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11 Scenic Byways

11 Scenic Byways

Admire stunning landscapes and explore historic towns on these roads less traveled

There’s no better way to take in the many and varied wonders of California than jumping in a car and hitting the road, and these stretches of asphalt—many of them federally-designated Scenic Byways—belong at the top of your to-drive list. From Redding in the Shasta Cascade region down to the Mojave Desert, these road trip adventures will show off the Golden State at its best. (To learn about how to turn Scenic Byways and other lesser-known routes into a vacation, check out the Undiscovered Road Trips episode of the California Now Podcast.)

1. Trinity Scenic Byway

From Redding’s grassy valleys to Arcata’s redwood-lined coast, Trinity Scenic Byway traverses a landscape that radiates a time-is-irrelevant vibe. Highway 299 parallels the Wild and Scenic Trinity River past evergreen forests, hilltop prairies, and fascinating Gold Rush remains. You could complete the 140-mile drive in one day, but why rush? Spend the night in Weaverville, a town founded on 49ers’ golden dreams, and play around on the sparkling clear Trinity, where fly-fishing, swimming, kayaking, and rafting opportunities await. DON’T MISS: Bigfoot ephemera at the Willow Creek China Flat Museum

2. Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway

While the Sierra Nevada high country shows off epic vistas of towering peaks, the range’s lower elevations exude a more intimate charm. This 160-mile Scenic Byway takes you across three forks of the Yuba River and into friendly, one-stoplight towns in Sierra County—Downieville, Sierra City, Bassetts, and Sierraville. Stop at roadside exhibits to learn about the lives of gold miners, railroad builders, and daring pioneers. Picnic by an 1860 covered bridge at Freeman’s Crossing. Admire historic barns that dot the meadows and ranchlands. And allow plenty of time to explore the towns of Nevada City and Truckee, both rich with boutiques and eateries. DON’T MISS: Emigrant Experience exhibits at Donner Memorial State Park

3. Carson Pass Scenic Byway

Mother Nature’s artwork forms the backdrop for this 58-mile drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountains south of Lake Tahoe, a land of volcanic peaks, alpine lakes, aspen groves, and river-cut meadows. Get out of the car to hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, paddle a kayak around Alpine County’s Silver Lake or Caples Lake, admire summer wildflowers and autumn quaking aspen groves, or stop at the log-cabin visitor center at Highway 88’s summit (8,600 feet). This region offers endless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and world-class fishing, so plan to stay a few nights at campgrounds or lodgings near Kirkwood or Hope ValleyDON’T MISS: Freshly baked cookies at Hope Valley Cafe 

4. River Road/Route 160

No major highways cross the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta, a web of waterways, canals, levees, and wetlands that’s anchored by two-block towns, bountiful farms, and yesteryear saloons. See this laid-back waterworld by driving the 45-mile Scenic Byway that heads north from Antioch, ending at Freeport’s 1929 drawbridge. Taste fresh tomatoes and peaches grown in the Delta’s rich soil. Visit the all-wooden city of Locke, built by Chinese immigrants in 1915, and the Dai Loy Museum, once a gambling house. Peek into the art deco Ryde Hotel, or reserve a spot for Sunday brunch at the Grand Island MansionDON’T MISS: Dollar bills tacked to the ceiling at Al’s Place in Locke

5. Skyline Boulevard/Route 35

Skyline Boulevard runs along a high ridgeline that separates San Francisco’s peninsula from the Pacific coast, creating a natural break for the ocean fog and a rich ecosystem where redwoods, oaks, and bay laurel grow. Perched along that view-filled spine are a string of open space preserves with trails that lure drivers out of their cars. Stretch your legs in the lush, stream-fed redwood groves of Purisima Creek Canyon. See tafoni sandstone formations at El Corte de Madera. Savor a snack with panoramic views at Windy Hill. Peer out above the fog at Russian Ridge. When you need a sightseeing break, sip Pinot Noir at Thomas Fogarty Winery’s ridgetop tasting room. DON’T MISS: Lunch at Alice’s Restaurant, a classic roadhouse

6. Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway

This backcountry drive follows Highway 33 north from Ojai deep into California’s heartland in the Cuyama Valley. Once known as the Maricopa Road, the route was built in 1931 to connect the valley’s remote ranches and homesteads with Ventura’s county seat. Even today, it’s still a journey into untrammeled land, with two narrow lanes snaking through Los Padres National Forest. Beyond the cliff-lined creek canyon at Wheeler Gorge, you’ll find few signs of civilization. Instead, there’s Piedra Blanca’s beautiful sandstone formations, Sespe Gorge’s vertical cliffs, expansive views of the Sespe Wilderness, and the fir and pine forests at 5,000-foot Pine Mountain RidgeDON’T MISS: Hiking and mountain biking at Rose Valley Recreation Area

7. San Marcos Pass Road/Route 154

When most visitors think of Santa Barbara, they picture palm trees and sandy beaches, but driving San Marcos Pass relegates the ocean to your rearview. This 32-mile route shows the city’s rugged side in the chaparral-clad Santa Ynez Mountains, then coddles you in Los Olivos, where cowboy culture and culinary panache go hand in hand. Along the way, see vivid 400-year-old pictographs at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, skirt along Lake Cachuma’s edge, then swing into the Santa Ynez Valley, a land of tasting rooms and ranching communities that embrace fine food and wine. DON’T MISS: Tri-tip sandwiches and Old West memorabilia at Cold Spring Tavern

8. Angeles Crest Scenic Byway

When Highway 2 was funded in 1919, its builders designed it to be California’s “most scenic and picturesque mountain road.” Although construction took 27 years, the 66-mile route offers incredible vistas at every curve as it traces along the craggy spine of the San Gabriel Mountains from La Cañada to Wrightwood. Take advantage of every turnout for compelling views of the Mojave Desert and the Inland Empire, and take your pick from dozens of trailheads and picnic areas. On a hike to Switzer Falls or Mount Waterman, you’ll hardly believe that Downtown Los Angeles is only an hour away. DON’T MISS: A guided tour of the Mount Wilson Observatory

9. Palms to Pines Scenic Byway

On this drive, you don’t have to choose between desert and mountains—you get both. Play golf under swaying palms, then watch snow fall on cedars. This byway zigzags from Palm Desert to nearly 6,000 feet, cutting through the lands of Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument. Pull over at Coachella Valley Vista Point for a view of the vast desert floor, then ascend to Paradise Valley, where the Pacific Crest Trail passes through. Pause for lunch and boutique shopping in the charming mountain hamlet of Idyllwild or relax under Humber Park’s big conifers before zipping down the switchbacks to Banning. DON’T MISS: An alpine hike on the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail

10. Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway

Come face-to-face with the magnitude of time on this amazing drive to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where the world’s oldest trees have endured for millennia. The 36-mile byway begins in the sagebrush plains of the Owens Valley near Bishop and ascends 7,000 feet into the White Mountains. As your surroundings transition from high-desert scrub to high-alpine flora, you’ll see California from a new perspective—looking west from its eastern border. Walk the Discovery Trail among ancient pines, some older than 4,000 years. (Go slow—your lungs may be challenged at 10,000 feet.) For more ageless beauty, continue along 12 unpaved miles to see the Patriarch Tree, the largest of its kind. DON’T MISS: Gazing at 100 miles of Sierra Nevada peaks from Sierra View Overlook

11. Historic Route 66: Needles to Barstow

Route 66 was America’s original road trip—a 2,448-mile cruise from Chicago to Santa Monica. This stretch of the historic “Mother Road” is California’s newest Scenic Byway. The asphalt ribbon crosses the Mojave Desert, a place of lonesome vistas and Joshua-tree-dotted plains that time seems to have forgotten. Long, empty stretches are broken up by faded neon signs, abandoned gas stations, and kitschy roadside attractions from the glory days. Stop at the 1938 Roy’s Motel & Cafe in Amboy to snap photos, gaze at Amboy Crater’s immense black cinder cone, and search out 26 historical murals around downtown Barstow. DON’T MISS: Artifacts at the Route 66 Mother Road Museum in Barstow.