August 17, 2022

California Road Trip: 5 scenic routes for an unforgettable summer

San Francisco Chronicle

Road tripping has exploded in California since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago. With some travelers hitting pause on their bucket-list vacation plans, more people are opting to load up the car and explore their home states instead. Luckily, California is top-to-bottom lousy with natural beauty, historic towns, scenic back roads and first-rate national parks. From remote stretches of rugged shoreline to the volcanic mountains peppering the state’s far north, and from High Sierra hideaways to Southern California’s best beach camping, here are five driving itineraries for unforgettable summer road trips.

These five California road trips explore different parts of the state.

These five California road trips explore different parts of the state.

Yi Ren / Special to The Chronicle

The North Coast

This Northern California road trip promises hikes, beaches and coastal views


The trail skirting the bluff tops at Mendocino Headlands State Park grant sweeping views of the Pacific.

The trail skirting the bluff tops at Mendocino Headlands State Park grant sweeping views of the Pacific.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The remote stretches of shoreline between Mendocino and the Oregon border show a dramatic side of the California coast few people have seen. The wave-torn sea stacks and sea caves, hidden glass-sand beaches, soaring redwoods and rich tidepools here show road trippers how to properly engage with Highway 1’s rugged appeal.

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The wild Far North

Far North of California showcases ancient volcanoes, remote caves and soaring peaks


The view from Spence Mountain in Klamath Falls, Ore., at sunset.

The view from Spence Mountain in Klamath Falls, Ore., at sunset.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

The peaceful mountain scenery in California’s far northern reaches belies the powerful geothermal forces that created it — and continue to shape it today. Soak in hot springs, hike the trails on Mount Shasta, tour the steamy mud pots and geysers of Lassen Volcanic National Park, then motor up to Lava Beds National Monument and explore countless caves and lava tubes.

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Golden Chain Highway

California’s Highway 49 is a gateway to historic Gold Rush towns


This classic view of Yosemite Valley is one of many jaw-dropping vistas you'll find on this side of the Sierra.

This classic view of Yosemite Valley is one of many jaw-dropping vistas you’ll find on this side of the Sierra.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The historic and offbeat Gold Rush towns along Highway 49 now serve as basecamps for exploring some of the Sierra’s most spectacular scenery. This mostly-two-lane roadway runs along the outskirts of Yosemite National Park, which is a great place to begin a road trip on the western slopes of the state’s great mountain range.

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The Eastern Sierra

A 90-mile-long adventure along Highway 395 is waiting for you in California’s Eastern Sierra


Sunrise illuminates the famous tufa tower formations at Mono Lake in California’s Eastern Sierra.

Sunrise illuminates the famous tufa tower formations at Mono Lake in California’s Eastern Sierra.

Tracy Barbutes

Unending views of dramatic wilderness define this road trip through California’s Eastern Sierra corridor. Highway 395 between Bridgeport and Bishop is a 90-mile-long gateway to alpine adventure: high-altitude mountain hiking, world-class mountain biking and incredible fly fishing. The towns along the way also offer more laid-back activities like soaking in thermal pools and exploring a historic ghost town.

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Southern California sights

Drive through mountains, desert and beaches on this So-Cal road trip


The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world, traveling from the Coachella Valley floor to the top of San Jacinto Peak.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world, traveling from the Coachella Valley floor to the top of San Jacinto Peak.

Adam Perez / Special to The Chronicle

This mountains-to-sea adventure starts near the charming trail town of Idyllwild, tucked into the San Jacinto range. Explore the area on foot before hopping in the car and meandering through the Coachella Valley and surrounding desert, where you’ll find kitschy hotels, outdoor art installations and wildflower blooms. Pull over at a tasting room to sample regional wines, then wrap up your journey in a quintessentially California way: sunset at the beach.

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