I want to help you structure your California road trip on the pacific coast highway (PCH) so you maximize time out of the car, actually immersed in your surroundings.
But first, I have a confession to make. This Cali trip was intended as a solo expedition to prove that I CAN and not allow my single status to hinder life experiences. But all that changed due to budgetary and itinerary sacrifices I wasn’t willing to make, plus a parental throw down along the lines of “over our dead bodies are you going to LA by yourself”. I’ve learned that only when I don’t heed their advice, are they right and I couldn’t handle any more drama, so I listened.
Instead of flying between LA and San Fran (1 hour, $100), my dad met me for the coastal drive (4353835 hours, $100+ in gas) but it was so worth it. I think we both learned about each other – he says all you have to do is feed me every 3 hours (after two near starvation experiences in one day). I learned that he has difficulty tolerating me in my least perfect moments (road trips are stressful and uncertain).
In truth, I felt a bit disappointed for needing accompaniment but I couldn’t tell if it was my soul or ego talking. At least part of my motivation was to keep up with the independent, fearless women of the Internet and sound badass at the water cooler. But enough about me, this is about you!
When to go to San Francisco / California Coast & Other Practicalities
San Fran is at its best weather wise in September and October BUT daylight hours are more limited so if you can’t do the ideal itinerary below, go in June to maximize sightseeing. Also the ocean is warmest in September at the end of the season (71F).
In terms of planning a weekend trip to Yosemite OR Tahoe – I would suggest booking last minute after you’ve arrived and based on the weather forecast. Outkast says it best: “You can paint a pretty picture but you can’t predict the weather”.
If you want to do any camping, I’d suggest early to mid September as a sweet spot. I found tours that did 2 nights and 3 days with camping in both Tahoe & Yosemite (for $500) but that would be intense driving and cold at night. Yosemite single day trips are available, but involve 7 hours on the road.
The Drive Itself from San Francisco to Los Angeles (LA) & Other Practicalities
California is full of mountains from top to bottom, which are 50 shades of brown (likely due to the drought). There is no cell or radio reception in Big Sur so bring CDs or a fully charged iPOD for the journey. Roadside service stations didn’t exist – you had to bank on the next town for sustenance.
Also Americans don’t seem to believe in streetlights. I would invest in a data plan since Google Maps App saved us many times (better than GPS). And while they say Canadians are polite, West Coasters are so nice, happy and helpful.
I’ve never seen so many active and fit people in my life, from those biking the steep and windy roads to jogging Runyon Canyon in 40 degree weather. They must not be eating in the restaurants where portions are massive. You can easily split an entrée and appetizer for two and save some dough. LA had the most organic and gluten free options, plus juice bars (vegan treats were harder to spot). Whole Foods will rob you and Starbucks is the equivalent of Tim Hortons (no value coffee chain).
In terms of accommodations, prepare to spend $200 – $300 a night for a hotel, motel or AirBnB. I booked three AirBnB’s but can only recommend the one in Lake Tahoe (Rick Gunn is my idol). I was expecting a personal experience where you hang out with the hosts but that wasn’t the case. Plus you have to make your bed on vacay (boo).
An Ideal California Coast Road Trip Itinerary from Los Angeles (LA) to San Francisco
If I could redo the trip, here’s what I would change. Keep in mind that subjectivity counts. Also if you’ve already been to either LA or San Fran on a standalone trip, you can shave days off in both city centers, which is budget friendly.
4 – 6 nights in the Bay Area based on your Itinerary
- 4 Days in San Fran area proper (including one nearby excursion i.e. Sausalito/Muir Woods or Napa for a half day). Stay in City Centre. I hear road to Muir is extremely windy. Sausalito was a diluted version of coastal Europe.
- 2 nights / 2 days at either Tahoe or Yosemite (if you want to mimic my itinerary) but not both as they are 5.5 hours apart (learned that the hard way and lost a hotel booking). Tahoe is 4 hours away, 1.5 of which include ascending and descending 8,000 feet.
The California Coast: 3 – 5 nights (instead of 2)
- 1 – 2 nights in either Monterey or Carmel. If you skip Santa Cruz and drive straight to Monterey for lunch, drive the 17 mile and head to Carmel for dinner/overnight.
- 1 – 2 nights in Big Sur area – the windiest roads, with the best views and most natural attractions (parks for hiking etc.) Big Sur has limited options (camping, cabins or pricy motels/hotels i.e. $400 – $500 a night). Book this first and base the rest of the trip around its availability.
- 1 night in Cambria – cute, small town, ocean front, and one of the first towns an hour after Big Sur. My dad and I crammed everything before this point into the same day. This was our first coastal overnight.
- I would stop in Santa Barbara for an afternoon but I wouldn’t do an overnight there unless you want to hit up the Camarillo outlets without backtracking from LA (1 hour north on the 101). We did an overnight here and regretted it. Stay by State street. Morro Bay and Pismo Beach are worth skipping too, especially the latter.
3 – 4 full days in Los Angeles (Instead of 2)
- Malibu was underwhelming (The Real Housewives say hi) though we didn’t see Zuma Beach (supposed to be nice, no bathrooms). Paradise Cove charges $40 per car and loses sunlight rather early (#europedoesitbetter).
- Talk shows only film Monday to Thursday and are a full day thing. Ellen gets booked way in advance.
- Stay by the water, where it is much cooler and comfortable if you can. Also “heated” pools matter off season.
- Venice Beach is tacky bordering on terrifying. There were a lot more homeless people too (Hollywood dreams gone wrong?). Santa Monica is nice, if you like to hear kids screaming on rides. 3rd street has a nice pedestrian promenade with shops & restos (check out The Misfit). Lemonade (the franchise) is awesome – let’s start one and get rich.
- You can rent bikes along the water at Marina Del Ray, Venice Beach or Santa Monica (and likely other beaches too).
- Runyon Canyon has no bathrooms and its all uphill when you get there. We learned that the hard way.
I’d go back to Cali but I would take on less, be more clear on “must have” experiences, go slowly, stay in hotels or with friends and I would do LA down to San Diego for more palatable beaches. It wasn’t as rejuvenating as Europe – just mildly disorienting and unfamiliar, without castles, ruins or temples to awaken your soul. But still a nice break from the routine of every day.
Leave your Cali travel tips in the comments – do you disagree with anything? Hidden gems I missed? Resto reco’s?