Revised southwest trip for inexperienced travelers; need logistics help
June 13, 2016 3:01 PM   Subscribe

I posted my previous question last week. We've decided to follow the advice of several of you, and instead of driving from L.A. to the Grand Canyon and back we'll be driving from L.A. up the coast and back.

I'm having a hard time figuring out where to go, where to spend the night, and so forth. We are flying into L.A. on a Friday late evening. We will pick up our rental car early the next morning. We fly out of L.A. early afternoon the following Friday, and we would like at least 2 full days in L.A. after our drive up north and before we fly out. This give us 3 1/2 driving days and 3 nights not in L.A.

We had been thinking about going to San Francisco, but I think it's too far and would demand too much time. Now we're thinking about making Big Basin National Park our northernmost turning around point. But I'm not sure how much time I should allow for us to actually be at the park. We are not hikers or campers. I assume we'll do something like park at the headquarters or whatever and walk around for a couple of hours?

Also, I'm not sure where to break our journey on the way up and on the way back down. My initial thought was to drive up to Monterey in 1 day, stay in a hotel around there, drive to Big Basin the next morning, leave Big Basin around mid-afternoon, drive south to a town between there and L.A., stay in a hotel there, and depart for L.A. the next day and arrive in L.A. by late afternoon or early evening on the following Tuesday. Does that sound reasonable? Is driving up to Monterey in a straight shot too long? Will it rule out any time to stop along the way? If so, what would be a more reasonable stopping place? Are we setting ourselves too long a trip going that far north? My son really wanted to see the sequoias, but I really want to drive up the coast.

And what should we do along the way? I know we both want to see sea otters, hence the appeal of Monterey. We've never been to California (well, I was there in 1971 at the age of 11), and we're very inexperienced travelers, so I'm having trouble imagining the best way to spend our time, how many hours to plan to drive for each stint, best times to stop for the day, etc.

I'm also anxious about how to choose hotels in whatever towns we choose to stop in. We're all set for L.A., but we're on somewhat of a budget, but I don't want to stay in some crummy, flea-bitten place.

I know this is a lot. Any suggestions from the vague to the specific (actual hotel names, etc.) are welcome. Thank you.
posted by primate moon to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, CA (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My advice is pretty simple: look up interesting places on TripAdvisor, both to figure out what looks fun to do and to book decent hotel rooms. When we are traveling I generally use Trip Advisor (and, for eating, OpenTable and Yelp) to check out where we might go. I look up places to eat, and make a reservation, a few hours in advance. I look up things to do and potential hotels about a day in advance. Then I call or do an online booking. It is easy to do this on the road in the less gorgeous patches as long as someone else is driving. Alternately, do this research now and be conservative in planning the driving stretches.

This is one wonderful area of the country you'll be touring, and there is far more to see than you'll have time for, so being somewhat loose will play your way.

And FYI this looks like a helpful site for planning sea otter sightings.
posted by bearwife at 3:36 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm a little concerned both here and in your previous question about driving distances.

San Francisco is only about 6-8 hours' drive from Los Angeles. It's absolutely not too much ground to cover for 4 days. Hell, I'm headed up to Napa for a long weekend soon and it's looking like we'll drive up Saturday morning, have Saturday night, all day Sunday, and part of Monday there, and then drive back Monday afternoon/evening. I gather that you maybe can't split driving with your son, but a 6 hour drive is not a vacation dealbreaker. (And if it was, you should have stuck to your original plan, which had much shorter driving legs.)

If you guys aren't hikers or campers, I don't see why you want your destination to be a hiking/camping type of place.

Furthermore, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is only a couple hours' drive from San Francisco.

So, why exactly can't San Francisco be your turning around point? Just pick one or two things you'd like to do there rather than trying to see the whole place.

The itinerary I'm envisioning looks something like this:

Friday: Arrive Los Angeles
Saturday: Pick up car, drive to Monterey Bay
Sunday: Monterey Bay Aquarium and surrounding area
Monday: Drive to San Francisco
Tuesday: San Francisco
Wednesday: Return to Los Angeles
Thursday: Los Angeles
Friday: Los Angeles

The only real question mark I have is the longish one-shot drive back from SF to L.A., but that would have been just as much of a problem from Big Basin. If your real problem is return drive time, Monterey should be your turn-around point.

I'd highly recommend a guidebook to California and some time with Google Maps to look at driving times.
posted by Sara C. at 3:48 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Drive up the coast to Morro Bay, past Pismo Beach, Oceano Dunes, and stay in Morro Bay at the Cavalier Inn.
From there, tour Morro Rock, San Simeon, Hearst Castle. There are sea otters in Morro Bay.
You could drive up the coast to Limekiln State Park for a day trip, about an hour and a half north of Morro Bay, and take a redwood hike.

If you run out of things to do, go to a beach in Morro Bay with a little wine. It'll be fine, and I opine a better time than driving all day to Monterey.
posted by the Real Dan at 3:51 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Consider flying into San Jose instead (a scant 90 minutes from Monterey!), and then do the drive one-way down the coast before doing the LA leg and departing from LAX. Also consider stopping overnight somewhere that strikes your fancy on the way down (San Luis Obispo? Pismo Beach? Solvang? Santa Barbara?) so you can break up the trip and do some more exploring -- this goes double if you want to drive down Highway 1 part of the way, which will add some serious driving time. Otherwise you're basically just commuting up and down the state within the space of a few days, and as scenic as California is, driving around it can be kind of a drag if you don't allow yourself some time to mosey and enjoy it.
posted by phatkitten at 3:56 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can I just? I mean... No. You can not comfortably drive to Monterey in one day, nor should you. If you went no higher than Santa Barbra it would be fine. But better if you went up to San Luis Obisbo or Cambria. My favorite place is Moonstone Beach just in Cambria, below San Simeon and Hearst Castle.

You can see giant redwoods if you drive inland from there to Sequoia National Park above Bakersfield. You can swing back down to LA through some interesting sites in the Mojave Desert. The "worst" part of the drive would be from Cambria inland, but I bet you could make it fascinating somehow.

Ojai. People really love Ojai on the coast, too.

I live in LA and have been alllllllll over. I would not never drive as far as Monterey from LA unless I took the 5 and planned to spend 3 days there exploring. Otherwise, that just sounds exhausting!

Keep it under 5 hours from LA. Meander around. Enjoy your trip, not lots and lots of driving.
posted by jbenben at 4:02 PM on June 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Actually, flying into San Jose is the right answer. Then meander down the coast. phatkitten nailed it!!
posted by jbenben at 4:03 PM on June 13, 2016

Instead of hotels, you might look into Airbnb - we've stayed in a nice yurt just outside of Monterey.
posted by pombe at 4:08 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with jbenben.

Why are you guys going to Big Basin if you're not into hiking or camping? California is lovely and scenic and there is a lot to see if you just go up and down the coast, without getting up that north. If you don't fly into San Jose, if I were you, I'd just take this coast drive up to Cambria/San Simeon and see the castle, and noodle around Cambria. Moonstone Beach is great. San Luis Obispo and Cambria are really cute. (We always stay at the San Simeon Pines. It is old school and delightful.) Pop over to Morro Bay (which is right there) to see the otters. (We have otters a lot of places in CA, to be honest with you -- you will see them!) Then I'd drive home and stop in Santa Barbara for the night. SB is ALSO really cute and charming and plenty to enjoy. Then come on into LA.

I think you would benefit very much from a good guidebook to California to help you plan your trip (and it will assuage some anxiety, too).
posted by Countess Sandwich at 4:55 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I disagree with jbenben. I've lived in LA and made it all the way to San Francisco going up the coast route, stopping in Monterrey for lunch, in one day. Even getting stuck behind RVs on the way.

There's only so many scenic vistas you can pull over at before you realize you keep looking at cliffs coming out of the ocean. It's all gorgeous, but you don't need to keep stopping.
posted by hwyengr at 6:20 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Given how you have described yourself and your interests, I think Hearst Castle would be lovely.

Friday night: LA
Saturday night: LA
Sunday night: LA
Monday: Hearst Castle, Santa Barbara
Tuesday: AM in Santa Barbara, Then drive up to Monterey (you can do it!) and stay there
Wednesday: Monterey Bay Aquarium, sleep in Monterey
Thursday: Driving day, sleep in La
Friday: LA, fly out

** I just realized you wanted LA on Wed/Thurs/Fri, so please adjust days accordingly.
posted by samthemander at 7:17 PM on June 13, 2016

You sound nervous about the driving element. Perhaps you would like to consider taking a train? We took a beautiful round trip (Amtrak) between San Diego & L.A. last year and did not want to get off the train -- it was so nice to watch the coast and local towns, to be able to walk around and read etc. I was glad we didn't rent a car.
You could still go north: Here is the California Amtrak website that includes an LA/SF route>.
Once there you could do Uber instead of driving in the cities.
Anyway, just something to consider if not driving would make it more fun for you.
posted by flourpot at 7:47 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding flying into the Bay Area and out of LA if at all possible.

If not, your plan of driving to Monterey as a midway point is solid. Big Basin is pretty, but it doesn't compare to anything like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon or Yosemite. It almost certainly wouldn't make my top 20 sights in the Bay Area, as nice as it is. Monterey to San Francisco is only about 2 hours if you avoid commute traffic. Like Sara C suggested, I would find a way to include San Francisco, if at all possible. If you're willing to have a bit of a busy trip, it's totally doable.
posted by cnc at 11:41 PM on June 13, 2016

I am surprised nobody has yet mentioned the Madonna Inn.

I also found Pismo Beach surprisingly relaxing. It's nothing, there's nothing exciting there; there's a beach, it's cheap, there are some restaurants -- it's a good place to get away from it all.

Ojai is not without its charms.

LA --> SF is an easy day drive. Though I did once make the trip with a novice (and low-skill, and road rage prone, too!) driver -- not recommended if that is anything approaching the status quo. There is an inland route too with awful-smelling farms and no steep cliffs; takes longer, but, much easier drive if you are not an experienced driver.
posted by kmennie at 12:11 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Monday: Hearst Castle, Santa Barbara
Tuesday: AM in Santa Barbara, Then drive up to Monterey (you can do it!) and stay there

A comment on this suggestion: Hearst Castle is north of Santa Barbara, and about a 3-to-3.5 hour drive each way. If you go, I would suggest staying on Hwy 1 from San Simeon to Morro Bay, or on Hwy 101 from Paso Robles to San Luis Obispo, and visiting Santa Barbara as its own destination on the way up or back.

Driving north on Hwy 1 between Morro Bay and Monterey is gorgeous but arduous, you could always go back inland to the 101 and back out to the coast at Monterey Penninsula. Also, plan extra time for getting in and out of LA, or try to hit it at odd times like 5 am or 10 pm. Traffic there is truly bad.

FWIW I am on team you-can-get-from-LA-to-SF-in-one-day, on the 101 even, not the deadly dull 5 route, but how long and comfortable of a day that will be depends on timing yourself to avoid traffic on either end. Considering how difficult navigating a strange busy place would be after a 6-8 hour drive, I would recommend breaking it up into 2 segments.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:45 AM on June 15, 2016

Okay, to address your actual question, I think your instincts are close, I would modify your itinerary thus:

LA to Monterey via 101, make a lunch stop anywhere.

Monterey to Central Coast, making short hikes in Big Sur, say at Limekiln or Salmon Creek the 'redwoods' feature of the trip. Not sequoias, but woodsy woods. Still oodles of coastline to enjoy. If interested in Hearst Castle, stay in San Simeon, if not stay anywhere from Cambria to Pismo. Leave Monterey early enough to keep the entirety of this excursion in daylight hours.

More coastline toodling, then LA. If you have the time, Hwy 1 south between Oxnard and LA is tops, in an arid-beauty way.

I would map your route beforehand. The Hwy 1 and 101 merge/diverge in rather confusing ways, and I find GPS directives often not great on the ground.

These suggestions are highly weather-dependent; do not attempt the Hwy 1 segments (Monterey to Central Coast, Santa Barbara to Santa Monica) in anything resembling heavy rain.

I wish I had hotel recs for you, but all I got is you get what you pay for. Seconding reading as many Tripadvisor reviews as you can stand. I have had to book travel to the tourist destinations recently, and grimaced at paying what seemed like exohbinant prices for motels, just because their housekeeping and customer service seemed most reliable.

Happy travels!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 10:33 AM on June 15, 2016

Oh, and a note on driving Hwy 1 south, it requires a great deal of alertness; besides distracting scenery and twists and turns, you will share the road with cyclists going the downhill direction, and safety is of utmost importance. If you feel your cat-like reflexes would not be up to the task, I'd recommend a coastal town destinations trip and keep the route to the 101.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 10:45 AM on June 15, 2016

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