These seven California drives are guaranteed to make you say “Wow!” — And say it more than once. They’re the best places you can go for a short road trip in California, journeys where you will measure progress by photos per mile rather than miles per hour.

If you take them all, you will see waves crashing on coastal cliffs and drive beneath trees that are the tallest living things on earth. You will travel over high mountain passes, through valleys with floors a mile high, feeling small in comparison to the mountains that soar 10,000 feet above you. You will cross the desert through a World Biosphere Reserve and see the lowest place in North America.

All of these road trips are between 100 and 180 miles long, short enough to do in a single day and interesting enough to turn into multi-day trips. In fact, you could string them all together to make the ultimate one- to two-week California road trip vacation.

Before you get started, take a little time to go old school. While all of these routes have fantastic views, they can take you far from the nearest cell phone tower. Before you hop in the car, download a map to your mobile device or get one printed on paper.

Big Sur: From Carmel to Morro Bay

California Highway 1 between Morro Bay and Carmel-by-the-Sea is the best drive in California. And it may just be the most famous 155 miles in the world. It’s undoubtedly the most photographed, talked about and dreamed about route in the Golden State.

It’s all about the scenery on the Big Sur drive, with the highway tracing the curvaceous coastline and the Pacific Ocean crashing on the rocks below.

Driving on this road can be nerve-wracking. Some of the turns are so tight you’ll feel like you can see your own taillights. That is when you’re not fretting about whether you’re going to veer off the road and end up in the ocean at the bottom of those sheer cliffs. To minimize that drama, start in Morro Bay and drive north which puts your vehicle on the land side of the highway.

The 120-mile distance seems short, but photo opportunities, hairpin turns, and slow-moving drivers combine to make the trip take up to twice as long as you might expect.

The best time to go is in spring and fall when the sky is the clearest. In summer, the coast is subject to coastal fog called June Gloom, the road gets crowded, and there are few places to pass those slow-moving vehicles. In winter, mudslides can close Highway 1 for weeks to months at a time.

Where to Stop

You can find all the best stops and points of interest in the guide to driving Highway One through Big Sur.

If you want to make this trip in two days, you’ll want to spend more time in Morro Bay. You can also spend a day or more exploring Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Places to stay are scarce except around the Big Sur village area where you can find plenty of inns and campgrounds.

What You Need to Know
You can find food and restrooms at Ragged Point, Gorda and in Big Sur village. Purchase gasoline in either Carmel or Morro Bay. If you’re driving an electric vehicle, charge up in Big Sur village or Cambria (75 miles apart).

If you or your companions are prone to motion sickness, be prepared. Try these remedies or take the wheel which helps many people avoid the problem.

The highway is a paved, two-lane road suitable for all passenger vehicles. You can take large RVs and travel trailers on it, but most people who have tried that say they won’t do it again.

The High Sierras: Bridgeport to Lone Pine

Between Bridgeport and Lone Pine, the 150-mile stretch of US Highway 395 passes through a landscape that looks like it was torn from the pages of National Geographic magazine. In the fall when the aspen trees turn golden, it’s arguably the most beautiful drive in California.

One of the delights of 395 is the diversity of landscapes you can see just by looking out your window. You’ll travel through the broad, high Owens Valley with the Sierra Nevada mountains on the west side and the White and Inyo Mountains on the east. You’ll even be able to see Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet (4,421 meter).

Fall is the most spectacular season to make the drive. In the spring, you may see wild iris and other wildflowers blooming beside the highway. Summer is also fine, with moderate temperatures and lots of sunshine. In the winter, the area gets snow, which makes the mountains beautiful but can make the driving difficult.

Where to Stop

Must-see sights along Highway 395 include Mono Lake and its unique tufa rock formations, Devil’s Postpile outside Mammoth, Convict Lake, June Lake, and the Manzanar National Historic Site (a World War II Japanese internment camp).

You can get a detailed description of what else you can see in the Highway 395 travel guide.

If you make this trip in two days, you can also take side trips to see the west’s best-preserved ghost town at Bodie State Historic Park, and the bubbling, turquoise-colored mineral springs at Hot Creek.

Bishop is an excellent place to stop, but you can also find lodging in Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, and Lone Pine.

What You Need to Know

Food, gasoline, and restrooms are available in most of the towns along 395. Most of them also have electric vehicle charging points with at least a few stations.

The highest point on this drive is Conway Summit which is 8,138 feet (2,480 m) high, enough to cause altitude sickness in some people.

The main highway is suitable for any type of vehicle. Passenger vehicles can use the unpaved road to Bodie ghost town, but it is famous for its bumps and potholes. A few of the side trips in the Highway 395 guide are accessed by dirt roads that are passable in a passenger vehicle (although you may come out covered in dust).

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