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  • Writer's pictureAsh Miller

California Road Trip Nuggets

This post is all about some tried and true tips for an awesome California road trip. Whether it's your first time or your 40th time give this post a read-thru and see what nuggets you can apply to your next vehicular vacation! Many of these can apply to road trips all around the world but some of them are going to be super specific to the beautiful state of California. Enjoy darlings and deviants.

Location Tips

Wine Country

For your best chance at spectacular VIP treatment up in Napa Valley or Sonoma County's top tasting rooms you want to be visiting between January and March. These quieter months are what the locals call "mustard season", the vineyards and hills are blanketed in brilliant yellow flowers and a new growing cycle begins. This is without a doubt the easiest time of year to score last-minute tasting reservations.


Destinations like Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, and Big Bear, are often somewhat overwhelmed and at times overrun with visitors during the peak summer and winter seasons. The shoulder months (March - May and September - November) are the magical sweet spot here. Schedule an off-season trip and not only are you saving yourself some cash but you are helping to sustain a year-round economy. Not to mention it's far easier to score hotel deals in October than it is in January, take it from me!


As a general statement California's coastline has dependably mild weather year-round. Do take into account that the farther north you travel along the coast the cooler not only the water temperatures become but the air temperatures too! For example it's rare to see surfers out in Santa Cruz without a wet suit on even in peak summer. Down in southern California, Los Angeles and San Diego often see warm days in February as Spring approaches. You'll have the same brilliant sunshine and soft sands as in July, but with easier parking and sunset-over-waves vistas. Now all that said - if getting *IN* the water is your goal definitely stick to the summer months.

National Parks

Want to see more beauty than is traditionally captured - visit Yosemite or Sequoia or Kings Canyon on non-holiday dates from October-March. It's easier to get lodging reservations and you won't bump elbows at the popular overlooks. I can tell you from personal experiences that April is a magical time to visit Yosemite. If you're looking at Joshua Tree or Death Valley, consider a December or January visit. The winter nights offer amazing stargazing and cool-weather camping while the days tend to get just warm enough to feel comfortable without becoming a dripping sweaty mess. Don't sleep on Northern California's hidden National Park gem - Lassen Volcanic National Park. Due to its isolation, Lassen is one of the least visited parks in the state but has some of the most unique offerings. There are bubbling thermal pools here, surreal landscapes, and one of the most active volcanoes in the country.

Tips for a Great Trip

1. Be sure to plan in time for walkies!

California is full of amazing pedestrian-friendly towns that make your next vacation easier on everyone. Google cities as you plot your course and be sure to include anywhere from a few hours to a whole afternoon getting to explore on foot. Some of the top pedestrian friendly road trip stops include: Big Bear, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pasadena, Escondido, West Hollywood, and San Luis Obispo.

2. Make a budget

The average daily budget for a California road trip (2023) is between $75-$150 – this includes gas, a rental car, lodging, food, drink, and general entry into local attractions (we're not talking Disneyland or Universal Studios or Magic Mountain here). Working with a travel agent is a great way to be able to get a solid grip on your budget around gas, rental cars, and lodging for starters. The largest cost will definitely be your rental car, as it is unavoidable for a road trip. Visiting California outside of peak season for your chosen destinations is a way to lock in cheaper prices.

3. Be aware of the size of the state. California is a large state – don’t be surprised to drive 5+ hours in a day without traffic. Crossing California north to south takes about 12 hours and 20 minutes without stopping and without hitting any traffic! There are reasons I keep mentioning traffic - particularly around the major metropolitan areas traffic is an absolute sure thing at "peak" times of day.

4. Check your travel dates for known and new festivals and events.

Here is a non-exhaustive list for you by region: Southern California - Rose Parade and Rose Bowl (January), California Strawberry Festival (May), Sun and Sea Fest San Diego (July), San Diego ComicCon (July), Adult Swim Festival (October), Desert Daze (October), Camp Flog Nawg Festival (November)

SF and the Sierra Nevadas - SF Sketchfest (January - February), SF Chinese New Year (February), Bottle Rock (May), Kinetic Grand Championship (May), Redwood Coast Music Fest (May), Pride Parade (June), Festival Napa Valley (July), Outside Lands (August), Reggae on the River (August), Monterey Jazz Festival (September), Treasure Island Festival (October)

Eastern California - Bishop Manzanar Pilgrimage (April), Mammoth Village Summer Jam (June), Reno Artown (July), Burning Man (August), Reno Hot August Nights (August), Mammoth Festival of Beers and Bluesapalooza (August)

Stay tuned for more tips, tricks, and travel stories from Travel Plans by Ash!

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