Far from the madding crowds and four-lane highways the open road beckons. Instead of wide freeways, you’ll find mostly one lane routes, the kind from old movies about the wild west. This southern California road trip itinerary combines two major cities with boundless nature and the ocean. Instead of choosing between the big city, national parks or beach, this itinerary gives you the opportunity to experience all three. Short drives mean your days are full of activities, not than long days behind the wheel. Keep your eyes peeled for animals. On my trip, I encountered coyotes and wolves, countless birds and small mammals. In this itinerary will stick to Southern California, so if you are looking for warm weather, look no further. Let’s fill up on gas and snacks, grab your friends, and explore California in this 7-day road trip itinerary.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank my sponsor – Vero Social Network for giving me the opportunity to
Please note: This blog post may contain some affiliate links. More info.
- Things To Do in San Diego – Day 1
- Anza Borrego State Park – Day 2
- Joshua Tree National Park – Day 2 and 3
- Lifesavers Wildhorse Rescue Center and Antelope Valley – Day 4
- Things To Do in Los Angeles, California – Day 5
- Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica Pier, Crystal Cove – Day 6
- PCH, Laguna Beach, San Diego Botanic Gardens – Day 7
- Downloadable Map
Day 1 – Things to do in San Diego
San Diego, California has so much to offer – you can easily spend the entire week here. After you arrive, drop your bags off at your hotel and start by checking out the city. One of the most famous zoos and research facilities in the world – The San Diego Zoo is a must stop for any animal lover. The zoo hosts more than 3,700 animals – and some of the most famous residents are the giant pandas. At 100 acres San Diego Zoo is enormous – if you decide to visit here this trip will likely take up the entire day.
You might be thinking:
What if I don’t like the zoo? Ok, how about a visit to Balboa Park? Almost a hundred years ago the founders of San Diego set 1,400 acres aside for cultural usage. Today the park is home to 17 museums, countless gardens, and attractions. The Zoo is actually also a part of the park, but the zoo is so big that it really does take an entire day. In Balboa Park, you’ll also find beautiful gardens, although we will visit the most beautiful gardens (Botanic Gardens of San Diego) on the last day of the Southern California road trip.
San Diego Travel Tip:
Save money and time on some of the best attractions in southern California with the Southern California City Pass.. With this pass, you can enjoy admission to top San Diego attractions like San Diego Zoo and save up to half the price of admissions. The pass also gives you the opportunity to skip most lines – ideal for a family vacation.
Where to Eat in San Diego
Ready for dinner?
There is no shortage of great restaurants in Balboa Park, but if you are in the mood for something special check out the Island Prime Restaurant. In addition to delicious fresh seafood, you’ll enjoy views of San Diego Bay with your dinner. Make a reservation far in advance for the best seating.
California Travel Tip:
Will you be renting a car in California?
Where to Stay in San Diego, California road trip
Who doesn’t love a great hotel??
Conveniently located just a 6-minute walk from Balboa Park, Andaz San Diego is a great choice for both service and amenities. In the Andaz, you’ll find a lovely outdoor pool to soak in after a day of exploring the best of San Diego, California.
Day 2 Morning – Anza Borrego State Park
In the morning, pick up your rental car, and let’s get on the road! Our first stop is the Anza Borrego State Park. This desert wonderland offers a glimpse of a unique biosphere and is located only a 2-hour road trip from San Diego.
You might be surprised to discover:
Even the desert, on occasion, turns into a flowering wonderland. In Anza-Borrego, the Mojave desert environment comes alive in the spring. But, there is plenty to discover here all year round. This UNESCO heritage site offers a variety of hiking trails. Just remember – the desert is open to the elements and the winds can be strong. Keep in mind that sand doesn’t retain heat well, so it may be colder in the winter and hot in the summer. Anza Borrego’s stark, severe beauty is very different than the other places we will explore.
Before you drive into the park refill your water bottles – there are only a few places to get water inside the park. Start at the southernmost point of Anza Borrego – the Carrizo Badlands overlook. Work your way up to the June Wash and the visitors center. Stop by the visitors center and the park rangers will help you figure out the best place to hike. After you spend a few hours exploring the Mojave desert, drive north to the southernmost entry point to Joshua Tree National Park (the Bajada Nature Trail). Will spend the next day in Joshua Tree.
California Travel Tip
Ever thought about taking an RV family trip?
Few things are cooler than an RV road trip exploring California’s National Parks. Outdoorsy is the largest RV rental market in the world. Check out great RV options in California. Renting an RV can be a great way to save money too since you won’t need to rent a hotel or a car.
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most famous parks in the world – and for a great reason. The centerpiece of the park, the Joshua tree, is a unique work of nature adapted for Colorado desert’s severe environment. Drive into Joshua Tree National Park from the southernmost entry point and work your way up north. You won’t see any Joshua trees in the south of the park. But you will find plenty of other plants including dozens of species of cactuses. If you are here in the spring the south part of the park is where you are most likely to find flowers and butterflies.
The entrance to the park costs $30 and the pass is good for 7 days. There is no food sold inside the park to check your supplies before you enter.
Want to know the best part?
As you drive your way up north, you’ll begin to see Joshua trees. At first, one or two and then they arrive in dozens, hundreds and finally in thousands. Soon enough you won’t be able to find a spot without Joshua trees.
Drive north through the park and as the sun sets to find a good place to have dinner (with the supplies you brought) – with a view. Tomorrow you’ll be spending the day hiking and exploring Joshua Tree National Park.
Where to Stay at the Joshua Tree National Park
There aren’t any luxury stay options near Joshua Tree National Park. The closest luxury options are located in desert hot springs. However, Joshua Tree Inn is one hotel to consider. Although not exactly luxury it is clean, quiet and boasts amenities such as… ghosts. If you are looking for a somewhat less adventurous option, America’s Best Value Inn and Suites is solid. Sparkling clean, it offers an outdoor pool and a great location.
California Travel Tip:
Do you prefer to rent a home rather than stay in a hotel? VRBO is a great way to save money and check out unusual properties in California. See their great selection.
Where to Eat at the Joshua Tree National Park
Pappy and Harriet’s is an iconic eatery just outside of Joshua Tree. Originally established in the 1940s it was designed to be part of a movie set town, one suitable for shooting wild west movies. Today you’ll find a fantastic barbecue and live music in Pappy’s – a must-visit.
Day 3 – Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
There is no shortage of great hikes in Joshua tree and day 3 of California road trip itinerary is a great day to explore the park on foot. The hikes at Joshua tree range from the short to the lengthy California loop and everything in between. Joshua tree is the area where the Mojave and the Colorado deserts meet. Like Anza-Borrego, Joshua Tree is a designated Unesco Heritage site.
This is cool:
In addition to exploring nature, you can learn about the history of Joshua Tree. From the early cattle rancher and all the way to modern-day conservation efforts, many hikes offer learning opportunities. But if you really want to learn about Joshua tree’s early history, take a ranger-guided Key Ranch tour. The tour offers a glimpse of the old Ranch, a national historic register site. Tours groups are small and only take place during spring and fall, so it is best to book in advance.
California Travel Tip:
Plan on hiking Joshua Tree? Make sure you prepare good water equipment. I love camelback’s stainless steel bottles that keep your water cool and their hydration backpacks. Camelback is known for quality and their supplies can last for more than 10 years – and plenty of trips.
Day 4 – California road trip itinerary, Joshua Tree to LA
Today, let’s spend the day on the road trip to LA with several great stops along the way. Set out west after breakfast, towards our first stop of the day – a wild horse rescue organization.
Lifesavers wild horse rescue was started in the 1990s to help find homes for wild horses that had to be culled from the wild. Due to space and food shortage, wild horses are often rounded up and some of them may wind up in slaughterhouses. An organization like Lifesavers buys the horses at auctions and whenever possible trains them to be put up for adoption. When not possible, Lifesavers places the horses on their own ranch, where the horses can live out their lives in freedom and peace.
Who doesn’t love horses?
You can tour the Lifesavers facility but be sure to make an appointment in advance. Here you can meet the wild horses and those animals getting ready for adoption. To make an appointment contact via wild horses website or call (661) 727 1205. Kids with guardians are welcome, and there is no cost to tour the facility. However, this 501c registered charity gladly accepts donations.
California Travel Tip
Think you might prefer to travel with a group of folks? Check out G-Adventures California tours – you can meet new people and explore at the same time.
Antelope Valley in Super Bloom
If you are visiting California in the spring, for your next stop proceed a little further north to Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. When the time of the year is right, here you will find miles and miles of poppy flowers. The poppies bloom from mid-March to April, and the best time to visit here is on a weekday. The lines do get pretty long on weekends especially on super bloom years. However, even if you have to wait a bit it’s definitely worth it.
Wander the valley’s paths and in addition to the poppies, you’ll see many other flowers and butterflies.
Finally, arrive in Los Angeles and settle in for the evening. There is plenty to do in the city of Angels and will be sure to explore the best of it tomorrow. For now, check-in your hotel, get some great dinner and enjoy the beautiful weather. Its 71 degree is La year-round – the perfect way to end this California road trip, day 4.
Where to Stay in La
Where to Eat in La
There are so many options to eat in LA you are basically guaranteed to never miss a great meal. However, if you are looking for a true LA classic close to major attractions, check out Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood. This tiny Italian eatery is known for its celebrity patrons as much as for the food. Keep your eyes peeled for the likes of Jay Leno, George Clooney, and Drew Barrymore.
For even more family-friendly vacation ideas, check out “20 Best Resorts in North Carolina.”
Day 5 – California Road Trip, a day in Los Angeles
Los Angeles is one of the largest cities in the United States and, like San Diego, you can easily spend a week here. But there are a few highlights you can cover in a day to give you a good lay of the land.
Los Angeles – Holywood Walk of Fame
Start your day off with a walk down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While it’s still early and the tourists haven’t shown up yet, gaze down at the stars and find your favorites. If you are a movie buff, stop by the Chinese Theater. Luckily the biggest stars are all located in front of the theater so you don’t have to go far. Parking is limited and traffic can be very LA, so consider taking an Uber to get here.
Los Angeles Travel Tip:
You can access some top LA attractions at a lower cost with the Los Angeles Sightseeing Pass. Alternatively, you can construct your own itinerary with the USA sightseeing pass, and combine attractions in several destinations.
Los Angeles – Hollywood Sign, California Road Trip
Its an item on many people’s bucket lists – a picture in front of Holywood sign. One of the best spots to do so is from the Griffith Observatory. As a bonus, while here you can watch the real stars too – the stars millions of light-years away. The observatory is located in Griffith Park, and you can also hike through the park to see the sign from several different vantage points.
Los Angeles – Rodeo Drive
Ready to shop?
If you are looking to do a bit of shopping (or window shopping) be sure to stop by the world-famous Rodeo Drive. Shopping Rodeo Drive is as much about people watching as it is about checking out the stores. Stroll the tony streets and stop in one of the cafes for some LA style lunch and a possible hobnob with the “who is who.”
Day 6 – Pacific Coast Highway
Now that you have explored Los Angeles, let’s get back on the road and make our way back to San Diego via the Pacific Coast Highway. The highway, also known as route 1 and PCH, is a historic road that hugs the coast from northern California all the way to the border. Some of the most picturesque areas are between San Fransisco and Los Angeles, however, there is plenty to see in the south as well. Will be taking it the rest of the way on this California road trip. As you drive, stick to route 1 south for the most scenic road.
So. Much. Fun.
You won’t need to drive far for the next stop – Santa Monica Pier, located just half an hour away from downtown LA. Originally build as a sewage disposal plant to dump the waste into the ocean (really) the Santa Monica Pier was converted for recreational use in the 1920s. Today the iconic attraction offers several historical rides, an aquarium and of course a variety of strange carnival food. Spend a few hours here before continuing on your journey south via the PCH.
Pacific Coast Highway Beaches
If Santa Monica is all about crowds and fun, the next few stops are all about relaxation. As you drive further south on the PCH you’ll encounter Huntington Beach, long beach that also features a quiet pier. This is a great place to watch the surfers or take a leisurely stroll.
Ready to Relax?
Next, is the Crystal Cove State Park. Here you’ll discover gorgeous seaside trails,
Where to stay in Laguna Beach
About an hour south of Los Angeles you’ll find Laguna Beach, a typical California seaside town and a great place to stop for the night. Laguna is a tony area and there are plenty of luxury hotels here. One of the best hotels is Surf and Sand Resort. Here, you’ll enjoy stunning views and an outdoor pool. It is the perfect way to end the day: watch the sunset over southern California’s rocky shore.
Where to eat in Laguna Beach
You’ll notice a wide variety of restaurants in Laguna Beach, but the area is particularly famous for fresh, delicious seafood. To take advantage of the best fare check out Splashes restaurant. Splashes consistently boasts some of the freshest seafood and best service in town.
Spend the morning in Laguna Beach and explore the shoreline. Laguna offers a bustling, lively beach and a thriving downtown area. In addition, be sure to stop by Heisler Park. This oceanfront park stretches over some of the prettiest coastlines in Laguna. Here, you can discover tide pools, walking trails and a marine refuge area.
Alternatively, spend some time lounging on Victoria Beach. Check out the mansions along the sand and see if you can spot the iconic cliffside tower.
San Diego Botanic Gardens
Slowly make your way down the Pacific Coast Highway to our next stop – San Diego’s Botanic gardens. This is the last stop of our California road trip and its a good one. At 37 acres this garden is one of the largest in the country. And southern California climate means you will find a large variety of plants here – native to Africa, Australia, Asia and beyond. The garden is right off the PCH but pretty far from the tourist track so you are likely to have the place mostly to yourself on a weekday.
This map will help guide you on your 7-day southern California road trip.
California 7 Day Road Trip Itinerary:
- San Diego – Day 1
- Anza Borrego State Park – Day 2
- Joshua Tree National Park – Day 2 and Day 3
- Horse Rescue Center and Antelope Valey – Day 4
- Los Angeles – Day 5
- Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica Pier – Day 6
- San Diego – Day 7
California Road Trip Costs:
- Small car rental – $250 to $350 for one week
- Gas – $45 per day
- Inexpensive hotel – $80 per night
- Attractions – $50 per day per person
- Reasonably priced food – $50 per day per person
- Total = $250 per person per day, $350 per couple per day
What Is the Most Beautiful Place in California?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but in my experience its a toss-up between Joshua Tree National Park and the Pacific Coast Highway. The PCH, in particular, is stunning. If you have an extra day, spend it here.
One last thing…
Viktoria aka Traveltipster