Road trips and California are like peanut butter and jelly. They just go together. The site of the first known road trip in 1903, California has been associated with cars since their invention. According to Visit California, 86% of visitors to The Golden State arrive by car. And road trips are becoming even more popular as people look for safer ways to travel. To help our readers out, we’re sharing some great road trip ideas around the country. First up, the best road trips in Southern California.
Note: due to COVID-19, some attractions may be closed. Be sure to check their websites for updated hours of operation. When visiting California, please be sure to travel responsibly and follow the travel tips that Visit California has put together.
Best Road Trips in Southern California
Our family has driven all around the state, and we believe this list of best road trips in Southern California is the perfect sampling. Now hit the road!
San Diego to Los Angeles
Distance – 145 miles
It’s not a far trip from our hometown of San Diego to Los Angeles. But making it a road trip instead of a day trip lets you see some of the great sites in-between. This means taking the longer route via I-15 instead of I-5. Some great places to stop:
San Diego Zoo/Safari Park
Start your trip early and head to visit the San Diego Zoo. With more than 3,500 animals, the award-winning zoo also has behind the scenes tours to learn even more. Allocate at least 3 hours to experience the zoo, but you could literally spend an entire day here and not see everything.
After you leave the zoo, head north about an hour to the Safari Park. Located near Escondido, the park highlights animals from Africa and Asia that are natural roamers. Visitors can walk the park or schedule a private safari tour in a motorized vehicle. You can even make reservations in advance to spend the night at the park and wake up to the sounds of the animals. Allocate at least 4 hours to experience the park.
From the zoo, travel 60 miles up I-15 to Temecula. Home to over 40 local wineries, it’s a wine lover’s dream. There’s plenty of other things to do here, too. There’s a casino, horseback riding, the Temecula Stampede for music lovers, hiking and spas. Or just relax by the pool with a glass of bubbly at one of the many resorts in the area.
After you’ve left Temecula, continue of the best road trips in Southern California 60 miles northwest to Pasadena. Home to the Rose Bowl and Parade of Roses, Pasadena is a charming village of historic homes and businesses. Visit the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens for some classic beauty. From there, head over to tour the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where at least 20 active space missions are managed.
If you’ve chosen to spend the night in Pasadena, feel free to sleep in or take half a day to explore the city. It’s a quick drive to downtown Los Angeles, which is only 10 miles away. You can spend days in Los Angeles and not see everything. Venture into Chinatown to experience a variety of shops, authentic restaurants and Pagoda-style buildings. Take a movie studio tour. Hike up to the Hollywood Sign and visit Griffith Observatory to view the planets. Plus there are more than 15 museums around town. With so much to do, it’s a great place to end one of your best road trips in Southern California.
Route 66 (Santa Monica to Needles)
Distance – 315 miles
Get your kicks . . . on Route 66! The country’s best-known highway is no longer a road you can take straight through to the midwest. The addition of the interstate highways system broke it up in some parts. In Southern California, I-15 and I-40 are now part of Route 66. However, you can still replicate one of the best road trips in Southern California with parts of the original route starting in Santa Monica.
The Route 66 End of the Trail marker sits at the historic Santa Monica Pier. While you’re at the pier, take a ride on the Ferris wheel that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Go fishing. Or visit the arcade that has over 200 games. Love to rollerblade or bike? Take a spin down The Strand, a 22-mile path that goes through Venice Beach. Take the kids to the Heal The Bay Aquarium. There’s even a trapeze school you can visit!
Traveling 75 miles east, you’ll find San Bernardino. Since it’s home of the first McDonald’s, of course you’ll find the Original McDonald’s Site and Museum. You’ll see everything from menu ideas that didn’t catch on, early versions of the Happy Meal and McDonald’s memorabilia from around the world. Not big on fast food history? Hike out to the Deep Creek Hot Springs. Railroad lovers will enjoy the San Bernardino History & Railroad Museum or the Kelso Depot.
Be sure to make a stop in Victorville. Forty miles outside of San Bernardino, it’s home to the California Route 66 Museum. This is an essential stop on one of the best road trips in Southern California, and a nice place to stop for lunch.
Taking Route 66 will take you through some small roadside attractions you’ll want to stop and see. Take your time and plan on spending the night in Barstow, which is about 70 miles from San Bernardino. You’ll want to take some time to visit the Barstow Harvey House. Home to the Route 66 Mother Road Museum and the American Railroad Museum, Harvey Houses are historical former hotels and restaurants for train travelers. There are less than ten original Harvey Houses still standing, so this is an opportunity to see 19th-century western architecture.
Technically now a ghost town, Amboy is worth a stop to see the Amboy crater. A National Natural Landmark, the 250-foot-high volcanic cinder cone. It does have a hiking trail but will take up to 3 hours, so be cautious about what time of year you would attempt. AB sure to stop by Roy’s Gas Station, which still retains it’s 50’s exterior.
Needles was home for a few years to a young Charles Schultz, creator of the famous Peanuts cartoons. Now it’s a town with lots of railroad history and the easternmost point of Route 66 in California. Located on the Colorado River provides lots of outdoor recreation. Visit the Historic Route 66 California Gateway Area, the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge and the Moabi Regional Park for bird watching, fishing or water skiing. Feeling adventurous? Head over the state line to Oatman, AZ. Populated with wild burros that outnumber people, there are several restaurants and tourist attractions in this former gold mining town.
San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park
Distance – 165 miles
Located in the Coachella Valley in the Colorado Desert, Palm Springs is a resort town with natural groves of palm trees, cacti and beautiful views. It’s also located close to national and state parks to explore, including Joshua Tree National Park. This is why we consider it a vital destination on one of the best road trips in Southern California.
Our family loves to road trip to Palm Springs. We’ve been taking the girls since they were little. To us, it’s at the top of our best road trips in Southern California. There’s so much to do, but if you don’t want to do anything, laying by the pool sipping cold drinks is excellent too. We love taking the Red Jeep Tours, visitng the Living Desert Zoo and walking around downtown. Only about 2.5 hours from San Diego, it’s a good stopping point before getting to Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park
A wide variety of plants, animals and insects live in Joshua Tree National Park. Including the spiky Joshua trees that are so iconic. Photographers will find plenty of subjects to capture on film. Visitors also come for hiking, excellent stargazing, biking and horseback riding. Mountain bikes and 4-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed in the park on established roads. If you don’t feel like driving back to Palm Springs to spend the night, there are plenty of hotels in the area, including the famed Joshua Tree Inn.
Pacific Coast Highway (San Diego to Malibu)
Distance – 160 miles
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is probably the second most famous roadway in the United States. While the PCH doesn’t start until a little north of San Diego, it’s only a short hike up the interstate. With views of the Pacific Ocean and lots of piers and surfers, it’s one of the classic best road trips in Southern California.
About 40 miles from San Diego, Oceanside looks precisely the way it sounds. Sunny, beachy and lots of water. At Oceanside Harbor, you can see the sea lions sunbathing on the docks. Oceanside is full of street murals for you to enjoy on a walking tour. Go fishing (or just people watching) on the almost 2,000-foot long historical pier. There are 3 miles of beaches to sit down, lay out and relax. Or even surf. And speaking of surfing, if you’re a fan, don’t miss the California Surf Museum.
Located 20 miles north of Oceanside, San Clemente is home to beautiful beaches, including the San Clemente State Beach. The beach, situated at the bottom of a steep bluff, is a mile long. After you visit the beach, head to the Surfing Heritage & Cultural Center. Past exhibits have featured iconic California surf shops, high-velocity surfing and the origins of surfing.
Nicknamed ‘Surf City, USA’, Huntington Beach is the next stop and very close to the beginning of the Pacific Coast Highway. Of course, with a nickname like that, you expect surfing. And you’ll get it. There are plenty of surf shops in the area where you can rent a board. If you need some lessons, there are surf schools for that too. Not into surfing? There are plenty of other things to do, including farmer’s markets, spas and museums. And be sure to partake in a beach bonfire. It’s a tradition in these areas and something all visitors should experience.
A quick drive 15 miles up PCH takes you to Long Beach. Here you can visit the Aquarium of the Pacific, watch sea lions in the harbor, eat at one of the many diverse restaurants and of course, head to the beach. You can and spend the night on historic (and reportedly haunted) cruise vessel, The Queen Mary. The Battleship USS Iowa Museum is located down the street in San Pedro too.
See above, but worth another visit on this epic road trip too!
The last leg of this best road trip in Southern California is a short 30 miles up PCH. Known for its beaches and home to many rich and famous, Malibu has plenty to do for everyone. Visit the famous Zuma Beach to see and be seen. Head out to the Getty Villa, the original home for the Getty Center. Hike the trails of Topanga State Park 10 miles away. And don’t miss the famous Malibu Pier. Home of where the original Gidget learned to surf, you can rent a kayak or SUP board, fish and even grab a bite to eat while enjoying amazing views.
Which is Your Best Road Trip in Southern California?
We’ve put together this list of suggestions as a starting point. But which is your favorite route? Or perhaps you have suggestions that we should add to this list? We would love to hear from you!