How can my family make the most of three weeks in California next summer?


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The Independent Travel

Q. My wife, two children and I are planning to go to California next August for three weeks, probably flying into Los Angeles and out of San Francisco. I started looking at putting a basic itinerary together and got a bit overwhelmed with it all. Any tips would be appreciated. Paul Forde

A. The "Golden State" has a wealth of attractions, but it can be distilled down to: one great drive, along Highway 1/US 101; two great national parks, Yosemite (pictured) and Joshua Tree; and three great cities, San Francisco, Los Angeles (and its many tentacles, including Santa Monica and Disneyland) and San Diego. Given the geographic spread, a return ticket to one of those cities is the best plan, so you can drive a complete circuit.

Choose San Francisco and your first few days can be car-free – the only sensible way to see the Bay Area. Public transport is excellent and private parking is terrible.

Pick up your pre-booked rental car at a Downtown office, to avoid swingeing airport pick-up fees. Go east to Yosemite, having booked places at one of the pre-erected campsites. Head south via Death Valley with, perhaps, a quick trip across the Nevada state border to Las Vegas.

Spend a couple of days exploring the dramatic landscapes and fascinating history of Joshua Tree National Park, then make for San Diego on the coast – and leave the car while you visit the zoo and the many other delights. Our latest 48 Hours film is here:

As you go north to complete the circuit, visit one of the many beaches mentioned in Beach Boys songs, such as La Jolla. Call in at the original Disneyland, the most concisely entertaining of all Walt's parks, and spend a concentrated day there. In LA, base yourselves on the beach at Santa Monica. The Getty Museum is probably top of the attractions list, at least for parents.

The journey north along the coast is likely to be a highlight – part of it on California State Route 1, the rest on US Route 101. The key destinations are: Santa Barbara, with its Spanish Mission looks; Hearst Castle, all extravagant indulgence; and Monterey, where California feels most in touch with the ocean. From here, you can drive to San Francisco airport and fly home.