Take this unforgettable drive to some of California’s must-see destinations.
Hear the word “California” and you probably think sun-splashed beaches. But the Golden State is much more than that. From the mighty Pacific on the west coast to majestic Lake Tahoe on California’s eastern edge, the Golden State is a tapestry of diverse and exquisite landscapes. This sweeping arc of a drive takes you to redwoods, mountains, urban playgrounds—and yes, beaches.
Trip Length: 4-5 days
Total distance: 846mi/1,362km
Coronado Swim, surf, or simply loll on the wide, well-kept beach on this picture-perfect island. Enjoy a snack with an ocean view at the ornate Hotel del Coronado , which has been attracting notables since 1888—everyone from Thomas Edison to George W. Bush. Cross the Bay Bridge and stroll through San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter , where Victorian-era buildings house restaurants, shops, and pubs. INFO 619/232-3101; sandiego.org
Carlsbad (40mi/64km; 58 min). Perhaps better known for the riotous color of its 50-acre Flower Fields as well as LEGOLAND California , Carlsbad also boasts beautiful beaches. Family-friendly Tamarack (part of Carlsbad State Beach) is a favorite spot for swimming, surfing, scuba diving, and kayaking. A 1.5-mile stroll along the paved seawall leads into quaint Carlsbad Village. INFO (800) 227-5722; visitcarlsbad.com
Anaheim (63mi/101km; 1 hr, 6 min). No matter how often you’ve been to Disneyland , it still delivers. New at the park this year: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, which takes riders to Ariel’s Grotto and Ursula’s Lair. Stick around for amazing evening spectacles, including Fantasmic!, The World of Color, and the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty’s castle. INFO (714) 765-8888; anaheimoc.org
Hollywood (32mi/51km; 39 min). Celeb sightings rank as a highlight here, and lavish hotel lobbies, pools, and bars are good places to star search. Try London West Hollywood , W Hotel , Andaz , and Sunset Marquis Hotel (with its own in-house recording studio!). Or attend a free TV taping to see stars; request tickets well in advance at Audiences Unlimited , Hollywood Tickets , or in person at the Hollywood Ticket Outlet inside Universal Studios Hollywood. INFO (213) 624-7300; discoverlosangeles.com
Los Angeles (6mi/10km; 10 min). Catch a performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by charismatic maestro Gustavo Dudamel at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Designed by Frank Gehry, the venue is acoustically and visually stunning. Post-performance, you’ll find tasty ethnic eats in downtown L.A.’s Koreatown, Little Tokyo, or Olvera Street (site of the city’s birth in 1781). INFO (213) 624-7300; discoverlosangeles.com
Venice Beach (20mi/32km; 28 min). In this quintessentially quirky SoCal beach town, Ocean Front Walk offers a nonstop parade of street performers, rollerbladers, palm readers, and colorful characters. Stroll the whole 3 miles to the Santa Monica Pier , where you can grab a bite and ride the antique carousel. Want a ride back? Hop on Big Blue Bus #1 —a great way to get around car-free.
INFO (213) 624-7300; discoverlosangeles.com
Big Sur (296mi/476km; 5 hr 32 min). Head north and leave civilization behind as you head to this spectacular stretch of the Central Coast. Rugged cliffs, ocean views, fog-shrouded redwoods, and wildlife sightings (keep your eyes peeled for ultra-rare California condors) make this drive unforgettable. Stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park , where a brief-but-worth-it hike on the Waterfall Overlook Trail takes you to McWay Falls. Even summers can be chilly in this region. Warm up with a drink at Nepenthe , overlooking the vast Pacific. INFO (877) 666-8373; seemonterey.com
Monterey (31mi/50km; 45 min). Immortalized by John Steinbeck as the haunt of down-on-their-luck characters, Cannery Row today is a bustling strip of shops and restaurants fronting the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Take a guided kayak tour through the wildlife-rich bay with Monterey Bay Kayaks or Kayak Connection . At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, watch the antics of rescued sea otters, touch a starfish, and learn about protecting the world’s oceans. INFO (877) 666-8373; seemonterey.com
San Francisco (117mi/188km; 2 hr 15 min). Cross the iconic Golden Gate Bridge on foot for exhilarating views of Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the Marin Headlands. Tucked beneath the bridge’s southern end is historic Fort Point , which traces back to the Civic War (open Fri-Sun). INFO (415) 391-2000; onlyinsanfrancisco.com
Napa Valley (55mi/89km; 1 hr 12 min). In a valley that reveres fine food and wine, the tiny town of Yountville is a foodie’s sweet dream. Though small, it’s home to incredible restaurants, including Bottega , Bistro Jeanty , Bouchon , Redd , Etoile at Domaine Chandon , and the French Laundry . In nearby St. Helena, stroll quaint Main Street and pick up wine and cheese at Dean & Deluca, then drive to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park for a picnic in a shady glen. INFO (707) 226-5813; napavalley.org
Lake Tahoe (186mi/299km; 3 hr 25 min). This shimmering alpine lake is the jewel of the Sierra Nevada. On its north shore, legendary Squaw Valley offers wintertime skiing (even at night), ice skating, tubing, and snowshoeing. In summer, ride the tram up to High Camp for the swimming lagoon and spa, hiking trails, mountain bike rentals, and tennis courts. Another Tahoe must-see is scenic Emerald Bay State Park , worth every twist and turn on Highway 89 to get there. A steep 1-mile hike from the parking area will take you to Vikingsholm, a Scandinavian-style castle that offers tours. INFO (888) 434-1262; gotahoenorth.com