On the Road Trip

Unforgettable California Road Trips for the Ride of Your Life

by Daniel Schwartz
California Photo by Olaf Huttemann / Unsplash.

From north to south, find the places you should plug into Google Maps on your next major California road trip.

CALIFORNIA – Planning the ultimate California road trip is no easy feat. The nation’s third largest state is full of charming towns, picturesque beaches, dramatic forests, and random roadside quirks, making it hard to narrow down the perfect route. But that’s the fun of it. Pick a cardinal direction, hit the road, and let your instincts take the wheel. To help you on your way, we compiled our favorite pit stops from north to south — with obvious big cities like LA and SF excluded — where you can (and should) stretch your legs, look around, and stay the night.

Humbolt Redwoods State Park. Photo by Ben Cliff / Unsplash.

Avenue of the Giants

If You’re in the Mood For: A 31-mile drive through jaw-dropping ancient redwood forest in heart of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

Spend the Night: Around a fire pit at Inn of the Lost Coast.

Sea Ranch

If You’re in the Mood For: Quiet cliffside walks in a minimalist, mid-century, tiny-house utopia in Sonoma County.

Spend the Night: At one with nature at the tastefully cozy Sea Ranch Lodge.

Calistoga bathing. Photo courtesy of Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa.


If You’re in the Mood For: A hangover-curing, hot spring soak or mud bath at the top of Napa Valley.

Spend the Night: At the updated former motel, Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa.

Read More on FathomHow to Survive Napa With a Hangover


If You’re in the Mood For: Sonoma's rolling vineyards, small-town charm, and farm-to-table awesomeness at Shed (on the low end) and Single Thread (at the super high end).

Spend the Night: In a pricey town with great boutique hotels, Healdsburg Inn is a cheap and cheerful option brilliantly located on the main town square. It's one of the Four Sisters Inns, which deliver great value throughout California.

Read More on FathomThe Road to Happiness Begins in Sonoma

Russian River Valley glamping. Photo courtesy of Autocamp.


If You’re in the Mood For: A Thomas Keller-orchestrated fine dining experience nestled between the boutique wineries of Napa.

Spend the Night: At the charmingly quaint five-room Petit Logis Inn.

Read More on FathomI Flew Cross-Country on a Whim to Eat Dinner Alone

Russian River Valley

If You’re in the Mood For: Amazing pinot noirs away from the touristy Napa Valley crowd.

Spend the Night: On a Casper mattress inside a luxury airstream at Autocamp.

Read More on FathomLearning to Sit Still in Sonoma

Northern California scenery. Photo by Thomas Ciszewski / Unsplash.

Point Reyes

If You’re in the Mood For: Delicious oysters, fresh seafood, and beautiful NoCal scenery along the protected coastline of NorCal's Marin County.

Spend the Night: In a romantic cabin overlooking the water at Nick’s Cove.

Read More on FathomOne Day Isn't Enough in Point Reyes

Big Sur

If You’re in the Mood For: An otherworldly digital detox, epic Pacific views, and farm-to-fork dining on the rugged central coast.

Spend the Night: Under the redwoods in a luxury glampsite (with showers!) at Ventana Big Sur.

Read More on FathomThe 9 Best Places to Visit in Big Sur

Monterey / Carmel

If You’re in the Mood For: Romantic adventure, divine sea breezes, and views of eagle nests and gray whales.

Spend the Night: At the hidden Hotel Pacific in Monterey or the quaint Carriage House in Carmel.

Read More on FathomBring Your Dog on a Hag 'n' Wag Holiday in Carmel

Paso Robles wine country. Photo courtesy of Paso Robles Inn.

Paso Robles

If You’re in the Mood For: Great wine and a touch of luxury in small-town country.

Spend the Night: Paso Robles Inn has hot springs, a low-key spa, and a heated pool to help with the aching bones.

Read More on FathomZen Out in Paso Robles, California


If You’re in the Mood For: A serene surf and seaside village in one of California’s last undiscovered coastal destinations in San Luis Obispo, halfway between SF and LA.

Spend the Night: By the sea at the low-key cool Cambria Beach Lodge.

Santa Barbara quirk. Photo courtesy of The Goodland.

Santa Barbara

If You’re in the Mood For: Big city amenities with a beach town vibe.

Spend the Night: A ten-minute drive from downtown at California-cool The Goodland.

Read More on FathomA Budget-Friendly Dating Adventure in Santa Barbara


If You’re in the Mood For: Laid-back country charm and throwback California hippie vibes in a valley in the Topatopa Mountains.

Spend the Night: Next to Ojai Valley Trail at the hip, '50s-style Ojai Rancho Inn.

Laid-back in Malibu. Photo courtesy of Native Hotel.


If You’re in the Mood For: Sunrise paddling, sightseeing, and healthy farm-fresh food on a celebrity-studded beachfront.

Spend the Night: At Native Hotel, the newest and coolest crash pad in town.

Read More on FathomA Healthy and Wholesome Guide to Malibu

Joshua Tree

If You’re in the Mood For: Wild West vibes, peace and solitude, and maybe a spiritual experience in the chicest part of the California desert.

Spend the Night: In a bright pink bungalow at 29 Palms Inn.

Read More on FathomEscaping the Cold for Sunshine and Solitude in Joshua Tree

Quintessential SoCal. Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa.

Laguna Beach

If You’re in the Mood For: SoCal's sleepy, bohemian beach town retreat.

Spend the Night: At the beautifully redone Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa.

Read More on Fathom: On California's Southern Coast, a Historical Gem With a New Look

San Diego

If You’re in the Mood For: Fish tacos, making friends at the beach, and extending your road trip into Mexico.

Spend the Night: At The Pendry for an upscale treat or The Pearl for more affordable vintage digs.

Read More on FathomSummer Never Ends in Encinitas

Keep Exploring California

Dive into our city guides to Los Angeles and San Francisco, discover why everything is awesome on an Orange Country road trip, and find out why Joshua Tree is pure magic.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.