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Bixby Canyon Bridge
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The ultimate California road trip

From burgers at In-N-Out to an underground garden, these fun pit stops make up the perfect California road trip

Written by
Garrick Ramirez
Sarah Medina

California freeways may be some of the most dreaded in the country, but there’s no doubt they lead to some amazing destinations. It’s worth the hassle to get to famous amusement parks and beaches to enchanting redwood forests and hot springs. And here in the Golden State, the journey can be as rewarding as the destination. When you’re ready to get behind the wheel and explore the state, here are our picks for the best California road trip stops.

The famously scenic landscape (especially the Pacific Coast Highway) makes taking a California road trip a multifaceted experience. You can piece together diverse cultural offerings, renowned restaurants and stunning national parks for a fun and varied cross-state itinerary. A bird’s eye view of Yosemite, a massive urban park, a pilgrimage to honor a beloved burger and a glimpse into space are just a few of the things you can experience on the ultimate California road trip.

So put together that road trip playlist, pick up a few gas station snacks, and hit the road to conquer California with these exciting destinations.

RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in California

Ultimate California road trip

Balboa Park
Photograph: Joanne DiBona

1. Balboa Park

While San Diego has no shortage of worthy attractions, this 1,200-acre urban park, designed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, is a must-stop. The big-ticket draw is the San Diego Zoo, but you needn’t shell out any cash to wander its scenic public grounds filled with a stunning botanical garden, artist studios in a colorful Spanish-style village, and free concerts in the outdoor amphitheatre. The park is also home to numerous museums dedicated to every interest including an upcoming Comic-Con museum

Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Pioneertown

Constructed in the 1940s as a locale for Western flicks, this faux Old West town filled with false-front wooden structures has recently been rediscovered by a new generation. They’re here to knock down pins at Pioneer Bowl, shop earthenware at MazAmar Art Pottery, and chug beers with BBQ and live music at the rollicking Pappy & Harriet’s. Make it a weekend at the hip Pioneertown Motel which serves as a good home base for local music fests such as Coachella and Desert Stars.

In-N-Out Museum
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

3. In-N-Out Museum

In-N-Out’s burgers and shakes fuel nearly every California road trip, so why not pay your respects at the source. Though the original 1948 structure was torn down years ago, the company built a replica for fans to marvel at mid-century relics including an old-fashioned fry maker and vintage cigarette vending machine. You won’t find any 25 burgers sizzling on the long dormant griddle, but you can get your Double-Double fix down the street at an actual locale that’s open for business.

Photograph: Courtesy Shutterstock

5. Solvang

Just 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, you’ll discover this unexpected fairytale town founded by Danish immigrants. Today, its Disneyesque, half-timber structures draw tourists with Danish trinkets and sweet treats including jam-covered ebelskivers. It’s not all kitsch, though, as evidenced by The Landsby Hotel’s stylish dining room and guest rooms decked with modern Scandanavian furnishings.

Forestiere Underground Gardens
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. Forestiere Underground Gardens

While you’ll find plenty of extraordinary homes to tour in California, none are burrowed deep into the earth like this three-story Fresno oddity. For roughly forty years, Italian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere tunneled a sprawling complex of underground rooms, grottoes, and gardens to beat the heat of California’s central valley. Today, visitors can tour his catacomb-like former home, noting features such as his ingenious kitchen, soaking tub, and mature citrus trees that shoot up through light-filled courtyards.

Photograph: Michael Juliano

7. Nepenthe

Enjoy edge-of-the-world vistas at this architecturally striking, indoor-outdoor restaurant set 808 feet above the sea. Designed in the 1940s by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Nepenthe features an airy, lodge-like dining room ringed by numerous outdoor patios overlooking coastal hills and the sparkling Pacific beyond. The overall effect feels more akin to a welcoming public space with roadtrippers popping by for a drink and peek at the stunning views. Save time for the well-curated gift shop which stocks locally made jewelry, textiles, and body products, as well as dreamy picture books on the region.

17-Mile Drive
Photograph: Shutterstock

8. 17-Mile Drive

Plunk down $10.75 per vehicle, and experience the enviable coastal scenery enjoyed by well-heeled residents of the upscale enclave of Pebble Beach. The famed route winds along a craggy coastline filled with white sand beaches, bewitching Cypress forests, and innumerable overlooks of the churning Pacific. You’ll also pass by mega, luxury resorts with world-class golf links and restaurants that often deduct the price of your entrance fee from the bill.

Glacier Point
Photograph: Shutterstock

9. Glacier Point

Rise above the crowds at this scenic vista point perched 3,214 feet above the valley floor. From the lofty perch, you’ll spy some of Yosemite’s most iconic features including Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. The overlooks is easily reached by car via a one-hour drive from the valley during May through November (check the site for updated road conditions). Otherwise, you’re huffing it 3,200-feet via the Four Mile Trail. Note that nearby Washburn Point offers even better views of Vernal and Nevada Falls.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

This picturesque spot along the South Fork of the American River marks where gold was first discovered in California, sparking a Gold Rush that changed, well, everything. It all started in Coloma, California in 1848 when sawmill worker James Marshall discovered flecks of gold glinting in the river. Today, visitors can pan for gold, explore historic structures, and enjoy the lush, riverside beauty of the Sierra foothills.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Photograph: Shutterstock

11. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

Housed in a lighthouse perched above a famous big-wave surf break, this cozy museum honors the spot surfing was first introduced to the mainland U.S. In 1885, three vacationing Hawaiian princes dazzled locals by surfing repurposed redwood planks, and the rest is history. The museum is filled with vintage surfboards—including one sporting an unsettling shark bite—and other fun memorabilia, while an adjacent overlook offers primo views of surfers shredding sizable swells below. Nearby, Steamer Lane Supply dishes up casual, beachside grub such as poke bowls and fish tacos.

Golden Gate Bridge
Photograph: Unsplash

12. Golden Gate Bridge

Destroyed by countless movie monsters, this celebrity 8,981-foot suspension bridge awes just as it did when it premiered in 1937. The San Francisco side includes a visitor center with fun facts—including its famous color, International Orange—plus scores of photo opps from a cliffside pedestrian trail, while the Marin side offers a basic pull-out lot with gratifying views of the bridge and San Francisco. Yet, the real fun is strolling or biking the 1.7-mile expanse, pausing to gaze down upon the chilly waters 220 feet below.

Navarro Vineyards
Photograph: Shutterstock

13. Navarro Vineyards

Great wine, stunning scenery, and free tastings should be enough to coax you out to Anderson Valley, an oft-overlooked gem hidden between Sonoma County and the Mendocino Coast. The region features numerous wineries dotted along the scenic central Highway 128, yet Navarro is a standout for its striking setting and warm hospitality. Belly up to the bar to taste through their many offerings including an outstanding Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer. 

Mendocino Headlands State Park
Photograph: Shutterstock

14. Mendocino Headlands State Park

While the Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco has achieved road trip royalty status, the route north of San Francisco is no less striking. The payoff is the coastal town of Mendocino, a quaint New England-inspired village set on mesmerizingly beautiful coastal bluffs. These expansive, grassy headlands are criss-crossed with trails that skirt sheer cliffs, quiet beach coves, and mysterious sea caves. They also offer an ideal vantage point for spotting migrating whales just offshore. 

Avenue of the Giants
Photograph: Shutterstock

15. Avenue of the Giants

Humboldt County is home to the most pristine redwood groves on the planet thanks to the efforts of early conservationists who recognized their significance. Many areas require a lengthy hike to see the trees, but the famed Avenue of the Giants lets you enjoy these towering behemoths without stepping outside your car. Keep an eye out for notable stops including Founders’ Grove. 

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