Ah, the Golden Coast. Is there any place more scenic? In just a few short hours you can go from cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to standing in the vast desert feeling truly small. California has an astonishing amount of diversity, making it the perfect place for everyone. Grab your besties and pack the car, we’re going on a road trip to explore this ecological and cultural goldmine! For this journey I recommend a reliable vehicle, a National Parks Pass, and a will for adventure.
Start your journey in San Diego (if you are starting in the north reverse the itinerary). San Diego is a big city with a laid back beachy vibe, making it an excellent launch pad for your California adventure. Spend the early afternoon hitting the beach bars at Pacific Beach, enjoy the sunset on the La Jolla Sunset Cliffs, and then head to the Gaslamp Quarter for a wild night. Gaslamp is filled with bars and clubs. My personal favorite is a dueling piano bar called The Shout! House. Sleep well, because tomorrow is your first day on the road!
Get an early start, pack a cooler, and grab some car snacks for your first day on the road. First stop, Temecula! Temecula has some amazing SoCal wineries. Stop in to one for a quick tasting and lunch. For a full list of wineries click here. Grab a bottle for later before you move east to Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree National Park is located in the Mojave Desert. Joshua Tree is home to the awe-inspiring Joshua Trees, that only grow in certain parts of the Mojave Desert. People from all over flock to get a glimpse of these Dr. Seuss-esq trees. Spend the night camping beneath the trillions of stars visible in the clear desert air.
Begin your day by taking a quick early morning hike around your campsite. Load up and head over the city of Angels. Los Angeles itself can take quite a few days to explore, but we are going to do it in just two days. Get to your accommodation (I highly recommend staying in an Airbnb in Hollywood, close to the metro). After washing the desert off, hit the streets for some exploration! Since you are on a time constraint you want to maximize your time here. The best way to do this is to start in Hollywood. In about 30 minutes you can see the Walk of Fame, TLC Chinese Theatre, and even catch a glimpse of the Hollywood sign! Hop on the Metro Redline and head downtown by 2pm. If it is a weekday, exit at the civic center and go up to the top of City Hall for some sweeping views. If it is a weekend, exit the metro at Union Station and check out Olvera Street. Next walk over to Pershing Square to meet up with a food and wine tour for a crash course experience in Los Angeles cuisine. At the end of the night, before going to your hotel or Airbnb stop in West Hollywood at the LCMA to see the Urban Lights display!
Wake up and drive to the coast! Start in Venice Beach. Walk your way towards Santa Monica and soak in all the vendors along beach front path. Make it to Santa Monica to walk along the pier. Mariasol at the very end of the pier is a fun choice for lunch, but often has a wait and slow service. If you chose to leave the pier there are more fabulous choices for food along Ocean Avenue. Once you have had enough of Santa Monica, jump back in your car and head north up the PCH to Malibu. Visit El Matador State Beach where you can explore cliffs, caves, and tide pools. Once you have had your fill of that continue driving north on the PCH to Santa Barbara. Check into your pre-booked accommodation. I recommend choosing a winery that interest you before arriving and finding either a hotel or Airbnb close by. Go to a winery that offers food as well for dinner and a wine tasting. For a full list of wineries click here.
Wake up and start your way further north on the PCH. Stop in the Pismo Beach for an amazing seafood lunch. If you are feeling adventurous rent four wheelers and ride the sand dunes (be sure to wear jeans and tennis shoes!). Once you have finished with Pismo Beach head inland towards Paso Robles (my personal favorite California wine region). Check into your pre-booked accommodations for the evening before going to a winery for a tasting and dinner. If you are interested in stopping in a few wineries, I highly recommend booking a tour before hand! Tour companies will take you to around to wineries to give you a good sense of what different areas within the region have to offer. For a list of tour companies click here.
Wake up, eat breakfast in Paso Robles, and move west to coast. Stop in Cambria for lunch. Explore shops and restaurants of the quaint downtown area before making your way further up the coast. Once on the road be sure to pull over often at the lookouts to allow yourself to absorb the incredible scenery and give everyone a break from the very winding roads. Elephant Seal Beach and Pfeiffer Waterfall are definitely worth stopping to see. Once you make it to the northern half of Big Sur start looking for a camping spot for the evening. If you are going during a busy time of year (Spring, Summer, early Fall) be sure to book a campsite beforehand. Campsites often fill up many months in advance.
Wake up, pack up, and head north. Arrive in Carmel by the Sea for breakfast. After eating, explore the many high end stores around Ocean Avenue. Pro-tip: consignment stores in wealthy areas are awesome. Carmel has some incredible consignment shops. Stop at Monterey for lunch on the pier. Walk along the boardwalk and try everyone’s clam chowder! By you get to the end of the pier you may even be full! After lunch make your way further north to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Be sure to give yourself enough daylight to set up camp and explore the Redwoods.
Wake up, eat breakfast at the campsite, and go for a hike in the Redwoods. Pack up camp and head out of the state park to the PCH towards San Francisco. Arrive in San Francisco and check into your accommodation. Be sure to do some research and stay in an area that matches your interests. I have stayed in a few different areas and found them all enjoyable. Grab a (very) light lunch and get ready for an experience to remember. Rent bikes and bike the Golden Gate Bridge. There are a few rental companies for bikes and I’m sure they are all great. I have used Blazing Saddles a few times in the past and it was a good experience every time. Stop at the other side of the bridge for lovely pictures, but then continue down the hill into Sausalito for food and drinks. You can bike back if you feel you still have the energy, or you can load yourself and your bike onto the ferry when you are ready to go back to the city. Once you are back in San Francisco you will need to drop your bikes back off at the bike rental place. After your bikes are returned, freshen up and prepare for a fun night out! There are many great areas to experience nightlife in San Francisco. While each has its own character and is worth exploring in its own right, for just a taste of what San Francisco nightlife looks like I’d recommend exploring the Mission. There are bars of every shape and size, so finding one that matches what you are looking for is not a challenge.
San Francisco deserves more than an afternoon so spend another day here. Be sure to wear comfy shoes and eat a good breakfast! Start by making your way to Fisherman’s Warf. This is by far the most touristy area of the city, but it is worth seeing. Get here early to avoid the crowds. My favorite part of Fisherman’s Warf is the old arcade, Musée Mécanique. There are games over a hundred years old* that are still functioning! Once the crowds start to move in, you move out and go to the top of Coit Tower. The line can be intimidating, but it moves very quickly and is beyond worth it once you reach the top. From there walk towards Lombard Street. This is “the most crookedess street in the world.” People wait hours in line to drive down it, but (spoiler alert) driving down it is quite boring and waiting in line is a waste of time. Instead of driving, walk along the sidewalk beside the street! It is much easier to appreciate the unique engineering as you take your time walking along side it. Next move on to Chinatown. Many cities around the world have a Chinatown, however, this is the largest outside of Asia. Enjoy the shops and grab some Dim Sum! After an already full day, head back to your hotel or Airbnb to freshen up for a night out! You can go back to the Mission or check out any of the other interesting nightlife scenes around the city.
Wake up, pack up, and head to breakfast at Brenda’s Soul Food for the best soul food west of the Mississippi! Once you are stuffed and happy get back to your car and prepare for an amazing day of wine in Sonoma. When you first arrive, check into your hotel and arrange your transportation for the day. Since you have limited time, I’d highly recommend booking a tour that will take you to tastings at a few different wineries. Booking a tour will also solve your transportation problem. For a full list of wineries click here.
I hope you aren’t wined out yet, because today you are doing basically the same thing but in Napa! Again, a tour is the most efficient way to experience the wineries in such a short amount of time.
After a few city nights and wine filled afternoons, it is time to get back into nature. Get in your car and head towards Tahoe National Forest. Drive through the scenic mountains all the way down to Yosemite National Forest. Depending on the time of year you may want to sleep in a hotel or camp. If the weather is good enough to camp, be sure to book your campsite way in advance! Once you have arrived either at your campsite or hotel, spend the rest of the day hiking and exploring the forest around you.
Wake up, eat breakfast, and go for a hike. Pack up and head south towards Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is a place of extremes: extreme heat, extreme dryness, and extreme altitude- or lack thereof- seeing as it is the lowest national park. With its extremes also comes extreme beauty. I have never felt so small as I do when I stand in Death Valley. Set up camp anywhere you please in this vast desert and explore your surroundings. Be sure to pack plenty of water and food. Store food properly so as not to attract any wild life.
Wake up and explore some more before making your way back to whichever part of California you call home or leave from. The South West of Death Valley is about a four hours from Los Angeles (give or take thirty minutes depending exactly where you are coming from and going to) and five and a half hours from San Diego. Since you have the whole day to drive, be sure to pull over anywhere that may be interesting to you. Southern California is chalk full of little gems!