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5 classic California road trips

This forest of metal-and-bottle "trees" is one of Route 66's many quirky roadside attractions. Photo by Westend61 GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

From the mountains and deserts to the redwood forests and the ocean, these road trips showcase the best of California's landscapes.

We Southern California road-trippers are spoiled with miles of scenic highways that crisscross our state and pass through topography ranging from desert and forest to mountain and valley to coastline. Where to start?

These 5 drives take you through California’s diverse landscapes. And because half the fun of a road trip is stopping to explore whatever catches your fancy along the way, we also highlight the top attractions for each. Before you set off on your journey, be sure to check for seasonal closures and business hours.

1. Get your kicks on Route 66

Route 66 painted on the road beside an old gas station

This painted Route 66 sign with Roy’s Motel & Café in the background is an iconic shot of this historic route. Photo by Russell Kord / Alamy Stock Photo

By Carolyn Graham

"Are we there yet?”

It’s the phrase that launched a million road trips, and perhaps nowhere was it uttered more times than along the enduring US Route 66—2,448 miles of legendary blacktop that ferried travelers between the Midwestern hub of Chicago and the golden shores of Santa Monica from 1926 until it was decommissioned in 1985.

These days, adults don’t hear those words very often. Electronic entertainment has almost eliminated back seat boredom, and, while possibly preserving parental sanity, it has robbed our kids of the rituals of playing the license-plate game, arguing with siblings, and, most important, looking out the window.

And that’s a shame, especially along the California portion of Route 66, a stretch of 300-plus miles that rolls from the sunbaked Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean. We often forget that the Mother Road winds right through our backyard, a sort of progressive museum that offers glimpses into our heritage. It tells our stories as Americans and Californians. It portrays the mining, farming, and railroad history that shaped Route 66’s communities and characters. 

So, gas up and get your next generation of road-trippers to put away their gadgets. You might hear a little whining from the back seat, but that’s how you’ll know you’ve arrived.

Pirate Cove Resort and Marina, Needles

This pirate-themed resort opened in 2009 atop 1,100 acres of Colorado riverfront near the California-Arizona state line. A far cry from the accommodations of yesterday’s Route 66ers, Pirate Cove’s 2-story, loft-style cabins and campsites overlook the Colorado River and the marina inlet, where you’ll find water play and off-road activities.

The famous road’s original blacktop, emblazoned with the Route 66 insignia, snakes along the property’s backside. Visitors can take a short trek to the rock-framed Route 66 billboard that was erected in the 1920s to greet travelers crossing the arid desert landscape. Rates start at $113 (campsites) and $300 (cabins); cabins require $500 deposit.


The landmark Roy's Motel & Cafe is today a gas station and a popular filming site. Photo by Jennifer Halter


In this tiny mining town, which is now little more than a wide spot, travelers can step out into the roadway (after looking both ways, of course) to capture an iconic photo of the Route 66 signage painted on the asphalt with the landmark Roy’s Motel & Café neon sign in the background. Recently restored and now a gas station, landmark Roy’s is a popular filming site.

Stop in for souvenirs such as custom T-shirts and hoodies, magnets, and more than 4 dozen varieties of craft soda (try prickly pear, blueberry cream, and the popular Route 66 Route Beer). 

Amboy Crater

The approximately 4-mile out-and-back Amboy Crater Trail leads hikers through a lava field to the rim of the cinder cone volcano. Photo by William Silver/Alamy Stock Photo

Nearby Amboy Crater, which oozed lava for several miles when it last erupted 10,000 years ago, has an observation point and a hiking trail to the rim; make sure to bring water, and check the weather before heading out on the trail as it can get dangerously hot.

Route 66 Mother Road Museum, Barstow

Find historic Route 66 photos and memorabilia, local history exhibits and artist displays, plus a treasure trove of souvenirs at this museum run by volunteers and located in Casa Del Desierto, a Harvey House built in 1911.

Bottle Tree Ranch, Oro Grande

A testament to Route 66’s quirky characters, this bizarre roadside attraction features a forest of metal-and-bottle “trees” created by Elmer Long, who passed away in 2019. His collection of cobalt blue, amber, green, and milky glass bottles are arranged atop old pipes and rebar that he welded into sculptures.

Wind chimes catch desert breezes as you crunch along the rock-covered paths to admire this strange collection, arranged amid old car parts, road signs, and World War II–era machine guns.

California Route 66 Museum, Victorville

Thousands of international visitors stop here not only to soak up California’s Mother Road history, but also to snap photos in front of a 1966 (of course) Volkswagen microbus. See the museum’s Seeburg Select-O-Matic jukebox and peruse the 1917 Model T, old motel signs, and filling-station memorabilia.

Wigwam Motel, San Bernardino

Wigwam is one of the best remaining examples of a kitschy Route 66 motel. The 19 concrete-and-stucco tepees for rent have been renovated, maintaining their 1949 charm, but now offering such comforts as Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Adults might be inclined to kick back poolside while the kids take a dip.

A steady stream of lookie-loos cruise through to snap pictures, especially when classic-car owners overnight here during Ontario’s Route 66 Cruisin’ Reunion or San Bernardino’s Rendezvous Back to Route 66, both held in the fall. Rates start at $109.

2. Eastern Sierra sojourn

Bodie State Historic Park

Bodie State Historic Park, a former gold rush town, is one of the highlights along US Route 395. Photo by Scott Miller

By Jeff Crider

US Route 395 between Lone Pine and Bridgeport serves up some of the country’s most dramatic mountain and desert scenery. Travelers enjoy continuous views of the Sierra Nevada’s jagged peaks to the west while driving north from the sagebrush-covered desert floor of the Owens Valley to the pine forests of the Eastern Sierra.

This state-designated scenic byway provides spectacular views of 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

Museum of Western Film History, Lone Pine

Costumes, cars, props, and more chart the history of filmmaking in the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra, and Death Valley. The museum offers a $2 brochure with details for a self-guided driving tour through the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine to view 10 historic movie and TV locations, including those for Gunga Din and Rawhide.

Manzanar National Historic Site (12 miles north of Lone Pine)

Manzanar was one of 10 camps where more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. The visitors center has exhibits and a 22-minute film. Outside, a self-guided driving tour takes you past sentry posts, reconstructed barracks, and the camp cemetery.

Bristlecone Pine

Ancient bristlecone pines perched high in the White Mountains of the Eastern Sierra are among the oldest trees in the world. Photo by Jeff Szucs

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (east of Bishop)

Some of the world’s oldest trees, including the more than 4,800-year-old “Methuselah” tree, are perched atop the desolate White Mountains. Be forewarned: The steep and narrow mountain road to get there from the Owens Valley includes hair-raising dips and sharp turns. Along the way you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada. The Schulman Grove Visitor Center is typically open May­–October, and the road is typically open May–November.

Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ, Bishop

It’s famous for sheepherder bread, which was first introduced here during the Gold Rush era by immigrant Basque sheepherders who were nostalgic for the bread of their homeland. The shop is equally worth a stop for its other Dutch- and European-style breads, original Cheeze Breads, pastries, deli sandwiches and soups, and candies.

Mono Lake tufas

Limestone formations called tufas rise out of Mono Lake, creating a bizarre and beautiful landscape.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

Tufas, bizarre-looking limestone formations that poke out of Mono Lake, create an otherworldly landscape. One of the largest concentrations of “tufa towers” is at the South Tufa grove. To get there, take State Route 120 (5 miles south of Lee Vining) east until you reach the interpretive kiosk and short trail. Learn more about tufas at the visitors center off Highway 395 just north of Lee Vining.

Mono Cone, Lee Vining

Find road food at its best at Mono Cone—including supertall, soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones dipped in chocolate.

Bodie State Historic Park ghost town

The structures in Bodie State Historic Park, a gold-rush ghost town, are frozen in time. Photo by Suzanne Tanaka

Bodie State Historic Park

This gold-mining ghost town is cool and creepy. In 1880, Bodie was home to nearly 10,000 people, but the boom was short-lived. Peer into windows, and you’ll see dusty antique furnishings and disintegrating curtains. Learn more about Bodie’s history at the museum/bookstore or on a guided talk. Caution: The last 3 unpaved miles before the park can be a little rough at times, so take it slow.


The main attraction here is the Mono County Courthouse, built in 1880 and the state’s second oldest in continuous use. Also worth a stop is the Mono County Museum, housed in an 1880-built schoolhouse, to learn about the area’s early settlers. Consider a visit during the town’s Independence Day celebration, which has been held for more than 160 years.

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3. Majestic mountain drive


A drive through Yosemite reveals breathtaking scenes of mountains, meadows, trees, and waterfalls. Photo by David Gomez

By Laura Kiniry

The Majestic Mountain Loop provides an excellent overview of all that Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite national parks have to offer. While not anything close to a circular loop, the itinerary links the 3 parks’ main attractions.

With scenery that includes giant trees, towering peaks, and the occasional black bear, it’s a trip that appeals to everyone from nature-loving kids to adventurous adults. 

Wuksachi Lodge

A modern lodge with a rustic feel, Sequoia National Park’s 102-room stone and cedar gem is an ideal base for exploring the park’s main attractions. At 7,200 feet above sea level, it also offers breathtaking views of the night sky. Rates start at $175.

Moro Rock

The peaks of the Great Western Divide are visible from the top of Moro Rock. Photo by Catherine "Cat" Evans

Moro Rock

A steep, 350-plus-step climb to the top of Sequoia’s imposing dome-shaped monolith rewards with panoramic scenery, including the towering peaks of the Great Western Divide. Its granite west face is popular among rock climbers.

Crystal Cave

Embark on a guided tour of subterranean stalactites and stalagmites in this marble karst cave, one of 250 caves within Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Enjoy illuminated paths during the day or opt for an evening visit by candle lanterns. (The cave is scheduled to reopen in May 2023 after being closed due to the KNP Complex Fire; it is typically open May–September).

General Sherman

Get out of the car in Sequoia National Park for the easy trek to the mammoth General Sherman Tree. Photo by Josh Xavier

General Sherman Tree

It’s one of the largest and oldest living things on earth: a nearly 275-foot-tall cinnamon-bark beauty with a diameter of 36 feet. From its base, take the Main Trail to the Congress Trail for an easy, 2-mile loop trek among other giant sequoias.

Zumwalt Meadow

 The meadows of Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite parks are wide-open wildlife oases, often attracting bears and woodpeckers. With its granite walls and ambling river Zumwalt Meadow is among the parks’ loveliest grasslands, tucked in the heart of Kings Canyon. A gentle, 1.5-mile trail circles the area.

Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite

A great stopover on the way to Yosemite, Tenaya Lodge has more than 25 room types, an award-winning spa, and 4 restaurants serving up everything from barbecue to artisanal pizzas. Take a comfy seat in Its recently remodeled lobby. This year, the lodge has relaunched its Flashlight Hike and has partnered with a local bike company to create self-guided bike trails for guests. Rates start at $199.

Yosemite Falls

North America’s tallest measured waterfall cascades 2,425 feet in 3 distinct sections. The leisurely, mile-long Lower Yosemite Fall paved loop trail provides spectacular views of both the upper and lower falls. More adventurous types will want to try the Yosemite Falls trail, a 7.2-mile round-trip trek that ascends 2,700 feet.

 4. Gold and wine on Highway 49

By Rachel Ng

In Mother Lode Country, gold and wine have a symbiotic relationship, with roots tracing back to the mid-1800s Gold Rush.

As the precious metal started to dwindle, many fortune-seeking prospectors, including John Sutter and James Marshall, turned to another lucrative venture—winemaking. The Sierra Foothills wine region’s diverse terroirs, high elevations, and large day-night temperature swings made for quality zinfandel and syrah.

From Calaveras County to El Dorado County, the 2-lane State Route 49—flanked by gothic-looking oak trees and bucolic pastures dotted with napping cows—traverses former boomtowns and winds past fruit stands and charming wineries.

Moaning Caverns Adventure Park, Vallecito

Moaning Caverns is said to have the largest cave chamber in California. Descend a 100-foot spiral metal staircase to explore towering stalagmites, ancient stalactites, dramatic draperies, and mammoth flowstones, or join the 3-hour Expedition Crawling and Spelunking Tour to belly-crawl through tight, dark spaces.


Located in the gold rush town of Murphys, this hotel has been welcoming guests since 1856. Photo by Jennie Nunn


This former gold-mining town has a thriving live music scene. Enjoy acts nearly every night at Murphys Irish Pub, as well as at a variety of free music events held in the community park during summer months. Shop, eat, and sip wine on Murphys’ Main Street. If you’re up for a little adventure, drive 1 mile north to tour Mercer Caverns, named after the gold prospector who discovered them around 1885.

Knight Foundry, Sutter Creek

Established in 1873 and listed on the National Register of historic Places, this facility is the last water-powered foundry and machine shop in the U.S. It’s open to the public on the second Saturday of each month, when docents are available to answer questions as you take a self-guided tour of the complex. Equipment and machinery are on-site just as they were during the town's Gold Rush-era heyday.

Hanford House Inn, Sutter Creek

This Gold Rush town B&B combines the sophistication of a boutique hotel with the thoughtful touches of a family-owned operation. Breakfast is prepared for inn guests with herbs handpicked from the on-site garden, a complimentary glass of Amador County wine is offered upon arrival, and guests also enjoy fresh-baked scones and cookies. Rates start at $145.

Lava Cap Winery, Placerville

Three generations of winemakers use sustainable farming practices on volcanic soil to cultivate their award-winning petite sirah, sangiovese, barbera, and zinfandel. Lava Cap is also known for its buttery chardonnay.

Gold Bug Park

Visitors can learn how gold was mined at Gold Bug Park in Placerville. Photo by Sandra Foyt/Alamy Stock Photo

Gold Bug Park and Mine, Gold Bug Park, Placerville

Venture deep into a hard-rock gold mine, where costumed guides bring history and geology lessons to life with animated storytelling. Learn how gold is extracted from milky quartz at the stamp mill and watch a blacksmith forge iron and steel at his workshop.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Coloma

Trace the beginnings of California’s Gold Rush on a guided tour of this 576-acre state park, which features a Chinese general store and a replica of Sutter’s Mill. The recently opened 2.5-mile Gam Saan Trail (Gam Saan means “Gold Mountain” in Cantonese), which is dedicated to the Gold Rush’s Chinese miners, connects the state park to Hennigsen Lotus Park in Lotus.

Hungry? Stop by the shabby-chic Argonaut Farm to Fork Café for breakfast or lunch, locally made gelato, and artfully poured lattes.

5. California combo: redwoods and the coast

By Jeff Greenwald

On State Route 36, sinuous, roller-coaster roads wind west from Red Bluff through Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, past rustic towns and pastures, to Hydesville near the coast. No wonder this 135-mile stretch is arguably the most beloved motorcycling road in California—and one of America’s top riding routes.

Snaking back and forth from one turn to another, feeling the road rise and fall beneath you, is a recipe for mindful happiness—whether on 2 wheels or 4. This route is neither a loop nor a straight line, but more free-form.

Once you get to the end, catch your breath—then meander the roads along US Highway 101 to discover these gems at or near the coast.

Smith River

Swimming, rafting, and fishing in the Smith River, located in the Six Rivers National Forest, are popular ways to enjoy this area. Photo by Agefotostock/Alamy Stock Photo

South Fork Mountain Interpretive Wayside Exhibits (about 55 miles east of Fortuna)

Take in a panoramic view of the longest continuous mountain ridge in the continental U.S., running 47 miles. Also enjoy sweeping views of the Six Rivers National Forest, the South Fork of the Trinity, and—contrasting against the green forest—the odd basalt peaks called Black Lassic and Red Lassic.

Cheatham Grove

Despite its tranquility, this lovely redwood grove, located in Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, served as the location for the speeder bike chase scenes in Star Wars: Episode VI–Return of the Jedi.


Dozens of 19th-century mansions and other historic buildings in one of California’s best-preserved Victorian villages reflect a prosperous dairy heritage. On Main Street, you’ll find cafés, B&Bs, and galleries. An on-site restaurant in the 1890-built Victorian Inn offers California and Pacific Northwest cuisine; its Portuguese paella is a nod to the town’s Iberian heritage. Rates start at $149.

Centerville Beach County Park (5 miles west of Ferndale). From this secluded beach, take in a breathtaking view of the Lost Coast, California’s longest stretch of natural, unadulterated beaches.

Avenue of the Giants

The 31-mile Avenue of the Giants courses through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo by Spring Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Avenue of the Giants (southeast of the Route 36 junction and parallel to Highway 101)

This 31-mile scenic road traverses more than 51,000 acres of America’s most spectacular redwoods.


Stop in at the general store and post office in this tiny community to send a postcard and enjoy a frozen fruit bar.

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