The Ultimate Road Trip Through California

The Friday before Memorial Day is declared National Road Trip Day and serves as the official kickoff of the summer road trip season. And when it comes to road trips, California is hard to top.

As the third largest state in the U.S., with 164,000 square miles of varied terrain, 865 miles of coast and 66 scenic byways, there's plenty to explore in The Golden State. You can start at the ocean and end up in the mountains, or spend an entire weekend exploring the deserts.

All it takes is a solid playlist, some road-trip friendly snacks and a little planning to get out your routine and on the road. To get you started, here are some of the best routes to take in California on your next summer road trip.

Highway 1

Start: Los Angeles

End: San Francisco

Distance: Approximately 440 miles

Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH), snakes along the California coastline delivering almost 656 miles of ocean views along with plenty of nature and some of the state’s most interesting sites.

Start off in Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach or any one of the other scenic beaches of sunny Southern California, then head north. Catch Spanish colonial architecture and sip local Santa Ynez valley wines and keep an ear out for elephant seals.

Highway 395

Start: Los Angeles

End: Mammoth Lakes

Distance: Approximately 430 miles

While Highway 1 follows the coast, its sister trip, Highway 395, traces the Sierra Nevada range, the backbone of California. Rather than beaches and coast, this route features prehistoric forests, historic mining towns, and a variety of geological features. Most people start this iconic road trip in L.A., making their way out of the city and into the world of lakes, hikes and bizarre roadside attractions. 

Carlsbad to the Lost Sierra

Start: Carlsbad

End: Clio

Distance: Approximately 1,180 miles

This California road trip will transport you to some of the state’s best attractions, with plenty of food and fun along the way. From the sandy beaches of Carlsbad, head north along the coast to Malibu. Make your way to Solvang, a Danish village that’s rich in wineries and hard-to-top farm-to-table fare. Continue to the coastal town of Monterey and through iconic Californian destinations like Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pebble Beach. 

Northern California Wine Country

Start: San Francisco

End: Calistoga

Distance: Approximately 135 miles

Plenty of people treat Northern California wine country as a day trip from San Francisco, but go for a long weekend so that you can really savor those winetastings and pamper yourself with a stay. From San Francisco, head northeast, making a quick stop at Domaine Carneros to grab a flute of bubbly before continuing to the town of Napa. Here, plan a stop at the nearby William Hill Estate Winery for a tasting and tour of the sprawling estate. 

Rim of the World Scenic Byway

Start: Los Angeles

End: Big Bear Lake

Distance: Approximately 120 miles

This California road trip may be a bit shorter than some of the others on this list, but it makes up for its size with beauty. The Rim of the World Scenic Byway travels inland from the Southern California coast to the city of Big Bear Lake, home to ski resorts and endless lake-based fun.

Southern California Beaches

Start: San Diego

End: Malibu

Distance: Approximately 175 miles

If you’re craving a beach vacation, head to Southern California, home to some of the country’s best sandy shores and unbeatable balmy weather. In San Diego, spend the morning reading and people-watching in La Jolla Cove before making your way to the nearby Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a coastal park that has managed to retain its wild feel. From La Jolla, continue north to get your fill of Orange County’s beach towns — Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Huntington Beach. 

California State Park Road Trip

Start: Sacramento

End: Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park

Distance: Approximately 800 miles

California’s national parks get all the attention, most notably Yosemite and Joshua Tree, but many overlook the smaller, less-visited state parks. That’s not the case on this Northern California road trip, where the state parks take center stage.

Start your journey in Sacramento and make your way east to the first park on this road trip: Emerald Bay State Park. Check out Eagle Falls, enjoy the views over Lake Tahoe, and visit Vikingsholm, a 38-room Scandinavian-inspired mansion, before heading to Plumas-Eureka State Park, where you’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about the California Gold Rush. 

San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park

Start: San Diego

End: Joshua Tree National Park

Distance: Approximately 350 miles

When most people think of California, they picture beaches, but in reality, a good chunk of the state is covered in awe-inspiring desert. Plenty of travelers make the trip to Joshua Tree National Park to marvel at its spiky namesake trees. But many think of Joshua Tree as a destination and miss out on all the beautiful and sometimes quirky things the deserts of Southern California have to offer along the way. To get your fill of the expansive, dry landscape, start in San Diego and head northeast toward State Route 78.