Everyone wants to visit the big cities of southern California like Los Angeles and San Diego. But besides the big cities what are the best things to see and do in Southern California? Southern California has some of the most unique natural wonders in the world including three of the most spectacular National Parks – Joshua Tree, Death Valley and Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. There are also some lesser known but fantastic State Parks like the Anza Borrego State Park near San Diego.
This one week Southern California itinerary highlights all the unique beauty of southern California. You begin and end this trip in Los Angeles. Along the way you get family fun with destinations such as Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo, as well as natural splendor with stops in mountain and desert parks.
I’ve included the daily driving mileage and driving time to give you an idea of how much driving is involved in this one week (with two weekends) California itinerary.
Total mileage for the 10 days of driving – 1445 miles (2325 kms)
Total driving time for the 10 days – approx. 26.5 hours
Day 1 Los Angeles
Start in the coastal city of Santa Monica, with a wide, uncrowded beach, a signature pier topped by carnival rides and restaurants, and outstanding shopping at Third Street Promenade and fancy Santa Monica Place shopping center (great for rooftop dining with ocean and city views). Follow the Santa Monica Boulevard northeast to visit legendary Beverly Hills, where cars with tinted windows pull up to Chanel and other deluxe boutiques along Rodeo Drive. Continue east to Hollywood to stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame and visit TCL Chinese Theatre.
Possible Lodging – Loews Santa Monica Beach
Day 2 Anaheim (45 miles, approx. 45 minute drive depending on traffic in Los Angeles)
Visit the original Disney theme park. The resort, which consists of the original Disneyland Park and the adjacent Disney California Adventure Park, has themed “lands” with related rides, shows, and attractions.
Possible Lodging – Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel
Day 3 San Diego (96 miles, approx. 1.5 hour drive depending on traffic in Los Angeles)
With great temperatures year round, San Diego has a great mix of things to do. Whether you’re standup paddling on Mission Bay, kayaking into sea caverns along La Jolla’s idyllic shores, visiting the San Diego zoo or one of the myriad museums in Balboa Park, or dining and dancing after dark in the lively Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find yourself smiling in San Diego.
Possible Lodging – Hotel Del Coronado
Day 4 San Diego to Anza Borrego State Park
Start out early from San Diego to Anza Borrego State Park (90 miles, approx. 2 hour drive). Start your visit just northwest of Borrego Springs at the park’s visitor center to learn more about this fascinating park, and to get tips on where to go. Anza-Borrego’s most famous hike leads to Borrego Palm Canyon, a watery haven fed by underground springs and shaded by California fan palms, the only palm that is native to California. It’s not a major hike round trip (3 miles/4.8 km total), but it feels like a trek from the desert to the tropics.
After you finish your visit at the park, continue to Palm Springs (100 miles, approx 1.5 hour drive)
Stay 2 nights in Palm Springs. Possible Lodging at L’Horizon Hotel and Spa
Day 5 Joshua Tree National Park (48 miles, approx 50 minute drive from ARRIVE Hotel)
Joshua Tree National Park lies at an ecological crossroads, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert. The result is amazing desert flora. Pick a clear morning to visit Keys View for a sweeping panorama that takes in two of Southern California’s biggest summits: Mount San Jacinto (elevation 10,834 feet/3,302 meters) and Mount Gorgonio (elevation 11,502 feet/3,506 meters). In the distance, you can pick out the leafy green of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve directly below you. Stretch your legs on a short paved trail, or, if you’re feeling lively and want the kind of piece and quiet found only in deserts, follow the path to neighboring Inspiration Peak.
Day 6 Death Valley National Park (271 miles, approx. 4h 45 minute drive)
Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in America, with summer temperatures peaking above 120 F°/49°C. The park’s 3.3 million acres /1.34 million hectares encompass mountain-size sand dunes, below-sea-level salt flats, and colorful sandstone canyons.
Shortly after you arrive at the park there is a turn-off for Dante’s View. Once you arrive there is a great view of the heart of Death Valley. Below is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the United States.
Next check out Twenty Mule Team Canyon, a one-way road through yellow and white mudstone hills. The landscape here is beautiful, as you drive through white and yellow mudstone hills with zero vegetation anywhere. About two thirds of the way through the drive is a small turn-off, just big enough for several cars, that gives you access to very short hiking trails into these hills. Definitely get out and do this. The view from the tops of these hills is amazing.
Badwater Basin is also a must see. It is the lowest point in North America, sitting 282 feet below sea level. You can walk out onto the salt flats and enjoy this unique landscape.
Possible Lodging – Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch
Day 7 Yosemite National Park (417 miles, approx. 7.5 hour drive. The drive can be reduced in summer when Tioga Pass is open)
Yosemite is the most popular park in California. Make sure you make your reservations early if you want to camp or stay in the park. Nearly the size of Rhode Island and covering more than 1,100 square miles/284,899 hectares, the park features unforgettable natural beauty.
Things to see include the fabulous Half Dome, Glacier Point, and El Capitan!
Possible lodging – Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite (book early as Yosemite will sell out far in advance!)
Day 8 Yosemite National Park
On day 2, visit some of Yosemite’s amazing waterfalls. Among Yosemite’s many bragging rights, its waterfalls rank high. In the list of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots for Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall. Yosemite Falls holds the undisputed title of the tallest waterfall in North America.
Day 9 Sequoia National Park (171 miles, approx. 3.5 hour drive)
There’s something magical about awakening in Sequoia National Park, surrounded by groves of the world’s largest living things.
At the heart of the park, in the shade of towering sequoias and redwood groves, the Giant Forest is home to half of the Earth’s largest and longest-living trees. Named in 1875 by John Muir, the forest is a stand of more than 8,000 colossal sequoia trees – many standing just as Muir found them. Among the forest you will find the General Sherman tree, the world’s largest living tree.
Possible Lodging – Montecito Sequoia Lodge & Summer Family Camp
Day 10. Los Angeles (207 miles, approx. 4 hour drive depending on Los Angeles traffic)
If you have time before your flight, check out some of the other great attractions in Los Angeles. Or if you are headed to Las Vegas, see our Things to do on the Los Angeles to Las Vegas drive.
Tip – If you prefer forests to deserts consider removing the day at Death Valley and add an extra day at Sequoia National Park.
Tip – To quickly find more details on any of the attractions in this itinerary see the clickable attractions on our California map