Road Trip in California

California—the land of sunshine, movie stars, and convertible cars. Whether you're craving a warm day at the beach or a chilly day on the slopes, the Golden State is the perfect place to take a road trip.

The most difficult part about visiting this state is deciding what you're going to do. With myriad places to visit and countless adventures to be had, you'll never get bored of California.

CA Rules of the Road

Before embarking on your California road trip, make sure that you're familiar with the state's traffic laws. California's driving manual is a great resource for learning the rules of the road. We also have a handy primer on CA's safety laws to review before your big road trip.

Customs of CA Roads

To avoid creating friction with other drivers, read over these unwritten rules of the road for your own safety and peace of mind.

  • In general, people will let you merge into their lane if you have your turn signals on.
  • You'll probably encounter dense traffic in bigger cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.
    • Drivers in these cities might be more aggressive than you're used to.
  • Be wary of pedestrians who don't use crosswalks; “jaywalking" is fairly common.
  • Police presence on the roads is prominent, meaning you should drive as cautiously as possible.
  • When driving through intersections, do not proceed to cross if you won't be able to make it all the way across (i.e. if the line of traffic ahead of you is backed up).
  • Use your horn sparingly, and only in situations when you believe yourself to be in immediate danger.
    • Overuse of your horn or angry gestures can lead to larger, more serious problems.
  • Don't be alarmed if, while driving on the highway, you see a motorcyclist ride up next to you in your lane—“lane splitting" is extremely common and not illegal in the state.
    • Typically, bikers will split a lane if general traffic is very slow (think: rush hour, under 30 MPH) and they can safely proceed at a faster speed.
    • When you do see a motorcycle coming up to pass you within your lane, move over to give them a wide berth.

Major California Roads

To drive from place to place in California, you'll inevitably need to travel along one of the main freeways. Several of these connect to major cities and neighboring states, making long distance travel more convenient.

Interstate Highways

Interstate highways are roads that run through/connect multiple states. Most run through major cities and are a good option if you're planning on traveling through several states during your road trip.

The major interstates in California are:

  • I-5.
    • Runs through San Diego, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Bakersfield, Fresno, San Francisco, Sacramento, Redding, and Mount Shasta.
    • Connects to Oregon and Mexico.
  • I-8.
    • Runs through San Diego.
    • Connects Southern California coastline and Arizona.
  • I-10.
    • Runs through Santa Monica, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Indio.
    • Connects Southern California coastline and Arizona.
  • I-15.
    • Runs through San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and Barstow.
    • Connects to Nevada (main road to Las Vegas).
  • I-80.
    • Connects San Francisco and Nevada.

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Major In-State Routes

There are a series of California roads that'll connect you to several popular cities up and down the entirety of the state. If you're wanting to see as much of the state as you can, these in-state highways will be useful:

  • Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
    • Runs through Orange county, Laguna Beach, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Sonoma, and Humboldt.
  • Highway 14.
    • Runs through east Los Angeles, Palmdale, Lancaster, and Kern County.
  • Highway 50.
    • Runs through Sacramento to Lake Tahoe.
  • Highway 99.
    • Runs through Sacramento, Merced, Madera county, Fresno, and Bakersfield.
  • Highway 101 (continues the Pacific Coast Highway).
    • Runs through Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura county, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Jose, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and up to the Oregon state border.
    • Your coastal road trip will take you along both Highway 1 and 101.

Things to Do in California

If you're planning on driving through California, there are a few major cities and sights you won't want to miss. Here are some of the most interesting attractions available to you, running from north to south.

Northern California

Northern California, or “NorCal" to the locals, features a litany of natural wonders to experience.

Covering the eastern- and westernmost parts of Northern California, here are a few sites worth visiting, along with some of their best features:

  • Mount Shasta—Mt. Shasta, CA.
    • Home to a potentially active volcano known for its majestic views.
    • Scenic hiking paths.
    • Rock climbing walls for the experienced adventurer.
    • Campgrounds.
    • Fly fishing.
    • Skiing.
  • Redwood National and State Parks—Humboldt, CA.
    • Contains some of the world's tallest trees.
    • Numerous hiking/biking paths.
    • Horseback riding.
    • Campgrounds.
  • Muir Woods National Monument—Mill Valley, CA.
    • Some of the region's last coastal Redwood trees.
    • Declared a national monument by Teddy Roosevelt.
    • Guided walking tours.
    • Hiking paths.
    • Close to San Francisco.
  • San Francisco, CA.
    • Golden Gate Bridge.
    • Haight-Ashbury district—the setting for many significant cultural and political moments during the hippie movement.
    • Lombard Street—known as “The Crookedest Street in the World."
    • Alcatraz Island—the infamous prison that housed some of the country's worst criminals.
    • Cable car rides.
    • AT&T Park—home to the San Francisco Giants baseball team.
    • San Francisco Zoo.
  • Yosemite National Park—near Mariposa County, CA.
    • Unforgettable views.
    • Hiking trails.
    • Breathtaking waterfalls and granite monoliths.
    • Campgrounds.
  • Napa Valley—Napa, CA.
    • Wine lover's paradise, filled with scenic vineyards and tours.
    • Lavish lodging options.
    • Hot air balloon rides.
  • Lake Tahoe—Placer and El Dorado Counties, CA.
    • Majestic mountain views.
    • Skiing and snowboarding during the winter.
    • Boating, wakeboarding, and swimming during the summer.
    • Hiking and biking trails.
    • Gondola rides.
    • Lush resorts and cabin rentals.

California's Central Valley

Few people consider Central California when thinking about places to visit. This rich, agricultural region has a lot of offer, including:

  • Cache Creek Conservatory—Woodland, CA.
    • Great for bird watching and observing other wildlife.
    • Hiking trails.
  • UC Davis tours—Davis, CA.
    • Guided tours of the university's animal research and training facilities.
  • Jelly Belly factory—Fairfield, CA.
    • Free tours of the historic candy factory.
  • San Luis National Wildlife Refuge—Los Banos, CA.
    • A scenic mixture of wetlands, grasslands, and woodlands.
    • First-hand views of elk and birds of prey.
    • Hiking trails.
    • Hunting and fishing.
    • Environmental education programs.
  • Fresno County blossom trail—Fresno, CA.
    • Take a self-guided tour through lush orchards and flower fields.
  • California Living Museum—Bakersfield, CA.
    • Zoo with animals native to California.
    • Botanical gardens with native plant life.

Southern California

Known mostly for its beach towns, Southern California, or “SoCal," offers easy access to the Pacific Ocean coupled with a rich culture all its own.

From the urban environs of Los Angeles to San Diego's laid back vibes, you'll have many options in deciding how to experience Southern California, including:

  • Santa Barbara, CA.
    • Beautiful, clean beaches.
    • Vineyards and wine tours.
    • A variety of restaurants and bars.
    • The Santa Barbara Zoo.
    • Hiking trails.
  • Universal Studios—Universal City, CA.
    • Amusement park with immersive rides themed on movies produced by Universal Studios.
    • The famous Universal lot tour.
    • You and your kids can meet some of your favorite television and movie characters.
  • Six Flags—Valencia, CA.
    • Great for thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies.
    • Famous for its high-intensity roller coasters.
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Library—Simi Valley, CA.
    • Rotating exhibits on world history and culture.
    • Displays on the history of American presidents.
    • Located atop a mountain, sprawling views of the surrounding region.
  • Griffith Observatory—Los Angeles, CA.
    • Located atop scenic Griffith Park with panoramic views of Los Angeles.
    • Planetarium.
    • Museum with exhibits on outer space.
    • Great for a family outing or romantic date night.
  • TCL Chinese Theater—Hollywood, CA.
    • Historic, fully-functioning theater in the heart of Hollywood.
    • See the handprints of America's most famous movie stars and musicians preserved on the nearby Walk of Fame.
  • Getty Center—Los Angeles, CA.
    • World-famous art museum with rotating and permanent exhibits.
    • Free admission.
  • Santa Monica Pier—Santa Monica, CA.
    • Small amusement park with a rollercoaster, arcade, Ferris wheel, and other carnival attractions.
    • Variety of ocean-front restaurants.
    • Concerts by the beach.
    • Viewing decks.
  • Disneyland—Anaheim, CA.
    • World famous amusement park where you and your kids can meet all of their favorite Disney characters.
    • Opposite Disneyland's California Adventure park, with more rides and attractions for you to enjoy.
  • Balboa Park—San Diego, CA.
    • Collection of museums ranging from arts to automobiles, outer space to natural history, and sports to world cultures.
    • Sprawling acreage covered in lush landscaping and old Spanish-style buildings.
    • Daily events and concerts for visitors of all ages.
    • Home to the San Diego Zoo.
  • La Jolla, CA.
    • Go snorkeling or swimming in these biologically diverse waters.
    • The Children's Pool—see harbor seals up close in their natural habitat.
    • Numerous beaches to spend a sunny day on.
  • Old Town San Diego—San Diego, CA.
    • This historic park will take you back to the earliest days of San Diego.
    • Variety of boutiques and restaurants to explore.
    • Period piece demonstrations.
  • San Diego Zoo Safari Park—Escondido, CA.
    • Tram tours of the sprawling animal enclosures, unique to this zoo.
    • Home to a number of endangered animals.

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