Salt & Wind Travel

14 Essential California Road Trip Driving Tips

The question isn’t whether you should plan a California road trip but where you should go. And just as important is how to road trip in style so that you can make the most of your trip.

As a born and bred Californian, I’ve clocked in quite a few miles road-tripping across the Golden State. From early morning surf trips down to San Diego to Northern California wine country getaways, the Golden State has endless quality road trips. And, now, as a California trip planner, I help our clients figure out the best route for their interests and level of adventure. 

California Road Trip Tips
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14 California Road Trip Tips

When we help concierge clients traveling to California, we suggest adding a couple of days of road-tripping to their itinerary. Ever since the road trip took off in the 1940s, California has been one of the most iconic road trip spots, and doing so adds a layer of adventure to your travels.

Whether hitting the road for a couple of days or crisscrossing the state over a week, these are the essential travel tips we pass along to our concierge clients before they road trip in California:

Decide Where To Go

Thanks to one of the most extensive roadway networks in the United States, your options for road-tripping in California are endless. A few itineraries that our travel planning clients constantly request are:

Find The Best California Road Trip Route

Yes, we have GPS on our phones and in most of our cars, but it’s still a good idea to have a general idea of the route you’re going to take before you hit the road. That way, you can be present and enjoy the drive instead of being a slave to your GPS. 

Avoid Any Major Traffic

One major thing to account for when you road trip in California? Traffic! If you’re leaving from or traveling through any of our big cities, plan your driving so you can be on the road before or after rush hour. For adventures from skiing to hiking to surfing, I try to get on the road before sunrise, while I usually wait until midday to drive otherwise.

And Leave Plenty Of Time To Explore

The best part of a road trip is that you can make up your plans as you go along and give yourself a lot of extra time so you can do just that. In general, I’d recommend doubling your day’s drive time so that you can explore the small spots without stressing out. Also, I usually book a hotel room for each road trip night but don’t plan much else to take my time going from point A to Z.

California Road Trip Vintage Mercedes

Have A Road Trip-Ready Car

Yes, pretty much any functioning car can get you from A to Z but not every vehicle is road trip ready! It’s always a good idea to check your car’s fluids and tires before your road trip so you’re prepared to go, but my ideal road trip car makes the trip as enjoyable (and comfortable) as possible.

A mid-sized, all-wheel-drive SUV means you have enough room for all your gear (be it luggage, tents, skis, or surfboards), a car that can handle various conditions yet is small enough to park in the crowded California cities.

Download A Playlist

The best road trip is done with a travel partner or two, where you have a mix of chatting, carpool karaoke, and some podcast listening.

Speaking of podcasts, a few of my go-to’s are My Favorite Murder, Radiolab, Against The Rules, California Now podcast, and some quiet time. And when it comes to both podcasts and music playlists, I make sure to download them before I drive. That way, no matter if I head in or out of a cell or wifi signal, I won’t miss a beat!

Women taking photos on Cambria California coastline

Take Advantage Of The Scenic Views

I have to give it to the California road planners because they do an incredible job of ensuring tons of Scenic View stops along the roads. I’ve learned over the years to pull off even when it seems like there’s not a view because, often, the turnoff reveals a panorama you didn’t even know was there!

Visit The Many California State Parks

The California State Parks are also a great place to stop for all your social media needs. Not to mention they’re quieter than many of the state parks, making it a great way to spread tourism around and travel more sustainably.

A few California State Parks that I frequent when I road trip across California are Red Rock State Park, Hearst Pier (see above), Mount Tamalpais, Julia Pfeiffer Falls, and Garrapata (see below). 

California Highway 1 Garrapata Park

Check The Weather Forecast 

True, we generally have temperate weather here in California; but actual weather does happen! Whether it’s high winds, rain, or driving snow, we get the weather in almost every season, so be sure to check the forecast before you start driving.

And Check The Road Conditions

With that changing weather comes road conditions be it highway closures or the need for chains. Before you head out to drive for the day, head to the Caltrans website to check the conditions on the roads where you’ll be driving. Living in Mammoth Lakes means I deal with wintry conditions a good part of the year. So I always carry extra supplies (including chains, water, antifreeze, and flares) in case the weather shifts.

Know The Local Road Rules

If you’re not from California, know that we have quite a few road rules that can result in big tickets. Like most places, you can’t talk on your phone while driving, nor can you drive under the influence or have an open container in your car.

A few things that you might not know? Well, pedestrians have the right of way across the state, so you must stop whenever someone enters the crosswalk. Also, you can’t turn right at a red light in many areas, so make sure it’s legal before you do so! Head to Visit California for even more California-specific road rules.

Shop, Stay, And Eat Local

Here at Salt & Wind, we travel to eat, shop, and stay local. There’s no surer way to ensure that local charm stays intact than supporting local businesses. So whether it’s staying at a boutique hotel, shopping at a locally-owned store, or buying directly from a farmers market, I encourage you to always look for ways to go local!

Frequently Asked Questions

The best time to go on a road trip in California depends on your destination within the state. For coastal drives such as Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway), the best times are late spring through early fall (May to October), when the weather is more likely to be clear and sunny.

For trips to the desert areas like Joshua Tree or Death Valley, cooler months like February to April and October to November are ideal to avoid the extreme heat. If you're planning to visit the Sierra Nevada, including Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, summer months (June to September) are best for hiking and lakeside activities, while winter is perfect for snow sports.

Essential items for a California road trip include a reliable GPS system or updated maps, plenty of water (especially if traveling through desert areas), snacks, a first aid kit, sunscreen, sunglasses, appropriate clothing for varying climates, a camera or smartphone for photos, and possibly camping gear if you plan to camp. It's also a good idea to carry a basic tool kit and spare tire, given the remote stretches you may encounter.

 Safety tips for driving in California include being aware of California's specific traffic laws, such as the rule that all passengers must wear seat belts and hands-free only use of mobile phones. Be prepared for varied driving conditions by checking the weather forecast, especially when driving through mountainous or desert areas.

Always keep a safe following distance, as traffic can be heavy, particularly in urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Finally, always have plenty of water and a plan for where to stop for gas, particularly in remote areas of the state.

What To Do In La Jolla

California Travel Tips

Keep diving into all things California with these tips:

California Road Trip Planner

Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency that specializes in California vacation planning? If you’re looking to plan a trip to California, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.

Photo Credit: Bobby YangRobin Jolin, Aida Mollenkamp, and Christopher Kalima

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