California does not cease to impress with its diverse landscape. The classic Highway 1 road trip is an option for those who have less time, though to get a better understanding of California, it’s important to see both the coast and venture further inland. Here’s a California road trip itinerary that will take you from the ocean to the desert to the mountains and back to the ocean.
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Best Time To Plan a California Road Trip
September to early October is an ideal time to plan your trip. During this time, California is experiencing late summer weather in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the national parks are less crowded.
Summer weather can be cold, especially since San Francisco tends to be extra foggy during the summer months, and Los Angeles experiences June Gloom, where days can be chilly and overcast.
California has a Mediterranean climate, which gives the state dry summers and rainy winters. Right before the rainy season starts in mid to late October, it’s important to take advantage of the ideal seasonal weather around the state.
May is also a good time to plan a California trip, but depending on the severity of the rainy season, roads to national parks like Yosemite can still be closed.
Defining the Pacific Coast Highway
Note that the Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 1 are often used interchangeably. This main stretch of coastal road is officially called California’s Highway 1 (starting a bit north of San Francisco), where the Pacific Coast Highway, is the portion that starts from roughly Oxnard all the way to the end in Dana Point in Southern California.
If you do decide to plan a PCH trip in the late spring/early summer there’s a good chance the coastline will be foggy, especially in Southern California, which the locals lovingly refer to as June Gloom. Winter and spring can also be an option if the weather is sunny but be forewarned that if it’s rainy there can be road closures due to dangers like mudslides.
Renting A Car For Your California Road Trip
The best rental car prices are at the airport (SFO or LAX in this case) and I usually do a search on this site that sorts through the top rental car companies like Hertz, Enterprise, and Avis to get the best deal. You can rent a car in San Francisco and then leave it in Los Angeles, though it will cost a bit more it’s well worth it.
California Road Trip Map
I recommend starting and ending in San Francisco for your California road trip itinerary, just because it’s a smaller, more manageable city than Los Angeles. You will not have to deal with the headache of Los Angeles traffic (though San Francisco does have its fair share of backups). You can also ditch your car and use public transportation to easily zip around the city before spending the next week and a half on the road.
10-Day California Road Trip Itinerary
This guide starts from San Francisco and heads down the coast. If you’re starting out in Los Angeles, just do the reverse route. Here’s the itinerary:
Day 1 & 2 – San Francisco
Day 3 – Big Sur
Day 4 & 5 – Santa Barbara
Day 6 & 7 -Los Angeles
Day 8 – Joshua Tree
Day 9 – Yosemite National Park
Day 10 – Lake Tahoe
Day 1 & 2 – San Francisco
The City By The Bay is a great place to get your bearings, spoil yourself at all the good food and visit the diverse neighborhoods that each feels like entering a different world. You can get in plenty of steps in this walkable city, where you can quickly log in your daily 10,000 before you know it.
Start your day with this well-loved San Francisco Love Tour that brings guests around on a 70-era VW bus. The tour is 2 hours and stops at popular sights like Haight Ashbury, downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, and the Mission to name a few.
After your tour, head to Crissy Field for top views of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as Lands End for more spectacular bridge views.
On the second day, make your way to Golden Gate Park, where you can visit the California Academy of Sciences if you’re interested in natural history or art at the de Young. Afterward, go to the Japanese Tea Garden next door, the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S.
Treat yourself to a dim sum brunch at Dragon Beaux (or hot pot in the evenings) in the Outer Richmond, get your fill of carbs at Tartine Bakery in the Mission, and eat your way through the Ferry Building restaurants, with a view of the Bay Bridge in the background. For dinner, try Foreign Cinema, if you want to get fancy.
Where to stay in San Francisco
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites Fisherman’s Wharf – a great mid-range central option near Pier 39.
- Marriott Courtyard San Francisco Union Square – a solid choice downtown.
Travel tip: take BART back to the airport to pick up your rental car right before you hit the road. Having a car in San Francisco for the few days you’re visiting is usually a bigger headache than it’s worth with parking. Local public transportation and ride-sharing services will get you everywhere you need to go.
Day 3 – Big Sur
The first stop on this road trip is one of the most picturesque portions of the California coast. Be warned that the roads are especially windy on this part of the highway, so make sure to take motion sickness medication if you need to.
PCH stops along the way to Big Sur
- Half Moon Bay’s Mavericks Beach (of Mavericks surf competition fame), though you will probably not see the monster waves which make rare appearances only during the wintertime.
- Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the adjacent beach, which is a lot calmer than the boardwalk and a great break from the sensory overload.
- Cannery Row, the city’s main drag that used to be filled with sardine canneries back in the day.
The Bixby Bridge is the most iconic sight in Big Sur, standing at 260 feet above Bixby Creek. There’s plenty of parking on both sides of the bridge to pull off and take photos from nearby vantage points.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a massive state park home to McWays Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that cascades into the Pacific Ocean. There are also numerous other hiking trails throughout the park ranging from easy strolls to strenuous full-on hikes.
Pfeiffer Beach feels almost otherworldly with its lavender-colored sand and keyhole rock formations jutting dramatically out of the Pacific Ocean.
Big Sur Bakery is a solid spot to stop for breakfast, including freshly-made baked goods and strong coffee. Big Sur Deli is a great spot to pick up sandwiches on the go.
Where to stay in Big Sur
- For an affordable option, Big Sur Lodge is located in Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park, with cottage-style rooms and the Homestead Restaurant on the property which uses local ingredients for its menu.
- For a taste of luxury, Ventana Big Sur just outside of Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park is where you go to get properly pampered.
Day 4 – Santa Barbara
This day is going to be one of the longer ones on your California road trip itinerary, and it’s recommended that you start as early as possible. It’s also one of the most scenic portions of the road trip, starting at Big Sur and ending in the beautiful seaside city of Santa Barbara.
You definitely don’t want to rush your way through.
PCH stops along the way to Santa Barbara
- San Simeon’s Hearst Castle to witness true extravagance (make a tour reservation beforehand)
- Morro Rock looming at the entrance of the harbor to Morro Bay
- San Luis Obispo, a college town where the tri-tip is not to be missed at Firestone Grill
One of my favorite ways to see Santa Barbara is through a bike tour, where you can view the city’s main sights like State Street and the Santa Barbara Mission on wheels. I highly recommend the Santa Barbara Electric Bike Tour, where the electric bike cruisers allow for easy mobility.
Sip local wines on the Urban Wine Trail, including the Funk Zone, which is a revitalized industrial area of town that has numerous wine tastings, cafés, and galleries. Get some sun at the city’s East Beach, while enjoying panoramic views of the Pacific. Wander around Ganna Walska Lotusland, a botanical garden located on the Montecito estate of a Polish singer.
Stroll down State Street downtown and then drive to nearby Los Agaves for some solid Mexican food. Get a scoop or two of ice cream at McConnell’s on State Street.
Where to stay in Santa Barbara
- Sunset Motel is located close to downtown, is spotless, and comes with a complimentary breakfast.
- The Lavender Inn by the Sea is a cozy boutique hotel that is a few blocks from the beach and includes a free continental breakfast.
Day 5 & 6 -Los Angeles
Welcome to Southern California! This sprawling city is not to be missed and two days will give you an introduction to a city that has many different sides. Los Angeles is roughly divided up into West, Central, Downtown, East, South, and The Valley.
If you want to experience beach life, the Westside (Santa Monica, Venice) is where you should go, but also keep in mind that there is a lot more to the city than these beachside neighborhoods.
To get your bearings, take a comprehensive guided tour that allows you to see popular LA sights like downtown, Griffith Park, Hollywood, Beverley Hills, and Koreatown. One of my favorites is this Grand City Tour of Los Angeles, which is a 5-hour long tour through the city in a 12-person van that allows for a more intimate feel.
Another favorite is the Downtown LA Food Tour, which stops at food havens like Grand Central Market, but also iconic landmarks like The Bradbury Building.
On the last day, drive down the coast to Malibu and spend the day beach-hopping at local gems like Point Dume, El Matador, and Zuma.
Immerse yourself in everything Hollywood, by taking a tour at a movie studio, or if you have the energy (and money) head to Universal Studios Hollywood, which is home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Eat a Turkish-inspired brunch at Kismet, grab a sandwich and baked goods at Gjusta in Venice or steaming bowls of ramen in Japantown (there is also a branch in Sawtelle) at the ever-popular Daikokuya.
Where to stay in Los Angeles
Ideally, if you’re planning to visit all around Los Angeles, the central part of the city is a good spot to call home. A home base in the greater Hollywood area for example will give you easier access to the west and east parts of LA, instead of staying on the Westside and having to drive all the way across town to sights on the Eastside or vice versa.
- The Trylon Hotel is a great reasonably-priced hotel in Hollywood.
- If you want to be beachside, The Gateway Hotel, is a mid-range hotel less than two miles from the beach and Santa Monica Pier, with free parking.
Travel tip: Plan your LA itinerary around neighborhoods that are close to each other to minimize driving across town. This means meals too. LA is a big city and driving from Santa Monica to Downtown in weekday rush hour traffic is not for the faint of heart.
Day 7 – Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is such an unexpectedly beautiful part of California, where the rugged landscape often feels more like a remote planet than a desert two hours drive east of Los Angeles.
The best way to experience the park is to get out and explore it on your own two feet by taking advantage of all the hiking trails. Skull Rock is a popular 1.7-mile trail that takes hikers past the giant skull rock formation, whose eye sockets formed out of centuries of erosion from the rain.
Hidden Valley features a 1-mile loop trail that goes through a valley sheltered by rock formations For more trails, check out this post.
There are no grocery stores within the park, but there is a café at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, where you can pick up boxed lunches. There are eight picnic areas within the park: Black Rock, Split Rock, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Indian Cove, Cap Rock, Live Oak, and Quail Springs.
Within the town of Joshua Tree here are some good options for food, including Pie For The People for outstanding pizzas at a spot located right outside the park’s west entrance. Royal Siam Thai Cuisine is a local favorite that’s perfect for a post-hike celebratory meal of green curry and pad see ew.
Joshua Tree Health Foods by the West Entrance is a great place to pick up healthy snacks and drinks before heading into the park. Joshua Tree Coffee Company is a great spot to pick up some strong morning fuel (try the vanilla latte).
Where to stay in Joshua Tree
Within the park itself there are nine campgrounds to stay at, where during the busy season of October through May, they are first-come, first-serve, except Black Rock and Indian Cove. During the quieter summer months, all campground grounds are first-come, first-serve.
Most sites only allow tents, except for Indian Cove Group Campground, which allows small RVs.
Though the park only has camping options, the nearby town of Joshua Tree has some good lodging options.
- Joshua Tree Inn & Motel this hacienda-style inn is located a mere five miles from the park entrance and has a lot of historical charm. Each room has a patio to relax on after a long day of exploring.
- Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway-a family-owned spot that is filled with personality and hospitality, and boasts clean spacious rooms with kitchenettes to prepare a packed lunch in for the trails.
Entrance fee: $30 for a 7-day vehicle pass as of February 7, 2023.
Day 8 – Death Valley National Park
If you want to really understand California’s contrasting landscapes, Death Valley’s bone-dry desert landscape is not to be missed. It’s best to avoid going during the summer when the temperatures can easily reach 110 degrees and over.
Stop by the Furnace Creek area which includes the park’s visitor center, restaurants, and gas stations. Visit Zabriskie Point, one of the most popular lookout points in the park, where you can hike from the Badlands Loop or just drive up and soak in the view.
Experience the Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level, where you can view the mysterious salt flat from the parking lot.
The Racetrack with the magical moving rocks is also worth a mention (though it’s highly recommended to not go with a regular rental car due to the rough road).
For a sit-down meal, the Panamint Springs Resort Restaurant has solid burgers and fries, as well as massive salads.
Where to stay in Death Valley
There are limited accommodations in the park and not all places are open year-round. That being said The Oasis at Death Valley is home to two of the best hotels in the area:
Travel tip: Do not underestimate the dry desert heat and be prepared with plenty of water (at least a gallon per person/per day). Make sure to fill up on gas before entering the park, since it’s expensive and limited to areas like Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs.
Entrance fee: $30 for a 7-day vehicle pass as of February 7, 2023.
Day 9 – Yosemite National Park
It’s hard to plan a California road trip and not include this iconic national park. The trick to having a successful trip to Yosemite is meticulous planning and more planning.
The best time to visit is May or September when there are fewer crowds and the weather isn’t too hot. The difference between these two times is that during May the waterfalls will be in full flow as the snow melts, but in September there isn’t as much water after a dry summer, but the scenery is still stunning.
On your way into the park turn onto CA Highway 41, and follow the sign that is marked Bridalveil Fall. Right before you reach the Wawona Tunnel, pull off into the parking lot and you’ll be rewarded with the classic Tunnel View that Ansel Adams made famous and includes El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Half Dome.
Once in the valley, start at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, to get your bearings. Explore the valley, whether you go on the walking paths of Tuolumne Meadows (open from late May or early June to November, depending on the season), the easy Yosemite Falls 1-mile loop trail, or the more strenuous Glacier Point hike.
Nearby Mono Lake, with towering limestone formations, is also worth the stop as well.
The food in the valley itself is not particularly noteworthy, but there’s the historic The Ahwahnee for brunch with a view, where reservations are recommended. For a more casual meal, there’s Degnan’s Kitchen for reliable sandwiches and pizza.
Where to stay in Yosemite
If you have limited time in Yosemite, it’s highly recommended you stay inside the valley, since it takes about an hour or more to get from the entrance to the valley if you stay outside.
- For luxury digs, The Ahwahnee in the valley is a popular choice.
- If you prefer more rustic accommodations, the Half Dome Village is worth checking out for its heated tent cabins.
Travel tip: There are multiple park entrances depending on where you’re coming from. If you are driving from Death Valley, you will most likely enter from the South entrance. Make sure to always double-check road closures the day before, since things can change quickly.
Entrance fee: $35 for a 7-day vehicle pass as of February 7, 2023.
Day 10 – Lake Tahoe
Head to the Bay Area’s favorite mountain getaway, where in the winter it’s popular for winter sports and the summer for outdoor activities around the lake.
There are two sides of Tahoe: the North Shore is quieter, more spread out, and nature-oriented, while the South Shore has a more touristy vibe with a lively nightlife with the bars, casinos, and resorts of Stateline and South Tahoe. The distance between the two locations is around an hour, so it’s important to choose which area best suits your needs.
Plan a day hike in either Emerald Bay State Park or neighboring D.L. Bliss State Park in the southwestern corner of the lake. If you prefer a more sedentary activity, float down the Truckee River, which flows out of the northwestern corner of the lake.
Visit the Alpine Village at Squaw Valley, where there are shops, restaurants, and free summer concerts. During the summer, visit King’s Beach in North Tahoe, a family-friend stretch of sand, where you can rent SUPs or kayaks to bob on the lake for a few hours.
Artemis Lakefront Café is a great place to grab Mediterranean food with a lake view on the South Shore. There are two Artemis cafes, so make sure to choose the one at Ski Run Marina for a memorable view. Fire Sign Café is a reliable choice on the North Shore in Tahoe City for brunch.
Where to stay in Lake Tahoe
- For the South Shore, the boutique hotel Basecamp South is a lively spot to call home for a few days.
- On the North Shore, the Best Western Plus Truckee has a reasonable price and includes breakfast. There are also vacation rentals in popular areas like Incline Village and Kings Beach as well in North Tahoe.
Travel tip: double-check park closures, since some close in September, but it depends on the weather. Also, make sure not to overdo it, since the 6,255-foot elevation can affect some people, especially during physical activity.
The drive back to San Francisco is 3.5-4 hours, depending on traffic/weather conditions.
Alternative California Road Trip Itinerary for 7 Days
If time only allows a week-long trip, you can easily shorten this 10-day itinerary by spending only one day in San Francisco and Los Angeles, driving through Big Sur to spend the night in Santa Barbara, and choosing between Death Valley and Joshua Tree. A 7-day California road trip might be a bit tight, but you will still get a solid introduction to some of California’s most beautiful destinations.
Alternative California Destinations
Here are some additional destinations that you can add to your itinerary if you have a few days extra on your road trip or want to substitute for example Los Angeles with San Diego if you have already been to LA before.
For everything indulgent, this Northern California city is the best place to go for wine, food, and relaxation. Visit the historic Downtown Riverfront Promenade and make sure not to miss the Napa River Inn and the surrounding beautiful artwork including Alan Shepp’s Mosaic Fountain in Riverbend Plaza.
Rent a bike and head out on the Napa River Trail, which winds its way along the river for 4.2 miles.
Sonoma may not have the world-renown fame of its larger neighbor, but it definitely has more charm. The walkable downtown is centered around Sonoma Plaza with wineries, cafes (try the Sunflower Caffe for brunch), and boutiques to browse.
Afterward, walk around the neighborhoods surrounding downtown and admire the homes and sometimes even see horses grazing around.
The capital of California is a lot more than its political roots (though a visit to the California State Capitol Museum is well worth a visit). There’s trendy Midtown with its tree-lined streets and the beautiful homes of East Sacramento.
My favorite corner of Sacramento is Curtis Park, a picturesque residential neighborhood that is home to Gunther’s Ice Cream and Pangaea Bier Cafe.
Monterey’s swanky neighbor is known for its rich artistic community, where writers and artists live and work (director/actor Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel at one time). Dogs are revered in this town, and there are plenty of places to cater to any pups in tow, including Diggidy Dog, for dog treats and toys.
For humans, Cafe Luna downtown is worth stopping by for the breakfast sushi and wonton ramen.
This town was formed by a group of Danish settlers who were tired of Midwest winters and were looking for sunnier prospects out west, hence the name Solvang (sunny field). Stroll down Alisal Road to admire the Danish architecture and make sure to pick up aebelskivers (Danish pancakes puffs) at Solvang Restaurant’s to-go window.
Stop at Copenhagen Sausage Garden to counteract all that sugar with a cold beer and savory sausages.
This small beach city on the Central Coast is a great alternative for those that want to avoid the tourists or the college student crowds of Santa Barbara. Take a walk on Carpinteria State Beach, and later head over to The Spot, a Carpinteria institution for hamburgers and fries.
If you want to stay inland, Seaside Gardens, a nursery/botanical garden hybrid boasts an extensive and unusual plant selection.
This coastal city has plenty to see and do, including the Ventura Pier, and a little ways down the San Buenaventura State Beach, which boasts less crowds with beautiful views. Afterward, grab a bite to eat at Cafe Nouveau, which serves both traditional American brunch items and those with a Creole twist, like their maple bacon beignets.
Tucked in between Malibu and Santa Monica, this affluent seaside community is worth stopping at the Getty Villa for ancient art, rich architecture, and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.
For some extra fuel, head over to the Palisades Village, a pristine outdoor shopping mall and get an ice coffee at Alfred’s Coffee and make sure to check out the Instagram flower wall if that’s your thing.
Redondo Beach Pier is fun to walk down and browse the shops for souvenirs and spot playful seals frolicking in the harbor below.
Jus’ Poke is a must for some authentic Hawaiian poke. The shoyu-flavored one is my favorite, with a side of brown rice and seaweed salad. There is also a solid selection of Hawaiian Sun drinks (try the guava).
Take a tour of the Queen Mary, a historic ocean liner that is rumored to be haunted and also has a hotel, restaurants, and bars to enjoy. Rent a kayak and leisurely float through Naples Island, which is similar to the Venice Canals in Venice Beach with envious waterfront homes.
If you have more time, take the Catalina Express for a day trip to this popular island that always is reminiscent of old Hollywood glamour.
Your first stop in this surf-obsessed beach town should be to catch all the action and watch the surfers from the iconic Huntington Beach Pier. Afterward, learn all about why this town has been nicknamed Surf City, USA, at the International Surfing Museum and view the world’s largest surfboard.
Known for its picture-perfect piers: Newport Beach Pier and Balboa Pier, there is no shortage of activities to fill your visit. For an adrenaline rush, head to the Wedge, where you can watch surfers ride up to 20-foot waves.
Escape to Balboa Island on the ferry and walk around the town with a frozen banana in hand from Sugar ‘N Spice. Head to Mama D’s Italian Kitchen for homemade spinach ravioli and their famous pink sauce.
As a major art community, this Orange County beach town is home to many notable galleries. The Laguna Art Museum is worth visiting to view an impressive collection of art from around the state. Soak in the coastal beauty of Laguna Beach by heading to Main Beach, just steps away from the city center.
Drop by Nick’s Laguna Beach for a blackened fish sandwich or the grilled steakhouse salad.
LEGOLAND California may be this coastal city’s claim to fame, but there is a lot more than this popular theme park to do in the area. Every spring, the Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch boasts 50 acres of vibrant blooms. There is also the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, where you can indulge in an afternoon of self-care or perfect your swing on the golf courses.
For music enthusiasts, the Museum of Making Music, is a great spot to learn about how instruments are made, as well as try your hand at making your own music.
This eclectic seaside surf town has stunning beaches like Moonlight State Beach and Swami’s to spend a lazy afternoon lounging on and watch surfers do their thing. Further inland, the San Diego Botanic Garden has over 4,000 different plants from around the world, including rare bamboo groves and an intriguing undersea succulent garden.
Head back to town and walk along historic downtown Encinitas to browse the boutique stores and cafes.
For a quick San Diego day trip, this coastal beach town boasts a strong community feel. A whole afternoon can easily be spent at the Cedros Design District, where you can shop for home interior goods, stop into a café for a quick pick-me-up or browse the numerous art galleries.
For outdoor adventures, Fletcher Cove Beach is a sheltered inlet where you can take a swim or surf. Every summer, the Fiesta De Sol marks the beginning of the season, with live music, local art, and specialty foods.
One of the wealthier communities of North County, this glitzy beach town is known for events like the Del Mar Horse Races and San Diego County Fair located on the Del Mar Fairgrounds during the summertime. Spend the afternoon at picturesque beaches like Del Mar City Beach, and pup-friendly Dog Beach.
Every year in September, the city hosts the Taste of Del Mar, which features local artists in a free art walk, along with culinary highlights from nearby restaurants and live music.
California’s southernmost city is known for its many stunning beaches, delicious food, and laid-back attitude. Start your day out at Balboa Park, where you can go to one of the many museums including the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Space and Air Museum.
Afterward, go to La Jolla where you can explore tide pools or just walk along the ocean and watch playful seals and sea lions. For dinner (and dessert) head to Little Italy, where you can find anything from breweries to traditional Italian.
Head to this glam dessert town to spend a day cooling off at the Arrive Hotel, where anyone can use the pool free of charge. Hop on the rotating Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to take in panoramic views of Coachella Valley below and hike around the trails once you reach the top.
Walk along Palm Canyon Drive to browse the art galleries, antique shops, and retro-themed furniture stores. Make sure to stop by the Cabazon Dinosaurs on your way to Palm Springs to snap a pic with the life-sized dinos.
Head inland to indulge in a day of wine tasting in Temecula Valley Wine Country, with over forty wineries to taste some of the region’s best vino. Walk along the historic Old Town where you can browse shops and cafes that are housed along the wooden boardwalk and get a glimpse of the town’s Old West roots.
Go up in a hot air balloon at sunrise to see the expanse of vineyards from above or stay on the ground and play a round of golf. If you want to be a bit more active, rent a bike and spend the day biking through the vineyards.
There you have it. A California road trip that takes you from the coast, through the desert and mountains, and back to the ocean. Of course, you can mix and match the schedule so it fits your personal time frame.
You can extend your stay in places like Yosemite or Joshua Tree, if you have more time you can add on stops at places like Palm Springs if you want to experience this luxurious desert town where many Angelenos escape to on the weekend.
You can also stay in Los Angeles longer and explore all the different neighborhoods, and continue to eat your way through the city. It’s completely up to you.
Sources: Death Valley photo