California Road Trip: Top Stops Along the Way

California Road Trip: Top 15 Scenic Stops Along the Way

California is truly filled with unique treasures. Although many people associate California with Hollywood, there are so many places to explore in the Golden State

Road-tripping through California could take weeks, and you still won’t see it all. That’s why we’ve put together a California road trip itinerary for you to journey your way down the coast from Northern California through the Central Coast and into Southern California. 

For this California road trip, you’ll mainly be following Highway 1 south. This famous highway gives you incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. Even beyond these stops, you’ll see amazing sights throughout your entire journey, even just from your car. 

Once you hit Santa Barbara, it’s time to head back north, but you’ll be following a more inland path. This way, you’ll be able to make time for national parks, hidden hideaways, and fresh food from California’s farmland!

This road trip takes you through some of the more hidden gems of the state, like Half Moon Bay, San Simeon, and Solvang. From wine tours to hiking trails to amusement parks, there’s so much to do at these stunning locations that you may want to spend a few days at each stop. 

But to help you get the most out of each day, we’ve picked out a few of the sights you just can’t miss seeing. Follow this carefully curated California road trip itinerary to uncover all the famous and little-known destinations California has to offer.

Scenic Stops Along Your California Road Trip 

1. Explore Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Road Trip Stops in California: Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Before you venture south, start your journey in San Francisco. Known for its steep rolling hills, eclectic architecture, and fantastic food scene, you could spend your whole vacation getting to know this diverse city. But if you’re only stopping by and visiting for a few days, there should be a few highlights on your list of things to do in San Francisco

Take a walk along the Lands End Coastal Trail for one of the best views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Then, explore Golden Gate Park, where you’ll find beautiful places to spend an afternoon, like the Japanese Tea Garden or the Conservatory of Flowers

Another stop to make is the Palace of Fine Arts, one of the most picturesque structures in the city. If you’d like to see the famous Painted Ladies, head to Alamo Square Park for a view like no other. Finish your eventful day off by dining in Ghirardelli Square.

Experience a Golden Gate Park Segway Tour

2. Have a Beach Day in Half Moon Bay

California Road Trip: Half Moon Bay in San Francisco

As a northern California coastal town filled with excellent surfing, clean beaches, and bright blue waters, you may end up spending your entire time in Half Moon Bay relaxing in the sand. But there’s plenty more to do in this charming town, especially if you visit in the fall. 

Located an easy 30 miles south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is known for its pumpkin patches. The farms in Half Moon Bay put on quite a show in autumn, with corn mazes, haunted hayrides, and plenty of pumpkin picking. If you’re visiting closer to winter, many of these pumpkin patches turn into Christmas tree farms, complete with hot cocoa and tons of fun for adults and little ones alike.

Once you’re done at the farms, head to Half Moon Bay’s historic downtown for some great dining options and stores boasting one-of-a-kind finds. Here you’ll find handcrafted trinkets, hand-cut flowers, and even baby chicks to coo over.

3. Catch Epic Waves in Santa Cruz

Road Trip Stops in California: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

Venturing an hour south of Half Moon Bay on Highway 1, your next stop should be the laidback and beachy town of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is best known for its iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where you can ride the historic Giant Dipper, play skeeball in a huge and classic arcade, and spend a whole day sampling delicious boardwalk eats. 

But if you’d rather spend time in the forest instead of at the beach, climb aboard a train at the Roaring Camp Railroads. Hop on the Redwood Forest Steam Train for a tour of the redwoods until you reach Bear Mountain. 

Or take the Santa Cruz Beach Train, where you’ll be taken through Henry Cowell State Park and delivered to the Santa Cruz beaches. Around the holiday season, these trains are transformed into an illuminated wonderland.

Santa Cruz also has a diverse downtown, where you’ll find delicious dining options and unique shopping opportunities, as well as live music, historic movie theaters, and more. There are so many fun things to do in this beachside beauty – you could easily spend three days in Santa Cruz.

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4. Spot Majestic Sea Creatures in Monterey

California Road Trip: Majestic Sea Creatures in Monterey

Less than an hour south of Santa Cruz is Monterey, another waterfront town with a very different vibe and a must on any California road trip. You won’t find amusement park rides in Monterey, but what you will find is incredible wildlife, amazing eats, and aquatic attractions like no other. There are tons of fun things to do in Monterey!

If you only have a few days in Monterey, you’ll likely want to spend them exploring the bay itself. Climb aboard a kayak at the Monterey Bay, and you’re bound to see sea lions, seals, otters, and maybe even dolphins while you’re paddling. Or venture to Old Fisherman’s Wharf to take a whale-watching tour and see humpbacks, orcas, and many more unique types of whales that spend time in the Monterey waters. 

One of the biggest attractions in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a world-renowned aquarium known for its rehabilitation efforts for abandoned wildlife. Learn about how surrogate otter moms train lost pups to prepare them to be released back into the wild. 

While you’re here, you’ll spot stunning creatures from diverse habitats, from the many organisms that call kelp forests home to the bewildering beauties of the little-seen deep sea. Once you’re done exploring the aquarium, head out to Cannery Row for fine dining options with an ocean view.

5. Take in Unreal Pacific Views in Big Sur

California Road Trip: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur

Not too far from Monterey is Big Sur, a historic location on the water. Take a photo at the Bixby Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. Then, go for a hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Keep your eyes peeled for the hidden Keyhole Arch!

As you explore this gorgeous park, you’ll come across the 80-foot McWay Falls, a rushing waterfall surrounded by sandy beaches and granite cliffs. Another great hike is the Partington Cove Trail, a one-mile hike that leads you to a cove with tide pools, wildflowers, and one heck of a view.

For another unique beach experience, head to Pfeiffer Beach. Here you’ll walk along shimmering purple sand, which gets its color from manganese garnet. Check the north side of the beach near the tidepools for this naturally occurring phenomenon. 

Experience a Big Sur Guided Tour

6. Check Out the Elephant Seals in San Simeon

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Elephant Seals in San Simeon

When you stop at San Simeon, you’ll find many beautiful beaches to visit, as well as breathtaking views. But there are two locations that you have to check out if you have a short stay in this spectacular town on the water. 

The first is the real jewel of San Simeon, Hearst Castle. Started in 1919, this castle consisted of a twin-towered main building, three guesthouses, and 127 acres of terraced gardens, fountains, and pools. It’s also a museum that’s home to art and antiquities from around the world. 

There are several different types of tours available, including one that invites guests to dress in period costumes and be transported back to the age of William Randolph Hearst himself. Pick the tour that you’d like to go on most, but be sure to book in advance as space is limited.

The other stop you should make is at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, an easily accessible rookery where you’ll spot (and hear!) thousands of elephant seals nestled in the sand. Although you’ll find elephant seals here all throughout the year, up to 17,000 seals can be found here during peak times, which occur in January, April, and October.

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7. Go Kayaking in Morro Bay

Road Trip Through California: Kayaking in Morro Bay

Located just 30 miles south of San Simeon, Morro Bay is a fishing village that’s a perfect stop for people who love getting out on the water. Charter your own fishing boat or rent a paddle board to venture around the bay. 

You’re bound to spot playful otters, resting seals, and barking sea lions no matter where you go in Morro Bay. After that, ride off into the sunset on a floating tiki bar complete with 1950s-style cocktails, or paddle as the moon rises over the famous Morro Rock with a sunset kayaking tour.

Morro Bay is often foggy, but the fog typically burns off by midday. Otherwise, the climate is very temperate, so there’s never a bad time to visit this beachside town. But two of the best times to come here are during fall’s Avocado Margarita Festival and spring’s Morro Bay Kite Festival

During the Avocado Margarita Festival, you’ll listen to live music in a picturesque setting while you sip on eclectic cocktails and dine on gourmet avocado treats. This festival truly is very Californian! 

During the Kite Festival, you and your family will watch as pieces of art fly overhead, flown by trained kite pilots. For even more fun for the little ones, some of these kites are packed with candy, which will drop at certain times of the day.

8. Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

Road Trip Stops in California: Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

Once the Clam Capital of the World, Pismo Beach is a beachy town filled with places for outdoor adventures. You’ll find this gem 26 miles south of Morro Bay, so it’s a great place to get out and stretch your legs during your California road trip.

From October to February, you can watch thousands of butterflies soar overhead at the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. You can also head to Dinosaur Caves Park, a bluff park that spans 11 acres. Kids will love playing at the dinosaur-themed playground, while you’ll love sightseeing in the lush green open space. 

For a more tranquil spot, venture over to Eldwayen Ocean Park. During low tide, you’ll spot tons of aquatic creatures here, from anemones to sea stars. But if you’re more of a daredevil, you’ll want to go to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the only place in California where motor vehicles can drive on the beach. Rent a dune buggy and go for the ride of your life!

Rent a Dune Buggy in Pismo Beach

9. Wine and Dine in Santa Barbara

California Road Trip: Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara

Set 82 miles south of Pismo, Santa Barbara is one of the most popular weekend destinations in Southern California for a good reason. This gorgeous coastal town boasts beautiful beaches, gorgeous gardens, and many more amazing activities. 

Explore Lotusland, a lush and whimsical garden sitting on 37 acres and filled with a stunning collection of exotic plants once collected by famous Polish opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska. Or head to Arroyo Burro County Beach Park for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing.

Santa Barbara is known for its food and wine scene, so if you only have a day or two, join a wine or food tour to get the full experience of this scenic location. Take a sustainable wine tour, where you’ll go behind the scenes to see how small-production wines are made and sample them in private tasting rooms. Or go on a tasting tour to find local eats that are hidden gems to the area. 

End your day here with a show at the Lobero Theatre, the oldest continuously-performing theater in California. Or take in the sunset at Stearns Wharf, the oldest wooden wharf continuously in use in California. 

Now that you’ve made it to Santa Barbara, it’s time to venture back up the state. Although we journeyed down the coast, you’ll be heading back up more inland to mix things up!

Go on a Wine, Chocolate, and History Walking Tour

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10. Be Transported to Denmark in Solvang

Road Trip Through California: Solvang

A must on any California road trip bucket list, the charming village of Solvang will make you feel like you’ve been transported across the world. This town is known for its Danish history, architecture, and treats. 

Ride along the historic horse-drawn Solvang Trolley and take in the sights of this uniquely wonderful location. As you wander along the main street, Mission Drive, you’ll gawk at colorful facades, spectacular windmills, and beautiful blooming flowers. 

Solvang features many wine-tasting rooms, fine dining establishments, and shops with one-of-a-kind treats. Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolate Inc. is a must-do for any sweets lover. Here you’ll find handcrafted chocolates of all kinds. If you’re a fan of the holidays, head to Jule Hus, where it’s Christmas all year long. 

If you’re a history buff, you’ll find many one-of-a-kind museums in Solvang. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum will take you into the life and works of this beloved Danish writer. 

To learn more about the Danish history of the area, the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art will take you through art and artifacts of Solvang’s Danish roots, all housed in a building reminiscent of 18th century Denmark farmhouse. And the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum shows off exotic and vintage motorcycles and European racing bikes, a perfect stop for a racing lover.

Book a Solvang Food & Photo Tour

11. Spend the Night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo

Continuing north for about an hour, you’ll head to San Luis Obispo, where you’ll find wine tasting, farm-to-table dining, and an entertaining downtown to explore. 

Take a tour of the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, take a walk through the strange and wonderful Bubblegum Alley, or give your kids a day of play at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum. For a truly unique site, visit the Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard, a nine-acre area packed with eclectic structures built by students at Cal Poly.

If you have a night to spend in San Luis Obispo, rent a room at the Madonna Inn, a world-famous, whimsical inn with uniquely designed rooms. From rooms that look like they were built into the wall of a canyon to bright pink love shack-inspired suites, this kitschy gem is truly a one-of-a-kind find.

Book a night at the Madonna Inn

12. Go Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

California Road Trip: Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

Drive 30 miles north, and you’ll come across Paso Robles, a haven for art, culture, and wine. Visit Senserio, a 15-acre light show across rolling hills, for a spectacle unlike any other. Hike around Carrizo Plain National Monument, where the best time to explore is from March to May when the California poppies are in bloom. 

After that, you can take a hot air balloon ride over Paso Robles’ many vineyards or rest and rejuvenate in the area’s natural hot springs. You can dine on a castle rooftop at Tooth and Nail Winery, but there are plenty more wine-tasting options in the area. Hop aboard Paso Robles’ many wine tours to get a chance to experience several of the area’s biggest and best wineries.

Experience the Wine Country Sightseeing Tour

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13. Take a Hike in Pinnacles National Park

California Road Trip Stops: Pinnacles National Park in Salinas Valley

Pinnacles is a national park located just east of the Salinas Valley. About 23 million years ago, multiple volcanoes erupted, and the lava flow slid to form what would later become Pinnacles National Park. 

Throughout this gorgeous landscape, visitors can journey through chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms. This park is home to many rare creatures, like the California condor. Hikers can also venture through talus caves and come out to find towering rock spires.

Because temperatures can reach the 90s and swing wildly throughout the day, it’s not recommended to hike in the Pinnacles during the peak of the summer. Although traveling here in the fall and winter can be beautiful, the best time to visit is in spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom. There are over 30 miles of hiking trails, so there’s plenty to explore here!

14. Try All the Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

California Road Trip: Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

Famously the Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy is an adorable hidden gem in Santa Clara County, roughly an hour from Pinnacles National Park. Stop at one of the many garlic stops along the road here and even try some garlic ice cream if you’re feeling adventurous. 

Follow the Road to Garlic to find restaurants and shops offering the best garlic treats Gilroy has to offer. And if you have little ones, you’ll love Gilroy Gardens, which features beautiful gardens, amusement park rides, and the living sculptures that are the Circus Trees. 

Best Stops for Road Trip in California: Garlicky Treats in Gilroy

Just outside of Gilroy is Henry W. Coe State Park, the largest state park in northern California and home to 87,000 acres of hills and mountain ridges in the Diablo Mountain Range. Wildflowers bloom all over this park from February to March, so it’s a masterpiece of color by April. With so many trails lining the flower-covered hills, this park is a hiker’s paradise.

15. Take It Easy in the East Bay

Now that you’ve made it back up to northern California finish off your road trip in the East Bay. Lying across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, the East Bay consists of Contra Costa County and Alameda County. 

Hike your way around Tilden Regional Park, go stargazing at Chabot Space & Science Center, or dine on the water at Jack London Square in Oakland. If you’d like to see the iconic redwoods, be sure to stroll along the trails at Redwood Regional Park.

If you have young children, they’ll love Children’s Fairyland, an amusement park that looks like it came right out of a storybook. It’s conveniently located nearby the scenic Lake Merritt. This lake is also home to a large and eclectic farmers market every Saturday that’s certainly worth a stop. 

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And now your California road trip has come to an end! Did we miss any of your favorite road trip stops in California? Let us know in the comments!

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About the Author:

  • Valerie Wheatley

    Val grew up in Portland, Oregon but moved to Oahu on a whim back in 2013. She sold her house and all of her belongings and bought a one-way ticket. Since then she’s taken two around-the-world trips and has visited 60-ish countries while living out of a duffel bag.

    Val started documenting the Wandering Wheatleys travels back in 2013 as a way to update friends and family about her whereabouts and to relay humorous daily interactions. The only readers were her mom and her mother-in-law but that didn’t stop her!

    These days you’ll find Val dreaming up future trips, creating new travel content, managing a team of amazing travel enthusiasts, and chasing around her two adorable but naughty kids.

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