From the picturesque beaches of Southern California to the tech fairytales of Silicon Valley and many other places, California seems to embody inspiration. Whether you find the mountains, the beach, the forests, or the agricultural valleys stir your creative juices, The Golden State can serve as the background for your masterpiece in whatever medium it might be.
World-class museums (both indoors and open-air), galleries, gardens, and protected natural landscapes can be found throughout California – and the best way to sample them is by getting behind the wheel and setting out on a road trip.
To help plan the perfect culture-focused California road trip, we turned to one of our own. Annie Greenberg is the Creative Director for Lonely Planet and lives much of the year in California with her husband, director and cinematographer (and California native) Jack Pearce. Together, they love being inspired by the wealth of creative culture the state has to offer. Over the past decade, Annie and Jack have discovered California’s wide range of adventurers and storytellers.
Exhibits at the Getty Museum span the millennia from ancient to contemporary art © OLOS / Shutterstock
California’s culture capital
While you can debate where the most exciting cultural trends develop in California, there’s no denying Los Angeles has long been where artists and their creations call home. If you love experiencing culture, it’s a great city for a dedicated trip – though a road trip will provide plenty of contrasts to inspire you even further.
© Graphic elements by Jacob Rhoades / Lonely Planet
Before leaving town, be sure to visit the J. Paul Getty Museum; exhibits here span the millennia from ancient to contemporary art, and it’s easy to spend a half-day here at minimum. The Getty campus is worth walking around as well: incredible architecture, landscape design and gardens await if you have time to take a stroll.
Some of Greenberg’s favorite LA culture spots include the Museum of Jurassic Technology with its modern take on the “cabinet of curiosities” collection, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, for film fans, and the Broad contemporary art museum.
Big Bear draws snow sports enthusiasts during colder times of the year © Annie Greenberg / Lonely Planet
Natural inspiration, and action
If experiencing nature is part of where you draw your personal inspiration, there’s no better place than California. After leaving Los Angeles head inland for Big Bear Lake, a popular weekend destination for Angelenos. Your experience in Big Bear depends a lot on the season: the large lake is popular for watersports in the summer months, and the mountain resort draws snow sports enthusiasts during colder times of the year.
“It blows my mind that in Cali you can surf and ski in the same day,” says Greenberg. “If you’re not going all the way up north [into the Sierra Mountains] for fresh powder, Big Bear is a fun and accessible mountain with all the trappings of a cold-weather getaway.”
It’s not a long drive from LA, but short days are part of what make this itinerary great: With a chance to stretch your legs and see completely different scenery than the city, it’s worth spending an overnight in Big Bear.
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places to see the dramatic differences in these seemingly similar ecosystems © Annie Greenberg / Lonely Planet
Inspiration from a unique climate
Another short drive brings you into some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes in the country: the deserts of southeastern California. But not all deserts are created equal, and Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places to see the dramatic differences in these seemingly similar ecosystems.
This relatively small park is where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet, so different areas of the park have wildly varied species.
“I’ve never been off-planet, but Joshua Tree National Park comes close,” says Greenberg. “I love the otherworldly nature and the rough terrain. As a bicoastal transplant, I really crave this expanse – and the heat – when I’m away from it.”
Skull Rock is a popular photo spot in Joshua Tree National Park © blazg / Shutterstock
Within the park, there are a few essential sites: Cholla Cactus Garden is a prime spot to watch the sunrise, where the cuddly-looking cacti harbor painful spines (look, but don’t touch!). Arch Rock is an easy hike from White Campground, and the aptly named Skull Rock is another popular photo spot.
After a night or two in one of the communities near the park (the towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and 27 Palms are all good choices), it’s time to move on. Heading south through the park cuts off some driving time to reach Palm Springs, which has long been an artist’s enclave outside LA.
The Palm Springs Art Museum claims to be the largest cultural institution in the Coachella Valley and the permanent exhibits boast media in many forms: from light art to sculpture to more traditional paintings and photography. Palm Springs is also an excellent base for taking an overnight stay and striking out to explore the rest of the Coachella Valley. Check out Salvation Mountain, a weird and wonderful open-air “visionary environment” in the heart of the otherwise stark landscape.
The courtyard of Mission San Juan Capistrano is beautiful at dusk © Alizada Studios / Shutterstock
Coastal culture on display
Descending from the desert elevations, it’s a nice drive back toward the Pacific Coast. A series of state highways and large interstates will deliver you to San Juan Capistrano, famous – among other things – for its beautiful Spanish Colonial mission.
From here, you have two choices: return by the fastest route on Interstate 5 or follow the meandering path along the Pacific Coast Highway (US 101). The latter takes you through a series of communities with surprisingly varied styles: Dana Point is popular among surfers and offers great boutique shopping, Huntington Beach is a great spot for food and a stroll on the beach, and Long Beach is home to more incredible museums, including the Museum of Latin American Art and Rancho Los Cerritos (a 19th-century adobe home and museum).
Your road trip ends where it began, in the City of Angels. Before returning your car or departing, be sure to swing by the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. This enclave is home to incredible forms of expression and the open-air setting is peaceful despite being in one of America’s biggest cities. Preparing to fly home is a grand finale: even Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) has several public art displays and exhibits where you can pass the time before takeoff.
Other California culture experiences
There’s culture throughout California, so you can easily explore other regions and discover the different styles and ways of thinking that have shaped the state.
San Francisco Museum of modern art in downtown San Francisco offers a world-class collection in an inspiring space © travelview / Shutterstock
San Francisco Bay Area: This eclectic region is well-known for combining technology, art, and culture, and – like Los Angeles – could justify a trip of its own. For a few unmissable options, look into the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMoMA for short, for a world-class collection in an inspiring space; Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland hills and Link Observatory outside San Jose are both incredible spots for those who love to gaze beyond our atmosphere; and The Tech Interactive in San Jose brings together science and technology in a way unique to the Bay Area.
For a good look at California’s surf culture, head to communities like Muir Beach © digidreamgrafix / Shutterstock
North Coast: While it can be hard to see the evidence of California’s indigenous people since Spanish missionaries settled along the coast centuries ago, you can experience Native Californian culture at the Yurok Country Visitor Center. The Yurok tribe shares the land along the Pacific Coast with Redwoods State and National Parks, and the visitor center along the Pacific Coast Highway shares information about the people, their history and culture in the region. For a change of pace, there are also surfer enclaves all along the Pacific Coast, in communities like Pacifica, Muir Beach, and Bodega Bay, where you can take a lesson from those who are drawn to the power of the ocean.
A horse-drawn stagecoach ride waits for passengers near preserved historic building in Columbia State Historic Park, in Gold Country © Michael Vi / Shutterstock
Gold Country: Inland, there are even more unique cultural experiences to discover. California’s Gold Country, as the name suggests, still embraces its historical origins. CA-49 (numbered for the year of the Gold Rush) runs through several small towns with art galleries and artisan craftspeople – as well as living history experiences. Be sure to visit Marshall Gold Discovery Museum (near Coloma) to get acquainted with the past, and Kennedy Gold Mine (near Jackson) for a deeply interactive experience.
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