Road-tripping is the ultimate way to experience California, so fill the gas tank and buckle up for unforgettable drives through scenery that tugs at your heart and soul.
Get ready for memory-making encounters as you wheel through sensuous wine country, humbling redwood forests, epic desert expanses, endless miles of coastal highway and sky-touching Sierra Nevada peaks. Just make sure that rental car has unlimited miles – you’ll need ’em all.
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California is the third-largest state in the US, and you could easily spend weeks navigating its rural byways, safely distant from the nerve-jangling, often-jammed interstate system. These five classic road-tripping routes are soaked in enough epic scenery to make each deliciously slow, winding mile worthwhile.
You’ll hit the Insta jackpot on the Pacific Coast Highway © Getty Images / iStockphoto
1. Pacific Coast Highway
Best road trip for world-class ocean views & autumn trips
Dana Point at Interstate 5–Hwy 101 in Leggett; 656 miles
No matter if you follow the entire 656 miles or just a short stretch of coast-hugging Hwy 1, you’ll hit the Insta jackpot. Posing options include dramatic sea cliffs, sun-soaked surfing towns, playful harbor seals and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Our top pick for classic California dreamin’ snakes along the Pacific coast, although officially, only the short, sun-loving stretch of Hwy 1 through Orange and Los Angeles Counties can legally call itself Pacific Coast Hwy (PCH). Never mind those technicalities, because equally bewitching ribbons of Hwy 1 and Hwy 101 await all along this route.
Local tip: For best results, avoid driving the PCH in the spring and summer months, when the central and northern coastline can be socked in by fog and the rainy season can initiate landslides. Instead, September and October will yield the sunniest skies and some of the best weather as you spend a week checking this beaut off your bucket list.
Motor across the Mojave Desert on America’s “Mother Road” © Getty Images / iStockphoto
2. Route 66
Best for iconic drives & weekend drives
Arizona border near Needles–Santa Monica; 315 miles
Get your kicks on America’s “Mother Road,” which brought Dust Bowl refugees, Hollywood starlets and hippies to California. Cruise from the desert to the Pacific Ocean, pulling up alongside retro relics, sleeping in a tipi hotel and fueling up in neon-lit diners.
The Golden State was the promised land at the end of a long and sometimes lonesome road. Today you motor across the Mojave Desert – a relative breeze compared to times of yore – through famous western towns, like Barstow and Daggett, into the San Bernardino National Forest. Emerge in Pasadena and Los Angeles before dead ending into Hwy 1 in Santa Monica for a grand coastal-view payoff.
3. Gold Country and California Highway 49
Best for historic hills & family road trips
Oakhurst–Nevada City; 200 miles
Follow Hwy 49 through the rough-and-tumble Sierra Nevada foothills, a stronghold of gold-rush history with thrilling, mostly true tales of banditry, bordellos and bloodlust.
That highway number is significant: it commemorates the ’49ers who came seeking fame and fortune in California’s original Gold Rush. Today the route winds through Gold Country towns such as Placerville and Nevada City, past ghostly Old West mines and Victorian buildings housing inns, restaurants and museums.
You won’t want to miss the blend of western history and charming wineries strung along stunning views of the Sierra Nevada. Give yourself three to four days to enjoy this outdoorsy, family-friendly road trip. Summer and early fall are ideal times to go.
Detour: Hwy 49 comes mighty close to Yosemite National Park (15 miles) and Lake Tahoe (75 miles), both wonderful jumping-off points for family camping and natural majesty.
Avenue of the Giants is one of the most celebrated drives in California © Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon / Getty Images
4. Avenue of the Giants
Best for road trips with kids & raw redwood brilliance
Stafford–Highway 101 junction; 32 miles
The incredible 32-mile road at Humboldt Redwoods State Park is canopied by the world’s tallest trees, some of which were seedlings during the Roman Empire. It’s one of the most justifiably celebrated drives in California, a place where travelers stand with jaws agape and necks craned upward. The best time is in the morning when sunlight glints off dew-drenched ferns.
The route connects a number of small towns with mid-20th-century motels, diners serving “lumberjack” meals and pull-offs packed with Harleys.
Among the majestic groves along the Avenue, like the rightly famous Rockefeller Grove and the Founders’ Grove, the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove is home to an interesting four-sided hearth, designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan. Walking trails wind through all the groves for proper tree-hugging.
Tank up and pack plenty of water for the trip from Palm Springs to Death Valley © Getty Images
5. Desert Solitaire in Death Valley
Best road trip for moody moonscapes & winter or spring driving
Palm Springs–Death Valley; 290 miles
Tank up and load the water onboard as you road-trip from Palm Springs through Palm Desert and Joshua Tree up to Death Valley. You’ll drive where California pioneers and gold miners once rolled their wagons.
In Death Valley National Park the magnum forces of natural and human history collide. Artists Drive is nine miles of vividly variegated desert hills, a taster of the area’s sensuous sand dunes, water-sculpted canyons, rocks moving across the desert floor, extinct volcanic craters, palm-shaded oases, soaring mountains and endemic flora.
Local tip: Go between February and April for spring wildflower blooms and cooler temperatures. Give yourself three days to soak up sites like Badwater Basin (the lowest elevation in the US), Mesquite Flat and Emigrant & Wildrose Canyons.