California is one of the most beautiful and scenic states in the US. There are so many different landscapes and stunning sites that are well worth a visit.
While it is quicker and often more convenient to fly or take a train from one destination to another when traveling within a state, you can end up missing out on some once-in-a-lifetime experiences and memories.
Thankfully, a great alternative to flying or rail travel is taking a road trip with your family or friends.
This can be a great way to take advantage of all the sights and landmarks that you will pass on your way from point A to point B. In many ways, the journey is the best part.
Below are 12 of the best road trips going North to South in California.
1. Gold Chain Highway (Highway 49)
This Gold Chain Highway road trip is a great mid-length road trip to take with your loved ones.
The trip runs from Oakhurst through to Auburn and covers 288 miles. The Gold Chain Highway is the perfect road trip for anyone who wants to be transported back in time on their trip.
You will pass through multiple mining towns that look like they have been frozen in time in the 1850s.
In addition to the wonderful flashes of history that you will see as you make the drive along to Auburn, you will also be greeted with stunning panoramic views of breathtaking scenery and landscapes.
There are plenty of places on the route that allow you to camp in stunning surroundings if you want to go back to basics on your journey.
If you are looking for a road trip that is packed with things to do and see, this is the route for you. While traveling this particular route, you will come across ghost towns, spots of outstanding natural beauty, and historical museums.
The number of museums and historical sites along this route makes it perfect for a family road trip with plenty of educational opportunities.
For this route, your trip will begin in Oakhurst and Yosemite. Spending a day or two in Yosemite National Park is a great way to start your trip off right.
As you move on through your journey, you will encounter plenty of old mining towns which can be explored.
Some of the old mining towns have grown and developed into bustling towns and small cities. Others have been reduced to abandoned ghost towns.
Other notable stops along the way include Sonora, Jackson, Sutter Creek, Placerville, and Coloma. Between all of these towns, you can enjoy the stunning scenery of the California countryside.
2. Yosemite, Kings Canyon, And Sequoia National Parks Road Trip
This is a slightly longer road trip than the last one, however, the scenery is so stunning that it just won’t feel long enough.
As the name suggests, this particular road trip will take you through some of California’s most beautiful National Parks. The route begins in Fresno and ends in Fresno but covers an impressive 369 miles.
It is possible to complete this road trip in as little as three days, however, this can be extended depending on how long you spend in each National Park.
The first stop on this route is the most beloved and famous National Park in California and perhaps even in America, Yosemite.
This National Park is so large and so full of amazing hikes and camping areas that are waiting to be explored that you should aim to spend at least one whole day there. However, it is possible to spend as many as three days in this incredible park.
The next major stop on this route is Kings Canyon National Park. Again there is enough to do in this park to keep you busy for at least a couple of days.
While you are in Kings Canyon National Park, you can explore the Boyden Cavern, Roaring River Falls, and General Grant Tree.
The final National Park on this trip is Sequoia National Park. This park is one of the most visually stunning National Parks in the country and is a great place for amateur photographers to get some incredible nature shots.
One of the most interesting things about Sequoia National Park is that it is home to the world’s largest tree in terms of volume.
3. The Desert Drive In Southern California (San Diego To Joshua Tree)
If you are looking for a road trip that is filled with a variety of landscapes and unique experiences, this is the route for you.
This trip is around 300 miles long and takes you from San Diego through to Joshua Tree.
While completing this road trip, you will experience desert landscapes, mountainous terrains, and city views, the perfect compilation of all the aspects that make up California such a multi-faceted state.
Balboa Park and La Jolla beaches are the perfect places to begin your road trip. You can have a game of volleyball on the beach to use up some excess energy before sitting in the car for a while.
From here, you will drive to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. There are plenty of scenic drives and incredible hiking trails in this park to fill your time with.
Within the park, you will also find some interesting metal sculptures created to look like mythical creatures, prehistoric animals, and much more.
Salton Sea is another stop that you cannot miss on this trip. The dried-up lakebed is an incredible place to explore and a wonderful source of quirky items such as abandoned furniture, antique utensils, and so many other unusual and unexpected items.
Before you reach Joshua Tree, you cannot miss out on stopping at Salvation Mountain. This is a semi-permanent artist commune where a mountain-like structure has been created from clay and hay bales.
The structure is covered in colorful messages and murals. This is a great place to get talking to some truly interesting people from all walks of life.
4. Redding To Lassen Volcanic National Park
If you are looking for a nice, short road trip to test out what it is like, especially if you have young family members, the route from Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park is a great option.
This scenic route is only 50 miles long and can be completed in less than two days. Despite the short route, it still manages to be one of the most interesting road trips on this list.
On the route between Redding and Lassen Volcanic National Park, you will find yourself surrounded by farmland and ranches.
You are likely to spot llamas, horses, and even goats. Add in the stunning views of Mount Shasta framing the rest of the scenery and you have a beautifully short road trip that is perfect for photography and sightseeing.
One stop that shouldn’t be missed on this route is Shasta Lake. Here, you can take a tour of the Lake Shasta Caverns which are a national landmark. This can be a great way to stretch your legs on your journey and burn off some energy.
When you get to Lassen, you will feel like you have found a secret hideaway. This national park is still relatively unknown and therefore is quite.
Within the park, you will find four different types of volcanoes, sulfur vents, mud pits, hot springs, and volcanic lakes.
5. Big Sur (Highway 1)
For another short road trip option, the Big Sur route is great for anyone who is looking for a more coastal trip.
This route is only 82 miles in length and can be completed in two days, although it is possible to make it last significantly longer.
Driving this route from north to south keeps the stunning coastal views on the passenger side. Remember to take turns driving to give everyone a chance to gaze at the stunning scenery.
One of the most recognizable landmarks on this trip is Bixby Bridge. This is one of the highest single-width bridges in the world. If you want to take some beautiful photos from the bridge it is best to stop on the south side.
Just down the road from the bridge, you will come across Point Sur HIstoric Park. This amazing park looks like an island but is connected to the mainland.
There is a stunning 19th-century lighthouse sitting on top of the volcanic rock. It is possible to book a tour in advance if you are interested.
If you want to do some hiking on your road trip, Andrew Molera State Park is one of the best places to stop on your route.
There are trails of different lengths and difficulties to suit any hikers. The information center also provides lots of information about local wildlife.
If you prefer exploring waterfalls to hiking, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is another great place to stop. There is a short walk to the viewing point where you can watch the waterfalls cascading into the ocean.
For the water babies out there, there are also plenty of beaches and coves that you can stop at on your journey.
Some of the best along this route include Jade Cove, Partington Cove, and Pfeiffer Beach. You can also indulge in some whale watching on your way.
6. Rim Of The World Scenic Byway (State Highway 18)
This is a mid-length road trip that is perfect for a long weekend getaway. The route covers around 150 miles and can be completed in three days with stop-offs for sightseeing and exploring.
This is the perfect road trip to take if you want a change of scenery from the usual beaches and palm trees of Southern California.
The scenery that you will be surrounded by on this trip is filled with stunning mountains and calming lakes.
It can be the perfect route to take when you want to feel like you have escaped California without having to travel a long way. The name of the route comes from the incredible views that you will see along the way.
Starting in LA, the first place that you will want to make a stop on this route is Keller Peak Fire Lookout. This vantage point gives you access to stunning views of the San Bernardino Valley.
Next, move on to Bear Lake which is nestled deep in the San Bernardino forest. This is a mountain lake escape that is accessible all year round and makes a beautiful spot to spend the night.
There are plenty of hikes to do here, in the summer you can indulge in watersports, and in the winter you can try out some snowsports.
Arrowhead lake is another must-see stop on this road trip. This is another beauty spot that is home to some incredible hikes with breathtaking views.
There are different trails of different lengths and difficulties for all levels of experience. It is also possible to swim and play in the stunning lakes with their pristine waters.
7. South Coast (Los Angeles To San Diego)
This is another mid-length road trip that provides stunning scenery and interesting stop-off points.
The route from LA to San Diego covers around 120 miles and is one of the most classic road trips in California. This is a great trip to take as your first road trip with friends.
It is another primarily coastal route that provides stunning views that will require taking turns driving to truly enjoy.
This route begins in the stunning Huntington beach area. You can relax and catch a few waves with your friends before embarking on your trip properly. This can be a great way to get into the road trip mindset.
From here, you will head down to Newport Beach where you can spend your time indulging in a fancy lifestyle or at least fantasizing about it. You can even drive through some neighborhoods to gaze at the stunning homes.
The next stop on your trip has to be the outstanding Crystal Cove State Park. Here, you can indulge in some hiking, take in the stunning cliff views, and enjoy the unspoiled beaches.
The perfect place to end your road trip is the Laguna Beach area. There is always so much going on here and you can easily spend a couple of days here before heading back home.
8. California’s Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)
This particular road trip route is touted as being the ultimate Pacific Coast road trip. It is one of the longest road trips on this list, covering around 480 miles.
This route begins in San Francisco and follows the coastline down to Malibu. At no point on this lengthy road trip is there anything less than breathtaking views.
In addition to the views, there are also fun and interesting places to stop along the way to create incredible memories.
Some of the best places to visit along this route are mentioned below, however, there are many more besides these that you can visit along the way.
The Golden Gate Bridge is the first landmark that you should visit on this road trip. You can get some really fun photos at this iconic site.
If you are into exploring historic sites, a visit to Alcatraz is also in order at the start of your trip.
With a bit more driving, you will get to other impressive sites such as San Jose for its mix of modern tech and historical sites.
A place that is definitely worth a stop-off is Half Moon Bay, a stunning little seaside town that is surrounded by nature.
Moving further down, you can stop at Santa Cruz to feel like you have jumped back in time to America in the 70s. This is a great place for budding photographers and to get some great content for your social media feeds.
Because this is a mostly coastal route, there are plenty of beautiful beaches and coves that you can visit during your trip.
There are also a few stunning beach towns that make the perfect place to stop for an overnight. You can enjoy the sunset or sunrise on the beach before heading back out on the road.
9. Northern California Wine Country Road Trip In Napa Valley And Sonoma County
If you want a true road trip experience, this route from San Francisco to the Russian River via Napa Valley and Sonoma City is just what you need. This is a mid-length route that covers approximately 140 miles.
To make the most of this particular route it is recommended that you hire or purchase a campervan or convert your vehicle to allow for sleeping.
This road trip route takes you right through the heart of California’s wine region and allows you to escape into the stunning countryside of the state.
Sonoma County and Napa Valley are home to some of the most stunning rolling hills under the golden Cali sun.
There are a plethora of vineyards and wineries that are open to the public for visits and wine tastings. You can check out the wineries on your route to see if you need to book tastings in advance.
If you are going to indulge in some wine tastings on your trip through the wine region, remember to always have a designated driver or a plan to get to your accommodation without driving.
Once you have done the wineries, or if you want to skip the wine tasting, you can move on to Calistoga.
This is a gorgeous little town that is home to some of the best spas in the state. There are also plenty of hot springs in Calistoga, making it the ultimate destination to relax and detox from your wine tastings.
The final stretch of the road trip covers the Russian River area which is packed with adorable little towns that are bursting with character.
Each of the towns and villages can be explored during the day, but it can be a good idea to stay overnight in one of the towns to allow you to really explore the natural surroundings.
10. San Francisco To Crescent City (Highway 101)
This is another long road trip that is great for a week-long vacation. The route begins in San Francisco and travels south to Crescent City via Highway 101.
You will cover around 475 miles on this trip and will drive through coastal scenery, natural countryside, forests, and even indulge in some wine tasting if you so choose.
A great first stop on this road trip is in Sonoma County where there are plenty of wineries and vineyards that are open to the public and offer wine tasting sessions.
This can be the perfect way to start your trip as it provides a wonderful bonding opportunity for you and your friends and can help you relax and get into the vacation spirit.
After you have safely and responsibly traveled through wine country, you can head on down to Redwood National Park.
There are so many different hiking trails that you can complete here and take in the awesome beauty of the incredible Redwood trees.
This can be a great way to detox yourself from the wine tastings that you indulged in. It is also possible to explore the Redwood forests by car if you are not able to walk them.
From Redwood, you will be able to continue on down to Crescent City. There are so many things to do in this city that you can easily spend three or more days here to wrap up your road trip properly before heading back home.
11. The Eastern Sierras (Highway 395)
This is by far the longest road trip on this list, covering around 660 miles of California landscapes. This road trip begins in Carson City and ends in LA, covering mountain terrain, amazing lookouts, and some incredible natural quirks.
From Carson City, the best way to start is to head over to Lake Tahoe. This area becomes especially beautiful during the fall season.
Down the length of Highway 395, which runs along the east side of California, you will come across hot springs that can be explored.
There are also some incredible hotels along this route that can provide you with a comfortable and restful night’s sleep to keep you energized and ready for the adventure ahead of you.
The part of the route that runs between Bridgeport and Lee Vining covers 25 miles of the trip and is packed with multiple lakes that are calling out to be explored and swam in.
Further on down the route, you will find ghost towns and more stunning lakes that have to be seen to be believed.
On the rest of the road trip, you won’t want to miss iconic sites such as Devil’s Postpile National Monument, Hot Creek Geological Site, and Convict lake.
As you reach LA and Orange County, Lone Pine is a stunning place to stop to take in the beauties of nature. The last stop before reaching LA has to be Death Valley for some wonderful sights and views.
12. Route 66
Perhaps the most famous road-tripping route in California, even the world, is Route 66. The route stretches for around 306 miles, starting at the Needles and heading down to Santa Monica for the California section.
While it is possible to do the entire route across the country, the California section alone has plenty to keep you occupied.
The route begins in the barren terrain of the Mojave Desert. This is a great place to indulge in some camping to truly enjoy the stars that are above our heads each night.
You will then drive down through the state, covering mountainous terrain and stunning valleys. There are so many different kinds of hikes that you can do in this part of the trip to stretch your legs.
Finally, you will come across the gorgeous beaches of Santa Monica where you can chill out and relax on the warm sand.
Along the route, you will come across plenty of iconic, vintage Route 66 signs that present great photo opportunities.
You will also encounter a handful of interesting ghost towns that can be explored. You can even stop off at the original McDonald’s Museum.
There are so many amazing road trips that you can take in California. Whether you want to explore the mountains, swim in lakes, traverse the desert, or take in the coastal views, there is something for everyone.
Best of all, all of these road trip routes are packed with interesting places to stop and explore as you get from A to B. Remember, it is the journey not the destination that matters.
Frequently Asked Questions
One of the most important aspects of planning a successful road trip is making sure that you are adequately prepared for the trip. This means having all the essentials that you need for your trip.
The amount of stuff that you need to take with you will depend on the length of the trip, the location, and who is coming with you.
For any length of road trip with either your family or friends, you will need to make sure that you have stocked your car with plenty of snacks and refreshments.
While there will be places to stop on the way for meals and unusual snacks, you always want to have sustenance in your vehicle.
This can help avoid people getting hangry in a confined space. Keeping a mixture of water and soda can also be a good idea.
You should also plan to take some paper maps with you on your road trip. Whether you purchase an official map or print out your route from Google Maps, this can save you in an emergency.
While road trips are all about adventure and exploring, getting properly lost can be stressful and even dangerous.
For some road trip routes, you might encounter extended periods where you don’t get any phone or internet signal. This is when a paper copy of your route can come in handy.
You should also have some sort of plan for where you are going to stay during your trip. If you want to camp on your trip, all you have to do is find suitable places to set up camp that are going to be safe from wildlife.
However, if you want to travel in a little bit more luxury and want to stay in hotels during your trip, you may have to make reservations in advance.
This can create more of a plan and structure for your trip, however, it can also reduce the opportunities that you have for organic exploration and adventure.
This is something that really depends on your personal preferences and what you are planning for your trip.
It is perfectly possible to complete even the longest road trip in just a car. The key to making the car as comfortable as possible is to not overcrowd it with people or things.
You should also plan to make more stops to allow everyone to stretch their legs and avoid tight muscles. If you are traveling in a car, staying in motels and hotels can make it more comfortable overnight.
However, if you want to have more room and home comforts with you on the road, hiring or purchasing a camper can give you all the space and comfort you need. It also provides you with a place to sleep no matter where you are.
A camper can be a great option if there are four or more people on the trip, particularly tall people on the trip, or very young children.
Having a space to comfortably and hygienically change your little one can take a lot of the stress out of your road trip. This can also reduce the overall cost of your trip by negating the need to pay for overnight accommodations and restaurant meals.
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