California is well known for its amazing natural beauty especially on the Pacific Coast. As a result there are quite a few roads that can take you right to the most amazing California landscapes. From the amazing ocean views and towering Sequoias to tall mountain peaks, California offers it all. Come along with me as we explore 15 best drives in California.
Let’s explore California by car, starting in Northern California and working our way through Southern California all the way to San Diego. So, get in your car, put your sunglasses on and let’s enjoy my best drives in California.
1. Avenue of the Giants (Highway 254)
One of the best drives in California, Avenue of the Giants winds it’s way through thick Redwood forest
See my photos from Avenue of the Giants
Avenue of the Giants, while famous, can be easily missed if you stay on the 101 Freeway, which passes on top of the Redwood Forest. Avenue of the Giants is my favorite scenic drive in Northern California as it meanders through large Redwood groves with easy access to walking paths and loops. It is an awe inspiring scenic drive and it cools you off even in the middle of the summer.
The Southern Entrance to the Avenue of the Giants is near the small village of Myers Flat. The road winds its way North for little over 30 miles until it reaches the Northern Entrance to the Avenue of the Giants. We drove the Avenue of the Giants from the Northern Entrance to the Southern Entrance and we continued on Pacific Coast Highway over the mountains and along the ocean to Fort Bragg.
2. Ft Bragg to Mendocino (Pacific Coast Highway)
Just North of Fort Bragg, the Pacific Coast Highway meets the Pacific Ocean
See my photos from Fort Bragg
Coming from the Avenue of the Giants, through the Redwood Forest, to the Pacific Coast Highway was a twisty and long experience. But when we came out of the forest right on the Pacific Ocean, the experience was amazing. We simply said wow and stopped right on the side of the road to see the sights.
Fort Bragg, California – Looking south from Pomo Bluffs park
See my photos from Fort Bragg
Unfortunately we skipped the beautiful stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway from Fort Bragg to Mendocino. We wanted to get to Napa Valley. However, if you get a chance to drive this short coastal stretch of the famous California highway, you will enjoy amazing coastal views.
From Fort Bragg, we left the coast and drove inland through the beautiful Highway 20 which provides lots of opportunities to stop and see the large Redwood Forest from the top. Winding our way through Jackson State Forest and crossing the mountains, Highway 20 dropped us on our way to Napa Valley on Highway 128.
3. Napa Valley from Calistoga to Napa (Highway 128)
Castello Di Amorosa winery has opened in 2007. The main attraction is the medieval castle built using old world techniques.
See my photos from Castello di Amorosa
From the 101 Freeway near Geyserville we picked up Highway 128 towards Napa Valley. As we approach Calistoga we slowed down so we can take in the slow rolling hills basking in the sun. Filled with rows and rows of grape vines, Napa Valley is world famous for its wine and cozy wineries.
4. Sausalito through Marine Headland Park (Conzelman Road)
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco – Beautiful view of Golden Gate Bridge at sunset with clouds coming in from the ocean
See my photos from Golden Gate Bridge
Well known to San Francisco residents, Conzelman Road can take you through the amazingly scenic Marine Headland Park. This is the road that gives you the best views of the Golden Gate bridge, while Sausalito is a cute fishing village turned into a tourist magnet.
You can pick up Alexander Road at the Southen end of Sausalito and stay left on East Road as it winds its way past Fort Baker and turns into Moore Road. From there stay right on Cozelman Road as it takes you into Marine Headlands Park and the gorgeous views of Golden Gate Bridge.
5. Monterey Coastal Drive (Ocean View Boulevard)
Small beach on the coast of Monterey
See my photos from Monterey
Aaah…we’re coming into my favorite beach town in California: Monterey. This place is simply beautiful as it is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and provides amazing coastal views all the way around. Our favorite drive in Monterey is very simple: pick up Ocean View Boulevard close to the gorgeous Monterey Bay Aquarium and follow it all the way around the Monterey Peninsula as it turns into Sunset Drive and end at the entrance of the 17 Mile Drive.
6. Monterey to Carmel (17 Mile Drive)
Monterey, California – Cypress tree at sunset on the 17 Mile Drive
See my photos from Monterey
Moving further South, we come to Monterey, which is my favorite beach town in California. The 17 Mile Drive is just that: an amazing 17 miles of scenic beauty which makes it for my favorite drive in California. The best way to drive it is to start in Monterey at the North entrance right off Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove. Pay the entrance fee, get your map and plan to spend some time stopping at all the view points on the map they give you. They are all worth your time…really! Keep driving until you to the South Entrance of 17 Mile Drive towards Carmel. I also love continuing to drive through the beautiful beach village of Carmel and just relaxing at the beautiful beach nearby.
7. Carmel to Cambria (Pacific Coast Highway)
Driving through Big Sur reveals the rugged California Coast
See my photos from Big Sur
As we keep driving South, we jump back on the Pacific Coast Highway South of Carmel and we’re heading south towards another beautiful beach village called Cambria. This is the best drive in California in my experience. It is a long drive however because you have to stop at the many vista points on the right side of the road.
The best way to experience the Pacific Coast Highway is to come from North to South, as all the beautiful vista points are all on your right and very convenient for quick stops to take in the scenery.
8. Santa Barbara to Solvang (Highway 154)
Santa Barbara, California – The Cold Spring Tavern is a historical restaurant inside a beautiful old wooden building
See my photos from Santa Barbara
Moving further South we come to a few scenic California roads that are known only to locals. One of them is Highway 154 which rides a mountain crest overlooking the beautiful City of Santa Barbara.
I love picking the 154 Highway close to the picturesque Santa Barbara Mission and driving up and North through the mountain towards Solvang.
I especially like taking a small road called Painted Cave Road which forms a little loop with Camino Cielo road through a very small mountain top village.
The vast panoramas along Painted Cave Road are simply amazing as you get to see all of Santa Barbara. This is one reason I think it is one of the best drives in California.
When looping back to Highway 154, cross the highway and take the old Stagecoach Road and follow it North until you reach the historical Cold Spring Tavern where you must stop and have some lunch. Then you join the 154 Highway again and drive through beautiful rolling hills all the way to Solvang.
9. Mulholland Drive Los Angeles
The twisty Mulholland Drive in Malibu
Mulholland Drive is probably the most famous road in the Los Angeles area as it connects most of the ritzy and secluded communities spread through the many ridges surrounding Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley.
I like picking Mulholland Drive where it intersects Highway 23 (which is another beautiful drive to the ocean). Then drive South and East aver the many crests and valleys pretty much as far as I have time to go. Vista points are scattered throughout the road giving you opportunities to see the sprawling San Fernando Valley from the top. The easiest way to see the vistas along Mulholland Drive is to drive from East to West as the vista point stops will all be on your right as you drive.
10. Corona del Mar to Dana Point (Pacific Coast Highway)
Laguna Beach, California – Rocky Cove near Sugarloaf Point
See my photos from Laguna Beach
Now we get come to the Pacific Ocean again as we pick up the Pacific Coast Highway again in the ritzy coastal town of Corona Del Mar.
Driving South through the beautiful Laguna Beach all the way south to Dana Point will give you a glimpse of the beautiful California beach vibe with trendy restaurants and pristine beaches and lots and lots of sunshine.
Driving South and stopping often at the many vista points along the way, along with finding and stopping many coves and small hidden beaches will help you find peace in the middle of a very populated area.
It is no wonder that this beautiful Southern California portion of the PCH road is on my list of best drives in California.
11. Palm Desert to Idyllwild (Highway 74 and 243)
Highway 74 winds it’s way up overlooking the Palm Springs area
See my photos from Idyllwild
The ritzy desert oasis of Palm Springs is home to movie stars and Hollywood celebrities. Palm Springs is also surrounded by tall mountains that bring an air of awesomeness to the entire area. One of our best drives in Palm Springs starts a bit south of Palm Springs in the desert community of Palm Desert and winds its way through the top mountain ridges overlooking the entire area of Palm Springs and Coachella Valley.
Cute colorful shops in Idyllwild
See my photos from Idyllwild
Passing near the large Lake Hemet, the road forks on Highway 243 and goes thorough the cozy mountain village of Idyllwild and winds its way back down to the town of Banning and back to the 10 Freeway.
Palm Springs is an Oasis in the Desert
12. Gregory Lake to Big Bear Lake (Highway 18 and 38)
Big Bear, California – Ducks swimming in the beautiful Big Bear Lake with the San Bernandino Mountains in the background
See my photos from Big Bear Lake
Also known as the Rim of the World highway, you can pick it up at the bottom of the mountain in the town on Cajon right of the 210 Freeway. As you drive up and wind your way through the mountain, you will come to the mountain ridge.
We love stopping in the few lake communities dotted over the mountains. Starting in Lake Gregory we love walking around the lake on the beautiful shaded path. Then we drive to the quaint Arrowhead Lake community and spend some time by the lake.
Then we usually stop for an excellent pizza in the village of Running Springs on our way to Big Bear Lake where we like to stop on the East side of the lake near the East Boat Ramp for a beautiful view of the mountains.
Coming back down we like taking Highway 38 which winds its way down passing near Forest Falls all the way down to the city of Highland.
13. Escondido to Julian (Highway 78)
An old mining town, Julian has maintained its Wild West look
See my photos from Julian
Coming closer to the San Diego area, home of famous theme parks Sea World and Legoland and surrounded by amazing beaches, we take a trip into the mountains again. From the trendy city of Escondido we pick Highway 78 and drive South East through the mountains towards the cozy village of Julian. We actually pass right by the famous San Diego Zoo Safari Park which is a beautiful animal park to visit.
We really liked Julian with its small cafes and Victorian houses as well as being able to tour an actual old gold mine.
14. La Jolla Cove to Nicholson Point (Coast Boulevard)
La Jolla, California – Rocks and birds near La Jolla Cove
See my photos from La Jolla
Moving further south we come to the beautiful Pacific Coast again, but this time all the way South, in the cozy coastal community of La Jolla. Even though La Jolla Beach is a beautiful and relaxing beach, our favorite place to walk is starting at the Cave Store near La Jolla Cove.
Finding parking in the La Jolla Cove area is somewhat tricky, especially on the weekends, but driving slowly and finding a spot to park on the street is your best strategy. Then we simply start walking down on Coast Boulevard. We stop at La Jolla Cove, relax at the beautiful Ellen Browning Scripps Park and take our time at the harbor seal nursery pool at Point Mencinger.
Beautiful scenery and beaches earn this La Jolla coastal drive a top spot among my best drives in California.
15. Linear Park to Cabrillo Monument (Sunset Cliffs Rd & Cabrillo Road)
San Diego, California – Cabrillo National Monument or Point Loma provides sweeping views of the San Diego Bay Area
See my photos from San Diego Bay
As we’re heading into the sprawling San Diego area, we’re picking up a small coastal road called Sunset Cliffs Road where it meets Adair Street near Linear Park. Driving South you can stop at Sunset Cliffs Beach and Cave and also at a few vista points along the road as you admire the rugged rocky coast.
Picking up Hill Street and heading to Catalina Boulevard we keep heading South through a bit of uninteresting urban sprawl until the road becomes Cabrillo Memorial Drive and starts going up hill. We keep driving for about 10 minutes winding our way to the end of the road: Cabrillo National Monument State Park. This area, around Point Loma offers the best panoramic views of the San Diego Bay area. From the nearby Navy bases to the San Diego skyline, everything is clearly visible. Stroll around the park and visit the old Lighthouse and small museum for a taste of this place’s history.
What are the Best of the Best Drives in California?
I know my list is long, but my absolute best drives in California are in this order: 17 Mile Drive in Monterey, PCH from Carmel to Cambria and the PCH through Laguna Beach. However, any of these roads will inspire you as they take you to unique spots in beautiful California.
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