Road trip in California: the best routes

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Kirsten Powley
4/4/2019

When entertaining the thought of travelling in the USA and all its many options, there's one that never fails to produce a frisson of excitement: a road trip through California. The Golden State has everything you'd imagine and more: beautiful beaches, expansive deserts, canyons and mountains, and of course San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge – but that's not where the colour ends. Vibrant cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego are home to a bursting array of bars and history; rolling peaks are covered with spring blooms and summer greens, giving way to the trails of snowboarders and skiers. Pacific waves welcome energetic surfers while tranquil, turquoise lakes are speckled with paddleboarders. The best way to see all that Cali has to offer is with your own set of wheels – but which path to choose? Here are some of the best routes for your California road trip.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge and Highway 1 © Pung/Shutterstock

Rules of the road

Before you set out on any driving tour it's worth making sure you're up to speed (no pun intended) with the rules of the road in your destination, and California is no exception.

Firstly, make sure you always wear a seatbelt and never talk on the phone while driving. The default urban and suburban speed limit is 25 miles per hour (40 kph); freeway speed limits are usually 55, 65, or 70 mph (approximately 90, 100, and 110 kph). And keep in mind the "Right on Red" rule that's in place across the States: drivers can turn right on a red light at a junction if the way is clear (but never left!).

Pay attention to the curb when parking: if it's painted red that means no parking, blue is for disabled drivers. Green means it's ok to park for a short time, and yellow and white are solely for loading or unloading passengers.

When it comes to alcohol – and it might do when on a road trip in California through all those world-famous vineyards – it is obviously illegal to drink while driving, and it's illegal to drive with a blood alcohol percentage higher than 0.08%. Police can pull you over whenever they wish, so better not to risk it.

If paying for gas (petrol), most pumps take card and have pay-at-the-pump facilities (these usually ask for your post code, so if you're from outside the US, you may have to go inside to pay), but if you're paying in cash, most gas stations will expect you to pay at the cashier before you pump.

At most rental companies you must be 21 or over to rent a car, although some state the lower age limit as 25. You can use your home country's driving license to rent a car – you don't need an IDP (international driving permit) or a California state license.

The best routes for a California road trip

Route 1: The Pacific Coast Highway

Many people class as the ultimate road trip in California, and it's easy to see why. This route is not only the most famous, but one of the most beautiful anywhere in the USA. The best way to tackle the PCH is to start in San Francisco and head south to San Diego, as mist-lined rugged shores turn into glistening golden beaches.

Highlights of course include Big Sur – fully open once again after serious landslides in 2017 closed sections of the road. Make sure to visit McWay Falls and Bixby Bridge, and eat at Nepenthe for some serious coastal cliff views and delicious grub. South of Big Sur, the many beach towns each with their own personalities, like Santa Cruz, Monterrey, Carmel and Santa Barbara all deserve your attention. And then there's LA. You might technically be able to do this drive in a day, but that would be certifiably insane; slow down, take in the views and make sure you soak up this quintessential California journey.

Distance: 600 miles

When to do it: Year-round

Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California © Beketoff/Shutterstock

Route 2: Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park

The Sierra Mountains' Lake Tahoe is a destination for everyone, in all seasons. During winter, it's a snow sports playground, while in summer, paddleboarding through crystal clear waters can't be beat. Spend some time around the lake before starting this road trip, taking in Emerald Bay State Park and Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.

When you're ready to set out, head to the seasonal Highway 120, also known as the Tioga Pass, typically open May to November (but do check the park's website before you leave). This will take you through some of Yosemite's most spectacular scenery, also giving you the option to head to Yosemite Valley for a longer adventure if you have the time. If you're on the shorter route you can still take in Tuolumne Meadows, Wapama Falls and groves lined with giant sequoias.

Distance: 215 miles

When to do it: May-November

Fannette Island in Lake Tahoe © My leap year/Shutterstock

Route 3. Napa Valley's Silverado Trail

Napa Valley's celebrated Silverado Trail is lined with some of the best wineries in California, and was created in 1852 to connect the towns of Napa and Calistoga. It's a quieter, more wine-focused option to the bustling State Highway 29, and it's worth taking this California road trip at a leisurely pace. Visit Mumm Napa for a glass of bubbly, and the spectacularly situated Stags Leap Winery.

Distance: 29 miles

When to do it: August-October for harvest season; March-May for spring blooms and lower costs

Vineyards and views in Napa Valley, California © Ron Kacmarcik/Shutterstock

Route 4: Joshua Tree to Death Valley

Both Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley offer some of the most otherworldly landscapes anywhere, let alone on a single road trip in California. Joshua Tree is characterised by its stark desert landscapes peppered with fascinating rock formations (just take a look at Jumbo Rocks Campground and Skull Rock) punctuated with splashes of colour, from the striated rocks to the intense sunrises and sunsets. Death Valley, about a four hour drive away in the northern Mojave Desert, is pure desert: salt flats, sandstone canyons, and colossal sand dunes. A California road trip from one to the other is a perfect way to see the more unusual side of the state – just remember to pick your jaw up from the floor.

Distance: 250 miles

When to do it: March-April or October-November

Highway 190 in Death Valley National Park © Radoslaw Recyk/Shutterstock

Route 5: Rim of the World Scenic Byway

'The Rim of the World' nickname comes from the panoramic views along the winding State Highway 18 route that follows the cliffs of the San Bernardino Mountains. As you might guess, the scenery along the way is remarkable. A highlight is the town of Running Springs and its five-mile drive up to Keller Peak Fire Lookout, which offers vistas over mountains, lakes, and, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean.

Other major stops include Lake Arrowhead and the Sequoia Trail at Heaps Peak Arboretum. Finish in Big Bear, where summer brings plenty of hiking and winter offers all the frolicking in the snow and winter sports you can muster.

Distance: 117 miles

When to do it: Year-round

View down towards San Bernadino from Route 18 © Steve Heap/Shutterstock

Top image: Pacific Coast Highway at the southern end of Big Sur, California © Doug Meek/Shutterstock

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