2 Week California Winter Road Trip


We’ve been on a two-week California winter road trip with a short stay in Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve. Winter is actually a great time for this itinerary to avoid the big crowds and to enjoy places like the Death Valley on moderate temperatures. So, check out our top places to visit in California during winter.

Our 2 Week California Winter Road Trip
Day 1-2: Los Angeles
Day 3-4: Pacific Coast Highway
Day 5-6: San Francisco
Day 7-8: Sacramento, Lake Tahoe & Owens Valley
Day 9: Death Valley
Day 10-11: Las Vegas
Day 12-13: Joshua Tree National Park
Day 14: Los Angeles & Departure


Overall costs

$ 2000


14 days



Los Angeles

We arrived a few days before Christmas is Los Angeles, got a rental car at the airport and stayed at a friend’s place for the next two nights. He grew up in Los Angeles and worked out our itinerary for the upcoming two weeks.

Take the chance and spent most of the time on the beaches, the other stops are colder and mostly inland.

I would recommend to drive around town on a morning to visit the Walk of Fame, Santa Monica, maybe Hollywood and once for sunset to Griffith Observatory. On days with good visibilities Palos Verdes is a great place to see the city, Downtown and the snow-capped mountains in the back.

How to get there

By plane: Needless to say, Los Angeles is well connected to the whole country and most bigger cities in the world. Most flights go to and from LAX and Burbank Airport.

Get around

By car: Most parts of the city are best reached by car though driving times can vary a lot due to bad traffic.

Bicycles: The best option to get around the beach areas are bicycles. Check if your accommodation has some or otherwise use some of the many rental shops.

Things to do

Santa Monica: Start your day with a relaxed breakfast in Santa Monica, visit the pier when it’s almost empty and take a shopping tour at 3rd Street Promenade.

Walk of Fame: Next stop could be the Walk of Fame and if you stay on one of the beach locations take the small roads through Beverly Hills to get there. The Walk of Fame is on its most parts not a glamourous place so it’s okay to just visit the spot around the Dolby Theatre (6840 Hollywood Blvd) for half an hour.

Downtown: After a short drive to Downtown take a walk over Broadway, to Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles City Hall and try to get up the rooftop bar of The Standard Hotel (550 Flower St; open from 12 pm on).

Venice Beach: Spent the afternoon at Venice Beach and visit the channels, Venice Boardwalk and the Skate Park. I would like to encourage you to rent a bicycle and drive up to Santa Monica and back with a few stops.

Griffith Observatory: Best place to see the sunset over the city and the illuminated city below. Make sure to be there in the late afternoon. You can park your car directly in front of the observatory or a few steps below on a bigger parking lot. The hills around the observatory have many hiking trails and there’s also a big green field just in front of the observatory where you can relax with great views to the Hollywood Sign.

Pacific Coast Highway

Take your time and split the drive along the coast into two days. There are many vista points and parking lots on the way to enjoy the views and sea breeze.

We made an overnight stop in Pismo Beach; Morro Bay would also be a good choice.

How to get there

From Santa Monica follow Highway 1 through Malibu northwards. You can shorten the second day from Santa Cruz if you follow Highway 17 to San Jose and from there to San Francisco.

Things to do

Santa Barbara: Visit the Santa Barbara Mission which is one of the most remarkable buildings in California and have a little walk at the beach. All wine lovers can also take a look at the many wine tasting tours.

Pismo Beach: Enjoy the wide beach and visit Chris Burkard’s Studio. He is one of the best outdoor photographers and has made amazing photos of Big Sur and places all around the world which you can see there.

Big Sur: The wildest and most remote part of the Highway 1 is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park between Morro Bay and Monterey. There are many cyclists on the road so be cautious on the narrow curves. You will find many view points along the road and I think its best to stop at most of them and take a look on whatever there is to see. That worked great for us and I can assure that most of them have been built for a reason 😊

17-Mile Drive: The exactly 17-mile-long ring road next to Monterey has amazing views, some of the best golf courses in the world and century old pine trees. There are five entry gates and the entrance fee per vehicle is around $10. For more info and impressions check out the official website.

San Francisco

After a full day on the road at Big Sur we arrived late in San Francisco and stayed there for three nights. We had a small Christmas celebration in our hostel and went to the Union Square to see the massive Christmas Tree.

We had two days with lots of walking which was nice after sitting in the car for so long.

On the morning we left San Francisco we drove down Lombard Street with our rental car and left the city northwards over the Golden Gate Bridge.

How to get there

There are two main options from Big Sur by car. First is to follow Highway 1 along the coast until you reach San Francisco after 2.5 hours or you take the direct way through Silicon Valley which is around 2 hours.

Get around

Walking: You can walk to most point of interest from the city center but it will sometimes take a while.

Cable car: You should take the Cable Car at least once during your stay or whenever you’re not in the mood to walk up the steep roads.

Things to do

Golden Gate Bridge: You can walk over the bridge from north to south and then proceed to the small town of Sausalito from where you take the ferry back to San Francisco. Walking time from the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center to Sausalito is 1.5 hours. Ferries run throughout the day and take 30 minutes for the ride.

Bay Cruise: We made a cruise through the bay but if you make the walking tour over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito you will see pretty much the same for less money.

Chinatown: One of the best Chinatowns in the country with the iconic Dragon’s Gate and a good place to have authentic Chinese Food.

Alamo Square Park: The small park has amazing views to the Painted Ladies and downtown in the back.

Coit Tower: Nice lookout tower just next to downtown on a small hill. Entrance fee is $9.

Sacramento, Lake Tahoe & Owens Valley

Our next planned stop was the Death Valley but we decided to take it slow with a night stop in-between and several stops on the road. The first one was Sacramento where we went to the Capitol. We then proceeded through the snow-covered mountains to South Lake Tahoe where we spend one night.

The other morning, we walked around town, drove to Mono Lake through the Owens Valley and went to Lone Pine where we spent another night.

How to get there

Driving time between San Francisco and South Lake Tahoe is 3.5 hours and between South Lake Tahoe and Lone Pine another 4 hours.

Things to do

Sacramento Capitol: We walked around the capitol and inside where you can go to the front door of the Governor’s office.

Lake Tahoe: Skiing is the best winter activity around lake Tahoe with Heavenly Mountain Resort just outside South Lake Tahoe the best option on this itinerary.

Mono Lake: The small highly salty lake with alkaline water is famous for its tufa towers that stick out the water. You will pass the lake on Highway 395 just after Mono City.

Death Valley

We got up early and drove an hour to Darwin Falls Parking Lot which was our first stop in the park. Even though it was winter temperatures rose quickly as we entered Death Valley. Around noon it was pleasantly warm to walk around in a T-Shirt.

So, winter is a great time to visit Death Valley and a full day is enough to see the main sights with a small hiking tour. We spent the night in Beatty east of the park in Nevada.

How to get there

Take Road 136 southward from Lone Pine which becomes Road 190 shortly after Owens Lake.

Get around

Having a car is essential in the park even in winter.

Things to do

Darwin Falls: We made a short hike to Darwin Fall from the parking lot which takes around 25 minutes each way. It’s like a little oasis in the desert and was nice in the morning.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Our next stop were the big sand dunes. You can park your car on the side of the road and walk up some of the dunes. The air is very dry here so take some water with you even on moderate days.

Badwater Basin: With an elevation of -266 feet the Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. There’s a wooden deck to walk around and a sign confirming the low level of this place.

Natural Bridge Trail: Just a bit north of the Badwater Basin is a nice short hiking trail into a canyon named after a giant natural bridge. We reached the canyon in the afternoon and spend around 45 minutes there.

Dantes View: In the evening we drove up to Dantes View which is a view point on a mountain from where you can see into the whole valley and the mountains around.

Las Vegas

We left Beatty in the morning and visited the nearby ghost town of Rhyolite on the way. Next stop was Vegas where we spend two nights including New Year’s Eve.

New Year’s Eve was crazy, the whole Strip was packed with people, there are no cars and on midnight was a firework on top of each of the big hotels.

How to get there

By car: From Beatty US-95 south to Las Vegas in around 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Get around

If you stay on the Strip you can walk to the main attractions but to go to the Fremont Street you either have to take a taxi or accept a longer walk.
We stayed close to Fremont Street in a Hostel and walked several times to the Strip.

Things to do

Strip: We had two nights in Vegas of which we spend the first one walking around and visiting some casinos. The second night was New Year’s Eve and we spent the night out on the Strip which is packed with people, got some drinks and just talked to random people that we met. After midnight we went to some casinos. If you want to visit a proper party that night you have to buy tickets in advance and they can be quite expensive.

Fremont Street: The place where all the gambling started has its own old charm and is worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Hoover Dam: The dam and Lake Mead are great choices to spend some time outside the city. Due to some party aftermaths we just made it to the dam on the day we left during the night.

Joshua Tree National Park

Our last stop was Joshua Tree National Park where we did a little hike and enjoyed the warm weather on the resting places. When we visited in the winter there were only a few people inside the park.

We stayed in a small hotel in Twentynine Palms which is just a few minutes away from one of the park entries. Most people will need a $30 ticket for one car which is valid for 7 days. Check out all the other tickets on their official website.

If you are on the road for a longer time this would be an excellent option to continue your trip through Mexico.

How to get there

By car: 3 hours direct way or 4 hours if you stop at Hoover Dam like we did.

Get around

You can drive into the park with your own car and visit the many resting spots.

Things to do

Scenic Drive: The best way to get a quick impression of the park is to just drive around and make some photo stops wherever you see something cool.

Hiking: There are many shorter hiking trails but I recommend to check at the reception first which ones are open at the time depending on the weather and environmental protection status.

Keys View: We also drove up a little hill called Keys View from where you have nice views down into the Coachella Valley.