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7 Classic California Road Trips to Drive in Your Lifetime

By Maggie Fuller

Jun 30, 2020

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California’s Highway 1 road trip is one of the most famous in the world partly because of the dramatic scenery of Big Sur.

Photo by Lisa Corson

California’s Highway 1 road trip is one of the most famous in the world partly because of the dramatic scenery of Big Sur.

The spectacular Highway 1 route is, of course, on the list, along with many you may have never heard of.

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Note: Though COVID-19 continues to stall a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

California is, hands down, one of the best places in the world for a road trip. It’s the third largest state in the nation, and its 164,000 square miles are absolutely packed with glorious, varied terrain highlighted by some 66 scenic byways. The 865 miles of coast are strewn with pockets of beach and stretches of sheer cliff. Rocky desert landscapes give way to rolling farmlands, and two-lane highways carve through quiet groves of towering sequoias before climbing into the high, rugged peaks of the 352 mountain ranges. With all that, it’s no wonder you simply cannot get to know the Golden State unless you hit the road. We’ve gathered together seven essential California road trips to get you started. 

Epic California Road Trips

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a short but unforgettable detour from Highway 1.

Highway 1

Distance: 656 miles
Start: Dana Point (Orange County)
End: Leggett (Mendocino County)

Following the California coastline, iconic State Route 1—or Highway 1—is one of the best road trips in the world. It is sometimes referred to as the Pacific Coast Highway (or “PCH”), though technically, the PCH is only a southern part of the route; other sections of Highway 1 are known as Cabrillo Highway, Coast Highway, or Shoreline Highway. Think of Highway 1 as a collection of the state’s greatest hits. You could drive the route in about five days, but there’s so much to do and see, we’d recommend getting out of the fast lane and giving yourself a week and a half or two weeks to really enjoy it all.

Start off with your toes in the Pacific at Huntington Beach, or Laguna Beach, or any one of the other scenic beaches of sunny southern California, then head north. Catch Spanish colonial architecture and sip local Santa Ynez valley wines in Santa Barbara; as you pass San Simeon, keep an ear out for elephant seals and an eye out for zebras and Hearst Castle. Then follow the forested road through Big Sur, stopping often to marvel at mountains that end abruptly in sea cliffs.

Be sure to pay homage to John Steinbeck at Cannery Row in Monterey, then bundle up to cut through the fog in San Francisco. Don’t worry, it tends to clear just after you cross the Golden Gate Bridge. From there, the road gets narrower and feels more remote as it winds through the hills of Marin County. Grab some oysters in Tomales Bay and picnic along the Point Reyes National Seashore

Finish up your trip walking driftwood beaches and tree-lined trails in the sleepy coastal town of Mendocino, or if you’re feeling really intrepid, keep following the coast north. Highway 1 officially ends in Leggett, where it turns to Highway 101, but that route continues more or less along the Pacific all the way into Oregon.

(Read more about the best stops on a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip.)

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is home to some of the oldest living things on Earth.

The Eastern Sierras (Highway 395)

Distance: 232 miles
Start: Lone Pine
End: South Lake Tahoe

While Highway 1 follows the coast, its sister trip, Highway 395, traces the Sierra Nevadas, the backbone of California. Rather than beaches and sunsets, a trip through the Eastern Sierra features prehistoric forests, historic mining towns, and all sorts of fantastic geological features. The drive from Lone Pine up to Lake Tahoe is only about four hours—seven if you’re driving to the start point from Los Angeles—but you’ll want to plan for a four- or five-day trip.

Kick off your journey in Lone Pine, a former mining town sandwiched between Sequoia and Death Valley National Parks. Spend the day hiking around the boulders, arches, and jagged peaks of the Alabama Hills, where a number of movies, including The Lone Ranger, Gladiator, and Django Unchained, were filmed, before heading north. Before you leave, pay a visit to Manzanar National Historic Site to remember and honor the 110,000 Japanese Americans who were stripped of their rights and forced into the internment camp during World War II.

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In Big Pine, stop for pulled pork and ribs at Copper Top BBQ, then and take a short detour onto Highway 168 to visit Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to some of the oldest living trees on the planet. Be on the lookout for hot springs once you pass the climber’s haven of Bishop: Wild Willy’s Hot Springs and Hot Creek Geologic Park are both worth a stop, but as you continue north there are plenty of secret spots locals might share if you ask. A bit farther along Highway 395, you’ll pass Mammoth Mountain, a popular ski resort, and then Mono Lake, with its mud-drip rock formations. Yosemite-bound drivers would head west here, but those continuing north might take a detour to explore the ghost town of Bodie off Highway 270. Leave Highway 395 near Topaz Lake and take Highway 89 to South Lake Tahoe, where you can finish your trip relaxing on the shores of a place Mark Twain once referred to as the “fairest picture the whole world affords.”

Northern California Road Trips

Be sure to add extra days to your wine country road trip to properly enjoy tastings at wineries like Clos du Val on the Silverado Trail.

Northern California Wine Country Road Trip 

Distance: 161 miles
Start: San Francisco
End: San Francisco

A road trip through the Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley should never be about getting from Point A to Point B. It’s more of a circuitous route that meanders through a countryside full of small towns, vineyards, and state parks. Plenty of people treat Northern California wine country as a day trip from San Francisco, but go for a long weekend so that you can really savor those winetastings and pamper yourself with a stay at the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa or Meadowood Napa Valley.

Make a beeline from San Francisco to Domaine Carneros to start your trip sipping California bubbly. Then jogging north on Highway 121, you’ll pass through the town of Napa, where it’s worth a stop for lunch at the Oxbow Public Market. Continue northeast on Highway 121 and you’ll pass the hot springs resort Vichy Springs, or turn north instead onto the Silverado Trail, where you can hop between some of the best wineries in the area, including Clos du Val and Mumm.

The Silverado Trail ends in Calistoga. From here, loop back to Sonoma via the winding Calistoga Road and Highway 12, stopping to walk off your wine at a few great state parks, including Robert Louis Stevenson State ParkSugarloaf Ridge State Park, and Jack London State Historic Park. Dine on seasonal tacos at El Molino Central in Sonoma, or pick one of the many restaurants that ring historic Sonoma Square. There are plenty of small wineries and towns to explore in this area before you end your trip with a sunset drive back to San Francisco. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park is filled with lakes and meadows as well as with hydrothermal sites.

Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Distance: 188 miles
Start: Redding
End: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park and the area around form one of the more beautiful parts of the state, especially if you’re a mountain junkie who loves craggy peaks and volcanic rock. But it’s one that even locals tend to miss, partly because, at two and a half hours from Sacramento and almost four hours northeast of San Francisco, it’s harder to get to than the coast or the state’s wine countries. But those who make the trek should plan for a three-day weekend with plenty of day hikes and geologic curiosities—this is, after all, volcano country. 

Starting in Redding, a bustling city on the Sacramento River, travel north on 1-5 to Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in California. Continue north on I-5, passing through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and maybe stopping to take in the ragged spires at Castle Crags State Park, before reaching Mount Shasta, where you can stop to stroll through town or hike in the mountain’s foothills.

Then, escape from the interstate and head south on Highway 89. This section of the highway is actually part of the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, which travels from Oregon in the north down to Lassen along the Cascade Mountain Range. Take some time to hike McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park and see the 129-foot-tall waterfall that shares a name with the park. Or kayak and paddleboard on serene Lake Almanor. Finish your trip with a day, if not two, wandering through Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is filled with mud pots, geysers, lava fields, shield and cinder cone volcanoes, mountain lakes, and even a few green meadows where you’ll find wildflowers in the spring. 

In its heyday, Empire Mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold.

Gold Chain Highway (Highway 49)

Distance: 295 miles
Start: Oakhurst
End: Vinton

Follow in the footsteps of miners and prospectors through California’s Gold Country along Highway 49—a road named after the gold-seeking immigrants, or “49ers” who made their way to the state during the 1849 Gold Rush. Plan for five days to give yourself time to strike it rich panning for gold in the region’s rivers. You’ll want to spend time exploring the rocky meadows and pine-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevadas too. 

Start off with a history lesson at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa, just north of Oakhurst. As you move north along the route, you’ll pass a number of Gold Rush–era buildings and towns—many of which you’ll have learned about at the Mining and Mineral Museum. In Coulterville, Hotel Jeffery, first built in 1851, is known for paranormal activities and claims John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt as past visitors. Jamestown’s Railtown 1897 Historic State Park gives a glimpse of what transportation was like in the late 1800s, and Columbia State Historic Park and the town of Sonora are both well-preserved mining towns. 

Highway 49 passes over the South Fork of the American River near Placerville, which is a popular place for river rafting. A little farther north here, in Coloma, you can actually try your own luck with a gold pan at Sutter’s Mill in Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Continue up through Auburn State Recreation Area, where the north and middle forks of the American River meet, stopping in Auburn’s Old Town and later Nevada City for Victorian-era homes and a little more historic charm. From there, Highway 49 heads northeast through Tahoe National Forest, but there’s more mining history to see before you end in Vinton. Be sure to stop at Empire Mine in Grass Valley, one of the oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines in California.

Southern California Road Trips

Southern California’s Big Bear is full of outdoor activities.

Rim of the World Scenic Byway (State Highway 18)

Distance: 117 miles
Start: Cajon Pass
End: Big Bear

When most people think of Southern California, they think of beaches. But the lower half of the state has just as much glorious mountain scenery as its other half. For visitors who want to spend most of their vacation frolicking in the sand, but also want some mountain air, the relatively short Rim of the World Scenic Byway offers an easy weekend getaway to the rockier terrain of the Inland Empire.  

State Highway 18 officially begins at the Cajon Pass, which is about an hour outside Los Angeles on Highway 138. The route heads east, passing small mountain towns and following cliff edges and skirting the peaks of the San Bernadino Mountains, which are sometimes called the “Alps of Southern California.” Take a slight detour onto route 173 to visit Lake Arrowhead, a popular escape for Angelinos, who head up to camp, hike, and ride the Lake Arrowhead Queen steamboat, and more. You can even hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail here. Back on Highway 18, at the town of Running Springs, you can take a quick, five-mile side trip up to Keller Peak Fire Lookout, where on a clear day, you might be able to spot the Pacific Ocean. Finally, Highway 18 follows the edge of Big Bear Lake to the town of Big Bear. Book into a cabin and enjoy the area’s hiking and water sports in the summer or snow sports in the winter. 

Some of California’s most stunning scenery isn’t along the coasts, it’s in Joshua Tree National Park and other desert areas.

The Desert Drive

Distance: 290 miles
Start: San Diego
End: Joshua Tree National Park

Plenty of travelers make the trip from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park to marvel at its spiky namesake trees. But many think of Joshua Tree as a destination and miss out on all the beautiful and sometimes quirky things the deserts of Southern California have to offer along the way. In fact, you should really spend a full five days exploring the rock formations, wildflower meadows, art installations, and architectural hot spots of this region. 

Starting in San Diego, point your car northeast on Highway 163 to Highway 78 heading toward Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, famous for its wildflower super blooms in the springtime. But even when the flowers aren’t blooming, the landscape is striking, with its badlands, slot canyons, and cactus forests. Near the park entrance, keep an eye out for the 130-foot prehistoric animal sculptures created by Ricardo Breceda.

Once you’ve explored the park, you can either head north on Highway 79 and cut through Anza en route to Palm Springs—the drive through wooded Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is a nice break from the desert sun—or continue on Palm Canyon Drive toward the dying Salton Sea. Admittedly not the most scenic part of this drive, the Salton Sea is fascinating nonetheless: It’s one of the world’s largest inland seas and is rapidly drying up. Skirt the southside of the body of water, then make your way toward Slab City, an abandoned Navy base that’s become an off-grid living community, and the massive, hand-built and brightly painted art piece Salvation Mountain, just outside.

From Slab City, take Highway 111 north to Palm Springs, an oasis of midcentury modern architecture that’s home to plenty of pools that provide respite from the heat. From Palm Springs, follow Highway 10 to Pioneer Town for a drink or a meal or maybe a concert at the famous saloon Pappy and Harriet’s, just outside of Joshua Tree Park. The area has long attracted artists and bohemian types, so while there’s plenty of natural scenery to enjoy, such as Jumbo Rocks or Skull Rock, make time to visit local art galleries, the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum, and the Integratron Sound Bath too.

>>Next: The Scenic Route—A Guide to the World’s Best Road Trips

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