Presented with the opportunity to visit family and friends in both Northern and Southern California, it made sense for me to plan a little west coast USA road trip in between! Here are my ideas for a California road trip itinerary and suggestions for where to stop.
To give you an idea of the distances and time you should allow - you could drive the inland freeway route (Interstate 5) from San Francisco to LA in around 5.5 hours non-stop, or the flight takes under 1.5 hours.
However if you drive the scenic route, which involves winding your way down the western California coast using Highway 1 and Highway 101 (the 'Pacific Coast Highway'), the total straight driving time is about 14 hours. So when you factor in all the places to visit and where to stay along Highway 1, you can easily spend 5-7 days on a road trip.
Heading South, Highway 1 enters San Francisco over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, but the scenic ‘Pacific Coast Highway’ which snakes down the coast begins in Fairmont, starts at the southern tip of the city.
I took the ferry over to Alcatraz (intriguing, plus great views back towards the city Skyline), followed that up with some clam chowder served in a sourdough soup bowl down at Fisherman's Wharf, then headed over to Alamo Square Park at sunset to see those beautiful Victorian Houses, the 'Painted Ladies'. Check out some more ideas for stopping over in San Francisco here.
I stayed at the Cartwright Hotel near Union Square, but we can recommend loads of hand-picked hotel recommendations for San Francisco plus our San Francisco stopover package that includes transfers, accommodation, a full city tour and a tour of Alcatraz.
Continuing south, I planned to meet up with a friend who is working in the Palo Alto area. Since I’m sufficiently hooked into every single Google service and the entire Apple eco-system, this trip justified a detour into the famous Silicon Valley to see their HQs!
Setting the sat nav for Googleplex, 160 Amphitheatre Way, Mountain View, we quickly found ourselves sat behind the Google driverless car at the traffic lights. Driving around the edge of the campus we spotted plenty of staffers on the branded red/yellow/blue/green Google bikes they use to get between places on campus.
After that, we headed to 1 Infinite Loop (the Apple Campus) for a check-in specifically designed to provoke envy amongst fellow Apple advocates. No sign of Chief Exec Tim Cook, but we did stop for some snaps in front of the sign. Geeky fact: the shop on the Apple Campus is the only place to sell Apple branded merchandise like T-shirts and mugs, if you’re looking for unique gifts.
Returning to the sea, the coastline around Monterey is a habitat for seals and sea otters, so plan to spend the day here. In summer you can go whale watching, or for something even more active, you could head to head to Elkorn Slough to go kayaking with sea otters like my colleague Milly did – a really up close experience!
From here, I recommend you can pick up the scenic ‘17 mile drive’ which is a private road from Monterey to Carmel through the gated community of Pebble Beach. The 20 minute drive passes beautiful mansions, golf courses and passing the ‘Lone Cypress’ tree on the coast. It’s a toll road, so non-residents have to pay around $10 to pass – it’s also only open in the middle of the day, so don’t leave it too late.
After Carmel, you’ll reach Big Sur – the most scenic section of the coast. The coast road becomes more scenic and winding and meanders beside cliffs, around creeks and over beautifully arched bridges with plenty of turning areas to stop and take photos. You’ll find Eucalyptus trees along this stretch and rocky inlets below.
Every bend brings a new vista and you’ll spend half your time pulling over into the abundant view point laybys to snap photos. It’s particularly majestic at sunset and during the ‘golden hour’.
Further south, your drive will bring you to Ragged Point. After a bit of research, we came across the Ragged Point Inn. This is such a charming little place, perched on the clifftop, right above a cove. Staying the night for my birthday, we were treated to sea views and morning coffee from the bench outside our French windows – so peaceful and they serve incredible breakfasts. Definitely a recommended stay!
If you’re looking for an alternative in this area – check out the Treebones Resort for a spot of glamping!
Continuing south, the next point of interest is Elephant Seal beach. If you come when the seals are breeding – prepare to be blown away. The entire beach was covered in seals; big ones, little ones, old ones and young ones… pack a decent sized memory card because it’s captivating and you’ll be here a while!
To be fair, many Brits will turn up their noses at the description of Hearst Castle as… a castle. But don’t let that deter you from visiting. Check out the Neptune pool and watch out for a herd of zebras romping around the grounds (which you can see from the main road) – a most bizarre sighting in the California wilds!
Whether you’re in a car like us, or you’re in one of the many campervans (Jucy budget campervans seem ever so popular here) or even an RV, this is America – you will find space to park it. And whilst you're nearby, the beach in San Simeon in front of the castle has lovely pine trees and wooden pier so you can get some lovely shots of the coastline.
From here to Gaviota, both HWY1 and HYW 101 bend inland a bit, before heading on to Santa Barbera and then back towards the coast. You might want to take the faster, inland route from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbera if you’re short on time – you won’t be missing out on views.
Santa Barbara is often called the “American Riviera” and the Mediterranean vibe of this beachside town is evident as soon as you drive through it. Low, Spanish-style buildings house fancy cafes and small boutiques where the rich and famous retreat to the beach from their Hollywood lives. The exclusivity of the area is reflected in the prices of hotels and restaurants but don’t let it put you off – Santa Barbara is a beautiful stop off on your way down to LA.
Heading for the sprawling metropolis of LA, you’ll drive up the coast through the suburbs of Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Manhattan Beach and finally Redondo Beach. Right on the outskirts of the city, we stopped at a fruit stall to buy locally grown avocados, strawberries and apricots which are abundant here in the mild climate - a tasty road trip treat.
If you’re exploring LA – you’ll almost certainly need a car. This city isn’t like London or Tokyo or New York or Sydney or, frankly an large city I’ve visited; don’t expect to be able to wing it on public transport, because there’s none to speak of. It’s quite a spread out city and there is plenty to do (See Aaron's blog), but some of the most popular things to do are:
We stayed in the beautiful, boutique Hollywood Roosevelt which is right on Hollywood Boulevard in the centre of the action, almost directly in front of the Grauman’s Chinese theatre. It’s a fantastic hotel and the upgrade to a suite for my birthday was very welcome! We also have a Los Angeles stopover package which includes transfers, accommodation and a city tour.
If you’d like to drive from San Francisco to LA, we can help you plan! We can arrange flights into LA and out of San Francisco or vice versa – or see more ideas in our USA multi-stop flights. We can arrange car or campervan hire and recommend the best vehicle to suit your needs. For more information, take a look at our USA trip ideas (which exclude flights) or see our tailor-made USA holidays which include flights. Call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.