There is far more to southern California than Hollywood and surfing. This trip explores the desert regions of Joshua Tree National Park, Mohave Desert, and Death Valley. You also will experience the forests of Sequoia National Park and the coastline of Big Sur. Of course, a trip to southern California wouldn't be complete without stops in Los Angeles and San Diego.
San Diego is a short drive south. Depending on your plans for the day, you can take the faster I-5 or the more scenic Pacific Coast Highway. In San Diego, our main recommendation is the world renowned San Diego Zoo >>. Standard ticket prices are $40/adult and $30/child, but many discounts can be found online and in San Diego.
Just north of San Diego is La Jolla, some of the prettiest coast line in the area. La Jolla makes for a nice dinner location, though restaurants tend to be a little pricey there. There is also Balboa Park and the historic Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego proper that we recommend. Finally, you could take the bridge over to Coronado Island, just west of San Diego.
Joshua Tree National Park is a large desert region with the small Joshua trees and many cactus species. But unlike the myth of desert temperatures, Joshua Tree normally has highs in the mid-80s with low humidity, making hiking ideal. We recommend either the 49 Palms Oasis hike on the north side of the park, or the 4 mile Lost Horse Mine trail. Also, you can do the 18-mile Geology Motor Tour, which a dirt road. Depending on weather, non 4-wheel drive cars may not be recommend beyond the 6 mile marker of this road. Consult the park map >> for trail head locations.
There is ample camping available in Joshua Tree, but no other lodging. For other accommodations, see the towns in the area, including Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, or the Palm Springs and suburbs area.
Along the Way
- Mojave National Preserve
The destination for Day 4 is Death Valley National Park, but we highly recommend driving through the Mojave National Preserve along the way. From Twentnine Palms, CA, take Amboy Rd north to Kelbaker Rd into the reserve. Once there, you can pull off for Kelso Dunes. Then continue on to the Hole-in-the-Wall visitor center and consider some of the hikes or overlooks in the area. Details can be found the park map >>.
Continue on towards Death Valley. While the final destination is Death Valley, due to the lack of lodging, or price of lodging in the park (which are mainly resorts), we suggest considering Cynthias >> in Tecopa, just south of the park. There is also lodging in Shoshone, CA.
For most newer cars, the drive through Death Valley should not pose a problem. But with temperatures generally above 110 degrees, we recommend packing plenty of water. From Shoshone, take the Badwater Rd to Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in the US. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states from here. Also, explore the Devil's Golf Course and Natural Bridge. Continue north and take the Artist's Drive loop. Near the Stovepipe Wells Village, we recommend the Mosiac Canyon trail. All trails, visitor centers, and villages can be found on the park map >>.
Return to Hwy 190 and drive towards Panamint Springs and the park exit. With the many activities in Day 5 and the lack of accommodations in Sequoia National Park, we recommend stopping in Bakersfield or Visalia. Alternatively, you could drive a little further north and stay in Fresno for the evening, as that is the suggested location for accommodations after Sequoia National Park, meaning a two night stay in the same accommodation.
Visit Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park
From any of the suggested neighboring towns, there will be a steep climb into Sequoia National Park. Visit Giant Forest Museum, Lodgepole Visitor Center, and the world's largest tree, the General Sherman. See the details of the area on the park map >>.
Continue on to the Lost Forest and the Grant Grove Village in Kings Canyon National Park. For accommodation, recommend descending back into the valley and staying in the Fresno or Madera area.
The drive to Monterey the fast way is fairly bland, so as an alternative route, we recommend stopping at Pinnacles National Monument. The Bear Gulch Cave requires flashlights, but is a unique experience. The trailhead can be found on the park map >>.
As an alternative, you can head up to the boardwalk in Santa Cruz and enjoy the ocean views and amusement park experience.
In Monterey, we recommend the Monterey Bay Aquarium >> and the Canary Row area around it. Entrance to the aquaurium is $30/adult and $20/child. For dinner, we suggest Peter B's >> or Cannery Row Brewing Company >>.
Star the day by driving on the 17 Mile Dr by the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links and Spyglass Hill Golf Course. The rocky coasts and hanging cyprus trees are a wondrous sight. Head south on Hwy 1 along the Pacific Coast.
In San Simeon, you can tour Hearst Castle >> the home of wealthy media mogul William Randolph Hearst. The estate is now managed by the California Park Service. We recommend the Experience Tour. Tickets are $24/adult and $12/child. Reservations are strongly suggested.
Continue south on Hwy 1 into the Big Sur State Park area. Enjoy the sprawling vistas of the Pacific. Once you have all that Big Sur has to offer, continue back into Los Angeles.
Return to Los Angeles and visit some of the attractions you may have missed on Day 1.
Channel Islands National Park is just off the coast of Santa Barbara, but it is not reachable by conventional means. You can visit the park by taking a boat from the Island Packers Boat Company >>, though rates are $56/adult and $39/child for 2-5 hours on the island of your choice. This area is also ideal for whale watching.
Return flight home.
Day 10 is the final day of the loop. Return your rental vehicle and begin the trek home. We hope you truly enjoy the loop experience and have found that you were able to see much more in this one trip than you could have imagined.