Let’s be honest, there’s no better way to see California’s highlights than by renting a car and hitting the open road. Home to misty forests, sun-kissed beaches and stark deserts, a road trip gives you the freedom and flexibility to see it all on your own terms. If you’re dreaming of planning your own California road trip, we’ve got you covered. This two week itinerary will take you on a seriously epic route through the state’s most gorgeous national parks as well as give you a chance to explore two iconic cities: Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Ultimate 2-week California road trip: An itinerary
DAYS 1-3: Los Angeles
Los Angeles is an obvious starting point for any California road trip since it’s the arrival point for many international flights. Get a feel for driving on the right (wrong!) side of the road and pick up a rental car from the airport after you land. It’s hard to get around LA without a car so it’s best to have your own set of wheels. Because you want to be fresh before starting your road trip, spend a couple of days exploring LA to beat the jet lag. The city is bursting at the seams with things to do so make sure you squeeze in a visit to at least a few of these: Disneyland, Venice Beach, Runyon Canyon, the Griffith Observatory, Hollywood, the Santa Monica pier, Universal Studios, the Getty Centre and Grand Central Market.
DAYS 4-5: Joshua Tree National Park
Distance: 131 miles | Driving time: 2hr 10
Get excited, it’s time to hit the open road! Leave LA behind and head to your first destination of the trip: Joshua Tree National Park. Cross your fingers that traffic out of LA won’t be too bad, turn up the tunes and watch the urban sprawl slowly give way to stark, dry desert. It won’t be long before you spot your first Joshua Tree!
After lunch (we recommend La Copine in Flamingo Heights), spend some time exploring the vintage and antique stores in Yucca Valley. Then, prepare for a full day in the park tomorrow by stopping in at the Visitor Centre in Joshua Tree before it closes. Grab a map and chat to the ranger about the best the park has to offer. Come evening, head to iconic Pioneertown and grab a bite to eat at the famous Pappy & Harriet’s.
Wake up bright and early the following day and head into the park for a full day of exploring. Take a packed lunch and plenty of water and enter via the park’s west entrance. From here, spend the day looping through the park, stopping to hike a range of trails along the way. Some of the best short hikes and landmarks include Hidden Valley, Keyes View, Arch Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden and Skull Rock.
DAY 6: Death Valley National Park
Distance: 346 miles | Driving time: 6hr
Make sure you have a big breakfast and grab a coffee to go this morning because you have a BIG day of driving. Actually, today is the biggest day on the road out of the whole trip. If you’re anything like me though, it will be one of your favourite days on the road. Plug in ‘Death Valley Junction’ into your GPS and make your way north from Joshua Tree National Park through the Mojave Preserve towards the Nevada border. The landscape out here is unforgiving yet completely mesmerising and is home to canyons, ancient lava flows and limestone caverns.
Once you’re at the park entrance, follow the highway straight through Death Valley National Park. You’re going in one end and out the other. Be sure that you’ve stocked up on fuel, sunscreen and water as this is one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth. Death Valley is a place of extremes. Not only is it the largest national park outside of Alaska, it’s also the hottest and driest place in North America. Most of the main sights can be seen either from the car or without venturing too far from it. Be sure to stop at Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the Artist’s Palette scenic loop. Spend the night outside the park at Lone Pine, a historic frontier town and Indian Reservation.
Recommended accommodation: Best Western Plus Frontier Motel, Lone Pine
DAYS 7-8: Sequoia National Park
Distance: 286 miles | Driving time: 5hr 30
Get set because today you’re going to swap the desert for the forest. But we’re not talking any old forest, my friend. Nope, this is a forest like no other. You’re heading to the Sequoia National Park, home to the biggest trees on the planet. The journey today is a bit of a mixed bag. The route through Weldon is a much prettier way to head before you’ll be forced back onto the pretty boring highway north of Bakersfield. Your destination is every bit worth it, trust us on that! Once you lay your eyes on your first sequoia trees, you’ll be entirely convinced that you’ve never really seen a tree until now.
You’ll probably arrive into the national park mid-afternoon so stop at the Visitor’s Centre for a map and some tips before it closes. Then, head to see General Sherman, the largest tree on earth, late in the day. The crowds are significantly smaller at this time which is a huge bonus. There is very limited accommodation nearby so it’s best to stay at the Wuksachi Lodge within the park.
It’s beautifully quiet in the park in the mornings. Make the most of it and head off early to see as much as you can before pushing on around lunchtime. Be sure to do a few more hikes around Giant’s Forest, climb to the top of Moro Rock and drive or walk through Tunnel Log (the famous fallen sequoia you can drive through). Head through Kings Canyon National Park on your way out (entry is included in your park ticket).
Recommended accommodation: Wuksachi Lodge, Sequoia National Park
DAYS 9-11: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 133 miles | Driving time: 3hr
Let’s be honest. No California road trip is complete without a visit to Yosemite National Park. Get excited because that’s where we’re headed today! The drive today is quite a bit shorter than what we’ve been doing lately so there’s no need to rush. By the time you reach Oakhurst, if you’re feeling peckish, grab a bite to eat at Southgate Brewing Company. You won’t actually descend into the Yosemite Valley until tomorrow morning so for now, enter the national park and check into the Narrow Gauge Inn in Fish Camp. Have dinner at the historic restaurant on site (it’s very good).
It’s an hour’s drive into the Yosemite Valley so head off early to make the most of your one and only full day here. On the way in, you’ll get your first taste of how epic this place truly is at Tunnel View. You’ll need to pick your chin up off the pavement, the view is out of this world. Again, it’s always best to make a beeline for the Visitor’s Centre to get your bearings and work out your plan of action. Some definite highlights include the famous waterfalls of Bridalveil Falls, Vernal Falls and Yosemite Falls (the tallest waterfall in North America), Mirror Lake, Stoneman Meadow and Glacier Point. Dinner at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel within the valley is an absolute must (advance reservations are essential).
Recommended accommodation: Narrow Gauge Inn, Fish Camp
DAYS 12-14: San Francisco
Distance: 204 miles | Driving time: 3hr 30
It’s time to wave California’s national parks goodbye and swap it up for the city life. Today we’re heading to that one and only spectacular city by the bay: San Francisco. The drive from Yosemite is nothing to write home about (hello big freeways) but once you cross the Oakland Bridge into downtown, you can just feel the energy in the air. Consider dropping your car off at the rental car company on arrival rather than having to worry about parking (San Francisco is notoriously difficult for parking).
Spend the next few days exploring this beguiling city and getting around on foot as much as you can – those legs are begging for a stretch! Stroll the steep, hilly streets, take a boat to Alcatraz, ride the famous cable cars, admire the Painted Ladies and eat your way around the Ferry Building Marketplace. San Francisco is bursting at the seams with excellent restaurants (some of the world’s best) so it would be wise to plan your days around the food!
The airport is an easy 20 minute drive from downtown so if you’ve already dropped your car off, just jump in an Uber and you’re all set.
Recommended accommodation: Hotel Kabuki, Japantown
Planning a California road trip? Don’t miss these posts:
- A Beginner’s Guide to LA: 20 Things to Know Before You Go
- How to Have an Epic Weekend in Joshua Tree
- Into the Wild: A Weekend in Yosemite National Park
- See the Best of San Francisco in 24 Hours
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