10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips
Jeffrey Murray/Getty Images

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips
Follow these classic routes for magical scenery and worthy stops

The Highway 1 road trip that passes through Big Sur on California’s Central Coast is perhaps the most famous scenic drive in the Golden State. These days, parts of that legendary road are on the mend after the heavy rains of winter 2017. But the good news is that it’s not completely unpassable (here’s how to navigate the current Highway 1 detours). It’s also not the only scenic, unforgettable road trip in California—by far. Consider one of these 10 classic road trips, rich with magical scenery like pounding surf, rolling hills, waterfalls, and plenty of wineries. Most make for a great weekend or even day trip. Choose your favorites from these trips, listed north to south—then roll down the windows and get going.

 

Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Length: 188 miles

Prime Seasons: Spring and Summer

The northeastern Shasta Cascade region reveals a lot of California’s best-kept secrets. Start in Redding and head up I-5 to Shasta Lakethe largest reservoir in California, and a hotbed for fishing and water sports. From there, drive past the 14,162-foot Mount Shasta; seeing it for the first time, John Muir once wrote, made his “blood turn to wine.” While you’re in the area, don’t miss the spires at Castle Crags State Park. Next, head south on Highway 89, which is part of the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, and go to McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, home to the 129-foot, fern-draped Burney Falls. Finish at lovely, placid Lake Almanor, which neighbors the bubbling mud pots and steaming geysers of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

 

Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg

Length: 175 miles

Prime Season: November through April

This stretch of the highway, heading up the North Coast from San Francisco, offers as much windswept beauty as its Central Coast counterpart. It starts when you cross the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito and Marin County, where you’ll encounter the coastal hills and redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument, followed by the dramatic sea cliffs and remote beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore.

From there, cruise through the rolling vineyards of Napa Valley and Sonoma County’s wine country. Then explore the seemingly untouched beauty of the North Coast—from the craggy coastline at Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands to the rugged terrain at Mendocino Headlands State Park and the quaint, Victorian-style town of Mendocino. Next, head north on Highway 1 to Fort Bragg and explore MacKerricher State Park to see seals, migrating whales (from November through April), and Glass Beach, which looks like it’s covered with jewels.

 

Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail

Length: 29 miles

Prime Season: Year-round

This road was constructed in 1852 to link the towns of Napa and Calistoga. Today, the Silverado Trail runs parallel to the more bustling State Highway 29, with easy access to some of the best wineries in the Golden State. Start in the town of Napa and work your way north, stopping at wineries such as Reynolds Family Winery, Clos du Val in the Stags Leaps District, and the bubbly-rich Mumm Napa. To keep a leisurely pace, stay a night or two at one of the fabulous local hotels, like Auberge du Soleil, Solage Calistoga, or Meadowood Napa Valley.

 

Lake Tahoe to Lone Pine or Yosemite National Park

Length: 234 miles on the Lone Pine route, 215 miles on the Yosemite route

Prime Season: Year-round on the Lone Pine route, May–November (weather permitting) on the Yosemite route

Highway 395 is the High Sierra’s main thoroughfare filled with endless scenic wonders—from fields of volcanic rock to waterfalls and eerie limestone tufa towers. Any piece of this trip could be its own multiday adventure. Start at South Lake Tahoe, near the idyllic Emerald Bay State Park, and head south toward Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve to see the bizarre, ghostlike towers. 

Continue to Mammoth Lakes, where you’ll find family-friendly skiing and snowboarding during winter, and hiking and mountain biking in the summer. From there, keep driving south to Bishop (pick up some of the acclaimed Sheepherder’s bread and sandwiches at Erick Schat’s Bakkery) and then Lone Pine, the setting for many an old western movie, and near the photo-op-magnet, eight-foot Mobius Arch in Alabama Hills.

For an alternate route that will give you a view of Yosemite National Park’s natural scenery, divert off Highway 395 to the seasonal Highway 120, aka Tioga Pass, which is typically open May through November (check the park's website for the latest opening information and history). Exploring North Yosemite offers the chance to see beauties like Tuolumne Meadows, Wapama Falls, and hiking (or winter snowshoeing) at the Tuolumne or Merced groves, both lined with giant sequoias. Head to Yosemite Valley for a longer adventure in the park, or continue on to explore the quaint Gold Rush towns of Groveland and Coulterville.

 

Sierra Vista Scenic Byway

Length: 90 miles

Prime Season: June through October

This drive along forest roads offers a window into what the High Sierra looked like roughly a century ago—which means you’ll traverse a few dirt roads, too. Start on Forest Road 81 near the town of North Fork—45 miles northeast of Fresno—and follow the route for about 90 miles. Views include plenty of peaks, granite domes, and conifer forests; prime stops include Jesse Ross Cabin, which dates back to the 1860s; and the 2,700-year-old Bull Buck Tree, one of the world’s oldest sequoia trees. Reward yourself with a slice of pie at the rustic Jones General Store.

 

Fresno Blossom and Fruit Trails

Length: 62 miles

Prime Season: February through September

In late winter, this loop east of Fresno becomes a rainbow of pastels across the acres of blossoming fruit and nut trees—like almonds, peaches, plums, and cherries. By early summer, the local fruit markets are stocked with the juicy harvest. Start in Fresno, east of Highway 99, and follow the route, including State Route 180, through the charming towns of Sanger, Orange Cove, Reedley, Kingsburg, and Fowler. Don’t miss stops like Fresno’s Simonian Farms, a 1901 fruit stand housed in a giant red barn; the aromatic Orange Blossom Trail from Orange Cove; and Cedar View Winery in Sanger, where you can taste the red wines made with rare Alicante Bouschet grapes. Give the town of Selma its props as the Raisin Capital of the World, and check out the old-style trains and fruit orchards at Reedley’s Hillcrest Farm.

  

Highway 101 from Malibu to Lompoc

Length: 120 miles

Prime Season: Year-round

This stretch of Highway 101—which overlaps with parts of Highway 1—gives you a greatest-hits road trip of both beach and wine country. Start in iconic Malibu, where the highway runs along the base of the rugged Santa Monica Mountains before passing through Oxnard (stop by its California Welcome Center), Ventura, and then idyllic Santa Barbara. Look west, out over the water, for signs of Channel Islands National Park and walk in the sand on one of Santa Barbara’s local beaches, such as El Capitán, Refugio, or Gaviota. The highway then turns inland through rolling ranchlands, bound for Lompoc. Most famous for its summer flower fields, Lompoc also has excellent Pinot Noir. Sample a few at the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, a collection of tasting rooms run by leading boutique producers.

  

Rim of the World Scenic Byway

Length: 117 miles

Prime Season: Year-round

For more than 100 miles, narrow State Highway 18 winds around the cliffs of the San Bernardino Mountains, through small villages on the way to Big Bear Lake, and offering such panoramic views that it’s been dubbed The Rim of the World. Prime stops include Lake Arrowhead (a slight detour onto State Route 173), and the mellow, half-mile educational Sequoia Trail at Heaps Peak Arboretum. For big views, keep driving to the town of Running Springs and take the winding, five-mile drive up to Keller Peak Fire Lookout, with expansive views of mountains, lakes, and—on a clear day—the Pacific Ocean. Keep heading to Big Bear for water sports and hiking in the summer, or snow play in the winter—and great homemade fudge year-round at the North Pole Fudge & Ice Cream Co.

 

Surf Safari through Orange County

Length: 30 miles

Prime Season: Year-round

This endless-summer drive through Orange County starts at the southern origin of Highway 1: Dana Point, a harbor town with excellent whale-watching during winter. Head north to cruise through art-gallery-lined Laguna Beach, home of summer’s Pageant of the Masters Tournament, then stop for a walk on one of the state’s prettiest beaches at Crystal Cove State Park. Next, head to Newport Beach, known for both its yacht-filled harbor and its tempting frozen bananas and creamy Balboa Bars. Finally, cruise through Huntington Beach—dubbed Surf City USA—and try catching a wave yourself, or watch the experts from the bustling Huntington Pier.

 

Beach-to-Desert Drive from San Diego

Length: 90 miles

Prime Seasons: Late Winter and Spring

Bounce from the coast to the mountains and then the desert in this scenery-packed trip across Southern California. From the beaches of La Jolla or Del Mar, take State Road 56 east to Highway 67, which winds through rural Ramona, dotted with farm stands. Then turn onto Highway 78 and into the Cuyamaca Mountains toward Julian, the mountain town known for its apple crops (and, hence, lots of pie, like those at Julian Cafe and Bakery). Then ease back down the road’s twists and turns into the desert, where the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is home to an explosive wildflower bloom every year, around February and March. Stay the night at a local hotel like Casa del Zorro, and be sure to stay up late: Borrego Springs is an International Dark Sky Community known for its epic stargazing.

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips Pillars_Outdoor_OR_RD_50003619_1280x640
Rachid Dahnoun

California: Outdoor

ALL DREAMS WELCOME

What's Hot Now
10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VC_CTWW_Foundational_Stock_RM_CLTR000034_1280x640_V2
Discover the High Sierra

Surf in the morning, powder in the afternoon. In California, snow and sand are surprisingly interchangeable—perhaps because they both shine under that same...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VCW_SI_T6_WhaleWatching_MicheleW_1280x642
Discover Orange County

Join guided cruises out of Newport Harbor and Dana Point to explore remarkable marine habitat that’s home to huge numbers of whales, dolphins, and sea lions. The...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips OceanfrontHotels_VentanaInn_AdamBaker_Flickr_1280x642
Adam Baker/Flickr

Ventana Big Sur

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips vca_maps_centralcoast
Soulful elegance in Big Sur

Edge-of-the-earth views across the Pacific, wood and stone details bringing nature right into your room—...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VC_LonePine_ST_RF_722224619_1280x640
Room/Getty Images

Lone Pine

Discover the natural beauty and another side of California in a historic Owens Valley small town

Head to Lone Pine to see a different side of California—one that is less connected to...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VC_8GreatCaliforniaDogBeaches_Rosies_PascalShirley_C0A0231_1280x640
Pascal Shirley

11 Great Dog Beaches

Whether your pup wants to ride the waves or lounge in the sand, there’s a Golden State beach calling

Few places in the U.S. are as dog-friendly as California. With its comfortable climate, open spaces, and welcoming cities, the Golden...

It [Pinnacles] represents what nature often does, all the great conflicts and tensions are there, of volcanic activity and fault lines, and the sort of geology of it is just spectacular to see on display.
Ken Burns
10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VC_CaliforniasEpicWaterfalls_Stock_RM_EBPEKT_1280x640
Picture Lake/Alamy

California’s Epic Waterfalls

Record precipitation means water is flowing better than ever—go see these waterfalls while they’re still at their peak

Winter 2017’s epic rain and snow may be old news, but its stormy consequences keep unfolding in wet-and-wild ways across...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VC_Questionnaire_AlexHonnold_ED_29790110_1280x640
John Dickey/TandemStock.com

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Alex Honnold

The El Capitan free-solo rock climber explains his love for Yosemite and more California favorites

On June 3, 2017, Honnold became the first person to ever ascend El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite wall in...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Find whitewater rafting fun for all—from newbies to nerves-of-steel experts

Think of a river, and chances are you’ve got your own daydream. Maybe you want to float on inner tubes, or maybe your style is to careen through raucous rapids in an eight-person inflatable raft....

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VC_RiverRafting_Preview_Stock_RM_172652806_686x885
Groveb/Getty Images
10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VC_California101_ChannelIslands_Stock_RM_152836733_1280x640
Cody Duncan/Getty Images

How to Explore the Channel Islands

Spend a day—or a week—in this idyllic national park off the Central Coast

This chain of five islands—Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel—is rich with untouched natural beauty and a California...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VCW_D_Yosemite_Hero_20140503_Yosemite_hero_1280x642

Trip 6-7 days 10 stops

Sierra Adventure

Granite peaks, alpine valleys, towering trees-the High Sierra is nature's playground all year-round
10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VCW_D_HS_T3_Tahoe_Swim_Farnum_0

Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list staple, a place where the air is “very pure and fine...it is the same the angels breathe,” according to author Mark Twain. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips CalaverasBTSP_sized

On your way to this park, save time to visit the charming Gold Country town of Murphys (a great place for wine tasting and innovative dining along the town’s main street). Then continue north and east to discover peaceful groves of giant sequoias at this under-the-radar park. Established in 1931...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VCW_D_Jtree_heroDE_JoshuaTrees_1280x642_downsized
Alex Farnum

Spotlight: Joshua Tree National Park

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips vca_maps_deserts_0
Rugged mountains, vibrant sunsets & uncountable stars

Boulders and buttresses, rugged mountains, gold mining ruins, desert plains dotted with the oddball trees—this is one weird place. Joshua Tree,...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VCW_SI_Hero_HS_Yosemite_UpperFalls_KG_preview_686x885
California is blessed to have the most designated National Parks in the United States.
10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VC_PismoBeach_ST_RF_579831770_1280x640
Harri Jarvelainen/Getty Images

Pismo Beach

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips vca_maps_centralcoast
Wine and waves meet at the vintage Central Coast town of Pismo Beach

Whether you’re driving from the north or south on U.S. Highway 101, there’s an unforgettable moment as you reach...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Hands-on fun for all at farms, ranches, and fields statewide

From almonds and olives up north to avocados, oranges, and dates in South, the Golden State has a crop (or 10) for nearly every stretch of terrain. After all,...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips SC_Chaffin_Eliaschickens_TPS_preview_686x885
Tai Power Seeff
10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips CarlsbadFlowerFields_ynnil_1280x642-1_downsized
ynnil/Flickr

Farm Tours & Drives

Gorgeous scenery, tasty bounty

Country roads, shady orchards, gnarled wine vines—these trails, drives, and unique farm tours provide close-up looks at...

California’s Best-Kept Secrets

Discover 8 of California’s Best-Kept Secrets

These remote and surprising spots fly under the radar for even the most well-versed California travelers

Think you’ve seen all of California? Think again. We traveled to eight different remote locations to showcase some of California’s lesser-...

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips
Jeffrey Murray/Getty Images

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips

Follow these classic routes for magical scenery and worthy stops

The Highway 1 road trip that passes through Big Sur on California’s Central Coast is perhaps the most famous scenic drive in the...

The mountains are calling and I must go.
John Muir
10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips VCW_D_DeathValley_T6_Chao Yen_9068899095_b6a2bbfd4f_o_1280x642
Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the continental U.S., at 3.3 million acres.
There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.
Edward Abbey