My favorite way to see California is by driving through it. Even thought I was born and raised here, it still doesn’t cease to impress me with its diverse landscape, where you can find desert, ocean, and mountains within a few hours of each other. The classic Highway 1 road trip itinerary is one 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 that will take you from the ocean to the desert to the mountains to get a taste of what this great state has to offer.
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A Complete California Road Trip Itinerary For 10 Days
This guide starts from San Francisco and heads down the coast. If you’re starting out in Los Angeles, just do the reverse route.
San Francisco (2 Days)
The City By The Bay is a great place to get your bearings in, spoil yourself at all the good food and visit the diverse neighborhoods that each feel 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 in the center of it all, in Union Square, where you will be surrounded by department store giants like Macy’s (head to the upper floors for aerial views of the square). Afterward, explore nearby historical neighborhoods like Chinatown and North Beach. On the second day, hop on a ferry and cross the bay to Sausalito, a small seaside city that boasts a stunning view of SF and the bay.
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.
Big Sur (1 Day)
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 winter time.
- 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, a 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 Beachfeels almost otherworldly with its lavender-colored sand and key hole 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 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.
Santa Barbara (1 Day)
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
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.
Grab lunch at the Natural Cafe on State Street, which has a great selection of sandwiches, soups and salads. Stroll down State Street in 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 complementary 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.
Los Angeles (2 Days)
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 beach side neighborhoods.
To really understand how big the city is, head to the Griffith Observatory in East LA. For some serious relaxation, spend a day at the Wii Spa in Koreatown, where a mere $25 will get you a day pass to all the bathes and saunas. 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 amusement park, 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 are also branches in West Hollywood and 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.
Joshua Tree (1 Day)
Joshua Tree National Park 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 is conveniently located near the south entrance to the park, this local store 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.
Through 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 pack lunch in for the trails.
Entrance fee: $30 for a 7-day vehicle pass as of September 10, 2020.
Death Valley (1 Day)
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).
Timbisha Village Frybread Tacos and Shave Ice for veggie and meat taco options. 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 dessert 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 September 10, 2020.
Yosemite National Park (1 Day)
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 less 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 Bridalvail 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, Bridevail 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 Tuolumme 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 Ahwahnee (Majestic Yosemite Hotel) 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 Majestic Yosemite Hotel in the valley is a popular choice.
- If you prefer more rustic accommodations, the Half Dome Village is worth checking out for their 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 September 10, 2020.
Lake Tahoe (1 Day)
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. Note 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 overdue 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 in 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 choose 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.
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.
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.
Planning your 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.
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 an Angelenos escapes 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.
What places are on your California road trip?
Sources: Death Valley photo