California is the most populated state in the country so it’s no surprise there are dozens of beautiful destinations border to border. With so many to choose from, picking several within reasonable driving distance is challenging. Stop at these 10 spots and you are guaranteed an ultimate Cali road trip from San Diego.
1. San Luis Obispo
Starting in San Luis Obispo, the northern tip of SoCal, you’ll find gorgeous hiking and tons of locally owned shops. Nestled halfway between LA and San Francisco, this beautiful college town is an easy add to any Cali road trip. I recommend coming in from the north on Highway 1. It’s the prettiest coastal drive, and the perfect start to any trip.
Outdoor adventure seekers should check out Bishop Peak, the highest point in the Morros mountains. It’s only a 15-minute detour from historic downtown. The trail is an easy hike, just under four miles long, and you’ll probably bump into a few friendly locals along the way.
Must-see: Avila Beach
2. Pismo Beach
Located several miles south of Avila Beach is Pismo, my favorite beach camping spot. Famous for its wineries and coastline, you can stay at one of three campgrounds on the beach. You’ll want to check out one of Pismo’s oceanside town parks. The Dinosaur Caves Park is a tourist hotspot too.
Must-see: Monarch Butterfly Grove (late May to early October)
3. Santa Maria
This stop is for my wine lovers. NorCal is filled with famous wine country destinations, but they are harder to come by in the south. Santa Maria is one of my favorites. With over ten local wineries to choose from, there is no shortage of tasting opportunity. I recommend Presqu’ile or the Rancho Sisquoc, but each has something unique to offer.
The city is also home to California’s best BBQ. Santa Maria chefs are perfecting barbeque recipes passed down from the mid-19th century. The cooking style is a big part of California’s culinary heritage, and draws in hundreds of tourists every year.
Must-see: Friday Farmers Market
I tried to steer away from the most famous cities in Cali, but Malibu is a worthwhile exception. Home to several iconic beaches, you’re guaranteed to find unforgettable coastal adventure. If you’re traveling with a lover, plan to stay an extra night in Malibu.
Must-see: El Matador State Beach
5. Santa Monica
The views in Santa Monica may not be comparable to Malibu, but there are far more fun things to do. From the famous Third Street Promenade shopping district to the amusement park rides on the pier, you won’t have time to see it all. If your kids are along for the ride, this will be their favorite stop.
Must-see: Santa Monica State Beach
6. Balboa Peninsula
Heading down to the Balboa Peninsula you’ll pass a few more famous beaches (Long Beach and Huntington Beach), both less than 20 minutes out of your way. The peninsula is home to Newport Beach, a city often assumed to be a beach, but it actually has two beaches of its own (The Wedge and Corona Del Mar).
Must-see: Newport Beach Pier
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If you’ve had enough beach views and shopping, you’ll really enjoy these last few stops. They are more on the adventurous side, but a perfect change of scenery from the coast. Plus, you can camp for free which saves a lot of cash. It’s easier than you’d think too. Just find a state park or National Forest recreation area, set up camp and that’s it. Whether you’re desperate and take a spot on the side of the road, or adventurous and make your own path into the woods, these areas are fair game.
7. Mount Rubidoux Park – Riverside
Mount Rubidoux is a recreational area just west of downtown Riverside. It was formerly known as Huntington Park (familiar name right?), and was renamed in 1955 after one of the town’s donation contributors. The trail overlooks Riverside and the San Bernardino Mountains. It’s a popular spot among locals, but never too crowded with tourists. You’ll spend 30 to 45 minutes each way, enjoy the flowers!
Must-see: Junipero Serra Catholic Church
8. Mount San Jacinto
Palm Springs may be famous for shopping, but I come here to climb Mount San Jacinto. The peak is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, a trail that stretches across 2,650 miles of North America. If the great outdoors don’t interest you, hit some more shopping in Palm Springs or Palm Desert. Palm Desert shopping is out of my budget, but perfect for those seeking designer brands.
Must-see: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
9. Salton City
On your way to the dunes you’ll pass the Salton Sea. It’s a saline lake, a remnant of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla. On the southwest coast there is a modern-day ghost town, Salton City. The town was established in the 1950’s but development slowed due to lack of job opportunity. In 2010, over 80 percent of Salton City’s establishments were vacant, the properties worth close to nothing.
You can find some great camping out here, and it’s all free. I recommend the Arroyo Salado camping area because there are tons of cool rock formations to climb without committing to a full hike. You can find sites like this all over the state when you come inland a bit.
Must-see: Arroyo Salado Campground
10. Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area
Ever dream of going to Mars? Well the red, rolling sand hills in the Algodones are a good runner-up. Locally called the Imperial Sand Dunes, they stretch alongside 40 miles of the Imperial Canyon. I like to call it dirt bike heaven — or ATV paradise, depending on which off-highway vehicle you prefer. It’s one of those recreational areas where you see all sorts of interesting toys. Some as basic as people sandboarding on cardboard boxes.
Remember to stay away from the East Mesa. The military uses this area for bomb testing, trespassing is punishable by federal law. Don’t worry, it is clearly marked where you’re not welcome.
Must-see: a sunset
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Having an agenda packed with the best stops is important, but so is knowing when to go. Tourism dominates Cali in the summertime. To avoid those crowds, hit the beaches early fall. The weather will be in the mid-70’s to low 80’s at these inland stops, perfect for hiking, and a little cooler on the coastline. Although the tourism seems to slow down, the traffic does not. Plan your daily itinerary wisely to avoid the road during rush hour. Lastly, remember to be polite and smile. Both go a long way in The Golden State.