With urban traffic centers usually mired in gridlock, the Golden State doesn’t have a glowing reputation for the driving experience. But steer away from the daily commute, and you can find some of the country’s most scenic and challenging ribbons of blacktop to explore behind the wheel.
Here are five drives to load into your navigation system.
STATE ROUTE 139: SUSANVILLE TO THE OREGON BORDER
Head northeast out of Sacramento to sleepy Susanville and the start of State Route 139. According to GPS fleet tracking company Geotab, this is officially California’s loneliest road with fewer than 1,500 vehicles per day using the 143-mile roller coaster. Along the way, it skirts Eagle Lake and slices through Modoc National Forest before ending at the state line.
STOP: Eagle Lake to watch eagles soar.
LUNCH: Pack a picnic before you go—the road’s lonely for a reason.
STAY: Running Y Ranch Resort—in Klamath Falls, about 25 miles north of the border—boasts the Sandhill Spa and an Arnold Palmer–designed golf course.
PALMS TO PINES SCENIC BYWAY: PALM DESERT TO BANNING
Stay the night in Palm Springs to put you in the mood for this sliver of driving nirvana. Then cruise south on State Route 111 to Palm Desert and take a right on Highway 74 for an ascent into the San Jacinto Mountains, checking first for road closures. Catch your breath at Idyllwild before tackling the wild ride that’s Highway 243 to Banning. The I-10 and Highway 111 bring you back to Palm Springs.
MILES: 119 (round-trip loop).
STOP: Any of the scenic overlooks.
LUNCH: Restaurant Gastrognome in Idyllwild presents a multicultural menu in rural refinement.
STAY: L’Horizon Resort and Spa in Palm Springs has been a retreat for Hollywood’s elite since the 1950s.
SAN MARCOS PASS: SANTA BARBARA TO SOLVANG
No one needs an excuse to head to Santa Barbara. But a good one is to test your heel-and-toe talents on the heavenly ascent that’s Highway 154. This blast to the region’s wine country will definitely steal your breath as you make your way to the Santa Ynez Valley’s Danish-themed town of Solvang, made famous by the film Sideways. Once there, explore the destination’s bakeries, galleries, and tasting rooms it’s so renowned for.
MILES: 35 Stop: Lake Cachuma overlook.
LUNCH: Cold Spring Tavern, a stagecoach stop in the 1800s, remains a favorite gathering spot near the top of the pass.
STAY: The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang is a rustic-chic haven offering 50 miles of horseback-riding trails on 10,500 acres.
STATE ROUTE 120: ROAD THROUGH YOSEMITE
For more than 200 breathtaking miles, State Route 120 slices from Manteca (east of San Francisco), across the spectacular Tioga Pass—the state’s highest at almost 10,000 feet—and on through Yosemite before ending in Benton. The highlight is the 39-mile Tioga Road through the Sierra Nevadas with its seemingly endless—and thrilling—twists, turns, and dips. But first, check that it’s open.
LUNCH: The Iron Door Saloon in Groveland is billed as the oldest continuously running bar in the state, but you can always belly up for a burger if you’re driving.
STAY: The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (previously the Ahwahnee Hotel) lies in the heart of Yosemite National Park—enough said.
RIM OF THE WORLD SCENIC BYWAY: SAN BERNARDINO TO BIG BEAR LAKE
Take the Cajon Junction exit off I-15 north of San Bernardino and head west on Highway 138 to embark on this 110-mile squiggle of asphalt that spears through some of California’s best-known mountain hangouts, such as Crestline, Arrowhead, and Big Bear Lake. Topping out at around 7,000 feet, the Rim of the World Highway is at its white-knuckling finest at the section that locals, for reasons that become obvious, call the Narrows.