This California road trip itinerary will take you along incredible the famous Pacific Coast highway, through deserts, and around lakes and mountains. It is one of the most diverse road trips you can take in the United States.
We have personally driven these roads and highways on different road trips in California and we visited all the sights recommended. This two week itinerary can easily be mixed and matched to create different California road trips as long or short as you like.
California Road Trip Itinerary
Make sure to download your Pacific Coast highway Self Drive tour before embarking on your California road trip. Explore the California Coast at your own pace as you follow the app to discover monuments, towns, and points of interest along the route. It will track your route and play automatically to tell you about your stops as you drive from Monterey to Pismo Beach.
California Road Trip Map
Table of Contents
1. San Francisco – 2 Days
We’ve planned the initial stage of our California road trip itinerary from San Francisco. It is easy to fly into from all major hubs and car rentals can be picked up directly at the airport. Plus, traffic in San Francisco 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 like the incredible Golden Gate Bridge before moving South. We have an excellent 72 hours in San Francisco guide where you can plan your entire stay in San Francisco.
- Tip: When we visited San Francisco for the first time, we bought a City Pass and explored all the neighborhoods by bus. 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.
- Click here to search all the car rental agencies and get the best price for your California Road Trip!
Things to do in San Francisco
- Pier 39
- San Francisco Cable Car
- Golden Gate Park – one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge
- The Painted Ladies – made famous by Full House
- Hippie district of Haight Ashbury and China Town
- Palace of the arts
- See our complete 72 Hours in San Francisco – A Local’s Guide to the City
Make sure to get out on the Bay to see the city when in San Francisco, this Golden Gate Bay Cruise let’s you see many of San Francisco’s top attractions. You’ll cruise along the waterfront, sail under the Golden Gate Bay Bridge, go around Alcatraz and see the former hippy enclave of Sausalito. Whatch for marine life such as sea lions, dolphins and whales as you cruise the Marin Headlands wildlife reserves.
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. TripAdvisor / Booking.com
- 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 TripAdvisor / Booking.com
- Budget: Hotel Zephyr – This boutique has nautical-themed rooms, central, near Pier 39, Lombard Street, and Ghirardelli Square. TripAdvisor / Booking.com
- Read our full guide for San Francisco Neighborhoods and Accommodation Where to Stay in San Francisco
2. Monterey / Carmel By the Sea – 1 Day
Drive just 2 hours and 45 minutes from San Francisco to Monterrey
After leaving San Francisco, we make our way down the Pacific Coast Highway to Monterey. You can stay either stay in Monterey or Carmel by the Sea. Monterey and Carmel by the Sea are only 10 minutes from each other. We stayed at Carmel by the Sea and it was a great location to get around Big Sur.
When visiting Monterey, you’ll want to get out on the water as it is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. This Monterey Bay tour departs from Old Fisherman’s Wharf to set sail for some whale watching. You’ll see Californian Sea Lions basking in the harbor as you pass Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Things to See and Do
- 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. We had a blast on e-Bikes with Big Sur Adventures. Read about our full experience at 17-Mile Drive – eBiking California’s Most Scenic Drive.
- Cannery Row – The Historic Cannery Row has been transformed from old warehouses to colorful buildings lining the waterfront filled with eateries and shops.
- Monterey Aquarium – The Monterey Aquarium is the centerpiece of the city where they study the waters of Monterey Bay and tackle the oceans health problems.
- Kayaking Monterey Bay – Don’t miss getting on the water in Monterey. We highly recommend taking a kayaking tour of Monterey Bay with Adventures by the Sea to view sea otters and sea lions.
- Surfing Carmel – Beginners will love the easy break and sandy shallow waters of Carmel Bay. We spent the morning taking a lesson with the Carmel Surf Company
Hotels and AirBnBs in Monterrey
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. TripAdvisor / Booking.com
Suggested Place to Eat – 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.
4. Big Sur – 1 Day
Continue down the Pacific Coast Highway 1 for an hour from Monterrey to Big Sur.
The Pacific Coast Highway is the Grand Dame of all California road trips. We suggest a minimum of 2 days exploring the coast along Big Sur. You can easily keep your base in Monterey to explore these sights.
A great compliment to your Big Sur road trip is to download this Pacific Coast Highway Self Drive tour. The app showcases the top scenic stops and views from Monterey to Pismo Beach. It tracks your route and the audio guide plays commentary to tell you stories and suggest points of interest. On this leg, you’ll see places like Garrapata State Park, Pfeiffer Canyon, McWay Falls, and the Bixby Bridge.
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 as there are so many gorgeous stops from sea cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Things to See in Big Sur
- Bixby Bridge – Don’t miss stopping at the Bixby Bridge. Made famous by many a film and TV Show (most recently Big Little Lies. Tip: Go for sunrise no tourists were there at all when we were up before dawn.
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – This a good place to go for hikes and walk along the trails. It’s most famous for the McWay Waterfalls and offers beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.
- Pfeiffer Beach – One of the best beaches on the route. 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. Check out: 24 Of The Best Beaches in California
- 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. 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 Resort
When exploring Big Sur we made a home base at Ventana Resort and spent two days exploring the surrounding area. 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.
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 the area. Enjoy the photographs from a bygone era dating back to 1932.
- Nepenthe – 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 Stops
This drive takes 3 hours from Big Sur to Santa Maria, but take you time to see all the sights.
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.
- Hearst Castle – 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.
- Morrow Bay – 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” wine tour experience. We have it as one day on your California road trip itinerary, but if you can spend two days here, we recommend it.
Things to do in Santa Maria
- Wine Tours – There are several vineyards to choose. Hire a private car through Gold Coast Executive Transportation to take you on a wine tour. We had an amazing time touring Wine Caves of Cottonwood Canyon.
- 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.
- Hidden Hollywood – Don’t miss this very cool Hidden Hollywood at the Dunes Center museum in Guadalupe Cecil B. Demille created an entire set of the pyramids of Egypt in the middle of the California Sand Dunes. He didn’t want anyone to use his set again, so he buried it 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.
Hotels and AirBnBs 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 Style Barbecue – If you want to try authentic Santa Maria Style Barbecue, go to Far Western Tavern Tavern in Orcutt.
7. Santa Barbara – 1 Day
Today we drive a short distance of just 1 hour from Santa Maria
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.
Santa Barbara is considered one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions with nine different wine routes to explore. It is a popular escape from Los Angeles, and there are many things to do here.
Things to do in Santa Barbara
- Sunset Sail – We suggest a sailing trip to enjoy the beautiful sunset and the California Coast followed by dinner on a patio by the waterfront.
- Stearns Wharf – Historic deep-water pier dating back to 1871.
- Shopping – Santa Barbara is all about the upscale experience, stroll the Spanish style shops lining State Street.
- Museums – Check out the many museums. The Museum of Art, MOXI – The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation and Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center.
Santa Barbara Hotels and AirBnBs
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 Days
It’s an hour and a half to Los Angeles so you can start enjoying the city immediately
Click here for map CA coast
We’ve come to the next metropolis on our California Road Trip and it is time to explore L.A. Los Angeles is a good place to start for southern California road trips. 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.
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. 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. Read 25 Best Things to Do in Los Angeles – Hollywood, Hikes, And More
- Note: You seriously need a car to explore L.A. It is spread out and it was made for driving.
- Check out our post: Where to Stay in Los Angeles – 4 Hotels to Make You Feel Like a Star.
Option: Continue to San Diego – Or Turn North
From Los Angeles you can continue south to San Diego or start heading north to make your way back to San Francisco.
- If you are going to San Diego, check out our San Diego Travel Guides:
For our road trip, we turned north up towards the National Parks.
9. Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day
From Los Angeles we drive two hours to the iconic Joshua Tree National Park.
Get the link to this portion of your road trip ideas in California.
Joshua Tree National Park is where two deserts meet: The Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. There are lookout points and there’s even a cactus garden. You can camp overnight 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 hiking Joshua Tree and exploring more of California
10. Death Valley National Park
It takes about 2 hours to drive through non stop
If you are planning a California road trip, you must try to include a day driving through Death Valley. It’s very hot, dry, and it’s a beautiful drive, but this portion of your California road trips planner should involve some precautionary steps. The average temperature is 48 degrees Celcius. (120F) Luckily there are enough stops at viewpoints along the road that keep you from having to trek too far for viewing in the heat.
- Safety in Death Valley: Pack plenty of water, cover-up, and wear sunscreen.
- Get the Google maps of road trips California with a detour to Vegas.
11. Yosemite National Park – 2 Days
From Death Valley we drive 7 hours to Yosemite National Park
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 recognizable nature photographs of all time.
Things to See in Yosemite
Yosemite has all those iconic formations that you’ve all heard of like “The Nose” and “El Capitan”. Here you’ll find Bridalveil Falls, and the famous Tunnel View Lookout. 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. Read more at Things to do in Yosemite 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!
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
From Yosemite it is 2 hours and 30 minutes to Tahoe.
There are two major tourist areas to make a base in both South and North Lake Tahoe. The south is certainly the busier of the two sides of the lake with casinos, nightclubs and lots of people. 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.
Things to do in Lake Tahoe
- Scenic Drive – The best views most certainly happen when driving between South and North Tahoe via Emerald Bay State Park. It takes an entire day to really explore the lake and you must give a lot of time for sightseeing at Emerald Bay.
- Emerald Bay State Park – Emerald Bay has several different scenic stops and each one is a must! 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 lake cruise.
- Camp Richardson – 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.
- Skiing – 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. 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. Heavenly Mountain located in South Tahoe.
- Read Things to do in Lake Tahoe in Winter
Hotels and AirBnBs 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.
- Sunnyside Resort is a welcoming resort located on the Shore of Lake Tahoe. Your stay includes continental breakfast and afternoon tea.
Where to Eat – We loved our meal and the friendly staff at Sunnyside Restaurant and Resort located at 1850 W Lake Blvd, Tahoe City. It has been a Sunnyside tradition since 1965.
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.
Where to Stay in Sacramento
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.
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.
Accommodation – 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
Whatever route you choose, you will go through some of the best scenery in all of California. We hope to have given enough information to create your own tour by offering these California road trip ideas.
You have now completed the route and can make your way back to The San Francisco Bay area to return your rental car. Or feel free to stick around California. There are so many places to visit, you can spend months exploring.
Did you enjoy this California Trip Planner? Why not pin it to use as a reference for future road trips.
And that ladies and gentlemen are our picks for the best road trips California has to offer. So, now you are ready to hit the road with a solid plan of all the things to do in California!
To see our full itinerary through California check out Follow ThePlanetD from Oceans to Mountains on the Visit California Website.
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- The Cowboy Trail – A Southern Alberta Road Trip
- Driving the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper Alberta
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.