The 12 Best California Road Trips (and Where to Stay for the Greatest Escape)

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Want a magical vacay that’s just as flexible as it is dependably enjoyable? Hit the road, West-Coast style, for one of the 12 best California road trips from the Northern California’s misty vistas to the wildflower profusion of Southern California. You’ll get up close and personal with the places, both big cities and small towns, that make the Golden State so unique and get ideas for what type of person each drive appeals to. And overall, find out the most inspiring views from the coastal overlooks to the valley vistas and upland peaks. Think of this as the map your stylish Cali friend drew out for you on the back of a napkin, before you speed off into the sunset. Note: We’ve allotted as few as 50 miles a day so that you can fit in all the activities along the route.

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Montage Laguna Beach

1. Palm Springs to Laguna Beach, via Palomar Mountain

  • Suggested itinerary: 164 miles, 4 days; Stops in Palm Springs, Temecula and Laguna Beach
  • Best for: World-class views collectors
  • Where to stay: L'Horizon Resort & Spa, Palm Springs (Doubles from $380); Villa Inn & Spa, Temecula (doubles from $215); Montage Laguna Beach (doubles from $986)

Want the best of California views in one trip? Peep stretches of dusty desert and spend the day in Palm Springs, then head down to San Diego county on I-15 to Mount Palomar, where you can drive by the iconic Palomar Observatory, home of what was for decades the world’s largest telescope and now owned by Caltech. Hike through Palomar Mountain State Park, hen head west to join the coast at the San Diego coastal community of Oceanside, and take I-5 up to your ultimate destination, Laguna Beach. For possibly the best poolside view in all of California, stay at the Montage Laguna Beach, the luxury spa resort that doesn’t just rest on its sea-view rooms, but innovates with everything from mermaid swimming lessons in the pool to the sunset-view pop-up Thai restaurant Talay (the lobster-fried rice is a must).

Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

2. Highway 10 from Los Angeles to Palm Springs

You’re heading into the Mojave Desert, where a bipolar experience is waiting for you. There’s the rugged beauty of Joshua Tree National Park--full of giant boulders and the scrappy, spectral trees that give the place its name (according to an apocryphal legend, westward settlers thought the tree boughs looked like biblical Joshua’s upstretched arms). After a day of desert exploration, you’ll want to retire to nearby Palm Springs, where luxury resorts, spa treatments and artisanal cocktails round it all out. Then on day two, you’ll set out Pioneertown, a former desert filming backdrop that’s been re-settled of late by arty types.

Wigwam Motel

3. Route 66 from Needles to Santa Monica

  • Suggested Itinerary: 279 miles, 3 days; Stops in Needles, Joshua Tree, Santa Monica
  • Best for: Fans of kitsch
  • Where to Stay: Wigwam Motel, San Bernadino (Doubles from $124); Desert Getaway House (Sleeps 6, $203); Shore Hotel, Santa Monica (Doubles from $399)

The bygone glory days of jumping in a car and going on a family road trip are in evidence along Route 66, the 2,448-mile long highway known as “the Mother Road” in the days before the interstate system started everyone zooming past tourist attractions. The thrill of it in California is that this one route displays the wide range of topography of the Golden State. Start in Needles, immortalized in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as part of the trail of migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl. Cross the river one way and you’re in Arizona, the other way and you’re headed west toward the ocean. Head through Amboy, a former mining camp town that’s been abandoned except for a small café and the business advertised by the iconic Roy’s Motel neon sign. If it’s a windy day, take a half-hour detour to the Kelso Dunes, where the shifting sand dunes make a sound called “singing” (it’s more of a full-body vibration). Head onward to 29 Palms, a desert oasis that’s five minutes from the Joshua Tree National Park, so worth a drive through the otherworldly spiky trees. You’ll head through Barstow, immortalized by Hunter S. Thompson’s best road trip every memoir Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”). Overnight in San Bernadino at the Wigwam Inn—you’ll be sleeping in a concrete cone built in 1949—then proceed on to drive straight to Santa Monica, where Route 66 ends in a stretch of pale sandy beach.

Taylor Reilly / Getty Images

4. Highway 395 / Eastern Sierras

  • Suggested Itinerary: 233 miles, 4 days; Stops in Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, Bishop, Mammoth Lakes
  • Best For: Nature lovers
  • Where to Stay: Creekside Inn, Bishop (doubles from $150); Lake View Lodge, Mono Lake (doubles from $154) Mammoth Mountain Inn, Mammoth Lakes (doubles from $220)

Start at Lone Pine, a high desert town whose claim to fame is that the highest mountain in the lower 48 (Mount Whitney) and lowest point (Death Valley), are both within one hour’s drive. You’ll be heading north from Lone Pine toward Lake Tahoe, tracing the backbone of the mountain range. Go hiking in the Alabama Hills, the boulder-rich landscape where movies like Django Unchained and Gladiator were filmed. Stop off at Bishop, where Wild Willy’s Hot Springs lets you soak in hot mineral springs before getting back behind the wheel. See Mono Lake with its mud-drip formations then take in the ski resort around Mammoth Mountain.

f11photo/Getty Images

5. Route 101 / Interstate 5 South

If sandy beaches and five-star resorts are your happy place, try this. You’ll hit them both if you start in Santa Barbara (where you can breakfast overlooking the Pacific at the Four Seasons) and then follow the 101 south to Los Angeles for lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s legendary Polo Lounge. Then take the 5 down to San Diego, and spend the night on Coronado Island in the massive Queen Anne-style Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888. You’ll be building sand castles where presidents held state dinners and Marilyn Monroe filmed Some Like It Hot.

Michael Marfell/Getty Images

6. Interstate 80 / San Francisco to Lake Tahoe via Sacramento

  • Suggested Itinerary: 217 miles, 3 days; Stops in San Francisco, Sacramento, South Lake Tahoe
  • Best For: Family fun
  • Where to Stay: Larkspur Landing, Sacramento (Doubles from $197), Dog-friendly cabin, Arnold (Sleeps 10, $247); Basecamp, South Lake Tahoe (Doubles from $229)

You can hike in the Berkeley Hills on your way out of San Francisco, walk along the shoreline at Point Pinole, visit the Sacramento Zoo and more before you’re even halfway to Lake Tahoe, the wide-open icy lake that straddles California and Nevada. Stop along the way for a family photo at the Emigrant Gap Overlook, where the first European settlers had to lower their wagons on ropes since it’s so steep. Finally, arrive at South Lake Tahoe, where you can stand-up paddleboard and kayak in summers, and schuss down slopes in winter. (And enjoy sitting in hot tubs under the stars pretty much any season.)

Charles O'Rear/Getty Images

7. Route 128 / Navarro to Winters

  • Suggest Itinerary: 120 miles, 4 days; Stops in St. Helena, Calistoga, Boonville
  • Great for: Wine lovers
  • Where to Stay: Hotel Frederick, Boonville (Doubles from $115) Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa (Doubles from $175); Vineyard Country Inn, St. Helena (Doubles from $395)

You’ll be exploring Napa and Sonoma counties, including the wineries and four-star restaurants of the little towns dotting the way. St. Helena spas and lodging, the mud baths of Calistoga—these are among the relaxations you’ll enjoy. Then you’ll hit Menecino County, where it’s all about sumptuous food production from the bounty of the land, from breweries to goat and sheep cheese in Boonville.

san isra / Getty Images

8. Interstate 5 and Route 36 / Sacramento to Lassen Volcanic National Park

You’re headed out of the state’s legislative capital into California history—pre-history, that is—with a drive into the protected area surrounding Lassen Peak, the 10,457-foot tall cinder cone that’s the largest volcano of its kind in the world. Bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles are among the attractions you’ll see demonstrating the geothermal activity still pulsing underground. This mini-Yellowstone is a much less-touristed attraction than its more well-known Cali cousin, so this is the ideal late summer early fall destination.

Xavier Cuatro Martinez / EyeEm/Getty Images

9. Highway 1 From Monterey to Morro Bay

Love the idea of rugged cliffs with a crashing ocean down below? Take the 175-mile journey from Monterey to Morro Bay—stopping in Big Sur, of course, and hiking down to the 80-foot McWay Falls. Then, refuel over a famous Ambrosia Burger and glass of California red at Nepenthe (on the patio, overlooking the Pacific).

Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

10. Route 101 From San Francisco to Eureka

This north-south superhighway runs all the way from Los Angeles to Washington State, but the jewel of it goes right over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and runs north through the historic fishing village of Sausalito (seafood!) and through the iconic Redwood National Park, where more than 200 miles of trails wind through protected land. You’ll be ending in Eureka, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland. Make time to explore surrounding Humboldt County, known for its cash crops of cheese (famed Humboldt Fog goat cheese) and kush (remember medical marijuana is legal here). Whichever works for you.

Johnrandallalves/Getty Images

11. Highway 49

This north-south superhighway runs all the way from Los Angeles to Washington State, but the jewel of it goes right over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and runs north through the historic fishing village of Sausalito (seafood!) and through the iconic Redwood National Park, where more than 200 miles of trails wind through protected land. You’ll be ending in Eureka, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland. Make time to explore surrounding Humboldt County, known for its cash crops of cheese (famed Humboldt Fog goat cheese) and kush (remember medical marijuana is legal here). Whichever works for you.

Gomez David Getty Images

12. San Francisco to Big Sur via Santa Cruz

You’re exploring the coast up close and personal with this drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, starting south from San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge is just the first of impressive expanses that you’ll pass as you head south on the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Cruz, the college town that’s known for its surfing. Grab a picnic lunch to enjoy at the cliffside area in Pleasure Point perched over the surf break called The Hook, where steep waves attract top wave riders. Then head toward Big Sur, including a drive over the famous Bixby Bridge (an audio tour is recommended), made famous most lately for its appearance in the opening credits of Big Little Lies. (And if you’re lucky, you’ll see a California Condor circling overhead.)

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Dana Dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...
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