California is, hands down, one of the best places for a road trip. It’s the third largest state in the US and its 164,000 square miles are packed with glorious, varied terrain highlighted by 66 scenic byways. Rocky desert landscapes give way to rolling farmlands and two-lane highways carve through quiet groves of towering sequoias before climbing into the high, rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
There isn’t a single amazing thing about California. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.
Giant trees and giant mountains set the stage for an endlessly eye-popping trip along Generals Highway. Named for two of the world’s largest trees, the General Sherman tree and General Grant tree, this long and winding drive takes visitors from the southern entry point of Sequoia into the Giant Forest and beyond to Kings Canyon. As elevation shifts, views change from valleys and mountains to trees so enormous that they block out the sun.
Throughout its length, the Gold Rush Trail winds through many of the towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush as it twists and climbs past panoramic vistas. Rocky meadows, oaks, and white pines accent the hills while tall firs and ponderosa pine stud higher slopes. The old mining towns along the Trail retain their early architecture and charm—living reminders of the rich history of the Mother Lode. Placerville, Amador City, Sutter Creek, Jackson, San Andreas, Angels Camp, and Murphys all retain their 1850s flavor.
With mountains all around, a river running through it, and national parks nearby, Redding is an outdoor paradise for all ages. Cradled by Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, Redding has 300+ sunny days per year. Redding is also home to the famous Sundial Bridge and world-class fishing. Turtle Bay Exploration Park is a 300-acre campus along the banks of the Sacramento River. Gateway to the city’s 220-mile trail system, the Park features a botanical garden, natural history and science museum, and exploration center. The 300-acre complex is tied together by Redding’s jewel, the Sundial Bridge.
One of California’s smallest incorporated cities with a population of just over 200 residents, Amador City is a little city with a lot to offer. The original mining-era buildings are home to unique shops including Victorian clothing, custom quilts, local handmade gifts, and antiques and books from the Gold Rush Era. You will also find wine tasting, an old fashioned soda fountain and lunch counter, an artisan bakery, and gourmet lunches and dinners.
Covering more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in the contiguous United States. From a distance, its mountains and valleys look dry and barren—yet amidst the arid, sandy landscape you can find regions rich in vegetation and animal life. Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles close to the surface and desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes.
Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.
The historic town of Jackson is nestled between 1,200 and 1,600 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Jackson is home to the deepest mines on the continent, the Argonaut and the Kennedy both in excess of 5,000 feet deep. At the turn of the 19th century the town had about 3,000 residents with three churches, three newspapers, four hotels, five boarding houses, eight physicians, and two dentists. Visitors can explore these historic buildings and artifacts among the many shops, restaurants, and lodging facilities that include the iconic National Hotel.
Stroll the streets of Old Town Temecula with boutiques, eateries, and a relaxed Old West feel. Take a hot-air balloon ride or play a round of golf. Or just hang out in a wine tasting room and gain insights into this unique and surprising region. History buffs can wander the streets of Old Town Temecula viewing rustic buildings, sidewalks, and storefronts reminiscent of the historic golden west in the 1880s.
Known as the Olive Capital, Corning is located 110 miles north of Sacramento in the fertile Central Valley. An agriculturally based community with small town charm, Corning is home to the largest olive processing plant in the U.S. as well as award winning olive oil producers and product retailers. Other area crops are walnuts, almonds, prunes, and figs.
The town of Murphys is overflowing with wine courtesy of 25+ tasting rooms dotting Main Street. The microclimates in the Sierra Foothills AVA allow for all kinds of grape varieties but the most common varietals include zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. There are also numerous nearby vineyards that offer on-site wine tasting.
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Rising from the Coachella Valley desert floor, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument reaches an elevation of 10,834 feet at the summit of San Jacinto Peak. Providing a picturesque backdrop to local communities, visitors can enjoy magnificent palm oases, snow-capped mountains, a national scenic trail, and wilderness areas. Its extensive backcountry can be accessed via trails from both the Coachella Valley and the alpine village of Idyllwild.
Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. Pinnacles have over 30 miles of trails that show the best of the park and of the rock formations for which it was named. Hike through the caves, grasslands, and mountainous areas or up close to the spires and pinnacles.
Once an inland sea, Palm Springs and its neighboring cities in the Coachella Valley is a desert area with abundant artesian wells. Palm Springs acquired the title “Playground of the Stars” many years ago because what was then just a village in the desert was a popular weekend Hollywood getaway. Today, the village has grown and consists of much more than just hanging out poolside. Whether its golf, tennis, a trip up the aerial tram, or hiking the Indian Canyons, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise!
Julian is a small mountain community in Southern California. This historic gold-mining town is nestled among oak and pine forests between the north end of the Cuyamaca mountains and the south slope of Volcan Mountains. Take a step back in time to the days of Julian’s beginning rooted in the 1870s gold rush and discover the charms of Julian. You’ll enjoy visiting Julian for its laid-back charm, historical buildings, beautiful surroundings, and the delicious apple pies.
A big part of any road trip is stumbling upon bizarre roadside attractions—and there are plenty to experience in the California desert. Just outside Borrego Springs and near the boundary of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, sculptor Ricardo Breceda assembled roughly 130 gigantic scrap-metal sculptures of animals, including dinosaurs, and a saber-toothed cat. These fanciful creatures seem to march across the scruffy flats.
The Salton Sea was created after a Colorado River dam overflowed in 1905. Today, the Salton Sea is one of the world’s largest inland seas, lying at 227 feet below sea level and measuring 45 miles long.
The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of this lively wilderness environment. Elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape with jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area where bubbling activity still appears reminding us of the region’s stormy past.
Along the Gold Rush Trail is Angels Camp, where—if you happen to be there in May—you might catch a frog-jumping event in honor of Mark Twain’s first short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The story, which won him literary acclaim is based on a story he heard in an Angels Camp bar when he lived there.
Lying at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, Lodi enjoys a classic Mediterranean climate of warm days and cool evenings, ideal for growing wine grapes. Wander historic downtown Lodi with century-old brick buildings, brick-cobbled streets lined with elm trees, and turn-of-the-century light poles. You’ll love this area and the way the city has maintained its history and heritage. Many unique shops, restaurants, and more than a dozen wine tasting boutiques and exciting restaurants.
There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.