There’s nothing like packing your bags, hopping in the car and turning the radio dial up as miles of pavement pass beneath your wheels. In Southern California, where warm, sunny days make for perfect drives with the window down, the best road trip includes three amazing and unique regions all within a few hours of each other: Santa Monica, Greater Palm Springs and San Diego. Whether you’re a beach bum or a culture connoisseur, you’ll appreciate the variety of experiences that await in each place—and can be enjoyed in just 10 days.

Ready to hit the road? Let this ultimate Southern California road trip itinerary be your guide.

DAYS 1-3: SANTA MONICA

DAY 1: Santa Monica, your starting point, is Los Angeles’ beach city—a charming seaside town with all of the culture, events and urban amenities of a bustling metropolis. Kick off your trip with a bike ride along the 35-kilometer beach bicycle trail or a guided tour with Santa Monica Bike Center. Then spend a few hours at the Pacific Park amusement park, located on the world-famous Santa Monica Pier, and catch the sunset from the Ferris wheel. Finish your first day with dinner on the patio at one of Main Street‘s neighborhood restaurants.

Two people riding bikes along Santa Monica beach

DAY 2: Begin your day by grabbing some fresh fruit from the Santa Monica Farmers Market, then getting a coffee to-go and strolling toward the 26-acre Palisades Park, known for its beautiful ocean views. Want to get your feet wet? Catch a wave during a surf session with the pros at Aqua Surf School before exploring the Annenberg Community Beach House, a unique community destination with spectacular views, a splash pad, a playground, a gallery, beach courts, cultural events and more. Afterward, hit up Santa Monica Place for outdoor luxury shopping and dining.

View of the pool at Annenberg Community Beach House overlooking the Pacific Ocean

DAY 3: Greet the dawn with a sunrise hike in historic Will Rogers State Park through Malibu Discovery Tours, then grab your sunscreen and shades and find a sunny spot in the sand. Perry’s Café and Beach Rentals is a must, offering “Beach Butler” service with a private beach area, as well as chairs, an umbrella, towels, and food and beverages delivered right to you. Once you’ve worked on your tan, find your artsy side at Bergamot Station, Southern California’s largest art gallery complex and cultural center with over 20 contemporary galleries, or head to Pico Blvd for a self-guide street art mural tour.

Love by Allison Kunath, a mural on Pico Blvd in Santa Monica

Looking to stay somewhere truly unique while in Santa Monica? Check out these these hotels which feature amazing architecture and design elements.

DAYS 4-7: GREATER PALM SPRINGS

DAY 4: It’s time to head to Greater Palm Springs for a little relaxation and rejuvenation. This storied resort oasis, home to nine distinct cities, serves as the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park and boasts hundreds of miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, as well as an incomparable collection of seductive luxury hotels, resorts and spas.

After the 2.5-hour drive, climb aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tram car, and ascend over 9,000 feet to the top of Mount San Jacinto. Need to stretch your legs? Set out on a desert hike or go rock climbing among colossal boulders at Joshua Tree National Park. Afterwards, be sure to visit Pioneertown, an Old West movie set, or stop by world-renowned saloon and restaurant Pappy & Harriet’s for a barbecue dinner and live music.

Scenic site in the Joshua Tree National Park in Greater Palm Springs

Credit: Greater Palm Springs CVB

DAY 5: Rise and shine with an outdoor adventure that’s sure to get your adrenaline pumping. With Big Wheel Tours, you’ll get a guided bike tour as you join the signature “Earthquake Canyon Express” through the San Andreas Fault Zone. At America’s first carbon-neutral resort, Two Bunch Palms, treat yourself to a full range of spa-induced wellness treatments, including mud baths, chakra massages and reiki. And as the sun dips behind the mountains, embark on a San Andreas Fault Sunset and Stargazing Jeep Tour with Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours & Events.

Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours in Greater Palm Springs

Credit: Greater Palm Springs CVB

DAY 6: Begin the day with another shot of adrenaline at the BMW Performance Center. Strap into a high-performance BMW and learn to negotiate one of three private road tracks under your instructor’s watchful eye. Before the 2.5-hour drive to San Diego, allow La Quinta Resort & Club to nourish the body with authentic Mexican cuisine at the resort’s signature restaurant, Adobe Grill.

Greater Palm Springs BMW Performance Center

Credit: Greater Palm Springs CVB

DAYS 7-10: SAN DIEGO

DAY 7: After spending a couple days immersed in the desert’s awe-inspiring scenery and healing energy, pack up the car to explore the world-famous attractions and neighborhoods of San Diego. The region’s unique Cali-Baja culinary scene and craft brew industry has foodies flocking for fresh experiences, while a dynamic downtown is home to nightlife that’s as vibrant as the city itself.

Plus, it’s only 2.5 hours away! Spend the late morning exploring the Embarcadero, an epicenter of maritime history, where you can tour the USS Midway Museum, take a 1- or 2-hour harbor cruise or visit the floating Maritime Museum. Later, watch the sun set while sipping cocktails at one of Harbor Island’s trendy bay-side restaurants, then indulge in incredible cuisine prepared by top chefs in Little Italy, San Diego’s current restaurant “hot spot.”

USS Midway in San Diego

Credit: San Diego Tourism Authority

DAY 8: Wake up and walk on the wild side at the world-famous San Diego Zoo, home to more than 4,000 animals. Stroll through the country’s largest urban park—Balboa Park—featuring 15 museums, an artist colony and fascinating architecture. Then top it all off with dinner and dancing in the Gaslamp Quarter, a historic downtown neighborhood where you’ll find 200+ restaurants, bars and nightclubs within a 14-block radius.

San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter at night

Credit: San Diego Tourism Authority

DAY 9: Make your last morning memorable by enjoying breakfast at a cozy La Jolla cliffside restaurant (be sure to check out the sea lion colony!) followed by some much-needed beach time. Kick back and catch some rays along San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline. Round out the day in Old Town, the “Birthplace of California,” where museums, restaurants and Mexican traditions combine to provide an unforgettable cultural experience.

San Diego's Old Town Folklorico

Credit: San Diego Tourism Authority

DAY 10: START DREAMING ABOUT YOUR RETURN VISIT
Enjoy a light bite at one of San Diego’s hidden gem neighborhoods of North Park, South Park or Hillcrest, then head to the airport (located just 10 minutes from downtown San Diego) for your trip back home—and start dreaming about your next SoCal getaway!

 

Mentioned in this Article

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Annenberg Community Beach House
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Aqua Surf School
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Bergamot Station
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Downtown Farmers Market
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Main Street
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Malibu Discovery Tours
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Palisades Park
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Perry’s Café and Beach Rentals
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Santa Monica Bike Center
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Santa Monica Pier
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Santa Monica Place