A California road trip is the perfect way to explore the huge state. You’ll see California’s best destinations and landmarks that make it one of the most popular places in the world.
It’s also one of the biggest states in the U.S., which makes planning an itinerary to visit the best California places overwhelming. As a California local, I’ve road-tripped throughout the state many times and have put together this complete itinerary for you.
In my ultimate road trip, we’ll travel inland first and then come full circle back to Los Angeles by way of the coast. It’s a good thing summer gas prices are going down because we’re about to start a 3 week+ California road trip.
Table of Contents
- 23 Day California Road Trip Itinerary
- Day 1 – Los Angeles, Hollywood
- Day 2 – Disneyland
- Day 3 – Huntington Beach, Newport Beach
- Day 4 – San Diego
- Day 5 – Joshua Tree, Pioneertown, Palm Springs
- Day 6 & 7 – Death Valley National Park
- Day 8 – Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, Whitney Portal
- Day 9 – Mammoth Lakes
- Day 10 – June Lake
- Day 11 & 12 – Yosemite National Park
- Day 13 – San Francisco
- Day 14 – Napa Valley
- Day 15 – Eureka
- Day 16 – Redwood National Park
- Day 17 – Mount Shasta
- Day 18 – Lake Tahoe
- Day 19 – Santa Cruz
- Day 20 – Monterey
- Day 21 – Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo
- Day 22 – Santa Barbara
- Day 23 – Los Angeles
- How to Get Around in California
- CA Road Trip Itinerary Planning Tips
- Tip #1 – Download Multiple GPSs for Your Road Trip
- Tip #2 – Buy a U.S. SIM if Traveling From Out-of-Country
- Tip #3 – Pack Light
- Tip #4 – Have Off-Line Car Entertainment
- Tip #5 – Pick the Appropriate Road Trip Vehicle
- Tip #6 – Road Safety First
- Tip #7 – Plan for Extra Exploring Days
- Tip #8 – Budget for the Price of Gas
- Tip #9 – Check the Weather Forecast
- Tip #10 – Plan Enough Breaks on Your Road Trip
- Tip #11 – Bring a Portable Stove
- Tip #12 – Be Flexible With Travel Plans
Disclosure: Travel Lemming is an independent reader-supported blog. You can support us by purchasing via the affiliate links on this page, which may earn us commissions. Thank you!
23 Day California Road Trip Itinerary
Day 1 – Los Angeles, Hollywood
Kickstart your California road trip in the most famous city – Los Angeles. With thousands of things to do in Los Angeles, you could spend your entire California vacation in this location alone. You will start and end your road trip in LA, so you will want to do different activities each day.
Head to one of the most popular streets in Los Angeles, Rodeo Drive, for a delicious LA brunch. After you’ve finished your poached eggs, browse around the designer stores in Beverly Hills. You may just run into a celebrity if you stay long enough.
Make your way to Hollywood Boulevard in the afternoon to see the famous Hollywood Stars. Take a photo next to your favorite celebrity’s star or simply people watch and witness the crazy downtown LA mayhem unfold. Have an afternoon snack at the Hollywood Blvd Hardrock Cafe.
For the perfect Los Angeles evening, visit the Griffith Park Observatory which overlooks the greater Los Angeles area. Take a photo of the shimmering lights of Downtown Los Angeles after sundown from this hilltop location.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: The Beverly Hills Hotel ($$$, prime location), Hotel Bel-Air ($$$$, best luxury hotel), Freehand Los Angeles ($$$, best rooftop pool)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Urth Caffe ($$), Sage Bistro ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Genever ($$), Apotheke ($$)
Day 2 – Disneyland
Wake up early to get to Disneyland before it opens on your second day of the California road trip. Only 1.5 hours from Hollywood Boulevard, Disneyland is the most popular amusement park in the United States, if not the world. The park can be incredibly packed later in the day so choose the best time to visit Disneyland and get to the park early.
Later in the afternoon when the dense crowds are rolling in, take a break from long wait times with a short walk over to California Adventure, another one of the best California activities. You can always count on less-crowded fun at this theme park during the peak times of the day.
Head back to Disneyland during the evening for a delicious dinner at Rancho Del Zocalo Restaurante and get ready to watch the famous evening fireworks show. Don’t forget to try a delicious Disney churro for dessert.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Disneyland Hotel ($$$, closest to Disneyland), Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa ($$$, closest to California Adventure), Ayres Suites Anaheim Hills ($$, relaxing environment)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante ($$), Blue Bayou Restaurant ($$$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Oga’s Cantina ($$), Rita’s Baja Blenders ($)
- 👉 Pro Tip: Download the official Disneyland App to stay up-to-date with showtimes and special events happening within the park.
Day 3 – Huntington Beach, Newport Beach
The next stop on your great California road trip is the beach! Drive your rental car west to end up in Huntington. Lather on the sunscreen at your Huntington house rental and hit the waves before breakfast. The sun is less intense at Southern California beaches in the mornings than later in the afternoons.
After you spend a few hours catching some waves and sunbathing on the beach, head to Banzai Bowls to try a delicious SoCal acai bowl with locally sourced produce. This is one of the best ways to cool down on a hot summer day.
After spending your day at Huntington Beach, take a short drive over to Newport Beach to catch the sunset. Stop by the Newport Balboa Pier for dinner at Ruby’s on the pier like a true Orange County local. The oreo shakes and french fries are irresistible at Ruby’s Diner.
Make sure to bring some wood for the fire pits on the beach to maximize your Southern California beach experience.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Pasea Hotel & Spa ($$$, amazing beach view), The Waterfront Beach Resort ($$$, resort amenities), Balboa Bay Resort ($$$, beach access)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Sandy’s Beach Shack ($$), Bluewater Grill ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Driftwood ($), Mutt Lynch’s ($$)
Day 4 – San Diego
San Diego is a California beach town staple. Only 1 ½ hours from Newport Beach, you can either make a day trip to San Diego from Newport or you can spend the night in one of many luxurious San Diego hotels.
From Newport Beach, drive straight to the famous La Jolla Cove for some great surf opportunities and less crowded beach lounging. Enjoy the peace and quiet of San Diego beaches in the early morning before tourists take over in the late afternoon.
For lunch, stop by Old Town San Diego for some of the most delicious and most authentic Mexican dishes. You will even find fresh homemade tortillas at many of the Old Town restaurants.
If you love a good nightlife scene, head to the fun Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego for bar hopping, wine tasting, and club dancing. This area has tons of San Diego sites and landmarks as well!
👉 Pro Tip: Stay overnight in San Diego if you plan on visiting the fun and exhilarating Gaslamp Quarter to ensure your safety on the road.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Hilton San Diego Bayfront ($$, infinity pool), Old Town Inn ($$, Spanish-style), Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines ($$, world-class golf courses)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Cafe Coyote ($), Rockin’ Baja Lobster- Old Town San Diego ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: The Tipsy Crow ($$), Henry’s Pub ($$)
Day 5 – Joshua Tree, Pioneertown, Palm Springs
After you check out of your beach rental, hit the road early to make it to Joshua Tree National Park before dark. 3 hours from the beach, Joshua Tree is one of the most popular national parks in California.
It is recommended to visit the park in the non-summer months so you can hike, camp, and rock climb in comfortable weather. Get to the park early to hike Ryan Mountain to one of the best viewpoints in the whole park.
There are so many Joshua Tree activities. In the afternoon, check out the drive-up Skull Rock exhibit or hike a short trail to some rock art near the Barker Dam. Joshua Tree National Park is crawling with wildlife and although you may not encounter any, it’s a good practice to be on alert for wild animals at all times.
Drive 25 minutes to Pioneertown in the evening for a delicious BBQ dinner at the western saloon Pappy & Harriet’s. Afterward, head to the luxurious resort town of Palm Springs to stay at your 4 or 5-star desert oasis for the night.
👉 Pro Tip: Bring at least 1 liter of water to hike in Joshua Tree no matter the season. Winters can still reach high temperatures in the California desert.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Pioneertown Motel ($$, western-style), Sacred Sands ($$, outdoor hot tub), The Saguaro Palm Springs ($$, poolside lounging)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Joshua Tree Saloon ($$), Farm ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Pappy + Harriet’s ($$), Blackbook ($$)
Day 6 & 7 – Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is a little under 5 hours from Palm Springs, so you will want to check out of your desert resort early to start your drive to Death Valley. This national park is on travelers’ radars because it contains the lowest point in the U.S. and is one of the hottest deserts in the world.
You will probably arrive in the evening from Palm Springs, which gives you the chance to watch the sunset over the sand dunes.
Wake up early the next day to hike the highest mountain in Death Valley, the 11,043-foot Telescope Peak. It will likely take your whole morning and afternoon to summit this peak.
In the evening, head to Badwater Basin to check out the lowest point in the United States. There are plenty of great photo opportunities from almost any part of the national park, so don’t forget your professional camera at home.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: The Inn at Death Valley ($$$, located inside the park), The Ranch at Death Valley ($$, tennis courts), Tarantula Ranch Vineyard ($, adorable desert escape)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Badwater Saloon ($)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Crowbar Cafe & Saloon ($)
Day 8 – Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, Whitney Portal
Less than an hour’s drive from Death Valley, Lone Pine is a Sierra Nevada Mountain dreamland. Start your morning with a 6-mile out-and-back hike up to Lone Pine Lake on the Whitney Portal trail. Bring lunch so you can have a picnic by the lake and take a nap.
Drive back to Lone Pine during the late afternoon for an early pizza dinner and a stop at the old film museum to learn which western movies took place in Lone Pine.
Retreat back to the Alabama Hills in the evening either for a free camp spot in California or to star gaze among millions of night desert stars. If you choose to stay overnight in a hotel in Lone Pine, get up before sunrise to watch the early desert colors bring the landscape to life in the Alabama Hills recreation area.
👉 Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for coyotes, jackrabbits, and bobcats around dusk and dawn when the wildlife is more active in the hills area.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Dow Villa Motel ($$, historic hotel), Whitney Portal Hostel ($, friendly hiker environment), Quality Inn Lone Pine ($, pets allowed)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Totem Cafe ($), Pizza Factory ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Jake’s Saloon ($), The Grill ($$)
Day 9 – Mammoth Lakes
On your 1 ½ hour drive from Lone Pine to Mammoth Lakes, stop by Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop for delicious morning baked goods. The scenic drive between these two cities is coated with high-altitude Sierra peaks, so make sure you’re wide awake.
Browse around the Mammoth Lakes village area in the early afternoon or buy a latte from Looney Bean for a pick-me-up. Later, check out one of many hiking trails in the area like Mammoth Peak, or go fishing at the Owen’s River.
Unwind in the evening with a soak in the Mammoth hot springs. This is perhaps the best destination in Mammoth Lakes and the best-kept secret. The hot springs are likely to be a highlight of your trip.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: The Village Lodge ($$, grand resort), Juniper Springs Resort ($$, 6 hot tubs), Mammoth Mountain Inn ($$, near the ski resort)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Morrison’s Restaurant and Bar ($$), Toomey’s ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Clocktower Cellar ($$)
Day 10 – June Lake
Only a short drive through towering pines from Mammoth, June Lake offers visitors breathtaking beauty. The June Lake Loop is the most popular activity to do in the area. You can drive or bike the 16 miles around the entirety of the lake to get to know the area like a local.
June Lake is a popular destination for families. After your morning drive, take the kids out kayaking or paddle boarding on the water. Make sure to wear adequate sunscreen and frequently refill your water bottles to avoid sunstroke!
Relax in your June Lake hotel or RV in the evening with a campfire and a soothing glass of wine. The reflection of the moon over the vast lake is a sight to surely remember.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Lake Front Cabins ($$, cozy cabin style), Double Eagle Resort & Spa ($$, indoor pool), Birch Creek ($$, quiet environment)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: The Silver Lake Cafe ($)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: June Lake Brewing ($)
Day 11 & 12 – Yosemite National Park
You can’t miss Yosemite National Park on your California road trip. 2 or more days is adequate time in Yosemite but you will need at least 4 or 5 to fully experience the national park.
The drive from June Lake to Yosemite is only 30 minutes, leaving you a whole day to explore the national park. Plan a scenic drive through Yosemite Valley in the morning to avoid the afternoon park crowds. Visit the Yosemite Falls in the afternoon then retreat to your park lodge in the evening after the sunset to enjoy the hot tub.
You will have a full day to explore the park the next day, and I recommend doing some Yosemite hikes. Start by hiking the Vernal and Nevada Falls hike in the morning then drive over to Tuolumne Meadows in the afternoon for a picnic among the redwoods and distant sierra peaks.
Head over to Clouds Rest in the evening to watch the sunset from high above. Keep in mind that this hike is 13 miles round trip, so you will want to start around 2 or 3 pm.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Yosemite Valley Lodge ($$$, best location in Yosemite), Curry Village ($$, luxury canvas tents), Wawona Hotel ($$, Victorian architecture)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: The Ahwahnee Dining Room ($$$), The Mountain Room ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Bar 1899 ($$)
Day 13 – San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the most popular metropolitan cities in California. No California road trip is complete without a stop in this famous town.
A little less than 4 hours north of Yosemite, San Francisco offers a multitude of activities for the whole family. Arrive in San Francisco in the late morning and head straight to the Fisherman’s Wharf to watch adorable sea lions lounge about.
Enjoy a sourdough soup bowl at Boudin Bakery San Francisco in the afternoon before renting a bike and putting your fitness to the test by cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge.
If you have any energy left for the evening, book a boat tour to Alcatraz and witness a unique side of the old penitentiary at night.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Fairmont San Francisco ($$, overlooking the city), Hotel Caza Fisherman’s Wharf ($$, centrally located), The Bartlett Hotel & Guesthouse ($$, in the heart of SF)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Boudin Bakery ($), House of Prime Rib ($$$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Smuggler’s Cove ($$), Charmaine’s Rooftop Bar & Lounge ($$$)
Day 14 – Napa Valley
Drive your rental car to Napa Valley the next morning for some adult fun. Only 1 ½ hours from San Francisco, this is the best stop on a wine country road trip.
Begin your morning in Napa Valley by checking into your luxurious resort and arranging for an all-inclusive spa day. Nothing screams vacation more than a couples massage.
Fill your afternoon in Napa Valley with wine tasting activities and go wine hopping from vineyard to vineyard. Some of the best wine in the country comes from the area, so you must go wine tasting while in Napa Valley. Use my list of the best Napa wineries.
After a late afternoon nap, either take a sunset hot air balloon ride over the Napa vineyards or settle down for a steak dinner and live music.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Napa Valley Lodge ($$$$, vineyard views & fireplace), The Inn on Pine ($$, fireplaces in the rooms), UpValley Inn & Hot Springs ($$, soothing hot springs)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Boon Fly Cafe ($$), Bistro Don Giovanni ($$$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ ($$), Sky & Vine Rooftop Bar ($$$)
Day 15 – Eureka
This day on your California road trip is mostly a driving day. Eureka is 4 ½ north of Napa Valley and is the gateway to Redwoods National Park.
Eureka is also a neighboring city of Arcata, the Humboldt State University city. Once you’ve arrived in Eureka, start your late morning with a delicious coffee from The Grind Cafe.
Take a tour of the college campus in the afternoon or venture into one of the 7 nearby state parks. Look for local Northern California flora and fauna in Humboldt State Park or visit the old military post, Fort Humboldt, situated where the Pacific Coast Highway meets the forest.
Eat at a local restaurant in the evening like Bayfront Restaurant, then get to bed early because you have an early day of exploring Redwood National Park in the morning.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Best Western Plus Humboldt Bay Inn ($$, best outdoor jacuzzi), Carter House Inns ($$, centrally located), Eureka Inn Trademark ($, renaissance style)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: The Grind Cafe ($$), Bayfront Restaurant ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: AA Bar & Grill ($)
Day 16 – Redwood National Park
Only 45 minutes from Eureka, Redwood National Park is a must-visit on your California road trip. Get up early in the morning to visit some of the biggest trees in the world. Enjoy a scenic drive throughout the park for the rest of your morning before stopping at a nice picnic location for some downtime.
Lace-up your hiking boots for an afternoon hike among the pine-needle giants. Stroll the Simpson-Reed trail, a 30-60 minute hike, or test your fitness with the 5-hour Boy Scout Trail.
Go for a swim in the Klamath River in the evening before retreating to your national park lodge for the night. You have a big drive tomorrow, so it’s best to get a full night’s rest.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Redwood Coast Cabins & RV Resort ($, the most economical), Emerald Forest Cabins ($$, in the heart of the forest), Holiday Inn Express ($$, close to the airport)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Trinidad Bay Eatery and Gallery ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Moonstone Grill ($$$)
Day 17 – Mount Shasta
Start your drive from Redwood National Park to Mount Shasta before sunrise to get the most out of your day in Shasta. You will have 5 hours to drive before you reach your destination, so I suggest starting the drive at 5 am to have a majority of the day to explore.
After you arrive in town, grab a quick bite at Yaks Shack before heading to Bunny Flats to hike one of the most scenic trails in the area. Spend your afternoon hiking to the Mount Shatra refuge hut or up to the end of the tree line.
Cool down after your hike with a dip in Lake Shasta. This is also a great place to watch the sunset and sip on a local Mount Shasta beer from any convenience store in town.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Mount Shasta Resort ($$, lake views), Inn at Mount Shasta ($$, indoor fireplace), Shasta Inn ($$, central location)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Yaks Shack ($), Tree House Restaurant ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Pipeline Craft Taps & Kitchen ($)
Day 18 – Lake Tahoe
Because California is so long, a lot of your time will be spent driving on your California road trip to get to see the best places in California, like Lake Tahoe. South Lake Tahoe is 4 hours and 40 minutes from Mount Shasta, so make sure to get an early morning start.
The best activities to do on the lake include water sports, lakeside lounging, and hiking. Spend the afternoon scaling tall Sierra Nevada mountains like Mount Tallac.
If you have any energy left after your hike, head to the lake shore with a raft or a paddle board and relax in the middle of the lake as you wait for sundown.
There are backcountry campsites available in Lake Tahoe as well as RV parks and mountain resorts. Wherever you choose to stay will be the perfect accommodation for you, right on the lakefront.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Franciscian Lakeside Lodge ($$, beach access), The Cedar House Sport Hotel ($$, cabin lodging), Budget Inn ($$, competitive price)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Riva Grill on the Lake ($$$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Whiskey Dicks ($$)
Day 19 – Santa Cruz
4 ½ hours from Lake Tahoe, Santa Cruz is a California beach town that is well worth the long drive. Famous for UC Santa Cruz university, dense forests, and an ocean-side amusement park, this is the perfect place to rest for a night on your California road trip.
When you arrive at the beach town from Tahoe, head straight to the beach to soothe your achy driving muscles in the salt water of the Pacific Ocean. It’s easy to spend a few hours resting and relaxing under the hot California sun at Santa Cruz.
Stop by Whiting’s Food Concessions for a local bite to eat near the beach. In the evening, prepare yourself for a night of fun at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Amusement Park. Ride a roller coaster right on the beach, win a carnival prize, or stuff your face with delicious funnel cake.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Chaminade Resort & Spa ($$$, dining with a view), Bay Front Inn Santa Cruz ($, most economic), Dream Inn Santa Cruz ($$, beachfront)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Crow’s Nest Restaurant ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: 515 Kitchen & Cocktails ($$)
Day 20 – Monterey
Monterey is a gem of a beach village and only 1 hour’s drive from Santa Cruz. Start your morning off with a visit to Old Monterey Cafe for breakfast and an Americano before you start exploring the beach town.
Take an afternoon stroll around the Historic Carmel Mission, built in 1770. Only a 12-minute drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, Carmel Mission offers visitors a historic museum and a place of worship.
Take a stroll on the Monterey shore during dusk to watch the afternoon sun sink below the horizon before you retreat for the night to your Monterey accommodation.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: InterContinental The Clement Monterey ($$$$, luxury accommodation), Victorian Inn ($$, Cannery Row location), Stage Coach Lodge ($$, on-site putting green)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Schooners Monterey ($$$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: The Crown & Anchor ($$)
Day 21 – Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo
Only a short 2-hour drive from Monterey, there are some great Morro Bay activities. Start your Morro Bay morning by visiting the nesting sea otters at the Morro Bay T-Pier. Keep your voice down to not disturb the napping sea pups and snap some adorable photos.
Take a walk to the famous Morro Rock in the afternoon to go for a dip or simply lounge on the beach. When you’re hungry, visit Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant right on the beach for a fresh, wild-caught seafood meal.
Take a 15-minute drive to San Luis Obispo to spend your evening among the Spanish-style architecture of the richly historic seaside town. Get to the city before sundown to go wine tasting at a famous San Luis Obispo vineyard or go on a sunset hike to Bishop Peak.
Your California road trip is almost over, so take it easy and enjoy one of the last nights on your trip with a fancy dinner or a bonfire at your San Luis Obispo hotel.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Inn at Rose’s Landing ($$$, close to the beach), Granada Hotel & Bistro ($$, delicious restaurant), San Luis Creek Lodge ($$, modern & chic)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant ($$), Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: The Libertine Pub ($$)
Day 22 – Santa Barbara
Say goodbye to San Luis Obispo as you drive 1 ½ hours down the Pacific Coast Highway on your road trip to the college town of Santa Barbara. Start your morning off in the new town with a cappuccino from Handlebar Coffee Roasters.
Spend the rest of your late morning and early afternoon shopping around the Spanish-style stores and boutiques in downtown Santa Barbara for a new summer dress or a high-quality watch.
Head over to East Beach in the late afternoon and spend the rest of your day surfing or reading on the golden summer sands of Santa Barbara. This beach comprises 1.6-miles of shoreline and is located near downtown Santa Barbara.
This is your last night on your California road trip, so treat yourself to a nice resort to commemorate your perfect time spent on the road. Many Santa Barbara hotels have spas and fire pits. Treat yourself on your last night on the road.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: The Ritz-Carlton Bacara ($$$$, waterfront extravagant), Ramada Santa Barbara ($$, garden atmosphere), Harbor View Inn ($$$, ocean view)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Brophy Bros. ($$), Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: Dargan’s ($$), Santa Barbara Wine Therapy ($$)
Day 23 – Los Angeles
Return to the big city on the last day of your grand California road trip. 2 hour’s drive from Santa Barbara, get to Los Angeles early to explore other parts of the city before you return your car rental and fly home.
With your afternoon free before your flight, take a quick trip to the Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles to try delicious dishes from around the world. My favorite eatery in the market is Sarita’s Pupusaria.
If you have more time to kill, Olvera Street is another great pastime in Los Angeles. This miniature version of Mexico has special events, authentic Mexican food, and Mexican handicrafts.
👉 Pro Tip: Make sure to return your rental car on time to avoid having to pay late fees.
- 🛎️ Where to Stay: Hotel Figueroa ($$, downtown LA location), Hotel Per La ($$, artistic hotel), The London West Hollywood ($$, poolside cabanas)
- 🍽️ Where to Eat: Besita ($$$), Sarita’s Pupusaria ($$)
- 🍺 Where to Drink: The Varnish ($$), Everson Royce Bar ($$0
How to Get Around in California
The best way to get around in California is by renting a car with Discover Cars. While public transportation does exist in California, it’s not good for long-distance travel.
Greyhound buses are the best option if you are set on taking local transportation, but they aren’t very reliable and they are the last thing from first-class.
The most popular option for a California road trip is to rent a car from the starting point and either drop it off at the endpoint or come full circle and drive it back down to the starting point.
A good example itinerary is noted in the article. Rent a car in Los Angeles to explore California then drive it back down a different way and return the rental in Los Angeles.
Remember, there is no right way to travel and any way you choose to road trip is the best option for you.
CA Road Trip Itinerary Planning Tips
Tip #1 – Download Multiple GPSs for Your Road Trip
Driving in California can be tricky. The freeway system in the United States is one of the largest and most complex in the world. Download multiple GPSs to ensure you are on track and to prevent getting lost.
A good rule of thumb is having your go-to GPS like Google Maps, one backup GPS, and one offline map like Maps.Me.
If you are driving through backcountry areas, especially national parks, you are likely to lose service. An offline map allows you to arrive safely at your destination when you don’t have service.
Tip #2 – Buy a U.S. SIM if Traveling From Out-of-Country
If you are visiting California from out of the country, there’s a good chance your phone won’t have service. An exception is if you are visiting from Mexico or Canada and your phone provider has a North American package deal.
Buy a U.S. SIM card so you can use your phone on your road trip for directions, music, and other entertainment. There is usually a small fee for a SIM card and you can add as much data as you want along the way.
👉 Pro Tip: Mint Mobile has inexpensive SIM card options for first-time customers.
Tip #3 – Pack Light
Your space will be very limited in your car during your California road trip. Being in a small space for so long can get messy, so you want to pack as light as possible.
A good trick is gathering everything you think you’ll need, then eliminating ⅓ to bring only what you really need. California weather is pretty standard, but still keep the weather conditions in mind while packing for your trip.
California beach areas like San Diego and other beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway maintain warm weather year-round, so remember to bring your bathing suit.
Tip #4 – Have Off-Line Car Entertainment
Due to the length of California, you will be spending a lot of time in the car on your road trip. Download games, podcasts, movies, and music while you still have service.
If traveling with a partner or friend, you will get bored being a passenger for hours without anything to do, especially when driving through backcountry zones with no service. Download movies offline so you can be entertained on your California road trip.
👉 Pro Tip: Tired of watching movies or listening to podcasts? Try playing a fun road trip game like the animal game or the “what I brought on a train” game.
Tip #5 – Pick the Appropriate Road Trip Vehicle
You want to have a good relationship with the vehicle you will spend weeks in. Deliberate your wants and needs before selecting the perfect road trip vehicle for you.
A motorhome is a great way to travel with everything you need within arm’s reach, but they are expensive on gas. On the other hand, a sedan is a great gas saver but it may be too small if you are traveling with the whole family.
If you do plan on traveling via motorhome or van, then I recommend Outdoorsy. They make renting an RV easy and they have tons of California vehicles.
Take your budget, head count, and road trip terrain type into account before selecting the perfect vehicle for hitting the open road.
Tip #6 – Road Safety First
The last thing you want on your California vacation is a ticket to ruin the fun. Stay up-to-date with road and traffic laws to avoid a ticket.
Make sure to always wear your seatbelt and don’t go more than 5 mph over the speed limit. California traffic can be intense around the major metropolitan cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, so buckle up and stay alert.
Tip #7 – Plan for Extra Exploring Days
My ideal California road trip itinerary is perfect for getting to know the whole California coast. You will be seeing the most scenic cities and landmarks California has to offer but at the cost of a more relaxed vacation.
You may just fall in love with a few California destinations and never want to leave. Plan a couple of extra exploring days into your itinerary just in case you find that hidden California gem you don’t want to leave.
Tip #8 – Budget for the Price of Gas
California gas prices vary with the seasons. If you want to plan your road trip around the best times to save money, you may want to visit in the off-shoulder winter months.
California gas prices almost double in the summer months. If you don’t prepare your budget adequately for the gas prices, you may need to cut your trip short due to a lack of funds. Research past gas trends for the month you plan to visit California and make sure to budget accordingly.
You can almost always count on the winter being the most economic season for California gas prices.
Tip #9 – Check the Weather Forecast
Summer storms can pop up out of nowhere in California. You may be used to driving in the rain and snow, but it’s still a good practice to research the weather conditions beforehand and know the best time to visit California.
Some roads in California may flood and the winds can be excruciating. You will want to avoid driving during any medium-to-heavy winds if you are traveling in a motorhome to prevent tipping over.
Some roads in California may also be closed due to snow. If you are traveling in California during the winter, double-check that all intended roads are open for smooth sailing on your trip.
Tip #10 – Plan Enough Breaks on Your Road Trip
Make sure to take breaks from driving on your California road trip to prevent driving injuries and wear-and-tear on your rental car. Instead of eating lunch on the go, stop at a roadside cafe for breakfast or lunch before hitting the road again.
You may want to get to your destination as soon as possible, but the beauty of taking a road trip is enjoying the scenery along the way. You may discover one of your favorite California stops while on a driving break.
Tip #11 – Bring a Portable Stove
Save some serious money on your road trip by bringing your own cooking stove. I recommend eating out for at least one meal while in a new town, but bring a stove to cook at least a few of your meals.
If you are camping in Sequoia National Park or Lassen Volcanic National Park, for example, your only option for food may be cooking. Always be prepared and pack your camp stove for your road trip.
Breakfast is an easy meal to save money on and oftentimes doesn’t require a stove. Try eating a breakfast of granola, fresh fruit, or yogurt from your hotel room to save money.
Tip #12 – Be Flexible With Travel Plans
Being flexible with travel plans is a good practice not only on road trips but whenever you travel anywhere. It’s important to remember that plans change and activities get canceled due to reasons outside of your control.
Spontaneous excursions often create fun, lasting memories, which is why it’s important to be flexible with your trip and not plan out your whole day ahead of time.
Thanks for reading my ultimate California road trip guide! For more information about traveling in California, check out my article on the best things to do in California.
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