The team here at Complete North America have been on quite a few fantastic USA road trips, including Route 66, the Deep South and the magical Seattle to Denver, and have always come home having had the time of our lives experiencing different regions in our favourite place: the USA!
One of our absolute favourite ways to experience the West Coast has to be road tripping around California. The Golden State enjoys endless sunshine, has some of the best national parks in the USA and several world-famous cities to experience and explore!
It’s the perfect destination for your first time visiting the USA, but also a firm favourite for those who come back to experience America again and again.
We’ve been on this California road trip, so we know it’s an excellent one! You even get a choice of endings – Los Angeles, San Diego or Phoenix!
On to to our recommendations for a perfect two week road trip in California…
Days 1-3 – Start with three nights in the beautiful ‘City by the Bay’ – San Francisco
You won’t be short of things to do in here! San Francisco is one of our favourite cities in the whole of North America and we’d recommend you spend at least 3 nights in the city if this is your first visit.
Our first suggestion would be to take a city tour to get your bearings. After you’ve become acquainted with San Francisco, check out Muir Woods – a forest of giant California redwood trees, or explore Union Square’s department stores, small boutiques and art galleries.
Our must-do experience in San Francisco is visiting the infamous former prison island Alcatraz. Once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals, the federal penitentiary was open from 1934 to 1963 and housed infamous inmates such as Al “Scarface” Capone, “Machine Gun Kelly” and the “Birdman”.
Tip: if you visit Alcatraz during your stay in San Francisco make sure to book tickets well in advance – particularly during the peak summer months.
If you’re a budding foodie, San Francisco will not disappoint. With over 3,000 restaurants you can take your pick of cuisine, from authentic Chinese banquets in Chinatown (the largest Asian settlement outside of mainland China), incredibly tasty Korean barbecue to Italian feasts in the city’s Italian ‘North Beach’ quarter.
Another option is a lively dinner cruise on San Francisco Bay. Enjoy dinner and dancing to a live band as you cruise past the city’s famous skyline at sunset.
Day 4 – To Monterey!
Leaving San Francisco, take route US-1 South which will lead you along the beautiful scenic coastal areas of the Pacific Ocean.
You’ll pass the California State Park and beach areas as you travel to Santa Cruz on the way to Monterey Bay. Check out the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium in the heart of John Steinbeck’s historic Cannery Row!
Whilst in Monterey, visit the charming coastal town of Carmel. There’s a fee to drive the 17-Mile Scenic Drive route, but the ocean views and opulent lifestyle of this region is worth paying to see! The route will bring you into the heart of Carmel where you can visit high end boutiques and Carmel Beach – repeatedly voted one of the top beaches in the USA.
You can choose to stay in Carmel tonight or in Monterey.
Day 5 – Monterey to Yosemite National Park
Leaving Monterey, take a short detour along US-1 to see the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge near to the area of Big Sur. This will be about a 70 mile very scenic round-trip drive as you will return to Carmel and Monterey and then drive across the state to Merced. Following the Merced River you climb into the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range as you close in on Yosemite National Park. The Big Sur area is amazingly beautiful so you may want to take a short walk whilst here!
Day 6 – Yosemite National Park
A full day exploring and sightseeing in the main valley of the Yosemite National Park.
The park is home to huge waterfalls, wildflowers, forests of centuries-old sequoias (including the Grizzly Giant), glacier-carved canyons and massive monoliths – it’s a must-see!
Tip: Why not treat yourself to an incredible experience by hiring a private guide for a personalised hike?
On this two hour tour, Rangers introduce some of Yosemite’s most famous sightseeing points in Yosemite Valley. You will see Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, Tunnel View, Bridalveil Falls and more, with Rangers describing the history, geology, plant and animal life of the region. Bring your camera along!
Day 7 – Yosemite National Park to Death Valley
Drive the route of US-395 South heading towards your overnight stop in the heart of Death Valley.
Death Valley is a land of complete extremes. It is one of the hottest places on the surface of the earth with summer temperatures averaging well over 100 degrees fahrenheit, it encompasses the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and is the driest place in North America.
The valley is a land of subtle beauties.
We recommend getting up early one morning and experiencing the morning light creeping across Zabriskie Point to strike Manly Beacon.
Other breathtaking views are watching the setting sun and lengthening shadows of the sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells and the colours of the wildflowers on the golden hills above Harmony Borax.
Death Valley is a truly unique place and a complete contrast to what you have left behind at Yosemite.
Day 8 & 9 – Leaving Death Valley and onto Las Vegas
There’s so much to do and see in Las Vegas that we recommend you make a beeline for the bright lights upon leaving Death Valley to really make the most of your two nights here!
A few of our must do things to do in Las Vegas include catching the “Volcano” show at The Mirage, taking a gondola ride at the Venetian, taking a ride up to the observation deck on the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Hotel, taking the Big Shot ride atop the Stratosphere Tower, experiencing a bungee jump at Circus Circus Hotel, visiting the amazing Fremont Street experience or maybe even booking a helicopter trip to fly over the Grand Canyon!
In the evening you can choose from endless places to eat (think Le Cirque, Weera Thai or The Capital Grille) before finishing the night off at one of the world class shows that entertain nightly across the city that never sleeps.
Day 10 – Las Vegas to Grand Canyon
Today will be a long but spectacular day of driving. Head South and over the Hoover Dam and stop to take the guided tour or continue on across the dam and into the state of Arizona.
Another great route (albeit slower) is to take the old Route 66 through Peaches Springs which will eventually bring you out onto the same Interstate route to Williams. This is one of the few remaining sections of the famed highway from Chicago to L.A.
From here continue North until you finally reach the awesome destination that is the Grand Canyon!
Day 11 – Grand Canyon
Take a full day to explore the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park.
A visit to see the El Tovar Lodge if you are not staying there is a must, but we also suggest any of the scenic stops or even taking one of the guided coach tours that will explain the history and geology of the area.
Tip: Definitely visit the Grand Canyon Rim to experience the spectacular sunrise and sunset!
Day 12 – Grand Canyon to Lake Havasu City
Today you leave the Grand Canyon and on to ‘Arizona’s Playground’ – Lake Havasu City – the off-roading, ultralight-flying, speed boating, rock climbing capitol of the Southwest!
The lake, being the largest man-made lake in North America, sits along the Colorado river where you can also visit the London Bridge which was transported out to Lake Havasu from London in 1968 after being bought at auction by the founder of Lake Havasu City.
Sadly you’re almost at the end of your awesome California road trip, but don’t worry – there’s a few different endings that you can choose from!
Perhaps you’ll head towards Los Angeles to do some last-minute shopping, visit Knotts Berry Farm, Disneyland, Universal Studios or maybe just relax and soak up the last few rays in the California sunshine.
Or you could visit one of the United States’ top tourist destinations, San Diego – a year-round paradise.
Relax on one of the fabulous beaches, hop on a tour bus and see the whole city, visit Old Town, Balboa Park, Seaport Village or the Gaslamp Quarter. the San Diego Zoo is a must-see in Southern California. Spend the day monkeying around as you visit amazing habitats for animals such as gorillas, tigers, sun bears, flamingos, mandrills, polar bears, birds of paradise, giant tortoises, leopards and more.
Our final suggested end to your perfect two weeks in California is a relaxed visit to Scottsdale Resort, Phoenix.
Here you can pamper yourself – maybe take a dip in one of its myriad of pools or indulge in a treatment at the tranquil spa facility.
For those looking to venture out – shopping, jeep tours, balloon trips and fine dining await!