Aircraft carriers, battleships, museums, and more—this epic road trip showcases the Golden State’s proud tradition of military service.
From the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum, San Diego’s role as a navy town is on vivid display as ships cruise into port and aircraft take off from Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island. Tour the massive carrier, the longest serving vessel of its kind, and you’ll go inside everything from the towering captain’s bridge to sailor’s quarters crammed with bunks. And naval aviation buffs will love the close-up look at vintage aircraft on the hangar and flight decks.
You can eat like a naval aviator, or at least the movie version of one, at the Kansas City Barbeque, where several of the most memorable scenes in Top Gun were filmed.
Along San Diego Bay, Liberty Station is a unique urban district created from the 1920s-era Naval Training Center. With breezes blowing off the bay, arcaded walkways lead between coral-colored Spanish Colonial Revival buildings lining a sun-soaked parade ground. Grab a bite in Liberty Public Market, where you’ll find more than 30 food vendors. Vintage navy ship murals decorate the naval station’s former mess hall, which is home to a branch of Bottlecraft, the perfect place to explore the world of San Diego beers. And in a beautiful interior of reclaimed woods with a bocce court outside, Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens serves up world-inspired cuisine that you can pair with the pioneering craft brewer’s beers.
In Long Beach and nearby San Pedro, you can board and tour two remarkable ships that date to World War II. Offering a unique perspective on the graceful Vincent Thomas Bridge and the busy Port of Long Beach, the Battleship Iowa Museum lets you tour a ship that hosted multiple presidents and served the nation for 50 years. Over in nearby San Pedro and barely half the 887-foot Iowa’s size, the locally built SS Lane Victory merchant ship set sail late in World War II and remained active into the Vietnam War.
Spend the night in the Art Deco splendor of the Queen Mary, an iconic luxury liner that served as a troopship during World War II.
Just off the 60 freeway, the American Military Museum in South El Monte is home to the West Coast’s largest collection of tanks, jeeps, and ambulances. The museum’s 170 military vehicles include a number from World War II, such as a scout car built in 1941 and an amphibious truck designed for landings and river crossings. Dubbed Tankland, the museum displays an M-47 Patton Medium Tank from the Korean War and a M551 Sheridan Airborne Tank from the Vietnam War that was light enough to be dropped into war zones by aircraft.
Amid stately, centuries-old oaks, Fort Tejon State Historic Park preserves original adobe military buildings that date to 1854. A U.S. Army garrison, Fort Tejon only remained in operation for about 10 years but it has a rich history, and this park in Grapevine Canyon on Interstate 5 brings alive the world of the California frontier. Fort Tejon also tells the story of one of the American military’s more unusual experiments: the Army’s long-defunct camel corps was briefly based here.
Adjacent to a decommissioned Strategic Air Command base, the Castle Air Museum displays more than 70 restored aircraft that span a period from before World War II to the present day. You’ll see fighter jets and historic bombers, plus you can tour an Air Force One that served six presidential administrations during 30 years of operations. One of the most historic planes at the Atwater museum is its Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a long-range reconnaissance aircraft that could fly at three times the speed of sound.
Along San Francisco Bay in Alameda, visit a historic aircraft carrier deployed for 18 critical months during World War II at the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum. Not only did the Hornet see action in some of the Pacific’s biggest combat operations during the war, including Iwo Jima, it also played a critical role in the space program. The Hornet picked up the first two Apollo moon landing crews after splashdown, and the museum displays an Apollo test command module that the carrier recovered as part of preparations for manned lunar missions.
Set at the mouth of the Golden Gate, the Presidio has a long military history: It started in 1776 as a Spanish fort, and later became a U.S. Army base. Today it’s a 14,491-acre park within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Hike 24 miles of trails through eucalyptus groves, visit a working archaeology lab, or admire large-scale art installations. Splurge on a stay at one of the two historic hotels onsite: the Inn at the Presidio or the Lodge at the Presidio. Don’t miss the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo, and now home to an intimate theater.
With towers soaring 746 feet/227 meters into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted fire-engine red, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge makes a dramatic destination.
Yes, you can simply drive across the bridge, but it’s more fun to walk (even for just a portion of the spa). It can get a bit cold and windy, especially when the fog slips in (common in summer), so dress in layers. Biking across the bridge is another fun option—rental companies abound (two favorites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come with route maps detailing where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to towns like Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighboring Marin County. Back in the city, there’s a nice gift shop and a café, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost.
You can stay at Sausalito's Cavallo Point at Fort Baker, formerly an Army post. Many of the rooms are in one-time officers’ residences with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline.
At the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, be prepared to use your imagination to fully appreciate this important World War II and civil rights landmark. There’s little left from the busy port, where ammunition and bombs were loaded onto cargo ships. But take a guided tour and the tragedy of July 17, 1944 will come vividly alive. Working rapidly and with no formal training, sailors, all African-American, were loading munitions onto two cargo ships. Then something went terribly wrong. Explosions sent a column of fire and steel two miles into the summer night sky during the worst World War II disaster on the U.S. mainland. The memorial commemorates the 320 men who died, as well as the historic legal case that followed. Because the memorial is located at an active military facility, visitors must make tour reservations at least two weeks in advance.