• Ben Webby

4 Best California Road Trip Routes | Golden Beaches to National Parks

Updated: Mar 24

California is one of the best states in the USA to road trip through. The golden state is known for its rugged coastlines, her picturesque beaches, the ancient forests of enormous trees, some of the best national parks in America, and world-famous cities. Throw in some great California weather and you’ve got one hell of a road trip destination.

With vastly different climates and ecosystems spread throughout the state, there is a wide range of things to see and do while on your California Road Trip. You could take a coastal drive and explore LA, the beaches and Big Sur, or maybe drive through some trees that are over 3000 years old. The vast expanse of desert that separates the pacific ocean from the California National Parks offers a road trip that can feel like you’re on another planet.

4 Best California Road Trips

  • National Parks and Forest 

  • Big Sur to Santa Monica

  • Avenue of the Giants to San Francisco

  • San Diego to Joshua Tree

National Parks and Forest Road Trip

Start your scenic journey in the Tahoe National Forest, at one of the most beautiful lakes in the USA. Lake Tahoe. From here drive south through Stanislaus National Forest. There you will find the main attraction of the road trip, Yosemite National Park.

You will be blown away by the incredible scenery at Yosemite, it is a valley that was gouged out by a glacier thousands of years ago. Leaving mile high granite walls, El Capitan and Half Dome, to tower over the valley in its wake.

Yosemite National Park is a hiker's dream, you will find countless walks that offer different perspectives of the valley and cater to different fitness levels.

During our stay at Yosemite, we went chasing waterfalls. We hiked Upper Yosemite Falls on our first day, which was around a 4 hour round trip and very strenuous. The refreshing swim at the top of Yosemite's point made it all worth it. We swam in a chilly pool, about 100 feet from where the river meets the cliff edge and falls thousands of feet to the valley floor.

Yosemite Falls

We also hiked the Vernal and Nevada Falls along the mist trail which was a lot shorter and easier, but the track was a lot more crowded with people.

From here head down through the Sierra National Park onto the Sequoia National Forest.

Big Sur to Santa Monica

Start in Monterrey and take the Highway 1 down the Big Sur Coastline. Be sure to go on a nice sunny day, as clouds and fog can really ruin the view of the California Coast. Stop off and hike to the famous waterfall on the beach. You can also stop and see sea lions laying on the beach at Piedras Blancas, near the bottom of the Big Sur Coastline.

Tucked between the wild Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains, Big Sur is famed for being one of the best scenic road trips in the world. All access to Big Sur is through Route 1, and the majority of the road trip is on a two-lane stretch of highway, which can make for slow going in an RV.

It takes about 3 and a half hours from Monterrey to San Luis Obispo, although a lot longer in an RV. After you’ve enjoyed the endless ocean views and rugged coastline you take the 101 at San Luis Obispo.

Follow the 101 to Malibu Beach and try your hand at surfing the world-famous right-hand point break there. Continue down the coast and head into Los Angeles, or stick to the golden sands of Santa Monica, Venice and Manhattan beaches.

Check out our 6-Week West Coast Road Trip Itinerary here.

Avenue of the Giants to San Francisco

It's hard not to be in complete awe of these ancient giants. The redwood forest is made up of enormous California Redwood trees, some over 2000 years old and the forest hosts some of the oldest trees in the world. You can start driving through these magnificent specimens from above the Oregon border, as they fill the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forest.

We started in Crescent City and made our way down through the Redwood State and National Forests along highway 101. There are great hikes you can take that will make you feel dwarfed amongst the giant trees. It’s a humbling experience and once leaving the Avenue, normal trees never seemed quite as big again.

Continue down the 101 and you will enter California’s Wine Country. Napa Valley is one of the highlights here for wine lovers. Napa has hundreds of beautiful hillside vineyards that create some of the most famous wines in the world.

As you leave Napa Valley and head towards San Francisco, be sure to check out Marin Headlands for an epic view of Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay area.

If you have time to explore Marin County, you could visit the Muir Woods National Monument where you will see coastal hills and more redwoods. If you get onto highway 1 you will be treated to incredible sea cliff views and some secluded beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Then, cross the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. Crossing the bridge itself is an awesome experience and I highly recommend walking across it to truly appreciate it. We spent 3 nights in San Francisco, exploring everything the city had to offer.

San Diego to Joshua Tree

Start your Road Trip in San Diego, the sunny city is famed for its miles of beautiful beaches. Check out La Jolla, Pacific Beach or sunset cliffs. Fun Fact, San Diego is the birthplace of California and is where Europeans first arrived on the west coast.

From the beaches, head east into the mountains and aim for the little mountain town Julian, famous for its apples and apple pie. After the mountains you will enter the enormous Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, its vast expanse covers over 600,000 acres. If you travel to the park in February or March you will get to experience the wildflower super-bloom that occurs there yearly.

Borrego Springs is a common destination for travelers on this road trip, there are over 100 ‘metal sky-art sculptures’ scattered across the desert. The most famous of which is a 350ft serpent that emerges out of the ground.

Borrego is also an international dark sky community and is world-renowned for its stargazing. The area is protected from artificial light and provides an obstructed view of the milky way.

Joshua Tree National Park is the crown jewel of any Southern California Road Trip. It’s only an hour and a half drive from Borrego Springs. The park is named after the unique yucca tree that is scattered across the landscape, the Joshua Tree.

The national park has about 20 hiking trails that cater do different fitness levels. We did the Skull Rock walk which took us about an hour and we got to explore boulder piles in the Jumbo Rock area and saw a lot of Joshua Trees, each vastly different from the rest.

This is a perfect destination if you’re looking to explore an exotic landscape, see an undisturbed night sky, hike, rock climb or boulder. Be sure to add Joshua Tree National Park to your California Road Trip.

For tips on traveling San Diego on a budget, read this article.

If you're thinking of renting an RV for your California Roadtrip, then head over to RVShare and get 25% off your next rental.

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