Want to experience the best road trips in California? Read our detailed guide with insider tips and the best places to stay!
Road Trips in California are an adventurer’s dream come true. I remember my first road trip through California vividly — the anticipation, the excitement, and the nervousness all mingled together. But the moment I hit the open road, those feelings melted away, replaced by a sense of liberation and connection with the world around me.
In this blog post, I want to share some of the top road trips in California. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a first-time road-tripper, there’s something uniquely enchanting about California’s vast landscapes that call to the adventurer in all of us.
The Best Road Trips In California
The list is truly endless, but I’ve put together the top 5 road trips in California. These are the most popular road trips for a reason!
1. Redwood Highway (US Route 101) Road Trip
If you’re looking for an adventure, a road trip through California’s northern coast is just what you need. You’ll be awestruck by the towering majesty of California’s redwood forests.
The term “Redwood Highway” typically refers to a section of U.S. Route 101 that runs through Northern California, passing through areas with significant redwood forests. Specifically, it includes a stretch along the coast and through the heart of these majestic trees.
The starting point of the Redwood Highway is often considered to be near Leggett, California, in Mendocino County, where you can find the famous Chandelier Tree, a drive-through redwood tree.
From there, the highway continues southward through various scenic redwood groves and state parks like the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and the Avenue of the Giants.
The total length of the Redwood Highway on U.S. Route 101 is approximately 160 to 170 miles, depending on the specific route and detours you take to explore the redwood groves and nearby attractions.
On average, the drive itself without making many stops or detours can take around 3 to 5 hours. But to truly experience the magic of the redwood forests and the scenic beauty of the region, I recommend planning for a couple of days so you have ample time to immerse yourself in the natural wonders and enjoy your surroundings.
Redwood Highway Must-See Attractions
No visit to these ancient woods would be complete without stopping by Avenue of the Giants — a 31-mile stretch offering spectacular views of massive redwoods lining both sides.
Exploring the ancient and towering giants of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, one of the most remarkable forests on our planet is another not-to-miss stop along the way.
If time permits, don’t miss out on exploring Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park too. Its Fern Canyon trail offers an otherworldly hike amidst fern-draped walls.
Where To Stay Along the Redwood Highway
Carter House Inns, located in Old Town Eureka, is situated along Humboldt Bay and is the perfect midpoint for a Redwood Highway road trip. This property features an organic garden, restaurant, free WiFi, free parking and a coffee maker. I highly recommend grabbing breakfast here before you hit the road!
2. Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Ready for a road trip that’s nothing short of iconic?
Embark on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway for a visual feast of unforgettable landmarks and breathtaking views. The PCH, also known as State Route 1, stretches over 650 miles along the state’s coastline. This famed highway begins in Orange County, in the city of Dana Point, and it ends in Leggett.
From towering cliffs overlooking sparkling blue waters to charming coastal towns nestled between hillsides — every turn offers postcard-perfect scenery.
Breathtaking Landmarks on CA PCH
Your drive will take you past some of California’s most notable sites, including:
- Big Sur, a rugged stretch of coast renowned for its panoramic ocean vistas and hiking trails.
- A stop at the historic Bixby Bridge is a must — it provides one-of-a-kind photo opportunities.
- In Santa Barbara, enjoy Spanish-style architecture while exploring downtown boutiques or sipping local wines.
- Hearst Castle: Located in San Simeon, this location deserves special mention. This grand estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst showcases European art collections amidst lavish gardens.
Where To Stay Along Pacific Coast Highway
If you’re looking to pamper yourself, I highly recommend Nick’s Cove in Marshall, California. Waking up to stunning Hog Island views from my cottage terrace was a special treat, I’m so glad I did it. The cozy ambiance with heated tile floors and terry robes made me feel like royalty. And the continental breakfast and locally sourced oysters were a treat.
A few of my favorite towns to stay along California’s Pacific Coast Highway with excellent hotel options are Cambria, Santa Barbara, Laguna Beach, Big Sur, Carmel by the Sea, Santa Cruz, and Fort Bragg.
For more suggestions on where to stay, read my travel guide to California’s Pacific Coast Highway.
CA PCH Road Trip Tips
- If possible, plan your route from north (San Francisco) to south (Los Angeles), this way you’ll be driving closer to the sea offering unobstructed views.
- To truly soak up all that the PCH has to offer, consider taking at least a week to explore, instead of rushing through the sights.
- Last but not least, always check current road conditions before heading out to ensure a safe and smooth ride.
Road tripping down Pacific Coast Highway isn’t just about getting from point A to B — it’s an experience in itself. Each twist and turn reveals a new captivating view, making this the ultimate bucket list item for any traveler.
Read more: How To Road Trip California On A Budget
3. Yosemite National Park Road Trip
A trip to Yosemite National Park is a must for any California road tripper. Nestled within the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is an untamed wonderland where nature’s grandeur stands unrivaled.
With its towering granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and ancient sequoia groves, I don’t know a single person who was left unimpressed with a trip to this special place.
Iconic Landmarks of Yosemite
El Capitan and Half Dome
You can’t miss the imposing granite cliffs, El Capitan and Half Dome, which tower over the valley floor. Their sheer size and grandeur have made them popular among rock climbers from around the world.
But even if you’re not a rock climber (like me) this spot is not to be missed. I remember during my visit, feeling like the smooth granite wall seemed to stretch infinitely upwards, dwarfing everything around it. I couldn’t help but feel a mix of insignificance and wonder in the face of nature’s colossal creation.
One of the most popular and rewarding hikes you can do in Yosemite National Park is the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. This hike offers an incredible experience as you get up close to two magnificent waterfalls and witness the raw power of nature.
The hike begins at the Happy Isles Trailhead near Curry Village. As you ascend, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the Merced River and the surrounding lush forest. The first major highlight is Vernal Fall, a 317-foot waterfall that showers the trail with mist, creating rainbows on sunny days.
Where To Stay In Yosemite National Park
If camping under starlit skies appeals to your sense of adventure then don’t forget about campgrounds available within this magnificent landscape. This can be a great addition to your California road trip experience. And, who knows, you might just spot some constellations while you’re at it!
4. Wine Country Road Trip
Embarking on a road trip through California’s wine country is like stepping into an exquisite painting. The rolling vineyards, golden hills, and charming wineries create a landscape that’s both breathtaking and serene.
Here are some ideas on how to get started.
Napa Valley, often hailed as the crown jewel of California’s wine regions, should be your first stop. This world-renowned region offers more than 400 wineries — each with its unique charm and flavor profile.
You can enjoy everything from robust Cabernet Sauvignons to delicate Chardonnays while soaking in panoramic views at spots like Frog’s Leap Winery.
Read more: How to Visit Napa on a Budget
Moving westward brings you to the equally stunning but slightly less crowded Sonoma County. A few places to check out here are:
- Russian River Valley: Known for its Pinot Noir and cool-climate Chardonnay wines.
- Dry Creek Valley: Home to some old-vine Zinfandel producers.
- Alexander Valley: Famous for producing high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.
Beyond Napa & Sonoma
If you’re looking for a location off the beaten path, there are many hidden gems to explore.
Paso Robles, located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Highway 101, has gained recognition recently and is famous not only for its winners but also for its olive groves. This up-and-coming region specializes in Rhone-style wines alongside traditional varieties such as Merlot or Syrah.
If you prefer something more offbeat yet delightful — try exploring Mendocino County known primarily for organic grape farming practices. I was pleasantly surprised with my visit there last year!
Where To Stay In Wine Country
If you’re planning a Napa Valley getaway, I recommend checking out Rancho Caymus Inn in Rutherford. It’s just 15 miles from Napa Valley Wine Train, and they’ve got some amazing perks — an outdoor pool, spa, and wellness center.
The rooms are super cozy and the breakfast was great. I think this spot is perfect for any romantic getaway if you’re looking for something special for you and your partner.
5. Lake Tahoe to Lone Pine Road Trip
Lake Tahoe is a stunning alpine lake nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains that offers breathtaking views and exciting outdoor activities all year round.
In the summer, you can enjoy water-based activities like swimming, kayaking, and paddleboarding, and the winter brings exceptional skiing and snowboarding opportunities at world-class resorts like Heavenly and Squaw Valley.
I recommend starting your route in Lake Tahoe and ending in Lone Pine, California.
Here’s a closer look at what’s available in Tahoe and beyond.
Skiing at Lake Tahoe
With its abundant snowfall, breathtaking mountain vistas, and a variety of world-class ski resorts, Lake Tahoe has rightfully earned its reputation as a premier skiing destination.
The region boasts over a dozen ski resorts, each offering its unique charm and terrain, catering to skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels.
If you’re looking for where to start, I recommend checking out Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, one of America’s largest skiing areas.
Hiking Trails in Lake Tahoe
Hiking trails abound with varying levels of difficulty catering to both beginners and experienced hikers alike.
For an easier hike, I highly recommend the Eagle Falls Trail to Eagle Lake — a 1.8-mile trail near South Lake Tahoe, with stunning first and lake views.
If you’re looking for something at the moderate-difficult level, check out the Mount Tallac Trail — an 11-mile round trip to the summit of Mount Tallac (9,735 ft). Steep and demanding, but offers breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe. I will say this is recommended for experienced hikers.
In fact, these recommendations are just the beginning. Truly, there are many dozen hikes to explore in the area.
Emerald Bay State Park
No visit to the area would be complete without exploring Emerald Bay State Park.
A natural national landmark offering unique island adventures and awe-inspiring vistas.
Read more: The Perfect CA Hwy 395 Road Trip Itinerary
Stops Along Hwy 395
I highly recommend these stops along your Tahoe to Lone Pine Road Trip
- Mono Lake: You have likely seen this place in photos and it’s popular for a reason! Picture this: the water is this beautiful shade of turquoise, and it’s surrounded by tufa towers rising up from the lakebed. It’s a great place to stretch your legs and capture some unique photos.
- Mammoth Lakes: This alpine destination is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts — in all seasons.
- Bishop: Stop at Aaron Schat’s Roadhouse for the best burgers! This is also a good option for hotels along the 395. I recommend the Creekside Inn.
- Alabama Hills: This mesmerizing landscape has captivated filmmakers for generations. With its stunning rock formations, it’s a picturesque playground for hikers, photographers, and those seeking a connection with nature.
Where To Stay In Lake Tahoe
A beachfront resort, one of Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge’s claims to fame is that every room in the hotel features both lake and mountain views. Situated on the east shore of the lake, the hotel is also home to Elements Spa — a perfect place to wind down and relax.
FAQs: California’s Most Beautiful Road Trip Routes
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), also known as Highway 1, offers the most scenic views with its stunning coastal landscapes and iconic landmarks. If you’re looking for an iconic road trip experience, this is a great place to start.
Spring (March to May) and fall (September to November) are ideal times for a California coast road trip. The weather during these months is mild and you’ll find it’s also significantly less crowded.
Route 66, stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica in Los Angeles, is one of the most famous roads in California known for its historic significance.
A comprehensive California road trip covering major attractions can take around two weeks. However, shorter trips of 7-10 days can also offer memorable experiences. You can adjust your schedule based on how much time you have available and what you want to see on your trip.
The post The Most Beautiful Road Trips in California + Where To Stay appeared first on Ordinary Traveler.