If you’re looking for your next road trip destination, look no further than California! From an expansive coastline to towering mountain ranges, the Golden State offers some of the most picturesque landscapes and ocean views in the United States.
Whether you want to surf among the pros, ski through the Sierra Nevadas, or tour wine country, California is a one-stop shop for travelers of all ages and interests.
Autio has selected five of our favorite California road trips, so you can find your next great adventure.
Drive Down the Pacific Coast Highway
California’s Highway 1, colloquially known as the Pacific Coast Highway, began construction in the 1930s. Today, its 600-mile span from the Northern to Southern tip of California remains a marvelous display of California’s expansive beauty.
The most common starting and ending points along this coastal highway are the historical cities of San Francisco and San Diego. Between these two points, you will be awestruck by the beauty of the California coastline.
A must-see along this route is Big Sur, widely regarded as the longest scenic stretch of coastline in the USA. Situated along California’s central coast, it marks a point where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. These ocean-side mountains create an environment with incredible beauty.
Another popular stop is Cambria, a quaint seaside village where you can relax along its expansive beaches and stunning oceanfront cliffs. Along the way, you can stop to see Hearst Castle, the estate of the infamous William Randolph Hearst, which boasts its own zoo of exotic animals.
Also along the way is Piedras Blancas rookery, where hoards of 8,000-pound elephant seals come to rest, breed, and fight.
As you continue down this scenic route, you will run into numerous seaside villages and bluffs with stunning views. Other cities along the way include San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles. As you get further south, Huntington and Laguna Beach are must-sees.
The drive can be completed in a day, but we recommend taking a week to appreciate the scale and diversity that this road trip offers.
Tour the Eastern Sierras
While the Pacific Coast Highway displays the best of California’s west, Highway 395 lets you experience the best of eastern California. Between Lone Pine and South Lake Tahoe, you will encounter the shattering beauty and scale of the Sierra Nevadas.
Sandwiched between Sequoia and Death Valley National Park, Lone Pine was originally a mining town. Today, you can spend the day hiking between the otherworldly arches, boulders, and jagged peaks of the Alabama Hills. This terrain is so picturesque that it was used as a location for films like The Lone Ranger, Gladiator, and Django Unchained.
You can also visit the Manzanar National Historic Site, which memorializes the 110,000 Japanese Americans who were stripped of their rights and interned during World War II.
As you head north, visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which hosts some of the oldest living trees on the planet. You can also soak in some of the area’s abundant natural hot springs.
Further along the trip, be sure to stop at Mammoth Mountain, one of California’s most popular ski resorts. Even if you’re travelling in the off-season, you can still enjoy the slopes via mountain biking, hiking, and riding the gondola. The Village at Mammoth Lakes also provides exceptional restaurants, bars, and shops.
As you continue from Mammoth, you can head west to Yosemite––one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. However, if you decide stick to the route, you’ll run into the ghost town of Bodie off Highway 270.
Finish your trip in South Lake Tahoe, one of California’s most beautiful mountain towns. Enjoy the wide variety of crystal-clear lakes, expansive hiking trails, ski resorts, mountain biking trails, and so much more. As a bonus, South Lake Tahoe bleeds into Nevada, so you can even hit the casinos!
Get Lost in the Desert
Between San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park, you will find some of the most striking terrain that California has to offer.
From San Diego, head northeast on Highway 163 to Highway 78, where you’ll run into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Spring is certainly the best time of year to embark on this journey, as this area is renowned for its springtime wildflower super blooms.
No matter what time of year you go, you’ll be amazed by the otherworldly slot canyons and cactus forests of the badlands. Near the park entrance, you can also find Ricardo Breceda’s 130-foot sculptures of prehistoric animals.
As you continue along this route, you’ll pass the Salton Sea. While it is technically California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea is almost entirely dry. Its high salinity killed off almost all life that once existed within it. Today, it’s more of a basin than anything else. In a way, the Salton Sea epitomizes the California desert—harsh and beautifully fascinating in its nothingness.
An equally bizarre landmark along this path is Slab City, a deserted Navy base that has become an off-grid living community. Today, it is inhabited by a small community of people who have escaped mainstream society, like anarchists, artists, eccentrics, and outcasts. In this year-round Burning Man, you’ll find amazing displays of art and sculpture.
The next destination is Palm Springs, an upscale town quite the opposite of Slab City. A perfect pitstop for the weary traveller, you can lounge poolside, indulge in one of their many spas, and nourish yourself with the area’s fine dining options.
Finally, you’ll end your journey in Joshua Tree National Park. An area that has long attracted artists and musicians, many extract spiritual inspiration from Joshua Tree’s expansive scenery and energy. Take in sites like the Jumbo Rocks or Skull Rock, visit the local galleries, and experience the Integration Sound Bath before you head on your way.
Go Sideways in Wine Country
If you enjoy the finer things in life, a road trip through California’s Napa and Sonoma Valley is just what the doctor ordered.
One of the shorter routes on our list, a tour through Wine Country is not about getting from point A to point B. Rather, it’s about hopping between the artisanal wineries and eateries that densely populate this expansively picturesque land.
A stay at the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa or Meadowood Napa Valley will surely wash away your stresses. Pamper yourself with massages, wine tastings, and fine dining at these unmatched resorts.
One of the best of Wine Country’s offerings is the St. Francis Winery & Vineyards. In addition to the standard tastings and tours of the grounds, the St. Francis offers a particularly special food & wine pairing experience. Situated in their estate dining room, this seasonal, multi-course experience is curated by an expert team of culinary artists and sommeliers.
Hundreds of wineries and vineyards call California’s wine country home, so you will have no shortage of unique experiences. One such experience is a tour of Sonoma in a vintage Volkswagen Bus, which transports you between a multitude of tastings.
Once you’ve had your fill of top-notch wines, enjoy wine country’s beautiful outdoors. Armstrong Redwoods provides awe-inspiring trails surrounded by towering colonies of old-growth redwood trees.
You can also experience Safari West, a 400-acre exotic animal reservation. Aptly nicknamed the Sonoma Serengeti, some of its residents include giraffes, ostriches, rhinos, impalas, antelopes, buffalos, and flamingos.
Experience Volcanic Land
Sculpted by prehistoric volcanic activity, Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the most uniquely beautiful areas in the state. In fact, it is not only home to the largest plug dome volcano in the world, but also one of the few areas in the world where all four types of volcano can be found—plug dome, shield, cinder cone, and stratovolcano.
By starting your journey in Redding, heading north on I-5, you will run into Shasta-Trinity National Forest where you can admire the ragged spires at Castle Crags State Park. You will then reach Mount Shasta. There, you can enjoy a wide range of hiking trails or try your hand at wakeboarding in the Shasta Reservoir.
The next stop along the way requires a trip down the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, which heads all the way up to Oregon. Stop to hike the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park and see its 129-foot-tall waterfall. You can also rent kayaks or paddle boards to experience the serene Lake Almanor.
Finish your trip by wandering through Lassen Volcanic National Forest. Due to its history of volcanic activity, there is a diversity of geographical scenery that will transport you to another world. Mud pots, geysers, lava fields, alpine lakes, and lush green meadows are just a few of the environments that you can explore.
Set Out Into the Great Unknown
Whether you choose to journey along the PCH’s picturesque cliffsides or wine country’s plentiful vineyards, California’s diverse terrain offers something for everyone. If you’re looking to learn more about the tales and histories that built California, take Autio with you on your next road trip.
Autio’s collection of over 8700 bite-sized stories takes your interests—from Music to Sports to Local Insights and everything in between—and crafts content tailored to the themes you love, narrated by some of your favorite voices.
When you travel with Autio, you do more than just see the sights. You learn the stories and legends that bring America’s beautiful landscapes to life.