Though culturally diverse and historic, San Jose has always been in San Francisco’s shadow, awash in Silicon Valley’s suburbia. Founded in 1777 as El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, San Jose is California’s oldest Spanish civilian settlement. Its downtown is small and scarcely used for a city of its size, though it does bustle with 20-something clubgoers on the weekends.
San Luis Obispo
Almost midway between LA and San Francisco, at the junction of Hwys 101 and 1, San Luis Obispo is a popular overnight stop for road trippers. With no must-see attractions, SLO might not seem to warrant much of your time. Even so, this low-key town has an enviably high quality of life – in fact, it has been named America’s happiest city.
Around Los Angeles
Make like Jack Kerouac, ditch the congestion, crowds and smog, and use LA as a hub to all the natural glory of California. Get an early start to beat the commuter traffic (or catch a ferry, Greyhound bus or ride the Amtrak rails), and point the compass across the ocean, up into the mountains or into the vast and imposing desert.
Redding & Around
North of Red Bluff the dusty central corridor along I-5 starts to give way to panoramic mountain ranges on either side. Redding is the last major outpost before the small towns of the far north, and the surrounding lakes make for easy day trips or overnight camps. If you get off the highway – way off – this can be an exceptionally rewarding area of the state to explore.
With borderline fanatical devotion to its canine citizens, quaint Carmel has the well-manicured feel of a country club. Watch the parade of behatted ladies toting fancy-label shopping bags to lunch and dapper gents driving top-down convertibles along Ocean Ave, the village’s slow-mo main drag.
Smack in the arid center of the state, Fresno is the biggest city in the Central Valley by far. It may not be scenic (it's a testing ground for every new chain store), but it is beautifully situated, just an hour's drive from four national parks (Yosemite, Sierra, Kings Canyon and Sequoia), making it the ideal last stop for expeditions.
Northern Redwood Coast
Congratulations, traveler, you’ve reached the middle of nowhere, or at least the top of the middle of nowhere. Here, the trees are so large that the tiny towns along the road seem even smaller. The scenery is pure drama: cliffs and rocks, native lore, legendary salmon runs, mammoth trees, redneck towns and RVing retirees.
Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake is a low-key, family-friendly mountain resort (elevation 6750ft) about 110 miles northeast of LA. Snowy winters lure scores of ski bunnies and boarders to its two mountains, while summer brings hikers, mountain bikers and water-sports enthusiasts wishing to escape the stifling heat down in the basin.
Nearing Bakersfield, the landscape has evidence of California’s other gold rush: rusting rigs alongside the route burrow into Southern California’s vast oil fields. Black gold was discovered here in the late 1800s, and Kern County, the southernmost along Hwy 99, still pumps more than some OPEC countries.
Truckee & Donner Lake
Cradled by mountains and the Tahoe National Forest, Truckee is a thriving town steeped in Old West history. It was put on the map by the railroad, grew rich on logging and ice harvesting, and even had its brush with Hollywood during the 1924 filming of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.