When it comes to nature, history, and culture, California has tons to offer. From colossal mountain ranges and expansive deserts to spectacular beaches and world-class wine, the third largest US state has a wide range of scenery and environment that makes for a great road trip.
Need some California trip ideas? How about doing a California west coast road trip itinerary from San Diego to San Francisco or maybe taking in the brisk air of the Sierra Nevadas is more your cup of tea? Along the way, there are plenty of beautiful attractions to check out that should give you enough to do for weeks.
San Diego to Los Angeles (7 to 14 days)
- Balboa Park
Kick off your road trip with some history lessons. The 1,200-acre Balboa Park offers plenty of places for learning, entertaining, and relaxing. Featuring a mix of Spanish Colonial Revival and mid-century Modern architecture, it is a National Historic Landmark that is home to 15 museums, over a dozen gardens, and multiple event and recreational areas for sports and the performing arts. It also has restaurants and cafes that serve a wide array of specialty foods and beverages.
- Gaslamp Quarter
Just a 20 to 30 minute walk away is the Gaslamp Quarter, which is another important San Diego Historic Landmark. Spanning 16 ½ blocks, it is the place to go to for food, music, arts, and nightlife. With many Victorian-style theaters, museums, art galleries, and concert venues, as well as vibrant bars, shops, hotels, and restaurants, the district is a rich and historic urban playground that is full of energy all day.
- San Clemente Pier Beach
Up for some fun under the sun? The San Clemente Pier Beach sits along the Pacific coastal waters surrounded by a lot of greenery. The mile-long fine sand beach is known for surfing, skimboarding, bodysurfing, and swimming. The pier also offers opportunities for fishing Kelp bass and Barred sand bass while enjoying fantastic views of the ocean and the skies.
- Dana Point
Regarded as the Whale Watching Capital of the West, Dana Point is a city blessed with exquisite natural sites and attractions. Throughout the day, the Dana Point Harbor sees many tour boats depart for and return from whale-watching and dolphin-watching, sunset wine cruises, and pirate ship adventures. It is also a destination for deep sea fishing, aerial yoga, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. Just minutes away from the beach, there are many luxury hotels too with oceanfront rooms that afford gorgeous views of the SoCal coastline.
- Laguna Beach
Continuing up the Pacific Coast Highway is the seaside resort city of Laguna Beach. Home to a good selection of coves and beaches, this scenic paradise spans nearly eight miles of coastline ideal for swimming, snorkeling, paddle boarding, surfing, and various other outdoor water activities. It also has sea caves, tide pools, coastal canyons, and hiking and mountain biking trails that showcases its rich and thriving nature and wilderness.
- Huntington Beach
Dubbed as Surf City, Huntington Beach is a beautiful seaside city with mild climate and excellent beaches. Its uninterrupted 10-mile-long shoreline is perfect for soaking up the sun and beach volleyball and its sparkling ocean waters are ideal for swimming and surfing. It is not only an integral part of SoCal’s beach culture, but it is also a well-preserved ecological area that offers horseback riding, bird-watching, and other nature activities.
- Queen Mary
After an hour’s drive south of downtown Los Angeles, you should be in Long Beach. It is a large city with a laidback vibe, and has a good mix of urban and nature attractions to offer. At the port, you will find the grand 1936 luxury ocean liner Queen Mary docked. Treat yourself to first-class accommodations and upscale wining and dining experiences. Make sure to join the ghost tour too.
- Aquarium of the Pacific
Does marine life fascinate you? The Aquarium of the Pacific is home to more than 11,000 Pacific creatures. Every year, it welcomes 1.5 million visitors who get a close look at seascapes and the more than 500 species that inhabit the world’s largest ocean. From fish and sea lions to shorebirds and reefs, its different exhibits, galleries, and attractions showcase the diverse and flourishing marine life and impart important conservation and preservation messages.
- Los Angeles
In La-La Land, there’s weeks, months, and even years’ worth of things to see and do. If you are a theme park buff, check out Universal Studios Hollywood or drive half an hour to Anaheim and have fun at Disneyland. If you are into all the Hollywood glitz and glam, venture to the Hollywood sign atop Mount Lee, walk the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or join one of those movie and TV studio tours or a celebrity homes and Rodeo Drive tour. If you want to dine, drink, and shop, The Grove, Rodeo Drive, Melrose Avenue, and Westfield Century City are just a few of the best in the city.
Los Angeles to Santa Barbara (4 to 7 days)
- Point Dume
A large rocky promontory that points to the Pacific, Point Dume is a highly recommended scenic stop on your California coast road trip. Located in Malibu, it is a California Historical Landmark and a Nature Preserve. It is surrounded by a nice beach with facilities for swimming, fishing, scuba diving, and surfing, and trails for hiking and nature viewing. Between December and April, it is the place to be if you want to watch the migration of California gray whales.
- El Matador Beach
Wonder why Malibu is a popular holiday spot among celebrities? The Malibu coast is home to some of the best beaches in the country, and the El Matador Beach is up there on the list. Affording breathtaking views of the ocean and the skies, it is a popular photoshoot destination at sunrise and sunset. It also has fascinating geological formations, such as large rocks and caves, which are best viewed and explored at low tide. It is a great birdwatching spot too.
- Valley View Preserve
A protected nature area sitting on almost 200 acres of land, the Valley View Preserve in Ojai is a must for outdoor enthusiasts. It has a few hiking trails that showcase the beauty of the untouched scenery where many kinds wildlife roam and trees and flowers grow.
- Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room
SoCal is known for wine and vineyards, so drop by the Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room to taste high-quality wine. With national and international acclaim, its wines are handmade since 1983 and its tasting menu consists of current releases and library wines.
- Old Mission Santa Barbara
After many eventful outdoor days, enjoy a slow-paced, relaxed day at Old Mission Santa Barbara. Founded in 1786, it is a historic Spanish-era landmark with majestic double bell towers and vast lush gardens. With the San Ynez mountain range in the background, it offers many opportunities for great photos. It is open for tours where visitors can gain access to the church, museum, cemetery, and Secret Garden.
- Stearns Wharf
Have another comfortable day in Santa Barbara at the oldest working wharf in the state. Called Stearns Wharf, it is the perfect spot to enjoy views of the gorgeous blue Pacific waters, feel the cool, salty breeze on your face, and be a part of the vibrant atmosphere of the boardwalk. This waterfront district has plenty of activities for a day or two — from souvenir shops and cafes and restaurants to a museum and even a wine tasting room. If you are looking for California road trip ideas with the family, this should be a must-see place for you.
Santa Barbara to the Bay Area (4 to 8 days)
- Moonstone Beach
With a brown sandy shoreline made up of smooth and soft stones, Moonstone Beach in Cambria offers a relaxing and reinvigorating beach experience. Popular for beach walking, beachcombing, and rockhounding, it is a picturesque spot where you can see whales, sea lions, sea otters, white-sided dolphins, and other sea life if the timing is right. It also has a boardwalk and many lodging and dining properties that afford stunning views of where the land meets the sea.
- Danish Village
Never been to Denmark? A quaint community along Highway 154, the Danish Village in Solvang is a century-old town that preserves Danish culture and tradition. Being there is like teleporting to Europe as every corner is flanked with traditional Danish-style architecture buildings that house bakeries, cafes, and restaurants that serve Danish cuisines and American and other international favorites too. If you go there in the last quarter of the year, you can be a part of many lively festivals and celebrations, such as the Julefest in December.
- Hearst Castle
Built during the first half of the 20th century, Hearst Castle in San Simeon is an expansive complex with grand Moorish-style buildings and sprawling gardens and grounds. It offers day and evening tours that include the Grand Rooms, Upstairs Suites, and Cottages and Kitchen, as well as the impressive Neptune Pool, dubbed as the most sumptuous swimming pool on Earth, and the spectacular Roman Pool, an indoor pool made with blue Venetian glass and gold leaf mosaic tiles.
- Piedras Blancas
Also in San Simeon and only a 15-minute drive from the castle, Piedras Blancas is an 1875 light station that towers over a marine protected and conservation area. Featuring a mix of gothic and classic revival style, it offers incredible views of the rugged rocks and shoreline where sea lions, seabirds, and elephant seals congregate.
- McWay Falls
Next stop is the McWay Falls, an iconic spot off of Highway 1 in Big Sur. At 80 feet, its strong and powerful waters make loud yet melodic splashes as they drop from the tree-lined rocky cliff down to the turquoise blue pool below and flow towards the Pacific Ocean. With scenery as magnificent and postcard-perfect as that, make sure to pack your cameras, chargers, extra batteries, and memory cards to take lots of photos.
- Bixby Creek Bridge
If you enjoy bridges or views, Bixby Creek Bridge between Big Sur and Monterey Bay is one to check out. This bridge, opened in 1932 is known for its stunning looks. It serves as a way for residents of Big Sur to get in and out. Winters were notorious for roads being blocked prior to Bixby’s construction. Take your photo from the northern end of the span for view of the bridge and the vibrant blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
- Monterey Bay Aquarium
Don’t mind another meetup with sea otters, penguins, and other marine animals? Go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Opened in 1984, this public aquarium in Monterey showcases the diverse aquatic life of the region. From birds and anemones to jellyfish and sharks, it houses about 35,000 creatures belonging to more than 550 species in more than 2 million gallons of water. It has to be included in your California family road trip itinerary if you are traveling with kids.
- San Francisco
If you spend any significant amount of time in the City by the Bay, you’re bound to leave your heart here. What was once sweeping hills of Yerba Buena, is now a bustling city filled with techies, hippies, and creatives. From the Mission (where you’ll find amazing Mexican food) to Outer Richmond (where you can explore hiking trails leading up to stunning views of Golden Gate Bridge), there’s something for everyone. Whether you do a food tour, shop til you drop, or walk around until your legs are sore; you’ll want to spend an extra day or two to get your fill of San Francisco. Don’t forget to wear some flowers in your hair!
Bay Area to Eureka (5 to 10 days)
- Bodega Head
Did you pack a pair of binoculars? Now’s the time to make good use of it! A four-mile-long and mile-wide peninsula that juts out into the Pacific, Bodega Bay is a beautiful rocky paradise with lots of things to see and do. It has a hiking trail that circles the southern part of the peninsula and is the perfect spot to view whales, seals, seabirds, and other wildlife. Further up the bluffs, it has a picnic area where you can watch the waters and skies and listen to the waves crashing into the gigantic granite boulders. It also has a marina dotted with fishing and commercial boats. Across the street, there’s Spud Point Crab Company, known for their top-rated chowder and crab sandwiches, and not too far is the Fisherman’s Cove, which is a fishing supply store and seafood shack.
- Sonoma Coast Vineyards
SoCal produces many varieties of wine, so why not check out another vineyard to sample more great wine? Sonoma Coast Vineyards is the place to be for the best Bodega Bay wine. Offering handcrafted white, rose, and red wines, from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to Rose and Pinot Noir, it uses only ripe and balanced fruit to produce exceptional wines. Visitors can try the Tasting Room experience, an outdoor activity where sip quality wine and snack on locally sourced artisan cheese while taking in the stunning views of the coast.
- Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Treat your eyes to wonderful sights of colorful flowers at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. This garden by the sea has 47 acres of diverse fauna that serve as perfect backdrops for pictures, weddings, and other ceremonies all-year-round. In addition to its impressive collections of heritage roses, dahlias, begonias, and succulents, it is also home to a pine forest and wild mushroom conservation area.
- Mendocino Sea Caves
Go on an adventure to find the magical Mendocino Sea Caves. Book a kayak tour that can take you to the rocky shoreline of the Van Damme Beach where these magnificent rock formations lie. With a guide, make your way through the narrow turns, passageways, and coves, and marvel at the splendidness of these gems. Watch out for harbor seals nearby too!
- Van Damme State Park
Craving for more outdoor fun? The Van Damme State Park is a scenic nature destination in Mendocino with a gorgeous beach and a lush forest. Whatever time of the year it is, it sees many visitors who want to go camping, fishing, boating, and diving. It is described as a day hiker’s paradise because it offers many hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty around the flat area, deep into the Pygmy forest, or up the Fern Canyon. Walk, jog, bike, or kayak, be ready to spot shorebirds, sea stars, harbor seals, and many other interesting animals here.
- MacKerricher State Park
If you think seals are adorable after watching nature shows, wait til you see one up close! The MacKerricher State Park should be one of your California coast road trip stops to make that happen. Found in Fort Bragg, it gives you the chance to be at least 50 yards away from cute mom and baby seals. It also offers whale watching opportunities during the gray whale migration season. Furthermore, it has a unique spot called the Glass Beach. Because the beach is essentially entirely covered in colorful sea-smoothed broken glass, it appears to glisten and glitter.
- Old Town Eureka
Travel back in time at the historic district of Old Town Eureka. Home to more than 150 Victorian-era buildings, it is the heart of Eureka’s arts and culture scene. Walk through the blocks of restored vintage structures that now operate as museums, galleries, bookstores, cafes, restaurants, and inns. Make sure to drop by the Carson Mansion too, a Queen Anne style mansion dubbed as “the most grand Victorian home in America,” and admire its intricate, eclectic 19th-century exterior stylings.
Eureka to Lake Tahoe (5 to 10 days)
- Sundial Bridge
Did you know that one of the largest working sundials in the world is only a three-hour drive from Eureka? Extending 217 feet up into the sky and 710 feet over the Sacramento River, the Sundial Bridge is an architectural spectacle located in Redding. It is a cantilever suspension cable-stayed bridge designed Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava and first opened in 2004. It is a popular local spot for walking or biking while enjoying the marvelous scenery around.
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
Blessed with breathtaking scenery, the Lassen Volcanic National Park is an enchanting destination less than an hour’s drive from Redding. It is surrounded by majestic mountains and has an abundance of hot springs, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal wonders. Open year-round, it also has many hiking trails that can take you to its different hydrothermal spots, lakes, creeks, falls, and forested areas.
- Burney Falls
The centerpiece of the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, Burney Falls is 129-foot high waterfall that will leave you in awe. Fed by underground springs, its flowing and splashing waters make pleasant sounds and its movements are smooth and peaceful, leaving you mesmerized. Around the state park, you can also enjoy various outdoor opportunities, such as camping, hiking, fishing, wildlife watching, and horseback riding, to keep you busy for a day or two.
- Lake Tahoe
Whatever time of year it is, Lake Tahoe has a long list of attractions and activities for nature and outdoor lovers. Straddling the California-Nevada border, it is the country’s largest freshwater lake. Its blue and green waters sparkle, surrounded by great mountains and hills and inhabited by diverse flora and fauna. Every winter, it is covered thick powdery snow, and its major ski areas, such as the Heavenly Mountain Resort, Squaw Valley, and Alpine Meadows, are flocked by visitors from all over. The rest of the year, the area around Emerald Bay is lively, and some popular activities to do there are fishing, scuba diving, hiking, biking, and various water and beach activities.
Lake Tahoe to Death Valley (4 to 10 days)
- Bodie Ghost Town
Do you think you can handle another spooky, paranormal tour? Take the US-395 to head down to Bodie. Founded in 1876, it used to be a busy and bustling gold-mining site with several thousands of buildings and people. But because of the rise of mining centers in other states and miners moving onto greener pastures, its economy and population declined and was eventually declared a ghost town. By 1920, it only recorded a total population of 120. Today, it is a designated National Historic Landmark open to anyone who wants to walk the quiet, deserted streets lined by abandoned redbrick houses and buildings and explore what remains of this once-rowdy-and-vibrant town.
- Mono Lake
You can never have too many lakes in your California west coast road trip itinerary. Believed to be formed around 750,000 years ago, Mono Lake is not an ordinary lake. Not only is its pristine blue waters thrice as saline as an ocean, it also has Tufa towers, which are limestone columns that rise above the lake surface. The already-stunning scenery is made even a lot more gorgeous by the snow-capped, imposing Sierra Nevada mountains in the backdrop. Walking, bird watching, photography, and boating are popular activities to do to fully appreciate the grandeur of the site.
- Mammoth Lakes
As its name implies, Mammoth Lakes is an enormous paradise home to some of the grandest and most glorious nature sites and attractions on earth. It has everything — forests, mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and lakes — to keep all outdoor and nature enthusiasts busy and in high spirits for days. On your visit, make sure to do Horseshoe Lake, Crystal Lake, Mcleod Lake, or Duck Pass Trail hikes and see up close the stunning rock formations of the Devils Postpile National Monument, the gorgeous 101-foot-high Rainbow Falls, and try kayaking and paddleboarding at Convict Lake.
- Death Valley National Park
Who says deserts are dull and boring? The Death Valley National Park is a dry and arid expanse that extends across the California-Nevada border. Often described as a land of extremes, it is the driest, highest, and lowest national park in the country. It has quite an interesting terrain, with several canyons, badlands, sand dunes, salt-flats, mountains, and valleys. It is also not a total wasteland as it hosts various plant and animal species, such as desert holly, creosote bush, coyote, and bighorn sheep, all of which have learned to adapt to such a harsh, hot desert environment. Some Instragram-worthy spots to check out are the Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin, Artist’s Palette, and Ubehebe Crater.
- Yosemite National Park
Lose yourself in the splendor of the natural treasures of Yosemite National Park. As one of the country’s most popular national parks, it has lured in many outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers that starve for breathtaking scenery, incredible landscapes, and memorable experiences. A popular activity to do there is going to the different viewpoints to catch picturesque views of iconic sites in the park. For example, you can go to Tunnel View to get a good look of the Half Dome, to Valley to see Merced River, and to Glacier Point and Olmsted Point for sweeping views of the park. Walking among the gigantic Sequoia grove is also highly-recommended. Home to 500 3,000-year-old, over-200-foot tall mature giant Sequoia trees, it is a fun and fascinating activity for the family. Camping and hiking are also possible, but be careful of bears and other wildlife that might sneak up on you. You can join a ranger-guided tour too to learn about the park’s history and wildlife from an expert.
Whether you pick up one, a few, or all of these itineraries, I hope you enjoy this beautiful state. From building sand castles at the beach to sipping on a fine cab in Napa, there’s something for everyone in the Golden State. What will you uncover?