The Ultimate 2-Week California Road Trip Itinerary

Looking for the best places to add to your California road trip itinerary?

Embarking on a two-week California road trip itinerary is the perfect way to dive deep into the landscapes and lifestyles that make this state a legendary travel destination. Having spent over five months traveling around California in a van, I’ve come to know what makes a road trip here truly special.

I discovered that you will need at least two weeks to see the highlights without feeling rushed. That’s enough time to soak in a few lively cities, serene national parks, and coastal drives to get the full California experience. But if you have more time, it’s even better!

Join me as I share the gems of the Golden State, drawing on my extensive travels to make each day an adventure and help you get the most out of your California road trip.

Map: California Road Trip Itinerary

map of california road trip route
Image Credit: Google Maps

Contents: California Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1: San Francisco

san francisco streetcar with golden gate bridge in background
Image Credit: Warren Morelli

Best for: Urban explorers and culture enthusiasts.

Exploring in San Francisco feels like stepping into a postcard, a city that should be on every California road trip itinerary. The iconic fog often shrouds the Golden Gate Bridge in mystery, creating a picturesque scene that feels almost surreal. The cityscape is a patchwork of lively neighborhoods.

My first walk up the city’s famously steep hills left me breathless, not just from the climb but also from the stunning views at every turn. San Francisco combines the old-world charm of cable cars and Victorian houses with the cutting-edge buzz of Silicon Valley, making it a place where history and the future coexist.

Things to do in San Francisco:

  • Visit the Golden Gate Bridge: No matter how many times you see it, it never fails to impress. It’s a marvel of engineering and beauty, especially awe-inspiring when the morning fog lifts to reveal the towering red structure.
  • Explore Fisherman’s Wharf: While Fisherman’s Wharf can feel touristy, it’s essential for first-time visitors. Sampling clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl while watching the playful sea lions at Pier 39 is always enjoyable.
  • Stroll through Golden Gate Park: Golden Gate Park is an expansive green oasis with something for everyone. My last visit involved a leisurely afternoon exploring its hidden gardens, visiting the de Young Museum, and simply soaking in the tranquility away from the urban hustle.
  • Ride a cable car: Riding one of San Francisco’s historic cable cars is a quintessential experience. There’s a real thrill in clinging to the side as you ascend and descend the city’s dramatic hills, offering stunning cityscapes along the way.
  • Check out the Mission District: It is the vibrant heart of San Francisco’s Latino community, full of colorful murals telling stories of its rich cultural heritage. This neighborhood is a feast for the senses, offering some of the best Mexican cuisine, lively street art, and an infectious energy that epitomizes why San Francisco is so beloved.

Day 2-3: Yosemite

view of Yosemite National Park at sunset
Image Credit: Warren Morelli

Best for: Nature lovers and outdoor adventurers.

Entering Yosemite National Park is like stepping into another world—one where nature’s grandeur is almost overwhelming. Towering granite cliffs, ancient giant sequoias, and thundering waterfalls create a backdrop that feels more like a painting than reality. 

During my first visit, I was struck by the sheer scale of everything. The massive El Capitan looming overhead, the serene beauty of Mirror Lake reflecting the sky, and the powerful roar of Yosemite Falls echoing through the valley. It’s a place that reminds you of the raw power and beauty of the natural world, offering a profound sense of peace and awe. Often labeled as the best national park in the US, Yosemite should be on your California road trip itinerary.

Things to do in Yosemite:

  • Hike to Glacier Point: For one of the best views in the park, take the trek to Glacier Point. The panoramic vista of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and the High Sierra is breathtaking and worth every step.
  • Explore Yosemite Valley: Drive or bike around the valley loop to see famous landmarks like El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and the meadows. Don’t miss stopping at the various viewpoints, each offering a unique perspective of the park.
  • Visit the Giant Sequoias: No visit to Yosemite is complete without seeing the ancient giant sequoias. These towering trees, some of the largest living things on Earth, are humbling and a must-see at Mariposa Grove.
  • Try rock climbing: For the adventurous, Yosemite is a world-class climbing destination. Whether you’re an experienced climber or a newbie wanting to try a guided climb, the granite walls, like those of El Capitan, provide the ultimate challenge.
  • Stargazing: After a day of hiking and exploring, nothing beats lying back and stargazing. Yosemite’s clear skies offer some of the best night sky viewings, making it easy to spot constellations and the Milky Way.

Day 4: Monterey

view of charming Monterey a coastal town in california
Image Credit: Warren Morelli

Best for: Sea life enthusiasts and history buffs.

Monterey is a charming coastal town that captures the essence of California’s maritime history and natural beauty. My first impression of Monterey was its serene bay, teeming with marine life and framed by historic, weathered piers. 

Strolling through the streets, you can feel the echoes of John Steinbeck’s tales in the salt air, particularly around Cannery Row, once the sardine-packing heart of the area, now bustling with shops and eateries. The town seamlessly blends its rich history with a passion for ocean conservation, making it a fascinating stop on any California road trip.

Things to do in Monterey:

  • Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium: Renowned for its impressive marine exhibits and conservation efforts, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-visit. From playful sea otters to mesmerizing jellyfish, the exhibits connect you deeply with the marine life of the Pacific.
  • Explore Cannery Row: Once the setting for Steinbeck’s novel, today’s Cannery Row offers a mix of shopping, dining, and entertainment. It’s a vibrant place to soak in the local culture and history.
  • Take a whale-watching tour: Monterey Bay is one of the best places in the world for whale-watching. Depending on the season, you might see humpback whales, blue whales, and orcas.
  • Drive the 17-mile Drive: This scenic route takes you through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, offering stunning coastal views, rugged beaches, and iconic golf courses.
  • Relax at Lovers Point Park and Beach: Ideal for a more laid-back afternoon, Lovers Point offers calm waters for kayaking and a lovely spot for picnics with views over the bay.

Day 5-6: Big Sur

view of famous bridge connecting Big Sur
Image Credit: Warren Morelli

Best for: Nature enthusiasts and spiritual seekers.

Big Sur is an unforgettable stretch of coastline that demands you to disconnect from the world and reconnect with nature. The moment I first drove down Highway One, flanked by the rugged cliffs on one side and the expansive Pacific Ocean on the other, I was captivated. 

The air is thick with the scent of eucalyptus and sea spray, creating a mesmerizing atmosphere that’s both invigorating and calming. The landscape here is dramatically wild, with towering redwoods and misty cliffs that seem to whisper ancient secrets.

Things to do in Big Sur:

  • Hike in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Start with the easy trail to McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that flows directly onto a pristine beach below—an iconic Big Sur sight.
  • Explore Pfeiffer Beach: Famous for its purple sand and massive rock formations, Pfeiffer Beach is a must-visit for photographers and nature lovers alike. The sunsets here, with the light streaming through the keyhole arch, are magical.
  • Visit the Henry Miller Library: A combination of a bookstore, performance venue, and tribute to the American writer, the Henry Miller Library is a cultural hub set amidst the redwoods. It’s a perfect spot for literary fans and those looking to catch a local event.
  • Take a scenic drive on Highway One: The drive through Big Sur itself is an experience, with countless viewpoints like Bixby Bridge offering spectacular vistas that you’ll want to savor.
  • Relax and meditate at Esalen Institute: For those looking to unwind and delve deep into personal wellness, the Esalen Institute offers workshops and classes in a setting that’s both nurturing and inspiring, perched on cliffs overlooking the ocean.

Day 7-8: Santa Barbara

view of santa barbara beach
Image Credit: Warren Morelli

Best for: Beach lovers and cultural enthusiasts.

Santa Barbara, often dubbed “The American Riviera,” offers a stunning mix of natural beauty and sophisticated charm. My first visit here left a lasting impression with its beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture and the laid-back, luxurious vibe of its sun-drenched streets. 

Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the city boasts palm-lined beaches alongside boutique shops and fine dining, creating a perfect balance of relaxation and cultural exploration.

Things to do in Santa Barbara:

  • Walk along State Street: This bustling thoroughfare is the heart of Santa Barbara, lined with excellent shops, art galleries, and restaurants. It’s ideal for a leisurely stroll or a bit of shopping.
  • Visit the Santa Barbara Mission: Known as the “Queen of the Missions” for its stunning beauty, this historic site offers a glimpse into California’s mission days with its magnificent church and lush gardens.
  • Explore the Santa Barbara County Courthouse: A stunning example of Spanish Colonial architecture; the courthouse features a mural room and a clock tower that offers panoramic views of the city.
  • Relax at East Beach: Known for its soft sand and relatively calm waters, East Beach is perfect for a day under the sun. You can also find volleyball courts and picnic spots here.
  • Enjoy the local wine scene: Santa Barbara’s wine country is just a short drive away, offering the chance to taste some of the finest wines produced in California. The urban wine trail in the Funk Zone also provides a fun and accessible way to sample local vintages.

Day 9-10: Los Angeles

view of los angeles with palm trees in the forefront
Image Credit: Warren Morelli

Best for: Entertainment seekers and cultural explorers.

Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis that captures the essence of a fast-paced lifestyle blended with laid-back beach vibes. From my first visit, I was struck by the diversity of its neighborhoods, each with its own unique flavor. From the glitz of Beverly Hills to the bohemian streets of Venice Beach.

LA is a city where you can find world-class museums, vibrant food scenes, and the heart of the entertainment industry, all set against the backdrop of white sand beaches, endless sunny days and palm-lined boulevards.

Things to do in Los Angeles:

  • Walk the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Explore the iconic stars on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s touristy, sure, but it’s also a quintessential LA experience.
  • Visit Griffith Observatory: This place offers a great view of the Hollywood Sign and panoramic views of Los Angeles. The exhibits and planetarium shows are definitely worth your time.
  • Explore the Getty Center: This architectural marvel offers impressive art collections, stunning gardens, and breathtaking city views. It’s a peaceful retreat from the city’s hustle.
  • Spend a day in Santa Monica: The Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade offer a perfect blend of beachfront fun and upscale shopping. Don’t miss the chance to enjoy the vibrant street performances here.
  • Discover the arts in Downtown LA: From the contemporary exhibitions at The Broad to the historic Los Angeles Theatre, downtown is booming with cultural riches.
  • Eat your way through the city: LA’s food scene is as diverse as its population. From Korean BBQ in Koreatown to Mexican street tacos in East LA, there’s a dish to satisfy every craving.

Day 11-12: Joshua Tree National Park

trees in Joshua Tree National Park
Image Credit: Warren Morelli

Best for: Desert explorers and stargazers.

Joshua Tree National Park is where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge, creating a unique and mystical landscape that feels like stepping onto another planet. 

The rugged beauty of this park captivated me from my very first visit. The twisted, bristled Joshua trees against the backdrop of vast, open skies and rocky outcrops are visually stunning.  The serene silence of the desert, punctuated by the wind, offers a profound sense of solitude and introspection. There are many options when it comes to camping, so make sure to check out the best campgrounds in Joshua Tree.

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park:

  • Hiking and rock scrambling: The park offers numerous trails ranging from easy walks to challenging hikes. Popular spots like Hidden Valley offer fantastic rock scrambling and stunning views.
  • Visit Skull Rock: Eroded by the elements into the shape of a skull, this natural rock formation is both eerie and fascinating, located right beside the road for easy access.
  • Explore Cholla Cactus Garden: This area showcases beautiful cholla cacti. The garden glows beautifully during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset.
  • Stargazing: Joshua Tree is known for its clear, dark skies, making it one of the best places in California for stargazing. The Milky Way is often visible to the naked eye, stretching across the night sky.
  • Check out local art: The small towns around Joshua Tree, like Joshua Tree Village, host vibrant art scenes with galleries and shops featuring works by local artists.

Day 13-14: San Diego

view of san diego at night
Image Credit: Warren Morelli

Best for Beach enthusiasts and history lovers.

San Diego, with its endless sunshine, laid-back atmosphere, and beautiful beaches, is the perfect place to wind down your California road trip. My first impression of San Diego was that a sense of relaxation seemed to be felt on every corner of this lively city. 

From the historic Gaslamp Quarter, where every building has a story, to the pristine stretches of sand at La Jolla, San Diego combines cultural richness with natural beauty in a way that’s both exciting and soothing.

Things to do in San Diego:

  • Visit Balboa Park: Home to 17 museums, beautiful gardens, and the renowned San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is a cultural hub that can keep you entertained for hours.
  • Explore the USS Midway Museum: Located on the aircraft carrier Midway, this museum offers a fascinating glimpse into naval history with self-guided tours through the ship’s extensive aircraft collection.
  • Relax at La Jolla Cove: One of San Diego’s most desirable spots for swimming, snorkeling, and just soaking up the sun. The clear waters and scenic cliffs make La Jolla Cove a must-visit.
  • Stroll through the Gaslamp Quarter: This lively district is known for its Victorian-era buildings, trendy shops, art galleries, and bustling nightlife.
  • Surf or watch the surfers at Pacific Beach: Whether you’re an experienced surfer or just want to watch others catching waves, Pacific Beach has a great laid-back surf culture.

Less-Known Hidden Gems Worth Visiting

Sunset on Pacific coast of central California in Carmel, between Monastery beach and Carmel River Beach, looking toward Point Lobos State Natural Preserve, as waves break along the Monterey Bay.
Image Credit:Shutterstock / David A Litman

While exploring California, you’ll likely hit the well-known hotspots listed above, but some lesser-known sites along the same route are definitely worth the detour if you have the time. Here are five hidden gems that promise unique experiences without straying far from your planned itinerary:

  • Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon: Just north of San Simeon along Highway 1, this spot is perfect for wildlife enthusiasts. Visit during the migration season to see hundreds of elephant seals sunning on the beach.
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel-by-the-Sea: Just south of Monterey, this park offers breathtaking coastal views, coves, and the chance to see seals, sea lions, and sea otters. It’s less crowded than nearby Big Sur and equally stunning.
  • Harmony Headlands State Park, Harmony: This small state park, a few miles north of Morro Bay, offers a 4.5-mile round-trip hike through a quiet coastal meadow to a secluded beach that’s rarely crowded.
  • Los Alamos, Santa Barbara County: Hidden in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos is a tiny town with old West charm, featuring antique shops, local wine-tasting rooms, and unique eateries. It’s a quaint stopover between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
  • Crystal Cove State Park, Orange County: Located between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, this park offers 3.2 miles of beach and 2,400 acres of backcountry wilderness. It’s a great spot for hiking, horseback riding, and tide pooling, with fewer visitors than its more famous neighbors.

Traveling This Route with an EV

Exploring California in an electric vehicle (EV) is not only environmentally friendly but also increasingly convenient thanks to the state’s commitment to sustainable transportation. Here are some tips and key charging locations to ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey on your California road trip itinerary:

Preparation is Key:

  • Plan Your Charging Stops: Before you hit the road, map out your route using apps like PlugShare or ChargePoint. These tools help locate charging stations along your route and provide real-time availability and charging speed information.
  • Check Your Range: Know the range of your EV and plan stops accordingly. California’s highways are well-equipped with charging stations, but it’s always good to plan, especially when traveling through more remote areas like parts of Big Sur or Yosemite.

Charging Locations Along the Route:

  • San Francisco: Start your trip with a full battery by taking advantage of the dense network of charging stations across the city, including fast chargers along the main exits and entries of the city.
  • Yosemite National Park: Charging stations are available at Yosemite Valley Lodge, Half Dome Village, and near the visitor center, making it easy to explore the park without range anxiety.
  • Monterey and Big Sur: Find several charging points in Monterey and along the Pacific Coast Highway. However, plan carefully, as charging options are less frequent along the remote stretches of Big Sur.
  • Santa Barbara and Los Angeles: These areas are EV-friendly, with numerous charging stations available, including several fast chargers ideal for quick top-ups as you explore the cities.
  • Joshua Tree National Park: Charging stations are located in the towns near the park, such as Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree Town.
  • San Diego: As a major city, San Diego offers extensive charging infrastructure, ensuring you can easily recharge before heading to any beaches or attractions.

FAQs: California Road Trip Itinerary

How many days do you need for a road trip in California?

Ideally, a two-week California road trip itinerary allows you to explore a range of landscapes and attractions without feeling rushed. This itinerary covers major cities, iconic landmarks, and beautiful natural parks, giving you a well-rounded experience of what California has to offer.

If you have less time, consider focusing on either the northern or southern part of the state to reduce travel time and deepen your exploration. I would say the more time, the better!

What are the best beaches in California?

California is famed for its stunning coastlines, and each beach has its own charm. For classic surf culture, Huntington Beach and Malibu are top picks. For a more secluded, scenic experience, try Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur or the beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore.

If you’re into lively beach towns, Santa Monica and Venice Beach are must-visits with their busy boardwalks and lively atmospheres.

Where are the best campgrounds in California?

California offers a diverse range of camping experiences, from beachfront sites to mountain retreats. Some top campgrounds include Yosemite’s North Pines Campground, where you are surrounded by majestic views, and Kirk Creek Campground in Big Sur, which offers dramatic ocean vistas.

For a detailed guide on the best places to camp, especially in Joshua Tree National Park, check out this comprehensive list of the best campgrounds in California.

Where are the best free camping areas in California?

For those looking to escape the crowds and enjoy nature on a budget, California has several options for free camping. Many national forests, like the Sierra National Forest, allow dispersed camping free of charge.

For more specific locations and tips on how to find the best spots, explore my stealth van camping guide, or you can use van life parking apps that help identify legal and scenic parking options throughout the state.

What are the best national parks in California?

California’s national parks are diverse, each offering unique natural features and experiences. Yosemite National Park is famous for its giant sequoias and stunning valley views. Joshua Tree National Park is renowned for its otherworldly desert landscapes, while Sequoia National Park is home to the immense General Sherman tree, one of the largest trees on Earth.

Other noteworthy parks include Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth, and the often-overlooked Lassen Volcanic National Park, with its bubbling mud pots and clear mountain lakes. I would recommend trying to add as many as possible to your California road trip itinerary.

California Road Trip Itinerary

This two-week California road trip is an adventure that showcases the vast diversity and striking beauty of the Golden State. Whether you’re soaking up the energy from the lively cities, exploring the serene national parks, or lounging on some of the best beaches in the world, California promises a memorable adventure.

This itinerary is designed not just to highlight key attractions but to encourage immersion in the local lifestyle. Savor the regional cuisine, Engage with the community, and take the time to observe the subtle beauty that surrounds you.

So, roll down your windows, turn up your favorite tunes, and let California’s scenic routes lead you to new discoveries. Safe travels, and enjoy every moment of your incredible California road trip itinerary!


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Warren Morelli is the creator behind The Nomad Hive, a blog and resource hub for digital nomads and travel enthusiasts. Alongside his partner, Natasha, Warren has been exploring the world and working remotely for over eight years. They have a deep passion for discovering new cultures, sharing travel tips, and teaching others how to sustain a nomadic lifestyle. Their experiences offer readers practical advice and a firsthand look at the joys and challenges of living a nomadic life. Through his blog, Warren continues to inspire and guide those who dream of a life unbound by location.