California Dreamin': Road Trip Edition
May 19, 2016 11:04 AM   Subscribe

What would you see in California if you were starting out in LA and had a car and 7 days to travel, only caveat being that you need to be in San Diego on the morning of the 8th day? We're going to LA for a family wedding in August. Taking an extra week afterwards to travel around and see as much of California as possible. However, we have to prioritize as we only have 7 days. Flying out from San Diego on the 8th day. We will have a rental car and we're interested in seeing as much as possible, as it will be my first time in California. Driving a lot is not a problem; we love roadtrips, and both of us drive so we can take turns. Please help us plan an itinerary!

What we are interested in: getting out of LA, as much nature as possible (ocean, mountains, trees, desert), whale-watching if possible, food, cities other than LA

What we are not interested in: Sticking around LA (as we'll already have had 4 days to see it beforehand). Disneyland.

If we had two weeks, this what we would've done: leisurely drive up the PCH to San Francisco, taking our time and stopping overnight at Big Sur or Carmel, spend 4-5 days in San Francisco Bay Area and see everything there, including a day trip to Muir Woods, then leave SF to go to Yosemite National Park, then Death Valley and Joshua Tree, then to San Diego for a few days, including a trip south of the border to Tijuana. (This is all information I gathered from perusing similar questions asked on here in the past!) However, I'm pretty sure all of that isn't possible in just 7 days, so - which of these things should we absolutely not miss?

Thank you, MeFi!
posted by spicytunaroll to Travel & Transportation around California (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would skip Death Valley unless you're really into heat and sand. It depends on what you want to see, I guess. Yosemite is going to be fairly crowded in August and I doubt you'll be able to find lodging this late in game (it is my understanding advance reservations are generally needed during the summer). Going up PCH allows you to see the magnificent coast/ocean/trees, then you get to take in all the wonders of SF. Heading back down via I-5 isn't purdy, but it will get you there more quickly than driving back PCH. And maybe you could then devote a future trip to the Sierras, Yosemite, Death Valley, Mono Lake, and (if you're at all interested in history) Bodie SHP.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:18 AM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

What I might do instead of Death Valley and Joshua Tree is skip those on your way back down from Yosemite, but stop in Palm Springs and take the gondola up from the desert floor to the mountains. Have lunch at the top, take a break, enjoy the cooler temperatures, then head back down the 15 to San Diego.

Death Valley and Joshua Tree in August are not for the faint-of-heart, and not something I'd try in a rental car. You absolutely do not want to break down out there.
posted by culfinglin at 11:27 AM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you flew out from SF on that eighth day, you could drive north along the coastal highway.
posted by salvia at 11:35 AM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like in Silicon Valley so my suggestions would be make a good first half or 2/3 of your trip. I would probably drive up along the California coast on Route 1, stopping at the all the amazing views plus Hearst Castle and the Monterey Bay and then at Santa Cruz, turn inland to experience the redwood forests such as Henry Cowell State Park. If you aren't a big hiker, there is fun narrow gauge railroad ride into the forests at Roaring Camp. If you a fan of Apple, you can stop by the corporate headquarters and visit the company store in Cupertino and then head up the highway to San Francisco. Be sure to hit the Exploratorium, a really unique hands-on science museum that has plenty to offer for adults.
posted by metahawk at 11:42 AM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ditch rental car #1. Grab a shuttle flight from LA->SF. Pick up another rental car there.
See the SF bay area and then meander back down to San Diego.

The deserts are ungodly beautiful but I would save them for another trip. The heat is deadly.
It is a great time to see the Redwood forests of the north and the California coastline.
posted by vacapinta at 11:44 AM on May 19, 2016 [11 favorites]

I think you should go up as far as Big Sur and then come back from there. Big Sur is really truly spectacular - it's about 6 hours from LA to Big Sur according to my map - you could overnight in different places up and back depending on how much time you want to spend traveling at once (Santa Barbara is very pretty, I really like Cambria). On the way you could see Morro Rock, Hearst Castle, elephant seals in San Simeon, plenty of good wine tasting in the Santa Barbara area. On the way from LA down to San Diego, you can overnight in Laguna Beach and/or a nice somewhere pretty in San Diego. The San Diego Zoo is pretty good, too.

The only caveat to this is that you could have fog in summer in Big Sur area, which can limit views and make driving sketchy. In which case you might want to go up to Santa Cruz / Monterey instead.
posted by vunder at 11:46 AM on May 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

From Los Angeles, travel the 1 and check out San Simeon. Camp at Pfeiffer State Park in Big Sur and check out the Henry Miller Museum. If you stop off in Santa Cruz check out the boardwalk and rife the Big Dipper.

In the SF check out Caffe Trieste for coffee (iconic beat hangout and the best place to see the cross section of the City) have some Focaccia bread at Liguria Bakery and check out City Lights Bookstore (another iconic beat spot) the last three are close to each other in North Beach. The Farmer's Market in the Ferry Building on Saturday and Marin on Sunday (located in the parking lot of the last build ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) are fantastic and a great place to provision for the trip. . Bay Bridge and GG are a must. Ferry Rides to SF are incredible. If you want to go high end, spend an evening at the MarK Hopkins Intercontinental and have dinner at the "Top of the Mark", have a cocktail at Lefty O'Doul's in Union Square or have lunch/dinner at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Really see Northern California by taking the 1 or 101 up the coast. It's a side of Cali people rarely see. Mendocino and Arcata are quirky stops for food. Spend an evening at Jedidiah Smith State Park or Humboldt Redwoods Park. Both are magical and dense with Redwoods and sprites. Smith is close to Oregon border. Loop around to Interstate 5 and the Mt. Shasta area. Take a trip to the base of the mountain. What few people know is that Shasta is a pilgrimage for many people from India. They believe that if you draw a line through the center of the earth from Shasta and out the other side you would come to a sacred mountain in India.

Go south on the 5 and drive through the state of Jefferson. Another evening can be spent at Wilbur Hot Springs west of Williams. It's a beautiful, well cared for Zen like springs in the midst of rolling hills, oak trees. Stargazing here is fantastic.

In Sacramento, there is the Capitol, Sutter's Fort, K Street Mall and Old Sac (kind of touristy) and River Cats baseball

You have a choice here to take Interstate 5 south (you won't see much til you get the Grapevine) or you can go down Highway 99 which will take you through a lot of "New Deal" towns like Galt, Lodi, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Tulare, etc.. It will also take you to the foothills where there are a lot of old mining towns turned parks (Columbia) and also take you into Yosemite. If your a foodie take Highway 88 east of Lodi and stop at Lockeford Meat and Sausage in Lockeford. Best sausages in the state. Also in these small towns if you go to local chamber of commerce and get a map of galleries you will find incredible art at incredible prices.

Another cool stop on Highway 99 is the Castle Air Force Base Museum near Merced.

Incredible Basque restaurants in Bakersfield. You can't go wrong traveling the Sierra's although there aren't a lot of nice spots to stay. It'll be more of a camping trip. Eastern Sierra's are also a "hidden" spot that few know about.

It really is an incredible state. Have a blast!
posted by goalyeehah at 11:54 AM on May 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

Proviso...the moment you've away from the coast you are going to be in a lot of heat. Don't let it stop you :)
posted by goalyeehah at 11:57 AM on May 19, 2016

A vote for Death Valley. Death Valley in August is...a kind of hot you'll never forget. I've been several times, all 4 seasons, just loved getting out of a comfy car in August and spending some time in the unbearable heat. It's also the lowest place in the US nearby to the highest (Mt Whitney). For nature lovers such as you guys, Awesome is the word. But in Aug it's only a drive-thru, not a place for most people to spend much time. You can hit it on your way north to YNP.

I agree that lodging in YNP, may be difficult, you may need to find a hotel outside the park (way outside). Another thing to consider are the giant sequoias at Sequoia NP.

Whale watching from a boat excursion will cost you most of a day. Worth it?
The Monterey Aquarium is a different kind but equally good bet, plus you get to see the beautiful Big Sur/Carmel/Monterey coastal area.

I think it's unlikely you'll be able to see much of Nor Cal if you drive from L.A, and want to see the Sierras as well as the coast.
It all depends on what your priorities are within your time constraints.
posted by artdrectr at 12:01 PM on May 19, 2016

I'd recommend things in or near SoCal if you need to end in San Diego (I lived in LA for ten years, partner is from San Diego, we now live in San Francisco)

Angeles Crest Highway (highly recommended, but gas up before you take it, and again at the east end before you head back or carry on in another direction--no gas for like 50 miles!)
Vasquez Rocks
Leo Carillo State Park / beach (and any canyon drives/parks north up to Ventura on PCH)
State Route 74 from Lake Elsinore across the Cleveland National Forest.
Lots of avocado and citrus groves (and roadside produce stands) around Temecula, inland San Diego County, Escondido, etc. Also places like the Orfila winery.
If you want to go north, drive through Santa Barbara and visit Solvang and Buellton for amazing food and wine (Hitching Post is definitely worth a visit). Santa Ynez Valley is beautiful and something I miss having easy access to.

Have a blast!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:28 PM on May 19, 2016

While in Los Angeles, I loved seeing Watts Towers.
posted by theora55 at 12:31 PM on May 19, 2016

If I were the one making this trip, my priorities would be:

1. Carmel/Big Sur.
2. Muir Woods.
3. Yosemite.
4. Santa Barbara.
5. La Jolla.
6. Palm Springs.

Considering how busy Yosemite will be, and how difficult it is to get to, it's probably the first thing to get dropped.

I'm thinking an itinerary could look something like this:

Day 0: drive to Santa Barbara and spend the night.
Day 1: drive up the PCH to Carmel (~4.5 hours).
Day 3: chill in Carmel most of the day, then drive to Sausalito/Mill Valley (~ 3 hours). Stop in SF for dinner.
Day 4: hiking in Muir Woods, then a lazy evening along the bay.
Day 5: drive to Yosemite (~4.5 hours), do what I can.
Day 6: drive to Palm Springs, taking the scenic route to see the Sierras and some of the desert (~12 hours per Google Maps, although probably longer).
Day 7: chill in Palm Springs in the morning, drive to La Jolla (~2.5 hours) in the evening.
Day 8: be in San Diego ready for whatever you're doing there.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:29 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park. If you've never seen the giant sequoias you must go - they're transcendent.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 2:34 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Vacapinta has an excellent point. Take a shuttle up to the Bay Area (Oakland is your best bet) and take Bart into San Francisco. A car is not necessary in SF, use public transportation to do SF stuff. My recommendation for a motel with free parking in a great neighborhood and large rooms is Nob HIll Motor Inn. Reserve directly with them, and confirm that it's with THAT property, not any other 'sister' property. I've stayed there for years. Good prices, free parking and lots of neat cafes and donut shops on Polk Street. Also a great bookstore!

If you must drive up, take 5 and just haul ass up there, then site-see on the way back down.

1. Check out SF
2. Head down to San Jose, see the Rosicrucian Museum and Winchester Mystery House. Then head out to the beach to Pescadero for some Cioppino at Duarte's. (also Artichoke soup and Olallie berry pie.)
3. Drive down 1 to Santa Cruz (Chaminade Hotel is magnificent, but tons of other choices) Check out the Beach and Boardwalk. Ride the wooden roller coaster.
4. If you must, do Monterey, see the Aquarium, see Cannery Row.
5. More driving on 1 if you want, hit the Hearst Castle. Make reservations! Spend the night in San Luis Obispo at the Madonna Inn. A fun route to get there is to head south on 1 until you get to state road 84. Then East to 101. Keep an eye peeled on the right, you'll see the Hidden Valley Ranch. The one from the Salad Dressing.
6. Then head over to 5 and take it straight down to San Diego.

There are tons of little places along the way to stop on 101. Solvang is where you eat Pea Soup (at Andersens) and see Mission Santa Inez (although if you see a mission elsewhere--you can skip it)

5 is just a really fast way to haul down the state and it takes you through Orange County instead of LA. Pick your poison.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:16 PM on May 19, 2016

You might like La Jolla Sea Caves, on the way between LA and San Diego. The beach is full of seals and sea lions, kayakers in the bay and you can walk down into one of the caves where the waves break. There is a nice aquarium at Long Beach if you do not make it Monterey. If you like zoos the LA Zoo is surprisingly nice and the San Diego Zoo is great.
posted by mermayd at 4:10 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would not do Death Valley and Joshua Tree both in August unless you really like desolate landscapes and heat.

+1 on the San Jacinto Tramway.

Torrey Pines State park / beach in La Jolla, and make a small side trip to the glider port where (if weather is nice) you can watch people hang gliding, paragliding and other forms of gliding. Even if the wind is wrong, the view is spectacular and it's generally easy to park and costs nothing to wander around.

Think about traffic: you really don't want to be driving from SF through LA to SD at rush "hour" which is much longer than an hour. If you come down the eastern route (along 395 or I-15) that will avoid much of the issues.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:45 PM on May 19, 2016

Sounds like a fun trip! One note: in San Diego, my family preferred the San Diego Safari Park to the zoo. We found it less crowded and easier to navigate. The zoo is great too of course, but give the park some consideration. And if you're looking for a smaller beach town to stay in near San Diego, consider Encinatas and Cardiff by the Sea.
posted by areaperson at 8:05 AM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Third/fourthing flying up, then driving down. If you go through Monterey, the John Steinbeck museum in the basement of the mall is great & educational & creepy.
posted by dame at 10:58 AM on May 20, 2016

Thanks, MeFi. It's been more than a few months since this trip, but it was a blast.

Favourited the answers that I found most helpful - mainly anything that helped to shorten our time constraints (the recommendations to fly one way instead to save time on one leg of the journey), sample itineraries and the advice to prioritize and pick one between the coast and the desert. We picked the coast, and don't regret it. :) We saw San Francisco, the Bay area, Monterey, Big Sur/Carmel, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Diego, La Jolla and all the sea lions and elephant seals. We left feeling like we had seen and done a lot, but also with a list of stuff to see/do next time, which is the best way to leave a place, isn't it?

Still would love to do Vancouver to San Diego one day, if I ever have a good 3 weeks (as I said, we love road trips).
posted by spicytunaroll at 10:58 AM on February 23, 2017

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