This legendary route follows strip of highway that was the main route for 20th century pioneers heading west in search of the California dream. Follow the legendary highway, dubbed “the mother road”* by novelist John Steinbeck, to discover remnants of this massive migration between the 1930s to the 1960s.
Much of the original route has been lost or rerouted, and surviving landmarks are scattered, but you can still piece key points together—with worthy detours sprinkled in. This road trip has a twist: instead of heading west on the route, like most people did in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we’ve flipped the drive so you start on the coast in sunny Santa Monica, then end in the dramatic California desert, near the Nevada border. Of course, you can head east to west too, just like those dreamers did more than a half-century ago.
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 it a relaxing destination too—hang out on the city’s broad beach or the lively pier (complete with its own amusement park and rides) without having to stress about traffic or parking. Another great way to get around: rent cruiser bikes (rental shops abound) to follow the Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail. Known locally as “The Strand, the paved, multi-use path follows the oceanfront for roughly 22 miles/35 kilometers, from Santa Monica south to Torrance.
Santa Monica also stands out as a place for seriously great shopping. Downtown, pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade is lined with big-name brands, galleries, movie theaters, and comedy shows, including a luxurious, open-air shopping destination, Santa Monica Place. For a fresh take on the shopping scene, visit to one of Santa Monica’s outstanding farmers’ markets, which pop up weekly on city streets. Each of the city’s year-round market locations has its own unique charms: there’s picnicking on the lawn at Virginia Avenue Park (Saturdays), jazz at the Main Street market in Heritage Square (Sundays), and celebrity chefs looking for fresh produce at the Downtown Santa Monica market (Wednesdays and Saturdays).
From the coast, head inland to one of Southern California’s top theme parks, Universal Studios Hollywood.
Drive over the legendary Hollywood Hills to this part movie studio/part theme park. Universal Studios Hollywood blends behind-the-scenes tours of movie-making magic with rides that swoosh, swoop, and dive through fantasy worlds based on major films. An adjacent, neon-lit complex of shops, eateries, and entertainment spaces known as Universal CityWalk lets you stretch out the experience beyond the park.
Over the decades, more than 150 million people climbed about this ride’s iconic trams to get an inside look at how movies are made. Sure, it’s a theme park ride, so you’re probably not going to see Brad Pitt go strolling by. But it’s good fun, and live guides onboard the tram are entertaining, as is a virtual version of late-night host Jimmy Fallon, who hosts a series of pseudo-informative videos that showcase his goofy charm. And you really do get to see a portion of the Universal Studios Hollywood’s back lots, as well as recreated sets from major films, including Psycho, Jaws, and Back to the Future. You’ll go past working soundstages and sets, and also get a look at how special effects are created, including a creepily realistic battle (you’re stuck in the middle of it) between giant spiders and King Kong.
Insider’s tip: Studio Back Lot tour lines can get long here, but don’t worry: trams each carry several hundred people and depart almost nonstop, so they move fairly quickly. Skip the wait by splurging on a VIP Studio Tour; it includes front-of-the-line passes to all rides and attractions.
Now drive east to the leafy elegance of Pasadena, with museums, gardens, and outstanding historic architecture.
This classy enclave northeast of downtown L.A. has long been a favored retreat of the well-heeled set. Drive the leafy streets, lined with elegant mansions of every shape and style, to have a spa treatment at the 1907 The Langham Huntington, an iconic hotel with ballrooms and terraced gardens. Nearby is Gamble House, one of the world’s finest examples of American Arts & Crafts architecture (docent-led tours noon to 3, Thursday through Sunday). At The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, leave stress behind as you walk through exquisite and view priceless art treasures. Also visit the impressive collection of European paintings at the Norton Simon Museum Shop and dine in handsomely restored Old Pasadena, as well as in the outdoor Paseo Colorado complex, or along South Lake Avenue. Time your visit to catch a UCLA Bruins football game at the landmark Rose Bowl (also home to one of the best flea markets in the state; usually held the second Sunday of the month).
Rev things up with a drive east to Fontana, home of Auto Club Speedway and world-class NASCAR racing.
Follow the base of the soaring San Gabriel Mountains via Interstate 210 to witness some of the world’s best racecar drivers at this legendary speedway in Fontana. Whether you’re into NASCAR, INDYCAR, or drag racing, Auto Club Speedway delivers all kinds of thrills for fans of powerful cars and high-speed action. The 2-mile, D-shaped oval draws top drivers for springtime’s Auto Club 400, one of NASCAR’s premier events. INDYCAR events include the MAVTV 500, the season-ending race held under the lights. To really get the full experience and to see cars (and sometimes drivers) up-close, pick up pre-race pit passes for both NASCAR and INDYCAR events. And while the races are definitely the big draw, there are also live performances and stunt shows, and you can camp in the infield.
" Auto Club Speedway delivers all kinds of thrills for fans of powerful cars and high-speed action. The 2-mile, D-shaped oval draws top drivers for springtime’s Auto Club 400, one of NASCAR’s premier events."
The speedway’s Auto Club Dragway also hosts National Hot Rod Association events, and if you want to put your mettle to the pedal, attend one of the racing schools held at the speedway throughout the year. Check the race schedule to know what’s going on when you’re on your road trip.
It’s a quick hop east to San Bernardino, where you can turn down the volume from zooming racecars to peaceful museums.
After the adrenaline rush of hot rods and NASCAR, it’s nice to chill out for a while. In this major city, two museums offer a peaceful—and interesting—interlude.
The San Bernardino County Museum offers a look at the area’s past, with exhibits of Native American crafts, and displays of mining equipment, lumber wagons, and a steam locomotive that helped build the Inland Empire. The museum also commemorates the area’s citrus heritage and celebrates its natural environment with desert gardens and The Exploration Station, a gallery with live animals.
At Cal State University San Bernardino, the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art spans the millennia. It boasts more than 500 artifacts tracing 4,000 years of Egyptian history, as well impressive collections of ancient Mediterranean ceramics and contemporary art.
Now turn northeast to take I-15 through the valley separating the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Ranges to a desert town with entertaining memorabilia commemorating the Route 66 migration.
This remote desert town is the place to be for some of the best remnants from the migration west. Plus, there’s some good shopping at bargain outlets too. First up is the wacky storage closet of the region’s memorabilia, the Route 66 Mother Road Museum. Period road signs, photos, and other mid-century oddities take you down the memory lane of the 20th-century pioneers heading west in search of the California dream. For another diversion, follow Route 66 just west of Barstow to see the eccentric but oddly beautiful Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch, the work of a local artist, with welded metal “trees” festooned with discarded bottles, vintage toys, and other scraps. It’s a colorful example of the region’s still-strong folk art tradition.
For more ideas on what to do in the area, visit the California Welcome Center, in the Tanger Outlets complex. While you’re there, hunt for bargains on favorite labels and name brands, including Calvin Klein, Skechers, and Michael Kors.
Be sure to have plenty of drinking water, and fill the tank with gas for the next leg of your trip, a journey into dramatic and remote desert parkland.
Driving east on Interstate 40, the land turns drier, the views more untouched and surreal. Peace and quiet doesn’t get much more beautiful than this. Protecting an astounding 1.6 million acres/647,497 hectares of pristine desert wilderness, this preserve lets you hear singing sand dunes, explore miles of weirdly contorted Joshua trees, hike up volcanic cinder cones, see abandoned mines and remote homesteads—and probably not see a single other person the entire time you’re here. While conditions are unquestionably extreme in the preserve—soaring summer heat, cold winter nights, surprise flash floods during summer monsoons—prepared visitors can experience one of the state’s great treasures. Take time to explore, and let the desert’s magic unfold.
That’s not to say this is a lifeless wasteland: wait and watch (especially at dusk and dawn) to see surprising wildlife, including the rare desert tortoise. Spring rains can carpet the desert with wildflowers. And there are people here too: stop in at Kelso Depot, a meticulously restored train station that now house’s the preserve’s visitor center, for exhibits and information (open 9 to 5, Friday through Tuesday).
Next up is another otherworldly national park, with wacky trees and gigantic rock formations. Your route takes you on some very lonely stretches of highway to Joshua Tree (roughly 3 hours southwest), so bring drinking water and snacks, have a full tank of gas, and put some good road trip tunes and you’re ready to roll.
Boulders and buttresses, rugged mountains, gold mining ruins, desert plains dotted with the oddball trees—this is one weird place. Joshua Tree, nicknamed “J-Tree” by locals, lies at an ecological crossroads, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert. The result is amazing desert flora, including those wacky namesake trees (actually a type of yucca). Joshua Tree’s beauty shines around the clock, with vibrant sunsets melting into nights filled with uncountable stars.
Pick a clear morning to visit Keys View for a sweeping panorama that takes in two of Southern California’s biggest summits: Mount San Jacinto (elevation 10,834 feet/3,302 meters) and Mount Gorgonio (elevation 11,502 feet/3,506 meters). Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley frame the background, and the vast Salton Sea shimmers to the southeast. Look carefully and you can pick out the leafy green of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve directly below you. On the clearest days, peer through binoculars to spot Mountain Signal in Mexico, more than 90 miles away. Stretch your legs on a short paved trail, or, if you’re feeling lively and want the kind of piece and quiet found only in deserts, follow the path to neighboring Inspiration Peak A worthy side-trip: Since you’ve already driven out Keys View Road, be sure to stop at the Lost Horse Mine trailhead and take the moderate hike to Lost Horse Mine.
After all these desert adventures, it’s time to head for some decidedly swanky civilization, the desert communities collectively known as Palm Springs.
Blossoming at the base of the San Jacinto Range, this destination is a welcome splash of well-watered green after all that desert dryness. Fed by underground springs, the desert comes alive here, not only with signature palms, but also with a string of resort communities—Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and others, as well as the namesake town of Palm Springs—sporting a cool, mid-century modern vibe and countless ways to relax. Back in the 1950s, stars like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley built sleek estates, played rounds of golf at championship courses, and wined and dined the desert night away. Today, the region still has plenty of retro hipster swagger but also next-gen energy, with hot new restaurants, luxury lodgings, and fabulous shopping. Plus, there’s the beauty of the California desert all around.
Give yourself plenty of time to stroll along this swanky strip in Palm Desert. First, you’ll want to see all the art. This roughly 1-mile/2-km strip and adjacent streets house one of the largest concentrations of art galleries anywhere in Southern California. As inviting as mini-museums, these galleries let you get close to art, chat with knowledgeable gallery owners and staff, and even meet the artists on during special openings and events. Then you’ll want to get something to eat—perhaps a juicy steak accompanied by jazz (Sullivan's Steakhouse), or oysters on the half-shell (Pacifica Seafood Restaurant), or wood-fired pizza at Sammy’s. And of course—there’s the shopping. There’s a reason El Paseo reminds people of Rodeo Drive, what with the impeccably appointed boutiques of top designers, including Bottega Veneta and St. John, tempting you to brandish your credit card and come in. Find more shops at the Gardens on El Paseo complex: Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor, Pottery Barn, Brooks Brothers, Tommy Bahamas, and more.
Next stop is California’s largest state park, an extraordinary region with palm oases, wildlife, mysterious canyons, and Native American history.
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.
The main entrance and visitor center to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are on the south end of town. The park’s combo name, pairing the name of famed Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who crossed this desert in 1774, and the Spanish word for sheep (“borrego”)—referring to the region’s native bighorn sheep, this desert preserve—California’s largest state park—protects more than 600,000 acres/242,811 hectares of badlands, palm oases, slot canyons, and cactus-studded hills. A geology lesson in making, still being altered by erosion and flash floods, it’s a wild and remote place, with much of it accessed via primitive roads, or on foot. (Consider renting a 4WD with high clearance for best access.) But the payoff is stunning stillness and unforgettable beauty. A popular walk near the Visitor Center follows a creek to Palm Canyon, a favorite spot for desert bighorn sheep.
From Anza-Borrego, it’s a roughly 2-hour drive southwest to San Diego, or a 3-hour drive northwest to Los Angeles.