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The Golden State's Best Summer Road Trips

The Golden State's Best Summer Road Trips

By Rachael Medina
Staff Writer June 08, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

Warm days call for many of life’s simple pleasures—like eating ice cream by the lake, admiring nature’s beauty, and putting technology down in favor of real human connections—so now’s the perfect time to start planning a California summer road trip. 

If you’re up for a long excursion, drive across the entire state over the course of a week or two. Though it’s a lengthy trip, you’ll be able to see some of the best California destinations, especially if you take the Pacific Coast Highway in one direction and cruise inland past the national parks in the other. 

But you can experience the beauty and witness the natural wonders of California during a shorter drive, too. In such a stunning state, it's easy to find inspiration around every curve as you enjoy panoramic views, sweeping coastal landscapes, and all the adventure you could ask for. 

Whether you’re looking for a peaceful reset in nature, a classic seaside getaway, or a heart-racing new challenge, these idyllic summer road trips are sure to quell your wanderlust—at least for a little while. 

Yosemite Valley to South Lake Tahoe

Head to the beautiful blue shores of South Lake Tahoe from the famed Yosemite Valley for an adventure-filled road trip through the mountains.

Distance: 185 miles

Getting there: From Yosemite Valley, take CA-120 East until it meets 395 North. Continue driving until you approach the California-Nevada border and Topaz Lake, then look out for signs toward CA-89 North. When nearing South Lake Tahoe, turn onto Highway 50 East, and relax as the 50 turns into Lake Tahoe Boulevard and you leisurely cruise through town.

The Golden State is dotted with beautiful locales from east to west, but we often forget to enjoy its many facets when the blazing sun makes the state’s famous beaches sound all too appealing. This inland road trip from Yosemite to Lake Tahoe will reinvigorate your love of California’s forested regions by taking you through a few of the most popular tourist destinations. Get ready for a California summer road trip you’ll remember for a lifetime.

The possibilities for outdoor recreation are endless in Yosemite. Before you head to Tahoe, spend a few days camping in the wilderness; hike along the John Muir Trail; trek up to Half Dome; photograph the waterfalls, pools, and granite surfaces that have captivated innumerable people throughout history; and experience the majesty and wonder of the natural world. Though it may be hard to convince yourself to leave the incredible masterpiece that is Yosemite National Park, many more adventures await three hours north. 

As you cruise closer to the California border, it’s hard to believe you’re in the same state as the rugged coastline to the west. With dense trees and fresh mountain air surrounding you, every worry begins to float away in this entirely new world, especially once the refreshing Lake Tahoe breeze blows over you and reinvigorates your spirits. Once you’ve settled in South Lake Tahoe, get ready for even more adventure. From paddleboarding and kayaking to hiking and biking, there are endless activities here. 

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Redding to Fern Canyon

Take the road less traveled and drive from Redding to Fern Canyon to explore the lush, forested landscapes of Northern California.

Distance: 180 miles

Getting there: Drive on CA-299 West for approximately three hours before dipping into a few of Humboldt County’s cities such as Eureka. Then, hop on US-101 North and cruise past the scenic regions of Trinidad and Patricks Point, before arriving at the Gold Bluffs Beach Campground at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. 

Located just over a mile north from the Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, Fern Canyon offers one of the best off-the-beaten-path hiking trails in California: Fern Canyon Trail. A mysterious fog settles over the land as you arrive, making it even harder to believe that this locale isn’t plucked from your dreams or an abandoned movie set—though it has appeared in the Jurassic Park movies. 

The stunning contrast of the ocean and the forest seems surreal, providing some of the most amazing photos and vivid memories. Hike the 1.1-mile loop to admire the striking, fern-covered canyon walls and the calming creek bed. Spend a night or two enjoying the wildness around you, and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the local Roosevelt elk herd. 

San Francisco to Big Sur

Admire breathtaking coastal views and visit iconic California landmarks on the scenic route from San Francisco to Big Sur.

Distance: 150 miles

Getting there: Cruise along Highway 1 for about three hours.

When I think of a California summer road trip, I can’t help but imagine Big Sur. Something about escaping the city and appreciating the expansive scenery of this coastline screams vacation—making it an awesome experience to share with your closest friends and family members. If cruising down Highway 1 on a scenic summer day isn’t enough to convince you to visit Big Sur, perhaps the decadent eateries, strenuous hikes, and unparalleled vista points will. 

Between watching the sunset from the deck of your glampsite and exploring the untamed wilderness around you, there’s always something new to experience in Big Sur. Once you’ve gotten your fill of this famed Central Coast destination, slowly return to San Francisco, setting aside time to check out the unique towns of Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, and Carmel-by-the-Sea on your way back. 

San Diego to Catalina Island

Enjoy the great outdoors and take in the stunning Southern California scenery while cruising from San Diego to Catalina Island.

Distance: 105 miles

Getting there: Cruise along I-5 North from San Diego to Dana Point. Then, jump on the Pacific Coast Highway and follow it up to Long Beach. 

San Diego and Long Beach are two of the most popular coastal cities in Southern California, and this road trip will show you why. Spend a couple of days wandering around Balboa Park, seeing the sites of downtown San Diego, enjoying water sports, and eating an iconic California burrito before climbing in the car for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to your next destination. 

There’s nothing like rolling down the windows and letting the salty ocean breeze flow through your hair to mark the beginning of an epic vacation. Once you arrive in Long Beach, feel free to get acquainted with the local landscape, but don’t take too long to hop on the Catalina Express—the high-speed ferry that travels to Catalina Island. 

Allow yourself to unwind during the hour-long boat ride, but don’t get too comfortable; with so much to do on Catalina Island, you’ll want to fill every minute once you step foot on the dock. Plan on camping, ziplining, and rock climbing while you’re there, and you’ll have plenty to talk about once you get back to San Diego. 

Now that you’ve found your ideal summer road trip, all there’s left to do is check out these eco-friendly tips, throw on the seatbelt, and bump some tunes.

Staff Writer
Rachael Medina

Staff Writer Rachael Medina

Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…

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