The nation’s third largest state after Alaska and Texas, California encompasses more than 150,000 square miles and offers a variety of landscapes, cultures and wild habitats. The state is home to untamed deserts, majestic mountains and canyons, ancient Redwood and Sequoia forests and 840 miles of coastline. Exploring the entire state in one trip might not be reasonable—or practical–but taking short road trips that explore regions of California allows you to get to know the state intimately and at your own pace.
Decide which area of California you’d like to explore. Northern California offers wineries, rugged coastline, majestic Redwood forests and the historic cities of San Francisco, Eureka and Santa Cruz. Central California is home to the upscale, coastal Monterey; the cowboy town of Bakersfield; the former Gold Rush settlement of Kernville, and the Fresno-San Joaquin Valley, also known as California wine country. In the southern part of the state you’ll find the quaint, immaculate ocean-side town of Santa Barbara, as well as Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego.
Determine how long you’d like to be on the road. A trip up the coast can be completed in as little as a day, but you won’t get to stop and see much. Plan on at least three to four days if you’d like to stop and explore, more if you’d like to stop and relax. If you’re traveling the state from south to north, you can zip up Interstate 5, which runs from San Diego to the California-Oregon border and winds through fruit orchards and rolling farmland, or you can take the more leisurely 101 Freeway, which hugs the coast and offers stunning ocean and mountain scenery.
Take time to visit a National Park, Monument or Preserve. The U.S. National Park Service maintains 23 different areas in California. National Parks in the Golden State include Redwood, Joshua Tree, Yosemite and Pinnacles. Lava Beds National Monument, just south of Oregon border, doesn’t get nearly as crowded as some of the more well-known National Parks in California. The park features more than 700 caves, as well as inactive volcanoes, American Indian rock art and historic battlefields. At the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve in Nipton, you’ll find Joshua tree forests, volcanic cinder cones, abandoned mines and homesteads and seemingly endless carpets of wildflowers.
Make lodging reservations as far in advance as possible. Accommodations in the northern California beach town of Mendocino, for example, fill up very early for the months between December and April, due in large part to the annual migration of 20,000 gray whales, which make their way from their Baja winter home to their summer habitat in northern California. State and National Park campgrounds and lodges fill up quickly as well, especially during the summer. Even though you should book well in advance, many campgrounds have restrictions on how early they’ll accept reservations. For example, Yosemite National Park accepts reservations up to five months prior to your arrival date. Six of its 13 campgrounds are first-come, first-served, but if you don’t arrive by noon you might not be able to claim a spot.