California Road Trip Itineraries

California is the state that everyone dreams of visiting. By taking incredible road trips across the state, which is the best way to explore it, you can discover amazing natural parks, sunny beaches, the exciting cities on the coast, or the history of the Gold Rush… here you will find itineraries, ideas, and must-see destinations to discover the Golden State!

Contents

California at a Glance

Here are some concise details about the state of California.

California at a Glance...
  • Coordinates: 37°N 120°W
  • Area: 163,696 square miles
  • Population: 39,185,605 residents
  • Population Density: 251.3 per square mile
  • Demonym: Californians
  • Official Language and Spoken Languages: While the official language is English, 28.3% of the population speaks Spanish, and 15.6% belong to other linguistic minorities.
  • Time Zone: California operates on UTC-08, but during daylight saving time in the summer, it becomes UTC-07.
  • Date of Statehood: September 9, 1850
  • Nickname: The Golden State
  • Origin of Name: Named after an imaginary island in the Spanish novel “Las Sergas de Esplandián”
  • Motto: Eureka
  • Anthem: I love you, California

Capital: Sacramento
Largest City: Los Angeles
Other Major Cities: San Diego, San José, San Francisco, Fresno
Number of Counties: 58
Number of Municipalities: 482
Bordering States: California shares its borders with three U.S. states (Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona) and Mexico.
Highest Peak: Mount Whitney (14,505 feet)
Major Islands: Channel Islands
National Parks: California is home to 8 national parks: Sequoia National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Yosemite National ParkChannel Islands National Park, Channel Islands National Park, Pinnacles National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park. It also shares Death Valley with the neighboring state of Nevada.

California Tourism

Tourism is a significant industry in California, attracting millions of visitors every year, and California holds the record as the American state with the highest annual visitor numbers. Factors contributing to this include the climate, the variety of landscapes ranging from oceanic beaches to some of America’s most famous natural parks, the presence of major cities, and a wide range of cultural and entertainment attractions.

There is no doubt that a trip to California can fully satisfy the needs of every type of tourist, from those seeking beach life to those who prefer high mountain forests, from those who love the hustle and bustle of big cities to those who prefer the vast expanses of the desert.

Main California Airports

There are many airports in California, but the most important ones to consider for a trip are those in the three major cities on the coast:

These airports are not only used for visiting their respective cities but also as bases for extensive road trips to California’s national parks and neighboring states. Alternatively, you can also choose to land in Las Vegas (McCarran International Airport), outside the state borders, or in Phoenix (Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport).

Getting Around California

California is a very large state, and as such, travel within it can be time-consuming regardless of the mode of transportation. Nevertheless, the road connections are excellent, which is why it’s one of the American states where renting a car and embarking on a road trip to explore its numerous attractions can be well worth it. In this regard, we have dedicated articles on how to plan a tour of California and which scenic routes to take.

Regarding public transportation, the coastal areas offer the most diverse options for getting around. Depending on the distance you need to cover, it may be convenient to use a train or a bus. Keep in mind that natural attractions are rarely accessible by public transportation, but traveling between cities by train or bus can be convenient in some cases, especially if your trip primarily involves cities and you plan to explore the countryside with organized tours.

Finally, within the cities, you won’t have any trouble using public transportation (except for Los Angeles, which, despite its transportation network, is still more suited for exploration by car). We recommend reading our articles on the cities of interest to you; in each one, we delve into transportation options. Here are some examples:

Tips for a California Road Trip

Do you want to go to California but you are not familiar with the state, its main attractions, and possible road trip routes? These 5 articles are designed as guides to help you learn more about this beautiful state! If you’re on the fence or don’t know which way to go, start here!

places to visit in california

California Top 10: Must-See Attractions and Places to Visit

Located in the southwestern region of the United States (the so-called Southwest), California is the state people associate with beaches, nature parks, sunshine and road trips. Overlooking the Pacific and …
visiting-california

Visiting California: How to Plan a Road Trip Itinerary

Would you like a tour of California? Here’s how to organize it and plan your stops: useful tips for cities, national parks and coastal beauties.
california road trips

California Scenic Drives: the Best Highways for your Road Trip

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 …
best california cities

The Most Beautiful Cities in California to Visit

There are many reasons why so many tourists flock to the Golden State every year, such as California’s national parks, beaches, scenic coastline, mountainous regions, desert regions, and wine valleys. …

When Is the Best Time to Go to California? Guide to California’s Climate and Temperatures

What is the best time to visit California? It is impossible to give a short answer because the climate in California is subject to change depending on the area. Let’s start …

California Road Trip Map

California Road Trip Itineraries Divided by Region

Browse our California road trip itineraries by region:

California National Parks Road Trip

National Parks in California: a List and Visitor’s Guide of the Parks

California is as vast as it is fascinating; it is home to very diverse natural landscapes. The numerous national parks are among the most popular destinations in California and are a must for those in search of open landscapes and a bit of adventure. Let’s take a look at the national parks in California and we will try to present …

Read more

Death Valley and Yosemite

Sequoia and Kings Canyon

Things to do in Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park: Why You Should Go and How to Plan Your Visit

Naturalist and explorer John Muir wrote in 1891: “In the vast Sierra wilderness far to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the …
kings canyon things to do

Planning a Visit in Kings Canyon National Park: Best Things To See and Trails to Hike

Maybe you didn’t know this, but the deepest canyon in the U.S. is not the Grand Canyon; it is Kings Canyon in California. While the famous gorge in Arizona is 6001 …

Other Parks

things to do in Joshua tree

Joshua Tree National Park: Tips for Planning Your Visit

Among the many incredible US national parks, the desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park has its own unique, almost surreal charm, with its cactus-like trees and their twisted and …
pinnacles national park trails

Pinnacles National Park in California: Visit Caves and Pinnacles Made of Volcanic Rock

Perhaps a few of you have heard of Pinnacles National Park. In fact, this small park in the mountains is not as famous as Yosemite, Sequoia and other national parks …
mojave national preserve

Mojave National Preserve: Kelso Dunes, Joshua Trees and other must-see attraction

Singing dunes, the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world, ancient volcanoes and expanses of petrified lava. You’ll find all this and more in the Mojave National Preserve. Its location …
things to do in lassen volcanic national park

Adventure in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California’s Own Little “Yellowstone”

There are some travelers who just can’t settle for the best known U.S. National Parks. For instance, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park are a must-see destination for any …
Redwood National Park California

Redwood Parks in California: the Tallest Trees in the World

When talking about Redwood National Park it would be more correct to say “parks”, because in northern California, a few miles from the Oregon border, the Redwood National and State …
Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore and Lighthouse: Breathtaking Views on the California Coast

The Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the largest and most important coastal parks in California. Here you can find mile-long beaches, one of the most scenic lighthouses on …
how to get to channel islands national park

Channel Islands National Park: How to Get There?

California never ceases to amaze with the diversity of landscapes it offers. In fact, in addition to visiting its desert vistas, like Death Valley and Joshua Tree, mountain vistas, such …
things to do in Anza Borrego State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California: Visitor’s Guide

The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a hidden gem in California due to its somewhat unfortunate location, which places it outside the paths of mainstream tourism. As a result, it’s …

California Winter Travel Tips

Winter Road Trip California

Visit California in the Winter: An Itinerary without the Stress of Unpredictable Weather Conditions!

Summer may be over, but the craving to travel across America is still strong. Many people write to me asking for tips on how to plan a winter road trip …
Christmas in California

Christmas in California: The Best Places to Spend the Holidays

Maybe it’s a bit early to talk about Christmas, but even though the summer is now behind us, many people are already writing to us asking for advice and tips …

California General Information

Etymology, Motto, Nickname

The origin of the name California is not certain, but it is believed to be derived from the 16th-century chivalric novel Las Sergas de Esplandián, written by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, which was popular during the Spanish exploration of Mexico. In the book, there was mention of an imaginary island called California: a land rich in gold, pearls, and strange animals. The island was ruled by Queen Calafia, and the name of the queen (and the island) may have been derived from the Arabic term for rulers: Caliph.

Since 1963, California’s motto has been Eureka! which is a Greek word that means “I have found it!” It is also famous for being uttered by Archimedes when he understood the principle of hydrostatic buoyancy, which is now named after him. It is said that Archimedes also exclaimed this phrase when he discovered a way to determine the purity of gold. This is why it was chosen as the motto: gold is the symbolic mineral of the state and has greatly influenced its history (see our article on the California Gold Rush). This is also the same reason why California is known as “The Golden State“.

Geography

California stretches along the southwestern coast of the United States, facing the Pacific Ocean. It borders l’Oregon to the north, also along the Pacific, and to the east with Nevada and Arizona. To the south, it shares its border with Mexico, specifically with the Mexican state of Baja California.

Extension and Regions

With its 163,695 square miles, California is the third-largest state in the federation, following Alaska and Texas. It stretches from north to south along the coast and is culturally divided into two major regions: Northern California, which includes the 48 northern counties, and Southern California, which includes the 10 southern counties. The latter region is culturally closer to Mexico and is where the majority of the Spanish-speaking population resides.

We can further divide California into 10 regions, each with its own characteristics. Along the coast, from north to south, we have the North Coast, which extends from the Oregon border to just before San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Area surrounding the Golden Gate City and San José, the Central Coast, which runs south from Santa Cruz, and Southern California, where you’ll find Los Angeles and San Diego.

To the north, between the North Coast and Nevada, lies the vast Shasta Cascades region, beneath which you’ll find the Sacramento Valley and the Gold Country. In the central part of the state, between the Central Coast and Nevada, you’ll find the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada. The entire southeastern area is the California Desert region.

This division is due to the great diversity of California’s landscape, which, compared to other American states, boasts a wide range of climates and types of terrain. For this reason, it is considered one of the states richest in diverse attractions to see, both from a natural and cultural perspective.

Geographic Features

From a geographical perspective, California features a highly diverse landscape. In the center of the state lies the California Central Valley, a vast plain that stretches from north to south and serves as the heart of California’s agricultural production. This extensive plain is surrounded by mountains: the Sierra Nevada to the east, the Cascade Range to the north, the Tehachapi Mountains to the south, and the coastal mountain ranges to the west.

The significant number and diversity of mountain ranges, along with the fact that approximately 45% of the state is covered by forests, explain why California is home to many natural parks where you can admire, among other things, the famous giant sequoias. It’s worth noting that Alaska is the only American state with more forests than California, and California’s mountains house some of the world’s oldest trees.

The southeastern part of the state is occupied by a portion of the vast desert that extends into neighboring states, particularly Nevada and Arizona. Here, the landscape, as well as the climate, differs significantly from the lush northwest and coastal areas. Nonetheless, even in this region, you can find places of great tourist interest, with Death Valley being a prominent example.

Mountains, Lakes and Rivers

Among the aforementioned mountain ranges, the most prominent is undoubtedly the Sierra Nevada, where you can find Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states (the highest peak in the entire USA is Mount Denali in Alaska). Within the Sierra Nevada, the Yosemite National Park and the Sequoia National Park stand out as natural wonders.

California boasts some significant lakes as well. First and foremost is Lake Tahoe, situated in the Sierra Nevada mountains, straddling the border between California and Nevada. It ranks as the largest alpine lake in North America. The largest lake entirely within California is Clear Lake, located in the western part of the state. Unfortunately, Lake Tulare, which dates back to the Pleistocene era and was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi River, dried up in the 20th century due to the diversion of its tributaries for agricultural purposes. California is also home to a large saline lake, the Salton Sea, situated along the San Andreas Fault.

The two most important rivers in the state are the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River, which, along with their tributaries, create the fertile Central Valley of California. The San Joaquin itself is a tributary of the Sacramento River, which flows into the ocean not far from San Francisco.

Capital and Major Cities

The state capital is Sacramento, which is the sixth-largest city in terms of population, with approximately 530,000 residents. The largest metropolitan area is Los Angeles, which has nearly 3.9 million residents. The only other cities in California with populations exceeding one million are San Diego, with 1,387,000 residents, and San José, with around 1,014,000 residents. Additionally, there is San Francisco with 874,000 residents and Fresno with approximately 542,000 residents.

Due to the state’s topography, which includes numerous mountainous areas and a desert in the southeast, most inhabited areas are concentrated in two regions: along the coastline and in the vast Central Valley, which is the most fertile and suitable for settlements. Besides the well-known metropolises, the central-southern coastal region is dotted with numerous cities of varying sizes, stretching along the entire line from San Francisco to San Diego via Los Angeles.

Climate

The climate of California is generally considered Mediterranean, similar to what you have in Italy. However, due to the variety of environments within the state, California exhibits a similarly diverse range of climate conditions. The classic Mediterranean climate is predominantly found in the Central Valley and along the coast, although the ocean tempers temperatures in coastal areas, making them even milder. The northern part of the state is much rainier than the southern part, and as a result, it is much greener.

Of course, mountainous areas have a different climate and experience very cold temperatures in the winter. Conversely, the desert area of Death Valley is famous for being one of the hottest places on Earth, with record highs exceeding 122°F, To learn more, you can read our guide on the climate of California.

Wildlife

Thanks to its vast and varied terrain, with different altitudes and climates, California boasts a rich ecosystem and many species that are endemic to this region. In the desert, you can find unique animals such as the kangaroo rat, the roadrunner, and the cactus wren. In the mountainous areas, large mammals like bears and mule deer, bighorn sheep, and coyotes are abundant, as well as mountain lions and bobcats. Among amphibians, the local sequoia salamander stands out.

Each climate zone serves as habitat for different animals, making California one of the most biodiverse states in the United States. While it’s not uncommon to spot whales near the coast, even the scorching desert is home to unique species.

History

Summarizing the history of California in a few lines is challenging because this geographic area has one of the richest histories in American history books. Even in the pre-Columbian period, the territory of present-day California was one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions. More than 70 distinct Native American ethnic groups have been identified, with an estimated total population of nearly 300,000.

The first Europeans to explore these lands were the Spanish, led by the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542, commemorated by a National Monument in San Diego. The English pirate Francis Drake also explored a portion of the California coast almost forty years later, but it was the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno who mapped the California coast in 1602. Over the next two centuries, Spanish colonization developed, including the construction of forts, small towns, and missions (see our guide to the California Missions). In the early 1800s, the Russians also settled in California, establishing a trading post at Fort Ross and a series of settlements along the northern coast.

In 1821, the Mexican War of Independence granted ownership of California to the Mexican Empire, later the Mexican Republic. However, the northern part, which is now part of the United States, remained sparsely populated, and gradually settlers from the United States and future Canada arrived. In 1846, a group of American settlers rebelled against Mexican rule and proclaimed the California Republic in Sonoma. However, in the same year, the Mexican-American War broke out, and the northern part of California was militarily occupied by the United States, leading to its annexation into the Union on January 13, 1847.

Economy

California boasts the most productive economy of all the United States. However, it’s not just the state with the highest GDP in the nation; it has the largest subnational economy in the world. If it were a sovereign nation, California would rank fifth among the world’s economies today. This is due in part to the fact that California is the most populous state in the USA and home to key sectors of high economic significance. Some prominent examples include Silicon Valley, which hosts several technology giants, and Hollywood, which leads the global film industry.

In addition to these well-known cases, other sectors contribute to California’s thriving economic situation. Among them, agriculture plays a crucial role. When one thinks of agriculture in the USA, it’s common to associate it with other states more often linked to vast farming operations. In reality, California has the highest agricultural production of any American state. Its Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions globally, and half of all US fruits and vegetables are grown here. In fact, unlike other American states dominated by monoculture, California’s climate allows for a much more diverse production of vegetables and fruit trees.

Sport

California is the American state with the most franchises in major professional sports leagues. Just the San Francisco Bay Area alone has six teams in the Major Leagues, while the Los Angeles area has ten. Other two major league teams are located in Sacramento and San Diego.

In terms of American football, the three NFL teams are the Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, and the San Francisco 49ers. It’s worth noting that the Super Bowl has been hosted in California 12 times in four different stadiums.

If you’re a basketball fan, a trip to California offers the opportunity to see an NBA game in Los Angeles or in San Francisco. There are four teams in the National Basketball Association (Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings), and one women’s team in the Women’s NBA: the Los Angeles Sparks.

Of course, like in the rest of America, baseball is a big deal, with five teams in Major League Baseball: Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, and San Francisco Giants.

California also boasts three National Hockey League teams (Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks), two rugby teams (LA Giltinis and San Diego Legion), and three soccer teams: Los Angeles Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes, and Los Angeles Football Club.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that California is the only U.S. state to have hosted both the Summer Olympics (in Los Angeles in 1932 and 1984) and the Winter Olympics (in Squaw Valley in 1960).