If you’ve only got a week to explore the fabled Golden State then be sure to check out our ultimate California road trip itinerary, 7 days of hopping from coast to mountains, cities to redwoods. It’s an action-packed whistlestop tour of the territory that checks off all the must-sees and top draws, plus a few hidden gems.
It will whisk you from the surfer beaches of San Diego to the pine-sprouting tops of the Sierra Nevada. You’ll cruise epic sections of the 101 Highway past the Big Sur and Monterrey, all the way to the artsy, edgy Paris of the West in San Francisco. Bring the hiking boots, pack the wetsuit, and ready yourself for some of the coolest spots America can muster.
One word of warning here: There’s oodles of driving to be done in our ultimate California road trip itinerary 7 days. That shouldn’t put you off too much, though – navigating the mountain roads and coastal highways of this West Coast haven is a joy in itself, even if there are a few traffic-clogged five-laners on the way in and out of LA. Here goes…
Day 1 – The San Diego beaches
No trip through the Golden State could possibly be complete without a dose of proper SoCal vibes. Cue the big city of San Diego. Rated as one of the most liveable places in the USA, it’s set right on the Mexico border in the south of the state.
It’s all about the beaches here. Start over in uber-cool Ocean Beach. It’s like a village within a metropolis, with funky surfer shacks and roastery cafes gazing over the ceaseless Pacific swells. The OB Surf Lodge is a bit of a legendary breakfast-brunch option. They serve up proper West Coast chowder in sourdough and baked eggs that are to die for, all with a view of the sea.
Later, drive north to the hip and happening enclave of La Jolla. It’s a shopping mecca with designer stores and concept galleries aplenty, not to mention some of the most famous surf spots in the state – Black’s Beach is especially good if you’re an advanced surfer.
Go north again as the evening sets in to hit the much-loved surfer haven of Encinitas. A town of laid-back wine bars and 50s-style retro diners, it’s a great place to park up and rest. There are some fun motel-style stays close to the shores, which have walking access to Moonlight State Beach, itself a fantastic sunset spot.
Day 2 – Palm Spring and the Joshua Tree National Park
Hit the road nice and early on day 2. There’s about 120 miles to cover before you cruise into the R&R hub of Palm Springs on the edge of the desert. Plus, you’ve got the distraction of the wonderful Temecula wine region en route. Be sure to get tempted by a few cellar doors there. For something grand, you can hit the Wilson Creek Winery. The Ponte Winery is more historic and classic. Both stock the area’s trademark Tempranillo and Chardonnay labels.
The next stretch of highway is pretty amazing stuff. You’ll whizz past ranches and farms as the jagged tops of the San Jacinto mountain range begins to crumple the horizon overhead. Palm Springs is the goal. Check into the Parker Palm Springs if the budget allows. It’s an opulent and chic vision of the town’s jet-setter style, with pools and lobbies with grand chandeliers. Don’t worry, there are also bargain motels.
Adventurers should be sure to drop the bags and head out again right away. The afternoon is your chance to explore the vast Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a strange, Mars-like land of canyons and dusty boulders. The best hike there is probably the Black Rock Canyon, which you can reach on the roads going to the north side of the reserve, about 40 minutes from Palm Springs. It takes three hours in all but is epic as the sunset approaches because the light fades behind Mount San Jacinto to the west.
Day 3 – LA
Next up: LA. Two hours down the Interstate will bring you into the heart of this colossal megacity. But don’t hop out of the car just yet, because there’s an enthralling drive through the Santa Monica Mountains and the Hollywood Hills that will satisfy all your celeb-spotting needs and quintessential Tinsel Town sightseeing requirements.
It begins in Griffith Park in the east, where you’ll spot the amazing 1950s Griffith Observatory (perhaps you’ll even have time to check out the planetarium within!). Then, the road winds up Mount Lee to the Hollywood Sign. Take the compulsory selfie there, and then head west again into the monied area of the Hollywood Hills – it’s possible to see the onetime home of Michael Jackson here, and the fancy abode of a certain Leonardo DiCaprio among others!
For the afternoon, trade the mountains for the ocean. Make your way to Santa Monica Blvd, one of the most famous strips in LA. It’s flanked by tall palm trees, has some of the coolest cocktail and coffee stops in the city, and is the home of the Santa Monica Pier, where the West Coaster rollercoaster is sure to get the heart a-thumping.
At night, make for Venice Beach. Part gritty, part gentrified, it’s got The Doors tribute bands playing just about every evening, along with the OG Muscle Beach – now more of a museum to all things Arnie than an outdoor gymnasium.
Day 4 – California State Route 1 to Monterey
Prepare the wheels. Rise early. Get cruising. What awaits on Day 4 is arguably the most famous roadway in the world: The Pacific Coast Highway. Also known as California Route 1, it links LA to San Francisco and is, simply, breathtaking from beginning to end.
There’s oodles to see along the way. In fact, there’s so much that we’d recommend taking two or three days over this section of our California road trip itinerary 7 days if possible. You could break it up with stays in the surf towns and highland lodges along the way.
The stops we think should 100% be on your list, going north to south from LA up, are:
- Malibu – Stop at this jet-setter enclave to see celebrity homes on the beach and hit the waves. The Point here is one of the most famous surf spots in the history of the sport!
- Santa Barbara – A gorgeous Spanish mission (one of the oldest European buildings in the state, no less) awaits in this fun-filled town.
- San Simeon – The home of Hearst Castle, the fabulous estate of William Randolph Hearst, sits on the hills above San Simeon. It’s considered one of the most fantastical architectural achievements in America.
- The Big Sur – You won’t be able to miss this one. A 91-mile stretch of the highway that’s considered to be among the most dramatic driving in the world, it’s home to waterfall-washed beaches, giant redwoods, and lookout bluffs where you can spot whales from the shore.
Sleep the night in Monterey town. It’s got Cannery Row, the street that inspired Steinbeck back in the day. The piers there are known as stomping grounds of sealions and there are shacks that serve some of the best clam chowders and lobsters ever.
Day 5 – San Francisco
We know a lot of you will have been waiting for this. Cue San Fran, the boho city of the West Coast. Set on a series of hills above the vast Bay Area, it’s known for oodles of things – wine country, hip districts like Mission, the Golden Gate, Alcatraz. The good news is that you can check off plenty of the big sights and attractions in a single day.
We’d recommend starting with a drive to the lookout points of Presidio of San Francisco. That pine-sprouting park is laden with fabulous viewing locations over the Golden Gate itself. From there, it’s just a short drive east to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Those host museums dedicated to San Francisco’s seafaring heritage, plus some seriously fine shrimp joints.
The boats to Alcatraz leave from nearby Pier 33. Typically, a jaunt to that infamous prison will take 2.5-3 hours, which should leave just enough time in the day for you to hit the bars of Mission District. That’s a gritty area of jazz bars, bookstores, wall graffiti, and edgy poetry bars that once hosted the cream of the beatnik generation. Start in Mission Dolores park and go from there; see where the night takes you.
Day 6 – Yosemite
You’ll have to leave super-duper early to make it from San Francisco to Yosemite in a single day. With traffic and the mountain roads that begin on the western edge of the Sierra Nevada, the trip takes up to four hours in total.
It’s worth pushing through, though. What awaits is unquestionably one of the most iconic national parks in the world. Yosemite covers a 750,000-acre swathe of the mountains on the eastern edge of California. It’s among the first ever national parks in the USA, having been inaugurated way back in 1864 after a presidential grant by Abraham Lincoln.
Because you’re a little pushed for time on our California road trip itinerary 7 days, there’s probably only enough left in the day to drive the iconic Yosemite Valley. Start on the Southside Drive and loop back on the Northside Drive. You’ll see plenty, including:
- Tunnel View – An epic photo stop that will have you pulling up the car and taking snaps, it’s all about seeing the great peaks of Yosemite through the end of a road tunnel carved into the ranges.
- Bridalveil Falls – A wispy waterfall that cascades off the side of the Sierra Nevada on the southern side of the main valley.
- Half Dome – A mountain that looks like a ball carved in half, this one caps off the very end of the Yosemite Valley.
- Yosemite Falls – The biggest falls in the park, roaring over cliffs that are some 2,425 feet up!
Day 7 – Lake Tahoe
The great finale of our ultimate California road trip itinerary 7 days comes courtesy of the R&R and adventure mecca of Lake Tahoe. Straddling the Nevada-Cali border deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s famed for its snow-covered hills, Gold Rush-era ghost towns, ski fields, and upmarket resort towns. We can’t think of a better way to cap off your adventure than with a loop around the whole thing.
The California side of the lake has some real treats. Chief among them has to be Emerald Bay, a horseshoe of aquamarine waters that’s surrounded by spear-like pine trees. The period mansion of Vikingsholm is tucked in there too, for anyone looking for a taste of human heritage. Further north along those western banks, be sure to take a dip at lovely Lester Beach and enjoy coffees on the waterfront of Tahoe City.
Come the winter, Tahoe also happens to be one of the best places in America to pull on the skis and snowboards. Northstar is perhaps the biggest resort in the region. It’s located about half an hour’s drive from Tahoe City itself.