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Driving in California

Driving in California
Take to the roads with this helpful information and safety tips

California is made for road trips. An easy-to-navigate network of more than 50,000 miles (80,467 kilometres) of good-quality highways and freeways links 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 truckers) 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

Speed limits are posted in miles per hour (mph). Generally, the speed limit on multi-lane freeways is 65 mph, although in some areas it is 70 mph. On two-lane highways, 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.

Eyes-on-the-road laws

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.

Carpool lanes

Along freeways with heavy traffic, carpool lanes (also called 'diamond lanes' for the diamond-shaped 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 $400 USD 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. 

Snow travel

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.

Driver Handbook

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) publishes an online version of its Driver Handbook, which thoroughly explains the state’s rules of the road.

Emergency help

Report an accident, crime or an unsafe driver by calling 911 from any phone.

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Time to hit the road and explore the Golden State

Road Trips

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Endless sunshine, amazing cities, best-in-class theme parks, incredible natural treasures—no matter what you want to do and see on your next vacation, California has it. But here's the best part: California has all the iconic destinations you've dreamed of visiting, plus a countless number of incredible off-the-beaten-track experiences. With our exclusive trip itineraries, you can visit bucket-list landmarks like Yosemite, then follow a wine road or visit a craft brewery. Top theme parks, secret beaches, city finds—they’re all here in easy-to-follow road trips that visit every corner of the state. So start dreaming about your next California vacation—and dream big.

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Trip 4 days 10 stops

Wild North Coast

Wine, Romance & Sunsets
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Start your trip to one of the world’s great cities. For a novel way to explore “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a...

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The last stop on this spectacular road trip ends at the very last city in California. Only 20 miles south of Oregon, sea-faring Crescent City is home to the northernmost of California’s lighthouse stations. Overlooking the town’s harbor, the 1856 Battery Point Lighthouse, built with 22-inch/56-...

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Trip 4- 6 days 10 stops

Volcanoes to the Sea

Booming Waterfalls, Craft Breweries
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Begin your trip in the center of the state, home to the capital city of Sacramento. Like many cities, California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs, and trendy boutiques...

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After so much wildness for so much of your trip, Eureka is an inviting and lively switch. This once rough-and-tumble seaport town, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, has split-personality charm: a sense of history in the handsomely restored, Victorian-era Old...

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California Gold

Whitewater Rafting, Tucked-Away Wineries
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Begin your trip in the center of the state, home to the capital city of Sacramento. Like many cities, California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs, and trendy boutiques...

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With throwback charm and a treasure trove of historic artifacts, this park presents the Gold Rush in living, breathing color. Costumed docents do more than lead tours of this carefully preserved Mother Lode town—the state’s second largest city at the peak of the Gold Rush; they actually live and...

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Trip 6-7 days 10 stops

Sierra Adventure

Granite peaks, alpine valleys, towering trees-the High Sierra is nature's playground all year-round
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Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list staple, a place where the air is “very pure and fine...it is the same the angels breathe,” according to author Mark Twain. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with...

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On your way to this park, save time to visit the charming Gold Country town of Murphys (a great place for wine tasting and innovative dining along the town’s main street). Then continue north and east to discover peaceful groves of giant sequoias at this under-the-radar park. Established in 1931...

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Trip 3-5 days 10 stops

San Francisco Bay Loop

Discover this something-for-everything loop tour around an iconic bay
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Start your trip with a visit to one of the most iconic spans in the world. 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 Golden Gate Bridge makes a dramatic destination, and a great way to...

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End your road trip by exploring one of the world’s great cities. Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, the “City by the Bay” truly has it all. Trend-defining cuisine ranging from Michelin-starred dining to...

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Trip 5-7 days 10 stops

Highway One Classic

Take the trip that captures the heart and soul of the Golden State
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Trip 3-5 days 10 stops

California's Heartland

Pick fresh produce, relax in cool gardens, and learn about local farming heritage
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This relaxed city has some secret gems that make a pleasing start to your trip. Start at Sundial Bridge, a functional work of art, the remarkable pedestrian bridge, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, spans the tree-lined, trout-filled Sacramento River in Redding’s Turtle...

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This rapidly growing city in the southern Central Valley is full of pleasant surprises. Once known for oil and agriculture, Bakersfield is morphing into a Central Valley hub for arts, culture, and sports, while still offering a glimpse of the region’s past. One fascinating historical site worth...

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Pacific Coast Highway - South

Beach Towns, Iconic Theme Parks
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Start your coastal cruise in this elegant city hugging the coastal mountains, where classic Spanish architecture gives the region a sun-washed European look straight out of the Riviera. The Santa Barbara, nicknamed “the American Riviera,” may have a burnished antique look of much of the...

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End your trip with at this sunny, waterfront city. Downtown, shop at Horton Plaza, or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. See the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Next, explore one of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village—pedestrian-friendly...

Driving in California VCW_D_IE_T10_DE_Route66_Barstow_Lauridsen1280x642

Trip 3-4 days 10 stops

Route 66 - Mother Road

Legendary Highway, California Dream
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Start your trip in this idyllic oceanfront city, bounded by a 3.5-mi/5.6-km-long beach, and feeling more like a weekend getaway spot than a city just a few minutes west of downtown Los Angeles. Car-free options, including a shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport (8 miles/13 km south) make...

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On your way to this park, you’ll pass through the little community of Borrego Springs. Stop in at the town’s visitor center to get driving maps to an astounding collection of enormous prehistoric animals—metal sculptures made by artist Ricardo Breceda—that dot the surrounding desert landscape....

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Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

Trip 8-10 days 10 stops

Ultimate Northern California

Explore the best of Northern California's Great Outdoors
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It may measure less than 50 square miles/130 square kilometers, but San Francisco justly ranks as one of the greatest cities in the world. Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, the  “City by the Bay” is the...

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Tucked into an ocean-facing fold of Mount Tamalpais, the signature peak just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, Muir Woods National Monument protects the last stand of uncut old-growth coast redwoods in the Bay Area, where loggers had all but denuded the region by the late 1800s....

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Trip 8-10 days 10 stops

Ultimate Southern California

Beach Towns & Big Thrills
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Your trip begins in California’s largest city. L.A. has nonstop action and things to do, but it can be a challenge to navigate, so planning your trip in advance is a big plus. Start in the coastal city of Santa Monica, with a wide, uncrowded beach, a signature pier topped by carnival rides and...

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Famous for their giant sequoias, soaring mountains, deep canyons, and roaring rivers, this tandem set of parks have plenty to see, even though they are less well known than Yosemite, roughly 75 miles/120 kilometers north. Within the borders of Sequoia & Kings Canyon are Mount Whitney, the...