In California, the open road is our anthem, and every road we travel is a promise. We’re filled with hope for what’s coming around the next corner. We’ve pledged our allegiance to a road-trip manifesto, and it goes something like this: We believe that you haven’t seen a big tree until you’ve driven through one. We believe that snowboards and surfboards should share a roof rack, and that 840 miles of coastline is just right. We believe in rediscovering our sense of wonder. We believe that what we do matters more than what we post.
Visit California’s latest TV spot invites people from all around the globe to join in the California Road Trip Republic, a Golden-State-of-mind where you can satisfy your wanderlust by traveling your way, on your own terms. Set your sights on all the California icons you’ve been wanting to see, or watch the TV spot for inspiration. Then read below to find out where we’re going—and jump in from wherever you happen to be. Buckle up, roll down the windows, and ride with us.
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What California icon is 2,400 years old and has cars driving through it every summer day? If you guessed the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett—an hour’s drive north of Willits and three hours from the San Francisco Bay Area—you know your redwoods. For more than 80 years, road-trippers have been capturing photos of their cars squeezing through the Chandelier Tree’s six-foot-wide and seven-foot-tall tunnel, which was carved into its trunk in 1937.
By today’s standards, cutting a hole in an ancient redwood is definitely not okay, but when the Chandelier Tree was hollowed out, everybody thought it was a grand idea. Big-tree tourism was gaining momentum, and the Stephenson family, whose descendants still own the Chandelier Tree and its neighboring redwood-themed gift shop and picnic area, weren’t the only ones cashing in on the redwood wow-factor. In the early 20th century, even government-owned parks advertised their tunneled trees, encouraging visitors to pay a fee, drive through, and get a souvenir photo. Many of these drive-through giants, like Yosemite’s Wawona Tree and Calaveras Big Trees’ Pioneer Cabin Tree, eventually toppled.
The Chandelier Tree is one of Northern California’s three remaining drive-through redwoods, joined by the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree, 45 miles north of Leggett in Myers Flat, and the Klamath Tour-Thru Tree, 150 miles north in Klamath. You’ll pay about five bucks to drive through each tree. Sure, it’s kitschy, but how often do you get to drive through a tree?
On summer days, about 500 cars a day putter through the Chandelier, whose name refers to the huge branches protruding from opposite sides of its trunk, making it look like a candelabra. At 315 feet high and 70 feet in circumference, this sequoia sempervirens is huge by any standard (even so, don't forget to fold in the mirrors of your SUV as you head inside).
If you want to see redwoods in their unaltered state, drive a few miles north of Leggett to Smithe Redwoods Natural Reserve, where massive trees grow alongside the Eel River, or head 30 miles north to the southern end of the Avenue of the Giants driving route, then steer your way through cathedral-like groves so tall and dense, they block out the sun.
Two miles north of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park protects craggy ocean bluffs, a gracefully arching bridge over Russian Gulch Creek, and a glistening waterfall tucked into a fern-filled grotto. Whether you’re a camper, bicyclist, hiker, photographer, or beachcomber, you’ll find much to explore in this 1,000-acre state park.
The photogenic Russian Gulch Bridge—a 527-foot-long concrete arch that spans Russian Gulch Creek’s sandy cove—connects the park’s dramatic coastal side and tree-hugging inland side. Start your park visit with a walk on the beach under the 100-foot-high bridge, built by the Works Progress Administration in 1939 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Does it look familiar? Its architecture is similar to the more famous Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, another 1930s public works project. The beach cove is small, but it’s a favorite of scuba divers, who explore an underwater world filled with sea stars, crabs, mussels, oysters, and red abalone. Kids can splash around in the creek’s mellow waters and hunt for shells on the sand.
North of the bridge, pay a visit to Russian Gulch’s glorious headlands. Take an easy stroll on blufftops laced with springtime wildflowers to visit the Devil’s Punchbowl, a 100-foot-wide crater-like blowhole. It’s actually a collapsed sea arch, carved by eons of crashing waves. Sixty feet down on the blowhole’s floor, the ocean rolls gently in and out. Visit during a hearty winter storm and you might be lucky enough to see roiling waves explode through the Punchbowl in a saltwater geyser. These headlands are also a prime spot for whale-watching from December to April and sunset-watching any time of year.
On the park’s inland side, Russian Gulch’s 36-foot-tall waterfall is tucked into a verdant grotto, which you can visit by bicycle or on foot. Start from the trailhead by the park’s 30-site campground. Bicyclists follow the paved Fern Canyon Trail, an old logging road, through a dense riparian forest of second-growth redwoods, Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, alders, and ferns. In the rainy season, you might spot rainbow and steelhead trout swimming upstream in Russian Gulch Creek. At the pavement’s end, lock up your bike and continue on foot to the falls. Hikers can follow the same route or the alternate North Trail—a longer, less-traveled path. Either way, you’ll soon find yourself at a petite-but-picturesque cataract that drops into an inviting pool.
Say “Bodega Bay” and most people’s thoughts turn to Alfred Hitchcock and a bird-filled world run amok. But that’s Hollywood fiction. Bodega Bay’s real story lies in blue-water vistas extending to the horizon, coastal bluffs laden with wildflowers, and gray whales saluting with a tail fluke as they pass.
From Highway 1 on the town’s outskirts, you’ll see only a smattering of shops selling kites and saltwater taffy tucked between seafood eateries. But turn west off the main drag, and Bodega Bay reveals its deep ties to the sea. Commercial boats set off into the dawn fog, putter through the harbor, squeeze through a narrow channel by Doran Beach, then motor out to freedom in Bodega Bay. By mid-afternoon, the vessels return loaded with fish that will stock restaurant kitchens up and down the Sonoma Coast.
Sample the catch all over town. The Birds Café serves crispy fish and chips—beer-battered with a local IPA—barbecued oysters, and artichoke fritters. Every seat is outdoors, and that’s where you’ll want to be. Fishetarian Fish Market makes slapping-fresh fish tacos. Clam chowder fans head to Spud Point Crab Company or Ginochio’s Kitchen (Ginochio’s chowder riff has scallops mixed in with the clams). Terrapin Creek Café serves gastronomic bliss in the form of pan-roasted scallops and charred octopus salad.
Since you can’t eat without a break, take a hike. The northernmost end of town marks the start of Sonoma Coast State Park, a 13-mile string of rocky beaches and grassy headlands that extend north to Jenner and the Russian River. The sea crashes against dark-sand beaches, rugged bluffs, and rocky outcroppings. Tenacious sea palms grip the offshore rocks, holding tight as breaker after breaker explodes into spray. In spring, California’s state colors—blue and gold—are echoed in breezy blufftop gardens of lupine and poppies. If you’d rather ride than walk, join a guided horse trip at Chanslor Stables and let your trusty steed escort you along the coast.
For a uniquely Bodega Bay experience, do like the locals and reel in your own dinner. Even if you’ve never fished before, local sport-fishing charters can take you to where the fish are and show you how to catch salmon, halibut, rock fish or even a net full of Dungeness crab. Get up early and hop aboard Miss Vic Sportfishing or North Bay Charters and you’ll be amazed at the sea’s generosity. Sightseeing cruises are offered, too.
An idyllic spot for a weekend away, Bodega Bay offers a number of romantic seaside inns—but many visitors choose to sleep under the stars at Doran Beach. The campground offers 120 sites with swimming, beachcombing, fishing, and paddleboarding just steps from your tent. Parents with little ones will appreciate the beach’s gentle slope, as well as its soft, clean sand, and the generally mellow surf break.
Don’t leave Bodega Bay without taking in the awe-inspiring Pacific scenery from Bodega Head. At 265 feet above the roiling waves, Bodega Head is one of California’s best whale-watching vantage points (migration season is December to April). The Head’s rocky peninsula extends west toward the horizon, then curves back inward toward the mainland like the fingers of a hand closing into a fist. From any high point, you can wave to a wide audience that includes the endless ocean waves, Bodega Bay’s sheltered harbor, and Point Reyes’ northern tip. Only five miles of sea separate the two peninsulas.
You can feast on tasty bivalves in a number of beautiful California locales, but it’s much more satisfying to slurp them down alongside the waters where they’re harvested. Just north of Point Reyes National Seashore, Tomales Bay’s nourishing waters sustain California’s biggest oyster-producing region. More than half of the state’s shellfish growers lease acreage on the shallow bay’s floor, where conditions are just right for cultivation.
Taste the fruits of their labor at The Marshall Store in the bayside hamlet of Marshall. Order oysters prepared every which way—not just raw, but also barbecued, smoked, Rockefeller (spinach, cheese, and breadcrumbs), and Kilpatrick-style (bacon and Worcestershire sauce). Then find a spot at the outdoor tables—live-edge wood slabs perched on oak barrels—and gaze at the bay while you toss back your bounty. Hefty, plump, and sweetly briny, Preston Point oysters pair perfectly with creamy clam chowder or a hunk of sourdough and baked brie. During crab season, typically November to May, the kitchen caters to Dungeness devotees as well as oyster fans. Try their divine Dungeness sandwich or crack into a whole carapace.
After your meal, rent a boat at Blue Waters Kayaking and paddle along the bay, stopping at tiny beaches wherever you please. Twelve miles long and one mile wide, Tomales Bay is home to dozens of shorebird and waterbird species. Great blue herons and glistening white egrets stand sentry along the bay’s edges. On moonless nights, Blue Waters offers an unforgettable guided paddling tour to witness the magic of bioluminescent plankton glowing in the dark.
Of course, you could just go for a drive. Highway 1 hugs the water’s edge, with weathered oyster shacks and Cape Cod–style bungalows perched over the bay and picturesque dairy farms lining the eastern hills. A few miles south of Marshall, stop for an easy stroll at Millerton Point for sweeping vistas of the bay and grassy pastures. Or walk the hillside paths at Marconi Conference Center State Historic Park (Meadow Trail offers the best views of the bay). In 1913, this westward-sloping property was where Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi set up a receiving station and was the first person to retrieve wireless telegraph messages sent through the airwaves from Hawaii and Asia.
Once you settle into Marshall’s slow life, you won’t want to leave. Extend your time in the no-rush zone with a stay at Nick’s Cove, a collection of 1930’s-era bayside bungalows, each decorated in its own funky-chic style with recycled wood and galvanized metal. Play a little bocce ball, rent a paddleboard at the pier, and join your fellow guests for an evening bonfire at the beach—with s’mores, of course.
When you vacation at picturesque Shaver Lake—a sapphire gem hugged by pine forest in the granite-studded Sierra Nevada Mountains—megawatts will be the furthest thing from your mind. But this boulder-lined reservoir 50 miles northeast of Fresno is a critical link in one of California’s oldest hydroelectric chains, built by Southern California Edison in 1927 to supply Los Angeles with power.
While the lake is busy generating electricity, you’ll occupy yourself with jet-skiing, swimming, and fishing. Rent a Waverunner or a ski boat at Shaver Lake Water Sports or Sierra Marina, then rev up the horsepower and zoom around the lake’s placid surface. If you’re just learning how to get up on one ski, losing your balance is a pleasure. Shaver’s temperature warms up nicely by mid-summer, thanks to a mid-level elevation of 5,200 feet. Sun-worshippers pick their spots on the beach and cool off with long, leisurely swims.
Kayakers and canoeists seek out Shaver’s quiet coves for paddling, while anglers troll their boats around the deep inlets or cast a line from shore, hoping to hook into a rainbow trout, brown trout, kokanee salmon, or smallmouth bass. Most are pan-sized, but 10-pound trout are not uncommon. If your family is new to fishing, book a trip with Dick’s Fishing Charters—Captain Dick will make sure your kids catch fish.
On Shaver’s western shore, Camp Edison’s 252 campsites provide easy access to the water and an unusual bonus: electricity, cable television, and high-speed wifi, courtesy of the hydroelectric project. (Don’t tell your boss that you can receive emails on vacation.) A small general store provides everything you might have forgotten when you left home. Thirty-five miles of trails surround the lake, and even more are found “up the hill” at Huntington Lake, a 20-mile drive. Set out for a hike, or let Trigger do the walking—Shaver Stable offers one-hour, two-hour, and longer guided horseback rides.
Non-campers can book a cabin or room at the Shaver Lake Village Hotel or Elliott House Bed and Breakfast. Shaver Lake Village is tiny, but you’ll find great food at the surprisingly epicurean Seasons Bistro and Tavern or the family favorite, Shaver Lake Pizza.
Sooner or later, you’ll need a break from lake-based fun, so visit the open-air Central Sierra Historical Society Museum to learn about the region’s logging history and see a vintage “steam donkey,” a contraption that pulled freshly cut logs from the woods to the mill. Then go see some amazing trees that escaped the loggers’ saws. A 15-mile drive leads to the isolated McKinley Grove, where gargantuan giant sequoias thrive among leafy dogwood trees and thick-canopied sugar and Jeffrey pines. A short paved path travels near two dozen of the grove’s largest trees, including the General Washington Tree, which measures a whopping 65 feet in circumference and has a small creek flowing beneath its root system. Although the grove is small—about 170 giant sequoias spread out over 100 acres—it’s one of only a handful of sequoia groves where solitude is easy to come by.
If you feel like venturing farther into these mountains, the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness lies 20 miles north of the McKinley Grove (plan on an hour for the winding drive). On the wilderness area’s eastern boundary, the Dusy/Ershim Off-Highway Vehicle Route provides rough-and-tumble fun for off-road vehicle drivers. This 31-mile route is the “back road” to Courtright Reservoir, an alpine-elevation lake surrounded by spectacular granite domes.
Mammoth Lakes is the Eastern Sierra’s busiest resort destination and an unbeatable spot for year-round outdoor fun. But this mountain town ringed by granite peaks and lake-filled basins is more than just a nature lover’s playground. It’s also a geological showpiece, a volcanic landscape marked by easy-to-spot evidence of its explosive past.
See Mammoth’s volcanic forces shaking and boiling in real time at Hot Creek Geologic Site, a wonderland of hot springs, fumaroles, and unpredictable geysers, all neatly framed within a narrow, rock-strewn gorge. Steaming aquamarine pools may look like a perfect place to soak, but swimming is prohibited—for good reason. Hot Creek’s scenic canyon is like a mini version of the geothermal marvels at Lassen and Yellowstone, with water temperature often topping 200 degrees, heated by a pocket of magma lying three miles below the creek. The earth’s surface is in flux, too. New hot pools appear overnight, and boiling geysers erupt without warning.
Admire the photogenic pools and steam clouds from a safe distance by following the paved trail downhill from the parking area to the canyon’s edge. Then hike along the creekside path to some of the eastern Sierra’s best wild trout waters. Like nearby Crowley Lake, Hot Creek is a top-notch fly-fishing destination, holding an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 rainbow and brown trout per mile. Fishing is catch-and-release only with artificial flies and barbless hooks. Anglers vie for the chance to stay at Hot Creek Ranch, a private fishing resort downstream of the geologic site, where only guests are allowed to fish on the property. The ranch’s nine guest cabins dot a huge meadow cut by a meandering spring creek.
Volcanic activity is responsible for many other Mammoth landmarks, including the fascinating Inyo Craters on Mammoth’s Scenic Loop, Obsidian Dome on Glass Flow Road, and the skier’s paradise at Mammoth Mountain. The ski resort sits on the rim of the 760,000-year-old Long Valley Caldera, where moving and shaking underneath the earth’s crust continues to shape the landscape. The volcano hasn’t been active in thousands of years, but geologists don’t rule out a future eruption. Still, that’s the farthest thing from the minds of thousands of skiers and riders who arrive for Mammoth Mountain’s opening day, usually in the second week of November. With snowfall averaging more than 30 feet per year, dedicated snow lovers can keep skiing laps into July.
If winter isn’t your season, Mammoth still has you covered. In summer, the mountain’s ski slopes convert to a mountain bike park, and the ski gondola transforms into a sightseeing joy ride that tops out at 11,053 feet. Riders get an eagle-eye view of the High Sierra without breaking a sweat. At the gondola’s upper station, an interpretive center features exhibits on the mountain’s volcanic history, plus a view of the Minaret Range, Mono Lake, and 400 miles of the Sierra’s highest peaks. Take a walk around the bald, windswept summit, then grab a bowl of chili at the highest eatery in California, the Eleven53 Café.
Head to Lone Pine to see a different side of California—one that is less connected to the Pacific Coast and more connected culturally and geographically to the interior American West.
This eastern side of California is where the Great Basin Desert begins, and Lone Pine is a small town in some very big country. With a population of barely 2,000 residents, Lone Pine stretches along U.S. Highway 395 at the heart of the vast Owens Valley. To the east, the Inyo Mountains tower over the valley floor, while the Sierra Nevada rises in the west behind the jumbled boulder formations of the Alabama Hills.
As you roll into town, Highway 395 narrows, slows down, and becomes Lone Pine’s Main Street. There are Western-style buildings with awnings shading the sidewalk, while sporting goods stores, with leaping trout on their neon signs, hint at the sacred role that fishing plays in these parts. Known for its early trout season, Lone Pine is a jumping-off point for fishing both in the Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra, including the Golden Trout Wilderness.
The easiest access to the Sierra from Lone Pine is at the 8,374-foot Whitney Portal, about 13 miles west of town. Before heading into the high country, stop in for breakfast at the Alabama Hills Café & Bakery on W. Post St., a down-home local spot that serves up a variety of filling grub, including biscuits-and-gravy and breakfast burritos.
The restaurant is aptly named for the nearby Alabama Hills, a surreal scatter of massive boulders and arches that has been a popular filming location since the silent movie era (classics such as Gunga Din and How the West Was Won were shot here). Download or pick up the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce’s self-guided tour brochure, then take a detour from Whitney Portal Road along Movie Road. (For more about Lone Pine’s moviemaking tradition, be sure to visit The Museum of Western Film History in town.)
The road climbs nearly 5,000 feet from Lone Pine as it zigzags its way up the face of the Eastern Sierra before reaching Whitney Portal, the gateway for hikers bound for the summit of 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Outfitters like SWS Mountain Guides, Sierra Mountain Center, Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, and many others can help safely guide you to the top on an organized trip.
Even if you’re not planning to summit Whitney, you can hike stretches of the Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail through a wooded canyon along Lone Pine Creek. Before returning to town, grab lunch or breakfast at the Whitney Portal Store and catch a glimpse of Lone Pine Creek Falls.
At the edge of the El Paso Range, about 80 miles east of Bakersfield, eroded badlands rise up from the sandy soil, their whimsical shapes sculpted by eons of wind and water. Once the home of the Kawaiisu Indians who carved petroglyphs in the vividly colored cliffs, and later a gold mining site, stagecoach stop, and backdrop for Hollywood westerns, Red Rock Canyon State Park preserves this multi-hued collection of creased and folded sandstone buttes.
Photographers gather at sunrise and sunset to capture the badlands’ saturated colors—whites, pinks, reds, and browns. Geologists come here to study the colorful rocks. Each hue tells a geologic story: red for sandstone that was deposited in stream and river channels, white for sandstone that was subjected to ash from volcanic eruptions, gray for sandstone that was deposited in huge floodplains. Paleontologists flock here, too. Embedded in the rocks are the remains of prehistoric animals—three-toed horses, saber-tooth cats, and alligator lizards. Ninety species of fossilized plants and animals have been documented in Red Rock Canyon.
Take a walk among these fascinating badland formations on the 1.2-mile Hagen Canyon Nature Trail, and you’ll find photo opportunities everywhere you look. Some of the fluted cliffs look like colorful candles melting in the sun. Others have small caves or “windows,” inviting children (and adults) to climb and explore. A smattering of Joshua trees add a touch of green to the desert palette.
Across the highway in the park’s Red Cliffs region, a trail leads past 300-foot-high sandstone columns, their red tint caused by iron oxide (rust). After a wet winter, spring wildflowers erupt in a riot of color. Flower fans search for the Red Rock poppy, a rare and possibly endangered species. If you’re a television buff, you might recognize this otherworldly landscape from vintage shows like Bonanza and Lost in Space. Red Rock Canyon’s cliffs have appeared in more than 100 Hollywood films.
The park’s beauty doesn’t end at sunset. More than 100 miles from L.A.’s bright lights, Red Rock Canyon offers astronomy buffs a blissfully dark night sky. Amateur astronomers set up telescopes almost every night, but you can see the Milky Way and count shooting stars with just your wide-open eyes. On Saturday nights, park docents give talks on astronomy, petroglyphs, desert tortoises, Joshua trees, mining history, and more.
Red Rock Canyon is far from the nearest large town, so make sure your car is stocked with gas, water, and snacks. Pitch your tent at the park’s 50-site Ricardo Campground, or give glamping a try—snuggle up in a tipi at the Olancha RV Park and Motel, an hour’s drive north. Choose your tipi by motif—Horse, Buffalo, Raven, Hawk, Coyote—and then relax in a comfy bed, cuddled in a soft duvet (these cozy tipis have air conditioning and heating, too).
Stretching for more than 30 miles along the Pacific and Highway One, Malibu has achieved almost mythological status among California beach towns. Hollywood stars and top athletes live in oceanfront homes here, under an elegant veil of privacy on long strands of beach, and enjoy front-row seats for surfing and unforgettable sunsets.
While it may sound exclusive, there is plenty of Malibu magic for visitors to access too. Considered to have some of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, just off the Malibu Pier, was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families. In winter, Point Dume, at Malibu’s north end, provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating gray whales.
The perfect aesthetics stretch beyond the beach, too. The Getty Villa—the original home of the Getty Museum, which opened in 1974—focuses on Ancient Greek and Roman Art (admission is free, but you need to make a reservation). For more contemporary, beachy masterpieces, check out the 30 historic surfboards on display, some dating back to the 1910s, at the Surf Museum at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library. And for wearable art—and perhaps to spot one of the local celebs—browse the shops at the Malibu Country Mart and Malibu Lumber Yard, two upscale retail centers located next to one another.
Afterward, grab a bite at Malibu Farms, the organic café and restaurant that sits right on the pier. Or browse the fresh catches—and try one of the famed ahi tuna burgers—at Malibu Seafood, right across from Dan Blocker Beach. To spend the night like an insider, get a room at the 47-room Malibu Beach Inn, a former motel located on the so-nicknamed Billionaire’s Beach, which was given its original makeover by Hollywood mogul David Geffen.
Tough as it is to drag yourself away from the ocean, head inland a short distance and you can also hike through hills and canyons, filled with spring wildflowers and even waterfalls, on trails in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. For a cool guided experience, take one of the two-hour Malibu Wine Hikes on the rolling terrain of Saddlerock Ranch vineyard; walks include stops to see Chumash cave drawings, a meet-and-greet with a movie-star giraffe (he was in Hangover 3) and, of course, a wine tasting.