California Road Trip Ideas: The Scenic One-Day Drives You Need to Take

California Road Trip Ideas: The Scenic One-Day Drives You Need to Take

By Rachael Medina
Staff Writer August 21, 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. 

Home to ancient redwoods, majestic snow-capped mountains, pristine sandy beaches, and Joshua tree–dotted deserts, the Golden State has it all. With so many things to do and terrains to admire here, there’s no better way to see it than by going on a California road trip. While it can be easy to stay on the well-beaten path, such as the I-5 or Highway 101, there are plenty of rewards to be gained by visiting the more remote regions of California

The twists and turns of the road greet you with unparalleled ocean views, two-lane highways present little-seen treasures you’d otherwise never know were there, and old vines line the road to happiness. Endless possibilities lie within our borders, leaving you with a countless number of California trip ideas to add to your to-do list. 

While daydreaming about your next long-distance vacation can satisfy a bit of wanderlust, nothing beats the feeling of hitting the road for a new adventure. So, forget your existing weekend plans, and discover something new on these one-day driving routes.

California Road Trip Ideas for Quick Getaways

When you just need to get away from it all—but can’t go too far—it’s time to head out on one of the best California road trips near you. These short staycations allow you to unwind and relax as you watch the open road ahead. 

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Lombard Street: The Urban Road Trip

Lombard Street is a worthy stop on any California road trip. Start at the top and gaze at the incredible city views before descending.

California Road Trip Itinerary: Bodega Bay to Lombard Street, San Francisco

Round-Trip Driving Time: 4 hours

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 the rugged bluffs of Bodega Bay on Highway 1 to appreciate the Golden State’s intense natural beauty. Stop by Tomales Bay and Point Reyes Station to admire the views and stretch your legs before continuing south. Take note of Stinson Beach, Muir Woods, and Sausalito as you drive past, making plans for future trips. 

Before you know it, you’ll be crossing San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge, passing through the Presidio, and turning onto the 101 (which also happens to be the straight portion of Lombard Street). Continue driving on Lombard Street after the 101 ends and 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 to check out some of the top S.F. attractions.

Route 152: The Rural Road Trip

Take the road less traveled, and follow the twists and turns of Route 152 as you make your way from agricultural towns to the ocean.

California Road Trip Itinerary: Gustine to Santa Cruz

Round-Trip Driving Time: 3 hours

This stretch of highway is located east of Monterey Bay, between San Jose and Carmel-by-the-Sea. While the coastal towns get a lot of attention, the Central Valley is an agricultural haven worth spending time in, too. Cruise through Gilroy—the “Garlic Capital of the World”—and meet up with the famous Highway 1 in Watsonville, and make your way up to Santa Cruz for a road trip you won’t soon forget. 

The drive along Route 152 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.) 

Since the gorgeous drive also gives you the opportunity to jump on the Pacific Coast Highway—another popular route where you can savor the region’s incredible seafood and scenery—this California road trip has something for everyone. 

Route 128: The Forested Road Trip

Take in California's giant, majestic redwoods as you journey from Winters to Albion on Route 128.

California Road Trip Itinerary: Winters to Albion

Round-Trip Driving Time: 5 hours, 40 minutes

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 excursion. Whether you are flying into the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time or exploring your own backyard, the drive from Winters 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. 

If the fresh ocean breeze captivates your senses, extend your day trip and turn it into a weekend glamping vacation in Mendocino. This side trip only adds 20 minutes to your drive each way and is very much worth experiencing, if you have the time.

Route 74: The Desert Road Trip

Hit the open road, and drive along California Route 74 to end up in spectacular Palm Springs.

California Road Trip Itinerary: Dana Point to Palm Springs

Round-Trip Driving Time: 7 hours

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 northern portion of the Cleveland National Forest. Then, take a quick break to see Ortega Falls before you continue through the residential towns of Southern California, head across the San Bernardino National Forest, and curve north past Palm Desert to complete Route 74. 

Finish the journey by jumping on the 111 and cruising into 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 the Golden State unique. 

With so many drives to add to your California road trip itinerary, you should have enough adventures to fill the season—but if you’re still searching for staycations, check out the best mountain escapes near the Bay Area and the best getaways from Los Angeles.

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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