California Dreaming: 5 California Road Trips to Inspire Your Summer Travel

UPDATED: June 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 14, 2024
car crossing bridge in Big Sur, California

With its amply diverse coastline, California easily inspires, from hiking and wine trails to wellness retreats.The famous Golden State allows for a number of ways to reconnect and unplug. When it comes to the best road trips, I’m definitely a bit partial to the West Coast. As a Los Angeles native, I’ve had access to some of the best hiking in the world, highways that lead to coastlines dotted with super blooms in the spring, desert and wine country getaways, and access to some of the country’s most majestic natural wonders and outdoor adventures in nearby states. 

This array of experiences is what inspired me to launch road trips for my company, CrushGlobal Travel, three years ago. For travelers seeking to experience the breadth of what the West Coast has to offer at their own pace, getting behind the wheel is a great way to achieve that. 

Whether you’re looking for the best of Northern California’s wine country and redwoods or Southern California’s sought-after beaches and culinary scene, there’s a route for every type of travel interest. 

Here are a few of my favorite California road trip routes and stops along the way. 

1. Los Angeles for a food and arts scene

An easy starting off point for any road trip—with the added bonus of an international airport—Los Angeles is a great city to kick off your California road adventure. You’ll get your fix of major city attractions before heading off to desert oases, rolling vineyards and quaint beach towns. As a Los Angeles native, I’m constantly amazed by the new restaurants and art events that have recently opened or remained mainstays in the city for decades. 

The city’s diverse residents give Los Angeles’ dining scene a cornucopia of flavors, from sizzling carne asada off a streetside truck like Brothers Cousins Tacos, to intimate kaiseki experiences that feature earthy bowls of Dungeness crab with dashi broth at Chef Brandon Go’s 2-Michelin star Hayato

Once a center for towering law firms and banks, downtown Los Angeles now holds the pulse of much of the city’s food and arts scene. Take a museum visit to The Broad, where award-winning multi-hyphenate artist Mickalene Thomas has just debuted her first international solo exhibition, All About Love, to much acclaim. A few minutes away, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s Music Center–home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic– check out a rotating program of performances from the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Beethoven’s Fidelio. After an afternoon show, have lunch at Chef Ray Garcia’s Asterid, where rotating seasonal dishes take center stage, including a tender lamb shank with chile Japones, pickled cabbage, charred eggplant puree, and flatbread.

Each summer, the city comes alive at The Hollywood Bowl, an amphitheater located in the Hollywood Hills that has welcomed artists like Billie Holiday and The Beatles. This summer, their all star lineup includes Harry Connick Jr., The Gipsy Kings, Pattie LaBelle and more.  The Bowl has a very impressive Food & Wine offerings as well, including Supper in Your Seats 3-course menus James Beard Award-winning chef Suzanne Goin and restaurateur Caroline Styne. In June, a one stop shop for a taste of the city’s best restaurants makes its annual debut at EEEEEATSCON, curated by Chase Sapphire and The Infatuation. From unforgettable oxtail patties from the beloved Bridgetown Roti, to citrusy sea bass ceviche from Za Za Zá, the event truly showcases L.A.’s dining scene.

For group dining, it’s hard to go sharing sushi at Koi or the Sunday roast experience at The London West Hollywood’s Boxwood Restaurant. For brunch, a Los Angeles mainstay has always been Culina Ristorante at the Four Seasons. Here, you’ll likely rub shoulders with a celebrity or two over buffet towers of king crab legs and prime rib. For a rooftop vibe, head to Waldorf Astoria’s floral studded The Rooftop by JG, and don’t skip the caviar fries. Another option is Terra, located on the top floor of Eataly with a bar that serves up over 50 gins from around the world and a divine made-to-order gelato cart that makes rounds around the 11,000 square foot space. A food and entertainment wonderland of sorts, Level 8 in the Moxy & AC Hotel features eight dining, entertainment and drinking venues where you could easily spend the entire night. The recently opened Mother of Pearl, an al fresco oyster and champagne bar is the perfect option to a balmy summer day, and Japanese teppanyaki sizzles in a dimly lit lounge environment at the popular Maison Kasai. For a stellar Italian experience, nearby Rossoblu is a city favorite—with dishes like ricotta and swiss chard tortellini bathed in tomato sauce and butter inspired by Chef Steve Samson’s childhood memories of Bologna. For modern Mexican dishes, Damian is not to be missed, especially the duck carnitas and dry aged branzino.

At Norma, Chef Jason Fullilove serves dishes like hot honey fried chicken and rice topped with hearty chunks of Santa Barbara stone crab. Come here to get a taste of city nightlife and great food. Two of my favorite wine bars in the city at the moment are Cardinale du Vin for a glass of gamay in an environment without any pretension, and Neighborhood Winery—which serves up zippy cuvées and other natural wines.

Check in: Make it a coastal stay and check into the The Georgian Hotel. This new stunner in Santa Monica looks straight out of a Wes Anderson movie, with its glowing turquoise art deco facade and 84 rooms that reveal the shimmer of the Pacific Ocean below.

2. Palm Springs for wellness

A desert escape that has gained notoriety because of large festivals like Coachella, Palm Springs and surrounding regions like Palm Desert and Desert Valley provide a plethora of wellness activities for roadtrippers. Natural spring waters abound at a number of spas, including The Spa at Séc-he in downtown Palm Springs, which features 22 private soaking tubs and an outdoor mineral pool. The sacred waters here have been shared by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for over 130 years. At the adults-only Two Bunch Palms, mineral waters flow from a 600-year-old natural spring, best enjoyed in a Grotto with three large teak tubs to soak in. 

Beyond spas, Palm Springs is also home to the aptly named Wellness Park, which offers five acres of walking trails, fitness stations and a healing and fragrance garden that grows aromatic plants that include lavender and peppermint. Hikers can enjoy the majestic Tahquitz Canyon, home to a 60-foot waterfall, native wildlife and indigenous rock art, and bikers can easily find a path on a self-guided Big City Loop tour that takes riders through parks, the palm tree-lined, 100-acre Prescott Preserve and the midcentury modern architecture that the desert is known for. 

When hunger strikes, plant yourself downtown for lively options. Cheeky’s remains a desert favorite for breakfast, and the line outside proves it. Don’t miss the custard cheesy eggs or heirloom tomato tartine. For dinner, Trio offers dishes with ingredients that are often locally sourced, including diver scallops topped with pistachio butter and a salmon made with artichoke, cherry tomato and an olive-fennel salad. For a nightcap in a super sleek setting, a seat at the bar of Mr. Lyons Steakhouse’s dimly lit lounge is one of the best tickets in town. Come for the extra dirty martinis, but stay for the four layer caviar dip. 

Check in: Located on 20 acres of pristine grounds, We Care Spa is a luxury detox resort where guests can enjoy daily yoga, breathwork, sound healing, nutrition classes and more. Group classes are complimentary for all guests, who are educated on how to live a more holistic life through diet and mindfulness. There are over 40 treatments offered here, including a castor oil body wrap and colon hydrotherapy. Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Ben Affleck and Cameron Diaz have been drawn to We Care for its detox and fasting programs, meant to recalibrate the mind and body. 

3. Santa Barbara for wine lovers

You can arrive in Santa Barbara in just under two hours from Los Angeles. The coastal community has been dubbed the American Riviera because of its laid-back yet glitzy charm. Proximity to the fertile Santa Ynez Valley makes for a vibrant wine scene, and in downtown Santa Barbara alone, there are more than 240 tasting rooms to choose from. In 2021, Wine Enthusiast magazine called Santa Barbara Wine Region of the Year, and for good reason: from the pinot noirs of Sta. Rita Hills, to the syrahs of Ballard Canyon, there are more than enough grape varieties to satisfy a number of palates. 

Start your day downtown with breakfast at Helena Avenue Bakery, which offers artisanal treats like wildflower honey ricotta on sourdough toast and a breakfast taco stuffed with  chile-spiced hashbrowns, fried egg, smoked cheddar and tomatillo salsa. Just next door, start your first tasting at Santa Barbara Wine Collective, which showcases family-owned wineries from the region. Choose a seasonal flight curated by the staff, or take your pick at favorite producers that include Stolpman and A Tribute to Grace. Continue on to Jaffurs Wine Cellars, where winemaker Stephen Searle creates beautifully balanced syrahs like the 2020 Upslope, with crushed red petal aromatics and smooth, peppered jam flavors that make for a perfect pairing with a juicy ribeye steak. 

Santa Barbara boasts more women winemakers per capita than most other regions of the world.  Two winemakers’ creations not to miss during a visit include Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz and Jill Russell of Cambria Estate Winery—both of which offer tasting rooms that exude the ethos of each winery. 

For dinner, the well-loved downtown mainstay, The Lark, never misses. On a summer night, request an outdoor seat and enjoy plates of passion fruit infused crudo, spring radishes with whipped butter and buttermilk fried chicken with chile de arbol honey. 

Check in: There is no shortage of hotel options in Santa Barbara, from beachside bungalow-style stays to palatial mountain retreats. To be close to the downtown tasting room option, check into the Moorish-meets-Mediterranean designed Hotel Californian. For a luxury stay with enviable views, it doesn’t get much better than the sweeping retreat that El Encanto offers. 

4. Oceanside and San Diego for miles of beautiful coastline 

Approximately 1.5 hours south of Los Angeles, Oceanside is a communal beach town with the perks of a weekly farmers market, miles of coastline and a pier that lends views of some of the best sunsets in the state. It’s a great option for an overnight stay on your way to San Diego. 

Check into Mission Pacific Beach Resort JDV by Hyatt, a beautiful oceanfront boutique hotel with a lively rooftop pool, bar and DJ. The hotel is also home to Valle—the only Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant in Southern California. Here, Chef Roberto Alcocer offers an eight-course tasting menu that celebrates the local produce and flavors of Baja Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley. The food is equal parts art and a celebration of Mexico, with plates of sea scallop with a smoky salsa molcajete and wagyu carne asada. 

After a night in Oceanside, continue on to San Diego, where surfers make their way to ride waves and beachside coffee shops and restaurants continue the theme of this region’s beachy roots. There are 17 miles of coastline in San Diego, and some of the most popular sandy retreats include Coronado Beach, La Jolla Cove and the family-friendly Mission Beach. Consider a day cruise from the city’s Embarcadero, with different activity themes ranging from whale watching to champagne brunches.  

Check in: The LaFayette Hotel & Club has recently undergone a $31 million renovation that includes 139 rooms, tumbled vintage checkered marble floors, crystal chandeliers, a pool bar and an Oaxacan-inspired concept and Mezcalería. On the weekend, it’s the place to be in the city for a night out, even if you’re not a hotel guest. 

5. Mendocino for outdoor adventure

Last on the list of our California road trips is Mendocino. Located on California’s northern coast, Mendocino contains some of the state’s most beautiful natural wonders on over 90 miles of coastline. Start in Sonoma County for a bit of a wine tasting adventure at Emeritus Vineyards (don’t miss the stellar pinot noirs) and grab some pastries for the road at Wild Flour Bread. Afterward, you’ll arrive in Mendocino in just under three hours on the road. This very scenic drive will take you through thick fog that reveals majestic redwood trees and teeming forests. Waves from the Pacific Ocean crash into cliff sides blanketed in poppies, and charming boutiques and restaurants are plentiful. 

Tap into the region’s richness of outdoor adventure with a hike through Russian Gulch State Park. The Fern Canyon Trail leads to a waterfall and series of redwood trees, and the Headlands Trail is one of the park’s biggest attractions.  Leading to a collapsed sea cave that gurgles with water,  the trail is only .75 of a mile long. Nearby, Ft. Bragg is a good option on a sunny day as it’s home to Glass Beach, where millions of tiny glass pebbles shimmer under the sun’s rays. 

Make a trip to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, where 47 acres of foliage and flowers provide a wonderful way to spend the afternoon. Another special way to experience Mendocino is aboard the popular Skunk Train, which offers individual railbikes for guided journeys through the redwoods. For whiskey lovers, there’s an excursion on the train that offers a two-hour trip through some of the region’s highest points and a whiskey sommelier who provides a fun tasting and education on the spirit. 

When hunger strikes, reserve a table at Trillium Cafe, located inside a historic home in Mendocino Village with memorable dishes that include local duck confit fettuccine and a caramelized onion tart. Meyer Family Cellars is a new tasting room serving up splashes of pinot noir and sauvignon over plates of artisanal cheese. 

Check in: Brewery Gulch Inn & Spa or Trailborn.

Photo by Michael Urmann/Shutterstock.