Two Weeks. 800 Miles. One Epic California Road Trip.
California has always exerted a pull on the American imagination. It was the last stop for pioneers in covered wagons, fortune seekers during the Gold Rush, dispossessed Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression, and tech entrepreneurs during the ongoing Silicon Valley boom. Not to mention all the farmers, railroad workers, immigrants, wannabe Hollywood stars, surfers, tree huggers, flower children, retirees, and dreamers who have felt the tug of the state’s epic landscape and seemingly boundless promise.
It’s practically screaming for a road trip. A big one. One that lets you sample California’s unparalleled sense of natural majesty. Consider this two-week itinerary we’ve put together—and tested!—as a survey of the state’s one-of-a-kind offerings. It covers nearly 800 miles and features stops in Redwood National Park, the Napa wine region, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, and Los Angeles.
California, here we come.
Days 1–2: Redwoods and Northern Coast
Most guidebooks will tell you to start your California road trip in one of the major cities—San Francisco or Los Angeles—but if you want to work your way down the coast without a lot of backtracking, the town of Eureka is a good place to begin. Set aside at least a day to explore Redwood National Park, home of the planet’s tallest living beings. You’ll need a hiking permit to access Tall Trees Grove—a limited number are issued each day, so stop by the park’s visitor center first thing in the morning to secure your spot.
Days 3–4: Wine Country
On the drive south toward Napa, you’ll want to take a scenic detour to admire even more redwoods in the Avenue of the Giants. Then it’s on to wine country, where you can tour sun-drenched vineyards and sip cabernets (check out our video on how to pack wine if you plan on bringing a bottle or two home), plus dine at some of the world’s best restaurants. Book everything as far in advance as possible—spots fill up fast year-round. A table at Thomas Keller’s famous The French Laundry in Yountville, for instance, can take months to secure.
Days 5–8: San Francisco
The hilly, charming-as-all-get-out City by the Bay is relatively compact compared to other US metropolises. It’s a good thing, too, because there’s a lot worth seeing. For the classic touristy experience, take a cable car from Nob Hill to the waterfront, where you can board a ferry for eerie Alcatraz Island, eat dungeness crab at Fisherman’s Wharf, and enjoy an ice-cream sundae at Ghirardelli Square.
Exploring massive Golden Gate Park should take another day. You might also want to take in the countercultural ambiance of Haight-Ashbury, the LGBT scene in the Castro district, and the Victorian architecture of Alamo Square; all of these neighborhoods are an easy walk from the eastern end of the park. And let's not forget the Golden Gate Bridge. For the best views, rent a bike and pedal across in the morning, just in time for brunch in the quaint fishing village of Sausalito.
Days 9–11: Yosemite
From San Francisco, you have two options: 1) take a scenic drive along Route 1 to Los Angeles or 2) make a detour inland to Yosemite National Park. If you choose the latter, count on spending at least 2 days here—1 for marveling at the granite monoliths and waterfalls surrounding the valley, and another for taking hikes such as the popular Mist Trail leading up the side of a waterfall via slippery stone steps. The truly ambitious can continue on up to the top of Half Dome, though the journey is arduous and requires a permit booked months in advance.
Days 12–14: Los Angeles
Driving from Yosemite to Los Angeles usually takes about five hours. In heavy traffic, though, it could take all day. If you plan to fly home on day 14, that really only leaves you a day in the world’s undisputed entertainment capital. With limited time, you’ll want to hit the highlights: cruise along Sunset Boulevard, compare your handprints to John Wayne’s at the TCL Chinese Theatre, admire art at the Getty Center, check out Venice Beach, and re-create the shopping scene from Pretty Woman in Beverly Hills. A great way to end the day is at the Griffith Park Observatory, where you can look out over the entire city as dusk falls.
Photos: Zac Thompson, Groupon