Going on a road trip in California has to be one of the best ways to experience the state. With amazing national parks, world-class cities and everything in between – California has everything that a road tripper could ever want!
But California is huge, and is practically a nation unto itself. Where do you pick where to go on your California road trip? How long will you visit each place? How much will it cost?
Don’t worry – we have the insider information you need for an EPIC road trip.
Written by our road-trip experts, this epic guide covers everything you need to know about your California road trip.
We’ll show you exactly how to stick to a budget, where to find California’s hidden gems, and give you plenty of ideas and itineraries so you can easily plan out your entire California trip!
The highway is calling – let’s dive right into our insider California travel guide!
Table of Contents
Let’s be frank here: a road trip in California is not going to be cheap by any means.
It’s not the kind of cost to be discouraged though since we at The Broke Backpacker still look for ways to save! Even if we are unable to travel for $10 a day we can at least help reduce the prices of a California road trip to a reasonable level.
The average daily budget for a California road trip is between $150-$250 – this includes gas, a rental car, lodging, food, drink, and entry into certain attractions. Make note of this number but please do not let it discourage you – we’re going to show how to reduce it to a more budget-friendly amount soon.
The largest cost will definitely be your rental car, as it is unavoidable for a road trip. We suggest visiting California outside of peak season for cheaper prices. California is a large state – don’t be surprised to drive 5+ hours in a day – so gas prices are inevitable too. While much cheaper than say, Europe, California gas prices are one of the most expensive in the country.
Finally, lodging, food and drink can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it. This is where you can really bring the costs down, which we’ll break down in the next section.
Average Costs of a California Road Trip
Southern California Road Trip – 5 days
SF and the Sierra Nevada – 7 days
Eastern California Road Trip – 10 days
Road trip on the California Coast – 14 days
Below is a list of the best itineraries for a California road trip. Varying from 5 to 14 days in length, they cover many of the top destinations in California. Each itinerary provides day-by-day highlights, which are meant to give you some good California road trip ideas.
Southern California may be the first place everyone imagines when they think about the state. Fine-sand beaches, palm trees, plenty of urban sprawl, and plenty more weed and booze, SoCal is quintessential California.
Going on a road trip in Southern California will afford you lots of chances to try all of the aforementioned activities.
The area between Los Angeles and San Diego is classically considered SoCal. Between two massive cities, you’ll get to do everything from surfing to smoking to skating in the parks. You’ll get to hang with hipsters in Echo Park, have date nights in La Jolla, and chillax in Venice Beach.
If you’d like to shoot for the stars, you can even make road trips to Southern California’s other top spots, likes of Santa Barbara, the San Bernardinos, and Santa Catalina Island.
Road Trip Length:
San Diego, Los Angeles, Huntington Beach, Malibu, San Bernardino’s, Santa Catalina, Channel Islands
Notable bars and restaurants:
The food cart, Lost Abbey (San Diego), Greenflash (San Diego), El Prez (San Diego), A.O.C. (LA), Night Market Song (LA), Tabula Rosa (LA)
Where to Sleep:
Surfing, brewery walks in San Diego, food tours in Los Angeles, partying in Hollywood, Venice Beach oddities, hiking on the Channel Islands
I-5, California Highway 1 road trip, Palos Verdes Drive
Festivals and Events:
Sun and Sea Fest San Diego (July), Rose Parade and Rose Bowl (January), Adult Swim Festival (October), Desert Daze (October), Camp Flog Nawg Festival (November)
The Bay Area is (in my opinion) the best part of California – it’s drop-dead gorgeous, prosperous, dynamic, and absolutely chalked full of things to do. Food, drink, nature, culture, weather; it’s all here. No road trip on the California Coast is complete without stopping in the Bay.
There are just so many superlatives around the Bay:
San Francisco is probably the most beautiful city in the USA (it knows this though). Oakland is low-key the coolest part of the Bay. Napa produces the best wine in the state. Finally, a road trip down California Highway 101 will land you in Santa Cruz – the surf capital of NorCal – and then Big Sur, which is arguably the best part of the coast.
The Bay Area is also conveniently within a few hours drive of amazing outdoor destinations like Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe. Both offer some of the most scenic drives in California, not to mention an endless amount of outdoor activities.
Road Trip Length:
John Muir Woods, San Francisco, Oakland, Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, Napa, Big Sur
Notable bars and restaurants:
Bierhaus (Oakland), Wreck Room (San Francisco), Zeitgeist (SF), Thieves Tavern (SF), Stonefly Restaurant (Markleeville), Austin’s Restaurant (Tahoe)
Where to Sleep:
Climbing in Yosemite, wine tasting in Napa Valley, swimming at Lake Tahoe, beers in Dolores Park, art walks in Oakland, road trip to Big Sur
Highway 1, Tioga Pass, Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive, Silverado Trail
Treasure Island Festival (October), SF Pride Parade (June), SF Chinese New Year (February), Outside Lands (August), Festival Napa Valley (July)
Eastern California is a side of the state that not too many see. A lot of people are turned off by the region’s heat, desolation, and lack of coastline.
While the East may not be as popular as a road trip on the California Coast, it is still beautiful in its own way.
As you make a road trip on California’s 395, you will be presented with unexpected natural splendor. To the west, the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada rise very prominently. To the east, the Great Basin stretches on for unfathomable miles.
This California road trip route offers a lot of the state’s best destinations, like Death Valley, Mt Whitney, Lake Mono, and Lassen Volcanic Park. All of these locations are stunning and it goes without saying that some of the best hikes in California are around these parts.
Road Trip Length:
Death Valley, Alabama Hills, Bishop, Lake Mono, Lake Tahoe, Lassen Volcanic National Park
Notable bars and restaurants:
Holy Smokes Texas Style BBQ (Bishop), Aaron Schat’s Roadhouse (Bishop), The Stove (Mammoth Lakes), John’s Pizza Works (Mammoth Lakes), La Vecchia (Reno), Peg’s Glorified Ham n Eggs (Reno)
Where to Sleep:
Climbing Mt. Whitney, skiing at Mammoth Lakes, hiking in John Muir Wilderness, paddle boarding at Lake Tahoe, gambling in Reno
Highway 395, Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive, Lassen Scenic Byway
Burning Man (August), Reno Artown (July), Reno Hot August Nights (August), Mammoth Festival of Beers and Bluesapalooza (August), Mammoth Village Summer Jam (June), Bishop Manzanar Pilgrimage (April)
A road trip on the California Coast is the stuff of dreams – it’s one of the most romantic parts of the entire USA and has inspired countless people to pack up their lives and move west. Ultimately, it is a superbly beautiful place to travel around and, crucially, very easy as well.
You can take a road trip on California Highway 1 and 80% of the time you will never leave the coast. Seriously, the ocean is within sight for the near entirety of the trip. For those who want to be close to the sea, this California Coast road trip route is about as close as it gets.
You will also visit most of the state’s top locations while on a Highway 1 California road trip as well. This includes San Diego, Los Angeles, Big Sur, San Francisco the Redwoods; all that and then some.
Road Trip Length:
San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, SLO, Big Sur, San Francisco, Marin Country, Redwoods National Park
Notable bars and restaurants:
Greenflash (San Diego), El Prez (San Diego), A.O.C. (LA), Night Market Song (LA), Tabula Rosa (LA), Wreck Room (San Francisco), Zeitgeist (SF), Oaxaca Grill Restaurant (Eureka), Annie’s Cambodian Cuisine (Eureka)
Where to Sleep:
Surfing in Santa Cruz, hiking in SLO, road trip along Big Sur, food in LA, photography with the Redwoods, beers in San Diego
The entire road trip on California Highway 1
Kinetic Grand Championship (May), Redwood Coast Music Fest (May), Reggae on the River (August), Pride Parade (June), Outside Lands (August), Sun and Sea Fest San Diego (July), Desert Daze (October)
Below is a list of the best road trip stops in California. Study them well and decide which ones you like the most. Check out this post for romantic getaway ideas found along your California road trip route.
Check out our West Coast road trip guide too if you plan to continue your trip through Oregon and Washington!
Road Trip to Los Angeles
When people imagine California, the first place that comes to mind is Los Angeles. In many ways, Los Angeles does epitomize Californian life – hopeful, buzzing, fortunate, decadent, and decrepit all at once. I can think of no better place to start a road trip in California than the “City of Angels.”
Located in Southern California on the Pacific Coast, Los Angeles is an enormous city. It’s the second largest city in the USA and has dozens of unique districts that offer their own flair. To speak to each one would require a lot more time than we have in this guide so we’ll have to gloss over a lot of LA.
Thankfully, we have already written a separate city guide for Los Angeles, which you can study here. We’ve also written a guide on the best places to stay in Los Angeles, which breaks down the city’s neighborhoods even further. Check our LA hostel guide too.
Los Angeles does a lot of things to do. It is statistically superlative: the most LGBT-friendly city in America, one of the most ethnically diverse cities, and one of the most sexually active (yes, this is a real study). In summation, LA is really good at being open-minded and enjoying itself.
Much of LA’s reputation precedes it. World-famous Hollywood is still a playground for the rich, famous, and beautiful. Santa Monica is still the place for family fun and fresh-out-of-college greenhorns. Venice Beach is still full of weirdos.
There is a lot more to LA these days. Once crime-ridden and neglected areas like Koreatown, Silverlake, and Echo Park are on the rise. Hipsters are becoming the new socialites, not aspiring actors. If there’s one thing I can credit LA for, is that it’s always surprising me.
So drop by Los Angeles for good food, good parties, and good vibes. You’ll find it to be one of the most unique things to do in Southern California.
Road Trip to San Diego
People often imagine Los Angeles as a laid-back surfer town with sick beaches and good vibes. In my opinion, San Diego is the better representative of this idea and is what many people are actually looking for when they go on a road trip in Southern California.
San Diego is a fun, easygoing beach city that is renowned for its excellent surf, seriously spectacular weather, and righteous residents.
San Diego is south of Los Angeles and sits right on the border of Mexico. Literally, from a large hill, you can Tijuana and the Mexican border. This makes trips to Mexico very easy and also imbues the city with a very Latin vibe.
Aside from Balboa Park, the best places to visit in San Diego are the many coastal neighborhoods or one of the many cultural sites.
San Diego has a lot of history, both as an ex-colonial town and important military base during World War years. You’ll a decent amount of Spanish-inspired architecture in San Diego and many landmarks like the Cabrillo Monument, the USS Midway, and the Old Colonial Park.
Seriously, you can’t go wrong with just laying on the beach in San Diego. The city beaches here are some of the best in California and should not be missed. Coronado, Mission, La Jolla, and Pacific are all noteworthy ones.
Be sure to grab a drink or attend a concert while road tripping in San Diego. The Gaslamp Quarter (Downtown) is definitely ground zero for parties in San Diego though Mission and North Park are also good. There are many breweries around San Diego and it’s often ranked one of the best beer cities in America. Check out ListenSD for all up upcoming music shows.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in San Diego, be sure to check out our SD hostel guide for some great tips and reviews!
Road Trip to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo
Heading north from Los Angeles we begin our real road trip in Southern California; the area we’re about to describe is known as the Central Coast and arguably the best area in the state.
When driving northbound, you definitely have to drive on California Highway 1 and 101. These coastal routes are among the most famous roads in California because they hug the coast perfectly and offer breathtaking scenery.
Leaving Los Angeles and the ultra-luxurious Malibu, you’ll first pass through Ventura. Ventura is a nice coastal town and a welcome respite from mad LA. Look out for the iron bells on the 101, which mark the original pilgrimage of Junipero Serra, who was one of the most important religious figures in Californian history.
Keep driving on the 101 and you’ll eventually you’ll arrive in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is one of the most beloved cities in California due to its historical significance, downtempo vibe, and excellent beaches.
The Mission Santa Barbara and County Courthouse are two of the best examples of the local (Catholic) Mission-style architecture. They’re nice to appreciate but only for about 15-30 minutes.
Much better is East Beach and Leadbetter Beach, which could rival any Californian beach in terms of beauty. Try visiting more cultivated spots like Lotusland and the Botanic Gardens also.
If you’d like to stay in Santa Barbara for the night be sure to check out the best places to sleep in the city. (Hint: the lodges are really nice here.) Otherwise, let’s move on.
Back on the road again, we head further north towards San Luis Obispo. You’ll notice by now the landscape becoming increasingly green and rugged, which comes to a zenith in San Luis Obispo. Upon arriving in San Luis or “SLO,” you’ll see that it’s a gorgeous college town.
San Luis Obispo is surrounded by woods, volcanic-formed hills, and rugged coastline, all of which are prime places for hiking and adventure sports.
For the more hedonistic travelers, there is an excellent farmers market in SLO every Thursday that offers live music and plenty of fresh food. Wine tours in the Edna Valley are also recommended.
Road Trip to Big Sur and Monterey
The coastline between Los Angeles and San Francisco, referred to as Big Sur, is considered by many to be one of the top destinations in California.
This part of the California Coast is an absolute feast for the eyes. With wind-warped trees, towering cliffs, and some of the most rugged topography in the state, this will be one of the highlights of your road trip on California Highway 1.
Not long after you enter Big Sur from San Simeon in the south, you’re afforded views of one the most photographed places in California: McWay Falls. This near-perfect waterfall empties straight onto a gorgeous beach and is framed by equally inspiring sea cliffs. There are several trails around this area that take you to various little canyons and cascades.
Moving along, you’ll drive further into Big Sur and past many remote beaches. Pfeiffer Beach is one of the most famous due to the keyhole formation in a local seastack and sparkly, purple sand. You can access several more beaches from Andrew Molera State Park via hiking trails.
Continuing on you’ll round Point Sur and be afforded some epic views of the coast. There are lots of vistas here on the side of the road so be sure to pull over for photos.
You’ll also see the impressive Bixby Creek Bridge, another oft-photographed landmark in Big Sur. Don’t forget to stop by Garrapata Beach for a break.
Last but not least on our Big Sur road trip is Point Lobos, which has lots of gorgeous coves that are accessed via trails. Beyond Lobos is Monterey and the upscale Carmel, a charming little beach town that deserves a day or two to be explored.
If you’re looking for some excellent surf, nearby Santa Cruz is legendary for its waves as well as its alternative lifestyles and omnipresent fog. Don’t be surprised to smell the grass. Check out this post for fun things to do in Santa Cruz.
You can either sleep in Big Sur or around Monterey Bay. We love Monterey and the local hostel there but camping in Big Sur is an awesome experience. Read up on where to camp in Big Sur here.
Road Trip to San Francisco
San Francisco has always been in a league of its own. Though it often competes with Los Angeles for the title of “coolest city in California,” it is in so many ways incomparable to any other city, both in America and the world for that matter.
A supremely confident place with a host of attractions that most international cities dream of having, San Francisco is simply one of the coolest places in California.
San Francisco is a different city from Los Angeles both culturally and geographically. Here, ubiquitous, bright sunny days are swapped for more moody, misty ones and people here are generally more alternative in their lifestyle choices. That is not to say LA and SF are at odds with one another. At the end of the day, the two cities probably have more in common than not.
There is just a fuck ton to do in San Francisco and, like Los Angeles, we can’t cover everything in this brief section. Again, we must refer those who are interested in reading about SF to our separate city guide. We have also written a separate guide for the coolest neighborhoods in SF that is great if need help finding the perfect place to stay.
If you’re traveling solo, hostels are the cheapest way to go. Check this guide here.
My advice for what to do in San Francisco is to just start walking around. As one of the densest urban areas in the USA, there is literally something to see on every street corner.
Take a walk down Market Street to see the city’s skyscrapers. Tour the ultra-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf and make your way past Marina District to the elegant Presidio. Get Italian food in North Beach. Explore the ritzy Nob Hill and Russian Hill food and bar scene. Wander around the increasingly gentrifying Mission, Haight, and Castro districts, which were once the hubs of civil action.
Of course, no road trip to San Francisco is complete without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge too.
Check out our SF 3-day itinerary here for more inspiration!
Road Trip to the Greater Bay Area
It’s easy for visitors to forget that San Francisco is a part of a much larger urban organism, one that is among the most dynamic in the USA. Referred to as the Bay Area, there are many cities besides San Francisco worth visiting here. The most noteworthy of these include Oakland, San Jose, and the combined counties of Marin and Napa. Between these other destinations, there is an even greater amount of things to do outside of San Francisco.
San Jose aka “Silicon Valley” is the center of the technological world in California and probably the entire United States. Here are some of the richest, most daring company headquarters in the world, including Google, FaceBook, and Apple, and yet San Jose is kind of a boring place.
Oakland is a way more fun to visit, arguably more than San Francisco actually. Granted, Oakland has had a pretty rough reputation in the past for being crime-ridden and underprivileged, but it is quickly becoming one of the most eclectic and interesting places in California.
The lifestyle here is notably more relaxed than San Francisco and much more geared towards the anti-establishment mentality. With soaring costs of living though, this could all change.
Berkeley is famous for its local university but is a charming place to visit otherwise. Think hippies who made a lot of money and wanted to settle down; that’s Berkley. The local Cal Sailing Club also offers free sailing tours in the Berkeley Marina on certain nights, which is one our favorite free things to do in California!
North of SF is Napa Valley, famous for its world-class wineries, and Marin County, arguably the prettiest part of the Bay Area. This area is also where rich hippies settle down. Both make for excellent day-long road trips from San Francisco. Be sure to check out Mount Tamalpais and the Bay’s own redwood collections.
Road Trip to Yosemite
One of the most popular road trips from San Francisco is to Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada. Sacred to rock climbers and incomprehensible to first-timers, Yosemite is one of the best places in California and the entire world for that matter. If you’re planning on a road trip to California’s national parks, Yosemite is absolutely mandatory.
Yosemite is a short 4-hour drive away from the Bay Area. You’ll drive along the 508 and Highway 5 through the Central Valley before merging onto the 120, which will take you all the way to the edge of the park.
Beyond Yosemite, the 120 is also one of the most beautiful and famous roads in California because it goes over the Tioga Pass. Views are plentiful and astounding in the summer but during the winter the pass is closed.
Most people will start their adventure in Yosemite at Yosemite Village where the Visitor’s Center is. You’ll have to pay a $35 per vehicle entry fee for Yosemite National Park.
If you are visiting more than one national park on your California road trip route, then we highly suggest buying an America the Beautiful pass. It allows unlimited entry to all national parks for one year, and only costs $80 (limit one per vehicle).
In Yosemite Valley, you’ll see all of the park’s most iconic features, including the hallowed Half Dome and El Capitan. Both of these granite gods are legendary rock climbing destinations and arguably the most famous places to go sport climbing in the world.
For the more casual outdoors person, Yosemite has some of the best hikes in California. The trails leading up to Glacier Point via 4 Mile, Vernal/Nevada Falls via Mist, and Yosemite Falls are all spectacular. You can even hike to the top of Half Dome with a highly competitive permit. Several viewpoints, like Tunnel View and Glacier Point View, are accessible by car as well.
Road Trip to Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is an unfathomably beautiful lake, the likes of which is a great source of pride for Californians. Lying deep in the Sierra Nevada and on the border of the state of Nevada, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in the USA and the largest freshwater lake in California.
It is one of the most popular road trip spots in California among locals and visitors alike.
There are several roads leading to Lake Tahoe. Both Highway 50 (to South Lake) and 80 (to North Lake)will take you to the lake from the Bay Area and both will take 3-4 hours to drive. If you’re looking for a piece of American history, try taking a detour over Donner Pass, which is another famous road in California due in part to the story of the Donner Party.
Arriving at Lake Tahoe, you will be knocked dead in your tracks by the beauty of the lake. It is a massive body of water with huge boulders intermittently strewn and a painter’s palette of colors.
The water, a deep turquoise and blue, is often considered some of the clearest in the world and ranked right up there with Lake Baikal and Crater Lake.
There are several places to stay at around Lake Tahoe. The major towns are South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City in the north. There are several little villages, resort towns, and campgrounds all around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe as well.
Summer is the most popular time of year to visit Lake Tahoe. Swimmers, hikers, and boaters all enjoy the crystal clear (and very cold) water at this time as well as the scenery. There are several gorgeous beaches, both obvious and hidden, around Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe has awesome skiing in the winter. Tahoe gets absolutely dumped on by snow during this time, sometimes 8 feet at a time, though as of late the snow seasons have been hit or miss. The opening of the ski season varies wildly depending on the year as the climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
Road Trip to Northern California
Northern California, excluding the Bay Area and Sacramento, is a very different place than the rest of the state. With a penchant for successionism and a far, far sparser population/infrastructure, Northern California can feel like a completely separate state.
It receives far fewer visitors than the more southern California destinations and, for this reason, is actually kind of exotic. With hidden coastlines, gigantic flora, and a string of overactive volcanoes, Northern California is an excellent place for an adventure.
Your Northern California road trip route will probably start in the state capital of Sacramento. A misunderstood city, Sacramento is often mislabeled as “dull” or “backwater.” In reality, Sacramento has an amazing cultural scene, with excellent dining and lots of history, not to mention an exploding arts scene thanks to the influx of hipsters.
Driving north along I5, you’ll travel quite a ways before you reach anything noteworthy, first of which is the Lassen Volcanic National Park. Due to its isolation, Lassen is one of the least visited parks in the state but has some of the most unique offerings. There are bubbling thermal pools here, surreal landscapes, and one of the most active volcanoes in the country.
Traveling north along the 89, a very scenic drive in California, you’ll pass by Burney Falls, which is one of the prettiest falls in the state. Beyond Burney, you’ll see the massive Mt. Shasta in the distance, which, at 4322m, is one of the most bulbous mountains in the lower 48.
In the summer, you can climb the mountain over several days or get a good view from Castle Lake/Heart Lake.
Making the long drive west over the Trinity Alps, which is great for wilderness backpacking, you’ll eventually land in Redwood National Park, home of the giants. Truly, one of the most beautiful places in California, do not miss the state parks around RNP.
At this point, you’ve met back up with Highway 101 and the California coast. Road trip back down through Eureka and Humboldt County, the weed growing capital of California, until you arrive back in the Bay Area.
National Parks in California
California has a whopping 9 national parks, which is more than any other state in the USA! Between these many parks are some of the best hikes in California as well as some awesome campgrounds and villages. On your California road trip route, visiting at least some of the nationals parks are absolutely mandatory!
- Yosemite – Yosemite is Mecca for rock climbers and photographers. Here are some of the most imposing, most dramatic, and most beautiful rock walls in the entire world. Everyone who visits Yosemite and the valley is awestruck.
- Kings Canyon/Sequoia – Two separate national parks that are located right next to each other. Sequoia National park is famous for its towering sequoia trees e.g. General Sherman and Tunnel Tree. Kings Canyon is a craggy, mountainous terrain that is typical of the High Sierra. Lake Marjorie in Kings is one of the most beautiful places in California.
- Death Valley – One of the lowest and hottest places on Earth! Characterized by high mountains, surreal geology, and the tallest dunes in North America. Visit Dante’s View, Mesquite Dunes, and Zabriskie Point.
- Joshua Tree – Very popular place for boulderers and weekend road trippers from Los Angeles. Very unique flora and fauna and arguably the best stargazing in the state.
- Redwood – The Land of the Giants. This enormous park is full of giant redwood trees, which are among the tallest trees on the planet. One of the lushest and most ancient places in California.
- Lassen Volcanic – Lesser-visited park in Northern California. A very geologically active place full of bubbling lakes and active volcanoes. A little Yellowstone.
- Pinnacles – Small and newest National Park in the country, but significant national park southeast of San Francisco. Unique rock formations and caves hide some very important wildlife including 13 species of bat. Great for rock climbers and hikers.
- Channel Islands – Islands that have huge ecological diversity. Good for whale watching, scuba diving, and hiking.
Off the Beaten Path California Road Trip Ideas
California is an absolutely massive state and so there are plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten path. Most travelers stick to the popular routes while road tripping in California as well, which means these locations will be way quieter. Consider visiting these remote and special destinations in California while on your adventure.
- Lost Coast – The name alone gives away this location’s anonymity! Located in Northern California south of Eureka, this area experienced massive depopulation in the 30s thus giving it its name. The Lost Coast is one of the most underdeveloped and remote places in California for this reason and is stunningly beautiful. The eponymous Lost Coast Trail is very popular with backpackers and hiking this may be your only chance in Cali to have a beach to yourself.
- John Muir Wilderness – John Muir is a legend in the outdoor community thanks to his herculean effort to navigate and preserve California’s nature. Long gone, he is now honored with a section of wilderness in the Sierra Nevada named after him. The John Muir Wilderness and Ansel Adams Wilderness has some of the most beautiful natural attractions in all of California including Thousand Islands Lake/Minaret Lake, Bear Lakes Basin, and Sailor Lake. To appreciate this area, you’ll have to go wilderness backpacking for several days, at least, or maybe even for a whole month if you want to complete the whole John Muir Trail!
- Eastern Sierra Nevada – The Western side of the Sierra Nevada receives far more visitors than the blistering hot Eastern side. If you can be there in the Spring or Autumn, the Eastern Sierras are absolutely breathtaking! Aside from hosting the highest mountain in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney (4421m), the Eastern Sierras are far more rugged and barren than the Western side, making them look like an alien planet. Travel between the towns of Lone Pine and Bishop for the best of the Eastern Sierra.
Some of the above mentioned destinations and hikes are listed on our best hikes in California post, so check it out for more information.
California Roadside Attractions
Americans have a weird affinity to the strange landmarks that are usually found out in the middle of nowhere. These roadside attractions have become so admired that many people go on a trip just see them! If you’re around one of these sites on your California road trip, be sure to drop by. Did we mention that a lot of these stops are among the best cheap things to do in California as well?!
- Galleta Meadows (Borrego Springs) – A collection of fantastical iron-welded sculptures in the middle of the desert!
- Salvation Mountain (Niland) – A pretty famous attraction on the edge of San Diego. Surreal and Gaudi-like shrine in the desert. Definitely one of the most unique things to do in Southern California.
- Cabazon Dinosaurs (Cabazon) – One of the OG California roadside attractions! A favorite for many.
- Neverland Ranch (Los Olivos) – The former residence of the infamous pop singer, Michael Jackson. Now an abandoned palace that sometimes attracts offerings from ardent fans.
- Forestiere Underground Gardens (Fresno) – An impressive and intricate series of underground passageways with gardens everywhere. Very pretty place.
- Trees of Mystery (Klamath) – An amusement park of sorts with, most notably, two giants statues of Paul Benyon and his ox Babe.
- International Museum of Bananas (HWY 111 near the Salton Sea) – Hope you like bananas for this one! Or else you’re going to go bananas if you visit here….
California Scenic Drives
There are many famous roads in California, renown for both their beauty and history behind them. Those who want to take the long-way-round should definitely check out these scenic drives in California.
- Highway 1 – Highway 1 and its neighbor Highway 101 run the near entire length of the California coastline. It is arguably the most romanticized road in all of America outside of Route 66. From north of San Diego to the border of Oregon (HWY 101), you can see the best of the California coastline. For those looking for the best California road trip route, Highway 1 is without question the road for you.
- Silverado Trail – Wine-os rejoice! The Silverado Trail is an awesome Californian scenic drive north of San Francisco through prime winery territory. On this byway, you’ll have lots of chances to try the local drops, responsibly of course.
- Route 395 – Most travelers stick to Highway 1 on their road trip through California, which is totally understandable but they’re missing out on the epic Route 395. Running all the way from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the Canadian border, 395 passes through some of the most stunning landscapes in Eastern California. If you’re looking for more deserts and mountains on your California road trip, Route 395 is undoubtedly the better choice. Be sure to drop by Mono Lake, which is one of the most surreal places in the USA!
- San Diego to Las Vegas – This way passes through some of the finest desert landscapes in the state. Watch the sea slowly recede behind you and an ocean of sand rise ahead. You’ll pass by the Anza Borrego Desert, the Salton Sea, San Bernardino, Joshua Tree, and the Mojave Desert on this route.
Why Visit this Part of the World
How many songs have been written about the state of California? Hundreds? Thousands? Whatever the final count it is, it should be made apparent that people are quite fond of this state. California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and Papas; California Love by Dr. Dre; every single song every written by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (these guys really like Cali); the list goes on and on.
California is one of the most attractive, most prosperous, and most desirable places in not only the USA but the whole world. The landscape here is absolutely jaw-dropping, the lifestyle is notorious if not expensive, the food is honestly some of the best in the country, and the legendary parties are, for the most part, just as you’d expect them to be – that is wild and crazy.
In a lot of ways, California is the epitome of American decadence and, at the same time, its problems.
Everyone knows about California, and I mean everyone. I’ve met village people in the Karakorum of Pakistan who don’t know what a cellphone is but know what California is. That’s saying something.
For those who want to get a taste for the American dream, and for those who want to see some of its greatest natural attractions, California is probably your best option.
Granted, you will see some ugliness in the state, including rampant homelessness, gentrification, and gang-related crime. With an open mind though, you’ll be able to digest these harsh realities and look beyond towards California’s greater positives. At the end of the day, California simply has everything going for it.
Get insurance! Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your California road trip, but take it from someone who has racked up thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be traveling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking adventure! Traveling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
Below is a list of California road trip ideas for saving money. Try and practice these as much as possible.
- Rent an economy car: Prices can be as low as $25/day depending on the time of year and how far in advance you reserve. Economy cars are also more fuel efficient so you’ll save on fuel. Use apps like ViaMichelin to find cheap gas, which, seriously, always ends up being one of the most surprising and costly expenses on a road trip.
- Use vehicle relocation services: These brilliant services offer huge discounts to people on the condition they get a vehicle to a certain place at a certain time. No joke, you can rent a car sometimes for as low as $1/day! Availability is very limited though, so keep a watchful eye on the sites. Check immova and Cruise America to start with.
- Sleep overnight in an empty lot: Though not technically legal in California, people sleep in parking lots all the time. Make sure the lot is safe by asking around. Walmarts are reportedly good places to park overnight as they allow overnight parking.
- Camp: Unless you want to fork out big bucks for a lodge, you have to camp. Campgrounds are way less expensive and sometimes even free. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking. If you’re feeling really adventurous and want to save some cash, consider picking up a backpacking hammock.
- Cook your own food: Eating out can be very expensive in California. Cook your own food as much as possible to save – I recommend bringing a portable backpacking stove. Otherwise, have a fancy night out at a food cart.
- Do free shit: There are lots of free things to do in California! From hiking to laying on the beach to going to the local monuments; all of these things cost you nill. Check out our individual city guides on San Francisco and Los Angeles for more information on free stuff. Be sure to keep your ear to the ground for all things free in California.
- Buy an America the Beautiful Pass: Seriously, if you’re visiting more than two national parks, you’d be a fool not to buy this.
- Pack a travel water bottle: It’s good for your wallet and the environment.
Location Accommodation Why Stay Here?!
Los Angeles USA Hostels Hollywood Award winning hostel w/ lots of free amenities. Organizes lots of social events e.g. comedy night so meeting people is very easy. Free breakfast.
San Diego ITH ZOO Hostel San Deigo Great bang for your buck. Organizes free sailing trips as well as trips to local natural attractions. Free breakfast and pizza.
San Luis Obispo HI San Luis Obispo Very cozy and welcoming hostel in SLO.
Monterey HI Monterey Great location in the town and free parking! Pancake breakfast.
San Francisco USA Hostels San Francisco Very nice hostel that is a bit pricier. Offers discounted tours. Free breakfast.
Oakland (Berkley) Knights Inn A nice cheap motel. Good services and amenities. Located near BART station.
Yosemite Yosemite Bug Rustic A eco-hostel retreat that has a spa on site and natural spring very close by. Offer meals prepared w/ local products. Located bit away from Yosemite Valley.
Lake Tahoe Mellow Mountain Hostel Huge hostel in South Lake Tahoe. Very close to the beach and gondola. Offers ski storage. Free parking!
Sacramento HI Sacramento Renovated Victorian-style mansion that is conveniently located near Downtown. Ornate decorations. Free breakfast.
Eureka (Northern Cali) Emerland Forest Cabins Cute little cabins that can come included w/ a kitchen. Communal garden. Located very near the coast.
Good news is that there is a huge array of hotels and apartments in California. The bad news is that they’re all expensive, even by American standards. For those road tripping in California on a budget, you’re either going to have to get very creative or accept the fact that you’ll be staying in some pretty basic digs.
Cheap hotels in California are like those in much of the USA – barren, bland, and sometimes bleak. You’ll find some pretty decent motels and budget hotels in California, ones that are clean and tidy, but they’ll still be an eyesore and often located in a rough part of town. You’ll be paying at least $60-$80/night minimum as well.
AirBnBs in California are usually around the same price as hotels, if not cheaper. Since you’ll often be staying in someone’s home or in a shared space, there’s a better rapport and at least some character.
Californians can be really creative with their homes as well – I’ve seen luxury Airstreams, yurts, and even a Gingerbread house on AirBnB!
If given the choice between an AirBnB and a hotel, I’d definitely take the latter. Before booking you Californian AirBnB, be sure to check out our guide on how to find the perfect apartment, complete with a code for $35 off your next rental!
To save the most money, stick to hostels and campgrounds on your road trip through California. Hostels in California are actually really nice and are usually the most affordable accommodation available. Camping is the best way to experience the beautiful nature in California; it’s also the cheapest way to visit California.
If you’re feeling lucky you could try your hand at couchsurfing! Lots of people use this though so competition is quite high in California.
Camping in California
Camping is one of the best ways to stick to a budget on a California road trip. Campgrounds are way cheaper to stay at than hotels or apartments, and often may be your only means of lodging. If you’re going to go on an affordable road trip in California, camping will be a necessity just as much as pleasure.
There’s all sorts of nature in California and, consequently, countless places to go camping. There are several types of campsites in California that range in price and amenities. Some common examples include walk-up sites, cabins, and primitive sites. You can even stay in a fire lookout, which has to be one of the coolest things to do in California!
The grand majority of campgrounds in California will require payment that can either be accepted via an electronic authorization or a physical drop box at the actual grounds. In regards to the latter option, some people get away with not paying since receipts are not always checked. Whether or not one actually pays or not is none of our business, but the money does go towards maintaining the grounds for future guests.
If you intend on going on a “National Park Road Trip” in California and want to sleep inside one of them, prices will be much higher and availability will much lower. When camping in California’s most popular outdoor areas like Yosemite or the Redwoods, I highly recommend reserving ahead.
If there is no reservation system, get to the campground as early as possible to claim a walk-up campsite. Generally, the more expensive sights have running water, clean bathrooms, and fire pits. Primitive camping often requires you bring your own water (or means of filtering natural water nearby).
For a complete list of official campgrounds in California, you can refer to this website here for a useful search engine.
Camping in California – Gear Checklist
Camping is one of the best ways to experience the USA, and California has some of the finest camping in the whole country. You could sleep in your car or an RV while road tripping in California but sleeping outside under the stars is way more fun. Having a good tent will keep you comfortable on those chilly nights and give you lots of flexibility when it comes to finding a place to sleep.
Check out our full road trip packing list for more inspiration on what to bring on your road trip!
Here are some other essentials that we recommend if you plan on camping out…
1. Backpacking stove: If you want to cook your own food, either because you’re sick of takeout or want to save money, then you’ll need a cooking stove. Some campgrounds have fire pits with grills but I find these very inefficient. Campfires also may be outright banned as well if the fire season has been particularly bad that year, in which case you’ll definitely need your own stove.
I like the MSR Pocketrocket because it’s affordable, reliable, and very convenient.
2. Sleeping Pad: I really cannot sleep without some sort of camping pad. I’ve slept in some pretty rough campgrounds, full of rocks and roots, and my sleeping pad saved my life many times. The self-inflating sleeping mats, like the Thermarest Prolite, are my favorite, though people often settle for the foam ones.
3. Hammock: Taking a tent and pad on a road trip are not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy, and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colorful and tough.
4. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel, mainly to clean up but also for those impromptu swims. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
5. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to cook at night or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
6.Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. Potable water is not always guaranteed at campsites so bring a filter for creeks and rivers. AR bottle are tough, lightweight and maintain the temperature of your beverage – no matter where you are. For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Free Camping in California
There are a number of free campgrounds in California that road-trippers should totally take advantage of. Refer below for a list of these. Note that electricity, bathrooms, and running water are not guaranteed at any of these. Bring water just in case.
Campground Area Nearest Town
Camino Cove Campground Eldorado National Forest Pollock Pines
Mud Lake Trailhead Campground Lassen National Forest Old Station
Pinnacle Rock Mendocino National Forest Lucerne
Snag Lake Campground Tahoe National Forest Bassets
Orr Lake Campground Klamath National Forest Bray
Castle Lake Campground Mount Shasta Mount Shasta
Steiner Flat Campground Shasta-Trinity National Forest Douglas City
Lacks Creek Redwood Valley Eureka
Glass Creek Campground Inyo National Forest June Lake
Plum Valley Campground Modoc National Forest Davis Creek
Books to Read during your California Road Trip
These are some of my favorite travel reads and books set in California. Read one or two and you may have some great road trips ideas for California…
The Backpacker Bible – Get it for free! Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. To inspire and help the next generation of Broke Backpackers, you can now grab ‘How to Travel the World on $10 a Day’ for free! Get your copy here.
The Girls – A young and impressionable woman becomes attracted to another woman in a group of girls. She becomes a part of the group and is eventually caught up with a burgeoning cult.
The Mountains of California – The musings and ramblings of John Muir, one of the most famous and beloved naturalism in American history.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem – A collection essays about some of California’s greatest icons including John Wayne, Howard Hughes, and the Haight neighborhood of San Fran.
The Big Sleep – One of the most culturally significant murder mystery novels in existence. A piece of American history in itself.
East of Eden – One of Steinbeck’s masterpieces, considered his magnum opus by many. Explores the relationship between two families in the Salinas Valley in the early 20th Century.
The Octopus – A semi-biographical novel about the conflicts between California wheat farmers and the Union Pacific Railroad. A look into the brutal and relentless tactics of capitalism.
Lonely Planet Coastal California – It’s sometimes worth traveling with a guidebook.
Get your Buzz on in California
It’s hard to imagine an easier place to unwind or party in than California. The wine is superlative, the beer is endless, the bars are raucous, and weed is legalized. How can it get much better than this?
You will have lots of opportunities to drink and smoke on a road trip in California. Whether or not you choose to do so in the cities or at the campgrounds makes no difference. Everywhere you go, there will be booze or cheeky smokes. Though remember my young backpackers, the drinking and marijuana age is 21 and over.
All of the larger Californian cities have a huge selection of bars and nightclubs. Los Angeles and San Francisco, in particular, have some of the best nightlife in the country. You could find anything that you could possibly want in these cities from dives to speakeasies to burlesques to underground raves. You can even procure your favorite drugs in these places quite easily if that’s your thing.
Partying in the big cities regardless of how you do so will almost always be expensive. Cover charges are exorbitant in places like Hollywood and the price of drinks/drugs will not be far behind.
On the other hand, California has some cheapest retail prices for booze in the entire USA. There are alcohol superstores in California that are dangerously inexpensive, and you can buy alcohol in just about any food store in California (which is not the case in many states).
A better road trip idea for California would be to buy alcohol from a supermarket and then prefade. Few things can top a pint of cheap camp whiskey or craft beer enjoyed next to the fire.
Weed is legal in California! To buy weed in California, all you need to do is have a valid ID that proves you’re over 21 years of age and go to a dispensary. Dispensaries look and behave very much like any bottle shop with educated clerks and a wide selections of strains. Note that dispensaries only accept cash.
Best Time to Visit California
With so many places to see, and so many things to do in California, it’s tough to know when the best time to visit is. With a very mild climate, compared to the rest of the USA, and a plethora of activities appealing to all sorts of travelers, California can, honestly, be visited at any time of the year.
California is a big state and so is subject to several different types of climates. Most of the coast has a lovely Mediterranean-like climate while the interior is dominated by harsh desert or alpine conditions. There are unique pockets strewn throughout the rest of the state.
Generally speaking, California has four seasons regardless of geographic position. Most of the state has warmer, drier summers and cooler, wetter winters. Temperatures and annual rainfall vary depending on latitude and local geography. Northern California gets much more rainfall and is generally more temperate while the south is quite arid and very hot depending on how far from the coast you are.
In terms of road tripping in California on a budget, the summer months should be avoided at all costs. During this time there way too many tourists and prices are even higher than usual.
On another note, forest fires are becoming very common and very violent in recent years. They usually start in July and can rage until September. Air quality may be very poor in August.
Spring and Autumn are the best times to visit California because there are fewer people and the weather is still agreeable. The mountains may still have snow or be on fire depending on the season. Southern California will have very comfortable temperatures at this time.
If you like winter sports, you can totally visit California in the winter! There are lots of world-class ski resorts (Mammoth Lakes, Squaw Valley, Heavenly, etc.) in the Sierra Nevada and the surf is sometimes epic with big winter storms coming through.
Food in California
California is consistently rated by several national publications as one of the top states in the country for foodies. Thanks to its bountiful crops, large immigrant population, and demand for high-quality products, California is simply one of the best places to eat!
Most of California’s restaurants will be located in the larger cities. Los Angeles and San Diego are most famous for their amazing and authentic Mexican food, which, swear to God, is the best you’ll find north of the border.
San Francisco is known more for its eclecticism and diversity of culinary offerings due in part to the fact that it has more restaurants per capita than anywhere in the country. You’ll find excellent Asian food in the Bay Area, where many immigrants have settled throughout the century: Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, India, you name it.
Sacramento, considered the breadbasket of California, has an amazing farm-to-table food scene and the city is one of the greatest hidden culinary gems in the state. Expect excellent farmers markets year round.
When driving on the highways, you’ll encounter a mix of fast food and holes-in-the-wall along the way. Along the major routes, like I5, you’ll see a lot of burger and taco joints including the infamous In-and-Out Burger, which you should definitely try at least once (get the animal style).
On the smaller, satellite roads, you’ll see more diners and mom-and-pop joints, which are, in my opinion, far better. In these little haunts, you’ll get great home cooking and for a low price.
If you’re trying to stick to a budget in California, you’ll have to limit how much you eat out. Rely more upon off-the-beaten-path diners when driving and food trucks when in the cities.
Seriously, food trucks will be your best friend on any road trip in California as they offer cheap and delicious eats. If your hostel or campground has cooking facilities, use them too!
Being a Responsible Backpacker in California
Remember to be a respectful camper while on your California road trip. Depart from the grounds at a decent hour, follow leave no trace principles, and be very, very aware of fire bans. Forest fires are an enormous problem in California and are often caused by reckless campers.
Californians are also very conscious of the environment and like to take care of it, as should you.
Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in a landfill or in the ocean.
I know it can be hard, but do your best to use the least amount of plastic water bottles that you can. Refill the ones that you do buy! Use a Steripen. Refill at your hostel/guest house! There are plenty of ways to reduce plastic!!!
Pack a tough and cool travel water bottle. You’ll use it every single day whether you are traveling or not! Help save the planet, and pick up a water bottle here.
Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.
Renting a Car or Campervan in California
Renting a car is the most popular way of getting around California. There are a myriad of car rental agencies here that offer varying deals and varying models.
To find the best rental car deal in the USA, use search engines that compare the prices from individual companies. We personally like using rentalcars.com as they’ve never failed to give us a great price.
You can also rent an RV or campervan, which means you don’t have to worry about packing camping gear. You will have to empty and refill the various wascampete and water tanks though, which will require a visit to the proper facilities. RVs also cost more to rent, use more gas, and demand higher prices at campgrounds. We suggest booking a campervan with Outdoorsy as they usually have a good selection and good prices.
The roads in California are generally very good and a sedan or economy car should deliver you to most of California’s top destinations. Only in the most remote portions of the state and the Sierra Nevada, will the roads be so bad that you need 4×4 or at least high clearance.
If you’re on a road trip in California in the winter and want to go to the mountains, you will definitely need all-wheel or 4-wheel drive.
If traveling onwards, check out our West Coast road trip guide, here!
Tips for Saving Money on Car Rentals in the US
- We mentioned before that you can reach out to vehicle relocation services, like immova and Cruise America, as a way of saving heaps of cash on rentals. Pursue these as best you can as they can save you a lot of money. Don’t get your hopes up too much though, as availability is always limited.
- Car insurance isn’t always mandatory in the USA but is highly encouraged. This being said, you don’t necessarily have to buy car insurance from the company you’re renting from.
- Many credit card companies offer free car insurance if you book the car with the proper card. Call your credit card company for more information regarding terms and conditions.
Make Money Online Whilst Traveling in California
Want to stay in the USA longer? Worried that you don’t have enough cash for a longer California road trip? One idea is to make money while traveling!
Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income—from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. Depending on your qualifications (or your motivation to obtain qualifications like a TEFL certificate) you can teach English remotely from your laptop, save some cash for your next adventure, and make a positive impact on the world by improving another person’s language skills!
It’s a win-win! Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.
Learn what it’s like to be a VIPKID teacher, a top company in the field of online English learning.
In addition to giving you the qualifications to teach English online, TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.
“Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.”
Need More Inspiration?
- A guide to the best Hostels in San Francisco
- San Francisco Travel Guide
- Los Angeles Travel Guide
- Oregon Road Trip Guide
- New England Road Trip Guide
- Best Hostels in Los Angeles
- Epic California Travel Guide
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