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. It’s no wonder that a California road trip is on many visitors to-do lists!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 road trip.
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 its 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.
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. LA also has plentiful accommodation options to suit all budget – check out listings here for inspiration.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
California Road Trip Itinerary Map
We’ve put together a map of the our suggested California road trip itinerary, which you can see below, and also on Google Maps here. Note that depending on the time of year, access to Yosemite can be restricted due to snow, so you have to take the longer way round.
In addition, part of the Pacific Coast Highway are often closed due to damage caused by landslides, and this map shows a route around that. The highway is closed at time of writing, and is forecast to reopen during July 2018, at which point you can follow the coastal road again.
When to Take a California Road Trip
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, as you can see in the map above.
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.
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.
Where to Stay in California
California has a serious range of accommodation options to meet pretty much every budget, although larger cities and busier months do tend to increase the prices. We’d always recommend booking in advance for your trip if possible – in particular for national park campsites and hotels, and to get the best deals on city centre hotels.
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!
Our preferred option for hotel booking is booking.com, as they usually have the best prices, regularly run deals, and many properties offer good last minute cancellation policies. See their listings for California, San Francisco and Los Angeles to get you started.
For more ideas, take a look at our travel resources page for helpful hints and tips on getting the best deal on accommodation when you travel.
How to Get Around California
This is a road trip, so obviously you’re going to want a hire a car! We nearly always hire cars for our US road trips through Enterprise. We generally find they have the most competitive prices and widest choice of locations, plus if you’re thinking of a one way trip they have reasonable fees for doing that.
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.
Another option of course is to hire a camper van or RV, which will let you stay in campgrounds and other, more out of the way areas. This can be a fun way to travel in a more self sufficient style. If this sounds like you, check out Outdoorsy, who offer peer to peer campervan rental – a bit like the AirBnB of RV rental.
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:
- I’ve written a guide featuring some of my top tips for driving in the USA to help get you going on the road!
- Wondering how much a California road trip will cost? Check out out guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA to help you plan your trip budget.
- Jess has a guide to driving the Pacific Coast Highway, which will give you lots of ideas for that section of the road
- Route 66 ends in California, so check out our guide to planning a route 66 trip, as well as our detailed Route 66 itinerary
- Fodor’s Guide to California, which also includes details on a number of fantastic road trips
- The Lonely Planet California Guide, which is great for finding things to do, places to eat and places to stay
- A US road atlas, because sometimes you don’t want to rely on GPS!
- If you’re planning on hiring an RV or camping, this guide to free and super cheap campgrounds will quickly pay for itself
- The official Visit California page, which will give you more advice on what to see and when to visit
- This series of California blog posts from fellow bloggers at yTravelBlog
- My guide to Shasta Cascade and Redding, if you decide to head to northern California
- Getting online when travelling in a foreign country can be daunting – check out our guide to getting online when travelling to help you figure out the best options for your trip
- And if you’re looking for inspiration for the rest of the USA, check out our USA section, which includes a Deep south itinerary, tips for New Orleans during Mardi Gras – and lots 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!