For an epic road trip, there’s no place quite like California.
Rugged mountains, desert landscapes and the dazzling beaches make for endless camera ready imagery. This Golden State itinerary features a multitude of gems in San Francisco, a sip of Sauvignon in the Tri-Valley Wine Country, California’s Wild West of Tuolumne County, outdoor adventures in Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes, and a bonus reel in the media capital of Burbank.
San Francisco: Always Something New to Discover
Fly into San Francisco International (SFO), pick up your rental car and jump right into this California dream trip. San Francisco’s welcoming atmosphere makes it an astoundingly vibrant place, integrating diverse cultural influences from its Spanish founders to the Asian and Mexican immigrants of the 19th century to today’s ever-growing melting pot of international transplants.
Start with a visit to the Presidio, San Francisco’s largest park filled with historical landmarks and attractions. Founded by the Spanish as a military outpost in 1776, The Presidio continued to serve in this capacity for 218 years. Get your camera ready for breathtaking bay views from Inspiration Point, Immigration Point or the Golden Gate Overlook. Marvel at the oceanfront ruins of the Sutro Baths, once the world’s largest indoor swimming pool. Disney fans can see the first-known drawing of Mickey Mouse and other Walt Disney artifacts at the Walt Disney Family Museum. At the edge of the Presidio’s grounds, satisfy your appetite with New American cuisine, craft beer and cocktails at Sessions at the Presidio. For a more immersive experience, stay overnight at the Inn at the Presidio, Lodge at the Presidio or the Rob Hill Campground.
There’s plenty more to explore on Clement Street in the nearby Richmond District, where an array of shops and international restaurants represent every corner of the globe from Burma to Russia. Once you’ve had your fill of the Bay, head inland for a trip to the Tri-Valley Wine Country.
Tri-Valley: Wine Country and Local Charm
The Tri-Valley, just east of San Francisco, is known for plenty of sunshine along with a collection of cultural sites, quaint downtowns, shopping and dining. As far as Livermore Valley wine country goes, it’s California’s oldest. These scenic, rolling hills boast more than 50 wineries dating back to the 1840s. Essential vineyards to visit include – the Concannon Vineyard, a California Historical Landmark and creator of America’s first Petite Sirah; Wente Vineyards, the oldest family-run winery in the U.S and producer of the nation’s first Chardonnay; and McGrail Vineyards and Winery, known for its premium estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
Beer lovers have plenty to choose from, too. There are more than 20 craft breweries, taprooms and gastropubs on the Tri-Valley Beer Trail. Favorite stops include Shadow Puppet Brewing Company, Altamont Beer Works and BottleTaps.
With its walkable, tree-lined streets and historic storefronts, downtown Pleasanton is a welcome break from all the activity. Browse the shops for a souvenir, check out the Saturday farmers market and enjoy an al fresco Mexican meal and margarita at Blue Agave Club before heading out to your next stop, Tuolumne County.
Tuolumne: Yosemite and Gold Country to the High Sierra
Peer out the car window and watch the amazing transition from the rolling fields of the Tri-Valley region to the majestic forests and mountains of the Sierra Nevada come into view. In Groveland, one of the main gateways to Yosemite, California’s oldest saloon, the Iron Door Saloon, is still serving up drinks. Grab a cold one and check out the antique décor.
You know you’re in California’s historic Gold Rush territory when you board the train ride at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown. The park is home to a collection of authentic steam-powered trains often featured in movies and television. Follow the Walk of Fame into downtown Jamestown. Brass medallions lead the way and feature the names of all the films and shows set in Tuolumne County.
Continue on the Sonora Pass (Highway 108, closed seasonally) into the High Sierra to see the Columns of the Giants and Trail of the Gargoyles, two spectacular volcanic rock formations in the Stanislaus National Forest. All of the High Sierra’s immersive outdoor adventures is at your fingertips. Leave the car behind for biking, hiking, kayaking, camping and all sorts of winter sports. The outdoor fun continues at your next stop, Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe: Outdoor Wonder in Unsurpassed Beauty
Mountain peaks, pine forests and breathtaking views abound on your way to Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America. As a year-round destination, there are outdoor activities to spare. Check out popular Emerald Bay for hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding and picnicking on the lake beaches. Easily navigate your way to Vikingsholm Trailhead for a short hike to Vikingsholm Castle. This Scandinavian-styled home is considered one of the finest of its type in the United States. Its enviable position on the lake gives way to outstanding views of Emerald Bay. Seasonal tours are available. Hit the shops and treat yourself to lunch in Heavenly Village in South Lake Tahoe. Save some time for the Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive, a picturesque, 116-kilometer auto tour around the perimeter of the lake. The drive can be done in about half a day and promises many photo ops along the way.
Don’t be surprised if you opt to stay a night or two since there’s so much to see and experience. Accommodations in South Lake Tahoe range from cozy mountain cabins and lodges to hotels and resorts, all with vacation-worthy activities: horseback riding, direct beach access, lake cruises and water sports, plus skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling in the winter. If you haven’t had your fill of mountain adventures, not to worry – Mammoth Lakes is your next stop.
Mammoth Lakes: Big Adventure in the Mountains
You haven’t left the beauty of Yosemite yet as you travel south to Mammoth Lakes, a California favorite destination. It’s perfectly situated to explore Yosemite as well as Death Valley National Park, the ghost town of Bodie, eerie tufa towers at Mono Lake, fascinating basalt columns at Devils Postpile National Monument and so much more.
Outdoor adventures are plentiful in Mammoth. Enjoy kayaking, boating, paddle boarding and year-round fishing. Don’t miss the scenic gondola ride to the 3,371-meter peak of Mammoth Mountain. There’s a restaurant at the top with 360-degree views. During the winter, it’s a skier’s and snowboarder’s paradise with trails for all levels on legendary Mammoth Mountain. Summer is prime time for mountain biking on 129 kilometers of trails at Mammoth Mountain Bike Park. In the fall, ride the free Lakes Basin Trolley to catch the intense fall colors covering the mountain sides. You’ll want to plan for more than a day here before heading to Burbank in sunny Southern California.
Bonus Leg: Burbank and Southern California
What trip to California would be complete without exploring the “Media Capital of the World”? Drive southwest into Burbank, located just minutes from Hollywood in Los Angeles County. Numerous media giants are located here, such as the Walt Disney Company, Warner Bros., Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, as well as nearly 1,000 other production studios. Make time to catch a live TV show taping or take a behind-the-scenes studio tour.
Discover a different side of Burbank in the city’s distinctive neighborhoods: amazing retro and boutique shopping in Magnolia Park, the famous West Coast Customs celebrity auto shop in the Airport District, up-and-coming foodie hot spots in the Media District, and entertainment and theater in Downtown Burbank, just for starters. Fans of offbeat landmarks can take a selfie with the statue at the oldest Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, snap a photo in front of the iconic Warner Bros. water tower and reserve a table (and maybe spot a celebrity) at the historic SmokeHouse Restaurant.
Burbank is 10 minutes away from must-see attractions such as Universal Studios Hollywood, the Hollywood Bowl and the world-famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. Once you’ve had your fill of Southern California excitement, return home via Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), just an hour away, or the Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR), which offers non-stop flights to major cities throughout the USA.