California boasts some of the most beautiful sights in the country. From the beach to mountains and desert and everything in between. The best way to see them? By taking the scenic road, of course!
If you’re currently itching for the thrill of the open road, the Golden State is sure to please. If you’ve done some research already, chances are you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with the number of options available. For those who love to tour by car, we’ve put together a list of the absolute best drives you’ll want to incorporate into your California itinerary.
From roads that take you all the way up to sky-high mountains to fascinating views of colorful mountains in an otherwise desolate desert, these are the most magically scenic drives in Cali you’ve got to experience at least once in your life!
1. Big Sur (Highway One – Pacific Coast Highway)
- Distance: 90 miles
- Time needed: 2.5 hours to 3 days
While not one of the longest scenic drives in California, it’s definitely one of the most beautiful roads in the world and tops most visitors’ California bucket list. You can cover the 90-mile stretch between Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Simeon in a little over 2 hours non-stop, but why would you rush such magnificent scenery?
At the very least you should try a few of the trails that lead off Highway 1, we highly recommend Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for nature lovers. Some easy unmissable stops include Bixby Bridge and McWay Falls but do factor in some overnight stops; camping along the way is a great option or try lodgings in Big Sur village.
A wonderful road trip to take year-round, though be aware summer brings the crowds, bushfire risk and the rolling morning fog. Meanwhile, winter can bring heavy rains and the possibility of mudslides, so shoulder seasons are your best bet for blue skies, amazing colors and limited crowds.
When to go: Although you could argue year-round, undeniably you’ll squeeze more out of a visit to Big Sur late spring through until fall, with September and October being the ideal months with fewer crowds and clear days.
- You can find our complete itinerary for a Big Sur family road trip here – or complete the entire Pacific Coast Highway Drive from San Francisco to San Diego
2. Death Valley (Highway 190)
- Distance: 93 miles
- Time needed: At least one day to check out all the main sights
Death Valley is probably one of the most mysterious destinations in the whole world. Despite its somewhat desolate name, this place actually brims with life and colorful sites once you dive deeper in, and the best way to get the most out of a visit is by driving through it!
Some very popular sights in the park sit right by the road, so you will be seeing mouth-opening vistas every mile of the way. Begin by checking out Mesquite Sand Dunes at Stovepipe Wells, where you can park your car and walk up a mile to get to the top of some of the tallest dunes in the area.
Next, head to Scotty’s Castle, a Death Valley historical ranch filled with remnants of what life was all about during the roaring 20s’.
Get back on the road, and your next stop will be at Harmony Borax Works, a former mine and borax plant that will give you a very raw glimpse of what life was like (hardships and all included) in Death Valley in the 1800s.
Next on the itinerary is Furnace Creek, where you can stop for a little while, grab some food, find a place to sleep in, or you can go into full immersion in Death Valley by going on a hike.
Another great option here is to take a small detour and drive down Artists Drive Loop, an incredibly scenic drive where you can admire mountain faces reflecting the sun, giving the impression that they were painted in every color of the rainbow. (Nv this drive is not suitable for vehicles over 35 feet)
To cap off this awesome drive, head to Zabriskie Point, where the best vistas of the badlands below can be appreciated. This is Death Valley’s most iconic view and, as such, a marvelous way to end an epic road trip. Sunsets are magnificent at this site, so do try to be there during that time of the day!
When to go: Summers can be brutally hot for the unacclimatized, so we’d strongly recommend you stick with the cooler months, November through April. March to May is the ideal time if you want to see the incredible wildflowers display.
3. Sierra Nevada Mountains (Highway 395)
- Distance: 450 miles
- Time needed: This amazing drive can take from a few days to several weeks, depending on how much time you linger at each stop. The best way to uncover all its historical and natural sights is by taking little detours along the way and planning to stop for several days to fully explore them, so make sure you take that into account when planning!
Highway 395 is a fantastic road trip that will transport you back in time into old western California. Believe it or not, the small towns and stunning natural views you’ll pass along the way haven’t changed much since then.
Starting in Los Angeles and ending in Lake Tahoe, this iconic California drive runs for 450 miles on the backside of the Sierra Nevada mountains, so majestic vistas galore are guaranteed.
As if that weren’t reason enough to visit, this road is also set close to Joshua Tree and Death Valley, which are two of the state’s most iconic national parks worth making a small detour for in order to experience Cali’s desert magic.
Along the way, you will also encounter some of the Golden State’s lesser-known jewels, including Bristlecone Pine Forest, Devil’s Postpile, Mono Lake, and Bodie, an abandoned ghost town!
Don’t miss the natural hot springs that sit near the base of Mammoth Lakes, one of the most unique places to visit in California.
When to go: Everyone will immediately tell you Fall is the ideal time to visit with the incredible carpet of color that descends before winter. Spring is your next best bet for great temperatures and limited crowds, whilst in summer, we’d stick to the mountainous section of this drive and be prepared for super busy weekends. Winter can be a no-go zone if sections of the highway need to be closed.
- Catch our detailed itinerary for stopping points to enjoy between Death Valley and Yosemite, incorporating much of Highway 395
- And diving further into the detail, these are the best scenic stops between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe to complete your journey through the Sierra Nevada Mountains
4. Jacinto Reyes Scenic Byway (State Highway 33)
- Distance: 36.5 miles
- Time needed: 4 hours to two days if you stay at Los Padres National Forest. There are no hotels in the park, but camping is an unforgettable experience!
Jacinto Reyes Scenic Byway is another California road with insanely pretty vistas. It cuts right through the Cuyama, the Valley of San Joaquin, and then uphill to mountain peaks over 5,000 feet high, providing a ton of diversity along the way.
This drive is actually pretty short, but you’ll need a few hours to complete it because there are just too many places worth stopping at to catch stunning vistas of the landscapes in the area.
When you need to stretch your legs, a perfect place to do it is Los Padres National Forest, a spot with plenty of hiking and horseback trails amid the forest.
If you only have one day, an easy and gentle hike is the Piedra Blanca Formations trail, only 2.6 miles long and full of awesome views and wildlife sightings. If, on the other hand, you have your heart set on a bigger challenge, venture into the Dry Lake Ridge Botanical Area hike, another wonderful trail guaranteed to reward you with incredible views!
When to go: Open year round, outdoor enthusiasts will find something to enjoy whatever the weather, though you’ll find that the forest shines its best in the Fall for brilliant colors.
5. Lake Tahoe Loop (US 50, NV 28 and US 89)
- Distance: 72 miles
- Time Needed: A full day (you can non-stop drive the loop in around 2.5 hours – traffic permitting – but where would be the fun in that!)
This scenic Lake Tahoe drive takes you on a slow tour of the lake’s captivating charms. Crossing from California to Nevada and back again en route, a drive around Lake Tahoe will take you from beaches to mountains within minutes.
You can take the drive in a clockwise or anti-clockwise loop; starting north or south, you will experience equally amazing views. Both summer and winter offer something uniquely different. Although Lake Tahoe will never freeze over, the surrounding mountains will be shrouded in snow for a truly unique California driving experience.
When to go: Lake Tahoe can truly shine year-round if you are after completely contrasting seasons. Note that the drive can take exceptionally longer in summer traffic, plan for a slow meander between stops; it’s not a sprint to the finish line!
6. Redwood Highway (Highway 101)
- Distance: 84 miles
- Time Needed: 3 hours to 2 full days with an overnight stop in Eureka or camp in one of the many Redwoods campsites
Taking the 101, you will seamlessly glide from one spectacular redwood forest to another. The main highway runs through the National Park at many points, making the Redwoods National and State Parks one of the best to enjoy by car.
There are several detours you can take and trails galore to get your redwood forest fix. The Valley of the Giants is one of the most famous scenic drives in northern California, closely followed by the Newton B Dury Scenic Parkway through the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Big Tree Wayside is an easy walk for all abilities to get a photo with one of the largest redwoods.
For a novel touch, we know many road trippers love, you can stop in at Myers Flat for a drive-thru tree experience (there are also similar private properties near Leggett and Klamath).
When to go: The best time to experience the coastal Redwoods is over late Spring and Summer, though early Fall can be superb, too. Winters can be a little too wet underfoot and sections of the 101 can be prone to landslides.
- We explain exactly how to enjoy the Redwood Highway, setting out from San Francisco
Which of these scenic drives catch your eye the most? Because they’re all vastly different from each other, each road provides an entirely unique experience, so we’d love to know which one you’re most excited for!
Top Tips For Road Tripping California
You can plan your California road trip at any time of year, but a few things to be mindful of:
- Before you set our road-tripping in California, always check for latest highway updates. Many of the most scenic drives in California are susceptible to both bushfires and landslides.
- California State Parks come with daily parking fees of $10 – it’s good for 24 hours so make the most of it!
- Invisible “black ice” can be an extreme hazard in winter – take note of our winter driving tips before you set out.
- Road-tripping the mountains in winter, look out for “Snow Zone” signs as these will let you know about requirements for snow chains or traction tires.
- Never forget an important item for your family again! Download our ultimate family road trip checklist before you set out.
© Family Road Trip