Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night? ~ Jack Kerouac
There’s nothing like a good old fashioned road trip. It’s a rite of passage, as American as apple pie and as Californian as a double-double. After all, who hasn’t dreamed of tracing the California leg of Jack Kerouac’s cross-country trip through Sacramento, San Francisco to Sausalito and all the way down to Indio? As a state, California is primed for road trips: long and meandering Interstate highways, scenic off-the-beaten path roads, booming cities, sweeping landscapes that span from mountains to ocean, and plenty of sunshine to keep your spirits up if a road block springs up or misadventure ensues.
From bucket-list landmarks to secret beaches and must-visit cities, we’ve curated five must-do summer road trips from California’s 394,608 road miles, courtesy of Visit California. It’s time to slap on your seat belt, roll down the windows, hit the open road and crank up those killer tunes…
1. CENTRAL COAST
The Route: San Luis Obispo to Piedras Blancas via Highway 1.
Length: 50 miles
What You’ll Get: Pristine Pacific coastline, cozy beach hamlets and one fabled landmark.
At just over 50 miles, this is one easy day trip. But don’t fret: the trip north from San Luis Obispo to Ragged Point on Highway 1 packs a scenic punch in a short distance. Hip and historic, you’ll start at San Luis Obispo, a hip, college and mission town in one, with a fun and walkable downtown. Once you’re cruising, you’ll drive through open, rolling hills and whip past Bishop Peak, home to some of SLO’s best hiking until you reach the shops and restaurants on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero. Hit the waterfront boardwalk to iconic 581-foot Morro Rock, or catch a glimpse of sea otters and other wildlife. Next up, is Cayucos, about six miles north, where you’ll find everything from surfing to quint antique shops and beach art to smoked salmon. A little further north, you can go wine tasting at Harmony Cellars, a family-owned boutique winery in Harmony — a town of only 18 people. Five miles from Harmony, Highway 1 breezes into a forest of Monterey pines at Cambria, an artsy and historic coastal village. From Cambria, it’s only about 15 minutes to the visitor’s center and tours at the enthralling mountaintop landmark, Hearst Castle. After a tour of the castle, you won’t want to miss a chance to get an up-close look at the giant elephant seals on the beach at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, just a few miles up the road.
2. SACRAMENTO VALLEY
The Route: Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park via I-5 and Highway 89.
Length: 188 miles
What You’ll Get: A nature lover’s paradise.
If you’re looking for a road trip teeming with California’s best-kept secrets, the northeastern Shasta Cascade region will satisfy every sight-seeing itch. You’ll want to begin your adventure in Redding and head up I-5 to Shasta Lake—the largest reservoir in California known for its top-notch fishing and water sports. From there, you’ll whip past the majestic 14,162-foot Mount Shasta, where John Muir once wrote, made his “blood turn to wine” upon seeing it for the first time. While you’re here, make sure you don’t miss the spires at Castle Crags State Park. Next up, is the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, as you head south on Highway 89. It’s part of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, home to the 129-foot, fern-draped Burney Falls. Finish your trip at lovely, placid Lake Almanor, which rests adjacent to the bubbling mud pots and steaming geysers of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
3. WINE COUNTRY
The Route: Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail.
Length: 29 miles
What You’ll Get: Some of the world’s best wine and food, and an inspiring portrait of rolling vine-lined hills.
Wine lovers will rejoice over the prospect of driving through Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail, running parallel to the more bustling State Highway 29. Constructed in 1852 to link the towns of Napa and Calistoga, the road now brings together some of the best wineries in the Golden State, from Stag’s Leap to Darioush and Paraduxx. To take full advantage of the trail, you’ll want to start in the town of Napa and work your way north. Perhaps you’ll want to stop at wineries such as Clos du Val, Miner Family Winery for a private cave tour or Mumm Napa for a bit of bubbly. To keep a leisurely pace, treat yourself to a night or two at one of the fabulous local luxury hotels, like Auberge du Soleil, Solage Calistoga, or Meadowood Napa Valley and maybe even dinner three-Michelin star French Laundry — if you’re lucky enough to snag a coveted reservation.
4. THE SIERRAS
The Route: Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park via Highway 395 to Highway 120, aka Tioga Pass.
Length: 215 miles
What You’ll Get: Hiking, biking, giant sequoias, gushing waterfalls and one California’s most famous natural treasures.
Summer is the best time of year to see the stunning sights of Yosemite — and the only time of year you can access the national park via Highway 120, also known as Tioga Pass (which is typically only open May through November — check the park’s website for the latest opening information and history). Start at South Lake Tahoe, near the idyllic Emerald Bay State Park, and head south on Highway 395, the High Sierra’s main thoroughfare. Along the way, you’ll see endless scenic wonders: fields of volcanic rock, waterfalls, ghost-like limestone tufa towers at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Eventually, you’ll divert off Highway 395 to the seasonal Highway 120, aka Tioga Pass. This is your chance to really experience the beauty of North Yosemite. Explore the Tuolumne Meadows and Wapama Falls. Hike among the giant sequoias at the Tuolumne or Merced groves. For a longer adventure in the park, head to Yosemite Valley and stay at the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel). Continue on Highway 120 and explore the quaint Gold Rush towns of Groveland and Coulterville.
5. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
The Route: Rim of the World Scenic Byway
Length: 117 miles
What You’ll Get: The greatest hits of California: views of mountains, lakes and ocean.
If you’re a sucker for a view, then this drive is for you. For more than 100 miles, the narrow State Highway 18 winds around the cliffs of the San Bernardino Mountains, through small villages on the way to Big Bear Lake. The highway offers such awe-inspiring panoramic views that it’s been dubbed “The Rim of the World.” Along the way, you’ll want to take a slight detour onto State Route 173 for a stop at Lake Arrowhead and the mellow, half-mile educational Sequoia Trail at Heaps Peak Arboretum. For those big views we referred to earlier, keep driving to the town of Running Springs and take the winding, five-mile drive up to Keller Peak Fire Lookout, where you’ll find “whoa” views of mountains, lakes, and—on a clear day—the Pacific Ocean. If the summer weather’s got you dreaming of jet skiing and hiking, head to Big Bear. Top off your trip with some good ol’ fashioned fudge at the North Pole Fudge & Ice Cream Co.