5 Unexpected California Road Trips
From charming coastal towns to stunning and expansive wilderness, California is full of beautiful road trip-worthy destinations. While popular hot spots like Yosemite, Napa and Santa Barbara are definitely worth a visit, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite places for less crowded, under-the-radar adventures. And since you’ll be hitting the open road out West instead of flying, you’ll have even more opportunities to soak up the scenery and stumble upon other hidden gems.
Skip the more crowded and pricier tasting rooms of Napa and Sonoma, and head to this more laid-back wine country for exceptional vintages and gorgeous scenery.
With over 200 mostly boutique and family-owned wineries, the region offers a diverse selection for wine lovers to explore. Some of our favorites include Eberle (tour the cave cellar), Halter Ranch, Steinbeck Vineyards (take a vintage Jeep tour), Whalebone (see the whalebone fossil they found), Bianchi Winery (check out the remote-controlled sailboats) and Vina Robles (catch a show at the amphitheatre).
If you’re a beer fan, you’ll definitely want to stop by Firestone Walker Brewery and BarrelHouse Brewing. At Re:Find distillery at Villacana Winery, visitors can purchase bottles of vodka, gin, rye and limoncello made from wine grapes. You’ll also find excellent, locally sourced meals at places like Artisan, Thomas Hill Organics, and La Cosecha. And if you’re looking to unwind after a day of tastings, try the natural hot springs of River Oaks spa.
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Lassen Volcanic Park
Even if you’re not typically the outdoorsy type, the otherworldly landscape of Lassen Volcanic Park in northeastern California is well worth exploring. Considered one of the most spectacular, yet least-visited parks in the West, the 166-square-mile park — which just celebrated its centennial — includes breathtaking hikes, crystal-clear alpine lakes, wild geothermal features and all four known varieties of volcanoes.
You can explore many of the park’s features by taking the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, which runs through the park — a good option if you’re limited on time. Along the way, you’ll want to stop for a hike through Bumpass Hell, the park’s largest area of hydrothermal activity with bubbling hot springs, mud pots and steam vents known as fumaroles — just be sure to stay safely on the boardwalk trail.
Lassen Peak, the park’s active yet dormant plug dome volcano, offers a strenuous yet manageable three- to five-hour hike and beautiful views. You’ll also want to visit sparkling Manzanita Lake, where you can swim, rent kayaks, visit a small museum about Lassen Peak’s 1914 eruption and even spend the night at a campsite and rustic cabin. Cinder Cone, a 700-foot tall volcano of ash and debris, is also a wild sight.
The best times to visit are from July to mid-October, unless you’re looking for a cross-country skiing or snowshoeing adventure during the snowier months.
Tucked along the shoreline of Humboldt Bay in northwestern California, Eureka offers a hidden retreat that’s full of history and natural beauty. Stroll around the Old Town district to see incredibly ornate Victorian homes and storefronts from the region’s late 19th-century logging heyday, while also exploring some great galleries and shopping along the way.
Visit the Maritime Museum and take a cruise around the harbor on the 1910 ferry Makadet, which boasts the smallest licensed bar in the state. You’ll also want to check out Taste, a relatively new oyster bar inside the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center, where you can sample the region’s famous bivalves along with locally produced wine, beer, cheese, chocolate and more. You’ll also want to grab a hearty breakfast at the iconic Samoa Cookhouse, which began serving meals for the lumber camp back in 1890.
And depending on which direction your road trip takes you — or how much time you have — you can either head north to visit the soaring giants of the Redwood National Forest or explore the spectacular wilderness of the Lost Coast to the south.
Bodie Ghost Town
Once a booming gold-mining town in the late 19th-century, Bodie is now one of the largest and best-preserved ghost towns in the country — and definitely worth a road trip.
Home to roughly 10,000 people at its height, the gold rush town was said to host over 60 saloons, gambling halls and brothels, and was considered one of the wildest and most violent mining towns in the West. But once the gold ran out and the town was struck by several fires and other hardships, residents eventually abandoned the town. The last left in the late 1950s, in many cases ditching any possessions they couldn’t carry with them and leaving the town in a state of arrested decay.
Now you can wander around the spooky, abandoned buildings, peering inside to see the belongings that were left behind. You can also learn more on one of the guided tours, including the special nighttime ghost tours during the summer months. Be sure to pack a picnic and bring plenty of water as there are no services available, and you should probably leave everything where it is as a curse is said to follow anyone who removes even a rock from the site.
Just north of San Francisco along Highway 1, Point Reyes is a prime road trip destination, featuring stunning ocean vistas, incredible hikes and plenty of great foodie pit stops. You’ll definitely want to make the drive out to the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, and be sure to drive through the famous Cypress Tree Tunnel on the way out there.
You’ll also find plenty of great hiking options for all skill levels that offer an up-close look at the rugged shoreline, dense forests, meadows of wildflowers and fields of roaming tule elk, depending on which direction you head and the time of year.
Stop by the Cowgirl Creamery to sample some of the best cheese in the country. Stock up on there and find gourmet snacks and adult beverages at the Palace Market for a picnic. Then bring your picnic supplies to either the Tomales Bay Oyster Company or Hog Island Oyster Company for an oyster feast right on the bay.
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Danny Jensen is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.