California Road Trips

Start California Dreaming with these Cali Road Trip Ideas

Whether it’s the coastal pullouts along Highway 1, the grandeur of the Sierra Nevada, or the barren beauty of Death Valley, California road trips will never leave you with nothing to do. With over 120 National and State Parks to choose from, you can easily spend weeks checking out coastal redwoods, bagging mountain peaks, rafting raging rivers, or just chillin’ outside your campervan watching the sun crash-land every night into the Pacific Ocean. These classic road-tripping routes soak in enough epic scenery to make each deliciously slow, winding mile of your detour worthwhile.

California has so much to offer in fact, that we’re just going to name a few of our favorite spots in this rundown and leave it to Sunset Magazine and Roadtrippers.com to do all the heavy lifting for us. We’ve split our California road trip itinerary into two routes–western and eastern–with optional side trips included along the way. Experience it all in an Escape Campervan.

Distance: 1,500+ miles (2,415+ km)

Time: 2+ weeks

Cali Road Trip – Western Route

Jedediah Smith Redwoods National Park

An hour north of Redwoods National Park near Crescent City is our all-time favorite area of redwoods. All redwoods are magnificent, but this place doesn’t have the crowds like the better-known National Park versions. It’s worth the extra drive, we swear! Better yet, there’s killer camping right there in the park.

Redwood National Park

Redwood California road trip

Up north near the border of Oregon is the not-so-crowded Redwood National Park. You can consult your guidebooks for the ins-and-outs of what to do, but here are some of our favorite things to check out:

  • Fern Canyon – short hike, big surprises
  • James Irvine Trail – this popular trail actually takes you to Fern Canyon but is a longer and cooler way to get there
  • Gold Bluffs Beach – the quintessential Northern California beach
  • Newton B. Drury Parkway – this scenic byway is worth the side trip!
  • Trees Of Mystery – just north of the town of Klamath (on Highway 101). With a name like that, how can you not check it out?

Warning

Do not try to drive your Escape Campervan through a redwood! They don’t fit and you are not covered by insurance when you get stuck. Guess how we know they don’t fit?

Best Camping

There is plenty of camping throughout the park. Elk Prairie (open 365 days of the year) is an Escape favorite. Gold Bluffs Beach is another favorite, but it’s only open during the summer months.

Best Eats/Drinks

We usually employ the Escape Campervan kitchen when traveling through this area. Stolen off the internet: Palm Café in Orrick looks cool. So does Moonstone Grill in Trinidad. Let us know what you find out so we can notify future Escapees!

Eureka

Heading north along Highway 1, you’ll come across Eureka. There’s an excellent brewery here, and many folks rent sea kayaks to check out the local wildlife.

Best Side Trip

Head east an hour or so and check out Shasta Trinity National Forest. This is hands down the most spectacular mountain range in California according to us. It’s also National Forest Land so car camping is designated as FREE! Shasta Trinity makes a great jumping off point for area hikes.

Avenue of the Giants

Just off Highway 101 in the community of Garberville is the world-famous Avenue of the Giants. This road actually used to be part of Highway 101 back in the day and is still an interesting drive by any standard. No matter how tempting it is, DO NOT try to drive through a redwood no matter how big the hole looks.

Elk / Mendocino

As you cruise up Highway 1, most people drive right through Elk. That’s a mistake. This little community of 250 brave souls is worth checking out. Do a beach hike and wander the streets but don’t expect gasoline because there isn’t a station. Just up the road is the more touristy town of Mendocino. We like both spots but Elk definitely won us over a long time ago.

Best Camping

There are tons of campgrounds along this stretch of coast—and inland—outside Mendocino. Russian Gulch State Park is an Escape favorite, though.

Best Eats/Drinks

Head into Queenie’s Roadhouse Café for a blackberry tart. You won’t be sorry.

Montgomery Woods State Reserve

If you’re heading north on Highway 101, hang a left in the town of Ukiah on Orr Springs Road and do the side trip to Montgomery Woods. It’s a couple-mile, moderately difficult hike to get to the ‘big trees,’ but that same hike keeps out crowds and will leave you with a pretty desolate (Desolate = no crowds. No crowds = jump-for-joy.) experience in the majestic Redwoods. It’s a worthy trip.

Escape Tip

Just up the road from Montgomery Woods is the locally famous Orr Hot Springs. Park it here in the demur parking lot, pay whatever they ask, and bask in the natural hot springs for an hour…or a day. You may end up staying here for a while.

Jenner and Guerneville

An hour or so north of Point Reyes is the microscopic community of Jenner. Pull over here and grab lunch while watching the panorama before you. Then, 30 minutes inland on Highway 116 is one of the most interesting communities we know of. Guerneville is a tourist hotspot with a definite local feel. As this is the jumping off point to canoe the Russian River, there are plenty of campgrounds just outside of town. Rent a canoe and join the floating party along this stretch of the river and you’ll have a blast drifting along, talking to everyone around you while enjoying a few cold ones.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Just an hour north east-ish of San Francisco is a point of land jutting far out into the Pacific. This windswept area makes a great stopover for anyone just starting to get their driving legs under them after heading over the Golden Gate Bridge. There are two ways to get there:

  1. Head west on Highway 1, or
  2. Go north 20 miles or so (about 32 km) to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and hang a left.

Our favorite thing about this area is the food. If you’re a true “foodie,” definitely check this area out for the local fare. Also, between the months of December and April, do the hike out to Point Reyes Station. There’s sure to be whales cruising by.

Best Camping

Our hands-down go-to place to escape the San Francisco crowds is Samuel P Taylor State Park. Located west of the town of Lagunitas (get some local beers at Lagunitas Brewing—you won’t be sorry). Point Reyes Campground is also an acceptable alternative, but it’s not as exciting in our opinion.

Best Eats/Drinks

  • Cowgirl Creamery in the town of Point Reyes has the best cheese in all of California. Don’t take our word for it, do a tour and find out for yourself.
  • Tomales Bay Oyster Company – just north of the town of Point Reyes is prime oyster farming country. There are several farms to choose from, actually, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Drakes Bay and Hog Island are all worthy, but Tomales Bay has a warm spot in our heart for some reason.
  • Lastly, make sure you stop off at Bovine Bakery before you leave town. Their pastries are simply the best around–except in the town of Elk.

Big Sur

Big Sur California road trip

Big Sur isn’t so much a place as a state of mind. Just a couple hours south of San Francisco— along the famous Highway 1—you get to witness where the continent of North America crashes abruptly into the Pacific Ocean. Once you get south of Santa Cruz, (or north of Morro Bay) tap the brakes regularly as you meander because there’s plenty to check out and a lot of people miss it.

Rules of the Road: Highway 1 to Big Sur

  • Fill your gas tank BEFORE you head into Big Sur
  • If you’re prone to car sickness, be prepared for some windy roads
  • Bring warm clothes — it does get cold in California!
  • Watch out for bikers — some stretches attract lots of cyclists!

Highlights

  • Año Nuevo State Park and their resident Elephant Seals (best in Dec – March)
  • Point Lobo State Park: an Escape favorite, you can’t go wrong paying the $10 fee to check out the otters, seals, Condor, and whatever else happens to be cruising by.
  • Nepenthe Restaurant: just south of Big Sur, Nepenthe is the hands down best place for a sunset over a glass of wine or a cold one
  • Pfeiffer Beach: the ‘other’ best place to catch a sunset while in Big Sur
  • Keep an eye toward the ocean as this is also a big tourist destination for both humpback and gray whales.

Best Camping

Escape favorites include Pfeiffer Big Sur State Campground, Fernwood, Riverside and Kirk Creek. You really can’t go wrong with any of them.

Best Hike

Ewoldsen TrailBest Side Trip: Hearst Castle — It took 28 years to complete William Randolph Hearst’s lavish estate, which includes 165 rooms on 125 acres.

Best Side Trip

Hearst Castle — It took 28 years to complete William Randolph Hearst’s lavish estate, which includes 165 rooms on 125 acres. There are a variety of tours available.

Location: Can’t miss the entrance on the right up Highway 1 outside the town of San Simeon.

Pinnacles National Park

Want to tack one more breathtaking side trip onto your Big Sur adventure? As one of America’s newest National Parks, Pinnacles has yet to gain the attention it deserves. The giant rock needles and vertical canyons are all that remains of an ancient volcano that was literally sheared in two by tectonic plates (have we captured your interest yet?). This area attracts hikers, rock climbers, and a whole lot of bats. There’s also a small rookery of endangered California Condors that make Pinnacles home.

Best Camping

Pinnacles Campground

Best Hike

Old Pinnacles Trail Loop

Best Side Trip

Bear Gulch Day Use Area

Cali Road Trip – Eastern Route

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Tucked in the northeast part of California east of the town of Redding is the geothermal wonderland of Lassen. This place is like a mini Yellowstone and is worth touring if you’re near the area. Lassen is best visited in summer months as much of the park is closed during winter. Be bear aware. Interestingly, a gray wolf wandered into Lassen from Oregon a few years ago. It was the first wolf spotted in California in something like a hundred years.

Best Hike

Bagging Lassen Peak is a great way to get the blood pumping. Ridge Lakes is pretty respectable in its own right.

Best Camping

There are plenty of good camping spots in and around Lassen. The area is surrounded by National Forest land, so boondocking it is perfectly acceptable.

Lake Tahoe

You can check out travel blogs and Tripadvisor for a full rundown on this outdoor paradise. We’ll leave you with the recommendation that Escapees typically enjoy the western and northern areas around the lake to the far more crowded and touristy southern end.

Favorite Towns

Tahoe City, Kings Beach, Truckee, and Homewood are all interesting communities to hit the brakes and wander the streets for a while.

Best Camping

Tahoe camping isn’t easy or cheap, but it’s worth it to fight the crowds and claim your spot. DL Bliss Campground is a favorite (although it’s a favorite of a LOT of people). Book ahead at reservecalifornia.com or call (530) 525-7232 to get your beachside spot. Sugar Pine Campground and Tahoe State Park are perfectly good fallbacks.

Highway 395

Highway 395 California road trip

Highway 395 along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is a destination in its own right. Heading South outside of Lake Tahoe, you’ll almost continually be surrounded by National Forest Land (National Forest = free camping!) and although much of this stretch looks like high desert, there’s still plenty to check out.

Highlights

Bodie Ghost Town

About 20 miles (32 km) north of the town of Lee Vining, look for a sign signaling the road to Bodie (County Road 270, also known as Bodie Road to locals). This abandoned city is the most pristine ghost town in North America…maybe the world. During its heyday, Bodie was one of the largest communities in California. However, when the gold ran out in the mid-1890s, all residents seemed to pack up in a single afternoon, leaving all their worldly goods behind. Today, Bodie is in a state of what the Rangers call “Arrested Decay.” It’s fascinating to wander the overgrown streets of this ghost town.

Escape Tip

Bodie is a State Park and they keep regular park hours. Summer months (April to September) they’re open from 9 am to 6 pm. Winter months they’re open 9 am to 4 pm.

Warning

This is a maintained dirt road–but sometimes it ain’t so well maintained. Take it easy during this stretch of the drive. Remember, you are NOT covered under Escape Roadside Assistance while driving off paved roads. If the road isn’t well-maintained, the town of Bodie certainly is.

Lee Vining

Just up from the shores of Mono Lake, Lee Vining is the jump off point to head into the Sierras and Yosemite via Highway 120. Park it for a while as this is the last chance to gear up before you head east. Best Eats: Just to your left as you turn onto Highway 120, you’ll find the Tioga Gas Mart, better known to everyone else as the Whoa Nellie Deli. Pull over here and grab a fish taco or a burger and have a picnic on the grassy area out front. During summer months, you might even catch a live band playing for your enjoyment.

Mono Lake

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a gigantic lake below you to the west. It’s worth doing a pit stop at one, or more, of Mono Lake’s many scenic overlooks. DO NOT try to camp here because this area is patrolled. It’s best to head up Highway 120 for the better campsites.

Yosemite Camping Highway 120 East

If you’re getting a late start (after lunch time or so) heading into Yosemite, Escape recommends grabbing a campsite just outside the park for a night and wading into the madness early the next morning. You’re now back in the high country, so campgrounds are plentiful and the weather will be perfect for car camping during the summer months. There’s a ton of worthy campgrounds just outside the entrance gates and you can’t really go wrong with any of them. While it is possible to boondock it along the many pullouts along this stretch of 120, we recommend you spend a few bucks, get a site, build a campfire, and enjoy a beer or two before heading into Yosemite and the inevitable gridlock tomorrow.

Best Camping 120 East of Yosemite: Big Bend and Big Springs are pretty cool. Down the hill and a few miles south of Lee Vining is June Lakes Loop, which has more campsites than we can count. We LOVE this area. See our Yosemite Camping Overview for more details.

Bishop

Head northwest out of Death Valley National Park along Highway 395 and you’ll come to the high desert town of Bishop–one of the premier rock climbing meccas on the planet. Check out the many outfitters and climbing schools along Main Street if you’re interested in getting on some rocks.

Best Eats/Drinks

You can’t go wrong with Schat’s Bakery just off Main Street.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley California road trip

We’ll freely admit it: Escape Campervans has a love/hate relationship with Death Valley. As the lowest place in the contiguous United States, the hottest place ever recorded in the world, and the largest park in the lower 48, Death Valley makes just about every road trippers’ “Must See” list. That said, traveling to this destination during the summer months is brutally debilitating for campervans—or any rental vehicle for that matter—and no rental agency will cover you for roadside assistance during this time, Escape Campervans included.

Death Valley Facts

  • At 3,000 sq miles (7,800 sq km), Death Valley is the largest National Park in the contiguous United States.
  • In 1913, a high temp of 134°F (57°C) was recorded there making it the hottest place ever recorded on earth
  • Dozens of scenes from Star Wars were filmed here
  • Only 85 miles (137 km) separates the highest point in the US (Mount Whitney) and the lowest place in the US (Badwater Basin)
  • The average high in August is 113°F (45°C)

Best Time to Visit

Death Valley has two seasons: Summer and Kill-You-Summer. The best time to check out this portion of the Mojave Desert is during the salad days between October and May. These days are warm and sunny, and nights are cool and brisk. This is when most people head into the valley to bike, hike and check out the sights. Between late May and September, it’s simply too hot to enjoy the place. No matter when you go, take lots of water with you–it’s called Death Valley for a reason.

Escape Tip

Fill up your gas tank before you head into the valley. It’s a long way between filling stations out there.

Best Camping

You can’t go wrong with any of the campgrounds in Death Valley. Furnace Creek is the only campground located ‘in’ the valley that’s open year around. Sunset, Texas Spring, and Stovepipe campgrounds are legit as well, although they’re only open October through April. You can book these in advance at recreation.gov, however, Furnace Creek is available on a first-come basis during winter months.

Best Hike

Badwater Basin Salt Flats Trail

Best Side Trip

Scotty’s Castle. Hidden in the far north section of Death Valley National Park is the strange, strange place known as Scotty’s Castle. We’ll leave it to the guidebooks to provide the details, but this Depression-era mansion has absolutely no business being there. We can’t figure out if Scotty was a maniac or the smartest guy on the planet. Let us know your opinion once you check it out.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree California road trip

Two distinct desert ecosystems come together in Joshua National Park to make this a paradise just a couple hours east of Los Angeles. A fascinating place by any standard, Joshua Tree has made many an Escapee tap the brakes for a couple of days to stargaze, climb among the gigantic boulders, and catch just one more sunset before getting back on the road.

Best Campsite

Jumbo Rocks is an Escape favorite, but you can’t go wrong with any of them. This place fills up every weekend so try to get there early.

Side Trips

Crater Lake, Oregon

We know, we know, this isn’t in California but you’re soooo close that you have to make the drive to this incredible lake destination. It’s known for its namesake Crater Lake, formed by the now-collapsed volcano, Mount Mazama. You’re only 3 hours shy of Crater Lake from the Jedediah Smith Redwoods…go for it!

Kings Canyon / Sequoia National Park

Sequoia California Road trip

Two for the price of one–how can you beat that? Just a couple hours south of Yosemite and a full day drive from Death Valley, Kings Canyon is Yosemite without the crowds. That said, this place still fills up quickly during the summer months.

Best Camping

Campsites in this park are easier to come by than in Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but they’re most likely full on weekends. Just outside the park on Highway 198 are some spectacular pullouts that offer FREE camping in National Forest Land. Check with the Information Center Rangers and ask their best boondocking tips if you can’t find a campsite within the park. You may need to secure a wilderness permit if you’re going this route (they’re free).

Best Hike

The best way to see these two parks up close is to get out of the Campervan for a couple days. Big Trees Trail, Congress Trail, and Big Stump are all worthy of your attention. If you’re looking to do an overnight, there’s no better 1-2 day hike than the Bubb’s Creek Trail at Road’s End in Kings Canyon.

> Read our blog on the best places to see wildlife in Big Sur here.

Looking for the best surf spots on Highway 1? Check out this Highway 1 Road Trip itinerary in an Escape Campervan from our friends at LushPalm!

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