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Visiting California: How to Plan a Road Trip Itinerary

May 11, 2021 /

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

Okay, I’m going to skip the usual introduction to describe how beautiful California is, its history, and so on. If you’re reading this post, it means that you’ve probably already decided to travel there or that you already know some basic information about the Golden State.

In this post, I won’t spend much time talking about the various travel packages available for the Golden State and I will not provide a detailed travel itinerary in California (on our website there are several, but I suggest that you start from this tour Las Vegas-California round trip in 15 days). Instead, I will simply give you some tips that I hope will help you in visiting California. So let’s get straight to the point. The main question is: how to plan a California Road Trip Itinerary?

California traveling distances

Before choosing the stops of the itinerary, there is an important aspect to consider, which is that the state of California is large, very large. Therefore, you will be faced with the problem of traveling long distances. Between one attraction and another you’ll often have to travel 3 or 4 hours (sometimes even more), so as you plan your trip to California, it’s good to be familiar with the geography of the state, so you can organize your visits to cities and parks.

The map below will show you the geographical location of the main attractions, which you should take into account when you customize your route:

Of course, you’ll have to rent a car, since California is ideal for a road trip (though other states are too) and the car is the only realistic solution to explore it thoroughly. You should seriously consider renting a GPS as well, since finding your way can be challenging. For some tips on how to rent a car and compare the prices of the major car rental companies, check out this article: what do you need to rent a car for your trip? If you are looking for vans, RVs, or minibuses, you can have a look at our guide on how to rent an RV.

How to Plan a Road Trip in California

how to plan a road trip in california
Hollywood: Los Angeles

First of all, where do you start? Usually, the most popular starting points of trips to California are either San Francisco or Los Angeles, the two most visited cities.

Another good option could be San Diego, which is similar to Los Angeles in terms of tourist offers and is particularly suitable if you want to cross the border to make a detour to Mexico.

The ideal thing to do, in any case, is to start your tour from one of these 3 cities and stay there for at least 2-3 days.

My advice is to start in San Francisco, a beautiful city that can be easily visited via public transportation. You can find a guide in the post titled Visiting San Francisco: Best Attractions and Places to Visit. It is a kind of city that makes it inconvenient to visit it by car. To tell you the truth, it is not even worth renting a car in San Francisco! If you can, pick up the rental car on the last day of your stay in San Francisco, so that you will avoid spending money on the rental but also on expensive parking.

Okay, once you’ve had 2-3 days to relax in the first city you visit in the Golden State, what’s next? How will you continue your trip to California? Which are the must-see attractions?

California Road Trip: The Most Popular Routes and Itineraries

california routes and itineraries

The most popular travel itineraries in California fall into 2 categories. Obviously one does not exclude the other. It depends on the time available and the type of attractions you prefer to see. To fully enjoy both, you will need at least 15 or 20 days.

1) Coast Road Trip

The first one is the one that runs along the ocean, through the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, which allows you to visit the main cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego), enjoy beautiful views of the coast from the car, and stop in some interesting seaside resorts, such as San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and many more. To learn more about the many towns and attractions on the coast, take a look at my article on Highway 1.

If you want to reduce the hours of travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, you can take some inland roads. Your road trip will certainly be less tiring, but the downside is that the drive will not be as scenic.

A vacation on the coast is not necessarily limited to the ocean and the city. In fact, near San Francisco, you can explore the fascinating Napa Valley, which closely resembles the Tuscan countryside, because of its landscape and excellent wine.

california by train
Coast Starlight: A tour of California’s coast by train.

If you want to visit the whole coast of California, you can also consider alternative options instead of renting a car. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train tour goes along the entire coastline.

This is a beautiful train ride right on the coast that offers breathtaking views that you can admire in comfort from your seat.

2) Inland Road Trip

In this case, you definitely need to rent a car! The distances between the stops are long, the roads become almost endless straight lines that keep going for hundreds of miles, and the immense deserts stretch for miles. In short, as I have already mentioned, this is the land of road trips!

In the inland area of California, you can admire its several natural wonders, including the Sierra Nevada, the rolling golden hills typically found in some rural areas, the endless deserts, and national parks.

Let’s start with California’s deserts, which take up about 25% of the state’s land. There are two deserts:

If, on the other hand, you want to drive through the golden rolling hills of California while listening to good background music (Take it Easy by the Eagles is perfect!) and with the Sierra Nevada on the horizon, you should head north and drive from Monterey to Yosemite National Park.

The drive from Monterey to Yosemite is beautiful (if you want you can continue beyond the park all the way to Bodie, a well-preserved western town) and is also a great way to unify the route on the coast of California to the inland area. Other popular itineraries are the routes from San Francisco to Yosemite and Los Angeles to Sequoia National Park or Palm Springs.

The inland road trip of California has more than just natural wonders to offer. If you want to cross into Nevada, you can go to Las Vegas, a destination that certainly needs no introduction (if you want to include it in your trip I recommend this 15-day itinerary). Las Vegas lies beyond Yosemite and is only 2 hours from Death Valley and about 4 hours from Los Angeles.

California’s Must-See Attractions

how to visit california

Things get complicated here. There are many attractions and places of interest in California, and it’s not easy to make a selection (especially if you want to include the parks with red rock formations in Arizona and Utah in your trip). A useful resource that you can start skimming is my (“very subjective”) California top 10, which you can use to familiarize yourself with the main attractions.

If your road trip also includes crossing in the other Southwest states, you can also start from our “3 Weeks West Coast USA road trip” and “2 weeks National Park Road Trip” routes and then eventually customize them as you like.

Some Tips on California National Parks

visiting california national parks

National parks are definitely the most amazing attraction, especially in the cases of Death Valley, Sequoia National Park, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, or Yosemite (by the way, have you had a look at our tips for visiting Yosemite?), but you have to plan well to fully enjoy them. Otherwise, your trip to California could become very tiring.

So let’s look at some recurring questions about national parks:

1) What are the parks to choose from?

You’ll find all the parks in the Golden State (9!) in the California National Parks post, but there are some really incredible parks outside the state of California. To visit the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, or Bryce Canyon you’ll have to go even further east, cross the border, and venture into Arizona and Utah.

2) How long does it take to see them?

You can explore the majority of the parks by car in a day, but if you are interested in hiking trails, it will be better to choose some more precise locations that are favorable for hiking. Parks tend to be huge!

3) Can I visit the parks by car?

Yes, see the answer above.

4) Can I spend the night in the parks? Or should I find accommodations nearby?

During your California road trip, you can stay in the parks, although often it is not convenient because it is expensive. However, in some cases, you can find good deals (I remember finding cheap accommodations in Death Valley). However, in general, you can find more reasonable prices in neighboring cities. For further advice, here is a detailed guide on where to stay near each national park.

5) Is there a pass to enter parks? Is it worth it to buy one?

The pass does exist. To understand if it’s better to do it, read the post Is it worth it to get a national parks annual pass to visit the National Parks?

6) Any specific advice?

Fill up with gas before you visit California National Parks (there aren’t many gas stations near the parks), read the advice in the brochures of the parks, and watch out for dangerous animals.

7) What? Are there dangerous animals?

Yes, there are, and if you see one, there are some tips below:

If you see a bear, the best thing is to use a good anti-bear spray! However, if you come face to face with a bison, you should run away. And if you see a cougar? No problem. In that case, you may fight to the death (even if it’s not clear whose…).

Believe it or not, these directions are taken from an old official guide from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, but the truth is that you don’t have to worry too much. It’s rare that you will have to put your life at risk if you follow ranger instructions and common sense.

Useful Resources to Organize the Trip

california trip

In conclusion, here is a list of useful resources to plan your California trip:

  1. Our guide on where to stay
  2. Our tips for renting a car in the USA at the lowest price
  3. Packages of 1 or more days to visit the main attractions of California (these packages do not include the flight, but they are useful even for only part of the itinerary):
    1. Multi-day tours
    2. One-day tours
  4. Do you want to visit Golden State in spring, fall, or winter instead of summer? Take a look at our itinerary to explore California in the winter.
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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