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10 Most Iconic & Best California Road Trips

10 Most Iconic & Best California Road Trips

There’s no doubt that California is a road-trippers playground and if you’re new to road trips, California is the place to start. Whether you’re coming down from the north along the west coast, are wanting to take in the entire Golden State by car, or simply wish to add in a road trip here or there, these are some California road trips you’re going to want to take into consideration.

While of course there are more road trips you could do in California (the options are seriously endless), these are the classic, most iconic road trips across the state.

California Road Trip Ideas

Beaches, wine country, coastal views, desert roads, and national parks, these road trips throughout the state show it all and are definitely bound to impress. Take your pick (or a few) and enjoy California in the best way possible!

But first: Don’t miss the other California itineraries & guides, bookmark it for more specifics on your California trip!

Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway)

You may picture unobstructed ocean views when you think of a California road trip. High chances Highway 1 is what you’re picturing. This classic road trip along the California coast is what has appeared in countless films throughout the years and is the most iconic road trip in the Golden State and thus, shouldn’t be missed.

While many believe that the popular Pacific Coast Highway stretches from Seattle to Los Angeles, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is technically only the southern end of the route. The PCH actually begins in Dana Point in Orange County and ends in Leggett in Mendocino County (north of San Francisco), aka Highway 1, Highway 101 north will take you further to Seattle. Technicalities aside, the only thing to think about is what amazing views you’re going to get out of your car window.

Drive south to ensure that you get those scenic ocean views between stops at some of California’s must-visit destinations. From quaint coastal towns where you can find drool-worthy seafood to glitzy and glam cities, natural sights such as the redwood forests to white sand beaches that California is famous for, the PCH road trip that connects northern California to the south is a quintessential road trip not just in California, but across the entire country.

Best Time to Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

Late spring or fall is typically the recommended time to drive this coastal route. While in the spring you may risk northern California being soaked in rain or swallowed by fog, the scenery will be green and the flowers bloom for a truly picturesque trip. Fall brings concerns too as wildfires are more common during this time but you will most likely have abundant sunshine and clear skies.

Recommended Road Trip Time

Though the drive straight through is only 9-10 hours, Pacific Coast Highway itineraries typically range from 5-10 days, with 7 days being that sweet spot to experience the most of this road trip.

Highway 395 (Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway)

Nature lovers, look no further. This is the ultimate road trip for you to consider when traveling in California. Highway 395 will take you to the east side of the state through not one, but two national parks (and some state parks too), and then to the famed area for outdoor folk, Lake Tahoe. One of the best road trips from Los Angeles, just 80 miles outside of the city you’ll hit Highway 395 and begin your trip along the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway. 

Highlights of this trip include towering redwoods in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, gorgeous lakes at the June Lake Loop, taking a small detour to witness Mount Whitney in all of its glory, driving through the Alabama Hills, hot springs in Mammoth Lakes, and taking in some of the histories of the area (like at Manzanar National Historic Site where Japanese were held in prison during WWII). You’ll have ample opportunities to stop for fresh air, whether that’s simply to take in the natural sights, or to get into the forests and mountains that you’ll be passing through.

Best Time to Drive the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway

If you’re after fall colors, which are amazing in this area, then there is no better time to go than the fall itself. Though late spring or summer are recommended as well.

Recommended Road Trip Time

Depending on if you plan to take many detours or not, the trip is about 450 miles or more, one way. Plan about a week to take in a good amount or two weeks if you plan to make it a loop and add in destinations such as Death Valley, Yosemite, and the Lake Tahoe Loop. 

Route 66

There’s no doubt that Route 66 is a classic, and considered one of the top road trips in the USA. For those who wish to stick to California, and not take the drive all the way from Chicago, then you still have lots to see and will get to experience the route that many seeking fame and fortune took to get to the hills of Hollywood. 

A great place to start the California portion of Route 66 is in Las Vegas, which will take you all the way to the shores of Santa Monica or vice versa. From retro diners to western towns, desert terrain will be a good chunk of what you’ll see, but don’t miss the quirky stops that this road trip offers, like the McDonald’s Museum, where the very first McDonald’s was opened.

Best Time to Drive Route 66 from Las Vegas to LA

Since you will be driving through the desert, opt for late fall, through the winter, or early spring to avoid when the temperatures are at their peak.

Recommended Road Trip Time

A short drive compared to others on this list, you can plan to do this as a weekend trip! With under 300 miles to cover, this trip can be done in 2-3 days with stops and about 4 and a half hours driving total.

Big Sur

Though technically a portion of Highway 1 that was included above in the Pacific Coast Highway itinerary, Big Sur is just too incredible of a stretch of road to not be a stand-alone road trip. This wild part of the coast is most often visited for the views alone, which are some of the most iconic in all of California. Bixby Creek Bridge is easily the most photographed part of a Big Sur road trip and a stop here to take in what you actually drive is a must. 

Venture off the road to some waterfalls, across trails with expansive vistas of the ocean, and into patches of wildflowers. A Big Sur drive will have you unplug, even if it’s just for the 90 miles of this stretch of Highway 1 as it is mostly undeveloped. The rugged landscape is the big draw on this road trip, with miles upon miles of untouched natural beauty just outside your windows.

Best Time to Drive Big Sur

While Big Sur can truly be visited during any season, you’re most likely to have the sunniest days in late summer and early fall. But springtime will have the area decorated in wildflowers. Plan for when works for you, as weather can change quickly here and each season can bring periods of not-so-great weather such as fog in the spring and summer, wildfires in the fall, and landslides in the winter! But don’t let any deter you.

Recommended Road Trip Time

A Big Sur road trip usually starts or ends in Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Simeon. Driving in either direction is fine, but many will say the best views are when you drive south. Expect to spend 2-3 days on this stretch for a relaxed pace or if you’re planning on hiking in Big Sur.

Desert Roads (San Diego to Joshua Tree & Death Valley)

One of the best road trips from San Diego hit the road and head straight to Anza Borrego State Park. Just two hours east of San Diego’s beaches and you’ll already be in desert terrain. If you’re up for it, leave extra early and catch the sunrise at Font’s Point. Fit in a hike to Palm Canyon trail which is accessible from a paved parking lot and then move on to Palm Springs which is an ideal base for visiting Joshua Tree National Park. Spend a few nights here to enjoy the luxurious amenities of this fabulous city or head into Joshua Tree where there are ample things to do in the desert. 

To take things a step further, and to what feels like an entirely new planet, extend this desert road trip onwards to Death Valley National Park. It’s well worth a visit to the place that’s home to the lowest elevation in the country and the hottest temperatures. From sand dunes to canyons and colored mountains, don’t let a name like Death Valley deter you from visiting this expansive, otherworldly land.

Best Time to Drive a San Diego to Joshua Tree Road Trip (& Death Valley Road Trip)

Head out on this route in the early spring (February-April) to see the wildflowers in all their beauty and to avoid the hot, hot temperatures of the desert. But visiting through the winter is ideal as well for more comfortable temperatures.

Recommended Road Trip Time

Plan to spend 3 days at least on this itinerary, though 4-5 days would be ideal! While a 2-3 day Joshua Tree itinerary is great, it can also be done as a day trip basing yourself in Palm Springs or in one of the towns around the park such as Twentynine Palms. Consider adding an additional 3-4 days to visit Death Valley with time to explore.

National Parks (Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon)

There are actually nine national parks in California and while all are worthy of a visit, it’s a classic road trip to include these three national parks together. Their beauty is unparalleled and getting to witness Mother Earth in her natural state in these parks will surely take your breath away.

From the granite peaks of Yosemite to the towering trees in Sequoia & Kings Canyon, waterfalls plummeting in the spring, and the idea of a winter wonderland coming to life in these parks, there’s no doubt that this road trip will be nothing short of spectacular. 

You have options for how to do this road trip and from where. Great spots to start are Los Angeles or San Fransico, doing a loop from either, or starting and ending in either. Don’t miss your photo opportunity at The General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume. Or doing some of the hikes in Yosemite National Park, even if you’re not a hiker, there are some gentle ones that will get you fully immersed in nature. 

Best Time to Drive the National Parks Road Trip

The summer months of June to August are the most popular time to visit these national parks. Yosemite will be at its peak tourist season, while Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks will be quieter. Springtime, April-May is when the waterfalls will be on full display. It’s possible to visit in winter too though not all trails or amenities will be open.

Recommended Road Trip Time

A week minimum is recommended, but depending on how avid of a hiker you are, plan additional days based on the length of your hikes and the recovery time needed. It’s best to plan for 2 days in Yosemite alone and you may also consider adding Lake Tahoe to this itinerary for an additional 2-4 days. Or, you could simply do a road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite in 2-3 days.

Napa Valley Scenic Drive

You didn’t think I wouldn’t touch on the wine regions of California, did you? Head north from San Fransico to Napa Valley and Sonoma County to experience wine, wine, and beautiful wine country views. Whether your aim is to taste test the local grapes of the region, or simply to enjoy some time in the countryside, this is a picturesque northern California road trip that is easily one of the most iconic. 

Drive safely, you’re bound to want to make many stops as you pass wineries! Some great places to visit include Healdsburg, Glen Ellen, Napa, St. Helena, and Calistoga, to name a few. 

Best Time to Drive a Wine Country Road Trip

Fall is when the bright colors are on full display and when you have a high chance of seeing the fall harvest grapes being crushed. But in reality, there is no bad time to visit California wine country. 

Recommended Road Trip Time

Plan for a long weekend of 3 days, all the way up to a week, depending on how much drinking and relaxing you wish to do.

Avenue of the Giants

A detour off of Highway 101 that comes highly recommended, is the famed Avenue of the Giants. While this northern California road trip stretches only 31 miles, it’s well worth taking the time to see. As one of the best drives in California, you’ll take gentle curves through the giant redwood trees in Humbolt Redwoods State Park and will even drive through a tree!

Best Time to Drive Avenue of the Giants

Summer is the peak season to do this drive, so the shoulder seasons of spring and fall are best. But in reality, this mini road trip is always beautiful. Keep in mind that this stretch of road closes in May and October for marathons, but only for a few hours.

Recommended Road Trip Time

This road trip is only 2 and a half hours but with the number of picture stops and trailheads that lead to scenic hikes through the redwoods, it’s recommended to take at least half a day.

LA to San Diego Road Trip

This scenic drive in southern California will take you down the coast and is quintessential California. Hit up the best beaches in SoCal as you make your way through Orange County where you’ll find some of the hottest spots for catching waves. But more than just beaches, this road trip can also include Disneyland (for adults or children, we don’t judge) at the beginning or end of your trip, depending on where you start. Not to mention Catalina Island is also a nice addition to this road trip from LA for more time in the sun and water with breathtaking views.

Best Time to Drive from LA to San Diego

From June until September it’s prime beach weather, but in the spring you’ll find wildflowers. Really you can’t go wrong with a time to do this road trip as southern California has great road trip weather year-round.

Recommended Road Trip Time

Anywhere from 5-7 days will take you down the southern coast at a leisurely pace.

Lake Tahoe Loop

Lake Tahoe is a great road trip destination in itself, and taking the time to drive around the 72-mile shoreline will take you to many of the region’s highlights and more. The south will be the busiest, and the north more relaxed, with plenty to do in all areas. The best part? This road trip can be done year-round. In the summer you’ll be able to hike and bask in the sun on the lake’s beaches, get out on the water kayaking or paddleboarding, and more. 

Come winter and you can make stops to hit the slopes, enjoy ice skating, winter hiking, and many picturesque views of the area decked out as a true winter wonderland.

Best Time to Drive the Lake Tahoe Loop Road Trip

Spring through until fall (May-September) is best for sun lovers, but for those who wish to escape on a winter getaway, head to Lake Tahoe between January and March for snow.

Recommended Road Trip Time

Without stopping, this drive will take you about 2.5-3 hours to complete. But since there are so many places to stop, it’s recommended to make it a Lake Tahoe day trip or to complete it as a 2-day Lake Tahoe itinerary

Which one of these best drives in California are you going to take next?

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