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Enjoy a drive on one of the 8 national scenic byways in California

The Death Valley Scenic Byway is an 81-mile east-west route through Death Valley National Park. Photo by Matthieu/stock.adobe.com The Death Valley Scenic Byway is an 81-mile east-west route through Death Valley National Park. Photo by Matthieu/stock.adobe.com

With international travel restricted over much of the last year and fewer travelers boarding planes, many Americans seeking fresh scenery have rediscovered a love for hitting the road. Among sought-after routes are the 184 national scenic byways designated in 48 states; eight are in California.

Congress established the National Scenic Byways program 30 years ago to recognize, preserve, and enhance select roads throughout the United States based on one or more archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities.

“Scenic byways are paths to adventure and meaningful experiences for all of us,” writes National Park Foundation President and CEO Will Shafroth. “They offer opportunities to explore national parks, admire stunning geologic features, connect with our shared heritage, and #RecreateResponsibly.”

So, pack up the car and hit the road. Here’s a snapshot of the eight scenic byways—presented from shortest to longest—in our state: routes where the journey is the destination. Visit fhwa.dot.gov/byways for more information.

Arroyo Seco Historic Parkway

Length: 9.5 miles

The historic Lummis House is an Arts and Crafts stone home that was hand-built by journalist and civil rights activist Charles Fletcher Lummis. | Photo by Dennis Harbach

The historic Lummis House is an Arts and Crafts stone home that was hand-built by journalist and civil rights activist Charles Fletcher Lummis. | Photo by Dennis Harbach

The first freeway built in the western U.S. straddled the line between scenic parkway and high-speed freeway when it was completed in 1940. The corridor, which connects downtown Los Angeles with Pasadena, is lined with lush plantings and is notable for the four art deco–style Figueroa Street tunnels that cut through Elysian Park

Don’t miss: The Lummis House at Exit 27, the historic, hand-built stone home of Charles Fletcher Lummis, author, editor, and civil rights activist.

San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway

Length: 57 miles

Morro Rock, a California Historical Landmark, stands watch over Morro Bay Harbor. | Photo by Fernando Margolles/stock.adobe.com

Morro Rock, a California Historical Landmark, stands watch over Morro Bay Harbor. | Photo by Fernando Margolles/stock.adobe.com

Chiseled foothills, wildflower meadows, grasslands, farms, and acres of rolling vineyards meet the sea on this eye-candy ride along California’s Central Coast. Tide pools and secluded coves border quiet beach towns, and sanctuaries and estuaries harbor wildlife, including elephant seals, otters, monarch butterflies, and rare birds. Continue north on Highway 1 to connect with Big Sur Coast Highway, another scenic byway described below.

Don’t miss: Morro Bay National Estuary, home to Morro Rock, called the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway

Length: 61 miles

Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway in the Sierra is bookended by Calaveras Big Trees and Grover Hot Springs state parks. | Photo by nathanallen/stock.adobe.com

Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway in the Sierra is bookended by Calaveras Big Trees and Grover Hot Springs state parks. | Photo by nathanallen/stock.adobe.com

Mother Nature’s magic takes center stage on this high-country, winding trek through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Expect in-your-face views of deep canyons, jagged mountain peaks, gushing rivers, and vast wilderness. Two scenic state parks bookend the journey, with plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Don’t miss: Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where you can walk among towering giant sequoias, the world’s largest trees. 

Tioga Road/Big Oak Flat Road

Length: 64 miles

Tioga Road/Big Oak Flat Road in Yosemite National Park is the highest automobile pass in California. | Photo by oneinchpunch/stock.adobe.com

Tioga Road/Big Oak Flat Road in Yosemite National Park is the highest automobile pass in California. | Photo by oneinchpunch/stock.adobe.com

Everything is super-sized on this majestic journey over the towering Sierra Nevada. Located entirely within Yosemite National Park on the highest automobile pass in California, this bucket list drive rewards with views of soaring granite cliffs, rugged mountain peaks, glacier-formed lakes, and groves of giant Sequoia trees.

Don’t miss: Olmstead Point for a look at the face of Cloud’s Rest, dropping nearly 5,000 feet into Tenaya Creek.

Route 1-Big Sur Coast Highway

Length: 72 miles

The Bixby Creek Bridge is lit up at night, but the Big Sur Coast Highway, with its twisty turns, steep drop-offs, and phenomenal views, is best driven in daylight. | Photo by Mark Jackson

The Bixby Creek Bridge is lit up at night, but the Big Sur Coast Highway, with its twisty turns, steep drop-offs, and phenomenal views, is best driven in daylight. | Photo by Mark Jackson

Considered one of America’s finest scenic drives, this Pacific Coast–hugging trip offers stunning mountain-to-sea vistas around every bend. Tiny coves, pebbly beaches, and parks are perfect pit stops along the way. Look for sea lions sunning on rocky outcroppings, California condors gliding above, and migrating whales off the coast. The road is currently closed to through traffic to repair a landslide that wiped out 150 feet of roadway at Rat Creek.

Don’t miss: Bixby Bridge, one of the tallest single-span arch bridges in the world, with lofty sea cliffs and canyon views.

Death Valley Scenic Byway

Length: 81.5 miles

The Death Valley Scenic Byway is an 81-mile east-west route through Death Valley National Park. | Photo by Matthieu/stock.adobe.com

The Death Valley Scenic Byway curves through the national park. | Photo by Matthieu/stock.adobe.com

Enter a land of extremes, an otherworldly terrain of drifting sand dunes, deep canyons, towering peaks, expansive salt flats, and rugged rock formations. This east-west route kinks through the Lower 48’s largest national park, crossing the stark, sculpted desert with views of the purple- and red-hued Sierra Nevada summits on the horizon.

Don’t miss: Father Crowley Vista Point with views of the Panamint Mountain Range and Rainbow Canyon.

California Historic Route 66: Needles to Barstow Scenic Byway

Length: 150 miles

The Needles to Barstow Scenic Byway travels through the stark landscape of the Mojave Desert. | Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management

The Needles to Barstow Scenic Byway travels through the stark landscape of the Mojave Desert. | Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management

California’s newest scenic byway, designated in February 2021, passes through the Mojave Desert, with long stretches of road broken up by Joshua trees and the occasional ghost town. There are rewards to be found for history buffs, rockhounds, and amateur astronomers, but there are dangers out here, too. Drivers should check for flash-flood warnings before veering too far off this stretch of Interstate 40.

Don’t miss: Learn how motorists “got their kicks” in the days before the interstate at the Route 66 Mother Road Museum in Barstow.

Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

Length: 500 miles

The 129-foot Burney Falls is the centerpiece of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, a popular stop on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. | Photo by Mark Nakamura/stock.adobe.com

The 129-foot Burney Falls is the centerpiece of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, a popular stop on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. | Photo by Mark Nakamura/stock.adobe.com

The Pacific Northwest’s dramatic volcanic landscape is on full display on this journey along the Cascade Range that links Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Expect views of vast forests, pristine lakes and streams, and massive mountain peaks, including 14,179-foot Mount Shasta. There are lava beds, caves, and bubbling mud pots to see, too.

Don’t miss: Theodore Roosevelt called the 129-foot Burney Falls in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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