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Take a Detour on Your Next California Road Trip

Apr. 16, 2018

From Teslas to low riders, Californians are noted for their devotion to their wheels. And with such a vast state just waiting to be explored, it’s no wonder. Here are some of the best road trips – and detours – the Golden State has to offer.

Highway 1: The Mother of All Road Trips
Having made countless appearances in movies and television, California’s dramatic State Route 1 is one of the most famous roads in the world. From Orange County in the south to Mendocino County in the north, it covers nearly 700 miles of California coastline. Here are some of the highlights of the route, which is also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, Cabrillo Highway, Highway 1 and Coast Highway:

  • The most iconic part of Highway 1 is the Big Sur Coast Highway, which runs 72 miles between San Luis Obispo and Pebble Beach in Central California. Officially designated as an All-American Road (see below), it traverses some of the state’s most epic scenery and destinations including Morro Bay, Hearst Castle, McWay Falls, the Bixby Bridge and Big Sur.
  • Highway 1 will also take you to 17-Mile Drive, a private toll road that has been a visitor attraction since the 1890s. Circling through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, it features stunning landscapes and real estate, as well as the famous Lone Cypress, a Monterey cypress tree so striking its likeness has been trademarked.
  • The Oceano and Nipomo Loop along the so-called CA Highway 1 Discovery Route, south of San Luis Obispo, will take you to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex and its towering, shifting sand dunes, the Monarch Butterfly Grove (one of the largest colonies in the country), and Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, perfect for everything from ATVs to horseback riding.
  • North of San Francisco, Highway 1 traces the wild, rugged (and deserted) coastline and offers sites such as Point Reyes National Seashore and its spectacularly placed lighthouse, Fort Ross State Historic Park (a 19th-century Russian outpost), and the food, wine and arts enclave of Mendocino.
  • In Orange County, take a ride through the heart of California surf culture along the Pacific Coast Highway. From Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA, Newport Beach and Balboa Island, to romantic Laguna Beach and Dana Point, soak in the epitome of SoCal beach lifestyle along the PCH.

The Long and Wine-ding Road
California is the world’s fourth largest producer of wine, with grapes grown in just about every county. It all adds up to some pretty fantastic wine-country road trips.

  • The Napa and Sonoma valleys are recognized internationally as premier wine-making regions, and there are hundreds of wineries amidst the rolling hills. To glimpse the expanse of wine country, circumnavigate the valleys via Highway 12/Sonoma Highway, cut across Mark West Springs Road north of Santa Rosa to Calistoga, then head down Highway 29/St. Helena Highway through Napa.
  • Explore San Luis Obispo wine country in the Edna Valley, which features some 2,000 acres of vineyards and nearly 30 tasting rooms. Nearby is Arroyo Grande Valley, which offers more scenic rolling hills and award-winning wines.
  • On Highway 50, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe is El Dorado County wine country. There are more than 20 wineries here, as well as Apple Hill, a collection of dozens of pick-your-own-fruit farms, bakeshops, wineries and flower gardens.
  • Meander the back roads of Paso Robles in Central California and discover acclaimed vintners along the Vineyard Drive–Adelaida Road Loop. This 30-mile route is lined with fields of grapes, wildflowers, canopies of oak trees, and dozens of wineries.
  • Stretching from Santa Barbara to Los Olivos, Highway 154, also known as the San Marcos Pass Road, will take you through Santa Ynez Valley wine country. You can also stop at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park for a glimpse of 400-year-old Native American pictographs.

All-American Roads
The U.S. Department of Transportation has identified some 150 roads in the country as historically, culturally or scenically significant. California’s official collection of America’s Byways includes:

  • The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, which circles Lassen Volcanic National Park (one of the country’s least-visited national parks) and heads north to Oregon. It encompasses epic Mount Shasta and starkly beautiful Lava Beds National Monument.
  • Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway is a 61-mile ramble through alpine meadows and pine forests, with two state parks at either end: Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Grover Hot Springs State Park. Take a soak at journey’s end.
  • Tioga Road/Big Oak Flat Road is a 64-mile route which cuts right through the heart of Yosemite National Park. On view are stunning granite peaks and massive giant sequoia groves, and the road attains an elevation of almost 10,000 feet making it the state’s highest automobile pass. Closed in winter.
  • Death Valley Scenic Byway bisects the 3.3-million acre Death Valley National Park, the biggest national park this side of Alaska. This 81-mile route gives access to the state’s tallest sand dunes as well as the lowest spot below sea level in North America.

State Scenic Highways
Not to be outdone, California also has its own state-designated scenic roads, which are identified by signage bearing the state flower, the California poppy. These are some of the best.

  • On the eastern side of the High Sierra, a 100-mile stretch of Highway 395, from north of Bishop to the town of Walker, provides stunning vistas, as well as access to the June Lake Loop. This route will also take you to the otherworldly limestone formations at Mono Lake Tufa State National Reserve. A great trip for fall colors and spring wildflowers.
  • Launch from Ojai, one of the state’s coolest, most sophisticated small towns, up Highway 33, known as the Jacinto Reyes Scenic Byway. You’ll drive through the coastal mountains of Los Padres National Forest.
  • Follow the Sacramento River through California’s fertile Delta region along Highway 160, known as the River Road, from the Contra Costa County line to Sacramento. There is a string of historic towns along the route, along with Sherman Island, an internationally renowned spot for windsurfing.
  • Just north of Los Angeles, take Highway 2 from La Cañada to experience the Angeles Crest Scenic Byway. You’ll travel along the spine of the San Gabriel Mountains with the Mojave Desert on one side and the L.A. basin on the other.
  • If you want solitude on a Southern California beach, try Highway 75, the Silver Strand Highway that runs 9 miles down the isthmus of Coronado to Imperial Beach in San Diego County. Added bonuses are the upscale beach town of Coronado and the spectacular San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.

Big Trees

  • Prepare to be humbled and awed driving through the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile trip through a cathedral of towering coastal redwoods in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. These are the world’s tallest trees and some are more than 2,000 years old. Put this on your bucket list.
  • Check out the Fresno County Blossom Trailwith its expanses of blooming orchards in spring and fruit vendors in summer, then hook up with Highway 180 into the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. You’ll find the biggest tree (by volume) in the world there, the General Sherman Tree.
  • Cruise up from Santa Cruz on Highway 9 for a visit to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, home to some of the largest old-growth coastal redwoods, then on to Castle Rock State Park, popular for hiking and rock climbing. Meet up with Highway 35/Skyline Boulevard to explore Silicon Valley’s backcountry.

City of Angels

  • Take a road trip right through Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard. It traverses 22 miles across the city from downtown to the Pacific Palisades and PCH. Along the way are the hipster enclaves of Echo Park and Silver Lake, the legendary Sunset Strip, and swanky Beverly Hills and Bel-Air.

Desert Drives

  • Road & Track magazine calls the Mojave Road one of the best off-road trips in America. So if you have a sense of adventure and a four-wheel drive vehicle, tackle this 138-mile dirt route (once used by Native Americans and pioneer settlers) that cuts east to west across the Mojave National Preserve.
  • Just south of the Mojave Preserve, trace the journey of Dust Bowl immigrants along the National Trails Highway, more popularly known as Historic Route 66. Stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica, it was one of the country’s first transcontinental roads.
  • Explore mountains and desert along Highway 78 in San Diego County. The route will take you up to the picturesque Old West mountain town of Julian, famed for its apples (and pies!). Then plunge down into the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, celebrated for its springtime wildflower blooms.

Gold Country

  • Tour the Sierra foothill Gold Country along Highway 49 (appropriately enough) and explore the Gold Rush towns of Angels Camp, Sutter Creek, Jackson and Nevada City, which is one of California’s best-preserved Victorian relics (the entire downtown is designated a National Historic Landmark). Amador Wine Country, with its 40-plus wineries, is another highlight.