11 perfect California road trips to take this spring break
“Do You Know the Way to San Jose”
“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”
“99 Miles From L.A.”
For decades, musicians have written songs about California road trips, attempting to bottle their magic into a catchy track.
Los Angeles County travelers are lucky — our slice of Southern California, home to Highway 1 and the historic Route 66, is an especially well-positioned jumping-off point for anyone with the urge to hit the road.
A drive from L.A. to San Francisco, San Diego and other California cities can easily be transformed into a weeklong road trip with interludes of sightseeing, dining, wine tasting, hiking, surfing and more. Visiting one of the Golden State’s national parks? Why not add a few stops along the way?
Don’t worry if you only have a few days to spend on the road — most of these trips can be edited to fit your time constraints.
The road trips on this list, which span nearly the length and width of California, will need to be adjusted based on the time of year you take them. As our recent winter storms have demonstrated, driving in California can prove treacherous, so always check road conditions and local guidelines before traveling.
Please also keep in mind that some of the destinations and roads mentioned are currently closed due to weather. We are sharing these routes for future road trip inspiration, to use when road conditions improve.
Now, let’s hit the road.
The best of both worlds: Palm Springs and Idyllwild
From L.A., head east to California’s capital of desert glamour: Palm Springs. Lose yourself amid the city’s Midcentury Modern homes, hard-to-resist boutiques and sparkling resort pools. Come hungry — in Palm Springs you can have your fill of chilaquiles, mouthwatering Italian subs and even $50 martinis, Times restaurant critic Bill Addison reports.
As you wander Palm Springs’ expansive boulevards, keep an eye on the mountains looming above. That’s where you’re heading next — to Idyllwild, to be exact.
Idyllwild is best explored like the labyrinth at St. Hugh’s Episcopal Church: in reverse. Start in the center of town, and work your way out to its rugged trails and awe-inspiring viewpoints.
If you need any last-minute hiking supplies, hit up Nomad Ventures. Prefer to kick back and read a book while enjoying the crisp mountain air? Pay a visit to Bookmarket, a new addition to Idyllwild as of last year.
A handful of day hikes, at varying levels of difficulty, will lead you into the San Jacinto Mountains. Newcomers to Idyllwild might begin at Humber Park and choose between the gentle Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail and the more challenging Devil’s Slide Trail.
Don’t miss: an overnight stay at Hicksville Pines, an eclectic collection of over-the-top themed accommodations. The Dolly Parton-themed room oozes mountain coziness.
Get starry-eyed: Joshua Tree, the Salton Sea and Anza-Borrego
Plan ahead and book tickets to see live music at the famous Pappy + Harriet’s or Yucca Valley’s AWE Bar, a relative newcomer to the desert.
If you’re up to splurge on accommodations, consider a stay at one of AutoCamp’s luxe Airstream trailers. In need of some extra relaxation? Try a meditative sound bath at the Integratron in Landers before continuing your journey south.
Now it’s time to swap Joshua Tree’s trendy streets for the strange shores of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach and Salvation Mountain. Cross Joshua Tree National Park on Park Boulevard and Pinto Basin Road, and take California 111 along the eastern edge of the sea.
The Ski Inn, nearly wallpapered in dollar bills, offers road trippers a chance to grab a casual lunch on their way through the desert. After fueling up, spend an hour or two exploring colorful Salvation Mountain before journeying home to L.A. by way of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Julian (don’t forget to pick up an apple pie at Julian Pie Company or Mom’s Pie House before heading home!).
Stargazers, consider spending the night in Borrego Springs or Julian — they’re the only International Dark Sky Communities in California.
Don’t miss: Ricardo Breceda’s larger-than-life metal sculptures, near Borrego Springs.
A coastal getaway: Highway 1, L.A. to San Francisco
You knew this iconic drive would make the list. It blends beaches with mountains, jaw-dropping views of nature with some of California’s most distinctive and over-the-top man-made landmarks.
Make your first stop in Ventura and spend the day on an Island Packers trip to the Channel Islands. Kick back at one of the city’s breweries that night; I recommend Topa Topa.
The next morning, stop in Carpinteria for a beach walk before hitting Santa Barbara. If you need a little extra caffeine, pop by Handlebar Coffee Roasters across from the Presidio and spend a few hours exploring the Funk Zone’s art galleries and shops.
Arrive in San Luis Obispo in time for sunset, and stay overnight in one of the Madonna Inn’s colorful themed rooms. Dinner at the inn’s Gold Rush Steak House is a must (embrace the all-pink-everything vibes and order a Pink Cloud cocktail along with a slice of the famous Pink Champagne Cake for dessert).
Heading north from San Luis Obispo, you’ll pass the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery and Hearst Castle — both worth a visit — before encountering the hair-raising, exhilarating turns of Big Sur.
Once you get your fill of wooded hikes and waterfall vistas, drive north across the Bixby Creek Bridge and choose your next destination. Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey are each worthy stops on any Highway 1 road trip. Or you can venture farther north to Santa Cruz and beyond before making your way to San Francisco.
Don’t miss: kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, a prime place to spot otters.
Mountains await: Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear
If the mountains are calling — to borrow the oft-repeated quote — but you don’t feel like driving that far, then this is the road trip for you.
Expansive Big Bear Lake, sitting some 6,700 feet high in San Bernardino National Forest, is filled with activities for the whole family. Twenty-five miles down the road, Lake Arrowhead feels like a shiny jewel, intensely pretty and tucked lower amid the pines.
Travelers should make a point to visit both mountain communities, taking the Rim of the World Scenic Byway. Drive safely and soak in the panoramic views of the Inland Empire.
Your time in the San Bernardino Mountain towns will vary vastly based on what time of year you visit; if there’s snow, spend a day or two skiing, snowboarding, sledding or snowshoeing at one of the resorts in Big Bear Lake.
If you visit in warmer months, the Pinnacles Trail offers a moderately challenging foray into the national forest. Cool off by renting a paddleboard or kayak and explore the waters of Big Bear Lake.
Prefer to kick back and relax instead? Book a ticket and set sail on the Lake Arrowhead Queen.
Don’t miss: ordering a milkshake at the Cedar Glen Malt Shop, a small establishment near Lake Arrowhead that feels plucked straight out of “Twin Peaks.”
Wine time: Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles
Driving north from L.A., travelers have their pick of famed wine towns such as Santa Barbara, Solvang and Los Olivos. It’s easy to immerse yourself in Danish charm during an afternoon in Solvang — start with a visit to the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, located in the Book Loft. While in the Santa Ynez Valley, enjoy a glass of Viognier at Rideau Vineyard, founded by Iris Rideau, celebrated as the first Black woman to own a winery in the U.S.
Your next stop is Cambria, a quiet coastal community known for its lush pine trees and olallieberry pie. Stop for a slice at Linn’s Easy as Pie Cafe, and don’t leave town without a walk through the driftwood at Moonstone Beach.
From Cambria, cut inland to Paso Robles for more wine tasting — a session at Tablas Creek on scenic Adelaida Road is a good place to start. Once the sun goes down, go for a stroll through the Field of Light at Sensorio to see Central Coast hills illuminated with jewel-toned, undulating lights.
If you visit vineyards and breweries on your travels, please drink responsibly.
Don’t miss: a stop for ice cream in pint-sized Harmony.
Adventures in the parks: Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite
If you look on a map, you’ll see the three parks, laid out in seemingly a straight line through the Sierra Nevada — mighty Yosemite to the north, twin gems Kings Canyon and Sequoia to the south.
Driving north from L.A., first visit the César E. Chávez National Monument. The monument, located halfway between L.A. and Sequoia National Park, honors the labor leader who fought to better the lives of U.S. farmworkers.
Stay the night in Three Rivers, near the Ash Mountain entrance to Sequoia National Park. Then, spend a day or two — or more, if you can — hitting the highlights of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. If you’re pressed for time, it may be helpful to use the Giant Forest and Lodgepole, home to the world’s largest living tree, and Grant Grove as jumping-off points for day hikes.
Next up: Yosemite National Park, a 115-mile drive from Grant Grove Village. Though busier than more remote parts of the park, Yosemite Valley is a convenient home base for road trippers. If weather allows, hike Yosemite Falls Trail, which leads to the top of the tallest waterfall in North America.
Don’t miss: stopping for a pint and steak fries — which come topped with housemade “beer cheese” — at South Gate Brewing Company in Oakhurst.
Condors and caves: Pinnacles National Park and Monterey
But don’t let its acreage fool you; what it lacks in size, Pinnacles makes up for in variety.
In a single day, you may be able to spot one of the park’s famous condors soaring above, explore a cave and hike through otherworldly rock spires.
And, after Southern California travelers are finished admiring the flora, fauna and geologic wonders of Pinnacles, instead of driving back the way they likely came (via U.S. 101 or Interstate 5), they can loop back home by first heading north to Hollister and then southwest to Monterey for some bonus time on the coast.
Feeling hungry? Have your fill of clam chowder on a visit to the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Then spend a few hours wandering through the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For road-weary travelers, the undulating jellyfish are particularly soothing to behold.
Don’t miss: a hike on Condor Gulch Trail in Pinnacles National Park.
See the Eastern Sierra: U.S. 395, Lone Pine to Lake Tahoe
Heading north from L.A., make Lone Pine your first destination. The jumping-off point for hikers attempting to summit Mt. Whitney, Lone Pine is home to plenty of down-to-earth inns and eateries accustomed to serving an outdoorsy crowd — plus the eerily beautiful Alabama Hills.
Almost 60 miles north, Bishop boasts highlights such as the often-packed Erick Schat’s Bakkery and the friendly Spellbinder Books — a convenient spot to pick up a book about the Eastern Sierra or another souvenir.
From Bishop, Mammoth Lakes and Lake Tahoe are world-class destinations for winter sports, which can be enjoyed into the spring. If you’re traveling U.S. 395 during the fall, drive around the June Lake Loop to get your fill of autumn colors.
Feeling ambitious? Consider tacking Death Valley National Park onto your itinerary on your way to or from Lake Tahoe. The park, especially popular in the spring, is less than 50 miles off U.S. 395.
Don’t miss: Manzanar National Historic Site, one of several camps where Japanese Americans, deprived of their civil liberties by the U.S. government, were incarcerated during World War II.
Surf and sand: L.A. to San Diego
The canyons and coastline of Laguna Beach are an especially appealing stop on a trip from L.A. to San Diego. Grab coffee and a breakfast burrito at the Orange Inn, bask in the sun at Thousand Steps Beach and gallery-hop around town before hitting the road again.
Farther south is Dana Point, named the first Whale Heritage Site in the U.S. in 2021. Keep your eyes on the horizon — you may get lucky and see a gray whale in the distance (their migration runs from November through April, roughly). Interested in surfing? Doheny State Beach (of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” fame) is a relatively gentle spot to learn.
After San Clemente, San Onofre State Beach, Camp Pendleton and Oceanside come Carlsbad’s famous Flower Fields, the Golden State’s answer to Holland’s iconic tulips. The fields are typically open from early March through early May.
Once you arrive in San Diego, catch sunset at the Cabrillo National Monument tide pools and savor a bayside dinner at Mitch’s Seafood in Point Loma.
Don’t miss: kayaking or paddleboarding in the Back Bay in Newport Beach.
The Lost Coast: San Francisco to Eureka (and beyond)
Before or after your meal break, take time to enjoy Point Reyes National Seashore. Elephant seals can be spotted throughout the year, but travelers who visit between December and March have the best shot at seeing the large marine mammals convening on the beaches.
The Lost Coast is calling: Continue north along Highway 1 to Mendocino and Fort Bragg. While in town, take a spin through a redwood forest on the Skunk Train railbikes. Next up is the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of road through the redwoods with plenty of trailheads where you can pull off and explore.
Just an hour north is Eureka — pick up breakfast at Los Bagels, and don’t leave without checking out the Victorian-era buildings in the city’s Old Town district. Fifty miles north, a guided paddle along the Klamath River run by the Yurok tribe is a memorable and meaningful way to end your Northern California adventure. (Hat tip to my colleague Christopher Reynolds for that recommendation, and many others, in this section. Check out a list of Northern California adventures here.)
Don’t miss: Glass Beach, a favorite NorCal curiosity.
Volcanoes and waterfalls: Mount Shasta, Burney Falls and Lassen Volcanic National Park
Six hundred miles away from Los Angeles, a journey to see these wonders is not for the faint of heart — but those who make the journey are rewarded by views impossible to glimpse in Southern California.
It helps to see the three destinations as a bonus adventure, tacked onto a road trip up the coast to see the redwoods or along U.S. 395 to Lake Tahoe. Mount Shasta, an offbeat town long beset by rumors of UFOs, Bigfoot and other supernatural phenomena, is roughly four hours from Eureka. The lava flows and hydrothermal sites within Lassen Volcanic National Park are less than four hours from North Lake Tahoe.
The mighty 129-foot-tall Burney Falls, sandwiched between Mount Shasta and Lassen, is sure to blow the minds of travelers used to seeing a meager trickle at Southern California waterfalls.
Don’t miss: marveling at the Sulphur Works hydrothermal area, home to bubbling mud pots and steam vents, in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
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