These are the best California road trip destinations to include in your itinerary when planning a visit to California, whether you start from San Francisco, Los Angeles or somewhere else entirely.
In this post, we highlight some popular as well as lesser-known unique, beautiful and adventurous spots to call in on as you make your way around California, from the coast to the mountains and the desert, including the big cities, National Parks, other areas of outstanding natural beauty, and uniquely California locations and views.
If you don’t have a campervan or are traveling to California from far afield and the idea of traveling around the Golden State in a camper appeals to you, you can rent a camper van specifically for the road trip, without the cost of ownership, from companies such as Outdoorsy and RVShare.
Even if you are planning a Northern or Southern California road trip and want to do it in a car rather than a camper van, these destinations are all awesome places to visit, however you get there!
Planning your California Road Trip Itinerary
In this post, we share some of our favorite and highly-recommended destinations to visit in California, specifically for those who love to explore nature, unique sights, places and experiences that can only be found in these places.
California is a large state, with diverse landscapes and climates, so it makes sense to start with an idea of how much time you have to spend on your road trip, what you’re most interested in seeing and/or doing while you’re there, and use that to customize your own itinerary.
When is the best time of year for road trips in California?
California has – in general – a great year-round climate, however when you start to plan visits to the mountain and desert areas, then expect snow and closed roads in the mountains in winter (and the months on either side), and scorching hot, non-camper-friendly temperatures in the deserts in summer.
For these reasons, if you’re looking to visit as much of California as possible in one big road trip, then we would definitely suggest you aim for a late spring or mid-Fall visit.
If you’re planning to visit mountain areas, including Yosemite, also check the local and National Parks’ websites as these provide information on seasonal and other road closures which may affect your trip.
If you’re visiting from another country, also bear in mind that campgrounds in California – especially the most popular and those in the State and National Parks – can book up many months in advance, especially on holiday weekends, so you’ll need to reserve yours well in advance if you’re planning on staying in any of these places during these peak times.
Northern California Road Trip Itinerary
The largest city in Northern California, San Francisco hardly needs an introduction. Set in a beautiful bay leading to the Pacific Ocean, you could have an entire vacation in San Francisco itself and not even get into a campervan… but that’s not why you’re here.
Check out San Francisco’s sights, sounds and smells (don’t forget to head to the Golden Gate Bridge for some timeless vistas and fresh air), then jump in the campervan for your road trip to truly begin.
Napa and Sonoma Wine Country
Known for oaky Chardonnays, Pinots and ‘Cab Sauv’, of course you can have a lot of fun visiting the many wineries and tasting rooms in and around Napa and Sonoma (which are cities as well as counties).
Even if you’re not into wine, there’s a great food scene in both Napa and Sonoma county, and plenty of places to park a campervan, especially if you’re a Harvest Hosts member.
Santa Cruz and Big Basin Redwoods
Heading south of San Francisco, head to Santa Cruz for some more laid-back surf vibes, eclectic shops and eateries.
Stop off for a visit to one of Northern California’s great State Parks, Big Basin Redwoods State Park and spend the night at one of the many campgrounds in the area.
Yosemite National Park
If you want to truly experience California’s mountains, then you need to head inland and make a bee-line for Yosemite.
Make sure you research and reserve in advance – as one of the most popular National Parks in the US to visit, you can’t get into Yosemite during the peak season without reserving months in advance, but it’s well worth it.
If you can, try and reserve a camping spot for a night or two right in Yosemite National Park itself. Otherwise, seek out options near the entrance gates so you’re nearby, and plan to spend at least a couple of days in the area, especially if you enjoy hiking.
The Eastern Sierra Mountains and Desert
While it requires some additional effort and drive time that many don’t choose to do, the eastern side of California’s Sierra Mountain range is an incredibly beautiful area to visit and road trip through, especially in a camper.
To get here, most people on a California road trip that have visited Yosemite will find it easiest to drive through Yosemite to emerge on the eastern side of the mountains (note that this road is closed through winter).
On this side of the Sierras, the tall mountains (including the contiguous US’s highest peak, Mt Whitney), drop down into the high desert, and you’ll find plenty of campgrounds both privately-owned as well as well-maintained National Forest camping options to choose from.
Make sure you stop off and check out Mono Lake and consider spending a couple of nights in the Mammoth Lakes area if you’re visiting in summer and fancy some attractive alpine hikes while you’re there.
California Central Coast Road Trip Destinations
Monterey, Carmel and Pebble Beach
The scenic 17-mile drive near the coast and amongst beautiful Cypress trees is a must-do in this area, as is stopping off in Monterey to visit the aquarium or even head out for some whale-watching.
Highway 1 and the Big Sur coastline
From Monterey you’re in the perfect place to embark upon the most iconic section of California’s famous Highway 1 and drive along the Big Sur coastline.
The road winds in and out along the coast, and passes many beautiful viewpoints and state parks, including one of our favorites, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which features a very attractive coastal waterfall, so make sure you factor in enough time to take your time and enjoy short hikes and side trips along your way.
Cambria, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach
At the southern end of the Big Sur coast, you will find Cambria, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach. For campervan camping, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach have a wide range of campground options to choose from.
The heart of the California Riviera, Santa Barbara is what most people think of when they dream of California, and no California coast road trip would be complete without visiting.
Soft sandy beaches, backed by attractive mountains, a dreamy year-round climate that’s not too hot or cold, Spanish-style architecture, and plenty of great eateries, breweries and wine tasting rooms to satisfy the fussiest of foodies.
It can be harder to find camping in Santa Barbara itself, so consider staying at one of the State Park beach campgrounds that are located 10 to 20 minutes drive further north, such as Gaviota or El Capitan.
Southern California Road Trip Locations
Los Angeles area
You can’t mention a Southern California Road Trip and not mention Los Angeles. You could spend a week here, if you wanted to really get into what the city has to offer (it’s the US’s second-largest city, after all).
But as we’re assuming you’re planning a road trip in a camper van, you may find yourself wanting to head out of L.A. in search of those big open spaces and smaller towns to explore – not least because parking a campervan here can pose some challenges!
For that classic California desert resort vibe, get yourself over to Palm Springs. While you’re there, head up around 2.5 miles from the desert to 8,516ft above sea level to the mountains, in the rotating aerial gondola, the ‘Palm Springs Aerial Tramway’.
Joshua Tree National Park
Near Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park is a fantastic place to visit on a campervan road trip, especially if you love vistas, hiking, rock climbing or generally being out in wide open spaces.
Death Valley National Park
Whether you reach it from Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras, or from Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California, there’s no place quite like Death Valley.
Touted as the Hottest Place On Earth, you definitely do not want to visit this place in a campervan in summer, but in winter and parts of Spring and late Fall you can find good camping right in the National Park itself.
Ok, Las Vegas is not in California – it’s over the border in Nevada. But if you haven’t visited and find yourself in Death Valley or Joshua Tree National Park, then Las Vegas may be a place to head to for a couple of days, for the unique experience it offers, or if you’re flying in or out of the airport there.
Plus – many casinos offer RV and campervan drivers free spots to stay, so you shouldn’t be short of places to park up for a night or two.
Hopefully by the time you’ve reached the bottom of this post you have a great list together of the best places to include on your California road trip itinerary. Happy planning!