Four epic LA road trips

By Mike MacEacheran

Title photography by frwooar/Getty

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Los Angeles is one of the most popular starting points for a road trip holiday. Once you leave the urban sprawl, you can be getting high on life on the Pacific Coast Highway, drive into the desert, or visit any number of national parks. Mike MacEacheran gets into the driving seat, and introduces four road trips from LA.

The American classic

The route: Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Cruz

The time: 5 hours 30 minutes

The distance: 340 miles

The lowdown: Consider the classic Californian driving holiday and you’ll likely picture the surf and fog-trimmed cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway – and few roads rival the Golden State’s Highway 1.

Jump in your hire car, and start with a late morning cruise north to Santa Barbara, where colonial Spanish architecture and twisted bougainvillea abound. There are former Franciscan monasteries and museums to explore, but the real joy can be found in its riviera lifestyle, Napa Valley-style wineries and refreshingly un-LA pace of life.

Leave the glimmering copper-red roofs in the rear-view and buzz north to see the route’s window-down hallmarks. In quick succession you’ll drive by McWay Falls, a silver veil of cliff-to-cove mist, then Bixby Bridge.

By the time you reach Big Sur, America’s most famous road tripper, Jack Kerouac, enters the picture. The area’s redwoods and rugged coastline inspired the author's work and it’s easy to see why. From here, the highway winds to Carmel-by-the-Sea where luxury boutiques stand toe-to-toe with bohemian-owned galleries. Then comes beachy Monterey and the fabled Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a kaleidoscope of fairground rides and all-American schmaltz. Now you’ve come to the end of the road, stay at Hotel Paradox and take full advantage of the hotel pool.

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  • Witness the ethereal pink skies of Joshua Tree National Park © Getty.

    Desert sunset

    A mix of two desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, Joshua Tree National Park has scorching summers temperatures often topping 38°C, so if you’re not a fan of the heat, opt for early spring or autumn to visit.

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The rock ’n’ roll pilgrimage

The route: Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park

The time: 3 hours 20 minutes

The distance: 131 miles

The lowdown: Ask anyone in Los Angeles where best to rekindle the Summer of Love spirit and many will give the same answer: Joshua Tree National Park. At weekends, rock ’n’ roll-loving kids pack up their campers and drive Interstate 10 into the park to drink beer and watch the sunrise.

In the deep laziness of the summer of 1973, rock ’n’ roll history was made by the folk music pioneer Gram Parsons when he died at the fabled Joshua Tree Inn. Fixated by the pull of the desert landscape, the former Byrds band member regularly took trips to the park, inspired by its moonscapes framed by rocky outcrops and yucca palms.

Have a listen to The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, indebted to Parsons’ influence, and you can hear the desert’s influence on the song. Or listen to U2’s The Joshua Tree. Those magic-hour guitars still resonate around the bars and diners along the 29 Palms Highway, in particular at honky-tonk music saloon Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown. Stay at Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa for Spanish-style elegance, two golf courses and to cool off in one of the three swimming pools..

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  • Cruise the iconic Bixby Bridge on Highway 1 © Alamy.

    Bridging the gap

    The Bixby Bridge is one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world, and one of its prettiest, with 85 metre-high views of the magnificent Big Sur coastline.

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  • Ride back in time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk © Alamy.

    Boardwalk empire

    The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is home to the fifth oldest coaster in the USA, and the Boardwalk’s oldest ride, the 1911 Looff Carousel, both of which are registered as a US National Historic Landmark.

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  • Get up close and personal with the McWay Falls, Big Sur © Getty.

    Sur-blime coast

    The shining star of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls is a 25m waterfall that falls directly into the ocean all year-round, making it perfect photographer territory.

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As Sequoia National Park begins to appear in the sun-streaked windscreen ahead, the journey unfolds through a series of lens-popping sites

The into-the-wilds adventure

The route: North west to the High Sierras

The time: 3 hours 20 minutes

The distance: 209 miles

The lowdown: The crystal air in the Sierra Nevada Mountains isn’t the only reason road trippers taking Route 395 from Los Angeles feel giddy. The forests below Mount Whitney are inhabited by wolverines, coyotes and snakes. Explore deeper into Sequoia National Park and you may even spot black bears.

As the park begins to appear in the sun-streaked windscreen ahead, the journey unfolds through a series of lens-popping sites. First comes the Mojave Desert, then Red Rock Canyon, before the road detours from the frontier town of Lone Pine, the jumping-off point for camping trips in what many regard as the United States’ most beautiful tract of wilderness. Whichever way you tackle it – by boot, bike, karabiner or hoof – it’s euphoria that feels earned.

Before heading into the wilds though, there’s something equally fantastic to see: the sunburnt-orange rock formations of the Alabama Hills, used as locations for Wild West classics including The Lone Ranger, Rawhide and Bonanza. As you'd expect, the sunsets here are Oscar-winning.

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  • Get lost in the forests of Mineral King Valley, Sequoia National Park © Getty.

    Into the wild

    Sequoia National Park is famous (unsurprisingly) for its giant sequoia trees, including the largest living tree on Earth, General Sherman, named after a civil war general.

The back-to-nature desert trip

The route: Los Angeles to Death Valley

The time: 4 hours 20 minutes

The distance: 260 miles

The lowdown: Stark. Dramatic. Barren. All fairly standard words to describe the otherworldly beauty of Death Valley National Park and its geological weirdness. It’s also the hottest, lowest and driest national park in the United States – and draws hundreds of LA road trippers up Highway 14 every week.

Justifiably, they come for the rhythm of the road. It slinks through Antelope Valley, a rugged expanse of hills blanketed by rust-orange poppies, before veering east towards Nevada. Around this time, the emptiness of the desert starts to grab you. You’ll stand agog at salt flats, below sea-level basins and oases. Marvel at the red-rocked badlands at Zabriskie Point and the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells.

In bright, bustling Los Angeles, a road trip like this reveals the extraordinary persistence and power of the Californian desert. If you drove another 120 miles from here you’d reach Las Vegas. With its promised land of hotel casinos, it’s a world away from Death Valley. But why not linger here just a few more days, under the red sky and burnishing sun? Ranch at Death Valley, with its golf course and pool, is an odd oasis to find in the desert, but a welcome one, too.

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