See The Best Of California In Two Weeks

US 1 Road in California Naixn/Flickr
Can one see the Golden State's top sights in just two weeks?

Just barely.

Should one?

That all depends on your taste for speed and your desire to check off bucket list destinations efficiently. But we hope you'll use this whirlwind itinerary to spark ideas on how to plan a superb California vacation....whether you decide to take it slow, or zoom through the state at a Usain Bolt pace. It's up to you.
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A street in San Francisco's Chinatown SMcGarnigle/Flickr
Your vacation starts in one of America’s most exciting cities. Hop aboard the nation’s only moving National Historic Landmark, the San Francisco cable cars, and enjoy the views on the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. Ferry out to the infamous Alcatraz Island and take the fascinating tour. Explore the North Beach neighborhood, then get lost in the maze of Chinatown’s trinket shops and restaurants. For dinner, the Ferry Building Marketplace is a foodie paradise, where you can sample a wide array of local gourmet foods.
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A view of the Golden Gate Bridge Tim Hilton/Flickr
Start the day with an invigorating stroll (pack a camera and a jacket) across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and back. The city loves its Golden Gate Park, and you will, too, with highlights like Stow Lake, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the big and bold de Young Museum. At the hippie hotbed of Haight-Ashbury, take a stroll through the funky vintage shops and Summer of Love hangers-on. End the day at one of San Francisco’s many world-class restaurants, such as State Bird Provisions.
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Artesa Vineyards and Winery Joe Weiss/Flickr
Rent a car and head north on U.S. 101 for 22 miles. At Hwy. 37 take a right and go 7 miles. At Hwy. 121 take a left and follow for 18 miles. Continue on Hwy. 29 heading north. Trip time: about 1 hour.

Day 3 is all about the wine and food of one of the world’s most renowned wine regions, Napa Valley. Start by stocking up on supplies—cheese, sandwiches—at the Oxbow Public Market, then hit several wineries for tastings. Favorites include Artesa Vineyards & Winery (pictured), The Hess Collection Winery, Rubicon Estate, and the old-world-style Schramsberg (p.146). Note that some wineries require advance reservations. Enjoy a brilliant meal at Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry, if you can swing a reservation.
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The blue, blue waters of Lake Tahoe Don Graham/Flickr
After staying the night in Napa, get on the road early. Head east on I-80 for 42 miles. Continue east on U.S. 50 for 103 miles. Trip time: about 3 hours.

Mark Twain called Lake Tahoe, with its clear blue waters and ring of pine-covered mountains, the "fairest picture the whole earth affords." You just might agree, especially if you’re taking the cable car up the freshly powdered slopes at Squaw Valley USA. In summer, there’s boating and sailing tours, mountain biking, or you can simply circle the lake and enjoy the views.

Stay the night.
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The mine at Empire Mine State Historic Park Ray Bouknight/Flickr
Head west on U.S. 50 for 57 miles to Placerville. Trip time: about 1 hour.

Highway 49 is a fascinating stretch that connects a slew of old Gold Rush towns like Sutter Creek and Jackson. Head north to Grass Valley to see the Empire Mine State Historic Park (pictured), the site of California’s biggest mine. In Coloma the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park marks the discovery of gold in America and includes a Gold Discovery Museum and a replica of Sutter’s Mill. Further south is the Columbia State Historic Park, maybe a bit hokey and over-the-top, but a hoot for kids interested in panning for gold.  
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Yosemite National Park Edward Stojakovic/Flickr
From Columbia, head south on Hwy. 49. Veer left onto Hwy. 120 and go east for 45 miles. Trip time: 2 hours.

This park is an onslaught of granite cliffs and cascading waterfalls. Gaze upon El Capitan, the world’s largest granite monolith. Stand in the mist at the foot of Bridalveil Fall and Lower Yosemite Falls. Have your camera ready for Tunnel View, which frames Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, and Half Dome. Drive up to Glacier Point to end the day with the best viewpoint in the park—Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and three waterfalls.

Spend the night in the park.
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A view of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Phil Horton/flickr
Start Day 6 with a gentle morning hike to Mirror Lake for amazing views of the magnificent Half Dome. Consider a white-water raft trip on the Merced River. Check out Tuolumne Meadows in the park’s stunning high country. 

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Tropical fish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Justin Ennis/Flickr
Head west on Hwy. 140 (78 miles), then South on Hwy. 59 (14 miles), then west on Hwy. 152 (52 miles), and then southwest on Hwy. 156 (34 miles). Continue south on Hwy. 1 for 13 miles. Trip time: about 4 hours.

Next to Cannery Row, a gritty sardine-packing area turned tacky tourist haunt, is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the world’s most impressive aquariums. Spend what's left of the morning, and the early afternoon, here.

Monterey was the capital of Alta California during the Spanish and Mexican colonial era and is where California ratified its first state constitution in 1849. Take the self-guided Path of History tour through Monterey State Historic Park. Next, cruise 17-Mile Drive, a scenic drive by the cypress-covered coastline, including the Lone Cypress, a spectacular specimen of cypress alone on a rocky outcropping. 

Stay the night on the Monterey Peninsula.
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The Carmel Mission J Klinger/Flickr
Drive through the cutesy village of tidy English-style cottages, high-end boutiques, and art galleries. Spend an hour at the Carmel Mission (pictured), the second Spanish mission in California. Take a brief stroll on Carmel City Beach ringed by windswept cypress trees.

Head south on Hwy. 1 for 27 miles. Trip time: 45 min.
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A cove at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in California Michael Bundscherer/Flickr
The Big Sur stretch of Highway 1, roughly Carmel to Cambria, contains some of California’s most iconic scenery and is a drive that should be savored. Pull off for photos of Bixby Bridge and the Point Sur Lighthouse. You won’t have too much time, but stop off at idyllic Pfeiffer Beach for an up-close look at the dramatic coastline. Pull off at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (pictured), and scamper along the short trail to the overlook for McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall cascading onto the pristine beach below. Stop for a snack (overpriced, but you’re paying for the views) at the historic Nepenthe, then drop in to the Henry Miller Library, a memorial to Miller and the many artists who charged their creativity at Big Sur. Be sure to keep an eye on current detours—occasional sometimes block the road here and there.
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The Pool at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California Lost In the Redwoods/Flickr
Reserve tickets ahead of time for a tour of the jaw-dropping, sprawling hilltop home of William Randolph Hearst (the grand pool area is pictured here). As you stroll among the sprawling gardens and 165 rooms dripping with European antiquities, imagine persnickety Mr. Hearst presiding over a glittering party with Hollywood guests like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and the Marx Brothers.  

Next: head south on Hwy. 1 to Cambria for the night.
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Santa Barbara is a very pretty city. Konrad Summers/Flickr
Head east on the scenic Hwy. 46 to Paso Robles. At U.S. 101, head south 132 miles to Santa Barbara. Trip time: about 3 hours.

Enjoy your day at California’s prettiest beach town. Spend an hour at the "Queen of the Missions," the Santa Barbara Mission, then venture uphill to the natural beauty of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Head downtown where you can take the Red Tile Tour, a self-guided walking tour of the town’s Spanish Mission-Revival architecture, which includes the lovely Santa Barbara County Courthouse as well as the last Spanish military outpost in California, El Presidio de Santa Barbara. Take a drive, or better yet, a bike ride along the Cabrillo beachfront path, and then relax on Santa Barbara’s most popular beach, East Beach. For dinner, enjoy fresh seafood at 
Brophy Brothers on the harbor. 
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Body builders compete at Muscle Beach, in Venice, California Ashton/Flickr
From Santa Barbara, head south on the U.S. 101 for 34 miles. In Oxnard, take exit 62B and follow signs for Hwy. 1. Continue south on Hwy. 1 for about 20 miles to Malibu. Trip time: about 1 hour.

Bask in the sun at one of several Malibu beaches. Zuma Beach is your best bet for a wide variety of activities; the photogenic pocket beaches of El Matador, La Piedra, and El Pescador are gorgeous, although less user-friendly. Cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway for a classic Los Angeles experience. Visit oceanfront Getty Villa to view the fine collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts. Continue south to Venice and take in the wild parade of people along the Venice Boardwalk, which snags my vote for best people-watching on the planet (pictured is a competition at Muscle Beach in Venice). Before heading to your hotel, take a spin down Beverly Hills’ famed Rodeo Drive.
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Gardens at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Woolenium/Flickr
Start at the stunning Getty Center (pictured) with a world-class art collection that includes works by van Gogh and Monet. Drive all the way to Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard and look for the legendary music clubs and sceney hotels along the Sunset Strip. Park at Hollywood & Highland complex, and walk the Walk of Fame in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Take Hollywood’s best movie tour at Warner Brothers  around the corner in Burbank. In the evening catch a show at the landmark Hollywood Bowl and enjoy music beneath the stars.

On the night of Day 11, from downtown Los Angeles, head south on I-5 for 25 miles to Anaheim. Follow signs to the Theme Parks. Trip time: about 1 hr. 45 min.
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Belle and the Beast in Disneyland, Anaheim, California. Mulling It Over/Flickr
Welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth! A Park Hopper pass admits you to both the original Disneyland Park and Disney’s California Adventure, but you'll kill yourself trying to see both in just one day so pick one or the other. Purchase tickets ahead of time and schedule fastpasses for the rides and attractions you want to see to make the best use of your time.
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A midcentury modern home in Palm Springs, California. Joe Wolf/Flickr
Head north on Hwy. 57 for 20 miles. Head east on I-10 for 70 miles. Take Hwy. 111 east for 10 miles. Trip time: about 2 hours.

Take a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, a cable ride that climbs to Mount Jacinto’s alpine forest, about 30 to 40 degrees cooler than the Coachella Valley spread out below. Stop by the Palm Springs Visitor Center to pick up a guide to midcentury modernist architecture that gives the town a sheen of retro glamour. Swing by the vintage shops along Palm Canyon Drive, a mecca for midcentury furniture and design. Be sure to choose a hotel that suits you because poolside cocktails are a Palm Springs institution, owing to its long tradition as a Hollywood getaway. You'll be returning here after visiting the next sight.
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Hikers on a path in Joshua Tree National Park. Ken Lund/Flickr
Head north on Indian Canyon Dr. At Hwy. 62 turn right and go 35 miles to the Oasis Visitor Center (trip time: about 45 min.) on the north side of
 Joshua Tree National Park.

The well-paved road Park Boulevard, which links the north and west entrances, may be the quickest and easiest way to capture some of the park’s most essential high-desert scenery. From the well-stocked Oasis Visitor Center, follow Palm Boulevard south and bear right at the fork toward Jumbo Rocks, where you’ll probably be tempted to hop out of the car and onto the boulders. See the much-photographed Skull Rock, a giant rock that appears to have eye sockets. After passing by the trail heads for Ryan Mountain (a vigorous hike with great views) and Cap Rock (an easy walk to a striking rock formation), continue on Keys Point Road to the spectacular Keys View, the park’s highest point reachable by car. Back on Palm Boulevard heading north, you’ll skirt more highlights like the aptly named Wonderland of Rocks, Barker Dam, and old cattle-rustlers’ Hidden Valley.  

Head back to Palm Springs for the night.
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A historic building in Balboa Park in San Deigo, California. Enrico Carsasci/Flickr
On Day 14, get up early and head west on I-10 to Hwy. 60 and continue west for 17 miles. Take I-215 south for 31 miles. Continue south on I-15 for 50 miles. Veer right onto Hwy. 162 and continue south for 11 miles. Trip time: about 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Spend your final day enjoying what may be California’s most family-friendly city. With kids in tow, you have to go to the celebrated San Diego Zoo located in Balboa Park. Even if you skip the zoo, spend a couple hours at Balboa Park (pictured), a huge cultural playground with a terrific selection of museums. Venture out to Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma where Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo first arrived in 1542. Zip across the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and enjoy a walk along Coronado Beach near the historic Hotel del Coronado. Enjoy a lively last night in the Gaslamp Quarter.
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