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5 Epic California Road Trip Stops

For Condé Nast Traveler, by Paul Rubio.

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Unless time is no object, don’t expect to cover the entirety of Cali in a single road trip (the state spans 163,696 square miles, after all). A better bet is to map out key routes with stops along the Golden State’s 900-mile coastline, and head inland for the best national parks and the wonders of wine country. Here, five places to consider hitting up on your West Coast road trip, from gallery going in swanky Monterey to vineyard hopping in Sonoma.

1. Santa Monica

Kick off your road trip by mixing California seaside charm with the buzz of neighboring Los Angeles in this palm tree-speckled city. Santa Monica promises endless sunshine (averaging 340 sunny days per year), direct access to 3.5 miles of beach, brilliant surf, and one of the most rewarding sections of the 500+ mile Pacific Coast Highway (the drive to Malibu will never get old). After a stay at the chic resort Shutters on the Beach — make sure to hit up the best of LA’s restaurant scene while you’re there — hit the road. Your first pit stop? An oceanside table at Nobu Malibu.

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2. Palm Springs

After its beaches, Southern California is perhaps best known for its diverse desert landscapes (not to mention some of America’s best stargazing). To see it from above, climb aboard Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tramcar, and climb 8,516 feet up the vertical cliffs of Chino Canyon (at the top lies the snow-covered Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness State Park). Later, drive an hour east to Joshua Tree National Park and you’ll feel like you’ve arrived in The Land Before Time: each hairpin turn reveals clusters of spiky, Joshua trees and 100-million-year-old boulders. Pro-tip: bring a picnic lunch to graze on at one of the many stopping points. Stay at the Avalon Hotel and Bungalows (formerly the Viceroy Palm Springs), which is a time capsule of Hollywood Regency design and features lovely courtyards, sculpted gardens, and swimming pools.

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3. Santa Barbara

Stroll Summerland beach (some 100 miles north of Santa Monica) where you’ll watch prized polo horses getting their daily exercise, or lounge among the palm trees on the popular, family-friendly East Beach, one of the several un-tamed beaches defining this city-by-the-sea. Tour the c. 1786 Mission Santa Barbara, the city’s principal cultural and historical landmark or simply cruise through patches of Mission-style architecture. Afterwards, park the car and explore the region’s burgeoning wine country with Cloud Climbers Jeep Tours as your designated driver (they’ll take you to four local wineries in an open-aired jeep). Later kick back at the oceanfront Belmond El Encanto, where guest rooms are outfitted with Earth-toned furnishings, private fireplaces, and heated stone floors.

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4. Big Sur

Sadly, the collapse of Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 earlier this year means the most extraordinary stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway is off limits until fall 2017— at the earliest. As a result, road trippers will have to re-route inland to US-101 N to cross from central coastal California into northern coastal California. Those keen on still including this fabled region of colossal waves, dramatic cliffs, and arboreal giants should expect long detours, delays and limited services (basically, we don’t recommend it). Thankfully Big Sur’s ultimate hotel for coastal romance — the adults-only Post Ranch Inn — has reopened, albeit in a reduced capacity, and can be reached via helicopter from Monterey with Del Monte Aviation (and you can park your car for free at the terminal).

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5. Carmel-by-the-Sea

This small beachfront city is dotted with European-style cottages, housing art galleries and specialty boutiques, and serves as the perfect starting point to explore greater Monterey County (who hasn’t binged on Big Little Lies at this point?). Head south to Point Lobos State Nature Reserve and spot jellyfish, seals and gray whales skirting past the rocky coastline. If you’re traveling with kids, stop at Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the world’s best and a leader in global marine conservation. Or you can sample wines from regional wineries at the many boutique tasting rooms in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea, or just buy a bottle, grab a blanket, head to the beach (don’t worry, it’s legal here). Retreat to L’Auberge Carmel, an intimate stucco inn, built in 1929 and now run by Relais & Chateaux, with a beautiful central courtyard that feels straight out of rural France.

See the rest of Epic California Road Trip Stops on CNTraveler.com

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