Ready for the adventure of a lifetime? This California road trip itinerary is spread over 10 days, including a Big Sur road trip, national parks, coastlines and more.
There’s a reason Highway One is on so many wish lists. It’s a dreamy photogenic road trip that everyone needs to experience for themselves.
A Perfect California Road Trip Itinerary
Disclosure: Escape Campervans provided the vehicle for my road trip.
Day 1 – Fly to San Francisco
You can get really cheap flights to San Francisco, so it makes sense to start here. You’ll also find lots of vehicle rentals available.
Day 2-3 – San Francisco
Don’t attempt to drive with jet lag. Instead, use these few days to explore San Francisco. You don’t need a car to get about. Just hop on the trams or hire a bike. You can easily pick up a taxi if you really need to. Parking is expensive in the city so it just makes sense to wait until you’re ready to hit the road before you get your car or camper.
There are so many things to do in San Francisco, so if you have a bit more time an extra day or two could easily be filled up – especially if you like eating!
Recommended reading: 7 of the best places to eat at in San Francisco
Day 4 – San Francisco to Sonoma
Pick up your rental car or camper first thing in the morning. No road trip in California would be complete without driving over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. It’s in countless films and is one of the most famous landmarks in the state.
Tip: If you’re heading southbound you’ll need to pay a small toll (less than $10). Your registration will be scanned as you enter and you’ll then need to go online or visit one of the pay stations within 48hours to pay the fee. FYI – different rules apply for locals.
Head north of San Francisco up to Sonoma. It should take around 1hr 30mins.
Stop for lunch at The Girl & The Fig then head to your place for the night.
I whole heartedly recommend staying at Farmhouse Inn. The service, style and experience is second to none. Spend the afternoon and evening enjoying wine tasting, s’mores and stargazing.
Recommended reading: You’ll Never Want to Leave Farmhouse Inn
Day 5 – Sonoma
Enjoy a leisurely breakfast – the bear claws at Farm House Inn are incredible!
Now it’s time to see what Sonoma County, otherwise known as the wine region or wine country, is all about.
Leave your vehicle and grab a taxi so that you can enjoy the local wines.
For dinner head to Willi’s Wine Bar for one of the most amazing meals you’ll have during your entire visit to California. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the food and wine are incredible.
Recommended reading: Dining at Willi’s Wine Bar in Sonoma
Day 6 – Sonoma
It’s time to work off all that food and wine! Head to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve to see the insanely huge redwood trees.
There are a few different circuits for different levels of fitness and/or timeframes. It’s home to some of the oldest and largest trees, which need to be seen to be believed. Allow half a day for this.
After lunch head down south to Moss Landing. It should take around 2hrs 30 mins.
Look out for the power station and stop in the car park just before. From here you’ll be able to see lots of sealions and if you’re lucky you might see an otter or two as well.
Continue your drive to Monterey. It should take about 25 minutes. Travelling with kids or want to avoid the rain? Head to the famous Monterey Aquarium.
Recommended reading: Car Activities for Toddlers
Day 7 – Monterey – Carmel-by-the-Sea
Grab a coffee at ocean-front Tidal Coffee before driving 10 minutes to Carmel-by-the-Sea.
It’s not hard to see why both locals and visitors harp on about this small seaside town. It’s fairly compact, offering pretty rows full of boutiques and people with plenty of money.
If you can face an early start, try and make it there for sunrise. Alternatively, if you have time to spare in your California road trip itinerary visit here for sunset.
Standing on the beautiful white sand, watching the waves crash whilst the sun performs is perfect.
Tip: Beachfront parking (particularly in peak seasons) is often in demand, so factor in a bit of extra time to find a space.
When you’re ready to leave, continue south, driving over the famous Bixby Creek Bridge until you reach Big Sur. It should only take 40 minutes, but often takes longer because the road hugs the coastline, so you’ll want to stop for photos every two seconds. If you’re not a fan of heights, you might want to shut your eyes!
Have cash to splash? Stay at the luxury Post Ranch Inn. Travelling without the kids? Head to adults-only Ventana Big Sur. If you’re on a budget head to one of the many camps, such as Big Sur Campground or Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground.
Recommended reading: Camping With Kids
Day 8 – Big Sur Road Trip
What should you not miss in Big Sur? Julia Pfeiffer Burns National Park. It’s beautiful.
A half-mile flat walk will lead you to the McWay Falls – a waterfall that tumbles to the beach. The Partington Cove Trail spans one mile and in comparison, is steep. It leads over a wooden bridge down to a 60-foot tunnel and out on to a rocky beach.
Also, look out for migrating whales, sea otters and condors.
It’s about nature in this area of your California road trip, but if you do want to shop head to The Phoenix Shop.
Come dinner time, head to Big Sur Bakery for a gourmet wood-fired pizza or tuck into Nepenthe’s iconic ambrosia burger. If you have cash to splash, head to the Post Ranch Inn’s restaurant, Sierra Mar.
Tip: Head to Esalen in Big Sur for a retreat experience. There are over 600 workshops focussed on change in self and society.
Day 9 – Santa Cruz
Wake up early and drive back north for 1 hour 20 minutes to Santa Cruz. You’ll drive along the same way as you came down, but obviously in the opposite direction, so if the weather wasn’t kind to you on the way down you’ll have a chance to get some better pics.
Grab a light lunch at Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe. Make sure you try the cinnamon rolls!
Take a stroll on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Kids will enjoy this as there are rides.
Head to Natural Slate Bridges to see if you can spot seals. If you’re really into wildlife head out on a dolphin and whale watching cruise.
Recommended reading: Anchor Steam Tour in California
Day 10 – San Francisco
Drive 1hour 30 minutes back up to San Francisco to hand your keys back in. If the Golden Gate Bridge was foggy when you drove over it earlier in the trip it’s worth trying again if you have time.
California Road Trip Logistics
1. Choose a Campervan or Car
If you’re looking for a truly unique experience, book a van with Escape Campervans. They have the most unique and exciting, but equally reliable vehicles.
Each of the vans in their fleet has been given an edgy makeover thanks to custom paint jobs. No two vans are the same, so you’re sure to turn heads as you cruise the roads (and especially when you’re parked up or at the petrol station).
It’s not just about looks though. The Ford vans come in a few different sizes and are well equipped with practical kitchens and comfy, spacious seating and sleeping areas. If you’re expecting a hefty price tag in return for such an amazing van, think again. They’re really affordable and are renowned for not having hidden costs like some other rental companies.
Even if hotels are more your thing, the Escape Campervans are surprisingly comfortable, so it really is a worthwhile experience, even if it is just a quick one-night tick on your travel wish list.
Recommended reading: Your Guide to Luxury Motorhome Hire in New Zealand
2. Take It Easy
Most of the rental vehicles are automatics, which is a little unusual if you’re a fellow Brit. Combined with driving on the right-hand side of the road it can take a little while to get used to it.
If you’re starting out in San Francisco bear in mind that you can’t turn right down a lot of the main roads and the city has a lot of steep hills. It’s totally a fun and exciting city to drive in, but just be ready for automatic hill starts!
Have you been on a road trip in California or elsewhere? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do? I’d love to hear from you in the comments box below. If you have any questions feel free to ask. X
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