From dramatic coastline to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Death Valley, California has a range of natural beauty best discovered on a scenic driving tour. From vineyards to giant sequoias, it offers a green and pleasant oasis for any visitor.
1: Big Sur Coastal Highway
California’s Pacific Coast Highway is well known as one of the most scenic drives in the world. Hugging the coast, it rises and falls for 122 glorious miles, passing lighthouses, bays of basking seals, golden sands with surfers, and banks of pretty California poppies. The best direction to drive for views is from north to south, so you are right on the edge of the cliffs.
Highway 1 from Carmel, just south of Monterey, to Morro Bay snakes its ways across 33 bridges and countless scenic viewpoints along this Big Sur coastline. It passes some must-see highlights including Hearst Castle, Carmel, Point Lobos State Reserve and Cayucos State Park and will truly take your breath away.
2: Morro Bay Scenic Drive
This 16-mile route is particularly popular with bird spotters. Starting from the delightful Mission town of San Luis Obispo, the Los Osos Valley Road runs west through rural countryside. After 7 miles (11km) turn north on Turri Road and follow the Los Osos Creek where wading birds, wild ducks and teal abound. At the T-junction turn right on South Bay Blvd then first left into State Park Road which runs along the estuary amid flocks of shorebirds and egrets. Take a walk around the lagoon before driving on past the Museum of Natural History to Windy Cove, another birdwatcher’s paradise, before arriving at sheltered Morro Bay.
3: San Luis Obispo Wine Trail
Still in this central coastal area of California, the wine trail from San Luis Obispo is another delightful scenic drive. Leave the town heading south in Orcutt Road and drive through rolling hills and horse farms that give way to acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Stop and take wine tours and tastings as you please and enjoy a walk at Lopez Lake County Park before hitting the CA-227 north which leads back to San Luis Obispo.
4: Death Valley
In total contrast to California’s coastline, Death Valley is a challenging 130-mile drive which descends to 179 feet below sea level. This parched desert salt flat creates scorching temperatures with no reprieve, so take plenty of water and fuel for this journey. Start the drive early in the morning at Olancha, heading east on Hwy 90. Cross the Argus Mountains and enter Death Valley National Park, passing the Panamint Dunes. Climb to 6,433 feet at Arguereberry Point which has stunning views across Death Valley. Take a tour of the unique and isolated Scotty’s Castle and take a detour to the Ubehebe Crater if time permits. After Furnace Creek Visitor Centre, descend to the floor of Death Valley which is white with long-dried salts. Dante’s View offers excellent views and a place to stretch your legs before finishing the drive along Hwy 190. Las Vegas is a short drive away along Interstate 15.
5: King’s Canyon
One final Californian highlight is the 49-mile drive through California’s deepest canyon which is lined with giant sequoia (redwood trees). From Dunlap, east of Fresno, head east on CA-80 into the Sequoia National Forest where you will be dwarfed by the 200-foot high trees. Once you reach King’s Canyon, stop at signs for the General Grant tree, the third largest sequoia in the world and about 3000 years old! The road continues on with stunning viewpoints, ending at CA-198. Highlights worth stopping at are Hume Lake, Junction Overlook on the edge of a 7,891-foot (2,405m) sheer drop, Grizzly Falls and Roaring River Falls.
California is not the only place to have some spectacular scenic drives. Let us know your own particular favourite, which may be anywhere in the world.