California Dreaming
August 5, 2015 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Thinking about heading to California for a week or so, starting out in Los Angeles then driving up to San Francisco.

What kinds of fun things would you recommend we stop and see along the way? Where to find good street food/food trucks a plus.
posted by PJMoore to Travel & Transportation around California (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There are Elephant seals that hang out on the beach just south of Point Piedras Blancas and north of Hearst Castle. I was there in late June and there was a healthy population.
posted by soelo at 9:35 AM on August 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

So the way most locals do it is to just blast down I-5, stopping once for lunch. It takes 6-ish hours. The drive is fast, flat, and boring.

Hardly anyone takes the slow scenic route, which is on Highway 1 along the coast. It takes 8+ hours, but it's much prettier and has actual towns and a couple of cities along the way. Other posters can suggest specifics, but this is probably the way to go if you want the drive to be in any way interesting.
posted by ryanrs at 9:46 AM on August 5, 2015 [9 favorites]

Carmel and Big Sur are great stops along the way on Highway 1. Carmel is a charming little city with quaint stores and a great beach. Big Sur is great for scenic views, some pretty hikes, perhaps a night of camping, and hot springs.

If you take the 101, you could stop at Madonna Inn. This inn is a very kitschy, over-the-top lavish motor inn built in the 50's that now has a restaurant and bakery. It is in San Luis Obispo, and close to Morro Bay/ Pismo Beach which is great for surfing and camping as well.

There are a few different routes you can take, although my personal favorite is Highway 1 (the views are breathtaking). The Central Coast this time of year is pretty too, as the citrus groves are in bloom, and there are many fruit vendors selling fresh, ripe, sweet produce.

Monterey is a pretty city - touristy, but has a great aquarium and is close to the famous Pebble Beach golf course.

This could be an amazing road trip if you plan it well!
posted by Everydayville at 9:50 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Check out the previous questions on this topic - a bunch have come up in the past, with great advice.
posted by Jaclyn at 10:07 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Highway 1 is gorgeous but may have delays so check google maps if you want to go that way. The other Friday it was predicting 4 hours between SF and Monterey - it can be as low as 2.5 hours.
posted by oneear at 10:26 AM on August 5, 2015

Highway 1 gets recommended a lot but I found it too annoying to fully enjoy the scenery. You're stuck on a curvy 2-lane road most of the time behind tourists going 20 mph. Maybe do that for a while, but then go inland. Sequoia National Park is not far off the route and if you're going to have an entire week to get from LA to SF, you really shouldn't miss it.
posted by something something at 10:33 AM on August 5, 2015

Sequoia National Park is not far off the route

To clarify, Sequoia is 170 miles off Highway 1, so perhaps you mean it's not far off I5 (85 miles away)? I'm not sure that Sequoia is worth missing the coast (particularly Big Sur) for, personally, but I'm an ocean person.

My recommendation would be to drive from LA to Big Sur, spend 2 nights in Big Sur, then do Big Sur to SF. The LA-Big Sur part is a bit of a haul, so if you wanted to extend it, you could spend an overnight in the Santa Barbara area or in the Morro Bay area (I recommend Cambria, though that's really near the entrance to Big Sur - you could easily incorporate a morning visit to Hearst Castle upon leaving Cambria for Big Sur).
posted by vunder at 11:38 AM on August 5, 2015

Yes, sorry, I meant Sequoia is not far off I-5.
posted by something something at 11:44 AM on August 5, 2015

If you are okay with staying in hostels, the Pigeon Point Hostel includes a hot tub on the edge of the cliff - at sunset, it's pretty much the perfect place to look out across the Pacific.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:21 PM on August 5, 2015

I've never before heard the Pacific Coast Highway / Highway 1 described as "too annoying to fully enjoy the scenery." First time for everything and to each one's own, I guess.

I used to live in LA and now live in SF. I would never voluntarily opt for the 5 over the 1 unless I absolutely had to get between the two in as little time as possible. The 5 is my personal definition of a hell road, as it's permanently congested and drives through depressing, overcrowded feed lots and other modern agribusiness wonders. Once we were driving up during a massive stonefruit pesticide fumigation event and I ended up having to take our youngest to a quickly-googled urgent care because it triggered his asthma.

PCH is awesome. Near the Madonna Inn that has been mentioned, check out kitschy Solvang (pastries) and foodie Buellton (wine). We stop at the Hitching Post every time we're in Buellton and ask for a vegan platter--not on the menu, but they're happy to grill one of everything not-animal on their wood grill for you. It's such a treat!

Otherwise, in addition to the bigger or more well-known cities like Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, etc., you'll go through a bunch of random little towns with interesting shops and restaurants and diversions. In Santa Cruz, we like Cafe Brasil. Visit the Henry Miller Library (check out their events calendar!) and maybe grab a meal at Nepenthe in Big Sur. We camp a lot at Limekiln SP and environs, which are conducive to little day trips. A section of the old highway has recently been turned into a pedestrian/bike park justoutside San Francisco, at Devil's Slide.

It really is a stunning view, for hours. I drove it in the opposite direction my first time visiting California and swore I'd live here someday.

I hope you have fun!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:32 PM on August 5, 2015

Pea Soup Anderson's out by Solvang!!!! Highlight of the trip, in my opinion. Also, if you see someone selling fruit by the side of the road, the fruit will be dynamite.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:49 PM on August 5, 2015

Select one of the tours for Hearst Castle. I know it's touristy, but the history behind the castle and the man is fascinating. I absolutely love Santa Barbara as well.
posted by OkTwigs at 1:57 PM on August 5, 2015

Here's a second voice against PCH: PCH is a wonderful drive if you enjoy driving or can share driving amongst a few different people. If you don't enjoy driving, and specifically don't enjoy curvy 2 lane highways that occasionally have sheer cliffs off to one side, then PCH is an annoying, tiring drive. I'm in the latter camp; I'm paying too much attention to the road and other drivers coming around blind corners to be looking at scenery, and at the end of the day I'm exhausted from it.

(Disclosure: I've only been up CA 1 north of SF, I don't know if the southern half towards LA is better.)
posted by Aleyn at 2:39 PM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Only take the 5 if your objective is to make the drive as fast and easy as possible. There is very little to recommend that drive other than its speed, as it is mindnumbingly boring for at least 4 hours of the 6-7 hour drive. I recently took a short trip up to Pismo Beach and Hearst Castle, so I recommend taking PCH and basically stopping at whatever catches your fancy. If, like me, you love weirdo kitschy road trip stops, or just slightly off the beaten path points of interest, I highly recommend the app, which directs you to assorted attractions based on your location and provides little reviews for most of them. I think the app costs something like $3-5.

Seconding the recommendations for Madonna Inn, seeing the seals, Hearst Castle (touristy, but it really is gorgeous up there), and Solvang (the entire town smells of delicious danishes).
posted by yasaman at 2:57 PM on August 5, 2015

If you take Hwy 1 and like to camp, Andrew Molera State Park, south of Carmel, is wonderful. No RVs in the campground area, and the hikes include the hills behind you and the beach in front.
posted by goofyfoot at 3:05 PM on August 5, 2015

An hour by car is a day by bike - and it's an amazing coastline.
posted by aniola at 8:29 PM on August 5, 2015

When will you have another opportunity to make this trip? Can you make your travel a two day road trip so can stop and really look at stuff along the route? Making that change would give you time to slow down and to linger at spontaneous points along the route.

Mattdidthat has a great route, but I'd make a few changes.
3A: Exit 101 to Hwy 154 on the north side of Santa Barbara. You'll give up the view of the Pacific between Santa Barbara and Gaviota pass but you'll gain a nice view of the Channel Islands and also cut about 20 minutes off your drive. That brings you back to Hwy 101 north of Buelton.
3B: Exit 101 at Los Alamos and take Drum Canyon road to Hwy 1, enjoy some nice scenery.
4. Is good but if you can make an overnight stop in Santa Cruz or somewhere else south of there you can add Big Basin State Park and see some of the famous California Redwoods. You have to walk up to one of the giants and actually put your hand on it to appreciate how enormous they are.

My email's in my profile. If you want restaurant references in the San Luis Obispo or Five Cities area drop me a note.
posted by X4ster at 10:24 PM on August 5, 2015

If you have any choice in the matter, I would personally do this trip in the other direction. Driving South along the PCH is much better than driving North. You're on the coastal side of the road and it's very easy to stop and pull over to stretch, see things, etc. You don't even have to cross the road. And all the interesting things are on that side.

Splash cafe near the Pismo Beach pier for homemade, award-winning clam chowder in a bread bowl is a worthwhile stop, btw.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:01 AM on August 6, 2015

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