california road trips

California Scenic Drives: the Best Highways for your Road Trip

April 21, 2022 /

The scenic drives in California are undeniably charming and attract visitors from all over the world. It’s no coincidence that sometimes visiting the Golden State always involves renting a car to cruise along the state’s incredible highways and interstates.

Why is the idea of going on a road trip in California so enchanting? What makes it so appealing? Well, maybe the answer is to be found on California’s roads, the same legendary scenic byways that contribute in a major way to the modern American mystique. Are you ready? Buckle up. It’s time to discover the best scenic byways in California.

Death Valley Scenic Drive: a Road Trip in the Desert

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  • Length: 81.5 miles
  • Travel Time: It’s a 2-hour drive, but it can also take 4 hours if you take your time.
  • Fee: You will have to pay the entrance fee for Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Scenic Drive crosses over 3.3 million acres of spectacular landscapes through an immense and magnificent desert. You will travel through hills and sand dunes, peculiar rock formations, historic sites, drained lakes, and landscapes that will make you feel as if you had landed on another planet. Before you get on the road, check out our tips on how to visit Death Valley.

Directions: The scenic drive begins at Death Valley National Park’s east entrance, about 13 miles west of Death Valley Junction on Highway 190. Continue north past Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, where the road turns southwest. Pass Panamint Valley and Father Crowley Point. The scenic drive concludes at the westernmost end of the park.

Tioga Road: Through the Peaks of Yosemite

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  • Length: 64 miles
  • Travel Time: Between 90 minutes and 3 hours, depending on the stops and places you visit along the road.
  • Fee: You will have to pay to access Yosemite National Park

Tioga Road is a road that cuts through Yosemite National Park, a must-see attraction of any California road trip itinerary. It is one of the most spectacular drives for those who love the beauty of the mountains. We talked about it in detail in our article about Tioga Road, where you’ll find directions and all the information about what to expect.

Highway 1: The Scenic Cliffs of Big Sur

best scenic byways in California

  • Length: 137 miles
  • Travel Time: About 3 hours
  • Fee: none

This stretch of Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Monterey is the most scenic road on the California coast and offers majestic views of the Pacific Ocean. We have spoken about Highway 1 extensively on our website and if you would like more information, I recommend that you first read these 2 articles:

For a 3-part itinerary that includes this scenic road, take a look at our in-depth road trip guide of the route from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.

Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway: The Volcanic Landscape in Northern California

california scenic drives

  • Length: 500 miles
  • Travel Time: It takes at least 2 days to drive from one end to the other, but it can take up to 5 days if you want to take your time.
  • Fee: None, but you will have to pay the entrance fee to enter the national parks.

If you want to explore this beautiful and impressive volcanic landscape, this is the scenic byway for you. It connects 2 states (California and Oregon) and takes you to Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic National Park, two beautiful national parks.

Directions: The directions are quite long. You can find detailed directions on this website.

The Golden Hills of California: From Monterey to Yosemite

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  • Length: 188 miles
  • Travel Time: It takes 3.5 hours, but add an extra 30 minutes to make a few quick stops.
  • Fee: None

Although this is not technically a scenic byway, I am making an exception, because when I traveled from Monterey to Yosemite I was awestruck by the beauty of the scenery.

You will see gentle golden rolling hills common in some parts of the interior of the state. The route starts in Monterey and ends at Yosemite National Park and one of the reasons to travel on it is that it allows visiting both the coast and the interior. Find all the information you need to do this short road trip in California in the article From Monterey to Yosemite.

Silverado Trail: Visit the Wine Region in Napa Valley

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  • Length: 27 miles
  • Travel Time: About 1 hour
  • Fee: None

Napa Valley, which is famous for its wine, is another must-see area of California. Driving along the Silverado Trail you will have the opportunity to taste the wine produced in Napa Valley, probably the most important wine region in the United States. You will find yourself surrounded by beautiful vineyards and you can stop for a wine tasting in one of the many wineries in the area.

Directions: The scenic drive starts in Napa and heads north to Calistoga. To reach the Napa Valley from San Francisco, go north (I-80/CA-123), take Exit 33 (CA-37 West) and then Exit 19 (CA-29). After 7 miles turn right (CA-221 North) and after 2.5 miles, you will find the Silverado Trail on your right.

Other Scenic Roads in California

The possibilities for road trips in California are practically endless. Some of the most beautiful scenic roads in the United States can be found here, and in many cases, you can combine them to create fascinating personalized itineraries. Here are some other particularly interesting ones:

  • Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway: Glacial valleys, canyons, ancient volcanic peaks, and granite ridges.
  • Redwood Highway: The giant redwoods of Redwood National Park in Northern California.
  • Joshua Tree Journey: A journey through the surreal desert in Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Route 66: This is more than a scenic road; it is a piece of history. The Historic Route 66 is absolutely charming! You will find information in our article about Route 66 in California.
  • Kings Canyon Scenic Byway: The beautiful scenic road through Kings Canyon National Park.
  • Lake Tahoe National Scenic Byway: This road wraps around the picturesque Lake Tahoe.
  • 17-Mile Drive: A scenic road along the coast of the Monterey Peninsula, a narrow but scenic area full of beautiful views and passes by Carmel, Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach. For more information, check out our article on things to do in Monterey.

As you may have guessed, visiting California on the road gives you an impressive array of possibilities. The natural scenery can change drastically as you drive and there will be a continuous succession of different and contrasting landscapes. California’s roads have so much in store for those who want to explore them.

Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

Warning: Operating hours can change and closures for extraordinary events can occur, so we strongly suggest to check the venues official websites.

lorenzo puliti
lorenzo puliti

I am fascinated by the wonders of the world I never tire of going in search of them.

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