Few states offer as many scenic road trips as California. Whether you follow the ocean along Highway 1 or head inland to appreciate the mountains and desert, you could spend a lifetime exploring the Golden State. Add in the bordering states of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, and the road-trip options are endless.
The beauty of road trips is their flexibility. When you fly to a destination, you are limited by strict schedules. But a road trip allows you to adjust to whatever amount of time you have, be it a few days or several weeks. It also allows as many -- or as few -- stops as you wish. You can see every roadside attraction possible, or just hit the highlights.
This trip starts in California and ends in Nevada. You’ll take in the stunning scenery of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range along Highway 395. The stops recommended here are just a few of many to consider, but they are definitely worth your time.
Pasadena is a destination in and of itself, so if you have time at the beginning of your road trip, allow a day or two in the home of the Rose Parade.
A highlight of Pasadena is The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. With 130 acres of gardens, 42,000 works of art, and 11 million items in the library, this institution has something for everyone. Kids can run across the expansive lawn while adults appreciate the Old Masters paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Part of the art collection is housed in the mansion built by Henry Edwards Huntington in the early 20th century.
If you’re in the mood to shop and stroll, head to Old Town Pasadena. You’ll find a wide variety of boutiques, department stores, cafes, and restaurants, many housed in turn-of-the-century brick buildings.
Space geeks will want to tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home to planetary robotic spacecraft. Tours include a multimedia presentation and visits to the Earth Science Center and Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Tours are offered just one day a week, so be sure to make your reservation far in advance.
Pasadena has a large selection of hotels. One of the most popular and centrally located is the Westin Pasadena. For something historic, consider staying at the five-star Langham Huntington. A more affordable but comfortable option is the Holiday Inn Express & Suites.
Red Rock Canyon State Park
After leaving Pasadena, you’ll arrive at Red Rock Canyon State Park in under 2 hours. The park is at the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a range that extends 400 miles along the eastern edge of California.
Red Rock offers colorful badlands, cliffs, and canyons. For almost a hundred years, paleontologists have been excavating this area, making discoveries about the humans and animals who have lived here. If time is limited, just take a scenic drive through the park. But if you’d like to delve deeper, then head out on one of the trails for a hike.
Western movie lovers will definitely want to stop in Lone Pine, about 90 minutes away from Red Rock. This small town is home to fewer than 2,000 residents, but odds are you’ve seen this area in a number of movies, television shows, and commercials over the years.
To learn about the movie industry in and around Lone Pine, head to the Museum of Western Film History, where you’ll find memorabilia from dozens of Western movies. Or take the self-guided tour of the Alabama Hills, where hundreds of movies were filmed.
If you started your journey early in the morning, you’ll probably be hungry by now, so grab some lunch at the Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery.
Manzanar National Historic Site
Just outside Lone Pine is the Manzanar National Historic Site, a sobering reminder of the treatment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. This was one of 10 internment camps built to house Japanese men, women, and children from 1942 until 1945.
Most of the camp was destroyed, but the visitor center offers several excellent exhibits detailing how the camps came into existence as well as the depressing conditions under which people lived. There is also a self-guided driving tour outlining the layout of the camp. Along the way, a few buildings have been recreated to give visitors a better sense of life in the camp.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Getting to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is an adventure, but it’s worth it to see the oldest living organisms on the planet, the bristlecone pines. The oldest tree is believed to be 5,070 years old! While the great sequoias are far more familiar to people, the bristlecone pines are 2,000 years older.
Many people will head to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center to learn more about the forest. But be prepared for a long and winding drive that takes at least an hour after leaving Highway 395 and reaches an elevation of almost 10,000 feet. You can continue farther into the forest on an unpaved road if you’d like to see the Patriarch, the largest of the bristlecone pines in the forest.
Just south of Mammoth Lakes, Convict Lake is one of the most scenic bodies of water in the Eastern Sierras. The deep blue water is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, including Mount Morrison.
The lake got its name from a group of escaped convicts who were trapped here by a posse in 1871. The surrounding mountain peaks were named for the fallen posse members. Today the lake is a popular recreation area for boating, fishing, and hiking. You'll find dining and lodging nearby as well.
If you’re looking for an overnight stop along your road trip, Mammoth Lakes is the ideal destination. In the winter, this town is full of skiers and snowboarders, but summer brings hikers, boaters, and campers. So no matter when you visit, there will be plenty to do.
A great way to get the lay of the land is to start at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center. Volunteers can help you plan a day -- or even a weekend -- in and around town. You'll also get information about the geology and wildlife of the area.
If you don’t have much time, head to The Village at Mammoth. This outdoor shopping center offers a selection of boutiques and restaurants, so it can be a nice place to grab a meal along the route. Also located in this area are two nice lodging options, The Village Lodge and The Westin Monache Resort.
If you have more time, consider taking a hike. There are hundreds of trails in the area ranging in distance and difficulty. Or rent a kayak and enjoy the mountain views from the water. Lake Mary, Lake George, and June Lake all offer boat rentals.
Devil’s Postpile National Monument
Next to Mammoth Lakes is Devil’s Postpile National Monument, an unusual rock formation made of columnar basalt that is believed to have been created by lava flow less than 100,000 years ago. From the visitor center, there are a couple of short hikes, one to the top of the rock formation and the other to the bottom.
Another popular destination within the area is Rainbow Falls, a waterfall on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. The John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail merge as they pass through the monument.
It’s important to know that visitors may only enter the monument on a shuttle bus that can be accessed at The Village at Mammoth. To avoid crowds, catch the earliest shuttle of the day.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
After leaving Mammoth Lakes, head north for 30 minutes, and you’ll arrive at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. This large saline soda lake is over a million years old. Dotting the lake are “tufa towers,” calcium-carbonate spires formed by the interaction of freshwater springs with the alkaline lake water. The unusual conditions of the lake attract more than 80 species of birds each year.
Start your visit at the visitor center, which provides helpful information about the lake and the wildlife. From there, you can also get an overview of the water. Then follow the directions to the waterfront to get an up-close view of the tufas.
Bodie State Historic Park
Most of the stops on this journey have been natural wonders, but now it’s time to appreciate something man-made: a gold-mining ghost town. At one time, Bodie State Historic Park was home to 10,000 residents. Today it’s preserved in “arrested decay” so that visitors can appreciate what life was like there in the late 1800s. Legend says that in its heyday, there were 65 saloons operating.
You are welcome to explore on your own, or you can schedule a guided tour through the Bodie Foundation. If you’re feeling particularly brave, try the ghost tour, which includes a walk through the cemetery.
Lake Tahoe can be a destination in and of itself or a great final stop on your road trip. Either way, this town has plenty to offer. But it’s practically a requirement for all visitors to get out on the water to appreciate North America’s largest alpine lake.
Boating is certainly one of the most popular activities in Lake Tahoe. Consider paddling a kayak close to the shore, piloting a powerboat to explore larger areas of the lake, or even balancing on water skis for a really adventurous afternoon. The High Sierra Waterski School rents a variety of boats and offers lessons.
If biking is more your speed, then get out on the Truckee River Bike Trail. This easy, paved trail runs for about 7 miles along the scenic Truckee River, making it ideal for families. Squaw Bikes rents cruisers, mountain bikes, and children’s bikes and can provide a map of trails in the area.
Hikers will want to check out the trails at Emerald Bay State Park, which offers some of the best views of Lake Tahoe. Two great options are the 4.5-mile Rubicon Peak Trail and the mile-long Vikingsholm Trail.
For more to see and do in the Lake Tahoe area, see this page.
Ideally a road trip through the Eastern Sierras should take place between the late spring and the fall. Some parts of this itinerary may be inaccessible during the winter due to heavy snowfall. Summer can be a lovely time in the area, but it will be busier when school is not in session. Whenever you choose to visit, you’ll discover a wealth of natural beauty you won’t soon forget.