A California road trip will take you along incredible coastal highways, through dense forests, stark deserts and over snowcapped mountains.
California Road Trip
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 ranks up there as one of the best destinations for driving tours.
After comparing California with other destinations it has some of the best options for driving tours with different routes to take throughout the state.
California Road Trip Itinerary
If you want to skip directly to the sections below, click on the links.
California Map Trip Planner - From Start to Finish
This trip should take a full two weeks to complete and will go through some of the best scenery in all of California.
We have personally taken this trip and visited all the sights recommended. Our travels were split up between two separate road trips through California.
One focused on the north and the other worked our way South.
You can mix and match routes through California and spend as long as you like at each destination.
But if you are on a fixed schedule and have a set amount of time, this is a great itinerary to follow on a two week road trip through California.
#1 San Francisco - 2 - 3 Days
It seems that all of our drives in California start in San Francisco. It's a good central location that gives you the opportunity to go any way you like.
South on the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles
North to The Wild North Coast through the Redwoods, Mendocino and wine country to Crescent Bay.
East to Lake Tahoe before veering south towards Death Valley and Yosemite.
San Francisco is the perfect city to start any drive from. It's easy to fly into and car rentals can be picked up at the airport and traffic isn't as congested as it is in Los Angeles.
Plus you get to start off driving over one of America's most iconic monuments, The Golden Gate Bridge.
We have an excellent 72 hours in San Francisco guide where you can plan your entire stay, but if you have limited time, 2 days is enough.
What to do in San Francisco
When we first visited San Francisco, 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.
It's one of our favorite ways to explore any city for the first time.
The bus started at famous Pier 39 where you can stroll along the boardwalk to find excellent dining options, shopping, nightlife and see the cute sea lions that laze on the wooden pier.
A 24-hour hopper ticket works great to be able to take your time to explore.
Even though we had a car rental, the bus was a nice way to explore as we didn't have to worry about parking or finding our way.
It took us to the major attractions like The Painted Ladies - made famous by Full House, The San Francisco Cable Car, the hippie district of Haight Ashbury and China Town. It's North America's oldest Chinatown and largest Chinese settlement outside of Asia.
Once we were back in our car, we definitely drove out to Golen Gate park to drive over and take in the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the picturesque Palace of Fine Arts.
#2 Monterey - 1 Day
When Visit California asked us if we'd like to discover Big Sur and the legendary Highway 1 to the winding roads of North and South Lake Tahoe, we couldn't wait to put on our driving hats and hit the road!
So let's start with stops on highway 1 and go from there.
Located just 2 hours south of San Francisco, Monterey is a super starting point for driving highway 1.
It's a very pretty town by the water and you must make sure to spend the day exploring the famous Cannery Row.
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 area studying the waters of Monterey Bay and tackling the oceans health problems.
It was the aquarium's efforts that brought back the sea otter population.
Kayaking Monterey Bay
We spent the morning kayaking the waters of Monterey Bay with Adventures by the Sea.
It was a pleasant trip where visitors can choose single or double sit on top kayaks that take you out to view sea otters, seals, and sea lions.
The water is crystal clear and you'll view the incredible underwater kelp forest as you paddle through the marine reserve. This was a highlight of our trip along the California coast and we highly recommend it.
What perfect way to get up close and personal with the marine life.
#3 Carmel by the Sea - 2 Days
We didn't stay in Monterey and instead made our home base Carmel by the Sea. Clint Eastwood was once the mayor of the town so you can only imagine just how picture perfect it can be.
Carmel is a lovely home base that is quite central to many of the sights of highway 1.
We could have spent longer in Carmel by the Sea, but two days gave us enough time to get a sense of its beauty. It's no wonder the uber rich make Carmel their second home.
Cycling along 17-mile drive showcased mansions averaging in the $20 million dollar range.
Something we love about California is how one minute you can be surfing in the ocean and then the next you can be snowboarding the slopes.
During our travels through the state, we did just that. One day we were surfing in Carmel and the next thing we knew, we were snowboarding in Tahoe. But that experience will have to wait for a few more paragraphs. (unless you'd like to skip to it now)
The surfing in Big Sur can be awesome, but beginners will love the easy break and sandy shallow waters of Carmel Bay.
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.
Dave said, he could get into surfing after a session with Nick and that's saying something - we've tried surfing twice before and it definitely wasn't our thing.
Cycling 17-Mile Drive
An excellent way to explore the scenic views and stops of Carmel is to cycle the famous 17-mile drive. Don't worry though, it's not a difficult cycle, because we went e-biking with Big Sur Adventures.
The electric bikes to all the work as they propel you through the 17-mile long ride along the coast.
When cycling 17-Mile drive you don't have to pay the entrance fee and you don't have to share the road with motorcycles because they aren't allowed.
You have the best of both worlds and can explore the views of the Lone Cypress, Spanish Bay, Bird Rock and the Ghost Tree.
Read about our full experience at 17-Mile Drive - eBiking California's Most Scenic Drive.
Where to Stay
Centrally Located on Juniper Street, it's just a short walk to restaurants and cafés and is just a few blocks from the beach.
This luxury boutique hotel has in-room fireplaces and offers a modern design.
Breakfast and Wifi included
Where 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 - 2 Days
Considered by many the world's most scenic drives, The Big Sur Portion of Highway 1 is a must for any road trip lover.
It 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.
We moved on from Carmel's the Hideaway and spent two nights at the luxurious Ventana Resort. Not ones to miss out on anything, we gave one night a try in their glamping tents. We right all about it here.
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 is just a short drive to Pfeiffer Beach which is an amazing spot to view the sunset.
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.
If you are looking for great photography in a quiet setting, this is a superb choice.
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.
Sit in the Adirondack chairs in the middle of the Big Sur River as you enjoy a cold beverage while cooling off in the rushing water.
Open since 1949, Nepenthe is a staple of Big Sur attracting artists, poets, and travelers to its 800-foot sea cliff views.
Wine and dine on the terrace at sunset or shop at The Pheonix for Bohemian mementos.
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.
Choose from the patio, couch or kitchen tables as you enjoy organic California cuisine.
When exploring Big Sur you must spend at least two days driving up and down the coast. You'll find that you want to pull off at every corner to take in the spectacular views.
There are several hiking trails, beaches, campsites, and waterfalls. There is a reason that Big Sur is on many people's bucket list to drive at least once in their lives.
Highlights of Big Sur - The Best Scenic Stops
- Bixby Bridge
- Garrapata State Park
- McWay Waterfalls
- Los Lobos State Reserve
- Morrow Point
For a complete breakdown of photography stops with GPS Co-ordinates visite our Photography Guide to Big Sur
#5 Lake Tahoe North - 2 Days
The mention of Lake Tahoe conjures up images of the stars playing on the slopes in their latest fashion while posing for photo ops.
We didn't see any movie stars, but I can understand why this is such a popular getaway for Hollywood.
Lake Tahoe is stunning and simply driving around the lake will take your breath away, but there are a lot of winter activities to be had here as well.
It is in Lake Tahoe that we continued our journey from catching the winter wave on the beaches of Big Sur to the slopes of Sugar Bowl Mountain.
Trip Tip: If you want to split up the 5-hour drive to Lake Tahoe, we suggest stopping in Sacramento. The state capital of California is worth a visit even if you only see the historic downtown landmark of Old Sacremento. 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 Golden1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings.
Ski Lake Tahoe
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 slopeside 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. It is where we went snowboarding while staying at Lake Tahoe's North End. It's a little out of the way, but it is worth a visit to escape most of the crowds.
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.
It has that old world Swiss feel when you arrive. When you park in the main lot, you hop on a very old feeling gondola that takes you to the village where rentals and tickets can be purchased.
We felt the rentals could have used a bit of an update and they gave Dave a snowboard that was a bit too small for him. We kind of felt that this resort could do better in the customer service area.
But the views are outstanding here and we never had to wait in line for a lift. It's definitely more of a local resort and if you are into that type of getaway, it's worth a visit.
Where to Eat in North 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.
The General Manager told us that he moved up from Los Angeles in the 1980s and never left! You could tell that the people who have chosen to live in Tahoe, love Tahoe and something tells me not a lot has changed in 40 years!
You can also book rooms at Sunnyside and we would have loved to stay here relaxing by the giant fireplaces. The bar was so cozy and invited, we didn't' want to hit the road!
We loved our fresh coffee and pastries each morning at West Shore Market located down the road on Lake Blvd.
The evening we arrived after a long drive from Monterey, we sought this place out and bought some fresh cheese and bread from the deli and a bottle of California wine to relax at our cottage to sit back before our day of snowboarding.
Lake Tahoe Road Trip Continues
While it's excellent to get as much skiing and snowboarding in as possible, there are other things to do for winter fun.
Having a car is a must for this portion of your road trip as the drive around the lake is half the fun.
After you've got your share of the slopes, hop in the car and tour around the lake. If you go full circle, you'll end up driving a portion of the trip through the neighboring state of Nevada.
But the best views most certainly happen when driving towards South Tahoe via Emerald Bay.
If you have some time, make sure to get out of the car and take advantage of the day hikes throughout the area.
You can even rent snowshoes from Camp Richardson Mountain Sports to dig deeper into the backcountry.
Warning: Be aware of avalanche warnings, we were told that there was a high probability of avalanches during our time in the area, and snowshoeing wasn't advised, so we stuck to the main trails.
It takes an entire day to really explore the lake and you must give a lot of time for sightseeing at Emerald Bay.
Something that really impressed us was how many pullovers California makes 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 are driving south from Tahoe City to Emerald Bay, the only tip we can give you is just stop whenever you see a pull off.
When you pull over, be sure to get out of your car and hike to the viewpoints. They get more spectacular with each turn!
If there aren't avalanche warnings, you can snowshoe down to the bay and see the famous Vikingsholm Castle.
The castle is closed during the winter, but we always like to have an endpoint to hike to and this is as good as any!
Cruise of Emerald Bay
Cruises of the Bay operate all winter. If you want a different view of Emerald Bay you can hop a cruise in South Tahoe's Zephyr Cove.
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. There is cross-country skiing at Camp Richardson and they offer hotel and cabins for lodging.
Where to stay in Tahoe North
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.
It had a firepit that is put on every night until 10pm where you can roast some s'Mores over an open flame and it's located just across the road from the lake making it a very good choice for a summertime getaway.
#6 South Lake Tahoe - 1 Day
South Lake Tahoe is certainly the busier of the two sides of the lake in California. 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.
Oh, how we wish the weather didn't turn on us the day we arrived in Lake Tahoe South. We were nearing the final day of our Catch the Winter Wave California Road Trip and while we had been blessed with sunny days throughout, by the time we reached the views of Heavenly, the rain had arrived.
It was two days of fog and wet, but we did manage to explore the town and see more of the south shore of the lake.
Being on the border of Nevada, the casinos were in full neon force with slot machines echoing in the night. We took a walk to the Nevada side as our hotel was located directly beside Bally's and instantly knew this wasn't our scene.
It was a different crowd of bachelor and bachelorette parties mixed with young families flocking to the pool.
I think South Tahoe has marketed itself well for the party and family crowds, but for us, we would have preferred staying in the North with a day trip to the South.
If you have your heart set on skiing Heavenly, it is only a 50-minute drive from Cedar Grove Cottages.
We drove 50 minutes from our cottage to Sugar Bowl one way, so it wouldn't have been out of the question to drive the other way for Heavenly.
I do know that many people like to be in the center of it all though, so if you want some action, South Tahoe is the place for you.
Things to do in South Lake Tahoe
There are plenty of things to do in town to keep you occupied. There are plenty of bars and eateries and lots of coffee shops and shopping.
We enjoyed taking a stroll through the village at the base of the gondola to watch the kids skate on the outdoor arena and to sip a cappuccino by the outdoor firepit.
If you don't like skiing or snowboarding, you can board the gondola for a view of the lake.
The 2.5-mile gondola ride will take you to an observation deck for a panoramic view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Lake Tahoe.
You can also take a UTV tour at the top of the mountain. So once you are up on the Gondola, you don't have to rush down. Enjoy a snack at Cafe Blue, take in the views and hop on the UTV for a great outdoor adventure.
#7 Death Valley - 1 Day
As you continue driving through California, you must spend a day driving through Death Valley. We didn't stay 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, dray and beautiful drive.
Saftey 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 over the coming months.
They should have listened to their captain who took the long way around.
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.
I can't imagine crossing this by wagon train, but I am very glad we crossed by car.
#8 Yosemite - 1 - 3 Days
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.
Dave took some legendary photographs himself.
Yosemite is a photographer's paradise and every turn offered another stunning view. 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.
Or you'll just have to keep coming back again and again.
Yosemite Valley is the perfect spot for first timers featuring the top attractions 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.
Since you are on a California Road Trip, you'll have a car to get around easily to see it! It's quite accessible.
Dave and I found that we spent a lot of time driving through Yosemite. I guess it is because we didn't have days on end to explore, but when we go back, we'd love to really delve into the many hiking trails that can take you to the backcountry.
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!
It is here that you might remember seeing the photographs of cars driving through a tunnel carved through the trunk of a tree.
They don't do that anymore, but the trees are still grand and amazing to see!
Mariposa Grove is expected to open again this year, I can't wait to see what they have in store.
#9 Joshua Tree - 1 - 3 Days
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.
The Joshua Trees of this national park made for an incredible scene. We found ourselves stopping and hiking through the rocks and brush on a regular basis.
There are lookout points and there's even a cactus garden.
Located just a few hours from Los Angeles, I can see why this is such a popular tourist destination and a must do stop on any road trip.
Joshua tree may be a desert. It is actually a place where two deserts meet: The Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert.
It's a much more pleasant temperature than Death Valley, so we recommend getting out and doing a lot of hiking.
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 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.
You can even do trail rides by horseback through this scenic park.
#10 Los Angeles - 1 - 3 Days
We've come to the end our California Road Trip and it is time to explore L.A.
Who doesn't know Los Angeles? 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.
If you have a few days, be sure to do something touristy like checking out the Hollywood Walk of Fame or popping over for a shot of the Hollywood Sign.
Our favorite beach is Manhattan Beach where you can see the famous 90210 beach house.
You seriously need a car to explore L.A. I hope you've rented a nice one to drive along Rodeo Drive but if not, don't worry, you'll fit right in with the Bohemian atmosphere of Venice Beach.
A suggested place to eat in L.A: Our friend Johnny Jet swears by In and Out Burger. We have yet to try one, but everyone we talk to tells us to go for it. So how about you go for it and let us know how you like it!
If you are looking for a place to stay, be sure to check out our post: Where to Stay in Los Angeles - 4 Hotels to Make You Feel Like a Star.
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.