There’s no place in the world like California, a state overflowing with breathtaking natural wonders, rich cultural diversity and renowned culinary scenes. Whether you’re hankering to delve into Western history in Sacramento, tour some of the best wineries in the country in Napa Valley or connect with your inner beach bum in San Diego, there are experiences to fulfill every traveler’s wish list.
Encompassing over 160,000 square miles, the Golden State’s expansive nature make it the perfect road trip destination. Use our itinerary below—a roughly 879-mile trip from Lake Tahoe to San Diego—for planning your own California adventure.
Your journey begins in Lake Tahoe, a city on the California-Nevada border named after the mesmerizingly beautiful blue lake that calls the vicinity home. Outdoor enthusiasts and view-seekers from far and wide travel to the area to hike, boat, swim and more in the glacial lake’s waters. Take in the best panoramas from hot spots like Emerald Bay State Park, known for its incredible hiking trails; D.L. Bliss State Park, where you can wade into clear turquoise waters; and Kings Beach State Recreation Area, a peaceful stretch of white sand framed by verdant forests.
Those craving a brush with Lady Luck will find plenty of Reno-inspired casinos to duck into on Lake Tahoe’s south shore, while the north shore is packed with luxury shopping and dining options. Visiting in the winter? No problem: Lake Tahoe also offers some of North America’s best skiing at Squaw Valley and Heavenly ski resorts.
LAKE TAHOE HOTELS:
California’s capitol, about 115 miles west of Lake Tahoe, is your next stop. While Sacramento may not attract as much attention as higher-profile cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, it has many cultural and historic attractions to explore. Find out how the “iron horse” impacted the growth of the nation at the California State Railroad Museum, where you can ride a real steam or diesel locomotive along the Sacramento River. Then tour memorials honoring significant events in the state’s history at Capitol Park, including ones dedicated to Civil War and Vietnam War veterans; and see over 15,000 works produced by artists from across the globe at the Crocker Art Museum.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, scoot over to the Old Sacramento Waterfront to dig into some casual fare in one of the neighborhood’s restaurants (Emma’s Tamales and Delta Bar & Grill are long-standing favorites). Or head over to the hip Midtown district to feast on everything from fried chicken sandwiches at World Famous Hot Boys to street tacos at Taqueria Jalisco.
About 70 miles from Sacramento lies one of the nation’s most celebrated viticultural areas. Because Napa Valley has more than 375 wineries, careful planning is the key to tasting your way through the area without getting overwhelmed. Highlights to add to your itinerary include O’Brian Estate, featuring a laid-back ambiance and lovely open-air seating; Frog’s Leap Winery, known for its natural wines and bucolic ambiance; and Castello di Amorosa, housed in a 13th-century-era Tuscan castle. For a unique experience, book an excursion on the Napa Valley Wine Train, which will take you on a 36-mile ride to St. Helena and back, with stops at wineries along the way. Be sure to make time to admire the natural grandeur of the valley at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, where you can hike to stunning vistas at the summit of Mount Saint Helena.
- SILICON VALLEY
Once you’ve concluded the wine-tasting portion of your road trip, drive 50 miles south to San Francisco, home to a bounty of iconic sights. Spend the day strolling some of its vibrant neighborhoods, such as Castro, the center of the LGBTQ community; Chinatown, a must for window shopping and dim sum; and Mission, a district brimming with Bohemian vibes and great Mexican fare. Meanwhile, families love kid-pleasing attractions like the California Academy of Sciences, which houses an aquarium, planetarium and a natural history museum, and the Walt Disney Family Museum and Café at The Presidio, a national park showcasing spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
No first-timer’s trip to San Francisco would be complete without a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf for fresh-caught Dungeness crab and a steaming bowl of clam chowder and a ferry ride to Alcatraz. But if you’re willing to travel farther afield, venture to Muir Woods National Monument to see California’s majestic redwoods.
If technology is your passion, add a trip to the southern San Francisco Bay Area to your journey. Silicon Valley—an area that encompasses San Jose, Palo Alto and Santa Clara—is about 40 miles from the City by the Bay. In addition to the headquarters of giants like Google, Apple and Facebook, you’ll also find gems like the San Jose Museum of Art, Computer History Museum and Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum.
SAN FRANCISCO HOTELS:
- ORANGE COUNTY
From Silicon Valley, make your way down to Los Angeles, a 350-mile drive lined with potential stops, from ruggedly beautiful Monterey on the coast to quirky Bakersfield. Once you arrive in La La Land, cruise down Sunset Boulevard, the famed palm-lined route that connects downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and the Pacific Coast Highway. If you’re a film buff, spend an afternoon on Hollywood Boulevard exploring the Walk of Fame and TLC Chinese Theatre. Lovers of the arts should visit The Getty Center, a museum with collections that span contemporary photography, Renaissance paintings, Baroque sculptures and more. Or opt for a trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has constantly rotating exhibits on more than 20 acres.
Those looking for some time on the sand will find several shorelines to choose from, including Venice, Santa Monica and Zuma beaches. LA also has an incredible food scene that caters to every craving, from celebrity-chef-owned spots like Tom Colicchio’s farm-to-table Craft LA and Curtis Stone’s Maude to food trucks offering critically acclaimed tacos, lobster rolls and sushi burritos.
Road tripping with kiddos and young adults? Stop in Orange County, about 35 miles south of Los Angles. There, you can pick from tons of family-friendly endeavors, including Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort and California Adventure Park and the surfer-friendly towns of Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach.
LOS ANGELES/ ORANGE COUNTY HOTELS:
About 90 miles east of Orange County, Palm Springs is relaxation-centric destination in the southern California desert. Pool time is an essential activity in Palm Springs, so book a stay at one of the city’s hotels or resorts. To stretch your legs, hike amid the awe-inspiring geologic wonders of Coachella Valley at Joshua Tree National Park or walk among desert wetlands and other landscapes at the over 20,000-acre Coachella Valley Preserve. Other activities include admiring sights of the San Jacinto Mountains from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, spying on mountain lions, bighorn sheep and other wild creatures at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens and checking out the lineup of vintage planes at the Palm Springs Air Museum.
PALM SPRINGS HOTELS:
Over 70 miles of coastline and sunny skies await about 130 miles away from Palm Springs in San Diego. The welcoming city has an abundance of natural landscapes and plenty of activities to keep visitors busy. Discover Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre complex encompassing the San Diego Zoo, the flora-filled Botanical Building (one of the most photographed spots in town) and several museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art. Soak up some SoCal vibes at Mission and Pacific beaches, paradises surfing, sunbathing and people watching; or take in a quieter scene at Coronado Beach. But nothing beats a view of the sunset from the water, which you can get by booking a boat tour with a local outfitter like San Diego Bay Cruises.
Situated on California’s southernmost coast near the Mexico border, it’s no surprise that San Diego has a distinguished Mexican food scene. Find some of the best spots to savor South of the Border specialties in Barrio Logan or enjoy more upscale variations of the cuisine in La Jolla and Point Loma. If fish tacos are your forte, you’ll find plenty of spots to indulge at seaside joints along the city’s beaches.
SAN DIEGO HOTELS: