Best Road Trips in the US: California
This travel guide to 13 must-see stops will help you get the most out of the Golden State’s diverse culture and geography.
Whether walking on powdery white sand beaches, hiking in a scenic national park or enjoying some of the best wine in the world, California offers some of the best road trips in the USA.Here are some travel destinations to keep in mind as we chart a course through the third-largest state by area.
A good place to begin your California road trip is in San Francisco, the Golden Gate City. This Northern California metroplex is known for its hilly terrain, winding roads and gorgeous architecture. Walk or bike across the famous 1.2-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge, which opened in 1937. Another renowned landmark worth a visit is the “Painted Ladies,” a row of brightly colored Victorian houses on the edge of Alamo Square Park on Steiner Street. These houses have been featured in several movies and television shows.
Next, take a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf on the scenic waterfront for some delicious seafood and sourdough bread. From there, head down to Pier 33 to board a ferry to Alcatraz Island, the site of a famous prison that housed notorious mobster Al Capone.
From San Francisco, head south on Highway 1 for 70 miles to Santa Cruz. This gorgeous route has plenty of scenery as you head toward the charming beach town nicknamed Surf City. If traveling between April and November, stop by Año Nuevo State Park to view one of the largest mainland colonies of northern elephant seals.
Keep heading south on Highway 1 to the 65-acre Natural Bridges State Beach to see the beautiful bridge-shaped rock formation and tide pools filled with sea stars, crabs, sea anemones and other ocean life. For a change of pace, visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for some old-fashioned fun.
From Santa Cruz, travel 43 miles south via the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to Monterey County. Monterey County is known for its stunning cliffside scenery and charming small towns, including Carmel-by-the-Sea.
The one-square-mile town features world-class art galleries, a Michelin-starred restaurant and more than a dozen wine-tasting rooms. Carmel-by-the-Sea is also known for its long white sandy beach dotted with cypress trees and the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has more than 81,000 animals and plants representing 771 species.
From Monterey County, head south on the PCH for 81 miles to Big Sur. Cross the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, which towers 260 feet above Bixby Creek. Stop by the south end of the bridge at sunset to take in some breathtaking views. Nearby Andrew Molera State Park has secluded beaches, redwood groves and 15 miles of hiking trails.
Though it’s off the beaten path, Pfeiffer Beach—which features purple sand beaches and a picturesque keyhole arch—is worth a visit. Big Sur is also home to the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which functions as a non-profit arts center, performance venue and bookstore.
McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is an 80-foot-tall waterfall that empties into a pristine beach and turquoise waters. Our final stop in Big Sur is crescent-shaped Sand Dollar Beach, which often washes up the shells of sand dollars.
From Big Sur, head 165 miles south along the coast to Santa Barbara, which is located between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. Santa Barbara was founded by Spanish explorers in 1772, and much of the original Spanish influence still exists. For a stunning bird’s eye view of the area, visit La Cumbre Peak in Los Padres National Park. This 4,000-foot-high summit gives you a 360-degree view of Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands and the beautiful Santa Ynez mountain range.
Visit the iconic Old Mission Santa Barbara, a nine-room museum of historical artwork and artifacts. Next stop is the 2,300-foot-long Stearns Wharf next to the Santa Barbara Harbor. It’s the oldest working wooden wharf in California. Nearby Santa Barbara Harbor is perfect for water sports enthusiasts.
Now make your way 90 miles south to Santa Monica, a coastal city just west of Los Angeles. Head to the famous Santa Monica Pier, which offers incredible sunset views and entertainment for all ages such as an amusement park and street performers. Next to the pier is Santa Monica State Beach which features volleyball courts, bike paths and the most famous outdoor gym in the world, the original Muscle Beach, built in the 1930s. For some indoor fun, check out the Cayton Children’s Museum. Our final stop in Santa Monica is Bergamot Station Arts Center on Michigan Avenue.
Next, head 16 miles east to Los Angeles, nicknamed the City of Angels. The largest city in California and the second largest city in America includes notable neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Long Beach, Venice, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. The first stop is the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with over 2,700 terrazzo and brass stars lining the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. The iconic Capital Records building on Hollywood Boulevard is also worth a stop. For a bit of macabre history, head to the Hollywood Forever cemetery and visit the gravesites of many Hollywood icons. At the Paramount Pictures lot, see where they filmed famous television shows. Our next stop is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which houses over 150,000 works of art.
The 4,210-acre Griffith Park on the north side of Los Angeles has hiking trails, a golf course, tennis courts and other attractions. The Los Angeles Zoo is on the south edge of the park. Gaze into the heavens using free public telescopes at the Griffith Observatory, which offer spectacular views of the city and the iconic Hollywood sign.
From L.A., take the PCH south for 70 miles toward Laguna Beach. Just beyond Dana Point, you’ll catch Highway 5 toward San Diego. This 126-mile oceanside drive offers views of some of the most beautiful beaches in California. On the way, stop at the 128-acre LEGOLAND California park in Carlsbad.
North of San Diego, you can hike along the high oceanside cliffs at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Just south of Torrey Pines, Ellen Browning Scripps Park is considered the most photographed spot in San Diego. Closer in town you’ll find Mission Beach, a nearly three-mile stretch of oceanfront boardwalk.
Joshua Tree National Park
From San Diego, head north 150 miles to Joshua Tree National Park. Best known for its iconic flora, the park includes 790,000 acres of arid oasis with beautiful vistas and is where two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together. Dozens of trails are available for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Its stony terrain makes it one of America’s most popular rockclimbing destinations. Other activities include camping and bird watching. For a short but scenic hike, check out the one-mile Hidden Valley Nature Trailhead and take in the views of the rock-enclosed valley.
When planning your visit, keep in mind the park gets extremely hot from June to September, when temperatures are typically near 100 degrees. A good time to visit the park when it’s less hot is October to May. But even during these times, be sure to pack plenty of water. The park’s 10 summer hiking essentials list includes other useful tips on what to bring.
Our next drive is the longest. It’s 474 miles from Joshua Tree National Park to Lake Tahoe, a freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada on the border of California and Nevada. When you arrive, you will be surrounded by the bright blue waters, clean mountain air and epic scenery. Known as “Lake of the Sky” due to its altitude of 6,224 feet, Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide with 72 miles of beautiful shoreline that are perfect for boating, fishing and hiking during the summer, and skiing, snowboarding and sledding in the winter.
From Lake Tahoe, it’s a two-hour drive to California’s capital city of Sacramento. Known for being the hub of the 19th-century California gold rush, Sacramento experienced a population boom in 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill just outside of the city. Today, you can visit the site of the gold discovery at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park to learn some gold rush history or try your hand at panning for gold yourself.
The California State Railway Museum features several restored train locomotives, history lessons on how trains helped in the Western U.S. expansion and other rotating exhibits. The State of California Capitol Museum has exhibits of historic rooms of the capitol building and portraits of the state’s former governors. Nearby Capitol Park houses memorials and other Californian artifacts.
Redwood National Park
From Sacramento, head 328 miles north to the 38,000-acre Redwood National and State Parks, home to the tallest trees in the world. The park is designated a World Heritage Site because of the forests and abundance of marine and land animals. You might glimpse California sea lions on the redwood coast, bald eagles nesting in the trees, Roosevelt elk in grassy fields and giant green sea anemones in tide pools around False Klamath Cove.
You can hike through the park’s 170-mile trail system, camp at one of the developed or backcountry sites, or participate in one of the ranger-led programs to learn about the ecosystems and wildlife of this national park. Visit one of the five visitor centers for program schedules and other details.
For our final stop, head to Napa Valley in California’s wine country, 300 miles from Redwood National Park. The town of Calistoga, which has more than 50 wineries, is the furthest north stop in Napa Valley and is known for its relaxed and outdoorsy vibe. The Chateau Montelena winery in Calistoga was featured in the film Bottle Shock. The next stop is St. Helena, home to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Yountville is known for its Michelin-star restaurants.
In downtown Napa, the largest town in Napa Valley, a good place to start is First Street to explore restaurants, hip wine-tasting rooms, stylish boutiques and distinctive works of public art. There are more than 100 wineries in Napa. Check out the Napa Valley Wine Train, which offers a variety of tours to guide you through California’s wine country.
AAA Saves You Time & Money on the Best Road Trips in the USA
If you’re looking to experience everything the great state of California has to offer, make sure to use your AAA Membership to save money. AAA partners with hundreds of hotels, car rental agencies and restaurants to give you the best deals, so your biggest concern will be which beach to visit instead of worrying about your budget. Work with one of our travel advisors to take the headache out of travel and keep more money in your pocket.