Updated: May 20, 2020
How to get the most out of a California Road Trip
When to Go?
Much of California has a Mediterranean-like climate with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. On the coast, the average daily high temperature hovers around 70F/21C and up, but can occasionally spike to 80F/27C or more on the hottest summer days; freezing temperatures are rare, even in winter.
The state’s legendary sea fog often hugs the coast from Monterey north, usually during summer months; it often burns off by midday before rolling in again at dusk. Farther inland, summers are hot and dry, winters cool and wet, with occasional brilliant blue days and temperatures cold enough to freeze puddles on the ground, but not much more than that. At higher altitudes, the weather reflects more of a four-season cycle, with beautiful summers, striking autumn colour, and cold, snowy winters followed by snowmelt springs (waterfall season!).
I prefer to avoid the peak summer months and think about going in May or September. The weather is likely to be very pleasant but without extremes in any direction. Attractions should be quieter too, and accommodation/rental rates more reasonable. September would also benefit from harvest time in the wine regions known locally as the time of the 'The Crush'
What to Drive?
I know everyone dreams of the open top Mustang road trip, and if that is what you really dream of then go ahead - but, please let me be practical for just a moment..
Although the Mustang is extremely romantic, they are very low down, have very poor visibility - especially if you have to put the top up - and in heavy traffic in cities aren't much fun at all (you will get filthy!).
My best option has been a medium size 'SUV' - a Toyota Rav4 or similar. They drive very well, have a much better view due to being slightly higher up and loads of room for luggage etc. Even if you usually drive a saloon they won't feel too big, but the extra height is a massive bonus to enjoy the views from.
I once drove a Rav4 through Death Valley in record temparatures of 129F/54C and the air conditioning, engine temperature and tyres were all just fine. I was a lot more nervous than the car! Sometimes you may want to drive along the odd rougher track and it will cope just fine with those too of course.
Although Sat Navs are invaluable I would strongly urge you to get a 'proper' map as well. This one is my favourite by Benchmark Press
These are brilliant for route planning, and this particular atlas has landscape and recreation guides alongside loads of other useful info. It is invaluable to be able to visualise the whole journey and how areas link into each other.
I have driven five different road trips around California - here are my top tips:
1. Aim for a good daily distance, but not one which is too daunting. Generally you can confidently average 60 mph which means in a morning you can comfortably cover over 200 miles. My best days have been after an early start to get the driving over, and be at your destination by early afternoon. Include an early lunch stop en route to enjoy the view.
2. Before you set off in your hire car buy a simple cool box from Walmart or similar. That will now live in your car. Before each long drive go to the local deli (they are everywhere) and get them to make your favourite sandwich, buy some drinks and a bag of ice and pop it all in the box. You are now completely self-sufficient so can stop anywhere you like. I guarantee you will see views you will want to stop at all over the place...
3. Break up the journey - overnight stops are not the best way to see somewhere. Plan to stop at least two and sometimes three nights in most places. That gives you time to soak it all in, gives the driver a proper rest, and most importantly a chance to sample all that wonderful Californian wine!
4. Avoid the interstate highways (blue shield signs) and use the US Highways (white shields). These roads are generally excellent and much quieter. The picture below is a US Highway - this is a typical view...!
5. Get off the coast - drive a mountain pass. Some of the very best places we have seen were inland, particularly in the Sierra Mountains and foothills. The Tioga Pass route 120 and Highway 168 across the Black Mountains to Nevada are particularly memorable.
6. Keep to the speed limits - don't be tempted to spoil your holiday via an encounter with the local police. You can make really good time driving slower than maybe you would in the UK because you just hardly ever get held up on the highways between cities, so your average speed will be much higher over the whole journey.
Make a list of the places you would most like to visit, then try and connect them with morning-long drives. Remember, you don't have to start and finish your road trip at the same place - get clever with your flights to and from various cities and you may be able to incorporate more places of interest.
All the major car hire firms will let you pick up at one place and drop off at another for no extra charge.
Visit some lesser known places - Paso Robles is a wonderful wine growing area but a fraction of the price of Napa. The Sierra foothills around Amador County are well worth a look too.
'Must-Sees' are San Francisco (you don't need the car there), Yosemite (try and stay overnight in the valley if you can), Carmel, San Diego and of course a drive down the Big Sur.
We have used Las Vegas - in Nevada of course - as a very useful journey's end after coming over the mountains, with plenty of flights back to the UK from there. Don't drive to Vegas on big Highway15 but go the 'back way' in from the North - much better! The hotel pools are fabulous in Vegas (often overlooked) and a nice way to chill out at the end of the road..
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all views are my own.
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