California road trips

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California is the third-largest state in the USA, and you could easily spend weeks navigating its blue highways and rural byways, safely distant from the nerve-jangling, always-jammed interstate system. These classic road-tripping routes are soaked in enough epic scenery to make each deliciously slow, winding mile of your detour worthwhile.

Pacific Coast Highway

Although CA Hwy 1 runs almost the entire length of the state, it’s the official ‘PCH’ stretch from Orange County north into LA past Santa Monica and Malibu that gets raves for its oceanfront views.

Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway

From Lake Tahoe, mountainous US Hwy 395 traces the rugged backside of the Sierra Nevada, passing the otherworldly tufas of Mono Lake, pine forests, alpine lakes and hot springs galore.

Route 66

Get your kicks on America’s ‘Mother Road', which brought Dust Bowl refugees, Hollywood starlets and hippies to California. Pull up alongside retro relics, sleep at vintage motor lodges and stuff yourself silly at mom-and-pop diners.

CA Hwy 49

That highway number is no coincidence – it commemorates the ’49ers who came seeking fame and fortune in California’s original Gold Rush. Today, the route winds through Gold Country towns such as Placerville and Nevada City, past ghostly Old West mines and Victorian buildings housing inns, restaurants and museums.

Avenue of the Giants

Even before Hwy 101 crashes into the Redwood Coast proper, this 32-mile, scenic, two-lane byway passes right alongside some of the tallest trees on earth. Drive it in the morning, when sunlight glints off dewdrop-laden ferns.

Trinity Scenic Byways

Near Mt Shasta, CA Hwy 3 plunges into the Trinity Alps, with verdant forests and alpine lakes, on its way south to Weaverville, connecting with equally scenic CA Hwy 299, winding west toward the Pacific.

Further Information

An essential road-trip companion is the California Road & Recreation Atlas (Benchmark Press), which answers the perennial question, ‘What’s over there?’. With a 4WD vehicle, it’ll take you off-road and help you get unstuck from highway traffic jams courtesy of locals-only back roads.

For truly inspirational road trip ideas don't start the engine without a copy of Lonely Planet's California Trips in the glove compartment. It's packed with maps, advice from local experts and a range of itineraries to suit everyone from daytrippers to easy riders. You can download a Pacific Coast itinerary free!