The Best North & South California Road Trips
California has the coast with the most, and an interior that is most superior. But enough rhyming about it. What matters is how you go about it. Travelling through California and seeing all its best parts, that is. Road trips allow you to take in this massive state at your own pace, with plenty of room for spontaneity and authenticity, and with your own soundtrack.
Here are two of our favourite California road trip itineraries. One for the northern half of the state, and another for its southern half. If we need not say more, click here to begin planning your California travel saga.
Northern California Road Trip
San Francisco might be a smaller city, but it is dense with qualities that make it a global city, and a beautiful city. Its soaring Golden Gate Bridge, lively waterfront, colourful diversity, vintage cable cars and Victorians. When you stop in San Francisco, you can tour its historic Chinatown, visit the waterfront, where sea lions and seals sunbathe on old piers, and make a trip to some of the islands off the coast, including Alcatraz and Angel Island.
Yosemite National Park
The drive into Yosemite National Park will give you a shock. Its towering monoliths and roaring waterfalls, with their size and beauty, will make you wonder if you’ve made a wrong turn into a magical fantasy reality. Rent a kayak and cruise along some of the Yosemite Valley’s calm and serene lakes, or go for a hike along some of the many park trails that will lead you to astonishing vistas. There’s a wealth of things to see and do in Yosemite National Park.
Lake Tahoe is a turquoise gem hidden among majestic peaks of the High Sierra. Lakefront towns are scattered across this massive lake’s shoreline, and they each appeal to families and adults alike. Kayak or paddleboard across its glassy waters, or ski across the powdery slopes on the surrounding mountains. In the summer, go on scenic hikes, bike trails and gondola rides.
The earth is not a quiet rock. In Lassen Volcanic National Park, it vents steaming sulphur, bubbles big mud pots and boils colourful springs of mineral water. Well-marked trails and pathways will take you through fields of hot and unsteady lands, full of unique sights and smells. Volcanic landscapes are one-of-a-kind and unforgettable for their almost alien appearance.
Burney Falls, nicknamed the eighth wonder of the world, is a 129-foot-tall, overgrown cascade of water. The way overhanging ferns, moss and shrubbery obscure the waterfall is truly special, making it look as if the roaring water and magical mists come out of nowhere. Burney Falls is also a popular place for fly fishing.
Experience year-round snowfields, wildflower meadows and the local hippie vibe that Mount Shasta seems to emanate. The way its snow-capped peak majestically towers over the surrounding flatland, sure enough, inspires a sense of interconnected smallness when you look at it while surrounded by a billion blades of grass swaying gently in the wind. The mountain isn’t the only thing to look at, though. Among many other trails, there’s one that will take you to a trio of waterfalls.
Redwood National Park
Walk on paths that are beset on all sides by redwood trees with bases and roots as large as houses and towering trunks that soar as high as 107 meters. Park rangers lead amazing walks to the forest’s hidden-away sights like Fern Canyon or Elk Meadow, where you can see wild elk grazing in grassy prairies. You can also ride horseback or take mountain bikes through the park to find other attractions that are obscured by the tall and dense redwoods.
Eureka is the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, and that has more than just geographical meaning. Eureka combines alternative culture, Portland’s mainstay, with historical authenticity, San Francisco’s calling card as a big city. Eureka is a still-working seaport, with crusty fishing boats chugging in and out of a harbour, logging chucks rumbling along the roads and hundreds of 19th-century homes. The entire city is a state historic landmark, with an engaging mix of nature and culture in a small-town atmosphere.
Southern California Road Trip
This road trip starts with a bang, and a flash, and a swelling symphony, and all the other flourishes of America’s movie city. Los Angeles has an endless list of things to do, and it covers quite a large area. Best to plan ahead. Start in the sand at Santa Monica, a coastal city with one of the few uncrowded beaches and a carnival pier that’s full of screaming fun and places to eat. Then you can drive up to Beverly Hills and Hollywood to skim the showbiz high life.
After LA, you need a change of pace. San Diego is one of America’s paradisiacal cities, with regular sunshine and year-round warm weather. Sunbathers and surfers are a regular sight. The city is also home to Legoland, SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, and lots of other family-friendly attractions.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
California’s largest state park is more than just an enormous desert. It’s a remote and wild place, crossed by herds of native bighorn sheep. Rainstorms and flash floods still erode and shape the landscape, from morphing dunes to watering havens of California fan palms. Palm Canyon is the most scenic oasis in Anza-Borrego, its trees fed by underground springs and attracting all the bighorn sheep and many exotic migratory birds to hum among palm fronds and cacti.
In the 1950s, Palm Springs was the getaway of choice for big stars like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, who enjoyed the city’s championship golf courses and hip cultural scene. Palm Springs has the highest concentration of art galleries in Southern California. Artists, curators and other experts are often there, open and ready to talk with anyone interested in the art. Boutique shops from top designers and top-end brands also line the streets and make Palm Springs a stylish, civilised stopover.
Joshua Tree National Park
Desert plains with the occasional odd tree, old gold mining ruins, rough mountains, buttresses and boulders—Joshua Tree National Park is an alien landscape. Located between the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, ‘J-Tree’ shines at any time of day, with amazing desert flora glowing orange at sunset, and then the sky filling with stars come nightfall.
In winter, Mammoth Lakes is a prime ski destination, with world-class ski slopes and village amenities. In the summer, wildflowers bloom and fly-fishers wade in scenic rivers to spend the day fishing. Whichever season finds you at Mammoth Lakes, there’s always family-friendly attractions and activities.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Sequoia & Kings Canyon might be overshadowed by certain grander canyons, but that makes it no less wondrous and beautiful. Its mountain peaks, canyons and rivers hold sights, sounds and smells that will stay with you long after you leave the park. Most unforgettable of all is the General Sherman Tree—the world’s oldest known living organism, and the world’s largest single-stem tree. It measures 31-meters around, and 84 meters high and, even at almost 3,000 years of age, it’s still growing.
Do either or both of these road trips have that travel bug biting? Click here to begin planning your California travel saga.