Feel the wind in your hair when you’re joy riding in the Golden State

California may be home to Los Angeles’ nightmarish traffic-generating roads, but driving in the Golden State shouldn’t be defined by the traffic situations on I-5, US 101, or I-10. The state is also home to some of the most beautiful roads, not just in the U.S but in the entire world. Scenic highways dot the California coast, and stretched roads take you to high peaks and luscious meadows. You can even drive to Death Valley on your way to Las Vegas from California. If you somehow find yourself in California these days, take your car out for a spin on any of these roads. Not only are the views as good as advertised, but there are quiet and desolate stretches of roads that are going to allow you to literally let loose and enjoy the ride. There is, after all, nothing quite like joyriding in the great state of California.

Pacific Coast Highway

Arguably the most famous road in California, the Pacific Coast Highway stretches 656 miles, making it the longest state route in the entire state. Make no mistake, the PCH — it’s also called “California 1” or “State Route 1” — is famous for all of its scenic spots as much as its north-south length running along the coast of the state. It’s been immortalized in so many movies that anytime you watch one and see a scene where someone’s driving along a coastal highway in California; the default location is the PCH. More than just its contributions to Hollywood, driving along the PCH means that you’ll also pass by some of the most unforgettable destinations in the state.

Length: 655 miles from Dana Point to Legget

Highlights

  • Malibu
  • Muir Woods
  • Half Moon Bay
  • Big Sur
  • Venice Beach
  • Santa Barbara
  • Hearst Castle
  • Bixby Bridge
  • Golden Gate Bridge

Tioga Pass (State Route 120)

The Tioga Pass offers a different kind of scenery compared to the Pacific Coast Highway. It rises over 3,000 meters at its highest point — that’s where the actual Tioga Pass is located — crossing the Sierra Nevada along the way. The Tioga Pass also serves as the eastern entry point for Yosemite National Park, which is reason in itself to take this road when you’re in California. From high peaks to lakes, lush meadows to green forests, you’ll see all of it when you drive the Tioga Pass. Unfortunately, the Tioga Pass is subject to closure during winter due to the high snowfall that makes certain sections unpassable.

Length: 74 miles from Lee Vining to Yosemite Valley

Highlights

  • Olmsted Point
  • Tioga Pass
  • Eastern entry to Yosemite National Park
  • Tuolumne Meadows
  • Tenaya Lake

Highway 395

From coastal roads to mountain passes to desert highways, California has them all. Highway 395 stretches 557 miles from Victorville, California to the Nevada border near Lake Tahoe. Driving on Highway 395 opens a world of beautiful landscapes, the likes of which you don’t get to see anywhere else in the world. Care to visit ghost towns? There are some of them along this road. How about beautiful lakes? Cross those off your list, too, because you’ll see a lot of them, including the ridiculously gorgeous Topaz Lake, along this road. How about a clear view of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Continental United States? Yes, you’ll see it from this road, too. Highway 395 might not have the coastal views of the Pacific Coast Highway, but it comes with enough scenic spots that should make the drive on this long stretch of road worth it.

Length 557: 557 Miles in California from Victorville to Nevada border East of Tahoe.

Highlights

  • Fossil Falls
  • Mt Whitney
  • Manzanar Internment Camp
  • Golden Trout Wilderness
  • Alabama Hills
  • Topaz Lake

Route 66

What’s there to say about Route 66 that hasn’t been said by everybody? Undoubtedly America’s most historic road, Route 66 has been the subject of movies, documentaries, songs, and just about every form of entertainment medium there is. Not many people know this, but Route 66 actually ends on the Santa Monica Pier, a stone’s throw away from Los Angeles right in the heart of Southern California. Of course, you’re not going to get the full Route 66 experience by staying on that end of the road. You’re going to have to take the drive along the “Main Street of America” and see as many historical spots as you can see. Just don’t end up traveling the entire way because if you do, you’re going to end up in Chicago, Illinois, almost 2,500 miles from where you started. That’s how long Route 66 is, though the stretch of road in California only covers 315 miles.

Length: 315 miles in California from Needles to Santa Monica

Highlights

  • Amboy
  • Bottletree Ranch
  • Santa Monica Pier

El Camino Real

El Camino Real is one of the more unique roads in all of California. It’s a long 600-mile drive from San Diego to Sonoma, but it’s unique because of its historical significance to the state. See, El Camino Real is the road that you’ll have to take if you want to visit all of the 21 famous Spanish missions in California. From the Jesuits to the Franciscans to the Carmelites, you’ll see all of them when you drive along El Camino Real. It’s admittedly not for everyone, but those who are keen to learn more about California’s history through all the Spanish missions that populated it should make time to drive along El Camino Real. Trust me; it’s a 600-mile stretch of road that won’t feel like one because of all the things that you’ll see along the way.

Length 600 miles in California from San Diego to Sonoma

Highlights

  • Mission San Diego
  • Mission Santa Barbara
  • Mission San Francisco

Interstate 15 (15 Freeway)

Interstate 15 is the road you take if you want to go to Las Vegas. But while Sin City is often the destination for those who travel down this 315-mile stretch of road, there are more sights to be seen along the way to your weekend debauchery in the gambling capital of the U.S. It’s not the most breathtaking drive you’ll have in the state, but if you’re interested in a lot of curious wonders along the way, Interstate 15 does not disappoint. You’ll pass through Zzyzx Road, the World’s Largest Thermometer, Mad Greek, and if you’re really adventurous, Death Valley. What’s there to do in Death Valley? More than you think, though, at the very least, it’s stature as one of the hottest places in the world is something that attracts a lot of people.

Length 315 miles from Needles to Santa Monica

Highlights

  • Zzyzx Road
  • Worlds Largest Thermometer
  • The town of Baker
  • Mad Greek
  • Stops on the drive from LA to Las Vegas

Highway 101 (101 Freeway)

Those who drive along Highway 101 often do it when they’re trying to get into Los Angeles and Hollywood. It’s also the freeway that is home to some of the worst traffic conditions anywhere in the U.S. That’s the drawback of driving on this road. And while Los Angeles offers a lot of things to see and do, the real thrill of driving on Highway 101 is when you get to outside Los Angeles and drive north up to the Pacific Coast Highway, passing through Ventura and Santa Barbara in the process. If you want to head north all the way to the Oregon border, Highway 101 has some of the best views the California coast has to offer. You can stop by San Buenaventura Beach, check out the Serra Cross, grab a bite and drink soup in Pea Soup Andersen’s, and even pay a visit to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. All these destinations can be accessed by driving along Highway 101. Just make sure you don’t get stuck in traffic while you’re in it.

Length 805 miles in California from Los Angeles to the Oregon border

Highlights

  • San Buenaventura Beach
  • Serra Cross
  • Andersens Pea Soup
  • Ostrich Land
  • Bubblegum Alley
  • Splash Cafe
  • Paramont Ranch
  • Hollywood Forever Cemetery
  • John Steinbeck’s Museum & House
  • Battery Spencer Park

Interstate 5 Freeway (I5)

Interstate 5 is a hit-or-miss road to take when you’re traveling along California. On the one hand, it stretches almost 800 miles so you can literally take this one road and travel from Mexico to Oregon and vice versa. On the other hand, Interstate 5 is a lot like Highway 101. You get caught in it at a bad time, and you’re going to have a long commute ahead of you. Fortunately, there are far better ways to travel along the 5, especially if you prefer to see lush green forests that are unmistakably one of the state’s true sights to behold. There’s a certain section of the 5 that gets you near enough to go to places like Castle Crags State Park and Mt. Shasta, arguably one of the most beautiful mountains in the entire state and maybe even the country.

Length 796 miles in California from Mexico to the Oregon border

Highlights

Northern

  • Castle Crags
  • Weed City
  • Black Bear Diner
  • Sundial Bridge
  • Old Town Sacramento
  • Corning Olive Pit

Southern

  • Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory Outlet
  • La Jolla
  • San Juan Capistrano
  • Torrey Pines
  • Tule Elk Reserve
  • Mt Soledad
  • Iron Zoo

Highway 99

Highway 99 parallels Interstate 5 through most of Central California, but just because that’s the case, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take one road over the other. If you do decide to travel along Highway 99, you set yourself up to a lot of interesting destinations along the way. You can hit up Moo’s Creamery, visit Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, pay a visit to Kingsburg Jail, and enjoy one of California’s most underrated destinations: Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno, California. Whereas Highway 5 is probably the best option if you’re in a rush to get to your destination, Highway 99 offers a more relaxed and laid back ride that’s going to make you appreciate the wonders of California in ways that you probably didn’t expect.

Length 424 miles in California from I-5 near Bakersfield to Red Bluff

Highlights

  • Moo’s Creamery
  • Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park
  • Richard’s Lunchbox
  • Bravo Farms
  • Sun-Maid Raisins
  • Kingsburg Jail
  • Forestiere Underground Gardens
  • Flip’s Burger
  • Squeeze Inn
Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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