The Best of California in One Week

In just five days, you can experience California’s two most famous cities and its biggest natural attraction (but you’ll be doing a lot of driving). Make it a full week and you’ll have enough time for a coastal drive along Big Sur.

View of downtown San Francisco's skyline with pyramid building
View of downtown San Francisco. Photo © Lunamarina/Dreamstime

Day 1

San Francisco

Fly into San Francisco and rent a car. Spend your San Francisco day in Golden Gate Park. Indulge your artistic side at the de Young Museum or learn more about our world at the nearby California Academy of Sciences. Unwind with a walk through the park’s Japanese Tea Garden. Then make your way to the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world’s most famous photo-ops. End your day with a meal at one of the city’s culinary stars<—or grab an authentic burrito at a local taqueria, which may be just as tasty.

If You Have More Time

Extend the love affair with a side trip to wander the redwoods in Marin. Muir Woods National Monument, (note: reservations required) just north of San Francisco, is home to acres of staggeringly beautiful redwoods accessible via the paved Redwood Trail. Afterwards, fill up on British comfort food at The Pelican Inn. It’s just a short walk from the restaurant to lovely Muir Beach, perfect for wildlife-watching and beachcombing. End the day at the Farley Bar at Cavallo Point Lodge to watch the fog roll in over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Redwood trees in Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument. Photo © Dreamstime.

Day 2

San Francisco to Yosemite (200 miles, 4 hours)

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.

Day 3

Yosemite Valley

Spend a day touring around Yosemite Valley, seeing Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. If you want to break a sweat, hike the 5.4-mile round-trip Mist Trail. Spend a night under the stars at one of the park’s campgrounds or enjoy a night indoors at the classic Majestic Yosemite Hotel (just be sure to make reservations well in advance).

If You Have More Time

In summer, combine a trip to Yosemite National Park with Lake Tahoe by crossing through Yosemite via Tioga Pass Road (Hwy. 120). On the Eastern Sierra, scenic U.S. 395 leads north almost to the Nevada border, and road-trippers can take forested Highway 89 west to its junction with U.S. 50 to continue to South Lake Tahoe.

boardwalk in yosemite valley leading toward a waterfall
Yosemite Valley. Photo © Sasha Buzko/iStock.

Day 4

Yosemite Valley to Los Angeles (300 miles, 5 hours)

Exit the park via its southern entrance and drive south on Highway 41. The majority of the trip will be spent on Highway 99 south before using I-5 south, Highway 170 south, and U.S. 101 south as you get closer to the city.

If You Have More Time

Cross Highway 120 into the Eastern Sierra and head south on U.S. 395 for a side trip to Death Valley. From the Wild West town of Lone Pine, turn east onto Highway 190 for the one-hour drive to Panamint Springs, where a rustic resort has serviced hungry travelers since 1937. From Panamint Springs, it’s another hour east along Highway 190 to the aptly named park hub of Furnace Creek.

A lifeguard station on the beach next to the Santa Monica Pier.
Enjoy the beach and the amusement rides at the Santa Monica Pier. Photo © Tono Balaguer/123rf.

Day 5

Los Angeles

You’ve been to the mountains, you’ve seen the desert; now it’s time for the beach! Experience the best of Southern California beach culture at the chaotic but entertaining Venice Boardwalk or the Santa Monica Pier. If time allows, head inland a few miles to stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame and snap a pic at TCL Chinese Theatre. Of course, some people would give all of that up for a day at Disneyland (you know who you are).

If You Have More Time

Plan a day trip to Palm Springs, a 2-4 hour drive east on I-10, or follow I-5 south to explore San Diego. Stop for a surf or a swim in one of the beach towns, wander through lush Balboa Park, and dine in the Gaslamp Quarter.

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