Life is about the journey, not the destination. Likewise, while California has many exciting national parks and cities to explore, the state’s most interesting sights are best viewed through a traditional road trip.
1. Los Angeles/San Diego
Los Angeles and San Diego are both world-class cities, with famous destinations such as the Hollywood Sign, Santa Monica Pier, SeaWorld and dozens of pristine beaches. However, there are even more sights to see on the drive over. Start your journey by driving over the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains and spending a day relaxing at the Boardwalk or at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Winding your way down Highway 1, you can pass through Big Sur and Carmel-by-the-Sea, eventually stopping for a break at San Luis Obispo. Farther south, Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara are famous for their sandy shorelines and bustling fishing piers (not to mention the often overlooked Los Padres National Forest nearby). California’s Pacific coastline in the south offers stunning ocean views and beautiful, although chilly, beaches.
This itinerary is the similar the one above, except you’ll be travelling north instead of south. Klamath is a minor city in temperate Northern California near Oregon, and while you probably won’t be spending much time in the town itself, it provides a great focal point to explore the forests nearby. Drive through San Francisco, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to Point Reyes’ seashore. Then continue on Highway 1, pausing in some of the sleepy fishing towns to hike in the hills and along the coastline. You’ll also encounter many parks and forests, such as the grandiose Mendocino National Forest, Kings Range National Conservation Area and Jackson State Forest before nearing the Oregon border. Once you arrive in Klamath (or any other towns nearby), you can quickly head into Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Klamath National Forest, which offer pristine waterfalls, colossal trees and mountains.
3. Yosemite and Kings Canyon/Sequoia
This itinerary is more about the destination rather than the journey. Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are some of the premiere parks and destinations in California. Famous for their towering trees and mountains and flowing rivers, the parks are truly a natural paradise. In only three and a half hours, you can quickly pass through the Central Valley and arrive in Yosemite. From there, slowly work your way south through Sierra National Forest and eventually you will hit the other two parks. Most of this road trip takes place in the woodland so feel free to take a break anytime to swim in a lake or hike a 20 miler.
4. Death Valley
A famously arid national park, Death Valley offers gorgeous desert scenery amid rugged hills. While much of your journey will be passing through the Central Valley between Gilroy and Bakersfield, you can truly speed on the highway and blare inspiring music, creating a liberating sensation. Your drive skirts near the edges of Los Padres National Forest and Sequoia National Park, which provide greenery and relief from driving. Once you enter the Mojave Desert, the landscape will change dramatically and become lifeless, with some dried salt flats and marshes.
5. Lassen Volcanic National Park
A lesser-known national park, Lassen Volcanic is rich in thermal pools and hosts a rocky terrain. On this five hour drive, head north through the Bay Area on Highway 1A. The landscape may be dull and barren, but there are plenty of opportunities to go off the beaten path by exploring some of the towns on the way up. The highway passes by the eastern side of Mendocino National Forest and you can make a pit stop in Sacramento to tour the state capital. Once you arrive in Lassen Volcanic, you can boat or swim in Lake Almanor, explore the park itself and hike in Plumas National Forest. Mt. Shasta, one of the state’s tallest peaks, is only 1.5 hours north.
Photos: California through my lens, Tenaya Lodge, US Forest Service, California Beaches, National Park Foundation.