For vacations in most states, you drive to the amusement. But in the Golden State, the drive is the amusement. Blessed with incredible terrain and scenic highways, it’s a must-visit destination for any road tripper. We’ve rounded up some of the best road trips in California.
Best Road Trip in California #1: Highway 1
If you’re coming to Northern California from out of town and only have a couple days on the road, this is a no-brainer. Classic California scenes of windy highways with unadulterated ocean views make this a breathtaking drive that you won’t regret taking. The only dilemma: if you’re starting from the San Francisco Bay Area, do you go south towards Big Sur or north towards Bodega Bay? With vistas like these, you won’t go wrong either way, making it our top pick for the best road trip in California.
- Driving south, you’ll be on the right side of the road practically next to the water, so have the passengers get the camera ready.
- Heavy winter rains have caused landslides, knocking out significant portions of Highway 1, so plan ahead.
Between Woodside and Los Gatos, highway 35 hugs the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains and becomes a curvy tree-lined road fit for great weekend drives. A stone’s throw away from the city, you can head out in the morning, grab lunch at Alice’s (which becomes a de-facto car and motorcycle show on weekends), and be home in time for dinner all in the same day. Or better yet, continue down to Big Basin and drive through the old growth redwood forest that towers above.
PRO TIP: On a clear day, pull off at the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve and climb to the nearby summit of the eponymous hill for an amazing 360 panorama. From one spot, you’ll catch peeks of San Jose to the south, San Francisco to the north, Oakland to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Skyline boulevard from windy hill summit. . . . . #agameoftones #alwayssf #amazingcalifornia #bayarea #california #CaliforniaCaptures #conquer_ca #Conquer_SF #exceptional_pictures #fatalframes #heatercentral #highway35 #ig_california #ig_landscape #ig_thisworld #igerssf #ignorcal #igsanfrancisco #jj_california #justgoshoot #landscape #nowrongwaysf #road #sf #siliconvalley #streetsofsf #superhubs #westcoast_exposures #wildbayarea #wildcalifornia
Best Road Trip in California #3: Highway 395
The Eastern Sierras are seriously beautiful. Drive south from Lake Tahoe (or cut through Yosemite to see America’s most jaw dropping National Park) and watch the snow-capped Sierras on your right flatten out into the vast desert to your left. The proximity to nature’s many playgrounds here make this one of the best road trips in California.
PRO TIP: For a surprisingly great rest stop, check out the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and have a picnic in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48.
Best Road Trip in California #4: Lassen to Shasta: Highway 44
It’s a long drive from San Francisco, but those traveling this far north will be rewarded with lush pine forests and occasional views of Mount Shasta in the distance. Head east from Redding and snake your way towards the Lassen National Forest area for great camping among the nearby natural wonders.
On the road again. . #vanlife #sprintervanlife #sprintervan #sprinter4x4 #overland #overlandbound #aluminess #campvibes #ourcamplife #overland #overlandlife #vanlifediaries #wildernessculture #rei #patagonia #rei1440project #mbsprinter #responsibleoutdoors #californiaadventure #homeiswhereyouparkit #homeonwheels #campervan #gorving #rvlife #throughmywindow #iphoneography #shotoniphone
Best Road Trip in California #5: Ebbets Pass
While Lake Tahoe itself is beautiful, driving around the area is too traffic-laden to achieve the open road feeling you’re reading this for. If you’re looking for a great alpine drive, the better bet is to head south to highway 4 to Ebbet’s Pass, one of the most scenic routes in the mid-state national forests.
Best Road Trip in California #6: Gold country: Highway 49
Put the old-world charm of gold country at your fingertips and take a couple of days to explore the foothill towns between Sonora and Auburn. Wineries and other attractions abound in the region, resulting in a choose-your-own-adventure that’ll leave you wishing for more vacation days.
Sometimes, you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself. #r1200gs #bmwmotorrad #bmwmotorradusa #xladv #makelifearide #advlife #lionsnotsheep #getoutandexplore #1200gs #nelsonrigg #bmwadventureriders #harrisoneurosports #bigbikelife #bmwadvriders #hwy49 #sierracounty #HIGHWAY49
Honorable mention: I-280
This one very nearly made the cut as one of the best road trips in California. Whereas the 101 is a pothole-strewn stroke inducer, the Junipero Serra freeway is a gem of an interstate, with 22 miles of it designated state scenic highway. Connecting San Jose, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco, this traffic corridor is one you’d go out of your way to take to work. Six miles away, the 101 runs parallel to the 280, but in terms of drive quality, they’re worlds apart.
Drive by the Crystal Springs Reservoir, watch the fog roll over the Santa Cruz mountains, and marvel at the fact that, yes, you are in fact on an eight lane interstate. The best commute in the world? Tough to say, but certainly not the worst.
Dishonorable mention: 17-Mile Drive
Yes, it’s a nice drive, but definitely not one of the best road trips in California (in our opinion). Why pay the $10 Pebble Beach toll to drive a short 30 minutes of the California coast when you can do it for free north and south of the area? If you’re only in this area and in a rush, it’s a good idea. Otherwise, save the money and put it towards post-drive drinks in Carmel-By-The-Sea.