Whether you dream of carving a wave (maybe for the first time), relaxing at a wine country estate, taking a spin on an iconic theme park ride, or walking through soaring redwoods, you’ll find your perfect getaway in California. What you’ll find here are ways to make that dream vacation happen without a hitch.
The tips and information here help you know the ins and outs of travel in the Golden State, with tips on best times to travel, transportation, accomodation and camping, even good-sense guides for bicycle fans. Details here can help plan your trip, and tell you where to turn for more useful information and insider tips once you get here. Happy planning.
California is super-sized by any metric. The third largest U.S. state comprises more square kilometres than many countries, with a land mass that’s more than three times the size of Greece and four times bigger than Iceland.
To see a good chunk of California in one trip, you need to strategise. The state’s elongated outline sprawls across nearly 1450 kilometres, stretching from its northern border with Oregon to its southern border with Mexico. Put the pedal to the metal and you might make the north-to-south drive in 15 hours. (It’s about the same distance as driving from New York City to Jacksonville, Florida.) Spin your wheels west to east across the skinny part of the state, and you’ll still need most of a day. From Santa Barbara to Needles, California is 560 kilometres wide.
Even in California’s metropolitan regions, distances are great. Planning to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles? You’ll need a full day to cover nearly 480 kilometres. Cruising Southern California on a theme park road trip? The route from Universal Studios Hollywood to SeaWorld San Diego spans 200 kilometres. Hitting the beaches in Los Angeles and Orange County? Figure on 150 kilometres between Malibu’s tony shoreline and Laguna Beach’s rocky coves.
And if you’re hankering to see California’s majestic desert parks, plug this number into your itinerary: 370 highway miles separate Death Valley’s dazzling badlands and Joshua Tree’s astounding rock formations.
California’s largest county, San Bernardino, covers nearly 52,000 square kilometres—more land area than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Even in smaller counties, towns are often far-flung, both in kilometres and character. Within the boundaries of winery-rich Sonoma County, historic Sonoma Plaza’s artisan cafes and boutiques lie 140 kilometres from the laidback beach hamlet of Sea Ranch, where the seaside climate makes summer days 20 degrees cooler. On California’s eastern side in Inyo County, winter drops deep, powdery snow in Bishop’s high mountains, but 265 kilometres away, the low desert at Furnace Creek bakes under a summer-like sun.
All this rambling geography translates to vast and varied scenery. Find your landscape in 1350 kilometres of coastline, 65,000 square kilometres of desert, or a smattering of snow-capped volcanos. Stand among the planet’s tallest trees in the temperate rainforest of far northern California, or visit North America’s hottest and driest point near the state’s eastern border. Explore the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a 650 kilometre-long string of saw-toothed peaks that cradles Lake Tahoe, one of the world’s largest alpine lakes, and Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States at 4,421m.
The bottom line: California is grand in scope and scale. Give yourself plenty of time to go the distance. To that end, here are some time and distance calculations to help you plan your next visit. (Note: drive times are approximate and vary depending on when you travel.)
San Diego to Anaheim: 95 miles/153 km (2 hours)
San Diego to Los Angeles: 120 miles/193 km (2.5 hours)
Anaheim to Los Angeles: 27 miles/43 km (1 hour)
Los Angeles to Palm Springs: 105 miles/169 km (2 hours)
Los Angeles to Santa Barbara: 95 miles/153 km (2 hours)
Yosemite National Park to Sequoia National Park: 160 miles/258 km (4 hours)
Yosemite National Park to Death Valley National Park: 250 miles/403 km (5 hours)
Sacramento to Redding: 160 miles/258 km (2.5 hours)
Sacramento to San Francisco: 90 miles/145 km (2 hours)
Reno to San Francisco: 218 miles/351 km (4 hours)
San Francisco to Napa: 50 miles/ 80 km (1 hour)
San Francisco to Sonoma: 45 miles/72 km (1 hour)
San Francisco to Yosemite: 200 miles/322 km (3.5 hours)
Travel Updates: COVID-19 (Coronavirus)
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that began in late 2019 has established itself across the globe, impacting travel throughout the world — including California.
The strict stay-at-home measures introduced by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March are gradually being replaced as the state moves into the early stages of recovery. Physical distancing measures remain a priority, but many parks, beaches, and retail operations are beginning to reopen, with restrictions.
That said, most tourist attractions — theme parks, ski resorts, entertainment venues, wineries, many state and national parks, including Yosemite National Park — remain closed.
For more travel advisories and information, please refer to California’s official Resilience Roadmap. Also, here is a collection of California’s local and regional tourism offices where you can find advisories specific to that destination.
Thank you, and be safe.
California attracts more than 250 million tourists each year, many of whom are eager to swim, ski, hike and, of course, sample local wines. Others map out memorable road trips that lead them from ocean breezes in the morning to snowy trails by nightfall. 'California is such a varied state, with many different climates,' says Los Angeles stylist Morgan Simonds of Better Off Dressed, 'so it’s important to pack one key item to address each: everything from a fleece to a bikini, walking shoes to high heels.'
Whether you’re visiting from Florida or France, you’ll want to be strategic about what you bring with you. 'As a New Yorker who visits California four times a year, I am always struck by how unexpectedly cold I get,' says Lori Bergamotto, Style Director for Good Housekeeping. 'I learned quickly that layering is the only solution if you desire comfort at any temperature. Denim jackets, lightweight cardigans, capes, ponchos—even a swingy trenchcoat—can all be dressed up or dressed down and will prepare you for whatever the weather may be.'
Of course, no one wants to traverse the state weighed down by gigantic suitcases. The trick is to pack smart—whether you’re visiting a big city or tasting Pinots—and to wear more than one layer when you travel. Before you pack your bags, review our recommendations below.
Channel California cool
'You often hear that California style is laid-back,’ says Bay Area blogger Stephanie Nguyen of Sunkissed Steph, 'and that's because it’s true! Whether you're down the coast in LA, the land of denim shorts, or in the Bay Area, where hoodies reign supreme, the style here is definitely on the casual and comfortable side.' What's more, Californian style is highly individual. 'You can definitely wear a blazer and jeans here,' says Simonds, 'but we would pair it with a rocker t-shirt and a cool pair of trainers to give the look more of an edge.
Pick versatile pieces
'Stick with neutral colours—a white t-shirt, or a shirt if you need to look polished, along with dark jeans, or black or navy trousers, etc.,' says Bergamotto. 'You can get so much more mileage out of simple styles. That said, know your agenda,' she advises. 'Let your itinerary determine if you go more practical and polished, or more bohemian and beachy.'
If you're setting sail in San Diego, you’ll want a scarf for when the wind picks up. When visiting a vineyard in Napa Valley or Santa Ynez Valley, definitely pack a pair of dark-coloured flats that can absorb spills and grass stains. Headed to the desert? Pack strappy tops and plenty of sun cream. In San Francisco, where rain is more frequent, an umbrella is a good idea. And if you’re going out to nice dinners in LA, take a neutral pair of wedges you can wear again and again.
Bergamotto considers the slip dress 'the traveller's best friend', saying, 'Wear it alone with sandals for a sweltering day; throw a white t-shirt under it—or a cropped top over it—with a pair of trainers if the temperature is in the low 20s; add a denim jacket to that if the temperature dips into the teens, and for cool nights add a cardigan or cape with heeled boots.'
Streamline your accessories
In terms of accessories, don’t forget essentials, like a hat and sunglasses, but try to simplify what you bring on the jewellery front. Basic studs and a stack of bracelets that can be worn day in and day out without standing out too much are ideal. 'For a little sparkle, layer a colourful jewelled necklace with a charm necklace,' suggests Simonds.
You’ll want a versatile handbag that can fit boarding passes, lip balm and more, without putting stress on your shoulders. Both Cuyana and Everlane are San Francisco–based brands with beautiful bags that fit the bill.
For something child-friendly, consider a classic coat tote from L.L. Bean, which can handle everything from sand toys to nappies. Bergamotto is also a firm believer in large Ziploc bags because you can see the contents while keeping things separate. 'If there is a leak, whether toothpaste, sunscreen or hand sanitiser, it will be contained,' she explains.
Don't forget your feet
Streamlining your shoes can be tricky, especially if you have a formal event, such as a wedding, in your travel plans. If that’s the case, plan to use the same pair of heels at the rehearsal dinner and the ceremony, and then bring one (or two) other adaptable styles that can go from day to night. 'The most transitional shoe in California is a flat lace-up sandal,' says Simonds. 'It can get you from the beach to a fun brunch, to a casual dinner with ease.'
A functional but cool pair of trainers or espadrilles works well while shopping, museum hopping or watching a baseball game. If you’re planning to swim, you’ll want water-resistant flip-flops or sandals; if you’re hiking, trainers or walking boots; and if you’re skiing, wear a warm, closed-toe style while travelling and hire boots when you get to the mountains. Even the most basic packages include skis, poles and boots.
Consider the children
Versatility is just as important when packing for your children. Select items that they can wear more than once, such as shorts, trousers and leggings in colours that work with multiple tops, since tops are harder to keep clean. (Ice-cream stains, anyone?)
In terms of their footwear, try to keep it simple. 'With our children, we opt for trainers for both, plus one actual shoe, like bar shoes or flats for our daughter,' says Bergamotto. 'If we know we’ll be spending lots of time at the beach, then we skip the "shoe" and opt for water shoes, which also double nicely as casual stroll-around-town shoes.'
Shop when you arrive
Lastly, if your suitcases are nearly impossible to zip shut, think about what you can buy once you reach your destination—and use up before you head home—such as sun cream, snacks and wipes. Also consider what kinds of things you’re likely to buy along the way, such as a sweatshirt or hat, so that you don’t end up with duplicates. Got all that? Alright. Ready, set, pack!
Sun, surf, mountains and rollercoasters: the Golden State is big and beautiful, whether you want to play on the beach, ride your way across California theme parks or camp in one of California’s national parks. The state’s size and variety of offerings mean that a California family holiday will require some solid preparation. Here are 11 tips and family-friendly travel hacks to help you design your family’s holiday with an eye toward keeping the fun quotient high and missed opportunities to a minimum.
Planning a Golden State road trip? Check out our special road trip tips for that too.
1. Pack and dress in layers. In Southern California, a sunny 21-degree day can feel like 26 degrees or hotter to people from elsewhere, while a cloudy 15-degree day can feel much chillier, thanks to ocean breezes. In Northern California—especially San Francisco—summer can mean a lot of morning fog and temperatures in the teens, before it warms up in the afternoon. All over the state, it’s a safe bet to dress in layers and keep a jumper, sweatshirt or light jacket in your day pack.
2. Don’t pack beach gear. Your hotel may have toys and gear on hand to borrow or hire. You can also buy boogie boards—an easy-to-learn way to play in the surf—for as little as $10 at any chemist or discount store near the beach. These are also budget-friendly places to pick up sandcastle-making toys, sun cream, hats and flip-flops.
3. Maximise your time at the theme parks. Staying at one of the on-site hotels can get you early entry—usually an hour earlier than the scheduled opening time—but sometimes just buying your tickets online (as at Universal Studios Hollywood) can get you an extra hour with shorter queues. Also, check the park’s website for express-lane services (like Disneyland Resort’s Fastpasses) so that you can make the most of your time all day.
4. Expect (some) admission discounts. Children and teens often get in free, or at a discount, at museums and other attractions around the Golden State. San Diego has a 'Kids Free October' programme that is valid at many museums and other attractions, including SeaWorld and LEGOLAND. That said, don’t expect much of a reduction at other theme parks, or at other times. Full-price admission may start as low as age 10.
5. Measure your children. Before you commit to a theme park for the day, look at the rides page on its website to see the height minimums to make sure there are enough rides that your children will be able to enjoy. Also, get the lay of the land from the theme park’s online map to plot your day’s path efficiently and delay the onset of tired feet.
6. Book ahead for camping. National parks such as Yosemite have well-established schedules for opening up camping pitches for reservations, and good spots can go fast—up to six months in advance. For last-minute pitches, check a park’s campsite online to find availability.
7. Don’t miss the Junior Ranger programmes at state and national parks. The free handouts and activities available at California national parks and state parks give children a fun, hands-on way to explore the park. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, for instance, the activity booklet lists different hot springs and volcanic rocks for kids to look for and tick off. At Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve, meanwhile, a nature-oriented bingo card motivates children to keep an eye out for lizards, meadowlarks and beetles, as well as California’s state flower. Ask for any handouts at the park’s visitor centre, or download them from its website.
8. Plan a skiing trip that moves at everyone’s pace. California ski resorts offer a wide range of age-specific lessons and activities—some with kids’ clubs that last half or full days, so that everyone gets plenty of time to ski or board at their own skill level. At Squaw Valley, for instance, about 65 per cent of the runs are suitable for beginner and intermediate skiers, and Sierra-at-Tahoe has an 4.5-hectare learning terrain called Easy Street. Off-the-slope activities abound as well, like Mammoth’s beloved Woolly’s Tube Park, or the 9-metre climbing wall at Big Bear and Snow Summit’s Basecamp. Meanwhile, even if your children's Easter break falls as late as April, you’ll still find plenty of Californian snow.
9. Bring lots of sun cream. Beach days certainly call for a high SPF, but you’ll also need sun cream while skiing. California’s ski resorts are known for their blue skies, which results in plenty of reflection off the slopes.
10. Don’t assume that wine-tasting is off the table. Not all wineries and craft breweries welcome children, but many do—offering games, play areas and children's dining menus so that the family can enjoy a visit together. Check the individual wineries’ or breweries’ websites before you go to make sure kids will be welcome and happily occupied.
11. Don’t be afraid to take the children out for a nice meal. In California, cutting-edge restaurants are often not white-tablecloth–type places, and many even have good kids’ menus—like the tamales and quesadillas at LA’s acclaimed Border Grill, or the prix fixe children's menu at San Francisco’s Rintaro, which Bon Appétit named one of the best restaurants of 2015. When in doubt, call in advance and ask when making a booking; most hotels keep lists of reputable babysitting services at the front desk, and can help you hire a great sitter to come to your hotel room.
Need to reset your watch? Call for help? Find out details for disabled access? Here’s a round-up of basic information to help you plan your trip, and to know what to expect and where to turn for help when you get here.
California is in the Pacific Time Zone (Greenwich Mean Time minus 8 hours). The state observes daylight savings time from early March to early November.
State and local taxes
The state-wide sales tax is 7.25%. Local taxes may add up to 1.5% to your total bill.
A general rule of thumb is to tip servers in restaurants between 15% and 20%, depending on the level of service, and bartenders a dollar for each drink (beer, glass of wine, simple cocktail, etc.), unless it’s a more complicated speciality cocktail. Include 15% to 20% for a taxi or limo driver, and a few dollars for an Uber or Lyft driver.
For local numbers, dial 411; for long distance, dial 1 plus the area code plus 555-1212; for free phone numbers, call (800) 555-1212.
You can call 911 free from any public telephone to obtain emergency police, fire, or medical assistance.
Alcohol is sold throughout California to people age 21 and older. The legal drinking age is 21.
You must be 18 or older to purchase tobacco products in the state. Smoking and e-cigarette use is prohibited in all public buildings (including restaurants, bars and casinos) and enclosed spaces throughout California. It is illegal to smoke within 6 metres of doorways or windows of government buildings. Most large hotels have designated smoking rooms; if you smoke, request one—most hotels will fine guests who smoke inside a non-smoking room. Many cities in California have passed ordinances prohibiting smoking in public areas such as on pavements and beaches, and smoking is prohibited in some national and state park buildings and areas.
State Size & Drive Times
California is big, really big. If you were to drive the length of the state on Interstate 5, it would take you an estimated 15 hours, with little or no traffic, to get from Oregon to Mexico. At the end of your road trip, you’d have driven nearly 1500 kilometres.
Central San Diego is less than 32 kilometres north of the Mexican border and about 210 kiloemtres south of Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, it’s 620 kilometres north to San Francisco and from there, another 145 kilometres north-east to Sacramento. You’d put about 305 kilometres on your car driving from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, and about 960 kilometres driving from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta in Northern California. Needless to say, California is ideal for road trips.
Travelling with Disabilities
Visitors who have physical or other challenges can still have a fantastic time in California. Special services are widely available, and access to trails, buildings, and attractions is continually being improved. Here are some helpful resources.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that all public buildings must be wheelchair accessible and have accessible toilet facilities. Most hotels and attractions are now outfitted with wide doorways and wheelchair ramps. City streets now feature a growing number of footpath corners with dropped curbs, and some public transport vehicles are equipped with lifts. Many state and national parks now have fully accessible ADA trails. If you need details, call destinations and services in advance.
Help for hearing & memory impaired
If you have limitations seeing, hearing, speaking, remembering, or moving which affects your ability to make or receive phone calls, dial 711 to have a specially trained communications assistant relay telephone conversations for all your calls while you are in California.
Many cinemas and performance spaces have special headsets to help you hear. Ask when you purchase or collect your tickets.
Transportation & Car Hire
Major airports can provide on-site assistance to and from flights, including wheelchairs; call your airline in advance for details. Some car hire companies offer specially outfitted vehicles with hand controls, wheelchair accessibility, and other assistance devices. Amtrak train service provides added services for passengers with disabilities, as well as a 15% discount on regular travel fares.
California is a year-round destination, with weather that has something for everyone, from sun worshippers to snow bunnies. The best time to visit really comes down to what you want to see and do. Here is some general information to help you know what to expect statewide.
Weather & Seasons
Much of California has a Mediterranean-like climate with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. On the coast, the average daily high hovers around 21°C and up, but can occasionally spike to 27°C or more on the hottest summer days; freezing temperatures are rare, even in winter. The state’s legendary fog often hugs the coast from Monterey north, usually during the summer months; it frequently burns off by midday before rolling in again at dusk. Further inland, summers are hot and dry, winters cool and wet, with occasional brilliant blue days and temperatures cold enough to freeze puddles on the ground, but not much more than that. At higher altitudes, the weather reflects more of a four-season cycle, with beautiful summers, striking autumn colour, and cold, snowy winters followed by snow melt springs (waterfall season!).
As you browse this site, check out the average temperature by season for the regions and destinations you are considering.
Timing Your Visit
Most visitors head to California during the peak summer months (June through August); that is when you can expect the biggest crowds at top attractions, and high-season rates at hotels and resorts. But even in the middle of summer it is possible to hop off the beaten path and have forests, fields, and even beaches almost to yourself.
If you love the high country, you might need to wait until summer to access the highest roads and paths through the Sierra Nevada, as well routes into wilderness areas around Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, the state’s tallest volcanoes.
Spring (typically March through early May) is one of California’s most beautiful times of year. Although it can still be cold at higher elevations, temperatures are comfortable and fresh throughout much of the state. Hillsides are blanketed with lush green grass and wild flowers. California’s deserts, awash with poppies, paintbrush, and other desert blooms, are much more pleasant during the spring than during the scorching heat of summer. During these months, you’ll also encounter shorter queues and better deals: many of the state’s top tourist attractions are still operating at a slower pace, and hotels often charge low-season rates until June.
Autumn (September through November) brings mild weather and, in some parts of the state, spectacular foliage (especially the High Sierra). This is a great time to visit California’s beautiful wine regions as it is grape harvest time, known as 'the crush' (generally August to October). The San Francisco and North Coast regions, often shrouded in fog during summer, typically see some of their sunniest days during the 'Indian summer' (September and October).
If you plan to ski, snow usually coats the mountains November to March, with some resorts staying open into April or beyond. (If Mother Nature is fickle, snow-making equipment often supplements what falls with amazingly good man-made snow.) Look for downhill runs for skiers and boarders, terrain parks, cross-country and snowshoe trails, and ice-skating rinks.
Each of the California Welcome Centers scattered throughout the state are staffed with personal travel concierges. These knowledgeable experts are ready to provide information that will enhance and enrich your visit including suggestions on where to eat, what to see, and where to stay. Welcome Centers also offer free maps and brochures on local attractions and things to see and do.
Anderson (Shasta Cascade)
Auburn (Gold Country)
El Dorado Hills (Gold Country)
San Francisco (San Francisco Bay Area)
Santa Rosa (San Francisco Bay Area)
Truckee (High Sierra)
Yreka (Shasta Cascade)
Mammoth Lakes (High Sierra)
Merced (Central Valley)
Oxnard (Central Coast)
Pismo Beach (Central Coast)
Salinas (Central Coast)
Buena Park (Orange County)
Oceanside (San Diego County)
Ontario (Inland Empire)
Yucca Valley (Deserts)
California is big—nearly 1280 kilometres from the Oregon border to the north all the way to the Mexican border just south of San Diego, and an average of roughly 320 kilometres wide. Fortunately, California also has a lot of airports, so flying is relatively easy, and a great way to get around the state, especially if your time is limited. Easy airport access also makes fly/drive holidays an attractive option.
We've highlighted 13 of the state’s airports, 10 of which have flights that travel nonstop to international locations. Some rank as destinations in themselves with museum-quality artwork installations—see what’s going on at the LAX Art Program, the Arts Program at John Wayne International Airport in Orange County, and the Public Art Program at San Francisco International Airport. Many also feature outstanding shopping, fine dining, and even spoil-yourself spas (because getting a massage really is better than sitting in a plastic chair while you wait for your flight).
If flying into Los Angeles, one should know: LAX is the biggest and most well-known airport in the area, but depending on where you plan to be spending time in the city, it may not be the best choice. Burbank, Long Beach, John Wayne, and Ontario international airports also serve the region.
Whether you dream of a posh suite overlooking the ocean, a boutique hotel in the heart of a city, a full-service resort, or a serene campsite under the stars, California has the perfect place to spend the night. Book a stay at a major chain almost anywhere in the state, or consider accommodations as distinctive as California itself—handsome stone-and-timber mountain lodges, restored Gold Rush hotels, snug inns, and ultra-exclusive retreats in one-of-a-kind settings. There are also millions of acres of unforgettable parkland where all you need is a tent, a sleeping bag, marshmallows, and a few good campfire stories. (And, maybe, a reservation.)
California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies can offer good suggestions for all types of lodging, including resorts, hotels, and motels.
Hotels & Motels: Hotels and motels are the tried-and-true standard for most vacations—providing a safe, clean, and comfortable place to go to sleep at night. They’re important here. Remember, California invented the motel back in the 1920s. Top chains are well represented statewide, and are often located in larger metropolitan areas and near tourist attractions and travel routes. Boutique hotels tend to offer a more intimate and luxuriously stylish environment for travellers. In more rural areas, consider independently owned lodgings, some in historic buildings.
Bed & Breakfasts: California has hundreds of B&Bs, many in historic homes or hotels and a growing number at family-run (and family-friendly) farms, ranches, and vineyards. B&Bs can give a sense of the region's local character, with helpful innkeepers happy to share insider travel tips. Your stay also includes breakfast—imagine, just-baked scones, fresh eggs, or strawberries from the garden. To reserve a stay at one of nearly 300 B&Bs statewide, visit the California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns (CABBI).
Resorts: Certain parts of the state—the Deserts region, coastal communities, mountain resort towns—are renowned for five-star retreats, with many championship golf courses and tennis complexes, spectacular swimming pools, destination restaurants, and elegant spas (often open to the public). California’s celebrated wine regions also have ultra-luxe retreats, with romantic settings, unparalleled farm-to-table cuisine, and, of course, incredible wine lists. Many resorts also offer special activities for kids, like movie-and-popcorn nights, so parents can enjoy time alone while their children have experienced childcare. Weddings and reunions can book private event spaces and exclusive catering services. For top resorts statewide, check California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies.
You can also rent a house on wheels. RVs are welcome at public and private campgrounds statewide. Below are some resources to try; also check the California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies.
Camping: In California, camping is everything it should be—pitch your tent under the stars at campgrounds scented with pine trees, next to alpine lakes and desert oases, or on a spectacular stretch of coastline. If “roughing it” isn't your style, try “glamping,” or glamorous camping, in outdoor settings with fully equipped tents or rustic cabins or even Mongolian-style yurts.
Or, consider renting a ready-to-roll RV; check individual campsites in advance for any RV restrictions.
You can also backpack deep into California's expansive wilderness areas—just be sure you have a permit before you head out (check individual locations for permit requirements).
Many state and national parks permit camping, although some popular locations such as Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon tend to fill up months in advance, so reserve as early as possible. Federal lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, also have thousands of campsites, which are often uncrowded, even during the summer months. There are also many outstanding private campgrounds statewide.
California is made for road trips. An easy-to-navigate network of more than 80,467 kilometres of good-quality highways and freeways link just about every corner of the state, with secondary routes leading to even more under-the-radar finds. Some of these roads are famous—Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast, legendary Route 66, and Avenue of the Giants (Highway 101 winding through towering redwoods). Some are workhorses—most notably Interstates 5 and 80—getting drivers (and truckies) up and across the state as quickly as possible. But even these heavy-lifters can lead you to surprising destinations.
No matter where you drive, remember the basic rules of the road. Below is a rundown of the laws everyone should know before getting behind the wheel in California, along with a few resources to get you the travel information you need.
Mandatory personal safety measures
California law states that everyone in a vehicle must wear a seat belt, and motorcyclists must wear a helmet.
Speed limits are posted in miles per hour (mph). Generally, the speed limit on multi-lane motorways is 65 mph, although in some areas it is 70 mph. On single-carriageway roads, the limit is generally 55 mph. The speed limit on city streets is usually 35 mph, although in residential areas and near schools, the limit is generally 25 mph.
Speed limit enforcement
In many areas of California, speed limits are enforced by aircraft, meaning excessive speeds are detected from the air by an aircraft you can’t see, then radioed in to a police car which will pull you over. There are also speed-detecting roadside cameras. The best policy is to stay within the speed limit.
It is against the law in California to write, send, or read text-based messages while driving, and drivers must use a hands-free device when speaking on a mobile phone.
Along freeways with heavy traffic, carpool lanes (also called “diamond lanes” for the diamond-shape pattern painted on the lane’s surfaces) are identified by black-and-white signs that include details on times and days of enforcement (usually during peak rush hour periods on weekdays). To drive in most carpool lanes, you must have at least two people (including the driver) in the car (some lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area have a three-person minimum). Tempted to use the lane when you don’t have the required number of people? Don’t—fines are staggeringly high, close to US$400 (AU$575) in some areas. In the Los Angeles area, carpool lanes may have specific entry and exit zones; adhere to these or you could get a hefty fine for that as well.
Extreme weather can result in cars and trucks being required to use chains and/or snow tyres. At times, it may even cause mountain routes to be closed. Check restrictions and closures before you leave.
Report an accident, crime, or an unsafe driver by calling 911 from any phone.
Get ready to roll. With its mild climate, outstanding highway system, and non-stop gorgeous scenery, California stands out as the perfect place for a road trip. And hiring a car here is about as easy as it gets. Whether your trip itinerary is a statewide tour of California’s greatest hits, a whole-family visit to iconic theme parks or an off-the-beaten-track adventure, there’s a vehicle to match your mood and style—snazzy convertibles, family-friendly people carriers, rugged 4x4s and pick-up trucks that can handle all types of conditions (including snow), even camper vans and RVs. All with good breakdown assistance and optional insurance policies.
Car hire is available throughout the state; most major companies have offices at the larger airports and in convenient city locations. To hire a car in California, you must be at least 25 years old (in most cases) and have a valid driver's licence and credit card (used as a security deposit). Non-US citizens must have passports. Rates may vary, with factors including location, car size and style, accessories (a child seat or in-car GPS, for example, may be extra) and the day of the week that you hire it. Picking up and dropping off a vehicle at different locations can also increase rates. For the best deal, try booking the car when you book your flights.
We've compiled a list of reputable companies with offices statewide. Check charges in advance. There are lots of options including insurance coverage and extras, so be sure you get what you need and know what you are paying for before you drive away. Companies may also offer a pre-paid fuel plan with discounted prices, worth considering if you know you’re likely to use up at least one full tank of fuel.
If you’ve never driven in the state, you may want to read through this brief overview of statewide laws and rules of the road before getting behind the wheel. To find out about any road closures, travel alerts or updates on conditions, visit Caltrans.
Another fun way to explore California is to travel by train. It is a great way to enjoy the scenery instead of focusing on the road ahead. Amtrak’s legendary Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner trains follow ultra-scenic routes up and down the coast. The Capitol Corridor provides an easy east-west route across Northern California, while the San Joaquin line slices through the broad and sunny Central Valley with connections to Yosemite National Park and other destinations. Along the way, there are options to link to Amtrak Thruway buses, which serve more than 90 destinations statewide. (Plus, you can disembark and hire a car at major stops for additional exploring.) Depending on the route, you may be able to book a space in a special sleeping carriage, with access to an exclusive dining car.
Local & Scenic Railways
Though Amtrak is the largest train service in the state, it is not the only one. In Northern California, Caltrain has regular service between San Francisco and San Jose. In Southern California, Metrolink offers service on seven regional lines that connect L.A., Ventura County, Antelope Valley, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County, and the Inland Empire. Trains dedicated to certain themes and in specific locales, such as the Napa Valley Wine Train, also provide a unique way to see some of California’s première destinations.
For an easy and often fun way to get around California’s larger cities and communities, do what an increasing number of locals do and hitch a ride on a bus, subway, ferry, or light rail system. Using public transportation can be an efficient, affordable, safe, and eco-friendly option, particularly in areas where roads, parking, and urban traffic can be confusing and frustrating. Some transport systems let you buy multi-day passes. Check ticket options online before you arrive to get the best deals. Two companies, CityPass and Go, also offer deals on local transportation options in San Francisco and Southern California.
You can also uses buses to take longer trips around the state. Greyhound is the nation’s primary long-distance bus company, offering routes linking big cities and rural destinations statewide, and heading out of state too.
Here are links to California’s major regional transport organisations. Most offer a variety of travel options, such as buses, subways, and light rail, and in some cases, ferry boats. For more local information on transport options in Northern California, visit 511.org.
1. Learn the basic road laws. Ride in the direction of traffic and use the bicycle lanes when available. California law says you must ride as close to the right side as possible, unless the road is too narrow to be shared—in which case you are allowed to “take the lane.” (Not all motorists understand this, though, so always take precaution in this situation.) The California Bicycle Coalition outlines all the bike laws to know before you ride.
2. Wear this, not that. Cyclists under 18 must wear a helmet, but realistically it’s a good idea for everyone. And if you need to hear your playlist while you ride, keep it to one ear—a law passed in 2016 does not allow for headphones in both ears.
3. Nervous on the road? Find protected trails. Road riding isn’t for everyone, and California has kilometres upon kilometres of protected road. Go to traillink.com and type in a specific city and it will show you the distance, surface type, and mileage of routes in the area. Or start by reading Bicycling magazine’s list of the best bike paths in California.
4. Research your route. Check out bike mobile app Strava’s city guides for routes in Bakersfield, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and more—coffee shops and photo ops included. Also, the California Bike Coalition has a solid list of free online maps for routes from Humboldt County down to San Diego. You can also get turn-by-turn directions using Google maps: Dark green lines denote protected bike trails (read: no cars), light green lines show dedicated bike lanes, and dashed green lines indicate bicycle-friendly roads.
5. Consider a cycling event. Start by choosing an enticing ride and let that inspire your trip planning. On any given weekend, you’ll find dozens of cycling events throughout California. Want to tackle a century (160 kilometres) in wine country? Attend a mountain biking clinic? Check the event calendars on SoCalCycling.com, Raceplace.com, Active.com, or TourOfCalifornia.bike for ideas.
6. Try a cycling tour. An organized bike tour can be a simplified, luxurious way to see new parts of California. Dozens of companies—including Backroads, Trek Travel, Bicycle Adventures, DuVine, and many more—offer trips everywhere from Joshua Tree to wine country to the northern coast, and they often include gourmet local cuisine and overnight stays at high-end resorts.
7. Find a group. Local cycling clubs often have group rides for all levels, either through a local shop or otherwise. USA Cycling has a fairly comprehensive list of clubs, but sometimes just walking into the local bike shop and asking is the easiest way to get info.
8. Watch AMGEN Tour of California in person. If there’s one way to get inspired, watching a world-class bike event is it. With Tour de France-level riders cycling throughout California every May, the AMGEN Tour of California presents a rare opportunity to see a pro peloton up close.