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The 10 Best Road Trips from Los Angeles

by Staff

Dark desert highways. Cool wind in your hair. The warm smell of colitas rising up through the air. Oh, the Great California Road Trip! When it comes to automotive odysseys, the Golden State truly glitters. From sunny shores and majestic mountains to hidden hot springs and mist-shrouded redwood, Mother Nature lavished her gifts upon California. Equally enticing are the epicurean delights beckoning from the highway—world-renowned wineries, Michelin-ranked farm-to-table restaurants, and treats like Santa Maria BBQ, beach burgers, and fresh tacos. With Los Angeles as a launching point, we have rounded up 10 epic California road trips. Some destinations are just an hour or two from LA, while others are longer hauls better suited for a weekend jaunt. Also included are a few out-of-state honorees within striking distance of Tinseltown. 

So, throw on that Cali classics playlist—maybe a mix of the Chili Peppers, the Beach Boys, and N.W.A.—drop the top back, and gun it for the open road and unforgettable four-wheeled adventure. 

Cambria, California – 222 miles

Los Angeles road trips

Follow Highway 1, that regal road hugging the coast from Orange County to Mendocino, for 4.5 hours to the surf town of Cambria, a laid-back foil to the rush and roar of Los Angeles.  

Spend the morning perusing Cambria’s funky stores and coffee shops before hiking along the trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Wedged between the fabled wine regions of Paso Robles and Edna Valley, tiny Cambria is chock-full of tasting rooms and restaurants with encyclopedic wine menus. At sunset, snag a table at Madeline’s on Moonstone, a tasting room that pairs choice California vino with panoramic ocean views. 

If there’s a more romantic guest house along the Pacific Rim than Cambria Beach Lodge, I have yet to hear about it. Marrying laid-back bungalow vibes with luxury flair, rooms resemble cozy beach cabanas with sumptuous beds and in-room selections of high-end wine. 

San Luis Obispo, California – 190 miles

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Home to Cal Poly, one of the world’s premier STEM universities, San Luis Obispo is the archetypical West Coast college town, with scores of funky eateries and dives, palm-lined avenues, and the all-permeating buzz of youthful verve. 

As you would expect in a town dominated by undergraduates, SLO is awash with taco trucks, pizzerias, and student-friendly dining options. However, don’t sleep on fine dining. Luna Red enlivens tapas-style small plates with fresh sashimi and Thai spices, viands washed down with expertly made craft cocktails. 

No trip to Central California is complete without Santa Maria BBQ, and Old SLO BBQ delivers the smoky goodness: red oak-infused Santa Maria tip served á la carte or stuffed between crusty bread in sandwiches. In the 19th century, San Luis Obispo had one of California’s most bustling Chinatowns. While today only scattered remnants of SLO’s Chinese neighborhood survive, Mee Heng Low Noodle House still serves the same tasty Chinese-American favorites—lo mein, chop suey, and crab rangoon—it did a century ago. To dive even deeper into California history, explore Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in 1772 and still a functioning church. And of course make time to check out the mid century kitsch explosion of the legendary Madonna Inn.

Morro Bay, California – 200 miles

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Morro Bay has long been a surfer’s hub, and Morro Rock, a towering column of stone jutting out of the harbor, is one of Central California’s most postcard-worthy sights. Rent a kayak from Morro Bay Wildlife Tours to paddle out to the rock tower and admire the harbor’s playful families of seals.

Inland from Morro Bay, where the coast yields to vineyards and rolling pasturelands, La Lomita Ranch treats visitors to the dolce vita of a Spanish Colonial ranch retrofitted into a deluxe retreat. Spanish tile mosaics embellish the floors and bathrooms of each room, and the central plaza of La Lomita, adorned with a grand fountain, could have been lifted from Once Upon a Time in Mexico. 

If you’re interested in learning about the wines of Edna Valley, a renowned California AVA, ask the concierge to set up a private wine tasting. Speaking of fine vino, Sinor-LaVallee pours Edna Valley nectars paired with West Coast oysters—fresh, briny jewels that complement the region’s dry sparklers and Sauvignon Blancs. 

Carlsbad, California  – 86 miles

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Carlsbad, a coastal enclave a touch over an hour south of Los Angeles, is California’s family-friendly travel destination par excellence. While kiddos and grown-ups alike can spend days lost in the magic of LEGOLAND, Carlsbad’s beaches and hiking are equally strong draws for family vacations. The SoCal port town boasts miles of sun-drenched stretches of white powdery sand, with fewer crowds than Los Angeles’ beaches. 

From craft breweries to romantic seaside suites, Carlsbad boasts plenty of leave-the-kids-at-home attractions as well. While the town’s beachy charm might bring to mind fish tacos and seafood shacks, fine dining is serious in Carlsbad. Two gourmet standouts are Jeune & Jolie, a Michelin-starred French restaurant, and Campfire, a wine and tapas bar with Bib Gourmand recognition.

Let the soothing sound of the Pacific’s rolling surf wash your worries away at the Beach Terrace Inn, a guesthouse with the best waterfront views in town. After a great dinner in town, cozy up at the Beach Terrace Inn’s outdoor fire for a nightcap. 

Paso Robles, California  – 205 miles

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Renowned the world over for powerful, juicy reds, Paso Robles should be on every wine lover’s bucket list. As with Napa and Sonoma, legendary wineries spurred a gourmet boom, and today the small Central California city boasts five restaurants enshrined in the Michelin Guide. 

Soak up purple ambrosia in the tasting room of Halter Ranch Vineyard, a winery set among the lush Santa Lucia Mountains. The porch views of Paso’s verdant, rolling countryside—a landscape reminiscent of Tuscany—are as uplifting as the exquisite pours of Bordeaux and Rhone Valley-style blends. For a weekend worthy of a luxury honeymoon, book a room in Halter Ranch Winery’s 1800 Victorian, where pampered guests while away the hours enjoying the cellar’s treasures or strolling through olive groves, grape trellises, and nearby beaches.  

Redding, California – 541 miles

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Giddyup, pardner! Welcome to Redding, California’s cowboy country. An eight-hour drive north from Los Angeles, traversing almost the entire length of the San Joaquin Valley, takes you to this Shasta County gem.

Redding has plenty of cultural draws—the Redding Rodeo, a dynamic music and art scene, and third-wave coffee rivaling San Fransico or Portland—and the town is a haven for outdoor sports enthusiasts and nature lovers. The otherworldly rock formations and glacial lakes of Lassen National Park, less touristed than Yosemite or Redwood National Park, are a 45-minute drive from Redding. The waters of Lake Shasta,  rippling glass framed by mountains and forest, are as clear as gin—and the vistas from a boat are just as intoxicating. Redding has long been a fly-fishing hub—one of the reasons country-western legend Merle Haggard retired here—and if you’re up for a lazy day of angling, Trinity Guide CO has you covered with gear, boats, and expertise. 

Redding could be a destination unto itself for coffee snobs, and Theory Coffee Roasters and Evergreen Coffee are two standouts for masterfully poured caffeinated elixirs. After working up a voracious appetite on the hiking trails, treat yourself to a rich dinner at Moonstone Bistro. In addition to scrumptious comfort fare like gourmet burgers and pappardelle, Moonstone’s menu of California wines and craft beers is authoritative. The Sheraton at the Sundial is well-suited as a base camp for exploring Redding’s ecological wonders, and the hotel is a quick Uber ride from Redding’s best coffee shops and restaurants.

Las Vegas, Nevada  – 271 miles

As your attorney, I advise you to rent a very fast car with no top and drive to Las Vegas. A four-hour drive on the 1-15 East, through the shimmering caloric waves of the Mojave Desert, takes you to Fabulous Las Vegas. Just don’t tarry too long in the desert—this is Bat Country, by god! 

The world’s most fabled playground, Neon City charms visitors of all stripes—gourmands keen to check off bucket-list restaurants; revelers as hard-driving as H.S. Thompson; and families seeking wholesome fun as squeaky-clean as Disney World. And, of course, it ain’t a bad town for those with a taste for gambling. 

While you could plan an entire vacation around the casinos, world-class shows, and every description of bacchanalian delights, Vegas is also home to one of America’s most exciting food scenes. For an over-the-top gourmet splurge—picture hillocks of foie gras, caviar bumps, and pours of the finest Napa Valley Cabs—with a live show, book a reservation at the Mayfair Supper Club, a restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. Across the casino from Mayfair is The Pinky Ring, a live music bar recently opened by Bruno Mars. If you get lucky, you might even catch the man himself on stage with the house band, the Hooligans. And if you crave intellectual stimulation to counterbalance the saturation of your limbic system, spend a peaceful half hour at the small but mighty Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.

Laughlin, Nevada – 288 miles

The wonders of Nevada, one of the West’s most beautiful states, extend far beyond Las Vegas. For an off-the-beaten-track take on the Silver State, drive four hours from Los Angeles to Laughlin, a city on the state’s southern tip. Founded to house workers building the Hoover Dam, an early 20th-century marvel of engineering, Laughlin exudes all the gritty charm of a Wild West outpost. 

As with most cities in Nevada, Laughlin is drenched in neon and studded with casinos, but outdoor activities promise as much exhilaration as the poker tables or roulette wheels. Grab a jet ski or kayak to ply the waters of the mighty Colorado River, or learn about the locale’s colorful history at the Colorado River Museum & Historical Society. Aquarius Hotel is a relaxed auberge overlooking the Colorado River and offers quick access to Luaghlin’s waterfront promenade. 

Phoenix, Arizona  – 350 miles

Follow the I-10 East for 5.5 hours, past the wizened sentinels of Joshua Tree National Park and the Martian landscapes of the Mojave Desert, to the bustling oasis of Phoenix. 

From the revelry of Arizona State University to awe-inspiring hikes and hot air balloon rides over the desert, Phoenix is one of the West’s most sneaky cool cities. Although several states away from the pizza bastions of the Northeast and Midwest, Phoenix is home to arguably the nation’s best pizzeria, Pizzeria Bianco. Helmed by Chris Bianco, a Brooklyn transplant to Arizona, Bianco approaches pizza craft the way a NASA engineer might design spacecraft—obsessively testing and perfecting every minute detail of dough, sauce, and cheese. What comes out of the wood-fired oven is an exemplar approaching the Platonic ideal of pizza. After feasting at Pizzeria Bianco, unwind with a digestif at Little Ritual, a celebrated craft cocktail bar. 

Charge up your camera, strap on those hiking boots, and hit the trails outside Phoenix. Within a quick drive of the city, the Wave Cave Trail takes trekkers along ridges lined with saguaro cacti and ends with expansive views of the desert horizon. Revive yourself after the hike with sunshine and cocktails at the poolside bar at Rise Uptown Hotel, a spacious hotel within walking distance of Phoenix’s hippest neighborhoods. 

Modesto, California – 311 miles

Movie buffs might recognize Modesto as the setting of American Grafitti, a bildungsroman about California teenagers in the Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Beyond its All-American charm, Modesto is a quick ride to Yosemite National Park and the non-pareil beaches of Carmel, Big Sur, and Monterey Bay. 

Surrounded by lush farm country and catching echoes of San Franciso’s culinary zest, Modesto brims with farm-to-table restaurants. For superb California cuisine—light fare emphasizing sparklingly fresh produce and vivid colors—book a table at Dewz Restaurant.  

Conveniently located in Downtown Modesto, the Doubletree by Hilton Modesto is a comfortable and affordable retreat to recharge from the road.

Johnny Motley has written for The Daily Beast, Matador Network, Cool Material, and more. He’s on Twitter @johnnymotley and Instagram @motjohnny.

Photo credits:

Carlsbad photo, main and lead images courtesy of Visit Carlsbad
Las Vegas photo courtesy of MGM Resorts International
Laughlin photo courtesy of Travel Nevada
Modesto photo courtesy of Visit Modesto
Morro Bay photo courtesy of Highway 1 Roadtrips
Paso Robles photo courtesy of Halter Ranch
Phoenix photo courtesy of Visit Phoenix
Redding photo courtesy of Visit Redding
San Luis Obispo photo courtesy of VisitSLO
Cambria photo by Johnny Motley

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