Are you planning your grand tour around the ‘Golden State’? Here’s my day-to-day plan to make sure you squeeze every drop of adventure out of your California Road Trip.
California is a huge state with many different faces. Endless sunshine, beautiful national parks, and never-ending coastlines.
From dense forests in the north to the madness of Hollywood in the south, California truly has something to offer everyone.
Also read: 25+ unmissable things to do in California
However, with such great choice comes the challenge of narrowing down your options. With so much to see and do, how can you possibly cram so much into so little time? You’re going to need some help.
California rewards travelers that come back year upon year. You will never have a problem finding things to do. Your problem will be deciding what to do.
I have traveled around California quite often.
I have taken my experiences and distilled them into one epic road trip. I hope it gives you a flavor of what this amazing state has to offer, and has you coming back year upon year to create your own adventures.
You can make this exact trip multiple times and never have the same experience. That’s the huge attraction of California. It’s never the same twice.
I have created an itinerary over 10 days to help you get the most out of your time. This should be enough to give you a taste of what’s on offer. California has so much to offer no amount of time can never be enough. I’m confident after doing it once, you’ll soon be back for more.
Your California Road Trip Overview
Day 1-3; San Diego (2 nights)
Distance to next stop: 450km
Road condition: Freeway, then scenic once out of the city.
Day 3-4; Death Valley (1 night)
Distance to next stop: 300km
Road condition: Barren land slowly transforming into lush greenery. You will rarely see another vehicle.
Day 4-5; Yosemite National Park (1 night)
Distance to next stop: 268km
Road condition: Roads lined with lush greenery transforming back to freeway
Day 5-7; San Francisco (2 nights)
Distance to next stop: 191km
Road condition: Coastal roads with epic views
Day 7-8; Monterey (1 night)
Distance to next stop: 512km
Road condition: Coastal roads with beautiful coves and beaches giving way to freeway and city lights.
Day 8-10; Los Angeles (2 nights)
Road condition: Freeways and traffic.
Top Tips – Getting the Most Out of Your Adventure
There is a reason why I have chosen the stops I have, the length of time in each and the order to do them in.
You may want to adapt them depending on your budget and time restraints. These are really the bare minimum to spend in each area. You could easily add more in (some suggestions mentioned below).
Here are some tips to ensure you get maximum enjoyment out of your California road trip from someone who has done it.
- Follow the route in this order – Following the route in this order means driving south down large portions of the Pacific Coast Highway. As you’re driving on the right-hand side of the road this means that you will be as close to the ocean as possible. You’ll always get the best views of the dramatic coastline and ocean.
- Rent a convertible. Need I say anymore? California weather was made for the convertible driving. Yes, it’s a little more expensive, but shop around on broker sites and you can often snap up bargains. Future you will thank me for it!
- It’s a road trip; not a commute. The Californian scenery is beautiful, and you will see plenty of it from your car. That said, spending the entire day in the car is seldom fun. Following this route means you rarely spend any longer than 3hrs driving at any one time.
- Squeeze every drop. We’re big fans of arriving early and leaving late to get the most out of our trips. Ten days is a whistle-stop tour, so if you want to get the most out things try to book flights that arrive early and leave late.
The Route for your California Road Trip
California Road trip: day 1-3 San Diego (2 nights)
San Diego was our favorite California city. Laid back locals, great Mexican food, beaches and wide open green parks.
We stayed in the Gaslamp Quarter as it was the most central location to most of the sights San Diego has to offer. We’d recommend you do the same. It packed with bars, restaurants, and shops without being too commercial.
The big sights in San Diego that you should look to visit are:
Balboa Park – a beautiful, green open space that is amazing to walk around. The park also houses lots of museums. If you get the opportunity to visit the lesser frequented ‘Museum of Man’. They always have something about human history – we saw an exhibition on cannibalism. They made this morbid topic fascinating.
USS Midway – A large US aircraft carrier that is set at the marina as a museum.
San Diego Marina – A great spot to escape the city for a moment and people watch. See the yachts coming in/out the harbor
I would also strongly encourage a trip over to Coronado from the pier via the boat. The boat we went on played ‘Enya’s ‘Sail Away’ on loop for the duration of the trip. Aside from the music of Enya, you also get fantastic views over the bay area. Once there it’s full of beautiful sea-front houses and is the perfect place to sunbathe or surf (there were plenty there).
Check out Filippi’s Pizza Grotto in Little Italy for some deep dish pizza. It has the best pizza sauce I have ever had. Strap yourself in if you are used to the European thin crust stuff though. These things are dense (but delicious!).
If you can attend during baseball season (late March/early April to late September/early October) then you might be lucky enough to see the San Diego Padres at their home stadium. We saw them play the LA Dodgers, and it was the quintessential American experience filled with beer and pretzels.
California Road trip: day 3-4; Death Valley (1 night)
Death Valley is a national park rather than a defined city or area. It’s most famous for being the hottest place on Earth, with good reason. Going from San Diego to Death Valley is like stepping through a portal.
The built-up city freeways give way to scorching hot tarmac shimmering in the sun.
A death valley road trip can look a bit barren, but if you look past that you will find epic landscape, alongside the feeling you are the first people to drive through in 100 years.
Driving around, there is a palpable wild west vibe. Imagine a cow skull fixed with a rusting nail to the entrance of a barn – you’ve already got a feeling for the place.
A lot the areas within Death Valley are appropriately named, such as Furnace Creek, which has its own visitor center which proudly displays the temperature (unsurprisingly always very hot!). It’s kitsch, but well worth a visit to find out more about the area.
Being the hottest place on Earth creates Death Valley’s stunning scenery, which is one of the main attractions of the area. There are also several activities you can do on the dunes.
Many people enjoy Death Valley hiking trails over the rugged terrain. We tried it for a short route across the Badwater Salt Flats, which was stunning. Even though it was a short hike (1hr), the temperature was rough.
Death Valley top sights:
Zabriskie Point – Amazing panoramic views of dramatic dunes. It’s like being on the moon.
Offroading in Death Valley – We didn’t get the chance on our trip, but this looks like a lot of fun. We’ll definitely try it next time. But be prepared before adventuring offroad.
Badwater Salt Flats – Natural and perfectly formed salt plain.
Many people choose to come to Death Valley from Las Vegas. It’s about a 2hr drive. While it’s not part of this route, I would strongly recommend tagging it on if you can spare the time. Nothing beats emerging from the desert to the craziness of Vegas, its truly like living a (sober) Hunter S. Thompson novel.
California road trip: day 4-5; Yosemite National Park (1 night)
We love Yosemite. It was the highlight of our trip, and still is every time we go. The endless forest, open lakes, wildlife, and trekking opportunities. We also found it makes the perfect antidote to leaving Las Vegas.
To do Yosemite in a day is a real challenge as there is so much to see and do. The main thing to consider here is the time of year to go, as it will dictate which part of the park is open.
You may find in the Fall to Spring certain parts of the park are off-limits.
Another thing to consider is that you will want to stay ‘inside’ the park, but don’t stay at the overpriced hotels. Airbnb condos are more than sufficient and will put you right in the heart of the forest.
One night a bear walked past our window – you won’t get that on a third-floor hotel room!
There are plenty of hikes and walking routes to take in the park. If you are feeling particularly adventurous you can even go mountain climbing up the vertical rock faces of El Capitan.
Yosemite top sights:
Tunnel View – Quite simply one of the most picturesque and humbling views in the world over huge cliff faces, and sky-high pines.
Watch the Rock Climbers – Head to El Capitan Meadow. You’ll get great views of them in action.
California road trip: day 5-7; San Francisco (2 nights)
When you head from Yosemite to San Francisco you will find a colorful, vibrant, and sprawling city waiting for you.
Its geography is defined by the different quarters, each with their own character and vibe. From the bourgeois Nob Hill (some of the locals referred to it as ‘snob hill’ which may give you an insight into its residents!) to Downtown which is a little more rough and ready, but home to some fantastic bars and restaurants.
We thoroughly enjoyed the night tour of Alcatraz which was a truly atmospheric experience. Do make sure you check out Pier 39 to catch some sea lions sunbathing.
While you’re in the area go to the Musée Mécanique, an interactive museum with old arcade, penny games, and mechanical entertainment. A bizarre but amazing experience.
If you have any extra time to spare, go over the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s an excellent viewing point looking back over the city. Following the road further you’ll find Muir Wood, home to giant redwoods – the biggest, skyscraper-like trees you will have ever seen.
Also read: 10 unusual things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco Top Sights
Pier 39 – Seal watching and shopping
Alcatraz – Create your own escape plan and get a taste of America’s most notorious
Golden Gate Bridge – An all-American icon
You could also consider stopping in Santa Cruz on the drive down to the next stop. It’s a great place to spend the afternoon bringing out your inner child on the coconut shy, old school carnival games and rollercoasters on the Beach Boardwalk.
California road trip: day 7-8; Monterey (1 night)
One of the things I really like about this route (and California in general) is the back and forth between the excitement of the cities and the relaxation of the coast and nature. Monterey is definitely more the latter. The coastline is rugged, and there is a large emphasis on the sea and its use in this town. From the Point Pinos lighthouse (still working and one of the oldest in the US) to its abundance of fresh seafood, this is a town that knows its nautical roots.
Monterey Top Sights
Cannery Row – Aptly named as one home to the town’s food canning industry, this area is now alive with bars and restaurants.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf – The ideal place to get a good view along the peninsula, full of unique shops and plenty of the town’s famous seafood.
After leaving drop in on Carmel. It’s also a picturesque stop on your drive down the coast. It’s incredibly Stepford Wives, with streets of manicured lawns and designer boutiques. It’s hardly the place you’d believe gritty Clint Eastwood was once Mayor of (true story!). Despite this, there is something uniquely charming about the town, and it’s worth a few hours if only to grab a coffee and people watch.
California road trip day 8-10; Los Angeles (2 nights)
Los Angeles isn’t a city. It’s a series of small towns sprawled over a vast area called Los Angeles, each with its own unique character. L.A. changes each time we visit, so giving recommendations is difficult. As the best overall, I would suggest staying in West Hollywood. It is packed with hipster coffee shops and has a bohemian vibe. It’s also got sunset strip which has lots of great bars and restaurants for everyone – upmarket hotels to the infamous Viper Room.
You will find plenty to do in LA, and you can choose exactly how touristy you want to be. It’s still possible to hike up to Griffith Observatory for the best views of the Hollywood sign, you can go see the stars on Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Disney World and Universal Studios is just a short drive away. Equally, you can stay in West Hollywood and head to Whisky a Go-Go, have a few refreshments, and see if you can find the next big rock act.
I hope this California Road Trip itinerary has inspired you to visit. The most mesmerizing thing about California is its diversity of landscapes; both natural and urban.
Traveling around it always feels like several countries in one.
This is what ultimately makes it unique and the perfect destination to create your own road tripping adventure.
Planning a trip to California?
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About the author
Mark is a seasoned traveler and keen writer. Having visited several parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States he enjoys the range of cultures (but mostly the food) from around the world. Whether it’s watching the sun break over Cambodian temples, or ripping along a Californian highway in a convertible, he writes passionately about his experiences. Through this, he hopes to inspire you to follow and create your own adventure.