If you’re looking for a great road trip route and map just read on, here is our great California Road trip article, feel free to read in full, or scroll down to our suggested Road Trip Map & Route to get great driving directions!
California: How it began.
I’d just agreed to come along on a road trip with a friend, Mark, and someone I’d never met before in my life. Not just a California road trip, but a huge six state trip. Mark had decided I needed to get away and had kindly offered a place on his Wild West adventure. I could hardly say no.
It was 2008, and we were working in Nottingham, England. Mark called his friend and we met up the following evening. I walked into a pub to find Aidan sat, perfectly content eating pea soup.
“It’s actually surprisingly good,” he informed me.
My concerns were eradicated and my questions satisfied.
Of the three of us, I was the only one who had actually visited the states at that point. In fact, I’d road tripped around for a month about four years earlier, so I gave advice where I could, but this would be my first taste of California. We booked a dodge caravan, complete with reversible seats and automatic doors. The main reason we went for the SUV was for the floor space, great for sleeping whilst on the move. So there it was, three grown men in a true soccer mom vehicle cruising for a month.
Our itinerary on this particular trip would take us all over the West side of the states, but California was the state I had my eye on. I enjoyed the next few weeks so much that it became a constant fixture in my yearly travels from that point on. I’ve revisited and extensively driven California both solo and with Steph. There are almost endless itinerary possibilities for a good California road trip, but here are a few of the state’s key highlights.
The sun’s out, the wind is in your hair and the winding two-lane highway meanders alongside the vast Pacific ocean. Is there a better road to drive in the world (I might leave that for another blog)? It’s certainly up there. The backbone of a California road trip, this is one of the many crown jewels of the state. Highway 1 will take you through giant redwood forests, small beautiful towns, seal sanctuaries, major cities and of course, Big Sur.
If you begin at the Northern end you will find yourself in the Redwood National and State Parks. One of a few Redwood areas on the road. After cruising along beautiful shorelines, you’ll eventually hit San Francisco. The enchanting town of Carmel is a highlight (avoid Monterey, unless hoards of tourists and endless tacky gift stores are your thing).
Big Sur, commonly described as the most amazing stretch of rugged, undeveloped coastline in the world, takes you South of Carmel. It’s a camping and adventure haven well worth driving and exploring as slowly as you can.
The beautiful road continues to seduce you with its epic vistas all the way to Morro Bay, a lovely town with beach campgrounds. From here, it’s a couple of hours to Santa Barbara, LA and finally San Diego. What a drive!
This route is a vacation adventure all in itself, and I advise anyone who enjoys a good road trip to make this a top priority.
Tahoe might just be one of my favorite places in the United States. Technically only two-thirds of the lake and surroundings are in California, one third belonging to Nevada, but let’s go over it as a whole. It’s quaint, outdoorsy, a photographer’s dream and has a lake that begs you to go and buy inflatable toys and jump in. It has an abundance of wildlife, and the amount of black bears here rivals anywhere else in the state.
South Tahoe is the hub, with a few big hotels and ski areas. It’s a nice bimbling town and has a variety of lovely local art shops and photography galleries. The Driftwood cafe is a nice place to stop for a bite or just a decent coffee.
Keep moving clockwise around the lake and you eventually find Emerald Bay. Just after a beautiful section of Highway, which runs along a ridge between Cascade Lake and Lake Tahoe that blows your mind, you will find two excellent campgrounds which cost around $20 a night and offer ridiculous views and access to the water. Bears often roam the grounds so be very bear aware here. Emerald bay itself is everything its name suggests, a real must see for any Tahoe visitor.
Halfway up the lake, traveling North, is a lovely brewery, Tahoe Mountain Brewing Company, which deserves a stop on the balcony. Another great craft beer location is the Mellow Fellow, right on the state line at the lake’s Northern end, they have a large selection of local beers and corn hole in the outdoor patio.
Vast wilderness areas exist North and South of Tahoe, it’s a hiker’s heaven. Last year I met a guy in Yosemite who had hiked from Tahoe right the way down to the park over 11 days. He was adamant that Tahoe was his favorite stretch.
Oh Santa Barbara… you lovely lovely place! I last used this town as a nice stopping point on largely camping based road trip. I needed a shower and a couple of days rest between backcountry stints so I called in and booked a motel by the beach. I ended up extending our stay and didn’t want to leave!
The area has been inhabited for at least 13,000 years, and its history is rich. However, the town is worth a stop on your road trip because of its range of activities. I had expected a nice beach and a string of gift shops and hotels, what I found instead was a fully-fledged town with great shopping, amazing restaurants and a new and vibrant wine area known as the Funk Zone. Download the area’s wine tasting app and go on a self-guided tour of the wine tasting rooms (there are more than ten in a two-block area!) and get tons of free flights and glasses of all the delicious wine you can handle. Follow that with a wander down State Street for dinner and you’ll feel like you had the perfect day.
The beaches here are stunning and the wharf has some superb fish restaurants in which you can eat fresh catch with a beautiful sea view.
Most of all it’s a real town. It’s not built on tourism alone, which makes it all the better for travelers.
Yosemite National Park
There will be a full article on this National Park from us, but for now, let me give you an overview and explain why your California road trip can’t miss this out.
This is a very drivable park, you can easily get in from both East and West entrances. The drives through the park alone are worth your time, but with a good number of campgrounds to pick from, you would be silly not to stay a few nights.
Yosemite Valley, the hub of the park is an epic, busy, yet tranquil world which catches your soul almost immediately. Tube the river, hike the famous landmarks, El Capitan or Half Dome or just to see some of the waterfalls and local residents (as in the four legged kind). Whether you spend a day or two walking the valley or buy a backcountry permit for a few days in the wilderness, a visit to Yosemite might change everything.
Just a few hours West of Yosemite is one of the coolest cities in the states. From the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz to the fun but touristy North Beach neighborhood, San Francisco has so much to offer. The weather can try its best to hinder your plans, but if you’re lucky, you may just get some epic views of the bay, delicious food, a little exercise walking up and down the steep streets and maybe even a sighting of a big red bridge.
It’s certainly not a cheap city, but that’s not to say it’s impossible to do it on a budget. This summer Steph and I stopped in for a few days and managed to pay nothing for accommodation with a free campground just over the bridge. There’s also good hostels in the city, so you can do it on a shoestring if you try.
A trip to Alcatraz needs to be booked ahead of time, it’s perhaps the most popular attraction in San Francisco, it’s also one of the coolest. The boat takes you on a ten-minute journey to the island, delivering gratifying views of the sloping city streets. Once there, you’ll embark on a superb audio tour that’s both informative and unnerving.
The Exploritorium is a huge, solar-powered science and engineering experience built on a nine-acre, glass-walled pier. You can find out about the science of skateboarding, animal camouflage and endless other intriguing phenomena in the 600 exhibits on display.
City Lights is a historic bookstore that specializes in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. Its history of controversial publishing and links to so many progressive writers makes it a worthy stop for any avid reader.
Carmel (by the Sea)
With strong Spanish history, Carmel flaunts its European vibe with unapologetic pride. The town (unlike nearby Monterey) exudes class and sophistication. Initially founded in the 1880’s as a fun beach town, it drew painters and writers to its shores in numbers. Jack London amongst others spent time strolling its shores. The arty vibe remains in the form of galleries and craft stores.
All that being said, Carmel took me by storm. The town is made of perhaps thirty or so blocks of little stores. In amongst upscale galleries are cute clothes stores, art and crafts, bookshops, restaurants and the amazing, incomparable Carmel Bakery – which I frequented for breakfast, lunch and breakfast!
The waterfront is well maintained in the form of a great sandy beach, ideal aside for the almost endless fog which sits upon it. The weather really takes nothing from the town however, you’ll be walking in awe all afternoon.
Historic sites are dotted around and are well worth a visit. Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo, the original mission in the Monterey area was established by Franciscan friar Junpero Serra in 1770. It’s a fascinating look into the areas early inhabitants, with plenty of information and artifacts on display.
Sequoia National Park
You wake up in the morning to the sound of birds and nothing else. No traffic, no people. You unzip your tent to look up at redwood trees, which reach over two hundred feet into the sky. You feel at peace, relaxed and yet energized. Today you could end up anywhere.
This park (along with its sister park; Kings Canyon) is mostly wilderness. In fact 97% of it can not be accessed by any means other than with a pack on your back. Everything in this place is big. The canyons, the mountains and of course, the trees.
The tourist attraction here is General Sherman, the largest (though not tallest) tree on the planet. I won’t lie, it’s impressive to stand next to the General, the base of the tree is enormous, and it baffles the mind to think how this thing emerged about two and a half thousand years ago from a seed. However, this park is wasted by the average visitor. Almost none sets foot on the park’s eight hundred miles of trails. It’s a dreamy wilderness wonderland which includes Mount Whitney, a 14,494 foot giant, which is actually the highest peak in the United States South of Alaska.
Okay, so you’ve been hitting all the obvious tourist zones in the state, why should your California road trip veer off Highway 1?Well, five or so miles west of Lake Casitas, in an area between Santa Barbara and LA, lies a small town called Ojia. I had no idea how to pronounce this name. At first Steph and I played with something like ‘ow-gee-a’, then maybe ‘o-yee-a’, before finding out from an obliging lady in the coffee shop it is pronounced ‘Oh-hi’. Yeah.
This small town is cool for its quaint appeal but one element makes this a must stop, it’s so good that it’s worth seeing even if you’re just within fifty miles or so. Call in for a road trip break, grab a delicious coffee and find this bookstore. Bart’s Books is an open-roofed, courtyard filled with every book imaginable, books line the walls outside and in and you can get lost in the winding aisles. Almost all of the books are in great condition and under $5.
Visiting San Diego is shocking. It’s ridiculously laid back, with friendly people and beautiful white sandy beaches make you feel like you’re on a tropical paradise vacation, then you notice a bustling city behind you and realize people actually live here!
San Diego is America’s seventh largest city, but without any doubt, it’s the most relaxed and unpretentious of them all. Upon your first interaction with a San Diegoan you may feel like you’re being sold something, but the friendliness is real, the air of calm is permanent and the warm sunny climate is both.
In 1769 it was the site of the very first Spanish mission in California, but the city we now know only really got started when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in the 1880s. Right now it’s a perfect California road trip stop. It’s downtown area is exceptionally fun, with great shopping and plenty to see including the Balboa Theatre, USS Midway, a nice baseball ground and plenty more. Head to the seafront and you’ll find endless white sandy beaches covered with endless brown tanned humans. You may wish to arrive with a base tan to avoid standing out a mile! If you get bored on the beach, some reasonably famous attractions are right here, including its world-renowned Zoo, Legoland, the museums of Balboa Park and of course SeaWorld.
Let’s just start with some facts. This valley is the lowest point in the states, at 86m below sea level. Just 84 miles away is Mt Whitney, the United States’ highest point at over 14,000ft. The hottest ever temp on earth was recorded here at 56.7 °C, and it’s the largest National Park in the lower 48.
As you can tell, this place is known for being a little extreme. Road trip into this park in summer and you’ll be thoroughly impressed, then quickly horrified by just how hot you can become in such a short period of time. Sweat will burst from your pores before you can utter a word of astonishment. It’s these extreme sets of conditions that appeal to Death Valley visitors.
Nights in the valley give you an epic view of the Milky Way, plus a possible sighting of one of the 50 mammals which inhabit the park. Spring is the nicest time to visit, allowing you to miss the most extreme temperatures, and witness an awesome wildflower spectacle.
Road Tripping California
Traveling around this 163,696 square mile state is best done behind the wheel. In fact it’s essentially the only way to do it. If a road trip in America is on your horizon then you need to make a big chunk of it a California road trip. Of all the states I’ve
road tripped (with perhaps the exception of Alaska), California has left the biggest impression. Its shear size and diversity is undeniable. No other state can supply big cities, huge forested National Parks, vineyards, deserts, beaches, world renowned lakes and ocean drives. California could be a week of your road trip, or a month of exploration in itself.