The Best Road Trips in California

Sep 21, 2019

A fixture of travel playlists for 20 years now, Road Trippin opens with a call to “get lost anywhere in the U.S.A.” But come on—anywhere? The song is a clear ode to California Highway 1, where the Chili Peppers famously road-tripped to Big Sur together, surf gear in tow, blue "so pretty" stretching forever to the west. And who can blame them? This section of the Pacific Coast Highway is more or less synonymous with the Great American Road Trip (though locals prefer “the Original Road Trip”).

Whatever you call it, we've mapped out the highlights below—along with three other epic California road trips. Pier-to-vineyard route sound good? Or maybe hot spring to dark sky? How about valley to peak? No matter what you're in the mood for, and how much time you have, there's an itinerary here for you.

Big Sur and beyond
San Simeon to Monterey. 205 miles

Of course, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are hardly the first luminaries to fall hard for this stretch of the California coast. Everyone from novelist Henry Miller to artist Francis McComas has waxed rhapsodic about it. But one of the biggest names on the coast was an old newspaperman—a certain William Randolph Hearst—whose eponymous castle above San Simeon makes for an excellent starting point, where you can get the lay of the land (and sea) from on high. Though you can't go wrong with any tour of this sprawling, comically lavish property—whose construction began a century ago—consider the Cottages & Kitchen Tour for the ocean views from the Casa del Mar.

From there, go meet some other local bigwigs: the elephant seals of the Piedras Blancas Rookery, who are huge in every way. The total population is estimated to be around 25,000, with adult males weighing in at up to 5,000 pounds apiece. If you're here in October, you'll witness one of the rookery's peak (and cutest) population months, when the year's young'uns hit the beach. Next up is the arrival of the bulls in November and December, when you'll find yourself essentially ringside for round after round of heavyweight dominance displays. If you can pry yourself away, you should also check out the local 19th-century lighthouse before continuing north. 

After a couple of beach stops—Jade Cove to hunt for the namesake stone and Sand Dollar Beach to experience the area's largest crescent of sand—it'll be time to chase some waterfalls: at a minimum, the cascade in Limekiln State Park and McWay Falls, the latter spilling right into the ocean (note that you'll have to stick to the roadside overlook—where, rest assured, you'll get the insta-favorite view—as local trails are being repaired).

A bit farther up the coast you'll find the stunning, cliff-studded Pfeiffer Beach, or at least you should try to. You'll need to take the unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road, so look for the only paved street without a gate west of Highway 1 between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and the Big Sur Post office. Refuel on Famous Ambrosiaburgers (that's actually their name, and it's well deserved) at the cliff-topping Nepenthe, where the views stretch up and down the coast along perfectly fog-draped mountains. And if you've got a designated driver, toast to the restaurant's 70th birthday with something from the extensive local wine list.

Then you'll want to hit another local icon: The Henry Miller Memorial Library, where you should see what's happening on the events calendar or just duck in for a wander and a seat by the fire, where you're welcome to hang with a book and some tea. When the napping urge hits, and it's going to hit hard, do yourself a solid and have any ocean-facing room waiting for you at the clifftop Post Ranch Inn. A splurge? By most standards, sure. Worth the subsequent austerity measures when you return home? 100 percent. 

If you're good and refreshed by 1:00 a.m., you may want to head over to the Esalen hot springs for some good, old-fashioned public night bathing. But you'll need to book the same day, and have a towel, flashlight and walking shoes with you. A swimsuit, however—not so much. (From the site's FAQ section, because everyone wants to know: "The hot springs at Esalen have been in use for over 6,000 years and are clothing-optional. Nudity is common in the baths and the swimming pool but by no means mandatory.")

However you spend the night, you'll be loath to leave the area, but trust us: There's more road trip goodness to come. Make your way north to Carmel Beach, one of the most beloved spots on the coast, with sweeping ocean views, otters swimming in the kelp, and dogs loving life off-leash. Once you've had a look around Carmel by the Sea—the state capital of all things cute and quaint—make your way toward Monterey. 

For Big Little Lies fans, this last stop may well have been the whole point of your trip (and hey, we won't judge—in fact, knock yourselves out). But while you're here, don't miss California State Historic Landmark No. 1 near Fisherman’s Wharf. The state's oldest government building in the state, the storied old Custom House looks a lot like it did in the 1840s, when Commodore John Drake Sloat raised the American flag here and claimed, oh, 600,000 square miles (give or take) in new territory for the United States. If natural history is more your thing, head over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to see why we (and, sure, pretty much everyone) would rank this legendary institution among the nation's best.


Southern Desert  
Palm Desert to Joshua Tree. 60 miles 

In an area perhaps best known for wellness and wide-open spaces, start by giving yourself the most stunning intros to both: a trip on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which travels about 2.5 miles (but with views for days) along the cliffs of Chino Canyon to Mount San Jacinto State Park. Just be sure you go in hiking shoes, because once you reach the Mountain Station at 8,516 feet, more than 50 miles of trails await (or if you go in winter, check out the cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing at the top—because how do you not play in desert snow?). 

Another epic hiking spot not to miss in the neighborhood—especially because two of the main trails are reopening in October: the Coachella Valley's Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve. You may even want to sign up for a naturalist-led excursion because a fault line oasis isn't your average ecosystem.

Yup, the infamous San Andreas fault runs right through these parts, and Just east of it—in the appropriately named Desert Hot Springs—super-heated water emerges from an aquifer at temperatures of up to 180 degrees. For some of the best local use of that geothermal goodness, book a soak (and maybe a stay) at the recently refreshed Two Bunch Palms. This grande dame of the local wellness resorts is home to curative mineral water that flows from a 600-year-old spring—and a Grotto will make you feel like you're soaking in a secluded forest. (You'll also find mud baths, massages and countless other treatments.)

Of course, you can't leave the Greater Palm Springs area without dipping into a third facet of its fame: mid-century design. So before you hit the road for Joshua Tree, take an architecture tour, scour the vintage shops for the ghosts of Stromburg and Venini—or just pick up an affordable nod to that area at the Shag Store. Then fuel up at Sherman's Deli & Bakery—a local fixture since the 60s—because the only thing people find more surprising than snow in the desert is gefilte fish, matzah ball soup and stuffed kishka in the desert. In fact, get here at the end of September, and you'll catch the special Rosh Hashanah menu, complete with apples and honey. (Or just pick up some Black & Whites for the road.)

Just before you get to Joshua Tree, you'll hit Pioneertown, and you'll want to pull over. Originally meant to be a Wild West filming backdrop that doubled as a little tourism town (complete with motels, ice cream parlors and bowling alleys), this 40s-era Hollywood holdover has become the stuff of roadside kitsch perfection. Be sure to stop into Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, where you may stumble upon improbably good live music against a backdrop of the mounted deer antlers and black-and-white shots of cowboy movie stars.

Wind up your desert adventure in Joshua Tree National Park, home to not only the Seuss-ian namesake trees, but also at least 250 species of birds, almost 60 species of mammals—and one tortoise species so precious and threatened, the little guy comes with instructions. Though you could just gawk at the landscape and be happy, you should also consider hiking, climbing and—if you like a starry, starry nightsleeping under the sky.


Sierra Nevada  
Bishop to Glacier Point. 206 miles

The Sierra Nevada have launched—among many other things—an iconic naturalist's literary career, the nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization and the occasional spout of molten rock (but not in the last 100,000 years). So you can be pretty sure this 400-mile range—home to three national parks, two national monuments and 20 wilderness areas—will launch one hell of a road trip. Of course, you'd need a lifetime (or at the very least, a sabbatical) to take the top-to-bottom approach, so we're stringing some of the greatest hits into a trip of around 200 miles. 

Flanked by mountains and steeped in history, the little town of Bishop—at the intersection of US Route 6 and the Scenic Byway of US Highway 395—is an excellent starting point. If you can get here by the weekend of Sept. 27, you'll catch Pow Wow, a three-day celebration of California Indian Day, when you'll find a huge gathering of Native American dancers, drummers, food vendors and craft vendors, many from the local tribal communities (though participants come from across the continent). Regardless of when you arrive, visit the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center—part museum, part gift shop—where you can also tour the Native Garden and walking trail. And before leaving the area, make sure to see the amazing local petroglyphs.

Next up: Devils Postpile National Monument, home to basalt columns that blow even scientists' minds. Thought to be about a million years old until not very long ago, these towering hexagonal formations have had about 900,000 years shaved off their presumed age, thanks to recent research. The current thinking? About 100,000 years ago (so, like, half an hour ago in geologic terms), a cooling lava flow started cracking to form the almost industrial-chic-looking columns you'll find here today.

Stop in nearby Mammoth Lakes for a lavish dinner at Restaurant Skadi. Despite being named for the skiing huntress of Norse mythological fame, this beloved, 10-table spot won't make you procure your own meat: All the ingredients for the likes of smoked red deer heart with cloudberries and spruce salt—or air dry venison tenderloin with elderflower poached rhubarb—will already be in house on your arrival. And you know what such hearty mountain fare pairs well with? Alpine lodges so close you can pretty much stumble from table to bed.

Heading north, drop by Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve to see the spectacular calcium carbonate spires ("tufa towers") that form when alkaline lake water meets freshwater springs. The 1-2 million birds that pass through here aren't bad either (the fall migration is an especially happy time for birders). 

Of course, for nature lovers, the real star of the show is this trip's grand finale: Yosemite National Park. Give yourself at least a couple of days here to hike the trails, take in the vistas (Glacier Point, in particular, is known for its views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls) and kick back fireside at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, where people are still celebrating the recent reclamation of the beloved original name after a protracted legal dispute. 


Central Coast wine country  
Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. 125 miles

Not for nothing was much of Sideways set along this stretch: There's almost no setting more idyllic for a buddy trip. And as the Oscar-winning movie celebrates 15 years of cult classic status, you can even attend a Sideways Fest in late October. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Whenever you set out from Santa Barbara for the Central California wine country, you'll find that the local varietals—and the people who love them—benefit equally from the pretty much perfect coastal climes. And if you want to taste Merlot en route, your secret's safe with us.

Leaving Santa Barbara (where we hope you've logged some serious steps on historic State Street and the gorgeous local trails), make like Miles and head for Solvang, aka Little Denmark. So kitsch it's cool, this 108-year-old replica of a Danish town—smack in the middle of the Santa Ynez Valley—is the place to go for windmill selfies, butter cookies and clogs. And if you're here on Oct. 18, by all means, join the kickoff to Sideways Fest: the Sideways Movie Experience under the stars complete with tastings hosted by the wineries in the movie, plus a panel discussion with surprise guests.

From there it's onto Los Olivos for stops at the Fireston Vineyard, Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard, and—to soak everything up (though we know you have a designated driver here)—some grilled flatbread and baked brie at Los Olivos Cafe.  

Continuing northward, stop at Santa Maria's rustic-chic, solar-powered Foxen Vineyard & Winery, whose onetime tasting room manager was the reported basis for Sideways' Mia.

Of course, wine regions are part of a larger agricultural communities—which the movie doesn't put so fine a point on, but you should, given the amazing regional produce. One good place to try: the organic Templeton Valley Farms where you can pick-your-own blackberries and raspberries, and buy other produce in season, plus delicious honey.

Finish your trip not even 10 miles north of Templeton in Paso Robles, where you'll want to stay at Hotel Cheval (where the outdoor fireplace is wine-sipping perfection) just off the historic town square. The next day, get a taste of the local terroir at the Parrish Family Vineyard’s tasting room. And when the sun sets, head to the Bruce Munro Field of Light at Sensorio installation, where almost 60,000 stemmed spheres illuminate acres of countryside in the most ethereal blooms of morphing color. 


 

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