From giant redwoods, to the stunning coastal beaches, magnificent limestone towers, whale watching, and more, a road trip through California will give you the adventure of a lifetime! The Sunshine State is great for many things, and it’s epic coastal drives are no exception. Bursting with unbelievable views, and unforgettable adventures, the only problem with road tripping in California is knowing where to start.
Traveling California’s 840 mile coastline provides endless routes, and surprises, attracting travelers from around the world. And for good reason! From waves crashing on coastal cliffs, to driving beneath trees that are the tallest living beings on the planet, to driving over high mountain passes and through deep valleys, this part of the world features a little something for everyone.
Because this part of the country provides a multitude of road adventures, we’ve gathered 3 of the most epic California road trips short enough to take in a day or weekend, and interesting enough to keep everyone in the car wanting more!
If you’re flying into California and want to rent a car, it can actually be quite affordable. Compare car rental prices here for the best deal.
Additionally, keep reading for road trip essentials, and rules, to ensure you’re prepared for a trip you’ll never forget.
Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg
The drive along Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg is one of the most stunning and scenic routes in the entire state of California. Not only does it provide magnificent views where you’ll encounter coastal hills and dramatic sea cliffs, but it’s also known around the world for its magnificent giant redwoods. This stretch of highway, heading up to the North Coast, offers endless views in every direction.
Starting in San Francisco, you’ll begin this road trip with an epic landmark well-known around the world – the Golden Gate Bridge. Perhaps best known for its famous restaurants, food trends, and cable cars, San Francisco is unlike any other place in the world. Not only is it the home of the Golden Gate Bridge and Pier 39, where you can view sea lions like nowhere else, but it’s also home to Alcatraz Island, Lombard Street, and the California Academy of Sciences.
As if the stunning scenery wasn’t enough, this stretch of road also brings you cruising through the rolling vineyards of Napa Valley and Sonoma County’s wine country. From there, you’ll arrive in the untouched beauty of The Sunshine State’s northern coast where the coastline features a rugged and quaint terrain like that at Mendocino Headlands State Park.
Continuing north on Highway 1 to Fort Bragg, you’ll find countless opportunities to adventure in state parks, watch seals on the coast, explore Glass Beach, and even to see migrating whales through part of the year.
Adventuring through this part of the state is an experience unlike any other, and sure to keep everyone in the vehicle excited for more! From marine life to redwood terrain, rugged coastal shores and more, this unique area is a destination you’ll never forget.
Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park
The drive from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park attracts adventures from around the world. Highway 395 is the main drag for the High Sierra, and it’s filled with stunning scenic wonders! From waterfalls, to fields of volcanic rock, limestone tufa towers, and more, every piece of this road trip could be an adventure all on its own.
Starting near Emerald Bay State Park, you’ll quickly start this trip coasting towards the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, where you’ll see the magnificent limestone towers. Lake Tahoe is a large freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It straddles the border of California and Nevada, and is perhaps best known for its beaches and ski resorts. From swimming, kayaking, skiing, and more, outdoor adventures here are endless.
Continuing on your trip to Mammoth Lakes, this next part of the trip is the ultimate family-friendly destination for skiing and snowboarding during the winter months, and for hiking and biking during the summer.
Coasting through California means catching a view of Yosemite National Park! There’s nothing quite like the beautiful and natural scenery here. Exploring Yosemite could certainly be an adventure all on its own, but experiencing some of it is well worth the drive. Exploring north Yosemite gives you the chance to see stunning meadows, epic waterfalls and offers perfect hiking or snowshoeing through sequoia groves.
If you’re looking to spend a bit of time here, head to the Yosemite Valley for an extended adventure in the wilderness. There are endless opportunities to experience this part of California’s many wonders!
SoCal Surf Safari through Orange County
The drive through Orange County is enjoyed year round by an audience from around the world. This Southern California road trip starts at the southern origin of Highway 1 in Dana Point, a quaint harbor town well-known for its excellent whale-watching during the winter months. Starting the trip on a high, this harbor offers adventuring in 28 parks on the beautiful coast of The Sunshine State.
Continuing north, you’ll cruise into the eclectic and artsy city of Laguna Beach, Southern California’s premium coastal destination. The city’s topography is unique to other coastal cities in the state, featuring seven miles of beaches and coves where visitors can explore natural tide pools, sea caves, ocean side bluffs, sandy beaches and more! It’s a unique destination with beachfront adventures versatile enough to keep everyone in your group happy, especially the surfer in your crew!
Not only are the beaches in Laguna Beach great for surfing, but as you continue up the coast you’ll also find other top destinations for surfers from around the world. Heading into Newport Beach, known for its yacht-filled harbor, and further coasting into Huntington Beach, you’ll quickly understand why this area was dubbed Surf City USA!
Huntington Beach offers some of the most consistent ocean breaks in SoCal, which have been surfed by national and international champions for decades. Aside from providing the perfect surfing conditions, this area is also home to the International Surfing Museum, the Surfers’ Hall of Fame, and the Surfing Walk of Fame. It’s both perfect for the surfer in your group, and for the history buff!
Not only can you watch expert surfers from the bustling Huntington Pier, but the locals and visitors here are eager to share and invite other ocean lovers into the community. Since this road trip is an ultimate drive to take for surfers, catch up on your surf knowledge with the complete history of surfing (1000 AD – present day). An ocean sport rich with history, and not short on passion from it’s following, the beaches here are epic for anyone who enjoys (or wants to learn how to) catch waves!
Road Trip Rules
- Don’t litter. No trash out the window…ever. This rule applies always, but it’s especially important to mention while road tripping when trash tends to accumulate in the vehicle. Collect waste until you find a proper place to dispose of it.
- Ask before rolling down the window. Need some air? Simply ask the others in the vehicle. We’ve all experienced that awful wind tunnel when the windows aren’t open correctly, so prevent discomfort to others in the vehicle simply by check first.
- Stay hydrated, but not TOO hydrated. Only drink enough to stay hydrated, not too much liquids, which will account for extra restroom breaks. While staying hydrated while traveling is important, access bathroom breaks are no fun for anyone.
- Pitch in for gas money. If you’re traveling with others, always offer to pitch in for expenses shared by everyone. If the driver won’t let you assist in gas, consider covering some of their meals to make up for it.
- Don’t hog the radio. Assuming you aren’t alone in the care, share music with others in the vehicle so everyone enjoys the trip. If you’re alone- do as you wish, and enjoy!
- Pack Snacks. You’re going to get hungry while road tripping, it’s inevitable. Pack healthy snacks to keep yourself and others in the car from getting grumpy hunger. Pack an assortment of savory and sweet snacks so you’re prepared for every craving.
- Pay attention to your responsibilities. If you’ve agreed to give directions, or watch out for eateries- pay attention to your job to prevent access stress on the driver.
- Drive responsibly, always. Be mindful of yourself, your passengers, and others on the road. Only drive when you’re rested and feel comfortable in traffic. Remember that you’re not only responsible for the people in your vehicle, but also by others around you on the road. Don’t risk any of their lives with poor driving.
- No phone while driving. As the driver, be responsible and leave your phone alone until stops. Ask a passenger to help if need be. This protects your crew, and the lives of others on the road around you.
- Remember that it’s not a race! Road tripping isn’t about getting there faster than everyone else, it’s about relaxing and enjoying the journey. Don’t risk the lives of your friends, and others on the road with aggressive driving. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the drive!
Basic Road Trip Essentials
- License and registration
- Car and Health Insurance
- Your vehicle’s manual
- A spare tire, and tools to change a tire
- Roadside emergency kit
- Paper maps, in case service is unavailable
- Cash and change, for when cards don’t work
- Multiple forms of currency
- A notebook, pen and pencil
- First aid kit
- Bug repellent
- Reusable water bottles
- Toilet paper roll
- Cell phone
When traveling in snow:
- Snow shovel
- Ice scraper
- Gloves, hat, jacket and boots
- Portable heating packs
For staying connected and entertainment:
- Phone charger/USB cord
- Portable phone charger backup
- Bluetooth/Wireless/Hands free phone kit for driving
- Epic road trip playlist
- DSLR camera and charger
- Portable Wifi device
- A good book, or books
- Travel games
For staying comfortable:
- Polarized sunglasses to reduce glare and help ease eye strain
- Blanket or light throw
- Travel pillow
- Travel drink container or mug for coffee or tea
- UV window shade
- Extra clothing layers
- Hand sanitizer for after rest and gas stops
- Anti-inflammatory medications for headaches and/or muscle aches
- Reusable shopping bags
- Mints or candy for a pick-me-up
- Towels for clean ups
- Spare pair of shoes
- Daypacks for spontaneous hikes or beach trips while traveling
For personal care:
- Toiletry bag for personal essentials
- Reef safe/eco friendly sunscreen
- Body wipes or deodorant
- Lip balm
- Hairbrush for wind-blown hair
- Hair ties, clips or grips
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Facial tissues
- Garbage/waste bags
- An assortment of snacks
- Cooler for drinks and snacks
- Multi-tool for unexpected situations
From giant redwoods, to stunning coastal beaches, volcanic fields, magnificent limestone towers and more, a road trip through California is unlike anything else. Not only does The Sunshine State offer epic views, but it also has plenty of opportunities to view wild marine life in their natural habitat. From whale watching, to sea lion spotting on the coast, the endless opportunity for adventure in this state are sure to leave you wanting more!
Remember through your travels that California State Parks are very popular, especially during the summer months. Prevent hassle by booking ahead to reserve a spot for camping, or special events. Additionally, before hitting the road on an adventure you’ll likely never forget, take some time to prepare. While the stunning views will be endless, your cell reception may not. Download a map prior to your trip, and make sure it’s easily accessible while traveling.
Traveling the 840 mile coast of the incredible lands of this diverse state, you’re going to stumble upon epic surprises and unbelievable views. From seals on the coast, to underwater caves, stunning meadows, and more, California is a state that offers adventure for everyone. The Southern California Surf Safari through Orange County, the drive from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park, and Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg are just a few of the unforgettable drives California has to offer, and are sure to create memories that’ll last a lifetime!
Carly Sutherland is a digital content creator, traveler, and photographer. She dedicates much of her time to conservation efforts, and outside of work can most often be found exploring the outdoors or hanging out with her rescue dogs. She enjoys spending time at the beach, experiencing new places, and drinking a warm cup of tea.