California is the third largest U.S. state by land mass, and the most populated. The state has three cities of over 1 million residents, and San Francisco is nearly 900,000. It’s an adventure to visit this varied climates and cultures, and picking just 10 sites is not an easy task. We mix this list up a bit with wild places and city lights alike on this California road trip. From north or south, you can use these ten suggestions to build a California road trip adventure for two (or better yet) three weeks of fun and frolic.
San Diego is a hip and bustling city in southern California. The weather is usually perfect, no matter the season. We recommend visiting the San Diego Zoo, one of the premier zoos in the world, it’s about more than animals. The trees, plant life and grounds are beautiful and it’s so large you can travel by cable car.
Los Angeles is so huge it’s hard to narrow down the best neighborhoods and things to do. The Getty Villa is one of the best, though. The former grounds and mansion of one of the world’s richest men, J. Paul Getty. Its Roman and Greek themes will take you into an opulent world. The “house” and grounds are quiet, relaxing and unique.
Just outside of L.A. is an interesting detour into Hollywood’s past. The Paramount Ranch is in Ventura is a must-visit. Ventura is also a gateway to the central coast region. This site hosted many western films, and is an easy morning or afternoon tour that is popular with adults and kids alike.
Driving up Highway 101 or, if you have time, Pacific Coast Highway from LA, your next stop should be in the lovely, wealthy and seaside town of Carmel. Often called “Carmel-By-The-Sea,” this beautiful coastal village typifies the laid back yet lively California lifestyle. Former Mayor Clint Eastwood still owns a residence here. Activities include tourist shops, beaches, and visiting the historical Carmel Mission.
Next, hit the famously stunning city of San Francisco. Here, tourist opportunities are fascinating and plentiful, from Chinatown to Golden Gate Park. The Ghirardelli chocolate factory and the Exploratorium are great destinations for kids. For some darker and more eccentric experiences check out Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum or Alcatraz Island for drama and mystery. If you can afford it, spend at least three days in the City of Lights, since the opportunities for tourism are nearly endless.
After spending a few days in the city, take a short drive to Point Reyes National Seashore just north via highway 1. This area is pristine, silent, beautiful, and scenic drive. In only a few hours you’ll be a world away from the city bustle.
Drive east into Sonoma, or California’s wine country. Your California road trip needs to include a trip here to savor some of the greatest wines on the planet. If you don’t drink, spend an extra day on the coast instead and visit Monterey (just up the road from Carmel) for its aquarium. Napa is a great city to begin a two to three day detour in wine country, dining, and finding out-of-the way lodging.
You’ll still have time to make the state capitol part of your California road trip. From Sonoma, drive 3 hours east to Sacramento. Here, you’ll find dozens of tourist possibilities, from Crocker Art Museum to the Railroad Museum. The dining here is excellent, and affordable lodging can be found through online rentals. We highly recommend the California Automobile Museum for something different.
From the capitol, drive south to find the greatest natural wonder around—Yosemite National Park. Check out half dome, take a hike, or just drive through this spectacular valley. It’s one of the gems in the National Park system, and is often crowded, so make lodging plans in advance. This wonder, long a home to Native Americans of the Sierras, is a must-see on any California road trip.
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