearly two dozen scenic byways, the Land of 10,000 Lakes is a highly underrated road trip destination. Among the state's best options is the 124-mile St. Croix Scenic Byway starting at Point Douglas outside Minneapolis and extending north along the path of the beautiful St. Croix River to the town of Sandstone. Watch as the wild river valleys in the south transition into more rugged bluffs as you head north. 

<p><b>Nevada</b><br> Most people associate Nevada with desert, but this 100-mile stretch of State Route 376 in central Nevada tells an entirely different story as it introduces adventurous road trippers to the state's Big Smoky Valley. You'll have plenty of room to yourself as you pass through the little-visited Arc Dome Wilderness flanked by mountains such as the 11,781-foot Arc Dome. </p> <p><b>For more great travel guides and vacation tips, </b><a href="https://cheapism.us14.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=de966e79b38e1d833d5781074&id=c14db36dd0">please sign up for our free newsletters</a>.</p>

Big Smoky Valley Scenic Drive

Nevada Most people associate Nevada with desert, but this 100-mile stretch of State Route 376 in central Nevada tells an entirely different story as it introduces adventurous road trippers to the state's Big Smoky Valley. You'll have plenty of room to yourself as you pass through the little-visited Arc Dome Wilderness flanked by mountains such as the 11,781-foot Arc Dome. 

<p>Yes, there is a coast in New Hampshire. And while its 18-mile coastline is the shortest of any state, it packs a lot of punch into a short distance from Seabrook to Portsmouth. Connecting 10 units of the state park system including the iconic Hampton Beach State Park, this short but sweet one-hour cruise is an instant mental reset.</p><p><b>Related:</b> <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/new-england-trivia/">20 Things You Never Knew About New England</a> </p>

New Hampshire Coastal Byway

Yes, there is a coast in New Hampshire. And while its 18-mile coastline is the shortest of any state, it packs a lot of punch into a short distance from Seabrook to Portsmouth. Connecting 10 units of the state park system including the iconic Hampton Beach State Park, this short but sweet one-hour cruise is an instant mental reset. 

<p><b>New York</b><br> Less than two hours north of New York City, this 52-mile route has long been providing a nature escape for weary New Yorkers. With most of the route extending along New York State Route 28, the byway passes a number of cute towns and offers plenty of options for side trips to see sights such as the scenic Ashokan Reservoir and world-famous town of Woodstock.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/classic-vacations/">Classic Vacation Spots We Miss and Where to Relive the Magic</a> </p>

Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway

New York Less than two hours north of New York City, this 52-mile route has long been providing a nature escape for weary New Yorkers. With most of the route extending along New York State Route 28, the byway passes a number of cute towns and offers plenty of options for side trips to see sights such as the scenic Ashokan Reservoir and world-famous town of Woodstock. 

<p><b>Oklahoma</b><br> Observe wild bison from out your window as you navigate this 93-mile jaunt through Oklahoma's highly underrated Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and the scenic valleys of the 550-million-year-old Wichita Mountains. While only around 2,400 feet in elevation, these rugged beauties provide the perfect environment for quieting your mind after weeks cooped up indoors.</p><p><b>Related:</b> <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/how-route-66-has-changed/">Route 66: Then and Now</a> </p>

Wichita Mountains Byway

Oklahoma Observe wild bison from out your window as you navigate this 93-mile jaunt through Oklahoma's highly underrated Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and the scenic valleys of the 550-million-year-old Wichita Mountains. While only around 2,400 feet in elevation, these rugged beauties provide the perfect environment for quieting your mind after weeks cooped up indoors.

Route 66: Then and Now

<p><b>Utah</b><br> Hidden in the often-overlooked northeast corner of Utah hides the stunning natural wonder that is the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. The 200,000-acre outdoor wonderland of canyons and forests carved by the Green River is best enjoyed along this stunning 82-mile road trip from the town of Vernal north to the Wyoming border, passing through Ashley National Forest.</p>

Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway

Utah Hidden in the often-overlooked northeast corner of Utah hides the stunning natural wonder that is the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. The 200,000-acre outdoor wonderland of canyons and forests carved by the Green River is best enjoyed along this stunning 82-mile road trip from the town of Vernal north to the Wyoming border, passing through Ashley National Forest.

<p><b>Colorado</b><br> Winding 22 miles through an endless amalgamation of high-altitude mental therapy, this lesser-known Colorado road trip just outside Breckenridge is something of a local secret. The hour-long drive tops off at 11,481 feet and offers ample opportunities for hiking right along the side of the road, allowing travelers to marvel at the sun-soaked mountains and lakes below while listening to the soft sounds of aspen trees shimmering in the wind.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/best-scenic-drives-16955/">Breathtaking Roads That Are Only Open Part of the Year</a></p>

Boreas Pass

Colorado Winding 22 miles through an endless amalgamation of high-altitude mental therapy, this lesser-known Colorado road trip just outside Breckenridge is something of a local secret. The hour-long drive tops off at 11,481 feet and offers ample opportunities for hiking right along the side of the road, allowing travelers to marvel at the sun-soaked mountains and lakes below while listening to the soft sounds of aspen trees shimmering in the wind. 

<p><b>Utah</b><br> One of Utah's highest roads reaches an elevation of 10,687 feet as it crisscrosses through the massive Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest from the town of Kamas (15 miles east of Park City) to the Wyoming border. Picturesque waterfalls and pristine lakes dot the landscape as you traverse the forested valleys of the largely undiscovered Uinta Mountains.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/coronavirus-road-trip/">I Drove Cross-Country During the Pandemic — Here's What I Learned</a> </p>

Mirror Lake Scenic Byway

Utah One of Utah's highest roads reaches an elevation of 10,687 feet as it crisscrosses through the massive Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest from the town of Kamas (15 miles east of Park City) to the Wyoming border. Picturesque waterfalls and pristine lakes dot the landscape as you traverse the forested valleys of the largely undiscovered Uinta Mountains. 

<p><b>North Carolina, Tennessee</b><br> This lesser-known, more recently completed 43-mile national scenic byway showcases the best of the border region between western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee as it makes its way up 5,400-foot mountain peaks on the North Carolina side before carving through the heavily forested Tennessee backcountry. With sweeping views and little traffic, driving this road is basically like being in a car commercial.  </p>

Cherohala Skyway

North Carolina, Tennessee This lesser-known, more recently completed 43-mile national scenic byway showcases the best of the border region between western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee as it makes its way up 5,400-foot mountain peaks on the North Carolina side before carving through the heavily forested Tennessee backcountry. With sweeping views and little traffic, driving this road is basically like being in a car commercial.

<p><b>Michigan</b><br> This 47-mile scenic byway explores the history and scenic beauty of one of America's most underrated natural treasures: Michigan's Upper Peninsula. While investigating the area's rich history of copper mining, don't forget to take side trips to nearby state parks and gorgeous coastal overlooks dotted throughout Michigan's wild and rugged Keweenaw Peninsula.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/best-short-rv-trips/">Beautiful Short-Haul RV Trips for a Memorable Summer Weekend</a></p>

Copper Country Trail

Michigan This 47-mile scenic byway explores the history and scenic beauty of one of America's most underrated natural treasures: Michigan's Upper Peninsula. While investigating the area's rich history of copper mining, don't forget to take side trips to nearby state parks and gorgeous coastal overlooks dotted throughout Michigan's wild and rugged Keweenaw Peninsula. 

<p><b>Ohio</b> Turn off your phone and unplug from modern life for a while as you meander this 76-mile route through rural Ohio. The rolling hills and pastoral landscapes will give you a sense of a bygone era which continues to reject modern convenience to this day, dotted with plenty of historic sights related to Amish and northern Appalachian culture. </p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/best-living-history-reenactments-16347/">The 40 Best Places in America to Travel Back in Time</a></p>

Amish Country Byway

Ohio Turn off your phone and unplug from modern life for a while as you meander this 76-mile route through rural Ohio. The rolling hills and pastoral landscapes will give you a sense of a bygone era which continues to reject modern convenience to this day, dotted with plenty of historic sights related to Amish and northern Appalachian culture. 

<p><b>Arizona</b><br> This short scenic drive north of Tucson packs a lot of action into just 27 miles. Climbing more than 6,000 feet as it passes through several distinct landscapes from the Sonoran Desert to the Santa Catalina Mountains, this unique winding roadway allows visitors the chance to experience all four seasons in just one trip.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/wild-west-towns-today/">Towns Where You Can Still Experience the Wild West</a>   </p>

Sky Island Scenic Byway

Arizona This short scenic drive north of Tucson packs a lot of action into just 27 miles. Climbing more than 6,000 feet as it passes through several distinct landscapes from the Sonoran Desert to the Santa Catalina Mountains, this unique winding roadway allows visitors the chance to experience all four seasons in just one trip.

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<p>There are dozens of RV-friendly campgrounds along the Parkway, including those at the national parks on each end. Few match the charm of <a href="http://www.mamagerties.com/">Mama Gertie's</a> in Swannanoa, North Carolina. Near Chimney Rock and Lake Lure, Mama Gertie's offers mountain-top RV sites with not only dramatic views, but full electric, water, and sewer hookups. Spots start at $46 a night, but those premium views will cost $82 a night, or $100 for a deck to view them from.</p>

Cherokee Foothills Scenic Byway

South Carolina This 112-mile stretch of scenic beauty tucked away in the northwestern corner of South Carolina outside the endlessly charming city of Greenville follows an ancient two-lane Cherokee path through forested mountains and rolling hills at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. From waterfalls and state parks to small towns and peach orchards, this road has it all. 

<p><b>Arkansas, Oklahoma</b><br> This peaceful 54-mile meander through southeast Oklahoma and western Arkansas crests at the highest point between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, offering visitors A-plus mountain vistas as far as the eye can see. Be on the lookout for the occasional black bear, roadrunner, and other wildlife as you pass through a number of state parks, national forests, and other wilderness areas. </p>

Talimena National Scenic Byway

Arkansas, Oklahoma This peaceful 54-mile meander through southeast Oklahoma and western Arkansas crests at the highest point between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, offering visitors A-plus mountain vistas as far as the eye can see. Be on the lookout for the occasional black bear, roadrunner, and other wildlife as you pass through a number of state parks, national forests, and other wilderness areas.

<p><b>California</b><br> Hello, beautiful. This untamed 61-mile treasure located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park is an under-the-radar gem for adventure seekers. With no shortage of mountain vistas, glacial valleys, and giant sequoias at a top elevation of 8,700 feet, this route passes through the "California Alps" in their most natural state.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/best-ethnic-neighborhoods-in-the-us/">18 Places to 'Travel Abroad' Without Leaving the Country</a> </p>

Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway

California Hello, beautiful. This untamed 61-mile treasure located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park is an under-the-radar gem for adventure seekers. With no shortage of mountain vistas, glacial valleys, and giant sequoias at a top elevation of 8,700 feet, this route passes through the "California Alps" in their most natural state.

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While the alligator is the most-well known of Florida's animal inhabitants, the Florida black bear can often be spotted near the side of this 116-mile hidden gem in central Florida north of Orlando. Winding through the unique sand pine environment of Ocala National Forest, this scenic jaunt will have you looking at the Sunshine State in a whole new way.<p><b>Related:</b> <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/rv-boondocking/">How to Find Places to Boondock or Free Park in Your RV</a></p>

Florida Black Bear National Scenic Byway

While the alligator is the most-well known of Florida's animal inhabitants, the Florida black bear can often be spotted near the side of this 116-mile hidden gem in central Florida north of Orlando. Winding through the unique sand pine environment of Ocala National Forest, this scenic jaunt will have you looking at the Sunshine State in a whole new way. 

<p><b>Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia</b> Extending from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Monticello, Virginia, this 180-mile drive claims more historic sights than any other as it spans three states along the road "Where America Happened." From Civil War trails and wineries to battlefields and historic downtowns, you won't have to travel far to get an intimate glimpse into the creation of the country.</p><p><b>Related:</b>   <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/patriotic-old-photos/">30 Vintage Photos of Patriotic Places Across America</a> </p>

Journey Through Hallowed Ground Byway

Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia Extending from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Monticello, Virginia, this 180-mile drive claims more historic sights than any other as it spans three states along the road "Where America Happened." From Civil War trails and wineries to battlefields and historic downtowns, you won't have to travel far to get an intimate glimpse into the creation of the country. 

california road trip in october

North Shore Scenic Drive

Minnesota This 154-mile byway follows the shoreline of Lake Superior from the highly underrated town of Duluth, Minnesota, to the Canadian border. Along the way, you will pass through seven state parks with access to the massive Superior National Forest and quaint resort towns such as Grand Marais and Lutsen. Streams, waterfalls, bluffs, and endless coastal beauty abound. 

<p><b>Oregon</b><br><a href="https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/deschutes/recarea/?recid=71876">Sparks Lake</a> is home to one of the country's most unique ecosystems. The park includes 370 acres of lake wetland that is surrounded by a roughly equal number of acres of stream wetlands, marsh, or meadows. The result is a bird watcher's or wildlife photographer's paradise. In the background are the Bachelor Butte, Broken Top, and South Sister mountain peaks, all of which soar above 9,000 feet.</p>

Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway

Oregon This stunning 66-mile stretch of road starts just outside Bend, Oregon, as it winds its way through central Oregon's pristine Deschutes National Forest. With more than 150 alpine and high volcanic lakes in the region including the picturesque Sparks Lake and Hosmer Lake backed by the snow-capped mountains of the Cascade Range, there's scarcely a bad view in sight. 

<p><b>North Carolina</b> This road passes through 21 coastal villages along a 138-mile stretch of romantic barrier islands that are the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina. Packed with stunning beaches, quiet nature preserves, historic lighthouses, and charming small towns, the road also offers you the option of hopping a couple ferries to keep the exploration going.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/best-east-coast-beaches-17123/">The 20 Best Beaches on the East Coast</a></p>

Outer Banks Scenic Byway

North Carolina This road passes through 21 coastal villages along a 138-mile stretch of romantic barrier islands that are the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina. Packed with stunning beaches, quiet nature preserves, historic lighthouses, and charming small towns, the road also offers you the option of hopping a couple ferries to keep the exploration going.

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<p>Crank "Sweet Home Alabama" at top volume with the windows down as you cruise this 130-mile stretch of Alabama coastline through an array of landscapes from small towns to wildlife preserves. Looping around Gulf State Park and Shelby Lakes, the route also passes the Dauphin Island Audubon Sanctuary and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.</p>

Alabama's Coastal Connection

Crank "Sweet Home Alabama" at top volume with the windows down as you cruise this 130-mile stretch of Alabama coastline through an array of landscapes from small towns to wildlife preserves. Looping around Gulf State Park and Shelby Lakes, the route also passes the Dauphin Island Audubon Sanctuary and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

<p><b>West Virginia</b><br> This 43-mile excursion travels through an undeveloped portion of Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The paved two-lane road is short on people but high on views of the mountains and valleys of the Allegheny Highlands that surround the roadway, which also passes a number of scenic overlooks, creeks, and lakes. </p>

Highland Scenic Byway

West Virginia This 43-mile excursion travels through an undeveloped portion of Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The paved two-lane road is short on people but high on views of the mountains and valleys of the Allegheny Highlands that surround the roadway, which also passes a number of scenic overlooks, creeks, and lakes.

<p><b>Louisiana</b><br> This 180-mile jaunt through the unique wilderness of southwest Louisiana offers an up-close look at the culture and landscapes of the "Louisiana Outback." Winding through a variety of wildlife refuges populated by birds, alligators, and other creatures of the swamp, the All-American Road also offers detours to area lakes and Gulf of Mexico beaches.   </p>

Creole Nature Trail

Louisiana This 180-mile jaunt through the unique wilderness of southwest Louisiana offers an up-close look at the culture and landscapes of the "Louisiana Outback." Winding through a variety of wildlife refuges populated by birds, alligators, and other creatures of the swamp, the All-American Road also offers detours to area lakes and Gulf of Mexico beaches.

<p><b>Washington</b><br> Traverse the northernmost section of the U.S. mainland along this 61-mile cruise perched on the northwest corner of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Also known as State Route 112, this road trip offers opportunities for everything from eagle and whale watching to Native American cultural exploration, so you'll want to leave yourself plenty of extra time. </p>

Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway

Washington Traverse the northernmost section of the U.S. mainland along this 61-mile cruise perched on the northwest corner of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Also known as State Route 112, this road trip offers opportunities for everything from eagle and whale watching to Native American cultural exploration, so you'll want to leave yourself plenty of extra time.

<p><b>Nevada</b><br> Extending 120 miles from Las Vegas to the border of Death Valley National Park, the Death Drive is worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the Vegas Strip. Dotted with funky biker bars and <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/real-ghost-towns-of-america/">abandoned ghost towns</a> as it makes its way through Desert National Wildlife Range and the rugged wilderness around 11,916-foot Mount Charleston, this road will have you seeing Nevada in a whole new light.</p><p><b>Related:</b>  <a href="https://blog.cheapism.com/other-things-to-do-in-las-vegas/">22 Must-See Vegas Attractions That Aren't on the Strip</a></p>

The Death Drive

Nevada Extending 120 miles from Las Vegas to the border of Death Valley National Park, the Death Drive is worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the Vegas Strip. Dotted with funky biker bars and abandoned ghost towns as it makes its way through Desert National Wildlife Range and the rugged wilderness around 11,916-foot Mount Charleston, this road will have you seeing Nevada in a whole new light.

22 Must-See Vegas Attractions That Aren't on the Strip

This article was originally published on Cheapism

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Fani Willis had travel paid for by special prosecutor in Trump case, filing shows

Records submitted in Nathan Wade divorce case show DA named as travel companion while Trump investigation was ongoing

The Fulton county district attorney prosecuting Donald Trump over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia had travel paid for by a special prosecutor she hired for the case and with whom she is alleged to have been involved in an improper relationship, according to a court filing submitted on Friday.

Bank records for the special prosecutor Nathan Wade attached as an exhibit to the filing, submitted by Wade’s wife in a divorce proceeding, showed that the district attorney, Fani Willis, was named as a travel companion on at least two trips while the Trump investigation was ongoing.

The records could bolster allegations in a recent filing made by Trump’s co-defendant Michael Roman – director of Trump’s 2020 election-day operations – seeking to have Willis relieved of bringing the Fulton county racketeering case against Trump and his allies.

The relationship between Willis and Wade threatens to undercut the case because it raises potential conflict of interest concerns that could see the district attorney’s office disqualified for continuing with the prosecution.

The transactions from Wade’s credit card statements attached as an exhibit show that Wade paid for at least two trips during the criminal investigation into Trump that named Willis as a travel companion.

The first trip, dated 4 October 2022, involves a flight from Atlanta to Miami. Wade paid for a ticket for himself and for Willis. Separately, on the same date and without any names attached, the statement shows Wade’s credit card was used to make two purchases with Royal Caribbean Cruises, for $1,284 and $1,387.

The second trip, dated 25 April 2023, involves a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco. Wade again paid for a ticket for himself and for Willis. Separately, on 14 May 2023, Wade’s credit card was used to make two purchases of $612 and $228 with a Doubletree hotel in Napa Valley, California.

Roman’s motion claimed Willis personally profited from the contract. Wade was paid at least $653,000 and potentially as much as $1m for legal fees as one of the lead prosecutors on the Trump case, and the filing alleged Wade then paid for trips he took with Willis to Napa Valley and the Caribbean.

The motion included no proof of the allegations. Roman’s lawyer Ashleigh Merchant, a respected local attorney who publicly endorsed Wade when he ran to be a Cobb county superior judge 2016, has said the claims were based on sources and records from Wade’s divorce proceeding that remains under seal.

Willis has not directly addressed the allegations, and a spokesperson has said the district attorney’s office would speak through its court filings.

The allegations are scheduled to be addressed next month after the Fulton county superior court judge Scott McAfee, who is presiding in the Trump case, set an evidentiary hearing for 15 February. The date comes two weeks after the judge in the divorce case holds a hearing on whether to unseal.

Wade started divorce proceedings the day after he was hired as a special prosecutor on the Trump case. The divorce turned contentious last year, after Jocelyn Mayfield Wade complained that her husband had failed to disclose his finances, including income from working on the Trump case.

The complaint resulted in Wade being held in contempt by the Cobb county superior court judge Henry Thompson and, in January, Willis herself was subpoenaed for information relating to Wade’s work. The subpoena ordered her to sit for a taped deposition on 23 January.

On Thursday, Willis accused Wade’s wife of “conspiring with interested parties in the criminal election interference case to use the civil discovery process to annoy, embarrass and oppress District Attorney Willis” in a motion to quash, and sought a protective order to avoid the deposition.

The court filing with Wade’s bank records attached as exhibits was submitted by Jocelyn Mayfield Wade’s lawyer on Friday. The Guardian is part of a media coalition to unseal the divorce case and obtained a copy of the reply brief before it was filed on the public docket.

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He paid Virgin Galactic $200,000 for a few minutes in space. The trip left him speechless.

Ron rosano stands among a select few civilians who have reached the stars aboard a virgin galactic spacecraft after the company began offering regular commercial flights in august..

california road trip in october

As Neil Armstrong took humanity's first steps on the moon in 1969, an eager 9-year-old Ron Rosano watched from 238,900 miles away while vacationing with his parents in California.

Glued to the small television screen in the common area at a mountainous resort, Rosano watched a news broadcast as the Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Armstrong later stepped out of the lunar module to walk on its surface.

Even then, the historic moment left an indelible mark on a boy who would spend his life gazing up at the skies, wishing he could himself transcend his earthly bonds and exist among the cosmos .

“To see that and then go outside and look up at the moon and think to myself, 'Wow there’s two guys walking up around there, how did that happen?'” Rosano said, "That’s been a huge inspiration throughout my life.”

But Rosano never really thought that venturing to space was within reach. After all, hadn't Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and the multitude of U.S. astronauts since trained extensively before exploring the final frontier?

In 2004, those possibilities changed when Rosano heard that Virgin Galactic , the spaceflight company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, was selling tickets to space for regular civilians with deep pockets. He booked his own cosmic passage in 2010, recognizing that even though his journey to space was likely still years away, it sure beat never.

Rosano now stands among a select few civilians who have reached the stars aboard a Virgin Galactic spacecraft after the company began offering regular commercial flights in August. The flight window for Virgin Galactic's sixth commercial spaceflight opens Friday .

“For most of my life, it was always military test pilots or incredibly high achievers in medicine and science," Rosano told USA TODAY in a phone interview from his home in Muir Beach, Calif. "It's the dream of a lifetime."

Peregrine lunar lander: Navajo Nation 'relieved' human remains didn't make it to the moon. Celestis vows to try again.

Rosano recalls gazing at Earth from Virgin Galactic craft

After more than a decade of waiting, Rosano finally got his chance to journey to the edge of space last year at 63 years old.

Rosano, who co-owns and manages his family’s property management company, launched in October aboard "Galactic 04." Once Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo reached 54 miles above Earth’s surface, Rosano and two other customers spent a few weightless minutes marveling at our planet from a vantage point few get to experience.

Prior to liftoff, Rosano and the others spent three days training in New Mexico to familiarize themselves with zero gravity movement and the equipment they’d be wearing.

But nothing could prepare him for the transformative moments that awaited him in low-Earth orbit, which is exactly what Rosano had longed for.

“Let the experience bring to you whatever it may bring,” Rosano said he told himself. “You don’t know what you’re going to take out of it.”

Once in space, Rosano gazed upon mountain rages, white sands and the thin blue line of Earth’s atmosphere. In that moment, Rosano was struck by the realization that all living beings exist within that line, which is all that stands between life on earth and the cold dark void of the universe.

"I knew it was there, I've talked to astronauts and that’s always one of the most popular things you see, but still I was just transfixed by it," Rosano said, "It’s a vibrant, vivid electric blue that’s got a sense of aliveness in it.”

As for seeing Earth from afar, Rosano was quite literally at a loss for words: "It’s really kind of indescribable,” he said.

The entire trip took a little more than an hour before the spaceship landed like a regular aircraft at SpacePort America in the New Mexico desert. Once back on the ground, Rosano was greeted by his wife and the five children they have from previous marriages, all of whom were there to support him.

The dawn of the commercial space age

Virgin Galactic's ticketed flights helped usher in the dawn of the commercial space age in 2023 when the company finally began offering its long-awaited flights.

Tickets were $200,000 when Rosano purchased his in 2010 for a flight aboard one of Branson's rockets, but have since climbed to $450,000 .

The company, as well as its competitors like Blue Origin, are expected to continue selling tickets to wealthy customers who crave the experience of a few minutes of weightlessness – coupled with a view of Earth that can't be beat.

While Virgin Galactic's sixth civilian customer mission is expected this month, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin  will likely resume civilian flights at some point in 2024 after  a successful uncrewed science mission  in December.

Even the International Space Station has opened its doors to private astronauts who visit to do scientific experiments.

As early as this month, the first all-European commercial astronaut crew will embark for the famed outpost as part of Houston-based company  Axiom's third mission  to the station.

And last August, NASA itself teamed up with Elon Musk's SpaceX to begin offering  a commercial crew program  ferrying trained astronauts to the ISS for science missions. The eighth crew  is targeted to launch  no earlier than mid-February.

Will spaceflight become accessible for more people? Rosano hopes so

For Rosano, who has spent years recording human suborbital flights for his  Suborbital Flight Journal website, being a small part of this new era has been an honor.

Much of Rosano's life has been dedicated to educating youth about astronomy and sharing his passion for space travel.

Rosano has spent 25 years as an educator with the nonprofit Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Since 2008, he's been a NASA “solar system ambassador,” offering community presentations on Mars rovers , the James Webb Space Telescope , the Apollo Moon landings and more.

Now that he's been to space himself?

“I’m not going to see the sky the same way anymore,” Rosano said. “I’m seeing it with a lid on it, so to speak.”

Knowing that he came back from his trip forever changed, Rosano hopes that space travel becomes more commonplace – and more affordable – in the years to come.

“It was a profound experience for me to go and I'm so thrilled to have done it, but equally exciting to me is, you'll have dozens, hundreds, thousands of people going on suborbital flights in the future," Rosano said. "That will bring about positive change to how we as humans view the planet, and I’m glad to have made this possible for more people."

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at [email protected]

Oregon State’s 2024 football game at California moved from September 28 to October 26

  • Updated: Jan. 24, 2024, 9:24 p.m. |
  • Published: Jan. 24, 2024, 9:07 p.m.
  • Nick Daschel | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Oregon State’s 2024 schedule encountered a slight schedule change Wednesday when the Beavers game at California moved to October 26.

The game was originally scheduled for September 28. The move took place when the Atlantic Coast Conference – Cal’s conference beginning this fall – announced its 2024 football schedule.

No reason for the move was given, but it likely has to do with ACC bye weeks.

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‘will & harper’ review: will ferrell and harper steele charm their way through an endearing road trip doc.

After the former SNL writer came out as trans, she and the comedian traveled across America to process her transition and reaffirm their friendship.

By Lovia Gyarkye

Lovia Gyarkye

Arts & Culture Critic

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Will Ferrell and Harper Steele appear in Will and Harper by Josh Greenbaum, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

When former SNL writer Harper Steele came out as trans, she told her friends and family via email. “I’m old now,” the letter said, “I’ll be transitioning to live as a woman.” In addition to announcing her plans, she also shared some of her anxieties about the process. Her fear was not about transitioning, but that she might lose some people that she loved. 

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It can be easy to scoff at the after-school-special-seeming premise of Will & Harper , but at a time when trans people are under threat, the documentary might have a chance of reaching otherwise unengaged populations. Just this week, Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced proposals that could restrict gender-affirming care for adults in the state. Dozens of other states have bans on gender-affirming care for children in place.

Before they set out on the road, Ferrell and Steele discuss this bleak and dangerous climate for trans people. The documentary opens with their separate interviews, in which they express their expectations and anxieties about the trip. They also talk about what kinds of questions they have for each other. Ferrell worries about blundering or offending; Steele wonders if she and Ferrell will remain friends.

The journey yields some surprising revelations as well as predictable responses from people they encounter. Ferrell and Steele start in New York, where they have breakfast with Steele’s kids, and visit their old stomping ground at 30 Rock. After lunch with friends — Tina Fey and Seth Meyers, among others — they head to their first stop: Washington, D.C. 

From over 200 hours of material, Greenbaum shapes a straightforward documentary that moves nimbly. Zoë White’s unfussy cinematography largely keeps attention on the duo, save for the occasional wide shot of the American countryside. Ferrell and Steele’s conversations range from innocuous curiosities to weightier inquiries. Steele talks about when she knew she was a woman and reads from her old journals, some of which are excerpted and displayed. Through these old entries, one can hear the pain of repression and the sadness of self-loathing. 

As Ferrell and Steele journey deeper into the heartland of America, the texture of their conversations changes along with the threat levels. Confederate flags make cameos and the intensity of the stares fluctuates. Although Will & Harper portrays the experience of one trans woman, one can’t help but think about the extra layer of violence these places would present to a person of color. 

Will & Harper works because, at its core, the doc is a tribute to Ferrell and Steele’s evolving friendship. Two weeks on the road help the pair become reacquainted with one another, and their intimacy can be measured by the kinds of jokes they exchange. Early in the film, Ferrell’s humor reads as a coping mechanism, a reflex to lighten too-serious situations. But by the time they reach Vegas — after a vitriolic experience in Texas — Ferrell and Steele have created a shared language based on these new experiences. Their jokes are sharpened by the renewed ease that has settled into their conversations. 

What they talk about changes, too, as Steeles goes from explaining her transition to sharing her hopes, fears and insecurities about living as a woman. Ferrell still asks questions, but he opens up about his own anxieties. This recalibrates the relationship, creating a space where both Ferrell and Steele can be emotional with one another. When the journey in Will & Harper comes to the end, it feels like a new beginning.

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