LA to SF not on the PCH
May 29, 2009 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Los Angeles to San Francisco: Help me find an alternate route!

This coming August, I'm going to be driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I've done the trip before via the PCH and absolutely loved it, but I'm wondering if there are any amazing alternate routes. Maybe a dessert adventure? I should have at least a few days, so time really isn't a concern.

Any bizarre/interesting/beautiful sites along the way get you bonus points!

posted by kmtiszen to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Although a dessert adventure sounds delicious, I was thinking more along the lines of a desert adventure. Embarrassing!
posted by kmtiszen at 3:51 PM on May 29, 2009

Yer Highway 99 is a good tour of the Great Central Valley, Steinbeck country. If you want a real desert adventure check out Vasquez Rocks where they filmed Vulcan in Star Trek.
posted by Kirklander at 3:58 PM on May 29, 2009

A small detour would be for you to take the 154 off of the 101 and travel through the Santa Ynez / Santa Barbara valley. The 256 will bring you to Solvang, and the 154 to Los Olivos. The fun part is that it's all wine country, and right now, it's wine season.
posted by jabberjaw at 4:01 PM on May 29, 2009

I really hate to be a nitpicker, but true Steinbeck country (outside of The Grapes of Wrath) is the Salinas Valley and Monterey Peninsula.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 4:16 PM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

99 is a very good route alternate route through the Central Valley, though. Plus, some of the connecting highways between the major north-south routes are interesting. Highway 46 between Paso Robles and Cambria is quite pretty.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 4:25 PM on May 29, 2009

5 @ 130MPH!
posted by trevyn at 4:35 PM on May 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

The desert adventure is taking the 14 out to the 58 and going in with a hint of Route 66 into Bakersfield. Get some taffy at Dewar's and pickled tongue at Woolgrowers, then north on 99 or 5 to Norcal, cutting over 41/46 if you want to 101. You can hit the James Dean Memorial if you really have a couple days. Really, a lot of the fun in what you're trying to do is in going back and forth between the freeways.
posted by rhizome at 4:57 PM on May 29, 2009

The 5 to Frazier Park Rd which becomes Potereo Hwy/forest Hwy 95 amazing views of the central valley brings you to Hwy166/33 stay on Hwy33 aka westside Hwy to Colinga , hwy198 to junction with Hwy 25, past the Pinnacles to Holister, from there you are on your own, Classic rural two lane blacktop almost all of the way.
posted by hortense at 5:29 PM on May 29, 2009

The Central Valley? In August?


The desert adventures in CA are more east of LA and you're heading north, so 14 and 58 would be something to do, as rhizome suggested. Honestly, I lived in the Central Valley for years and didn't think there was much to see. If you head up I-5 along the western ridge, just get past the cattle farms and rendering plants near Coalinga as fast as you can. If you head up 99, you won't get desert so much as industrial agriculture. If you ride up 99, you'll barely be able to see the mountains for all the pollution. The mountain adventures (Yosemite, King's Canyon, Sequoia) are a good two hours east of the major highways. Everything people are mentioning here is the very southern end of the Valley or close to the coast.

If you do head up through the Valley, you could at least take 152 over the Pacheco Pass. From there, either head up CA-101 to San Jose and the Bay or back down CA-101 to the Monterey Peninsula and pick up the PCH somewhere in there.
posted by el_lupino at 5:30 PM on May 29, 2009

Here's a route that almost nobody has driven, and shows a natural, unspoiled side of California. It avoids both the coast and the valleys, and gives you a taste of desert.

Take the 5 north to Santa Clarita, turning east to Palmdale and Lancaster, then north to Mojave and continuing north on US 395. This very old route takes you behind (east of) the Sierra Nevada range and shows you the high mountains on one side and the barren flats on the other. The towns are tiny and far between: Little Lake, Dunmovin, Lone Pine. Stick to 395, turning west either north of Yosemite, or, if adventurous, straight through it. Then SF is due west.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:14 PM on May 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another vote for 395 except that I'd start by going out to San Bernadino and taking 15 through the Angeles Forest then hopping on 395 just south of Victorville. I think that's a nicer drive. You can cut over through Yosemite or you can take one of the passes north of the park, 108 or 4. This is a really pretty area, lots of oaks, cows and some wineries. Personally I would take 395 north all the way to 89, take that to hwy 50 through Jackson and drop into Sacramento that way then take 80 to the city. That's a really cool drive.

It's going to be about a million degrees in August.
posted by fshgrl at 6:42 PM on May 29, 2009

Yeah. If you aren't in a hurry and you want to see the best landscape in the state (the Eastern Sierra), take 395 but instead of crossing at 89 (too Tahoeish), cross on 108 over Sonora Pass, then cut up along 49 (Gold Country) to Placerville and 50 (a quick trip to Sacramento).

Once you climb the grade beyond Bishop, the temperature should drop to half a million degrees, with afternoon thundershowers close to the mountains.
posted by notyou at 6:53 PM on May 29, 2009

One thing I wish someone had warned me about before I started driving 395: a lot of it consists of one lane in each direction, which can be pretty harrowing if you're not accustomed to seeing oncoming traffic pull into your lane to pass. That said, it can be a beautiful drive if you're not in a hurry. (And by "not in a hurry" I mean, "plan to stay at least one night, if not two, along the way.") The spectacular Mono Lake is basically at the junction where you might turn to cut through Yosemite. The Mono Cone, near the lake is spectacular in a wholly different way. (Again, road warning: the drive through Yosemite in the summer can be tough, between the deer, the visitors, and the SUVs drifting into your lane. Tough, but beautiful.)

Also, if you take the 101 from L.A. to San Francisco, the Madonna Inn sort of has to be seen to be believed, as does Solvang. (Solvang is about 25 miles off the 101.) I do tend to think of the 101 as not quite as hot as the 5 or 395, if that's an issue.

I do like the idea of a dessert adventure! The Mono Cone and the Madonna Inn could both cover you in that respect.
posted by corey flood at 9:07 PM on May 29, 2009

If you do go up 395 make time to poke around in Owens Valley, there are some really weird semi-abandoned towns there that are very Salton Sea-esque. I'd also recommend driving up to Mt Whitney portal just because it is such an incredible difference in the few miles from the valley floor up to the trees. It looks unpromising from 395 but it's worth it. June Lake area is another cool side trip, as are the various hot springs around Mammoth Lakes area. Mono Lake is a must see.
posted by fshgrl at 10:59 PM on May 29, 2009

Two little detours I usually make are as follows. Driving south I like to take the 101, detouring at Buelton to buy real Danish pastry in Solvang and then getting back onto the 101 in Santa Barbara. Going north I take I5 but exit at Castaic to drive a segment of the original Ridge Route back to the Grapevine.
posted by Rash at 8:11 AM on May 30, 2009

I must agree with everyone else about 395 and Yosemite.

If you have the time, driving this route through the high desert and then mountains will allow you to see amazing sights, including surreal Mono Lake, ancient volcanic craters and the iconic Half Dome.

As fshgrl mentioned, taking the June Lake Loop road (Hwy 158) as a slight detour off 395 will give you food/lodging options (including camping), lovely small lakes (and a big ugly one...sorry Grant Lake, it's true) and if you're lucky a view of Horsetail Falls high above Silver Lake.

If you do go through Yosemite, don't miss the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil station near the intersection of Hwys 120 and 395. It's a great place to fuel up (both car and belly) before the challenging -- but rewarding -- drive that's ahead of you.

Also, don't be surprised by the $20 entrance fee for Yosemite when you reach Tioga Pass.
posted by at 8:13 AM on May 30, 2009

If you take 395, I recommend a visit to Manzanar National Historic Site. This was the site of one of the "relocation camps" that the American government took Japanese and Japanese-American people to during World War II. I went last fall and found it QUITE thought-provoking/horrifying.

Then, further north near Mammoth Lakes is the Devils Postpile. (I want to type Devil's instead of Devils so very badly.) It's a cool little place and the National Park Service always does it up right.

After that, lobster tacos at the Woah Nellie Deli, and then YOSEMITE! That would be an awesome trip for sure.
posted by TheClonusHorror at 9:37 AM on May 30, 2009

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