The more I travel the world, the more I appreciate the American West and have fallen in love. There is nowhere in the world like this in terms of beauty and diversity — both landscapes and people.
Where else can you experience one of the hottest deserts on Earth, the tallest trees, the most famous coastline, world-class skiing, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and the vast canyons and rock arches of Utah all in one region? It would take a lifetime to explore anything and everything, but the following road trips can help you get a taste of each of these awesome places.
Here are some of the best road trips in the western United States, from state to state. These trips follow a somewhat logical loop, starting in California.
The Golden State is one of the most diverse in the country, with a world-famous coastal road, a multitude of national parks, and deserts covering 25% of the state. There’s so much to see, but a few road trips cover the highlights:
Pacific Coast Highway
This is perhaps the most famous road trip in the whole country. The Pacific Coast Highway takes you along the coast of California, making it a wonderful road trip full of picturesque places. You will travel almost 800 miles, so spend about a week on this trip, at a minimum.
San Diego: start your road trip in one of the southernmost cities in California, where surfers and good Mexican food abound.
Los Angeles: Cruise 120 miles north of Los Angeles, where you’ll find everything from skyscrapers to colorful sunsets on The Hollywood Sign. Stop in Orange County along the way for spectacular beaches and Disneyland.
Santa Barbara: enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean on the 95-mile drive to sunny Santa Barbara, where you will spend the night.
San Luis Obispo: continue another 95 miles to stop for lunch in San Luis Obispo or another SLO County destination like Pismo Beach.
Big Sur: Drive 110 miles to Big Sur, where you’ll see oceanfront cliffs and waterfalls and camp among tall sequoias.
Carmel / Monterey: from Big Sur, Drive 30 miles north to Carmel, where you can take the famous 17-mile route across the Monterey Peninsula to San Francisco, 125 miles from the coast. If you don’t want to rent a car, consider this tour of the region, which departs from San Francisco.
San Francisco: spend a day in San Francisco exploring the trendy Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, shopping at Fisherman’s Wharf, walking the Presidio, and more.
Humboldt County: travel the last 280 kilometers of the trip to Arcata, in Humboldt County, often called “The Lost Coast” due to the complete lack of Tourism. Take a walk along the empty stretches of beach and enjoy the peace and quiet. Stop by Fort Bragg if you have time!
Most people don’t go on a trip just to see deserts, but they miss them! This 6-day, the 430-mile trip is as varied as it is beautiful.
Alabama Hills: this is the place of old Western movie sets and incredible stargazing. Mobius Arch, Boot Arch, and Movie Road are must-haves.
Death Valley: the Badwater Basin, the Golden Canyon, and the sunrise at Zabriskie Point make Death Valley, 110 miles to the East, a nice stop. You can take a day trip to see all the (literal) hotspots.
Mojave National Preserve and Mojave Trails National Monument: 150 miles southeast of Death Valley is the third largest unit in the contiguous U.S. national park system; highlights include the Kelso Dunes; Amboy Crater, including a ghost town with the iconic Roy’s Motel Café; and lava tubes. Here’s what you can do in Mojave.
Joshua Tree: Drive 90 miles south to see the famous (but dying) Joshua trees, Barker Dam, Cholla cactus garden, and an awesome starry sky. More ideas on what to do in Joshua Tree can be found here.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: finally, travel 80 miles southwest to explore the natural wind caves and enjoy incredible views that reach as far as the eye can see at Font’s Point. Here you will find more ideas on how to spend your time in Anza-Borrego.
Nevada is perhaps one of the most underrated states in the American Southwest simply because people don’t know much about it except Vegas and Tahoe. Although these are two great places, there is much more to discover. A road trip like this is the best way to discover the state of money for yourself. With each stop listed below, covers nearly 900 miles and takes about five days: