16-day California Road Trip Route & Itinerary
In May 2015 we packed our bags and headed to the airport for what would become a life-changing trip.
I spent a long time researching our trip to California, trying to decide where we’d most like to visit. I read countless articles and books and at the end of it we had our perfect itinerary.
As much as I love hearing other peoples thoughts and journeys you still can’t beat a good Lonely Planet guidebook. When it came to planning this trip, this was my book of choice – California’s Best Trips – we didn’t complete one of the routes in this book, but we picked bits from some of the routes we liked the look of and built our own adventure.
Most trips we read about included Las Vegas, but that wasn’t for us. Not because I don’t want to go to Vegas (I do). But because I want to spend more than a few days there, and to squeeze it into this trip I felt like we’d be rushing.
The route we ended up taking took us from Los Angeles – Yosemite – Lake Tahoe – San Francisco – Monterey – Pismo Beach – San Diego – Los Angeles.
I’m going to talk you through our itinerary, the routes we took and the experiences we had along the way. This post is all about the drive. I’ll be posting soon about some of my favourite stops along the way.
The flights and the car
We flew from Manchester Airport to Dublin with Ryanair, slept overnight in the airport and caught an early morning flight to Los Angeles.
Why did we sleep in the airport? It was £300 cheaper to book a flight out of Dublin than it was to fly from Manchester. So we booked a cheap flight on Ryanair and saved ourselves a small fortune (although sleeping in the airport wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had).
When we arrived in LAX we headed straight to pick up our rental car. This had been a big point of debate when we booked. I was adamant the car didn’t matter, I wanted to opt for a cheap option… Rich had other ideas and insisted we book a convertible, so he could fulfill a lifelong dream of driving a Mustang down the PCH. I gave in and we collected a beautiful, bright red Chevrolet Camaro for our trip.
I’ll happily admit how wrong I was – honestly, the car made the trip. I wouldn’t have had it any other way (except maybe in a camper van!). Rich really loved this car, you’ll see what I mean as you read on, that love meant we took a LOT of photos with the car in!!
So, on with the trip…
Los Angeles to Yosemite
We took an apparantly unconventional route for the first big leg of our journey. After three days in Los Angeles I was so excited to get out into the wilderness.
From our research, it looked like the road to the West of Yosemite was all big roads and highways. The road to the East on the other hand – now that looked exciting.
We headed out into the desert through some breathtaking scenery, in blistering heat driving past snow-capped mountains. The views were surreal and the roads were empty – which made for one of the best days’ driving of the trip.
I’ll admit – I wasn’t prepared, we were out in 40+ degree heat (celcius, that is) with the roof down and no hats. So we found a truck stop had lunch in Taco Bell and bought ourselves some trucker hats! I ended the day with some spectacularly sunburnt thighs too… I genuinely looked like I was wearing white knee high socks!
The drive was long, but as we turned onto the road through Yosemite it went from spectacular to something else… And that’s where I fell in love with Yosemite National Park (more on that later).
We drove through the park that evening to our cabin way out West (yup – it was a pretty illogical route to take, but I stand by the decision!).
Yosemite to Lake Tahoe
After a very busy day exploring Yosemite National Park we hit the road again bound for our next stop – South Lake Tahoe.
If there’s one piece of advice I could give you about visiting Yosemite, it’s this… One day is just not enough. If one day is all you’ve got it’s worth the visit, but if you can spare more time on your trip – please DO IT.
Just a side point – Rich asked me to marry him that morning (and I said yes) so I was on cloud nine from here on out.
Coming out of the National Park we made a quick stop at the humungous Mono Lake, then powered on through some really adorable little towns, crossing rivers and driving through mountains until we came to one of Lake Tahoe’s ski resorts. As we came over the top of the mountain, we began to see the lake appear in the valley – and what a sight that was!
We stopped in South Lake Tahoe for 2 nights. Hopping over to Nevada for a spot of gambling, kayaking on the lake and making our way around the shores of this glacial gem.
Lake Tahoe to San Francisco
You’re going to start seeing a bit of a theme here, as this was another drive filled with breath taking scenery.
We wanted to come into San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge – I mean, who wouldn’t?! So we came in from the North, after a quick stop for the best Clam Chowder I’ve ever tasted in Sausalito.
We drove up to Hawk Hill, a viewpoint on the north of the bridge, then took the plunge and drove across (we actually drove it three times because I got lost on the other side – but that’s another story!).
San Francisco to Monterey
Monterey was a must-visit for me – with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and my love of sea otters it was inevitable really.
We set off early for this drive so we saw the sunrising as we started out on the first stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. This was probably the shortest day’s driving we had, so there’s not really much to add here!
The afternoon we arrived in Monterey we decided to take on the 17-mile drive in Pebble Beach. Even though we had to pay $10 charge to do the drive – it was well worth it. There’s a different pace on the 17-mile drive – noone’s rushing to get to work. There’s no trucks or local soccer-moms to worry about. It allowed us to take our time, stop as often as we wanted to and know that everyone else we encountered on the road was doing the exact same thing as us. (It’s also a great spot for Sea-Otter spotting, so that’s a big bonus for me!)
Monterey to Pismo Beach
This journey saw us take on the infamous Pacific Coast Highway – through Big Sur and over the Bixby Bridge.
Honestly? It was so disappointing. It was cloudy, foggy and raining all at the same time.
The scenery was spectacular and the drive was amazing. But we finished with this feeling it just could’ve been better – like we missed out.
We found this cute little place for Brunch up in Big Sur – although I really can’t remember the name, which is beyond annoying and makes me seem like a terrible blogger – I’ll get better, I promise!
We stopped at all the places you’ll have heard about – McWay Falls, Partington Cove and beaches filled with Elephant Seals – before arriving into Pismo Beach for our next stop.
Pismo Beach to San Diego
Pismo Beach made for a chilled night out – Clam Chowder in Sourdough Bowls and moonlight walks on the pier.
We woke the next morning feeling refreshed and ready for our last big stop of the trip.
We followed the coast down to San Diego – through traffic HELL in the greater Los Angeles area – but with some fabulous stops along the way in Malibu, Huntington Beach and any other little beauty spot that caught our eye!
San Diego to Los Angeles
This was the first bit of the trip that felt like a drive from A to B rather than an adventure. Maybe because we knew we were driving to the airport to come home, maybe because we were just exhausted or maybe because it was a road we’d driven just two days earlier… There was a definite cloud over this trip I’m sad to say.
On a lighter note, that evening we went to the cinema to watch San Andreas – you know, that film where the whole of California gets demolished? Yeah, that made us feel a bit better about coming home!!
Things I learned along the way
Every adventure is a learning curve – that’s why we’re Learning to Adventure!
So, here are some of the things I learned and some top tips I picked up along the way…
- Sat Nav is amazing. I used to hate it and when I drive around the UK she is 100% muted. But when you’re driving in a new country, in some mega cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco – it’s amazing.
- Tripit – This little tool helped me stay organised on the road. I mean, yeah, I also had a folder with all our information printed out – because I just love paper! But seriously, Tripit is a great little app that can pull together all your flight reservations, hotel reservations and stops you want to take along the way.
- Prepare for the drive – I already told you about the hat situation, that was bad. Luckily I was more prepared when it came to food and drink – we headed to Target when we arrived in LA and bought a coolbag and some bricks. All in it cost us less than $10, but it meant we could take fresh food and cool water with us on the road.
- If you’re hiring a Camaro – pack light! We struggled on some days to fit all our luggage in the ‘trunk’ and have the roof down. The thing noone tells you in advance? The roof goes in the boot. I mean, you don’t want to be those people driving with their cases sitting on the back seat like inanimate children, do you?
- Don’t be afraid to take a hit on mileage for a better journey – We had some choices to make, do we take the direct route or the more enjoyable route. Enjoyment won every time and I will never regret that.
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