Your Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary | by a Local

An rv truck driving down a road near the ocean.

As a San Diego native, I’ve been lucky enough to cruise Hwy 101 many times over the years, and I’m so stoked to be your road trip planner on this epic adventure. For this California road trip itinerary, I’ll be starting up north in the San Francisco Bay Area, but you can feel free to do this trip south to north as well!

Picture this 🖼️ – you’re cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway with your love, friends, or family, wind in your hair, sunglasses on, palm trees swaying in the warm breeze, and the Pacific Ocean glistening in the sunshine – this is the start of the ultimate road trip in California! 🚗

OK, it’s time! Grab your bags, and let’s hit the road!

If you are in a hurry

When you get on the road, you’re not going to want to make reservations, you’re going to want to make memories. So, plan for it and book your hotels and activities in advance:

And here are the best hotels: Four Seasons Hotel at Embarcadero (luxury), Home2 Suites by Hilton (mid-range), Cozy Beach Cottage (budget)

Oh, and if you want to see a full, curated list of the coolest hotels in every region of CA, check out our article here. For the best areas, read this article.

Since this is the ultimate California road trip and we’re covering a lot of ground, I’ll include a map here of the general route so you don’t get lost! It might just save you from a fight or two with your loved ones. 😂

1. Start the journey in the San Francisco Bay Area (2 – 3 days)

serpentine road near the houses and view of the San Francisco on background

Your trip starts with iconic sightseeing in the bustling city of San Francisco!

San Francisco Bay Area is the perfect jumping-off point for your fun drive through Cali, providing tons of attractions and activities to experience. You could easily spend 2 – 3 days in the area.

From the rolling hills of Northern California wine country to breathtaking hiking trails & waterfalls to iconic views of the Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco is a really fun start to your West Coast road trip!

As your California road trip planner, I highly suggest you stay in San Francisco as your home base, then travel to the surrounding attractions by car (you find a good deal on Rentalcars) or on a guided tour.

What to do

You have so many choices in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I will widdle down the list to the best of the best!

view of colorful houses in the suburbs with skyline with of a city with tall buildings in the background
  • Fisherman’s Wharf – a lively area on the waterfront filled with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. 
  • Golden Gate Park – this gigantic park seems to encapsulate the entire city and borders the bay on one end, so you get magnificent views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Wine Country – just over the bridge, you’ll find Marin County and the beginning of your wine country road trip. If you love wine and want to experiment with multiple tasting rooms, I highly recommend taking a tour and letting someone else do the driving. Try this ultimate Napa & Sonoma wine tour and experience several wineries, picturesque views, and the convenience of a private driver. From US$120 per adult.
  • Painted Ladies – This famous row of painted homes is a must-see in downtown San Francisco, made popular by the 1990s TV sitcom Full House. If you want to see the Painted Ladies and more of the downtown sites, try this awesome tour of the city, at US$80 per person.
  • Alcatraz Island – This little island in the middle of the bay was once a fort, a military prison, and, most famously, a maximum security federal penitentiary. You can now take tours out to Alcatraz from Fisherman’s Wharf, visit the former prison, and get incredible, unique views of San Francisco. From US$120 per person.
  • Muir Woods National Monument – One of the most incredible things about the Bay Area is its access to raw, stunning nature. With so many to pick from, my favorite is Muir Woods. This old-growth redwood forest displays trees over 1,000 years old and more than 250 ft (76 m) tall! If you plan to visit the Redwoods, the best way is by tour. I love this Muir Woods & Sausalito tour that takes you into nature, as well as into a charming northern CA town. From US$100 per person.

Browse San Francisco tours

Why you should stop

Aerial view of Golden Gate Bridge

Why wouldn’t you stop!? But, really, it’s SO worth it. The San Francisco Bay Area has many incredible restaurants, world-famous sites, and unforgettable adventure opportunities for couples, friends, and families.

Where to stay

While you could stay in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, I think you get the best jumping-off point for all of your activities, nightlife, and fine dining by choosing to stay in San Francisco.

Here are the best hotels in San Francisco: 

collage of 3 images with: a bedroom, rooftop lounge with view over the city and hotel's building
  • Luxury (from US$550 and over): Four Seasons Hotel at Embarcadero – you’ll love the exceptional views of downtown, on-site gourmet dining, and in-room massage!
  • Mid-range (from US$230 to US$400): Argonaut Hotel – this mid-range hotel has awesome nautical-themed rooms, on-site dining, and a wonderful location within Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Budget (up to US$200): The Grove Inn – this budget option in the middle of the city gives you the feel of a true SF flat, with air-conditioning and heat in each room, private bathrooms, and urban views.

Bonus adventure (3 – 4 days)

Two people standing on a cliff overlooking a lake.

Are you an adventure addict? If so, and you have the time, it is SO worth it to travel east and spend a few days in the national parks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

  • Lake Tahoe – South Lake Tahoe is absolutely stunning and loaded with hiking trails. The lake itself looks like the Caribbean Sea, and places like Emerald Bay State Park will make you swoon!
  • Yosemite National Park – is filled with amazing rock climbing opportunities, mountain biking, picturesque hiking trails, iconic sites like Half Dome, and days’ worth of adventures. Nothing like a day that concludes with outdoor adventures in the majestic Yosemite National Park!
  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks – located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountain, are known best for their towering groves of ancient giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman Tree, the largest living tree on Earth.
  • Death Valley National Park – situated in eastern California and western Nevada (only 2 hours to Las Vegas!) boasts some of the hottest, driest, and lowest spots in the US (Badwater Basin is actually the lowest point in North America!).
  • Manzanar National Historic Site – in California’s Eastern Sierra region, is the site where World War II internment camps housed Japanese Americans unjustly detained during the war. You’ll see the reconstructed barracks and exhibits that tell the story of the 120,000 individuals, predominantly of Japanese descent, forced to live in these camps.

2. Monterey & Carmel-by-the-Sea (1 day)

coast near Carmel by the Sea

Traveling the coastal route approximately 2 hours south down Highway 101 from San Francisco, you’ll first find the cities of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

I love this area of the Golden State. Monterey is known for its oceanfront attractions and historic sites, and Carmel-by-the-Sea is celebrated for its charming, European-style village atmosphere, art galleries, and beautiful white-sand beaches.

What to do

street with parked cars and people walking around

Monterey & Carmel-by-the-Sea are both stunning coastal towns in CA with lots of activity options. Find my top ones below:

  • Old Fisherman’s Wharf – known for its picturesque views of Monterey Bay, bustling seafood restaurants, unique shops, and a lively atmosphere, the wharf is a central spot for all things Monterey.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium – this world-renowned marine science and conservation institution has breathtaking exhibits and a state-of-the-art facility. Tickets start at US$60 per person, and you can buy them here.
  • Cannery Row – you’ll love this spot in Monterey. With a rich history as a former hub of sardine canning factories, it’s now lined with shops, restaurants, and oceanfront charm.
  • 17-Mile Drive – check out this world-famous scenic route along the coast that will take you past breathtaking coastal cliffs, iconic golf courses, pristine beaches, and picturesque viewpoints. Make it even more epic by renting e-bikes at US$75 per person.

You can see the complete list of activities in our dedicated articles on things to do in Monterey and things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Why you should stop

An american flag is flying over a pier with a view of the ocean.

It’s hard not to stop when you get to Monterey.

Its horseshoe-shaped bay and dramatic rocks jutting into the sea make most drivers pull over to, at the very least, snap some photos.

While you’re here, you won’t want to miss Carmel-by-the-Sea’s European charm & atmosphere, which add a unique experience to your coastal road trip adventure.

Where to stay

You have plenty of options to choose from when you’re in Monterey, but I picked the best in each budget to save you time.

collage of 3 images with: a bedroom, lounge and hotel's building
  • Luxury (from US$400 and over): Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa – located on the waterfront and next to the aquarium, this luxury hotel has so much to offer in location, amenities, and service. 
  • Mid-range (from US$200 to US$300): Victorian Inn Lighthouse District – this charming B&B is located in the Lighthouse District, and close to entertainment and nighttime activities.
  • Budget (up to US$200): Hampton Inn & Suites Marina – you’ll love this budget option on the water, with awesome views and close to all of Monterey’s attractions.

3. Big Sur (1 day)

A winding road on the coast of big sur, california.

Driving 1 hour south of Monterey, you’ll hit the beginning of Big Sur, one of the most famous stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway.

This day features an exploration of the breathtaking Big Sur coastline, mostly characterized by dramatic cliffs, redwood forests, and breathtaking ocean views.

What to do

three people standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean

Most of Big Sur is about the journey, not the destination, so you’ll definitely want to have a car to slow-roll your time exploring Big Sur’s coastline.

  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve – this beautiful reserve is renowned for its rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, and diverse ecosystems. If you really want to experience this amazing place fully, I highly recommend this guided walk around the reserve that will teach you about the local flora and history. From US$50 per person.
  • Cypress Cove Trail – this serene coastal hike stretches approximately 1.6 mi (2.6 km), weaving through enchanting cypress trees, with the Pacific Ocean on one side, and Point Lobos on the other.
  • Bixby Bridge – this iconic architectural feat on California’s Highway 1 defines the landscape of Big Sur. It provides breathtaking panoramic views of the rugged coastline and the Pacific Ocean below.

Why you should stop

a scenic view of the ocean with a path leading to it

You know when you see luxury car commercials in the US? Well, they’re often filmed on the famous Highway 101, weaving through the twists and turns of Big Sur.

When you get to this part of the coastline, you will spend most of the time gasping at the beauty out the car window. It’s dramatic, and you’ll definitely want to stop!

Where to stay

Although you only need a day to drive Big Sur and explore, if you want to stay in the area, I suggest you stay in Cambria. Below are 3 of the best hotels in every price range.

collage of 3 images with: a bedroom, lounge and hotel's building
  • Luxury (from US$300 and over): White Water – dripping in luxury, you’ll love this hotel at the north end of Moonstone Beach, with daily continental breakfast.
  • Mid-range (from US$200 to US$300): Little Sur Inn – amazing location within a 15-minute’ drive of SLO wineries, this beautiful inn sits waterfront with ocean and partial ocean views.
  • Budget (up to US$150): The Rigdon House – you’ll love this historic hotel within walking distance of shopping, dining, and activities, with free WiFi and daily breakfast.

4. Santa Barbara (1 – 2 days)

aerial view over street next to the beach with greenery and palm trees

Talk about California road trip ideas but never leave out this destination when looking for romance! Santa Barbara is oozing with stunning vistas, charming cafés, and picturesque beaches. Not to mention some fabulous hotels to stay at in the area.

Known for its Mediterranean-style architecture, beautiful parks, and vibrant cultural scene, people love the pleasant climate and abundance of outdoor activities.

What to do

a woman and a child feeding giraffes at a zoo

In Santa Barbara, there’s so much to do! Relax on pristine beaches, explore Spanish colonial architecture, indulge in wine tasting, and hike in the nearby Santa Ynez Mountains.

  • Santa Barbara Zoo – this small but mighty zoo has a lot to offer: a lush garden setting, up-close encounters with diverse wildlife, and ocean views.
  • Stearns Wharf – this historic pier in Santa Barbara has bustling shops and restaurants, panoramic views of the city and the Pacific Ocean, and a vibe that is so happy & fun!
  • Old Mission Santa Barbara – this 18th-century Spanish colonial-era mission is known for its beautiful architecture, rich history, and serene gardens.
  • Santa Ynez Valley Wine tour – enjoy this incredible tour through the Santa Ynez Valley with your own private, local guide leading the way to 3 dynamite wineries.

Why you should stop

a large white building with a clock tower surrounded by grass and palm trees

This stop is all about the vibe. Santa Barbara is a relaxed, laid-back, yet dignified coastal town, shrouded in Spanish colonial history, stunning beaches, and delicious wine tastings.

Where to stay

When you’re in Santa Barbara, it’s hard to go wrong with choosing accommodations because they are all fantastic. With that said, as your personal California trip planner, I went ahead and picked out the 3 best!

collage of 3 images with: a bedroom, lounge and hotel's building
  • Luxury (from US$350 and over): Harbor House Inn – located one block from West Beach, this luxury hotel option is comfortable, well-designed, and has free bike rentals!
  • Mid-range (from US$200 to US$300): La Playa Inn Santa Barbara – less than 5 minutes walk to the ocean, this mid-range option has daily complimentary breakfast and free Wi-Fi.
  • Budget (up to US$180): Cactus Room Private Entrance – take a break before you head south at this budget option, closest to East Beach. It comes with free Wi-Fi, a super comfy bed, and a private terrace.

5. Los Angeles (2 days)

a freeway with a bunch of cars driving on it

California road trips down the famous Pacific Coast Highway aren’t complete without a stop in La La Land. This next leg of the journey leads to the sunny beaches and vibrant nightlife of Los Angeles.

Whether you’re exploring downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, or Santa Monica, you’ll find exciting, unusual, and eccentric things along the way!

Los Angeles is filled with iconic attractions, diverse culture, and endless entertainment options, giving you the quintessential California experience.

What to do

a woman with her arms outstretched in front of the hollywood sign

You have your pick of beaches, theme parks, cute neighborhoods, museums, parks & so much more when you’re visiting LA!

  • Griffith Observatory – this stunning science center & planetarium perched atop the Hollywood Hills offers unparalleled astronomical views, engaging exhibitions, and a glimpse into the real stars! From US$35 per person for the tour and ticket.
  • Hollywood Sign – everyone is always on a mission to get the best photo of this icon! High in the Santa Monica Mountains, it’s an iconic symbol of the entertainment industry and a must-see spot with breathtaking views of the city.
  • Universal Studios – located in the heart of Hollywood, this world-famous film studio and theme park features thrilling rides, live shows, and beloved film characters & memorabilia. From US$109 per person, buy tickets here.
  • The Getty – this renowned art museum showcases an impressive collection of European paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts surrounded by manicured gardens and panoramic views of the city. From US$150 per person from GetYourGuide.
  • Joshua Tree National Park – if you have the time while you’re in L.A., make a day of visiting Joshua Tree National Park and see some of the coolest and most unusual terrain in the US. If you don’t want to drive to this desert mecca yourself, I highly recommend this off-road Jeep tour, which is super fun and starts from US$210 per person.

If you’re like me and want to make sure you check all the must-dos off your bucket list, I suggest booking this phenomenal Los Angeles iconic sites tour (US$100 per person). It will take you to the beaches, the sites, and all that’s in between.

Find your perfect LA tour

Why you should stop

Well, because it’s Hollywood, baby! 🎬 And there are tons of attractions and experiences, like stunning beaches, world-class museums, and iconic sites.

Where to stay

While you’re in the land of celebrities, why not treat yourself like one? I’ve procured the best hotels in L.A. just for you, and there’s something for every budget.

collage of 3 images with: a bedroom, rooftop pool area and hotel's building
  • Luxury (from US$500 and over): The Pendry West Hollywood – you’ll love the location in West Hollywood, near a bunch of nightlife, and equipped with a gorgeous outdoor pool and upscale fitness center.
  • Mid-range (from US$400 to US$760): The Shay, A Destination by Hyatt – this beautiful hotel has a stunning outdoor swimming pool, spacious rooms, and free billiard tables.
  • Budget (up to US$230): The Metric – this budget hotel has free Wi-Fi, comfy beds, and private bathrooms.

6. Orange County (1 – 3 days)

a pier in the middle of a body of water

Orange County, or the O.C. as locals call it, is filled with iconic beaches, big wave surfers, a laid-back vibe, and tons to do on your California Coast road trip.

The O.C. in Southern California is known for its phenomenal weather all year long, its beautiful people, and its extreme wealth. 💰

What to do

You can pick from tons of different things to do in O.C.: laid-back beach days, action-packed adventure days, or culture-rich exploring days.

a humpback whale jumps out of the water
  • Huntington Beach – is often referred to as ‘Surf City, USA,’ with pristine, sandy shores, excellent surf breaks, and a laid-back beach vibe.
  • Crystal Cove State Park – located between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach in Southern California, Crystal Cove is known for its stunning natural beauty, pristine sandy beaches, and rugged, undeveloped landscapes. Explore the tide pools, hike along picturesque coastal trails, and enjoy this coastal paradise.
  • Whale-watching in Newport – one of the best things you can do in the O.C. is take a whale-watching tour. It’s a 2-hour adventure that will get you up close and personal with these incredible creatures for only US$35/person.
  • Disneyland Resort – has 2 theme parks: Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, where you can experience thrilling rides and immersive attractions, surrounded by your favorite, beloved characters.

Why you should stop

When you think of a California beach in your mind, it’s an Orange County beach. It’s a picturesque and lively place with tons of activities and coastal attractions.

Where to stay

You have a lot of options in Orange County for your accommodations, but I have chosen 3 hotels that stand out the most.

collage of 3 images with: a bedroom, lounge and pool with waterslides
  • Luxury (from US$500 and over): The Waterfront Beach Resort – this Mediterranean-Italian-inspired resort is across the street from Huntington Beach, with an outdoor pool with 2 waterslides, and a super cool fitness center.
  • Mid-range (from US$250 to US$400): Home2 Suites by Hilton – across from the entrance to Disneyland Resorts, free WiFi, and excellent, friendly service.
  • Budget (up to US$150): Hotel Pepper Tree Boutique Kitchen Studios – this budget hotel has a heated pool, a close drive to Disney’s entrance, and full kitchens in-room.

7. San Diego (2 – 3 days)

a girl sitting on a bridge at Balboa Park

Welcome to my hometown of San Diego, a stunning coastal city in Southern California and the last stop in the US before you cross the border to Mexico!

When you’re visiting San Diego, you’ll be able to choose from a variety of different attractions and activities and also indulge in some delicious Mexican food! 🌮

What to do

Here are my top things to do:

a large elephant made out of topiary in front of a zoo
  • Eat fish tacos from The Taco Stand in La Jolla – OK, don’t laugh! This is actually one of the best things to do in San Diego. Being so close to Mexico, our city benefits from our amazing neighbors to the south and their fantastic cuisine! Try The Taco Stand in La Jolla for the best baja fish tacos you’ll ever eat!
  • San Diego Zoo – one of the best zoos in the US, the San Diego Zoo, located in Balboa Park, is known for its conservation work, and its dedication to giving animals access to a similar natural environment. It’s an absolute must-see, and you can buy tickets here.
  • Mission Beach – a totally Cali-vibe, Mission Beach is filled with surfers, beachgoers, college students, and people lining the boardwalk. If you come down to the white sandy shores of Mission Beach, I highly recommend trying your luck at some surf lessons, which start from US$125 per adult.
  • Little Italy – one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Diego, Little Italy is filled with authentic Italian eateries, delicious coffee shops, and bakeries. While you’re here, try this food tour that will leave you drooling!
  • Scenic city tour – San Diego is big and very spread out. Even if you come into town with a car, it’s really nice to have someone else do the driving. Not to mention, this guided tour will stop at all the major sites and give you a low down on each one.
  • Yoga on the beach – yoga is just part of everyday life here in San Diego, as you’ll see from the ever-growing number of yoga studios in every neighborhood. If you’re just a beginner, this is the perfect place to give it a try and nab a private lesson on the beach guided by me in picturesque Coronado Island.

Why you should stop

San Diego is the end of the road on the Pacific Coast Highway until you reach the US-Mexican border. It’s an incredible city with lots of Mexican and Spanish influence, rich history, and super fun things to do!

Where to stay

San Diego is a big place, and you’ll have no problem finding a great place to stay. I still went ahead and picked the 3 best for you, just to save ya some time!

collage of 3 images with: a bedroom, lounge and hotel's building
  • Luxury (from US$450 and over): Orli La Jolla – you’ll love this luxury hotel close to the shores of La Jolla, with a full-service concierge, and gorgeous, luxury rooms, perfect for a great California road trip.
  • Mid-range (from US$250 to US$350): Del Mar Beach Hotel – there are only a few places like this! An amazing hotel option right on Del Mar Beach, within walking distance of all the coffee shops, restaurants, and bars.
  • Budget (up to US$150): Cozy Beach Cottage – end your day trip at this Pacific Beach cottage which is the quintessential San Diego beach pad, with rental bicycles, free Wi-Fi, and plenty of sunshine.
🏛️ Best museum:The Getty
🦁 Top paid attraction:San Diego Zoo
⭐ Best tour:Los Angeles Iconic Sites Tour
🚶🏽‍♂️ Best free attraction:Lake Tahoe
🚗 Best rental car company:Rentalcars

FAQs about your California road trip itinerary

friends in a car on a road trip

🍷 How many days do you need to do a California road trip?

There is no set time for a California road trip, although to cover the majority of the state, you’ll need about 14 days.

🚙 Where should I go on a road trip in California?

There are so many great places to go on a road trip in California, like exploring the San Diego Zoo, whale-watching in Orange County, and wine tasting in the Bay Area.

🌉 What is the best time of year for a California coast road trip?

One of the best things about California is the year-round temperate weather. With that said, spring and fall are the most ideal times.

🎒 Where is the best place to start a road trip in California?

The best place to start a road trip in California is up north in the San Francisco Bay Area. Alternatively, you can start from the south in San Diego and then head north towards San Francisco.

Conclusion

A road leading to the ocean

When you’re cruising with your loved ones and the Pacific Ocean is on one side of you, and lush and dramatic landscape on the other – you know you’ve finally made it on your California Coast road trip!

This article includes a drive down the stunning Pacific Coast Highway, with stops in multiple cities along the way, from San Francisco to Monterey, and all the way down to San Diego – my hometown.

If you’re planning on taking road trips in California soon, remember to book in advance for your top hotels and activities!

You know I always want to hear your favorites from the trip! Comment below and let me know what you loved! 🥰

Aloha & safe travels,

Hayden G.


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