10 of the Best California Road Trips
"I hate road trips," said no one ever who is over 18 or isn't Robert Downy Jr. in Due Date. I know, I know, everybody loves road trips, but I feel like my road trip love is next level. When I was a child, my father and I would often leave well before dawn to take a road trip to go visit one of my sisters. Road tripping from North Carolina to Atlanta was nothing, but we upped the ante with the number of road trips we often did to visit my sister in Dallas, once making it all the way to Texarkana, Texas in one day (for those keeping track at home, that's 1,000 miles). When I was 17, we did a 6,000-mile, 3-week, 24-state road trip around America.
All that to say, my love for road trips is real. But no road trip in the world does it for me like California road trips. And next week I'm doing one of my dream road trips, which is taking me from Los Angeles up the Southern and Central California coastline to Big Sur, through Northern California wine country to Sonoma, continuing to Lake Tahoe and down the Sierra Nevadas to Bodie, Yosemite, Mono Lake, June Lake, and Mammoth Mountain (that was a mouthful!).
While I'll be regularly posting on Twitter and Instagram during that California road trip (and afterward here on WTG), today I'm sharing with you what I believe to be the 10 best road trips in California.
Not only is Big Sur one of the best California road trips, but it's also one of the best road trips in all of America, if not the world. Deservingly so, Big Sur even got it's on blog post. From sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean to charming accommodations perched on mountaintops to hiking trails over ridgelines to waterfalls flowing into the ocean to a castle, Big Sur has it all. My top Big Sur road trip recommendations include Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Beach, Hearst Castle, and drinks at Nepenthe overlooking the Pacific Ocean (pictured below). However, it's really hard to go wrong at Big Sur, except perhaps for trying to do it all in one day. Read my guide to Big Sur for a more detailed itinerary.
What I love about Napa, beyond the 400+ wineries, is that by and large most of the wineries are located on or just off a couple roads, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. You can start in Downtown Napa and drive up Highway 29 to Yountville through the appropriately named Oakville and Zinfandel to St. Helena and Calistoga. Some stand-out wineries for me include Pine Ridge Vineyards, Vineyard 29, Clif Lede, and Ehlers Estate. While you're in Downtown Napa, stop at Oxbow Public Market on an empty stomach and go crazy with the number of food merchants (cupcakes, and tacos, and oysters, oh my) and when you're tired of wine, have some cocktails at Goose & Gander (St. Helena), which is one of the best cocktail bars in Northern California Wine Country. If you're going to even do half of what I've recommended, however, have a designated driver. For an alternative way of exploring the length of Napa, catch the Napa wine trail from Downtown Napa for a half-day trip.
Sonoma Coast and Sea Villages
That's right, Sonoma has coastline, and it's beautiful. However, the Sonoma Coast is often overlooked by its neighbor to the south, Big Sur. So it doesn't have castles and waterfalls flowing into the ocean, but it does have offbeat beaches, charming sea villages, and sweeping views from craggy cliffs. And all that in the same county as world-class vineyards. I recommend starting in Tomales Bay, which is home to some of the best oysters on the West Coast (Tomales Bay Oyster Company). From here, Highway 1 curves toward the coast and you enter my favorite seaside village in Sonoma, Bodega Bay, which I particularly like for the fishing and kayaking. All up and down the 50+ miles of coastline in Sonoma you'll find a number of offbeat beaches, including several at Sonoma Coast State Park, such as Goat Rock Beach. Just don't expect to do any swimming. (Photo by Joe Parks on Flickr)
What I love about Joshua Tree is that it's everything that the rest of these road trips aren't. It's barren, it's otherworldy, it's deserty. While Joshua Tree can largely be done in a day, allowing you time to do some hiking around and visit the overlook of San Andreas Fault, I believe the best time is at night when the sky is filled with stars like you won't find on most of these other California road trips. For one of the most unique accommodations on the West Coast, stay at Hicksville Trailer Palace just outside the park in the town of Joshua Tree. Build in some time for nearby Pioneertown, an old western town that was built for making western movies. A stop for a night of drinks and entertainment at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is worth the visit alone.
I consider Malibu the Los Angeles version of Big Sur. It's got waterfalls, it's got hikes, and it's got dramatic, sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. And it doesn't take hours to get to from Los Angeles. While it makes for a short road trip from Los Angeles, there's so much to explore both on and off the Pacific Coast Highway. Off the PCH, you have places like Malibu Wine (L.A.'s most popular winery), Topanga Canyon, Old Place Restaurant (former general store turned restaurant), and Malibu Creek State Park. On the PCH and parallel to the Pacific Ocean, you'll find places like Rosenthal Winery, giant sand dunes, numerous beaches, and restaurants like Neptune's Net (biker bar turned seafood shack) and Cholada Thai, which is one of my favorite L.A. Thai restaurants.
Alright, so the Sierra Nevada Mountain range is huge and impossible to properly describe in a paragraph about California road trips. Just how big? How about 400 miles long, 65 miles wide, and covering an area of more than 24,000 square miles. However, there's a section on the east range of the Sierra Nevadas that's among my favorite quirky stretch of road in all of California, passing through and near small towns that includes the ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake, June Lake, and Mammoth Lakes. It's beautiful, it's uncrowded, and it's a California road trip at its best. Some food and drink stops to add to your itinerary: Mammoth Brewing Company, June Lake Brewing, and Ohanas395 (outside of June Lake Brewing), which is some of the best Hawaiian food I've had outside of Hawaii. Stop at Copper Top BBQ, in Big Pine, which this year was named the number one rated restaurant on Yelp.
More than once I've had an entire beach to myself along the Mendocino Coastline. Located north of Sonoma, Mendocino's coastline properly begins at Point Arena (home to the Point Arena Light) and Manchester Beach, which is one of the most underrated California beaches in my opinion, where highlights include horseback riding on the beach. North of there is the small town of Elk, home to another off-the-beaten-path California beach, and worth a short stop before continuing to Mendocino and Fort Bragg, where you'll find a plethora of charming inns, Glass Beach (lined with beautiful sea glass), and one of my favorite California breweries, North Coast. However, I highly recommend spending some time in one of my favorite corners of California, Anderson Valley, which is lined with wineries (including one of the best producers of sparkling wine, Roederer) and home to a couple of my favorite California food and drink producers, Pennyroyal Farm for award-winning cheese and Anderson Valley Brewing Company for award-winning beer. If you stay one place, however, make it The Madrones. Thank me later.
This was my go-to trip when I lived in San Francisco. In 5 minutes I could be on the PCH on my way down the 80-mile route to Santa Cruz, running parallel to the Pacific Ocean the entire time. The first stop was always in Half Moon Bay for breakfast at the greasy spoon, 3-Zero Cafe, or lobster rolls at Sam's Chowder House. From there it's on down to the small town of Pescadero for a visit to the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast, Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and a quick stop at Pie Ranch (for pies, of course). If you have time for a detour, off of Highway 1 is California's oldest state park, and one of my favorites, Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Otherwise, continue south to Santa Cruz, but not before a stop at Natural Bridges State Park, a small state park that packs a punch, with a beautiful natural bridge across a section of the park, tidepools, and a community of Monarch butterflies. If you're feeling really ambitious, take surfing lessons in Santa Cruz, which is one of the best spots in Central/Northern California for learning to surf.
Yosemite, like Big Sur, is basically a given here. This one will be short and sweet, since my first proper trip to Yosemite will be on this road trip next week (crazy, I know). It's hard to go wrong at Yosemite, though if you do want less crowds, try for a weekday visit. Among some of the highlights: Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan (which you may remember for the two guys who recently became the first two people to climb the 3,000-foot rock without ropes), Vernal Fall, Yosemite Falls, and Tunnel View, which is the view you've probably seen in most Yosemite photos (and pictured below). If you find availability, stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel, the1927 historic hotel on a valley floor with views of Half Dome, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Falls.
It's no secret that Lake Tahoe is one of my favorite winter destinations. However, next week marks my first summer Tahoe trip. While the drive to Lake Tahoe (from any number of cities) is nothing special, it's the 68-mile loop that I love, which really runs the gamut, from the ski village life of South Lake Tahoe to waterfront views up and down the eastern and western side to beautiful overlooks, such as Emerald Bay, which is hard to be rivaled by any lake view. While South Lake Tahoe is the vibrant side of Lake Tahoe (lined with casinos, restaurants, and ski shops), North Tahoe runs at a slower pace, but shouldn't be overlooked, such as a stop in Incline Village at the recently opened Alibi Ale Works, and further north, the little town of Truckee. If you have time, make a stop to hike along the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail that circles the lake, or for the real adventurer, bicycle down Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, not to be confused with the Disney ride of the same name, and considered one of the top bicycling trails in California (and only for advanced riders).
What do you consider the best California road trips?