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California, the Golden State. When travelling through the United States of America, I spent ten days driving through California. This state is a perfect mix of the most beautiful nature parks and exciting, lively cities. In this 10 day California road trip itinerary, I will show you how to see the best of this state in a timely manner.
The Perfect 10 Day California Road Trip Itinerary
Day 1 | San Francisco
We start our 10 day road trip through California with two days in San Francisco. Being one of the most beautiful and versatile cities in the US, San Francisco has something for everybody. San Francisco’s airport is located just outside the city, which makes it a perfect start for your road trip. A car can be hired from the airport – more information about that later. Especially if it’s your first time visiting the city, these are some highlights you should definitely check out.
- Golden Gate Bridge: San Francisco’s most iconic landmark connects the city with Marin County. You can drive across the bridge or find one of the many points to see it from a distance. The best places to see the Golden Gate Bridge include: Fort Point National Historic Site, Bakers Beach and the Golden Gate Visitors Centre.
- Painted Ladies: The seven beautifully painted Victorian houses can be found in Alamo Square.
- Fisherman’s Wharf: The most visited area in San Francisco. Even though it’s filled with tourist attractions, Fisherman’s Wharf is a must-visit. Many restaurants (with fresh seafood) can be found here. Also be sure to check out Pier 39, where you can spot some California sea lions.
- Lombard Street: A historic street located on one of San Francisco’s steep hills. Made with eight hairpin turns for people to drive down their cars back when cars were first introduced.
- City Lights Bookstore: One of USA’s best independent bookshops and publishing houses.
Where to stay in San Francisco
Budget hotel: San Remo Hotel (close to Fisherman’s Wharf)
Midrange hotel: The Golden Gate Hotel (perfectly located inside the city centre)
Luxury hotel: Hotel Vitale (beautiful view over the Golden Gate Bridge)
One Day in San Francisco Itinerary
Day 2 | San Francisco – Yosemite
On the second day, you will have some more time to explore San Francisco. It’s hard to see all the highlights of the city in one day, especially if you just arrived in California too. That’s why you can take the morning and early afternoon to check out some more of the sights.
In the (late) afternoon, it’s time to head to Yosemite National Park. It’s a 3 hour and 45-minute drive from San Francisco (approximately), so make sure to leave on time. Yosemite is one of the most visited National Parks in the US, with almost 5 million annual visitors. With some of the most beautiful lakes, meadows, cliffs and forests, that number totally makes sense.
Where to stay in Yosemite
For this itinerary, plan to stay in Yosemite for two nights. It’s popular to stay in a lodge during your stay in Yosemite, adding a little extra to the beautiful nature park’s experience.
Budget: Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort (a cheap but cosy lodge inside the park)
Midrange: Hotel Charlotte (located just outside Yosemite National Park)
Luxury: Evergreen Lodge Yosemite (a beautiful lodge inside of Yosemite Park)
Day 3 | Yosemite National Park
This entire day is dedicated to exploring the beautiful Yosemite National Park. Many have claimed this park to be one of the most beautiful places they’ve ever visited. The picturesque views that can be found in Yosemite National Park are out of this world. It’s a perfect place for a day in nature. There are walks and hikes for any fitness level and the park can be visited any season of the year. Here are some highlights of the park you can choose to visit during your day in Yosemite:
- Glacier Point: One of Yosemite’s (if not the world’s) most beautiful viewpoints. From here, you can see many of the highlights of the park including Half Dome, Yosemite Valley and the Nevada Falls. At 2,199 meter elevation, it can be reached by car between May and November.
- Tunnel View: If you have seen any pictures of Yosemite, chances are that you have seen a photo taken from the Tunnel View (pictured below). From this view, you can see El Capitan, Cathedral Rock and Half Dome.
- Yosemite Valley: This valley is the heart of Yosemite park. It’s the perfect place when you only have one full day in Yosemite because most of the main attractions can be seen here. You can also take some walks and hikes from Yosemite Valley.
- El Capitan: This granite mass stands over Yosemite at 2,307 meters elevation. It’s popular with climbers. But even if you’re not ready to tackle El Capitan, it acts as a beautiful sight.
- Yosemite Falls: There are many waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, but Yosemite Falls cannot be missed during your trip. The three waterfalls are simply beautiful. The Lower Falls can be easily reached by foot (even for wheelchairs and children), but the Upper Falls require a 6-8 hour hike.
More information can be found in Yosemite’s website.
Day 4 | Lee Vining and Mammoth Lakes
The next stop is Mammoth Lakes. From Yosemite, the drive takes about 2 hours. Make sure to stop in Lee Vining along the way. This little village offers a perfect place for an early lunch and a walk around one of the oldest lakes in the western hemisphere; Mono Lake. This saline soda lake was formed 760.000 years ago.
From Lee Vining, it only takes around 30 minutes to get to Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth Lakes is a popular ski resort during the winter months and is popular with hikers and mountain bikers during the summer. The town is a perfect example of a Californian town in the woods, the atmosphere is lovely. In the evening, I’d recommend to check out the town centre where you can find Mammoth Lakes Brewery and Giovanni’s (amazing pizzas!).
Where to stay in Mammoth Lakes
Budget: Quality Inn Mammoth Lakes
Midrange: Village Lodge
Luxury: Chamonix Chalet
Day 5 | Mammoth Lakes – Lone Pine
After staying the night in Mammoth Lakes, it’s time to explore the town a bit more. Before going for your hike to the Rainbow Falls, stop by Schat’s Bakery – the best bakery in town – for a quick breakfast. Then head over to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Between the months of May and September, a shuttle service can take you down to Reds Meadow where the start of the hike is located.
The hike to Rainbow Falls takes approximately 3-4 hours and guides you through beautiful sceneries. The falls themselves are located at the end of the hike. If you’re lucky and the weather is on your side, you might be able to see why these falls are named after the rainbow. Other popular hiking trails in Mammoth Lakes can be found on their website under hiking trails.
After the hike to Rainbow Falls, we continue our road trip towards Lone Pine. From Mammoth Lakes, it takes one and a half hour to drive to Lone Pine.
Where to stay in Lone Pine
Budget: Historic Dow Hotel
Mid-range: Comfort Inn Lone Pine
Luxury: Ultra Basecamp
Day 6 | Death Valley
Next on the itinerary is Death Valley. This famous desert valley is located in Eastern California and is known to be the hottest place on Earth. From Lone Pine, it takes about an hour to get to Death Valley. Because it’s such a hot place, make sure to bring enough water and keep an eye on your car. Using the airconditioning too much can cause it to overheat (we almost had this problem!). Here are a few highlights to check out while driving through Death Valley:
- Dante’s viewpoint: One of the most popular viewpoint in this National Park, at 1.669m elevation. From here, you have a beautiful panoramic view over a part of the valley. The part of the valley you can see from Dante’s viewpoint is where parts of Star Wars Episode IV were filmed.
- Furnace Creek: In this tiny desert oasis, you can find Furnace Creek Visitors Centre. In this centre, you can learn about Death Valley and its history. There are a couple of restaurants in Furnace Creek, too.
- Artist’s Drive: No walking required for a scenic drive through Artist’s Drive. Especially in the summer heat, you don’t want to leave the car for too long!
- Badwater Basin: This place notes the lowest elevation in the US (86 m below sea level). The immense heat in Death Valley causes the lake to evaporate, leaving a thick crust of salt behind. At some places, this salty crust is over 1.8 meters thick.
After having visited Death Valley National Park, we drive on to Bakersfield where we’ll stay the next two nights. From Death Valley, it takes approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes to get to Bakersfield.
Where to stay in Bakersfield
Budget: Best Economy Inn & Suites
Midrange: America’s Best Value Inn & Suites
Luxury: Country Inn & Suites by Radisson
Day 7 | Sequoia National Park
While staying in Bakersfield for two nights, you can take a day-trip to Sequoia National Park. From Bakersfield, it takes approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes to get to the park.
Sequoia National Park owes its name to its hundreds of sequoia trees that can be found inside the park. These trees are thousands of years old (literally!) and are the biggest trees known to men. Please make sure to check out the following attractions while in Sequoia National Park:
- The General Sherman Tree: Sequoia National Park is also home to the largest tree of the world, the General Sherman Tree. At 84 meters high, no other tree has managed to grow taller.
- Tunnel Log: A fallen sequoia tree was carved out to allow cars to drive through it. It’s a pretty unique experience that you don’t want to miss!
Day 8 | Los Angeles
In the morning of the eighth day, it’s time to drive from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. The drive will take around 2 and a half hour. Try to leave early, so you have more time to explore LA. This city is massive and there are countless things to do! Two days really isn’t enough to scratch the surface, but it’s a great start. Especially if you’re on a tight schedule. Here are a few recommendations of what to do on your first day in Los Angeles:
- Hollywood sign: This cultural landmark overlooking Hollywood is one of the most iconic sights in LA. The best places to see the sign and take a photo is Lake Hollywood Park.
- Walk of Fame: The famous Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard is a must for first-time visitors. Even though it’s very touristy, it’s something to tick off the California bucket list.
- Sunset Boulevard: Driving along the Sunset Boulevard really gives you that golden state feeling. This street connects Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
- The Last Bookstore: Housed in an abandoned bank on S Spring Street, you can find the Last Bookstore. It’s the largest bookstore in California and has the coolest interior. Perfect for some photos! As well as the latest new releases, the Last Bookstore also sells tons of secondhand books. There are some real hidden gems in there! I could’ve spent hours there.
- Santa Monica Pier: Ride the iconic Ferris wheel and rollercoaster on Santa Monica Pier.
- Watch a baseball game: LA is home to the LA Dodgers. And what could be more American than watching a real baseball game? Grab a hot dog, a coke and hold up your foam fingers!
Where to stay in LA
Budget: Hyatt Regency Long Beach
Midrange: Andaz West Hollywood-a concept by Hyatt
Luxury: The Peninsula Beverly Hills
Day 9 | Los Angeles
Because there is so much to do in LA, we spent 2 days here during this itinerary. If you have more than ten days, I’d highly recommend staying here for a couple more days. In the evening, drive to Palm Springs for the last day of this road trip. From Los Angeles, it takes about two hours to get to this desert oasis.
Where to stay in Palm Springs
Budget: Vagabond Inn
Mid-range: The Colony Palms Hotel.
Luxury: The Parker Hotel
Day 10 | Palm Springs – Joshua Tree
Palm Spring is located pretty close to Joshua Tree National Park (roughly 50 minutes by car), which makes it a perfect place to visit during your stay in Palm Springs. Joshua Tree is known for its unique flora. Many Yucca Trees are scattered around the park alongside strange rock formations. Try to go early in the morning (especially during the summer), to avoid the desert heat.
The afternoon and evening of the last day of this 10-day California road trip can be spent in Palm Springs. Even though many people only know Palm Springs as a luxury retreat of spas and a place for retired couples, there are many fun things to do and see. The mid-century modern influence in this desert oasis makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a movie set. Some fun things to check out in Palm Springs include:
- Moorten Botanical Garden: A beautiful botanical garden with over 3000 cacti.
- Palm Spring’s Aerial Tramway: Located just outside of Palm Springs, the Aerial Tramway can take you up Chino Canyon.
- Palm Canyon Drive: The main street of Palm Springs is filled with unique boutiques and eateries. You can also find the Palm Springs Walk of the Stars on this street.
- Self-guided architecture tour: Hire a bike and take yourself on a self-guided architecture or door tour (Palm Springs has many cool doors!).
Find out more in my Palm Springs Itinerary
Where to hire a car?
A car is necessary for your trip through California. The distances between each accommodation vary between 1-4 hours. The best way is to hire it straight from the airport. Most American car rentals (especially those located at the airport) allow you to drop off the car in a different city. This is because many of these rental companies are located at every airport. This saves you the hassle of having to drive back to San Francisco at the end of your trip.
7 Day California Road Trip Itinerary?
Do you only have 7 days to visit California? You can still use this 10 day road trip itinerary and cut either Sequoia National Park and Bakersfield or Palm Springs to adjust it to a 7 day California itinerary. Of course, feel free to alter it to your wishes and needs. An example of a seven day California road trip would be:
- Day 1: San Francisco
- Day 2: San Francisco – Yosemite
- Day 3: Yosemite
- Day 4: Mammoth Lakes
- Day 5: Death Valley
- Day 6: Los Angeles
- Day 7: Los Angeles / Palm Springs
More than 10 days?
If you have more than 10 days to travel through California, you might want to put any of the following into this itinerary to make it longer. California has many beautiful cities and wilderness sights to see, but these can be added into the itinerary seamlessly.
- Sacramento: In between visiting San Francisco and Yosemite, you can add a visit to Sacramento. California’s capital isn’t commonly visited by tourists but has many sights to enjoy. These include Old Sacramento, Capitol Park and Crocker Art Museum.
- Lake Tahoe: After visiting Sacramento, you might want to add Lake Tahoe to your itinerary. The largest freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is perfect for nature hikes and enjoying the beautiful scenery.
- Hollywood Universal Studios: When in LA, you can take a day trip out to Hollywood Universal Studios or Disneyland.
- San Diego: Instead of ending your California road trip in LA, you can add San Diego to the end of your itinerary. Things to do in San Diego include Balboa Park, Little Italy and the La Jolla Cove.