California is one of the most amazing places in the Unites States for a road trip. Our road trip was the Classic Highway 1 California Road Trip from Los Angeles to San Fransisco, and then back to LA again. We also included a detour into the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains to see Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
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Hiring a Car
We chose to hire a car at Los Angeles International Airport upon arrival. Our car was a mid sized SUV, a Ford Edge Titanium hired through Alamo. We managed to get a great deal on rentalcars.com, and had all our insurances included with unlimited miles. A quick stop at the nearest shopping mall and we were soon off to our first stop, Santa Barbara.
Tip: You can read our full blog post about our car hire experience by clicking HERE.
We stayed our first 3 nights in Santa Barbara at the Sandpiper Lodge. Santa Barbara is well known for it’s Spanish influence and colonial Spanish Architecture. The first stop on our first day was the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural Science, where we learnt all about Southern California wildlife and habitats.
This turned out to be very useful for our wildlife spotting experiences during the road trip. We then went to the Old Santa Barbara Mission, just behind the Museum. This is a magnificent old Colonial Spanish building and a must see when in Santa Barbara.
On our second day in Santa Barbara went down to the waterfront at Stearn’s Wharf to sample some local fish and chips at the Moby Dick Restaurant. Indeed this is a great restaurant, where you can watch Sea Lions, Pelicans and wave runners right from your table! There is also a wonderful marine museum right next door on the wharf.
Then off to the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, a rambling natural wilderness area which is planted with a large range of the most beautiful native flora. Here you can also find a valley full of Californian Redwoods, planted in the 1930’s.
Lastly we visited the Old Courthouse in downtown Santa Barbara. Here you can climb to the top of the bell tower to get an outstanding view of the township, coast and surrounding environs.
The highlight of our Santa Barbara visit was a half day whale watching cruise aboard the Condor Express. After all we saw hundreds of Dolphins and Sea Lions, and witnessed a ravenous humpback whale launching itself into the air amongst a giant school of herring. The cruise also took us across the famous Santa Barbara channel to the Channel Islands, where we had a guided sea tour of the islands.
Tip: You can read about our whale watching trip by clicking HERE.
Next stop was a couple of hours north of Santa Barbara, in Morro Bay. This is a quaint little seaside village loaded with restaurants and hotels to cater for a regular army of tourists. It has a great surf beach and the famous Morro Rock.
But the big attraction in Morro Bay for us was our close encounter with the local Sea Otter population. We had never seen these wonderful animals in the wild before, and at Morro Bay we were privileged to see them up close. There were a couple of groups of Sea Otters only 20 meters off the shore, resting and frolicking in the water.
We also saw some Sea Lions and Squirrels along the water’s edge. There is so much to see around Morro Bay, but we were only there for one night so our road trip pushed on to San Simeon.
Tip: You can read all about our Morro Bay visit by clicking here, or watch our Vlog by clicking HERE.
Only about an hour north of Morro Bay is a little town with a beautiful beach town called San Simeon. We saw a brochure about a place called Hearst Castle just near San Simeon so we thought we’d check it out. We though it was going to be some sort of historic colonial Spanish castle up on the hillside. What we found absolutely blew our minds. It was the opulent mansion / castle of a media magnate from the early 20th century named William Hearst. Lifestyles of the rich and famous, taken to the extreme.
Driving up to the castle is not permitted. Instead, all visitors must park down the bottom of the hill and take a shuttle bus. We took the bus and had a 90 minute cottage and kitchen tour, before sending some time exploring the castle grounds. It is one stop that is not to be missed on a Californian Road Trip, even if it’s only for the spectacular panoramic views of the coastline.
Tip: You can read our blog on Hearst Castle by clicking HERE.
San Simeon Elephant Seals
Next stop on our tour was the elephant seal colonies, only about 6 miles north of San Simeon township. Actually we first found a small colony of Elephant Seals on a small secluded beach just south of the main colony. Then we found the larger seal colony which has become a large tourist attraction.
This is an outstanding close encounter with some awesome wildlife. You can get within about 20 metres of these huge beasts thanks to the cleverly constructed footpaths and boardwalks. This is yet another must see attraction on Highway 1.
Tip: You can read all about our Elephant Seal encounter by clicking HERE.
Road Closures at Big Sur
We were planning to follow Highway 1 north to our next stopover in Monterey. Alas, there were some landslides and a damaged bridge, causing the road to be closed south of Big Sur. We had to track inland from San Simeon to go to Monterey.
We stayed for 3 nights in Monterey in our first ever Airbnb experience. This worked out very well, for our Airbnb home was sweet and charming, and our helpful host felt like a long lost friend. Needless to say we loved our Airbnb time in Monterey.
Whilst in Monterey we drove south along Highway 1 as far as we could, which was only to Big Sur. Along the way we saw some more colonies of Sea Otters and the odd Sea Lion. There are many roadside stops along this stretch of coastline giving you the opportunity to spot these animals far below in the jagged coastline.
We wanted to stop in the State Park near Monterey to do some hiking, however the car parks were full and the parking was out along the main highway, a long way from the park entrance. So we gave that a miss and kept driving down to the famous bridge. There are actually 2 similar bridges and they are both very popular tourist stops to get some photos. But beware, car parking is not very well provided, and cars just park along the side of the road wherever they can find a spot.
Yosemite National Park
From Monterey we drove inland to Yosemite National Park and stayed in Housekeeping Camp for 1 night. I wanted to stay for longer, but accommodation was fully booked out. I also wanted to put this part of our California Road Trip near the end to save some driving time, however the shortage of accommodation in Yosemite made this impossible. Lesson learned – book Yosemite accommodation many months in advance to avoid disappointment.
Yosemite for me was the highlight of our trip. This was mainly thanks to the time of year and the big snowfalls in the winter. This year the waterfalls in May were absolutely thundering. They made spectacular sights and sounds all the way up through Yosemite Valley. It seemed that every corner you turned you faced a new magnificent waterfall! And Housekeeping Camp was also a great experience which really enhanced the adventure.
Our top 3 attractions in Yosemite National Park
- Vernal Falls, which were about a 2 hour round trip hike along a beautiful valley. Along the way you can spot other waterfalls in the distance, until you get to the very misty lower Vernal Falls. The more adventurous can continue to the Upper Vernal Falls however we were quite tired just visiting the first ones.
- Lower Yosemite falls, which were an easy 10 minute walk from the car park and perhaps the most thunderous waterfalls in the whole park. Here we were able to easily get into the ‘blast zone’ from the waterfall.
- Glacier Point, which is about a short 10 minute walk from the car park to see the most incredible panoramic views you are ever likely to see.
Tip: You can see lots of photos and read our blog about camping in Yosemite by clicking HERE.
Sequoia National Park
Our next stop was the famous Sequoia National Park. We stayed about 90 minutes from this park in our second Airbnb, an RV in squaw valley. The RV cost about $100 per night and was the highlight of our road trip accommodation. We stayed there for 4 nights, and did a day trip into Sequoia National Park.
Inside the park we saw the biggest tree on earth by volume, the General Sherman Tree. This is in a magnificent Giant Sequoia Grove, where we spent some time hiking through the giants and enjoying the magnificent spectacle.
From there we went to Crystal Meadow where another magnificent grove of Sequoias beckoned us to go on perhaps the most enjoyable hike, around a beautiful Crystal Meadow. We were hoping to see a Bear or two on the meadow but had to be content with spotting some wild Deer.
Also in Sequoia we went to Auto Log and Tunnel Log, the famous drive through Sequoia Tree, one of the best photo opportunities of the trip.
Tip: you can read all about our Sequoia visit by clicking on our blog HERE.
From Sequoia National Park we doubled back to visit San Francisco, where we booked another Airbnb for 5 nights. Our favourite activity in San Francisco was spending a half day at the Golden Gate Bridge. We parked right near the bridge and walked out into the middle of the bridge. We also found some great places to sit and admire / photograph this beautiful bridge from all different angles, and had a lovely visit to the Golden Gate Bridge Visitor Centre.
Pier 37 was our other favourite attraction in San Francisco. This is a very touristy place to visit and a little expensive, but if you plan it well you can spend several hours here without breaking the bank. We got to enjoy some great street performers, and some very tasty fish and chips. Another main attraction here is the colony of Sea Lions which hang out right next to the Pier. There is even a grandstand where the hordes of tourists can sit and watch these super cute animals.
Whilst in San Francisco we also drove up to Twin Peaks where you can get amazing views over San Francisco and the bay area.
Tip: You can read all about our San Francisco visit by reading our blog post HERE.
After San Francisco we headed back to Los Angeles. There are many things to do around Los Angeles, but our favourites were the Ronald Reagan Museum and Hollywood Boulevard. We actually drove up to the Griffith Observatory on a Monday only to learn that it’s closed each Monday. No problem because you still get a great view of the Hollywood Sign and LA city from Griffith Observatory, so it wasn’t a wasted trip.
Hollywood is another attraction not to be missed when in LA. We did the Hollywood stars walk, and were lucky enough to see the stars arriving for a big movie premiere. Without mentioning the movie, we did get to see Rihanna in person! Hollywood Boulevard is a great place to spend a few hours walking around, there is eye candy every where you look. We also tried the famous Pinks Hotdogs, one of the most famous hot dog chains on the planet.
Whilst in Los Angeles we spent some quality time checking out some of the many factory outlet malls. Ontario Mall was our pick of the bunch here, where we found big brands available for far cheaper than we can buy in Australia. We did a little splurging here, so much that we were in for a $60 excess baggage fee on our trip home!
No trip to Southern California is complete without a trip to San Diego. Our visit to San Diego was a day trip from Los Angeles. After all it was only a 90 minute drive from where we were staying. The main attraction for the day was the USS Midway, a US Navy Aircraft Carrier which is docked in downtown San Diego. It also doubles up as an aircraft museum, because the top deck is covered in all sorts of different military aircraft. This is a great place to spend a few hours, especially if you have kids. They have many interactive displays where the kids can learn all about ships and aircraft, and get some hands on fun.
Wildlife in California
What took us by complete surprise in Southern California was the abundance of wildlife. We saw Sea Lions virtually all up and down the coast, quite a few Sea Otters, and huge numbers of Elephant Seals in San Simeon. We saw quite a few wild Deer up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well. But what really blew us away was seeing 2 wild Bears in Sequoia National Park. This was definitely something we will never forget, one of those moments that makes a holiday worthwhile.
Tip: You can read more about our close encounters with wildlife by clicking HERE.
SoCal Memories to Last a Lifetime
If you ever get a chance to do a road trip along Highway 1 in California – do it. This is a spectacular road trip, and there are so many variations you can make. It just depends on which parts you want to focus on, and how long you have. The coastline is immensely scenic and pristine along the whole length, and the mountains are rugged and spectacular.
We knew it would be a great trip, yet it even exceeded our expectations. We encountered wonderful kind hearted SoCal locals along the whole journey, and nothing really disappointed us. This trip is truly worthy of anyone’s bucket list!
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