10 Scenic Road Trips to Take in California

Rachel Off Duty: Woman on a Joshua Tree Road Trip

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California is such a wildly diverse state, you could spend years getting caught up in exploring all of its beauty. There’s the 800+ miles of coastline, the big cities, the vast deserts, the sand dunes, the massive sequoias, the peculiar Joshua trees, the national parks, the wine country… needless to say, there are some epic road trips to be had in California, no matter what kind of adventure you’re into!

I preach California weekend road trips because the options really are endless, whether you’re an out-of-towner or a local. And sure, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco are destinations in their own right, but where should you go if you want to get away from the city? 

Here are some of my favorite picks for scenic road trips to take in California (note: all drive times below are based on starting in Los Angeles!).



10 Scenic Road Trips to Take in California

1. Big Sur

Rachel Off Duty: Big Sur Beaches, California

One of the most picturesque stretches along the famous Highway 1, Big Sur is a cliff-hugging getaway for lovers of ocean views and rugged coastlines. It’s also one of the most sentimental places in the entire state for me, because it’s where Jacob and I had our very first date (yes, a camping trip was our first date. Is that weird?). In Big Sur, you’ll find some of the best scenic driving, but don’t forget to pull over and enjoy the dramatic beaches, chill hiking, and waterfalls along the way. To get the most out of a visit to Big Sur, I’d recommend at least 2 nights here, or in Monterey or Carmel By The Sea next door.

DRIVING TIME (FROM LOS ANGELES): 6 hours

WHERE TO STAY: I personally love camping whenever I’m in Big Sur, but if I were to leave the tent at home, my choice would be glamping at Ventana Big Sur, or a hotel stay at La Playa Carmel. Big Sur Lodge is also a central choice if you’re looking for a cabin feel!

OTHER TIPS:

  • Cell signal and WiFi in Big Sur are pretty much nonexistent unless you’re staying at a hotel or lodge that offers it (but hey, all the better for unplugging and enjoying!). That said, this is not a place I’d recommend if you’re looking for somewhere to work remote.

  • Download a map of the area on your phone before you go!

2. Santa Barbara

Rachel Off Duty: Downtown Santa Barbara, California

When I think of Santa Barbara, I think of quintessential, laidback California living. Think beachy, small town meets wine country! Santa Barbara offers cool, Mediterranean climates, and the region is well-known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot. Don’t miss an afternoon exploring downtown Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, a wine trail where you can literally go door to door sampling local pours from boutique tasting rooms and breweries. 

DRIVING TIME: 1.5 - 2 hours

WHERE TO STAY: The Hotel Californian and The Hotel Indigo will put you right within a stone’s throw of the beach, or Santa Barbara’s famous Funk Zone. On the flip side, The Kimpton Goodland, located just 15 minutes away in Goleta, is incredibly charming and will give you all the coastal California ambiance, even if you’re a little further from the ocean itself.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Despite being next door to Santa Barbara, Solvang feels worlds away – literally. Solvang is a Danish-style town that was founded over 100 years ago by a group of Danes. Solvang’s streets are a tribute to Danish architecture, art, and cuisine. There are even windmills! Like Santa Barbara, Solvang is located in a wine region, so you’ll find tasting rooms and nearby places to explore here as well. My favorite time of year to visit Solvang is in December, because this little Danish town gets really festive for the holidays! 

DRIVING TIME: 2.5 - 3 hours

WHERE TO STAY: For refined, mid-century modern accommodation in the heart of Solvang, I’d head straight to the Landsby.

4. California National Parks

Rachel Off Duty: Joshua Tree National Park, California
Rachel Off Duty: Woman Posing in Alabama Hills, California

There are nine national parks in California, and even I haven’t been to all of them yet! If there were ever a way to really capture the range of California’s landscapes, it’d be by visiting each of these national parks for yourself. They really can’t be beat. 

  • Joshua Tree National Park is my favorite to visit over a weekend, because it’s the closest park from where I live in Los Angeles. Being here feels like being in some dreamed-up Dr. Seuss story. Imagine Joshua trees spread as far as the eye can see, and massive boulders that make for a perfect outdoor haven for rock climbers. 

DRIVING TIME: 2.5 - 3 hours

  • Yosemite National Park is a tried and true favorite. This valley is ideal for hiking, exploring, bouldering and kicking back to enjoy the view. It’s such a special place year-round, but especially during the winter if you’re able to reserve a cabin in the park itself. They’re heated! 

DRIVING TIME: 5.5 - 6 hours

  • Point Reyes National Seashore is just north of San Francisco but it feels as if you’re lost in the Scottish highlands, if you can believe that. Point Reyes is the west coast’s only national seashore, and it protects more than 1,500 animal and plant species. Stop at Point Reyes Station and load up on picnic essentials (think oysters and cheese!) before making your way to the Point Reyes Lighthouse or one of Point Reyes’ hiking trails. 

DRIVING TIME: 7.5 - 8 hours

  • Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is the home of the giants – trees, that is. Sequoia trees can grow to be more than 250 feet high and 30 feet across, and they can live to be thousands of years old! Seeing these giants in person is worth any drive. 

DRIVING TIME: 4 - 4.5 hours

  • Redwood National Park is another home to giant trees. This time, the redwoods. You’ll love the fairytale-like quality of this national park, and the massive trees that will truly make you feel puny by comparison.

    DRIVING TIME: 12 - 12.5 hours

  • Channel Islands National Park is known as California’s Galapagos (did you know we had one?). To get to this five-island national park, you’ll need to take a boat or a small charter flight from Ventura, Oxnard, or Camarillo. Once there, you can explore on foot or by kayak! The Channel Islands have some of the most impressive wildlife and scenery in the entire state.

    DRIVING TIME: 1.5 hours to Ventura, Oxnard, or Camarillo. From there, you have a range of boat transportation options ranging 1 - 4 hours. Alternatively, a flight will take around 25 - 40 minutes.

  • Death Valley National Park is one of the largest national parks there is, spanning more than 3 million acres and boasting sand dunes, salt flats, and canyons. As its name might lead you to believe, Death Valley is the hottest place in the country, but if you go at the right time of year (fall and spring are ideal), you’re rewarded with some of the most unbelievable desert expanses you’ll ever see.

    DRIVING TIME: 4 - 4.5 hours

  • Pinnacles National Park is California’s newest national park, joining the ranks in 2013! This national park is known for crags, cliffs, boulders, and other unique rock formations that make it a perfect destination for hikers and rock climbers.

    DRIVING TIME: 5 - 5.5 hours

  • Lassen Volcanic National Park got its name from the Lassen Peak volcano. Lakes, boiling springs, waterfalls, and sulphur vents make this an incredibly unique spot that’s well worth the extra time on the road!

    DRIVING TIME: 9 - 9.5 hours

WHERE TO STAY: When it comes to national parks, I always recommend camping or renting a cabin. The National Park Service is usually the first place I’ll look for available campsites and accommodations. Another option is to rent a camper van!

OTHER TIPS:

  • Always check the weather ahead of time and pack accordingly for both day and night temperatures.

  • Fuel up whenever you can, as you never know how long the next stretch of your drive will span.

5. Mammoth Lakes 

Rachel Off Duty: Hiking in Mammoth Lakes, California

Famous for skiing but amazing year-round, Mammoth Lakes is an unreal place that should definitely be on your road trip wish list! I have only been to Mammoth Lakes in the summer, but both times I have been rewarded with picturesque mountain lakes, spectacular hikes, and unforgettable scenery. Mammoth Lakes is one of my ultimate favorite summer camping destinations (I can’t ski, so ski seasons are less appealing to me). If you do ski, you’d probably want to check out Mammoth in the winter months!

DRIVING TIME: 5.5 hours

WHERE TO STAY: Mammoth Lakes is home to several lodge-type accommodations, like The Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa. A well-liked alternative to lodge life is the The Westin Monache Resort Mammoth, which is a gondola ride away from the slopes.

OTHER TIPS:

  • Mammoth Lakes is beautiful year-round, but if you go in the summer, do not forget mosquito repellent!

6. Bishop and Alabama Hills 

Rachel Off Duty: Alabama Hills and the Sierra Nevadas, California

Not far from Mammoth Lakes, Bishop is another epic camping and outdoor destination not to be missed. Imagine enormous boulders juxtaposed against the Sierra Nevadas and the smell of fresh mountain air. Many people often drive right past Bishop on the way to Mammoth, but it’s every bit as much of a destination in its own right. Bishop is particularly great if you like climbing, bouldering, camping, or backpacking. The last few times I’ve been here, we’ve backpacked up to Blue Lake and enjoyed the area entirely to ourselves. But, if backpacking’s not your thing, there are campsites as the base of the trails, too! 

DRIVING TIME: 4.5 hours

WHERE TO STAY: Like Big Sur and the National Parks, accommodations here will be on the sparse end if you don’t plan on camping. However, Bishop Creekside Inn and Cielo Hotel Bishop are well-liked options in the area.

OTHER TIPS:

  • On your way in or out of Bishop, you won’t want to miss Alabama Hills, located in Lone Pine (about an hour away). This place is drama to the 10th degree – unbelievable rock formations so dramatic, you’d have to see if for yourself! 

7. Big Bear

Rachel Off Duty: Woman Hiking in Big Bear, California

Another famous ski destination, Big Bear is beautiful year-round and seems to offer something for everyone. In the winter, you can ski at Snow Summit (where I attempted, and failed, to ski for the first time) or Bear Mountain. In the summer, you can hike, mountain bike, or kayak on Big Bear Lake. Another popular thing to do in Big Bear is rent a cabin for the weekend! 

DRIVING TIME: 2 hours

WHERE TO STAY: If you don’t mind being 25 minutes outside of Big Bear itself, the Getaway House is my favorite option in the area. It’s a series of standalone, self-catering cabins that offer you your very own piece of the great outdoors without any of the ‘discomfort’ of camping.

Rachel Off Duty: Woman in Palm Springs, California

One of my favorite places to drive – and one I actually wish I could visit more often – is Palm Springs and the surrounding areas (like Joshua Tree!). Palm Springs itself is surprisingly lively despite its size, and famous hotels like the Saguaro and the Ace Hotel are well-loved for their pool (and pool parties) in the summer. If you love beautiful desert scenery, a laid-back yet still fashionable ambiance, and mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs might just be the trifecta for you. 

DRIVING TIME: 2 hours

WHERE TO STAY: Palm Springs is home to so many beautiful hotels, but some personal favorites include Dive Palm Springs, Ace Hotel and Swim Club, and Two Bunch Palms.

OTHER TIPS:

  • Summers in Palm Springs can be ridiculously hot, but prices are also often lowest during this time of year (roughly May - September). If you decide to go during the summer, book a place with a pool!

  • Be sure to look out for DesertX, an annual series of art installations sprinkled throughout the Greater Palm Springs area

9. Temecula

Rachel Off Duty: Hot Air Balloon Rides in Temecula Valley, California

Temecula is a fun, more casual wine region in California worth visiting. Of course, the number one thing to do here is go wine tasting. There are more than 40 vineyards in Temecula Valley, and you can either visit them on your own or as part of a tour (Rockin' Wine Tours and Temecula Carriage Company are some good options). When you’re done wine tasting, head to Old Town Temecula for food, breweries, shops, bars, and more. It’s very old-world and incredibly charming, and it can get pretty fun at night!

DRIVING TIME: 1.5 - 2 hours

WHERE TO STAY: One of the most well-liked boutique hotels in Temecula is the Ponte Vineyard Inn, set on a 300-acre ranch plus onsite winery.

OTHER TIPS:

  • To switch things up and try something different than wine tasting, I recommend going on a hot air balloon ride while you’re here!

10. La Jolla 

Rachel Off Duty: Seals in La Jolla, California
Rachel Off Duty: Woman at La Jolla beach, California

La Jolla is one of my favorite places to visit whenever I’m in San Diego. It’s perfect for beach lovers, and it’s so relaxed you really do feel like you’re on some far-off vacation (even though in reality you’re just 25 minutes from downtown). Check out the various beaches – you really can’t go wrong – and La Jolla Underwater Park for some unforgettable snorkeling. Or, to see seals and possibly other marine life up close without getting wet, check out Children’s Pool Beach, where you can walk all the way out along a small cove and gaze out at seals literally right in front of you, basking lazily in the sun. 

DRIVING TIME: 2 hours

WHERE TO STAY: If you’d like to be walking-distance from the water and right in the middle of downtown La Jolla all at once, look no further than La Valencia Hotel, a Spanish-style accommodation with ocean views.

OTHER TIPS:

  • Be sure to watch the sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, about 25 minutes south of La Jolla

  • Grab a bite and a beer at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Liberty Station!


Where in California are you headed on your next road trip? Let me know below!

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Rachel Off Duty: Scenic Road Trips to Take in California
Rachel Off Duty: Scenic Road Trips to Take in California