Moon California Road Trip

San Francisco, Yosemite, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Los Angeles & the Pacific Coast


By Stuart Thornton

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Colorful cable cars, sunny beaches, seaside havens, and thundering waterfalls: Buckle up for the best of the Golden State with Moon California Road Trip. Inside you'll find:
  • Flexible Itineraries: Drive the entire "Best of the West" loop, mix and match destinations for shorter road trips, or follow strategic itineraries for spending time in San Francisco, Yosemite, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, and smaller towns along the Pacific Coast Highway
  • Eat, Sleep, Stop and Explore: Experience California and the Southwest your way with lists of the best hikes, views, restaurants, and more. Conquer Half Dome, stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge, venture into the depths of the Grand Canyon, or snap a picture on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Step back in time at Alcatraz, tour the opulent rooms of Hearst Castle, or marvel at the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Satisfy your cravings with an authentic Mission burrito, be dazzled by an over-the-top Las Vegas show, or enjoy a technicolor sunset from a rooftop bar in Los Angeles
  • Maps and Driving Tools: Over 40 easy-to-use maps keep you oriented on and off the highway, along with site-to-site mileage, driving times, and detailed directions for the entire route
  • Local Insight: Surfer and adventurer Stuart Thornton shares his passion for the state's best secluded beaches, quirky pit stops, and mountaintop vistas
  • Planning Your Trip: Know when and where to get gas, how to avoid traffic, tips for driving in different road and weather conditions, and suggestions for international visitors, LGBTQ+ travelers, seniors, and road trippers with kids
  • Helpful resources on Covid-19 and traveling in California
With Moon California Road Trip's practical tips, detailed itineraries, and local expertise, you're ready to fill up the tank and hit the road.
Doing more than driving through? Check out Moon Los Angeles, Moon Grand Canyon or Moon Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon.

About Moon Travel Guides: Moon was founded in 1973 to empower independent, active, and conscious travel. We prioritize local businesses, outdoor recreation, and traveling strategically and sustainably. Moon Travel Guides are written by local, expert authors with great stories to tell—and they can't wait to share their favorite places with you.

For more inspiration, follow @moonguides on social media.


DISCOVER the California Road Trip




Best Views

Best Hikes

Stretch Your Legs

San Francisco, Yosemite, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon. Each is like no other place on earth. You can experience all of them in a 14-day road trip, with each stop roughly a day’s drive from the next. You’ll drive through a landscape that encompasses the best of the American West: modern skyscrapers and sandy beaches, granite peaks and towering trees, flat deserts and steep-sided canyons.

It’s a landscape filled with overwhelming natural beauty and wide-open space. In Yosemite, waterfalls feather down faces of granite. At the Grand Canyon, layers of colorful geologic history travel back in time millions of years. Along the Pacific Coast, cliff sides tumble dramatically into the ocean.

This is nature at its most primal, but it’s just a few hours away from the cosmopolitan pleasures of America’s most distinctive cities. Whether it’s the sunlight shimmering on the Golden Gate Bridge or the stripes of the rainbow flag, San Francisco is as proud of its colorful character as it is of its reputation as a culinary capital. Sprawling Los Angeles is a source of both world-class culture and amusement park fun. Las Vegas feels more like a mirage than a city, with its neon flashing against the otherwise dark desert sky.

Choose your own pace. Let your interests determine your routes and itineraries. Ride a cable car or hike to Half Dome. Stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame or explore the Magic Kingdom. Descend deep into the Grand Canyon or dance until dawn in Sin City. Or just lie on the beach and soak up the sun. No matter who you are or what you’re into, this road trip is for you.


1 Wander and Wonder at San Francisco: Experience this unique city by exploring its hilly streets, world-class museums, and iconic sights.

2 Spend Time in the Surf and Sand: No California road trip would be complete without a classic beach experience. You’ll find some of the best stretches of sand in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

3 Hike in Yosemite National Park: Follow trails to epic views of granite rock formations and waterfalls in Yosemite Valley or wander amid alpine meadows and lakes in Tuolumne Meadows.

4 Feast on California Cuisine: With a range of flavors as varied as its landscape, the state abounds in culinary delights, especially in the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

5 Visit Larger-Than-Life Los Angeles: The biggest city on the West Coast is a world-class destination known for its Hollywood glamour, coastal enclaves, and hip downtown.

6 See the Grand Canyon from Above and Below: Views from the Rim Trail are stunning, while a hike down into the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail provides a deeper understanding of this natural wonder.

7 Enjoy the High Life in Las Vegas: Stroll the Strip and explore the city’s casinos. Then take in views of the neon skyline from the top of the High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel.

8 Slow Down Along the Central Coast: Relax in Big Sur, explore Monterey and its famous aquarium, and stop in the hip surf town of Santa Cruz.

9 Taste World-Class Wines: California is known for its fine wines, so treat yourself to some samplings in Napa, Santa Barbara, and Carmel.

10 Drive the Pacific Coast Highway: The stretch of CA-1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles showcases some of the state’s best scenery, including redwoods and vast ocean views, along with small towns and big attractions.


Where to Go
San Francisco

Located on a hilly peninsula between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Add in a renowned food scene, world-class museums, a healthy arts culture, and iconic attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz for a mandatory stop on any serious road trip.


Wander amid sequoia groves, granite peaks, and mountain lakes. See national treasures like Half Dome and El Capitan. Yosemite National Park showcases the stunning Sierra Nevada at its rugged best.

Las Vegas

Rising out of the desert like a high-tech oasis, Las Vegas is an adult playground of casinos, bars, over-the-top shows, and plush hotels. Dig a little deeper to find fine food, a flourishing arts scene, and local hangouts in the shadows of the Strip.

The Grand Canyon

A mile-deep slice into the Kaibab Plateau, the Grand Canyon defies easy description. Stare in awe at the colorful layers from the canyon’s edge—or descend deep into the canyon to meet its creator: the mighty Colorado River.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a massive mix of Southern California beach town, Hollywood dream factory, and 21st-century metropolis. Unmissable attractions include world-class art, a beach scene that begs for some time in the sand and surf, and an amusement park devoted to a cartoon mouse.

Pacific Coast Highway

Stunning coastal views will fill your windshield as you drive along the stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway that connects Los Angeles and San Francisco. The winding roadway hits its peak passing through the mountains of Big Sur, dramatically perched above the ocean. Seaside sights include Hearst Castle, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Know Before You Go
High Season

The West’s best feature is its all-season appeal. That said, this trip is best in the summer and early fall, when CA-120 through Yosemite will most likely be open, although Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon will be quite warm. It’s possible to bypass CA-120 in the winter and spring by taking a different route, but it will add hours and miles to the trip. Be aware that summer brings the most visitors, which will not only add to the crowds at attractions along the way, but also add to the traffic on the highways. Plan a little extra time to get from place to place. Note that late summer-early fall is also wildfire season, during which access to affected areas can be impeded and air quality impacted.

The easiest places to fly into are San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. If you’re flying into San Francisco, you can avoid some of the hassle of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) by flying into nearby Oakland or San Jose. Similarly, Los Angeles offers several suburban airports, including Burbank, Long Beach, and Ontario, which are typically less congested than Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). For more details.

Advance Reservations

Book hotels and rental cars in advance for the best rates and availability, especially in the summer, which is high season for travel. If you plan to rent a car in one city and return it in another (for example, rent the car in San Francisco and return it in Los Angeles), you should expect to pay an additional fee, which can be quite high.

High-season travelers should also plan ahead for the big-name attractions. If you have your heart set on visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco or the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, purchase tickets at least two weeks in advance. You’ll save money buying advance tickets for Disneyland online as well. Reservations are essential at campgrounds in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and along Big Sur. If you plan to stay at The Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite or dine in its restaurant, make reservations as far in advance as possible.

What to Pack

Bring layered clothing. Expect desert heat in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in the summer, but also be prepared for cooler temperatures. Summer fog is likely along the California coast, and is pretty much guaranteed in San Francisco, making the air damp and chilly. No matter what, use sunscreen; that cold fog doesn’t stop the rays from burning unwary beachcombers.

top of Nevada Fall from Yosemite’s Mist Trail

an L.A. beach in summer

the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur

Coming to the United States from abroad? You’ll need your passport and possibly a visa.

Driving Tips

Both San Francisco and especially Los Angeles suffer from serious traffic congestion. Avoid driving in or through San Francisco during rush hour traffic, typically weekdays 7am-9am and 4pm-6pm, though serious congestion can occur at other times. In Los Angeles, rush hour can stretch all the way from 5am-10am and 3pm-7pm. Of course, special events can create traffic jams in both cities on weekends. To view current traffic conditions in the San Francisco Bay Area, visit For Los Angeles, go to for a city map showing current traffic information. Though not as notorious as San Francisco or Los Angeles, Las Vegas has its own traffic problems, especially on Thursday and Friday evenings. The Nevada Department of Transportation ( has information on current road conditions.

Because it’s located in the high-altitude Sierra Nevada, access to Yosemite is dependent on the weather and the seasons. Two of the most traveled roads in the park, Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road, are typically closed November-early June. In recent years, forest fires have occurred in the park and surrounding areas, limiting access in the summer and fall as well. Check for road conditions and closures online at

Wildfires and landslides can also impede a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, especially through Big Sur. Visit the Caltrans website ( for highway conditions throughout California.

Expect high summer temperatures on the drive between Yosemite and Las Vegas, especially if you take the route through Death Valley, where blazing hot temperatures of 120°F (49°C) or more can occur. Heat can also be a problem on the routes to and from the Grand Canyon. Make sure your car has sufficient engine coolant and working air-conditioning, and take along plenty of drinking water. You may also encounter thunderstorms in this area July-mid-September, which can lead to road flooding. Contact the Nevada Department of Transportation ( and Arizona Department of Transportation ( for each state’s road conditions.

Cell phone reception is limited or nonexistent in large sections of Yosemite, along the desert route to and from Las Vegas, and along the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur.


The 14-Day Best of the West

You can hit the top destinations in 14 days by driving in a rough loop. The day-by-day route below begins in San Francisco, but you can just as easily start in Los Angeles or Las Vegas if that works better for you. For detailed driving directions for each leg of this road trip, see Getting There at the beginning of each chapter. All mileage and driving times are approximate.

Days 1-2

It’s easy to fill two days with fun in San Francisco. On the first day, visit the foodie-friendly Ferry Building, then walk 1.5 miles (2.4 km) down the Embarcadero to the ferry that will take you out to Alcatraz. For dinner, indulge in Vietnamese fare at The Slanted Door or find old-school elegance at the Tadich Grill.

On your second day, head west to Golden Gate Park, where you can explore the art of the de Young Museum or the animals at the California Academy of Sciences. Visit the Japanese Tea Garden for tea and a snack before leaving the park. Spend the afternoon at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before dining at its touted on-site restaurant In Situ.

Rest your head at the tech-savvy Hotel Zetta, homey Golden Gate Hotel, or Hotel G with its three dining and drinking establishments. For more suggestions on how to spend your time in San Francisco.

Day 3
200 mi / 320 km / 5 hrs

Grab a coffee from Blue Bottle Café to wake up for the drive to Yosemite. Leave San Francisco at 8am to reach Yosemite by noon. The drive to the Big Oak Flat entrance takes at least four hours; however, traffic, especially in summer and on weekends, can make it much longer.

Days 4-5

Explore Yosemite Valley and gawk at iconic attractions like Half Dome and El Capitan. Hit the Mist Trail, the park’s most popular day hike. Make reservations ahead of time to spend the night in the comfort of The Ahwahnee hotel or in the mountain air at the park’s Tuolumne Meadows Campground, which is only open in the summer. On the second day, plan a hike to Tuolumne Meadows or head to the more remote, less-visited Hetch Hetchy region, where worthwhile hikes include the Wapama Falls Trail.

Day 6
355 mi / 575 km / 5.75 hrs

You have a long drive ahead of you, so fuel up with a stop at the Whoa Nellie Deli just east of the park’s Tioga Pass entrance or at the Silver Lake Resort Café on the June Lake Loop.

For most of the year, the best route is via Tioga Pass (if you’re traveling in winter or spring, check to make sure that it’s open before heading out). It’s most direct to drive through Nevada. Follow CA-120 East to US-6 in Benton. Take US-6 East to Coaldale, where it shares the road with US-95 South to Tonopah, which makes a good stopover. It’s then a 210-mile (340-km) straight shot on US-95 South to Vegas. In total, the 355-mile (575-km) drive to Las Vegas takes 5.75 hours.

the Grand Canyon from the South Rim

Yosemite National Park

San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square

The California route is more scenic and only about 10 miles (16.1 km) longer, traversing Mammoth Lakes and Bishop. Take CA-120 East to US-395 South. East of Lone Pine, follow CA-136, which becomes CA-190 and winds through Death Valley. A left turn onto Scotty’s Castle Road and soon after a right onto Daylight Pass Road leads to the Nevada border and NV-374 just before Beatty, which makes a good place to stop. From Beatty, US-95 leads southeast to Las Vegas.

Day 7

The glitz of the Las Vegas Strip makes it a surreal stopover between the natural wonders of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Stroll the Strip and explore the whole worlds inside casinos like Caesars Palace and the Bellagio. Watch the sun set from the 550-foot-tall (168-m) High Roller observation wheel and then get an upscale fried chicken dinner at Yardbird at The Venetian. Pick a hotel based on your taste and budget; The Linq and Aria are good bets. For more suggestions on how to spend your time in Las Vegas.

Day 8
280 mi / 450 km / 5 hrs

The 280-mile (450-km) drive to the Grand Canyon takes about five hours. Head south on I-11 to US-93, then stop over in Kingman, Arizona. Then take I-40 East to Williams (115 mi/185 km) and overnight at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.

Day 9

Enjoy a break from your car by taking the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams to Grand Canyon National Park. Enjoy the views from the Rim Trail or descend into the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail. Get an appetizer or a drink at the historic El Tovar hotel before taking the train back to Williams. For dinner, indulge in a prime cut of meat from Rod’s Steak House.

Day 10
500 mi / 805 km / 8 hrs

After a good night’s sleep, head out for Los Angeles. The roughly 500-mile (805-km) drive to Los Angeles takes 7-8 hours. Take I-40 West to Barstow. From Barstow, take I-15 South, then take I-10 West into the heart of L.A. Be prepared to slow down when you hit the L.A. traffic, which may extend your driving time exponentially.

Days 11-12

After appreciating the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon, it’s time to appreciate the achievements of civilization in Los Angeles. On your first day, see the Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center or view the artistic masterpieces at The Getty Center. For a night in the heart of downtown, stay at the Ace Hotel and enjoy dinner at its downstairs restaurant, Best Girl, or head to nearby Koreatown and get some table-grilled Korean barbecue at Quarters.

On your second day, give your mind a rest and hit the beach. Choose the Santa Monica Pier for its beachside amusement park, Venice Beach for its lively boardwalk, or Malibu for its famous surf. For dinner, plan on fresh seafood at Neptune’s Net, then sleep by the sea at the Hotel Erwin in Venice Beach. Kids (and kids at heart) might prefer a full day and night at the Disneyland Resort. For more suggestions on how to spend your time in Los Angeles.

Days 13-14
500 mi / 805 km / 8 hrs

This scenic route runs almost 500 miles (805 km) and can easily take 8 hours to drive. While it’s possible to make the drive in one long day, this is one stretch that you won’t want to rush. Planning on two days allows you to take in some of the many fine attractions along the way. Alternate between US-101 North and CA-1 (which are sometimes the same road) depending upon where you want to stop and linger. For a quicker drive, take the inland route I-5, which is just around 380 miles (610 km) and takes about six hours—but you’ll miss the most scenic sections of the California coast.

view of the Colorado River

wild calla lilies in Big Sur

Monterey Bay Aquarium


The most difficult part of this journey along PCH is deciding which of its many fine attractions deserve a stop. On the first day, soak up surf culture in Ventura or experience fine living in Santa Barbara, known for its beaches—it’s been dubbed the American Riviera—and Spanish colonial revival architecture. San Luis Obispo is around the midway point and makes a good place to spend the night. On the second day, choose between Hearst Castle in San Simeon, the scenic coastal drive through Big Sur, Monterey—with its world-class aquarium—or bohemian surf town Santa Cruz


On Sale
Jun 29, 2021
Page Count
448 pages
Moon Travel

Stuart Thornton

About the Author

Stuart Thornton fell in love with California while working the Big Sur Ranger Station after college. At work, he provided visitors with all sorts of information about the region, from the best places to camp to the best meal in the area. On his days off, he took his own advice and regularly sought out the top spots for hiking, backpacking, surfing, and snorkeling along that striking coastal region.
Stuart later moved to nearby Monterey to become a staff writer for the Monterey County Weekly, where he is still a contributor. He is the proud author of Moon Coastal California, Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast, and Moon California Road Trips. In addition, Stuart has contributed to National Geographic Education, and Relix Magazine.
Stuart spends his time off searching for the next secluded beach, uncrowded wave, or mountaintop vista. Learn more about his adventures and projects by visiting
Kayla Anderson is a freelance writer based in Northern California. She grew up in Redding, received a journalism degree from California State University-Chico, and now lives in North Lake Tahoe. For the last 10 years, she has been writing press kits for ski resorts and golf courses as well as articles about businesses, people, and places in Lake Tahoe and Northern California.
Currently, she contributes to Enjoy Northern California Living magazine, Tahoe Weekly, the Sparks Tribune, and the Nevada Travel Network. She continues to be impressed by what she discovers in Redding, Humboldt County, Yosemite, Sacramento, and the lesser-known places like Weaverville and Mono Lake. You can find her work at

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