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8 incredible California road trips

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

I was probably no more than 50 metres away from the shaggy lump skulking around the low-lying waterlogged meadow. Its sodden brown fur shimmered in the morning sun as I watched on in disbelief. Remarkably, I was tracking a black bear. My road trip from the Bay Area saw me traverse Sacramento, Yosemite National Park and the San Joaquin Valley on a loop from San Francisco. At the time, Yosemite had experienced heavier than usual snowfall for February and March, and the national park had to be evacuated. When it reopened, I was one of the first back in.

California is versatile and holds a special place in my heart. Most of my fondest US road trip memories are in the Golden State — whether it was bear spotting in Yosemite, cruising along Highway 1 blasting The Beach Boys, or eating juicy peaches at family owned roadside fruit stalls in Modesto. Driving is not often the greenest method of travel, so I offset this by eating seasonal produce, buying local and getting around by public transport. I’ll also try to stay longer in one place to avoid driving daily.

Hiring an electric car across California is the obvious tip, but look for hotels with EV points to avoid wasting daylight hours charging. California’s roads are long and often winding, and depending on the season you’re never too far away from wintry or wet conditions — especially at high elevation beauty spots. Eating seasonally is easy too. California’s weather is comparable to the Mediterranean, and it’s these conditions that make it a favourable farm-to-table destination. Cities like Sacramento and Berkeley have long been flying the flag for fresh, seasonal produce, with locally grown almonds, pistachios, mandarins and tomatoes abundant on menus year-round, reducing food mileage. So with that in mind, here’s four alternative California road trips that incorporate those sustainable practices.

Yolo County  Cooks Beach, Mendocino County (Visit California/Places We Swim (placesweswim.com or social handle @placesweswim))
Yolo County Cooks Beach, Mendocino County (Visit California/Places We Swim (placesweswim.com or social handle @placesweswim))

1. Highway 128

Start: Yolo County

End: Mendocino

Distance: 144 miles

Take it easy on this 144-mile road trip worthy of a long weekend, or more. You’ll start in Waters, among Yolo County’s bountiful wine country, and will head west towards the rugged Mendocino coastline, passing through four of California’s most fruitful states for wine, arts and outdoor recreation along the way (visit128.com).

With vineyards and tasting rooms across all four counties it certainly helps if you like wine for this one, but don’t be put off if you’re not: Sonoma County, for example, is also known for its seasonal food offering, buzzy arts scene and boutique shops, while Mendocino County adds outdoor exploration, serene beaches and vegan restaurants. If short on time, or would like someone else to do the driving for the day, consider a wine tour of Napa and Sonoma in a luxury, all-electric Tesla via Healdsburg Tours (healdsburgtours.com).

Yosemite National Park (Visit California/Carol Highsmith)
Yosemite National Park (Visit California/Carol Highsmith)

2. Bay Area to Yosemite National Park

From: San Francisco

To: Mariposa, via Yosemite National Park

Distance: 260 miles

There’s a few ways to do this one and while most will take the 580 and 120 across the Central Valley, it’s worth heading for Lake McClure in western Mariposa County for ample fishing and outdoor recreation activities. Then, take the John Muir Highway 132 directly into Yosemite National Park where it’s all about the trails, waterfalls and Valley views. After a few days exploring Yosemite, it’s then onto the historic gold rush town of Mariposa: home of the award-winning Mariposa County History Center, plus several craft breweries and independent restaurants spanning Mexican to Italian. (yosemite.com).

Yosemite offers a free bus service around the park, reducing the need to drive around — consider basing yourself somewhere like Autocamp Yosemite, near Mariposa, whose distinctive, sustainable airstream trailers are equipped with modern amenities and are great for couples and families (autocamp.com). To further your eco credentials, stop off in Berkeley on the way there or back for lunch at Chez Panisse, by chef Alice Waters, who pioneered the use of seasonal Californian produce (chezpanisse.com).

Modesto: the city of trees (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Modesto: the city of trees (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

3. Modesto Almond Blossom Cruise

From: Modesto (there and back)

Distance: 60 miles

For just four weeks from mid-February onwards, 120,000 acres of almond groves around Modesto burst into a majestic pink and white bloom. It’s here that a mammoth 80 per cent of the world’s almonds are grown, with a self-guided audio tour of this agriculturally-rich region available to download for $14.99 via visitmodesto.com. It includes local stories and tips on the best almond blooms, where to stock up on local produce, and general sightseeing advice.

You’ll stop at Rodin Farms, a family farm whose roadside fruit stand sells flavoured almonds, fruits, nuts and honey; Sciabica Olive Oil, the oldest olive oil producer in the US; and Roberts Ferry Gourmet, where no-one should pass without trying their almond butter milkshake.

Idyllwild Pine Cove road trip (Visit California/David H. Collier Photography)
Idyllwild Pine Cove road trip (Visit California/David H. Collier Photography)

4. SoCal: Mountain towns, beach camping and craft beer

From: Idyllwild-Pine Cove

To: Encinitas

Distance: 98 miles, or 248 miles

Pack a tent for this one which begins in the village of Idyllwild-Pine Cove in the San Jacinto mountains. There’s plenty of easy trails leading to sweeping vistas, like the 2.5-mile Devils Slide Trail. From here you could take a 140-mile detour to Palm Springs, passing through the otherworldly Coachella Valley towards the frankly bizarre abandoned holiday resort of Salton Sea, before heading west across the Borrego Badlands’ dramatic desert to the coniferous Palomar Mountain State Park.

To stick to the original 98-mile route, swing south from Idyllwild to stop at Elim Hot Springs, then sample local wines at one of the many vineyards surrounding Palomar. Here, a number of camp grounds welcome small groups. You’ll then swap deserts and mountains for sea air: take the 76 and 78 towards the Encinitas coast, where a craft beer scene and camping on state beaches like Moonlight or San Elijo await.

Four iconic California road trips

Highway 1

Imagine California Dreamin’ blasting out of your classic convertible and you’re almost there. Hugging the coast for 650 miles, this trip includes stop-offs in beach cities like Monterey, Santa Barbara and Santa Monica, plus the dramatic Big Sur and Bixby Bridge.

Highway 1 on the Big Sur coastline (Max Whittaker)
Highway 1 on the Big Sur coastline (Max Whittaker)

Route 66

This one needs little introduction but at an enduring 2,448 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles, it does need plenty of time. You’ll cross eight states and three time zones, so give yourself a couple of weeks to complete in full.

Highway 395

This offers everything from hot springs to mountains and deserts to skiing over a 557-mile route. Endless adventure awaits on this road trip which skirts the eastern Sierra, with Lake Tahoe, Bodie and Mt Whitney offering up highlights.

Highway 395 in Mammoth Lakes (Visit California/Bare Kiwi)
Highway 395 in Mammoth Lakes (Visit California/Bare Kiwi)

Los Angeles to Palm Springs

About 100 years ago, Hollywood bigwigs slipped a clause into actors’ contracts to ensure they were within a two-hour drive during all production. Coming in just 10 minutes shy of that radius, this is one of the most popular LA day-trips.