Road Trip Tips,  Destination Guides,  Itineraries,  National Park Travel

A 10-Day California Road Trip & National Park Itinerary

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From the Sierras in the east to the Pacific Coast on the west, California is full of extraordinary places – and I feel lucky to call it home. Since my first trip in 2011 to moving here in 2017, I’ve grown quite fond of California and all the amazing places to discover here.

To highlight some of the Golden State’s most extraordinary places, I’ve partnered with Roadtrippers to create the ultimate California road trip itinerary. Roadtrippers has a cool database of the world’s Extraordinary Places, and this 10-day California road trip lets you visit 25 of them!

3 Days in Siskiyou County Hero

You already know I love writing about California road trips – I’ve got guides for driving the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to San Diego (or vice versa), to see the Redwoods (two ways!), and many other road trips from San Francisco. Now I’ll head inland, stringing together the Golden State’s tourist hot-spots, epic national parks, and quirky roadside attractions on this 10-day California road trip itinerary.

Whether you use this California road trip itinerary right out of the box, or modify it with suggestions from my other guides, I can guarantee you’ll have an extraordinary California road trip!

Through my site and especially in this national parks post, I promote travel to lands that are the traditional lands of Indigenous and First Nations peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This California Road Trip Route by Day

California Road Trip Map

10 Day California Road Trip Map

On the map above, you see the main overnight points on this 10-day California road trip. I built this map using Roadtripper’s maps – and to be honest it blew my mind compared to using Google Maps (my old go-to). This map not only gives a route, but it shows mileage, estimated drive time, and even estimated gas costs. That’s all insanely useful when you try to budget for your trip.

(I used Roadtrippers Plus to create this route; you can get $5 off Plus by clicking this link and using code BTR5QTP.)

California Road Trip Itinerary

DayRoute & Stops
1San Francisco
2San Francisco to Yosemite
3Yosemite to Sequoias
4Sequoias to Death Valley
5Death Valley to Joshua Tree
6Joshua Tree to Los Angeles
7-8Los Angeles
9Los Angeles to Big Sur
10Big Sur to San Francisco

As you’ll see, this is an insanely ambitious route but it is do-able. Read on for a breakdown of how to make this California road trip itinerary a reality and what you’ll see along the way.

When to Pick Up A Rental Car

Despite this being a road trip itinerary, you don’t actually need to pick up your rental car until midday on Day 2. I recommend arriving in San Francisco, spending the first day-and-a-half using public transit, bikes, and your own two feet. Then you can catch the BART back to San Francisco airport to pick up a rental car and head south out of the Bay Area toward Yosemite.

An Extraordinary 10-Day California Road Trip Itinerary

Now that you’re all set on the details and logistics, here’s a more detailed breakdown of the itinerary I suggest for an epic California road trip including five national parks!

Day 1: Explore San Francisco

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: none
  • Time: none

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Marin Headlands
  • Yoda Fountain
  • Golden Gate Park

Your road trip starts with a day of no driving! Start at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s most iconic sight. You can either walk or rent a bike and ride across the bridge; if you do, you’ll be on the Marin Headlands, which is near where I live in Sausalito! If you choose to drive across the bridge and back, note you will have to pay a toll online afterward!

After you’ve had your fill of admiring the Golden Gate Bridge from every angle, make your way into the Presidio. This former military post is now home to several public areas, including civil war parade grounds, waterfront Crissy Field, and the Palace of Fine Arts (pictured above with yours truly!).

One sight that’s easy to miss is at Lucasfilm. Yes, the Lucasfilm. You can’t enter the buildings because they’re busy making films and stuff, but the plaza in front of reception is home to the Yoda Fountain. It’s nerdy, but a fun reminder that L.A. isn’t the only city that makes movies in California.

Finally, end your afternoon exploring Golden Gate Park. This park is larger than New York’s Central Park and has even more to explore. My favorite way to spend a few hours in Golden Gate Park is to start in the east and work my way west. You can visit the California Academy of Sciences or DeYoung Museum, then walk through the park toward Ocean Beach. From there, you can enjoy the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

After that, it’s time to return to your hotel and rest up – tomorrow’s another day of sightseeing and setting out on an epic road trip!

Resources for Day 1:

Day 2: San Francisco to Yosemite National Park

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  1. Distance: 189mi
  2. Time: 4h, 40m

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Alcatraz
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Chinatown

Start the morning bright and early – you’ve got to pack in a full day of sightseeing before hitting the road in the early afternoon! I recommend heading straight down to board an early Alcatraz tour; these tours are about 3 hours long and the earliest start at 8:30am.

After Alcatraz, walk along the Embarcadero toward Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s hard to pinpoint an epicenter for tourism in SF, but if I had to, I’d say that Fisherman’s Wharf is it. Here you can watch the sea lions at Pier 39, stroll through Ghirardelli Square, discover the funky Musée Mécanique, and grab lunch at Boudin Bakery (pro-tip: chowder in a sourdough bread bowl).

For one last stop in the city, make your way up the hill (by cable car!) toward Chinatown. By this point, the neighborhood should be bustling with locals out shopping and socializing; there are also plenty of amazing restaurants and bakeries where you can stock up on snacks for the afternoon. (The Fortune Cookie Factory is also a fun spot.)

Then it’s time to set out from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is about a four hour drive from San Francisco – but it can take longer depending on the traffic in the Bay Area. Given the drive time, you’ll probably arrive in Yosemite Valley near sunset. Try and time it so you can be at Valley View before sunset; the rocks will light up as the sun goes down.

Once the sun goes down, look up! Yosemite is a great stargazing destination, and you can see some amazing night sky views overhead.

Resources for Day 2:

Day 3: Yosemite to Sequoias National Park

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: 180 miles
  • Time: 4h

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Yosemite National Park

Rise and shine early – today’s the first of the park-to-park days that highlight the middle of this 10-day California road trip.

You have until midday to explore Yosemite National Park, which admittedly isn’t much. But, using my post on how to make the most of one day in Yosemite, here’s what I suggest:

  • Glacier Point – One of the Valley’s epic views, and there are many to choose from!
  • Mirror Lake – A beautiful easy hike in the back part of the Valley floor.
  • Bridal Veil Falls – The best waterfall vista in the Valley.
  • Drive the Valley Loop – The main road that loops through the floor of Yosemite Valley, and takes you to several of the main landmarks and parking areas.

Like I said, this barely scratches the surface – but by midday it’s time to pack into the car and head south down the Sierras.

It’s a 4-hour drive from Yosemite National Park to Kings Canyon-Sequoias National Park, which is the next overnight stop. Enjoy an early dinner then head into the park for the last few hours of daylight before turning in for the night.

Resources for Day 3:

Day 4: Sequoias to Death Valley National Park

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: 408mi
  • Time: 8h

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Sequoias National Park
  • General Sherman Tree

Today is the longest day of driving during this California road trip itinerary, which unfortunately means you have to start the day early in order to enjoy as much of each national park as possible. However, getting an early start to the day helps you beat the crowds – especially in Sequoias National Park.

The first stop of the day is General Sherman Tree, one of the most Extraordinary Places on the list if you love nature. This towering 275-foot tree is among the tallest in the world, and a great example of Giant Sequoias. Nearby, there’s a grove of other famous named trees: the McKinley Tree, Lincoln Tree, President Tree, and The Senate (set of trees).

Unfortunately, after visiting this grove and breakfast, it’s time to pack into the car and head south.

You’ll need to stop for lunch at some point along the 8-hour drive to Death Valley National Park today. For a fun, quick stop consider visiting Calico Ghost Town near Barstow where there are plenty of lunch options.

Given the long day of driving and the fact that Death Valley is an outstanding stargazing destination, I recommend heading to your accommodation and spending the evening relaxing under the stars. Tomorrow’s another early morning and pretty long day of driving, so rest up!

Resources for Day 4:

Day 5: Death Valley to Joshua Tree National Park

California Road Trip - Death Valley

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: 274mi
  • Time: 5h, 30m

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Death Valley National Park

As the sun rises over the desert, it’s time to start the day. Death Valley National Park is a huge area, and like the other parks on this list, it’s hard to get more than a small taste during this California road trip.

With such a short time, you can actually pack a lot in. I recommend starting at Zabriskie Point, taking a hike in Golden Canyon, and seeing the famous Badwater Basin – the lowest point on North America. I have other ideas in my one-day Death Valley itinerary that you can choose to put together a half-day itinerary.

After enjoying the scenery of Death Valley until about 11am, it’s time yet again to hit the open road. Death Valley is an in-and-out park, so you’ll have to make your way back out and southwest toward Joshua Tree National Park.

As you get close to J-Tree, you’ll pass near Pioneertown. This old movie set feels like the Wild West, but it’s a distinctly 20th Century invention. You could stop here for dinner, or wait until you get into town for a meal (another 30 minute drive). Also depending on timing, you may head into Joshua Tree National Park to watch the sunset at Key View.

Yet again, Joshua Tree is an amazing stargazing destination if you’re not sick of seeing the night sky yet. (Is that even possible?)

Resources for Day 5:
  • Where to Stay: 29 Palms Inn or 9 Palms Inn (book on or
  • Other Info: You’ll need your American the Beautiful Pass one last time today; you’ve definitely gotten your money’s worth of it at this point!

Day 6: Joshua Tree to Los Angeles

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: 154mi
  • Time: 2h, 50m

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Salvation Mountain
  • Cabazon Dinosaurs
  • Wigwam Village 7 Motel

On my own visit to Joshua Tree, I rose early to catch the sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden in the park; this requires getting up an hour before the sun comes up to make the drive – but it’s worth it to watch the desert wake up around you.

There are plenty of sights to see in Joshua Tree National Park. Most are natural formations, but there are a few human-made ones too. As you have only part of one day in Joshua Tree, you’ll have to pack it all in a bit.

  • Ryan Ranch – Evidence of early settlers in the park, this ranch requires a short walk but offers a history lesson and great views.
  • Split Rock – A huge boulder that has split over time, there’s a good moderate hike from this parking area.
  • Skull Rock – Alongside the main park road, this happenstance formation always draws crowds.
  • Arch Rock – Located near White Tank Campground, a short hike shows you this famous formation.
  • Barker Dam – An oasis in the park with a relatively easy hike.

When it comes time to leave, exit the park along the Cottonwood Springs Road route, and make a detour down to Salvation Mountain. Once you’ve snapped photos and been throughly weirded out by the Gaudi-esque style, turn back toward Los Angeles. Along the way, there are two more attractions to consider stopping at: Cabazon Dinosaurs and Wigwam Village 7 Motel. Can you tell you’re on Historic Route 66?

Eventually – hopefully without traffic – you’ll roll into Los Angeles. This California road trip itinerary includes two days in L.A., because there’s so much to see and do in the state’s biggest city. After this long day of driving and sightseeing though, you can take it easy and call it an early night.

Resources for Day 6:
  • Where to Stay: Hotel Erwin (book on or
  • Other Info: For a shorter day, you can cut out Salvation Mountain to reduce the driving time.

Day 7: Explore Los Angeles’ Famous Sights

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: none
  • Time: none

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Griffith Observatory
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Venice Canal Historic District
  • Venice Beach Boardwalk
  • Santa Monica Pier

Unlike every other day on this California road trip itinerary, you can actually have a bit of a slow morning today if you want one. Today’s all about sightseeing in Los Angeles! Using Roadtrippers’ Extraordinary Places as inspiration, here’s how I recommend spending the day:

  1. Start by heading up to Griffith Observatory. From here you can look out over the whole of L.A. and see the Hollywood sign.
  2. Next descend into Hollywood to stroll along the Walk of Fame. The area around can be a little dodgy, but the main section along Hollywood Boulevard is a classic American tourist sight.
  3. If you need lunch at this point, pop into the Japantown neighborhood with plenty of hip eateries.
  4. Then head to toward the beach. Venice Canal Historic District is a beautiful planned community with waterways and picturesque homes.
  5. A little ways up the beach, Venice Beach Boardwalk is a must-see and a great spot for people-watching and dinner.
  6. End the day at Santa Monica Pier with its bright lights, rides, and great sunset views.

It’s pretty easy to see why people fall in love with Los Angeles’ sunny weather and sandy beaches after a day like this.

Resources for Day 7:
  • Where to Stay: same as Day 6
  • Other Info: Unlike San Francisco, you will need to use your car to get around the city in L.A. – public transit isn’t good enough to reach these spots.

Day 8: Play at L.A.’s Amusement Parks

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: none
  • Time: none

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Universal Studios Hollywood or Disneyland

Today’s a good day to escape reality before hitting the road again tomorrow – where better than at one of L.A.’s amusement parks? Both Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood are easy to visit, though you’ll only have time for one today.

My vote obviously goes to Universal Studios since I’m a movie nerd and love Harry Potter. At Universal, you can visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, ride tons of rides including Jurassic Park, and do the Studio Lot tour which is a bit of a ride on its own.

Resources for Day 8:
  • Where to Stay: same as Day 6
  • Other Info: Buy your amusement park tickets in advance!

Day 9: Los Angeles to Big Sur

California Coast Road Trip - Hearst Castle

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: 308mi
  • Time: 5h, 45m

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Hearst Castle

On the road again! After two days in L.A., you’re probably ready to hit the road again, right? Good, as today’s the first of two days making your way up the Pacific Coast Highway to end your California road trip in San Francisco.

To save on time, I recommend taking Interstate 5 north for part of the day, then cutting out to the coast for the best sights. In this case, take I-5 to Lost Hills, then going west to San Simeon. There you can stop and explore Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle was built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan; it’s one of those rare buildings in the U.S. that provide a peek into the Gilded Age of U.S. history.

After stopping for an hour or two at the Castle, turn your wheels north on the PCH and head up into Big Sur. There are plenty of scenic spots and stops along the way if you want to take them. You’ll stop for the night in Big Sur, arguably the most picturesque part of the Pacific Coast.

Resources for Day 9:
  • Where to Stay: Big Sur Lodge (book on or
  • Other Info: Be sure to confirm that Hearst Castle will be open on the day you visit.

Day 10: Big Sur to San Francisco

California Coast Road Trip - Big Sur

Road Trip Itinerary Details:

  • Distance: 144mi
  • Time: 2h, 45m

Today’s Extraordinary Places:

  • Hakone Japanese Gardens
  • The Mystery Spot

Living in San Francisco, I’ve actually done day trips to Big Sur – so it’s a pretty easy final day of driving to finish out this California road trip. While you could take the longer route along California Highway 1 all the way into the city, I recommend cutting inland toward San Jose to stop at a final few sights before you return your rental car.

California Coast Road Trip - Big Sur 1

The first is The Mystery Spot, which opened to the public in 1940. This attraction seems to defy the laws of gravity, so you’ll experience some strange phenomena and may end up a bit disoriented and delightfully confused if you choose to stop here. Be sure to purchase tickets in advance too so you don’t get stuck unable to enter.

Second, consider visiting Hakone Japanese Gardens as you get closer to San Jose. This is a beautiful traditional Japanese garden where you can stretch your legs and gain a little calm before trying to fight your way through SF’s notorious traffic.

Once you arrive back into San Francisco, it’s time to return the rental car and fly home if that’s your final destination. Otherwise, welcome home!

Resources for Day 10:
  • Where to Stay: none
  • Other Info: none

Estimated Budget for This California Road Trip

PCH Southbound Sign

I’ve put together a rough estimate for the cost to do this California road trip for two people. It’s certainly not a budget trip – but you could cut the cost by choosing cheaper accommodation than the ones I suggested. (If you do want to do it on a budget, consider car camping in each of the national parks – that will cut down the cost a lot!)

  • Rental Car: $310
  • Insurance: $49
  • Gas: $153
  • Overnight Accommodation: $1990
  • Meals: $500
  • National Park Pass: $80

Total: $3,082

There you go – you’re ready to explore the Golden State! Do you have other questions about this California road trip 10-day itinerary? Let me know in the comments.

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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