Palm tree lined streets. Glittering beaches. Surfboards leaning against fences. It’s the classic vision of coastal California you’d expect from a road trip titled, “Best Los Angeles to Yosemite Road Trip.” But as you drive from the Mojave desert, through Los Angeles, and along the western shores of the United States, you’ll discover there’s so much more to California than just Hollywood glam and beach culture.
Things to Do and See on this Road Trip
Start in the austere and beautiful Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park. As you make your way to Yosemite, head through Los Angeles, towards the coast, then north to the towns of Ventura and Oxnard where you can board a ferry to one of our country’s most interesting national parks: Channel Islands.
You’ll find surprising twists in all the charming towns along the way. Discover 18th century history in Santa Barbara and Lompoc. Curious animals you wouldn’t associate with California like emus, zebras and elephant seals can be found in Buellton and San Simeon. Visit a town obsessed with clams in Pismo Beach and find enough garlic to think the locale has a vampire problem in Gilroy. Before heading to Yosemite, hike through the central coast’s only grove of redwoods near Santa Cruz and one of our newest national parks: Pinnacles.
Along the way, you’ll experience all the picture-perfect beaches, surf culture and vineyards your heart desires, with plenty of palm trees thrown in for good measure.
Follow along below to find the best hidden gems of California’s central coast that prove there’s more to this part of the country than you could have ever imagined.
Start: Joshua Tree National Park
Like characters out of a Dr. Seuss book, the weird and wonderful Joshua trees that give this national park its name speckle the Mojave desert landscape outside of Palm Springs. But Joshua Tree National Park is known for more than its flora. It’s a climber’s and night-sky photographer’s paradise.
Ventura and Channel Islands National Park
Wild Islands at Channel Islands National Park
Take a day to explore the “American Galapagos,” otherwise known as Channel Islands National Park.
Uncrowded Paradise on the Ventura County Coast
You’ll find beauty at these eight places in Ventura County along California’s undiscovered coast, the launching spot for Channel Islands National Park.
Waterfront Fun at Ventura Harbor Village
Unwind on and off the water after your trip to Channel Islands National Park.
California’s Central Coast
Seaside Escapes in Santa Barbara
Discover these four quintessential Santa Barbara experiences including where to find an inspirational view, where to taste today’s catch and how to step back in time.
Rare Finds in Buellton
Head inland from California’s Central Coast for a stunning drive to Buellton, Calif., in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley for off-the-beaten path experiences that are affordable from blueberry picking to trail rides.
Lompoc’s Top 6
Pronounced “Lom-poke,” this scenic valley town offers a ton to see and do year-round including a mission, local wine, a mural walk, a scenic course and a secluded beach.
California Dreamin’ at Pismo Beach
Experience the West Coast’s surf culture in this vibrant beach town. Tour the newly opened Pismo Preserve and in winter, see the migration of thousands of monarch butterflies.
Take the family-friendly Brews and Burger Trail and stroll the parks with your beverage in this community designed with a Utopian vision.
Grapes of Paso Robles
Driving from the coast, you’ll pass gorgeous rolling golden hills before you get a hint of what’s to come. Stop in Paso Robles for a fantastic dive into California’s laidback wine and food scene where you’ll discover more than 200 wineries and vineyards.
Stunning San Simeon
If a stroll along a beach to watch elephant seals in the morning and a drive through a zebra herd to tour a castle in the afternoon sounds like a fantasy, think again. In San Simeon, Calif., this is just another day on a perfect weekend getaway.
Big Sur is the quintessential image of the California coast: rugged and beautiful. From the picturesque Bixby Bridge to the mythical-looking McWay Falls, you’ll be stopping every few minutes on this 90-mile stretch of road to snap photos.
Take Pacific Coast Highway 1 north from San Simeon to the McWay Waterfall Trailhead on the east side of the road. Walk a gentle, half-mile trail to an overlook giving you great views of the famous waterfall. There is no access to get up close to the falls and it’s illegal to scramble down the cliffs.
For a hike where you can get closer to a waterfall, take the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which is 2 miles roundtrip and winds through the gorgeous redwood forest of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Don’t miss dinner at the Big Sur Lodge afterwards.
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Home to a deep underwater canyon, vast kelp forests and abundant ocean life, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is an incredible example of conservation. Stretching from San Francisco in the north 276 miles to Cambria in the south, the sanctuary is one of the largest in the country. It extends an average of 30 miles out into the ocean and is even bigger than Yellowstone. The sanctuary is protected from oil drilling, ocean dumping and seabed mining, but other commercial activities like fishing and recreation are allowed.
This part of the Pacific Ocean is one of the most productive ocean ecosystems in the world. Countless species call the sanctuary home from humpback whales to common dolphins to sea otters. To watch for big marine wildlife and seabirds and to learn more about the sanctuary, visit the visitor centers in San Simeon or Santa Cruz, or step out onto the ocean-view decks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey. To see some of the smaller creatures that live in the bay, explore tide pools at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz or William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach in San Simeon. To really get a taste of the sanctuary though, the best way to explore is by water. You’ll find a variety of rentals and tour operators to do everything from kayaking to whale watching to diving in the sanctuary’s waters in the towns along the coast.
Learn more at montereybay.noaa.gov.
Santa Cruz 7
Santa Cruz and the surrounding region are synonymous with surf culture in the minds of many and while there’s no shortage of places to catch great waves, there’s so much more to this part of the central coast. From giant redwoods to bucolic vineyards to a rich and storied agriculture scene, here are seven of the best stops in the area.
Local Garlic and Wine Flavors in Gilroy
Not far from the giants of Silicon Valley sits a quaint town named Gilroy where you can drive to friendly boutique wineries, explore a gorgeous children’s theme park and dine in the what is known as the “Garlic Capital of the World.”
Deep-Rooted Secret at Gilroy Gardens
When Axel Erlandson died, he left behind his legendary circus trees. Here’s how two strangers saved them.
Pinnacles National Park and San Benito County
The Pinnacle of a Getaway
In San Benito County, a less-traveled national park, gorgeous wine trail and historic areas await. Learn more.
Pinnacles National Park Top 6
Here are some of our favorite things to do from gorgeous hikes to exploring a cave.
Yosemite National Park
Pick Your Perfect Yosemite Activities – Climb, Raft, Bike, Ski, Hike
The ultimate guide to activities inside Yosemite National Park. Which ones have you tried?
5 Famous Viewpoints Close to the Road in Yosemite
Visitors to the park won’t want to miss any of these following heart-stopping vistas, all easily accessible from paved roads throughout the park.
Bird’s Eye View
For a perspective of Yosemite that few get to see, take a scenic flight with Airborrn Aviation/Yosemite Airways.
Tour Yosemite Like a Local with Gypsy Guide
On your Yosemite adventure, listen to an entertaining guide in your car.
Whose Land Am I On?
Humans have lived in Yosemite Valley for up to 8,000 years and by the early 19th century, included the Southern Sierra Miwok, Mono Lake Paiute, Mission Indians, Chukchansi Yokuts and Western Mono people. When white gold miners flowed into the valley in 1849, they were ruthless in their pursuits and killed many of the Indigenous people living there. In 1851, the state-sponsored Mariposa Battalion raided and destroyed the native villages to make room for miners. As conflicts increased, the state sent the tribes to live on reservations.
In this vacuum, John Muir visited Yosemite and began his campaign to turn it into a national park, which succeeded in 1890. About 15 Miwok and Paiute families continued to live in the valley even after it was designated a park. The village was seen as employee housing, since many worked in the park. By 1969, the Park Service decided to destroy the village. It wasn’t until 2019 that the Southern Indian Council of Mariposa County (formed by the Miwok people) won a proposal to build a village inside the park to showcase their history and use for cultural practices. It can be found near bus stop #5 in Yosemite Valley. The Southern Indian Council of Mariposa County is still petitioning the government for federal recognition.
The Giving Trees
Don’t leave Yosemite without visiting the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
From Yosemite’s South Entrance to Kings Canyon and Sequoia
Get Away at Tenaya at Yosemite
It’s just a few miles from Yosemite’s famous Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias full of the world’s largest single trees. But you’ll feel worlds away from everything at Tenaya at Yosemite.
Rest and Relax at the Pool and Spa at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino
If spending time outdoors has you dreaming of swimming pools, a massage and a clean hotel room, consider getting pampered for a night or two at Yosemite’s south entrance. A modern resort with a swimming pool, outdoor concerts and gaming awaits.
4 Fantastic Fresno Finds
From underground gardens to a world-class zoo, Fresno is the perfect stop between Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks.
Take a Trip Around the World at Fresno Chaffee Zoo
Journey around the world without ever leaving central California. This incredible zoo is home to more than 200 species and has interactive and award-winning habitats that will make you feel like you’ve been transported to the California coast, the African savannahs or the Australian outback.
Kings Canyon National Park: USA’s Deepest Canyon
See granite domes, giant sequoia trees, a cave and deep canyons in this national park adjacent to Sequoia.
Sequoia National Park, Yosemite’s Southern Neighbor
In Sequoia National Park, wander among the largest living trees on the planet in the Giant Forest, hike past wildflower meadows, and splash around meandering rivers and glistening lakes during summer.