The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary

Last updated on February 9, 2024

California Road Trip Itinerary- Laguna Beach

Our complete guide to planning the ultimate California road trip. It includes where to stay, what to eat, things to do and how much it all costs. Pick and choose to create your perfect California road trip itinerary. Updated for 2023.

A California road trip is the stuff of dreams and one that Steve and I rank among our most favourite travel experiences. We’ve both done extensive road trips in California – as kids, as single adults, as a couple, with one kid, and now with two. And we’ve condensed that experience into what we think is the best California road trip itinerary out there. Also see our dedicated guide to driving the Pacific Coast Highway.

What to expect on a California road trip

From towering redwoods to golden coast, snow-capped mountains and wine regions, this California road trip is filled with extraordinary guesthouses, spectacular nature, and some of the best food we’ve ever had. It’s truly breathtaking how varied the Californian landscape is. One day you might be driving through dense forest and the next you’ll be in the desert, followed by city and coast.

Add to that the easygoing vibe of Californians, the echoes of its hippy past and its reality as one of the most creative, forward-thinking places on earth, and it all adds up to a trip I might never stop dreaming of. This is California dreaming brought to life. 


See all our road trip itineraries here. And don’t miss our guide to how to plan a road trip.



How to use this California road trip planner

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary - Santa Barbara

This guide is intended as a California road trip planner, so you can pick and choose from the destinations depending on your priorities, budget and the amount of time you have. Use it in tandem with our Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary where we have all the details for the coastal stops from San Francisco down to San Diego.

We spent a ton of time planning the trip, which means it should save you plenty of time and energy when planning your own California road trip.

I’ve split it into sections, outlining our travel style, our priorities in California, our budget, how we got around, and detailed sections on each destination. As always we’ve sought out the most special places to stay and experience.

How long do you need for a California road trip?

I’ve arranged this suggested California road trip route into an epic 7-week California itinerary, but you can easily adapt it into a length and route to suit you, be that a 1-week, 2-month or 4-week California road trip itinerary.

You could definitely do a great California road trip in 7 days, but ideally I’d give yourself at least 10 days.

We did this particular route over multiple visits. One time, we did a Pacific Coast Highway road trip from San Francisco down to San Diego over four weeks. And most recently, we focussed on Northern California over three weeks. I also did a loop from LA when I was younger, visiting Death Valley and Lake Tahoe too.

You could do the exact same journey in a much shorter amount of time by selecting your favourite stops. And you could also stop briefly at some of the destinations en route rather than spending the night there. Or focus on one particular section. I’ve detailed how long it takes to travel between each place, so use that as your guide when planning how much to do each day.  

Our California destination travel guides

We also have detailed guides to individual California destinations that can help you plan even more. They’ll especially suit you if you’re a bit like us, keen on discovering the creative side of a city and in pursuit of all the best cafes, ice creams, doughnuts, bookshops, murals and beauty spots.

Handpicked travel guides: Laguna Beach Travel GuideSanta Barbara Travel Guide | San Clemente Travel Guide | San Diego Travel GuideSanta Cruz Travel GuideSonoma Travel Guide.

Family travel guides: California with kidsLos Angeles with kidsSan Francisco with kidsSan Diego with kids

California accommodation guides: Joshua Tree AirbnbsLaguna Beach Airbnbs | Los Angeles Family HotelsPalm Springs AirbnbsPalm Springs VRBOs with PoolsSan Diego AirbnbsSanta Barbara AirbnbsSanta Cruz AirbnbsSanta Monica AirbnbsSonoma AirbnbsVenice Beach AirbnbsHip Boutique Hotels in San FranciscoHip Boutique Hotels in Palm Springs.

California attraction guides: How to get the most out of Disneyland with toddlers | The ultimate guide to Universal Studios with babies and toddlers

Let me know if you have questions. Happy travels!

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you buy something (at no extra cost to you). It’s one of the ways I keep this blog going. Thanks a million for your support. You can read more about my affiliate policy here.


The ultimate California road trip itinerary guide

California road trip itinerary at a glance

  • Days 1-4 (3 nights): San Francisco
  • Days 4-6 (2 nights): Santa Cruz
  • Days 6-8 (2 nights): Monterey County
  • Days 8-9 (1 night):  Big Sur
  • Days 9-11 (2 nights):  Paso Robles
  • Days 11-13 (2 nights): Santa Barbara
  • Days 13-14 (1 night): Malibu/Topanga
  • Days 14-17 (3 nights):  Los Angeles
  • Days 17-19 (2 nights): Laguna Beach
  • Days 19-22 (3 nights): San Diego
  • Days 22-24 (2 nights): Greater Palm Springs
  • Days 24-26 (2 nights): Joshua Tree
  • Days 26-27 (1 night): Death Valley
  • Days 27-28 (1 night): Mammoth Lakes
  • Days 28-31 (3 nights) Yosemite
  • Days 31-33 (2 nights) Tuolumne County
  • Days 33-35 (2 nights) Lake Tahoe
  • Days 35-37 (2 nights) Sacramento
  • Days 37-39 (2 nights) Yolo
  • Days 39-42 (3 nights) Shasta Cascade region
  • Days 42-44 (2 nights) Redwood National Park
  • Days 44-46 (2 nights) Mendocino
  • Days 46-48 (2 nights) Sonoma County and/or Napa
  • Day 49: Back to San Francisco

California road trip map


California road trip travel tips

Our style of travel

Ultimate California Road Trip - Special places to stay

As with all the itineraries on Bridges and Balloons, we have a special focus on creating handpicked itineraries filled with special places to stay – think beautiful design, plenty of character and amazing locations. We’re also millennials, so of course expect brunch, hipster coffee shops and money spent eating out. And I’m a cake, doughnut and ice cream fiend, so you’ll also see lots of that.

We favour a local style of travel, so don’t always hit all the “must sees”, preferring to soak up the atmosphere and experience local life. We look for street art, independent bookshops, farmers markets and parks. And we’re always up for spending time in nature.

We favour independents over chains, and while we’re both vegetarian, we tend to eat in restaurants that are known to be good for all food rather than just veggie stuff.

And although we now travel with our kids, the things we do aren’t just family-focussed, but suitable for anyone with a similar style to us – it’s the same stuff we’d have done even before we had kids.

Our California road trip budget

California Road Trip Budget - Kimpton Goodland Hotel

When we travel, we tend to mix budget and high-end options – for example, staying in a simple Airbnb some nights and then splashing out on a luxury cabin here and there. We take the same approach with food.

On this trip, we worked with Visit California, so some of our accommodation, meals and activities were sponsored by tourism boards or the places themselves. This meant we sampled more mid-high range accommodations and restaurants than we normally would on one trip.

We provide you with reviews of those places, so you can choose what to prioritise on your California coast road trip. You could find cheaper options in each place from around $60 per night. Or you could also camp in some places. Or perhaps try a home exchange.

Do remember that the USA doesn’t include sales tax in its prices, so you have to account for that when looking at costs (it’s 7.25% in California), plus you’re expected to tip around 20% on food and drinks orders.

Here’s a breakdown of the costs you can expect on a California road trip like ours.

Accommodation: $75 – $500 per night for two adults and two kids

Our accommodation prices varied a huge amount. The cheapest was a night in an Airbnb in San Diego and the most expensive was a cabin in Big Sur. You could feasibly spend as little as $75 per night in all destinations, but that would sometimes mean staying in hostels or in shared Airbnb accommodation (normally a private room within someone’s home).

For example, it’s quite easy to find nice budget options in San Diego (our $75 room was a private guest suite in our host’s garden in a suburban part of town), but harder in San Francisco and LA.

I have included the exact cost of everywhere we stayed in the accommodation section for each destination below.

If you use Airbnb, use this link to get $25 off your first booking. And also see our guide to how to choose the perfect Airbnb.

Car hire: $65 plus per day (depending on size of car)

We paid around $65 per day when doing a road trip before the pandemic, but that went up to around $100 after the pandemic (it’s really affected the price of car hire, although I’m hopeful that’ll improve with time). This price included the transfer fee for picking it up and dropping it off in different locations.

We went for a large car (a Dodge Grand Caravan and a Chevrolet Tahoe), so it would be cheaper if you chose compact or small. We often use Rentalcars.com to book our car, but have also found Qeeq to have good deals too.

Fuel: This is difficult to calculate because fuel prices vary with the times and are currently sky high. Pre-pandemic, to drive from Sonoma to San Diego cost us around $240 in fuel. But post-pandemic, it cost us $450 to drive a similar distance.

Food and drinks: $50-$150 per day

This varies a lot as it depends on how much self-catering you do, plus the type of restaurant you go to. For example, a brunch for three at trendy Gjelina in LA cost $75, whereas our lunch in Paso Robles at Grey Wolf Cellars was only $20.

Portion sizes are huge in the USA, so you can often get away with just sharing one dish between two.

A good hack is to buy a cheap electric hot plate at the start of the trip so you can cook fresh meals wherever you go. We did this when travelling with a baby as it was a good way to avoid having to always buy him a meal he might not eat/feeding him ready-made pouches.

We also saved a lot of money by not drinking much alcohol. The above cost could easily rise to $200 per day if you added alcohol too.

As a quick price guide:

Coffee including tip: $2.50 including a tip

A fancy ice cream cone: $5

Gourmet donut: $4

Brunch for two in a mid-range cafe/restaurant, including coffee: $30.

Wine: Upwards of $10 for a glass (wine is expensive in California).

Tours and entrance prices: These vary considerably and the total cost will depend on how much you choose to do.

We visited very relatively few paid attractions and instead mostly stuck to free attractions and simply exploring a town on foot. This cost would quickly go up if you wanted to visit more things.

An example of the fees we did pay, per person, were: California Academy of Sciences ($40); San Francisco Botanical Gardens ($9); Roaring Camp Railroads ($29); Henry Cowell Redwoods ($10); Monterey Bay Aquarium ($49.95); 17-mile Drive in Monterey ($10); Joshua Tree National Park ($30); Universal Studios ticket, including Express Pass ($179).

Many of the wine tastings we did were free, but we did do a few paid tastings that cost from $15-$30 for a flight. In Napa, at the big wineries, this price is often double, at around $75 for a tasting!

What we ate on our California road trip

West Coast Road Trip Itinerary - Oliver's Montecito

Food is a big priority when we do a California road trip and is always one of our biggest costs. California is famous for its fresh farm-to-table cuisine, so we always want to make the most of that and try as much as we can.

We’re both vegetarian, so all the places featured in this California road trip guide are vegetarian-friendly, but most of them also serve meat/fish. Whatever your dietary preferences – from vegan to Paleo – you can expect them to be easily met in California.

The state’s proximity to Mexico also means you can find plenty of high quality Mexican food, which is always a big highlight for us.

Other things we particularly enjoyed were the creative ice cream and donut shops; the plentiful coffee options; and the many outdoor dining spots.

And if you’re vegetarian, I highly recommend trying the impossible burger while you’re in the USA – it’s not available in the UK yet, but is the best veggie burger I’ve ever had. 

As well as farm-to-table restaurants, California also has an incredible range of farm-to-grocery stores, many specialising in natural and organic produce. One of our favourites was Bi-Rite in San Francisco. These stores tend to be quite expensive in comparison to places like Safeways and Trader Joes, but they are definitely worth a look for a treat now and then.

We also enjoyed shopping in Whole Foods, which is again quite expensive, but high in quality. You can buy fresh readymade food from the deli bar in Whole Foods, which is a good option if you’re in a rush.

If you’re travelling with kids who have an early bedtime, but you still want to try dinner places, we recommend ordering takeout. Services such as Postmates, Grub Hub, Doordash, Uber Eats and Caviar deliver food from top restaurants direct to your hotel, which is a great way to try those restaurants in the evenings.

How we got around on our California road trip

California Road Trip Itinerary - Car Hire with Rentalcars.com

We hire a car when doing a California road trip, picking it up at the start point and dropping it off at the final destination. You have to pay a transfer fee when doing this, which you’d avoid if it was round-trip starting and ending in the same place.

We tend to use rentalcars.com but also recommend Qeeq for finding good deals. as that’s where we’ve always found the best deals. This time they sponsored our car hire, but you can trust my recommendation is genuine as I’ve been talking about them for years.

Rentalcars.com is a booking agent for many car hire companies, and the best deal they found for us was with Alamo. We were particularly impressed with the self-check-in system, which meant we could skip the long line at the airport when collecting our car. We opted for a Dodge Grand Caravan, which is an SUV-style car as we needed plenty of room for all of Otis’ stuff.

If you don’t want to drive, you could take buses instead, although of course that gives you less flexibility about where you stop. Public transport isn’t great in the States, so hiring a car is definitely helpful.  

Read this post
Things to do in Lisbon: A Handpicked City Guide

I’ve included the driving time in the section for each destination below. Bear in mind it’s significantly quicker to do the LA to San Francisco drive along Highway 5, but that takes all the fun out of it. We drove down the much slower but infinitely more scenic Highway 1.

However, if you needed to do the San Francisco to Los Angeles drive quickly, perhaps to loop back for your return flight, it can be done in just under six hours. You could also opt to do parts of the journey on the quicker road, which would help you to fit in more destinations in a shorter amount of time, so perhaps a good idea if you’re pushed for time.

But whatever you do, I would definitely try to make the time for the drive along the Big Sur coastline – it’s one of the driving highlights of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary. 

Find the best deals on car hire

We recommend Discover Cars for booking your rental car. They search all the top companies and always tend to find the best deals. We use them every time.

What to pack for a California road trip

The weather in California, from north to south varies considerably, so it’s a challenging trip to pack for. As a rule of thumb, it’s likely to get warmer the further south you go, but microclimates mean you can reasonably expect warm temperatures in places like Sonoma and Paso Robles for much of the year.

And even when it’s hot on the coast, if the fog rolls in, the temperature drops quickly. Essentially, it’s difficult to know what to expect, so I recommend packing layers.

We particularly love travelling in California in Autumn, around September when the temperatures are pleasant almost everywhere. Spring is also a good time, although it can still be cold in places like Mount Shasta. The summertime comes with soaring temperatures in places like LA and Sacramento, which might be too much for some.


Our California road trip itinerary stops

Pacific Coast Highway (San Francisco to San Diego)

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is perhaps the most iconic part of a California road trip, especially the Big Sur coastline. It’s what people often imagine when they think of California. And while there’s much more to California than the PCH, it’s an unmissable part of it. The epic coastal road takes you through wild nature, bohemian surf enclaves, wine regions and some of the world’s most exciting cities.

We have a separate post with our full Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary, going all the way down the California coast from San Francisco down to San Diego. That post has all the details for all the stops along Highway 1, including San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay, Big Sur, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, Malibu, Laguna Beach and San Diego. And like this post, it includes detailed information on each place, including things to do, where to eat, places to stay and how to get around.

You could drive the route in either direction and then add on the itinerary below, going onto Palm Springs from San Diego, or heading up to Sonoma from San Francisco.

Greater Palm Springs

California Road Trip Itinerary - sunset at Hotel Paseo

Palm Springs was once the haven of the rat pack, but later became synonymous with retirees and golfing. It’s since had a renaissance as a retro chic getaway destination for style-conscious hipsters and the LGBT+ community.

It has a heady, laid-back vibe that calls for long days lounging by the pool, drinking cocktails and soaking up the novelty of being in an oasis amid the desert. Take a walk down North Palm Canyon Drive to see the mix of hip, bohemian and kitsch that makes Palm Springs so special. 

Palm Springs itself is part of the larger Greater Palm Springs area, which is made up of nine little towns, including Coachella and the fancy Palm Desert where the main shopping street is reminiscent of LA’s Rodeo Drive. 

We took our time there and relaxed, but if we’d had longer, I’d have liked to visit the art museum and go on the aerial tramway, which takes you up 600ft to the top of a mountain where the temperature is up to 22 degrees cooler than the desert below. The view from up there looks incredible.

Where to stay in Greater Palm Springs

California Road Trip Itinerary - Hotel Paseo

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to stylish, hip hotels in Palm Springs. There’s the colourful Saguaro, the achingly hipster Ace, and The Parker, which epitomises what a Palm Springs hotel is all about, harking back to its 1950s roots and adding a dash of post modern eclecticism.

We stayed at the stylish Hotel Paseo, one of the newest kids on the block and the first of the hip hotels to come to Palm Desert. It’s part of the Autograph Collection and is just steps away from the glamorous shops, galleries and restaurants of El Paseo, also known as The Rodeo Drive of the Desert. 

Read more in my guide to the best boutique hotels in Palm Springs, the most beautiful Palm Springs Airbnbs, and epic Palm Springs VRBO homes with pools.

Where to eat and drink in Greater Palm Springs

California Road Trip Itinerary - Ice Cream and Shoppe

While in Palm Desert, we ate at Wildest Greens, which doesn’t look like much from the outside, but is actually a beautifully bright and airy space with an impressive health-focused organic menu, including paleo, raw and vegan options.

And in Palm Springs, we had lunch at Juniper Table, which is part of the hip Kimpton Rowan hotel and serves a fresh all-day menu of sandwiches, salads and breakfast classics.

I also highly recommend getting an ice cream at the kitsch Ice Cream and Shoppe. If we’d been there in the evening, I’d also have liked to try Workshop Kitchen + Bar, which serves inventive takes on American dishes. 

Getting to and around Palm Springs

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

Palm Desert is about 2.5 hours from San Diego and its an enjoyable drive through the desert with some great viewpoints along the way. To get from Palm Desert to Palm Springs takes about 30 minutes.

Joshua Tree

The whimsical world of Joshua Tree National Park has long attracted hippies and mystics on a quest for the otherworldy. And the little town of Joshua Tree, next to the park, is keeping that bohemian sprit alive, although nowadays you’ll find just as many hipsters as you will hippies.

Of course, the national park is the main event, but it’s also a place to get away from it all in the eerie quiet of the desert.

City dwellers have created a plethora of desert-chic cabins for your getaway, and things to do include: rock climbing; checking out the thrift stores; hiking; and visiting Pioneertown, which was built in the 1950s as a Wild West movie set and is still used for filming today.

Pioneertown is also home to Pappy and Harriet’s, a live music venue that has hosted some big stars, including  Robert Plant. Sadly it was closed the days we were there.

We’d have also liked to visit the Integratron, an “resonant tabernacle and energy machine” that is said to be based on telepathic messages from aliens and is supposed to rejuvenate anyone who goes inside. They host sound baths there that look amazing, but sadly can’t be done with babies.

Where to stay in Joshua Tree

California Road Trip Itinerary - Joshua Tree

I was overwhelmed by the amount of stylish Airbnb cabins in Joshua Tree – it took us ages to finally choose one. I’ll be writing a post with our shortlist, but the one we picked was The Moon Cabin, and I couldn’t have been happier with the choice.

It was perfectly put together to the extent that I think the owners must be artists. There were thoughtful details like a hand drawn guide to cabin and local area, a telescope for stargazing (the desert sky is epic), and a record player with a well curated vinyl collection.

We were in Joshua Tree with four friends, and our cabin was the ideal place to hang out with a full kitchen, dining for six, and a bocce court out back. There’s also a converted bus next door, which two of our friends stayed in. The cabin starts at $150 per night. Book your stay on Airbnb (and use this link to get $25 off your first stay). Read more in my round-up of the most beautiful Joshua Tree Airbnb cabins.

Where to eat and drink in Joshua Tree

In Joshua Tree, we mostly self catered in our cabin, but also had an excellent breakfast at the quirky Crossroads Cafe (the soy-rizo is delicious) and some good coffee from the Joshua Tree Coffee Company.

Our friends also recommended Frontier Cafe, which is just next to the turning for Pioneertown. If it had been open, we’d have definitely paid a visit to Pappy and Harriet’s. 

Getting to and around Joshua Tree

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary - Joshua Tree

The drive from Palm Desert to Joshua Tree takes about one hour and we stopped at Pioneertown en route, which is about 10 minutes’ drive off the 62 road that runs to Joshua Tree.

From Joshua Tree town to the National Park is another 20-30 minutes, depending on which gate you enter at. We entered at the West Entrance (30 minutes from Joshua Tree) and then drove through the park and exited at 29 Palms (20 minutes from Joshua Tree). 

Death Valley

Death Valley is a land of extremes with drought, record-breaking temperatures in the summer and mountains capped by snow. It’s home to the USA’s lowest elevations and is a stark, fascinating landscape filled with sand dunes, colourful canyons, oases and salt flats. You could spend days exploring this 932-acre wilderness, but we recommend at least a day there on your CA road trip. Just beware that the temperatures are sky high during the summer so make sure to plan accordingly – there’s a reason it’s called Death Valley!

This is one place we haven’t visited recently, so I recommend reading this post for more detailed info on road tripping in Death Valley.

Mammoth Lakes

After Death Valley, you could drive straight to Yosemite, but it’s a fairly long drive, so we recommend stopping at Mammoth Lakes, an adventure land that’s definitely worth visiting. The mountain resort town has snow sports in the winter and all sorts in the summer, from hiking to mountain biking. And of course, it’s all surrounded by beauty from the mountains, lakes and forest.

The drive here from Death Valley is particularly stunning, showing some of the range of California’s landscapes, from below sea level depths to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

Find more things to do in Mammoth Lakes here.

Yosemite

Lower Yosemite Falls

Yosemite is a bucket list destination for a reason and it doesn’t disappoint. You can’t fail to be moved by the magnificent sight of the famed valley and the El Capitan and Half Dome mountains. But there is much more to Yosemite than its headliners, and you could easily spend days there, hiking the trails and discovering waterfalls, lakes, mountains and more.

We recommend having one day to see some of the “must-sees” on the valley floor such as Tunnel View and Yosemite Falls (a really easy 1-mile hike suitable for wheelchairs and strollers). And then picking activities to suit you for your other days, such as one of the longer hikes or a visit to one of the lesser known areas such as Tuolumne Meadows and the sequoias at Tuolumne Grove.

We also recommend visiting the gorgeous Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which is just outside the park entrance.

Do note that during the peak season, you need a reservation to enter the park during peak hours. Find more details and book tickets on the Parks website.

Where to stay in Yosemite

Evergreen Lodge, Yosemite

We stayed at Evergreen Lodge, which we can’t recommend enough, especially if you’re travelling with a family. It celebrated 100 years in 2021 and is exactly what I imagine when I think of my ideal American holiday camp. There are wooden cabins amid the forest, nightly s’mores, fun activities for kids (we dd some geode smashing!), a saltwater pool with a view and seemingly endless hidden corners with fun to be had, from woodland playgrounds to bocce ball.

The food is also excellent, and it’s just 20 minutes’ drive from the entrance to Yosemite (we were on the valley floor in about 45 minutes). It’s also right next to Hetch Hetchy.

Rooms start at $250 per night. Book your stay now.

Where to eat in Yosemite

If you’re spending the day exploring Yosemite, a picnic is your best option as there are very few dining options available, even on the valley floor and there will likely be big queues, especially in the high season. Plus you’re unlikely to find a more beautiful picnic spot!

For our other meals, we ate at Evergreen Lodge, which has a great casual but elevated menu of family favourites including pasta and top notch burgers.

How to get to and around Yosemite

From Mammoth Lakes to Evergreen Lodge, it takes 2.5 hours. And then it’s 1.5 hours to Sonora. If following a different itinerary, other distances are: San Francisco (3.5 hours), Sacramento (3 hours); South Lake Tahoe (4 hours); Los Angeles (6 hours). Public transport (YARTS) is also available from Mammoth Lakes and Sonora.

Most people use a car to get around, but there are also free shuttle buses, stopping at 19 stops throughout the park. And you could also opt for a guided tour.

Tuolumne County

Pinecrest Lake, California

Chances are you might not have heard of Tuolumne County, but you might be aware of some of the places within it. And I think it’s one of the best places in California to travel with kids. It not only houses parts of Yosemite, but is also a place where you can visit some of California’s most charming gold rush towns and also experience the beautiful wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. And it’s filled with charming places to stay.

I’ve already covered some parts of Tuolumne in the section on Yosemite above, but I also recommend spending at least a day or two exploring the gold towns and high sierra.

The sierra is a year-round destination with skiing and winter sports from around November to May, and then all sorts of hiking and lake sports in the summer. We went to Pinecrest Lake, which is stunning and ideal for families.

And don’t miss Columbia State Historic Park, a perfectly preserved, ‘living’ gold rush town where you can do horse cart rides, go panning for gold and see shops and businesses as they would have been during the gold rush era.

See our full guide to things to do in Tuolumne County with kids.

Where to stay in Tuolumne County

Good places to base yourself when exploring the area are Sonora and the area close to Pinecrest Lake, including Twain Harte.

We recommend the following guesthouses and cabins.

The Royal Olive Manor
Royal Olive Manor, Sonora

This historic Royal Olive Manor in Sonora ticks all the boxes for an impossibly charming stay. It has an interesting history filled with hospitable characters who have always opened their home to others. And that welcoming vibe endures through the current owners who have updated the space in a way that preserves the guesthouse’s roots while brining it up to date with modern conveniences. Expect lots of antiques, a ‘speakeasy’ bar, sumptuous beds and an indulgent breakfast you won’t soon forget.

It’s in the cute town of Sonora, which has lots of historic gold rush buildings and some good restaurants, cafes and boutiques.

Rooms start at $180 . Book your stay now.

Strawberry Hill Cabin
Strawberry Hill Cabin

Just five minutes from Pinecrest Lake is the beautiful Strawberry Hill Cabin. It’s an authentic family cabin, owned by a couple who rent it out to other travellers. As such it’s homely and filled with everything you need for a comfortable stay, even including toys for the kids.

There are two bedrooms but, combined with the family room downstairs, can sleep up to 13. And the indoor and outdoor living areas are so big that it’d be a comfortable fit even at maximum occupancy. It’s a great place to base yourself for exploring the surrounding area and just going deep into forest life for a few relaxing days.

Read this post
A little update – plus news we’re heading South!

Rental starts at $400 per night . Book your stay now.

McCaffrey House Bed and Breakfast
McCaffrey Bed and Breakfast

The McCaffrey House Bed and Breakfast was one of the most friendly and inviting places we stayed in California. The B&B is run by a couple who moved there from Silicone Valley over 20 years ago and have now created a charming home-from-home for travellers in the Sierra Nevada. From the cosy living room complete with a piano to the homemade breakfast and well stocked games cupboard, it has all you need for a memorable stay.

The whole place is surrounded by trees and is close to skiing and other Sierra Nevada attractions, making it a great base for a Tuolumne adventure.

Room start at around $240. Book your stay now.

Where to eat in Tuolumne County

Some of the best places we ate in Tuolumne County were:

  • Alicia’s Sugar Shack in Twain Harte – excellent place to pick up sandwiches and baked goods for a picnic (don’t miss the view across the road!)
  • Afternoon Tea at Columbia Kate’s in Columbia State Historic Park – the sweetest little tea room where you can borrow a hat for the occasion!
  • Flappy’s Pizza in Sonora – excellent pizza by the slice in casual surrounds
  • Ice cream from Grove Mercantile in Groveland – a nice stop en route to Yosemite
  • CC Taqueria in Jamestown – authentic roadside Mexican food

How to get to and around Tuolumne County

Sonora is 1.5 hours from Yosemite and almost three hours from South Lake Tahoe. If you skip Lake Tahoe, three hours from South Lake Tahoe. If you skip Lake Tahoe, you could go straight to Sacramento, which is around 2 hours away. Or San Francisco is 2.5 hours.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe, straddling California and Nevada, and its surrounding mountains are a perfect place to relax or get active on your California road trip. Expect snow sports in the winter and endless water activities come summer – from SUP to boating to windsurfing.

We didn’t visit on our recent trips, but I did go when I was younger and was gobsmacked by the lake’s beauty. It’s a humongous place, so to get your head around it, see this post on the best things to do in Lake Tahoe. It’s one of the best places in California for kids.

Sacramento

Tower Bridge, Sacramento

Sacramento is often overlooked in favour of California’s bigger cities, LA and San Francisco, but the capital of California is a fun place to spend a few days. Visit Old Sacramento, the refurbished old town where you can see how the city started during the gold rush and even ride on an old locomotive. And don’t miss the State Capitol, which looks like a mini version of the white house. And the Sacramento Tower Bridge, which is truly gold unlike its counterpart in SF.

But we think one of the biggest highlights of a visit to Sacramento is simply wandering the neighbourhoods and experiencing city life. Sacramento is a really diverse city so it has lots of world cuisine and festivals such as Wide Open Walls, which celebrates that diversity through street art you can see throughout the city.

There’s also a thriving beer scene so be sure to visit one of the brewpubs. We particularly loved Drake’s: The Barn, which has a sprawling outdoor area perfect for families and groups.

See our guide to the best things to do in Sacramento with kids.

Where to stay in Sacramento

The Sawyer Hotel pool, Sacramento
The Sawyer Hotel

We stayed at the hip Sawyer Hotel, which is a fabulous spot in walking distance of Midtown and Old Sacramento. The huge hotel has a hip, sophisticated vibe and the onsite cocktail bar, Revival, is popular with guests and non-guests alike.

Despite being perfect for couples and groups, it’s also welcoming to kids and you’ll find family groups alongside 20-30s party vibes at the sleek rooftop pool.

The rooms are luxurious and have fantastic views of the city – we could see the bridge and the state capitol from our balcony on the fifth floor – I can only imagine how amazing the views from the top are (there are 16 floors and 250 rooms).

The hotel is in the bustling Doco development, which has lots of restaurants, shops and the Golden 1 event space – really handy if you’re going to see a show, plus useful for nearby meal options (see recommendations below).

Rooms start at $160. Book your stay now

Where to eat in Sacramento

Drakes The Barn, Sacramento

Sacramento is a very diverse city so has some great international dining. Places we loved include:

Getting to and around Sacramento

Old Sacramento

Sacramento is about two hours from Lake Tahoe if that’s the route you’re travelling. But it’s also well located for many other stops in California, including Yolo (20-60 minutes); San Francisco (1.5 hours); Sonora in Tuolumne (2 hours), Redding (2.5 hours) and Napa/Sonoma (1.5 hours). This makes it an ideal stop for many California road trip routes.

Yolo

Park Winters, Yolo

I admit I hadn’t heard of Yolo County before visiting, but it became one of the highlights of our trip (so much so that I’ve written a post about the all the reasons to love Yolo County) .

Situated between Sacramento and Napa, it’s an area made up of a series of quaint towns, all surrounded by farmland which makes for a thriving farm-to-table scene and plenty of tasting experiences.

Visit the tiny town of Winters where you can try local wine from the Turkovich and Berryessa Gap tasting rooms. And don’t miss a visit to Park Winters where you can either stay the night at the guesthouse or simply explore their gorgeous grounds. They even do a pick-your-own bouquet experience, and put on lunch events throughout the year.

Not far from Park Winters is the Capay Valley Lavendar Farm where you can walk among the lavender and buy products from the farm.

We stayed in Davis, a college town and home to the fantastic Davis Farmers Market. The market dates back to the sixties and has a colourful, activist history. Some of the original stall holders are still there today.

Where to stay in Yolo
Best Western Palm Court, Davis
Best Western Palm Court

We stayed at the Best Western Plus Palm Court in the centre of Davis. It’s perfectly located in the heart of town so you can walk out the door and be within steps of restaurants, bars and shops. It’s just a few minutes away from the farmers market.

For families, they have one-bedroom suites, which are ideal if you have more than one child or simply want a separate living area. And the balconies look out onto the streets below which buzz with local life.

Rooms start at around $170. Book your stay now.

Where to eat in Yolo

Davis Farmers Market

Yolo County has some good opportunities for farm-to-fork, including at Park Winters where they do dining events throughout the year. Savory Café in Winters is another good option, which has championed the slow food movement in the area.

And of course the Davis Farmers Market is unmissable, perfect for doing a choose-your-own picnic or for trying one of the food stands (we recommend the strawberry shortcake from Mabel’s Farm Box).

Davis is a student town so a lot of the food on offer is fairly cheap and cheerful. A more upscale, but still casual, option is Café Bernardo which has good farm-to-table dining and a nice patio for people watching (it’s beneath the Best Western where we stayed).

Getting to and around Yolo

Turkovich tasting rooms

Yolo County is right next to Sacramento, so around 20-60 minutes from the city centre depending on where you stay. You could feasibly do it as a day trip from the city, but we recommend staying there to get the full experience.

Once there, you’ll need a car to get around the region as it’s all fairly spread out (for example Capay Valley is 45 minutes away from Davis.

In Davis, it’s worth hiring a bike as it’s one of the most bike-friendly cities in the USA.

Shasta Cascade

Strawhouse Resorts

The Shasta Cascade area of California in the north-east corner of the state is a stunning wonderland of volcanoes, rivers and mountains. Yet, for some reason, it’s often overlooked on a California itinerary. We think that’s a mistake and highly recommend adding it as a stop on your CA road trip.

Highlights in the area include the magnificent Mount Shasta, Lassen Volcanic National Park and endless trails to explore. We particularly loved visiting McCloud Falls, which are really accessible. You can just walk to all three falls from their carparks, or you can do a trail that connects all three. Lake Siskiyou is also worth visiting – it has one of the best views and photo opportunities of Mount Shasta across the water.

If you’re travelling with kids, Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding is a must – the zoo, museum and playgrounds are the absolute perfect family day out. They even do a fun animal show in the summer months. And it’s right next to the sundial bridge, which is exactly as the name suggests – a bridge and sundial in one! See our full guide to things to do in Redding and Shasta Cascade with kids.

We also recommend stopping for a night in the area between the coast and Redding – we had the most relaxing time at the gorgeous Strawhouse Resorts (see accommodation section for more info).

Where to stay in Shasta Cascade

Railroad Park Resort
Railroad Park Resort

Railroad Park Resort is one of the best places we stayed in California, especially as a family. Just around the corner from Mount Shasta itself, it’s a collection of converted railroad carts for sleeping, plus lots of fun amenities, including trains to play on, an outdoor pool and garden games.

And it’s home to a popular restaurant, also housed inside a railway carriage. Our kids absolutely loved it. As well as the railway carriages, there are also cabins available, plus camping spots.

Carriages start at $125. Book your stay now.

Strawhouse Resorts
Strawhouse Resorts, Big Bar, Shasta Cascade area

We fell in love with Strawhouse Resorts from the moment we saw its website and watched the video about the owners’ vision and passion for their guesthouse. Don and Julia have really taken care to make sure visitors have a relaxing and memorable stay, from the onsite coffee roastery to the cabins with enormous picture windows to take in the view. It’s right next to the Trinity River, so your stay is backed by the sound of rushing water and birdsong. Despite being right on a state highway, the road is fairly quiet, so it still feels remote and peaceful.

They do pizza nights in the summer and there’s also a yurt available to rent as well as camping sites.

Cabins start at $. Book your stay now.

Hilton Garden Inn, Redding

The Hilton Garden Inn in Redding isn’t the kind of place we normally designate as a ‘special stay’ but the views from the rooms at the back, looking out over the lakes and trees across to the mountains, are definitely special. It’s also conveniently located for exploring Redding and would even be a good base for exploring the rest of the area, with everything, including Lassen and Mount Shasta, no more than an hour’s drive away.

Rooms start at $160. Book your stay now.

Where to eat in Shasta Cascade

Pennys Diner, Dunsmuir

Some of the best places we ate in the Shasta Cascade area are: Yaks of the 5 for indulgent and delicious burgers; Penny’s Diner for a classic 24-hour diner experience with epic views; Taste and See Creamery for inventive ice cream flavours; Up North Confectionary and Mercantile in Weaverville for old-fashioned vibes and excellent ice cream; and Strawhouse Resorts and Coffee for a small, but thoughtful breakfast and lunch menu and pizzas during the summer weekends.

Getting to and around Shasta Cascade

Turtle Bay Exploration Park
Turtle Bay Exploration Park (Photo by David Maung)

The drive to Redding from Yolo County is around 2.5 hours. Redding is a good place to base yourself for exploring the area, although you can find more interesting accommodation elsewhere.

Redwoods National and State Parks

Founders Grove, Avenue of the Giants

One of the great joys of California is the redwoods. While there are many places to see them, one of the best by far the Avenue of Giants in the Redwoods National Park on the Northern California coast. The 31-mile route was originally part of Highway 1 but then they created a bypass, making this the scenic alternative. It’s one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever done, lined by redwood forest and trees so tall you sometimes can’t see the sky.

There are lots of stops along the way to follow hiking trails and we particularly recommend the walk at Founders Grove, which is a short 1-mile loop that takes you through some of the most beautiful forest in the area. And there are also two trees you can drive through (Shrine drive-through tree and the drive-through tree park) – but beware bigger cars will struggle – we scraped ours!

Beyond the redwoods, the Humboldt area also has more treasures including the Victorian town of Ferndale, which is 100% worth a stop. The colourful streets feel like stepping back in time and it has a thriving community spirit. We stayed at The Victorian Inn, which scores A+ for hospitality and character.

And we also recommend the amazing Redwood Skywalk at Sequoia Park Zoo and taking a walk with some llamas at Luna’s Lllama Adventures.

Where to stay for the redwoods

Victorian Inn
Victorian Inn, Ferndale

We stayed in the historic Victorian Inn in Ferndale, a Victorian town about 30 minutes south of Eureka and just 20 minutes north of the Avenue of Giants. Run by the lovely Lowell and Jenny, the inn is in a fabulous turquoise building on the corner of main street. The Victorian Inn really epitomises the village’s hospitality and historic character. The whole experience feels like stepping back in time. We had a two-bedroom suite filled with antique touches, frills, florals and the opposite of modern minimalism.

The hotel bar is a fun place to hang out and chat with the locals, and there’s also a restaurant with an elegant dining room and menu of local specialities.

Where to eat in Redwoods National Park

Mind's Eye Manufactory and Coffee Lounge, Ferndale

The ice cream at Living the Dream is excellent – perhaps the most perfect vanilla we had in California.

In Ferndale, don’t miss Erlei’s Bakin’ It for homemade baked goods, and Mind’s Eye Manufactory and Coffee Lounge for a fantastically characterful café, complete with a boat yard out the back.

The Victorian Inn in Ferndale has an elegant dining room with a menu of local specialities such as steak (it’s not the most veggie friendly). And Tuya’s is another good option. We didn’t get to try it, but I’ve also heard great things about The Boardroom, a small, trendy place that specialises in charcuterie and small plates.  There’s a second (and original) Boardroom in Eureka.

While driving the Avenue of Giants, we recommend bringing a picnic to enjoy at one of the stops.

Getting to and around Redwoods National Park

Redwood Skywalk, Eureka

It’s a three-hour drive from Redding to Eureka along the scenic Route 299 (Trinity Scenic Byway), which runs alongside the Trinity River and curves through mountainous, forrested land.

We recommend at least stopping at Strawhouse Resorts in Big Bar (but preferably staying the night). And also stop at Weaverville, a historic mining town with a cool Chinese temple and a characterful high street of historic buildings.

You could also stop at Crystal Creek Falls at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, which is a pretty and easily accessible waterfall along the route (although the drive there isn’t for the faint of heart!).

Mendocino

View of Mendocino coast

It was love at first sight for me and Mendocino. We arrived via the Avenue of Giants and to go from that to the Cali coast makes for a spectacular drive, combining three of the things I love most about California: redwoods, the ocean and wonderfully charming towns.

Read this post
19 things to do in Puerto Pollensa, Mallorca

I loved so much about Mendocino: it has the laid-back, hippy vibes that epitomise the side of California I adore and its location on the coast is stunning.

Spend your time exploring the wild beaches, sampling the California cuisine, wandering the cute village streets of the village and soaking up the small-town Cali vibes.

We recommend visiting glass beach (where much of the beach is made of sea glass!), riding the Skunk Train in nearby Fort Bragg and taking a walk around Mendocino, being sure not to miss the gorgeous Gallery Bookshop.

Where to stay in Mendocino

Little River Inn balcony, Mendocino

Little River Inn’s claim to fame is that it’s where James Dean stayed during the filming of East of Eden. But there’s much more to celebrate beyond its famous guests. This 80-year-old guesthouse on the 1 looks directly onto the ocean and all rooms come with an ocean view. The 60 accommodations range from simple double rooms to more luxurious options with fireplaces and hot tubs.

We stayed in one of the traditional rooms and loved waking up to the view of the ocean and having a deck to hang out on. Note that the deck connects all the rooms in the traditional block – they have their own chairs but you can still hear and see your neighbours.  

Where to eat in Mendocino

Trillium Cafe. Mendocino

Don’t miss Mendocino town for plenty of cute cafes and restaurants. We recommend: Mendocino Chocolate Company and Papa Bear’s Cholate Haus for sweet treats; Trillium Café for excellent Calfornian style farm-to-table cuisine; Brickery Pizza for amazing pizza in a beuatiufl garden; and Goodlife Café and Bakery for an A+ American breakfast/brunch.

I also highly recommend the restaurant and bar at Little River Inn (the outdoor patio is particularly delightful).

Getting to and around Mendocino

Glass beach, Mendocino

As I mentioned in the intro to Mendocino, the route there along the Avenue of Giants and then onto Route 1 is stunning and it took my breath away when we first caught sight of the coast. It’s about 3 hours from Ferndale/Eureka and you’ll also want to stop along the way for photos and hiking spots. It’s a journey to be savoured and will take up the most part of your day.

It’s around another 3 hours to get to San Francisco or 2 hours to Sonoma from Mendocino.

Sonoma County and Napa

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary - Sonoma

Sonoma County and Napa are two of California’s most famous wine regions, both with distinct characters. Sonoma can be seen as the laid-back sister of neighbouring Napa. Where Napa is elegant and upscale, Sonoma is famed for its down-to-earth rustic vibes and world-class farm-to-table cuisine. You could choose one to explore or fit in both within one trip (they’re only around an hour apart from each other).

We love both, but Sonoma is the one that truly has our heart, partly due to the friendlier price tags and all-round laidback vibe – plus it’s also really family friendly. It’s a place where you can spend the morning walking through redwoods and the afternoon sipping wine in a Tuscan-style villa. It’s the ultimate in relaxation. Plus both Sonoma and Napa have a warmer climate than San Francisco, so they’re the perfect sunshine break from the city. 

Things to do in Sonoma

Do note that when I’m talking about Sonoma, I’m referring to Sonoma County rather than the city of Sonoma, which is just one part of the larger area. You can read our full guide to things to do in Sonoma County.

But some of our favourite areas are:

  • Sebastopol (an artistic little town with a cool sculpture trail)
  • Guerneville (a rustic town that has a become a number one spot for gay holidaymakers and is known for its outdoor water sports and party vibes)
  • Forestville (a tiny place with lots of forest, which is home to some amazing cabins)
  • Healdsburg (a wonderfully charming town, filled with top-class restaurants and tons of tasting rooms)
  • Santa Rosa (the county’s main city and a perfect base for exploring the rest of Sonoma).
  • And we also love the coast and Armstrong Redwoods State National Park, which is a peaceful place for a walk among the trees.

If wine is what you’re after in Sonoma then I recommend being in walking distance of Healdsburg town square as then you could visit lots of tasting rooms without worrying about driving.

Things to do in Napa

Napa is a valley with two main roads running through it, both lined with vineyards and wineries – the most beautiful of which is the famed Silverado Trail. Visitors love to ride the wine train, hire bikes and ride around the vineyards, or be based in one of the cute towns where you can find multiple tasting rooms to try. Some of the wineries here are seriously impressive with long winding driveways and five-star credentials – there’s even one in a castle!

We stayed in Yountville, perhaps the most idyllic of all the towns, home to two Michelin star restaurants (and many more contenders for a star), elegant tasting rooms and luxurious places to stay. It’s the epitome of Napa romance and we found lots of honeymooners along the way, but also found family-friendly options too.

Our other favourite places in Napa were Calistoga (a more laid-back, but still classy little spa town, home to our favourite tasting room, Tank Garage Winery) and St Helena (another popular town with a charming main street of historic buildings, shops, galleries and restaurants).

Accommodation in Sonoma County and Napa

We’ve been to Sonoma and Napa several times and stayed in various different places to get a feel for what’s on offer. Depending on your time and preferences, you could base yourself in one place, or split your time between different stays in different areas. If you want to visit both Napa and Sonoma but stay in the same place, then Santa Rosa is a good option as it’s in Sonoma but only 30 minutes away from Napa.

Camellia Inn
LA to San Francisco Drive - Camellia Inn, Sonoma

The Camellia Inn is one of the most charming places I’ve ever stayed. It’s a traditional family-run guesthouse where the owners genuinely care about each and every guest and go out of their way to make your stay comfortable.

The pink-hued Victorian house brims with history and is just minute’s walk away from Healdsburg Plaza. The rooms are filled with antiques, but also come with modern touches like an iPad and coffee maker. Hot drinks and treats are available in the communal living room, where guests gather each afternoon for a daily cheese and wine tasting.

We also loved breakfast time where Otis was the toast of the big shared table where we all enjoyed the fresh produce that Sonoma is famous for. And there’s also an onsite spa and a swimming pool for when the weather is warm.

Rooms start from $159 per night. Book your stay now.

Flamingo Resort

The Flamingo Resort is a fabulous spot in Santa Rosa, an iconic mid-century resort that has been recently updated with a luxurious, hip, but still family friendly, feel. It’s one of those unique places that appeals to both couples and kids alike.

Our little ones loved the pool and I was a huge fan of the art-filled lobby, fun design touches and overall aesthetic that was a mixture of California hippy meets Palm Springs hipster. The food (and of course the wine) is also excellent.

Rooms start at $250. Book your stay here.

Vintners Inn
West Coast Road Trip - Vintners Inn, Sonoma

If you’re looking for a spot of luxury on your trip to Sonoma, Vintners Inn is ideal. Set on a 92-acre vineyard, the luxury lodgings have a European vibe, including a charming courtyard, centred around a picturesque classic fountain. You can see why it’s a popular wedding location.

We stayed in a sumptuous junior suite with a view of the vineyard, which felt like a quintessential wine country experience. And for food, we were spoilt by John Ash & Co, the onsite fine dining restaurant. T

The property is run by Ferrari Carano, one of Sonoma’s most popular and luxurious wineries. There’s also a newly refurbished spa on site. Rooms start from $265 per night. Book your stay now.

Camp Noon, Forestville
San Francisco to Los Angeles drive - Camp Noon

As you know, I love a cabin and Forestville in Sonoma County is cabin central – we were completely spoilt for choice. In the end, I chose Camp Noon, which is owned by two girls in San Francisco who have a fantastic eye for design. I was sold by the AirBnB reviews that mentioned the styles of Wes Anderson, Anthropologie and Scandinavia, and there assessment was spot on.

From the claw foot bath tub to the well curated record collection and retro furnishings, everything was on point. And of course, a cabin’s location is key to its success and this one was surrounded by towering redwoods – you can’t get much better than that.

A night in the cabin starts at $88 per night. Book your stay now. (Use this link to get £25 off your first trip).

Napa Valley Railway Inn

The Napa Valley Railway Inn is one of the most unique places to stay in Napa. Guests gets to sleep in converted railway carriages that have been done up to four-star standards. All the carriages sleep 2 and there’s also one larger two-bedroom room suite in the ‘station’ that can accommodate a family. It’s a big hit with kids, plus it’s in walking distance of lots of restaurants, and tasting rooms. And it’s more affordable than some of the other Yountville resorts.

Rooms start at around $350 . Book your stay now.

Where to eat and drink in Sonoma County

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary - Healdsburg Shed

Sonoma County is well known for its fresh, farm-to-table cuisine, especially in Healdsburg, which has become a culinary hub for high-end restaurants. We loved Little Saint (previously the Healdsburg Shed).

I also recommend Backyard in Forestville where we had a delicious lunch in their garden. It’s child-friendly and specialises in seasonal, locally sourced food.

In terms of wineries, we loved Medlock Ames (a small, somewhat hipster winery) and Korbel, which specialises in sparkling wine. Meyer Family Cellars. Dry Creek General Store. Francis Ford Coppola. Preston Farm and Winery. Truett Hurst, Cornerstone Sonoma

And don’t miss Wild Flour Bread in Freestone near Sebastapol, which has scones I’d drive a day for. It’s definitely worth the short detour.

Where to eat and drink in Napa

Yountville is a perfect place to sample some of Napa’s best restaurants, including the Michelin-starred pizza restaurant, Ciccio. Ottimo is a more laid-back Italian option, and the restaurant at North Block Hotel also does incredible pizzas. All are family-friendly.

We also recommend visiting the Oxbow Public Market in Napa where you can try a few different California favourites. And we are big fans of Gott’s Roadside Diner, which you can find both at Oxbow and near St.Helena (there are also branches in San Francisco). In Calistoga, don’t miss the cute Calistoga Roastery cafe, owned by a fellow Englishman living his California dream.

For wineries and tasting rooms, we loved Hope and Grace in Yountville (lush wines in laid back, yet opulent surrounds) and Tank Garage Winery (a small-batch hipster winery in Calistoga serving natural wines among others).

Getting to and around Sonoma County and Napa

San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip - Wild Flour Bakery

From San Francisco airport to Healdsburg/Guerneville/Forestville/Napa takes about 1.5 hours, depending on traffic. We stayed in Forestville first and drove there via Sebastopol (about an hour from San Francisco) where we stopped for lunch at The Barlow.

We also made a detour to the Wild Flour Bakery where people are rightly evangelical about the quality of the scones. The detour added about 15 minutes to the journey and also meant we got to drive along the atmospheric Bohemian Highway road, which is lined with massive redwoods.

If we hadn’t had an antsy Otis in the car, we may also have driven out to the coast as the 10-mile journey from Occidental to the ocean is said to be gorgeous.

While in Sonoma County, we mostly drove everywhere and always found a free parking spot easily. However, we also enjoyed how easy it was to walk around Healdsburg, and had a lovely evening stroll around the plaza (it made me feel like I was in an episode of the Gilmore Girls!).

Sonoma and Napa are around 30 minutes apart, depending where you’re travelling to and from (for example Sonoma town to Napa town is 25 minutes, and Santa Rosa to Calistoga is 30 minutes). While in Napa, make sure you drive at least part of the Silverado trail as this is much more picturesque than Route 29.

Found this California road trip blog useful? Share it on Pinterest

California Road Trip Itinerary - The Ultimate California Road Trip Guide

Find the best deals on car hire

We recommend Discover Cars for booking your rental car. They search all the top companies and always tend to find the best deals. We use them every time.

Useful travel resources for a California road trip

For car rentals, we recommend booking with Rentalcars.com. They always have the cheapest deals for mainstream retailers.

If you decide to book any Airbnb apartments, use this link, as it’ll give you £25 off your first trip.

We found great last-minute deals on Booking.com, getting a discount of up to 60%.

Our favourite place to book flights is Skyscanner – again, they always have great deals!

Don’t forget your travel insurance! We  recommend True Traveller who offer reliable, comprehensive cover, including medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities. You can buy True Traveller insurance even when you’ve left home, which is unusual for travel insurance companies.

If you’re planning a trip to California or anywhere in the world, be sure to check out our travel planning pages  for all our best travel tips, including how to save money with the best cards, what to bring, and all our favourite tools and tricks.

Disclosure: As I said earlier in the post, Visit California and individual tourism boards (Sonoma County; San Francisco; Santa Cruz; Santa Barbara; San Luis Obispo County; Laguna BeachGreater Palm Springs; Toulumne; Shasta Cascade; Yolo; Sacramento, and San Diego) helped us to put this trip together and provided some sponsored stays, activities and meals. Here’s a full list of places that were fully or part sponsored. Please note that regardless of sponsorship, I always write genuine reviews, plus I say no to sponsorship opportunities that are a bad fit for Bridges and Balloons.

Places that were sponsored by Visit California / the places themselves: Camellia Inn; Vintners Inn; Flamingo Resort; Napa Valley Railroad Inn; Backyard; San Remo Hotel; Alise by StayPineapple; Inn at Pasatiempo; Roaring Camp Railroads; Asilomar Hotel; Monterey Bay Aquarium; The Vintage Ranch; Thomas Hill Organics; Kimpton Goodland; Honey B; Backyard Bowls; Oliver’s; Paradice Shave Ice; Surf & Sand Resort; Kitchen in the Canyon; Laguna Beer Company; Reunion Kitchen + Drink; Hotel Republic; Lodge at Torrey Pines; Hotel Paseo; Wildest Greens; The Garland; Universal Studios; Railroad Park Resorts; Strawhouse Resorts; Turtle Bay; Victorian Inn; Little River Inn; Skunk Train; Sawyer Hotel; Estelle Bakery; Royal Olive Manor; Strawberry Hill Cabin; MsCaffrey B&B; Evergreen Lodge.

31 thoughts on “The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary”

  1. What a great blog. We did something similar for our honeymoon and again in 2016. We visited most of the locations you mentioned but we’ve taken note of accommodation and restaurants you recommend. You sound like kindred spirits. Enjoy your future travels.

    Reply
    • Thanks Lyn! I definitely think it’s a trip to do again and again – there are so many things to discover, plus I don’t think I’d ever get bored of all those view. I’m already thinking about when we can go back next!

      Reply
  2. Nice article! There is so much to see in California! I have been creating California itineraries of various duration and for various interests for 4 years. I have 35 now on my blog and I think we only explored just about 20% of the state 🙂

    Reply
  3. It is such a pleasure to read your article..
    we are planning to come from Berlin to US for a long Roadtrip, 3 weeks with a car in california and then 3 weeks with a camping van in Utah…it will be our first time with our baby ( she will be 4 months old), would you have an recommendation for travelling with baby in california or things we shall not do? as you did we will try to make short car distance…

    Reply
    • California is a pretty easy place to be with a baby – I think the best advice is to think about any adjustments you usually make at home (for example, breaking up car journeys) and then try to do the same there. Everyone parents differently (for example, some hate travelling), so it’s quite an individual thing, deciding what works for you. Sorry not to be more useful, but do let me know if you have any questions about specific things and I’ll try my best to answer 🙂 Have a great time!

      Reply
  4. I cannot believe that you wrote: …”The landscape swiftly changes at San Simeon, flatting out and becoming a lot less dazzling”… Wow. The most beautiful beaches on planet earth are there in this “less dazzling” section, Hearst state Beach, Moonstone beach drive,…
    Its clear you are restating crap about places that are simply famous but you have not actually been there. And if you aren’t going to highlight a place in out beautiful state, such as Hearst Castle, then don’t bother to bring it up, at least don’t take the ridiculous time to say “skip it”. SO bizarre. Some people are into history and classic attractions. If you want to mention its location, leave it at that. Don’t diss a place because you weren’t able to sleep there. As an explorer, you suck. The greatest beach in the world is across the road. And 5 miles up north also in San Simeon is the elephant seals beach habitat right off the road which is the best natural colony with the easiest viewing imaginable with a parking lot and a boardwalk. I guess that’s boring to you but its hardly ‘less dazzling’ to anyone with 2 eyes.

    Reply
    • It’s hard to know how to respond to a comment like this as it’s such a personal attack! But there are a few things I can clarify/say in my defence.

      This is a personal account of my one-month trip in California, so I’m afraid it couldn’t encompass the whole state. I wrote about what I personally saw (I did do this trip as you can see from the photos!). I also did it with my nine-month-old son, so was somewhat limited in how ad-hoc our explorations could be. I didn’t diss or say to skip Heart Castle, I just said that Steve and I didn’t go this time because we’d already been before and didn’t want to wake our son. But I will add a bit about the beaches you mention as it’s a shame we missed them.

      Reply
  5. Hi Victoria. Great read and bookmarked to keep going back to We are doing LA to San Francsico in Jan next year. I’m trying to make a number of decisions and found your blog really helpful. We were going to travel inland from Santa Barbara to Yosemite but as I think it will be cold and possibly snowy my plan B is LA to San Diego before heading north to Santa Barbara then big sur, pebble beach (husband is a golfer and this is his 50th treat) then San Francisco Couple of questions wonder if you could offer an opinion. Where would you suggest staying in San Diego I’m thinking either Torrey Pines after reading your blog or the Gas lamp district (hotel indigo) I know completely different which is why I’m struggling!! and secondly I’m looking at either the Harbour Inn or the Kimpton Goodland (where you stayed) as I’m an IHG member so get good rates £120 per night but again it’s a bit out of Santa Barbara. We’re 46 and 48 no children quite active but never done this type of holiday we want to do some sightseeing, eating, drinking and the odd golf round for him and yoga class for me. Any thoughts will be welcomed x

    Reply
    • Hi Martina,
      Glad the blog is helpful!
      If your husband is a golfer then I’d recommend Torrey Pines as it’s right next to a really beautiful golf course. It’s a really special place, and it’s only 20 minutes from downtown San Diego. That said, if you want to be in the heart of the action and close to lots of great restaurants then the Gas Lamp District is great and Hotel Indigo is a good brand. It could be worth staying a night in each. It depends on what vibe you’re looking for.
      As for Santa Barbara, I loved the Goodland, but I’d only stay there if you love the hotel’s style as much as I do. Otherwise, it might be worth staying a bit closer to town so you have everything on your doorstep.
      Hope that helps!
      Victoria

      Reply
  6. When I click the link for the air bnb apartment in venice beach it takes me to an air bnb in Joshua tree. Can you provide the name and details or link to the venice beach air bnb you stayed at

    Reply
  7. Hi Victoria,

    I was curious to how much did you spent in total for the 32 days stay with multiple hotels prices, food, and gas for the entire trip? I really enjoyed reading you blog page and thank you for sharing your trip with others.

    -Marieli

    Reply
  8. Hello! I love this post on your cali roadtrip. I am from NY and iv been trying to decide where to move in cali. I am thinking of doing something like this. I love nature but also would like to be in a area with people. I was going to live in Topanga but felt too isolated- i also love to be by the water. any recommendations? Thanks!

    Reply
  9. Hello both,
    I have spent the last three weeks planning a trip to Thailand and Singapore, which we intend taking in January. We decided on this particular place to visit because of the warm weather in January.
    However having found your website Bridges and Balloons and read your guide A road trip to California. We are cancelling our plans to visit Asia and will be travelling around California. Using your guide to create our dream vacation.
    I have always wanted to visit California and reading your guide has convinced me that this has to be our next road trip.
    Thank you both very much for writing this post and making it so easy for someone like me to be able to organise a road trip of my dreams with confidence.
    Here’s hoping that the weather is kind to us during our trip in January and I will write to you on our return.

    Reply
    • This message makes me so happy! That’s exactly what I try to do with this blog 🙂 Really pleased the post was useful. I’m sure you won’t regret it – California is amazing!

      Reply
  10. Your site/blog, it’s terrific! We are planning a trip to Santa Cruz/Monterey with our two children in April. So excited and ty for sharing the great info and tips!

    Reply
  11. With a multitude of beautiful landscapes, numerous historic landmarks and diverse, multi-cultural culinary scenes, there really is so much to experience in the third-largest state in the United States. And what better way to experience a state known for its raw beauty and great outdoors than with a coastal road trip? As Al Jardine of the Beach Boys perfectly put it, “I love driving; driving along the California coastline is the best drive in the world.”

    Reply
  12. fab blog. I loved everything about it, thanks so much for putting in the time and effort. we are doing the big sur coastal road, plus SF, yosemite, LA and las vegas with our 11 and 15 year olds in July and I cant wait!

    Reply
  13. Our family of four (two adults and two kids) will soon be jetting out to sunny California. I am really ecstatic, and I cannot thank you enough for the invaluable resources you have provided. Moreover, the included pictures are quite good.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.