Without a doubt, California is one of the greatest destinations in the world for a road trip. The state boasts beautiful, diverse scenery, including 66 picturesque byways, countless beaches, and cliffs, as well as amazing desert landscapes, miles of towering sequoias and vineyards. The best way to take in all the scenery is by hitting the road and driving across the beautiful state.
If you’re planning a California road trip, here’s a list we’ve put together of must-do California road excursions to get your started.
Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)
The Pacific Coast Highway goes without saying when you say “California road trip”. The iconic Highway 1, also known as simply the PCH, follows the California coastline and offers some of the best views across the Golden State.
We suggest that if you plan to travel Highway 1, you start in any of the beautiful beach cities in Southern California and then travel north. Start in Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach or Newport Beach, before heading up the 1. One of your first stops could be Santa Barbara, where you can stretch your legs on State Street Promenade in the city’s downtown district. There, you can take in the Spanish colonial architecture, shop and get some lunch. From there, hit the road and travel north through Morro Bay and enjoy views of the 576 foot high Morro Rock that stands at the entrance of the city’s harbor.
From there, travel to Big Sur. The wooded scenic route offers views of beautiful mountains that flow into the coast and end at sea cliffs. There are lots of photo opportunities along this stretch of road. Be careful sight-seeing while driving because much of the highway in Big Sur is two lanes. You don’t want to risk a car accident and have to phone the nearest car accident attorney in the middle of your trip. As you continue north, make sure to pay tribute to John Steinbeck at Cannery Row in Monterey, then up to San Francisco and across the famed Golden Gate Bridge. Once you depart the city, the road snakes through the hills of Marin County, where you get a more secluded feel.
Later, you can get oysters in Tomales Bay, before walking along driftwood beaches in the peaceful coastal town of Mendocino. If you continue on, there’s a number of small coastal towns that are as charming as they are beautiful to visit. However, Highway 1 officially ends in Leggett before turning into the 101. The 101 does, however, continue up the coast all the way into Oregon if you’re feeling adventurous.
Wine Country in North California: Napa and Sonoma
Outside of the Pacific Coast Highway and Disneyland, when you think of a road trip in California, you think of Wine Country. If you are a wine enthusiast, Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are the destinations for you. Throughout these areas are countless small towns, wineries, and state parks. Most travelers make it a day trip from San Francisco, but there’s no rush. A long weekend in Wine Country can allow you to indulge all that Napa and Sonoma can offer.
We don’t want to sound biased here, so do your own research on the specific vineyards you’d like to visit. But, here’s a few suggestions. Domaine Carneros in Napa is great, but so are Clos du Val and Mumm. It just depends how you’d like to spend your day.
In between dining and sipping wine, you can also visit the state parks including Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and Jack London State Historic Park.
Driving Across the Desert
Joshua Tree National Park is always the destination when California visitors think of “desert drive”, but there’s a number of unique things to see across the vast California desert. In fact, we think you should plan on spending at least five days on this trip. You must visit the region’s rock formations, wildflower fields, art installations, and architectural highlights.
Start your trip in San Diego and drive northeast on Highway 163 to Highway 78. You will drive into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which is known for its springtime wildflower mega blooms. Even without the flower blooms, you’re in for quite an array of views. There’s canyons, cactus forests and badlands to photograph and marvel. At the entrance, there’s 130-foot ancient animal sculptures created by Ricardo Breceda.
The dying Salton Sea should be next on the list. Driving there isn’t very scenic, but the Sea itself is. It’s one of the world’s largest inland seas, but it’s drying up fast. You can drive along the water’s edge to see it for yourself. Then, make your way to Slab City, an abandoned Navy station that’s turned into an off-grid living community. Just outside Slab City is Salvation Mountain, a gigantic, hand-built and brilliantly painted art work.
Next on the list is Palm Springs. Take Highway 111 north to visit the desert city known for its mid century modern architecture. There’s also resorts, golf courses and art galleries to enjoy as well.
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