road trip in california highway 1

No trip to the United States of America is complete without a classical road trip. At least once in a lifetime, you must experience how it feels like being on the road, especially on the endless highways of the US; you must get to know the motel life; you must observe your reaction upon hearing your navigation system say “drive 66 miles straight ahead”, and you don’t even get to see another car, or gas station along the way. We were doing exactly the same in May 2010 for two weeks in California followed by a fantastic ending in New York.

Here is my top 15 must-do list, you should not miss on a road trip in California (sorry, I could not narrow it down – every day had its own highlight), in the order we visited.

1. Explore San Francisco on foot

San Francisco is unique, different from the most American big cities. The skyscrapers and ugly buildings do not dominate the picture, and it is a pedestrian-friendly city. You can walk almost everywhere here on the streets

built upon the steep hills. In around 5 days we spent here, we stepped almost on every corner between Union Square and Golden Gate Bridge, but we couldn’t develop any logic to follow the shortest path without changing the elevation. At times, it was exhausting to walk up and down, but it was so much fun (and workout). If you are good on foot, maybe you can accomplish the quest, which we couldn’t. Tell me when you have succeeded in finding out the shortcuts without elevation difference!

2. Take an evening tour to Alcatraz, aka The Rock

You will certainly do all the touristic activities in San Francisco, like riding a cable car, but make sure not to miss out on the Alcatraz tour. To guarantee your spot on board, book your ticket online, ideally for the evening tour to see the San Francisco skyline at night. I am not going to spend any words on the famous Alcatraz history. If you haven’t heard of it yet, or don’t have much knowledge, go to the corner and stay on one foot until you’ve done your homework! 🙂

3. Feel the power of wind at Point Reyes National Seashore

Have I already mentioned that bad weather is a must for my travels? Yep, this was no exception we spent a couple of hours at Point Reyes under heavy rain, fog, and wind. We were able to afford a glimpse of the ocean from the lighthouse without flying away. Chances are that it is mostly windy here, but if not, lucky you! Don’t forget to hike on several trails in this spectacular region.

4. Stroll through California’s Capital, Sacramento

Sacramento was a nice surprise that I enjoyed strolling through its streets a lot. Old Sacramento State Historic Park is a very well-preserved western gold mine town, resembling the ones seen in the movies. Spare a few hours in “Old Sac” for an insight into the America of the 19th century. The modern Sacramento was also super nice, green, and pedestrian friendly. In this part of the city, you must visit especially the State Capitol, it is amazing to step inside an American governmental building and see them at work. Tip: if the legislature is in session, you are allowed to join to watch.

4. Laze around at Lake Tahoe

The lake is a hot spot for locals and tourists alike both in summer and winter. In summer, you could certainly enjoy the beaches, and in winter you could ski with the lake view ahead. At the time we were here, the towns around the lake were almost deserted. It was apparently not the best time of the year to visit, but we still enjoyed the quietness and the nature here so much that we even extended our stay by one more night. If you stay in the town of South Lake Tahoe, you could visit a casino in Stateline, Nevada just across the state border. Casinos are prohibited in California, so they simply built some across the border and named the town “Stateline”. So creative, no?

5. Step into the Indian history at Indian Grinding Rock SHP 

The Chaw’se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park was a gorgeous stop along the way. The largest collection of grinding holes in North America can be found here along with a reconstructed Miwok village, all within a green lush setting.

The Roundhouse depicted below was the most interesting building for me, which was the center of ceremonial and social life in a similar way as Western culture uses churches and places of worship. And you can still feel the deal today.

Upon the rock below, they used to grind the acorns and other seeds into meal, slowly forming the cup-shaped depressions in the stone that can still be seen today.

If you are driving around, and have an hour to spare, don’t miss this lovely spot.

6. Get lost in Yosemite National Park

I think Yosemite needs no introduction. It is a huge and beautiful park, where you should spend a couple of nights exploring without rushing. Even if you have one day only, you can still cover a lot and get lost in nature, thanks to the shuttle buses running between the park’s major attractions.

Don’t skip the Mariposa Groove at the southern entrance/exit of the park. I found the Sequoia collections here even better than the ones in Sequoia National Park. In the forest of the giants, aka Sequoia NP, my brain was not able to process the difference between “a giant” and “the giant”. I am not saying that you should not visit Sequoia NP, but the size of the giants was more remarkable and impressive in Mariposa Groove, at least for me.

Can you spot me in the picture above? Tip: my arms are stretched out.

7. Enjoy the American Riviera, aka Santa Barbara

The pearl of California, Santa Barbara is for good reason so famous. It has the cutest downtown in my opinion, let alone the great beach and the countless nice restaurant side by side. Plan to spend a night here, if you can, to feel the Spanish flair.

And of course, don’t forget to taste a burger at Habit Burger. It was the most delicious burger with fresh ingredients that we’ve ever tried.

8. Sip a cup of coffee in the Danish town of Solvang 

Solvang is a Danish-styled little cute town nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley of California. It is worth a break, where you could enjoy a cup of coffee and a piece of cake in one of the many cafés.


9. Take the Studio Tour of Universal Studios, LA

I believe Universal Studios Hollywood is on everyone’s bucket list visiting Los Angeles. Go spend a fun day here. The entrance fee is high, but it is so much fun and worth it, plus you can buy combo tickets valid for other theme parks like Disneyland.

10. Sleep tight in Cambria

Cambria is a tiny quiet village, where we had the tightest sleep and homiest stay of the road trip in the Bridge Street Inn located on a dead-end street. Can you imagine how loud the nights could get on the highway motels? We needed a break from motel life, and I am glad we forked out some more bucks for the most comfortable stay. If you also need a rest, consider spending a night in this little village and the homiest hostel.

11. Watch the noisy elephant seals at Piedras Blancas

The largest colony of elephant seals in California can be observed at the Piedras Blancas. Come look closer at these noisy and stinky animals. Sometimes I envy them: I wish I could also lay down on my belly and sunbathe most of my day.

12. Admire the Mother Nature’s Beauty at Point Lobos 

If I had to pick only one destination on Hwy 1, it would be Point Lobos, close to Carmel. Go and indulge yourself in the beauty of mother nature. You should plan 3-4 hours to explore the area on several hiking trails, mostly next to the ocean. 

13. Let Carmel-by-the-Sea astonish you

Carmel-by-the-Sea or simply Carmel is a small but unique town. Let alone its beauty, there are some peculiar laws here. For instance, there are no street addresses, street lights, or chain restaurants. When you come by, make sure that you don’t wear high heels, because you need a special permit to wear them. Check out the fun facts about Carmel here.


14. Monterey Bay Aquarium

One of the biggest aquariums in the world, Monterey Bay Aquarium contains several species to encounter and admire. Even though I am against such “zoos”, this one seems to provide proper conditions for the creatures. Not all of us are divers, and I suppose even divers may not have the privilege to encounter so many different species that you perhaps never heard of. Have you ever seen a leafy sea dragon?

How about watching the sardine run here in one of the open sea galleries? The real one happens in South Africa each year in June/July -a bucket list item with ifs and buts…

15. Do pause at the vista points along the way

When you are on the road, you will encounter many vista points and amazing scenery. Take your time to enjoy them. As an example, look at this frozen lake, somewhere between Lake Tahoe and Chaw’se.

How about this one somewhere on the way to LA?

Practical Info

I did not book any hotels ahead of time, except the ones in San Francisco and New York. But it was a big mistake not to book accommodation in Yosemite National Park in advance. Here accommodation options are more than scarce compared to the number of visitors. It was not a public holiday or weekend, but all lodges were fully booked and we had to drive all the way back to Mariposa. We were lucky to get the last available room in Mariposa around 10 pm: the couple showed up just a few seconds later and had to sleep in the car. Backpacker mind didn’t work out in this case, obviously not only for us. I would imagine this is applicable to all the national parks, or the small cities around them. So, the first tip: do book your stay in or around national parks ahead of time, or not even consider driving to the parks without calling ahead to confirm a free spot.

Arrived in San Francisco, we visited as the first thing the Visitor Information Center to get a booklet with discount coupons for accommodation and other stuff. Doing so, we saved some percent on the list rates of hotels/motels along the way -not only for the no-name ones but also for the well-known chains. The second tip: do get the booklet from the information center if you want to save some money.

I booked the rental car (4-door Dodge) online at Alamo for around 400 EUR/14 days. As the navigation rental rate was high, I noted down two “Best Buy” addresses in San Francisco, where we drove there navigating as in the old days, and bought for the same amount of money our own navigation system. I would highly recommend doing the same for everyone. The third tip: do invest in your own navigation system.

I had put a rough itinerary together, to allow some flexibility and guide through the attractions of each day. Of course, the real deal was different than the plan, but that was the good part of it, to be spontaneous and be able to make amendments on-the-fly. The fourth tip: do have a rough itinerary, but don’t be too strict.

Finally, enjoy the ride in this grand, amazing, and diverse country!

PS: If you have read this long post until here, a huge thank you! And please excuse the shitty photos taken with my old point-and-shoot Canon Ixus 75 camera.