The Top 10 Things to Do on a Southern California Road Trip

By Ian Anderson, author of Moon Southern California Road Trips

Southern California makes for a dream road trip: From Mediterranean-inspired Santa Barbara to upscale Malibu and the left coast bastions of Santa Monica and Venice, the coastline stretches hundreds of miles past stunning beach towns where sunglasses, sun block, and flip flops represent a cherished way of life. Within a day’s drive of the coast, remote deserts beckon travelers to discover colorful wildflowers in the Anza-Borrego Desert, jumbled rocks in Joshua Tree, and a cracked asphalt that splits the badlands of Death Valley.

A month of driving isn’t enough to uncover all of these treasures, but we’ve all got to start somewhere. Whether lounging in the sand, hiking through desert canyons, or watching world-class entertainment, here are the top ten things to do and see on your road trip through Southern California.

beach in san diego california with clear blue water
San Diego beach. Photo © Jeremybjanus/

Hit the Beach: For the prototypical SoCal experience, head for the surf and sun in beach towns stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Peek Behind the Silver Screen: Hollywood offers a real-life backdrop to a century’s worth of films.

Experience Art: Urban museums like the Getty Center and found-art collections like the surreal Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum offer a broad range of beauty, from modern masterpieces to outsider art.

orange and white california wildflowers with a view of the mountains and blue skies.
California wildflowers. Photo © William Cosby

Admire Wildflowers: In spring, a “superbloom” of colorful wildflowers carpets the desert floors.

Thrill the Family: Iconic theme parks, world-famous zoos, and historic ships invite play at any age.

stretch of road leading to death valley with views of the hills
Road leading to Death Valley National Park. Photo © Stephanie Kenner/

Cruise Death Valley: The lowest point in North America is a high point for any road trip, with spectacular vistas mile after mile.

See Starry Skies: The Anza-Borrego Desert and Death Valley are both International Dark Sky Parks where nighttime skies reveal hidden nebulas and the Milky Way.

Hearst Castle on top of grassy hills as viewed from the Coast Highway
View of the Hearst Castle from the Coastal Highway. Photo © Brent Reeves/

Marvel at Hearst Castle: Built to impress, this Spanish Revival palace is filled with art treasures, but it’s the coastal view that’s priceless.

Ski the Slopes: The ski resort town of Big Bear is within a three-hour drive of L.A.’s coastal beaches, meaning you can surf and ski in the same day.

route 66 insignia on the road stretching through desert landscape
Photo © Marcorubino/

Road-Trip Along Route 66: Get your kicks cruising the remaining stretches of the historic Mother Road, where Googie architecture, old-school diners, and quirky roadside attractions make for perfect photo-ops.

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.

Recommended Travel Guides

Pin it for Later

Pin Graphic with overlaid text reading things to do on a southern CA road trip with a background picture of wildflowers.