California is probably on every traveler’s bucket list. Everyone I know has either been to California or wants to go there. And why not? California is famous across the world for a million things. It is home to the Hollywood entertainment industry, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the hippie counterculture movement, the world’s tallest trees, the extremely scenic Pacific coastline, the lowest point in North America, the Napa Valley wine orchards, and so much more. This is also why California’s economy is larger than any other state in America. In fact, if California was a country, it would be the 5th largest economy in the world!
I took a 10 day road trip around California. During that time I roamed among tree giants, gorged on delicious vegetarian food, hung precariously to rock edges, filmed bubbling tar pits, and even tried to get my hands on some stardust.
Tips for Taking a Road Trip around California
• California is the third largest state in America. The best way to explore the state is unarguably by car. We rented ours from AAdvantage near San Diego International Airport.
• If you plan on visiting the many national parks in California, consider buying the America the Beautiful Annual Pass for $80. Heck of a lot cheaper, than paying entrance fees for each park.
• One major reason behind California being a popular tourist destination is the state’s warm Mediterranean climate. However, if you plan on taking a road trip around California, keep in mind the sheer size of the state. Climates vary from moist temperate rainforests in the north and snowy alpines in the mountains, to arid deserts in the interior. Bring along layers of clothes, which you can dress down or bundle up whenever necessary.
• We traveled during the fall when forest fires were just starting to be reported in Sonoma county, but experienced no significant problems. Forest fires are a constant threat in California. Stay up-to-date on weather conditions, highway and road closures, as well as destination-specific information. For example, the Glacier Point Road in Yosemite National Park was closed when we visited, as a result of forest fires.
• Planning is crucial if you want to explore as much as possible, while keeping the costs minimal. It takes time to get from one point to another, and we were doing a lot of driving each day during our California trip. For example, it took us almost 7-8 hours to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco, because we opted for the scenic route through the Pacific Coast Highway. You can always choose to “figure it out” later, but you’ll just end up wasting a lot of time.
• The best way to budget travel is to not carry excess crap. We flew into San Diego International Airport through my favorite ultra-cheap Spirit Airlines with only a carry-on bag each. It’s not at all hard considering you don’t really need 10 tops or 10 shorts for a 10 day road trip. Keep it simple. I wore my jacket on the plane itself, because Spirit Airlines doesn’t give blankets and the temperatures are Arctic cold.
In September 2017, I decided to embark on a 10 day road trip around California. My first stop? San Diego. Known as the “birthplace of California”, San Diego is the second largest city in the state of California, and the eight largest city in the United States. In fact, I stood on the exact location where California was “discovered” at the Cabrillo National Monument. The views of the Pacific coastline and the city of San Diego are phenomenal from here!
San Diego is also popular for its mild climate, beaches and deep water harbors. The city is also known for its long association with the United States Navy, which you can experience at the Navy Pier in downtown San Diego and the USS Midway Museum. But there many other points of interest in San Diego, and to follow the rest of my adventures in this city, click on the above link.
Say the name “Los Angeles” and images of sexy people, luxurious mansions, swanky cars, New Age mantras, and cosmetic implants come to mind. Los Angeles is the second most populous city in the United States after New York City, and is renowned for its Mediterranean climate, the movie industry, multiculturalism, and diverse economy.
There is so much to see in Los Angeles, that allotting just one day in our California road trip may seem too little to explore this fantastical city. But that’s exactly what I did. Two tips:
- Don’t forget to check out niche wonders like the La Brea Tar Pits and Mulholland Highway.
- Beaches can get crowded because you might not be only one looking for some California sun!
Pacific Coast Highway
We were heading toward San Francisco, and decided to drive along the Pacific Coast Highway (also known as California State Route 1). Although taking the shorter mainland route would have saved us around 2 hours, I didn’t want to miss out on the amazing coastal scenery and cute little beach towns.
One such town is Santa Barbara. We stopped here to grab lunch and walk around for a bit. State Street represents the heart of Santa Barbara. You can park in one of the many side streets where parking is free, or you can opt for a garage if you are running low on time. With 300 stores and 160 restaurants, the avenue goes right through downtown until it reaches Stearns Wharf. This bustling seafront pier is a great place for casual dining, enjoying the ocean breeze, and watching yachts at sea.
While visiting a courthouse may not seem appealing to many, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse exemplifies the Spanish-Moorish architecture of California. The archways, the gardens and the mosaic work are simply remarkable and well-preserved. I also climbed up the stairs (elevator available) of the 85 foot tall El Mirador Clock Tower. From here, you have a wonderful view of the entire town, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean.
After Santa Barbara, we drove toward Big Sur. A major highlight of California’s Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur is a particularly rugged patch between Carmel and San Simeon. Despite the road getting narrower and more winding, this stretch of wild coastline receives the same number of visitors as Yosemite National Park. You can well imagine the backlog of vehicles. However, September is a good time to see Big Sur. There will still be vehicles, but you need not worry about queuing up anywhere at this time of year.
We drove until Ragged Point, the southernmost tip of Big Sur. When ocean meets earth, there is a spectacular display of both beauty and power. The gentle sloping hills of sand, the rugged cliffs, the boisterous elephant seals, and the turquoise ocean waters. All juxtapose and complement each other simultaneously to create a spiritual and mesmerizing experience for the viewer. No wonder they call Big Sur one of America’s most gorgeous drives.
Tip: Contrary to other parts of California, Big Sur tends to be sparsely populated. Hence, finding restrooms and cell phone coverage is a big problem.
With its sloping terrain and spectacular bay, San Francisco enchants visitors with its vibrant energy and natural beauty. For any travelers visiting San Francisco for the first time, there is so much to see in this wonderful city. From the bustling Fisherman’s Wharf and colorful Haight-Ashbury, to the exquisite Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco has always been one of California’s top destinations for visitors and locals alike.
When I travel to a place, my goal is to see as much as possible, and that always entails a lot of walking. While places like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts are best driven to, most of San Francisco’s sights can easily be explored on foot. Since street parking can be expensive and hard to find, it’s a lot cheaper to park your car in a garage for a couple of hours, and set off on foot. Just be aware that parts of San Francisco are extremely steep, such as Lombard Street and Filbert Street. I huffed and puffed my way up those insane inclines! As long as you have good walking shoes, nothing can come between you and having a good time in this beautiful Californian city.
The Napa Valley is famous primarily for its vineyards. As you are driving along California’s Sonoma County, you can see rows upon rows of grape-bearing vines. Many plantations offer tasting tours for visitors. In fact, Napa Valley is popular with both novice and professional wine connoisseurs, with many hotels in the area recommending local vineyards to guests. I am not a drinker, but if you are looking to sample some great wine flavors, then Napa Valley is where you should be.
Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks are home to the tallest trees on our planet. These incredible giants in California’s north have withstood the passage of time, watching silently as humans evolved both in progressive and destructive ways. As I gazed up at these magnificent natural wonders, I realized that they are truly one of a kind. It is time that we protect them, so that our children may one day walk through these forests, marveling at the Redwoods as I do now. Climate change is real. Fight it.
Tip: If you want to hike the Tall Trees Trail, you will need a permit from the park’s visitor center. While permits are limited and things can get crowded around summer, the permits are in abundant supply the rest of the year. I had no problems getting one when I visited in September.
Avenue of the Giants
Since it was going to take us an entire day to reach the Yosemite Valley area, I decided why not drive through another one of California’s scenic routes? The Avenue of the Giants stretches for 31 miles on Old Highway 101 through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Home to the largest remaining group of virgin redwoods in the world, the Avenue of the Giants is an astounding display of trees with Herculean proportions. The drive can be best described as a tiny mouse scuttling along a road as huge reddish-brown sentries stand watch.
One of the most popular attractions along the Avenue of the Giants is the Founder’s Grove. There were quite a number of people and vehicles here though we were visiting in September. Summer must definitely be a lot more crowded. Located on an alluvial flat, this magnificent redwood grove is pretty expansive and you can spend quite sometime walking on the trails. There are so many healthy redwoods, that I had to remind myself that this habitat is in critical danger from global warming. The US really needs to commit to universal environmental standards, and protect the redwoods of California.
Note: Vault toilets are available here.
Yosemite National Park
Over three million acres of California’s Sierra Nevada comes under wilderness preservation, including 95 percent of the Yosemite National Park. Recent data from the National Park Service (NPS) shows that Yosemite ranks as one of the top national parks in the USA. And why not? You have to come here in order to truly appreciate the pristine beauty and raw wilderness of Yosemite. I spent an entire day in the park, and yet I feel a longing to return. From the towering granite cliffs to the tiniest of wildflowers, Yosemite National Park is an elaborate temple for nature’s grand diversity.
Tip: The waterfalls are at their peak flow during the late spring and summer. But in September, I was able to observe a pretty good flow rate in the Lower Yosemite Falls. You can always the check the flow volume of waterfalls on the National Park Service (NPS) website.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
These parks of California comprise some of the most rugged portions of the Sierra Nevada. In fact, Sequoia is America’s oldest national park. Across the entire world, the sequoias only grow naturally on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, usually between 5,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation. That makes them all the more precious, and their habitat in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks all the more delicate.
Tip: Since I visited California in September, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the Crystal Cave. While almost all other attractions in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are open during the fall, this gorgeous marble cavern is open only during summers. Tours are 45 minutes long, and tickets can be bought only at the Lodgepole and Foothill visitor centers. No ticket purchasing facilities are available at the cave itself. In order to accommodate traveling to the cave, walking a steep half-mile to the cave entrance, and the tours themselves, you need to set aside at least half a day to see the Crystal Cave.
Death Valley National Park
Part of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve, Death Valley National Park encompasses an area known to be one of the world’s most unforgiving terrains. Yet, it has been home to the Timbisha Shoshone tribe for more than a 1,000 years. In fact, “Timbisha” is the Shoshone word for Death Valley and the red rocks in the surrounding mountains.
Tip: Death Valley is a unique destination into California’s interior. There are sparse food, water and gas services in the park. The visitor centers, stores, dining options and lodges are far and spread out. I would recommend bringing adequate water and snacks, as well as visiting the park with a full tank of fuel. You don’t want to be stranded in the hottest place on earth! For extensive travel advice to Death Valley, click on the above link.
Joshua National Park
As we headed back to San Diego to catch our flight home, we stopped en-route at Joshua National Park. Named by Mormon immigrants for its “supplicating form”, the Joshua tree is a conspicuous symbol of the park. This bizarre looking yucca signifies stoicism in an otherwise harsh landscape, something it has in common with the Cahuilla Indians, who have called this desert their home for thousands of years.
Another plant species distinctive to this part of California is the Cholla Cactus, also known as the “Jumping Cactus”. They do not jump, but their spines will stick to your hands and clothes. It’s kind of a pain to remove the spines not because they hurt, but they just are glued to you.
Keys View is the most popular attraction in Joshua National Park, and is located 20 minutes from the visitor center. While the lookout from the parking lot provides great views, I climbed the 0.2 mile loop trail up the ridge to have a better viewing experience. Some of the major landmarks you can see with the naked eye include the Santa Rosa Mountains, San Jacinto Peak, the Salton Sea, and the San Gorgonio Mountain.
As I looked down into the Coachella Valley below, staring transfixed at the San Andreas Fault, I recall thinking these words. I now share them with you:
“When serenity envelops your soul, there’s no one to come between you and the eternal cosmos. Enlighten your heart and travel new roads.”