A California road trip will take you along incredible coastal highways, through deserts, and sand dunes, and around lake and mountains. It is one of the most diverse road trips you can take in the United States.
I don’t think there is any state in the US that is better for driving than California.
We’ve taken a lot of road trips around the world and California is right up there as one of the best destinations for driving tours.
This California road trip itinerary will give you road trip ideas depending on where you are flying in to.
California Road Trip Itinerary
You can create a California road trip itinerary that ranges from 7 days to two weeks or even an entire month exploring the state from these route ideas.
It’s easy to mix and match and start where you want.
We’ve calculated the average cost of accommodation, fuel, and food and suggest $200 to $400 per day. See our full breakdown here.
The Pacific Coast Highway is the most scenic drive in California, and it is considered one of the best drives in the world. Hugging the California Coast, it takes you through some of California’s most beautiful landscapes. Read all about it here.
Each section can be its own road trip vacation, and each has its own qualities. The Pacific Coast Highway is popular but the Santa Barbara Wine Route is a leisurely drive to Santa Maria. Death Valley to Yosemite is a great adventure and Lake Tahoe is a superb escape.
California Road Trip Itinerary Map
If you decide to take the full trip, it should take three weeks to complete. But you don’t have to see everything, and it is easy to create a 14-day itinerary or even a 7-day itinerary using this route as a guide.
It’s up to you how much time you have and what route you want to take.
We hope to give you the tools to make your own plans and give you an idea of what you’ll see at each stop on this California Road Trip Itinerary.
Our guide will give you a sense of how much time you’ll want to spend in each location, where to stay, and ideas for all the things to do at each stop!
1. San Francisco: 2 Days
We’ve planned our initial stage to include a Northern California road trip itinerary, and naturally, San Francisco is a great place to begin a California road trip.
It is easy to fly into from major hubs around the world and car rentals can be picked up directly at the airport.
Plus, traffic isn’t as congested as it is in Los Angeles making it the perfect start for any California road trip itinerary.
Spending two days in San Francisco will give you the chance to see all the iconic sites before moving South.
We have an excellent 72 hours in San Francisco guide where you can plan your entire stay in San Francisco.
It was a great way to get acquainted with the layout of the city and have the option to hop on and hop off whenever we wanted with a 24 or 48 hour pass.
- Tip: When we visited San Francisco for the first time, we bought a City Pass and explored all the neighborhoods by bus.
Things to do in San Francisco
- San Francisco Cable Car
- Golden Gate Park
- The Painted Ladies – made famous by Full House
- The San Francisco Cable Car
- Hippie district of Haight Ashbury and China Town
If you plan on staying in San Francisco for a few days check out our posts for more information
Where to Stay in San Francisco
For first time visitors to San Francisco, we suggest staying near Fisherman’s Wharf. You will be close to all the iconic places in the city.
Luxury: Argonaut Hotel – A 4-star hotel located next to the SF Maritime National Historic Park for about $300 per night.
Mid-Range: Pier 2620 Hotel – This eco-friendly hotel is close to the beach. It is a new and modern design, with a fitness center. $200 per night
Budget: Hotel Zephyr – This boutique has nautical-themed rooms, central, near Pier 39, Lombard Street, and Ghirardelli Square.
2. Monterey – 1 Day
For your first night after leaving San Francisco, you can stay in either stay in Monterey or Carmel by the Sea.
We stayed at Carmel by the Sea and it was a great location to get around.
They are only 10 minutes from each other.
Located just 2 and a half hours south of San Francisco, Monterey is a super starting point for driving highway 1, a must for any Northern California coast road trip.
It’s a very pretty town by the water and you must make sure to spend the day exploring the famous Cannery Row.
Things to do in Monterey
Monterey was once a huge center for sardine packing and Cannery Row has been transformed from old warehouses to colorful buildings lining the waterfront filled with eateries and shops.
The Monterey Aquarium is the centerpiece of the city where they study the waters of Monterey Bay and tackle the oceans health problems.
It was the aquarium’s efforts that brought back the sea otter population.
Kayaking Monterey Bay
To really see wildlife in their natural habitat, we highly recommend taking a kayaking tour of Monterey Bay.
We spent the morning kayaking the waters with Adventures by the Sea. It was a perfect way to get up close and personal with marine life.
- Driving time From San Francisco – 2 Hours 45 Minutes.
- Duration – Minimum 2 nights
3. Carmel by the Sea – 2 Days
Carmel by the Sea is a lovely town to spend at least a day. You could either spend two nights in either Monterey or Carmel. Or split up your nights between the two.
Clint Eastwood was once the mayor of the town so you can imagine just how picture-perfect it is.
We stayed in the beautiful Hideaway Boutique hotel located right downtown and enjoyed a lovely buffet breakfast to give us the energy for the day ahead. After all, California road trip ideas almost always involve a lot of activity.
If you want to spend longer than two days, you can easily make this your home base for sightseeing all along Highway 1.
If you are moving on, make sure to give yourself time to explore its top sites.
Things to do in Carmel by the Sea
The surfing in Big Sur can be awesome, but beginners will love the easy break and sandy shallow waters of Carmel Bay.
We spent the morning on the water getting our feet wet in the California surf.
We met with Nick of the Carmel Surf Company for a morning lesson.
He was patient and very knowledgeable sharing tips and tricks on how to catch a wave.
Cycling 17 Mile Drive
If there is one thing to do in Carmel before moving on, you must take a tour of 17-Mile Drive.
You can drive 17-Mile drive, but a better way to explore the scenic views and stops of Carmel is to cycle the famous drive on e-Bikes.
It’s not a difficult cycle at all, and you can rent bikes with Big Sur Adventures or take a guided tour as we did.
The electric bikes do all the work as they propel you through the 17-mile long ride along the coast.
Must-see Sites on the 17-Mile Drive
When cycling 17-Mile drive you don’t have to pay the entrance fee as the vehicles do, and you don’t have to share the road with motorcycles because they aren’t allowed.
- the Lone Cypress
- Spanish Bay
- Bird Rock
- Ghost Tree
- Links at Spanish Bay
- John Denver Memorial
Read about our full experience at 17-Mile Drive – eBiking California’s Most Scenic Drive.
Where to Stay in Carmel by the Sea
The Hideaway – Centrally Located on Juniper Street, a short walk to restaurants, and just a few blocks from the beach. This luxury boutique hotel has in-room fireplaces and offers a modern design.
Where to Eat in Carmel by the Sea
La Belana Cucina Toscana takes you straight to the heart of Tuscany with a traditional setting.
Sit outside on the heated patio and enjoy a fresh farm to table menu drizzled in olive oil and truffles.
Continuing down Highway 1, we began our drive along one of the most scenic highways in the world to Big Sur.
- Driving time from Monterey: 10 minutes
- Duration of Stay: two nights
4. Big Sur – 2 Days
Considered by many the world’s most scenic drives, The Big Sur portion of California Coastal Drive on Highway 1 is a must for any road trip lover. In our opinion, all California road trips should include this leg.
This is the wow factor of your California drive and it is the Grand Dame of all California road trips.
When exploring Big Sur we made a home base at Ventana Resort and spent two days exploring the surrounding area.
Like everything in this California road trip planner, the days are flexible so stop and see the sites that you want.
But we suggest a minimum of 2 days exploring the coast along Big Sur.
Things to See in Big Sur
Big Sur weaves its way through mountains and jagged cliffs plunging into the sea.
With secluded beaches, stunning sunsets and countless lookouts this marine reserve is a trip you’ll never forget.
Made famous by many a film and TV Show (most recently Big Little Lies with Nicole Kidman), the Bixby Bridge is probably the most photographed spot on the Coastal Highway.
- Tip: Go for sunrise no tourists were there at all when we were up before dawn.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park
This a good place to go for hikes and walk along the trails. It’s most famous for the McWay Waterfalls.
Pfeiffer Beach is a bit of a drive off the main highway down a narrow and bumpy road, so it attracts fewer tourists than other viewpoints on Highway 1.
It’s a beautiful beach to watch the sunset with sea arches, long sandy stretches for walking and dunes.
If you are looking for great photography in a quiet setting, this is a superb choice.
Garrapata State Park
Hiking trails along the coast, Karst formations, sea arches, and jagged rocks make for extraordinary views of a rugged coastal landscape at Garrapata State Park.
All of these are easily reached from Ventana Resort within a 30-minute drive either way.
There are several hiking trails, beaches, campsites, and waterfalls all along the coast for you to get out for walk.
There is a reason that Big Sur is on many people’s bucket list to drive at least once in their lives.
For a complete breakdown of photography stops with GPS Co-ordinates visit our Photography Guide to Big Sur
Where to Stay in Big Sur
Ventana Big Sur – Glamping and Camping
We spent two nights at the luxurious Ventana Resort. We spent one night in their glamping tents and one night in a luxurious suite overlooking the ocean.
Ventana is the perfect base for exploring Big Sur as it’s in the heart of everything.
Each morning we could choose to go North or South to check out all the stops we’ve only until now seen in pictures.
Ventana Luxury Resort
We then stayed a second night at the lodge with a private room.
This is as luxurious as it gets in Big Sur. Taylor Swift and Mark Zuckerberg have stayed here and you could spend a couple of nights just enjoying the amenities.
There are two swimming pools, Japanese baths, world-class dining, and spectacular views.
Where to eat in Big Sur
The Sur House
Located at Ventana Big Sur, The Sur House is an upscale dining establishment using locally sourced cuisine created by Executive Chef, Paul Corsentino.
- $90 Fix menu offers a divine three-course meal.
- Location: 48123 Highway 1
Big Sur River Inn
The Big Sur River Inn was the first hotel and restaurant in Big Sur. Enjoy the photographs from a bygone era dating back to 1932.
Open since 1949, Nepenthe is a staple of Big Sur attracting artists, poets, and travelers to its 800-foot sea cliff views.
- Location: 48510 Highway One
Big Sur Roadhouse
This locally run eatery has a funky vibe with family-style seating. Designer Steve Justrich transformed the roadhouse into a unique design that they claim as homegrown modernism.
5. Coastal Highway 1
We continue down the coast from Big Sur to the charming town of Santa Maria, which is one of our favorite California road trip stops.
Be sure to give ample time for breaks on this route.
There is still a lot more to see on this portion of the California Coast and you can easily spend a day exploring the sites as you make your way to your next overnight stop.
Built by San Simeon, this incredible estate was built on 127 acres on a hill overlooking San Simeon.
Pop in for a tour of America’s castle before driving on to spend the night in the lovely town of Santa Maria.
En route to Santa Maria, make a couple of stops at these sites.
Another beautiful beach, Morrow Bay’s main attraction is Morrow Rock, a 180-meter tall volcanic plug standing proud offshore.
Pismo Beach is another place to stop if you still have time before spending the night in Santa Maria.
6. Santa Maria – 1 Day
So it is a good time to park your car and get out to explore the nearby vineyards for a proper “Sideways” experience.
Things to do in Santa Maria
There are several vineyards to choose from, so we say, why make the choice?
Instead, hire a private car through Gold Coast Executive Transportation to take you on a wine tour.
They’ll be able to recommend the best places to go to.
We stopped to tour the Wine Caves of Cottonwood Canyon and had an amazing time exploring the unique caves.
Santa Maria Style Barbecue
If you want to try authentic Santa Maria Style Barbecue, go to Far Western Tavern Tavern in Orcutt.
Because you have hired a limo, you can enjoy all the food and wine you want!
Gold Coast Executive Transportation picks you up (thru dinner)
Today is a day for some sightseeing and adventure.
Dune Buggy Adventure
To explore even more of the highest dunes in the world, go on a Dune Buggy adventure with Steve’s ATV Rentals, 332 Pier Ave. Oceano.
Get in a dune buggy and hit the dunes.
I thought it would be a walk in the park, but these dunes are huge and it took a bit of warming up to get up our nerve to drive up and down the dunes at full speed.
It’s a blast exploring the dunes that are located right on the coast.
You are in movie country, so make your way to The Hidden Hollywood at the Dunes Center museum in Guadalupe.
This is the coolest things in the middle of the desert.
In the 1950s, the legendary director, Cecil B. Demille created an entire set of the pyramids and Cairo in the middle of the California Sand Dunes.
He didn’t want anyone to use his set again, so he buried in the desert and didn’t tell anyone where it was.
It was nearly forgotten by everyone, until the 1990s when the director, Peter Brosnan decided to search for the hidden city.
This museum houses the artifacts found including a giant sphynx head.
Where to Stay in Santa Maria
Check in to the historic Santa Maria Inn in the center of town.
It has been a staple in Santa Maria since 1917. Be sure to peruse the halls to see legendary movie stars that have stayed here.
Santa Maria is known for the Santa Maria barbecue.
So head out to a local eatery for dinner for some spiced meat! We took some spices home with us!
7. Santa Barbara – 1 Day
Continuing on through wine country and making our way through our California road trip itinerary, we arrive in Santa Barbara for a night before stopping in Los Angeles.
Click here for map CA coast
Santa Barbara is considered one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions with nine different wine routes to explore.
Santa Barbara is a popular escape from Los Angeles, and there are many things to do here.
Things to do in Santa Barbara
We suggest a sailing trip to enjoy the beautiful sunset and the California Coast followed by dinner on a patio by the waterfront.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
We stayed at the luxurious Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara. This estate is the perfect place to relax after all that driving.
8. Los Angeles: 2 to 3 Days
We’ve come to the next metropolis on our California Road Trip and it is time to explore L.A. Our Southern California road trip has begun.
Who doesn’t love Los Angeles?
There are so many things to do in LA, that you could have your entire California road trip right here.
I could go into all the things you can do, but I am afraid that is an entirely different post to write about all the things to do here.
But if you are ending your time in California here happy travels.
Things to do in Los Angeles
The possibilities are endless for sightseeing in L.A. so you can decide how long you want to stay here.
From Universal Studios and Disneyland to hiking up to see the Hollywood sign or follow the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
You must get out to see the beaches of Los Angeles.
Our favorite beach is Manhattan Beach where you can see the famous 90210 beach house. But everyone loves popping over to Venice Beach too.
Note: You seriously need a car to explore L.A. It is spread out and it was made for driving.
I hope you’ve rented a nice car to drive along Rodeo Drive but if not, don’t worry, you’ll fit right in with the Bohemian atmosphere of Venice Beach.
Where to Stay in Los Angeles
Check out our post: Where to Stay in Los Angeles – 4 Hotels to Make You Feel Like a Star.
Duration: 1.5 hours
9. Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day
As we drove through Joshua Tree we found it ironic that a song from U2’s The Joshua Tree came on the Satellite Radio.
They may not have found what they were looking for, but we certainly did in one of the most unique California road trip stops there is in the Golden State.
The Joshua Trees of this national park made for an incredible scene.
There are lookout points and there’s even a cactus garden.
Joshua tree may be a desert. It is actually a place where two deserts meet: The Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert.
You can camp in Joshua Tree and there’s also rock climbing. It’s one of the premier places on earth for bouldering.
We only suggest spending a day here on this California Road Trip Itinerary, but if you have more time, put a tent in the back of your car and spend a couple of days exploring and hiking.
You can even do trail rides by horseback through this scenic park.
This is one of the coolest driving experiences you’ll ever have.
Driving Time to Joshua Tree from Los Angeles: 2 hours and 20 minutes. Located just two hours and twenty minutes from Los Angeles
Duration: 1 Day
Get the link to this portion of your road trip ideas in California.
10. Death Valley National Park
If you are planning a California road trip, you must try to include a day driving through Death Valley.
We didn’t stay overnight in Death Valley but there is lodging there if you’d like to extend your stay and make it a two-day trip. But we found one day was enough.
It’s a very hot, dry and a beautiful drive, but this portion of your California road trip planner should involve some precautionary steps.
Safety in Death Valley: Be prepared when you get out of the car, temperatures reach 120 degrees, so have plenty of water, cover up and pack that sunscreen.
The long and lonely road of Death Valley made us think about the early pilgrims that settled in this area and we were grateful to have the air conditioning in our car.
Death Valley got its name from a group of pioneers called The 49ers.
They didn’t listen to warnings of the dangers of crossing this unforgiving desert and faced extreme hardships and death over the coming months.
Just stepping outside of the car to snap photographs was enough for us but you can get out and explore.
Luckily, there are enough stops at viewpoints along the road that keep you from having to trek too far for a view.
11. Yosemite National Park – 2 to 3 Days
Yosemite National Park is a beautiful stop if you are a nature lover.
Things to See in Yosemite
Yosemite has all those iconic formations that you’ve all heard of like “the nose” and El Capitan.
Yosemite National Park is one of the Big 3 National Parks in the USA and it did not disappoint.
It is where the legendary photographer Ansel Adams set up shop and took some of the most iconic photographs of all time.
Here you’ll find Bridalveil Falls, (is it just me or are there Bridalveil Falls everywhere you go in the world?), the iconic Tunnel View Lookout and El Capitan.
Glacier Point is another not-to-miss stop.
It’s also a place for adventurers to get out an enjoy nature. There are so many hiking trails you will need days to complete them all.
Sequoia National Park
En route to Yosemite, be sure to stop at Sequoia National Forest.
We combined our stay in Yosemite with seeing the sequoias as they are less than an hour away.
A highlight for us was taking the park tour to see the Grand Sequoia Trees of Mariposa Grove.
It is a bit of a drive from Yosemite, but hey, you’re on a road trip so it’s right up your alley!
Where to Stay in Yosemite
When booking accommodation in Yosemite, plan in advance. During high season, things sell out fast!
Curry Village has a range of canvas tents and wooden cabins plus hotel rooms. Accommodation range from basic tents with shared bathrooms to private hotel rooms with bathrooms.
Check out TripAdvisor for prices.
Yosemite Valley Lodge is a great location to make a base in Yosemite. There’s free parking, free Internet and a pool.
12. Lake Tahoe: 2 Days
There are two major tourist areas on the California side of to Lake Tahoe to make a base in both South and North Lake Tahoe.
The south is certainly the busier of the two sides of the lake.
While the north side of the lake is all about nature, quiet family run lodges and rugged and historic ski hills, the South sits directly on the Nevada border and feels kitschy and commercial.
It was nice to see the two contrasts though and we loved having so many choices to dining within minutes from our door.
People come to South Tahoe for skiing and snowboarding at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Being on the border of Nevada, the casinos were in full neon force with slot machines echoing in the night.
I think South Tahoe has done a great job marketing to the party and family crowds, but for us, we would have preferred staying in the North for 2 days with a day trip to the South.
Things to do in Lake Tahoe
There are plenty of things to do in town to keep you occupied as well as activities in both summer and winter on the ski hills.
There are plenty of bars and eateries and lots of coffee shops and shopping.
Driving tour of Lake Tahoe
Having a car is a must for this portion of your road trip as the drive around the lake is half the fun.
The best views most certainly happen when driving towards between South Tahoe and North Tahoe via Emerald Bay.
It takes an entire day to really explore the lake and you must give a lot of time for sightseeing at Emerald Bay.
Enjoy this road trip from Big Sur to Lake Tahoe Video.
Something that really impressed us when driving through California was how many pullovers the roads have for road trippers to take in the views.
These roads are made for a road trip!
Emerald Bay has several different scenic stops and each one is a must! Don’t just stop for one view, you’re going to want to see them all.
When you pull over, be sure to get out of your car and hike to the viewpoints. They get more spectacular with each turn!
Hike down to the bay and see the famous Vikingsholm Castle or go on a cruise.
If you are up for more hiking, there are trails all around Camp Richardson that are less steep than the hike down from Emerald Bay.
They also offer hotel and cabins for lodging.
Ski Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe North
We enjoyed the quieter and more rugged atmosphere of North Lake Tahoe.
The mention of Lake Tahoe conjures up images of the stars playing on the slopes in their latest fashion while posing for photo ops.
Lake Tahoe is blessed with 6 world-class ski resorts including Squaw Valley, Home to the 1960 Winter Olympics.
North Star offers the luxury end of the spectrum of skiing with the only slope-side five-star lodging in the area, and don’t forget Mt.Rose offering Tahoe’s Highest Base elevation.
Sugarbowl Ski Resort – Lake Tahoe
Sugar Bowl Ski Resort is the closest skiing to San Francisco and receives the most snowfall out of all the hills in California.
After driving up the long and winding road, we stopped for a magnificent view of Donner Lake.
Make sure to pull over and take a look, we found it to be just as spectacular as Tahoe.
For nostalgia purposes, it’s got it all, as Sugar Bowl is also one of the oldest ski resorts in California dating back to 1939.
Where to stay in Lake Tahoe
There are plenty of lodging options in North Lake Tahoe and a good stay for families would definitely be our lodge at Cedar Crest Cottages.
Our cottage had two bedrooms, two baths, a living room and kitchen making it perfect for families that want to cook at home and have some space to spread out.
Sunnyside Resort is a welcoming resort located on the Shore of Lake Tahoe. Your stay includes continental breakfast and afternoon tea.
Where to Eat in Lake Tahoe
We loved our meal and the friendly staff at Sunnyside Restaurant and Resort located at 1850 W Lake Blvd, Tahoe City.
You could tell that this is not only a favorite of the tourist crowd but the locals alike. It was packed with people sampling their prosciutto-wrapped prawns and fried zucchini – a Sunnyside tradition since 1965.
- Driving time from Yosemite: 2 hours and 30 minutes
- Duration: 2 Days
13. Sacramento – Bonus Night
It’s about a five-hour drive from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, so if you want to split up the 5-hour drive we suggest stopping in Sacramento. Even if it’s not on your California road trip itinerary from the start, it’s worth the time to see all of this history.
The state capital of California is worth a visit even if you only see the historic downtown landmark of Old Sacramento.
This 28-acre district is filled with old town saloons and bars taking you back to the 1800s.
A great place to stay is The Kimpton Sawyer Hotel that is just a short 15-minute walk from Old Town.
This new upscale hotel is located in the heart of Sacramento overlooking the Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings.
You have now completed the route and can make your way back to The San Francisco Bay area to return your rental car.
How much does it cost to Road Trip in California?
As you’ve seen, your California road trip itinerary can move in a lot of different directions. There were a lot of stops we didn’t even make because this state is so enormous. As such, the cost can vary greatly depending on lodging.
If you stay in a campground you will pay $35 per night but you can also spend up to $1000 per night in luxury lodges like Ventana in Big Sur or the Four Seasons in Santa Barbara.
This road trip is 1500 miles in total. If the average car gets 20 miles per gallon and the average cost of fuel is $3.50 per gallon, you can expect to pay $262 in fuel for this trip.
Meals too can have a broad range. If you want a multicourse meal at some of the luxury hotels, you can spend up to $200. but you can also hit roadside diners for $20.
We mixed and matched packing lunches, eating in diners and sometimes splurging on gourmet meals. We suggest you do the same to make the most of your trip.
If you can get breakfasts included and pack sandwiches and waters for lunch, you have just saved a lot of money for a romantic dinner out.
Full Map of Our Road Trip in California
You can download the link on Google Maps.
Whatever route you choose, you will go through some of the best scenery in all of California.
We have personally driven these routes and visited all the sights recommended.
You can mix and match routes through California and go in either direction.
We hope to have given enough information to create your own tour by offering these California road trip ideas.
And that ladies and gentlemen are our picks for the best road trips California has to offer.
Enjoy this California Trip Planner? Why not pin it to use as a reference for future road trips.
To see our full itinerary through California check out Follow ThePlanetD from Oceans to Mountains on Visit California.
Our trip to California was in partnership with Visit California. For more information on California travel and itineraries, visit their website.
As usual, all opinions are our own.
Do you have more road trip ideas from California that we should include in the future?