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California and The West

The Classic San Francisco to Los Angeles Road Trip

This route takes in one of the world's most famous drives - the Pacific Coast Highway. The trip along the coastal road is over 450 miles, but with so much superb scenery and things to do along the way, most people break the journey with 2 or perhaps 3 stops in between.

So if you had 9 nights / 10 days, a relaxed itinerary would be something like this:
- 3 nights in San Francisco
- 2 nights in Monterey
- 1 night in Pismo Beach
- 3 nights in Los Angeles

San Francisco
3 nights

Your adventure starts in San Francisco, a city best done on foot and by public transport, so don't pick up your car just yet. A cab from the airport is best. You now have 2 full days to explore - on the fisrt full day I'd cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and on the 2nd I'd do the Alcatraz tour. This leaves a bit of time to see the rest.

If you'd like to visit the Napa Valley then it can be done as a day trip from San Francisco, with a variety of tours visiting multiple wineries. So in this case, your stay in San Francisco would be 4 nights if you have the time.

Yosemite National Park is another possible day trip but is much further away, so unless you don't have a car, it would be much more enjoyable to drive there after your stay in San Francisco and stay a couple of nights.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, USA
What to do:
  • Golden Gate Bridge - one of the most interesting ways to cross the bridge is on a cycle tour, where you ride across to the waterfront town of Sausalito, have some free time, and then return to San Francisco by bike or ferry
  • Chinatown - the main tourist street is Grant Avenue but for a more authentic feel, wander around the little side streets and alleyways
  • Alcatraz - 15 minute ferry ride from San Francisco but tours of the island are booked well in advance so please book before you go
  • Fisherman's Wharf - the main tourist hub of San Francisco, including the sea lions at pier 39
  • Botanical Gardens - in the Golden Gate Park, showcasing over 9000 plants from around the world
  • Cable cars - iconic way of getting around, and still manually operated
  • Alamo Square Park - viewpoint with painted Victorian houses in the foreground, and the moden skyscrapers in the background
  • Twin Peaks viewpoint - there is a great sunset from here
  • The bends of Lombard Street - 8 hairpin bends make this 'most crookedest street in the world'
2 nights

Pick up your hire car after checking out of your hotel in San Francisco, and head towards Monterey. Along the way there are a couple of interesting stops.

First you have Silicon Valley and the offices of google, facebook and apple. Many of the buildings are employee only, but there are a few quirky things to see in the grounds and a couple of souvenir shops.

More interesting are the Giant Redwoods as you go from there to the coast. The biggest tress are at Big Basin and definitely worth the drive if you can, but if you're shortt of time then Henry Cowell is a good alternative.

USA Redwoods
What to do:
  • Quick stop at Silicon Valley en-route
  • See giant redwoods en-route (allow a bit of time for one of the walking trails)
  • The aquarium - famous for its jellyfish - nearby you can see otters floating in dense beds of sea kelp
  • Stroll around the quirky shops of Cannery Row
  • The 17 mile drive and picturesque Pebble Beach
Pismo Beach
1 night

After leaving Monterey, pass through the lovely little town of Carmel by the Sea, perhaps stopping for a short walk by the 'fairytale cottages'. Soon after, make a photo stop at Bixby Creek Bridge, and again with a short detour to Salmon Creek Falls (about half a mile off the road), then further on is Elephant Seal Vista Point.

Just outside San Simeon is the lavish Hearst Castle - a must see, and one which you'll need 2-3 hours overall. It has gardens, fountains and pools, as well as fantastic views of the coast.

Next stop is Morro Rock and it's famous giant volcanic mound, plus you might be able to spot otters from land. The town is charming and makes a great coffee stop.

Finally you'll reach the delightful town of Pismo Beach which is your stop for the night.

Pismo Beach, USA
What to do:
  • Lots of scenic viewpoints en-route including perhaps the best at Bixby Creek Bridge
  • See thousands of elephant seals at Piedras Blancas
  • Visit lavish Hearst Castle
  • Enjoy the evening at Pismo Beach
Los Angeles
3 nights

From Pismo Beach stay on the 101 inland route now towards Santa Barbara but there is surprising little detour along the way. Solvang is a Danish town with authentic architecture, windmills and a vintage motorcycle museum. Going through Santa Barbara, it's worth a stop at the Botanical Garden which includes a redwoods section and a Teahouse garden.

What to do:
  • Get a photo of the iconic Hollywood sign, stroll along the 'Walk of Fame' and visit the Chinese Theatre
  • Spend a day at Universal Studios Hollywood
  • Walk along the beach and pier at Santa Monica
  • View the sky at the Griffith Observatory
Napa Valley
2 nights

The Napa Valley is about an hour's drive from San Francisco, with a 2 night stay being the most common. The main reason to visit is for the wine - and there are many wine tasting tours and/or private limo drivers to choose from if you want to leave the car at the hotel.

Napa Valley, USA

You can also take a day trip from San Francisco, but it's best to visit midweek when it's quieter and less busy than weekends.

From there, head back to San Francisco or continue east to Yosemite.

2 nights

While you can visit Yosemite in a day from San Francisco, it's really not advisable - the trip is about 4 hours each way and when you get there you'll wish you had 2 or 3 days to take in the breathtaking scenery and walking trails. So definitely stay for at least 2 nights, but please note that accommodation is very limited - hotels in Yosemite Village are usually booked out several months in advance, although we can offer a good alternative a little further away.

Yosemite, USA

After your visit to Yosemite, head back west towards Monterey and continue from there down towards Los Angeles. Alternatively, head east over the Tioga Pass (closed in winter and early spring due to snow), and towards Death Valley National Park and from there on to Las Vegas.

The Most Popular Driving Routes

First, we have the classic route detailed above - San Francisco to Los Angeles, with additional optional stops in the Napa Valley and / or Yosemite National Park.

If you are very keen on Yosemite but not so Los Angeles, then there is a circular route from San Francisco, for example...
- San Francisco (3 nights)
- Optional Napa Valley (2 nights)
- Yosemite National Park (2 nights)
- Monterey (3 nights)

And another popular drive is through Yosemite National Park to Death Valley and ending in Las Vegas, for example...
- San Francisco (3 nights)
- Optional Monterey (2 nights)
- Yosemite National Park (2 nights)
- Death Valley (1 night)
- Las Vegas (2 nights)

One thing to be aware of with the above is that the Tioga Pass which takes you out of Yosemite to Death Valley is closed from around mid November to sometime in June, but this changes year on year depending on the snow. If it's closed, then you'll have to go a much longer way round.

More information

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