Three epic California road trips

Mark Ellwood

Title photography by Patrik Giardino/Getty Images

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Make the most of your Californian adventure – hire a car, customise your adventure, and kick up the dust on one of these incredible road trips. Local writer Mark Ellwood shares three of his favourite routes.

Northern California Triangle

Best for… natural world wanderers


The journey: San Francisco – Lake Tahoe – Yosemite (8 nights)

San Francisco

Begin in the city by the Bay – San Francisco for three nights. Remember to pack a pair of comfy shoes to tackle the notoriously undulating hills, or hop on one of the three remaining cable car lines to scale the steepest slopes. The least-crowded is the California Street car, which easily rides high to Nob Hill with spectacular views. Stroll down to Alamo Park to see the so-called Painted Ladies – they’re superb examples of San Francisco’s gingerbread house-like Victorian dwellings.

Indulge in some outdoorsy pursuits in Golden Gate Park, where the winding paths and landscape studded with copses make ideal terrain for jogging or biking. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, hit the foodie mecca of the Ferry Building Marketplace, an erstwhile commuter terminal repurposed as a gourmet mall – try one of the many creative flavours of ice cream served at Humphry Slocombe.

Where to stay: Take a break at the cool and quirky Hotel Argonaut, set along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Fran. Rest easy at this four-star waterfront retreat, before getting back on the road.

Arrive to the scenic 72-mile shoreline of Lake Tahoe, it’s beautiful whatever time of year you visit.

Lake Tahoe

Hire a car and make tracks north west to Lake Tahoe for a two-night stay. The sat-nav might try to take you across the Oakland Bay Bridge, but be sure to drive across the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, and hairpin back as soon as you reach the other side – the viewing area there is the best vantage point for snaps of both bridge and city. Arrive at the scenic 72-mile shoreline of Lake Tahoe, it’s beautiful whatever time of year you visit.

Come summertime, cruise along to find an epic picnic spot. Check out the glistening Emerald State Park and grab a paddleboard, or glide across the turquoise waters by kayak. Whether you want to go on a couple’s hike or make a splash in the lake with the family – adventure awaits everyone. Looking to rejuvenate? Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for Taste of Tahoe events along the south.

In wintertime, discover powder-pillow skiing in the Squaw Valley and mesmerising resorts beyond. Discover this premier ski destination, with an abundance of snow-covered resorts surrounding the largest alpine lake in the US. Soak up the laid-back mountain lifestyle, hire a pair of skis or hop on a snowboard. In spring, join the WinterWonderGrass festival in North Tahoe, bursting with music and great beer.

Where to stay: Choose the beautiful lakefront Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, in the north of Lake Tahoe. Savour a lavish sanctuary for the perfect year-round stay. Or venture to the south of Lake Tahoe and stay at Harveys Lake Tahoe, surrounded by enchanting scenery – brilliant for both summer fun and winter ski, with the Heavenly Ski Resort on your doorstep.

  • Discover your adventurous side at Lake Tahoe. ©Jupiterimages
  • Journey across one of the world’s most famous bridges © Easyturn / Getty Images
  • Soak up the captivating views, up high in Yosemite. ©Donald Barnec / EyeEm


Finish off your California road trip with a three-night visit to Yosemite, the Lincoln-endorsed green space that forms the anchor of America’s century-old national park network. Discover the gold rush of Tuolumne County, a year-round destination bursting with character and just a 1 hour and 45-minute drive to the iconic Valley Floor and El Capitan – explore the best of Yosemite from here.

The best spots for jaw-dropping snaps? Glacier Point, at the top of an almost 980m cliff and Tunnel View, offering a great vista across almost the entire park. There are 750 miles of trails to hike here – try the Mist Trail, a 7-mile horseshoe that takes in the Vernal Falls – particularly noteworthy each spring when the melting snow recharges them and creates spectacular downspouts.

Where to stay: A pretty place to rest your head, Rush Creek Lodge offers a surreal base in Tuolumne. The hotel’s beautiful wood cabin features will put you in the mood for Yosemite exploration. Return from your adventures for a splash in the pool, before tucking into an American-style dinner.

Best time to go

Spring sees new life emerging in Yosemite while the snow around Tahoe begins to melt. Autumn is prime time for beautiful foliage, farmers’ markets and the wine harvest.

Classic California Coast

Best for… laid-back beach lovers

The journey: San Francisco – Monterey – Santa Barbara – Los Angeles – Huntington Beach – San Diego (16 nights)

San Francisco – Monterey

Start in San Francisco for three nights (as above), then take your hire car south along Highway 1 – it’s best tackled in this direction, as you’ll enjoy more vertiginous views of the ocean from the roadway. Hit the former fishing town of Monterey for one night.

Where to stay: Stop for the night at the InterContinental The Clement Monterey to soak up magnificent coastal views right in the heart of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

  • Gaze out along the coastline on relaxing beach days. ©SumikoPhoto

    California beachin’

    Kick it on the golden sands of Huntington Beach – whether you want to surf or sunbathe, this hot spot is an awesome road trip stop.

    Book flights and hotels

Santa Barbara

As you head down the coast, pause in the wilds of Big Sur at Bixby Creek Bridge, a 110m single span concrete bridge that’s a beautiful legacy from the Work Projects Administration era, or explore Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, a short, 10-minute walk from the car park to a viewing point of the McWay Falls.

The best man-made attraction here, of course, is the architectural sugar rush of Hearst Castle, the celeb-studded retreat of the late publishing magnate (and model for Citizen Kane) William Randolph Hearst. Like a millionaire magpie, he filled it with luxuries snapped up from across the world, although the elegant minimalism of the Neptune Pool seems almost more impressive. A few miles away, a small slice of sand offers a perch for a colony of seals in autumn and early winter. Park nearby and clamber down the trails for views of the blubbery animals frolicking in the chilly water.

There’s impressive wine-tasting in the area, too: pick up a map to drive around the vineyards in red wine hub, Paso Robles or head down to Santa Barbara for a night where you can get a one-day tour of wine country.

Where to stay: Bed down for the night at the wharf-front Harbor View Inn, and be sure to take a morning stroll on the beach before you journey onwards.

Los Angeles - Huntington Beach

Continue your journey with a trip to exciting Los Angeles and stay six nights – for suggestions on what to do, see the West Coast Highlight route below.

Cruise your way over to surfer’s paradise Huntington Beach and stay for a night or two. Take a break in Surf City USA, hit the waves and soak up the laid-back beach lifestyle. Visit over summer and catch the US Open of Surfing. Keep your eyes peeled for beach concerts, festivals, parades and more, all in this lively beachside town.

Where to stay: Book into the five-star Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach and kick back under palm trees by the pool. Make a splash in the ocean and reserve a spot around a firepit to make s’mores and watch the sunset.

Best time to go

Late summer when the fog and haze that can linger over the coast during the summer months is starting to ease but temperatures are still ideal for lazy beach days.

Start planning your trip

West Coast Highlight

Best for… non-stop culture cravers

The journey: Los Angeles – Palm Springs – San Diego (10 nights)

  • Channel your inner surfer on the beaches of San Diego © Getty

    Surf’s up

    The Beach Boys’ famous song ‘Surfin’ USA’ mentions 15 different surfing spots including Del Mar in San Diego County.

    Book a fly-drive to San Diego
  • Drink in spectacular mountain scenery on the wide open road © tobiasjo
  • Catch a performance at LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall © Harley Rouda / Alamy Stock Photo

    Note perfect

    Free, self-guided audio tours of the concert hall are available most days between 10am and 2pm and take approximately an hour.

    Book a fly-drive to Los Angeles

Los Angeles

When it comes to places to stay, Los Angeles will spoil you for choice. Start by exploring some of the emerging corners of the city (four nights), especially Downtown, which is becoming the de facto arts district. Billionaire collector Eli Broad custom-commissioned a namesake temple, The Broad, to house his astonishing contemporary art collection. It's located next to Frank Gehry’s signature crumpled stainless steel Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA Philharmonic.

The nearby Dorothy Chandler Pavilion might technically be home to the LA Opera, but it’s best known as the longtime, former home of the Oscars. For views across the city, scale the free 27th-floor observation deck at City Hall, or jump on the hop-on hop-off open top bus tour to catch a glimpse of the major sights from a privileged view.

Where to stay:Check in to one of the many world-famous residences, like The Beverly Hilton or Hollywood Roosevelt. Alternatively, take it easy at the luxurious beachfront hotel, the Viceroy Santa Monica, before you get exploring.

Palm Springs

Head inland to Palm Springs for two nights and soak up the quirks of the Sinatra-era resort town that still oozes retro-glamour. Palm Canyon Drive is the main drag, and the best shopping strip, especially on Thursday nights when late-opening VillageFest takes place – pick up some mid-century-inspired swimwear from Trina Turk. Don’t miss the local delicacy, a date shake – which nods to the vast date plantations nearby – from Palm Springs Fudge & Chocolates.

If you’re outdoorsy, opt instead for a trip to the Mojave Desert’s Joshua Tree National Park, named for the sturdy yucca so common there (and beloved by U2). Come at dawn or dusk for the best views, when the park floor is soaked in an otherworldly red glow and the temperatures are a little less punishing. If you have time, discover more and cruise through Greater Palm Springs – explore the artistic and spiritual communities of Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio and Coachella.

Where to stay: Drop your bags at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa before hitting the sights. Or venture further afield to the dazzling oasis of the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa.

San Diego

End the trip by soaking up the surf and sun in San Diego for four nights. Take a stroll through the Gaslamp Quarter, bursting with theatres, galleries and museums, as well as a thriving nightlife – you have to make a pitstop here. Foodies can eat their way through town – chow down on as many tacos as you can, from some of the country’s best taco joints. Lucha Libre is renowned for its gloriously garish decor and tantalising fish tacos.

The best beach, of course, is the wide swathe of sparkling white sand known as Coronado Island, a resort enclave that dates back to the 1880s. Soak up the dazzling beaches, pristine cycle paths and choose from a variety of water activities – perhaps take a catamaran ride across the sapphire ocean, before dining downtown and watching the sunset.

Where to stay: When in San Diego, the Paradise Point Resort & Spa is a tranquil retreat after days of adventure. Kicking it on Coronado Island? The five-star Hotel del Coronado is a perfect beachfront choice. Opt for brunch at the Crown Room on a Sunday if you want to elbow-rub with the local elite.


Best time to go

Late spring enjoys moderate temperatures as you head into the desert, making it perfect for hiking, golf and sightseeing.

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