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The Ultimate California Road Trip: A Step by Step Itinerary 

The Ultimate California Road Trip: A Step by Step Itinerary 

Planning a California road trip but not sure where to start? This (rather brilliant) California road trip itinerary will take you from beautiful beaches to stunning national parks. Discover now. 

When you hear the word “California” I’ll bet that things like scenic views, gorgeous beaches, and parks — so many parks — come to mind, right?

It figures that there are few places  better than California for you to hop behind the wheel to set off on a road trip. 

My own California road trip was one of the most memorable adventures I’ve had to date. One moment I was chillin’ and eating tacos in San Diego, the next marvelling at the jaw-dropping beauty of Yosemite National Park. There were coastal hikes skirting giant seal colonies, wine-drenched days in Sonoma, all punctuated with classic Californian sights like the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Driving on West Coast Road Trip_
Driving on the coast on our California road trip!

In short, if you’re not bouncing around in excitement at the prospect of your upcoming road trip, I’m pretty sure you will be after this. 

Enough of the chat. It’s time to explore. 

California Road Trip Itinerary 

Los Angeles: California Road Trip Days 1 – 2 

Los Angeles
This sunset was the moment I fell in love with Los Angeles

Los Angeles is the perfect starting point for the best road trips in California, whether you’re heading south or north. 

The weather’s incredible, the city’s vast, the beaches are inviting, the galleries and museums mesmerising, and the food scene… guaranteed to blow your mind (or at least your tastebuds).

Things to Do in Los Angeles

I think we can all agree that it’s straight up  impossible to cover all the cool spots in the course of a few paragraphs, but here are a couple of highlights. 

Want to delve deeper? Check out my Things to do in Los Angeles guide.

Enjoy the Stunning Beaches
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
Venice Beach

It’s no secret that LA has more than its fair share of stunning beaches and it would be a shame not to hang out on at least one of them during your trip. 

Head to Santa Monica beach to sunbathe alongside the city’s elite, or head to eccentric Venice Beach for street performers set on the backdrop of the Pacific.

Visit Griffith Observatory

The Griffith Observatory, only open Friday through Sunday, has a planetarium that transports you to the cosmos, an electrifying Tesla coil exhibition, and a spot providing sweeping views of LA. I’d recommend booking a guided tour to discover more about this fascinating structure. 

Suggested Stay for Los Angeles on Your California Road Trip Itinerary 

Loews Hollywood Hotel –  A rooftop pool and sun terrace make this spot enticing, but the California-inspired cuisine at its restaurants puts it over the top. Alternatively, you can look for other properties in Los Angeles for more choice.

Big Sur: California Road Trip Day 3 

Big Sur - Ventana

A rugged coastline, verdant forests, and craggy cliffs with waves crashing — along with the gleeful words of writers like Jack Kerouac — have brought Big Sur worldwide acclaim. The highlight of any West Coast road trip, it more than lives up to its promise. 

Things to Do in Big Sur

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park offers marked trails transporting you to a world dominated by waterfalls, wildflowers, hidden coves, and turquoise waters lined with rock formations.

Pfeiffer Beach

Secluded Pfeiffer Beach has unmissable Pfeiffer Keyhole Rock as its top attraction—the sunrise and sunsets are to die for—but an expansive shoreline and tide pools also attract people.

Getting to Big Sur from Los Angeles

Continuing on this part of this California coast road trip, you’ll be covering around 295 miles of road between LA and Big Sur. 

Driving time is around 5 hours 20 minutes. 

Suggested stops if you have more time: Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay.  

Suggested Stay for Big Sur on Your Itinerary 

Hidden Valley Inn – This property’s proximity to Carmel Valley, where fine restaurants and vineyards await, earned my recommendation. If you’re looking for something a little more exuberant, check for other properties in Big Sur.

San Francisco: California Road Trip Days 4 – 6

San Francisco

San Francisco makes up for its relatively small size with scenic beauty, a boatload of attractions, tempting food and a diverse population. 

Things to do in San Francisco

Admire the Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge and its orange arches are world-renowned. I recommend heading to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point to glance at San Francisco from a new angle.

Stroll Fisherman’s Wharf

This trendy neighbourhood houses a tonne of restaurants and shopping places in addition to attractions like the Madame Tussauds wax museum and cute sea lions in Pier 39 Marina.

Getting to San Francisco from Big Sur

The journey to San Francisco from Big Sur lasts 141 miles. 

Driving time is around 2.5 hours. 

Suggested stops if you have more time: Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey. 

Suggested Stay for San Francisco on Your California Road Trip Itinerary

Hotel Caza Fisherman’s Wharf – Equipped with an outdoor pool, a garden, and a restaurant serving delicious food – is my pick for staying in the Bay. 

Alternatively, you can look at other properties in San Francisco for something that suits you better.

Napa Valley: California Road Trip Day 7

Napa Valley

Napa Valley is among the top wine regions globally and, as such, draws visitors who love nothing more than sipping reds and whites. 

Things to do in Napa

Tantalise Your Buds at a Vineyard

If you’re a wine drinker, I recommend stopping by Domaine Carneros for sparkling and Pinot noir wines coupled with breathtaking views of the valley.

Dine on a Train

The refurbished Napa Valley Wine Train offers a luxurious experience on a 36-mile round trip. Onboard, you can enjoy delectable dishes while exploring the valley by rail.

Getting to Napa Valley from San Francisco

The San Francisco to Napa Valley drive is around 67 miles.

Driving time is around 1 hour. 

Suggested stops if you have more time: Oakland, Berkeley. Or head to Sonoma as an alternative to Napa Valley. 

Suggested Stay for Napa Valley on Your California Road Trip Itinerary 

Napa Winery Inn – Set in a quiet atmosphere and featuring a seasonal pool and spacious rooms with daily breakfast, you won’t go wrong with this place. 

Alternatively, look at other properties in Napa Valley for something that suits you.

Yosemite National Park: California Road Trip Days 8 – 9

Half Dome Yosemite

Yosemite National Park is teeming with things to do. It’s a natural wonder worth seeing with its verdant forests, towering cliffs, beautiful waterfalls, and many hiking trails. 

Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

Marvel at El Capitan

3,000-feet tall El Capitan is a sight to behold and draws in rock climbers and nature lovers by the dozens with just its presence.

Watch the Water Splash at Yosemite Falls

Continuing the theme of unrivalled natural beauty, here is iconic Yosemite Falls. Catch a glance at the cascades from Yosemite Village for the best vista from afar.

Tackle one of Yosemite’s Many Stunning Hikes
Yosemite Valley

Yosemite is a hiker’s paradise with trails for all levels. Whether you’re looking for the adrenalin-rush of taking on the Half Dome or want something a little more low-key, spending some time exploring the park on two feet is a must. 

Getting to Yosemite National Park from Napa Valley

The drive to Yosemite National Park from Napa Valley is 191 miles.

Driving time is around 3.5 hours. 

Suggested Stay for Yosemite National Park on Your California Road Trip Itinerary 

The Ahwanee is one of the few hotels in Yosemite National Park itself and offers high-end rooms with stunning views. 

Browse other properties near Yosemite for comparison.

Death Valley: California Road Trip Day 10

Death Valley

Death Valley spans over 3 million acres, made up of an incredible variety of animals, plants, trails on unique terrain, and fantastic views.

Things to Do in Death Valley

Enjoy Dante’s View

I can’t tell you who Dante is, but one thing I can tell you is that this view of Death Valley is otherworldly, especially with sunsets or sunrises.

Trek to Telescope Peak

While no actual telescope awaits at the top, views of Badwater Basin and Mount Whitney are a worthwhile reward for taking on the 14-mile hike.

Getting to Death Valley from Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park to Death Valley spans 237 miles.

Driving time is around 4 hours. 

Suggested stops if you have more time: Mammoth Lakes, Inyo National Forest. 

Suggested Stay for Death Valley on Your California Road Trip Itinerary 

Best Western Pahrump Oasis – An hour from Death Valley, the accommodation offers a daily breakfast and coffee-making facilities. 

Alternatively, look for other properties near Death Valley.

Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park: California Road Trip Days 11 – 12

Palm Springs

Palm Springs, with its plethora of spas, incredible cuisine, and hot springs, is one of the must-see places on a California road trip. 

Joshua Tree is most famous for its unique trees, but it also boasts a variety of plants and animals set in an almost otherworldly landscape. 

Things to do in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park

Ride an Aerial Tramway

The Aerial Tramway whisks you away along the Chino Canyon and rewards all who dare hop on with incredible views.

See the Mid-Century Architecture in Palm Springs 

Palm Springs is a haven of cool architecture – you should visit at least a few during your trip. Put the Kaufmann House, Elrod House and Twin Palms at the top of your list. 

Cholla Cactus Garden

The natural garden has over a thousand chollas lined across the land, which are particularly mesmerising when the sun shines on them.

Getting to Palm Springs from Death Valley

The journey from Death Valley to Palm Springs is 274 miles long.

Driving time is around 4.5 hours. 

Suggested stops if you have more time: Big Bear Lake, San Bernardino National Forest. 

Suggested Stay for Palm Springs on Your California Road Trip Itinerary 

Margaritaville Resort Palm Springs – This luxurious property offers spacious rooms, an exotic spa, and on-site dining options. Check out other properties in Palm Springs.

San Diego: California Road Trip Days 13 – 14

Torrey Pines San Diego

San Diego, an outstanding feature on any southern California road trip, blends cultural diversity, pristine beaches, trendy street art, cool hikes and a rich history to attract all kinds of people.

Things to do in San Diego

Visit San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is home to an impressive array of animals, some of which you can get up close and personal with on the Animals in Action Tour.

Party the Night Away at Mission Beach

Quiet by day and lively by night is probably this beach’s motto. Two miles of oceanfront and an electrifying boardwalk teeming with bars and diners await.

Getting to San Diego from Palm Springs

Your trip south to San Diego from Palm Springs is at least 126 miles long.

Driving time is around 2 hours 10 minutes. 

Suggested stops if you have more time: Temecula. 

Suggested Stay for San Diego on Your California Road Trip Itinerary 

Andaz San Diego – The rooftop pool along with a restaurant offering dining coupled with panoramic San Diego views won me over. Alternatively, check out all accommodation in San Diego

After San Diego, drive back to LA to finish your road trip! 

If You Have More Time: More Spots for the Best California Road Trips

Sand Harbor Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is worth a stop for sure!

Due to its vastness when explored via a road trip, California still has a lot (I mean a lot!) more to offer beyond the 14 days I recommend. 

Got more time to play with? Here are a couple of other suggestions for cool places to stop by during your time on the road.

Lake Tahoe – Freshwater lake straddling the California-Nevada border where verdant forest and granite boulders blend with surrounding mountain peaks await hikers.

Mammoth Lakes – A quaint town showcasing high-alpine beauty and offering activities like kayaking, skiing, and climbing.

Redwood National Park – A beautiful park home to 300-feet tall redwoods which you can explore by foot or car.

Handy Tips for Planning Your Road Trip in California

California Road Trip: Group Tour or Independent Travel?

You can tackle this itinerary alone or with a group. Either way, you’ll have fun, although it will differ depending on your choice.

Travelling alone will mean you won’t have to contend or compromise on your preferred destination and activities there. Travelling with a group provides ample opportunity to make lifelong memories with your friends.

G Adventures offer this incredible 18-day road trip covering California in the Southwest

Not only does it cover quite a few of the destinations featured in this itinerary, but it also allows you to venture into Nevada, Utah and Arizona to see more stunning locations such as the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park

Check out G Adventures’ full range of USA Road Trips here

What to Pack for Your Road Trip in California

West Coast USA Road Trip Guide. Everything you need to know to plan your Highway 1 road trip. Read now.

To ensure you have the best California road trip, you must pack adequately and have all road trip essentials on you. 

Cali has a Mediterranean-like climate where summers are hot and winters are kind of wet, meaning you’ll have to plan with the season in mind. Here’s a general list to get you started.

  • Reusable water bottle – the Hydroflask is a great option 
  • Hiking shoes – Tropic Feel’s all weather, all terrain hiking shoes are a gamechanger
  • Swimwear
  • Sunscreen — seriously, California can be scorching.
  • Camera for beautiful snaps
  • Season-appropriate clothing (raincoats for winter, hats for summer etc.)

I go into a lot more detail on my Road Trip Packing List guide

Useful Resources – Getting to California

One of the reasons I chose Los Angeles as the base, in addition to being one of the best places to road trip in California, is because the LAX airport services flights from just about everywhere.

Check flights to Los Angeles on Skyscanner

Getting Around

If you intend to follow this road trip itinerary California has to offer, you will need to rent a car, and you can rely on the following rental agencies.

California Road Trip – Map

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