California dreamin'
May 6, 2008 6:22 PM   Subscribe

I will be doing a very anticipated trip to California for the first time. Please advice with good tips!


I am going to the US on September, and I would like all advice I can get on planning my trip.

It will have two "parts":

On the first part, I will be visiting the IBM team I work with on Boulder, Colorado. I'd like tips for what should be seen on the whereabouts of Boulder and Denver. I will stay there for about 5 to 6 days only and will work 8h a day for 5 days.

After that period, I will be catching a flight to California. Here I have two questions: what would be the cheaper way to fly from Colorado to California? On what city should I start?

My idea for the second part is to have a roadtrip, stopping in must-see cities, staying for the night, then leaving in the morning. I want to drive all the way from California to Las Vegas. I will have 15 to 20 days on that part of the trip. Is that feasible?

I am really into getting to know the American way of life, like small cities, eating at BBQ, Hamburger and Dinner places on the roadside, besides maybe stopping on a amusement or theme park along the way. I am thinking about Six Flags or something like that. Any tips on that?

Also, please consider I am 29 years old and I am on a budget. I'd like to spend some time on budget hotels and motels but I would also spend some nights on good hotels that are worth the money.

Any tips or at least pointers to places on the internet where I can find further advice would be awesome.
posted by fcoury to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Los Angeles is 4 or so hours drive from Las Vegas depending on specific departures and arrivals in each city.
Delta looks like it flies direct to LAX but it was more expensive, a non direct flight looked to be about 200 bucks one way on a varied carriers.

If you want to see California my suggestion is to fly to an airport in northern California or even Oregon and drive down the pacific coast, it's pretty amazing taking route 101 all the way down.

Stopping in LA puts you reasonably close to Las Vegas, it's just up I15 to that destination.
posted by iamabot at 6:33 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Expanding on what iamabot said, I recommend flying into San Francisco, seeing the area, doing some wine tasting in Napa/Sonoma, and then road tripping down Highway 1 and/pr 101, stopping in Monterrey, Big Sur & Santa Barbara. LA is about an hour and a half south of SB, and my lovely town of San Diego is two hours south of that. You can also cross the border into Tijuana for a day, for some bonus absurdity.

From San Diego, it's about 5 hours to Vegas, depending on how fast you drive. I really recommend stopping by Calico in the desert between Vegas and LA. It's a ghost town, the epitome of old west CA. We stopped by after hours, and it was deliciously creepy.

15-20 days is definitely enough for this whole itinerary, though you won't get to linger in one place too much. I've driven from SF to SD in one day plenty of times. ooooh, if you can fit in a day trip to the redwoods when you're in northern California, you won't regret it.

--California girl
posted by changeling at 6:46 PM on May 6, 2008

yes, the pacific coast (hwy 101) is amazing if you get a chance to drive it.

also, you can check out Roadside America for unusual attractions wherever you go.
posted by hulahulagirl at 6:50 PM on May 6, 2008

I KNOW what others will say: it is expensive, and time-consuming, and crowded, and vulgar and blah blah blah.
But is is AMERICAN.
(Six Flags just ain't gonna cut it, dude...)
You will have a ball!
Good luck!
posted by Dizzy at 7:05 PM on May 6, 2008

I think you are making a big mistake if you leave Colorado too fast - stay for 3 - 5 days and drive from Denver to Telluride, CO stopping overnight on the way for the hot springs at Glenwood Springs. From Telluride you are only 3 hours from Monument Valley. Between Telluride and Monument Valley you will see some of the most stunningly beautiful and iconic country in all of America. You could fly to LA from Grand Junction Airport, and then follow everyone else's CA advice. 10 - 15 days in CA is more than enough for a tourist visit.

But don't sell Colorado short, it is stunning and beautiful, and mind blowing. Plus has a lot of real small town America.
posted by extrabox at 7:05 PM on May 6, 2008

How many days do you have for the California part of your trip? I think you need to specify that in order to get good advice.

Northern California is beautiful, and the drive along the coast from San Francisco to the LA area can be gorgeous if you plan it right. But, that'll take at least a day of nonstop driving. If you don't have that much time, fly directly to the LA area. (Note that there are several airports you can fly into: LAX, Burbank, Ontario, and one more I'm forgetting (?). Check to see if there are price differences among them.)

So, if you only have a couple days, fly into the LA area.

If you have 3 or 4 days, fly to San Francisco and head south. Spend at least one day in SF (where you will not even come close to scratching the surface).

And yeah, like extrabox said, Colorado is gorgeous. Don't neglect that part of your trip.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:21 PM on May 6, 2008

Long Beach (LGB) is the other Los Angeles area airport mudpuppie was thinking of. Definitely consider flying into any one of them to get to LA.
posted by Horselover Fat at 7:29 PM on May 6, 2008

If you like camping, there's a lot of great places to do that within a few hours drive of San Francisco. You can rent equipment instead of lugging it all the way from Brazil. Weekends may require way-ahead-of-time reservations, but weekdays should be very easy to find campgrounds.

Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic are both extremely nice places to spend a few days.
posted by aubilenon at 7:32 PM on May 6, 2008

I have to agree with what changeling / California Girl said. I'd fly into San Francisco and spend a day or two there if you can. It is one of America's most unique, interesting and beautiful cities - a must see.

Then I'd stop to see the redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument while on the way to Yosemite National Park. You can do that in two days unless you go on a crowded weekend. It will be a bit of a detour but I'd do it if you can.

Then I'd wander down Highway 1 on your way to Las Vegas, preferably in a convertible. It runs right along the coast and you may find it to be one of the most scenic highways and pleasant drives that you will ever experience. You'll also probably be surprised that there isn't a lot of traffic on much of it.

I didn't make it down to Big Sur on my trip, but we did enjoy Carmel and Monterrey. BTW, if you like aquariums, or if you've never been to an aquarium, then I highly recommend you visit the one in Monterrey. It's probably one of the best in the world.

It might be a little tough to find a nice conveniently located and inexpensive hotel in SF, but with careful planning you can see California on a reasonable budget. Once you've got a tentative itinerary planned, I'd ask again for specific restaurant and hotel/motel recommendations. I'm sure you'll get some good ones if you tell us which towns you're going to be in.
posted by 14580 at 7:35 PM on May 6, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much for such valuable feedback. I will definitely review the time I am going to spend on CO. I will probably have somewhere between 25 to 30 days to spend on this trip and was thinking about CO, CA and Las Vegas in Nevada...
posted by fcoury at 8:23 PM on May 6, 2008

You want to get to know the American way of life but you're going to Vegas, the most artificial city in the world? Actually, that might make it more American than anywhere else in the country.

Anyway, Six Flags is fun for thrills (i.e. roller coasters) but it's not fun for experiencing something unique. Love it or hate it, Disney is an American institution.

The ride from LA to Vegas is uneventful. You'll pass nothing but a bunch of discount outlet stores and the world's largest thermometer. I recommend 2-3 days in Vegas max. Spend the rest of our time in San Francisco, San Luis Obispo (1 day), Sonoma and wine country (2-3 days), Monterrey (1-2 days) and LA.

LA is huge. HUGE. There are a lot of things to do and see here. There's no city center; the whole city is a big, spread out mess.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:39 PM on May 6, 2008

I agree with Extrabox re: Colorado.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:41 PM on May 6, 2008

Twenty-five to 30 days? Awesome!

Things you can (and should) see in that time:

Spend a few days in CO. It's wonderful. Fly to San Francisco (or Oakland or San Jose -- whatever is cheaper) and spend 3 days in SF. Search AskMe for things to see while you're there.

Take a day (or two) trip to Napa or Sonoma. (I actually prefer Sonoma.)

Drive from the Bay Area, down Highway 1, to Monterey. Spend a night or two.

Continue down Highway 1 on your way to LA. Stop at Big Sur or Hearst Castle if you want, or in Santa Barbara. Really, there are lots of options.

For LA, you'll need advice from others.

Las Vegas is easily worth 2 days. It's cartoonish, but worth it. It's not 'America,' but it's lots of fun. Just keep in mind that you're part of a big joke, and it'll be fun. (My favorite spot on the strip, which I really hope is still there, is Casino Royale, across the street from the Mirage. It's cheesy and sleazy, but it's also cheap and fun.)

If you have a month, you could also check out Yosemite or Mendocino. Both are a full day's drive from SF, but both are really wonderful.

Have a great trip. You're headed to a beautiful part of the world.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:49 PM on May 6, 2008

Oh -- also recognize that gas is hovering around $4/gallon in California. You might want to figure that into your budget.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:50 PM on May 6, 2008

I also agree with extrabox. I'm not sure if this is possible (do you have to be in California immediately after Boulder?), but I'd recommend driving from Colorado to California. I-70 is beautiful in Colorado, and there's lots of gorgeous stuff in Utah, too--Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, among other things. Las Vegas isn't that great, but I guess it's worth a day or so. Six Flags is worthless; Disneyland might be interesting. All the other places everyone's mentioned in in California are great.

Something nobody's mentioned yet: the Grand Canyon. It's less than a day away from L.A., and definitely worth seeing. You could also make it part of a Vegas excursion--leave Vegas via U.S. 93 over the Hoover Dam (make sure to take the tour there, too).
posted by equalpants at 8:58 PM on May 6, 2008

Response by poster: A friend from another forum suggested me to drive from Denver to Las Vegas and then going to California. I found that to a be very nice idea. What is the average MPG on a US sport utility? Thanks again, I am really liking this thread!
posted by fcoury at 9:20 PM on May 6, 2008

I have a small SUV (Honda Element) that gets about 20-25 on the highway.

My Happiest Place on Earth isn't Disneyland.

It's Joshua Tree National Park, where you can hang out and do a little hiking or maybe some rock climbing if you're so inclined, get a feel for the high desert. Stay at the Joshua Tree Inn which is inexpensive and has a pretty glorious hippie-country-rock history. They serve a wonderful breakfast and have wine in the common room in the evening, and you can get a kick-ass meal and exposure to all kinds of interesting folks at the Crossroads Cafe down the road. There is always someone to have a beer or a joint or a climb or a chat with in Joshua Tree.
posted by padraigin at 10:37 PM on May 6, 2008

I'm from Las Vegas and travel to Denver and LA fairly frequently. Here's my advice:

Whenever you're done in Denver, fly to Las Vegas, goof off a few days and then drive to California. It's about a 4 hour drive to LA from Las Vegas. Stay at the South Point, which is a new resort but a few miles away from the Strip. Rooms are super nice and clean and incredibly cheap. Check the rate calendar, where they publish rates all summer long. Unless you stay on a Friday or Saturday, the room rate is just $70.

Driving through Cali is great especially if you've got time. Since you've got a month you'll have plenty of time to do the big cities - Vegas, LA and SF and also to explore places in between. Here's some places I'd recommend checking out:

+ Grand Canyon West - just 2 hrs drive from LV, and you'll pass Hoover Dam on the way.
+ Death Valley
+ Small towns in California, like Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterrey. SLO has a great farmer's market which is very "American."
+ Redwood forest in Northern Califronia.

Dude, a month is plenty of time to do all this stuff.
posted by b_thinky at 12:53 AM on May 7, 2008

Do not get an SUV.

Go to In-N-Out, the only fast food worth having. I don't eat fast food but make an exception for that.

If you get a chance, drive along the PCH between Morro Bay and Monterey. It's gorgeous, but will take most of a day (one way). If you're going north from LA to SF, or vice versa, take this route instead of the 101; it's infinitely more interesting. Stay a night in Morro Bay; it's cheap and an excellent example of small-town California, even if it's kind of touristy. They have great hiking and an excellent little Thai restaurant in the shape of a boat there.

Definitely go to Hearst Castle, but get reservations online a few days before you get there; it's tourist season and things will be tight. Plan on arriving at least 30 minutes before your scheduled start time so you can deal with the lines, which are terrible.
posted by kdar at 1:23 AM on May 7, 2008

Definitely try camping in Yosemite Valley. Also if you drive from SF to LA, you'll have some opportunities to check out redwood forests, and again I'd recommend camping in one if you can.

If you can head north of SF on the coast, you won't regret it. It's beautiful up there.

I also recommend San Luis Obispo. I once drove from LA to SF, and that town was a pleasant little surprise.

Oh yes, and definitely check out Joshua Tree National Park. You know the U2 album, right? The photos on it were taken there, I believe.

If you feel the need to geek out, stop off at a Fry's in Silicon Valley.
posted by A dead Quaker at 3:09 AM on May 7, 2008

Long Beach Airport in Long Beach is the most beautiful airport I've ever seen. It's small, and very open air. It's like landing in paradise for me. The beaches in Long Beach tend to be less crowded too, if you wanted to go there. In-N-Out burger is awesome. Disneyland is fun if you can afford it. You could also go to the NBC studios in Burbank (I think - I went there a few years ago). Another interesting tour is the LA Times. You get to see where they print the paper and learn a lot.

San Francisco is also a lot of fun. We fly into Oakland Airport instead of SFO because it's not as crowded and huge. We then drive over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. San Francisco's hotels can be expensive, but I can recommend one cheaper hotel that we always stay at: The Coventry Motor Inn. You can get to anywhere by bus in SF. We took a segway tour of SF a while ago, and that was a lot of fun. You can also rent (a) bike(s) and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, and even down to Sausalito. We did that too, and it was wonderful.

There are so many things to do in California, Northern or Southern, that no one person can tell you them all! Good luck on your trip.. I know you'll want to go back.
posted by majikstreet at 3:24 AM on May 7, 2008

15-20 days is PLENTY of time to see all kinds of great things in California. The advice you've gotten to drive from Denver to Las Vegas via Southern Utah is very good, especially with the large amount of time you have on this trip. I haven't done that drive, so I'm going to talk mostly about the California part of the trip.

This advice skews to outdoor activities, so keep that in mind. Things to do:
San Francisco Bay Area (4-5 days)
* San Francisco
* Ride cable cars!
* Eat at Italian Places in North Beach
* Palace of Fine Arts (and the Exploratorium if you're into science).
* Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge if it's not foggy, and go up the Marin Headlands for incredible views of the bridge and city.
* Ferry Building, especially on a weekend day when the Farmer's Market is going.
* Golden Gate Park - Japanese Tea Garden, De Young Museum, Park Chalet Restaurant
* Muir Woods and Sausalito
* Coit Tower
* Angel Island - The hike to the top is pretty easy and a GREAT view.
* San Francisco Giants baseball game.
* Fisherman's Wharf is EXTREMELY touristy, so I wouldn't plan on spending a ton of time there unless you're into that sort of thing. Alcatraz is fairly interesting, but I'd rather go to Angel Island.

Optional Lake Tahoe (1 day)
* Go to Emerald Bay. Good walk to the water from the road or hikes above the bay.
* There are Casinos here if you're into gambling.
* Stop in Downtown Sacramento on the way there or back just for a break in the driving. I like taking out of towners to Zocalo and Rio City Cafe. Stay the hell away from Joe's Crab Shack.
* Drive around the lake and take Highway 50 back if you took 80 to get here, or vice-versa.

Yosemite National Park (2-3 days, 3.5 hours from San Francisco)
* You're absolutely cheating yourself if you come to California and don't go to Yosemite. It's one of the most amazing places in the world.
* You can rent a bike and tool around the valley floor, stopping to see the MANY sights.
* The walk up to the Vernal Fall foot bridge is all paved and pretty easy, if a little steep. You can continue to the top of Vernal Falls if you're a little more adventurous.
* Go to Glacier Point if the road is open.
* Mirror Lake, if you're not too far into the summer.
* Make sure to go to Tunnel View at Sunset.
* Go to the Tuolumne Grove for the biggest trees you will ever see.

Monterey, Carmel (2 days)
* See the Aquarium in Monterey if you're at all interested in aquariums.
* 17 mile drive
* Downtown Carmel

Big Sur (1 day)
* Point Lobos
* Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park (waterfall dropping onto the beach.)
* Bixby Bridge
* Hearst Castle will not impress you if you're from Europe.
* Drive along Highway 1 to Santa Maria, then cut over to I-5 and on to LA

Los Angeles (2-3 days?) - Warning - I'm not at all a fan of LA. The traffic and pollution are HORRIBLE, so you should probably listen to people who live there.
* Disneyland is fun.
* Catalina Island - not much there, but I think it's charming
* Santa Monica Beach and Pier
* Getty Museum
* Griffith Observatory
* Museum of Tolerance

Drive to South Rim of Grand Canyon (2 days)
* There's lots of hiking to be done on the rim of the canyon or on several trails that drop into the canyon itself.

Drive to Hoover Dam and take the tour and then on to Las Vegas. Vegas can be tiring, but it's certainly an interesting place. I can't spend more than about 2 days there, but it all depends on what you're looking for.

Hope that helps.
posted by cnc at 1:32 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Gas is going to cost a fortune. Get the smallest car you can fit your stuff in, or consider a rail pass. The trains aren't terribly reliable in California, but the coastal routes are lovely and Amtrak can certainly get you from SF to San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara to LA to San Diego. For Las Vegas, there are super cheap buses from LA.
posted by Scram at 4:29 PM on May 7, 2008

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