Planning to spend time driving along USA’s West Coast? Rev up your engine, open the sunroof, and embark on the ultimate California road trip itinerary!
From coastal charms and majestic redwood forests to iconic seaside cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Golden State offers a little something to every type of traveler. Whether you want to scale the historic streets of San Francisco or hiking trails in Yosemite National Park, California puts some of the USA’s best travel destinations at your fingertips.
Ready to hit the road? Plan your ultimate California itinerary with this complete guide, including ideas for where to go, what to see & do, and where to stay.
10 days in California: A complete road trip itinerary
Planning a road trip through is rarely easy, especially if you’re on a time crunch. The third-largest U.S. state, California drapes over 900 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline and covers everything from mountains and coastal forests to deserts and snowy alpine peaks.
With its immense size, California presents an endless supply of road trip ideas. The problem is how to sort through all of them without overwhelm!
In this California trip itinerary for first-timers, we’ve tried to give visitors a sweeping view that includes highlights of the state’s coastal, natural, and urban charms. We’ve necessarily left out some great travel destinations—Lake Tahoe, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley National Park—in favor of more accessible ones. (Just remember: There’s always next time!)
Got more than 10 days in California? At the end of this travel plan, we also offer suggestions on other places to go in California to extend your trip plan and experience more of the Golden State.
For first-time visitors, there’s no better place to start your California trip plan than San Francisco. One of the world’s most famous travel destinations, San Francisco is chock-loaded with charms. Whether it’s basking in beautiful views over San Francisco Bay in Nob Hill or eating at the city’s finest restaurants around Union Square, there’s plenty to see & do in Northern California’s cultural epicenter.
On this 10-day California itinerary, try to carve out at least two days in San Francisco. While it’s not enough time to experience the breadth of the city, it’ll give you a good taste of what the city offers.
What to see & do in San Francisco
Even if you only have 24 hours in San Francisco, don’t miss out on visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. Perched upon San Francisco Bay, the historic waterfront district is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco and a must-see for any first-time visitor to the Northern California city.
Although Fisherman’s Wharf feels a tad touristy, the views over the water from here and from nearby Pier 39 are unbeatable. You’ll also enjoy a selection of superb restaurants in the area.
For a true San Francisco treat, don’t leave without trying the city’s classic clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl at one of the kiosks around the pier at the Pier Market Seafood Restaurant.
Looking to add retail therapy to your San Francisco sightseeing adventure? Head to Union Square, one of the city’s main shopping districts. The beating heart of downtown, Union Square teems with fashion boutiques, department stores, wine bars, and restaurants.
To satisfy your shopping needs, pop into Macy’s Department Store, the store’s largest branch outside of New York City. Or end the day with steak & seafood at the old-school John’s Grill or inspired Asian cuisine at E&O Kitchen and Bar.
Golden Gate Park
Not to be confused with the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s finest slice of urban nature. Covering over 1,000 acres west of Haight-Ashbury, the park is larger than New York’s famed Central Park and is the country’s third-most-visited urban park.
While you could spend the better part of a day roaming around the greenery of Golden Gate Park, what draws most travelers here is the park’s menu of attractions. The park is home to several important museums, including the deYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.
You’ll also stumble upon several beautiful gardens here including the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Japanese Tea Garden.
If you’re looking for a timeout from the city, head just west of Golden Gate Park to check out Ocean Beach. At 3.5 miles, the stretch of sand is the city’s longest shoreline and one of the most beautiful San Francisco beaches. Although not suited for casual swimming due to strong currents, Ocean Beach is the perfect spot for an afternoon or evening stroll to unwind.
Muir Woods National Monument
If you’re a nature lover with extra time in San Francisco, plan for a day trip to Muir Woods National Monument. Named after famed conservationist John Muir, the primeval forest is one of Northern California’s finest natural escapes. Best of all, it’s located just across the Golden Gate Bridge, a mere 17 miles from central San Francisco.
Roaming the hiking trails at Muir Woods, you’ll be shadowed by old-growth coastal redwoods, piercing into the foggy skies. It’s the perfect antidote to the neverending urban buzz on the opposite shore.
Where to stay in San Francisco
For first-time visitors, the best areas to stay in San Francisco lie in & around its city center, including Fisherman’s Wharf, Nob Hill, North Beach, and Union Square.
Perched on Union Square, this 3-star boutique hotel charms guests with its budget-friendly modern rooms. The hotel’s location is perfect, too, just steps from popular shopping options like Tiffany’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Macy’s.
Showing off a distinctive 1920s sophistication, the 4-star Omni San Francisco Hotel is a superb choice for mid-range travelers. You’ll love relaxing in the spacious elegant rooms alongside enjoying excellent amenities including a gym and on-site chophouse restaurant.
For the ultimate in San Francisco luxury, book yourself into the Hotel Nikko. Not far from Union Square, this popular luxury hotel delivers modern rooms and luxurious amenities including a bar, terrace, and indoor pool.
How to get to San Francisco
Most travelers arrive in San Francisco via San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Located 13 miles from Downtown, SFO offers dozens of routes to/from major domestic and international cities.
- Portland, OR (10h)
- Reno, NV (4h)
Yosemite National Park
Ready to escape San Francisco’s city buzz? Head east into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Yosemite National Park. One of the most beautiful national parks in the USA, the park is an absolute must-see for nature lovers truckin’ around California.
Yosemite National Park is famed for its ancient sequoia forests, majestic waterfalls, and sheer granite cliffs, including the infamous El Capitan and Half Dome.
On this Cali trip plan, try to carve out at least two days in Yosemite National Park—or more if California’s great outdoors is calling.
Since you’re tight on time, stick to the areas around Yosemite Valley near the park’s South Gate Entrance; it’s the most accessible area in the park when driving from the Pacific Coast.
Around the South Gate, you’ll find plenty of hiking trails and viewpoints in the area including the famed Tunnel View, offering a sweeping vista over Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and Half Dome.
What to see & do in Yosemite National Park
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
Need an easy introduction to Yosemite National Park? Lace up your hiking shoes and take a jaunt along the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. The easy one-mile loop trail whisks visitors to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, the final 320-foot drop of Yosemite Falls.
Along the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, you’ll witness the full-on majesty of Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America, dropping 2,425 feet from the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The best time to visit the paved loop trail is in spring and early summer when the water volume is at its peak. On the way to the trail’s apex, you’ll enjoy several viewpoints of the falls and Yosemite Creek. You’ll also find several exhibits detailing the park’s natural and cultural history.
Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
Got a little more gusto? Save some energy for the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. Also known simply as the Yosemite Falls Trail, the challenging 7.2-mile loop delivers incredible views over the Yosemite Valley and some of the Sierra Nevada’s most distinctive peaks.
Start your hike with the 1-mile trek up a series of switchbacks to Columbia Rock. After gaining 1,000 feet of elevation, you’ll marvel at spectacular vistas of the Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock.
From Columbia Rock, you can continue along with a steeper upwards climb, where you’ll enjoy stunning views of Upper Yosemite Falls. From the apex of the trail, you can continue eastward to Yosemite Point (1.6-mile roundtrip) or westward to Eagle Peak (5.8-mile roundtrip).
Ansel Adams Gallery
Need a break from the hiking trails? Slip into the Ansel Adams Gallery. Located in the Historic Yosemite Village, the gallery displays an impressive collection of the famed landscape photographer’s original photos, spanning his entire illustrious career.
Besides admiring the photos, visitors with some (or, rather, a lot) of room in their travel budget can take home one of Ansel Adams’ original prints for “as low” as $4,000 and as much as $70,000.
Where to stay in Yosemite National Park
For first-time visitors, the best places to stay in Yosemite National Park lie around its South Gate entrance, particularly around Yosemite Valley and El Portal.
Located on a Merced River a quick drive from the South Gate entrance, this popular lodge offers superb accommodations with an excellent menu of amenities. Enjoy beautiful mountain views from your room before unwinding in its pools, hot tub, or on-site restaurant & bar.
Sitting within the national park, this vacation rental is the perfect choice if you’re traveling as a larger group. The private townhouse, sleeping up to 10 people, features three separate bedrooms, a living room, and a full kitchen. Extras include a pool table, washer, dryer, and free WiFi.
How to get to Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is 170 miles from San Francisco. The scenic drive to Yosemite via I-580 and CA-120 should take about 4 hours.
After your deep woods adventure, venture back to the Pacific Coast to soak up the charms of Santa Barbara. With its Spanish-influenced architecture, charming downtown, and beautiful beaches under the shadows of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is the quintessential Californian coastal city.
If you’ve only got 10 days to spare, stick to just one day in Santa Barbara or—better yet—two days. It won’t give you much time to explore the city beyond its beaches but it’ll be a nice taste of the central California coast before heading to the busier coastal areas to the south.
What to see & do in Santa Barbara
Start your Santa Barbara visit at the city’s most iconic landmark: Stearns Wharf. Built in 1872, the wharf has been the centerpiece of Santa Barbara’s waterfront district for a century and a half. To this day, it’s one of the top Santa Barbara tourist attractions and a must-see while spending time in the coastal city.
Don your flip-flops and take a relaxing walk along Stearns Wharf’s famed boardwalk. Slip in and out of its clothing boutiques and souvenir shops before devouring a delicious seafood meal to stunning views over the California coastline.
If you’re traveling with the tots, pop into the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. The museum is jam-packed with fun, interactive exhibits where you’ll learn all about the native marine life of Southern California.
After roaming about Stearns Wharf, bliss out on the soft sands of East Beach. Sitting just east of the wharf area, the lovely stretch of sand is one of Santa Barbara’s most beautiful beaches—and its most accessible.
Slip on a swimsuit and take a dip in the crystal-clear waters or spend the day playing soccer or spiking balls at the volleyball courts. East Beach also hosts many special activities including Saturday afternoon drum circles and Sunday afternoon art shows.
Where to stay in Santa Barbara
If you’re tight on time on your visit, the best area to stay in Santa Barbara is around its seafront promenade and its downtown.
Mere steps from West Beach, The Eagle Inn offers a superb location for digging into the city’s seaside pleasures, without breaking the bank. Before hitting the road, fuel up with the hotel’s daily hot breakfast, including eggs and organic fruit.
One of the city’s top hotels, La Playa Inn features comfortable and spacious rooms with sleek modern design. Upgrade to one of the deluxe rooms to relax on your own private balcony overlooking the Spanish-style courtyard.
Sitting on the edge of Stearns Wharf, the Harbor View Inn is one of Santa Barbara’s top luxury accommodation choices. Aside from the well-appointed rooms, guests will revel in superb amenities, including an outdoor pool, hot tub, fitness center, and spa.
How to get to Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is about 300 miles from Yosemite National Park. The drive on US Highway 101 via San Luis Obispo should take just over 5 hours. Start out early from Yosemite to ensure you have a little time to explore some of Santa Barbara’s coastal charms.
No trip to California is complete without a stop in its cultural heartland: Los Angeles. The second-biggest city in the United States, L.A. summons visitors from around the globe to soak up the sun on its world-class beaches and lap up modern American culture on its glamorous streets.
If you’re visiting California in 10 days, you’ll be hard-pressed to experience everything the City of Angels offers. Try to carve out at least 2 days in Los Angeles. It’ll give you enough time to take in some of the city’s highlights—from bouncing around Hollywood to chilling out on the beach in Santa Monica.
What to see & do in Los Angeles
Santa Monica Pier
One of L.A.’s most iconic seaside pleasures, Santa Monica Pier is a must-see for first-time visitors, even if you only have 24 hours in Los Angeles. The famous fishing pier is more than just a place to cast out a line; it’s replete with boutiques, restaurants, and even an amusement park!
If you’re visiting with kids, make sure to carve out time for Pacific Park, one of the top tourist attractions in Santa Monica. Get your thrills on one of the oceanfront amusement park’s 12 rides, offering spectacular views over the Pacific Ocean as you zoom about.
After strolling around the Santa Monica Pier, move inland to Downtown Santa Monica. Pull out your wallet and shop along the famous Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica’s answer to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
Found the perfect swimsuit in town? Show it off by hitting the shores at Santa Monica State Beach. With its soft white sands and pristine waters, it’s one of the most beautiful beaches around Los Angeles.
Like Santa Monica, Venice Beach is one of the best spots to experience L.A.’s coastal charms. The happenin’ beach town centers around the famed Venice Beach Boardwalk, also known as the Ocean Front Walk.
Take a stroll along the promenade, stopping along the way to dazzle at street performers or eat fresh seafood at one of its many restaurants. If you’re missing the gym, be sure to stop by Venice’s famed Muscle Beach to bust out a few sets of pull-ups.
After a walk along the Venice Beach Boardwalk, venture a block inland to check out the Venice Canals. Modeled after the canals of Venice, Italy, the historic waterways are among the most beautiful sights around Venice.
The Venice Canals are the perfect spot for a romantic walk—or just a quieter place to escape the buzz of the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
Got your fill of central L.A.? Take a breather at Griffith Park. Just 10 minutes north of the city, the 4,310-acre park is a favorite urban escape for Angelenos. It’s jam-packed with some of L.A.’s most popular hiking trails, including the Mount Hollywood Trail.
If you’re looking for a classic view over the city, be sure to carve space in your L.A. visit for Griffith Observatory. Perched on the slopes of Mount Hollywood, the Griffith Observatory is the perfect spot to soak in beautiful views over the city skyline, including the iconic Hollywood Sign on Mount Lee.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Want a fun-filled taste of Hollywood’s film industry? Spend a day exploring Universal Studios Hollywood. Located in the San Fernando Valley, a few minutes from Hollywood proper, the sprawling studio-inspired theme park is one of the top things to see & do in Los Angeles, especially if you’re visiting as a family.
Kids will love exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, featuring a variety of family-friendly thrill rides and a replica of Hogwarts Castle.
If you’re a true film buff, don’t miss out on The World-Famous Studio Tour. The famed studio tour trolleys you through past classic and modern movie sets, including Jaws, King Kong, and the Fast and the Furious.
Where to stay in Los Angeles
As the second-biggest city in the United States, choosing where to stay in L.A. isn’t always easy. For most travelers, the best areas to stay include Downtown L.A., Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills.
To stay in Downtown L.A. without breaking the bank, book yourself into the sleek citizenM Los Angeles Downtown. The hotel offers comfortable modern rooms and an excellent set of amenities, including a restaurant, bar, shared lounge, and fitness center.
For a more luxurious stay in Los Angeles, check out the popular InterContinental. This luxurious hotel offers spacious, modern rooms, some delivering stunning views over the city through floor-to-ceiling windows. After a long day in the sun, cool down in the outdoor pool or enjoy an inspired cocktail at the hotel’s sleek rooftop bar, Spire 73.
Give your trip a 5-star boost with a couple nights at the resplendent JW Marriott Los Angeles. Travelers will love relaxing in the elegant guest rooms, soaking up stunning views from the rooftop pool as well as slinging cocktails and enjoying fine cuisine at the hotel’s four on-site restaurants and bars.
How to get to Los Angeles
Los Angeles lies 95 miles east of Santa Barbara. The drive to L.A. via Highway 101 should be approximately two hours.
Rising from the sands of the Sonoran Desert, Palm Springs has long been one of California’s most popular destinations—for celebrities and laypeople alike. The desert resort city offers year-round sunshine and warm temperatures, perfect for escaping the dreaded winter months in the northern expanses of North America.
Palm Springs is most famous among Californians for its proximity to Joshua Tree National Park. A popular day trip from L.A., the famed park straddles the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, presenting some of America’s finest desert landscapes.
On this time-crunched road trip, we’d recommend spending just one day in Palm Springs. While a day won’t give you much of a chance to explore, it’ll give you a quick glimpse of California’s unique desert landscapes.
If you can spare another day or two, you’ll get a chance to explore more of the area’s outdoor activities, including hiking or golfing at its famed TPC Stadium golf course.
What to see & do in Palm Springs
Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re tight for time in Palm Springs, spend it with a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Straddling the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert, the park is home to one of the most unique landscapes in the United States. It’s the perfect escape for travelers on the hunt for truly remarkable and otherworldly scenery.
Joshua Tree National Park sprawls across over 1,200 square miles of desert landscape, with its barren sands punctuated by giant boulders and rock formations, and limited vegetation.
There are dozens of great hiking trails in Joshua Tree National Park, many easily accessible from Palm Springs. Keep in mind that the landscapes here can be quite unforgiving.
Plan to start your hikes in the wee hours of the morning or around dusk to avoid the heat of the midday sun. Also be sure to bring along plenty of sun protection, snack, and, most importantly, water.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Looking for a more relaxing alternative to Joshua Tree? Hop aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Built in the 1960s, the vintage tramway is one of the coolest places to visit in Palm Springs and a must-see for any first-time visitor to California’s Sonoran Desert.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway scoots up 8,500 feet above town into the San Jacinto Mountains. From the upper station, you’ll dazzle at spectacular views of the eerie desert landscapes around Palm Springs.
Once you’ve soaked up the vistas, grab a meal at one of the summit’s two restaurants to fuel up for more adventure. From here, you can embark on a number of great hikes, including the trail to the summit of Mount Jacinto.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Created to protect the quickly developing land around Palm Springs, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is home to a beautiful botanical garden and zoo. At this top-rated Palm Springs attraction, visitors can roam through a range of desert biomes, featuring a variety of unique desert flora and fauna.
If you arrive early enough at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens you’ll be able to catch the zoo’s resident animals at their most active, from camels to giraffes to mountain lions.
Where to stay in Palm Springs
For most visitors on a time-crunch, the top hotels in Palm Springs lie in & around the city center, including Downtown Palm Springs and Uptown Palm Springs.
Traveling to Palm Springs on a budget? Look no further than the Best Western Plus Las Brisas. Located in the heart of the city, this hotel offers amenities well beyond its budget-friendly price tags. Guests will enjoy spacious modern rooms along with excellent amenities, including an outdoor pool, hot tub, sun terrace as well as two restaurants and a bar.
Exuding a peaceful local vibe, Les Cactus is an excellent choice for sinking into the charms of Downtown Palm Springs. Besides the bright & spacious modern rooms, the hotel also offers an outdoor pool where guests can cool down from the hot desert sun.
For the ultimate in Palm Springs luxury, book yourself into this sophisticated modern hotel. Outside the sleek rooms, guests can cool off in the rooftop pool and dazzle at beautiful mountain views from the sun terrace before retiring to one of the three on-site restaurants & bars.
How to get to Palm Springs
Palm Springs is 107 miles east of Los Angeles via I-10. The drive from Central L.A. to Palm Springs should be about 1 hour and 45 minutes in good traffic.
To discover California’s laid-back urban vibes, end your 10 days in California in the beaming city of San Diego. The Golden State’s second-biggest city, San Diego sits on the Pacific Coast at the southwestern edge of California, near its border with Mexico.
Despite being home to over three million people, San Diego remains remarkably chilled-out. As you roam through its streets, you’ll enjoy everything from cool art galleries and museums to sandy beaches and shaded parks.
To soak up the city’s distinctive Californian vibes, spend at least two days in San Diego. While it’ll be tight, it should give you a chance to get a taste of San Diego’s historic charms, stunning beaches, and spectacular food & drink scene.
What to see & do in San Diego
If you only had 24 hours in San Diego, you can spend much of it roaming the beautiful Balboa Park. Located in the heart of the city, the 1,400-acre park is a botanical paradise and one of San Diego’s must-sees.
Balboa Park teems with a variety of museums, gardens, and art galleries that are among the top tourist attractions in San Diego. Looking to relax? Spend some time roaming through the laid-back Japanese Friendship Garden or the Moorish-style Alcazar Garden.
Art & culture lovers visiting San Diego should carve out a moment to check out the Spanish Village Art Center. Located on Village Pace, the colorful community center features eye-catching Spanish-style architecture and a variety of rotating art exhibits from local artists.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Dig back into California’s earliest days at the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Located near the city center, the open-air museum dates back to 1769, marking California’s first European settlement.
Old Town shines with historic Spanish-style buildings hiding museums, restaurants, shops, and even hotels. After checking Old Town’s historic attractions, head over to the adjacent Presidio Park. In the 40-acre park, you’ll find several important historic sites along with walking trails leading to viewpoints with superb vistas over the city.
Need to let loose on your San Diego trip? Enjoy a fun-filled evening in the lively Gaslamp Quarter. Located in the heart of downtown, the historic neighborhood teems with San Diego’s best nightlife along with top-notch food & drink options.
Named for its characteristic gaslamp lights, the Gaslamp Quarter is peppered with Victorian-style buildings that house some of the city’s trendiest restaurants & bars.
Wandering through the neighborhood, you’ll enjoy everything from San Diego’s finest dining experiences to live music to world-class cocktail lounges.
Where to stay in San Diego
Many of the best hotels in San Diego lie within its downtown, including the historic Gaslamp Quarter. Travelers will also find a good selection of accommodations around Old Town and Coronado or further outside the city in areas like La Jolla and Ocean Beach.
A short walk from The Embarcadero, these downtown suites are perfectly placed to let you dig into all of San Diego’s city center charms. The hotel offers a range of suites, suitable for everyone from solo travelers to couples to families. Extra amenities include a swimming pool and fitness center.
Located in the heart of downtown, the Hotel Republic delivers upscale accommodations with a whole host of excellent amenities. Enjoy a meal and cocktail at one of the three on-site restaurants before sprawling out on the outdoor terrace for a bonfire.
Dig deeply into the historic Gaslamp Quarter by staying at this unique boutique hotel. The Hotel Z charms with a colorful facade, hinting at the elegant and cozy rooms within. The hotel is steps away from some of San Diego’s finest restaurants and the city’s lovely waterfront district.
How to get to San Diego
San Diego lies 133 miles southwest of Palm Springs. The fastest but less direct route to San Diego via I-15 should take about 2 hours and 25 minutes.
More California itinerary ideas
The largest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe is well worth a detour for nature lovers. The beautiful lake straddles the border between California and Nevada, with several unique towns peppering its shores.
For a more upscale vacation in Lake Tahoe, focus your visit around North Lake Tahoe. The area is home to several quiet lakefront communities like Tahoe City and Kings Beach, swanky resorts, and trendy restaurants.
If nighttime action is more your jam, settle down in the more touristy South Lake Tahoe. The lake’s most popular resort city is the perfect base for exploring all of Tahoe’s charms, including its top ski resorts, best beaches, and popular parks, like Emerald Bay State Park and Van Sickle Bi-State Park.
Redwood National and State Parks
If you’re embarking on a Northern California road trip from Oregon, save time to stop at Redwood National and State Parks. Encompassing an ancient coastal redwood ecosystem, the park system is home to some of the tallest trees on earth and is one of North America’s most majestic outdoor destinations.
Only got time for one stop in Redwood National and State Park? Make it the Tall Trees Grove, home to Libbey Tree, once known as the world’s tallest living thing. Grab your free permit in Orick and bump along a 6-mile logging road to the trailhead for a 2.25-mile hike to the grove.
Wine lovers visiting California should try to squeeze in at least one day for wine tastings in the Napa Valley. Located just over an hour from San Francisco, California’s wine country spreads across hilly slopes, peppered by villas and vineyards producing some of the county’s finest wines.
If you’re tight on time, focus your Napa Valley visit on the city of Napa. In Napa’s historic downtown, you’ll find plenty of wine tasting rooms, trendy restaurants, and hip bars with live jazz music.
Planning a Pacific Coast Highway road trip detour? Give your itinerary some Central Californian flair with a stop in Santa Cruz. Known for its laid-back surf culture, Santa Cruz is the perfect spot for experiencing classic California beach town vibes.
Start a day in Santa Cruz exploring the restaurants and shops around Santa Cruz Wharf and strolling along the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, breaking for a spin on its vintage Looff Carousel.
Head into lively Downtown Santa Cruz and hit up Pacific Avenue to dip into its vintage stores, art galleries, and cheeky cafes.
If you’re looking to dip your toes in the water while visiting Santa Cruz, check out Lighthouse Field State Beach, home to an iconic lighthouse with beautiful views over the coast.
Draped over California’s Central Coast between Carmel and San Simeon, Big Sur is one of the must-stop destinations along Highway 1, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway. The area is wedged between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, delighting travelers with its rugged foggy shoreline and winding roads hugging the coast.
But Big Sur is more than just a pass-through. Settle down in this emerald-green coastal paradise to experience remarkable outdoor destinations like Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, and McWay Falls.
San Luis Obispo
Sitting almost at the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo is a popular stopover for breaking up the long drive. Compared to other cities in California, the laid-back city has relatively few sites of its own but is a fantastic base for exploring California’s Central Coast.
History buffs will love the Mission San Luis Obispo de Toloso, a 1700s-era Spanish mansion that’s now home to a historical museum. Or, far more interesting for many travelers visiting San Luis Obispo is to take to the coast to explore the beach towns of Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, and Morro Bay, as well as Hearst Castle in nearby San Simeon.
Nature lovers visiting California might want to swap a couple of days in the cities for some time in Mammoth Lakes. Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mammoth Lakes is, along with Lake Tahoe, one of California’s most popular winter destinations. The mountain town is home to Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain, two of the Golden State’s top ski areas.
But Mammoth Lakes is no slouch outside the ski season either. Visit the town to explore the Devils Postpile National Monument, a collection of unique columnar basalt rocks; and nearby Rainbow Falls.
Mammoth Lakes is also a quick drive to Mono Lake, a unique saltwater lake featuring surreal limestone rock formations.
Kings Canyon National Park
Although lesser-known than Yosemite or neighboring Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park is a must-see for nature lovers roaming around Eastern California. Once dubbed “a rival to Yosemite” by famed naturalist John Muir, the national park teems with sky-high old-growth trees, deep valleys, and towering rock formations.
Kings Canyon National Park splits into two distinctive areas: Grant Grove, home to the second-tallest tree in the world; and Cedar Grove. Besides miles of hiking trails crisscrossing the wilderness, the park also hides Redwood Canyon, the world’s largest remaining sequoia tree grove.
Sequoia National Park
Established as the country’s second national park, Sequoia National Park protects some of the tallest trees in the entire world. Most famed at this popular park is the General Sherman Tree, standing a staggering 275 feet tall and considers the world’s tallest tree.
For adventurers, though, there’s far more to Sequoia National Park than its flora. The park is jam-packed with hiking trails leading to 10,000-year-old caves, granite domes, picture-perfect lakes, and raging waterfalls. Soak it all in by bringing along a tent and setting up camp at one of the park’s many backcountry camping sites.
Death Valley National Park
Despite its haunting name, Death Valley National Park is far from a lifeless travel destination. Yes, the conditions at this below-sea-level landscape can be harsh; it does, after all, hold the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States—a blazing 134ºF. But beyond its barren facade, there’s plenty more going on in this seemingly stark park.
Outside the summer heat, visitors will find everything from fields of wildflowers to snow-capped peaks. If you’re tight on time, don’t miss the Badwater Basin, a collection of salt flats sitting 282 feet below sea level.
When to visit California
The best time to visit California is between April and May and between September and October. In the spring and fall shoulder seasons, you’ll enjoy warm pleasant weather while avoiding peak tourist season crowds and prices.
The high tourism season in California falls within the summer months. If you choose to visit California in the summer, be sure to plan your accommodations well ahead and prepare to endure bigger hits to your travel budget.