How to Plan the Ultimate California Road Trip

Taking a road trip along the West Coast is a journey everyone should experience at least once in their lives. There’s no “right” place to begin or end; it’s all magical. If you were to drive straight through from San Diego to Sacramento, it would take about eight hours. However, we all know the best parts about a road trip is everything you get to see and experience along the way. 

You’ll have the opportunity for beach time, mountain hikes, and city exploration. As you tap into your adventurous side and start planning for time on the open road, consider what you’ll need to pack, how long you want the trip to be, and the must-see stops along the way. 

By taking the coast, the beaches are endless, which means your favorite designer swimwear and resort wear is a must-add to your packing list. Since you’re driving, it won’t matter how many bags you have. All that matters is if it will fit in your car. The basics should include: 

  • Multiple swimsuits
  • Beach sandals or flip flops
  • Sneakers (for walks and hikes)
  • Comfortable clothing for outdoor excursions
  • Cover up(s)
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen

The go-with-the-flow feeling of a road trip means you can stay low-maintenance and only pack what you’ll need and leave room for a cooler, camping equipment, or anything else that will make your road trip feel complete. The best California road trip lasts at least a week, but you can also narrow it down to a quick 48 hours and still feel like you’ve gotten a memorable experience. It all depends on where you’re starting from, what you want to see, and how much you want to do each day. 

The 48-Hour California Road Trip Itinerary

You don’t need to drive through the entire state to still feel the thrill of driving the coast. If you only have two days of drive time, the perfect place to start is in San Diego, the quintessential beach town. Begin your journey early in Ocean Beach and watch the surfers, while you enjoy a cup of coffee on the pier or sand. Afterward, curve your way around to Mission Beach and stop for ice cream and ride on the historic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. Then, cruise on up to La Jolla to say “hi” to the sea lions on the shore of the Children’s Pool. With all that San Diego has to offer, it’s apparent why it’s one of the best California beach towns.

A beautiful designer bikini from the Bia Collection will be comfortable enough to wear on the road and provide the coverage you want for your various pit stops along the way. The sea-and-sand-inspired stripes of the Chimera Bia Tube Bikini, specifically, is the perfect match for this coastal drive. With its beachy colors, soft XTRA LIFE LYCRA blend, and banded seamless style, it’s chic, breathable, and effortlessly cool. 

San Diego to Laguna Beach

Once you leave San Diego, the next stop along this shorter California road trip is Laguna Beach. This coastal town is considered a haven for artists. Visit one of the many galleries, stop by an art show or street festival, which occurs year-round, or get a sense of the architecture and design of this coastal town by walking down the main streets close to the beach. Grab your cooler and head down to one of the 30 coves and beaches that make up this idyllic town. Stretch your legs by taking a walk along the sand or take a swim or snorkel in the ocean. A few hours spent here is a good way to start the afternoon before continuing the drive up the coast.

Laguna Beach to Malibu

As your final destination, head for the Malibu shores to visit the top beaches in California. The drive along the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) is worth the road trip alone. There’s a 27-mile stretch that starts at Topanga State Beach and goes to County Line Beach with stunning views of the ocean right from the car.  Roll the windows down and breathe in the fresh, salty air to capture the unique essence of what it’s like to road trip along the coast. 

Malibu’s main water activity is surfing, but if you don’t have a board with you, hike along the beach trails at Point Dume Beach, search for wildlife in the tide pools at Big Rock, or hang out until sunset to capture California’s golden hour. In and around Malibu, there are several campgrounds if you want to sleep under the stars, but Santa Monica and Venice are both options that won’t take you all the way into L.A. if you’d prefer an actual bed at a hotel. 

When you make the return trip back down the coast, Redondo Beach, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach are places we also recommend visiting. Each of these areas offers fishing, biking, and plenty of spots for a picnic. Even with a shorter window of time and an abbreviated trip itinerary, you’ll get the road trip experience in one of the most beautiful areas in the country. 

The Week-Long California Road Trip Itinerary

A week provides more flexibility in a coast of California road trip. If you want to breeze through Southern California and spend more time exploring the Central Coast and further north, start or continue your trip from Malibu. Make your way along the PCH to Santa Barbara and indulge in the local wine or head slightly past there to Goleta State Beach. 

This beach is a prime spot to swim, surf, fish, and set up for a day spent near the water. Since it’s only 15 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, you can spend an afternoon at the beach and an evening taking a self-guided urban wine tour. Take a couple of days here to recharge your batteries and explore the beauty of the area. 

Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo

The next stop is San Luis Obispo, a rural countryside filled with quirkiness and charm. Reserve a stay at the famed Madonna Inn. Each guestroom is decorated with a different theme, such as Swiss Chalet, Mountain Cabin, and Traveler’s Yacht. It’s a historic hotel in the central part of California that’s rich in agriculture and architecture. Nearby at Morro Bay State Park, lace up your sneakers for a trail walk where you’ll see Morro Rock emerging from the waters. This formation is about 23 million years old and is made of plugs of extinct volcanoes. 

San Luis Obispo to Big Sur

After San Luis Obispo, cut inward to Hearst Castle, one of the most famous California coastline attractions. Viewing the sweeping estate and learning about the family background of this National Historic Landmark is worth a tour. Back on the coastal drive, you’ll wind around endless parks with mountain views and roadside waterfalls. This part of California is ideal for those who want to hike by day and camp by night. All of the mountains, trees, and winding roads lead up to the remarkable stretch of highway known as Big Sur. 

Big Sur to the Bay Area

Take your time along this drive because there are plenty of scenic opportunities you won’t want to miss, including the Bixby Creek Bridge. Beyond Big Sur, you’ll come across Carmel-by-the-Sea, Santa Cruz, and eventually Half Moon Bay and into the Bay Area where you can explore Sausalito, Muir Woods, and onward further north into the various parks. Versatility is the name of the packing game for a road trip with this many stops.

A classic black one piece swimsuit style like the Black Eyelet Margot or Black Elis Rosie One Piece is a minimalist, yet sophisticated, look that works as part of any outfit. It can be worn underneath a button-up shirt or as a bodysuit and paired with jeans or a skirt for land activities or paired with a sarong when on the beach. It’s a go-to swimsuit style that easily fits all occasions. 

Tips for a Successful California Coast Road Trip

In order to have the best California road trip, there are only two things you really need: a sense of adventure and flexibility. Although you may have planned stops along the way, leave some room in your road trip itinerary for spontaneity as well. You never know when your road trip may require a slight detour because of a hidden beach, road sign, or attraction that catches your eye. As you decide how many hours you want to spend driving each day, add a buffer for extra stops, too.

To get prime ocean views, the Pacific Coast Highway can’t be beaten, but if you want to make up time along your trip, hit the freeway where there are faster speed limits. Pick and choose when you want to drive directly along the coast. Malibu and Big Sur are two of the areas where you’ll definitely want a view of the Pacific, but for other parts of the drive, you may want to make up time by heading back to the multi-lane roads. 

Luckily, a road trip like this only requires light packing. Even if you’re gone for a week, there’s not much else you’ll need than a few boutique swimwear options, three or four outfits, a pair of sandals and a pair of tennis shoes. Don’t overthink your packing list because you can always pick up items along the way. Take the necessities and leave the rest at home.

Life is about exploring new adventures and seeing where the road takes you. In this case, simply follow the coastline and stop whenever and wherever speaks to you. Turn up the tunes or play your favorite podcast and get lost in the beauty of California. There’s nothing quite like what this state has to offer. All you have to do is pack your bags and go.