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 favourites 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 Lake—the 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 neighbours 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 WineryClos 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 SoleilSolage 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). Winter storms in early 2017 caused a temporary closure on Big Oak Flat Road—the connection between Highway 120 and Yosemite Valley—but 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. Just outside the park, stop 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 harbour 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 harbour 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.

 

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