Big Sur coast of Highway 1 on a California road trip
California,  roadtrip,  USA

The Ultimate 18-day California Road Trip

A California Road Trip with Highway 1, the big cities and famous National Parks in it, it’s what lots of people dream of seeing once in their life. This road trip of California is technically a California and Nevada road trip, since it starts in Las Vegas. The whole Californian road trip stays in California after Las Vegas.

From Las Vegas to a string of stunning National Parks ending in San Francisco, from there on heading south on Highway 1 with mesmerizing ocean views ending all the way in San Diego. This is a perfect California Nevada road trip.

California Road Trip

Day 1: Arrive at Las Vegas

Day 2: Drive from Las Vegas to Lone Pine (228 miles, about 4 hours)

Day 3: Drive from Lone Pine to Three Rivers (257 miles, about 4 hours and 15 minutes)

Day 4: Seqouia National Park

Day 5: Drive from Three Rivers to Oakhurst (127 miles, about 3 hours)

Day 6: Yosemite National Park

Day 7: Drive from Oakhurst to San Francisco (288 miles, about 5 hours and 15 minutes, via toll roads)

Day 8 + 9: Explore San Francisco

Day 10: Drive from San Francisco to Monterey (127 miles, about 3 hours)

Day 11: Drive from Monterey to Gorda (67miles, about 2 hours)

Day 12: Drive from Gorda to Santa Barbara (164 miles, about 3 hours)

Day 13: Drive from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles (97 miles, about 2 hours)

Day 14 + 15: Explore Los Angeles

Day 16: Drive from Los Angeles to San Diego (124 miles, about 2 hours)

Day 17: Explore San Diego

Day 18: Going home

Day to day itinerary

This was such a beautiful road trip, a dream come true. We really wanted to drive Highway 1 and visit Yosemite and Death Valley. With this California Nevada road trip itinerary you can tick many of your bucket list items.

Day 1: Las Vegas

Las Vegas from our hotel room, in the dark, with all the lights from the hotels on.
Las Vegas from our hotel room

Las Vegas is a world on its own. You have to see to believe it. We arrived late, it was already dark, but that isn’t a problem, since Las Vegas comes to life in the evening/night. We only strolled around a short part with Yuri sleeping in the stroller. Paul and I had already been to Las Vegas on a South western road trip. It’s fun to walk up and down the whole Strip and walk into the hotels and admire their grandiosity. There are several free shows which you can watch, like the fountains at the Bellagio.

Day 2: Death Valley National Park

Badwater Basin at Death Valley, the salt flats with two people in the middle walking on it. Mountains in the distance.
Badwater Basin at Death Valley

Leave Las Vegas early in the morning, not much show at that moment on the Strip. Drive to Death Valley National Park. This is the hottest, driest and lowest National Park in the USA. Drive the road through the park and walk on the Badwater Salt Flat, the lowest point in North America. Next to that take a hike at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. We only hiked a short bit at Badwater Basin, since it was too hot for our son. Since he was only one at the time, he couldn’t express properly yet if he was too warm.

Day 3 till 5: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Cosette at the base of a Sequoia tree, behind her the base of the tree, which is 10 times or so larger than her.
Cosette at the base of a Sequoia tree

Be mesmerized and astonished by the sequoia trees. They’re so high and beautiful. We took one day for each park. There was still lots of snow when we visited, a great difference in temperature with Death Valley a few days before.

Go on hikes in both parks to tunnel log, General Sherman Tree and General Grant Tree. Stop at the viewpoints. Take the whole 4th day for Sequoia National Park and the morning of the 5th day for Kings Canyon National Park. Then drive to Oakhurst.

A sequoia tree
A sequoia tree
Several sequoia trees, seen from below, the sun shining through them
Several sequoia trees

Day 6 & 7: Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley with El Capitan and the Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Valley with El Capitan and the Yosemite Falls

You have a day and a half for this famous national park. We had some less time because it turned out that Yuri had the chickenpox. So we stayed at the hotel the first morning and only went to the park in the afternoon.

Go on one of the hikes. We explored the Valley, where most people go to. We did the Bridalveil Fall Trail. On the 7th day we did the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, a small steam train which we liked very much, especially our son. We drove again through the Valley, the views on El Capitan and Yosemite Falls are amazing and something you don’t get tired off.

Day 7 till 10: San Francisco

San Francisco as seen from Lombard Street on a California road trip
San Francisco as seen from Lombard Street

From Yosemite National Park drive all the way to San Francisco, it’s a long drive, a little bit longer than we expected, but we already had made a reservation for the hotel in San Francisco.

San Francisco has lots to offer and you can’t explore all of it in 2 days. We explored Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39, Hyde Street Pier and the Cable Car. We didn’t venture far outside of the tourist area, since we still had a sick kid with us, so we took it slow.

Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are very touristy, but watching the sea lions is fun and strolling around on the Wharf is great. As historians we just had to see Alcatraz. Driving over and walking on The Golden Gate Bridge is iconic. Visit the Golden Gate Bridge on day 10, just before starting on Highway 1.

The Golden Gate Bridge without fog, seen from a higher view point
The Golden Gate Bridge without fog

Day 10 till 13: Highway 1

Enjoying the view at highway 1, Cosette holding Yuri in her arms on a cliff with the ocean below
Enjoying the view at highway 1

We drove Highway 1 along the coast from San Francisco south all the way to San Diego. From day 10 till 13 you’ll be driving the part from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Be prepared to stop every few meters, since you see another splendid view on the ocean. Besides stopping at every view point, there are numerous attractions along the way. Naming here the ones we stopped for along the way or made a small detour for.

Monterey is worth a stop with its Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row and Monterey State Historic Park. Get some history with the 17 buildings at the park, among them the first theatre in California and with the old sardine factories at Cannery Row. Sample seafood at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf.

Drive the 17 Mile route on the Monterey Peninsula, enjoy the views and stop at Spanish Bay, Point Joe, Cypress Point, the lone Cypress and Pebble Beach.

The Lone Cypress at 17 Mile Drive
The Lone Cypress

Close to Monterey is the town Carmel-by-the-Sea, a lovely and romantic seaside destination. Visit the Carmel Mission for some tranquility and history about the Spanish missions in California.

Big Sur

Then drive the famous Big Sur part of Highway 1, with the Bixby Creek Bridge. Big Sur is the part of Highway 1 between Carmel and San Simeon. Enjoy the really beautiful, mesmerizing views without interruptions. We sadly couldn’t drive all the way to San Simeon, since there was a road closure due to a landslide. We had to make a detour and entered Highway 1 at Harmony again. Luckily we got to drive this part of Highway 1 year later on our Orlando to San Francisco road trip. Hike to McWay Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in North America.

Big Sur coast of Highway 1 on a California road trip
Big Sur coast of Highway 1

Visit Bubblegum alley at San Luis Obispo or one of the many wine orchards in the valley. Then head on over to Santa Barbara with the Moreton Bay Fig Tree and the beautiful center with its splendid architecture.

On the last part of Highway 1 till you reach Los Angeles, it’s beach time. Visit Ventura Pier, play on the beach at Malibu and go to Santa Monica Pier, where the end of route 66 is.

Day 13 till 15: Los Angeles

The Hollywood sign on a California road trip
The Hollywood sign

Upon arrival in LA we first went to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where we admired the stars on the boulevard. Visited the TCL Chinese Theatre and had dinner there.

The next day we went to Universal Hollywood and did a Star Houses tour. This was a package tour. They brought us to Universal and picked us up again and then we had a 2 hour tour through LA. Seeing the homes of stars and famous places from movies. It was fun. At Universal we did a tour of the sets, among them the set of Gilmore Girls.

Shrek and Fiona, with Cosette and Yuri in the stroller on a picture at Universal
Shrek and Fiona

For our last day in LA we went to Disneyland, which was our second Disney park then. We had already been to Disneyland Paris and a few years later to Disney World. Disney is always a good idea. It’s just magic!

Day 16: Highway 1

Oceanside Pier full with people, lots of people fishing, along the California road trip
Oceanside Pier

On this day, drive from Los Angeles to San Diego on Highway 1 along the coast.

Visit Oceanside for the historical, wooden pier, an iconic landmark. After that stop at La Jolla Cove for the seals.

Day 17 & 18: San Diego

San Diego Harbor
San Diego Harbor

We went to SeaWorld during the day and met up for dinner with a friend we had met at the Hurtigruten cruise back in 2009. On the last day we flew home. We liked SeaWorld, but if we would be visiting right now we probably would go to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, Balboa Park or the USS Midway Museum.

Where to stay

We made this road trip back in 2011, so I couldn’t find all the hotels we stayed at anymore. Except for at Las Vegas, San Francisco and Gorda we stayed at Best Western. We booked them same day or just drove as far as we liked that day and stopped at a Best Western.

In Las Vegas we stayed at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino with a swimming park. At Lone Pine, past Death Valley National Park we stayed at Best Western Plus Frontier Motel. At Yosemite we opted for the Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn. In Gorda we couldn’t go further because of a road closure. Just before The Redwood House Gorda Springs Resort. We loved our stay here, with a view on the ocean from our cottage.  We had a luxurious last stay in the USA at the Best Western Plus Island Palms Hotel & Marina in San Diego.

Where to eat

In San Francisco we enjoyed dinner at the Franciscan crab restaurant and lunch at the Sea Lion Cafe. From the last one you can look down on the sea lions at Pier 39.

When to visit

This is a route you can drive all year round. We drove it in April/May. We had beautiful, warm weather at Las Vegas, Death valley and along highway 1. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon there was still lots of snow in late April. At Yosemite National Park the Tioga Pass was still closed due to snow. But there’s plenty of other things to see at the park. The Tioga Pass is usually only open during the Summer months.

Tips

  • Bring a coat, scarf, mittens and hat when visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon, there can be lots of snow.
  • Be prepared that a part of Highway 1 might not be open, due to a landslide.
  • Buy a National Parks Pass, several National Parks are on this route.
  • Bring protection against the sun for Death Valley and the coast.

Alternative itineraries

Make it a round trip, add a few days at the end.

Day 1 till 17: the same as above

Day 18: Drive from San Diego to Palm Springs

Day 19: Joshua Tree National Park

Day 20: Drive from Palm Springs to Las Vegas

Day 21: Going home

This ends the California road trip

It’s a beautiful road trip with a lot of highlights, such as Las Vegas, Death valley, Sequoia, Yosemite, San Francisco, Big Sur, Los Angeles and San Diego. Nature, coast and big cities. Hope you enjoy this wonderful road trip.  

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