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Off the Beaten Path: Unique and Lesser-Known Road Trips

Each year, solo travelers and groups from around the world embark on road trips across the U.S. in search of adventure, hidden gems and oftentimes lesser-known tourist attractions. With summer just around the corner and local safety protocols in place, road trips have become just as popular if not more for thrillseekers. Below is a list of California destinations offering unique road trip ideas, scenic highway views and best pit stops worth every mile.

Golden State Road Trip Ideas

Experience Yosemite National Park's Less-Explored Tuolumne Meadows
Outside the popular areas of Yosemite National Park lies the less-explored Tuolumne Meadows along the Tioga Pass (Hwy 120). The grassy plain is surrounded by mountainous peaks and the Tuolumne River perfect for whitewater rafting. Go for a long hike through the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias to see the third longest-living tree specimen, and rest for the night in historic Groveland, one of the county’s official Gold Rush towns. End the trip hiking the nature trails of Red Hill surrounded by unique wildflowers, plant species and even the endangered bald eagle.

Micro-Road Trip: Hopland to Willits in Mendocino County
Yearning for a classic road trip but don’t have the time to invest in a long drive? Enjoy the perfect micro-road trip from Hopland to Willits in Mendocino County. Known as the Redwood or “Inspiration" Highway, this 92-mile stretch runs true north skirting nine parks, six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and thousands of acres of California outback. Along the way, check out the newly remodeled Thatcher Hotel, a classic Victorian (1890) with 18 sleek guest rooms. Stop by Graziano Family of Wines producers of the heritage grapes of Mendocino. Relax at Vichy Springs Resort and Spa with America’s only warm and naturally carbonated Vichy mineral baths.

Breathtaking Views in Lake County
Neighboring San Francisco and Sacramento, Lake County is known for its clean air and breathtaking views of Clear Lake, America’s oldest lake. Yet it’s in the hills and nearby areas where the adventure begins. Detour to Brassfield Estate Winery to enjoy a Pinzgauer ride. Head to Lakeport for dinner at Park Place Restaurant or gourmet pizza from Juicy’s. For an authentic Northern California experience, visit the fully renovated historic Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake. A few steps away, enjoy a meal at the Blue Wing Saloon under overarching maple trees while listening to local artists play the blues.

Take an Adventure Along Highway 101 in Monterey County
Head inland from the famed Highway 1 to explore a lesser-known summer road trip route in scenic Monterey County. Start your adventure along Highway 101 with a stop in the city of Salinas, home to the nationally renowned National Steinbeck Center. While in town, experience one-of-a-kind shopping and dining at Salinas City Center, featuring unique boutiques and art galleries. Animal lovers will enjoy a gander through the Monterey Zoo, and can even stay overnight in one of the zoo’s private bungalows. Assign a designated driver and explore the numerous wine tasting rooms along River Road Wine Trail. Next, set your sights on a geologic wonderland of jutting volcanic spires, cliffs and peaks at Pinnacles National Park, located just east of Soledad.

Southern California Road Trip Series with Terranea Resort
Terranea Resort offers unique themed road trip itineraries for guests to experience, along with the complimentary use of Lexus vehicles. The drive series presents guests with a variety of experiential GPS-led driving tours such as the Bucket List Adventure, exploring the natural habitat, whale watching and the art of falconry; the Romantic Rendezvous, complete with picturesque sunset picnic locations and an adults-only retreat; and the Hidden Gem Discovery, showcasing the unique destinations across Palos Verdes and the South Bay, perfect for families interested in exploring the unique history and landscape.

Drive Historic Highway 101 along San Diego’s North County Coastline
Hop in the car for a one-of-a-kind drive along San Diego’s North County coast. Take highway 101 from luxurious Del Mar to laid-back Oceanside to discover the famous Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, where the “turf meets the surf” and horse racing fans wager on their favorite ponies. Shoppers enjoy retail therapy at Cedros Design District in Solana Beach, a seaside niche of artist studios, galleries, home furnishing stores, boutique shops and more. Hang 10 at Encinitas’ Swami Beach, made famous by the Beach Boys’ hit song “Surfin’ USA.” Carlsbad offers beautiful beaches and fun activities making it a perennial favorite for families. Spanning 1,942 feet, the Oceanside Municipal Pier is the longest wooden pier on the West Coast.

Photo Worthy Scenic Views

A Scenic Drive with Wild River and Redwood Views in Del Norte County
One of the many rules of road trips is the scenic view which Highway 199 from the Oregon border into Northern California’s Del Norte County offers. The twisty 35-mile stretch in the Six Rivers National Forest includes unique side trips such as a “Botanical Trail” featuring the Darlingtonia plant (aka California pitcher plant and cobra lily). Try the one-hour Myrtle Creek hike with interpretive stops highlighting the mining and geological history of the area. Continue winding along the highway to see a variety of Redwood tree groves in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park before arriving in Crescent City.

Explore the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway from California to Oregon
The 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Byway, an “All-American Road,” stretches from Lassen Volcanic National Park to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Along the way, view Lake Almanor; the slopes of Mt. Shasta; curtains of water showering over basalt cliffs at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park; and the remains of underground magma conduits at Lava Beds National Monument.

The Inside Scoop on Kings Canyon Scenic Byway in Visalia
Travelers to nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park can take a road trip very few visitors take - the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway in Visalia. It follows along a portion of Highway 180 and stretches for 50 miles as it winds its way from the Sierra Nevada foothills before zig zagging deep into Kings Canyon. The road passes through Sequoia National Monument, Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park before it reaches Road’s End, deep in Kings Canyon. Along the way, view breathtaking vistas, soaring granite cliffs and amazing panoramas.

Get Swept Away to the Rim of the World in the San Bernardino Mountains
Tourists love Los Angeles’ sandy beaches and attractions, yet the real adventure and hidden gem lies in the San Bernardino Mountains where the picturesque Rim of the World Scenic Byway can be found. Drive the 110-mile route through the Cajon Pass through desert, coastal valley and elevated forests for stunning panoramic views. While traversing through the windy road, make time to stop at Heaps Peak Arboretum, Running Springs, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear Lake Village and more.

Experience San Luis Obispo on Two Wheels
Explore San Luis Obispo on two wheels through its 75 miles of well-maintained network of urban bike paths and bike lanes. Within 5-10 minutes of pedaling, view the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art’s new mural around the building or the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. View some of the oldest buildings including original Victorian houses, the historic Ah Louis Store, and the Jack House. Within 10-20 minutes of riding, visit the Madonna Inn via the Madonna Inn Bike Path. Discover the rest of the city on foot by parking at anyone of the 150 bike racks and locker spaces located throughout the city.

Best Golden State Pit Stops

Discover the Essence of the Central Coast from Santa Barbara to Buellton
With so many hidden gems to explore in the Central Coast, the drive from southern to northern California (and vice versa) has so much to offer. The seaside town of Summerland has long been a stop for road trippers for its home and boutique shops Field + Fort and The Well Summerland, plus gems at The Sacred Space. Recharge at Santa Barbara county’s new roadside resort, Cuyama Buckhorn, in the “Hidden Valley of Enchantment” for mid-century vibes. Stop in Buellton for local favorites such as the Sideways Inn from the Academy-Award winning film “Sideways,” Ostrichland USA and Alma Rosa Winery.

Stop by the Charming Towns in Sonoma County
Always make time when exploring Northern California’s wine country to explore small towns along the way. In Sonoma, start in Petaluma for a taste of the dairyland, artisan foods and architecture. Dine riverfront, hike alongside cows at Tolay Regional Park, and enjoy the fresh oysters at The Shuckery, located in the ornate Hotel Petaluma. Head to Sebastopol, where the streets are decorated with trash art sculptures created by Patrick Amiot. Taste through brews, ciders and spirits at The Barlow, eat at Pack Jack Barbeque and view the grasslands at Laguna de Santa Rosa.

Redding's Waterfall Loop in Shasta Cascade
Redding is located in the heart of Shasta Cascade, which National Geographic calls the “Golden State's waterfall mecca.” Embark on the first of six waterfalls, starting at the Potem Falls pouring out of a deep canyon into a pool at its base. The majestic Burney Falls in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park was once called the "eighth wonder of the world" by President Theodore Roosevelt. Next, Lower, Middle and Upper McCloud Falls, all of which are unique in size, stature and mesmerizing awe. The final stop is Hedge Creek Falls where visitors can walk behind the cascading water for a different viewpoint and perspective.

Seasonal Nature Outing in the Lassen-Feather River Loop
Each May, the Lake Almanor Basin and Indian Valley communities team up with Lassen Volcanic National Park to celebrate the opening of the local five area museums along the Lassen-Feather River Loop. All routes begin in Oroville (Hwy 70), Chico (Hwy 32) or Red Bluff (Hwy 36), leading the traveler from the Park through the Lake Almanor Basin to Indian Valley and the Feather River Canyon. For history buffs, budding geologists, star gazers, birdwatchers and conservationists beginning in May and through the 2021 season, there are activities for all to enjoy.

Experience Route 66 and the Historic Charm of Pasadena
Avid travelers have likely heard of Route 66, the historic highway built in 1926 that runs through the U.S., connecting cities from Chicago to Los Angeles. At the time, Pasadena was a bustling resort town providing the perfect oasis from harsh winters, and soon became the gateway to the highway’s final stretch into Los Angeles and to the Pacific Ocean. With numerous Route 66 features, visitors can find classic motels, the famed Colorado Street Bridge, historic Old Pasadena, the iconic Rose Bowl Stadium and over 1,000 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Stop in Local Roadside Coastal Community of Marina del Rey
Just four miles north of LAX and nestled between Venice Pier and Manhattan Beach Pier, Marina del Rey is where locals go to play on the Pacific Ocean. Enjoy year-round sunny weather with outdoor excursions such as sailing, stand-up paddle boarding, sportfishing and whale watching which all lead out onto Santa Monica Bay. Stop by Burton Chace Park for panoramic views, sea lion sightings and dreamy Instagrammable sunset photos. Also embark on the 22-mile Marvin Braude Bike Trail that extends past the Santa Monica Pier, through Venice and wraps around Marina del Rey.

Note: As communities re-open after COVID-19-related closures, some parks, businesses and attractions may still be closed or have new protocols in place. Please verify local guidelines and regulations for all destinations and hours and availability of individual businesses before publishing. Check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub for guidance on how visitors can travel within California safely.