This legendary route follows strip of highway that was the main route for 20th century pioneers heading west in search of the California dream. Follow the legendary highway, dubbed “the mother road”* by novelist John Steinbeck, to discover remnants of this massive migration between the 1930s to the 1960s.
Much of the original route has been lost or rerouted, and surviving landmarks are scattered, but you can still piece key points together—with worthy detours sprinkled in. This road trip has a twist: instead of heading west on the route, like most people did in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we’ve flipped the drive so you start on the coast in sunny Santa Monica, then end in the dramatic California desert, near the Nevada border. Of course, you can head east to west too, just like those dreamers did more than a half-century ago.
Start your trip in this idyllic oceanfront city, surrounded by a 3.5 mile long beach, and feeling more like a weekend getaway spot than a city just a few minutes west of downtown Los Angeles. Car free options, including a shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport (8 miles south) make it a relaxing destination too. Hang out on the city’s broad beach or the lively pier, complete with its own amusement park and rides, without having to stress about traffic or parking. Another great way to get around: hire cruiser bikes, (hire shops abound) to follow the Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail. Known locally as 'The Strand', the paved, multi-use path follows the oceanfront for roughly 22 miles, from Santa Monica south to Torrance.
Santa Monica also stands out as a place for seriously great shopping. Downtown, pedestrian only Third Street Promenade is lined with big name brands, galleries, cinemas and comedy shows, including a luxurious open-air shopping destination, Santa Monica Place. Visit its rooftop restaurant area, The Market, offering creative, artisanal cuisine from assorted high end food vendors, then take your food to relax on the rooftop dining deck with ocean views, especially nice at sunset. For a fresh take on the shopping scene, visit to one of Santa Monica’s outstanding farmers’ markets, which pop up weekly on city streets. Each of the city’s year round market locations has its own unique charms: there is picnicking on the lawn at Virginia Avenue Park (Saturdays), jazz at the Main Street market in Heritage Square (Sundays), and celebrity chefs looking for fresh produce at the Downtown Santa Monica market (Wednesdays and Saturdays).
From the coast, head inland to one of Southern California’s top theme parks, Universal Studios Hollywood.
Just over the legendary Hollywood Hills, Universal Studios Hollywood blends a working movie studio with a theme park—offering both a behind-the-scenes tour of movie-making magic with rides that swoosh, swoop, and dive through cinematically inspired fantasy worlds. A good first stop: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with its two rides and a full-blown Hogsmeade village of shops and eateries. Other movie and TV favorites get their own rides, restaurants, and attractions, including the zombie-filled Walking Dead Attraction, The Simpsons Ride, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, the World-Famous Studio Tour, and (opening summer 2019) Jurassic World. Before you leave, make sure to explore Universal CityWalk, the neon-lit complex of shops, eateries, and entertainment spaces just outside the park. Insider tip: Upgrade to a Universal Express ticket that lets you bypass the theme park’s lines, or at least buy your ticket online, which gives you access to the park an hour early.
This classy enclave northeast of downtown L.A. has long been a favored retreat of the well-heeled set. Drive the leafy streets, lined with elegant mansions of every shape and style, to have a spa treatment at the 1907 The Langham Huntington, an iconic hotel with ballrooms and terraced gardens. Nearby is Gamble House, one of the world’s finest examples of American Arts & Crafts architecture (docent-led tours noon to 3, Thursday through Sunday). At The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, walk through exquisite gardens and view priceless art treasures. Also visit the impressive collection of European paintings at the Norton Simon Museum. Shop and dine in handsomely restored Old Pasadena, as well as in the outdoor Paseo Colorado complex, or along South Lake Avenue. Time your visit to catch a UCLA Bruins football game at the landmark Rose Bowl (also home to one of the best flea markets in the state; usually held the second Sunday of the month)
Witness some of the world’s best racecar drivers at this legendary Fontana speedway. Whether you’re into NASCAR, INDYCAR, or drag racing, Auto Club Speedway delivers all kinds of thrills for fans of high-speed action. The 2-mile, D-shaped oval draws top drivers for springtime’s Auto Club 400, one of NASCAR’s premier events. INDYCAR events include the season-ending MAVTV 500. To get the full experience and see cars (and sometimes drivers) up-close, pick up pre-race pit passes for both NASCAR and INDYCAR events. And while the races are the big draw, there are also live performances, stunt shows, and infield camping.
The speedway’s Auto Club Dragway also hosts National Hot Rod Association events, and if you want to put your mettle to the pedal, attend one of the racing schools held at the speedway throughout the year. Check the race schedule to know what’s going on when you’re on your road trip.
Two museums offer a peaceful—and interesting—interlude in this Inland Empire City. The San Bernardino County Museum offers a look at the area’s past, with exhibits of Native American crafts, and displays of mining equipment, lumber wagons, and a steam locomotive that helped build the Inland Empire. The museum also commemorates the area’s citrus heritage and celebrates its natural environment with desert gardens and The Exploration Station, a gallery with live animals.
At Cal State University San Bernardino, the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art spans the millennia. It boasts more than 500 artifacts tracing 4,000 years of Egyptian history, as well impressive collections of ancient Mediterranean ceramics and contemporary art.
This remote desert town is the place to be for some of the best remnants from the migration west. Plus, there’s some good outlet shopping too. First up is the wacky storage closet of the region’s memorabilia, the Route 66 Mother Road Museum. Period road signs, photos, and other mid-century oddities take you down memory lane of the 20th-century pioneers searching for the California dream. Just west of Barstow is the eccentric but oddly beautiful Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch, the work of a local artist, with welded metal “trees” festooned with discarded bottles, vintage toys, and other scraps. It’s a colorful example of the region’s still-strong folk art tradition.
For more ideas on what to do in the area, visit the California Welcome Center, in the Tanger Outlets complex, where you can hunt for bargains on favorite labels and name brands, including Calvin Klein, Skechers, and Michael Kors.
Protecting an astounding 1.6 million acres/647,497 hectares of pristine desert wilderness, the Mojave National Preserve lets you hear singing sand dunes, explore weirdly contorted Joshua trees, and hike up volcanic cinder cones. Take time to explore, and let the desert’s magic unfold.
Don’t miss nearby Kelso Dunes, the second largest dune system in California, covering 45 square miles/72 square kilometers and soaring to more than 600/183 meters. In spring, desert wildflowers dapple the sands with color.
Another popular hike is the 3-mile/5-km round-trip trek to the summit of 5,775-foot/1,754-meter Teutonia Peak, the highest point on Cima Dome, an almost perfectly symmetrical formation.
This is no lifeless wasteland: wait and watch (especially at dusk and dawn) to see surprising wildlife, including the rare desert tortoise. Spring rains can carpet the desert with wildflowers. And there are people here too: stop in at Kelso Depot, a restored train station housing the preserve’s visitor center, for exhibits and information (open 9 to 5, Friday through Tuesday).
Joshua Tree National Park is small enough to drive through in a half-day, but you’ll want much more time than that to enjoy this land of cactus gardens, spiky yuccas, and photogenic boulder piles. Not-to-be-missed highlights include the Cholla Cactus Garden, where hundreds of teddybear cholla fade into a backdrop of purple hills. On the park’s north side, where elevations are higher, you’ll marvel at spindly, cartoon-like Joshua trees (they’re actually a yucca, not a tree). At White Tank Campground, stroll to Arch Rock, a graceful span of ivory-hued granite. Wander the path around Skull Rock to see its alcoves and miniature caves, carved out over eons of time, or hike to the summit of 5,457-foot Ryan Mountain for panoramic views of the Wonderland of Rocks and Southern California’s highest peaks.No matter how you spend your day, make sure it stretches long into the evening—you don’t want to miss this desert’s astounding star show. When evening falls, pick a spot to lay out a blanket near Cap Rock’s quirky rock formations.
Blossoming at the base of the San Jacinto Range, this destination is a welcome splash of well-watered green after all that desert dryness. Fed by underground springs, the desert comes alive here, not only with signature palms, but also with a string of resort communities—Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and others, as well as the namesake town of Palm Springs—sporting a cool, mid-century modern vibe and countless ways to relax. Back in the 1950s, stars like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley built sleek estates, played rounds of golf at championship courses, and wined and dined the desert night away. Today, the region still has plenty of retro hipster swagger but also next-gen energy, with hot new restaurants, luxury lodgings, and fabulous shopping. Plus, there’s the beauty of the California desert all around.
Give yourself plenty of time to stroll along this swanky strip in Palm Desert. First, you’ll want to see all the art. This roughly 1-mile/2-km strip and adjacent streets house one of the largest concentrations of art galleries anywhere in Southern California. As inviting as mini-museums, these galleries let you get close to art, chat with knowledgeable gallery owners and staff, and even meet the artists on during special openings and events. Then you’ll want to get something to eat—perhaps a juicy steak accompanied by jazz (Sullivan's Steakhouse), or oysters on the half-shell (Pacifica Seafood Restaurant), or wood-fired pizza at Sammy’s. And of course—there’s the shopping. There’s a reason El Paseo reminds people of Rodeo Drive, what with the impeccably appointed boutiques of top designers, including Bottega Veneta and St. John, tempting you to brandish your credit card and come in. Find more shops at the Gardens on El Paseo complex: Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor, Pottery Barn, Brooks Brothers, Tommy Bahamas, and more.
Next stop is California’s largest state park, an extraordinary region with palm oases, wildlife, mysterious canyons, and Native American history.
On your way to this park, you’ll pass through the little community of Borrego Springs. Stop in at the town’s visitor center to get driving maps to an astounding collection of enormous prehistoric animals—metal sculptures made by artist Ricardo Breceda—that dot the surrounding desert landscape.
The main entrance and visitor center to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are on the south end of town. The park’s combo name, pairing the name of famed Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who crossed this desert in 1774, and the Spanish word for sheep (“borrego”)—referring to the region’s native bighorn sheep, this desert preserve—California’s largest state park—protects more than 600,000 acres/242,811 hectares of badlands, palm oases, slot canyons, and cactus-studded hills. A geology lesson in making, still being altered by erosion and flash floods, it’s a wild and remote place, with much of it accessed via primitive roads, or on foot. (Consider renting a 4WD with high clearance for best access.) But the payoff is stunning stillness and unforgettable beauty. A popular walk near the Visitor Center follows a creek to Palm Canyon, a favorite spot for desert bighorn sheep.
From Anza-Borrego, it’s a roughly 2-hour drive southwest to San Diego, or a 3-hour drive northwest to Los Angeles.