Scenic California Drives: 7 Routes That Will Make You Swoon

Couple driving convertible, Napa Valley, California

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These seven California drives are guaranteed to make you say "Wow!" — And say it more than once. They're the best places you can go for a short road trip in California, journeys where you will measure progress by photos per mile rather than miles per hour.

If you take them all, you will see waves crashing on coastal cliffs and drive beneath trees that are the tallest living things on earth. You will travel over high mountain passes, through valleys with floors a mile high, feeling small in comparison to the mountains that soar 10,000 feet above you. You will cross the desert through a World Biosphere Reserve and see the lowest place in North America.

All of these road trips are between 100 and 180 miles long, short enough to do in a single day and interesting enough to turn into multi-day trips. In fact, you could string them all together to make the ultimate one- to two-week California road trip vacation. You can see where they are on this handy Google map.

Before you get started, take a little time to go old school. While all of these routes have fantastic views, they can take you far from the nearest cell phone tower. Before you hop in the car, download a map to your mobile device or get one printed on paper.

01 of 07

Big Sur: From Carmel to Morro Bay

Bixby Bridge, Highway #1 Big Sur, California, USA

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California Highway 1 between Morro Bay and Carmel-by-the-Sea is the best drive in California. And it may just be the most famous 155 miles in the world. It's undoubtedly the most photographed, talked about and dreamed about route in the Golden State.

It's all about the scenery on the Big Sur drive, with the highway tracing the curvaceous coastline and the Pacific Ocean crashing on the rocks below.

Driving on this road can be nerve-wracking. Some of the turns are so tight you'll feel like you can see your own taillights. That is when you're not fretting about whether you're going to veer off the road and end up in the ocean at the bottom of those sheer cliffs. To minimize that drama, start in Morro Bay and drive north which puts your vehicle on the land side of the highway.

The 120-mile distance seems short, but photo opportunities, hairpin turns, and slow-moving drivers combine to make the trip take up to twice as long as you might expect.

The best time to go is in spring and fall when the sky is the clearest. In summer, the coast is subject to coastal fog called June Gloom, the road gets crowded, and there are few places to pass those slow-moving vehicles. In winter, mudslides can close Highway 1 for weeks to months at a time. Before you set out, check the road conditions on the CalTrans website and find out what you can do instead if it's closed.

Where to Stop

If you want to make this trip in two days, you'll want to spend more time in Morro Bay. You can also spend a day or more exploring Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Places to stay are scarce except around the Big Sur village area where you can find plenty of inns and campgrounds.

What You Need to Know

You can find food and restrooms at Ragged Point, Gorda and in Big Sur village. Purchase gasoline in either Carmel or Morro Bay. If you're driving an electric vehicle, charge up in Big Sur village or Cambria (75 miles apart).

If you or your companions are prone to motion sickness, be prepared. Try these remedies or take the wheel which helps many people avoid the problem.

The highway is a paved, two-lane road suitable for all passenger vehicles. You can take large RVs and travel trailers on it, but most people who have tried that say they won't do it again.

02 of 07

The High Sierras: Bridgeport to Lone Pine

Exploring California's Owens Valley

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Between Bridgeport and Lone Pine, the 150-mile stretch of US Highway 395 passes through a landscape that looks like it was torn from the pages of National Geographic magazine. In the fall when the aspen trees turn golden, it’s arguably the most beautiful drive in California.

One of the delights of 395 is the diversity of landscapes you can see just by looking out your window. You'll travel through the broad, high Owens Valley with the Sierra Nevada mountains on the west side and the White and Inyo Mountains on the east. You'll even be able to see Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet (4,421 meter).

Fall is the most spectacular season to make the drive. In the spring, you may see wild iris and other wildflowers blooming beside the highway. Summer is also fine, with moderate temperatures and lots of sunshine. In the winter, the area gets snow, which makes the mountains beautiful but can make the driving difficult.

Where to Stop

Must-see sights along Highway 395 include Mono Lake and its unique tufa rock formations, Devil's Postpile outside Mammoth, Convict Lake, June Lake, and the Manzanar National Historic Site (a World War II Japanese internment camp). 

You can get a detailed description of what else you can see in the Highway 395 travel guide.

If you make this trip in two days, you can also take side trips to see the west's best-preserved ghost town at Bodie State Historic Park, and the bubbling, turquoise-colored mineral springs at Hot Creek.

Bishop is an excellent place to stop, but you can also find lodging in Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, and Lone Pine.

What You Need to Know

Food, gasoline, and restrooms are available in most of the towns along 395. Most of them also have electric vehicle charging points with at least a few stations.

The highest point on this drive is Conway Summit which is 8,138 feet (2,480 m) high, enough to cause altitude sickness in some people.

The main highway is suitable for any type of vehicle. Passenger vehicles can use the unpaved road to Bodie ghost town, but it is famous for its bumps and potholes. A few of the side trips in the Highway 395 guide are accessed by dirt roads that are passable in a passenger vehicle (although you may come out covered in dust).

03 of 07

Highway 1 North: San Francisco to Fort Bragg

Aerial View Of Landscape Against Sky

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The Big Sur coast is justifiably famous and jaw-droppingly scenic, but it isn't the only part of California Highway 1 that offers views so gorgeous you might not believe they're real.

The 180-mile drive between San Francisco and Fort Bragg on Highway 1 offers scenery and lots of places to stop and explore, from charming villages that look they should be in New England to cliffside vista points so far above the ocean they could give you vertigo.

The best time to go is in spring and fall when the sky is the clearest. In summer, the coast is subject to coastal fog called June Gloom. The highway can sometimes be closed for repairs, especially in the winter. Check for closures and other road conditions at the CalTrans website before you go.

Where to Stop

The best stops are at Point Reyes to see one of the coast's most scenic lighthouses, the tiny town of Marshall where you can enjoy oysters fresh from the ocean, and the storybook town of Mendocino.

Between those points of interest, you'll be high above the ocean's edge. You can find out about everything else along the way in the guide to traveling Highway 1 north.

There's enough to enjoy on this route that it would also make a multi-day trip. You can find places to stay in most of the towns you pass through.

What You Need to Know

Gasoline, food, and restrooms are also available at most of the towns on Highway 1. Many of them also have electric vehicle chargers with at least a few stations.

If winding, clifftop roads make you or your companions nervous, drive from south to north, which will keep your vehicle on the inside of all the curves.

If you or your companions are prone to motion sickness, be prepared. Try these remedies or take the wheel which helps many people avoid the problem.

The highway is a paved, two-lane road suitable for all passenger vehicles. Because of the many curves and steep hills, it's not a good idea to take RVs and travel trailers on it.

04 of 07

From the Beach to the Desert: San Diego to Palm Springs

Crossing the Anza Borrego Desert

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If you're driving from San Diego to Palm Springs, don't let your GPS or navigation app take you on a boring drive on busy interstate highways. Instead, take control of your route to travel through the Cuyamaca Mountains, visit a gold rush town from the 1870s, and descend to the desert to explore a World Biosphere Reserve. 

Fall, winter, and spring are all great times to go. Between October and January, you can see up to 400 species of migratory birds around the Salton Sea — almost half of those known in North America. In the spring, you might catch the wildflowers at Anza-Borrego. Fall is apple season in the town of Julian. In the summer, desert temperatures are so high that you won't want to get out of your air-conditioned vehicle — but hotel rates in the desert cities will be low.

Where to Stop

Along the way, stop in Julian, a tiny gold rush town that's a good place to shop for antiques and get a slice of apple pie made from fruit grown in the nearby orchards.

On the east side of the mountains is Anza-Borrego, California's largest state park and a World Biosphere Reserve. For a quick visit, stop at the desert garden outside the visitor center which is a concentrated version of the park's entire 600,000 acres. Or go into depth and explore all the things you can do in Anza-Borrego.

At the town of Borrego Springs, detour west on Highway S22. Before long, you'll be rubbing your eyes in disbelief when you start seeing some of the more than 100 metal sculptures scattered over 10 square miles. Created by sculptor Ricardo Breceda for Dennis Avery (of the Avery label company), the Borrego Springs sculpture garden include mammoths, wild horses, giant sloths, camels, birds of prey and saber-tooth tigers. 

Continuing toward Palm Springs, you'll come to the Salton Sea, a body of water that covers almost 350 square miles of the California desert, is twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean, and is disappearing fast. From a distance, it looks like a mirage, an optical illusion formed by shimmering heat waves rising from the desert floor. You can see it from the road as you pass or use the Salton Sea visitor guide to find out more about it.

If you want to take the trip in two days, you could stay overnight in Julian or Borrego Springs.

What You Need to Know

Food, gasoline, and restrooms are available in Julian and Borrego Springs, and you can also find restrooms at the Anza-Borrego visitor center. If you are driving an electric vehicle with a range of fewer than 200 miles, check ahead for charging stations along your route.

To take control of that GPS, map your trip in sections. If you're starting from San Diego, don't type Palm Springs into your mapping app. Set it for Julian instead. When you get there, navigate to Borrego Springs. Then plot a route to Palm Springs using the Interstate or take California Highway 111 which goes through the desert towns south of Palm Springs. If you're starting in Palm Springs, do the reverse: Borrego Springs, then Julian, then San Diego.

If you or your companions are prone to motion sickness, be prepared. Try these remedies or take the wheel which helps many people avoid the problem.

This drive is suitable for any type of vehicle, although it has quite a few hilly, curving sections. In the summer, be sure your vehicle is capable of handling high temperatures and check your fluid levels.

Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07

Redwood Highway: Oregon Border to Leggett

Avenue of the Giants, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California

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Northern California's Redwood Highway takes you through the home of some of the most spectacular trees on earth. They cluster in groves, growing as tall as 300 to 350 feet and spanning 16 to 18 feet across.

The 175-mile route also passes some of Northern California's most dramatic coastal scenery. Between the redwood groves, you can spot elk, hike through a canyon filled with ferns, or stop to see the famous Chandelier Tree where you can actually drive your car through its trunk.

You can do basic drive between Leggett and the Oregon border in a day. If you have more time, take a few side trips. You can travel back in time in Ferndale (a village full of charming Victorian-era homes), watch the waves crash on offshore rocks, or take a photo of yourself next to an oversized statue of Paul Bunyan and his pal Babe the Blue Ox.

You can enjoy this drive any time of year. Winter can be rainy, but snow is rare.

Where to Stop

If you only see one thing along the Redwood Highway, it should be Jedediah Smith State Park. The 6-mile drive through the park on Howland Hill Road is a must if you have never been in an unspoiled redwood forest. It's not suitable for all vehicles, but you can use the Jedediah Smith Park guide to find out what you need to know before you go.

The guide to driving the Redwood Highway outlines all the other things to see and do along the way.

What You Need to Know

You're never far from a service station, a place to eat or a restroom on the highway. Expect to find more amenities in the larger towns. Electric vehicle charging stations may be difficult to find, making it a good idea to search for their locations before you start your trip.

Highway 101 is suitable for any vehicle, including large RVs and travel trailers, even on a side drive through the Avenue of the Giants.

Howland Hill drive is never suitable for large RVs or vehicles towing trailers. If the hard-packed gravel road has been graded recently, it's passable for a family sedan, but conditions can vary from smooth to deeply rutted. Check conditions at one of the park's visitor centers entrance in Crescent City and near the Hiouchi entrance.

06 of 07

Through Yosemite: Mariposa to Lee Vining Over Tioga Pass

Mono Craters from Tioga Pass

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There's a lot more to Yosemite National Park than just the famous valley. On this drive, you'll also see alpine meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and get a bird's eye view of Yosemite Valley from above.

The 100-mile route starts in the foothill town of Mariposa, climbs into the mountains and through the Yosemite Valley alongside the Merced River. Don't give in to temptation and spend all your time visiting the valley unless you have more than one day to make the trip. Instead, drive over the mountains through Tioga Pass to see Yosemite's high country.

This drive is beautiful any time of year. In the spring, you will see lots of flowering trees and wildflowers and the rivers and waterfalls will be at maximum flow. You can take the drive roughly from October through May, but in the winter, the mountain pass closes because of snow. You can get a look at historical opening and closing times at the Yosemite website.

Even though it looks like any other state highway on the map, this route goes through a national park with an entrance fee which applies even if you're only driving through.

Where to Stop

The most spectacular vista points along the drive are Olmstead Point, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows. You can explore more about them and other sights along the way in the Tioga Pass visitor guide.

You can easily make this drive in a day, but if you want to stop along the way, you will find cabins at White Wolf Lodge and more lodging at the Tioga Pass Resort.

What You Need to Know

You can buy groceries in Yosemite Valley or at the Tuolumne Meadows store.

Gas pumps at Crane Flat (at the junction of Big Oak Flat Road and Tioga Road) are open 24 hours a day year-round, but the store is open only from spring through fall. It will be less expensive to fill up with gasoline in Mariposa or Lee Vining.

Be sure you know where to charge your electric vehicle before you start.

If you or your companions are prone to motion sickness, be prepared. Try these remedies or take the wheel which helps many people avoid the problem.

The highest point on this drive is Tioga Pass which is 9,943 feet (3,031 meters) high, enough to cause altitude sickness in some people.

The road is suitable for any type of vehicle, include large RVs and travel trailers.

07 of 07

The Heart of Death Valley: Shoshone to Stovepipe Wells

Car driving past sand dunes (focus on reflection in side-view mirror)

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Death Valley is the place to travel through some of California' most spectacular desert scenery, an other-worldly landscape that looks like it belongs in an outer space movie. That is, unless If you drive into it on the wrong road, which can be so dull that it will make you wonder why people say that.

If you follow the scenic route, you will travel over two mountain passes before dropping to a spot that's well below sea level. You'll also get a look at Lake Manly which dried up 10,000 years ago. If you're lucky enough to go at the right time, you can see it temporarily come back to life. That happens once every decade or so. The last time was 2015 when a few people went kayaking on it.

The best time to make this drive is between October and April. You can use the Death Valley weather and climate guide to choose a time of year when the temperatures suit you. Some people enjoy summer in Death Valley, but it can get so hot that those cheap dollar store flip-flops might just melt and stick to the pavement if you stand still for too long.

Where to Stop

Besides the locations mentioned above, you can use the Death Valley visitor guide to plan your stops.

If you want to make this drive into a two-day trip, you can stay at one of the Death Valley hotels or bring your gear and stay in one of the campgrounds.

What You Need to Know

The only gasoline stations in Death Valley are at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. There is also a station at Panamint Springs, but it is exorbitantly expensive. If you are driving an EV, it's best to keep charged up and research charger locations before you go.

To take this drive, follow the route on this handy Google map or use these directions: From Shoshone, California exit Highway 127 onto Highway 178. Travel past the ruined Ashford gold mill to Badwater, then on north past the Devil's Golf Course. Take the side drive through Artist's Palette. Continue to Furnace Creek, then drive north through the park to Stovepipe Wells. It's about 100 miles from Shoshone to there.

From Stovepipe Wells, you can exit the park on Highway 190 over the mountains toward Panamint Springs or go east to Beatty, Nevada.

Death Valley is an unforgiving place that sometimes lives up to its name. Before you go, stock up on water and food and find out how to get to Death Valley without dying on the way.

The main roads described above are all passable in any type of vehicle. If you want to go off-road to locations like The Racetrack, you may need a four-wheel drive vehicle.