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12 Best Road Trips in California from North to South

Olivia Perez

Looking for an incredible road trip in California? You’re in the right place! Here are our all-time favorite Cali road trips.

It’s not exactly a secret that California is home to some of the most incredible sights in the entire country, and there’s no better way to get close and personal with its gorgeous natural scenery than by road tripping through it.

If you’re itching for the thrill of the open road, there’s probably no better place to fulfill your adventurous heart than the Golden State. 

From expansive deserts to rugged coastlines, volcanic zones, and looming mountains, California has a lot to offer, no matter the adventure you’re after.

In this post, we’ll be sharing a few of our favorite road trips in California, ranging from popular ones you’ve probably already heard of to more desolate roads you’ll be learning about for the first time. 

Regardless of the road trip you decide to go for, wonderful scenery and fabulous adventures are a guarantee!

Pssst: If you do a lot of road trips, you should look into getting the America the Beautiful annual pass ($80). It gives you free entry to national parks and national forests and discounts on campgrounds.

12 Best California Road Trips

Here are our favorite West Coast road trips in no particular order. Still, you might also want to learn more about these scenic drives in California to ignite your wanderlust! Drive safe!

1. Big Sur (Highway 1)

Road trips in California guarantee wonderful scenery like this epic ocean view in Garrapata Beach
This road trip in California guarantee wonderful scenery like this epic ocean view in Garrapata Beach
  • Start Point: Carmel
  • End Point: Ragged Point
  • Distance: 82 miles

Driving route: Carmel -> Point Lobos -> Garrapata State Park -> Garrapata Beach -> Pfeiffer Beach -> Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park -> Limekiln State Park -> Sand Dollar Beach -> Ragged Point -> San Simeon

Big Sur Highway 1 Road Trip Highlights

Even though this coastal route itself isn’t very long, a Big Sur road trip is one of the most memorable experiences you can have in California

With so many wonderful stops to make along the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to crafting your itinerary, especially if you’re a sucker for all things coastal views and rugged nature.

As you wind your way down the coast, you’ll be treated to gorgeous views of the Pacific to one side and the Santa Lucia Mountains to the other. 

Aside from exploring the charming towns of Carmel and San Simeon (which mark the start and end of the road trip), you’ll find state parks galore to stop at along the way.

Some of these places are Point Lobos State Nature Reserve for incredible viewpoints, Garrapata Beach for epic ocean vistas and hikes among redwood trees, Pfeiffer Beach for purple sand (yes, really!), and Julia Pfeiffer Beach to take in McWay Falls. This striking waterfall plunges down into the ocean.

As for hiking, Limekiln State Park is our favorite Big Sur state park for that. The Limekiln Creek Falls Trail is a shaded trail through the redwood forest that leads to a waterfall.

It’s undeniable that Big Sur is an incredible coastal road trip!

2. Northern California Wine Country Road Trip in Napa Valley and Sonoma County

Wine Country Road Trip in Napa Valley is surely one of best California road trips
Wine Country Road Trip in Napa Valley is surely one of best California road trips!
  • Start Point: San Francisco
  • End Point: Russian River Area
  • Distance: 140 miles

Driving route: San Francisco -> Sonoma City -> Napa -> Calistoga -> Windsor -> Forestville -> Guerneville -> Healdsburg -> Russian River

Pssst: Before you start your road trip, you might want to rent a camper van to get the ultimate road trip experience! Click here to rent a camper van!

Wine Country Road Trip Highlights

Visiting Northern California’s wine region is a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. 

Set only a mere 45 miles away from the city, Sonoma County lies placidly under the sun, with golden rolling hills lining its landscape and Napa pretty much next to it going east.

The entire area is dotted with wineries that beckon you to wine and dine at your heart’s content, surrounded by seemingly endless country charm.

Here, you’ll get spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing which wineries to visit, and you’ll also be treated to lots of dining and shopping options.

Once you’re done exploring, head to Napa Valley next, where you’ll get to indulge in even more wine tasting while also getting to explore its charming downtown area. 

Make sure you also pay Calistoga a visit, a small, laid-back town that is also the capital of spas and hot springs in the area, making it a perfect destination to do some serious relaxing.

Next on the itinerary is the Russian River area, which boasts a ton of small towns and villages worth making a stop at, including Windsor, Forestville, Guerneville, and Healdsburg, a charming wine country town. 

You can explore them in a day, but we recommend staying at least a night in one of them in order to fully explore them as well as their natural surroundings!

3. Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Steam escaping to the surface in Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Start Point: Redding
  • End Point: Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Distance: 50 miles

Driving route: Redding -> Lassen

Highway 44 Road Trip Highlights

Even though this is a pretty short drive at just 50 miles, this may just be one of the most interesting California road trips out there, especially if hidden gems are your jam.

On the way from Redding to the entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park, you’ll be treated to views of farms and ranches (you may get to spot goats and llamas grazing!), all with stunning views of Mount Shasta overlooking the scenery.

If you have time, explore Shasta Lake and tour the Lake Shasta Caverns National Natural Landmark.

Once you get to Lassen, you’ll be in for a real treat. This national park still remains a bit of a secret, making it a perfect go-to for quiet experiences. 

Not only is this one of the few places in the world where all four types of volcanoes can be found, but it’s also a mecca for sulfur vents, bubbling mud pots, gorgeous volcanic lakes, and hot springs.

4. Gold Chain Highway (Highway 49)

Yosemite National Park is one of the best places to visit in California
  • Start Point: Oakhurst
  • End Point: Auburn
  • Distance: 288 miles

Driving route: Oakhurst -> Yosemite -> Sonora -> Columbia -> Jackson -> Sutter Creek -> Sacramento -> Placerville -> Coloma -> Columbia -> Auburn

Highway 49 Road Trip Highlights

The best way to describe this California road trip would be as a trip back in time to the Gold Rush Era. 

Featuring countless mining towns reminiscent of the 1850s, stunning panoramic vistas of the Sierra Nevada foothills, and plenty of history dotted all over, the Gold Chain Highway or Highway 49 provides a perfect mix of nature with a massive dose of history.

Also dubbed the Gold Rush Trail, this road trip pretty much tells the story of when eager Americans rushed to the west in the hope to pan some gold. 

Today, the road is dotted by ghost towns, historical museums, and a few natural destinations worth checking out in between history lessons!

Starting in Oakhurst, plan at least one day to spend inside Yosemite National Park before moving on. 

As you start heading north, you’ll find plenty of mining towns along the way ready to be explored, some of which are now bustling cities while others are considered ghost towns. 

A few must-see stops include Sonora, Columbia, Jackson, Sutter Creek, Placerville, Coloma, and Auburn, all of which have their own charm.

Also, after Sutter creek, you might want to take Highway 16 to enjoy a day trip in Sacramento before continuing to Placerville.

In between these pit stops, you’ll get to enjoy the peace and calm of California’s farm country as you drive!

5. Rim of the World Scenic Byway (State Highway 18)

Awesome view from the top of Big Bear Lake in California
  • Start Point: Los Angeles
  • End Point: San Bernardino
  • Distance: 150 miles

Driving route: Los Angeles -> Big Bear -> Arrowhead Lake -> San Bernardino

State Highway 18 Road Trip Highlights

When you think of SoCal, the first things that come to mind are probably palm trees, sandy beaches, and sunbathing. 

If you drive not too far from the beach and surf of Southern California, a completely different landscape emerges, where looming mountains and lakes take over.

Named after its spectacular views, the Rim of the World Scenic Byway is one of the best road trips in California to take in order to explore what’s known as the Inland Empire. 

Not only will this byway give you the chance to catch stunning mountain views every mile of the way, but it will also give you access to two of California’s prettiest lakes.

When driving from LA towards Bear Lake, make a stop at the Keller Peak Fire Lookout, which once served as California’s first line of defense against fires and provides fabulous views of the San Bernardino Valley.

Next on the itinerary is Bear Lake, a year-round mountain lake escape nestled right in the heart of the San Bernardino National Forest. 

Hiking here is a dream, and fun water sports are king during the summer months while tons of fun-in-the-snow activities take over during the colder months.

As you loop your way to Los Angeles from Bear Lake, you’ll get to enjoy the views of the valley the entire way back while also getting the chance to stop at Lake Arrowhead, where you can hike or swim in its shimmering waters.

6. Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks Road Trip

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is one of the best places to visit in California
  • Start Point: Fresno
  • End Point: Fresno
  • Distance: 369 miles

Driving route: Fresno -> Yosemite -> Oakhurst -> Kings Canyon -> Sequoia -> Fresno

National Parks Road Trip Highlights

Keen to see three of California’s best national parks in one go? If so, this is one of the best California road trips to take, especially if nature goodness galore and enchanting forests are what you’re after.

This road trip can be done in three days, but you can feel free to extend it depending on how much time you have available and how long you want to stay at each park.

The road trip starts in Fresno, with your first stop being Yosemite National Park, which is probably Cali’s most beloved park. Even though there’s plenty to do here, we recommend making Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, Wawona Pioneer Village, Glacier Point, Tunnel View, and Yosemite Valley your priorities. 

Stop at Oakhurst to recharge energies and savor the delicious local cuisine before continuing your California road trip.

King’s Canyon National Park is the next stop. During your visit, make sure you don’t miss out on seeing the General Grant Tree, Boyden Cavern, Roaring River Falls, Zumwalt Meadow, and Road’s End.

From Kings Canyon National Park, drive the scenic Generals Highway through the Giant Sequoia National Monument to Sequoia National Park.

This striking park is home to the largest tree in the world by volume, which you can drive through or plan for a day spent hiking under their shade. 

Suggested stops in this park include the Giant Forest Museum, Moro Rock, General Sherman Tree (the largest single-stemmed tree in the world), and Tunnel Log.

7. The Desert Drive in Southern California (San Diego to Joshua Tree)

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best California destinations
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best California destinations
  • Start Point: San Diego
  • End Point: Joshua Tree National Park
  • Distance: 300 miles

Driving route: San Diego -> Anza Borrego -> Salton Sea -> Slab City -> Palm Springs -> Joshua Tree National Park

Desert Drive Road Trip Highlights

A road trip from beautiful San Diego to Joshua Tree is a pretty unique experience that mixes city views, mountainous terrain, and striking desert landscapes. Even though it’s 240 miles long, you’ll find tons of curious things to see along the way.

After exploring Balboa Park and La Jolla Beaches, prepare to hit the road!

Leaving San Diego and its seaside bustle, you’ll find yourself on the way to encountering a variety of landscapes, ranging from desert goodness to mountain ranges. 

A must-do stop along the way is Anza Borrego Desert State Park, which boasts miles worth of scenic roads and hiking trails as well as quirky metal sculptures depicting mythological creatures, insects, prehistoric beasts, and more!

Next is Salton Sea, where you’ll get yet another dose of weird. Here, you’ll find a dried-up freshwater lake that serves as an “exploration point” to find abandoned furniture, vintage utensils, and all sorts of whacky items!

From Salton Sea, head to Salvation Mountain, a semi-permanent artist community in Slab City that is an attraction in itself. The “mountain” was built from adobe and hay bales and depicts colorful painted messages and murals all over.

Next, Palm Springs. If you want a relaxing vacation, then Palm Springs is one of the best California road trip stops. That’s because Palm Springs has plenty of incredible museums, boutique stores, restaurants, and resorts for you to enjoy.

Finally, you’ll arrive at Joshua Tree National Park, where you’ll be in for a real treat when it comes to desert magic. 

Here, you’ll find landscapes as dramatic as they can get, see striking rock formations, and of course, get to see groves of Joshua trees all over. 

Camping, scenic driving, climbing, and hiking in Joshua Tree are just a few of the activities on the park’s menu!

8. South Coast (Los Angeles to San Diego)

Aerial view of Laguna Beach in California
  • Start Point: Los Angeles
  • End Point: San Diego
  • Distance: 120 miles

Driving route: Los Angeles -> Huntington Beach -> Newport -> Crystal Cove State Park -> Laguna Beach -> Dana Point -> San Diego

LA to San Diego Road Trip Highlights

As one of the most quintessential road trips in California, this drive will take you all the way from Los Angeles to San Diego through the coast, which pretty much guarantees striking vistas and beautiful beaches mile after mile as well as tons of stops worth making along the way.

The drive begins in Huntington Beach, a laid-back California surf town where you can relax before moving on to Swanky Newport Beach. 

Next on the itinerary is Crystal Cove State Park, where you’ll find untouched beaches galore as well as dramatic cliff views and tons of hiking trails. 

To end the road trip in Southern California, spend a few days exploring Laguna Beach, which provides a perfect mix of hippie vibes, amazing architecture, lavish resorts, and a killer food scene and nightlife.

9. California’s Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)

Big Sur and Hearst Castle is one of the best places to visit in California
Bixby Bridge (Rocky Creek Bridge), Big Sur in California
  • Start Point: San Francisco
  • End Point: Malibu
  • Distance: 480 miles

Driving route: San Francisco -> San Jose -> Half Moon Bay -> Santa Cruz -> Monterey -> Carmel -> Big Sur -> San Simeon -> Solvang -> Santa Barbara -> Malibu

Highway 1 Road Trip Highlights

When it comes to spectacular California road trips, it’s pretty hard to beat Highway 1, also known as Pacific Coast Highway. 

Boasting mile after mile of stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and a seemingly endless array of stops to make along the way, driving this incredibly California road trip is guaranteed to provide some of the best experiences the entire state has to offer.

With so many amazing stops worth making along the route, it’d be impossible to name them all in one go, but we’ll list a few of our favorites you absolutely need to map out. 

First, visit the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Glass Beach, and Alcatraz in bustling San Francisco, which you can cross off right from the start of your coastal road trip. 

Next, there’s San Jose, a city in central California that has a little bit of everything ranging from historical sites to modern-day era tech. Half Moon Bay is also a stop worth making in order to enjoy its small seaside town vibes and nature.

Santa Cruz is another non-negotiable. While visiting, you’ll feel as though you’ve traveled back in time to America in the 70s. Still, a visit to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a must!

Further along, you’ll find Monterey, where you can learn all about the area’s underwater world by visiting its aquarium and various museums.

For all sorts of fairytale scenery, head to Carmel-by-the-Sea next, where you’ll be treated to cobblestone streets lined by storybook-like cottages. 

Carmel actually marks the starting point of one of the most beautiful areas of this California road trip: Big Sur. 

Since we already talked about Big Sur, we will skip this part of the journey to not get repetitive. Either way, you’ll be in for a real treat when it comes to nature and rugged coastal scenery!

After marveling your way through Big Sur, check out the magical Hearst Castle, explore the charming Morro Bay and Pismo Beach on the central coast, watch seals playing around in San Seamon, and visit the Danish-style town of Solvang (make sure you try a few of its Denmark-inspired treats!). 

Finish off your road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway with a bang at ritzy Santa Barbara or picturesque Malibu, both of which provide access to some of the most beautiful beaches in southern California!

10. San Francisco to Crescent City (Highway 101)

Redwood National park is one of the best places to visit in California
  • Start Point: San Francisco
  • End Point: Crescent City
  • Distance: 475 miles

Driving route: San Francisco -> Sonoma County -> Healdsburg -> Willits -> Eureka -> Redwood National Park -> Crescent City

Highway 101 Road Trip Highlights

Driving from San Francisco to Crescent City is a delight because it combines California’s coast side beauty, its striking natural goodness, and some serious wine tasting – a pretty perfect combo if you ask us!

Begin in San Francisco and head to Sonoma wine country, where you’ll find vineyards and wineries galore. Not too far away is also Healdsburg and the Russian River area, where you can explore quaint small towns and indulge in even more wine-tasting.

After you’ve gotten your dose of wine country, head to Willits in Mendocino City, which is touted as the getaway to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which offers one of the best opportunities to see redwood forests by car in the North Coast region.

Next, get to the port city of Eureka, where you’ll find a mix of culture, art, and nature.

From Eureka, make your way to Redwood National Park, where you’ll get to explore over 130,000 acres of forest while hiking and driving under cirques of redwoods, the tallest trees in the world!

Finally, you’ll arrive at Crescent City in Northern California, which lies right where the Pacific Ocean and redwood forests meet. 

Here, you can indulge in a variety of activities to wrap the road trip up, including relaxing by the beach, hiking a few trails, learning about the city’s rich history, finding local art, and enjoying the city’s bustling food scene!

11. Route 66

Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave Desert, is one of the best road trips in California
  • Starting Point: Needles
  • End Point: Santa Monica
  • Distance: 306 miles

Driving route: Needles -> Mojave National Preserve -> Oro Grande -> San Bernardino -> San Gabriel Valley -> Pasadena -> Los Angeles -> Santa Monica

Route 66 Road Trip Highlights

Road tripping Route 66 is one of the most incredible driving adventures in the entire world. This route runs through eight different states in the United States from east to west, with California being one of them!

We won’t describe the entire route through the US, but instead, we’ll focus on the California section of it, which will have you driving through the alluring Mojave Desert, over mountains and lush valleys, and into the beautiful Santa Monica beaches. 

The entire Route 66 is dotted by quirky vintage signs, several ghost towns, all sorts of desert goodness, and attractions as whacky as they can get, including the Original McDonald’s Museum!

12. The Eastern Sierras (Highway 395 with detours) – one of the best road trips in California!

Mammoth Lakes is one of the best places to visit in California
  • Start Point: Carson City
  • End Point: Los Angeles
  • Distance: 660 miles

Driving route: Carson City and Lake Tahoe -> Bridgeport -> Lee Vining -> Mono Lake -> Bishop -> Mammoth Lakes -> Lone Pine -> Death Valley National Park -> Los Angeles

Highway 395 Road Trip Highlights

Running along the Eastern Sierras, Highway 395 is one of the best California road trips for all things mountain goodness, quirky geological features, and insanely scenic lookouts.

Start in Carson City, but be sure to head over South Lake Tahoe, especially if you’re driving in the autumn. This area comes alive with mesmerizing fall foliage.

The second stop you must make along the road trip is Bridgeport via the Tioga pass to get on Highway 395. 

Highway 395 is the primary road that runs from north to south in eastern California, just like Highway 1 does along the coast.

Here, you’ll find plenty of hot springs and wonderful hotels where you can get a good night’s rest in order to prepare for the adventure ahead.

This stretch of the trip from Bridgeport to Lee Vining is only 25 miles long, but you’ll be amazed at how much it has to offer, including the chance to explore Mono Lake, a saline soda lake that looks straight from another planet!

Afterward, head south to discover a ghost town and the exquisite June Lake Loop, a shorter scenic drive that leads visitors to some of the most beautiful lakes in the area. 

Next on the itinerary is Bishop, where you can take short detours in order to fully take in all the beautiful spots in the area. 

Start with Mammoth Scenic Loop, a beautiful winding road that traverses pine forests before arriving at the town of Mammoth Lakes. 

From here, you can take a short trail to Devil’s Postpile National Monument, a pile of basalt columns formed 100,000 years ago by volcanic forces.

For even more whacky geology, head to the Hot Creek Geologic Site, a spot where steaming hot waters and geysers emerge from the ground. Convict Lake is close by, where you can relax before ending the day.

As you head south to Los Angeles, Orange County, make sure you make a stop at Lone Pine, which is renowned for being the getaway to the John Muir Wildnerness Area and Mount Whitney.

Next on the itinerary is Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park, where you’ll find some incredible sights, like Badwater Basin and Dante’s View.

After Death Valley, start making your way to Los Angeles through Tecopa. This stretch of the road has a few hot springs you will love.

California Road Trip Ideas

We hope you enjoyed this California road trips list which incorporates big cities in Southern California and Northern California (San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), the whole Pacific Coast Highway, some coastal towns along the West Coast Highway 1 (Laguna Beach, Malibu, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Monterey/Carmel, Santa Cruz, and more), a bit of wine country, and all the epic and drool-worthy California State + National Parks as well (Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, and more).

These road trips are hands-down among the most beautiful ones in North America, let alone in the world.

Still, some places you might consider adding to your road trip itinerary are Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, San Luis Obispo, Channel Islands National Park, Emerald Bay State Park, Mendocino Headlands State Park, and Venice Beach.

Have you ever road-tripped through the Golden State? Or did you drive a different California road trip itinerary that you loved? If so, share it in the comments. We’d love to know all about your adventure!

Pssst! Be sure to share these road trips in California on your social channels!