5 Classic California Road Trips

From the mountains and deserts to the redwood forests and the ocean, these road trips showcase the best of California's landscapes
We Southern California road-trippers are spoiled with miles of scenic highways that crisscross our state and pass through topography ranging from desert and forest to mountain and valley to coastline. Where to start? These five drives take you through California’s diverse landscapes. And because half the fun of a road trip is stopping to explore whatever catches your fancy along the way, we also highlight colorful roadside attractions for each.
1. Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Route 66 in the Mojave Desert

US Route 66 in the Mojave Desert of California at sunrise. | Trekkerimages / Alamy Stock Photo

"Are we there yet?” It’s the phrase that launched a million road trips, and perhaps nowhere was it uttered more times than along the enduring US Route 66—2,448 miles of legendary blacktop that ferried travelers between the Midwestern hub of Chicago and the golden shores of Santa Monica from 1926 until it was decommissioned in 1985. 

These days, adults don’t hear those words very often. Electronic entertainment has almost eliminated backseat boredom, and, while possibly preserving parental sanity, it has robbed our kids of the rituals of playing the license-plate game, arguing with siblings, and, most important, looking out the window. 

And that’s a shame, especially along the California portion of Route 66, a stretch of 300-plus miles that rolls from the sunbaked Mojave Desert (pictured above) to the Pacific Ocean. We often forget that the Mother Road winds right through our own backyard, a sort of progressive museum that offers glimpses into our heritage. It tells our stories as Americans and Californians. It portrays the mining, farming, and railroad history that shaped Route 66’s communities and characters.  

So, gas up and get your next generation of road-trippers to put away their gadgets. You might hear a little whining from the backseat, but that’s how you’ll know you’ve arrived. —Carolyn Graham

Pirate Cove Resort and Marina, Needles. This pirate-themed resort opened in 2009 atop 1,100 acres of Colorado riverfront near the California-Arizona state line. A far cry from the accommodations of yesterday’s Route 66ers, Pirate Cove’s two-story, loft-style cabins and campsites overlook the Colorado River and the marina inlet, where you’ll find water play and off-road activities. The famous road’s original blacktop, emblazoned with the Route 66 insignia, snakes along the property’s backside. Visitors can take a short trek to the rock-framed Route 66 billboard that was erected in the 1920s to greet travelers crossing the arid desert landscape. 760-326-9000; piratecoveresort.com. 

Amboy. In this tiny mining town, which is little more than a wide spot, travelers can step out into the roadway (after looking both ways, of course) to capture an iconic photo of the Route 66 signage painted on the asphalt. Along this desert corridor, check out the dirt berms where folks have spelled out their names in chunks of lava and other colorful stones. The volcanic rock originated from nearby Amboy Crater, which oozed lava for several miles when it last erupted 10,000 years ago. The resulting lava field has trails and an observation point.   

Bagdad Cafe, Newberry Springs. This tiny clapboard outpost was the setting for the 1987 cult classic film of the same name and continues to draw thousands of fans from all over the world.  Longtime owner Andrea Pruett is likely to greet you in French—a nod to her main clientele. And you’ll be hard-pressed to leave without slurping down one of the café’s frosty milkshakes. 46548 National Trails Highway. 760-257-3101. 

Bottle Tree Ranch, Oro Grande. A testament to Route 66’s quirky characters, this bizarre roadside attraction features a forest of metal-and-bottle “trees” created by Elmer Long. His collection of cobalt blue, amber, green, and milky glass bottles are arranged atop old pipes and reabar that he’s welded into sculptures. Wind chimes catch desert breezes as you crunch along the rock-covered paths to admire this strange collection, arranged amid old car parts, road signs, and World War II–era machine guns. The amiable and white-bearded Long happily talks to visitors about his life’s philosophy of choosing fun over work. 24266 National Trails Highway. 

California Route 66 Museum, Victorville. Thousands of international visitors stop here not only to soak up California’s Mother Road history, but also to snap photos in front of a 1966 (of course) Volkswagen microbus. The museum’s Seeburg Select-O-Matic jukebox provides the soundtrack from vintage 45s as visitors peruse the 1917 Model T, old motel signs, and filling-station memorabilia. 760-951-0436.

Wigwam Motel, San Bernardino. Wigwam is one of the best remaining examples of a kitschy Route 66 motel. The 19 concrete-and-stucco tepees have been renovated, maintaining their 1949 charm, but now offering such comforts as Wi-Fi and satellite TV. Adults might be inclined to kick back poolside while the kids take a dip. A steady stream of lookie-loos cruise through to snap pictures, especially when classic-car owners overnight here during Ontario’s Route 66 Cruisin’ Reunion (route66cruisinreunion.com) or San Bernardino’s Rendezvous Back to Route 66 (rendezvousroute66.com), both held in the fall. 909-875-3005; wigwammotel.com.

Route 395
2. Eastern Sierra Sojourn 
Bodie

Homes still stand in the ghost town of Bodie, now called Bodie State Historic Park. | Photo by Dzmitry Zelianeuski / Alamy Stock Photo

US Route 395 between Lone Pine and Bridgeport serves up some of the country’s most dramatic mountain and desert scenery. Travelers enjoy continuous views of the Sierra Nevada’s jagged peaks to the west while driving north from the sagebrush-covered desert floor of the Owens Valley to the pine forests of the Eastern Sierra. This state-designated scenic byway provides spectacular views of 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the U.S. outside of Alaska. —Jeff Crider

Museum of Western Film History. Costumes, cars, props, and more chart the history of filmmaking in the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra, and Death Valley. Take the self-guided driving tour through the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine to view 10 historic movie and TV locations, including those for Gunga Din and Rawhide. 760-876-9909. 

Manzanar National Historic Site (about 12 miles north of Lone Pine). Manzanar was one of 10 camps where more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were interned in World War II. The visitors center has exhibits and a 22-minute film. Outside, a self-guided driving tour takes you past sentry posts, reconstructed barracks, and the camp cemetery. 760-878-2194.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (east of Bishop). Some of the world’s oldest trees, including the more than 4,800-year-old “Methuselah” tree, are perched atop the desolate White Mountains. Be forewarned: The steep and narrow road to get there from the Owens Valley includes hair-raising dips and sharp turns. Along the way you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada. The road is typically open May–November.  

Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ, Bishop. It’s famous for cheese-filled sheepherder bread, but equally worth a stop for its Dutch- and European-style breads, pastries, and candies. 760-873-7156; erickschatsbakery.com. 

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Tufas, bizarre-looking limestone formations that poke out of Mono Lake, create an otherworldly landscape. The largest concentration of “tufa towers” is at the South Tufa grove. To get there, take State Route 120 (5 miles south of Lee Vining) east until you reach the interpretive kiosk and short trail. Learn more about tufas at the visitors center just north of Lee Vining. 760-647-6331.

Mono Cone, Lee Vining. Find road food at its best here—including supertall, soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones dipped in chocolate. 51508 US Route 395. 

Bodie State Historic Park. This gold-mining ghost town is cool and creepy. In 1880, Bodie was home to nearly 10,000 people, but the boom was short-lived. Peer into windows, and you’ll see dusty antique furnishings and disintegrating curtains. Learn more about Bodie’s history at the museum or on a guided tour. Caution: The last 3 miles before the park may be rough at times, so take it slow.

Bridgeport. The main attraction here is the Mono County Courthouse, built in 1880 and the state’s second oldest in continuous use. Consider a visit during the town’s Independence Day celebration, which has been held for more than 150 years. bridgeportcalifornia.com.

3. Majestic Mountain Loop
Zumwalt Meadow in Yosemite National Park

Zumwalt Meadow in Kings Canyon National Park often attracts bears and other wildlife. | Photo by Rick Pisio / RWP Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Three days isn’t nearly enough time to explore all that Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite national parks have to offer, but today’s reality is that people are simply short on time. Fortunately, the roughly 400-mile Majestic Mountain Loop provides an excellent overview of this spectacular trio. While not exactly a circular loop, the itinerary links the three parks’ main attractions so you can suss out what to see now and what to cover next time. With scenery that includes giant trees, towering peaks, and the occasional black bear, it’s a drive that appeals to everyone from nature-loving kids to adventurous adults. majesticmountainloop.com. —Laura Kiniry

Wuksachi Lodge. A modern lodge with a rustic feel, Sequoia National Park’s 102-room stone and cedar gem is an ideal base for exploring the park’s main attractions. At 7,200 feet above sea level, it also offers breathtaking views of the night sky. 866-807-3598; visitsequoia.com/lodging/wuksachi-lodge. 

Moro Rock. A steep, 400-step climb to the top of Sequoia’s imposing dome-shaped monolith rewards with panoramic scenery, including the towering peaks of the Great Western Divide. Its granite west face is popular among rock climbers. 

Crystal Cave. Embark on a guided tour (available May–September) of subterranean stalactites and stalagmites in this marble karst cave, one of 250 caves within Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Enjoy illuminated paths during the day, or opt for an evening visit by candle lanterns. (877) 444-6777; sequoiaparksconservancy.com. 

General Sherman Tree. It’s one of the largest and oldest living things on earth: a nearly 275-foot-tall cinnamon-bark beauty with a ground circumference of more than 102 feet. From its base, take Sequoia’s Sherman Tree Trail to the Congress Loop Trail for an easy, 2-mile trek among other giant sequoias.

Zumwalt Meadow (pictured above). The meadows of Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite parks are wide-open wildlife oases, often attracting bears and woodpeckers. With its granite walls and ambling river, Zumwalt is among the parks’ loveliest grasslands, tucked in the heart of Kings Canyon. A gentle, 1.5-mile trail circles the area. visitsequoia.com/zumwalt-meadow.aspx. 

Tenaya Lodge. A great stopover on the way to Yosemite, Tenaya Lodge has more than 25 room types, an award-winning spa, and five restaurants serving up everything from cedar plank salmon to schnitzel. It’s also just up the road from horseback riding and zip lining. 559-683-6555; tenayalodge.com. 

Yosemite Falls. North America’s tallest measured waterfall cascades 2,425 feet in three distinct sections. The leisurely, mile-long Lower Yosemite Falls paved trail provides spectacular views of both the upper and lower falls. More adventurous types will want to try the Upper Yosemite Falls trail, a 7.2-mile round-trip trek that ascends 2,700 feet.

4. Gold and Wine on Highway 49
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

The Coloma schoolhouse at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. | Photo by Len Wilcox / Alamy Stock Photo

In Mother Lode Country, gold and wine have a symbiotic relationship, with roots tracing back to the mid-1800s Gold Rush. As the precious metal started to dwindle, many fortune-seeking prospectors, including John Sutter and James Marshall, turned to another lucrative venture—winemaking. The Sierra Nevada foothills’ diverse terroirs, high elevations, and large day-night temperature swings made for quality red varieties. Some of these heritage zinfandel, barbera, and petite sirah vineyards still exist along State Route 49 (so named for the ’49ers, the wave of gold miners and merchants who arrived in 1849). From El Dorado County to Calaveras County, the two-lane highway—flanked by gothic-looking oak trees and bucolic pastures dotted with napping cows—traverses former boomtowns and winds past fruit stands and charming wineries. discovercaliforniawines.com. —Rachel Ng 

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Coloma (pictured above). Trace the beginnings of California’s Gold Rush on a guided tour of this 576-acre state park, which features a Chinese general store and a replica of Sutter’s Mill. Stop by the shabby-chic Argonaut Farm to Fork Café for house-made gelato, artfully poured cappuccinos, and live music. 530-622-3470.  

Gold Bug Park and Mine, Placerville. Venture deep into a hard-rock gold mine, where costumed guides bring history and geology lessons to life with animated storytelling. Learn how gold is extracted from milky quartz at the stamp mill and watch a blacksmith forge iron and steel at his workshop. 530-642-5207; goldbugpark.org. 

Lava Cap Winery, Placerville. Three generations of winemakers use sustainable farming practices on volcanic soil to cultivate their award-winning petite sirah, sangiovese, barbera, and zinfandel. Lava Cap is also known for its buttery chardonnay, which goes well with the winery’s artisanal cheese plate. 530-621-0175; lavacap.com.  Amador Vintage Market, Plymouth. Chef-owner Beth Sogaard is the go-to caterer for Amador County’s winegrowers, so it’s no surprise that her fresh salads, sandwiches, house-made breads, and truffled potato chips pair well with wines. Pick up a preordered picnic lunch en route to visiting nearby wineries, including Vino Noceto. 209-245-3663; bethsogaard.com/vintage-market.

Hanford House Inn, Sutter Creek. This Gold Rush town B&B combines the sophistication of a boutique hotel with the thoughtful touches of a family-owned operation. Breakfast is prepared with ingredients handpicked from the on-site garden, when available, and a complimentary glass of Amador County wine is offered during happy hour. 209-267-0747; hanfordhouse.com.   

Murphys. About two-dozen boutique wineries populate four blocks of this old gold-mining town. A good way to discover downtown Murphys’ culinary treasures is on three-hour food, wine, and history walking tours (800-407-8918; local-food-tours.com), which includes stops at a gourmet cupcake shop, an olive oil tasting bar, and the local-favorite Val du Vino Winery. visitmurphys.com.  

Moaning Cavern Adventure Park, Vallecito. Hanging by the rope takes on new meaning for adventure-seekers rappelling 165 feet into Moaning Cavern, said to be the largest cave chamber in California. Those who prefer a more down-to-earth approach can descend a 100-foot steel spiral staircase to explore towering stalagmites, ancient stalactites, dramatic draperies, and mammoth flowstones. 209-736-2708; moaningcaverns.com.

5. California Combo: Redwoods and the Coast
Ferndale

Ferndale is one of California's best-preserved Victorian villages. | Photo by Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

On State Route 36, sinuous, roller-coaster roads wind west from Red Bluff through Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, past rustic towns and pastures, to Hydesville near the coast. No wonder this 135-mile stretch is arguably the most beloved motorcycling road in California—and one of the top riding routes in the U.S. Snaking back and forth from one turn to another, feeling the road rise and fall beneath you, is a recipe for mindful happiness—whether on two wheels, four, or 18. This route is neither a loop nor a straight line, but more free-form. Once you get to the end, catch your breath—then meander the roads along US Highway 101 to discover these gems at or near the coast. —Jeff Greenwald

South Fork Mountain Interpretive Wayside Exhibits (about 55 miles east of Fortuna). Take in a panoramic view of the longest continuous mountain ridge in the continental U.S., running 47 miles. Also enjoy sweeping views of the Six Rivers National Forest, the South Fork of the Trinity, and—contrasting against the green forest—the odd basalt peaks called Black Lassic and Red Lassic. 707-574-6233; tinyurl.com/ld9hled. 

Cheatham Grove. Despite its tranquility, this lovely redwood grove, located in Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, served as the location for the speeder bike chase scenes in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. 707-777-3683.

Ferndale. Dozens of 19th-century mansions and other historic buildings in one of California’s best-preserved Victorian villages reflect a prosperous dairy heritage. On Main Street, you’ll find cafés, B&Bs, galleries, and the Ivanhoe, the westernmost bar in the contiguous United States. An on-site restaurant in the 1890-built Victorian Inn (victorianvillageinn.com) offers Portuguese fare, a sign of the town’s Iberian heritage. 707-786-4477; victorianferndale.com. 

Centerville Beach County Park (5 miles west of Ferndale). From this secluded beach, take in a breathtaking view of the Lost Coast, California’s longest stretch of natural, unadulterated beaches. (Walk-in camping only.) 

Avenue of the Giants (just southeast of the Route 36 junction and parallel to Highway 101). This 31-mile scenic road traverses more than 51,000 acres of America’s most spectacular redwoods. avenueofthegiants.net. 

Honeydew. Stop in at the general store and post office in this tiny community to send a postcard and enjoy a frozen fruit bar. 44670 Mattole Road; 707-629-3310.

Top photo: Alpenglow in the Eastern Sierra near Lone Pine, California. | Witold Skrypczak / Alamy Stock Photo

Free maps, TourBook guides, and TripTik Travel Planners are available at your local Auto Club branch. For more trip-planning information, call 800-814-7471 or go to AAA.com/explore.