Plan the ultimate California road trip itinerary with our 10-day road trip itinerary, including all of the best national parks, cities and other attractions!
California is instantly captivating. Its major cities twinkle in the spotlight, from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles. Its natural beauty is abundant as well, from the cliffs of Big Sur to the beaches of Santa Barbara.
However, California is ever-changing, and it changes fast. Rising snow-capped mountains soar out of lifeless deserts. Roads weave through conifer forests and giant redwoods, where alpine lakes mingle among hot springs and local towns that boomed with the growth of climbing.
Metropolises and epic nature are never far apart in this state. But it’s the California road trips between them that make it the perfect state to turn on the engine and put the car in drive.
This ultimate California road trip itinerary will include the highlights of this massive west coast state. From national parks to big cities, lazy beach towns, and more, here is our guide to planning the best California road trip!
Looking for the absolute best things to do in California? Check out our complete list here!
Table of Contents
- The Perfect California Road Trip Itinerary
- Day 1 – Los Angeles
- Day 2 – San Diego
- Day 3 – Palm Springs
- Day 4 & 5 – Mammoth Lakes
- Day 6 – Lake Tahoe
- Day 7 – Sacramento
- Day 8 & 9 – San Francisco
- Day 10 – Santa Monica
- California Road Trip Wrap Up
The Perfect California Road Trip Itinerary
The best way to travel from northern California to southern California, or vice versa, is via an epic California road trip. Sure you can take a quick flight, but the best way to absorb all the the Golden State has to offer is by exploring on land.
This 10-day California road trip itinerary gives you a nice introduction to this beautiful state. California is massive, and 10 days is not nearly enough for seeing all of it. But in these 10 days, you’ll get to see as much as possible. Let’s get into it!
The best way to get around is to rent a car and explore on your own! We recommend Rental Cars, which has the largest range of vehicles for the best value on the market.
Day 1 – Los Angeles
World-famous Los Angeles makes for the perfect place to start your California road trip itinerary. With easy access from around the world, fly into LAX, rent a car, and start exploring. Here are a few of the best things to do in Los Angeles!
- The Griffith Observatory
Start your time in Los Angeles by getting your bearings. The Griffith Observatory offers amazing insight into the cosmos, but just as applicable are its far-reaching views across the city, the Hollywood Sign, and the Pacific Ocean.
- Echo Park
Home to Lotus flower beds, floating swans, and paddle boats, Echo Park is a glimpse into LA’s past and current beauty. Book a paddle boat in advance to best enjoy the scenery. Afterward, pick from a smorgasbord of local food trucks.
- The Hollywood Bowl
As the sun sets on Los Angeles, take in a show at the beloved Hollywood Bowl. The airy amphitheater has consistent events from festivals to concerts featuring a whole range of genres. With the sky a burst of colors, it’s a captivating music space.
- Hop-on Hop-Off Bus
Getting around Los Angeles can be a nightmare. Lack of solid public transport and gridlocks can slow you down on what’s already a tight California road trip itinerary.
The Hop-on Hop-Off Bus delivers you to some of the city’s highlights, including the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sunset Strip, and Beverly Hills. You can always wait to pick up your rental car until after you explore LA!
Have more time? Check out our 3 Days in Los Angeles itinerary!
Where To Stay In Los Angeles
Close to Rodeo Drive, The Peninsula has a world-class restaurant, a rooftop pool, a fitness center, and a full-service spa. It’s the best option for luxury in Los Angeles!
In Venice Beach, Stay Open brings one of the best beaches in Los Angeles. Enjoy free bike rentals and WiFi so you can explore LA with ease.
Close to Hollywood Boulevard, Banana Bungalow leaves you close to the action with cheap onsite dinners plus regular free BBQs. If you’re on a budget during your California road trip, there are some great cheap hostels around the state!
Day 2 – San Diego
This drive takes 2 hours from downtown Los Angeles
After a leisurely drive from Los Angeles, discover the lovable San Diego, where sprawling parks harbor dozens of museums, galleries, and world-class zoos.
Beaches offer more than just a quick surf, in fact, you can expect to find life-changing burgers. At night, the bay glistens alongside the Gaslamp Quarter, here you can reflect on a busy first few days.
San Diego is a must on any California road trip. Here is our list of the best things to do while visiting San Diego.
- Mission Beach and Hodad’s
Before you make it to downtown San Diego, stop for a swim and the best burgers in America. Big call, so I’ll let you decide. Hodad’s is a gastronomic and cultural gem. While Mission Beach is the perfect way to cool off after a big drive.
- San Diego Zoo
The extensive San Diego Zoo takes you on a journey through our natural world. Experience the Elephant Odyssey or the Polar Bear Plunge alongside 4,500 other endangered or rare animals from across the globe.
- Balboa Park
It takes days to explore the incredible Balboa Park with a fine-tooth comb. But in such a short time, pick your favorites among the 16 museums, impressive Spanish architecture, landscaped gardens, and galleries.
- USS Midway Museum
Covering 10 acres, the USS Midway Museum boasts 30 historic aircraft on board the famous carrier. Learn more about WWII and the Battle of Midway, and experience real cockpits alongside other interactive exhibits. Afterward, wander along the Embarcadero.
- The Gaslamp Quarter
Once the sun has set, the Gaslamp Quarter lights up and the streets’ cobblestones glimmer under the stars. Enjoy a fun night in San Diego while exploring this romantic district home to high-end restaurants and candle-lit cocktail bars.
Where To Stay In San Diego
With four outdoor pools, half a dozen restaurants, a golf course and a spa, the five-star Fairmont Grand Del Mar has all your needs covered.
In Downtown San Diego, Motel6 offers cable TV, free Wi-Fi, and close proximity to the top adventures around the city.
Set in the Gaslamp Quarter, HI San Diego is a refurbished urban hostel with a fun atmosphere, a game room, plus self-guided tours and adventures.
Have more time? Check out our 3 Days in San Diego Itinerary!
Day 3 – Palm Springs
This drive takes 2 hours and 15 minutes from San Diego.
In southern California, Palm Springs is a gateway to epic mountain ranges and mystical deserts. Your time here is packed with hiking trails delivering memorable views and guiding you through a unique national park. But the town itself has a charming culture, shopping, and regular enchanting events.
- Joshua Tree National Park
The main reason to visit Palm Springs is to explore Joshua Tree National Park. This intriguing national park showcases the beauty of the desert landscapes, its unique flora, which gave the park its name, plus the colors that make every use of an open canvas.
- Downtown Palm Springs
After visiting Joshua Tree National Park, shop, eat, and walk your way through downtown Palm Springs. Adorable boutiques whisper your name with handcrafted goods looking to find a home in your road trip vehicle. On Thursday evenings, the town comes to life for its weekly VillageFest.
- Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
With no time to hike, take a trip up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the summit of San Jacinto Peak. The stunning rise provides views across the Coachella Valley along with the Chino Canyon.
- Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve
If you choose to avoid downtown Palm Springs, Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is a great alternative. Walk among 150-year-old trees where the desert mixes with exotic landscapes to create a spectacularly colorful ecosystem.
- The San Jacinto Mountains
Another option is to explore the San Jacinto Mountains in greater detail. The Deer Springs Trail is a challenging, designated National Scenic trek that takes you to the San Jacinto peak for an ultimately rewarding experience through memorable desert landscapes.
Find more of the best things to do in Palm Springs here!
Where To Stay In Palm Springs
Close to downtown Palm Springs, The Paloma Resort is set in historic bungalows with mountain scenery and offers inspired Spanish cuisine in a former mission.
The Travelodge provides travelers with easy access to the town’s best restaurants and shopping while being a great base to explore beyond.
With free onsite parking and complimentary breakfast, the Crashpod Hostel is cozy, inexpensive, and a great place to recuperate.
Day 4 & 5 – Mammoth Lakes
This drive takes 8 hours and 15 minutes from Palm Springs, via Death Valley National Park
Today on your California road trip itinerary, drive from Palm Springs through the ethereal Death Valley. The drive along Route 395 will be unforgettable, delivering you first to Convict Lake and then to the beauty of Mammoth itself.
On the second day, explore the lakes, ride the gondola, and hit the hot springs.
Find more things to do in Southern California here!
- Death Valley National Park
Break up your journey to Mammoth Lakes with a drive through the otherworldly Death Valley National Park. Stop by Badwater Basin and stand almost 240 feet below sea level in the depths of Death Valley.
If you love unique natural scenery, Death Valley is a must on any California road trip!
- Convict Lake
Next, get a sneak peek at Convict Lake. The alpine lake is surrounded by fast-rising peaks and while it’s a sunrise hot spot, its serene beauty can be admired at any point. Just off the highway, you won’t even have to leave the car.
- The Village at Mammoth Lakes
After an enormous and beautiful day on the road, enjoy a relaxing evening in the Village at Mammoth Lakes. Shops, restaurants, and bars combine in this classic mountain village. Enjoy a nice meal before resting up for the day ahead.
- Stand-Up Paddleboarding
There’s no better way to enjoy the enchanting lakes than on a stand-up paddleboard. The handful of nearby bodies of water are often calm and glass-like, leading to ease of movement and the chance to feel small alongside the stunning Sierras.
- The Minaret Vista
On your way to Devil’s Postpile, stop at the Minaret Vista to admire the eternal beauty of the Sierra Nevada. Set in the Eastern Sierra Range, these craggy mountains fall down to vast valleys and feature two soaring spires, including Clyde Minaret.
- The Devils Postpile
A national monument, the Devils Postpile is a formation of giant basalt columns. These were created by lava which cooled over 80,000 years ago. The hexagonal columns can reach up to 60 feet in height.
- Rainbow Falls
A part of the Devils Postpile National Monument, don’t miss out on a trek to Rainbow Falls. Walk from the post pile to discover a 100 feet waterfall whose consistent rainbows gave the fall its name. You can also walk directly here by driving to the Rainbow Fall trailhead.
- Mammoth Mountain Gondola
It’s been a busy day of activity, so take it down a notch with a ride on the Mammoth Mountain Gondola. The ride up lands you at over 11,000 feet. The panoramic views span the Mammoth Lakes Basin.
- Wild Willy’s Hot Spring
End your day with a recuperating experience at Wild Willy’s Hot Spring. It’s been a busy trip so far, so put your legs up in one of the two springs whose temperatures range from 95 degrees up to 105.
Where To Stay In Mammoth Lakes
From Westin Monache Resort, you can take the gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain before returning to make use of your kitchenette as well as the onsite pool and hot tub.
The Tamarack Lodge dates back to the 1920s and, among the included kitchens and private fireplaces, the lodge hasn’t lost any of its charm.
The Moderne Hostel provides guests with large communal and cooking areas, including BBQ facilities, while being close to Mammoth Mountain.
Day 6 – Lake Tahoe
This drive takes 2 hours and 40 minutes from Mammoth Lakes
With one full day in Lake Tahoe, it’ll be up to you how much you explore. Do you choose to focus your day driving through Yosemite National Park on your way there or do you take the direct route to explore local hikes, parks, and lakeside towns? There’s no losing here.
- Yosemite National Park
An option along the drive from Mammoth Lakes is the world-famous Yosemite National Park. You’ll need to make it a priority to explore well, but views of El Capitan and Half Dome make any “detour” worth it. Yosemite National Park is so famous that you may even choose to solely focus today’s exploration on that! Luckily this ultimate California road trip is customizable, and you can easily change it to allow for more time in Yosemite National Park.
- Fallen Leaf Lake
A direct drive to Lake Tahoe leaves ample time to explore. Check out the nearby, charming Fallen Leaf Lake where you can SUP or kayak before enjoying some waterfront eats surrounded by epic mountains.
- Eagle Rock Trail
For rewarding views of Lake Tahoe without a lengthy hike, meander down the Eagle Rock Trail. The mile-long trek is family-friendly and ends with breathtaking views of the lake with enchanting nature along the way.
- Emerald Bay State Park
Along the west shoreline of Lake Tahoe, you’ll find the popular Emerald Bay State Park. Find hiking, swimming, and mountain biking throughout while you can also explore Vikingsholm, with its impressive Scandinavian design.
- Tahoe City
Visiting the charming mountain town of Tahoe City is a great way to ring in the evening. Along the lake’s edge, the town has elegant mountain architecture, local galleries, plenty of places to eat, and bars in which to toast to a great day.
If you need more ideas for exploring Lake Tahoe after your California road trip, here are the best things to do in Lake Tahoe!
Where To Stay In Lake Tahoe
Live in the lap of luxury at The Ritz-Carlton, complete with on-site restaurants, spas, and a pool with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.
A stay at the Mother Nature’s Inn comes with free onsite parking, along with inclusive WiFi and Smart TV, while being close to the beach.
The sprawling Mellow Mountain Hostel is close to Heavenly for skiing, summertime gondola rides, the beach, and some of the best action in South Lake Tahoe.
Day 7 – Sacramento
This drive takes 2 hours from Lake Tahoe
Next on your California road trip, enjoy the drive from Lake Tahoe through the Eldorado National Forest on your way to Sacramento.
Take the time to explore the underrated city where farm-to-table restaurants are much more than a niche. Take in the history and, if you have energy, try your hand at some fun outdoor sports.
- Downtown Sacramento
Culture, history, and food collide in downtown Sacramento. A surprising foodie haven and cocktail paradise, travelers will also be happy to see so many museums and galleries to visit as you’ll discover below.
- California State Railroad Museum
Within the Old Sacramento Historic Park, the California State Railroad Museum is an ode to westward expansion and the worker’s efforts. The latter particularly focuses on the prominent role of Chinese railroad workers. Explore 19 authentic trains before traveling on one yourself.
- The American River Trail
If you prefer to keep experiencing the state’s splendid nature, head to Discovery Park. It’s here you can explore one of America’s great bike trails, the American River Trail which spans 32 miles through brilliant scenery.
- White Water Rafting
Add some adrenaline to your California road trip with some white water rafting. With snow melting from the Sierra Nevada, this part of California is prime for some adrenaline-pumping rafting on the American River.
Looking for more incredible things to do in Sacramento? Check out our ultimate guide here!
Where To Stay In Sacramento
In central Sacramento, the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel, evokes class and provides high-end amenities with a poolside bar and hotel restaurant.
With easy access to downtown, Wyndham Garden provides a great place to recuperate before with an onsite restaurant and bar, plus free WiFi.
Save money on your California road trip with this incredible hostel! Nestled in a former Victorian mansion, HI Sacramento provides guests with a social experience with a spacious patio and complimentary breakfasts.
Day 8 & 9 – San Francisco
This drive takes 1 hour and 40 minutes from downtown Sacramento
Start your day early and head towards the stunning California coast, where you should reach San Francisco by mid-morning. From there, head to the waterfront where you’ll enjoy delicious cuisine and epic bay views.
With two days of your California road trip, take your time in San Francisco, see all the attractions, and even take a day trip to Napa Valley.
Canvassing the waterfront of San Francisco, the Embarcadero is the perfect place to start your exploration. As you wander along the boulevard you’ll pass a number of historic piers with excellent views with many offering boat tours into the harbor and Alcatraz Island.
- Fisherman’s Wharf
With gorgeous views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf is a fantastic lunch spot. The early fishing boats have long gone and the Dungeness crab is ready.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to the Hyde Street Pier and its historic ships.
- Lombard Street
Take your mind away from the famed bridge and you’ll notice how undulating San Francisco is. We mean, it’s crazy steep. Lombard Street represents this best. Home to eight compact turns and beautiful landscaping, it’s a unique drive.
- Golden Gate Bridge
Ok, you’ve been patient. It’s time for the Golden Gate Bridge. The incredible site, of orange arches spread between two rising headlands, will be one of the most memorable parts of any California road trip. Admire it from the Presidio before walking along for amazing views of San Francisco.
- Napa Valley
Finding time for Napa Valley with just two days in San Francisco can be tricky. But lovers of wine and captivating landscapes should make time. An hour north of San Francisco, Napa Valley has over 400 wineries covering a range of budgets and styles.
Save time and energy during your visit to Napa Valley with this half-day wine tour.
If you want more ideas, check out our list of the best things to do in San Francisco!
- Twin Peaks
Your second day in San Francisco is all about nature. Start with an early morning hike up to the Twin Peaks. This slice of untouched nature offers splendid from its summit, at 922 feet.
- Golden Gate Park
San Francisco’s own Central Park, Golden Gate Park combines historic architecture and eye-catching nature. Walk or ride along the miles of trails to discover the Dutch Windmill and Japanese Tea Garden to go alongside its Botanical Garden.
- Ocean Beach
After a busy morning of hiking and biking, take some time to relax at Ocean Beach. The three-mile beach spreads the crowds and allows ample room to take in the Pacific Ocean, rugged coastline, and the far horizon.
- Union Square & Chinatown
Having got enough exercise and sun on day 9 of your California road trip, take some time to indulge. Union Square is the city’s top shopping district and also home to the towering Dewy Monument. Afterward, enjoy some mouthwatering eats in SF’s famed Chinatown.
- Oracle Park
Leave room, of course, for a ballpark hot dog as you end your second day in San Francisco at the beautiful Oracle Park. Set right on the bay, it’s a great place to catch a game of baseball as the sun sets to the west.
Where To Stay In San Francisco
The high-end Fairmont Heritage Place provides guests with luxurious apartments with full kitchens and a private terrace complete with a fire pit.
Set in Union Square, Club Donatello is a four-star hotel with an onsite restaurant, and a rooftop lounge, and is close to Oracle Park. Make the most of your California road trip itinerary by choosing mid-range accommodation right near all the best attractions!
Enjoy modern amenities and a lively atmosphere at ITH Pacific Tradewinds Hostel which is close to Chinatown and the San Francisco waterfront.
Take a look at our list of the 25 best things to do in Northern California if you need more inspiration!
Day 10 – Santa Monica
This drive takes around 9 hours from downtown San Francisco.
After departing San Francisco, you’ll start wrapping up your California road trip by looping around and heading back down to southern California.
Make your way south on a California coast road trip where you’ll soon meet Half Moon Bay and the splendid beauty of one of the most famous roads in America. We’ve saved the best for last!
The Pacific Coast Highway is packed with highlights and epic scenery like the famous Big Sur, making it the perfect way to end your California road trip.
- Pacific Coast Highway
One of the most iconic roads in America, no California road trip is complete without a journey down the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Yes, you can take this drive from the PNW, but the section between San Francisco and Santa Monica is highlight packed.
Read More: Plan your Pacific Coast Highway road trip with our ultimate guide!
- Carmel By the Sea
10 minutes from the famous Monterey, Carmel By the Sea is laden with adorable seaside cottages that lead to white sand beaches. However, the architecture combines with the art scene to be the true highlight. Explore a town once home to Jack London and now over 100 art galleries.
- Big Sur
The section of Highway 1 through Big Sur is a shock to the senses, in all the best ways. From tunnels and Pfeiffer Beach to the unforgettable Bixby Bridge, Big Sur is maybe the most scenic spot on this drive. No California road trip is complete without driving through Big Sur!
- Santa Barbara
You’re almost done with your California road trip, so take a break in Santa Barbara! The stunning town of Santa Barbara is known for seafood, powdery white sand beaches, and fascinating Spanish history. Though you could easily spend days in Santa Barbara, if you’re short on time you can just have a quick driving break here.
- Santa Monica Pier
There’s no better way to end your California road trip itinerary than with a sunset viewing at the Santa Monica Pier. This iconic landmark will appear around the corner as you caress the edge of Malibu along Pacific Coast Highway. Park the car and watch the sky become ablaze before enjoying some of the pier’s rides.
Check out all the best things to do in Santa Monica here.
Where To Stay In Santa Monica
Enjoy the beauty of the west coast at the charming Shutters On The Beach with an onsite restaurant along with surfboard and bike rentals.
Enjoy free parking, a simple breakfast, an onsite gym, and free WiFi at the Days Inn which is close to major routes into LA.
A block back from the famed local beaches HI LA – Santa Monica is prime for the last night of your California road trip. They offer lots of fun activities, like a pub crawl and group dinners.
California Road Trip Wrap Up
This California road trip itinerary takes you around the state, through its major cities and best national parks. You’ll experience a mix of civilization, lush landscapes, and lifeless deserts, sometimes on the same day.
From the cliffs of Big Sur to the mountains of Yosemite to the beaches of Santa Barbara, there is so much to see in California! Even the best California road trips couldn’t really include it all, but we’ve done our best to give you a good introduction.
Ten days is short for a west coast road trip, but it’s better than nothing! As a quick and inspiring glimpse into the Golden State, it’s the perfect platter to decide what you’ll inevitably later explore in greater detail.
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