Megan Bryant is a passionate writer and traveler who has combined her two loves to help others fulfill their traveling dreams. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually curled up with her 3 Dachshunds and a good book or planning her next adventure—wherever that may be.
California, often celebrated as the Golden State, is a land of diverse landscapes and natural wonders that entice both adventurers and road-trippers alike. From the rugged coastline of Big Sur to the iconic Route 66, this sun-kissed state boasts an array of breathtaking vistas, winding mountain roads, and enchanting desert drives that cater to every traveler’s dream.
Whether you’re chasing the sunset along the Pacific Coast Highway or meandering through the majestic Redwood forests, California’s scenic drives offer an unparalleled opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the American West.
Big Sur Coast: Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Simeon
If you don’t have time to drive the entire Pacific Coast Highway—one of California’s most famous stretches of road—then driving the 90 miles of highway that winds along the Big Sur Coast is an excellent alternative.
Starting off in Carmel-by-the-Sea and ending in San Simeon, drivers can enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery in all of California and America as a whole. The drive should take you around 2 hours to complete. However, as there are plenty of things to see and do in Big Sur, you can take your leisurely time and soak up the region in a day or two.
With various state parks, waterfalls, and beaches to explore, the Big Sur Coast drive is a California road trip that you won’t want to miss.
California SR190 Through Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is one of nine National Parks in the state of California, and California Highway 190 takes you right on through it. This 131-mile drive features some of Death Valley’s most notable sights, including the sand dunes, badlands, and canyons it has become famous for.
Whether you choose to spend the entire time in the car or get out and experience the incredible landscapes the National Park has to offer, your time in Death Valley will truly make you feel like you’re on a different planet.
Death Valley National Park to Joshua Tree National Park
If the drive through Death Valley alone isn’t enough for you, then why not extend it to another of California’s National Parks, Joshua Tree? Starting in Lone Pine and stretching for 365 miles to Joshua Tree, this drive winds you through the Mohave Desert, taking you past huge craters, incredible hikes, and, of course, Joshua Tree’s iconic Joshua Trees.
Highway 120 Through Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous National Parks in all of America, and Highway 120—AKA Tioga Road—traverses the park from east to west. Along the route, you’ll drive over the Tioga Pass, California’s highest automobile pass, and past redwood groves and staggering granite cliffs.
Before beginning this drive, however, you will need to ensure that Tioga Pass is open, as snow frequently closes the road from November through to May.
Highway 935: Lake Tahoe to Lone Pine
Highway 395 from South Lake Tahoe to Lone Pine is a spectacular drive that deserves more recognition than it’s given. Running alongside the Sierra Nevada mountains, Highway 395 has incredible views of alpine lakes and towering mountain peaks.
If you can, I highly recommend doing this drive come fall as the aspens, cottonwoods, and willows transform into brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red.
Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive
Lake Tahoe is quite possibly the most beautiful lake in the US, and US Route 50, along with state highways 89 and 28, takes you all around the lake, with many sections getting right up close to the water. You can choose to drive the three or so hours in one go, or—which is what I recommend—you can split it up with stops to enjoy the lake’s beaches, hiking trails, and recreational activities.
Newton B. Drury Scenic Byway in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
One of California’s shorter scenic drives is the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which takes you through the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Spanning only 10 miles, this 25-minute drive takes you past some of the world’s largest trees, coastal redwoods. Along the drive, be sure to stop and hike one of the many trailheads. The Ah-Pah Interpretive Trail is a popular choice as it gets you up close to the base of the trees.
Pacific Coast Highway 1: San Francisco to Fort Bragg
The Pacific Coast Highway is by far California’s most well-known highway, and if you don’t have time to drive from San Francisco to Santa Monica, then the shorter route of San Francisco to Fort Bragg is a great alternative.
The drive from San Francisco to Fort Bragg takes roughly five hours, and while you can do it in a day, as there are so many small towns to explore and beaches to enjoy, it’s best to split the trip up over a long weekend. Along the route, you’ll also get to experience one of California’s most famous landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Pacific Coast Highway 1: San Francisco to Santa Monica
For those with more time on their hands, then the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Santa Monica is an absolute must. There are roughly 440 miles between San Fran and Santa Monica, but as there is so much coastal scenery, beautiful beaches, and coastal towns like Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Malibu, you’ll want to allow yourself a few days, if not a week, to experience it all.
One of the highlights of the drive will be crossing the Bixby Bridge, one of the most aesthetic bridges in the world.
Route 66: Santa Monica to the Needles
The drive between Santa Monica and the Needles takes you along Route 66, past many photo-worthy roadside attractions like old motels, ghost towns, and vintage signs. One of the most famous photo spots on the route is Roy’s Cafe at Amboy, along with Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch.
As quite a bit of the drive from Santa Monica to the Needles is through the desert, the drive is best done in the cooler months of the year. Unless you want your AC cranking the entire time, that is.
Sequoia National Park to Kings Canyon National Park
If you want to tick off two California National Parks in one trip, then the drive down Generals Highway from the Sequoia National Park to the Kings Canyon National Park is an excellent choice. Obviously, along the 50-mile route, you can get out of your vehicle and explore the groves of giant sequoia trees or set off on one of many hikes that will take you to waterfalls and scenic overlooks.
One thing I will say, however, is that the road is on the more difficult side to drive along. There are numerous switchbacks and parts that are winding and narrow, so if you aren’t a confident driver, I don’t recommend attempting this route.
Silverado Trail Through Napa Valley
The Napa Valley wine region is one of the most famous wine regions in the world, and the Silverado Trail that runs almost 30 miles through it makes for an incredible road trip for those wanting to experience everything the region has to offer.
The drive connects the south of Napa Valley to Calistoga in the north and will provide you with endless views of hills, vineyards, and beautiful American countryside.
The Redwood Highway: San Francisco to Crescent City
The Redwood Highway from San Francisco to Crescent City stretches for 363 miles past countless coastal redwoods—hence the name. Two of the most significant redwood groves on the route are Armstrong and Muir Woods, but you’ll also get to experience the Humboldt Redwood State Park, the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. There really is something magical about driving amongst giants, and if you enjoy a hike or two, then this is definitely the California scenic drive route for you.