Rites of Passage: California's Most Iconic & Famous Drives

The California Drives You Need to Do At Least Once in Your Life

We loved the feedback and interest generated by our love for California's best libraries and our favorite California botanic gardens. We're anticipating a forthcoming California National Park series, so with that, let's get into some of the iconic and especially scenic or famous California drives. All images are clickable to expand into full frame. 


Many of these drives are civil engineering marvels, places recognized and internationally favored by travelers and transportation designers everywhere. It seems fitting that a true California veteran should attempt all these drives in his or her lifetime.  A well planned road trip can easily stitch several of these segments together and the fact they're located state-wide suggests a backbone to an intrepid extended getaway. If you plan on hitting multiple famous drives in one trip, pick up a National Park Annual Pass. They're $80 and you're showing support for public lands, appreciating the legacy that ensures great natural beauty belongs to everybody.

You should start a National Park passport stamp collection. For adventure, It's as good of a goal as any. The idea is to get a stamp from every National Park in the country, 59 total. You simply stop in a visitor center and add the specific National Park wet stamp to your passport book. As you can imagine, this becomes a worthwhile and liberating addiction.  

Avenue of the Giants - Humboldt Redwoods State Park

The tragedy is the recognition that only 5% of the old growth forests remain. These are them. It feels small knowing that.  Curtis Perry

Experiencing the redwoods always feels important, like you're paying respects. Camping trips here are always significant because you're in the redwoods. You are sleeping at the feet thousands of years old giants.

image source: savetheredwoods.org

The drive runs parallel to the Hwy 101, by Humboldt. 31-miles weave by 5 of the top-10 tallest trees on the planet. You should get out of your car and walk to a smaller grove and sit quietly for a moment listening attentively to the redwood forest.  

It's one of the most humbling and important landscapes in not just California, or the United States, but on Earth. Literally the tallest organism on the planet, found in the Coastal Redwood. Don't forget California also has the most massive organism on the planet, the Sequoias. Also, the oldest known individual of any species, the Bristlecone Pines.

Walking among these indescribably massive living organisms you feel humbled by the enormity of time. How long it takes for these trees to adapt to this environment and grow so colossal. Everyone thinks the same thing.  I'm so glad this place exists.

Hwy 1 - PCH - Between Morro Bay and Carmel

PCH 1.jpg

A drive everyone knows. The fabled PCH has continued to be affectionately preserved for generations of bohemians, adventurers and the wayward lore. Everyone from Nobel winning particle physicist Richard Feynman, beat writer and personal inspiration Jack Kerouac, and troves of artists gravitate to the historic and hallowed coolsville mecha.

There are hundreds of Pinterest guides floating around talking about the best-everythings to do in Big Sur. When you first drive the coastline from end-to-end, it doesn't feel like the west coast. If you're from California, you likely experienced this as a child.

This strange and always present thousand foot drop right there rolls into a surreal topaz ocean that slaps into the long deep-cut rock faces, often with active water features roping across pocket beaches. The road is a marvel for engineering and design. 

Many critics, including a professor I had while formally in college, feel the PCH should be closed on account of the maintenance costs, "They should use a ferry or something. It's not worth the upkeep."

I view the PCH like I view a piece of interactive art. Fine engineering furnishing a conduit to creativity and a transcendental admiration for the outdoors.

There are now segments of the highway indefinitely one lane, managed by odd single lane traffic signaling. You finds bicyclists here hugging the cliffs, narrowly insulated between cars and fate.   

Mulholland Drive - Santa Monica Mountains (From Cahuenga Boulevard to US 101)

Mulholland Drive (in orange) - click to enlarge. Greg Kidd

The fabled highway of Hollywood's and the City of Angels finest and most photographed views. The map to the right indicates the more famous portion, the portion you want to drive, highlighted in orange.   

Featured in countless songs, movies, shows and novels, the 21 mile Mulholland Dr. stretch weaves the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains and offers terrific views of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and the Hollywood sign. 

Opened in 1924, Mulholland Dr. is named after the iconic civil engineer who designed the roadway, William Mulholland. Talk about the epitome of civil engineering fame.  Expect the drive to take about an hour. You'll probably stop somewhere, and there undoubtedly will be a bunch of other cars in front of you doing the same thing, except going a lot slower.  

Tioga Road (Hwy 120) - Yosemite National Park

Also known as State Route 120, Tioga Road runs the entire east-west length of Yosemite National Park. Tioga Pass is also the highest mountain pass in California, serving as the park's eastern entry point. You'll want to come through here outside the date range from October to May, sometimes as late as July, snow causes road closures. The pass has trail heads for numerous back country trails and areas less trod by weary Yosemite day hikers and tourists. The eastern Sierras are true marvel and haven't been as exploited and packed with development and tourism as Yosemite Valley. On par with the valley in terms of bucolic tranquility, Tioga Rd takes about 2hrs to complete some of the most stunning and inspiring California landscapes, which register the importance of this place being one of the first protected National Park lands in the world. Thank Abraham Lincoln for that, who in 1864 signed the first protective park bill all while knee-deep in the Civil War.

It used to take weeks, if not months, to get to Yosemite from San Francisco.  These days, a person can hit up Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite all in a hellofa day's road trip. If anything, I recommend finding campsites on the eastern Sierras and save yourself the headache of dealing with the thousands of tourists who pack the Valley.   

If able to camp, bring binoculars or invest in a telescope and feel the weight of the cosmos as stargazing from high country Yosemite wilderness offers mostly light-pollution free and shallow atmosphere viewing of the milky way. Seeing the milky way from up here  can change a person's life.

Interstate Route 395 - Through Mojave Desert Adjacent to Mt. Whitney.

Thanks to talented Logan Bush for allowing us use this video. 

There's a good chance if you've driven to Mammoth or Bishop you've driven this long desolate, post-apocalyptic stretch of highway. It's one of those classic images of two converging lines intersecting at a pinpoint horizon, where a straight road disappears into the curvature of the earth. Desert flanks both sides of the road with the Sierra jutting craggy granite faces thousands of feet on either side, archaic cindercones, dark otherworldly lava beds and prehistoric volcanic activity dusts everything in view.  The road cuts through a series of small towns that offer solace and places to check your tires, get some water and take a knee praying your car continues to operate through one of the harshest environments on the planet. You're able to see Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 from Hwy 395, in Lone Pine, characterized by the stunning Needles that stand like cathedral spires to the west of the pinnacle. When I was a child, my father took us through Bishop to a cabin we had ages ago in the Eastern Sierras. We'd stop and feed the fish hatchery, explore the lava flows, blister from the heat while he drove and I listened to U2's Joshua Tree album.  

Highway 101 from San Francisco to Marin City (Across the Golden Gate Bridge)

Driving the US-101 through San Francisco for the first time is an intense driving experience. I can't imagine coming from some sleepy eastern suburb where I didn't have a car, then come to California and rent a car for a road trip and have to deal with driving in SF. I'd probably pull over and hail an Uber.  Northbound US-101 is certainly easier than southbound US-101 in the city. Heading southbound, after crossing over the Golden Gate bridge, after paying a toll, the US-101 dumps you downtown SF along Van Ness Ave. Good luck if you hit at peak hour. Enjoy moving one mile per hour.  But if you plan for mid-day, mid-week or luck out, you can manage this trek like a boss well under an hour.

Traveling across the Golden Gate bridge is spiritual experience, as my dad would say. We used to have an annual walk across the bridge tradition.  But driving can be just as fun if you don't have a couple hours to kill, or feel like walking over three miles. Every Californian has a memory of the Golden Gate bridge, standing or driving on it, seeing Alcatraz, a dense forest of buildings and iconic structures dotting the horizon.  

Make a day of it and explore some of SF's finest, hit up Li Po in Chinatown for a brew, Una Pizza Napoletana for a slice, the curvy Lombard St. and Painted Ladies, later hit up the Tonga Room for one of the best beverage experiences in the City.  

Joshua Tree National Park - Park Blvd. into Pinto Basin Rd.

Surprisingly, Joshua Tree National Park is one of those places a lot of Californians haven't explored. Everyone I've met who experiences Joshua Tree for the first time says two things: I should have came here years ago, and the place feels prehistoric. It may be the closest we'll get to having an actual Jurassic Park, although I suppose that title would go to one of the many national and international fossil hunter parks in India, Australia or the 260+ US fossil parks

Park Blvd. passes some true twisted and bristled Joshua Tree icons, important geological features and especially beautiful views of spiny natural oddities and wind and rain carved landscapes. 

Joshua Tree is arid and hot during the summer, understandable considering the park is flanked by the Colorado and Mojave deserts. The best time to drive this park is anytime, but it's especially wonderful in Spring, particularly if there's a desert bloom underway. Joshua Tree is a fantastic and rugged escape from Los Angeles. A place for people to camp and feel the great native California wilderness.

Bring a chalk bag, a crash pad, some climbing shoes and a climbing buddy to take advantage of the glorious bouldering opportunities.  If you're a star gazer, it's a wonderful place to feel the magnitude of the milky way, largely unblighted by Los Angeles light pollution.  

There are so many drives we wanted to include, but we wanted to tackle the highlights, the broad strokes that helped make driving in this state memorable. We're anticipating an on-going series for amazing California drives in the future. Ideally, become a repository for unique California scenic drives, more approachable than a cold database. We would love to read and experience your favorite California drives, shoot us a message in the comments below with some of your favorites. 

If you enjoyed this piece please hit the share or like icon below and you may be interested in California's best libraries and our favorite California botanic gardens. Our latest piece covers our road trip: the Grand Tree Tour where we visited the oldest, most massive and tallest trees on the planet. 

Banner Image: Orbo. Media image: Wolfgang Staudt