The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary

May 20, 2020

The ultimate road trip around California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Click here for detailed directions

Summary (click the red pins for directions) :

Los Angeles to Santa Barbara– 100 miles (160 km) đź“Ť 

Santa Barbara to Monterey– 230 miles (370 km) đź“Ť

Monterey to San Francisco– 120 miles (190 km) đź“Ť

San Francisco to Yosemite & Death Valley– 520 miles (840 km) đź“Ť

Yosemite & Death Valley to Las Vegas– 130 miles (210 km) đź“Ť

Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon– 130 miles (210 km) đź“Ť

The Grand Canyon to San Diego– 450 miles (720 km)đź“Ť

San Diego to Los Angeles– 120 miles (190 km) đź“Ť

1800 miles (2900 km) in total

Tags: Travel guide, Long Trip, USA, California

Planning- Before You Go

What is the best road trip in the Western US?

North America’s West Coast is one of the world’s most iconic hotspots for an epic road trip. There are tons of attractions across California, Nevada, and Arizona. 

The best California road trip begins in Los Angeles, going along the Pacific Coast Highway up until San Francisco. 

Then, continue south-east through Yosemite and Death Valley until you get to Las Vegas. After a memorable night in Vegas drive, a stop at the Grand Canyon is an absolute must. Later, head back to Los Angeles through San Diego.

The length of this California road trip is just below 2000 miles, or 3000 kilometers, in total.

How much does a California road trip cost?

There are a couple of factors worth considering when budgeting your ideal California road trip. A rental car in California can cost as little as $40 per day. 

Gas prices in the US, compared to Europe, are rather affordable. California, Nevada, and Arizona have some of the highest prices in the US at roughly $3 per gallon (a gallon is 3.785l), which equals to about $0.79 per liter. 

Current gas prices can be found here.

The average daily cost for a California road trip that includes a rental car, fuel, accommodation, food and beverages, and attraction tickets will be around $200.

Of course, the prices will rise depending on the amount of luxury you desire during the road trip.

How long does it take to complete this California road trip?

This ultimate California road trip is rather long, at around 2 000 miles (3200km) in total.

The route is divided into segments between 100 and 520 miles (160km and 840km) each, there is a lot of driving ahead. 

In order to have enough time to discover each of the stops along the way, Rentalmoose recommends dedicating 7 days for this road trip at the very least.

When is the best time to visit Western USA?

The US West Coast is famous for its beaches and sunny cities. If you want to be able to go for a swim in the Pacific Ocean, it is best to visit between June and August. The weather is still more moderate between April and June as well as September and October.

panoramic view beautiful secluded california sandy beach and wavy ocean surrounded by green hills on a clear day. See the beautiful coast of California during a california road trip

Why should I book a rental car in the US?

 The United States of America is perfect to be discovered via a rental car. The country is full of beautiful, scenic driving roads and well-developed road infrastructure, making it ideal for a road trip.

Petrol is cheap compared to Europe, the US has absolute perfect conditions for a rental car.

For extra peace of mind during your road trip, Rentalmoose recommends adding the excess cover when booking your rental car.

Once you’ve picked up the car, don’t forget to take photos of the car to qualify for a 50% discount from the excess coverage fee.

Road Trip Extensions

Why not extend your road trip even further? Consider adding a few days to your road trip and driving over to explore the scenic states of Nevada, Utah, or Colorado.

As far as extensions go, consider adding a day to spend some time at the Joshua Tree National Park.

Can tourists drive in the USA? 

Yes! Tourists are allowed to drive in the United States using a foreign driving license as long as they are at least 18 years old, and the license covers the type of vehicle they are driving. 

It is recommended to get an International Driving Permit if your driving license is not in English. For more info regarding IDP’s, check out this blog post.

While driving around California, you will soon realize that practically nobody follows the speed limits strictly. Going 5-10 MPH over the limit is common on freeways, for example.

Keep in mind that the police can still pull you over, even if you are caught going just a few miles per hour over the limit.

If you do happen to get stopped by the police during your trip, be sure to stay calm. Put both hands on the steering wheel, avoid sudden movements, and present your license when the officer tells you to do so. 

Driving under influence, or DUI in short, is a serious crime in the US. Police enforce drink-driving related rules very strictly. Do not drink and drive, offenders can even land in prison.

The US has right-hand side traffic.

Now that you’re all set, it’s time to dive into this exciting California road trip itinerary!

Los Angeles

los angeles city skyline view at night time. See the city of angeles during a California road trip

Photograph from Pixabay.com

Your California road trip begins in one of the most iconic travel destinations in the world, known as the city of angels. 

I recommend picking up your rental car directly at the LAX Airport and driving into town. If you are planning to stay in LA for a few days consider renting your car a day before leaving the city, as Los Angeles is infamous for notorious traffic jams. 

What is LA famous for?

Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, is the heart of the American film and entertainment industry. Begin your US adventure with a drive to Hollywood, where you can spend some time at the Hollywood Boulevard, stroll down the Walk of Fame or drive up the hills to get panoramic views of the city.

What are the best attractions in Los Angeles?

Universal Studios Hollywood

Adrenaline junkies can enjoy a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood. This attraction first opened in the 60s as a studio tour, a first-hand look at real film sets for Universal Studios productions. 

The studio tour has gained lots of popularity over the years and has developed into a full-size adventure-packed theme park, filled with roller coasters and rides for all ages. 

The iconic studio tour still remains as one of the highlights of the park. Admission tickets start at $109 and can be purchased here.

Santa Monica Pier

Don’t forget to visit the famous Santa Monica Pier. You have probably seen it at least once in a Hollywood blockbuster or TV show. 

The pier is one of the vibrant hotspots of LA. Park your car and stroll along the vivid pier, go inside one of the restaurants, enjoy a hot dog, or ride the rollercoaster (tickets between $5 to $10 per ride). 

You can use the Spot Angels app to find the cheapest car parks in the area. After the Santa Monica Pier, walk over to the next attraction.

Venice Beach

You will find Venice Beach just a 30-minute walk away from the pier. The neighborhood is known for its artistic atmosphere, luxury shops, and delicious restaurants. 

Walk along the sandy shore, sunbathe or go for a dip in the Pacific Ocean. Go for a seaside jog or a workout at Muscle Beach Venice. A day pass costs $10.

Los Angeles’s cultural diversity is reflected in the city’s delicious cuisine. For an authentic Venice Beach vibe, head over to Hinano Cafe

Open since 1962, this spot is known for being Jim Morrison’s favorite hangout in Venice. Delicious burgers, a wide selection of drinks, pool tables and live music every weekend. Open daily till 2 AM.

What are the best hotels in Los Angeles?

Los Angeles is packed with attractions worth visiting, I highly recommend staying at least one night in town before departing further. Spend the night at the Hollywood Roosevelt,

It’s one of the best and most famous hotels in town. Once home to the Academy Awards Gala, the Roosevelt is a 4-star hotel with various bars, a pool, and a perfect location on Hollywood Boulevard.

A more affordable alternative within Hollywood is the BLVD Hotel and Suites. The venue offers rooms and suites just a 10-minute walk away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

After a good night’s sleep, it is time to begin one of the best road trips of your life!

Next: Santa Barbara, 1 hour 50 minutes

Santa Barbara

santa barbara whitewashed buildings and tile rooftops and green palm trees with ocean in background california

Santa Barbara. Photo by Lela Khajadourian from Pixabay.

The next highlight of the trip begins as soon as you set off from Los Angeles. The route to Santa Barbara is the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway, arguably the best driving road in the US, and an absolute must-visit for your California road trip.

There are lots of panoramic views guaranteed along the way, leave LA in the morning to make sure you have enough time to discover them all. 

Is Santa Barbara worth visiting?

Santa Barbara is one of the most scenic cities in this part of the United States. It is certainly worth a visit during your road trip! The region is known for its beautiful landscapes, great weather, and local wineries. 

Stearns Wharf

Stearns Wharf is the perfect point to begin exploring Santa Barbara. Explore the vivid pier lined with souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes. 

If you are craving local seafood, look no further. Head inside the Shellfish Company, a delicious eatery where you can enjoy grilled shrimp, crabs, and various fish. Click here for the menu.

Arroyo Burro County Park

For a relaxing hike, visit the Arroyo Burro County Park. The park is perfect for a barbecue, jogging along the shoreline, or hiking along one of the trails. You can also go for a swim in the Pacific, it’s a quieter setting than Venice Beach.

After some time in Santa Barabara, continue the road trip over to Monterey.

Next: Monterey, 5 hours 10 minutes

Monterey

monterey canning company big red building and two pedestrian crossings with people on a clear summer day in california

Photography by Travis Wise.

Take the scenic Pacific Coast Highway for another 250 miles. The drive takes roughly 5 hours to complete, there is a faster route that will save you an hour but it’s a lot less interesting (directions here). 

The Pacific Coast Highway may seem familiar, it’s a very popular filming location for Hollywood movies. Iron Man, Fast and Furious along with many others were all filmed here.

This section of the California road trip will take you along the famous Big Sur. Tell your passenger to get the camera, you’ll be taking lots of photos along the way! There are many pullouts where you can stop by and take in the panoramic coastal views. The Big Sur is hard to miss, just follow the coastal highway.

beautiful ocean cove in california surrounded by green hills and calm water in california

What is there to do in Monterey?

Monterey Car Week

Petrolheads may have heard about Monterey, as the town is home to the Monterey Car Week. Thousands of exotic cars flood the city every summer, from modern supercars to some of the rarest, multimillion-dollar classics. 

There are various events throughout the week, with a grand finale being the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance.

Laguna Seca Raceway

Another highlight for automotive enthusiasts is the Laguna Seca Raceway. The track is a historic motorsport venue that hosts races such as the MotoGP. 

You can find the event calendar here. Adrenaline junkies can even lap the track in a formula car with the Allen Berg Racing School.

The 17-Mile Drive

One of Monterey’s best attractions is the 17-Mile Drive. The beautiful coastal road will take you along monumental cliffs, mysterious forests, and at the doorstep of prestigious resorts and villas, right by the Pacific. What better way to end the day than with a spectacular, scenic drive?

 The admission costs around $10 per car and can be paid directly at the gate. If you spend over $35 at Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants, entrance is free of charge.

Monterey Harbor

Don’t forget to visit Monterey Harbor and the city’s waterfront area. Cannery Row features some of the town’s best dining and shopping venues. Head into the Chart House, a delicious seafood restaurant that offers great views of the surroundings.

Where to stay in Monterey?

Sophisticated travelers will enjoy a stay at The Lodge at Pebble Beach. The luxury 5-star lodge provides a good balance between prestige and immaculate natural beauty. The stay includes luxurious amenities such as a golf course, spa and wellness center and a beautiful seaside pool.

Another good overnight stop in Monterey is the Carmel Valley Ranch. The 4-star ranch is the perfect getaway known for its stunning location and panoramic views, as well as a beautiful golf course, a pool, and spacious suites. Free parking is available.

Next: San Francisco, 2 hours 20 minutes

San Francisco

red golden gate bridge monument in san francisco with fenced path in foreground seen during sunset

Photography by Pexels.

Drive along the Pacific Coast Highway one last time until you reach the home of the Golden Gate Bridge, steep streets, and some of the best seafood in the world. Without a doubt, this is San Francisco. It’s an absolute must-see point on any proper California road trip.

What to do in San Francisco?

Lands End

Visit Lands End park for the best views of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Hike the trails along the rocky cliffs, explore the Sutro Baths ruins, or photograph the eerie Historic Shipwrecks. Keep an eye on the ocean, if you’re lucky you might just spot a whale!

The admission is free of charge.

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island once served as a fort, a military prison, and a federal prison. It has been transformed into a museum that can be explored by visitors curious about Alcatraz’s rich history. 

The Island can only be accessed by boat (tickets here). Tours begin at Pier 33, your rental car can be left by a parking meter for up to 4 hours (tours typically take around 2 hours).

The parking meter rates are between $2 and $3.5 per hour. On busier days, try this multi-story car park across the street for around $25 per day.

Chinatown district

One of the most recognizable spots in San Francisco is the city’s famous Chinatown district.

It is, in fact, the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia.

Stroll along the streets lined with exotic shops and restaurants and indulge in the district’s one-of-a-kind vibe.

Enter the area via Grant Avenue to see the iconic Dragon Gate.

san francisco yellow 3 story home on a crooked street with two cars in the front and iconic tram route

After a day of exploring the city, treat yourself to dinner at the Waterbar, one of the best seafood restaurants in town. Delicious food aside, the venue offers absolutely breathtaking panoramic views of the Oakland Bay Bridge. Click here for the menu.

Stay the night at the Via Hotel in South Beach. The stylish boutique hotel is conveniently located near restaurants, cafes, and shops. AT&T Park is across the street. Valet parking is available at an extra charge.

After a memorable night in San Francisco, your road trip route will continue inland towards spectacular National Parks.

Next: Yosemite & Death Valley, 11 hours

Yosemite & Death Valley

death valley national park panoramic view of dry hills on a clear day, seen from artists drive scenic drive. Death Valley National Park is a must on any california road trip.

Death Valley National Park.

The longest segment of this road trip is the drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas, which takes about 11 hours to complete. 

Two of the region’s most popular National Parks are along the way: Yosemite and Death Valley, and Rentalmoose recommends making a stop at both of them for at least a short visit. Afterall, a California road trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Yosemite.

Can you drive your car into Yosemite National Park?

Yes, most roads within Yosemite can be accessed via your rental car! Some of the roads are closed in winter (others may require tire chains in snowy conditions), so it is certainly best to visit during the summer. 

Getting around in Yosemite and Death Valley might be tricky due to low, or sometimes non-existent, phone service.

What’s more, GPS may not always be up to date in terms of road closures, it’s best to check the official website for current conditions and closures.

Does Yosemite National Park have an entrance fee?

Yosemite is not free to enter. The park has had an entry fee since 1913, as of 2020 Yosemite National Park admission costs $30 per car.

What to see in Yosemite and Death Valley National Parks?

 Both of the parks are famous around the world, begin with a visit to Yosemite’s most popular highlight, the Yosemite Valley.

Observe the monumental mountains surrounded by dark pine trees, photograph the picturesque waterfalls, and hike around the trails spotting local wildlife along the way.

There can be heavy traffic within the valley, especially on weekends, so it is recommended to leave early in the morning to avoid crowds. There are various parking zones within the park, and you will be directed to the one with the most spots.

Before setting off for Death Valley, don’t forget to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The grove is home to over 500 giant sequoia trees, the largest group in all of Yosemite. There are limited parking spaces available by the grove, it is best to visit on weekdays or early in the morning.

Death Valley is roughly 4 hours away along the 395, though if you are visiting outside of the summer there will likely be road closures. In that case, the journey is around 8 hours along the CA-99.

As of 2020, the admission fee for the Death Valley National Park costs $25 per vehicle for unlimited, 7-day access.

Once you’re inside the park, head towards the Badwater Basin first. The large salt flat is located below sea level and remains one of the hottest spots in the nation. Be sure to stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun, especially in the summer.

Next, drive along the Artists Drive, a 9-mile long scenic one-way driving road that will take you through breathtaking scenery. If you’re a Star Wars fan, some of the spots may look familiar, as parts of “A New Hope” were filmed in the area.

Before departing for Vegas, be sure to get a good panoramic view of the park from higher ground. Visit Zabriskie Point, the park’s most popular lookout, to get a perfect perspective of Death Valley. 

death valley sandy bright hills on a clear sunny day

Where to stay in Yosemite and Death Valley?

There are various lodges and hotels between Yosemite and Death Valley parks, there are two particular lodges recommended by Rentalmoose.

The Ahwahnee Hotel is located inside the Yosemite Valley. It is hands down one of the best places to stay in the area. The lodge was what inspired Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, a location used for The Shining. The Ahwahnee is a historic, atmospheric hotel that offers rooms and suites with retro decor and luxurious amenities.

The Oasis at Death Valley is the perfect overnight stay for sophisticated travelers visiting Death Valley. The resort consists of two hotels: The Ranch and The Inn. The Inn is a more prestigious and pricey alternative. The resort includes luxurious amenities such as a pool, spa, and wellness center and a golf course.

Next: Las Vegas, 2 hours 30 minutes

Las Vegas

the strip in las vegas seen at night aerial view of fountain show and large hotels in nevada

Photography by Young Soo Park from Pixabay.com

What should you not miss in Vegas?

The Strip

Las Vegas, often called Sin City, comes alive once dusk falls. Any road trip to Vegas couldn’t possibly be complete without paying a visit to the famous Las Vegas Strip

The boulevard is lined with numerous casinos, hotels, restaurants and nightlife spots. The Strip itself is filled with tourists from around the world, street performers and promoters for local venues. Hate it or love it, the Strip is unarguably the top spot to visit in Las Vegas. 

The High Roller

If you want to get panoramic views of the city, visiting the High Roller is an absolute must. The enormous Ferris wheel is the go-to spot for city views from above. There are also open-bar cabins where you can begin your unforgettable night in Sin City.

World-class nightlife

Most tourists that come to Las Vegas want to experience the city’s vivid nightlife scene. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of bars, casinos, and clubs to go to every night of the week, it may be hard to choose where to start. 

One of the city’s favorites for clubgoers is the Marquee Nightclub, located inside the Cosmopolitan. If you’re looking to get the party started during the day, head to the Marquee Dayclub. Check the official calendar for upcoming events in both venues.

The Hoover Dam

The city can be overwhelming even for the wildest party animals. Visit The Hoover Dam to get a break from all the Vegas craze. The monumental dam is open for visitors daily from 6 AM to 6 PM and is a 40-minute drive away from the Strip. Rentalmoose recommends visiting the Hoover Dam on your way to The Grand Canyon, as the dam is located along the way.

Once you’re ready to jump right back in the city’s insanity, head for lunch to the Heart Attack Grill. As the name suggests, this restaurant is as crazy as food in Vegas can get. The unique hospital-like decor elements, amazing service, and a silly menu will surely make dining here a memorable experience.

Chunkier travelers who weigh 350 pounds and above can even eat for free.

Looking for more attractions in Vegas? Check out the Rentalmoose Utah Travel Guide, where you will find must-do activities in Sin City that haven’t been mentioned here. Stroll down the Old Strip, find out which hotel features a waterslide through a shark tank and more!

Click here for the guide.

What are the best hotels in Las Vegas?

Similarly to nightlife spots, picking the right hotel in Vegas can be hard as there are lots of attractive options to choose from. One thing’s for sure, you can’t go wrong with The Venetian. The luxury 5-star resort consists of two towers, a large casino, pools, and all kinds of luxury amenities you can think of. If you’re willing to splash out completely, go for one of the prestigious suites.

A more budget-friendly alternative with a great location along the Strip is The Luxor Resort & Casino. The hotel’s pyramid shape may seem kitschy and over-the-top, but isn’t that what Vegas is all about? The Luxor is a 4-star resort that offers attractive amenities such as a pool. Of course, there is a casino on the premises. 

Next: The Grand Canyon, 4 hours 30 minutes

The Grand Canyon

the grand canyon clear day red rock and tree in foreground on a clear day panoramic view

Soon after departing Las Vegas, you will enter the third state on this epic road trip: Arizona. The Grand Canyon is less than 5 hours away from Vegas.

Similarly to Yosemite and Death Valley, there is an entrance fee to get inside the Grand Canyon. As of November 2020, the admission fee for an unlimited, 7-day pass costs $35 per car. Current admission fees can also be found on the park’s official website.

Which side of the Grand Canyon is best to visit?

Begin by heading to the Mather Point along the South Rim, the most popular spot to get an amazing view of the canyon. You can grab a coffee or rent a bike at Grand Canyon’s Coffee Shop. There are four large parking areas nearby, leaving your rental car shouldn’t be an issue even on busy days.

Later, drive along the South Rim until you get to the Historic Village. Learn about the history of the area while enjoying architecture dating back to the 1900s. There are more stunning viewpoints in this part of the South Rim, too.

Next, head east until you reach Desert View. The lookouts in this part of the park offer great views of the Colorado River. The Desert View Watchtower is a historic structure built in 1932, tourists can climb atop the tower for the best views or visit the interior to learn about the local history and purchase souvenirs at the gift shop.

panoramic view of the grand canyon red rock and trees in foreground on a clear sunny day

Next: San Diego, 8 hours 30 minutes

San Diego

blue ocean waves coming to san diego shore with short cliff and bright buildings and palm trees during sunset in california

Photography by Mmorris76 from Pixabay.com

After visiting Grand Canyon National Park, it is time to head back to sunny California. During the 9-hour drive to San Diego, you can make a detour and stop at the Joshua Tree National Park.

What to see in San Diego?

Balboa Park

Visiting Balboa Park is a must when in San Diego. Inside the park, you can find San Diego’s world-famous zoo, a vivid botanical garden and historical Spanish buildings that have been transformed into museums. There are various free car parks throughout the park.

La Jolla

La Jolla is the city’s trendy seaside district with upscale homes, restaurants, and cafes. Head inside one of the sea-view restaurants to taste delicious cuisine, swim in the Pacific or sunbathe at the La Jolla Cove.

Embarcadero

After a long day, head to the Embarcadero harbour-front, next to downtown San Diego. The seaport village is a vivid area lined with local shops, eateries, and cafes. Stroll down the marina, feel the ocean breeze or spot the yachts parked in the port.

Once you get hungry, head to Nico’s Mexican Food on Newport Avenue. The restaurant has been blessing Ocean Beach with delicious Mexican cuisine from the 80s and is one of the best spots in town.

Rentalmoose order tip: If it’s your first time in San Diego, you absolutely need to try the California Burrito.

Where to stay in San Diego?

La Jolla is home to numerous trendy hotels and resorts, Estancia La Jolla is one of the popular choices for tourists in the area. This 4-star hotel is located in a beautiful Spanish Colonial building surrounded by colorful gardens, a spa, and a large pool.

If you’re on a tighter budget, consider spending the night at San Diego Downtown Lodge. The budget-friendly lodge features free parking and a great location in the heart of the city.

Next: Finish the trip in San Diego or head back to Los Angeles, 2 hours

Drop-off

Rentalmoose recommends dropping off your rental car directly at the airport for maximum comfort. If you decide to end your journey in San Diego, make sure you book a rental that supports drop-off at a different location.

Don’t have a car you can take on a road trip? No problem!

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