California is, without a doubt, one of the most geographically diverse states in the entire country. The mountains, valleys, and lush forests of Northern California are in stark contrast to the deserts and salty water in Southern California, but it’s impossible to call one more beautiful than the other. This, coupled with the sheer size of California (149 times larger than Rhode Island…) makes the state one of the best for a good ol’ fashioned road trip.
That shouldn’t be a surprise, though. After all, it is home to the final stretch of Route 66!
While there are a lot of factors that contribute to the success of a road trip, from music and snacks to the company you keep, the land – and landscapes – you cover really can make or break the experience. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of the most scenic drives in California, from its northernmost counties to San Diego and (almost) everywhere in between. And – best of all! – no matter which route you take, you’ll find a Good Nite Inn hotel nearby to put your head down before hitting the road again.
Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park
Fair warning: more than one route on this list will include Lake Tahoe and, if you’ve been before, you’ll know why. This stunning, crystal clear lake that straddles the California-Nevada border is one country’s largest freshwater lakes and is surrounded by lush green forests and snow-topped mountains.
This, of course, makes it’s a great place to start a scenic road trip! Starting at the southern tip of Lake Tahoe (aptly named South Lake Tahoe) you’ll head towards Tioga Pass. From there, your route will depend on what you want to see and do on your way to the Park, although Mono Lake and the Tuolumne Meadows come highly recommended, as does Glacier Point at sunset.
Distance: 123 miles
Malibu to Big Sur
Now that Highway 1 is reopened, road-trippers can now (finally!) travel from Malibu to Big Sur and back again, taking in the stunning coastline along the way. And, with this drive clocking in at nearly 300 miles, you can rest assured you’ll be looking at a lot of coastline.
To make this trip really worth it, we recommend spreading the mileage across two days. This way, you can stop at several beaches on your way from Malibu up the coast to Santa Maria or San Luis Obispo. Take a break for the night around here, before heading back to the coast by Morro Bay and all the way up to Big Sur State Park where you can expect orange cliffs, turquoise waters, and winding roads surrounded by evergreens.
Important: Don’t miss Bixby Creek Bridge, fill up your gas tank before you enter Big Sur, and bring your camera!
San Diego to Palm Springs
While there are several ways to get from San Diego to Palm Springs, there is one route that takes you through extreme changes in scenery, from the ocean, up through mountains, and finally, to the desert.
So, if you prefer a scenic route over a speedy one, take I-15 North to Highway 79 towards Indio. From there, you’ll the 371 to Highway 74 and the Palm Desert. Once in the Palm Desert, Highway 74 will meet with Highway 11, which will take you straight into Palm Springs.
While, yes, the drive is relatively straight-forward and short (especially compared to the journey from Malibu to Big Sur!) it’s unbelievable how much diversity you’ll see along the way.
Distance: 139 miles
San Francisco to Sonoma
If exploring wine country is on your bucket list, you’ll have to add this drive from San Francisco to Sonoma to the list, too!
If you start at the Golden Gate Bridge and take Highway 101, it won’t take long before you run into a winery. With that in mind, anyone who’s drinking should book a room at one of the hotels near Sonoma.
Make sure you stop along the Petaluma River before you reach Sonoma Valley, where you’ll be surrounded by mountains and a variety of other landscapes and microclimates. Keep driving on Highway 101 until you reach Central Sonoma County.
Bonus: You can extend the trip on either side and instead start at the Oregon border and finish in Rohnert Park. The drive is (of course) longer, which means you’ll need a bit more time. We recommend stopping in Mendocino before reaching San Francisco and, once you reach your final destination, stay for the night. There are plenty of hotels in Rohnert Park CA as well as family-friendly activities. If you’re traveling with little ones, a game of mini-golf might be just the ticket after a long few days in the car.
Distance: 48 miles
Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park
The Shasta Cascade region is one of California’s best-kept secrets although…we don’t expect that to be the case for long! This eastern corner of the state is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, with plenty of opportunities for climbing, camping, hiking, skiing, and more. It’s no surprise, then, that the area is also unbelievably beautiful.
Start in Redding and head towards Shasta Lake – the largest reservoir in California – and then on to the massive Mount Shasta. Not before taking a swim, of course!
From here, take Highway 89 (a part of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway) to Lassen Volcanic National Park where you’ll be able to explore trails, lakes, and perhaps most notably, boiling springs.
Distance: 47 miles
There you have it! Seven scenic drives to take through California’s breathtaking (and varied) landscape. Bear in mind, these are just recommended routes. Shorten or extend any of the above, adding in your own pitstops along the way to make an itinerary that’s uniquely yours.
And – remember! – Good Nite Inn has comfortable, modern accommodation options all over California, from Sonoma County and San Francisco to Malibu and West Hollywood. That makes us the perfect place to stop with all the amenities you and your travel companions might need.
List the scenic famous drive in California?
- Santa Barbara Wine Route
- Feather River Scenic Byway
- Anza Borrego Deset Route
- Redwood Highhway Route
- Malibu to Lompoc Route
- June Lake Loop Route
- Lake Tahoe Cirular Route
- Silverado Trail
- Death Valley Scenic Byway
- Big Sur Coastal Route
- Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park
- San Diego to Palm Springs
- San Francisco to Sonoma
What are some of the Northern California Scenic Drives?
Some of the most popular scenic drives of Northern California, that tourist must not skip are:
- Redwood Highway
- Mount Shasta-Cascade Loop
- Northern Pacific Coast
- Lake Tahoe
- Silverado Trail
- Yosemite Valley and Tioga Road
- Trinity Scenic Byway
- Feather River Scenic Byway
- Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway
- Ebbett’s Pass Scenic Byway