The warmer weather is here, which means for many of us, it means road trip season! One of the best states in the USA to take a road trip is California. Due to its size (California is the third-largest U.S. state), there are plenty of varying terrains to explore. You can quite literally start at the ocean and end up in the mountains, or start in the desert and end up in the redwoods.
To get you started, we’ve outlined some of the best road trips in California, departing from popular cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles. Whether you’re seeking beaches or mountains, deserts or small towns, these are some of the most fun and unique California road trips that you need to experience for yourself.
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NORTHERN CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP IDEAS
1. SAN FRANCISCO TO BIG SUR (HIGHWAY 1)
Start: San Francisco, CA
End: Ragged Point, CA
Distance: Approximately 190 miles / 3 to 4-hour drive without stops
Big Sur is one of the most iconic day trips from the Bay Area, and when you make your way through here, you’ll totally understand why. The rugged coastline and pristine turquoise waters are truly a sight to see! If you love nature, Big Sur is a great place to visit.
Enjoy a weekend of exploring hidden beaches, catching unforgettable views at all the vista points along Highway 1, and hiking through redwood forests and ancient trees. Notable spots include Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Keyhole Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach (unmissable sunset spot).
Fancy a hike through the redwoods? A picnic and some whale-watching at an isolated beach? How about a leisurely walk along the bluffs and wildflowers? Beachcombing for sand dollars and jade? Along the Big Sur coastline is the place to do it.
It’s hard to describe the jaw-dropping, natural beauty of this region. You really need to see it for yourself! This 2-day San Francisco to Big Sur itinerary will help you discover and plan your perfect Big Sur road trip and all the stops you need to make.
2. SAN FRANCISCO TO NAPA VALLEY
Start: San Francisco, CA
End: Calistoga, CA
Distance: Approximately 75 miles / 1.5-hour drive without stops
Napa Valley is the ultimate destination for wining and dining. The region is a popular day trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, and for good reason. About one hour away is a world of amazing gastronomy, unforgettable wine experiences, and raw outdoor adventure.
Whether you’re planning a special event with friends, planning a weekend trip with your significant other, or vacationing with the entire family, Napa Valley is your destination for a grand ol’ time. Despite the fact that Napa Valley is a world-class wine region, there are actually a ton of other things to do here other than wine taste! The sunny weather, relaxed atmosphere, foodie culture, and extremely friendly people keep travelers coming back for more.
In addition to the hundreds of wining/dining options within the Napa Valley, you can expect to find charming towns, top-notch quality restaurants, spas, and a variety of B&Bs and resorts to lay your head for a night or two. Some of the valley’s quaint towns not to be missed include Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga.
Families traveling with kids can also enjoy activities such as the Safari West wildlife compound and catching California’s Old Faithful Geyser spray its waters high up in the sky. To see Napa from a different perspective, you can hop onto horseback, hop on a wine train, or hop aboard a hot air balloon!
As you can see, there are so many exciting things to do in Napa Valley, California. Check out this Napa Valley travel guide to discover all that Napa Valley has to offer.
3. SAN FRANCISCO TO LAKE TAHOE/RENO (HIGHWAY 49)
Start: San Francisco, CA
End: Reno, NV
Distance: Approximately 220 miles / 3.5-hour drive without stops
Lake Tahoe has got to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Some places don’t live up to the hype, but Lake Tahoe really is as awesome as everyone claims, and as awesome as it looks! And then there’s Reno, a great alternative to the Las Vegas lifestyle–only more affordable!
This off-the-beaten-path Lake Tahoe/Reno road trip is all about blue lakes, the great outdoors, a bit of that casino life, and a boatload of historical gold and silver mining towns. If this sounds like your kinda road trip, then check out this San Francisco to Lake Tahoe/Reno road trip! This is where the largest alpine lake collides with the Biggest Little City in the World.
Looking for something shorter? Check out this alternative: Sacramento to Lake Tahoe/Reno road trip itinerary
4. SAN FRANCISCO TO REDWOODS NATIONAL PARK
Start: San Francisco, CA
End: Redwoods National Park, CA
Distance: Approximately 325 miles / 6-hour drive without stops
What better way to get some nature and exploration in than with a good ol’ road trip up to Northern California’s rugged and beautiful coast? And what’s more beautiful than exploring wine country and the California coast hugged by lush greenery?
There are so many cool towns in between San Francisco and Redwood National Park, including Stinson Beach, Healdsburg, Fort Bragg, and Mendocino, as well as more hidden gems such as Point Reyes National Seashore, Bodega Bay, Geyserville, Guerneville, and even the Legend of Bigfoot in Garberville!
In this SF to Redwood National Park post, we highlight a few of our recommended road trip stops and attractions, spanning from San Francisco to Redwood National Park.
5. SAN FRANCISCO TO PORTLAND
Start: San Francisco, CA
End: Portland, OR
Distance: Approximately 640 miles / 9.5-hour drive without stops
Looking for a West Coast road trip that features unbelievable waterfalls, coastal villages, wineries, redwoods, or volcanic geological sights? Look no further–a multi-day drive from San Francisco to Portland is calling your name! A San Francisco to Portland road trip is not for the faint of heart. It requires real dedication and the “drive” to travel slow, stop and smell the roses, and explore new sights. If you’re up for it, then this is the ultimate road trip for you!
This is your ultimate travel guide to the San Francisco to Portland road trip. In this post, you’ll get pointers on how many days you’ll need to complete the trip, which routes you should consider, and what notable stops/attractions are along the way.
Of course, if you’re departing from Portland for San Francisco, the guide will still be helpful! Just reverse the order of the spots you like to visit from this list.
6. SAN FRANCISCO TO MENDOCINO
Start: San Francisco, CA
End: Mendocino, CA
Distance: Approximately 150 miles / 3-hour drive without stops
Mendocino is such a quaint and romantic coastal town. Upon arrival, you’ll quickly notice the assortment of spas, boutiques, gift shops, and chocolate shops. It’s the perfect town to get away from the hustle and bustle of the larger California cities.
A trip from San Francisco, CA to Mendocino, CA can easily be done as a day trip, or even better, as a weekend trip! You’ll hit Mendocino as a part of some of the other California coast road trips listed here, but in case you’re looking for something shorter, this SF to Mendocino road trip will be perfect for you.
7. SAN FRANCISCO TO LOS ANGELES
Start: San Francisco, CA
End: Los Angeles, CA
Distance: Approximately 400 miles / 6-hour drive without stops
Considering going from Northern California to Southern California, or vice versa? You could take a quick flight over, but that’s the boring way to go. How about a drive along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway instead?
This California coastal drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles is undoubtedly one of the best road trips in the world! Not only do you get sweeping ocean views along the way, but you have the opportunity to stop in a countless number of California’s coolest towns along the way. This road trip grants you the ability to explore a variety of super walkable towns including Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel-By-The-Sea, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, Solvang, and many more!
Taking your time to drive along the coast opens up a world of amazing sights and attractions worth stopping for. From beaching to wine tasting, and historical missions to sleepy coastal towns, there is no better way to experience the California coast than with a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Of course, this trip can also be reversed from Los Angeles to San Francisco– just map out the spots you plan to visit in the opposite direction!
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP IDEAS
8. LOS ANGELES TO PALM SPRINGS
Start: Los Angeles, CA
End: Palm Springs, CA
Distance: Approximately 110 miles / 2-hour drive without stops
Palm Springs and the Southern California desert are nothing if not unique. Palm Springs has had a long association with the rich and famous of Hollywood and continues to prove as a great escape from the hustle and bustle of more metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles.
Its neighboring areas are equally as unique and quirky and are definitely worth paying a visit if you’re in the desert area. If you can manage to tear yourself away from sunbathing by the pool for a day or two, you’ll find a world of eccentric art, spectacular hiking trails, and unique architecture in the deserts of Southern California.
This round-up of things to do on a LA to Palm Springs road trip is centralized in the Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Joshua Tree areas. It’s one of our favorite classic weekend road trips from Southern California!
9. LOS ANGELES TO OJAI
Start: Los Angeles, CA
End: Ojai, CA
Distance: Approximately 70 miles / 1.5-hour drive without stops
There is something truly magical about Ojai, California. This laidback California community, just a 90-minute drive north of Los Angeles, boasts a strong Spanish and Western feel. For decades, it’s served as a haven for artists, writers, bohemians, health enthusiasts, and celebrities looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Upon arrival, you’ll begin to notice its mystical charm, almost like Sedona in Arizona. If hiking/biking, Spanish-style buildings wrapped in bougainvillea, wine tasting and health-conscious eateries are your thing, Ojai will be the perfect weekend retreat for you.
The best part is that it’s less than 1.5 hours away from Los Angeles and only a quick 20 minutes from Ventura and the Pacific coast! Check out the best things to do in Ojai in this post!
10. LOS ANGELES TO LAS VEGAS
Start: Los Angeles, CA
End: Palm Springs, CA
Distance: Approximately 270 miles / 4.5-hour drive without stops
Looking to spice up your 250-mile journey from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (and vice versa) beyond the typical McDonald’s run / bathroom break at Barstow, CA? Good, we’ve got you covered.
A straight shot drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (or Vegas to LA) should only take four hours, but with so many curiosities and quirky sights to discover along the way, you’ll do yourself a huge favor by allocating lots of time to stop frequently.
Filled with funky towns, even funkier art installations, and endless desert, California really doesn’t get any more “western” than this. Along your drive (which includes a little taste of the Historic Route 66), you’ll be confronted with wide-open desert wasteland, Joshua trees beckoning to be photographed, crazy desert art, as well as weird but cool sights such as the world’s largest thermometer, an old ghost town, and even a glass bottle forest.
Despite the vast emptiness of the surrounding desert, this journey is far from boring. Check out our Los Angeles to Las Vegas road trip itinerary here!
PLANNING ON RENTING A CAR FOR YOUR ROAD TRIP?
If you don’t have a car or don’t have a reliable car you trust to get you out of your starting city and back in one piece, I suggest you pick up a rental car for your road trip.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. Book your rental car with them here.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees.
Regardless of which rental car company you decide to go with, make sure you have the appropriate car rental coverage. Our credit card benefits typically cover car rental insurance, so we usually stick with that as our primary insurance.
Lastly, we highly recommend a AAA membership. Though membership does not cover car rental insurance, there are some awesome, exclusive car rental perks.
- You get to take advantage of savings at Hertz, up to 20% off the base rate, when you include your designated AAA Discount code (CDP#) in your reservation.
- Perks include 24/7 roadside assistance including towing, fuel delivery, and lockout service,
- Other rental car benefits include free child safety seat, no additional driver fee, no young driver fee,
- You’ll also get great discounts on flights, hotels, and cruises
We absolutely love our AAA Auto Club membership. Not only is it a lifesaver when we actually do encounter car troubles, but it’s great to have (for peace of mind) even if we don’t.
CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- AAA Membership | If you’re really not one to do it yourself when you run into car problems, then you need a AAA Membership. Perks of the annual membership include 24/7 roadside assistance including battery replacement, gas delivery, towing, and lockout service. There are also a bunch of rental car perks too. If you don’t have AAA, then prepare some phone numbers for roadside assistance, just in case.
- Spare Tire | In addition to carrying a spare tire with you, don’t forget to check your current tire conditions before you set off as well.
- Jumper Cables | Jumper cables are one of those things on your road trip list you hope to never use, but are so useful when you do need to call on them! If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one.
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Even adventurous times call for some pre-planning and preparation. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
- Travel Pillow | If you have room in the car for a regular pillow, I find that they are the most comfortable for long car trips. If you need a more portable option, this memory foam travel pillow works well not only for car travel but also for camping!
- Travel Blanket | For all your napping needs–especially if the driver likes AC and you’re trying to snuggle up for a nap. This one is packable so it won’t take up very much in your car.
- Slip-on Sandals | Slip-on/slip-off sandals are a must for that extra comfort while sitting in the car. This allows you to make lots of stops without having to go through the process of putting your sneakers/boots back on.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road-trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Roll-up Picnic Mat | Probably one of the best inventions since sliced bread, and one of my best investments for the summertime! Not only are these picnic mats super-portable because they roll up into themselves, but their water-resistance factor is a game-changer. No need to worry about wet-grass-butt anymore!
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Garbage Bags | Because you don’t want the inside of your car to resemble a dumpster can. Plastic bags (or garbage bags) can also be used to hold wet clothes if you get caught in the rain, go for a swim, etc.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time by the beaches, rivers or lakes, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in Northern California. The coastal California climate brings chilly evenings year-round, even on warm summer days. Fog can also roll in unexpectedly up here. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Laundry Bag | Summer and outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from a river or lake to a car. This one here is a great option.
- Travel Clothesline | This is a small and portable clothesline that allows you to hang up your wet clothes almost anywhere. I’ve found that it’s really handy whenever I have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be air-dried. I love it for its multi-purpose functionality!
- Dry Bag | Another multi-purpose item on the list! Dry bags are completely necessary for keeping your dry belongings (clothes, electronics, money, etc)… dry. Don’t set foot on a kayak, boat or canoe without putting your stuff in a dry bag. Trust me, it’s better than ending up with a phone or camera submerged in water in the case where the boat tips or something. It’s also super handy for carrying around wet bathing suits and towels. Or even doubling as your laundry bag!
- Insect Repellent Lotion | Mosquitos love hot and wet climates, so I would definitely recommend packing insect repellent with a high DEET percentage if you’re traveling in the summer and plan to be on the water. Sawyer makes some really great bug repellent products, and they’re travel-friendly too!
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Emergen-C packets or Liquid I.V. Hydration Packets | These are a great way to support your immune system and overall health on a road trip. They are light, take up no space, and are easy to pack.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the wilderness or walk around a dark campground is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.