The California road trip dubbed the “Natural Wonders” trip starts at the sea in Santa Cruz and brings you high into the Sierra Nevada’s – the tallest mountain range in the lower 48 states.
Along the way, you’ll find everything from sea otters to Sequoias, with lots of interesting and a few quirky stops along the way.
California Road Trip Map
The starting point for this road trip through California is the seaside town of Santa Cruz. There are a lot of things to do in Santa Cruz.
You could choose to spend a night or two during your road trip, or just hit the highlights as you’re passing through – but we think it deserves at least a night of your trip. Here what you need to see in Santa Cruz.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Sitting on the northern coastline of Santa Cruz is a state park where the centerpieces are rock formations in the sea with near-perfect archways carved into them by the forces of nature.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
No road trip in Santa Cruz would be complete without a stop at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This festive amusement park is set right on the beach, complete with rides, fair food, and even a rollercoaster.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Just outside Santa Cruz is a peaceful retreat from the city filled with Giant Redwood Trees. This is just a warm-up for all of the big trees on this road trip, but definitely worth a stop while in Santa Cruz.
Surf History Museum
Perched on the cliffs overlooking one of the best surf breaks in the area is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Whether you surf or not this small museum has photos and surfing paraphernalia dating back over 100 years that makes it a must-visit.
Santa Cruz Famer’s Market
If you happen to be in town on a Wednesday, make sure to check out the farmer’s market filled with local produce, flowers, and tasty snacks. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon and support the local farmers and craftspeople.
Stay tuned for our complete list of things to do in Santa Cruz!
Capitola (Day Stop or 1 Night)
One of the most wonderfully random spots we’ve stopped at on our many California road trips is the small beachside town of Capitola. Until this trip, we hadn’t even heard of it, but it’s now a must stop for us when in the area.
One of the highlights of Capitola are the brightly colored lowrise condos set right on the sand. You can even stay in one of these pastel beauties since most of them are available for vacation rentals.
Even if you’re only passing through, the Capitola Venetians are worth stopping for a photo with the calm waterway in front, making a picture-perfect setting.
Another great spot for pictures is the wharf located just up the beach from the Venetians. This old wooden wharf has a charm that most modern things just don’t possess. Snap some pictures both above and below the wharf stretching out into the Pacific.
Before leaving town, make a stop at Gayle’s Bakery to fuel up for the next leg of your road trip. Make sure to grab a ticket as you walk in the door, so you look like a local who’s been here before. Then you can order from the extensive bakery and large selection of hot dishes – oh, and don’t forget a coffee for the road.
Sea Cliff State Beach
When looking at a map, you might think this beach would be the same as any other beach found in the Monterey Bay, like Sunset State Beach or the many others.
However, what makes this beach worth a stop is the SS Palo Alto ship sunk at the end of the pier. Where you are into maritime history or not, a trip down the wharf makes for an interesting little stop.
Sunset State Beach
Continuing along the coastline, you’ll stumble upon this nice stretch of sand. If your road trip allows you should really find your way here for sunset. Which as its name suggests, are pretty spectacular. If not, take your baked goods from Gayle’s to go and have a little picnic on the sand.
After your time at Sunset State Beach, you’ll have to wave goodbye to the sea because, after this stop, we are making a sharp turn inland to explore three of California’s National Parks.
Pinnacles National Park
The first of three National Parks on this road trip through California is Pinnacles, the state’s newest park given National Park status in 2013.
While hikers and climbers could spend days or even weeks in this natural refuge. However, you can cover many highlights in a short day visit, as we did on our last trip to the region. If you only have a few hours to spare while on a road trip, this is how you should spend it in Pinnacles National Park.
Bear Gulch Cave
Climb your way into the large cave (but don’t worry, there are no bears in Pinnacles National Park). Inside you’ll find tall caves with overhung rocks with gaps that let light pour into portions of the cave. There are a few tight squeezes to navigate, but it’s definitely worth the hike.
Tip: Bring a flashlight while you can probably get away with just the flashlight on your phone, a real flashlight makes it a little easier to see in this cave system.
Between the Bear Gultch Cave and the Reservoir is another geological wonder called hanging rock. Stuck between two tall canyon walls is a massive boulder, suspended directly above the trail.
The midway point of the loop trail that brings you through the caves is the large reservoir located up in the hills above the Bear Gultch Cave. If you hike here when the breeze is calm, you’ll find a near-perfect reflection on the water of the surrounding craggy hills and rocks.
Kings Canyon National Park (1-2 Nights)
General Grant Tree
Located just inside the park gates is the monstrous General Grant Tree. This tree is the third largest tree in the world and has also been designated the nation’s Christmas Tree.
Like most of the highlights in the national parks, it’s best to visit this site in the mornings before the crowds, even though General Grant Tree receives a lot fewer visitors than the General Sherman Tree, which is the world’s largest.
One of our favorite spots in Kings Canyon National Park was this little spot that barely makes the visitor maps, called Panoramic Point. It definitely delivers on its namesake. If you are an early riser (which we always suggest in the national parks), make your way up here for sunrise one morning.
From the John Muir Lodge, it’s a short drive up the hill followed by a 5-10 minute walk to a grand view of the sun coming up over the mountains with a deep valley in front, which also holds Hume Lake.
If you want to catch the best colors of the sunrise, then head up to Panoramic Point about 45 minutes before the actual sunset to make the drive and walk.
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (Sequoia National Forest)
Kings Canyon National Park is broken into two parts, and between you’ll find the Sequoia National Forest. The two sections of the park are connected by HWY 180, which is named the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. This drive brings you on a narrow road winding through the mountains with lots of lookout points that give great views of the Sierra Nevadas.
Hume Lake (Sequoia National Forest)
Along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, be sure to pull off at Hume Lake, which sits about halfway between the two sections of the national park. There are many recreational opportunities on the lake, but if you’re just after some nice photos (like us), there’s a little dock with great views of the lake and surrounding forest.
Toward the end of the road through the canyon follow the signs and short trail that leads to Muir Rock. From this massive boulder, you can cliff jump or just take in the beauty of the crystal clear waters that Muir Rock sits in.
Sequoia National Park (1-2 Nights)
The main draw to Sequoia National Park is this tree, which is the largest tree in the entire world. While there are a lot of big trees in this park, General Sherman looks substantially bigger.
Get here early to avoid the lineup to get your photo taken in front of it. Also, be sure to walk around the tree to get more and honestly better photo ops of this amazing tree.
This massive tree fell across the Crescent Meadow Road in late 1937, as a result of natural causes – The following summer, a large tunnel was cut through the fallen log that was wide enough for a car to drive through. It stood 275 feet tall (83.8 meters) and was more than 21 feet in diameter (6.4 meters) – it is now known as Tunnel Log.
On the last day of our road trip in California, we woke up early to find this tree. We got there shortly after sunrise and had it to ourselves for almost an hour. We always love mornings in the parks!
Local Insider tip: On the way out of the park stop at Reimer’s Candies and Gifts for their famous local blackberry ice cream. Address: 2375 Sierra Dr, Three Rivers, CA
Finish up this unique California road trip with a stop in the town of Visalia that has no shortage of fun foodie stops and craft breweries. Here you’ll find a cute old-timey downtown with lots of restaurant choices and more than a handful of breweries, Visalia makes a great place to rest and break up your road trip in California.
If you are spending the night we highly suggest stopping by Sequoia Brewing Company and then having authentic tacos at Chapala Grill. Every Saturday night they have taco night, where our personal favorite tacos Al Pastor are on special.
Have you taken this road trip? What are your must-sees? If not, what is your favorite California Road Trip?