California / Southwest road trip itinerary advice
November 23, 2013 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Boyfriend and I are planning a round trip (by rental car) through California and the Southwest and we'd love some input on the first rough draft of the route. We're going for 23 days in September next year and would like to stay in fairly affordable hotels and motels (no camping).

So far, we have:

Day 1: Arrive in San Francisco early afternoon
Day 2: San Francisco
Day 3: San Francisco
Day 4: Pick up rental car and drive to Mariposa. Visit Mariposa Grove if enough time?
Day 5: Mariposa -> Yosemite -> Bridgeport (arrive late in the evening)
Day 6: Visit Bodie, drive to Lone Pine
Day 7: Lone Pine -> Death Valley -> Las Vegas
Day 8: Las Vegas
Day 9: Las Vegas -> Zion National Park
Day 10: Zion National Park -> Bryce Canyon
Day 11: Bryce Canyon -> Page
Day 12: Page -> Grand Canyon National Park
Day 13: Grand Canyon National Park -> Sedona
Day 14: Sedona -> Joshua Tree National Park (via Prescott)
Day 15: Joshua Tree National Park -> Los Angeles
Day 16: Disneyland
Day 17: Los Angeles
Day 18: Los Angeles -> Pismo Beach
Day 19: Pismo Beach -> Monterey
Day 20: Monterey → San Francisco
Day 21: Leave San Francisco early evening

Does this seem like a doable itinerary? Obviously, we are missing 2 days, but I'm not sure which places would benefit the most from more time.

It would be nice to stay flexible and just extend our stay wherever if the mood strikes us, but I am a beanplater and worry a bit about not finding decent/affordable lodging unless I book in advance. For which of these places would I definitely want to do that? How far in advance? And where would it be ok (or maybe even better) to just play it by ear?

Any other suggestions and comments are much appreciated - thanks!
posted by Skybly to Travel & Transportation around United States (34 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you're going in September it should be relatively simple to book accommodations. Motels near SF, Monterey, yosemite and Disneyland are likely to be the most expensive/busy.

I've been to every place you listed, and would recommend extra time for yosemite, Zion, or Bryce.

Unless you guys are people who love, love, love driving, this sounds like it could get exhausting. I would play it by ear and cut out page and either pismo beach or Monterey if you feel like it. In fact, I would keep the option open to cut out all of so-cal, but I'm kinda a lazy traveler.
posted by tinymegalo at 7:37 AM on November 23, 2013

I'd put the extra days in Yosemite and Zion / Bryce. Or give yourself time to check out Flagstaff. I've never spent that much time at the Grand Canyon (I usually just look down for an hour then leave), so you could leave my last suggestion to play by ear.
posted by salvia at 8:10 AM on November 23, 2013

Best answer: Day 9: Las Vegas -> Zion National Park

Stay in the Zion Lodge that's actually in Zion. I wouldn't do it any other way, and you absolutely need to book a reservation ahead of time. If you're looking to save money, get a room, skip the cabin. Do a few trails and you'll never remember where you slept.

Also set aside some money to buy national park passes. I'm not sure how much they cost these days, but they used to be about $80 "for the year." (Is it per person or per car? I don't remember. But if you're visiting multiple parks, the annual pass just works out to be the better deal.) There may be a discount if you buy in advance. But if you try to enter Zion or Bryce, you'll definitely be paying this anyway.

You're doing in reverse the best road trip ever. Do I think you're biting off a lot? Sure, but I think you guys can hack it. The Zion-Grand Canyon-Sedona leg is particularly amazing, you couldn't possibly fuck that up. Of course so is the drive up to San Francisco. While you can't go wrong with Pismo/Monterey, you may also want to look at Big Sur, Carmel and the 17-mile drive. If you find a cheap place in Big Sur and are totally bonkers, you can dip into the hot springs at Esalen (typically a very expensive place to stay) after midnight for a nominal fee.

Actually, maybe you should skip Joshua Tree and spend an extra day in Sedona. No disrespect JT, but you just don't stack up. Also Vegas, no more than one day. By the time you hit LA, you'll want to slow down. Take the 6-hour drive up to SF nice and slow. Unwind. Visit a town. Go to a restaurant. That sort of thing. Pick one or two places to stay at and relax. Slow it down.

You'll have an amazing time! I'm already jealous!

On Preview: Oh wow, you're planning way ahead. You have the opportunity to book some really cute places that have limited availability.
posted by phaedon at 8:16 AM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've done very similar road trips (a long time ago, and in CA much more recently) and my main question would be: do you really want to go to Las Vegas? It's an interesting place to visit but other than Disney it's a whole different sort of place and a zoo for driving and sort of a commitment of time. That said, if you stay somewhere off the strip you should be able to get decent hotel rates. Death Valley is my favorite place on that schedule. Be very careful and mindful about signs and stay on marked roads. People from other countries sometimes don't have as much of a concept of just how middle-of-nowhere it is (don't assume your cell phones will work there, have extra water in the car, etc)

Second question: how agreeable are you about random hotels? I do a lot of last-minute hoteling and except for big cities have had no problem getting a last minute decently priced budget hotel, ever. The trade-offs are sometimes the level of amenities and overall cleanliness, but staying in mom-and-pop hotel/motels is often a better deal than staying at the low end chains. TripAdvisor is your friend. If you have a smart phone while you are on the road you can use it and a Hotel Coupons app to see where the budget hotels are and what the rates look like. So if you're someone who is picky about hotel brands and/or amenity levels, you might want to boko in advance, otherwise you are going to be fine just calling from the road or even showing up and saying "Hey do you have rooms available?"

Only other thing I might suggest is trying to catch some of Route 66 while you're out there, especially near Flagstaff. It was the original coast to coast highway in the US and there are some neat Americana-y things there, old motels, old diners, etc. There are a lot of places it is pretty close to route 40 and it might be worth just driving on a stretch of it.
posted by jessamyn at 8:29 AM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

To me, this sounds like quite a bit too much. I don't have the emotional fortitude to enjoy NewNewNew things day after day for weeks on end. I'd want to stop somewhere and just kick back for a day at least once a week. Besides which, the national parks are huge and on your schedule you will only be skimming a few of their highlights, not really getting the best they have to offer.
posted by jon1270 at 8:42 AM on November 23, 2013

Couple things about the Utah leg:
1) You want to get up on Utah 12. Such a fantastic drive.
2) the road from Page to the Grand Canyon may or may not be open at that time.
3) Take it from someone who's spent three or four months in his life driving around out West, everything takes twice as long to get to as you expect.
posted by notsnot at 9:11 AM on November 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Have an alternate route planned for the Mariposa to Bridgeport section, in case the mountain passes are closed because of slightly-early snow. Yosemite is a spectacular place, but be aware that many, many people drive very poorly through the park because they're distracted by the scenery. (That was a really unfortunate surprise the first time I drove through. It was harrowing.)
posted by corey flood at 9:14 AM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agreed with tinymegalo that this is a hell of a lot of driving! But I would actually disagree about what to cut out. If anything, on this list, I would cut out spending time in Las Vegas, and give yourself more time to spend in Pismo Beach and Monterey (as those are the two of the most relaxing places on your trip).

Here's some destination-to-destination advice for you, because these areas are all my stomping grounds.

San Francisco: A great city to visit and explore, but with as much traveling as you are going to do, I would cut one of your days here. Give yourself a day to explore the City, but that's enough to see plenty (unless you are taking this time to see friends). Plus, the City is one of the most expensive places you will stay, if you're looking to do things more cheaply.

Mariposa/The Sierras: If it were me, I would skip Bodie, Lone Pine, and Death Valley, and spend more time in Mariposa and Yosemite. It's not that the eastern half of the Sierras aren't beautiful in their own way, it's more that... there's a lot of nothing out there. Maybe that will be your thing- but in my mind, the west side of the Sierras are more popular for a reason.

Las Vegas: My least favorite place you have here on the list. You may love it, though. Unless you're planning on partying, I'd skip the full day staying here... show up in the afternoon, find somewhere nice for dinner, go to a casino or a show for a few hours, drive down the strip at night so you can see the lights, and peel out the next morning. Vegas is loud and dirty, and I think it's worth visiting (just to see the spectacle), but I wouldn't stay here long.

Zion/Bryce: These are places where you probably want to spend more time. There are so many great places to hike, take photos, and camp in Southern Utah... I would rather spend time here than in Vegas. You can do Bryce in a day, but Zion really needs more time- I would stay at Zion at least two nights. The Zion Lodge suggestion you got is a great one.

Grand Canyon: Most of my fellow Arizonans will agree you that you should look into visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, not the South Rim (which is the one most people are familiar with, and the one you seem to be planning on visiting). The North Rim is up in the forest. It's just as picturesque than the South Rim, and it is not touristy (so you won't be fighting hordes of people taking hilarious "I'm falling into the Canyon, oh no" photos). Based on your itinerary, it won't be out of your way at all. It has fewer tourist amenities, to be sure, and fewer places to stay, but it makes for a much more relaxing visit.

Arizona: I would suggest skipping staying in Page... it is a nothing town in the middle of nowhere. Instead, take a road day where you travel from the North Rim down to Flagstaff, and stay in Flagstaff (which is a great college town up in the forest, has far more options for places to stay, things to eat, and relaxing things to do). Sedona is very expensive and very touristy- it's beautiful to drive through and snap photos and shop, though. Instead of staying in Sedona, I would drive from Flagstaff down through Sedona (be sure to drive through Oak Creek Canyon) to Prescott, and stay in Prescott. The Motor Lodge is a great little motel right off of Old Prescott's main city square, and it's walking distance from pubs and restaurants. Plus, staying in Prescott would cut a little time off of your trip to Southern California next.

Joshua Tree: This can be fun, but only if you're really interested in hiking and photography. There are lots of small tourist hotels north of the park in Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley. For an alternative idea, consider staying in Palm Springs for a night. There are lots of boutique hotels that will still probably be at summer pricing, so it'll be cheaper. Lots of Palm Springs hotels have two night minimums on weekends, but you can usually talk to owners and get a one night stay if you ask in advance. I love this place in particular. It's one of the most relaxing places I have ever stayed.

Disneyland: Two things to know. First, September (after Labor Day) is Disneyland's slow season. That's good, because less crowds! That's bad, because it's when Disneyland reduces park hours, and closes lots of attractions for rehab and repairs. Check Mouseplanet's Disneyland Updates as you get closer to your trip. At the bottom of the latest update you can read refurbishment/attraction closures, which will tell you what will be down for rehab when you are planning to visit. You may be less interested in going to Disneyland if you find out that a few rides you're excited about are closed. Second thing to know is that Disneyland + tired + adults = very long day that is not as fun as you had hoped. If you're going to go to Disneyland, be sure to get down to Anaheim early in the evening before, so you can relax and get a lot of rest and sleep. As for staying in Anaheim, I would highly recommend this hotel, which is about two miles from the park. It's very clean, has a decent breakfast, and has very reasonable rates. They have free shuttles to the park, or, with the money you're saving vs. a hotel across the street from Disneyland, you can just drive to the park and park in Disney's ripoff lots. Finally, if you want a good drink in a fun environment, don't miss Trader Sam's, which is at the Disneyland Hotel just outside the gates. Fantastic tiki bar, great drinks, and lots of special effects that go off in the bar when people order certain drinks.

Los Angeles: Be ready for traffic, and don't try to drive anywhere during rush hour. If you're looking for a unique place to stay, try this Japanese hotel in Torrance (lots of great Japanese and Korean restaurants and businesses in that area). It's a little ways from touristy stuff like Beverly Hills and Hollywood, but cheaper and far more relaxing. You might enjoy going off-the-beaten-path and exploring a part of LA like Torrance with lots of interesting restaurants and local businesses, rather than trying to do the usual tourist thing. Warning: Hollywood is DIRTY. It is one of the roughest areas in Los Angeles these days. Most Angelenos would tell you to skip it. I doubt you want to put up with awful parking, watching where you step, and dealing with people hassling you for tours/photos/spare change, just so you can see the Chinese Theater and see a few stars on the pavement.

Pismo Beach: I would strongly suggest spending an extra day here. This is the most relaxed, laid back part of California. This will be the tail end of your trip, and you'll appreciate more time to relax and kick back before heading home. There are plenty of affordable hotels along the beach like this one. In addition to the beach, if you're around on Thursday night, San Luis Obispo has an amazing farmer's market. My wife and I also like to visit Morro Bay, where we enjoy kayaking (you can watch birds and chase sea otters around the bay). We rent from this guy.

Monterey: I would suggest spending an extra day in this area, too. That will give you more time to stop along the way, take the scenic Pacific Coast Highway 1, eat at great places, visit spas, et cetera. The aquarium is touristy, but it's really fun. Look into staying in Big Sur if you can swing it... places like this hotel are very relaxing. Carmel is a great place to walk around, shop, and get a bite to eat (we love this Greek/Turkish restaurant, which has great food and lovely owners).

Once you decide on an itinerary, be sure to post again so we can all give you more ideas for great restaurants, hotels, and relaxing things to do! Sounds like this will be a very fun trip.
posted by Old Man McKay at 9:57 AM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

We did a drive-around-Utah-and-look-at-rocks trip last year and it was amazing. Amazing. You can see some of my photos via the flickr link in my profile

Also, exhausting, in part because we were coming from sea level and nearly everything we saw/drove/hiked was at altitude - most of what you want to see at Bryce (for example) is at about 8,000 feet (2400 meters), and even if you're in reasonably good shape you're going to feel it (unless you live somewhere at high altitude), and do not underestimate the kind of stunning effect of the sun, even if it's not very hot out. We did our trip in September and the temps never cracked 80F, but the altitude, dryness, and sunlight were way more tiring than we'd anticipated. Sleep was often very light and not terribly restful. And just that much driving every day while looking at the astonishing, amazing scenery made my brain really tired.

Sunscreen, a good hat, and a lightweight long-sleeved shirt will be your friends. And water bottles. Because it likely won't be that hot, you may not notice how quickly you get dehydrated. We saw a lot of lobster-colored, wobbly-looking people on our hikes!
posted by rtha at 10:03 AM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

So, even as a person who tends toward crazy-packed itineraries, I think this is a crazy itinerary unless you are a person who is cool with spending hours in the car every day. Driving is much more stressful than train/bus travel. As notsnot said, do not count on Google Maps time estimates being super accurate. For example, I have driven from Phoenix to the desert cities (near Joshua Tree) many times, and that's always at least 5 hours - and Phoenix is way closer than Sedona.

This is a preference thing, but I would rather have a few long driving days than have every day be a 3-4 hour drive day. Driving for eight hours is a pain, of course, but the pace you've set looks exhausting. If you alternate driving days with "doing stuff" days, your pace will feel more relaxed.

Also: do you guys want to hike, or just drive through the parks? Your itinerary basically only allows for driving through, which is fine provided that it's what you want.

If you want to hike at all, I would pick either Zion or Bryce (...pick Zion) and spend longer in the one you pick. Ditto Joshua Tree/Death Valley - they are really different from each other, for sure, but they are both cool desert moonscapes and I'd rather have a couple days in Death Valley than an afternoon in each. (Also, I love the desert cities and would totally add a day or two in Palm Springs.)

Don't stay in Page, there's nothing there - if you can manage it, I'd just try to get to the Grand Canyon so you can get an early start (before the tourist hordes) the next morning.

So, here's what I would do.

Day 1: Arrive in San Francisco early afternoon
Day 2: San Francisco
Day 3: San Francisco
Day 4: Pick up rental car and drive to Mariposa (3.5-4 hours driving)
Day 5: Mariposa -> Yosemite -> Bridgeport (4 hours)
Day 6: Visit Bodie, drive to Lone Pine (3 hours)
Day 7: Lone Pine -> Death Valley -> Las Vegas (5.5 hours)
Day 8: Las Vegas
Day 9: Las Vegas -> Zion National Park (3 hours)
Day 10: Zion National Park
Day 11: Zion -> Grand Canyon (anywhere from 3-6 hours - north or south rim?)
Day 12: Grand Canyon
Day 13: Grand Canyon National Park -> Sedona (2.5-5 hours, depending on north/south rim)
Day 14: Sedona -> Joshua Tree National Park (via Prescott) (7 hours)
Day 15: Joshua Tree National Park -> Palm Springs
Day 16: Palm Springs
Day 17: Palm Springs -> Anaheim (2 hours, go in the middle of the day to avoid traffic)
Day 18: Disneyland
Day 19: Los Angeles
Day 20: Los Angeles -> Pismo Beach (3.5 hours)
Day 21: Pismo Beach -> Monterey (stop at Hearst Castle, it's so cool!) (3 hours)
Day 22: Monterey → San Francisco
Day 23: Leave San Francisco early evening

If Palm Springs isn't your bag, then take those two days and use them to do Bryce Canyon. Also, I'm pretty eh about Las Vegas - I can never entertain myself there for more than a night, but then again I don't gamble.

This is going to be a super cool trip, by the way. Everything is amazing.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 10:11 AM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This trip looks fantastic and will be an amazing overview of the American Southwest and coastal California. I'm jealous.

As everyone has said, it seems like an awful lot of destinations for three weeks. I have a few European friends who've made trips like this to the US and they all tell me they underestimated how much driving everything is. For instance, that Sedona → Joshua Tree day 14 is 536km or about 5 hours. And that's on I-10, which while fast is boring and mostly ugly. It's totally doable, but if you sleep in late and get a good breakfast and want to stop somewhere along the way you'll end up feeling like you spent the whole day just driving and have no time to see Joshua Tree.

I suggest you spend some time with Google driving directions and make a little chart of kilometers and hours. The driving time estimates from Google are pretty reliable, you won't get there faster than they say (you may be slower). Your itinerary is totally possible, but it means you'll be spending a lot of time in the car.

Most of the US national parks are not meant to be visited in half a day. Once you reach the park entrance it takes about an hour to pay admission, get a map, get oriented, use the bathroom, etc. Then you may have a 30 minute drive and hour hike to whatever site you want to see. Places like Bryce, Zion, and Joshua Tree are all incredible and even if you're not camping there you can easily spend 2 full days doing short hikes and exploring. You'll see something interesting in a half day visit, but a string of short visits over many days will make you feel like the whole trip was all driving and no hiking.

If you are looking for a way to shorten the trip, my recommendation would be to skip the San Francisco -> Vegas drive and fly instead. You'll be missing Yosemite, which is truly an amazing and wonderful place but the trip you have now only allows a couple of hours there. Save it for the next visit! The drive from there to Las Vegas via I-395 and Death Valley is long and not so beautiful, it's the part I'd skip. I'd also look more closely at what you do at the Grand Canyon. In my experience it's either worth visiting for one hour to look over the rim and admire the view or else for two full days so you can go down to the canyon floor and come back up. There's not much in-between.

(On preview, goodbyewaffles' also has good suggestions for making the trip simpler. But I'd hate to give up both Bryce and Zion; they're fantastic and totally different from each other.)

I love Vegas itself, and two nights is just right if you enjoy eating, seeing a show, and gambling some. Stay in a nice hotel on the Strip, it's not worth saving $50 and being too far away. Pismo Beach is awesome and underappreciated. You'll probably decide to drive along the coast up to Monterey, if you do stop in Hearst Castle for a visit (buy tickets in advance online). But the inland drive up US-101 is also great, particularly if you stop for wine tasting around San Luis Obispo or Paso Robles. I've never been to Lone Pine and am wondering why you chose it, is there something there? It's near Manzanar internment camp but I'm not sure I'd recommend that as a visit both because the history is depressing and because I'm not sure the site has a lot to see yet (construction has been slow).

As for finding places to stay, I'd be comfortable taking this trip without advance reservations for most of the days. In September most inexpensive hotels will be open and not too busy. I'd book a few specific fancy places in advance and anything in the National Parks. OTOH I'm like you in wanting everything planned in advance, totally know what you mean. Most of the American chain hotels like Super 8 or Holiday Inn have generous cancellation policies; sometimes up to 6pm the day of your stay, and usually 24 hours advance notice with no penalty. Don't pre-pay for hotels even if it saves you 20%.
posted by Nelson at 10:16 AM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd also look more closely at what you do at the Grand Canyon. In my experience it's either worth visiting for one hour to look over the rim and admire the view or else for two full days so you can go down to the canyon floor and come back up. There's not much in-between.

I agree, but don’t underestimate how great that hour or two will be. To me, it’s totally worth driving there for hours just to look around for a couple hours, I’ve done it many times. There are other places I would skip if you’re only going to be there a couple of hours.

This is a long, great trip. I would only book hotels in advance if it’s a place you absolutely have to. You may change your mind about some of it.
posted by bongo_x at 10:21 AM on November 23, 2013

Best answer: I did a very similar trip this past summer, and I want to echo everyone saying to expect the driving to take twice as long as you think. Also, there is only so much sightseeing + driving that you can do in a day, especially since a lot of the sightseeing in national parks *is* driving through the park, unless you have time to stay and hike/camp/explore on foot.

I think the pace you're planning for is just too fast, not just to be enjoyable but to actually accomplish. Things that don't take a lot of time in your usual routine take a lot of time on the road. For example -- any meal break was going to take an hour at best. By the time you get to a place you can eat, sit down, figure out what you're going to eat, it gets made and served, you eat it, pay, stretch your legs for five minutes, and get back in the car, *a lot* of time has passed. Even if you're trying to speed through, things like stopping at a grocery store or to pick up a cup of coffee take a long time when you're in a totally new place and don't know where anything is. There are also going to be some things that just happen to come up -- both good and bad -- that take longer than expected (and those things are why you're on a road trip instead of a tour bus, they're a part of the experience, you should feel free to explore).

I think you're going to have to put more built-in flexibility into your schedule. Days like this: Day 5: Mariposa -> Yosemite -> Bridgeport (arrive late in the evening) look appealing on paper, but that can easily become a forced march when you're trying to get to all those places and see them, as well as eat and get out of the car once in a while. That's also why I wouldn't book too many places ahead (what if you don't stay on your initial schedule?). To be honest, I booked every place through my phone when we arrived and needed to stop for the night, and that worked great. We used I also wouldn't plan for more than 2 hours of driving on days that you want to do real sightseeing, and I wouldn't plan to do more than a long lunch in an interesting place if you're going to be doing more driving than that on any given day. Some places only need a long lunch to take in, like Palm Springs, but some places will need more time, like Zion.

Actually, regarding the part of your trip that's heavy on national parks: Zion + Bryce could easily take a week (or more) on their own if you wanted, I would definitely try to get to both, but there especially, leave yourself at least one full day (with little or no other driving) to enjoy each, otherwise you're driving all the way out there to spend three hours driving through a park. The shortest amount of time I would do: --> Zion, Zion, --> Bryce, Bryce --> [Sleep in AZ].

For the Grand Canyon, I agree with going to the North Rim, because it will cut *way* down on the drive. Unless you feel like doing some exploring in Arizona, which can be desolate but has some interesting sites, like the Petrified Forest (which I would definitely hit if you're *anywhere* nearby, it's fairly different from the other geological sites, a fascinating place). The Four Corners region is also very interesting and worth spending time in. But the distances in that part of the country are *huge,* there's a lot of driving and not always a ton of places to stop and eat or rest, so sightseeing around there is very time consuming.

Also in terms of cutting drive time/cutting destinations, I would frankly skip Joshua Tree, it's a great place to camp if you're coming from LA but otherwise, there's not much to see out there. If I were you, I would go straight from Arizona to LA, though that will be a long drive. Personally, I *wouldn't* cut Las Vegas. You can get some good food, a nice hotel room, and everything is made basically to amuse or delight you. For us on our trip, it was a refreshing change of pace from the national parks. You're going to be in the middle of nowhere for the bulk of the trip, so try to intersperse that with urban oasis, when possible (if only to give yourself a chance to pick up more supplies).
posted by rue72 at 10:55 AM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

There were a couple comments upthread discouraging you from visiting Page, AZ. The town itself doesn't have much to offer, but a cruise or some kayaking on Lake Powell would be a nice break from all the driving. More importantly, stopping in Page will give you the opportunity to tour Antelope Canyon, which is one of the most magical sites in AZ (and that's saying a lot!). So I recommend keeping Page on your itinerary, as long as you take in a tour of Antelope Canyon; noon is the best time for some awesome photography.
posted by kbar1 at 12:10 PM on November 23, 2013

Way too much driving. Also, I'd skip Vegas and hit up Santa Fe & Taos, NM instead. Oh yeah, you need more time in Yosemite. It is so gorgeous.
posted by wildflower at 12:12 PM on November 23, 2013

I wanted to add it is still going to be really hot that time of the year in the southwest. Especially Vegas/Death Valley and Page. After you leave LA you are never going to be below 3000 feet (about 1000 meters) in altitude. This is no joke. And it is DRY, like you need to constantly drink water or you will be dehydrated dry. This is the driest part of the US and it is not unlike the north African Coast/Sahara in Climate. The higher you go the cooler it will be, but the sun gets brutal-I could get sunburned in about 20-30 minutes of exposure when I lived in Flagstaff. And to repeat-the elevation is HIGH and there won't be any oxygen. You may get sick, especially if you exert yourself. And this part of the US is really, really remote and unpopulated. Population density in most of the area is much lower than anything in Europe, except maybe the Russian interior.

OH, and while it may be really hot during the day (40 Deg Celsius and higher is still normal that time of year for a lot of your trip), at night it will be equally cold-it is not unusual to have swings of 30 deg Celsius day to night. Pullover Fleeces are a pretty normal clothing item in late summer in the high desert.

As for you destinations most everybody is right on, see Sedona, but skip staying there. Either Rim of the Canyon is great and worth seeing. Southern Utah is amazing and beautiful. Right now the Road between Page and Flagstaff is washed out and you have to detour around through the Navajo Indian Reservation. Which isn't actally a bad thing. If you are interested the whole Navajo and Hopi Reservations interesting look at the largest and probably most intact Indian cultures in the USA (meaning most is great and beautiful and worth seeing but it is really a third world nation in most respects and even more thinly populated than the area around them). IF you are interested, Canyon De Chelly, Acoma Sky Pueblo and staying in La Posada in Winslow are great, but you will have to cut a few days off the trip, like maybe Vegas and Joshua Tree. You are going to see a LOT of Joshua trees just driving around in the Southern Part of Nevada. The list of interesting places is almost endless, and no matter what you pick it is going to be great trip.
posted by bartonlong at 12:22 PM on November 23, 2013

I agree with the suggestion to switch to the North Rim. But it closes in mid-Oct, so if your visit is very late September, keep an eye on that.
posted by salvia at 12:32 PM on November 23, 2013

Best answer: As far as San Francisco is concerned, find out when Dreamforce 2014 will take place. You can't get a hotel room in San Francisco for love OR money during the User Conference.

I will recommend that you stay at the Nob Hill Motor Inn in San Francisco. They have free parking (the only place in town that does) and the neighborhood along Polk Street is really vibrant and walkable. The prices are very fair for San Francisco. You can leave the car and use Muni while you're in town.

Monterrey is okay, but Santa Cruz or Capitola is better. Santa Cruz has a boardwalk, and great surfing. Also, being a college town, lots of economy and mid-range hotel chains. Go to Monterrey and Carmel from Santa Cruz, they're all pretty close together anyway.

Better yet, skip Pismo Beach there is NOTHING but NOTHING there! By all means, stop and take a picture at the sign and tag it in Facebook with "We didn't take a wrong turn at Albuquerque!" But stop at San Luis Obisbo and stay at the Madonna Inn.

I too agree, skip Page. If you must, have lunch there, but don't STAY there! Flagstaff, Cottonwood and Sedona are all in the same vicinity (within a 60 mile radius of each other.) So if you can, do Sedona. It's a goof. See Slide Rock.

Don't go through Prescott to get to Joshua Tree Monument. It's nice, but you drive through it, you don't visit it. Shift some things around and go down 17 to 10 to Phoenix. Hit Montezuma's Castle on the way down.

Stay in Phoenix, eat at Ponchos., see the Heard Museum.

Then head to LA, via Joshua Tree National Monument. (We used to eat at Sambo's in Needles, it's not there anymore. Racist.)

You really can't screw this up.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:12 PM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Way too much driving. Also, I'd skip Vegas and hit up Santa Fe & Taos, NM instead.

This would make for way more driving, since Santa Fe and Taos are much farther east than their current proposed farthest-east point! I mean, since the route takes them from the Sierra to Zion, skipping Vegas would be silly since it's literally on the way. And Santa Fe is is about a 10-hour drive from Bryce.

OP, really consider how much you're trying to fit into three weeks. I *live* in the American West (although a different American West from the iconic UT/NV/AZ/NM/CO American West), and I was constantly astonished at just how far apart everything is in that iconic part of the country. Yosemite alone deserves much more than a drive-through!
posted by rtha at 1:31 PM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't let people get you down on Disney and Vegas! I love Vegas, for one night or five, and I love Disney. No, they are not canyons and nature and national parks but they are awesome in their own way and both well, well worth doing.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:40 PM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks everybody for the super-helpful replies! This has given us much to consider. I will definitely come back and post the adjusted itinerary, but it may take some time to hash this out with my boyfriend.

Addressing a few things:

We're from Germany and considering this a - well, maybe not once in a lifetime, but at least a once-in-one-or-two-decades kind of trip (kids may enter the picture in the next couple of years). So we're okay with rushing things a little as long as it doesn't ruin the fun completely (there'll be plenty of mellow vacations in the Alps in our future). I tried to space the stops out fairly evenly, but now I'm thinking it might be a good idea to schedule longer drives for the less interesting areas to have more time for the highlights? I realize all of these places deserve much more time, but 23 days is the most we can do at this time :-(

We used this route suggestion from a German travel forum as a blueprint: Link. While we consider some of the stops a must, others are just there to split up a long stretch of driving. San Francisco, Yosemite, Las Vegas, Zion, Grand Canyon and LA I would consider a must (although I think I'd be fine with only one night in Vegas, boyfriend isn't certain). Bodie, Bryce Canyon and Disneyland I'd be sad to miss. OK, actually Disneyland is a must for me (but not necessarily for the boyfriend, who is more into LA itself than I am). Mariposa and Bridgeport are there to bookend Yosemite (lodging in the park seems super pricey or unappealing), and Lone Pine as a last rest before Death Valley so we can drive through in one day (the thought of staying there overnight freaks me out a little).

Page, Sedona and Joshua Tree were really just put in for the sake of not driving too long in one day. Same goes for the places along the Pacific highway, so I'm really happy about the suggestions for alternatives along those roads!

Actual, serious hiking is not a priority, but getting out of the car once in a while and going for a nice walk in nature would be very welcome. This one, for example, I was hoping we'd have time for at least.

Right now I'm pretty certain we'll add one of the buffer days to Zion (and stay in the aforementioned lodge) and one to the West coast for a mellower trip back up to SF before the flight home. I'll post about other adjustments once we have them figured out!
posted by Skybly at 1:49 PM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went to Yosemite in spring 2012. That hike in Sentinel Dome is great. BUT! To get to the trailhead, from the hotel we stayed at which was 2 miles from the west entrance, takes about 2 hours- you wait in line to enter, then drive a crowded one lane road with a 15 MPH speed limit for about 3 miles, then turn onto another road and drive switchbacks up a mountain for another 4 miles on a slow one lane road. Then to leave you reverse this process. So while the hike is 2 hours, it took us 6 hours in total from "leaving the room" to "at the pizza restaurant in Yosemite Village."

Of the other parks on your list, I have only ever been to Joshua Tree, which was similar in size/time to get to hikes. I imagine the other western parks are similar too, because they are all huge. I would seriously reconsider packing in so much, or resign yourself to going to the one hike in each park that is close to the entrance, not the prettiest/most famous/most interesting. The example for Yosemite would be the 1 mile Yosemite Falls viewing trail. These "entrance hikes" are usually really crowded, have paved walkways for wheelchairs, and never really felt like hiking to me, but YMMV.
posted by holyrood at 2:58 PM on November 23, 2013

I don't know what it would do to your budget, but would you consider flying from point to point? Like, fly into San Francisco, drive to Yosemite and see that, drive back to SF, then fly out of SFO to Vegas, drive around, return to Vegas, fly to LA, do SoCal stuff, then drive back to San Francisco? It might be worth talking to an actual travel agent about this possibility, for package deals on flights/rental cars.
posted by rtha at 3:10 PM on November 23, 2013

Rtha, I realize I added in more driving but I couldn't resist the NM suggestions. :D Come on, who'd pick Vegas over Santa Fe? Well, I suppose some people would but OP may not be too familiar with NM.
posted by wildflower at 3:11 PM on November 23, 2013

wildflower, I hear you. If there were one strongest recommendation I could make - but man, is it out of your way - it would be to try to get to Chaco Culture National Historic Park, which is basically in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. It does not have awesome Utah-style rocks and the road (entering from the north) into the park is a very long and slow-driving dirt and gravel road, but what remains of the civilization that grew there a thousand years ago is mind-blowing. But it's seriously out of your way.
posted by rtha at 3:19 PM on November 23, 2013

OP, rtha's suggestion of combining flying and driving is a great one. I drove from LA with a friend to the Grand Canyon and then onto her home in Dallas. After my visit there (don't bother with TX) I flew up to NM, saw the sites, and then flew back to LA. Some combination of driving & flying might really make your trip more enjoyable so you don't spend too much time in the car. Whatever you do it sounds like it will be an awesome trip.

When in LA I'd suggest staying near the beach in Santa Monica or around there as it can be heat wave time in Sept. Or, stay a bit more centrally in LA but not on the east side like Pasadena where it'll be oven hot.
posted by wildflower at 4:11 PM on November 23, 2013

If I were you, I'd drop Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Those are March, not September destinations. Don't get me wrong--they're beautiful, wonderful places--but the heat can be breathtaking.
posted by notsnot at 5:41 PM on November 23, 2013

we drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles last winter, here's our Mefi question that really had some good tips for things to do in it:
posted by andreapandrea at 5:44 PM on November 23, 2013

I think you need to cut the number of places you intend to visit by 30-50%. I grew up in California and am quite amenable to road trips and marathon driving, but there is too much here. I agree with all the people above who say you are underestimating the time to get into the parks: one of the visitor areas for Joshua Tree is miles from any of the good bits. You also are not leaving any time for mishaps or problems or taking a day to sit and relax. You will be on many very long, hot, and boring roads mixed in with all the good sights. If I were you, I would make Las Vegas my only sojourn out of California for this trip. Zion, Grand Canyon, and Sedona deserve more time spent in them anyway.

I happen to love Bodie, and I would take the opportunity to swing by Mono Lake while I was around there. Spend an extra day in Yosemite. Spend an extra day in Vegas. Spend an extra day or two in Los Angeles. Take more time on the California coast, visit Santa Barbara, Paso Robles wine tasting, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and/or Santa Cruz. Monterrey is kind of dreary unless you really want to go to the aquarium. Leave time to allow yourself the option of spending longer in a place you really enjoy. I guarantee that if you trim 30% from your itinerary you will not regret it. As Nelson says, European visitors often underestimate the distances, and the emptiness of the American West. You also won't really get to experience it from a car. You need to be out and about and soaking it up.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:54 PM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

It can be a lot of fun to just meander up the Central California coast. I'd suggest two off-the-beaten path stops between LA and SF, both of which are haunting and unique: the boardwalk over Oso Flaco Lake, through the dunes and to the sea at Guadalupe, and the recreated Mission complex of La Purisima.
posted by Scram at 10:24 PM on November 23, 2013

Response by poster: Hi, I'm back! After going through all of your comments with my boyfriend, and reading some travel journals by people who drove a similar route, our new plan now looks like this:

1. Arrive in SF late afternoon (September 3rd)
2. San Francisco
3. San Francisco
4. Pick up rental car. San Francisco → Mariposa (166 mi / 266 km).
5. Mariposa → Virginia Creek Settlement (138 mi / 222 km)
6. Virginia Creek Settlement → Bodie (14 mi / 22 km). Bodie → Lone Pine (153 mi / 247 km).
7. Lone Pine → Death Valley → Las Vegas (222 mi / 357 km).
8. Las Vegas → Zion NP (166 mi / 267 km)
9. Zion NP
10. Zion NP → Bryce Canyon (84 mi / 136 km)
11. Bryce Canyon → Grand Canyon North Rim (158 mi / 255 km)
12. Grand Canyon North Rim → Flagstaff (208 mi / 335 km)
13. Flagstaff → Sedona → Prescott (98 mi / 158 km)
14. Prescott → Palm Springs (275 mi / 443 km)
15. Palm Springs → Anaheim (89 mi / 145 km)
16. Disneyland, if we feel up to it
17. Los Angeles
18. Los Angeles → Route 1
19. Route 1
20. Route 1
21. Route 1 → San Francisco (total from LA: 455 mi / 733 km, average per day 133 mi / 183 km)
22. ?
23. Leave SF early evening (September 25th)

We threw out Page, cut Las Vegas one night short, and added some more time to Route 1 to end our vacation with a bit less driving per day. Also changed GC to the North Rim. Cutting out huge parts of the trip is not something we want to do at this point, but we figure that if we do find out the driving absolutely kills us (or the mood) after the first days, we could stop at Las Vegas and make our way back to the west coast. I also way lowered my expectations for what we can actually do/see at Yosemite.

We still have a "wildcard" day on day 22. We haven't decided yet whether to put it to use for a day in Yosemite (I lean towards this) or to leave it for the second part of the trip, to use whenever we feel like it (a flexible day for the first half of the trip seems less practical because we appear to need to prearrange lodging for Yosemite, Zion and GC at least). If we don't use it for Yosemite, I wonder if we should drive from SF straight to Wawona Hotel so that we'd already be inside the park for the next day.

Thank you if anyone is still reading this!
posted by Skybly at 2:03 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I will say about US 1, it's not always open. If there's a lot of rain, or if there has been earth movement, there may be sections that are closed. It's trecherous if it's foggy, so please bear that in mind. 101 is a good alternative and pretty in its own way.

Going up 1, I do recommend Hearst Castle.

It's a very pretty drive, one of the most beautiful in the world, but there's not a lot on it. You'll pay a premium for lodging (unless you camp) and fuel.

Here's what I'd do, PCH to Ventura, pick up 101 (you don't really have a choice) take 101 up to St. Luis Obisbo. Stay at Madonna Inn (I'm REALLY pushing this.) Then head back to US 1. If you can take it all the way north. I lived in California and every time I went to drive it, it was closed just north of San Simeon.

If it's closed, no worries. Head back south from San Simeon to State Rd 84, head west on 84 to 101. It's about a 40 minute drive to 101. Head north on 101, through about 50 miles of vineyards, and Bob's your uncle, you're in the Santa Cruz/Moneterrey/Carmel/Watsonville area.

Here are some fun places to stop on the road.

Solvang-Pea Soup Andersens and check out the windmills!
Castroville-ARTICHOKES! Eat some artichokes.
Pescadero-Duartes. Have artichoke soup, Cioppino and finish your feast with O'Lallie Berry Pie. Iconic!

Have a wonderful time!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:43 AM on November 25, 2013

The likelihood of having to worry about US 1 closures because of landslides in September is extremely un, since California gets neglible amounts of rain from June to November. Closures are more likely because of fire/smoke (and even then, not very). The Caltrans road closures site is good to bookmark, although parsing what will affect you and your route may be tricky when you don't know what all the routes and abbreviations are. The California Highway Patrol traffic site can also give you info about what areas to avoid if there's a major closure due to weather/fire/accident - they do not cover every road in CA, but the major routes are there. Utah and Nevada undoubtedly have similar sites.

All that said, don't rely solely on online maps; cell reception is unreliable/nonexistent not just in Utah, but also along the California coast because of the coast range - you can have excellent reception for a mile and then nothing for 10. Get yourself some good paper maps, and you can look at them over dinner to see exactly where you've been and what detours you might want to take the next day.
posted by rtha at 12:29 PM on November 25, 2013

I somehow left out "in some parts of" regarding Utah, since we had pretty decent cell coverage in many places - but no bars at all for long stretches of road and trail.
posted by rtha at 1:36 PM on November 25, 2013

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