The 16 Most Stunningly Scenic Drives in California

Written by Ella Coppola
Updated: September 13, 2023
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Highway 1 California

With road trip season in full swing, it’s time to prepare your bags, fill the tank, and travel. This view shows the world-famous Highway 1 with the rugged coastline of Big Sur, California.

©iStock.com/bluejayphoto

In the United States, driving holds significance beyond mere transportation. It embodies an enduring American tradition, symbolizing freedom, mobility, and the power to shape one’s destiny. Across the nation, the landscape transforms dramatically, showcasing awe-inspiring mountain ranges, serene prairies, and picturesque coastal byways. By simply stepping into a car, turning up the tunes on the radio, and admiring the natural beauty outside the window, travelers can immerse themselves in this diverse tapestry of America’s beauty.

With road trip season in full swing, it’s time to prepare your bags, fill the tank, and travel. These adventures await, ready to unveil the essence of America’s enchanting vistas and landscapes.

Look no further than California, the ultimate destination in the U.S., for an unforgettable journey. Spanning over 164,000 square miles, this stunning state offers a diverse landscape featuring rugged coastlines. It also features lush pine and redwood forests, vast deserts, and picturesque chaparral.

Prepare for an extraordinary adventure as we present 20 epic scenic drives in California. With 68 official and numerous unofficial scenic byways, there are plenty of options to explore during your vacation. So, fasten your seatbelt, and get ready to hit the road on these captivating routes.

1. Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)

Pacific Coast Bicycle Route

The Pacific Coast Bicycle Route passes through some of America’s most spectacular terrain.

©Robert Ashworth from Bellingham, WA., USA / CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons – License

The Pacific Coast Highway, also called Highway 1, is a legendary scenic route that hugs the picturesque California coastline. It stretches across approximately 656 miles (1,055 kilometers) between Orange County and San Francisco in Southern California. This awe-inspiring road boasts some of the most breathtaking coastal views in the world.

Throughout the year, this enchanting journey treats travelers to breathtaking vistas of the Pacific Ocean. A visit to Southern California is complete with this captivating highway adventure. Starting from the charming town of Dana’s Point, you’ll journey northward, passing through iconic California communities like Newport Beach and the scenic Crystal Cove State Park. Glimpse the renowned Santa Monica Pier, Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Louis Obispo, Big Sur, and Carmel, California.

Santa Monica beach

On this scenic drive, you’ll see cities such as Santa Monica, Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Louis Obispo, Big Sur, and Carmel, California.

©iStock.com/Ed-Ni-Photo

Undoubtedly, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) holds unparalleled fame, appearing in numerous films and earning acclaim as one of the most splendid drives worldwide. Take the chance to explore this captivating stretch of Southern California, ideally in a convertible with the top down, creating an unforgettable experience.

During your drive, you’ll see stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean, the rugged cliffs, the untouched beaches, and the quaint coastal towns that dot the landscape.

2. Death Valley Scenic Byway

Death Valley National Park Entrance Sign. Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone. Death Valley, California, United States. National Park Service.

The route highlights some of the park’s most iconic attractions, including Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, and the otherworldly Badwater Basin.

©Virrage Images/Shutterstock.com

The Death Valley Scenic Byway is an unforgettable journey through Southern California’s awe-inspiring rigid desert landscape. Spanning 130 miles, this route offers a captivating experience through one of North America’s lowest and hottest regions. Starting in Olancha, the Drive leads you toward the majestic Death Valley National Park, where you’ll encounter towering mountains, mesmerizing salt flats, captivating dunes, and vibrant canyons.

The route highlights some of the park’s most iconic attractions, including Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, and the otherworldly Badwater Basin. Don’t miss a stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to delve into Death Valley’s history and grab a souvenir or two from the gift shop.

As your journey comes to a close near Shoshone, take a moment to refuel and unwind before heading back home. Remember to download offline maps before embarking on this adventure, as there is no cellular reception within the park.

Discover Southern California’s unparalleled beauty and uniqueness with the Death Valley Scenic Byway, an enchanting drive that promises to leave you with unforgettable memories.

3. Big Sur, California 

west coast

Big Sur offers numerous highlights. The famous Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns

State Park

, Limekiln State Park, Pfeiffer Beach, and 17-Mile Drive.

©Zhukova Valentyna/Shutterstock.com

Located between Carmel and San Simeon, Big Sur in California is a breathtakingly rugged stretch along the central coast. Embraced by the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the west. The winding traverses this enchanting region, narrow 2-lane State Route 1. Admired for its scenic beauty, Big Sur offers picturesque seaside cliffs and captivating vistas of the often-misty coastline. It also creates an unforgettable drive with its twists and turns.

The sparsely populated area is a haven for nature enthusiasts, boasting numerous state parks that invite visitors to explore. Hiking, camping, and beachcombing. Big Sur truly embodies the magnificence of California’s central coast, offering a memorable experience.

Big Sur offers numerous highlights. The famous Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Limekiln State Park, Pfeiffer Beach, and 17-Mile Drive.

4. Redwood Highway

Famous Sequoia park and giant sequoia tree at sunset.

This enchanting road stretches approximately 170 miles (274 kilometers). From Leggett to the

Oregon

border, revealing the majestic beauty of these towering giants.

©IM_photo/Shutterstock.com

The Redwood Highway, also known as Highway 101, beckons travelers on a mesmerizing scenic journey. You will go through the ancient redwood forests of Northern California. This enchanting road stretches approximately 170 miles (274 kilometers. From Leggett to the Oregon border, revealing the majestic beauty of these towering giants.

As you venture along the Redwood Highway, awe-inspiring trees surround you, some soaring over 350 feet (107 meters). The Drive presents countless opportunities. You can explore magnificent groves, wander through fern-filled canyons, and bask in the sheer grandeur of these ancient wonders. The Redwood Highway is a must-drive for nature enthusiasts, offering a unique and tranquil experience.

5. Avenue of the Giants

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

While driving through this area may offer a glimpse of the majestic towering trees above, exploring its stops will genuinely leave you awe-struck.

©yhelfman/Shutterstock.com

The Avenue of the Giants, located in northern California, United States, is a captivating scenic highway that winds through the majestic Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This iconic route derives its name from the coastal redwoods that stand tall and imposing along the path. Originally part of the U.S. Route 101, the road remains preserved as a state highway under State Route 254 (SR 254), offering travelers a remarkable journey amidst the awe-inspiring beauty of these ancient giants.

While driving through this area may offer a glimpse of the majestic towering trees above, exploring its stops will genuinely leave you awe-struck. There’s so much to see and experience along the way, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what awaits. Moreover, for those seeking a unique thrill, you even have the chance to drive through an actual tree as part of your journey. I’ve traversed this route countless times, yet I still set aside a whole day to immerse myself in its wonders every time I visit the area.

6. Angeles Crest Highway

snow in California

This scenic route takes you through the heart of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and the Angeles National Forest, offering breathtaking views of nature’s splendor.

©iStock.com/Richard Par

The Angeles Crest Highway winds gracefully as a two-lane road traversing the stunning San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County, California. This scenic route takes you through the heart of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and the Angeles National Forest, offering breathtaking views of nature’s splendor.

Discover a serene and astonishing escape just minutes from the bustling city of Los Angeles.This scenic route unveils the wonders of wilderness and natural beauty, proving that you can find tranquility within moments from one of the nation’s busiest urban centers.

Ascending from La Canada at approximately 1,500 feet to the soaring height of 7,900 feet at Dawson Saddle, this Drive is one of Southern California’s most breathtaking experiences. Along the way, a stop at the Mt. Wilson observatory offers mesmerizing views of the Los Angeles Basin on clear days.

Immerse yourself in the enchanting surroundings, where plentiful trailheads and camping areas await in the forest. Whether you opt for a perfect day outing or seek an overnight retreat, the Angeles Crest Highway provides an ideal escape from the city’s hustle and bustle.

7. 17-Mile Drive

Stormy waves off the rocky coast along the 17-mile Drive

©Elmira Danilova/Shutterstock.com

The 17-Mile Drive presents a mesmerizing scenic route that meanders through the enchanting locales of Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, situated on the picturesque Monterey Peninsula in California. This captivating road predominantly follows the rugged coastline of the Pacific, offering breathtaking views and passing renowned golf courses, grand mansions, and numerous scenic attractions.

Travelers along this Drive can see iconic sights such as the Lone Cypress, the majestic Bird Rock, and the expansive 5,300-acre Del Monte Forest adorned with majestic Monterey Cypress trees. The 17-Mile Drive promises an unforgettable journey through some of California’s most beautiful and celebrated landscapes.

Discover a captivating scenic road that hugs the coast of the mesmerizing Monterey Peninsula, a slender yet picturesque region brimming with breathtaking views. As you journey along this route, you’ll encounter charming locales like Carmel, Pacific Grove, and Pebble Beach, each offering unique beauty and attractions.

This scenic road promises an unforgettable experience, surrounded by stunning landscapes and abundant opportunities to create cherished memories.

8. Tioga Pass

Scenic panoramic view of famous Yosemite Valley with El Capitan rock climbing summit and idyllic Merced river on a beautiful sunny day with blue sky in summer, Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Beginning from Highway 395, this captivating route traverses Yosemite’s high country, ultimately leading to the iconic Yosemite Valley.

©Nyokki/Shutterstock.com

Tioga Pass, also known as Highway 120, stands as one of the most breathtaking drives in the state. Beginning from Highway 395, this captivating route traverses Yosemite’s high country, ultimately leading to the iconic Yosemite Valley. Along the way, you’ll journey through an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, surrounded by picturesque lakes, meadows, and majestic peaks.

This Scenic Drive is an ideal starting point for exploring some of the park’s most rewarding hikes, such as Clouds Rest and North Dome. Alternatively, you can relish the awe-inspiring vistas from Olmsted Point, taking in the unparalleled beauty of Yosemite’s highlands.

9. Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway of Oregon

The Drive takes you through Lassen Volcanic

National Park

, where you’ll be in awe of massive volcanic peaks, geothermal wonders, and serene lakes.

©Cat Dang Photography/Shutterstock.com

The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway may be off the beaten path, far from central areas like San Francisco and Sacramento. Still, it’s a journey worth witnessing, a truly unique piece of the California landscape. The Drive takes you through Lassen Volcanic National Park, where you’ll be in awe of massive volcanic peaks, geothermal wonders, and serene lakes.

As you continue towards Mt. Shasta, take the chance to detour and marvel at Burney Falls, one of the state’s most beloved waterfalls. You can also explore the Subway Cave, a fascinating hiking destination, and discover another set of beautiful waterfalls near McCloud.

Your unforgettable journey culminates at Mt. Shasta, an imposing mountain that stands as one of California’s most remarkable sights. Spend a weekend exploring the splendors of Lake Siskiyou, tucked beneath the majestic shadow of the hill, and you’ll genuinely grasp the beauty and diversity of California’s landscape.

10. Around Lake Tahoe

A horizontal composition beautiful day Sand Harbor Lake Tahoe

While it’s possible to complete the entire lake loop in a day, it is highly recommended dedicating more time to exploring this area as it ranks among California’s most stunning destinations.

©Real Window Creative/Shutterstock.com

The Lake Tahoe drive spans 72 miles, weaving through multiple highways, and promises breathtaking beauty for most of the journey. Although some small towns, cities, and private homes might momentarily obstruct your view of the lake, countless opportunities await to witness Lake Tahoe’s splendid glory.

Sand Harbor on the Nevada side and Emerald Bay on the California side stand out as two favorites among the many enchanting spots. While it’s possible to complete the entire lake loop in a day, it is highly recommended dedicating more time to exploring this area as it ranks among California’s most stunning destinations. Embrace the captivating charm of Lake Tahoe and savor the magical vistas that await around every bend.

11. June Lake Loop

Fisherman floats on Gull Lake in the Autumn morning in the June Lake Loop of California.

This scenic route provides stunning lakes, towering mountain peaks, and delightful

hiking trails

.

©Patricia Elaine Thomas/Shutterstock.com

The June Lake Loop, also known as Highway 158, is one of the shortest drives on this list, covering just 13 miles. Despite its brevity, it is an unmissable detour from Highway 395 and one that you’ll want to savor. This scenic route provides stunning lakes, towering mountain peaks, and delightful hiking trails. Even if you’ve driven it many times before, the loop always reveals new wonders, ensuring each journey is a fresh and exciting experience.

Make the most of your day by adding a refreshing swim in June Lake to your itinerary. This captivating loop offers a delightful blend of natural beauty and recreational opportunities, making it a perfect destination for an enriching and memorable outing.

12. Kings Canyon Scenic Byway

A view of Road's End Point on Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, California.

The Drive is steep and winding, but the vistas unfolding as you descend into the canyon are breathtaking.

©Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock.com

Venturing into Kings Canyon is an unforgettable experience that will leave a lasting impression on any traveler in California. The Drive is steep and winding, but the vistas unfolding as you descend into the canyon are breathtaking. Upon reaching the bottom, the sight of magnificent waterfalls like Grizzly Falls and Roaring River Falls greet you, all surrounded by majestic granite peaks.

While it’s a full-day adventure to undertake this Drive, the beauty and splendor of the place make it a must-visit destination in California. Prepare to be enchanted by the natural wonders that await in this captivating region.

13. Rim of the World Scenic Byway

Colorful view of the San Bernardino Valley from the San Bernardino Mountains on a sunny day, Rim of the World Scenic Byway, San Bernardino County, California

Rim of the World Scenic Byway boat’s numerous pullouts along the way allow you to pause and fully immerse yourself in the breathtaking scenery.

©Andy Konieczny/Shutterstock.com

Embarking on this scenic route begins at the Cajon Pass, leading you through the mountains, with sights near Crestline, Lake Arrowhead, and Big Bear. En route, prepare to be mesmerized by awe-inspiring vistas down into the Inland Empire and, on clear days, the striking view of the ocean in the distance. Numerous pullouts along the way allow you to pause and fully immerse yourself in the breathtaking scenery.

To make this journey unforgettable, consider extending it into a longer adventure by spending the night in Big Bear. Exploring all the city offers will add a delightful dimension to your trip. As you continue your Drive from Big Bear, the road gracefully descends, taking you back through the charming towns of Redlands and Mentone, completing the circle of this captivating Drive.

14. Route 66

Historic Route 66 in Illinois

Starting in Santa Monica offers a beautiful opportunity to experience a small but enjoyable portion of the iconic route.

©artstreet/iStock via Getty Images

As you embark on Route 66, California becomes the final state, with its endpoint in Santa Monica. Ending your journey in Santa Monica offers an opportunity to experience a small but enjoyable portion of the iconic route. It is recommended to drive from San Bernardino along Route 66 to Santa Monica, relishing the historic charm and attractions.

As you traverse the road, you’ll come across reconstructed old gas stations, the original McDonald’s museum, and the chance for a drink at Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain. Take advantage of the opportunity to stroll along the Colorado St Bridge, adding a touch of nostalgia to your adventure.

While much of Route 66’s history has faded in California, the Drive remains a thrilling experience.

15. Anza Borrego State Park

Train tracks and tunnel in the middle of the Anza-Borrego Desert. San Diego and Arizona Railroad (SD&AE) / Carrizo Gorge Railway

For those seeking to extend the Drive, consider heading towards the Salton Sea and completing the loop to Palm Springs.

©Kevin Key/Shutterstock.com

Anza-Borrego, an awe-inspiring state park east of San Diego, offers an idyllic setting for a captivating scenic drive. There are two options to reach the park. Firstly, you can take Highway 78 from Escondido through Julian; alternatively, then get in Highway S22. This descends into the garden. Both routes begin in the mountains. Thwygradually lead you down to the desert, treating you to mesmerizing views. As you drive, you will see surrounding peaks and catch glimpses of the distant Salton Sea.

Upon reaching Anza-Borrego State Park, you can explore the fascinating metal sculptures scattered throughout the area. Moreover, for those seeking to extend the drive, consider heading towards the Salton Sea and to Palm Springs. This option promises an adventurous desert road trip, providing a unique experience you won’t forget. However, it’s essential to remember that undertaking this journey in the summer months is not advisable. This is due to the extreme heat. In conclusion, plan your trip wisely. Make the most of the remarkable landscapes that await you on this desert adventure.

16. Mulholland Drive

Hollywood Sign

Stretching over 21 miles and featuring two lanes, this iconic highway winds through the picturesque Santa Monica Mountains. It leads travelers into the enchanting Hollywood Hills.

©Stas Moroz/Shutterstock.com

Mulholland Drive is a renowned street and road in Southern California’s eastern Santa Monica Mountains. It bears the name of the esteemed Los Angeles civil engineer William Mulholland. In the western rural parts of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, people call it Mulholland Highway.

Stretching over 21 miles and featuring two lanes, this iconic highway winds through the picturesque Santa Monica Mountains. It leads travelers into the enchanting Hollywood Hills. In fact, Mulholland Drive is one of Southern California’s most famous routes despite its relatively short length. Its captivating bends and curves have been immortalized in numerous Hollywood films, adding to its allure.

The journey along Mulholland Drive treats visitors to sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean. The bustling city of angels sprawled below. This captivating road truly embodies the essence of Tinsel Town. The Drive offers nature enthusiasts opportunities to explore nearby parks and canyons. This unveils hidden gems and immerses in the region’s natural beauty.

Beyond its scenery, Mulholland Drive is a gateway to hiking trails and scenic viewpoints. Embrace the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. Furthermore, witness the city’s allure from an elevated perspective while simultaneously savoring the unmatched charm of Southern California.

Summary of the 16 Most Stunningly Scenic Drives in California

RouteDistanceLocation
1Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)656 mi (1,055 km)Orange County to San Francisco
2Death Valley Scenic Byway130 mi (209 km)Olancha to Death Valley National Park
3Big Sur, California (State Route 1)18 mi (29 km)Carmel to San Simeon
4Redwood Highway (Hwy 101)170 mi (274 km)Leggett to the Oregon border
5Avenue of the Giants (State Route 254 (SR 254)32 mi (52 km)Humboldt Redwoods State Park
6Angeles Crest Highway66 mi (106 km)San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and the Angeles National Forest
717-Mile Drive17 mi (27 km)Pebble Beach to Pacific Grove
8Tioga Pass (Hwy 120)64 mi (103 km)Yosemite’s High Country to Yosemite Valley
9Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway30 mi (48 km)Lassen Volcanic National Park to Mt. Shasta
10Around Lake Tahoe72 mi (116 km)Circles Lake Tahoe
11June Lake Loop (Hwy 158)13 mi (21 km)Passes June Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake
12Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Hwy 180)50 mi (80 km)Kings Canyon
13Rim of the World Scenic Byway37 mi (60 km)Cajon Pass to Mentone
14Route 66315 mi (507 km)California stretch ending in Santa Monica
15Anza Borrego State Park (Hwy 78)40 mi (64 km)Escondido through Julian
16Mulholland Drive21 mi (34 km)Santa Monica Mountains

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Zhukova Valentyna/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

My name is Ella Coppola. I graduated from Southern Methodist University with degrees in Journalism and Ethics in Dallas, Texas. I'm a huge animal lover and have two dogs named Charlie and Meatball.

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