Like many born-and-bred Californians, we would choose Joan Didion as our fantasy dinner guest, and we probably feel more at home in our cars than anywhere else (and these are just a few of many West Coast tropes we epitomize.) For those of us who've also only ever lived in large cities, the sprawl has likely shaped us in many ways. But mostly, perhaps, living in a large city has meant that restlessness is our homeostasis, and frequent urges to hit the road for a quick getaway and longer adventure are the norm. Lucky for us, there's no shortage of beautiful destinations in the Golden State where rubber meets some impressively scenic roads.
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 crave a weekend getaway, or 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.
Before you set out on a road trip, get your car checked out at a mechanic and consider getting a tune-up to make sure everything goes smoothly.
The Road Trip Destination: To help this writer get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2018, the opportunity to drive a brand-new Ford EcoSport from Los Angeles to Ojai for a weekend was a welcome one. Ojai is best known for outdoor fun, wine tasting, and romantic small town vibes, and it's super easy to get to from L.A.
If you're coming from L.A., drive up the coast and stop for a fish taco, a bowl of clam chowder and all manner of steamed, fried, and grilled seafood near 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 a tour of Mission San Buenaventura, also known as the "Mission By the Sea." A Southern California–meets–country playlist is highly encouraged for the drive.
What to Do in Ojai: 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. Guests bed down in a super cozy and well-decorated Airstream, without any unnecessary extras. While you're here, go hiking or horseback riding, eat at The Nest for lunch (think Buddha bowls and salads) and Azu for a California-Mediterranean inspired 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 drive outside of San Francisco, 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.
The Road Trip Destination: As a mecca of midcentury modern design, there's a reason Palm Springs became the vacation spot for Hollywood stars in the '50s. Case in point: Everything from the Tramway Gas Station on Palm Canyon Drive to the Twin Palms Estates neighborhood is decked out in distinct Modernist architecture.
Admittedly, getting to Palm Springs 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 the popular 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. Then, there are the swath of mesmerizing windmills that make for an interesting contrast against the natural desert landscape.
If you want to keep things moving, check out Salvation Mountain, a brilliantly colorful artist enclave near the Salton Sea. Expect about an hour drive east and south of Palm Springs. Or, drive to some natural hot springs or head to Joshua Tree National Park to scramble around and camp (just know that park rangers will advise against longer hikes during the summer, due to the extreme heat.) It's also a good place to stop if you're driving between Phoenix, Arizona, and L.A.
What to Do in Palm Springs: 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 Springs, Ace Hotel, or Holiday House. You could also play golf, check out flea markets and design shops, visit an art gallery, or go thrifting when you finally find the will to move from your lounge chair.
Similar California Road Trips: Though there’s nothing that really compares 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 craving a desert climate, it's worth making the trek to Pioneertown in San Bernardino County. For a similar (though slightly larger and well-maintained) place up north, go to mountainous Nevada City, which is a good place to stop if you're driving to Lake Tahoe, anyway.
San Luis Obispo
The Road Trip Destination: This is another favorite road trip stop in California, primarily because the ornate, bubblegum pink resort hotel, the Madonna Inn is hard to miss. But there's plenty else to see, do, and taste in San Luis Obispo, a city which was founded in 1776 by Junipero Sierra, a Spanish Franciscan.
If you’re making the trip between southern and northern California on the 101 (always a good call in our opinion), San Luis Obispo is the perfect midway stop, even if you can only stop by to explore the Madonna Inn.
What to Do in San Luis Obispo: Make a mini vacation out of this stop, or just head here for a weekend. Book a room in one of the Madonna Inn's quirky themed rooms—and the earlier the better as these rooms sell quickly. 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 their cookies are fabulous. Also, 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. Downtown San Luis Obispo is full of funky cafes, bars, and restaurants. Glam it up for an evening at moody Nightcap, part of the Granada Hotel, for craft cocktails with fun names like Mahalo At Ya Boy (their spin on a Mai Tai.)
Similar California Road Trips: An alternative pit stop would be Harris Ranch in Coalinga, where you can spend the night at its inn, and pick up gifts at its country store, and some Harris Ranch beef, which they'll even pack on ice for your trip. It’s also a midpoint between L.A. and San Francisco.
The Road Trip Destination: While driving up from L.A. to S.F., I stopped in Santa Barbara for lunch. Unfortunately, because it was Easter, everywhere on my list of places to check out in Santa Barbara was closed, including In-N-Out Burger. It was devastating, but there was a major silver lining: While searching for an alternative, Solvang popped up. 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 45-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 at the intersection of highways 154 and 246.
What to Do in Solvang: If you have a thing for unique wooden architecture, you will want to wander around the side streets in Solvang all day long and admire its towering windmills. Peek inside the specialty shops along Main Street, pop in to its more than 20 wine tasting rooms, have a sausage tasting at Copenhagen Sausage Garden, and end the meal with a treat from one of the many bakeries throughout town. Then 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 (and cheese) country fun. The town center has a ton of character, though not quite as much quirk or European ties.
The Road Trip Destination: Burrowed between the Santa Lucia mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the narrow cliffside two-lane stretch of highway 1 through 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, and sometimes the road is closed; something to be mindful of if you're interested in going this route.
There's a cluster of nearby towns to check out along the way, too. For example, 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.
What to Do in Big Sur: 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, where two heated infinity pools look out over the Pacific. While you're here, check out the beautiful black sand beach. Tucked behind rows of trees away from the crowds, Pfeiffer State Beach is definitely worth the trek; seek out the 80-foot waterfall that plunges from granite cliffs. You might even get lucky and spot some patches of gorgeous deep purple sand.
Similar California Road Trips: If you like the coast but want to enjoy some warmer weather down south, try Balboa Island in Orange County, or head even further south to Coronado Island in San Diego, where the iconic Hotel del Coronado debuted a sustainable seafood-to-table restaurant, Serẽa in 2019.