My husband and I fell in love on long drives down Highway One. Early enough in our relationship to cause concern, we’d hop into a rental car together and hit the road from our home in San Francisco: a few hours south to Big Sur, a few hours north to Mendocino; it didn’t much matter where we went as long as the views were spectacular. Conversation flowed so naturally it surprised us both, but when it didn’t we just turned up the music and relaxed in a comfortable silence, gazing out the window at the most stunning coastline in the world and watching whales breach in the Pacific ocean down below.
Over the years and through many weekends spent exploring our beloved home state, we developed the perfect playlist for driving in California. As you pass through rolling coastal cliffs, tiny beach towns, majestic redwoods, and the cityscapes of Los Angeles and San Francisco, this soundtrack will accompany your journey. Get your shaka ready and practice saying things like “chill vibes” un-ironically (this is something I still struggle with).
“California” by Phantom Planet
Admit it: whenever you think of California, this song is playing in the background. There might even be a flash of Ryan from The OC angstily looking out a window. It’s the perfect start to this playlist because… California, here we come!
“Maps for the Getaway” by Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness
The song isn’t specific to California in any way other than the fact that Andrew McMahon is the most California person ever. That said, it is a great road trip jam. Press play and let the road take you. After all, all you’ve got is time.
“California Love” by Dr. Dre and 2Pac
Another one of those Official California Soundtrack songs. Come on, you can’t drive through California and NOT listen to this!
“It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube
This is one of the quintessential 90’s West Coast rap songs, and the perfect song to roll through Los Angeles to.
“West Coast” by The Neighborhood
If there was a song on this list that describes my California native husband, this is it. Put this on as you head to the beach and become the embodiment of the phrase “chill vibes.”
“California Dreamin” by The Mamas and The Papas
Live your surfing flower child fantasy by putting this song on and letting the ocean air drift in through the open windows. Beachfront drives work best for this song, especially somewhere with a lot of surfing, like Huntington Beach or Venice Beach.
San Francisco, CA
“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Who hasn’t rolled down the windows and belted this out to the wind? Take the 110 to the 5 to the 405, singing this along the way. (Honestly, any highway in Los Angeles works for this song.)
“Los Angeles, I’m Yours” by The Decemberists
We might be San Francisco people more so than Los Angeles people, but that’s neither here nor there. Colin Meloy’s poetic description of life in LA will stick with you and provide some great background music for your trip.
“Canyon Moon” by Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness
Andrew McMahon has no shortage of excellent songs about California, and this is one of our favorites. It’s the perfect anthem for a trip to Joshua Tree or Death Valley, even though it’s really about Topanga Canyon.
“California Sunrise” by Dirty Gold
Get up early enough to see the sunrise and play this as you cruise in the golden light of morning, particularly near Malibu.
“No Room in Frame” by Death Cab for Cutie
A perfect California driving song, thanks to its copious references to LA highways and nearby towns – not to mention its soothing melody. Oh, and the song-long driving metaphor. That too.
“San Luis Obispo” by The Scissor Sisters
The Central Coast is often overlooked, but we have a soft spot for the cluster of towns halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles . Turn on this catchy tune as you head to San Luis Obispo.
“California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade” by The Decemberists
If we had to choose only one song to perfectly encapsulate the way it feels to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, it would be this one. The lyrics begin “take a long drive with me on California One.” I mean, hello. Play this song as you head north from the Central Coast up the most beautiful stretch of highway you’ve ever seen in your life.
“Big Sur” by Jack Johnson
The best song to listen to after a night spent camping in stunning Big Sur.
Big Sur, CA
“Bixby Canyon Bridge” by Death Cab for Cutie
This song is one of the best Highway One anthems about everyone’s favorite photogenic bridge. Turn on this song the minute the Bixby Canyon Bridge comes into view on Highway One, just north of Big Sur. Important disclaimer: please don’t climb below the bridge like the song says. That’s dangerous.
“Going to California” by Led Zeppelin
Time for some meditative, contemplative California music. The acoustic riffs of this classic Led Zeppelin song are the perfect accompaniment to that golden hour just before twilight, ocean air, and your own thoughts.
“Overland” by I’m With Her
A beautiful, folksy ballad about the long journey from Chicago to San Francisco. Play this song as the sun sets over the Pacific on your way to San Francisco.
“Keep the Car Running” by Arcade Fire
The perfect driving song to keep you in that meditative road trip zone. You know, that relaxed, calm, inner peace feeling. Please, don’t make me say “chill vibes” again. I’m from San Francisco, not LA, OK?
“Road Trippin’” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
An excellent song for getting quietly up in your feels and soothing your aching, nomadic soul as you explore the Golden State.
Yosemite National Park, CA
“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie
Transport yourself back to the 60’s with the hippie anthem of the century. This song was single-handedly responsible for the massive influx of flower children that resulted in the Summer of Love. Listen to it as you explore the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, where some of those very same flower children – now more like flower elderly – still reside.
“(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
This song is the perfect blend between the soul music of Memphis and the free-spirited vibe of San Francisco. Listen to it as you cruise the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
“San Francisco” by The Mowgli’s
This is the quintessential modern San Francisco anthem, especially for us locals. Somehow this song feels like a welcome mat, like there’s a software engineer in a tie-dyed Google hoodie playing it on an iPad as you arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to fall in love with this amazing, historic city. Can you feel the love?
“San Francisco” by Foxygen
Everyone knows “(I left my heart) in San Francisco,” but it’s a bit … how do we say this politely? Dated. Okay, it’s old. This song is its modern-day, much catchier replacement. Listen to it as you leave San Francisco behind.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA
“On the Road Again” by Canned Heat
This is one of those classic road trip songs, but it’s a lot more relaxed (dare I say … chill?) than similar songs by Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen.
“101” by WALLA
Highway 101 always seems to get overshadowed by its coastal cousin. Still, at some point you’ll find yourself driving through California on the 101, and it will be the perfect time to jam to this upbeat song.
“Everyday is a Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow
Play this song as you’re swerving through curves and turns on some windy California back road. Yep, that’s right: we went literal. Sometimes you just have to go literal with your road trip songs, you know?
“Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne
Let’s keep this literal train rolling: listen to this song when you’re running out of gas. Dad jokes, anyone?
Redondo Beach, CA
“Life is a Highway” by Tom Cochrane
If you only include one cliche road trip song in your playlist, let it be this one. Play it when you find yourself on the 5 and you need something to sing along to, because the 5 is the least exciting highway in California.
“Lazy Eye” by Silversun Pickups
This song isn’t about California, or driving. But that doesn’t stop it from being an excellent song for driving in California. Something about the vibes, I guess. Perhaps they are chill.
“Holocene” by Bon Iver
This is another song that isn’t technically about California, but feels like it should be. It is THE perfect song to listen to while driving through massive old growth redwoods, particularly at Avenue of the Giants. The lyrics “I am not magnificent” will speak deeply to your soul as you pass through zillion year old trees. Just ignore the other lyrics – you know, the ones that sound like “shake and bake and stick with us” but actually say “jagged vacance thick with ice” (what the heck is a vacance, anyway?).
“California” by Delta Spirit
At the tail end of your incredible California road trip, you’re probably thinking about moving here. Sure, we’re incredibly biased, but you totally should! Anyway, this is an appropriate song for that feeling.
About the author
Lia Garcia is a travel blogger at Practical Wanderlust, an off-beat couple’s travel blog which has been featured in Travel & Leisure, Forbes, the Washington Post, and other impressive sounding publications across the web. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Oakland with her husband Jeremy. She spends a lot of time watching Netflix, creating spreadsheets, and amusing herself on Instagram Stories.