The ultimate California road trip – how to plan your dream California vacation

Maybe it’s the sunny skies, maybe it’s the progressive politics, or maybe it’s the draw of Hollywood that make California road trips a bucket list experience. The trustworthy weather makes it a joy to explore the state’s cities and national parks, the liberal populace has more than welcomed the passing of gay marriage legislation in 2013 – even if the rest of the country is yet to follow suit – and you can’t get much more fantastic than San Francisco’s Castro. So flip the soft-top down and channel your inner Thelma and Louise, filmed, where else, but California.

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Photo: Joseph Barrientos

Planning your California road trip

Open up your favourite mapping site and zoom into California, pinpointing those the sights that are absolute musts for your road trip to California – we’ve recommended highlights below to help. Driving south to north (or vice versa) will be the most efficient way of travelling, though steer clear of the dull interstate when there’s an alternative! Above all, don’t fall into the trap of having every hour of every day planned, but leave space for spontaneity, that local tip, and of course, photo stops.

Photo: Free To Use Sounds

When to do a California trip

San Diego up to San Francisco has a Mediterranean climate, meaning hot summers with bright skies and warm if wet winters. The period between March and May has much to offer since the weather is already warm but the crowds of the school summer holidays are yet to descend. Daytime temperatures at this time of year average out at a pleasant 23°C, while nights rarely fall below 16°C.

How much time for a trip to California?

California is huge – twice the size of the UK, for instance. And there’s a huge amount to see and do too, from wandering the exhibition spaces of grand museums to bathing on the beach, discovering national parks, and partying the night away. To get the most of the state, we’d, therefore, recommend planning a trip to California that lasts at least two weeks.

Photo: Martin Jernberg

Our recommended highlights for driving the California coast:

San Diego

Begin your California coast road trip in San Diego, a beachside city infused with the spirit of nearby Mexico and Baja California. Though the state’s second-biggest city, it has none of the urgency of downtown Los Angeles and is a captivating place where the great food and nightlife of the Gaslight Quarter stands side-by-side with the museums of Balboa – the largest urban cultural park in the US – and the bronzed bodies that occupy the 70 miles of coastline around the city. Check out Mr Hudson’s gay San Diego Travel Guide for the best hotels, things to do and see restaurants, and nightspots.

Laguna Beach

Roughly an hour north along the coast road, before the build-up towards Los Angeles begins, you’ll find Laguna Beach, a semi-secretive getaway for artists in Orange County. With the eponymous beach right at the heart of the city that bears its name, Laguna Beach boasts a coastline unique in California, with deep rocky canyons and sandy coves just ripe for a day’s sightseeing as just one of the many things to do in Laguna Beach.

Photo: Tim Mossholder

Los Angeles

For many, Los Angeles is California. This behemoth of a city has neighbourhoods – Beverley Hills and Hollywood among them – that need no real introduction, though there’s always something new to uncover. Of all the places in California you might visit, there’s a fickleness to LA that generates a constant sense of intrigue and wonder whichever of the best gay-friendly hotels in Los Angeles you might be staying in, and whichever of the 10 best gay things to do in Los Angeles you stump for when you have your California road trip planner to hand. No two days or two streets seem to be the same, and that’s exactly how the city always should be, so be sure to bookmark Mr Hudson’s LA Travel Guide before you set off!

Los Angeles | Photo: Yannic Laderach

Photo: Ivana Cajina

Palm Springs

Perhaps the gayest city in the US (since 40% of its residents self-identify as LGBT+), Palm Springs lies about an hour and a half inland from LA in a landscape of desert shrubs and mid-twentieth century style. As our Palm Springs Travel Guide will suggest, the city has been a favourite celebrity haunt for years – Frank Sinatra was just one fan – with tranquil Palm Springs the sort of place where its perfectly acceptable to spend the morning taking in works by Warhol and Picasso, the afternoon among the Uptown Design District’s vintage storefronts, and evenings in cocktail bars with views across the region.

Palm Springs | Photo: Don Stouder

National Parks

A worthy detour from your California coastal drives is to Joshua Tree National Park, less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs. Though the drive east along Interstate 10 might look the most obvious route, trust us when we say to head to the park’s northern entrance, through the impressive Yucca Valley landscape. The park itself has almost infinitesimal panoramas of spiky cactus-like Joshua Trees, bare boulders, and snowy peaks beyond.

Then jump back behind the wheel to Sequoia National Forest, just east of Fresno, home to glades of giant redwood trees up to 3,000 years old. The boss of them all is General Sherman, which has a height of 84 metres, diameter of almost eight metres, and an estimated weight of 2000 tonnes. Continue further north and you’ll enter Yosemite, a paradise for hikers and outdoorsmen, who can enjoy the hikes to Half Dome and the summit of El Capitan.

The downside of visiting Yosemite is missing the stretch of coast from San Luis Obispo north to San Francisco, known as the Pacific Coast Highway or Highlight 1, which will take your through Big Sur and Monterey amid sublime unspoilt coastal vistas.

Yosemite | Photo: Mathieu Olivares

Big Sur | Photo: Cosmin Serban

San Francisco

San Francisco, the city that elected Harvey Milk and gave birth to the rainbow flag, is an anything-goes sort of a city, so liberated it’s difficult to be overly ostentatious (though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try). Our San Francisco Travel Guide has all you need to know about Castro and beyond, while our recommendations for the Barbary Lane to the Barbary Coast are another important read for anyone planning the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco in particular. With the rainbow flag flying from every other building, you’ll also need to know which are the best gay-friendly hotels in San Francisco for a comfortable night’s sleep after a daytime enjoying the 10 best gay things to do in San Francisco too!

Photo: Tarutoa

Road trip planner California – the easy option

Planning a trip can be fun, but organising routes and hotels can take up a lot of time. Take all the hard work out of your trip to California by using Mr Hudson’s Trip Design service! Tell us your preferred type of holiday and budget, and we’ll rustle up the perfect itinerary in no time!

Big Sur | Photo: Ashim D. Silva

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