California itinerary in USA by car and bus, sightseeing map (+ Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon)
Today I’m going to talk about how to put together your California itinerary, starting and ending in Los Angeles, and at the same time visiting the city of sins Las Vegas in Nevada and seeing the famous Grand Canyon in Arizona. It will be a two-week itinerary of California’s major attractions in the United States – its main tourist cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, as well as interesting sites, national parks, and a trip along the ocean along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. In addition, the itinerary includes Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, which, although outside of California, are close enough to visit and see the most interesting things. And a trip to the States would be very different without these two giants of tourism.
On the trip we will visit the following interesting places in California, Nevada and Arizona:
1. Los Angeles
2. Santa Barbara
3. Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur Coast
5. San Francisco
6. Lake Tahoe
7. Yosemite National Park
8. Sequoia National Park
9. Red Rock Canyon State Park (California)
10. Death Valley National Park
11. Las Vegas
12. Hoover Dam and Lake Mead
13. Grand Canyon National Park
14. Palm Springs
15. Joshua Tree National Park
16. San Diego
Major cities along the route:
- Los Angeles
- Santa Barbara
- San Francisco
- Las Vegas
- Palm Springs
- San Diego
California roads, gas stations, and parking lots:
U.S. roads are known the world over as some of the best. And it’s really true. The pavement on the main highways and most of the secondary roads is gorgeous. It’s very comfortable to drive. Convenient entrances and exits, paid and free parking are organized in the right places.
To find free parking in a major U.S. city, visit Bestparking.com.
The cost of gasoline in the United States is low, but it is more expensive in California than in other states. Gas stations on the road are very common. There are always pockets of gas stations, motels, and restaurants near every town on the way out and in, which is very convenient for long-distance travelers across America.
Rent a car in Los Angeles:
- Rent a car in Los Angeles is best at the airport, book here (from $20/day).
- You can also use a special form to find a rental car.
Facts about the route
- The length of the route in California is 3,750 km.
- Time for the route – 14 days.
Best time to travel: The best time to travel in California is early fall, as well as in early summer. This is due primarily to the fact that the weather is warm, and most American vacationers have gone home or have not yet arrived for the vacations. In the United States, domestic tourism is very popular, and many people from different states go to California in the summer when it is best. The disadvantage is the very large number of vacationers who come from other states, and as a consequence, overcrowded hotels. This is why I don’t recommend July and August in California for an independent trip. It’s also very hot at this time, because Southern California is in the desert.
When is the best time to go to California? I’ll try to answer this question briefly. If your route includes the national parks of Northern California – Yosemite, Sequoia, and Lake Tahoe – where there is snow until May, you will need a car with chains. Some mountain roads are closed in winter altogether. So late May, early June and September are the best times to go to Los Angeles and travel in California.
It is worth remembering about the spring and fall holidays in Los Angeles and California – Memorial Day (May) and Labor Day (September), when Americans have a big weekend and the whole family goes out into the countryside. During these times, everything is much more expensive – accommodations, flights, and excursions. And if your vacation falls on these days, book hotels, cars, tours and buy tickets well in advance (better six months before the trip).
However, in winter you can visit Lake Tahoe, as well as the San Bernardino Mountains and Big Bear Lake if you are interested in ski resorts. By the way, winter is the best time to visit Death Valley, between October and April, when it’s not as unbearably hot as summer.
Best means of transportation to get around California.
The best transport for traveling in California is a car! A convertible is a good choice if you wish to visit mainly the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas, as well as the Grand Canyon and the Pacific Coast Highway along the Pacific Ocean.
A four-wheel drive vehicle will be a good friend if you are going to explore Death Valley (such as going to the Racetrack). If you travel in the winter and want to visit the mountainous regions of California – Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, you will also need a four-wheel drive vehicle with chains on the wheels to drive safely on snowy roads and mountain passes. Keep these nuances in mind when booking a car.
Itinerary in California by bus
Public transportation in the United States is very well developed. Here you can travel without a car, combining trips by bus, shuttle and buying tours, for example to the Grand Canyon. But you can’t visit all the national parks and wilderness areas, and the cost of traveling by yourself may be higher than by car, especially if you are not traveling alone.
Useful tip: If you do not drive, you can build a successful route around the main cities of California – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego – without renting a car, especially if you do not go outside the cities. Travelers without a car prefer to stop for a few days in major California cities and see their sights using public transportation. In this case, you really do not need a car.
Recommendation: When you arrive in Los Angeles it is better to have a travel plan already prepared (where to go, what to see) and to choose an entertainment program beforehand. For example, you can read our rating list of attractions – Top 7 things to see in Los Angeles, from which you can choose the most interesting things to see.
Below I will tell you the best way to make an itinerary for your own trip to California by public transportation for 2 weeks.
The California itinerary can be done as follows:
- Day 1. Fly to Los Angeles and check into a hotel. You can also take buses to Malibu!
- Day 2-5. Visit the main attractions in Los Angeles – Universal Studios, Hollywood, Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach, and Disneyland.
- Day 6. Bus from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The trip takes about 9 hours. The alternative is to fly from LA to SF.
- Day 7-8. San Francisco sightseeing: Golden Gate Bridge, streetcar ride, walking the streets of the city and visiting museums, Navy Seals watching on Pier 39, Alcatraz prison.
- Day 9. Overnight bus from San Francisco to Las Vegas. You should leave in the late afternoon of Day 8, arriving in Las Vegas at 2:00 PM on Day 9. You will spend a total of 15-18 hours en route, depending on the bus you choose. The schedule and flight can be selected on the Greyhound website. An alternative is to fly from SF to LV.
- Day 10-12. Entertainment in Las Vegas: casinos, concerts, various shows (mostly all in the evening). Walk the Strip, the dancing fountains of the Bellagio, the Ferris wheel, the oceanarium. For the most romantic, you can have a wedding or renew your vows.
- Day 13. Tour of the Grand Canyon. From Las Vegas take day tours to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (in Grand Canyon National Park) or the Skywalk, a glass-floored observation deck located in the land of the Hulapai Indians (West Rim). Which is better, South or West Rim, is a question everyone must answer for themselves.
- Day 14. Return by bus from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The trip takes about 5-7 hours, depending on the carrier and choice of flight times. The alternative is to take a flight in just 1 hour.
- Day 15. Departure from Los Angeles.
Addendum: In case you did not take the buses and saved time by flying between California and Las Vegas, you can additionally include a visit to the city of San Diego in your itinerary. The bus from Las Vegas to San Diego takes 9-10 hours and from San Diego to Los Angeles only 3 hours. And the flights are even shorter.
What is there to see in San Diego? Most people come here for the Sea World Aquarium, the world’s largest zoo, Zoo Safari Park, Balboa Park amusement park and surfing. Those traveling in California with children will especially appreciate this addition to the itinerary.
To summarize the description of the California itinerary by bus, I note that I have told you its basis, on which you can string your preferences. Again, there is absolutely no need to rent a car to travel this route, which will be convenient for those who want to relax on the trip and not spend time behind the wheel.
Next, I will tell you more about the attractions along the California route that you can see when traveling from Los Angeles by car.
Detailed California itinerary by car
Traveling in California by car is the best choice for traveling along the West Coast of the United States and sightseeing around Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Los Vegas. The car gives great maneuverability and allows you to see the many national parks of California, as well as interesting towns along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Below I will describe the itinerary of California by car and highlight the most interesting sights by day.
Day 1: Los Angeles – San Luis Obispo.
- Distance – 350 km.
- Net travel time: 4 hours.
- Nice hotel in San Luis Obispo with luxury rooms and pool – Apple Farm Inn
First Day Trip Program:
Depart early in the morning from LA northbound on Route 1 and stop by the legendary town of Santa Barbara on the way. Here you can spend three hours walking the streets and visiting St. Barbara’s Mission, which is where the famous arches that were on the backdrop of the popular Santa Barbara TV series in Russia in the early ’90s began.
You can also stop by the Danish town of Solvang for a couple of hours to see how Danish settlers built a Scandinavian town in the middle of the yellow hills of California.
Another curious town, Pismo Beach, is famous for its beach, next to which huge dunes are frozen. The sand giants are so impressive that they became a place of Native American worship, then an iconic destination for Hollywood bohemians and were even filmed as the Sahara Desert.
Day 2. San Luis Obispo to Monterey.
- Distance – 240 km
- Travel time – 3 hours 30 minutes
- A good hotel in Monterey in the Pacific Grove area is Spindrift Inn
The program of the second day of the trip:
- Continuing to explore the beauty of Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1). In the morning it’s worth stopping by the town of Morro Bay, which has a sacred hill for the Chumash Indians and a cliff by the shore called Morro Rock off the coast. On a foggy morning, this view is especially spectacular!
- If you are traveling in the spring, there is a chance to catch wildflowers in Montaña de Oro State Park.
- Next up is Hearst Castle. Yes, that’s right! California has a famous castle located near the town of San Simeon. By the way, there you can also admire the lazy seals lounging on the shore.
- The picturesque McVeigh Bay in Julia Pfeiffer-Burns Park will surprise you with its sophistication.
- I must say that the Pacific Coast is particularly beautiful in this area – you can stop anywhere and admire. This area is called Big Sur.
- Closer to the evening shows Monterey – here you can walk through the former capital of California, as well as drive along the 17-mile road among the ghostly cypresses.
Day 3. Monterey – San Francisco.
- Distance – 190 km.
- Travel time – 2 hours
- Good 4* hotel in Chinatown in San Francisco, close to the subway and parking – Orchard Garden.
The sooner you get to San Francisco in the morning, the sooner you can go sightseeing.
Read also: Golden Gate Bridge: best view
The program of the third day of the trip:
- You can start at the Golden Gate Bridge on the way out of the city.
- Nearby is the stunning Muir Woods National Monument, home to giant coastal sequoias (redwoods).
- The afternoon is worth a stroll around San Francisco – be sure to visit Pier 39 near North Beach and take a ride on the streetcar, another symbol of the city.
- Don’t forget to visit twisted Lombard Street.
- And of course, the famous Chinatown and Dragon Gate!
Day 4. San Francisco – Lake Tahoe.
- Distance – 326 km
- Travel time: 3 hours 30 minutes
- A nice hotel in South Lake Tahoe with cozy rooms and a fireplace near the beach is the 7 Seas Inn.
The journey from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe is a long one on Interstate 80. Along the way, by the way, you can stop by Napa Valley (like Sonoma City) to admire the vineyards and buy some California wine for the evening. If you leave first thing in the morning, by lunchtime you’ll be admiring the various viewpoints as you drive along the blue Tahoe Mountains, which can’t leave anyone indifferent. You can also go for trail rides or just sunbathe on the shore.
Tip. If you’re traveling in the winter, Tahoe is a great ski resort. But then don’t forget the chains for your car during the winter trip to successfully traverse the mountain passes. Sunset is best met at the beach in the town of South Lake Tahoe, and find a nice hotel there as well.
Day 5. Lake Tahoe – Yosemite.
- Distance: 260 km
- Travel time: 3 hours 30 minutes
- A good hotel in the town of Lee Vining on the Tioga Pass side with comfortable wooden cottages and a fully equipped kitchen is Lake View Lodge
Another great hotel at the western entrance to Yosemite at Buck Meadows is Yosemite Westgate Lodge
There are two ways to get from Tahoe to Yosemite National Park: 1) By driving around the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the west; 2) By heading south from Tahoe on Route 395 and arriving in Yosemite via the famous and inspiring Tioga Pass. This road is more difficult, but there is little to compare to it in beauty. However, it is closed in winter (until May usually).
Good to know: In Yosemite Valley, the best place to stay is in a campsite (you should book well in advance). But if you don’t have a tent with you and don’t plan on buying one, it’s worth staying in one of the towns near the park entrance, depending on which road you choose to enter the park.
Recommendation. Remember that for the summer, all hotels that are near hyped attractions like Yosemite National Park need to be booked heavily in advance!
Program of the fifth day
- In the park you can walk through the many hikes and see the El Capitan and Half Dome cliffs, waterfalls, and lakes of this unique place created by a glacier.
- There is also an opportunity to see the sequoias in the Mariposa Grove in the park.
- I also suggest making sure to drive to Glacier Point and walk there, too.
By the way, at the entrance to Yosemite it is much better to buy a single ticket to all national parks in the U.S. Annual Pass – America the Beautiful. The price for the most popular parks is about $25-30. If you are going to visit all five national parks represented in this itinerary, or even more, the annual pass will be worth it, as it costs 80 USD.
Day 6. Yosemite to Fresno.
- Distance – 150 km.
- Travel time – 2 hours and 30 minutes.
- A nice hotel in Fresno with a garden, swimming pool, cozy rooms with a terrace and a delicious breakfast – Garden Inn and Suites
One day to visit Yosemite Park is really not enough, so my advice is to spend at least two days there, distributing your time properly between attractions. In the evening you can go to the nearby town of Fresno, where you can stay overnight in a nice hotel and gain strength for the next leg of your California trip.
Day 7 – Fresno – Sequoia – Death Valley (Olancha).
- Distance: 410 km.
- Travel time: 4 hours.
- A curious hotel in the town of Olancha, where you can stay in a regular room with a kitchen or even in an Indian tipi – Olancha RV Park and Motel
Program of the seventh day
- The first item on day seven is a trip to the giant sequoias in the national park of the same name. There are quite a few trails here where you can walk in the mountain forest, but you can limit your introduction to the most famous giant tree, General Sherman.
- This is followed by a big drive to Red Rock Canyon State Park, where you can see multicolored layers of white clay, pink volcanic rock, and red sandstone.
- For an overnight stay, choose the town of Olanche, located near the entrance to Death Valley National Park, on Route 190.
Very important! Remember to fill up with a full tank of gas in Olancha when you leave for Death Valley. There is only one gas station inside, and the prices are much higher than usual.
Day 8. Death Valley – Las Vegas.
- Distance – 560 km (includes traveling through Death Valley)
- Travel time – 6 hours
Hotels in Las Vegas: Experience the luxury of the world-famous brand, the Four Seasons. It is a quiet oasis in bustling Vegas. The closest casino is at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
Death Valley is a huge and very famous park in California, known for its extreme temperatures. In summer, you should be careful not to overheat: you should drink lots of water and always wear a hat!
In one full day you can visit almost all the attractions of Death Valley – the giant Mesquite Dunes, the crater of the dead volcano Ubehebe, the mysterious Scotty Castle and the lowest point in mainland North America – Badwater Salt Pond (85 meters below sea level), Golden Canyon and picturesque poorlands called Zabriskie Point, depicted in the Antonioni movie.
You can get from Death Valley to Las Vegas either through Det Valley Junction or through Shoshoni. By the way, after leaving the national park, immediately leave the state of California and enter Nevada (don’t forget to reset your watch).
Tip. If you come to Las Vegas not on a weekend, you can get discounts even in the most luxurious and famous hotels!
Day 9 – Las Vegas.
In Las Vegas you can take a great break from the sultry Death Valley experience and in the evening try your luck at one of the casinos, or buy tickets to the shows for which the capital of gambling is so famous. And of course stroll down the Strip looking at the quaint hotels of Las Vegas. But if you have a lot of energy and your heart desires an experience, go to the Valley of Fire in the morning.
Day 10. Las Vegas – Grand Canyon.
- Distance – 440 km
- Travel time: 5 hours.
Hotels in or near the Grand Canyon can be found:
1) in Grand Canyon Village – Bright Angel Lodge
2) in the neighboring town of Tasayan – Best Western Premier
3) in the town of Williams – Grand Canyon Railway
Just outside of Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam on Lake Mead, world-famous for its many movies. The road goes right over the dam, but you can stop in the parking lot and take a leisurely walk on the sidewalk. It is over the Colorado River Bridge, which has a great view across the Hoover Dam, that we cross the Nevada-Arizona state line. Now it’s time to see another American landmark, the Grand Canyon! The good thing is that the arrival will be in the afternoon: in the best light to admire the wonder of nature, and then meeting the sunset here, we will be able to consider the day a success!
Day 11. Grand Canyon – Palm Springs.
- Distance – 650 km
- Travel time: 6 hours 30 minutes
- A stylish 4* hotel in Palm Springs with a pool and a kitchen – Little Paradise
In the morning, you can greet the sunrise at one of the observation decks of the Grand Canyon, and then take a long drive towards the famous resort city of Palm Springs, California. But once you arrive, you can relax in your hotel. But Palm Springs is not just luxury hotels in the Sonora desert oasis. Nearby are the San Jacinto Mountains, where you can take the Aerial Tram cable car up and take a trip from Mexico to Alaska, so much so that the natural conditions change. You can even catch snow there in January or February!
Day 12. Palm Springs – Los Angeles.
- Distance: 175 kilometers.
- Travel time: 2 hours.
The California itinerary has come to an end, and now it is time to go back to Los Angeles, where we started our journey. It’s a fairly easy crossing, at the end of which you can settle in the area of Los Angeles that you want to explore better.
There are different options to choose from:
- Glitter Hollywood.
- Venice Bohemia.
- Vacationing on the beaches of Santa Monica
- Surfing in Malibu
- Visiting Disneyland
My advice. If time allows you, first go to Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs to admire the unique Joshua trees. You may be especially lucky if you travel in the spring from March to May, when you can catch these amazing trees in bloom.
Day 13-14 – Recreation in Los Angeles.
What things to do in Los Angeles? First, choose a good hotel (read here how to do this). And then see the city and its attractions:
- Drive down Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive
- Go to one of Malibu’s beaches to learn how to surf
- Visit Disneyland California if you’re traveling with kids.
- Walk the Hollywood Walk of Fame and visit Madame Tussauds.
- Visit Universal Studios
- Shop on Rodeo Drive and in Beverly Hills.
- Relax on the beaches in Venice, Santa Monica
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