Famous red bridge on a sunny day with blue skies and blue ocean beneath
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Road Trip from North Carolina to California

Published by Dianne Titos on November 22 2023

There is no adventure quite like an all-American cross-country road trip. On this epic drive from North Carolina to California, you will get to tick off some bucket list items, such as the Grand Canyon, admire the stunning scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains, and visit one iconic city after another.

The 2,740-mile road trip from North Carolina to California will take 41 hours. Highlights are Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Grand Canyon National Park, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This really is the ultimate American road trip. Keep reading below to learn more about our recommended routes, top highlights, the best places to stay, and the best seasons to make the drive.

How far is California from North Carolina, and how long will the road trip take?

Comparison of road trip routes between North Carolina and California
RouteDistanceDriving Time
San Diego Route2,740 miles41 hours
San Francisco Route3,075 miles47 hours

The San Diego Route from North Carolina to California is a scenic and extensive journey, covering approximately 2,740 miles with an estimated driving time of 41 hours.

Alternatively, the San Francisco Route, while slightly longer, takes you about 3,075 miles and takes around 47 hours to drive.

While these trips could be completed in a few days if you drove as much as possible each day, we recommend extending the journey over 10 days or more. This way, you'll be sure to get the most out of this amazing journey.

Panoramic view of Coastline in San Diego on a sunny day with blue sky
It is time to make your dreams of sandy beaches and the Californian sun come true, and set off on an adventure from North Carolina to the Golden State.
superjoseph/Shutterstock.com

Best road trip route from North Carolina to California

Both the San Diego and San Francisco routes from North Carolina to California offer an array of stunning natural attractions as you might expect from a mammoth adventure of this size. Which one you choose will depend on if you want to experience the best of Southern California or Northern California.

Both routes follow the same directions until Los Angeles through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, As you travel, you'll experience the Great Smoky Mountains and the awe-inspiring expanses of the Grand Canyon.

You will also get to visit some world-famous cities with rich musical heritage, such as Nashville and Memphis, and admire the unique architecture and cuisine of New Mexico in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

The routes will diverge past Los Angeles and on the San Diego Route, you'll get spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and some of the best beaches in California, such as Peninsula Beach in Long Beach and Laguna Beach.

On the other hand, the San Francisco Route also has plenty of coastal beauty and quintessential American landscapes. As you drive along Pacific Coast Highway towards San Francisco, prepare to see the most spectacular ocean views.

You will also get to visit some fantastic places such as Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Monterey and the beautiful Half Moon Bay. If you are following the San Francisco Route, you will spend more time on the Pacific Coast compared to the San Diego Route.

How to drive from North Carolina to California

The map above shows our suggestions for the best road trip routes between North Carolina and California. Keep reading for detailed descriptions of both routes, where to stay on either, and the best things to do on the way.

San Diego Route

Starting from Charlotte, head north on US-321. Merge onto Interstate 40 (I-40) west and continue on to beautiful Asheville past Pisgah National Forest.

From Asheville, drive west along the Great Smoky Mountains on the interstate through Cherokee National Forest. Here, you can make a detour to Pigeon Forge and visit Dolly Parton's famous Dollywood. Soon, you'll arrive in Knoxville.

After exploring Knoxville, head west on the interstate and you'll soon arrive in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. After enjoying this music and culture capital, head back on I-40.

Continue on to the historical city of Memphis in Tennessee and then cross the border to Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas. Then, drive to Oklahoma City and after exploring the city's famous museums, head back en route west.

Soon, you'll enter the dry plains of Oklahoma and reach the Texas Panhandle and the city of Amarillo. Here, you can make a pit stop at the famous Cadillac Ranch. From here, you will soon enter New Mexico.

From here, take a detour north to Santa Fe, one of the oldest cities in America. After seeing the historical monuments and enjoying the cuisine of Santa Fe, head to Albuquerque and get back on the interstate.

Continue driving west through the high desert until you get to Flagstaff and you will soon reach the majestic Grand Canyon National Park. Once you've experienced enough awe and wonder, head south from the Grand Canyon and merge onto I-40 West.

Soon, you'll enter California and drive through the Mojave Desert. Continue on route west to Barstow, turn south on I-15 to Los Angeles. This is where the two routes diverge.

From Los Angeles, make your way south on I-710 and then I-405. Once you reach Crystal Cove State Park, you will get on Pacific Coast Highway and follow it until Dana Point, where it ends. Merging onto i-5, you will soon arrive in San Diego.

Los Angeles, California, USA downtown cityscape at sunset.
Both of our routes will first take you to Los Angeles before you decide whether you'd like to head north or south on the Pacific Coast.
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San Francisco Route

The San Francisco Route follows the same cross-country directions that the San Diego Route does. However, once you reach Los Angeles, you'll drive north instead of South.

From LA, drive on Pacific Coast Highway to the coast of Ventura. From here, make your way to beautiful Santa Barbara. After enjoying this beautiful coastal city, continue north through wine country to Santa Maria and Pismo Beach.

You'll love the endless stretches of sand before heading north to San Luis Obispo. Continue on route to Paso Robles, a famous wine getaway. From here, head north on US-101 to Monterey.

After visiting this ocean-loving city, continue around Monterey Bay to the city of Santa Cruz. Make sure to catch some of the best surfers on the planet and see the towering redwoods that live in this amazing city. From here, make your way to your destination of San Francisco.

Colorful wooden buildings by the water in Monterey Bay, California
If you choose to follow the San Francisco Route, you will get to admire the panoramic views of Monterey Bay.
Chris LaBasco/Shutterstock.com

Best places to stop between North Carolina and California

This drive from North Carolina to California is a long and fantastic journey through America. To make sure you're well rested and have time to visit enough sites, we suggest staying in one of our recommended destinations below.

Delve into the musical heart of Memphis

Memphis, Tennessee, is the ideal stopover on both the San Diego and San Francisco Routes, approximately 10 hours into the journey. Known as the 'Home of Blues and the Birthplace of Rock'n'Roll,' Memphis offers a mix of musical heritage and cultural wonders.

Your first stop will likely be Graceland, the legendary home of Elvis Presley. Once you have learned more about the life of the King, another must-visit is the National Civil Rights Museum, which takes you through America's civil rights history.

Living room in Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion
See how the King lived in his famous Graceland Mansion as you walk in the footsteps of Elvis Presley.
jejim/Shutterstock.com

For your stay in Memphis, the Big Cypress Lodge is an exceptional choice. Nestled within the iconic Memphis Pyramid, this unique hotel offers rooms themed from treehouse retreats to vintage duck cabins, each with plenty of rustic elegance.

You can enjoy views of the indoor cypress swamps, the pyramid's eclectic interior, or the downtown Memphis skyline. Once settled in, we highly recommend pampering yourself with a well-deserved massage at the spa on-site.

One of the hotel's highlights is the Sky High Observation Deck, offering panoramic city views. Additionally, the hotel features a unique, underwater-themed 13-lane bowling alley for an unforgettable experience.

The National Civil Rights Museum and the Memphis Rock'n'Soul Museum are both easily accessible from the Big Cypress Lodge, located just a 5-minute drive or a 30-minute walk away.

Celebrity spotting in Los Angeles

Los Angeles, home of movie stars and Hollywood, is the perfect overnight stop on the San Diego and San Francisco Routes 39 hours into your journey. This iconic city on the Pacific West Coast is the perfect bucket list destination on a drive to California.

A visit to Universal Studios Hollywood will take you into the world of movie magic, where you can even be part of the movie history yourself by visiting Hogwarts (no flying broom required!) at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Hogwarts castle replica at Wizarding World of Harry Potter on a cloudy day
Universal Studios is home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where you can see the magical Hogwarts Castle with your own eyes!
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While you might want to spend an entire day or two at Universal Studios, we highly recommend putting some time aside to visit the world-famous Getty Center, which hosts impressive art collections and stunning architecture.

The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills is our favorite place to stay in Los Angeles. This hotel boasts a stunning rooftop pool, offering panoramic city views, complete with private cabanas.

The rooms are spacious and luxurious, each featuring a balcony to take in the breathtaking city views. Dining at the hotel is also an experience, with a range of unique options available, including a rooftop restaurant.

The hotel's stellar location also puts you in close proximity to some of LA's most famous sites. Just a 4-minute drive or a 15-minute walk away is the upscale neighborhood of Beverly Hills and the Beverly Center Mall.

For a taste of Hollywood glamour, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the trendy shopping on Melrose Avenue are only a 10-minute drive or a 30-minute walk from the hotel.

Where to stay when you reach San Francisco

San Francisco, with its iconic Golden Gate Bridge, steep and winding streets, and cable cars, is an amazing destination on the Pacific Coast. This city is also home to the second-largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the largest Japantown in the US.

San Francisco Hyde Street Cable Car Tram of the Powell-Hyde in California USA taken on a sunny day.
Hop on a cable car for a quintessential San Francisco experience.
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Upon arriving, make sure to visit the famous Alcatraz Island, which provides a glimpse into the history of one of the most notorious former prisons. For a genuine San Francisco experience, hop on one of the city's famed cable cars.

For your stay, the Mansion on Sutter is an impeccable choice. This beautifully converted Victorian mansion, originally built as a private home in 1881, offers an opulent and historically immersive stay. Each room in the Mansion on Sutter has its own unique theme.

As you wander through the mansion, you'll encounter beautiful and collectible artworks displayed in common spaces and guestrooms, enriching your stay with a blend of culture and luxury.

Things to see on a road trip from North Carolina to California

Throughout this road trip from North Carolina to California, you'll see endless sights that will inspire you. To help you plan this ultimate American journey, we've included our favorite highlights below.

Both Routes

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park - A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this park is renowned for its diverse plant and animal life, and the beauty of its ancient mountains, offering a plethora of hiking trails and scenic drives.
  2. Knoxville - Known as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville combines outdoor adventure with rich cultural experiences, including vibrant arts, music, and culinary scenes.
  3. Nashville - The heart of country music, Nashville is home to the legendary Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a lively downtown brimming with music venues and cultural landmarks.
  4. Memphis - Renowned for its rich musical heritage, notably as the birthplace of blues, soul, and rock 'n' roll, and for landmarks like Beale Street and Sun Studio. It's also famous for Elvis Presley's Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum.
  5. Oklahoma City - A city with a rich cowboy culture, Oklahoma City features attractions like the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and a revitalized downtown area.
  6. Oklahoma Route 66 Museum - This museum showcases the history of America's legendary Route 66, offering a nostalgic journey through vintage cars, neon signs, and artifacts from the famed highway.
  7. New Mexico History Museum - Located in the heart of Santa Fe, this museum presents the rich narratives of New Mexico's past, from Native American history to Spanish colonial and American frontier periods.
  8. Indian Pueblo Cultural Center - A hub for Pueblo culture, this center offers an immersive experience into the history, art, and traditions of the Native American Pueblo people of New Mexico.
  9. Petrified Forest National Park - Famous for its vast deposits of petrified wood, this park also boasts colorful badlands, ancient petroglyphs, and a portion of the Painted Desert.
  10. Grand Canyon National Park - One of the world's natural wonders, the Grand Canyon offers breathtaking vistas, hiking trails, and the opportunity to experience the immense scale and beauty of this iconic landscape.
  11. Mojave National Preserve - A vast wilderness area showcasing a variety of desert landscapes, including sand dunes, canyons, and Joshua tree forests, ideal for hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing.
  12. Los Angeles - A sprawling metropolis known for Hollywood, beautiful beaches, and cultural diversity, Los Angeles offers endless entertainment, shopping, and dining experiences.
Sunrise at Toroweap in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA.
No matter which route you choose, you will get to visit the magnificent Grand Canyon on this road trip from North Carolina to California.
LHBLLC/Shutterstock.com

San Diego Route

  1. Long Beach - Known for its waterfront attractions, Long Beach is home to the historic Queen Mary, vibrant arts scene, and the Aquarium of the Pacific.
  2. Huntington Beach - Known as "Surf City USA," Huntington Beach is famous for its long, sandy beaches and consistent waves, making it a popular destination for surfers and beachgoers.
  3. Santa Ana - Located in Southern California, is the bustling county seat of Orange County known for its vibrant arts and culture scene, as evidenced by the Bowers Museum and the Santa Ana Artists' Village.
  4. Laguna Beach - Laguna Beach is a picturesque coastal city known for its stunning beaches, coves, and vibrant arts scene, including art galleries. It offers a blend of natural beauty with a charming downtown area filled with boutique shops and upscale dining.
  5. LEGOLAND California - Located in Carlsbad, LEGOLAND California is a family-friendly theme park and resort designed specifically for children aged 2-12, featuring interactive rides, shows, and attractions, all themed around the popular LEGO building blocks.
  6. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve - Located near San Diego, this coastal reserve is famous for its rugged cliffs, rare Torrey pine trees, and stunning Pacific Ocean views.
  7. De Anza Cove Park - A serene recreational area offering picturesque views of Mission Bay, with amenities for picnicking, jogging, and bird-watching, as well as access to water sports like kayaking and paddleboarding.
Laguna Beach stretching into the distance in Orange County, California
You will be spoilt for which beach to choose on the San Diego Route. Laguna Beach is one of our favorites!
Gabriele Maltinti/Shutterstock.com

San Francisco Route

  1. Santa Barbara - This picturesque coastal city, known as the "American Riviera," boasts Mediterranean-style architecture, beautiful beaches, and a vibrant cultural scene.
  2. San Luis Obispo - A charming town with a laid-back vibe, featuring historical missions, boutique shopping, and a thriving local food and wine scene.
  3. Carmel-by-the-Sea - A quaint, picturesque town known for its fairy-tale cottages, art galleries, and scenic beaches, perfect for a peaceful coastal retreat.
  4. Monterey Bay - Located on California's central coast, Monterey Bay is celebrated for its diverse marine life, visible at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and its historical significance, evidenced in the preserved buildings of Cannery Row.
  5. Santa Cruz - A vibrant coastal city famous for its boardwalk, surf culture, and redwood forests, offering a mix of outdoor activities and quirky, artistic charm.
  6. Pigeon Point Lighthouse - One of the tallest lighthouses in America, offering breathtaking coastal views, rich maritime history, and opportunities for whale watching.
  7. Half Moon Bay - A small coastal city south of San Francisco, is famous for its dramatic cliffs, sandy beaches, and the annual Mavericks surf competition, which attracts world-renowned surfers.

Best time to go on a road trip from North Carolina to California

Traveling from North Carolina to California, whether on the San Diego or San Francisco Route, offers an unforgettable road trip experience, with each season presenting unique landscapes and events.

Winter can bring road closures in the Grand Canyon (keep in mind that the North Rim is closed during this season) and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so staying updated via their websites is crucial.

The Great Smoky Mountains' high elevations can lead to rapid weather changes; hence, carrying layers and waterproof gear is advisable.

Orange California poppies with purple wildflowers on hills near Lake Elsinore
If you are lucky, you might witness a rare California superbloom event, which happens after a series of winter rains combine with the right temperatures.
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Winter festivities include New Year's and Christmas parades in cities and towns along both routes. However, when you reach San Francisco, you can experience the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade in February.

Summer travels, especially through the southern states, can be quite warm due to high humidity. The Mojave National Preserve in California, however, is a delight in March and April with its wildflower blooms. You might even be lucky enough to witness a superbloom event!

Summer is arguably the best time for festivals and events along the route. You can enjoy the Grand Canyon Star Party in June and Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis in June.

Once you reach San Diego, you can check out the San Diego Comic-Con International in July. This is a major event for pop-culture fans of all ages.

Spring and Fall are also beautiful times to travel. You'll get to see the Nashville Cherry Blossom Festival in April and plenty of fall colors and spring blooms. The Grand Canyon Music Festival takes place in September, so make sure to check the program out if you are traveling in fall.

Upon reaching San Francisco, the temperatures range from the mid-50s to low 70s Fahrenheit throughout the year. Meanwhile, San Diego, experiences warmer weather, with summer temperatures averaging in the high 70s to mid-80s Fahrenheit.