5 Scenic Southern California Road Trip Ideas

Exploring Southern California often requires lots of time on humdrum freeways with little windshield appeal. However, plenty of scenic side trips can make the hours spent behind the wheel some of the best parts of your journey. Here are 5 road trip ideas for your SoCal adventure.

Looking for maps to plan your trip? We’ve got you covered.


frothy ocean water against rocky coastline
Leo Carillo Beach in Malibu. Photo © Ken Wolter/123rf.

On its own, the 27 miles of gorgeous Malibu coastline makes this stretch of CA-1 one of the top drives in Southern California. Factor in side trips up lush canyons into the pretty Santa Monica Mountains, and you’ll do well. Set aside at least 2-3 hours of drive time during any Malibu sojourn.

Palos Verdes

lighthouse on a cliff on the california coast
Point Vicente Lighthouse in Palos Verdes. Photo © Peieq/Dreasmtime.

By adding only 20 minutes of drive time along CA-1 between Long Beach and Redondo Beach, you’ll enjoy stunning coastal views including seaside bluffs, the Point Vicente Lighthouse, and both the Catalina and Channel Islands on the horizon.

Big Bear

pullout along a road that overlooks the mountains
Skyforest, CA. Photo © Bon Koo/Dreamstime.

This side trip treats travelers to the scenic Rim of the World Scenic Byway, carved into the San Bernardino Mountains. The slopes are often so steep that views can stretch 180-degrees from top to bottom as well as left to right. Time your trip for sunset, when the colorful, breathtaking vistas are their best around Skyforest.

Death Valley National Park

road through desert in Death Valley
Badwater Basin Road in Death Valley. Photo © Anna Dudko/Dreamstime.

Ripe with badlands hikes and scenic viewpoints, Death Valley’s striking scenery will keep your jaw dropped as you cruise the long miles within the huge park. The wide, flat valley along Badwater Basin Road is ringed by jagged mountain peaks.

Pacific Coast Highway

giant rocky land formation reflected in water
Morro Rock. Photo © Sandra Foyt/Dreamstime.

The prettiest stretch of coastal CA-1 begins north of San Luis Obispo and runs along the central coast to San Simeon, passing monolithic Morro Rock and continuing toward the beaches and coastal bluffs below Hearst Castle.

Ian Anderson

About the Author

Born in Oregon and based in California, Ian Anderson has been road-tripping up and down the west coast since before he could see over the steering wheel. Over the past two decades, he’s lived in Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, logging more than ten thousand miles on coastal highways, mostly looking for great food, beautiful beaches, and fun surf.

Ian is currently based in San Diego, covering “America’s Finest City” as a reporter, beer writer, and restaurant critic for the San Diego Reader. He’s written for websites, magazines, and books on topics ranging from music to preserving the environment, but for the most part, Ian’s expertise matches his interests-chief among them exploring sights, sounds, and flavors of the west coast-and bringing these experiences to life for readers.

Learn more about this author

Pin it for Later

southern california scenic road trip ideas pinterest graphic