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.
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.
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.
Looking to stay somewhere truly unique while in Santa Monica? Check out 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 tramcar, 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. Afterward, be sure to visit Pioneertown, an Old West movie set, or stop by the world-renowned saloon and restaurant Pappy & Harriet’s for a barbecue dinner and live music.
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.
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.
DAYS 7-10: SAN DIEGO
DAY 7: After spending a couple of 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 have foodies flocking for fresh experiences, while a dynamic downtown is a 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 sunset 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.”
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.
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.
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!