Last year we decided to take a road trip around California. It was a big trip, and took a lot of planning – mainly on the places we definitely wanted to visit, how long we should spend in each and the best route to take to try and squeeze as much in as possible!
Top of the list of things to do was driving the Pacific Coast Highway, Adam added Las Vegas onto the plan and we put visiting Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite onto the route.
We chose to spend three weeks on the trip, travelling out on the 12th September and flying back on the 6th October. We thought this would give us plenty of time to see everything we wanted to see, but there were so many things we had to cut. But hey, that means we have lots of things to do next time 🙂
We initially considered doing a Pacific Coast Highway roadtrip, but that would have meant missing out on Las Vegas and the parks. Instead, we planned a circular loop, starting and ending in San Francisco and fitting in as much as we could along the way!
The route we took takes in San Francisco, the Pacific Coast Highway (between SF and Santa Barbara) and places along the way, including Napa, Big Sur, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.
I’ve included how long we spent in each place and what we were able to do in that time, which will hopefully be useful as well as distance and driving time between each stop.
So, lets jump in and see where this crazy trip takes us!
California Road Trip Planning
Our California roadtrip started and ended in San Francisco. Because we wanted to visit Las Vegas, it only goes down as far as Santa Barbara before it heads east to Nevada. If you wanted to, you could carry on down to Los Angeles and San Diego. Intially we had planned to fly into San Francisco and out of Los Angeles, but as we wanted to do Las Vegas and the parks it made sense to start and finish in the same place.
This California road trip route takes in the stunning Pacific Coast Highway, with towns along the route, Sonoma County in wine country, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.
Pre Trip Planning
We flew with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to San Francisco. We booked a lounge at Heathrow before our flight so we could get some work done and kick off the holiday nice and relaxed. Because we have a Virgin Atlantic credit card we got a discounted rate and earned Flying Clubs Points. It always nice when your holiday earns points towards your next holiday 😉
I always use Skyscanner to compare flights as it’s easy to see when the cheapest days to fly are. You can also track the flights and set price alerts.
Don’t forget you will need to get a USA ETSA before you travel. It costs $14 and is valid for 2 years. It takes a week or so to be processed; I left getting ours as late as I felt safe so we can hopefully use them again in the 24 month period.
There’s plenty of places to get good travel insurance. I always use Travel Supermarket.
It’s a road trip, so you’ll need a car! We booked through Rental Cars and ended up using Thrifty. To be honest, none of the rental options in San Francisco were great. We had to wait over an hour for our car and then ended up with a super unstylish Kia Soul, but it was clean and reliable.
I did consider renting an RV for our trip, but in the end we decided as it was out first time we’d go down the hotels options. However, there are tons of places to rent RVs from, and we saw lots of rentals on our trip – especially in the parks and along the PCH. The ones we saw the most were from Cruise America.
Trip planning apps
I always use TripCase for storing documents and important information like insurance, hotel info, flight details etc.
How Long: 3 – 4 days
We spent two weekends in San Francisco, at the start and end of the trip. We arrived in the city on a Thursday evening and picked the car on the Sunday, so had two full days that weekend.
The second weekend we dropped the car off on Friday afternoon – which I do NOT recommend. It was very stressful and poor planning – and our flight was Sunday evening.
Getting into San Francisco from the airport was super easy using the BART which takes about 30 minutes and costs just under $10.
Things to see and do in San Francisco
Paid things to do in San Francisco
Alcatraz – No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a trip to Alcatraz. We booked tickets in advance through Alcatraz Cruises. We walked from our hotel which took about half an hour and was a great way to see some of the city.
Japanese Tea Garden – A beautiful Japanese garden in the Golden Gate Park. Originally built as part of the 1894 Worlds Fair. There is an entrance fee, but it’s a beautiful place to spend an hour or so. We had drinks at the tea house.
Coit Tower – We didn’t get a chance to go up this, but the views are supposed to be amazing.
Free things to do in San Francisco
There are plenty of free things to do in San Francisco, which is great because it’s such an expensive place! The list is almost exhaustive, but these are the places we visited over our two weekends in the city:
– Salesforce Park
– Golden Gate Park
– Sutro Baths
– Painted Ladies
– Lombard Street
– Mission District
– Fisherman’s Wharf
If you’re into taxidermy, succulents, crystals and fossils then be sure to visit Paxton Gate in Mission.
Where to stay in San Francisco
Both weekends we stayed near Union Square, which gave us great access to the rest of the city, either on foot or using public transport (it was also near to where we hired our car).
Airbnb – As you would expect from the home of Airbnb, there’s no shortage of listings in the city. Prices vary depending on where you’re staying and how big (or fancy) you want your accomodation to be. Book early, as Airbnb places sell out fast, especially when there’s events on.
If you’re not already signed up to Airbnb use this link to get £34 off your first booking.
Hotels – San Francisco has plenty of hotel choices. Rooms tend to be expensive, but there are deals to be found. The first weekend we treated ourselves and staying in the Galleria Park Hotel on Sutter Street. The second weekend I found a Travelzoo deal for Hotel Zepplin.
Hostels – There are hostels in San Francisco, but they are expensive (in some cases it can be cheaper to get a hotel).
Where to eat in San Francisco
San Francisco has no shortage of places to eat. These are some of the places we ate during our stay:
Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant – A cafe style Chinese resturant with little atmosphere and couldn’t care less service, BUT the food was amazing.
Lori’s Diner – 1950s style diner, complete with jukeboxs and vintage cars. Amazing milkshakes.
Puerto Alegre – Authentic Mexican restaurant in Mission. The burritos were amazing, and of course you can never go wrong with nachos and margaritas. Super busy – we ate outside which gave us a great view of everything happening on the street.
Matador – Personally I was disappointed in this place. It was noisy, expensive and the service was slow. The food also wasn’t a patch on Puerto Alegre’s. If you want Mexican definitely head to Mission!
How Long: 1 day
Travel distance and time: 11 miles, 30 minutes
After picking up the car on the Sunday we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. If you’re staying a few days in San Francisco and wanted to add a day trip I highly recommend a visit to this pretty seaside town. The Bridgeway Cafe is a perfect spot for lunch, with a stunning view back towards San Francisco.
It’s a lovely place to wander round, with lots of independent shops. Head to Battery Spencer for a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Wine County: Sonoma
How Long: 1-3 days
Travel distance and time: Around 120 miles from Sausalito to Napa. Drive time: about 3 hours 20.
After Sausalito we followed Shoreline Highway (the northern part of PCH) along the coast to Santa Rosa where we stayed for two nights. Wine country wasn’t big on our list of things to do, but we wanted to take an opportunity to visit some of the antique shops in the area.
Places to visit along Shoreline Highway:
– Muir Beach
– Muir Woods
– Stinson Beach
If you’re into antiques, there are lots of places in California. The first day we were in Sonoma we visited Antique Society in Sebastopol, a sprawling antiques centre filled with an electic mix from hundreds of dealers.
In the afternoon we headed to the Petrified Forest (open Thursday – Monday, adults $12.) and then on to Calistoga for a wander.
If you want the full wine country experience there are great ways to see the vineyards, from hiring bicycles to bus tours. We opted not to do a tour and just enjoy the local area instead.
Fun activity suggestion: The Jelly Bean Factory. Our plan was to visit the Botanical Gardens at Berkley, but due to cost decided to skip it this time.
Instead, we headed into Napa and then, on a spur of the moment decision, decided to visit the Jelly Bean Factory at Fairfield.
The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose
How Long: Half a day
Travel distance and time: Around 88 miles from Napa to San Jose. Drive time: about 1 hour 30.
After visiting Napa we stayed overnight in an Airbnb in Livermore as we had booked onto a morning tour of the Winchester Mystery House. This bizzare property is definitely worth a visit. It was built by Sarah Winchester, wife of the heir to the Winchester Rifle Company and was under constant construction for 38 years.
We went on the ‘Mansion’ and ‘Explore More’ tours. The Explore More tour takes you behind the scenes, including up into the roofs and cellars to see parts of the house not included on the main tour.
Our tour guide was suitably eccentric and it was a fascintating place to visit. The house and grounds were dressed for Halloween which added to the atmosphere.
I think without the Explore More the experience would have been a little short, so am glad we decided to add this on.
Pacific Coast Highway
How Long: 4 – 7 days
Travel distance and time: 328 miles from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. Drive time: about 5 hours.
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the main reasons I wanted to visit California. It really is as breathtakingly beautiful as it looks in pictures and films.
Measuring over 650 miles in total from end to end we drove nearly half of it over 5 days from San Francisco down as far as Santa Barbara and could easily have taken longer; there were just so many beautiful spots to stop at.
** Pacific Coast Highway post coming soon. **. Because there is so much to see and do along this stretch of California I am writing a dedicated post.
Things to see and do along the Pacific Coast Highway
You can join the route from San Francisco. Just headout on the I280 or Skyline Boulevard and keep driving! We joined it at San Gregorio via Palo Alto (Adam’s computer science degree was sponsored by HP, so we visited the Hewlett Packard garage ‘the birthplace of Silcon Valley’).
There areso many beautiful beaches, parks, lighthouses and vista points along Pacific Coast Highway. These are just some of the recommended places to stop or to visit:
– Ano Nuevo State Park
– Big Basin Redwoods
– Santa Cruz
– Bixby Bridge
– Big Sur and McWay Falls (the waterfall on the beach!)
– Hearst Castle
– Elephant Seal Vista Point
– Pismo Beach
– Santa Barbara
Places to stay along the Pacific Coast Highway
We chose to break our Pacific Coast Highway trip up by staying in two difference places along the route (Aptos, just outside Santa Cruz, and Oceano, just outside Pismo Beach).
We thought this would give us plenty of time to drive down the coast and take in the sceanery as well as explore places along the route. We could easily have added on a third location as there was just so much we wanted to see. It was hard to drive more than a few miles without wanting to stop for a photograph!
If you stay near Capitola by the Sea, I highly recommend Shadowbrook Restaurant. We ate there on my birthday, in the Rock Room, and everything from the live music to the food to the cocktails was perfect.
Drive from California to Las Vegas
How Long: 1 – 2 days
Travel distance and time: Around 420 miles from Pismo Beach via Bakersfield. Drive time: about 7 hours.
There are two main routes to get across to Las Vegas if you’re travelling down the Pacific Coast Highway; on the 101 from Ventura, which means going through north Los Angeles, or via Bakersfield, which is the route we chose.
We stopped overnight at Tehachapi to break up the journey and give us time to visit Elmer’s Bottle Ranch and Seven Magic Mountains.
Both routes pass through Barstow, meaning whichever way you started you could stop at the attractions listed below on the way to Las Vegas.
Things to see and do on the drive from California to Las Vegas
– Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch
– Calico Ghost Town
– Peggy Sue’s 50’s diner (complete with giant dinosaurs!)
– Seven Magic Mountains
How Long: 3 – 4 days
This was our first time visiting Las Vegas and to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I dislike crowds, noise and generally busy places (especially where there’s a high chance of there being obnoxious drunk people). All of the people we’d spoken to on our trip reassured us I would love it. And you know what – they were right!
Las Vegas really is like nothing else. The whole thing is like a giant playground for kids. But it felt safe and it was so clean.
We decided to stay at The Flamingo, which is right in the centre of the Strip. I was a little worried that it was going to be noisy, but we picked a room at the back of the hotel and as we were staying mid-week it was fairly quiet.
We chose to stay for 3 nights, from Wednesday to Friday. There is just so much to see and do we could easily have stayed longer and we both definitely want to go back.
** Full Las Vegas post coming soon. **
Things to see and do in Las Vegas
Whether you want to catch a show, play some cards or just wander around looking at all of the crazy hotels one thing Vegas is not short of is things to do.
– Shows. There are all kinds of shows in Vegas. We saw Piff the Magic Dragon one evening who I highly recommend.
– The hotels and casinos. Just seeing the hotels is an experience. A trip to Venice (complete with gondola rides), the incredible Bellagio fountains or Medieval feasts are just some of the things you can see and do.
– The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. A trip down to the end of the Strip allows you to see and photograph the famous sign. Top tip – jump the queue and take your picture from the side. It’s a better shot anyway!
– Downtown Las Vegas and Fremont Street. The original Las Vegas
– The Neon Museum. A collection of old neon signs from Vegas
– Carroll Shelby museum If you’re into cars head over to the Shelby Museum (free guided tour), which gives a great history on this iconic brand and the chance to write your name on the wall in their garage.
– Red Rock Canyon
Where to stay in Las Vegas
A hotel is your best bet for Las Vegas accommodation. There are places and rooms to suit all budgets, but I recommend getting one on the Strip if you can so you’re right in the heart of the action.
A lot of the hotel chains allow you to use the facilities of other hotels in the group (for example staying at The Flamingo meant we could use pools at other hotels in the group)
Where to eat in Las Vegas
Whatever you want to eat and whenever you want to eat it there is a restaurant.
These are the places we ate during our stay in Vegas:
– Guy Fieri
– Tamba Indian
– Excalibur (we had a free breakfast buffet thanks to our MLife rewards)
How Long: 1 – 2 days
Travel distance and time: 265 miles from Las Vegas to Olancha via Ashford Junction and Badwater Basin. Drive time: about 5 hours.
To reach Death Valley from Las Vegas we headed towards Mountain Springs onto the NV-160 and then the CA-178 from Pahrump. Because we wanted to stop at Badwater Basin we had to take a more round about route by going through Ashford Junction.
One of the hottest places on earth, Death Valley really is something you have to experience to understand; it is like stepping into an oven and literally takes your breath away.
There is no where to buy fuel or food in the park. Make sure you take plenty of water. The toilets are also pretty grim, so be sure to pack some toilet paper and soap.
Where to stay in Death Valley
There are not a lot of options for places to stay in Death Valley and as such prices are high. There are hotels in Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells. There are also a number of campsites within the park, which would give you some amazing opportunites to see the sunrise or stargaze.
Alternatively you could stay just outside of the park, like we did, if you are planning on doing it in one day.
What to see and do in Death Valley
We chose to do Death Valley in a day, driving from Las Vegas to Olancha, over 265 miles away.
There are lots of photographic points along the way and to be able to see everything you would probably want to stay in one of the hotels within the park. We stopped for a picnic in Pahrump on the way from Las Vegas, so didn’t actually get into Death Valley until early afternoon and then reached Olancha, where we were staying, about 7pm. We managed to see a lot of the main points and to be honest there was only so much hot, dry, barren desert we wanted to look at!
The route we took along Badwater Road meant we could do the loop to Artist’s Palette, which was stunning. If you don’t go via Badwater, but stick to the 190, you pass Zabriskie Point.
Mesquite Sand Dunes on the west side of Death Valley was also incredible. Beautiful, sculped hills of soft golden sand so unlike the rest of the area. We reached there late afternoon, just as the sun was starting to set, and the light was gorgeous.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon
How Long: 1 – 2 days (plus 1 day to get there from Death Valley, approx 220 miles, 4 hours from Olancha)
Travel distance and time: Around 55 miles. Drive time: about 2 hours.
The night after Death Valley we stopped at Olancha RV Park and Motel where we stayed in one of the tipis.
The next day was spent just driving around the bottom of the Sierra Nevadas to get to Visalia, where we were spending the night. The scenery was beautiful in places, and we passed through the bottom of Sequoia, but this was one of my least favourite days as it was just a day of driving to get to where we needed to be.
Our stay in Visalia gave us a chance to fill the car up and get food for lunch (cue a late night argument about bears trying to eat our food and whether we needed to buy a bear proof box. We didn’t).
Because we only had one day in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, we decided to visit the main points. As it was late September when we visited we were able to drive around the park instead of having to take the shuttle.
Where to stay in Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Wuksachi Lodge is the only hotel within the park. There are lots of campsites if you are happy to camp, or have an RV.
Alternatively, if you prefer a proper bed, there are hotels, motels and B&Bs in the towns around Sequoia. We stayed in the Lamp Liter Inn in Visalia, but if you wanted to be a little closer there are places in Three Rivers, just at the entrance to the park.
What to see and do in Sequoia and King Canyon
We followed the main route through the park, stopping off at Tunnel Rock and Moro Rock. We drove through Tunnel Log and walked out to Crescent Meadow. When we returned to our car from Crescent Meadow we were lucky enough to spot a bear!
As we only spent one day in the parks we missed out on a number of things that would have been possible to visit if we’d stayed over night, including the Crystal Cave and hikes out to the lakes and falls.
How Long: 1 – 2 days
Travel distance and time: 120 miles from Mariposa to Lee Vining. Drive time: about 3 hours.
Yosemite is the better known, and therefore more popular of the national parks we visited; last year Yosemite had 4.4m visitors compared to 1.2m for Sequoia/Kings Canyon.
We found Yosemite, while still breaktakingly beautiful, to be noticeably more commercial and obviously far busier.
Where to stay in Yosemite
In line with the higher visitor numbers, Yosemite has far more choice of places to stay. There are a number of hotels and cabins as well as campsites if you want to stay in a tent or are visiting in an RV.
We chose to stay outside of the park, in Marisposa.
What to see and do in Yosemite
Yosemite is much more accessible by car than Sequoia and Kings Canyon; you can pretty much drive from one place to the next and see the major sites.
We followed the road round to Bridalveil Fall. If you stop and get out of the car, it will be very busy right at the waterfall. Just a short walk away leads you to a small creek where I pretty much guarantee you will be the only ones there!
The only walk we did was out to Mirror Lake. I was so excited to see this… and we got there to find it’s completely empty in summer. However, it did make a nice spot for a picnic, and apart from other couple, who looked equally as disappointed as us, we were the only ones there.
If you are travelling through Yosemite outside of the summer months make sure you keep checking that Tioga Pass is open if you are planning on heading east. When we left in the morning there was a chance the pass would be closed due to snow. Thankfully it wasn’t, otherwise it would have been a very long detour.
How Long: 1 day
The gold rush town of Bodie was one of the places that was high of my list of things to do on this trip. We considered visiting Calico ghost town near Barstow (see above), but decided to visit Bodie instead as it is more of an ‘authentic’ experience (Calico is supposed to be great for family as there is more facilities and things to keep the kids entertained).
Bodie’s heyday was in 1877 – 1881, when it was home to appoximately 10,000 people. It had a reputation for wild men and lawlessness and experienced periods and boom and bust.
In 1932 a fire broke out which destroyed all but 5 – 10% of the town. The remaining buildings, kept in a state of ‘arrested decay’, are fascinating to wander round. Click to read my full post on Bodie ghost town.
Where to stay to visit Bodie
There is no accomodation in Bodie National Park. Bridgeport is the nearest town and has a small selection of places to stay.
How Long: 2 – 3 days
Travel distance and time: 85 miles from Bridgeport (124 miles from Yosemite). Drive time: around 2 hours.
Lake Tahoe was the last place to be added to our California road trip itinerary. After visiting the national parks and Bodie, we were unsure whether to start heading back towards San Francisco or head to Reno. Adam suggested spending a few days at Lake Tahoe, which turned out to be a lovely, relaxing way to finish our roadtrip.
Things to see and do in Lake Tahoe
– Eagle Falls
– Taylor Creek
– Secret Cove
– Cave Rock
– The kokanee salmon at Taylor creek (October)
Completely by accident we were in Lake Tahoe for the kokanee salmon returning. Each year the salmon return to Taylor Creek, where they were originally introduced in the 1940s, to spawn. The salmon turn a bright red in order to attract a mate. This salmon run only lasts for a very short period, so it was amazing to be able to see it. Even if you are there when the salmon aren’t, the walk out to Taylor creek is one worth taking.
Where to stay in Lake Tahoe
There are plenty of options for accomodation in Lake Tahoe, from hotels to Airbnb to campsites.
We stayed in Base Camp in South Lake Tahoe, which was basically an old motel that had been given a new lease of life. The decor and theme had a very millennial vibe (festoon lights, bar on site, quirky decor, table tennis) and was a fun place to stay. They do have a hot tub, which sadly was shut while we were there, but there was a jucuzzi in the pool which was welcome after long days exploring.
Airbnb – There are lots of Airbnb options around Lake Tahoe itself as well as the surrounding area, especially lots of chalet style places such as this one in Carnelian Bay.
If you’re not already signed up to Airbnb use this link to get £34 off your first booking.
Hotels – There are lots of great hotel options in Lake Tahoe. Check out this list of the Best Hotels in Lake Tahoe.
If cocktails are your thing, make sure to check out the speakeasy in Lake Tahoe. Accessed through a chiller cabinet in Social House sandwich deli (with a password, naturally), its a step back to a word of prohibition decedance, with live music, carefully created cocktails and amazing decor.
After Lake Tahoe we headed back to San Francisco for our second weekend in the city. After the relative peace and quiet of the parks and Lake Tahoe it was strange being back in such a busy, cosmopolitan city. We really only had one full day, which we spent around Fisherman’s Wharf, visiting the Ghirardelli Marketplace (free chocolate samples!), and walking out along the Muni Pier.