California has the most diverse geography in the United States. Bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sierra Nevada mountain range to much of the east, the state is an explorer’s playground.
Whether you’re a dedicated urbanite or a backcountry adventurer, you’ll find plenty of things to do in California and sights to satisfy your eye holes.
Though a healthy mixture of both – the urban and the backcountry – is the best way to truly immerse yourself in everything this incredible state has to offer.
San Francisco to Los Angeles Road Trip (6 nights, 7 days)
For our one-week road trip, we’re assuming you’ll spend as much time as you want in San Francisco before you head out and as much time as you want in Los Angeles when you get in.
This is just the drive between the two and Central California road trip stops.
Day One – San Francisco to Yosemite National Park
The Drive: Drive east (yes, east!) out of San Francisco on Interstate-80 to I-580 to I-205 to CA-120 straight into Yosemite National Park.
Drive Time: Approx. 3 hours (+ traffic)
The drive will take half the day (more if you choose to stay in nearby Mammoth Lakes) but you should arrive in time for some exploring.
Alternatively, you might want to dip south to San Jose to see the Winchester Mystery House before you head off to Yosemite. But expect it to add at least an hour to the drive.
Stay in Yosemite Valley or Mammoth Lakes.
Day Two – Yosemite National Park
The Drive: Explore Yosemite National Park. There will be plenty of places you’ll want to get out and look around.
Take a hike. Take a picture. But there is loads to see from the comfort of your vehicle.
Drive Time: All day with stops
Suggested Places to See Around Yosemite
- Mono Lake
- Devil’s Postpile National Monument
- Rainbow Falls
Stay in Yosemite Valley.
Day Three – Yosemite National Park to Monterey / Carmel-by-the-Sea
The Drive: Drive west out of Yosemite Valley on CA-140 to Merced (your best chance for fueling up on caffeine and snacks).
Then, take CA-59 south to CA-152 West to CA-156 West, which finally merges onto CA-1 (Pacific Coast Highway). Exit to Monterey or Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Drive Time: Just over 4 hours
This leaves you some time to explore both coastal towns when you get in.
If you want to stick to your car, 17-Mile Drive is a paid drive around the Monterey Coast.
There are some sights to see on it (and you can recoup your entrance fee if you eat at a resort restaurant, but tomorrow you’ll be getting similar (often better) views free of charge.
Suggested Places to See in Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea
- Cannery Row
- Carmel Mission
- Downtown Carmel
- Take a whale watching tour
Stay in Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Day Four – Monterey or Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Simeon
The Drive: Drive south on CA-1 (Pacific Coast Highway).
Drive Time: All day with stops
Before you leave Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea, stock up on drinks, snacks and sacked lunches. Or research the restaurants along the way before you go.
Because once you leave Carmel-by-the-Sea, you’ll be headed straight into Big Sur.
There are a lot of things to see and linger over in the Big Sur area (hikes you could take, lookouts you could stop and eat lunch by), but there aren’t a lot of amenities and the road itself demands you slow down and take your time.
It’s also important to note that many roads in the surrounding forests are impassable for all but four-wheel drives, even in good weather. So, if you’re driving anything else, stick to the main road.
Suggested Places to See Along Big Sur State Park
- Bixby Creek Bridge and Rocky Creek Bridge (you’ll drive over them, but might want to stop for a look)
- Sea Otter Refuge View Point
- Partington Cove
- McWay Falls
- Limekiln State Park / Limekiln Falls
- Salmon Creek Falls
Stay near San Simeon.
Day Five – San Simeon to San Luis Obispo
The Drive: Drive north on CA-1 (Pacific Coast Highway) to the Piedras Blancas Light Station and Elephant Seal Vista Point.
Then, south on CA-1 to Hearst Castle and into San Luis Obispo.
Drive Time: <2 hours actual drive time
Piedras Blancas Light Station and Elephant Seal Vista Point are slightly north of San Simeon, but if you like lighthouses and seals, it’s worth the minor backtracking up the coast. The elephant seals are plentiful at the vista point from fall through spring.
San Simeon is the gateway to Hearst Castle, worth seeing if you’re into ridiculously opulent houses and displays of wealth.
Still, you’ll land pretty early in San Luis Obispo, a laid-back little city with a funky vibe and a stellar local music scene.
Suggested Places to See Between San Simeon and San Luis Obispo
- Hearst Castle
- Morro Bay
- San Luis Obispo art galleries
Stay in San Luis Obispo.
Day Six – San Luis Obispo to Solvang to Santa Barbara
The Drive: Drive south on CA-101 to Solvang.
Then, you have two options. You can drive south on CA-154 past Cachuma Lake into Santa Barbara. Or catch the 101 again and do a little more cruising along the coast.
Since it’s much the same coast you’ll see from Santa Barbara, we recommend the inland route past Cachuma Lake.
Drive Time: Approx. 1 hour to Solvang
Approx. 40 minutes to 1 hour to Santa Barbara, depending on your route
On your way out of San Luis Obispo, we recommend stopping off at Pismo Beach, the major beach in the area and a hotspot for surfers.
Solvang is a Danish community with European-style buildings to match. They boast wineries, great craft beer, and Danish pastries (legit Danishes!)
Suggested Places to See Between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara
- Pismo Beach
- Dinosaur Caves Park (if you’re road tripping with kids)
- Ostrichland USA (right outside of Solvang, if you dig ostriches)
- Cachuma Lake
- Stearns Wharf (Santa Barbara)
- Santa Barbara County Courthouse
- Inspiration Point (Santa Barbara)
Stay in Santa Barbara.
Day Seven – Santa Barbara to Santa Monica/Los Angeles
The Drive: Drive south on CA-101 to CA-1 (Pacific Coast Highway) into Santa Monica.
Drive Time: <2 hours theoretically
Enjoy your last bit of enjoyable driving on the coastal road through Malibu into the western edge of L.A.
From here, you can follow major roads to anywhere in the Los Angeles area and experience the joy of gridlock traffic like you’ve never experienced it before.
LA to San Francisco Road Trip
Want to drive from LA to San Francisco instead? Our one-week San Francisco to L.A. road trip can be done in reverse.
However, the views are best driving south, since you’ll be on the water side of the road.
Two-Week California Road Trip (7 additional nights)
If you’ve got two weeks for road tripping through California (and you actually want to have time to see things), you have two options – Northern California to L.A. or San Francisco to Southern California.
These itineraries can be tacked onto our one-week San Francisco to Los Angeles itinerary for a roughly two-week road trip.
Northern California Road Trip (7 Additional Nights)
For a Northern California road trip, we assume you’ll be starting from a major city and use San Francisco as our base.
Day One – San Francisco to Modoc National Forest
The Drive: Drive east out of San Francisco on I-80 to I-505 North to I-5 North to CA-299 East.
Drive Time: Approx. 6 hours (About the same from Portland, Oregon. Or approximately 4 ½ hours from Reno, Nevada.)
Though it’s a lot of interstate driving, once you hit CA-299 through the forests of Northern California, you know it. It’s a prettier drive than you’ll be expecting, but you have to get through Redding first.
The prettier option is to come in from Reno, taking the route through Plumas National Forest.
Stay at a campground near Modoc National Forest, or at any of the (few) hotels along the way.
Alturas, CA is your best bet if you want indoor lodging.
Days Two and Three – Modoc and Shasta-Trinity National Forests
Drive Time: All day both days with stops, and then some. You’ll probably wish you had more time, but you’ve got a lot more to see.
Suggested Places to See in Modoc National Forest and Shasta-Trinity National Forest
- Wild horses at Devil’s Garden
- Lava Beds National Monument
- Burney Falls
- Trinity Lake
- Mount Shasta Wilderness
- Castle Crags State Park
Stay in Mount Shasta for an amazing view when you wake up.
Day Four – Mount Shasta to Napa Valley
The Drive: Drive south on I-5 to CA-20 West to CA-53/CA-29 South into Napa Valley.
Drive Time: Approx. 5 ½ hours
Taking this route (as opposed to staying on the interstate and coming in through Napa) rolls you right in through the valley.
If you head out early enough, you should have time for a wine tasting or two when you get to Napa Valley.
Just plan in advance. Only some wineries do night tastings, and they can fill up.
Suggested Places to See in Napa Valley
- Wine tours
- Wine tastings
- Art galleries
Stay in a (pricey) Napa Valley hotel. Or, if you’re looking for something slightly less wallet-punishing, consider the suburbs of Sacramento (Iess than an hour’s drive from Napa Valley).
Day Five – Napa Valley to San Francisco
The Drive: Drive south on CA-121 to CA-37 to CA-101 South into San Francisco.
Drive Time: 1 ½ hours (+ traffic and stops)
Take your morning in Napa Valley (brunch is big there) to let rush hour clear. Then, head into San Francisco.
This route takes you in through the Marin Headlands and across the Golden Gate Bridge.
You might want to spend some time in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area before heading over the bridge.
Suggested Places to See Between Napa Valley and San Francisco
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- Marin Headlands
- Battery Spencer observation deck
Stay in San Francisco.
Days Six and Seven – San Francisco
This is a road trip, but you’re going to want to stash your car in San Francisco. Even with its hills, San Francisco is a walkable city with too much traffic to enjoy driving through it.
The exceptions to this are:
- Lombard Street between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street
- Filbert Street between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street
- 22nd Street between Vicksburg Street and Church Street
Lombard Street is San Francisco’s most iconic street with its eight hairpin turns that make it one of the crookedest streets in the world.
Filbert Street and 22nd Street between the above-mentioned cross streets share the record for steepest incline in the city at 31.5%. Both are one-way descent streets. (You drive down them, not up them.)
These are three spots where it’s a thrill to be behind the wheel in the city.
Suggested Places to See in San Francisco
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Golden Gate Park
- Japanese Tea Garden (in Golden Gate Park)
- Ghirardelli Square
- The Palace of Fine Arts
- The Presidio
Southern California Road Trip (7 Additional Nights)
For our Southern California road trip, we’re assuming you’ve done the first leg of the journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles and will spend a few days in L.A.
Days One, Two and Three – Los Angeles
A lot of travel sites recommend two days in Los Angeles. That simply isn’t enough.
If you’re interested in any of what makes L.A. famous (TV and movies), at least three days are a necessity.
Even if you’re not particularly into film and television, Los Angeles is a huge, sprawling city with plenty to see and do. And the traffic is going to keep you on the road for a while between stops.
Suggested Places to See in Los Angeles
- Santa Monica Pier
- Venice Boardwalk
- The Getty
- Griffith Observatory
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art/La Brea Tar Pits
- Studio tours
- Hollywood Walk of Fame
Day Four – Los Angeles to Palm Springs
The Drive: Drive East on I-10. Or, if you’re feeling frisky, you can take CA-60 to CA-79 to CA-74 and drive the zigzagging roads through San Bernardino National Forest.
Drive Time: Approx. 1 hour 45 minutes on I-10
3+ hours through San Bernardino National Forest
You’ll have time to explore the desert oasis of Palm Springs/Palm Desert.
Suggested Places to See in Palm Springs
- Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
- Living Desert Zoo & Gardens
- Downtown Palm Springs
Stay in Palm Springs or Joshua Tree National Park.
Day Five – Joshua Tree National Park
The Drive: Drive Northeast on CA-62 out of Palm Springs to visit the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center.
Then, follow Park Boulevard into Joshua Tree National Park.
Drive Time: 45 minutes (from Palm Springs to the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center). All day in Joshua Tree with stops.
Joshua Tree National Park is a jewel of the southern California desert. It’s actually two deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado (part of the Sonoran Desert).
A visit to Joshua Tree will provide you the best impression of this particular aspect of California’s geography, which is hard to grasp from the coast.
Suggested Places to See in Joshua Tree National Park
- Skull Rock
- Keys Ranch
- Cholla Cactus Garden
- Barker Dam Nature Trail
Stay in Palm Springs.
Day Six – Palm Springs to Julian to San Diego
The Drive: Stay off the beaten path (and the highly-trafficked I-15) and drive east on I-10 to CA-86 South to CA-78 West to Julian.
Then, take CA-79 South to I-8 West into San Diego.
Drive Time: 3 hours 45 minutes (+ traffic)
The first leg of this drive will have you skirting the Salton Sea (California’s largest lake and once a popular resort area that is now bordering on a ghost town) and passing right along the edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Julian, California is a quaint mountain town and a California Historical Landmark. You don’t have to stay long, but it’s worth a cruise down Main Street and a stop for an afternoon snack.
The town is in an apple-growing region famed for its apple pies.
The second leg of the drive will take you right past Lake Cuyamaca and through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park before spitting you out into San Diego’s easternmost suburbs.
Suggested Places to See Between Palm Springs and San Diego
- The Salton Sea
- Julian, CA
- Lake Cuyamaca
- Cedar Creek Falls (if you’ve gotta few extra hours to kill and don’t mind the hike)
Stay in San Diego.
Day Seven – San Diego
Like with San Francisco and L.A., we assume you’ll tack on as many days as you see fit in San Diego.
If you are only going to spend one full day in the city, we suggest making these three stops:
- Old Town
- Balboa Park
- Gaslamp Quarter
This will give you a nice overview of the city and access to dozens of museums if you have a little extra time.
Three-Week California Road Trip
Got three blessed weeks to wheel through California?
Combine our Northern California, San Francisco to Los Angles, and Southern California road trip itineraries into one spectacular 21 day, 20 night road trip extravaganza.
Things to Know Before You Drive in California
- California is prone to dangerous weather events. Not just wildfires, but mudslides. Roads (especially those through national and state parks) may be closed at any time of year.
- Many of California’s national and state park roads are at higher elevations and are closed in winter. Always check road closures before you go.
- Northern California road trips are best reserved for summer months.
- Several of these routes have tolls. Keep cash on hand.
- All of Southern California and the areas around San Francisco have a lot of traffic. Our drive times are best-case scenarios. Back-ups of an hour or more are not uncommon. Plan accordingly.