This past year, endless lockdown-weary adventurers got off of their couches and into their cars, as the humble road trip proved to be the greatest no-contact travel method around. If you’ve never done a California-specific road trip, it’s about time. If California was a country, it would be the 59th largest. So, prepare a California themed playlist, grab your Sunskis, and hit the open (well….maybe the mildly traffic-filled) roads of Southern California. Think of the suggestions below as sketches that you’ll color in with your own plans.
Side note: The heat in the deserts of Southern California can be some of the most extreme heat anywhere on earth. To keep your fun level high and your body temperature low, these trips make more sense in the fall or winter.
Los Angeles – San Diego – Anza Borrego State Park – Palm Springs – Los Angeles
Distance: 300 miles
If your group of friends is more stop-to-smell-the-flowers type than adventure sport junkies, this trip is for you. Before leaving LA, see the Huntington Museum and Gardens, a beautiful place to spend an afternoon strolling. Then, drive down the coast towards San Diego, and stop just short in La Jolla. You can eat at a fancy waterfront restaurant, or visit La Jolla Cove for a chance to hang out with some sea lions.
When you get to San Diego, stop by Balboa Park to visit the world-famous San Diego zoo. If flora is more your vibe, you can wander the park’s many gardens and visit the Botanical Building, which has over 2000 plants. Finally, be sure to enjoy Coronado beach for pristine calm, and Pacific Beach for surfing, shopping, and stereotypical SoCal vibes.
En route to Palm Springs, make a pit stop at the Anza Borrego Desert State Park for a hike or a night under the stars. You’ll see pictographs, rugged mountains, and desert flora like the California fan palm in California’s largest state park.
Finally, Palm Springs: the tourist destination of your dreams. It’s known for its resorts, hot springs, LGBTQ friendly atmosphere, and architecture. Take a few days to hang out by the pool, take the cable car up a mountain, and enjoy some wine.
Los Angeles – Joshua Tree – Mojave National Preserve – Death Valley – Los Angeles
Distance: 650 miles
Desert, stars, and camping lovers unite! This trip will take you to alien landscapes, epic rock formations, and even sand dunes. First stop: Joshua Tree. If you’re a rock climber, you probably don’t need me to explain how epic J-Tree is. If you’re a hiker, you’re in for a treat: here’s a comprehensive list of hikes in the area, from short strolls to enjoy unique desert plants, to longer meanders that lead you through geologic formations. Joshua Tree has been poppin’ off in recent years, so snag a campsite or lodging as early as you possibly can.
From what I’ve heard, the Mojave National Preserve looks like a barren desert if you just drive through, but it’s full of hidden gems. Check out the Lava Tube and the Kelso Sand Dunes, which can make a deep, spooky rumbling sound if you stand in the right spot. Bring plenty of water and a 4×4 vehicle with a full tank to do some off-roading in the preserve’s peaceful, tourist-free expanses.
Your final desert stop is Death Valley, where in July this year, earth’s highest temperature was recorded at a sweltering 130 degrees Fahrenheit. In the more moderate fall weather, you can enjoy excellent cycling or even summit the 11,000 foot Telescope Peak in this amazingly diverse National Park. If you brought that four wheel drive adventure car, consider checking out the mysterious moving rocks at “The Racetrack.” Then, head back to LA and jump in the ocean at Venice Beach to wash off the desert sand.
Los Angeles – Sequoia + Kings Canyon National Parks – San Luis Obispo – Los Angeles
Distance: 630 miles
Driving from LA towards the Sierras, you’d never expect the level of grandeur and diversity that’s just a few hours east of the city. Sequoia National Park has truly gigantic Sequoia trees-hence the name. Boy, will they make you question your place in the universe. There are many ways to see the big trees, including driving through one, but I enjoyed the Hart Tree loop. You can also opt to check out the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman tree.
If you don’t feel small enough after looking up at that, drive to Panoramic Point in Kings Canyon National Park, a different park right next to Sequoia. King’s Canyon has Yosemite-level vistas, the second largest tree in the world, and roaring waterfalls. You can choose to do the winding drive to the bottom of the canyon to Cedar Grove, a less crowded destination. Finish the day off in a beautiful high alpine reservoir Hume Lake, which is plenty warm to swim in.
After your fill of mountains and national parks head for the coast once again. Where you’ll pass through San Luis Obispo (AKA SLO). If you’re taking a late fall trip, you might catch thousands of monarch butterflies that congregate from October through February on eucalyptus trees at Pismo State Beach. There’s also a well-known Thursday night farmer’s market you can fuel up at. Don’t forget to catch a glimpse of the 70-foot bubble gum alley.
Finally, on the way to LA stop by the “Little Denmark” of California, Solvang. You’ll find Danish-style buildings, pastries, wine tastings, and even a Danish Heritage Festival if you’re there in September. Leave the European part of your journey behind and head back to the familiar City of Angels.
-Because you’ll be in a car, you have the luxury of storage space. If you’re planning to camp out, bring a real pillow for your head. If you’re going for hikes along the way, add an extra gallon jug of water in case you’re running low at the trailhead. Bring a cooler so you can keep snacks and beverages from boiling in the parked car.
-If you’re hoping to camp, plan as far in advance as you can. The camping boom of 2020, as I’m dubbing it, is really…real. Many official campsites book months in advance. Trying to snag first come first serve sites can be a risky game to play. If you’re heading out last minute, try some alternative sites, like Hipcamp or the Dyrt. Better yet, check out our blog post on dispersed camping.
We wish you safe travels, UV-protected eyes, and good vibes!