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From Giant Redwoods to magnificent beaches, a road trip around stunning California will give you the road trip of a lifetime. The Sunshine State is bursting with stunning sights that will satisfy the most discerning traveler. The only problem is knowing where to start!

California offers sunshine, cities and incredible natural environments. You can choose to head to the iconic landmarks or try out some off-the-beaten-track experiences. The choice is yours. Here are 10 top ideas for scenic drives to get you started.

sierra nevada

Feather River Scenic Byway

This stunning route through the Plumas National Forest covers around 344 miles. It takes nearly seven hours if you take no breaks but you will definitely want to stop and take in the view so factor that into your planning. It is suitable for a trip in the Spring, Summer and Fall and will take in Highways 20, 36 and 49 as well as the Gold Lake Highway.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip is the climb over the Sierra Nevada pass but there’s plenty more to look forward to. The route takes you along the north fork of Feather River and you will travel over sheer granite cliffs. This route is not for the faint-hearted as there are thousand-foot drop-offs below. There are plenty of places where you can pull over and take in the view. If hiking is your thing, stop off for longer to explore the Loafer Creek and Roy Rogers Trails. In amongst the beautiful and diverse terrain, there are glimpses of the local timber and mining industry.

june lake loop

June Lake Loop Route

If you don’t have much time, the June Lake Loop is a wonderful way to spend half an hour. The route is just 15 miles long and follows a small section of Highway 158. It’s perfect for a Spring, Summer or Fall road trip. The June Lake Loop will take you past mountains, valleys and rivers formed by glaciers in the last ice age.

Heading west from US-395, you soon reach June Lake and Gull Lake and here you could stop off for a picnic, some boating fun or even some water-skiing.  Then, the route heads north and you reach Agnew and Gem Lakes nestled in the mountains with spectacular views across the valley.

Continuing north, you will take in Silver Lake with its old fishing resort and finally Grant Lake which is famous for its great blue heron population.

malibu to lompoc road

Malibu to Lompoc Route

This coastal two-hour drive will take you along 116 miles of stunning Californian scenery. Because of its location on Highway 1 and Highway 101, it can be enjoyed at any time of the year including the winter.

The drive begins on CA-1 at the iconic Malibu Sport Fishing Pier and continues for its entirety with the ocean on your left. It’s a beach-hopping drive and you could stop off at Zuma Beach or Leo Carrillo State Beach for a little coastal camping if that appeals. The Pacific Coast Highway will lead you to Point Mugu State Park and Natural Preserve where there are 70 miles of hiking trails through rugged river canyons and lush valleys. You’ll travel through Port Hueneme with its Art Deco style tower and Ventura with its vibrant arts community and opportunities for some whale or dolphin spotting. With the constant sound of the crashing waves, there’s everything to love about this route.

death valley

Death Valley Scenic Byway

Suitable for all seasons, the magnificent Death Valley Scenic Byway will take you around three and a half hours and covers 130 miles of California Highway 190. Death Valley is a great expanse of stunning desert scenery and extremes of temperature.

You start at Olancha and head west through the Owens Lake Bed before climbing up into Death Valley National Park. One of the highlights is undoubtedly Furnace Creek where natural volcanic springs discharge 600 gallons of water every minute forming an oasis of greenery. Another is Dante’s View where you can gaze right over Death Valley and to the Panamint mountains beyond.

lake tahoe

Lake Tahoe Circular Route

On this circular route, you will loop around the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe. The entire journey is around 71 miles long and takes around two hours. It’s suitable for any season and takes in California Highways 28 and 89, as well as Nevada Highway 28 and US Highway 50.

You can take this journey in either direction and you’ll have the lake on one side and the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada and Carson Ranges on the other. If you feel like stopping off, it’s an ideal destination for hiking, biking and loads of water-based activities.

santa barbara

Santa Barbara Wine Route

This is a fantastic 50-mile trip that will take less than two hours if you don’t stop off and includes California Highways 154, 176, and 246 and many other back roads.

Start at Santa Maria and head first to the Kenneth Volk Vineyards in the golden hills and sun-drenched valleys. Other highlights include the Foxen Vineyard and the Demetria Estate Winery where you’ll find Greek olive trees as well as grape vines. All of the many other vineyards on the route offer tours and tasting sessions. For the driver, there are twisting roads, hairpin curves and stunning scenery. Once you get to Solvang, you head east to Buellton and here the drive ends.

big sur

Big Sur Coastal Route

Another coastal drive but this one starts at Monterey and follows California Highway 1 to San Luis Obispo. You can expect 137 miles of unrivalled scenery and with no stops it will take around three hours. It’s suitable for all seasons.

There are plenty of beaches to stop off at but a favorite is Garrapata State Park. The ocean will be too rough for swimming at this point but you are highly likely to spot a whale or a sea otter. Another location worth a special mention is Soberanes Point with panoramic views and plenty of space to stretch your legs.

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anza borrego desert

Anza Borrego Desert Route

For such a short drive (89 miles) that only takes a little under three hours, this all-season route has a lot to offer. You’ll follow the Borrego Valley Road, the Pegleg Road, Route S22 and then the Yaqui Pass Road. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is huge! There are miles and miles of stunning scenery and fascinating geology.

The route commences on the east side of the park at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area where you can camp. You enter the park on County S-22 and soon reach Calcite Canyon Scenic Area with expansive views of the rock formations. Continuing west, you’ll get to the Santa Rosa Overlook and  yet more breathtaking views of Clark Valley and the Santa Rosa Mountains. Route S22 continues west to the Montezuma Valley Road and on to the Tamarisk Grove Campground before ending in the town of Ocotillo.

redwood highway route

Redwood Highway Route

Are you a fan of the Giant Redwoods? If you are, this is the route for you. It’ll take you just under four hours to travel 213 miles on Highways 101 and 19. The Redwood National Forests are of international importance and contain almost half of the older coastal Redwood forests on the planet. You’ll even find one of the tallest trees on Earth here.

It starts at the Oregon border and you journey south until you get the coast. From here you basically follow the coast road until it ends in Leggett. There are plenty of twists and turns and unending stunning scenery. The journey starts in The Rogue River and Siskiyou Forests and there are plenty of places to stop off as you travel. The Simpson-Reed Grove has a trail that you will not be able to resist. The same goes for Crescent City where the beaches both gorgeous and accessible.

silverado trail

Silverado Trail

A charming 26-mile trip through California’s Napa Valley wine region follows the Silverado Trail Road and will take you around an hour if you make no stops. But of course, you will! This is one best avoided in the winter though. You can expect outstanding wineries set amongst magnificent mountains. It’s a little off the beaten track but that only adds to the appeal.

Amongst the many vineyards to choose from are Judd’s Hill and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Some have tours and tastings, some have dining options, others have picnic tables. They all have exceptional views and delicious wine.

You’ll start in Napa and head northwest to Calistoga on the Silverado Trail. There’s plenty of nature to marvel at including California bays, willow trees and over 150 bird species.

From Calistoga, you could travel north to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park or over south on Petrified Forest Road, Porter Creek Road and Mark West Spring Road to eventually reach CA-1.

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Sources:

  1. Road Trip: California’s Pacific Coast Highway – National Geographic
  2. 10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips – Visit California

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