The ultimate Californian road trip
The best way to enjoy California is by driving and while a normal sedan might do the job, a mid-size crossover SUV such as the Dodge Journey you can read about here, or the new Toyota Highlander is probably more appropriate if you’re three or four adults. SUVs give you a little more height and ground clearance, making them better for sightseeing and the occasional foray onto a dirt track to reach that campsite or outlook. The maximum number of people in a car is probably four in the interest of comfort and space. The first step is to rent the right car for a trip like this.
Mid-size three-row SUVs such as the Dodge and Toyota we mentioned earlier work very well as two-row cars with plenty of space for cargo when the third row is folded down. Nobody is ever that comfortable in center seats, even in the most spacious vehicles, so for five people or more, a minivan is probably the best. Of course, trying to see everything in California in ten days is impossible, but if you’re pressed for time, our itinerary is designed to give you the best ten-day Californian road trip possible.
Top Tourist Attractions In California
As a reminder of everything California has to offer, these are typically regarded as the top ten attractions in the state:
- Yosemite National Park – especially Tunnel View that overlooks the Yosemite Valley
- Lake Tahoe for majestic summer views and many winter snow sports
- Golden Gate Bridge, an icon and top tourist attraction
- The Big Sur coastline – 90 scenic miles between Carmel and the Santa Lucia Mountains
- Venice Beach, the famous three-mile LA beach offering many activities
- Death Valley – especially Dante’s View from atop the Black Mountains
- SeaWorld in San Diego, with the killer whales’ Shamu Show as the top attraction
- General Sherman, the largest sequoia tree of them all with a height of 275 feet
- Redwood National Park with its trees, rivers, stunning coastline, and many activities
The Ten-Day Californian Road Trip
As you can gather, seeing it all in tens of days is basically impossible, so we’ll try our level best to give you a balanced itinerary with some options and alternatives along the way to tweak your route. Based on our itinerary, shop for the best accommodations along the route.
Here is our ten-day itinerary:
San Francisco. This is a great city to start a road trip, with three airports for those flying in. You should spend a day in the city at least, starting at the Golden Gate Recreation Area at the bridge, learning more about it, and finally walking or biking across it – a must-do activity. On the other side, explore the little town of Sausalito and return to the start by ferry. Extra: If you want to extend your stay, other notable attractions include Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, and the Painted Ladies (the houses from the show Full House).
Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe. Get an early start for the drive from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe via Sacramento, which takes around three hours, or leave the previous day. Lake Tahoe is very popular for its natural features, scenic views, camping, and biking. The 72-mile trip around the lake is a must-do. While on this trip, visit the lovely Emerald Bay State Park. Extra: If you want to extend your trip, you can spend time in Sacramento. One of its top attractions is the California State Railroad Museum. Or add time to visit the John Muir Trail, the Sequoia and Kings national parks, or the Bodie ghost town instead.
Days 3 and 4
Yosemite National Park. The world-famous Yosemite is next and worth a minimum of two days. The Yosemite Valley Tour via shuttle bus lets you see the valley, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome all in one trip. Other valley musts are Mirror Lake and Glacier Point. The valley is worth a full day. The other day can be spent going up the Tioga Pass road (only open in the summer and fall), and/or visiting Mariposa Grove’s giant sequoias, as well as Yosemite Village’s Ansel Adams Gallery.
Mono Lake and Mammoth Lakes. The town of Mammoth Lakes is great for skiing in winter and hiking/biking in summer. The one-hour drive around the Lake Basin is recommended, as is a visit to the saltwater Mono Lake with its limestone rock formations. On the way, you’ll pass the Devil’s Postpile Monument, Rainbow Falls, and June Lake.
Death Valley. Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on earth, is captivating. The must-see attraction is also the lowest place on the North American continent, the Badwater Basin salt flats. The Death Valley National Park is full of photography opportunities and scenic drives and the dark night-time sky is great for stargazing. Extra: To extend your trip, visit the nearby Las Vegas for a day or two.
Joshua Tree National Park. There’s lots to see here, not least the trees after which it’s named, but also the unique rock formations and desert landscapes. Hiking, rock climbing, birding, and stargazing are popular activities. Extra: To extend your trip, add the nearby Salton Sea, San Diego, Palm Springs, Anza Borrego, and Galleta Meadows to the itinerary.
Los Angeles. The top Los Angeles attractions are arguable the Hollywood sign, Kodak (Dolby) Theater, Griffith Observatory, Santa Monica Pier, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and/or one of several film-studio tours.
Days 9 and 10
The Pacific coast. The Pacific coast drive from Los Angeles back to San Francisco is last but certainly not least. The 90-mile Big Sur drive from LA is a wondrous mix of beaches, flowers, redwood trees, hiking trails, and crashing waves. State parks and wildlife such as whales, otters, dolphins, and elephants seals are on the agenda. You will pass by Davenport and Half Moon Bay as you take in the beauty of all the views, small coves, and hidden beaches. Extra: To extend your trip, add Malibu, Santa Barbara, Morrow Bay, Pismo Beach, and Hearst Castle.
This quick whirl up and down California should whet your appetite for a road trip of note. For a longer trip than ten days, add some of our extra suggestions. Plan well ahead and book accommodation and car rental well in advance. Don’t restrict yourself with an impractical car and go for one of the crossover SUV models from the outset. Plenty of space, a roomy back seat, and an easy-driving automatic transmission are far more important than engine size or horsepower figures. Just be sure it offers decent fuel economy because you’d want as many miles per gallon as possible on such a road trip to stay within your travel budget.