California is a state that’s seemingly tailor-made for road trips. For starters, it’s absolutely gargantuan. There are more than 396,540 miles of roads - the most of any state in America. And along those seemingly endless paved paths are a myriad of destinations from which to choose. Pack up the car, turn up the music and soon enough you’ll find something worth stopping for.
Coastal roads are strewn with pockets of beach and stretches of sheer cliffs with pounding surf and picturesque waterfalls. Move inland and you’ll discover two-lane highways carving their way through quiet groves of majestic forests before climbing into the high, rugged peaks of California’s more than 350 mountain ranges. Not to mention all the legendary roadside dining, world-class wineries and charming small towns along the way. Herewith, a few of our favorite Cali road trips. Take your pick and start your engines … but we call shotgun.
The Pacific Coast Highway
Topping the list of any California cruising list is the legendary PCH, which snakes along the Pacific coastline for more than 1,000 miles. Officially, only the stretch of Hwy 1 through Orange County and Los Angeles County can legally call itself Pacific Coast Highway. But we don’t get hung up on those technicalities, because equally beautiful ribbons of Highway 1 (which are officially known as Cabrillo Highway, Coast Highway, or Shoreline Highway) await all along this routel. Summer can be crowded (and unpredictably foggy) but September through November will yield the sunniest skies and some of the best temperatures for open-window driving.
The Eastern Sierras
You could say that this is the PCH’s sister trip: If Highway 1 traces the coast, Highway 395 follows the Sierra Nevada range, known as the backbone of California. So instead of sand and surf, this route features lush prehistoric forests, crumbling Old West ghost towns, and a variety of geological features - think fields of volcanic rock to otherworldly limestone tufa towers. For an alternate route that will give you a view of Yosemite National Park’s natural scenery, divert off Highway 395 to the seasonal Highway 120 (aka Tioga Pass), which is typically open May through November. Just check the park's website for current opening information.
The Mission Trail
Retrace the path of early Spanish colonists along El Camino Real (the Royal Road), which stretches from San Diego to Sonoma. Stop at some of California’s original missions - which are among the oldest pieces of history you can visit in the entire United States. Back then, each mission was a day’s ride on horseback from the next, but today you can drive the whole route in just a couple days. There are nearly two dozen missions in total, ranging from simple and understated to truly magnificent. Spring through early fall is the ideal time to drive, but it’s especially magical in March, when the swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, which happens to be the oldest intact structure in California.
Get your kicks on America’s historic “Mother Road”, which travels over 2,400 miles connecting Chicago to Santa Monica. The state of California offers 315 miles on Route 66 and delivers plenty of sites, secrets and cool attractions. Pull up alongside retro relics, grab a room at a vintage motor lodge and stuff yourself at countless diners. You can cruise from Needles (near the Arizona border) all the way across the Mojave Desert through famous western towns like Barstow and Daggett into the San Bernardino National Forest, before dipping into Pasadena on your way to the beach (or reverse it and start in Santa Monica and head east).
Rim of the World Scenic Byway
While this ride might be a tad shorter than most (from Los Angeles to Big Bear is just under 100 miles), it definitely makes up for it with some outsized beauty. The Rim of the World Scenic Byway - also known as narrow State Highway 18 - winds around the cliffs of the San Bernardino Mountains, through small villages on the way to Big Bear Lake (home to ski resorts and water sports). The sweeping mountain top views is how it earned its nickname. Take a slight detour onto route 173 to visit Lake Arrowhead, a popular escape for rugged LA types, who head up to camp, hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail, and boat or kayak.
* Further Reading: Want more detailed plans (complete with maps)? Check out Lonely Planet’s fourth edition of California's Best Trips. There are over 30 road trips, from 48-hour escapes to two-week adventures.