Going to California
January 24, 2019 11:15 AM   Subscribe

California first-timers here. Would you recommend starting our sightseeing adventure in San Francisco and heading south, or starting in San Luis Obispo and heading north?

We're looking at taking a trip to California in May, and have settled on driving along the coast from... somewhere to somewhere. If you were going to do some west coast sightseeing and had 4-5 days, what would your strategy be? We're thinking of flying into San Francisco and flying out of San Luis Obispo. But maybe we should reverse that, and head home from San Francisco instead?

Both cities are two planes away for us, and there doesn't seem to be much of a cost benefit to flying into one versus the other. But maybe one city has more of a logistical advantage that we're not aware of.
posted by emelenjr to Travel & Transportation around California (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you'll be on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway, i.e. SR 1) for long stretches, which I assume is the case if you want to drive along the coast, driving southward allows the passenger easier views of the ocean -- much of that route between San Luis Obispo and San Francisco is sandwiched right between cliffs and the water. Driving southward also makes it easier to stop at the scenic turnouts as they're normally on the western side of the highway, i.e. next to the southbound lane.

The big disadvantage to driving southward, on the other hand, is that I think it's mentally harder on the driver because you're right next to the ocean, as opposed to driving northward when you have that buffer of a lane. Otherwise, the other disadvantage to driving southward is that when the sun is low in the sky (like right now) it will shine in your face, but in May that won't be as much of a problem.
posted by andrewesque at 11:26 AM on January 24, 2019 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I would drive north because that way i would not be right on the ledge when driving curves on parts of Hwy 1 :)
posted by sheldman at 11:27 AM on January 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: If I had my druthers, I'd choose go north. If going north, you vehicle is on the east side of the road, so closer to land than the sea so a bit less stressful than doing all those curves next to the dropoffs. Then, you have to cross traffic to do turnouts, beaches or whatever on the sea side.
I like the idea of ending up at the big city. San Luis Obispo is pretty small by comparison. By ending up at SF, you can do all the big city stuff in one big end of vacation fling. It can be a bit much getting around the city by the bay. Maybe save that to last so you can work your way up to it. Have your vacation/driving techniques up to snuff before heading into this urban conglomeration. Tons to do in SF but all driving to get there.
Starting off in SLO, you get a nice calm start, lots of nature available close by so a good, relaxing start to the trip.
posted by diode at 11:31 AM on January 24, 2019

I started in SF and went south and I would do it that way again, as I prefer the busier stuff to be at the start of the trip. I liked being on the ocean side of the highway and did not find any scary curves. It is worth checking if the one way rate car rental cost is different in the other direction.
posted by soelo at 11:51 AM on January 24, 2019

Well golly, I'd totally recommend the opposite. Drive north to south. That way pulling off and taking in the view is much easier. Unless I missed where the OP said they were concerned about stress. I don't find it stressful at all.
posted by humboldt32 at 12:24 PM on January 24, 2019

I’m with soelo on this one. You’ll be lower energy at the end of the trip, which is perfect for SLO. They’re both fantastic cities, and neither option will result in a bad trip unless you have any other variables you’d like to introduce for consideration.
posted by Tentacle of Trust at 1:32 PM on January 24, 2019

Best answer: I've lived in SF for 10 years and have driven the PCH a number of times.

My vote is for heading north: San Luis Obispo would be a great place to start your California adventure. There's plenty of hiking to do around there; Morro Bay is close and tends to be pretty underrated by tourists from outside of the area. I would also prefer, in your shoes, to fly into the smaller airport and out of the larger airport. SFO has a ton of flights to basically everywhere, so if anything goes wrong, you have much more to fall back on. The views are beautiful no matter which way you decide to go, though admittedly slightly more breathtaking heading south.

Consider renting and dropping off from agencies not at the airport: lack of airport concession fees may lower your prices enough to make up for the one-way rental fees. Also, you won't need a car for San Francisco. Parking fees downtown are crazy, and street parking is very difficult to find; traffic is nuts during rush hour; public transit, especially in the tourist areas, is decent; and you can fill in the gaps with Uber/Lyft. I'd drop off the car and then take Uber/Lyft to your hotel.

Note that Hearst Castle often sells out days in advance, so you should make reservations once you've figured out which day you'll be there.

Have fun! It's a great trip and you'll have a blast.
posted by kdar at 1:48 PM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: FYI, if curvy mountain roads are a point of comparison to you, I've found the PCH to be much, much easier. The constant reference point of the ocean makes it much less hypnotic, and you can almost always see where the road will be going. (This is not the case in, say, the Smokeys.) My mom hates curvy roads because she gets motion sick, and she confirmed this opinion: it's a lot easier.

Definitely budget additional time on PCH to get out of the car and chill if you enjoy sitting there and staring at pretty things.
posted by billjings at 2:23 PM on January 24, 2019

I've driven PCH many times, and I'll note that if you're afraid of heights, some of the views from the road can be dizzying. And there are places where you can't see anything but o c e a n, which may be fantastic or terrifying, depending on your feelings about that kind of thing.

The pull-outs aren't generally that hard to access, and unless traffic volumes have significantly increased in the past 6 years, if you're driving south you won't have too much trouble crossing into ocean-side pull-offs, if you find a place or you want to stop and look.

But I love that drive so much, and there are a ton of hikes along there, from short walks to the ocean, to day-long treks up to the mountain peaks, depending on what you want and how much time you have.

If you want to see some nature in action, here's the Elephant Seal calendar. If you want to visit ridiculous splendor in a beautiful setting, Hearst Castle is hard to beat.

If you want more regional recommendations, I'd be happy to ramble on (or search my prior comments, as I've shared these and similar links before).
posted by filthy light thief at 3:11 PM on January 24, 2019

you definitely should spend time in Monterey/Carmel.

check roadfood for places to eat.

nthing not driving in sf.

on my last ca trip I rented a car in la, spent a week there to see the rbg exhibit and family, went up to santa Barbara for a few days because I was supposed to see my aunt and uncle( who changed their plans), on to san Jose for a week, then finished up in sf to help my cousins celebrate a milestone bday. i dropped the car off at the sf airport and took a cab to my hote in the city.
posted by brujita at 6:37 PM on January 24, 2019

I'd look at flying into Oakland or San Jose airports vs. flying into SFO. OAK and SJC are smaller and easier to get around (and out of). Also, SFO is more likely to have weather-related delays vs. the other airports, at least in my experience.
posted by mogget at 8:40 PM on January 24, 2019

caltrain runs from sj to sf
posted by brujita at 9:51 PM on January 24, 2019

Best answer: I’ve been through that area too many times to count. If I were going back for a vacation I would want to start out in a relatively empty area and ramp up to the big city. So south to north.

I have to admit the argument that going north to south gives the passenger side an unobstructed view of the coastline is pretty compelling though.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:23 PM on January 24, 2019

If going north, you vehicle is on the east side of the road, so closer to land than the sea so a bit less stressful than doing all those curves next to the dropoffs.

I think people are really, really over stating this. I have bicycled the entire PCH several times and do the section between SF and SLO a couple of times a year. I do this on the western shoulder of the road yall are driving on and have never felt like I was about to fall off a cliff into oblivion. People drive massive RVs up an down the PCH every day without issue. It's not like one wrong move and you're at the bottom of the ocean or anything. As far as Pacific coastal terrain on the 1 goes, the section through Big Sur is pretty mild (views are amazing tho of course).

Anyways I vote drive south because then there's not a wall of RVs between you and the view.
posted by bradbane at 11:05 PM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'd look at flying into Oakland or San Jose airports vs. flying into SFO. OAK and SJC are smaller and easier to get around (and out of). Also, SFO is more likely to have weather-related delays vs. the other airports, at least in my experience.
True, but May is about as good as it gets for weather (not yet in the fog season, and out of the rainy season); and SJC is a pain to get to if you don't have a car. Caltrain works... kinda, but it will take quite a bit longer than BART or a cab to SFO.

OAK is a great airport if it works for where you're going.
posted by kdar at 10:01 PM on January 25, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the route suggestions! We decided to fly into Santa Barbara and head north to San Francisco, spending nights in Solvang, Pismo Beach, Pacific Grove/Monterey and over in San Jose before we get to SF.
posted by emelenjr at 1:21 PM on February 23, 2019

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