5 California Road Trip Ideas

By: Dave Roos

The Pacific Coast Highway, near Big Sur, Calif.
The Pacific Coast Highway, near Big Sur, Calif.
Medioimages/Getty Images

California practically invented the road trip. Highway 1. Route 66. Convertible roadsters and low-riding choppers cruising down endless stretches of curving blacktop as the red sun dips into the Pacific. California is the third-largest state in the U.S. and has the second-most total miles of highway, which means you can travel for hours in any direction and find an unforgettable destination. From the staggering granite beauty of Yosemite to the skyscraping redwoods of Humboldt County, the wonders of California are just a tank of gas away.

Here we list our top five California road trip ideas with an emphasis on the state's many natural wonders. Let's start with the last road in America, the Pacific Coast Highway.


5: Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of the most iconic and breathtaking stretches of road on any map. The highway combines portions of California State Route 1 and U.S. 101 that hug the rocky California coast all the way from Los Angeles in the south to Crescent City at the Oregon border. The PCH spans over 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) of twisting curves, spectacular bridges (including the Golden Gate in San Francisco) and one mind-blowing scenic overlook after another [source: California Highways].

The PCH isn't a high-speed roadway, making it the perfect meandering detour for a leisurely, soak-it-all-in road trip. To drive the whole thing would take you days, so it's recommended that you choose a destination along the highway and enjoy a few hours of the scenic route as you go. Some of the most popular PCH tourist destinations are Big Sur, a ruggedly gorgeous stretch of coastline south of Monterrey, the famous Hearst Castle north of San Luis Obispo, and the dreamy cliffside resort town of Mendocino north of San Francisco.


If all that driving is making you thirsty, drive inland to wine country.

4: Northern California Wine Country

Pinot Gris grapes bloom in Sonoma County, Calif.
Pinot Gris grapes bloom in Sonoma County, Calif.
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Some tourist destinations don't live up to the hype, but the Northern California wine country delivers. Driving north from San Francisco through the towns of Sonoma and Napa is like being transported to the rolling hills, stately estates and fertile vineyards of Tuscany. A road trip to wine country isn't complete, of course, without a tasting tour of the region's hundreds of wineries, ranging from grandiose castles to cozy boutiques. Even if you're a dedicated sip-and-spitter, we recommend you choose a designated driver or hire a car service for the day.

Wine country offers more than just a good buzz with a view. Some of the world's finest restaurants are nestled in the unassuming towns sprinkled across the sun-soaked valleys. The French Laundry in tiny Yountville is a foodie Mecca, where chef Thomas Keller serves his garden-fresh California tasting menus to those lucky enough to get reservations. To relax after all of that drinking and eating, reserve a massage or mud bath at any of the dozens of spas and hot springs in the region.


Now it's time to head south, where the jewels of the desert beckon.

3: Palm Springs & Joshua Tree

The desert resort town of Palm Springs and nearby Joshua Tree National Park, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, make for a perfect road trip combo of natural beauty and stylish comfort.

Start out your trip with a drive through Joshua Tree, an otherworldly landscape of towering boulders and plants that looks like Martian vegetation. The Joshua Trees themselves look like something out of Dr. Seuss, but they're only one of hundreds of unique desert plants on display. Joshua Tree is also a world-class rock climbing and bouldering destination, with guided climbs for beginners and experts. If dangling from a cliff isn't your thing, drive the 18-mile (29-kilometer) self-guided Geology Tour.


End your day in Palm Springs, a popular and playful Hollywood getaway since the 1920s. Choose from an impressive list of fine restaurants (the Asian/Austrian-inspired Johannes is a top pick), get the celebrity treatment at any of the many local spas and resorts, or play a round of golf at one of the world-famous links.

Now, let's go East into the razor-backed Sierra Nevada to visit the incomparable Yosemite.

2: Yosemite National Park

The Merced River meets Yosemite National Park in Mariposa County, Calif.
The Merced River meets Yosemite National Park in Mariposa County, Calif.
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Yosemite National Park, only a four-hour drive from San Francisco, is arguably the most beautiful park in America. Carved over millennia by expanding and receding glaciers, its towering granite cliffs and gushing waterfalls are not only ridiculously gorgeous, but easily accessible by car or on foot. You can reach some of the park's most stunning attractions by a 20-minute walk from your car, including the mist-spewing Bridalveil Fall and the majestic sequoias of Mariposa Grove.

More serious hikers and climbers can choose from a staggering array of trail options. One of the most popular hikes is the Mist Trail past Vernal Falls that ascends to the roaring cascade of Nevada Falls. One of the more strenuous but famous climbs is to the top of Half Dome, the smooth, colossal rock that stands guard over Yosemite Valley below.


To get the most out of Yosemite, reserve a room at one of the park's lodges or campsites well in advance of your trip (the summer months are wildly popular), and get an early jump on the day. There is so much to see and do here, and you'll want to make the most of it.

We finish our road trip tour in the shadows of giants.

1: Redwood Highway

Coastal redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Sprouting from seeds no larger than a tomato's, they climb skyward over the course of their 2,000-year lives, eventually reaching as high as 370 feet (112.7 kilometers), the equivalent of a 30-story building [source: Redwood National and State Parks]. And the only place in the world to see these magnificent living giants is along the famed Redwood Highway in Northern California.

The Redwood Highway is really a stretch of U.S. 101 that travels north from San Francisco, through the famous Avenue of the Giants in southern Humboldt County, and into the coastal redwood forests of Redwood National and State Parks near the Oregon border.


The shortest redwood road trip is to the Golden Gate National Recreation area, less than a half hour from San Francisco. Here, you can take a leisurely and accessible hike through Muir Woods, one of the only virgin redwood groves that survived the Gold Rush. The main attraction for tree gawkers is the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile (50-kilometer) alternate route that parallels U.S. 101 through the heart of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the largest remaining stand of virgin coastal redwoods. No road trip to the area is complete without driving through the famous "Drive Thru" redwood near Myers Flat.

Serious redwood road trippers can keep traveling north to the Redwood National and State Parks, a cluster of four breathtaking redwood reserves near the Oregon border. There are dozens of trails in the area for anyone from amateur daytrippers to long-haul backpackers.

For lots more tips and information on great American road trips, head over to the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • California Highways. "Statistics" (Accessed June 25, 2011.) http://cahighways.org/stats1.html
  • Redwood National and State Parks. "Visitor Guide 2011" (Accessed June 25, 2011.) http://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=435946