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    California tour: how to plan a trip to the Golden State

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    Lluis Enric Mayans

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    Ok, I will neglect the usual introduction with which we usually stop to describe how beautiful the is California, its history, etc. If you are reading this post it means that you have probably already chosen it as a destination for your trip or that, in any case, you already have some basic information about the Golden State.

    In this post I will not even dwell on the various travel packages available for the Golden State (which you can find on our page dedicated to organized tours in America), nor on a detailed itinerary of trip to California (on this site there are several, I recommend starting this Las Vegas-California round trip in 15 days and taking a look at our itineraries in ebook format), but rather on some tips which I hope will help you in planning your tour. Let's go straight to the point: what to choose and how to set yours tour of California?


    • First of all: a detail not to be underestimated ...
    • How to plan a trip to California?
    • Cost of the trip and indicative prices
    • California Tour: the most popular routes and itineraries
      • 1) Tour of the coast
      • 2) Tour in the hinterland
    • Top things to see in California
    • Finally… some tips on national parks
      • 1) What are the parks to choose from?
      • 2) How long does it take to see them?
      • 3) Can I turn them in the car?
      • 4) Can I sleep inside? Or is it better to find accommodation outside?
      • 5) Is there a card to enter the parks? Should you do it?
      • 6) Specific measures?
      • 7) Huh? Are there any dangerous animals?
    • Useful resources for organizing the tour

    First of all: a detail not to be underestimated ...

    Before deciding the stages of the itinerary, there is an important aspect to consider: the state of California is large, very large, so you will be faced with the problem of distances. Between one attraction and another you will often have to travel 3 or 4 hours (sometimes even more), so to plan a trip to California It is good to know a minimum of the geography of the state, in order to set up visits to cities and parks in a consequential way.

    In the map below you can get an idea of ​​the geographical location of the main attractions, around which you will have to customize your road route:

    Obviously you will have to rent a car, California is the state ofon the road par excellence (although not the only one) and the machine represents the only realistic solution to explore it thoroughly. Take seriously the idea of ​​renting a navigator as well, finding your way around the American roads can be challenging. For some tips on how book a car to rent and compare the prices of the main companies I suggest you take a look at this page. If you are looking for vans, campers or minibuses you can take a look at our guide on how to rent a camper in the USA.

    How to plan a trip to California?

    Hollywood: Los Angeles

    First of all: where to start? Usually, the most popular starting points in the various tours of California are two: San Francisco and Los Angeles, the two most popular and visited cities (in an article dedicated to the choice of flights to California we have given some useful information on this, detailing the pros and cons of choosing one or the other).

    Another good idea could be San Diego, not inferior to Los Angeles in terms of tourist offer and particularly suitable if you want to cross the border to make a detour to Mexico.

    Do you need a tested and ready-to-use itinerary for your itinerary? Take a look at our ebooks American Dream Routes, available on computer, tablet and smartphone, and complete with day by day itinerary, interactive maps, suggestions on where to stay and much more!

    In any case, the ideal is to start your tour from one of these 3 urban centers and stop there at least 2/3 days; in this way you will have time to visit a beautiful one in complete calm city and to recover from the Jet Lag (the airplane flight is long and exploring a national park as soon as you arrive is not exactly the best).

    My advice is to start with San Francisco, a beautiful city that can be easily visited by public transport and of which you can find a guide in the post Visiting San Francisco: the attractions not to be missed. It is a city that it is not worth visiting by car, indeed to tell the truth it is not even the case to rent it! Take the car starting from the last day of your stay, you will save not only on the rental, but also on the very salty parking lots of the big American cities.

    Ok, we took 2/3 days of relaxation in our first city of the Golden State, but now? How will we continue our California tour? What attractions could they leave us speechless?

    Cost of the trip and indicative prices

    This is a very important topic for all those who are planning the trip and have no idea of ​​the costs it may have. It is not so rare that the available budget affects the choice of the itinerary and the things to see, so we decided to write an in-depth study that helps to understand the cost of travel to California, at least indicatively. In our article on how much does it cost to go to California we also wrote how much it can cost to add a tour of the parks of the West between Utah, Arizona and Nevada to the tour. So let yourself be inspired!

    California Tour: the most popular routes and itineraries

    The most common travel itineraries in California they are divided into 2 sections. Obviously one does not exclude the other, it depends on the time available and the type of attraction we prefer to see. To fully enjoy both tours you will need at least 15 or 20 days.

    1) Tour of the coast

    The first is the one that runs along theoceano, via the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, and which allows you to visit the main cities (the bay of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego), enjoy the beautiful panorama of the the and stop off in some interesting seaside resorts, such as San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and much more. To learn about the many towns and attractions on the coast take a look at my article on Highway 1.

    If you want to reduce the hours of travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco you can take some internal routes; your tour will certainly be less tiring, but it will suffer in terms of beauties to admire. However, a holiday on the coast is not just sea and city: in fact, in the vicinity of San Francisco you can explore the fascinating Napa Valley, which closely resembles the Tuscan countryside, both for the landscape and for the excellent wine produced.

    Coast Starlight: A California Coastal Rail Tour.

    If you want to visit the entire California coast, you can also consider alternatives to the car rent: the whole coast is in fact covered by trains of the company Armtrak, with the Coast Starlight tour. These are beautiful carriages that cross the coast from a particularly close point, offering breathtaking views and to be admired in comfort from your seat.  

    2) Tour in the hinterland

    tour in the golden hills of California
    road in the Californian countryside

    In this case, renting a car is practically a must! The mileage they become long, the roads become almost infinite straights that wind for hundreds of kilometers and the immense deserts abound. In short, as I had already anticipated, this is the land of the on the road!

    The hinterland of California will allow you to admire above all its natural wonders: the mountain ranges of Sierra Nevada, the gentle golden hills typical of some rural areas, the endless deserts e i national parks.

    Let's start with deserts of California, which cover about 25% of the state's land. They are basically two:

    • Colorado Desert (or Low Desert), located to the south, easily accessible from Los Angeles and interspersed with the opulent oasis of Palms Springs and the surreal Joshua Tree National Park;
    • Mojave Desert (or High Desert), where you will find another amazing national park, Death Valley.

    If you want to find out what it means to go with your car among the golden hills and undulating California, with an ideal background music (Take it easy by the Eagles is perfect!) and with the Sierra Nevada mountain range that stands out on the horizon, the area to look for is further north and corresponds to the stretch that connects Monterey in Yosemite National Park.

    What unites Monterey to Yosemite it is a beautiful drive to take (if you want you can continue beyond the park to the well-preserved western town of Bodie) and it is also an excellent solution to unify theitinerario of the coast to that of the hinterland; other very popular solutions are the roads that connect San Francisco to Yosemite and Los Angeles to Sequoia National Park, or to Palm Springs.

    The California Outback Tour doesn't just have wonders of nature to offer, however. If you feel like trespassing into Nevada, beyond Yosemite and only 2 hours from Death Valley and about 4 hours from Los Angeles, there is Las Vegas, a destination that certainly needs no introduction (if you want to include it in your tour I recommend this 15-day itinerary).

    Top things to see in California

    Here things get complicated. There are so many attractions and places of interest that California can offer and it is not easy to make a selection (even more so if you want to include the red rock parks of Arizona and Utah in your trip). As a useful resource to start skimming a bit, I would like to point out my ("very subjective") California top 10, which you can use to familiarize yourself with the main attractions.

    If your road trip also includes crossing over to the other Southwest States, you can also start from our model itineraries "West Coast Tour 20 days" and "West Coast Tour 15 days" and then possibly customize them as you wish, or again, to something more defined and ready to use, ours itineraries ebook.

    Finally… some tips on national parks

    I national parks are certainly the most amazing attraction, especially in the cases of Death Valley, Sequoia National Park, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon or Yosemite (by the way: have you taken a look at our tips for visiting Yosemite?), however you have to organize yourself to enjoy them in full, or our California trip could get very tiring.

    So let's see some recurring questions on the subject:

    1) What are the parks to choose from?

    All the parks of the Golden State (9!) you can find them in the post The National Parks of California, however there are some really worthy ones even outside the state: to visit the Grand Canyon, the Monument Valley or the Bryce Canyon you will have to go even further east, cross the border and venture into Arizona and Utah.

    2) How long does it take to see them?

    You can explore a good part of it by car in a day, but if you are interested in excursions it will be better to choose some specific and limited areas. Parks, in essence, tend to be huge!

    3) Can I turn them in the car?

    Yes, see the previous answer.

    4) Can I sleep inside? Or is it better to find accommodation outside?

    During your California tour you can sleeping inside the parks even if it is often not convenient because they are expensive. However in some cases you can find good deals (I remember a bargain accommodation in Death Valley. Could it have been for the heat?). However, in general in the neighboring cities you can find more reasonable prices. For more tips, here is a general guide on where to sleep near national parks and a detailed park by park.

    5) Is there a card to enter the parks? Should you do it?

    The card exists and how. To understand if it is better to do it, read the post. Should you get a card for the US National Parks?

    6) Specific measures?

    Fill up on petrol before visiting them (there are not an abundance of petrol stations), read the advice you find in the brochures of the parks themselves and beware of dangerous animals.

    7) Huh? Are there any dangerous animals?

    Well yes, there are, and should we run into one, below are some great tips:

    If you meet a bear, there is a way to deal with it: with a good bear spray! In front of a bison, on the other hand, the ideal is to run away. What if I meet a puma? No problem: in that case it is enough to fight to the death (even if it is not clear whose…).

    Believe it or not, these directions are taken from an old woman official guide of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, but in truth there is no need to worry too much; It's hard to put your life on the line if you stick to the rangers' instructions and common sense.

    Useful resources for organizing the tour

    California flights: how to find the cheapest fare?

    To conclude, here is a list of useful resources for planning yours tour of California:

    1. Our tips for finding a low cost flight to the USA
    2. Our guide to finding a hotel in the USA divided by parks and cities
    3. Our tips for renting a car in the USA at the lowest price
    4. Two sites for a health insurance quote: Columbus and Allianz
    5. How to rent a motorhome in the USA
    6. Required documents:
      1. Have you prepared the ESTA form or the US Visa?
      2. Do you have your passport ready?
    7. Tours organized for a trip to USA (including California)
    8. Packages of 1 or more days to visit the main attractions of California (without flight, also useful for only part of the itinerary):
      1. Multi-day tour
      2. Day tour
    9. Do you want to visit the Golden State outside the summer period? Check out our itinerary for exploring California in the winter
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