Post Summary: The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip Itinerary
Craving a little sunshine?
Go where people play in the sun all year long – Southern California!
There are so many gorgeous places to see in Southern California, where do you even begin planning your Southern California itinerary?
This is where we come in. We’ve escaped the gloomy PNW plenty of times and driven through this part of the west coast plenty of times! Why choose a few stops when you can see everything in one epic Southern California road trip?
In this post, we’re sharing exactly how to plan the best Southern California itinerary, and all the best stops to have the most memorable trip ever.
Let’s hop in the car!
The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip Itinerary
- The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip Itinerary
- The Best Stops On A Mega Southern California Road Trip
- 1. San Diego
- 2. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
- 3. Joshua Tree National Park
- 4. Palm Springs, California
- 5. Mojave National Preserve
- 6. Death Valley National Park
- 7. Kings Canyon National Park
- 8. Sequoia National Park
- 9. San Luis Obispo
- 10. Big Sur
- 11. Santa Barbara
- 12. Los Angeles
- 13. Orange County
- 14. Encinitas, California
- 15. San Diego, California
- Southern California Road Trip Map
- MORE CALIFORNIA ADVENTURES
Where is Southern California?
Southern California is located in the southwest contiguous United States. Its rough borders are generally as north as San Luis Obispo, as east as Death Valley National Park, and as south as the Californian USA/Mexican Border.
Its general geography consists of a desert landscape, dry climate, and often sunny conditions.
Where Do I Start My Southern California Road Trip?
There are many different places to start your Southern California road trip itinerary. The easiest way to reach southern California is by flying into one of its main cities. Here are the easiest and most convenient starting cities below:
- San Diego (San Diego International Airport – SAN)
- Los Angeles (Los Angeles International Airport -LAX, Ontario International Airport – ONT, John Wayne Airport – SNA, Hollywood Burbank Airport – BUR, Long Beach Airport – LGB)
- San Francisco (San Francisco International Airport – SFO, Oakland International Airport – OAK)
What do we recommend? We recommend flying into San Diego! It’s the most southwest point you can reach, which makes it easy to plan your road trip in a nice, neat loop.
How To Rent a Car In Southern California
Now, what you want to do during your Southern California road trip will depend on what kind of car you should rent for the journey. Here are a few tips to know when trying to rent a car in Southern California:
Staying in B&B’s, resorts, and hotels? Rent a regular car. This kind of car fits easily in tight parking spaces (believe us, you’ll encounter those) and allows you to zip around town without a problem.
We recommend booking from RentalCars.com. They have the biggest selection of cars and prices, to fit your exact type of road trip!
Want to go camping and do outdoorsy things?
Reserve an epic campervan with Outdoorsy. They’ve got a huge selection of vintage VW vans, sprinter vans, and RVs for your perfect outdoor trip. It will be a bit more of a challenge parking this kind of vehicle in the city, but this minor inconvenience is nothing when you think about all the money you’ll save sleeping in your car!
How Many Days Should I Plan for My Southern California Road Trip?
If you want to try and visit all the stops we will list in this post, we suggest planning a one-week Southern California road trip.
This will allow you to break up the trip into bite-sized pieces (aka not spending all day in the car!) and experience areas a little bit deeper than just passing through.
Read More: Use These Road Trip Planner Tools and Apps to Mark Your Route!
When Is The Best Time To Plan A Southern California Road Trip?
The best time to plan a Southern California road trip is during the spring and fall season.
This is because the wintertime can bring quite frigid temperatures in the desert, and then oppositely the summer can bring unbearable hot temperatures during the day.
Spring and Fall bring milder temperatures, which makes for a more comfortable southwest road trip!
The Best Stops On A Mega Southern California Road Trip
(Scroll all the way down for our downloadable google map route!)
1. San Diego
Following the route in our blog post, San Diego is going to be an easy place to begin your Southern California itinerary. San Diego is a large city, with easy access to grocery stores, bulk food places, outdoor gear stores, and any other place you may need to pick up last-minute items.
Make sure to stop by Balboa Park, La Jolla Cove, and a quick jaunt around Old Town before heading out on your adventure. For a fun trip to the beach, try driving out to Coronado Beach for some sunny, secluded waves!
2. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Often referred to as “the Badlands of Southern California” the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a geographical wonder with deep slot canyons, cactus-covered terrain, and gorgeous oases covering this area of the state. Flash-floods and earthquakes constantly change the geography here, so you can come back time and time again to discover new things about the area.
Hike the Palm Canyon trail near the water, watch the sunset at Font’s Point, visit the Pumpkin Patch (they look like rock bowling balls!), and stay up late to view the starts from this amazing Southern California state park.
Read More: 10 Amazing American Southwest Destinations You Have To See To Believe
3. Joshua Tree National Park
Located 30 minutes from Palm Springs, this relatively small national park is surprisingly full of amazing attractions, natural and historical alike! Located close to Southern California cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, this is a popular place for people to come for a quick weekend trip, especially if you love rock climbing!
Make sure to stop by famous landmarks like Arch Rock, the Cholla Cactus Garden, the Keys View, and the Skull Rock Nature Trail. We liked visiting these spots during dawn and dusk – this is when the temperature was comfortable and there were few visitors as well!
Looking for a camping spot near the park? There are actually tons of free camping around the park – click here to read all about how to find free camping spots near your favorite places!
4. Palm Springs, California
If you are looking for a fun break from driving your Southern California road trip route, Palm Springs is absolutely worth a stop! It’s known for its mid-century architecture and bright pastel colors. You’ll find a lot of incredible photo opportunities and fun antique stores here!
Not only can you resupply and do laundry here, but you can also spend some time relaxing resort pools and indulging in fancy brunch spots. It’s not really an outdoor destination (as far as hiking and exploring go), but it’s a great spot to stay and experience this Coachella-hosting desert escape.
Want to stay overnight? The Korakia Pensione is a swanky, bucket-list hotel perfect for a dreamy few nights. Stay awhile, enjoy the scenery, and rest up from your road trip!
5. Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave National Preserve spans 1.6-MILLION acres of rolling sand dunes, secret mines, and gorgeous fields of wildflowers. This is the perfect Southern California destination if you are seeking solitude and quiet. This place is big enough for you to spread out and not see anyone else…if you choose!
Stop by the Kelso Depot Visitor Center to get more information about the area. You can also discover what events are happening during the season you visit.
Some of the most popular things to do in the Mojave Desert is camping (Hole-In-The-Wall Campground and Mid-Hills campground are the most popular). You can also take easy hiking trails like Lake Tuendae Nature trail and Teutonia Peak trail.
SoCal Road Trip Tip: This place rarely gets cell service, so make sure you have the right road trip planner apps to navigate offline. Download offline maps on Google to help you navigate around the desert.
6. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is a must-see destination on your Southern California road trip.
While the name isn’t actually that fitting (there’s actually an abundance of life here!), living beings like kangaroo rats, coyotes, and bats can be found mostly at night!
Many of these attractions can be seen in Death Valley in one day (let’s say 24 hours), making it a perfect overnight stop. Arrive in the evening to catch the sunset at Dante’s View, camp in the backcountry spots nearby.
In the morning, watch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point. Afterwards, hurry down to check out Badwater Basin before it gets too hot outside! On the way out of the park, make quick stops at the Devil’s Golf Course, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and Father Crowley Overlook.
Have a little extra time? Take a super long detour to the Racetrack or Ubehebe Crater for less-visited Death Valley attractions.
Read More: How The Plan The Perfect Trip To See Death Valley In One Day
7. Kings Canyon National Park
Boasting dramatically huge sequoia trees, epic views of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains and its 14ers, and tons of wildlife, Kings Canyon National Park is a must-see stop on your SoCal road trip.
Kings Canyon National Park was named after its rugged, glacier-carved canyon. It is a land of giants and “a rival to Yosemite,” according to the national park entrepreneur and preservation advocate, John Muir.
Much of the park is designated wilderness. This means that the park is a choose-your-own-adventure type of stop on your Southern California road trip. With tons of summer and winter activities, you and the family can stay in Kings Canyon National Park for as long or as little as you’d like!
Best Camping Spots In Kings Canyon National Park:
- Atwell Mill Campground (Three Rivers, CA)
- Sentinel Campground (Kings Canyon National Park, CA)
- Moraine Campground (Dunlap, CA)
- Canyon View Group Sites (Hume, CA)
- Meadow Campground (Fresno, CA)
- Big Meadows Cabin (Sequoia National Park, CA)
8. Sequoia National Park
While on your Southern California road trip, you must stop at Sequoia National Park.
Sequoia National Park was established in 1890. This was to protect the giant sequoia trees that cover the southern Sierra-Nevada Mountains! It is enjoyed by over 1 million visitors each year!
Within Sequoia National Park, you can find the largest tree in the world (the General Sherman Tree). Visitors can also drive the scenic General’s Highway, which shows off a group of some of the largest trees in the world, climb Moro Rock, and more.
Some other must-see stops in Sequoia National Park include any of the park’s visitor centers and museums, and hiking any of the Cedar Grove trails.
Best Camping In Sequoia National Park:
- Azalea Campground (Grant Grove, CA)
- Crystal Springs Campground (Hume, CA)
- Sunset Campground (Hume, CA)
- Potwisha Campground (off of Generals Highway)
- Buckeye Flat Campground (Sequoia National Park, CA)
- And MORE!
9. San Luis Obispo
Located near the coast of California, San Luis Obispo (or, “SLO,” or simply “San Luis” as the locals say) is a cute SoCal town with big adventures.
During this Southern California stop, do some relaxing! Sunbathe at Pismo Beach, go wine tasting in SLO’s wine country, or explore Montaña de Oro State Park.
Within the huge oceanside Montaña de Oro State Park, you can enjoy the solitude of the beach. For a more active time, hike popular trails like the Montaña de Oro Bluff Trail (easy, 4.1-mile trek with 229’ elevation gain), or go on a scenic drive throughout the park.
Don’t forget to walk through downtown San Luis Obispo and grab a bite to eat and a souvenir!
10. Big Sur
Exploring this iconic drive down Highway 1 is a must-add to your Southern California road trip itinerary.
While driving Big Sur, you’re guaranteed epic views of the incredible California coastline and numerous jaw-dropping places to stop along the way.
Malibu, McWay Falls (park pass required), and Pfeiffer Beach are among the many amazing stops along Big Sur that you simply must explore.
If you have time for more, check out Bixby Creek (Canyon) Bridge, stay at the luxury Alila Ventana Big Sur Hotel, or camp at Limekiln Campground.
11. Santa Barbara
Just north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is another great stop on your Southern California road trip.
Some of the best things to do in Santa Barbara include visiting the Old Mission Santa Barbara, relaxing at East Beach (free!), exploring the Santa Barbara Zoo, walking the State Street Promenade, and meandering through the Ganna Walska Lotusland.
With easy mountain access and beachside views, Santa Barbara is a wonderful stop while driving through SoCal.
12. Los Angeles
Los Angeles is not only a bustling city of entrepreneurs and movie stars, but it’s also a unique stop on your next Southern California road trip with tons to discover for yourself.
While in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Hollywood, Getty Villa Museum, and Venice Beach are among some of the most popular attractions.
Up for a longer visit? Camp at Chino Hills State Park and take a few days exploring the nearby Disneyland Park and Universal Studios!
Read More: How To Spend a Fun Weekend In West, Hollywood California
13. Orange County
This is the perfect stop on your Southern California road trip. There are so many free things to do in Orange County!
Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and Crystal Cove State Park are just a few of the best free things to do in Orange County. However, exploring art galleries in Laguna Beach and visiting the Muckenthaler Cultural Center are also fun free things to do on your road trip.
Looking for Southern California hikes? Try the East Ridge View Trail (moderate, 4 miles with 482’ elevation gain) or walk around the Fullerton Arboretum!
If you’re up for spending a few bucks, check out Disneyland Park and Universal Studios.
Read More: Gorgeous Places To See In Orange County This Weekend
14. Encinitas, California
For great restaurants and beaches, visit Encinitas, California during your SoCal road trip!
Here, you’ll find the lovely Moonlight Beach, excellent surfing at Leucadia State Beach (Beacon’s), and epic tidepooling at Swami’s Beach.
You can also visit the regular farmer’s market in Encinitas (every Sunday, 2-10PM). If you have time, check out the Butterfly Farms, go wine tasting at Solterra Winery, or go shopping in downtown Encinitas.
This fun little part of Southern California is meant for you to explore!
15. San Diego, California
San Diego, California is downright gorgeous. With fantastic plants and succulents that will make you say, “That’s real?!” and jaw-dropping scenery, San Diego is a must-see stop on your SoCal road trip.
While in San Diego, be sure to explore La Jolla. Here, you can walk along the La Jolla Coast Walk Trail near the La Jolla Cove. Check out Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, visit the San Diego Zoo, walk through Balboa Park, and stop at any of the city’s unique beaches.
For top-notch bread and baked goods, visit Izola Bakery in downtown San Diego. If you go, be sure to make a reservation to get a loaf of bread, as they sell out FAST each day!
Another fun attraction near San Diego is Coronado Island, which has cute shops, delicious restaurants, the relaxing Coronado Beach, and the famous Hotel del Coronado (or “Hotel del,” as the locals say).
Read More: How To Drive The Pacific Coast Highway From San Diego To Seattle
Southern California Road Trip Map
Below, you’ll find our complete Southern California road trip map, with all the major stops to plan along your way. Click on the icon in the far left corner to open it in a new browser. Save in on your own google maps for reference!
Have you ever taken a Southern California road trip? Did we miss any of your favorite spots? Tell us all about it in the comments below!
MORE CALIFORNIA ADVENTURES
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An Epic Day Trip To Big Sur, California
What To Expect at Shark Fin Cove
The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip Itinerary (coming soon)
The Perfect Pacific Coast Road Trip Itinerary (Washington to California)