6 perfect spring break road trips for last-minute planners
By Rachel Schnalzer
Good morning, fellow Escapists. I hope you’ve stocked up on snacks, set aside some extra gas money and built that perfect playlist. It’s road trip season in California.
For the record:
5:53 p.m. April 1, 2022A previous version of this story linked to an article about Shasta County, not Mt. Shasta, which was the town being referred to.
Don’t get me wrong, I love airplanes and boats and especially trains as much as the next traveler. But in a state as vast as California, some adventures require that you get in the car and drive. Whether you’re looking for a last-minute spring break destination or just want to flee L.A. for a few days, here are six road trip ideas across the Golden State, plus one bonus trip for anyone interested in extending their escape.
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Lone Pine to Lake Tahoe
U.S. 395 isn’t a road to race through on your way to Mammoth Lakes or Lake Tahoe — rather, it’s one to savor. There are several worthwhile stops to make along the way.
Lone Pine, the jumping-off point for hikers attempting to summit Mt. Whitney, is home to plenty of down-to-earth inns and eateries accustomed to serving an outdoorsy crowd and the eerily beautiful Alabama Hills. Farther north, Bishop boasts the often-packed Erick Schat’s Bakery and the friendly Spellbinder Books. Mammoth Lakes and Lake Tahoe are, of course, world-class destinations for winter sports, which can be enjoyed into the spring.
The ambitious might consider tacking Death Valley National Park onto their itinerary, less than an hour’s drive from Olancha.
Don’t miss: Manzanar National Historic Site, one of several camps where Americans of Japanese descent, deprived of their civil liberties by the U.S. government, were incarcerated during World War II.
The ultimate desert escape
Can’t get enough of those desert vibes? This one’s for you.
Begin by driving from L.A. to Joshua Tree and devote a few days to exploring the nearby national park as well as the town’s trendy shops. No desert trip is complete without a swing through Pioneertown; try to snag a seat at Pappy & Harriet’s for dinner, and if you’re up to splurge on accommodations, stay at AutoCamp in Joshua Tree. Could you use some extra relaxation? Book a sound bath at the Integratron in Landers before continuing your journey.
Next, drive south through Joshua Tree National Park on Parks Boulevard and Pinto Basin Road and jump on Interstate 10 to Palm Springs. The newly redone Casa Cody — the oldest hotel in Palm Springs — looks especially inviting.
From here, you have a choice: You can kick back at a Palm Springs pool for the rest of spring break — sounds pretty nice, right? — or you can hit the road again, this time heading southeast on California 111 to the strange shores of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach and Slab City. Spend an hour or two exploring colorful Salvation Mountain before journeying home by way of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Julian (make sure to fuel up with some apple pie while you’re in town).
Don’t miss: The Cabazon Dinosaurs, a classic Southern California road trip stop.
Highway 1, from L.A. to San Francisco
You knew this iconic drive would make the list. Starting in L.A., stop first in Ventura and spend the day on an Island Packers trip to the Channel Islands, one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. 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 and coffee 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. (The SeaVees shoe shop and El Sitio, a counter-style Mexican restaurant, are two recommendations from local artist and surfer DJ Javier.)
Arrive in San Luis Obispo in time for sunset, and stay overnight in one of the Madonna Inn’s over-the-top themed rooms. Budget time to enjoy a meal at the Gold Rush Steak House (embrace the all-pink-everything vibes and order a Pink Cloud cocktail along with a slice of the famous pink Champagne cake for dessert). In the morning, rent one of the inn’s magenta bikes and use it to explore San Luis Obispo for an hour or two before hitting the road again.
You’ll pass the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery and the soon-to-be-reopened Hearst Castle — both worth a visit — before encountering the hair-raising, exhilarating turns of Big Sur. Stay the night, if you can snag a reservation; I particularly enjoyed my stay in a glamping tent at Fernwood Campground & Resort.
Once you get your fill of wooded hikes and waterfall vistas, drive north across the Bixby Creek Bridge (playing, of course, the soundtrack from the show that features the bridge in its intro, “Big Little Lies”) 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: The chance to kayak in Elkhorn Slough, a prime place to spot otters along Highway 1.
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Highway 1, plus Central Coast wine country
Not sure you’re interested in braving the perilous turns of Big Sur? Skip the cliffside views and go all-in on Central Coast wine country instead.
Driving north from L.A., you can stop in famed wine towns such as Santa Barbara, Solvang and Los Olivos. While in the Santa Ynez Valley, make sure to visit Rideau Vineyards, founded by Iris Rideau, who is 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 along Moonstone Beach.
From Cambria, cut inland to Paso Robles for more wine tasting — I particularly enjoyed my experience at Tablas Creek — and a stroll through the stunning Field of Light at Sensorio. Then, head back down U.S. 101.
If time allows, detour along California 166 to New Cuyama for a stay at the trendy Cuyama Buckhorn, then down California 33 to Ojai and Ventura.
As always, if you visit vineyards and breweries on your travels, please drink responsibly.
Don’t miss: A stop for ice cream in pint-sized Harmony, population 18.
Southern California coast, L.A. to San Diego
I always find myself humming along to at least a few of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits when I drive from L.A. to San Diego. With all the quintessential Southern California beaches in between, I simply can’t resist.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before hitting the waves, make Long Beach your first stop, specifically the vintage shops and restaurants of 4th Street, a.k.a. “Retro Row.” Pippi + Lola, a temporary pop-up turned permanent plant studio, seems like a must-visit.
Continue south past Huntington Beach and Newport Beach until you reach the canyons and coastline of Laguna Beach. My idea of a perfect day in town: coffee and a breakfast burrito at the Orange Inn, basking in the sun at Anita Street Beach, gallery hopping around town and a sunset walk at Thousand Steps Beach.
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 through May, typically). Interested in surfing? Doheny State Beach (of “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 open through May 8.
Once you arrive in San Diego, catch sunset at the Point Loma tidepools and toast to a week well spent at Mitch’s Seafood.
Don’t miss: The California burrito at Nico’s in Ocean Beach.
The NorCal coast, redwoods and beyond
If only every road trip could start with oysters. On your way north from San Francisco, fuel up with seafood at the Marshall Store off Tomales Bay and take time to enjoy Point Reyes National Seashore. Then, cruise Highway 1 to Sea Ranch, a development of about 1,800 homes distinctly designed to melt into the coastal landscape. Take a walk along one of the public trails through the vast property.
The Lost Coast is calling: Continue north along Highway 1 to Mendocino for an afternoon of gallery hopping and to Fort Bragg for a ride through the redwood forest on the Skunk Train railbikes. Once you hit Rockport, cut inland to the Chandelier Tree — a 276-foot-tall coast redwood tree you can drive through — and up to the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile amble through the redwoods with plenty of trailheads where you can pull off and explore.
Just an hour north is Eureka (check out the Victorian homes in its Old Town district) and Klamath. A guided paddle in a dugout canoe along the Klamath River organized by the Yurok tribe is a memorable and meaningful way to end your North Coast adventure. (Hat tip to my colleague Christopher Reynolds for that recommendation, and many others, in this section. Check out a list of North Coast adventures here).
Don’t miss: Glass Beach, a favorite NorCal curiosity.
Bonus trip: A sampling of northeastern California
Mt. Shasta, Burney Falls and Lassen Volcanic National Park, connected by roughly 100 miles of lonesome road, are each a testament to the incredible natural beauty of California. But they’re also really far away from Southern California. That’s why I’m including these three stunners as a “bonus trip” — a possible addition to a journey up the NorCal coast to see the redwoods or along U.S. 395 to Lake Tahoe.
Mt. Shasta, an offbeat town long beset by rumors of UFOs, Bigfoot and other supernatural phenomena (as well as right-wing extremism), is roughly 4½ hours from Eureka. The lava flows and geothermal sites within Lassen Volcanic National Park are less than four hours from North Lake Tahoe.
The mighty 129-foot-tall Burney Falls, sandwiched between Mt. Shasta and Lassen, is sure to blow the minds of travelers used to seeing a meager trickle at Southern California waterfalls.
Don’t miss: The Sulphur Works hydrothermal area, home to bubbling mud pots and steam vents, is Lassen Volcanic National Park’s only hydrothermal area accessible in the winter months.
🎸 Road song
Song: “Cold Little Heart” by Michael Kiwanuka (if you know, you know)
Where to play it: As you drive across Bixby Creek Bridge on your way from Big Sur to Monterey, of course
It's a date
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