The Ultimate California Road Trip Planner: The Best Views, Trails, and Campgrounds

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Thirty states in the U.S. have coastlines, so what makes California so epic that you should devote an entire road trip solely to its splendor? For starters, how about redwoods, amazing beaches, waves, trails and, oh yes, just a couple of epic campgrounds.

Don’t take our word for it—Load up the truck and hit the road to see for yourself. With several hundred miles to explore, you can follow in our footsteps or flip the route around and start at the southern end of the state, working your way north.

Plan Your Trip: Exploring the California Coast

Places to see: The Redwoods – False Klamath Cove – Tour Thru Tree – Humboldt Lagoons State Park – Patrick’s Point State Park – MacKerricher State Park – Marin Headlands – Lands End – Sutro Baths – Giant Camera – Corona Heights – Big Sur – Big Sur Riverside Campground and Cabins – Asilomar State Beach – Phoebe’s Cafe – 17-Mile Drive – Refugio State Beach – Venice Beach

All photos by Caroline Whatley and Erin McGrady of Authentic Asheville.

Stop 1: The Redwoods

A road trip in California isn’t quite complete without a slow pass underneath the canopy of the majestic redwoods. They have a presence of their own that says “slow down, stay a while.” There are several places to experience them, in both national and state parks. (One of our favorite’s is Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.) Take your pick but heed their call, it’s time well spent.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 2: False Klamath Cove

As you leave the redwoods and head south along 101, there’s a small but sweet little beach at False Klamath Cove where you can picnic or just stretch your legs for a bit. The parking is free and the view is pretty hard to beat.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 3: Tour Thru Tree, Klamath

Take the mini-detour to the Tour Thru Tree if you like cheesy tourist stops. It’s fun to drive through such a big tree but be careful if you have bikes on the back or roof. If this doesn’t sound like your thing, skip this stop and keep heading south.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 4: Humboldt Lagoons State Park

Humboldt Lagoons State Park is part of the largest lagoon system in the United States. At first glance, it might not seem that impressive. But take a walk and then get still. If you’re lucky you might just see elk, pelicans and even whales. For those of you who love getting out on the water, head on over to the Stone Lagoon Visitor Center. You can rent kayaks and paddleboards.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 5: Patrick’s Point State Park

Patrick’s Point State Park is one of our favorite places to camp on the California Coast. There’s very little light pollution which makes for great stargazing and it’s also really quiet. In the morning, you can hop on one of the numerous trails and go for a run.

There are numerous overlooks that make for stunning photos and even a path down to the beach where you can explore tide pools.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 6: MacKerricher State Park

This park is popular with birdwatchers because you can see more than 90 different species. We love it for the views, the trails and the different habitats: beach, dune, wetlands, forest, tide pools, headlands and coves.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 7: Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)—Marin Headlands

Every great city has an outdoor outlet, a way for people to escape the daily grind. In the Bay Area, look no further than the GGNRA. Most of the park is free except for two places, Muir Woods National Monument and Alcatraz Island.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 8: Golden Gate National Recreation Area—Lands End/Sutro Baths/Giant Camera

Lands End is also part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s a photographer’s dream. But you don’t have to be skilled with a camera to appreciate this place. It’s super easy on the eyes.

Take the time to walk the Sutro Ruins Trail as well as the Sutro Baths Upper Trail and then head on over to the Giant Camera.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 9: Corona Heights Park

There are a few short trails in Corona Heights Park that will get you high enough to see the city below. It’s a great way to put things into perspective and one of the best views in San Francisco.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 10: Asilomar State Beach

The beautiful white sand beach is reason enough to visit Asilomar but we recommend checking it out because it’s got a network of boardwalk trails that cut right through the dunes. It’s a pretty amazing place to see at sunset and not a bad place to paddle out either

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 11: Phoebe’s Cafe

If you’re in the Asilomar area, Phoebe’s Cafe is a great place to grab a cup of coffee, a beer or even a quick bite. It’s located within the Hearst Social Hall, which just on its own is worth visiting; It’s a beautiful lodge, has clean restrooms, two billiards tables and a great outdoor patio. They open at 6:30 a.m. and don’t close until 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Go for the vegetable and cheese ravioli which comes with a side of black bean and red quinoa salad as well as the tomato, mozzarella and pesto panini. The savory, cheesy goodness will help fuel your upcoming ride or run.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 12: 17-Mile Drive

In addition to being an incredible place to tour by car, 17-Mile Drive is also an amazing place to run or ride a bike. The route is relatively easy and flat, though there is one small, short hill as you near the Pebble Beach golf course.

If you’re short on time or are more focused on using the ride as a training session rather than for fun, be sure to slow down at Bird Rock, the Lone Cypress and Pescadero Point. Otherwise, take your time and stop at as many of the pullouts and overlooks as you can. Also, we recommend wearing helmets as most of the motorists are sightseeing and the shoulder is very narrow in several sections.

The wheels on my bike were stolen off the back of our van in Seattle (that’s another story) but I almost forgot that the bike I was on wasn’t my own because our guide, Anne, with Adventures by the Sea was so fun, friendly and knowledgeable. Give them a call if you want to experience 17-Mile Drive through a local’s eyes.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 13: Big Sur

This stretch of Highway 1 is meant to be driven slowly—not only because it twists and turns, but because there are so many good viewpoints along the way. We planned our day so that we’d hit sunset out on the road and we got super lucky.

The light went from bold and gold to soft and rosy and there wasn’t a bad picture to be had for the last 30 minutes of daylight. It was one of those magical kinds of road trip moments that we won’t soon forget.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 14: Big Sur Riverside Campground

You might want to consider booking a campsite in advance in Big Sur, especially if you’re chasing sunset and sunrise photos. The lack of a cell phone signal can complicate finding lodging on the fly.

We had a great experience at the Big Sur Riverside Campground. You get a picnic table, fire pit and access to a bathroom with running water and hot showers. Plus, the atmosphere is super chill and there’s tons of others in the campground on their own road trips. (Note: Some spots have water and electric hook ups but the campground does not have a dump station or sewer hook ups).

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 15: Refugio State Beach

If camping near the beach sounds like your idea of a good time, point your vehicle toward Refugio. There are some great sites here, some of which are so close that you can hear the waves crashing all night long. At low tide, take a walk down the beach and check out some of the small holes and cave-like features in the cliff. (Bonus: the showers at this park run hot and the water pressure is awesome. 25 cents for 2 minutes.)

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 16: Venice Beach

Muscle Beach, the Boardwalk, the street art, the artists… Venice Beach is something worth experiencing, at least once. You can rent a skateboard at Maui and Sons, or bikes at one of the many locations all over the city.

And if you do go to Maui and Sons, be sure to say hey to Tank, the chillest dog we’ve met on this long trip down California’s coastline—and possibly in our travels so far.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

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