5 California Road Trips That'll Make You Fall in Love With the Golden State

Updated 05/05/19
California Road Trip Ideas
Bon Traveler

Like many born-and-bred Californians, I would choose Joan Didion as my fantasy dinner guest and I feel more at home in my car than pretty much anywhere else (and these are just a few of many West Coast tropes that I epitomize). I've also only ever lived in large cities, which has shaped me in many ways, but mostly it's meant that restlessness is my homeostasis, and frequent urges for a quick road trip are the norm. Lucky for me, there's no shortage of beautiful destinations in the Golden State.

And thanks to my cross-country move last week, I spent the last few days on the road. So if you're already on a road trip across the U.S. and want to make your last stops on the West Coast, if you live there and want to go on a weekend getaway, or even if you just feel like it's time to experience the obligatory drive up or down the coast, this list of California road trip ideas will guide you. Read on for travel inspiration, local pointers, and driving tips below. Then all you have to do is prepare the playlist and pack up the car.

OJAI

Southern California Road Trips
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The Road Trip Destination: A few weekends before I moved, I had the opportunity to drive a brand-new Ford EcoSport from Los Angeles to Ojai for a weekend of outdoor fun, wine tasting, and romantic small town vibes. It was one of the places on my bucket list, so I really lucked out getting to see it just a few weeks before my departure. 

If you're coming from L.A., drive up the coast and stop for a fish taco by the beach at Malibu Seafood. This scenic route between L.A. and Ojai usually takes about two hours. Driving through Ventura County will shave off 30 minutes, and there are also some cool places to stop along the way, like taking a tour of Mission San Buenaventura. I plugged my phone in to listen to the podcast Spooked, though, in retrospect, I probably should've curated a Southern California–meets–country playlist for the drive.

 

Things to do in Ojai
Caravan Outpost

What to Do Here: Ojai is the perfect destination to visit if you're hoping to take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life in a charming, quintessentially Southern California oasis. And staying at the Caravan Outpost makes it even dreamier. I stayed in an Airstream that was super cozy and well-decorated without having any unnecessary extras. While you're here, go hiking or horseback riding, eat at The Nest for lunch and Azu for dinner, and make sure to enjoy the local wines. 

Similar Road Trips in California: Point Reyes in Marin County is a similarly charming California town that draws in foodies itching to get off the grid and enjoy the outdoors. It's either an hour or two-ride outside of the city, and both routes are gorgeous. If you'd prefer a more rustic road trip destination, head to the mountains in Yosemite or Lake Tahoe, where outdoor adventures are everywhere you look. 

PALM SPRINGS

Palm Springs Travel Guide
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The Road Trip Destination: A mecca of midcentury-modern design, there's a reason Palm Springs became the vacation spot for Hollywood stars in the '50s. I only wanted to splurge on one weekend trip before my move, and I chose this. In fact, I braved the Friday afternoon traffic for just one night here. Palm Springs will always be one of my favorite places, whether I'm making the long drive from San Francisco or bopping over from L.A. 

Admittedly, this isn't the most scenic drive if you're taking the I-5, but once you get closer to the desert, it starts to get fun. Stop at my namesake, Hadley's, for date shakes and snacks, or hit up the Cabazon Outlets for discount prices on designers like Prada, Miu Miu, Gucci, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and more. 

If you want to keep things moving, check out Salvation Mountain, a brilliantly colorful artist enclave right by the Salton Sea (it’s about an hour east and south of Palm Spring). Or drive to some natural hot springs or head to Joshua Tree National Park to scramble and camp. It's also a good place to stop if you're driving between Pheonix, Arizona, and L.A. 

Things to do in Palm Springs
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What to Do Here: Enjoy the warm weather on Birba's outdoor patio while sharing some pizza, pasta, and wine. Then spend the day lounging around the pool at your resort (there's no shortage of options). Some of our favorites are the Parker Palm SpringsAce Hotel, or Holiday House. You could also play some golf, check out some flea markets and design shops, visit an art gallery, or go thrifting when you're ready to take a break from your lounge chair.  

Similar California Road Trips: Though there’s nothing you can really compare to Palm Springs, you could visit Pebble Beach (more on that to come), where there are also plenty of resorts and some incredible golf courses. Or if you're there for the desert climate and want to see what a pioneer town looks like, it's worth making the trek to Pioneertown in San Bernadino County. For a similar (though slightly larger and well-maintained) place up north, go to Nevada City, which is a good place to stop if you're driving to Lake Tahoe, anyway.

 

SAN LUIS OBISPO

Coolest Hotels in California
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The Road Trip Destination: This has always been my favorite road trip stop in California, primarily because of the bubblegum pink resort hotel, The Madonna Inn. But there's plenty else to see aside from the main attraction. San Luis Obispo was founded in 1776 by Junipero Sierra, a Spanish Franciscan, and there's a ton of cool architecture to check out along this coastal city. 

If you’re making the trip between southern and northern California on the 101 (always a good call in my opinion), San Luis Obispo is the perfect midway stop, even if you can only stop by to explore the Madonna Inn.

Things to do in San Luis Obispo
Rich Reid/Getty Images

What to Do Here: Make mini vacation out of this stop, or just head here for a weekend. Book a room in one of their quirky themed rooms at the Madonna. Stretch your legs on the pink tennis courts, take a selfie in the pink glittery bathroom, or hop in one of the decked out velvet booths for a bite to eat. Oh, and its cookies are fabulous. When you're ready to leave the Madonna Inn, take a tour of the Hearst Castle (where you may spot some Zebras) and then of the Old Mission San Miguel, or head to the beach.

 

Similar California Road Trips: Though there’s definitely more to see here, I usually only come to have a sensory celebration at the Madonna Inn, but if you’re driving up or down the 5, an alternative pit stop would be Harris Ranch. It’s also a midpoint between L.A. and San Francisco.

SOLVANG

California Road Trip Stops
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The Road Trip Destination: While driving up from L.A. to S.F., I stopped in Santa Barbara for lunch. It was a few days before my move, so there was a lot I wanted to squeeze into my trip. Everywhere on my list of places to check out in Santa Barbara was closed because it was Easter, including In-N-Out Burger. Devastating, I know, but there was a major silver lining: While looking at Google Maps for an alternative, I saw the name of a town I'd always wanted to see: Solvang. Located in the wine country of Santa Ynez Valley, this gem of a place was founded in 1911 by Danish American immigrants.

 

Just a quick 30-minute trip from Santa Barbara, Solvang is worth a quick day trip, pit stop, or full-on vacation. It's easy to access from the 101 and is situated right at the intersection of highways 154 and 246. Regardless of where you're coming from, there's plenty to do and see along the way. 

Road Trip Ideas
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What to Do Here: If you have a thing for unique architecture, you will want to wander around the side streets in Solvang all day long. Peek inside the specialty shops along Main Street, have a sausage tasting at Copenhagen Sausage Garden and end the meal with a treat from one of the many bakeries throughout town, and then go explore the rest of the Santa Inez Valley. You definitely shouldn't miss Ostrichland, USA, where you can feed the Ostriches and Emus. But be careful—they bite. 

Similar California Road Trips: Head to Sonoma for some wine country fun. The town center has a ton of character, though not quite as much quirk or European ties. 

BIG SUR

Things to do in Big Sur
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The Road Trip Destination: Burrowed between the San Lucia mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the narrow cliffside two-lane stretch of highway 1 by Big Sur is one of the prettiest drives on the planet. It can only be accessed if you drive along Route 1 just south of the bay area. Though I didn’t actually get to make it out here during this road trip because the roads are closed from the 1 going north (something to be mindful of if you plan on stopping here while driving up the coast), it's definitely worth visiting.

 

There's a cluster of nearby towns to check out along the way, too, or just on their own if you don't have time to make the trek to Big Sur. You could take a day trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and play a round of golf in Carmel-by-the-Sea or Pebble Beach. 

Places to Go in California
Bon Traveler

What to Do Here: The iconic Bixby Bridge is proof enough to see this Northern California town. If you plan on staying for the night or weekend, book a room at Ventana Big Sur, where rustic yet chic, well-curated interiors rule, or the Post Ranch Inn. While you're here, go check out the beautiful black sand beach. Tucked behind rows of trees away from the crowds, Pfeiffer State Beach is definitely worth the trek. You might even get lucky and spot some patches of gorgeous deep purple sand. 

Similar California Road Trips: If you like sticking by the coast but want to enjoy some warmer weather down south, try Balboa Island in Orange County or venture out to Catalina Island (though that may not fit into the road trip theme since you'll have to take a boat to reach the island). 

If you're looking for things to do on a road trip aside from staring out the window, check out this list of fun activities to keep you and your passengers happy. 

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