This road trip covers some of California’s most photo-worthy territory, with plenty of views from the tree-studded Redwood Coast to the eroded badlands of Red Rock Canyon State Park. Allow plenty of time for beach walking and scenery gazing along the way.
Chandelier Tree, Leggett
67402 Drive Thru Tree Rd., Leggett
What California icon is 2,400 years old and has cars driving through it every summer day? If you guessed the Chandelier Tree in Leggett—three hours from the San Francisco Bay Area—you know your redwoods. You can steer your car through this 315-foot-tall Sequoia sempervirens with a 70-foot circumference. Fold in your SUV’s mirrors before squeezing through the massive redwood’s six-foot-wide tunnel, which was hand-carved in 1937. For more than 80 years, road-trippers have been capturing photos of their autos creeping through this memorable tree.
Russian Gulch Bridge, Mendocino
With its dramatic ocean-bluff setting overlooking a steel-blue sea, the coastal hamlet of Mendocino is a magnet for artists and romantics. The closest thing to a New England village in California, Mendocino invites you to stroll past tidy saltbox cottages and perfectly manicured Victorians accented by roses and picket fences, their wind chimes tinkling in the breeze. Just north of town, the photogenic Russian Gulch Bridge—a 527-foot-long concrete arch bridge built in 1939 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—spans across a sandy cove, connecting Russian Gulch State Park’s dramatic coastal side with its tree-hugging inland. Picnic on the beach underneath the 100-foot-high bridge, explore Russian Gulch’s glorious headlands, and hike to Russian Gulch Falls, which cascades in a leafy forest of second-growth redwoods, Douglas firs and big-leaf maples.
It’s tempting to stop in all of the seaside towns along Highway 1, but you’ll definitely want to linger a while in Bodega Bay. Sample the catch all over town. At The Birds Cafe, where every seat is alfresco, they serve crispy barbecued oysters, artichoke fritters and fish and chips—beer-battered with a local IPA. Fishetarian Fish Market is known for its fish tacos; clam chowder fans head to Spud Point Crab Co.or Ginochio’s Kitchen, where their chowder riff mixes scallops in with the clams. Hike off the calories at Sonoma Coast State Park, a 13-mile string of rocky beaches and grassy headlands that extends north to the Russian River. Or take in the awe-inspiring Pacific scenery from Bodega Head’s high vantage point, 265 feet above the roiling waves. From December to April, this is one of California’s best whale-watching spots.
The Marshall Store
You can feast on fresh oysters in a number of beautiful California locales, but it’s much more satisfying to slurp them down alongside the waters where they’re harvested. Just north of Point Reyes National Seashore, Tomales Bay’s nourishing waters sustain California’s biggest oyster-producing region. Taste these delicacies at The Marshall Store in the bayside hamlet of Marshall. Order oysters prepared every which way—not just raw, but also barbecued, smoked, Rockefeller (spinach, cheese, and breadcrumbs) and Kilpatrick-style (bacon and Worcestershire sauce). Then find a spot at an outdoor table—live-edge wood slabs perched on oak barrels—and gaze at the bay while you toss back your bounty.
42696 Tollhouse Rd., Shaver Lake
When you vacation at picturesque Shaver Lake—a sapphire gem hugged by pine forest in the granite-studded Sierra Nevada Mountains—megawatts will be the furthest thing from your mind. But this boulder-lined reservoir 50 miles northeast of Fresno is a critical link in one of California’s oldest hydroelectric chains, built by Southern California Edison in 1927 to supply Los Angeles with power. Set up your tent at Camp Edison, then hop on a WaveRunner and zip around the lake’s placid surface. Or just go for a swim under the blue Sierra sky—Shaver’s water temperature warms up nicely by midsummer. Take a 15-mile side trip to the isolated McKinley Grove, where gargantuan giant sequoias thrive among leafy dogwood trees and thick-canopied sugar and Jeffrey pines. The grove is small—about 170 giant sequoias spread out over 100 acres—but precious solitude is easy to find.
Hot Creek Geological Site, Mammoth Lakes
Hot Creek Hatchery Rd., Mammoth Lakes
Outdoor fun abounds in the skiing/hiking/biking/fishing playground of Mammoth Lakes, the eastern Sierra’s biggest resort town. But don’t miss a stop at Hot Creek Geological Site to see Mammoth’s volcanic forces shaking and boiling in real time. Hot Creek’s scenic canyon is like a mini version of the geothermal marvels at Lassen and Yellowstone, with water temperature often topping 200 degrees, heated by a pocket of magma lying three miles below the creek. This wonderland of hot springs, fumaroles and geysers neatly framed within a narrow, rock-strewn gorge is Instagram gold, but swimming is prohibited. The landscape is always in flux—new hot pools appear overnight, and boiling geysers erupt without warning.
Head to Lone Pine to see a different side of California—one that is less connected to the Pacific Coast and more linked culturally and geographically to the interior American West. There are Western-style buildings with awnings shading the sidewalk, while sporting goods stores, featuring leaping trout on neon signs, hint at the sacred role that fishing plays in these parts. Stop in at the Museum of Western Film History to see vintage movie props—costumes, saddles and guns—and then scout out film locations in the nearby Alabama Hills. This rugged landscape of rounded boulder piles made the ideal backdrop for a century’s worth of movies: Dirt roads and trails fan out to Gene Autry Rock, Lone Ranger Canyon, Gary Cooper Rock and other famous filming sites. While in Lone Pine, snake your way uphill on Whitney Portal Road, gaining nearly 5,000 feet in elevation to Whitney Portal, the gateway for hikers bound for the 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
Red Rock Canyon State Park
About 80 miles east of Bakersfield, eroded badlands rise up from the sandy soil, their whimsical shapes sculpted by eons of wind and water. Once the home of the Kawaiisu people, who carved petroglyphs in the vividly colored cliffs, and later a gold-mining site, stagecoach stop and backdrop for Hollywood Westerns, Red Rock Canyon State Park preserves this multihued collection of creased and folded sandstone buttes. Extend your visit until after dark so you can marvel at the desert’s star-filled sky—amateur astronomers set up telescopes almost every night in Red Rock Canyon, but you can see the Milky Way and count shooting stars with only your wide-open eyes. Red Rock Canyon is far from the nearest large town, so make sure your car is stocked with gas, water and snacks. Pitch your tent at the park’s 50-site Ricardo Campground, or give glamping a try—snuggle up in a tepee at the Olancha RV Park and Motel, an hour’s drive north. Choose your tepee by motif—horse, buffalo, raven, hawk, coyote—and then relax in a comfy bed, cuddled in a soft duvet (these cozy accommodations have air conditioning and heating, too).