12 Best California Road Trips For Your Bucket List

If you’re hoping to see more of California, there’s no better way to see more of the Golden State than by hitting the open road!

California is one of America’s best states for road tripping, with everything from scenic coastal highways to steep mountain hairpins and stunning desert desolation.

I’ve written this guide to best California road trips and broken it into two sections: Northern California road trips, which all depart from San Francisco, and Southern California road trips, which all depart from Los Angeles.

I understand not everyone will be departing from those specific cities, but I think they’re enough of a regional hub that, say, someone departing from Sacramento or Santa Cruz can use one of these SF road trip ideas just as easily as someone from San Diego or Santa Barbara can use one of these LA road trip ideas!

Below is my list of all the best road trips in California, covering virtually every national park, countless incredible cities and natural landscapes, and so much more!

Best Northern California Road Trips from San Francisco

San Francisco Peninsula & Big Sur

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The famous arch bridge of Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, next to the Pacific Ocean, with several wild purple lupine flowers in front of the shot.

Start Point: San Francisco
End Point: San Simeon
Distance: 217 miles
Driving Time: 4 hours, 45 minutes (one way)
Recommended Number of Days: 3 days
Route: San Francisco –> Pacifica –> Pescadero –> Santa Cruz –> Capitola –> Monterey –> Carmel-by-the-Sea –> Big Sur –> San Simeon

It doesn’t get much more classic California road trip than heading down the coast to Big Sur, does it? While Big Sur has long been a California local favorite, it’s gotten a lot more popular in recent years due to the advent of Instagram and Big Little Lies.

However, despite its recent boom in popularity, Big Sur is still absolutely worth a visit… just be sure to follow proper etiquette when you visit and don’t be a “selfie tourist”.

Spend a few days exploring Big Sur and appreciating it beyond its most Instagrammable points. Go for a beautiful hike in Garrapata State Park or Point Lobos State Park, immersing yourself in the nature further. Or watch the elephant seals squeal and play along the coast at one of their many chill-out spots, the most famous of which is in San Simeon.

Spend a few days camping in Big Sur, enjoying the company of old-growth forest and beautiful redwoods, and you’ll get to see for yourself why this corner of California is absolutely worth protecting.

But beyond Big Sur itself, there are plenty of small coastal towns along the way worthy of a stop.

The towns on the San Francisco peninsula such as Half Moon Bay and Pescadero are absolutely breathtaking and usually not very crowded, only with a few local day-trippers rather than hordes of out-of-town tourists.

Santa Cruz is quite popular in the summer due to its boardwalk, but even there, it’s quite easy to get some peace and quiet by immersing yourself in the forests, state parks, and state beaches that surround it.

Take a blissful walk in the redwoods of Henry Cowell, or opt for a beautiful beach walk along Natural Bridges.

Monterey is a wonderful place to base yourself for a bit, indulging in whale watching tours, local seafood, and one of the best aquariums in the world, whereas Carmel-by-the-Sea is a fantastic former artist colony that is now a beloved, in-the-know weekend getaway from San Francisco beloved by nearly all who visit it even once.

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Seeing the iconic California lighthouses along the coast such as Pigeon Point and the Santa Cruz Breakwater Light
  • Spending the day relaxing at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or hiking in Santa Cruz
  • Going on a whale-watching tour in Monterey and checking out the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • Stopping at stunning photography spots in Big Sur such as Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls, and Pfeiffer Beach
  • Seeing the stunning mansion that is Hearst Castle and the wild elephant seal reserve at your endpoint in San Simeon

San Francisco to Mendocino

A picturesque cabin house in Mendocino with birds of paradise orange flowers overlooking a cliff with blue ocean beneath it

Start Point: San Francisco
End Point: Mendocino
Distance: 171 miles
Driving Time: 4 hours, 50 minutes (one way)
Recommended Number of Days: 5 days
Route: San Francisco –> Muir Woods –> Stinson Beach –> (Optional: Point Reyes)–> Bodega Bay –> Jenner –> Sea Ranch –> Point Arena –> Mendocino –> (Optional: Glass Beach at Fort Bragg)

For a beautiful Northern California road trip that gets you a bit off the beaten path, head up through the Marin Headlands upon leaving San Francisco for some beautiful local spots before you start making your way up north to Mendocino and Fort Bragg.

The towering redwoods of Muir Woods meander through a beautiful grove of trees with several incredible hiking trails for all levels, including the more difficult Dipsea Trail which allows you to get to beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean after emerging from the redwood forest.

If you’re blessed with some sunny weather, lay out on the beautiful Stinson Beach and watch the surfers ride the waves. However, more often than not, Stinson Beach will be rather foggy and moody — which makes it no less beautiful, though perhaps a little less inviting for sunbathing.

Continue up the coast towards Bodega Bay (making a stop at Point Reyes along the way if you’d like, where you can see a beautiful lighthouse and do some Point Reyes hikes) as well as the Cypress Tree Tunnel in nearby Inverness, a great photography spot.

You’ll continue up towards Bodega Bay (the filming location of Hitchcock’s Birds!) and a famous place for whale-watching, as well as the beautiful coastal town of Jenner, which is where the Russian River and Pacific meet in a beautiful embrace, creating two epic beaches: Jenner Beach and Goat Rock Beach, two of my favorite wild beaches in Northern California.

From there, you can continue up the coast to reach the one-with-nature architectural community of Sea Ranch, where the buildings seemingly melt into the sea grass, cliffside landscape, not interrupting the beauty of nature. Further up, you’ll notice the Point Arena lighthouse, a great final stop before reaching Mendocino.

Mendocino is known for its wines, whale-watching, and wonderful hikes, so make it a point to stay in Mendocino for at least a few nights. I also recommend extending your California road trip a tiny bit more north to hit up the Glass Beach at Fort Bragg.

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Wandering amongst beautiful redwoods at the closet redwoods to San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument
  • Watching the surfers at the beautiful Stinson Beach
  • Admiring the quaint town of Bodega Bay and trying to spot migrating whales from the Bodega Head peninsula
  • See where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean at Jenner
  • Stop at the beautiful lighthouse at Point Arena on your way up to Mendocino, with an optional further trip to the Glass Beach at Fort Bragg on your way.

San Francisco to Wine Country

Two glasses of white wine with the rolling vineyards of Napa in the background

Start Point: San Francisco
End Point: Calistoga
Distance: 155 miles
Driving Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes (one way)
Recommended Number of Days: 3 days
Route: San Francisco –> Sebastopol –> Healdsburg –> Glen Ellen –> Napa –> St. Helena –> Calistoga

Nothing says a Northern California road trip like wine, wine, wine! This epic wine country road trip in California will bring you to what (in my extremely biased opinion) are the two best wine regions in California: Sonoma County and Napa Valley. Be sure to have a designated driver for this Cali road trip, or plan for frequent overnight stops to sober up: all those wine tastings will add up, and I don’t encourage anyone to drive unsafely.

This wine-themed California road trip has you departing San Francisco and making your way directly to Sebastopol. Sebastopol is a great gateway to further exploration of Sonoma County, and while it may be a deceptively small town of some 10,000 residents, there’s quite a bit to do there. Check out the funky Barlow district, and indulge in some of the local wineries and tasting rooms.

Don’t miss the Golden State Cider Taproom (Sebastopol is known for its Gravenstein apples!) in the Barlow, and then head out to some of the local wineries. My favorite is Iron Horse Vineyards, which is great for sparkling wine lovers. Halleck is also great, but his tastings are a bit pricy and require an advance reservation. But we loved his wines so much my family became wine club members!

Next up, hit up funky Healdsburg, which has even more delicious wines (try Simi Winery and Seghesio Family Vineyards, which is known for its Zins) and lots of great art galleries to peruse while you walk off some of the wine. Next up, visit the beautiful Glen Ellen, which has some great wineries but its main draw are its parks (especially beautiful in autumn): Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

Finally, make your way to Napa and St. Helena for some of the most luxe wineries in all of California! I recommend Hendry Winery and Monticello in Napa, and Merryvale in St. Helena. Downtown Napa is also a fun stop with its funky Oxbow Market which is a great place to grab a picnic or sit-down lunch.

Finally, end this Northern California wine road trip in Calistoga, watching the geyser, indulging in a local mud bath made from geothermal waters, and of course — doing more wine tasting!

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Drinking tasty sparkling wine at Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol
  • Checking out the hip art galleries of Healdsburg
  • Enjoying the scenic Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen
  • Visiting Oxbow Market and the trendy tasting rooms in Downtown Napa
  • Seeing the geyser at Calistoga and staying in a spa hotel with mud baths

San Francisco Loop via Tahoe, Eastern Sierras & Yosemite

Man at Taft point at sunset standing on cliff edge

Start Point: San Francisco
End Point: San Francisco
Distance: 640 miles
Driving Time: 12 hours, 22 minutes (total loop)
Recommended Number of Days: 7-10 days
Route: San Francisco –> Sacramento –> Truckee –> North Lake Tahoe –> South Lake Tahoe –> Bridgeport –> Lee Vining –> June Lake –> Mammoth Lakes –> Yosemite –> San Francisco

This is one of the longer California road trips, which covers quite a bit of Northern California as well as the Eastern Sierras. This is an ideal fall road trip in California, as the area around Bridgeport, Lee Vining, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, and Yosemite all boast incredible fall foliage in California!

Start off in Sacramento, doing a walk along the river bank along the “City of Trees.” Next up is Truckee, a popular stop just north of Lake Tahoe, that has its own quaint small town vibe. From North Lake Tahoe, make your way to South Lake Tahoe via the west coast of the lake, stopping at all the incredible viewpoints along the way.

You’ll definitely want to make a point of stopping in D.L. Bliss State Park and Emerald Bay State Park, and I also highly suggest doing a few Tahoe hikes while you’re in this area, like the Eagle Falls hike with incredible waterfall and Emerald Bay views.

Next, you’ll head south to Bridgeport and Lee Vining, where the beautiful fall foliage of Mono County begin! June Lake is a lesser-known but incredible stop in the Eastern Sierras, wonderful in all seasons: wildflowers in spring, swimming in summer, fall leaves in autumn, and snow sports in winter!

Drive the scenic but short June Lake Loop before making your way to Mammoth Lakes, stopping optionally at some of the hot springs near Mammoth Lakes along the way.

After enjoying some time in Mammoth Lakes (whether it’s winter, fall, summer, or any time in between), make your way to Yosemite. Whether you have one day for Yosemite, or better yet, two days for Yosemite, you’re sure to love exploring this incredible national park which, in my opinion, is the most beautiful national park in California.

Finally, it’s a long drive back to San Francisco, though of course, you could continue the California road trip south through Sequoia National Park and other southern California national parks if you want to continue on!

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Enjoying some time exploring Sacramento’s river waterfront and seeing the State Capitol Building
  • Wandering around the quaint town of Truckee near Tahoe
  • Drinking your way around the South Lake Tahoe Beer Trail
  • Driving the scenic June Lake Loop
  • Tackling the best easy hikes that Yosemite National Park has to offer

San Francisco to Eureka

Small square filled with plant life in front of the famous green Victorian Carson Mansion multi-story house in Eureka, california

Start Point: San Francisco
End Point: Eureka
Distance: 317 miles
Driving Time: 7 hours, 15 minutes (one way)
Recommended Number of Days: 7 days
Route: San Francisco –> [optional: Muir Woods, Stinson Beach] Bodega Bay –> [optional: Jenner, Sea Ranch, Gualala, Elk] Mendocino –> Fort Bragg –> Avenue of the Giants –> Ferndale –> Eureka

This road trip has you going along California’s coast for a bit before ducking inland to go through the redwood forests of Redwood National and State Parks through the beautiful Avenue of the Giants, giving you the best that Northern California has to offer.

You can optionally stop at Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, and Mt. Tamalpais State Park on your way up to Bodega Bay, but I went over that in another California road trip itinerary earlier in this post, so feel free to go up and re-read that section if you choose to add those to this itinerary.

Next up, hit up Bodega Bay for an overnight, indulging in some whale-watching and sightseeing the beautiful architecture in this foggy, scenic seaside town. Between Bodega and Mendocino, you can make optional stops at Jenner, Sea Ranch, Gualala, and Elk, though since this is a bit of a longer road trip, I suggest just going straight to Mendocino unless any of those stops are particularly calling out to do.

After spending some time enjoying wine, whale watching, and hikes in Mendocino, head to Fort Bragg for a ride on the nostalgic ‘Skunk Train’ and wandering along the scenic Glass Beach. Next up, you’ll drive straight up inland through the Avenue of the Giants, where you can stop at some of the novelty points like the Drive-Thru Tree along the way.

Finally, make your way to the scenic small town of Ferndale, which has gorgeous Victorian-inspired architecture and is a gateway to California’s Lost Coast beaches, before finally reaching Eureka, a gem of Victorian architecture and home to the Carson Mansion, one of the most famous individual residential buildings in all of California.

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Admire the filming location of The Birds in Bodega Bay as well as do some whale-watching on a cruise or from Bodega Head viewpoint
  • Relax for a few days in Mendocino, hiking, trying the local wines (some of the most underrated in California), visiting lighthouses, and whale watching.
  • Go to the Glass Beach or take the nostalgic ‘Skunk Train’ through Fort Bragg
  • Drive through the Avenue of the Giants awe-inspiring redwood alley
  • Check out the adorable downtown of Ferndale and chill in Centerville Beach County Park and other beaches of California’s Lost Coast
  • Make your way up to the incredible Victorian architecture town of Eureka, being sure not to miss Carson Mansion!

San Francisco to Lassen Volcanic National Park

The deep blue waters of Manzanita Lake reflecting the peak of Mt Shasta in the water on a blue sky day with very few clouds

Start Point: San Francisco
End Point: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Distance: 368 miles
Driving Time: 6 hours, 10 minutes (one way)
Recommended Number of Days: 5 days
Route: San Francisco –> Sacramento –> Redding –> Shasta Lake (+ optional hikes) –> Burney Falls –> Lassen Volcanic National Park

Starting in San Francisco, this California road trip will bring you all the way to Lassen Volcanic National Park, one of California’s national parks that gets far less credit than it deserves!

Make a quick pit stop in Sacramento for lunch and a walk along either the American or Sacramento River along one of the pedestrian and bike trails that make this city a heaven for pedestrians and cyclists. Then, make your way to Redding, crossing the famous Sundial Bridge which goes over the Sacramento River in a beautiful feat of architecture.

After that, you’ll arrive in Shasta Lake, where you can indulge in some swimming, boating, or other water sports. Alternately, you could keep going from here and do some Mt. Shasta area hikes if you’re a hiking fiend.

If you’re done with hiking, head to Burney Falls for a quick walk to see one of the most beautiful and easy-to-access waterfalls in California. This is also located right by the famous Pacific Crest Trail, made famous by the book and movie Wild, so if you want to walk even just a bit on the PCT, here’s your chance!

Finally, you’ll end this Cali road trip in Lassen Volcanic National Park, where you should at least make the time to visit Manzanita Lake, one of the best views of Lassen Volcanic National Park where you can see the peak beautifully reflecting in the crystal clear waters of the lake. Bumpass Hell is also a really fun hike (albeit a smelly one) where you can hike through a geothermal landscape reminiscent of Iceland!

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Marvel at the twin rivers of Sacramento and enjoy a walk in the so-called City of Trees
  • Cross the famous Sundial Bridge over the Sacramento River into Redding
  • Spend the day relaxing in the sun or boating on Shasta Lake, perhaps taking some time to do some hikes near Mt. Shasta
  • Check out the marvelous waterfalls of Burney Falls just off the PCT (and maybe hike a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail!)
  • Head to Lassen Volcanic National Park to see Bumpass Hell, Manzanita Lake, and other park highlights

San Francisco to Crescent City

The white and red-roof lighthouse of Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent city with the lead-up to the lighthouse completely covered in a blanket of pink flowers

Start Point: San Francisco
End Point: Crescent City
Distance: 317 miles
Driving Time: 7 hours, 45 minutes (one way)
Recommended Number of Days: 7 days
Route: San Francisco –> San Rafael –> Healdsburg –> Vichy Springs –> Avenue of the Giants –> Eureka –> Arcata –> Fern Canyon –> Crescent City

This California road trip leaving from San Francisco goes all the way up practically to Oregon!

Start with a brief lunch pit stop in San Rafael, eating at the delicious and widely beloved Sol Food restaurant which serves up Caribbean and Puerto Rican fare (it’s a must-visit stop on all my road trips in California when I’m heading any point north!).

After you’ve eaten, head up to Healdsburg for some wine tasting and gallery perusing, or take a walk in some of the redwood forests near Healdsburg.

Finally, head to Vichy Springs Resort, where you can take a ‘champagne bath’ — don’t worry for your wallet, it’s not real champagne: that’s just what they call it because the naturally-carbonated waters bubble furiously, almost like a flute of champagne would! It’s a really fun and low-key experience soaking in the rustic, carbonated waters of Vichy Springs for the day, and it makes a great place to stop and spend the night on a multi-day California road trip.

Next up, continue north until you pass through the Avenue of the Giants. Again, here you can stop at some of the novelty spots, or you can stop and do some hikes in this part of the Humboldt Redwoods: it’s up to you! You’ll make a pit stop in Eureka and Arcata to admire the Victorian architecture of these quaint Northern Californian towns, before heading to Fern Canyon for an epic hike.

Fern Canyon is basically exactly what it sounds like: a hike surrounded by ferns in a Jurassic Park-looking environment you’ll have a hard time believing is in California and not a tropical rainforest somewhere! It’s absolutely worth a stop on this trip, especially since it’s so far north, it’s unlikely you’ll pass it again, so definitely make a stop here.

Finally, you’ll end in Crescent City, the last major city in California before reaching the border with Oregon. Enjoy the Battery Point lighthouse or some more redwood hikes in the vicinity!

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Stop in San Rafael for a Puerto Rican lunch at Sol Food and some vintage and second-hand shopping
  • Do some winery-browsing at the hip wineries and galleries of Healdsburg
  • Soak in the ‘champagne baths’ at Vichy Springs Resort
  • Drive the awe-inspiring Avenue of the Giants highway through the redwood canopy
  • Marvel at the architecture of Eureka and Arcata
  • Go for a Jurassic Park vibes hike in Fern Canyon
  • See one of the northernmost cities in California and marvel at its unique (and haunted!) Battery Point Lighthouse

Best Southern California Road Trips from Los Angeles

Los Angeles Loop via the Desert

Colorfully painted rocks in the desert, topped with a cross on top, which reads "God is love" and "Say Jesus I'm a sinner please come upon my body and into my heart."

Start Point: Los Angeles
End Point: Los Angeles
Distance: 485 miles
Driving Time: 8 hours, 50 minutes
Recommended Number of Days: 5-7 days
Route: Los Angeles –> Palm Springs –> Joshua Tree National Park –> Salton Sea –> Salvation Mountain –> Anza Borrego State Park –> Temecula –> Los Angeles

Starting in Los Angeles, make your way to Palm Springs, a beloved Southern California getaway spot for sun-seekers and architecture-lovers alike. Admire the mid-century modern architecture mixed with the desert landscapes, wander around the incredible windmill farms, and take the aerial tramway up for views over Palm Springs.

After a day or two in Palm Springs, hit up Joshua Tree National Park, which is worth a day or two of sightseeing on this Southern California road trip. Make sure to see the Cholla Cactus Garden, Skull Rock, Keys Ranch, and other key spots in the park to maximize your time in Joshua Tree.

Next up is a bit of a peculiar place: the Salton Sea. Don’t get in your bathing suit just yet: while beautiful, the Salton Sea is very toxic due to rising salt levels and bacteria, and it is definitely not suitable for swimming! However, it’s a great place for admiring the strange beauty of this bygone desert resort, and it’s a great place for birdwatching and sunsets.

Next up is the strange Salvation Mountain and Slab City, a renegade artist community in the middle of the desert. They welcome a lot of visitors, so don’t be afraid to visit, despite what you may have heard about Slab City!

Finally, head to Anza Borrego State Park to enjoy some more desert landscapes, before heading to Temecula for some bougie wine tasting (and maybe even a sunrise hot air balloon if you’re fancy like that!) on your way back to Los Angeles!

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Relaxing in the mid-century modern architectural oasis of Palm Springs
  • Seeing the iconic Joshua Tree National Park and staying in a cool desert Airbnb to stargaze
  • Marveling at the bizarre landscape of the Salton Sea
  • Seeing the strange art of Slab City, especially Salvation Mountain
  • Wine tasting in the cute town of Temecula

Los Angeles Loop via the Eastern Sierras & 4 National Parks

Twin lakes of Mammoth Lakes: two slightly connected brilliant turquoise lakes surrounded by lots of pine trees and low-lying hills and mountains on a sunny day

Start Point: Los Angeles
End Point: Los Angeles
Distance: 1,057 miles
Driving Time: 19 hours, 20 minutes (total loop)
Recommended Number of Days: 2 weeks
Route: Los Angeles –> Tecopa –> Furnace Creek (Death Valley NP) –> Lone Pine –> Bishop –> Mammoth Lakes –> June Lake –> Yosemite National Park –> Sequoia National Park –> Kings Canyon National Park –> Los Angeles

This incredible Southern California itinerary covers a whopping four national parks in just two weeks (though it could be done in less if you don’t mind rushing around a bit).

Make your first stop Tecopa, a desert community at the gateway to Death Valley which is also known for its hot springs. It’s a great place to book a Death Valley Airbnb as there aren’t a lot of places to stay within the park itself (and those that are there are pricy!).

Next up, spend around two days in Death Valley exploring the area around Furnace Creek, Dante’s View, Badwater Basin, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and some Death Valley hikes if the water allows (not recommended in the summer!).

After Death Valley, make your way to Lone Pine for a quirky stop at the Museum of Western Film History and perhaps a hike of the Mobius Arch Loop, a short hike in the desert. After Lone Pine, a stop in Bishop is a good place to grab lunch and do a quick bit of sightseeing on your way to your next main stop, Mammoth Lakes.

Mammoth Lakes has tons of incredible hikes to indulge in the summer and epic slopes to shred in the winter, as well as epic fall foliage in late September and early October. The same goes for June Lake (and be sure to drive the June Lake Loop as well!).

Once you’ve covered Mammoth Lakes and June Lake (being sure to indulge in some hot springs in Mono County if you want as well), head to Yosemite National Park for national park #2. Allocate at least two days in Yosemite in order to see the best of the park, including Tunnel View, Lower Yosemite Falls, Cooks Meadow, and Glacier Point.

Next up is Sequoia National Park and the adjoining Kings Canyon National Park, which despite being two separate parks can easily be seen jointly. Visit Moro Rock for epic sunset views in Sequoia and be sure to visit the four largest trees in the world, all of which can be found in the two adjoining parks. General Sherman is the largest tree by volume in the entire world, so don’t miss him!

Finally, make your way back to LA, having ticked off four incredible national parks in one fell swoop on this epic Southern California road trip!

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Take a dip in the hot springs of Tecopa
  • Admire some of the most incredible, remote landscapes of Death Valley National Park
  • Marvel at the many lakes of Mammoth Lakes and head to the hot springs nearby them
  • See North America’s tallest waterfall at Yosemite National Park and hike your way through this gorgeous park
  • Admire the largest trees in the world at Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park

Los Angeles to San Diego via the Coast

A beach boardwalk in San Diego, with five palm trees in the foreground of the boardwalk and a mostly empty beach with a few beachgoers sitting out on the white sand with blue sea in the distance.

Start Point: Los Angeles
End Point: San Diego
Distance: 160 miles
Driving Time: 4 hours 20 minutes (one way)
Recommended Number of Days: 2-3 days
Route: Los Angeles –> Malibu –> Santa Monica –> Venice Beach –> Redondo Beach –> Long Beach –> Huntingon Beach –> Laguna Beach –> Dana Point –> Carlsbad –> San Diego

This coastal Southern California road trip is beyond perfect for beach lovers looking to get an in-depth look at Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego!

Starting in LA, quickly backtrack up to Malibu for some of the most scenic beaches in Los Angeles, like Zuma and El Matador Beach. Driving up this section of the Pacific Coast Highway is incredible, and while it may be a bit out of the way from other parts of this road trip, it’s worth the detour.

Next up, hit up Santa Monica and Venice Beach for some people-watching along the beach, stopping at Muscle Beach and the Venice Boardwalk for spotting lots of characters, and also be sure to check out the cool canal houses of Venice (yes, Venice has real canals!).

After that, start heading south out of Los Angeles county towards Redondo Beach, a chill beachside city that is a great place to while away a Southern California afternoon. Afterwards, hit up Long Beach, which has some great museums as well as the RMS Queen Mary, a supposedly haunted ocean liner that is also a hotel!

Next up, there’s Huntingon Beach with its incredible wooden pier (stop at Ruby’s for a burger and a shake!) which is one of the longest in all of California. Laguna Beach is up next, which has some of the prettiest coastline in all of Southern California, and then next is Dana Point, a great place if you want to go whale-watching in Southern California.

Finally, as you make your way down to San Diego, be sure to stop at some of the best beaches in San Diego County — Carlsbad being one of them, and Torrey Pines being another just outside of San Diego.

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Enjoy the incredible beaches of Malibu, including Zuma and El Matador Beach
  • People-watch the funky scenes along the Venice Beach Boardwalk, and check out the ritzy houses on the canal for an exercise in contrast
  • Check out the supposedly haunted RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach
  • Make like an O.C. reality star and enjoy the waves at Laguna Beach
  • Go on a whale watching cruise from Dana Point or Newport Beach

Los Angeles to Santa Barbara via the Coast and Islands

View from Inspiration Point on the Channel islands National Park: bush of yellow flowers, rocky islets out in the Pacific Ocean.

Start Point: Los Angeles
End Point: Santa Barbara
Distance: 103 miles [not counting ferry]
Driving Time: 2 hours 20 minutes (one way)
Recommended Number of Days: 2-3 days
Route: Los Angeles –> Malibu –> Oxnard/Ventura –> Ferry to Channel Islands National Park –> Carpinteria State Beach –> Santa Barbara

This Southern California road trip heads south to north from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, which is at the border of Southern California and Central California, but it is a bit special since it also allows for a bit of an island trip as well as a road trip!

Start by driving from Los Angeles to Malibu, where you can stop at several of the most beautiful beaches in Malibu, particularly El Matador, which is absolutely worth spending sunset at if you can time it that way.

Next up, you’ll want to head to either Oxnard or Ventura, where you can indulge in some delicious tacos and other foods and enjoy the cool smaller-city vibes while planning your trip to the Channel Islands National Park. This is one of the least-visited national parks in the USA so it does require a little advance planning since you can only get there by ferry.

Arrange a ferry ride to the Channel Islands, and allocate at least a full day to exploring this scenic national park! Note: Channel Islands National Park is comprised of multiple islands in the Channel Islands but does not include Catalina Island, another popular Southern California getaway.

After returning from the Channel Islands National Park, continue making your way up the California coast towards Carpinteria State Beach, a great place to spend the day and even camp if you brought camping gear or are traveling in a campervan!

Finally, continue onwards to Santa Barbara where you can spend several days indulging in all the best sights, meals, hikes, and drinks!

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Chill out on Malibu’s most beautiful beaches, having a beachside meal or sunset view
  • Stop in Oxnard or Ventura to explore the towns
  • Take the ferry to the Channel Islands National Park from either Oxnard or Ventura
  • Chill and enjoy some fun in the sun on Carpinteria State Beach
  • Walk around Santa Barbara‘s boardwalk, enjoy some time in Santa Barbara breweries and shopping in the Funk Zone, and go on some local hikes

Los Angeles Wine Country Loop

A rainbow colored hot air balloon rising over the vineyards of Temecula, a popular Southern California road trip destination, with other hot air balloons way off in the distance.

Start Point: Los Angeles
End Point: Los Angeles
Distance: 600 miles
Driving Time: 9 hours 45 minutes (loop)
Recommended Number of Days: 7 days
Route: Los Angeles –> Paso Robles –> Solvang –> Santa Barbara –> Temecula –> Los Angeles

Who said wine-themed California road trips have to only be up north? There are lots of great wine regions in Southern California, too! This oenological Southern California wine trip hits up three distinct wine countries: Paso Robles, Santa Ynez/Santa Barbara, and Temecula.

First up, drive up north to Paso Robles, which is a great destination for wine tasting as well as just enjoying a relaxing getaway from Los Angeles. There are also some easy day trips you can add on from Paso Robles such as visiting San Luis Obispo (and the Madonna Inn!) or Morro Bay, both of which are worth the side trip.

Next up is the quaint Danish village inspired town of Solvang, which coincidentally is where my grandmother lived when I was growing up! Solvang has gone from a sleepy, cheesily-European town a super-hip getaway for urban Santa Barbarans and Angelenos, full of wine bars next to kitschy shops selling clog-themed souvenirs. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but I personally love Solvang — and the wine near Solvang is incredible! You can do a wine tour leaving from Solvang or Los Olivos, and both are well worth the time.

Finally, head to Santa Barbara for some urban wine tasting, doing the Funk Zone wine trail and exploring the urban wine trail that the city specializes in at its local wine bars.

As you make your way back to LA, bypass the city and go a little further south to Temecula for one final wine-tasting getaway. Finish your trip with a hot air balloon if you want to make it special before returning to Los Angeles and finishing this fun, wine-filled SoCal road trip!

Road Trip at a Glance:

  • Head straight to Paso Robles for some of the best wineries in California
  • Hit the cute Danish-inspired town of Solvang, for great wine tasting nearby there and Los Olivos
  • Head to Santa Barbara and wine taste your way through the urban wine trail in the Funk Zone
  • Head to the quirky wine town of Temecula for even more wine tasting and even a hot air balloon ride over the vineyards!

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