A Two Week California Road Trip Itinerary

Two Week California Road Trip Itinerary

The United States is pretty much the perfect country to road trip in, with great roads, cheap gas and hundreds of gorgeous destinations to choose from. We’ve taken a number of fantastic US road trips, including Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Oregon Trail and a route through the Deep South, and have never failed to have a fantastic time.

One of our favourite states to explore though has to be California. With a mix of an excellent climate, some of the best National Parks in the country, and world famous cities to explore, you’re never going to run short of things to do in California.

With this in mind, I wanted to put together a classic two week California road trip itinerary, taking in some of the best that the sunshine state has to offer. I did a trip almost exactly the same as this a few years back, so I know that it’s a good one.

California Road Trip

Two weeks is also a good amount of time for a trip like this, although you could of course extend it by a few days if you wanted to see a bit more, or wanted to go a bit slower.

Without further ado, let’s get into:

My Perfect Two Week California Road Trip Itinerary


1. San Francisco – 3 Days

We’re going to start with San Francisco. It’s home to the second largest airport in California, so there are plenty of opportunities for getting here for both domestic and international travellers.

Tram in San Francisco streets

It’s also an excellent city to base yourself for your first three days. If you’re arriving internationally, you’re going to want a few days to adjust to the time zone difference before hopping into a car, so I’m going to recommend spending three nights in San Francisco, and picking up your hire car as you leave – you won’t want (or need!) a car while you’re in the city.

You won’t be short on things to do in San Francisco, and in fact, might feel a little overwhelmed by all the choices! Our suggestions would be to take in the Golden Gate bridge (hire a bike to get here easily), explore Chinatown, pop across to Alcatraz, revel in the tourist trap that is Fisherman’s Wharf, don’t miss golden gate park, head to the top of Nob Hill for cocktails at The Mark, hop on a cable car and, if you still have time, take a stroll at Lands End.

San Francisco Sunset

To get yourself oriented, we can also recommend taking a walking tour with the excellent SFNative folks, they know the city backwards and their pints and politics walking tour in particular is fantastic. Finally, if you’re looking for some great photo opportunities, check out our guide to the best photography locations in San Francisco.

Accommodation wise, there are plenty of options in San Francisco. We’ve stayed at and are happy to recommend the Hotel Rex, which was perfectly located within walking distance of everything we wanted to see, offering a good balance of comfort and price. See more options for hotels in San Francisco here.


2. Pacific Coast Highway – 2 Days

The drive down the section of the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles is definitely one of the best road trips in the world. Even National Geographic agree. So it’s really a no-brainer that this would be your first destination after you pick up your hire car and head out of the city.

Pacific Coast Highway California

There are numerous highlights along the way, from cute seaside towns to gorgeous wilderness areas. Don’t miss Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sur and the Julia Pfeffer Burns State Park (camp here if you can!). The latter is particularly famous for the waterfall that cascades onto the beach, a gorgeous photo opportunity.

From Big Sur head further south and take in highlights like the seals at Cambria, tasty food at San Luis Obispo, the gorgeous Pismo beach, and more. For loads more information on this stretch of highway to help you plan the perfect route, check out this super detailed guide to planning a Pacific Coast Highway trip.

Waterfall onto beach Juiia Pfieffer Burns State Park California Big Sur

There are plenty of accommodation options all the way down this stretch of highway, from campsites and B&B’s to luxury hotels – it all depends on your budget and what you’re aiming for.


3. Santa Monica, LA – 2 Days

Los Angeles can be a big, confusing place, particularly after your trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. That’s why I suggest you head to Santa Monica and make that your LA base. On the coast, and technically a separate city (it’s kind of hard to tell as LA and it’s surrounds are part of a fairly vast urban sprawl), you’ll have access to the wonderful beach and pier, as well as nearby Venice, most famous for its beach and people watching opportunities.

santa monica sunset

Again, there’s no shortage of things to do in LA. If you’re interested in film, you can visit the Hollywood sign, walk the Hollywood walk of fame or go on a tour of the backlot at Universal Studios.

Art lovers will find their thrills at the Getty Center, which also offers gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding city. Other highlights include Sunset Boulevard, and of course, you can hop on one of those tours of the stars homes if you’re so inclined.

If you’re not excited about Los Angeles, you could also choose to skip it and head down the coast to San Diego, a more laid back (and easily navigable!) experience. For more reading on San Diego, check out this awesome San Diego guide.


4. Joshua Tree National Park – 1 Day

Time to head out of the city, and the remainder of this itinerary is going to focus on exploring some of California’s unbelievable wilderness areas and National Parks. We’re going to start this off with a trip to the Joshua Tree National Park, home to those iconic shaped trees that the park is named for.

It’s a wonderful place, the meeting point of two deserts, and offers good opportunities for camping, hiking and star-gazing. The best way to experience the park is to camp overnight in one of it’s many campgrounds (you should definitely reserve a spot well in advance if this is your plan), otherwise, there are various lodging opportunities outside the park if you’re not big into camping.

You should also be aware that there is very limited water availability in the park (and no hookups for RV’s), so make sure you bring plenty of water and food – this is a remote desert environment after all!


5. Death Valley National Park – 1 Day

Moving on from one desert environment to another desert environment – and the largest national park in the contiguous United States. Death Valley (the name was given by gold rush travellers who nearly perished here) is the hottest and driest place in North America, and has recorded the hottest ambient air temperature in the world.

Badwater basin

So, overall, a hot place.

Other than making you want to crank up the AC then, what does Death Valley offer? Well, there’s that sense of remoteness. The vast, unforgiving wilderness. The knowledge that you’d probably die fairly quickly if you happen to wander off and get lost (don’t wander off and get lost folks).

Death Valley

Truth be told, there’s plenty to do here. You can visit Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the entire North America, which actually sits 86 metres below sea level. Then there are sand dunes, salt flats, craters, colourful canyons and hiking opportunities galore.

Just be aware that this is a seriously inhospitable, and, in the summer months, unbearably hot, destination, so plan and pack accordingly. If you’re looking for more ideas on spending a day in Death Valley, check out this excellent post.


6. Mammoth Lakes – 1 Day

From Death Valley we’re going to head further north, up to Mammoth Lakes. This drive is quite incredible, along the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the scenery (and temperatures) will change dramatically as you ascend into this gorgeous part of the world.

Mammoth Lakes are an adventure lovers playground. You can go hiking, camping, cycling, rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing – the list goes on! There’s also a ghost town, craft beer companies, shopping opportunities – basically, pretty much everything you could imagine.

lake mono

Whilst you’re here, you should also take the opportunity to visit Lake Mono. Now a state nature reserve, Lake Mono is a million year old lake notable for the “tufa” towers, calcium carbonate structures that stand above the lake like strange modern art installations. Definitely worth a visit, and particularly photogenic at sunrise and sunset.


7. Yosemite National Park – 3 Days

Finally on our awesome California road trip, I’m going to suggest you spend three days exploring Yosemite National Park before heading back to San Francisco to return your hire vehicle and head home.

Vernal falls Yosemite

Yosemite is without doubt one of my favourite places in the entire United States. It’s a wonder of nature, a photographer’s paradise, and somewhere I dare anyone to visit without falling instantly in love.

There’s a lot to see and do here, which is why I’m going to suggest taking three days to get the most out of your visit. This will let you see all the highlights, as well as go for some longer hikes (or drives), and not feel too rushed.

Glacier point view Yosemite

I’ve got a full guide to photographing my favourite parts of Yosemite, but in brief, don’t miss Yosemite Falls, the hike up to Nevada and Vernal Falls, the drive (or hike) to Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Valley View and Bridalveil Falls. If you love longer, more challenging day hikes, then Half Dome is a seriously challenging walk (permit required), as is the walk up to the top of Yosemite Falls.

Yosemite National Park has a wide range of accommodation options, from bring your own camping through to luxury hotels. Be aware that spots book up fast, particularly in summer months and at weekends, so book well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Yosemite view of El Capitan

 

When to Visit California

California is a fairly good year round destination, but there are a few things to be aware of when planning your trip. In the Winter months, places like Yosemite can become accessible particularly from the east side, due to snow. The main road in to Yosemite is the Tioga Road, and this is usually closed from November through to May or even June. In addition, parts of the park, including Glacier Point road, are often closed for a similar timeframe.

If this happens to you, you’ll have to take a serious detour to get in based on this itinerary. A better option might be to embrace the snow, and head up to Lake Tahoe for some fantastic skiing opportunities. Or, you can head east, out to Nevada and the pleasure city of Las Vegas.

big sur coastline

In summertime, the heat can be quite intense, in particular in places like Death Valley, where in the summer months temperatures can exceed 100F, and it’s not recommended to spend much time outside.

 

Further Reading and Resources for a California Road Trip

California is a very popular destination, so there’s no shortage of research material to help you plan your trip! Here are some of my favourite resources:

 

Where to Stay in California

California has a serious range of accommodation to meet pretty much every budget, although larger cities and busier months do tend to increase the prices. For two people travelling together, you’re looking at a budget range of $60 – $150 per night for comfortable private en-suite accommodation, although you can obviously spend far more than that! Here are our tips for finding the best accommodation for your budget:

 

How to Get Around California

This is a road trip, so obviously you’re going to want a hire a car! We recommend you try out Priceline, they tend to come back with some of the lowest prices that we’ve found for car rental in the US. Driving in the US is relatively easy, just remember to drive on the right and obey the laws of the road.

Drivers with foreign licenses are allowed to drive, if your license is in a language other than English then you would be best with either an international drivers license, or a certified translation.

Detailed itinerary and trip planning advice for the ultimate California two week road trip, including San Francisco, LA, the Pacific Coast Highway, Death Valley, Yosemite and more!

And that sums up my perfect two week California road trip itinerary! If you’ve got any comments, suggestions or additions, do pop them in the comments below. Plus, if you liked this post, do check out the rest of my itinerary series, which will help you plan the perfect trips all around the world!




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