5 Spectacular West Coast Road Trips
You don't have to get off the beaten path to have a great road trip; you simply need a great path.
On the West Coast, there are many thrilling scenic routes covering desert, mountains, ocean and vineyards. Try one of these spectacular drives and you will rediscover that your car was made for life beyond the HOV lane, and so were you.
Here are five itineraries guaranteed to make you love your car again, and feel the freedom of life behind the wheel.
1. Napa to Mendocino
Most people simply cruise up and down the Napa strip, sipping as they go - with a designated driver, of course. Sure, it's as lovely as the Tuscan countryside and just as tasty. But if you want to add some real driving pleasure to your trip, take Highway 128 north to Boonville, then cut over to the coast and head for Mendocino. There's a fun little 25-mile road (aptly named Mountain View Road) that takes you from Boonville to the coast via continuous hairpin turns through pristine forest. You'll end up at Point Arena, which has a huge stretch of public parkland and a lighthouse. From there, meander up the Pacific Coast Highway (California State Route 1) about 35 miles to the New England-style village of Mendocino. This uncrowded romantic town of white clapboard houses perched on coastal headlands is known for its cuisine and uncommercial vibe. It's the perfect place to uncork that wine you bought in Napa, hike the headlands and sleep in a historic cottage by the sea.
2. Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park
Circling gorgeous Lake Tahoe. North America's largest Alpine lake, offers views from high cliffs and the water's edge. Get out of the car to peer into water so clear you can see the boulders on the bottom. This lovely setting is a hot spot for skiing and summer water sports. But don't end your trip there. Head to Yosemite National Park, about 140 miles away. As with most road trips, you'll be rewarded if you go the opposite direction all the tourists are going and take the back way in. That means drive south on U.S. Route 395 from Carson City, Nevada, through vast grazing plains to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Near the town of Lee Vining, you'll reach the Tioga Pass Entrance Station and the fabled Tioga Road (state Route 120), which leads into the park. This, California's highest road, takes you 7 4 miles to the heart of the Yosemite Valley via a jaw-dropping route that clings to the side of Yosemite's signature soaring granite rock faces. Tioga Road can be closed in winter, so check before you go.
3. Carmel to San Simeon (Big Sur) Big Sur is a rugged stretch of California's central coast between Carmel and San Simeon. Driving this stretch of Route 1(the Pacific Coast Highway) covers the quintessential California road-trip checklist: winding turns, redwoods, cascades, scenic overlooks, dramatic rocky cliffs, condors, as well as whales and sea otters frolicking in the misty surf. Two spectacular places bookend this 90-mile drive. To the north is Carmel by-the-Sea, a storybook European-style village perched above a white sand beach. To the south is an amazing tourist attraction overlooking the ocean: Hearst Castle. This is the magnificent Jazz Age estate of former newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He spared no expense to create 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways to entertain A-listers of the day and showcase his legendary art collection, which remains on view.
4. Phoenix to Sedona
Though it isn't really "West Coast," it's a short flight from there and worth the trip for a completely different experience. The Red Rock Scenic Byway in Sedona, Arizona, is a great place to pretend you're Jessica Chastain or Matt Damon in "The Martian." The byway is only 14-1/2 miles long, but it could take hours by the time you stop to snap selfies in front of the awesome red rock formations jutting from the earth at every turn. After tooling around Sedona, take the Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive north. This 30-mile drive along state Route 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff is a breathtaking stretch of beauty on a winding road that climbs 4,500 feet to the top of the Mogollon Rim. To get to Sedona, you can rent a car at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, about 120 miles to the south. The landscape changes quickly as you climb out of the flat Phoenix desert, through rolling hills dotted with cactuses. Once you get into Red Rock country, you'll be struggling to keep your eyes off those otherworldly rock formations and on the road in front of you.
5. Las Vegas to Death Valley
This road trip includes two of the hottest places in the world - Las Vegas, Nevada, with its star power and sizzling party vibe, and Death Valley, California, where the hottest official air temperature on Earth (134 degrees F) was recorded. There are several routes you can take, ranging from 120 to 170 miles; the longer being the most scenic. Death Valley National Park is like a time capsule of the Old West, with abandoned mines, ghost towns, coyotes and roadrunners. The park features colorful desert, snow-covered peaks, drifting sand dunes, rugged canyons and the driest, lowest point in North America. How can you resist sites named the Devil's Golf Course, Dante's View and Badwater Road? If you start in Death Valley and end in Las Vegas, you'll have a pool and a drink waiting at the end of your journey. If you do the reverse trip, it's a great way to detox from a lost weekend by relaxing in the stark wilderness of the desert. with plenty of water, of course. Want to make every road trip more enjoyable? Read here about The BMW Performance Driving School and how gaining experience in a variety of weather conditions and terrains can make you a more confident driver. Professional instruction in The Ultimate Driving Machine will prepare you for plenty of enjoyable, fun and safe excursions.
Originally published in the Los Angeles Times special section Ultimate Drive on January 11, 2016.