I moved from Wisconsin to San Francisco about 5 years ago and I’m totally in love with this state. We have deserts, mountains, hot springs, waterfalls, rugged beaches, and white ones, so many palms tree. And like, so many more wineries. Redwood forests, charming little towns, and huge cities… I could go on and on about why I love California.
We’re constantly exploring our new home and since moving, we’ve driven all over the state. So let’s just say, I know a thing or two about California road trips! For instance, if you need to drive through LA, be prepared for at least 3 hours stuck bumper to bumper! Ouch.
A road trip in California is a CLASSIC bucket list item I think every American should do. So, buckle in, grab a glass of wine and get ready for my recommendations! Vroom Vroom.
Is 10 Day California Road Trip Enough Time?
Spoiler alert: If you want to spend 10 days Calfornia and see more than just a couple of spots, be prepared for a lot of driving and activities. But, it’s going to be worth it, I promise!
California is HUGE! Did you know more people live in California than Canada? It takes easily over 12 hours to drive from tip to tip (assuming you don’t run into any of that classic LA traffic!) It would be more comfortable if you had 14 days, and you could see way more of the state. BUT, you can fit enough of the good stuff in 10 days (8 not counting the two travel days on either end.)
Got less time? Check out one of my city guides so you can stay put and really explore!
California Road Trip Itinerary 10 Days
In this guide, I’m recommending you fly into San Diego and fly out of San Francisco. You can, of course, flip this plan and do a California road trip from San Francisco to San Diego!
Flying into LAX is usually cheaper, but it’s always a total nightmare. I’m talking crazy delays in and out, a massive sloppy airport and it can take literally hours to get out of that traffic mess. Plus, it causes you to miss out on San Diego as it doesn’t make sense to go south then North again. If you can, fly to San Diego instead.
San Diego (2 Nights)
Try to land in San Diego no later than Noon West Coast Time. This airport is right downtown San Diego which makes it easy to land, grab your rental car and get out exploring!
- PS – I have a whole San Diego Travel Guide that you may want to check out, too!
I really love La Jolla and stay in that neighborhood every time we visit. It’s right on my favorite beach, has a cute little main street area, great tacos, snorkeling in the cove and nice hotels. You can also choose to stay downtown, or on Coronado! Here’s my three recommended hotels:
- La Jolla Shores Hotel (right on the beach!)
- Pendry Hotel in Downtown San Diego
- Hotel Del Coronad0 (it’s so stunning and low-key haunted, I want to stay here next visit!)
Head to your hotel and drop off your bags. You may be able to check-in early and freshen up. Your road trip to California just started! Woohoo! Everyone here says “Hella” and “vibe” so start using that in your vocabulary, you’re one of us now.
After you freshen up, head to La Jolla. If you aren’t staying there, it’ll be a short drive away. Make sure to bring your snorkeling gear (you can rent snorkel gear for just $11 with this Groupon!) Of course, wear your swimsuit and sunscreen, too!
I find that after a long flight, there’s nothing better than jumping into the ocean and moving your body! I love snorkeling at La Jolla Cove. There are tons of cute little fish in the water and up on the rocks are where all the sea lions hang out!! If La Jolla Cove is full, go up one beach to Children’s Cove.
- Hungry? I really loved my lunch at George’s At The Cove. Make sure to sit outside on the rooftop so you can people watch the beach below (and get that great ocean view!) During lunch you can usually just walk in and grab a table, but dinner will need reservations.
After you’ve had your fill of La Jolla, head back to your hotel and get ready for your first evening in California!! Next I’m taking you for an evening stroll around Balboa Park. This park is not your average city park. It’s a National Landmark, has over 16 museums, tons of stunning buildings that make you feel like you stepped into Spain, trails, gardens and so much more.
It’s also extra beautiful in the evening with all the golden light filling the park. Take some time to walk around here and get lost in this pretty park. Also a great spot for photos! Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head downtown to Little Italy for one of my favorite taco dinners of my life.
In general, I think San Deigo has some of the best tacos and burritos in the entire country. I adored my dinner at El Camino so much because it as a large outdoor patio and happens to be right in the flight path of the planes landing at the airport. Every once in a while, a loud roar will break out and when you look up, it feels like you can almost touch the airplane. Sounds scary, but it’s actually really really cool! Plus, the food is amazing.
For Day Two, it’s time to hit up the famous North Park! For breakfast, head to Communal Coffee to grab breakfast next to that Instafamous “coffee + flowers” wall! They have good food and coffee here, plus indoor seating if the weather sucks.
After, it’s time to explore North Park! This neighborhood has tons of funky shops and cool street art. It’s also where you can find the other famous coffee shop – Holy Matcha! You know, that pink and palm leaf print shop that SoCal influencers love to snap photos in. The drinks are actually pretty good here, so it’s worth a stop!
In the afternoon, I want you to go to Coronado for a beach day! Coronado is technically a different city on a peninsula in San Diego Bay. You have to take this large bridge over. It has a strange East Coast vibe to me, which is really fun and different. Pack your beach bag and head to the Coronado Del Mar hotel – this is my favorite spot to lounge on the sand!
This hotel is super famous and have played host to so many stars over time. It’s also supposedly haunted (which as a true crime nerd, I’m totally into.) I want to spend a few nights here on our next visit to San Diego, the hotel is so so so pretty! You can grab drinks at the hotel bar but they run easily $18 a pop, so I suggest someone just pops over to the nearby market in town instead.
For dinner, head back to La Jolla, but this time La Jolla Shores! There’s this one outdoor taco surf shop called Surf Rider that is a place I eat at again and again. It’s a couple of blocks from the ocean, making it the perfect spot to grab beers and burritos before watching the sunset.
Joshua Tree National Park / Palm Springs (2 nights)
You may have not heard of Joshua Tree but you probably know about Palm Springs. It’s a desert city that’s packed with color, cactus, palm trees and mid-century modern homes. It’s LA’s favorite place to vacation and just a couple hours inland from the coast. (We don’t be going as far as Death Valley, that’s easier to visit from Vegas!)
I fell in love with Palm Springs after my first visit a few years ago and have been going back every day. I adore the wacky murals, colorful houses and doing “Door Tours.” Sitting poolside in the desert heat? Yes, please! There are tons of hotel options, these are my recommended ones:
- Parker Palm Springs: A luxury resort that looks like it was plucked out of Alice in Wonderland.
- Ace Hotel: a boutique hotel with funky wall art and sprawling property.
- Airbnb: SO many people rent out their whole pads here. Consider booking a whole mid-century modern house for yourself!
You may be tempted to stay at the Saguaro (the rainbow hotel) but myself and trusted friends who have visited themselves all have had terrible experiences here. The staff is terrible and I have serious security issues with them. You can read more on this post if you’re curious. Instead, pop in for photos but don’t stay here!
You’ll probably arrive around Noon. I suggest that you check-in and while waiting for your room, head to the Morten Botanical Garden, a famous cactus garden that is oh-so-cute! You’ve probably seen photos of this place on Instagram. It’s just $5 to enter and is a fun way to kill time before check-in.
- Hungry? Grab lunch at Frank n Bun, the cutest little gourmet hot dog shop! Trust me on this one.
After you check-in, you can totally spend some time by the pool if you want. Or, you can grab a bike (most hotels have them available for free for guests!) and do a self-guided Palm Springs Door Tour! I love doing this every time we come here. All the doors where are painted different colors and some of the houses are really famous.
For dinner, head downtown and grab dinner at Cheeky’s, the local’s favorite place to eat. There’s also Jake’s next door that has great sandwiches. Or, stay put at your hotel and have dinner there!
On your second day in the Palm Desert, wake up and grab breakfast at King’s Highway at the Ace Hotel. I loved my Huecves Ranchors here, plus the decor will make you feel like you stepped into the 1970’s!
Then, off to Joshua Tree National Park! It’s about 45 minutes away and you should start your day with a short hike around the park. Make sure to wear sturdy shoes and sunscreen! There are two entrances to the park and I suggest you start your visit at Skull Rock. From there you can pop over to the Cholla Garden if you want. Go hiking and explore this famous and unique National Park!
For lunch, head into the town of Joshua Tree proper. This pace is where all the hippies and artisans escaped to. It’s wacky and spiritual and I totally love it here. It’s one of my favorite places in California to visit when I need a mental escape. There are a few options for lunch, I suggest Crossroads Cafe ( I adored my meal here!) After lunch, spend some time looking at all the vintage stores and shops. Make sure to visit the Crochet Museum!
You can check out my whole Joshua Tree travel guide if you want tips on other things to do, but after your half-day visit, it’s time to head back to Palm Springs! Use this afternoon to either sit by your hotel pool and relax, or explore Palm Springs more. For happy hour, check out Parker Palm Springs. Even if you aren’t staying here, you can visit parts of it and holy moly, this place is magic!
Los Angeles (one night)
Say goodbye to the Palm Desert, it’s time to visit Los Angeles! I’m only having you stay one night here for two reasons. 1) it’s not my most *Favorite* city in California, so it’s a lot of personal bias here. 2) LA is HUGE! You kinda need a whole trip just dedicated to this city to actually do it justice. Plus, you didn’t come to do a California road trip only to sit in LA traffic all week, right?
My favorite area is Venice Beach and Santa Monica – check out my detailed guide here! They are nextdoor to each other and right on the ocean. It’ll take you a couple of hours ot drive over depending on traffic. Here’s my recommended hotels:
- Airbnb: There are SO many cute and affordable bungalows near the beach that you can rent. Use THIS link for $40 off your first stay!
- Georgian Hotel: Right on the beach in Santa Monica, this famous hotel will make a great home base for exploring! Plus, it’s really pretty.
After you check-in, beeline yourself to any bike rental shop on the boardwalk (there’s so many!) I personally rented mine from the shop right next to Muscle Beach, but you can find them everywhere. Grab a cute cruiser and bike from Venice to Santa Monica! It’ll take about 20 minutes if you go fast, but take the time to make pit stops. Hungry? Grab a $2 fish taco from a taco shop on the boardwalk!
At Santa Monica, you can do the rides on the pier if that’s your thing. You can also hang out on the beach, swim, etc. The Promenade in Santa Monica is great for shopping (but you have malls at home, so I usually discourage box store visits on vacation!)
There are SO MANY restaurants in this area, so pick whatever you’re craving. If you haven’t visited a Butcher’s Daughter before (they have some around California and I *think* New York City) eat here! It’s vegan and hip, a total LA staple. The decor is really cute and they make awesome in-house kombucha! After dinner, walk to the beach for sunset.
Santa Barbara (1 night)
Time to hit up the famous Pacific Coast Highway road! A Highway 1 coast road trip is iconic and a must when visiting California. Make sure to leave Palm Springs early and hit the road before traffic gets bad. Try to be in Santa Barbara by Noon!
I suggest booking a stay at the Kimpton Goodland Hotel. It’s not in Santa Barbara proper, but it’s affordable and OH SO CUTE! We stayed here and I loved this place, every corner was thoughtfully decorated and they have a really fun restaurant that does trivia some nights! plus, you get free wine nightly here!
Once you arrive, check-in and head to Santa Barbara to visit the Old Mission! This is probably one of the best missions I’ve been to in California because it’s just so different. The garden inside made me feel like I walked into a jungle.
Next, hit up the Funk Zone the art and wine district! Lots of tasting rooms are made out of shipping contains and other warehouses. Tons of color, street art and plants. There’s also breweries and nice restaurants over here, so take your pick (but I recommend Municipal Winemakers as a starting point!)
For dinner, head to the main street and walk up and down it, there are so many great restaurants here. Everything from a piano bar to Mexican places to breweries. I really loved our dinner at Zaytoon (belly dancing!)
In the morning, head to Handlebar Coffee Roasters for breakfast (they have colorful lattes, hello Instagram!) After, go rent a beach cruiser from Santa Barbara Bikes To Go and go for a bike ride on the boardwalk! This shop is a couple of blocks away from the Chromatic Gate, this colorful art installation on the beach that I’m obsessed with.
If you haven’t checked out the Santa Barabara courthouse yet, pop downtown to do that. It’s probably the most beautiful courthouse I have EVER been to. Take the elevator to the top floor, you can the entire city below!
Check out and hop back in the car, it’s time ot drive up the coast to Big Sur & Carmel!
Carmel (1 night)
This drive is going to take you about 4 hours, but don’t worry, it’s going to be STUNNING! You’ll drive on the coast most of the time, pass through famous cities like San Luis Obispo and up through Big Sur.
Make sure to stop by the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur – it’s that famous bridge you probably recognize from Big Little Lies! I love driving through Big Sur, the coastline is just stunning. Pop in a podcast and enjoy the view.
Your end goal is Carmel-by-the-sea, a fairytale town that looks like it was plucked out of Disney movie. Houses don’t have numbers here, instead mail is addressed to things like “the pink house on 1st street”, a rule created to “keep the charm.” I’m here for it
Carmel stands out to me for a couple of reasons. One, I really love their Mission as well. Since you just visited the Mission in Santa Barbara, you can skip this (but if you like history, it’s worth a stop!) But mostly, I love Carmel because they have some of the best sunsets in the world.
Every time I visit, we’re treated to cotton candy sunsets.
The whole city seems to gather on the beach each evening to cheer the sun beyond the horizon. It’s a party. For dinner, I recommend the Mission Ranch restaurant. Make sure to grab a seat on the patio, it overlooks a marsh and a grazing field for sheep (how cute!)
For your hotel, you have a pick of everything from budget to luxury here in Carmel. Check out the top 10 hotels here and pick what’s best for you and your budget!
Today you’re heading to San Francisco! But there are some adventures to have before you get there. Your highway road trip doesn’t stop yet! When you drive up, start by taking the famous 17 Mile Drive. The entrance is at Pebble Beach!
This is my favorite thing to do when I visit. It’s a famous route that takes you past Pebble Beach (the golf course) and through some of the most stunning and manicured coastline in California. Plus, all the houses here are MILLIONS and super fun to gawk at.
You’ll end up in Monterey and keep driving North to Santa Cruz. Stop by Capitola Beach’s colorful houses if you want, but try to get to San Francisco between Noon and 1pm. There are tons of fun hotels in the city. Here are my recommended ones:
- Fairmont: great views!
- Hotel Diva: right on Union Square
- Airbnb: it’s founded here, so we have tons of cute Airbnbs around the city!
On your first afternoon, it’s time to stretch your legs and explore! Go check out the Golden Gate Bridge and Painted Ladies. I have a whole One Day in San Francisco itinerary that’s meant to help readers have the BEST day in San Francisco possible! Check it out for ideas of what to do this afternoon. Here’s some of my favorite things:
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Painted Ladies
- Ferry Building
- North Beach for dinner (Italian!)
For day two in San Francisco, you have two options. 1) Stay in the city and explore more. Use this time to visit what you couldn’t yesterday and even do a tour to Alcatraz! 2) Go wine tasting in Sonoma or Napa Valley!
Wine country is just an hour north of the city and is probably our go-to day trip when we want to getaway. We LOVE wine, so we always have fun up there. If going to Napa Valley is on your bucket list, today’s the chance to do so. Check out my Silverado Trail guide to help you pick where to wine taste!
If you choose to stay, put on comfy shoes for walking and plan to be out all day! This city is small (only 7×7 miles) and very walkable. Visit what you missed yesterday and make sure to do a tour to Alcatraz. You have to buy tickets in advance, though!
Alcatraz may sound touristy, but it’s hands down the best “touristy” thing I’ve ever done. It’s full of history and the self-guided audio tour is put together so well. Plus, you take a boat out to the prison and you can sweeping views of the city and bay. It’s like a sailing trip and tour all in one!
Well, by now it’s your LAST day in California! Grab brunch somewhere in the city (I recommend El Techo or Brenda’s for a really good meal!) Return your car if you haven’t already, pack up and head to SFO.
And with that, your 10-day California road trip is over!
Yosemite National Park
Want to see Yosemite National Park? Of all the national parks in California, Yosemite is my favorite. This ain’t a small state park – it’s HUGE and is a trip in itself. It’s also about a 4.5 hour drive from San Francisco, which is why I didn’t recommend in it this guide. It would have thrown the whole trip off!
That being said, if you are set on going (which I’m in support of, I love it here!) you can swap your days in Santa Baraba and Carmel for Yosemite. What you should do is go San Deigo to LA, then inland to Palm Springs then take the 5 up to Yosemite. You may even be able to squeeze a visit to Lake Tahoe if you want!
I hope you found this guide helpful!!! I put a LOT of thought into this because I really want you to have the best trip possible. If you have any questions at all, about any of the places I recommended or other cities you think you want to visit, leave a comment below or DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll help ya out!
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