The Most Exhilarating Drives in California

It’s easy to think of driving in California as a series of directions from one freeway to the other. Yes, taking the 405 to the 101 to the 5 to the 10 (and likely back to the 405) is one way to get around, but what if you wanted to actually enjoy your time behind the wheel? Driving in more populated parts of California is characterized by clogged highways and a forbidding string of traffic lights, but there are plenty of pockets of relief. In addition to being home to unending congestion, California offers some of the planet’s most exhilarating drives -- if you know where to find them.

Herein, we present eight of the least-discovered roads in California that deliver a thrilling driving experience. Just don’t tell anyone else how to get there.

The engineers’ public proving ground: Angeles Crest Highway

Route: La Cañada to Valyermo
Length: About 50 miles
The world’s most formidable public proving ground is located just 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, but the first time you hit Angeles Crest Highway, it feels as though you might as well be in another world entirely. The two-lane stretch winds through the national forest of the same name, with mountains on one side and a deep valley on the other. Make the pilgrimage to The Crest in the winter, and you might even encounter snow along the way, as the road climbs thousands of feet in elevation. It’s not often that the view is as worthwhile as the journey up the road, but on Angeles Crest, you get both.

Ken Lund/Flickr

From grapevines to the beach: Route 152

Route: Gilroy to Watsonville
Length: About 20 miles
There’s a better way to the beach from the strawberry farms and agricultural areas located along the major freeways in California between San Francisco and Santa Barbara -- and the locals are fortunate to drive it every day. Route 152 begins in the garlic capital of Gilroy and terminates in coastal Watsonville, and it’s a literal respite from the straight and narrow. It’s the curves five miles out of Gilroy that you’re looking for, but the rest of Route 152 isn’t too bad to drive, either.

The ascendance to heaven: North San Marcos Road

Route: Santa Barbara
Length: About 8 miles
North San Marcos Road isn’t simply a pass-through to avoid traffic on the 101; it’s one of the world’s best roads. It’s the kind of thoroughfare you don’t expect to encounter. Follow signs to the 154 out of Santa Barbara, but steer just west of the mountain bypass. North San Marcos Road and the San Marcos Pass are about 10 miles long, end to end, but it’ll take you about half an hour to climb them, offering more twists than the back half of Westworld. The road starts out as a two-lane but eventually becomes a one-and-a-half-lane mountain pass with little to no runoff -- making it perfect for an early run when no one is around.

Route 128 -- Jeff Turner/Flickr

To the redwoods: Route 128

Route: Calistoga to Albion
Length: About 100 miles
Getting to see the California redwoods requires some amount of determination by folks who like a drive. You can’t simply fly to San Francisco for the day and step out and see the Redwoods. Make the journey, however, and you’ll be rewarded with green canopies and thick fog worthy of an M. Night Shyamalan sound stage. Start your morning in the sleepy town of Calistoga, about three hours north of SFO, and choose Route 128 over the freeway for actual driving delight. You’ll encounter burned-out forests and sweeping curves before reaching the Pacific Ocean and the tiny hamlet of Albion.

The back way to Big Bear: Route 38

Route: San Bernadino to Big Bear
Length: About 27 miles
Is there a better way to escape Los Angeles County than to do it quickly and enjoyably? Follow the 210 as far east as you can take it, before picking up Routes 330 North and 18 that lead directly to Big Bear. We won’t spoil the surprise that you’ll find once you exit the freeway, but bring driving shoes.


The enlightened path: Palomar Mountain Road

Route: Palomar Mountain loop
Length: Between 25 and 40 miles
Who said that California is all about sea-level, coastal drives? One time around the loop that surrounds Palomar Mountain, and you’ll be itching for reasons to return to the area. Like so many of the best roads in California, Palomar Mountain Road -- and its adjacent Grade roads -- are hardly easy to access. Skip the 5 and the 15 on your way between L.A. and San Diego, and follow signs to Palomar Mountain, known for its on-site observatory and telescope. Take caution around the blind, suddenly descending radius curves, and you’ll enjoy everything about this fast-moving skyway.

Herb Neufeld/Flickr

The road out of San Diego: Route 79

Route: San Diego to Julian
Length: Between 30 and 100 miles
You won’t ever find Route 79 -- located less than an hour outside of San Diego -- if you don’t actually try. Located due east from San Diego along the 8, Sunrise Highway begins somewhere around Pine Valley, where the terrain is dusty and locals are few. The serpentine path leads north toward the town of Julian, passing through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park before it reaches mountainous heights, with views for miles. Elevation changes and wide, sweeping bends are par for the course on this road. It’s no wonder that car companies conduct product validation testing out here. Stay on Route 79 for as few as 30 or as many as 100 miles, depending where your next twisty road adventure takes you.

The motorcyclists’ secret: Route 33

Route: Ojai to Cuyama
Length: About 55 miles
Route 33 begins south of Ojai, but it only gets good just before it takes you north of town. Wend your way through Los Padres National Forest at whatever speed you like, as you travel along the twisty trails that motorcyclists like to hog.

Jeff Jablansky is a freelance journalist who's always looking for the path less traveled. (It's usually more entertaining.) Follow his adventures @unclewithcars, and check out what he has to say: