With one week in California, it takes careful planning to fit in the many attractions that the Golden State has to offer. From famous Highway 1 with its scenic views of the Pacific to the sheer cliffs of Yosemite National Park, California's open roads form the perfect canvass for unforgettable road trips. Beyond these highlights, there are many lesser-known attractions that are equally worthwhile and largely undiscovered by the masses. Discover boiling mud pots in Lassen Volcanic National Park, go sea kayaking off the Channel Islands, or see the tufa towers of Mono Lake. History and culture play a role in each itinerary as well, from hearing stories of the Gold Rush in Old Sacramento to sampling exquisite varietals in the Napa and Paso Robles wine regions. Below are five itineraries that showcase the best seven-day long road trips in California.
  Trip Style Activity Level Crowd Factor Total Driving
Central California Road Trip: Monterey Peninsula to the Channel Islands Beach, Nature, Small Towns Moderate High 750 miles
Northern Coast and Wine Country Road Trip Beach, Nature, Small Towns & Biking Low - Moderate Moderate 375 miles
Volcanoes, Lakes, Waterfalls & Wine in Northern California Hiking, Nature & Outdoors High Low 750 miles
Gold Country, Whitewater Rafting, & Lake Tahoe Hiking, History, Nature & Outdoors High High 450 miles
Grand Tour of the Sierra Nevada Hiking, Nature & Outdoors High Moderate 1,025 miles

Itinerary #1: Central California Road Trip: Monterey Peninsula to the Channel Islands

This stunning loop takes you south from San Francisco down the California coastline, then back north through beautiful vineyards and wineries. Soak in glistening ocean views, enjoy laidback coastal towns, and spot wildlife as you drive the coast from the Monterey Peninsula to Santa Barbara and kayak offshore at Channel Islands National Park. Then, circle back toward San Francisco through the award-winning wine region of Paso Robles. Bike alongside picturesque coves, looking out for sea otters, in Monterey and Pacific Grove. Get up close to the gorgeous coastal views of Big Sur, hiking to iconic McWay Falls. Visit Hearst Castle and learn its storied history, and experience the sun-drenched charm of Santa Barbara and the Danish-style architecture and atmosphere of Solvang

As you begin your journey back north, you'll venture inland as you taste many notable local wines in Los Olivos and Paso Robles, savoring both the varietals and the atmosphere of world-class wineries and tasting rooms. Get the details here.

Recommended duration: 7 days

Total driving: about 750 miles

McWay Falls
McWay Falls in Big Sur

Itinerary #2: Northern California Coast and Wine Country Road Trip

Driving north from San Francisco on this week-long getaway, you'll meander along some of the country's most stunning seaside routes before heading inland to the Napa Valley wine region. With glittering sea, dramatic cliffs, and enticing coves greeting you around the road's every curve, the less-frequented stretch of coastline from Bodega Bay to Mendocino will melt away your stresses and evoke another, less hurried era.

Just in case these coastal vibes and unique beach towns aren't enough to relax you, your roundabout journey home will take you through the Anderson Valley wine region and the world-famous Napa Valley. There, you will find true indulgence, dipping in natural hot springs and partaking in incomparable wine experiences. Throughout this journey, whether marveling at the views from Point Arena Lighthouse, walking along the sparkling shore of Glass Beach, eating the freshest seafood in Bodega Bay, floating through the secret grottoes of sea caves in Van Damme State Park, or exhaling over a glass of award-winning pinot at Navarro Vineyards and Winery, you will be creating unforgettable memories of a very special region. 

You'll finish out your trip with a hot-air balloon ride over Calistoga and the surrounding wine country, gaining a breathtaking birds-eye view of places we know you'll want to visit again and again. Learn more here.

Recommended duration: 7 days

Total driving: about 375 miles

Mendocino Headlands
Mendocino Headlands

Itinerary #3: Volcanoes, Lakes, Waterfalls & Wine in Northern California

This trip will take you from San Francisco to far Northern California's jaw-dropping natural wonders, with some history and world-class wine tasting sprinkled en route. You'll travel from San Francisco to the Lake Shasta region, stopping in Old Sacramento on the way to soak up some fascinating Gold Rush-era history. Once you make your way up north, you'll be on the launchpad to a region full of epic natural wonders. Explore these amazing places up close: paddle through the brilliant blue waters of Lake Shasta, float by the stalactites and stalagmites of Lake Shasta Caverns, and discover waterfalls and stunning views on little-known Mount Shasta trails and along the road to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Once you reach Lassen, you'll discover geological wonders from lava tubes to cinder cones to boiling mud pots- a truly unforgettable and unique experience!

If all that geothermal activity was enough to raise your blood pressure, bring it way down on the drive home with a visit to the world-famous Napa Valley, and contemplate your journey over a few glasses of great wine in an exquisite atmosphere. Discover more here.

Recommended duration: 7 days

Total driving: about 750 miles 

Crater of Cinder Cone
Crater of Cinder Cone (photo courtesy of @yenyifu)

Itinerary #4: Gold Country, Whitewater Rafting, & Lake Tahoe

This family-friendly itinerary will take you through some of Northern California's most compelling and beautiful sights in an action-packed whirlwind week of rafting, hiking, and kayaking, coupled with fascinating historical tours. This route allows you to develop a deep understanding of the region's backstory, enhancing the experience of its (many) present-day natural wonders.

You'll visit Old Sacramento and learn its storied past, see artifacts from the Gold Rush, and try your own luck panning for gold on the American River. Armed with the knowledge of an earlier era, you'll make your own modern adventures in this northern California playground! Get your adrenaline pumping as you whitewater raft the rapids of the South Fork of the American River, and breathe deeply as you peacefully float down the more serene Truckee River. Take in the breathtaking views of Donner Peak and Mount Judah as you hike amidst alpine lakes and wildflowers (or the more austere snowy landscapes of earlier in the year). Explore the compelling and charming small towns of Truckee and Tahoe City. Kayak the gorgeous waters of Lake Tahoe at Sand Harbor State Park before taking in one of its singularly breathtaking sunsets against a backdrop of lake and mountains. Enjoy local culture with summer performances by the lake- you'll return home telling your own stories about this fascinating region. Learn more here.

Recommended duration: 6 days

Total driving: about 450 miles

Rafting on the American River
Whitewater Rafting on the American River (photo courtesy of @yenyifu)

Itinerary #5: Grand Tour of the Sierra Nevada

With this active itinerary, you will experience the best of the (truly exceptional) Sierra Nevada mountain range, visiting some of the most popular and iconic areas, as well as less-frequented gems found on both sides of the Sierras. With stops in three national parks, many unique alpine lake regions, and other geological wonders along the way, you will have incredible photo opportunities at every turn.

Hike less well-known trails of Yosemite Valley and be awed by its majestic waterfalls, domes, and cliff faces rising into the sky. Float in "California's Dead Sea," Mono Lake, and admire its curious tufa towers. Discover the geological marvels of Devil's Postpile, the Earthquake Fault, and Obsidian Dome in the Mammoth Lakes region and learn how they came to be. See how you measure up against the giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park. Finish out your trip with a horseback ride through King's Canyon National Park, marveling at volcanic lakes and waterfalls from this unique vantage point. You'll arrive home the best kind of tired, full of wonderful memories and stories to tell. Get started here.

Recommended duration: 9 days

Total driving: about 1,025 miles

Summit of Moro Rock
Summit of Moro Rock (photo courtesy of National Park Service)

More California Trips

Looking for other ways to explore the best of California? Check out some of these top California itineraries:


Map of 1 Week in Northern California - 5 Unique Road Trip Itinerary Ideas
Map of 1 Week in Northern California - 5 Unique Road Trip Itinerary Ideas