Home to towering redwoods, majestic mountains, pristine sandy beaches, and Joshua tree–dotted deserts, California has it all. There are so many things to do and various landscapes to see, and there is no better way to view the state than by going on a road trip. While it can be easy to stay on the well-beaten path, such as the I-5 or Highway 101, there is plenty of reward to be gained in the more remote regions of California. Twists and turns greet you with unparalleled ocean views, two-lane roads present little-seen treasures, and old vines line the road to happiness. You can experience it all within a single day’s drive on these routes.
Lombard Street: The Urban Road Trip
Did you even take a driving tour of California if you didn’t stop by one of the most famous winding streets in the world? While this San Francisco landmark can get incredibly busy, its eight hairpin turns, manicured lawns, and elegant mansions are worth every bit of stop-and-go traffic. Drive along Van Ness and turn east on Lombard Street to glide down the switchbacks—which look terribly dangerous but were actually put in place to increase safety—of this one-way street. Make sure to enjoy the San Francisco Bay views from the top before making your descent, and take a picture once you reach the bottom to show off the curves of the “Crookedest Street in the World”. Afterward, head to nearby Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, or go for another memorable and iconic drive by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
Route 152: The Rural Road Trip
On this stretch of highway between Monterey and San Jose, cruise through Gilroy—the “Garlic Capital of the World”—and meet up with the famous Highway 1 in Watsonville for a drive you won’t soon forget. This is not the most harrowing journey, but the winding roads that take you past strawberry fields, ranches, and grapevines provide a much needed reprieve from the straight and boring freeways typically found in the rest of the state. (You can even stock up on the local garlic and fresh fruits you find along the way.) The gorgeous drive also rewards you with the opportunity to jump on the Pacific Coast Highway, another popular route where you can savor the region’s incredible seafood and scenery.
Route 128: The Forested Road Trip
Though California is largely famous for its surf culture, sweeping coastal bluffs, and ocean views, the redwoods in the northern end of the state are just as unique. The ancient, giant trees are somewhat harder to get to, but they are very much worth the trek. Whether you are flying into the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time or exploring your own backyard, the drive from Calistoga to Albion will delight your senses. Watching the green canopies loom in the distance is both stunning and ominous; rows of grapevines are replaced by gargantuan tree trunks that soar hundreds of feet into the sky, warm breezes give way to crisp air, and a fresh scent of pine needles envelops it all. Emerge from the wonderland of redwoods to see the town of Albion, which overlooks the cresting waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Route 74: The Desert Road Trip
As you stare out at the ocean in Dana Point, you may find it hard to believe that a desert oasis lies just over 100 miles away, but you can see it for yourself by taking a short drive to the neighboring town of San Juan Capistrano and hopping on the 74. Drive through Rancho Mission Viejo and into the Cleveland National Forest, and take a quick break to see Ortega Falls. Then, continue through the residential towns of Southern California, head across the San Bernardino National Forest, and finish the journey in the arid terrain of Palm Springs. The scenery changes dramatically on this route, so the drive is an excellent way to see—and appreciate—the various elements that make California unique.