Soak up the Californian sun on an epic road trip taking in the iconic skylines of San Francisco, rugged coast of the Pacific Highway, awe-inspiring mountainous valleys of Yosemite National Park, emerald greens of Lake Tahoe and luscious winelands of Napa Valley.
Inspired by the caution-to-the-wind attitude of Thelma and Louise, the wacky chaos of Little Miss Sunshine and the general badass action of Supernatural, I've always wanted to take on the big America road trip. Jam-packed full of breakfast and burgers at 1950s-themed roadside diners, seemingly endless desert landscapes leading to hedonistic paradises, and vast tower blocks to rival eye-wateringly tall mountains, I was ready to soak in all the cliches from blockbuster films, TV shows and pop songs. However, on digging a bit deeper, the USA has so much more to offer than the pop culture that meet the eye.
When deciding where to actually go in the USA, it’s pretty overwhelming. Given that 11 of the USA’s states are bigger than the entire UK alone and the land area of the country is roughly equal to the whole of Europe, it’s fairly daunting knowing where to start. Having both been to Florida to do the customary introduction to America (Disney, the Everglades etc.) when we were younger and having been to LA during a stopover previously, Adam and I decided to explore some more of the cityscapes, mountainous valleys and dramatic coastlines of Northern California.
Starting in San Francisco, our route took us on a loop around the state, taking in the rugged coast of the Pacific Highway, awe-inspiring mountainous valleys of Yosemite National Park, emerald greens of Lake Tahoe and ending up in the beautiful, wine-induced coma in the luscious Napa Valley. It’s a route I would definitely recommend and doesn’t involve painfully long days of driving which means more time to explore and relax!
Despite its many faults (let’s not go into politics here…), one thing the USA does do well is large, open roads. You can understand why so many road trip movies have been made as it’s so easy to do. And with California’s drastically changing landscapes and even climates, driving across the state can be like 3 or 4 holidays in one. Here’s what we did...
Days 1-4: San Francisco
Accommodation: Kensington Park Hotel (3 nights)
I think it's safe to say I'm not a city girl. As much as I enjoy the buzz and excitement of visiting a new urban landscape, I'm the first to admit that often my favourite part of my day-to-day routine is leaving London behind for the leafy suburbia and beer gardens of Kent.
Having said that, San Francisco is a city I can get on board with. Known for its steep hills, colourful Victorian houses, cable cars and free love movement, the coastal city is the cultural and commercial hub of Northern California and hugely appealing.
A great way to get around are the hop-on / hop-off buses. I tend to be a bit of a geek when it comes to new cities and these bus tours are usually a good way of getting your bearings, along with some interesting facts and stories. It also gives you the opportunity to stop at some of the landmarks that you wouldn’t necessarily have travelled specifically to see, such as the Painted Ladies - a row of beautifully painted Victorian houses off Alamo Square which is a perfect park for any dog lovers! Other stops include the hippie district of Haight-Ashbury, the central shopping area of Union Square, seaside piers of Fisherman’s Wharf and the deliciously tempting food market of the Ferry Building.
The main focal point is, of course, the iconic and striking Golden Gate Bridge. Connecting the northern top of San Francisco with Marin County, the frequently photographed suspension bridge is a feat of engineering, spanning 4,200 ft across the “Golden Gate” where San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean meet. The best spot to view it from in all its glory is Fort Point on the northernmost tip of the city and it really is magnificent. It has a status all of it's own, and seeing this incredible landmark that I'd only experienced in films, photography and books in real life was something very special. The bus tour also drives over it which was a real highlight!
From here, a lovely (flat!) walk is along the breezy shoreline via Crissy Field - a former military airfield which was cleaned up and restored in 2001 into a beach promenade - towards the magnificent and surprising Palace of Fine Arts. Built around an artificial lagoon, the Palace of Fine Arts is an Italian-inspired monumental structure who plays host to art exhibitions and events, as well as featuring in many films including The Rock (1996) and Vertigo (1958). If time, a trip to the top of Coit Tower also offers amazing views across the city, but be prepared to queue for a while in peak season as only a limited amount of people can go up at one time.
No trip to San Francisco is complete, though, without visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and a trip to the infamous Alcatraz Island. Though it's a slightly eerie experience to walk around a former prison where so much violence and corruption took place, it's also strangely fascinating and the tours are very well done. I certainly learnt a lot during our afternoon on Alcatraz - not just about it's life as a prison but also about it's history with the native Americans, which I kind of wished there was more information about. Ferries depart for the island from Pier 33 throughout the day, travelling the ¼ mile journey across to the island where a self-guided audio tour is available to take visitors around the former prison. Tickets do get booked up months in advance, though, so make sure you pre-book before you go.
Finally, San Francisco really is a celebration of good food and good times. From the delicious clam chowder and sourdough bread the area is famous for at Pier 39 to the Asian cuisine of Chinatown, there's something for everyone, plus some wonderful bars and speakeasy-style cocktail joints to spend a night out. We particularly enjoyed the Old Ship Saloon, one of the oldest bars in San Francisco which is built on the ruins of Gold Rush-era sailing ship, the Arkansas, but would also recommend Bourbon & Branch Speakeasy for anyone wanting a bigger night out!
Days 4-7: Pacific Coast Highway
Accommodation: Happy Landing Inn (3 nights)
Driving time: 2h30 (plus as long as you'd like to explore the highway route)
From San Francisco, it's easy to hire a car and start the drive down south along the incredible coastal highway. There are plenty of points to break journey up by stopping at spots such as Santa Cruz, Shark Fin Cove, San Jose or one of the many state parks before basing yourself in one of the beautiful coastal towns along the way - Carmel-by-the-sea, Monteray or even Big Sur itself.
We stayed in Carmel-by-the-sea, arguably the quietest of the bases, but a lovely little upmarket town full of character, with the beach and seafront right on your doorstep, as the name suggests. I really loved the character of the place - it felt olde worlde and had a real sense of community. Everywhere is walking distance in this quirky small town, with tons of restaurants, cafes, arts and crafts shops to amble around. There's even a quaint old sweet shop which has some delicious treats! The beach itself was also stunning and the perfect place to blow the cobwebs away.
This part of the trip is all about taking in and exploring the breathtaking ocean view road though. I recommend just taking a full day to drive up and down Highway 1 to take in all it's salty, windswept panoramas. For me, this was perhaps of my favourite days of our whole trip - just driving along, breathing in the sea air and stopping to take photos of the dramatic coastlines which really are spectacular. Key stopping points include McWay Falls (pictured above), Bixby Bridge (also pictured above), Pfieffer Beach and San Simeon but just take your time, enjoy the drive and soak up the scenery.
On the second day, either explore the area you're staying in or visit the local wildlife on a walk around Point Lobos National Reserve. Three miles south of Carmel, this coastal reserve is often referred to as “the crown jewel” of the area and is a great place for a nature walk where you’re likely to see seals, seabirds and at times, whales. There are a number of car parks and walking trails, all with spectacular views so you can easily while away a couple of hours at this fascinating natural hotspot. I particularly loved seeing the seals lounging on the beach!
Days 7-10: Yosemite National Park
Accommodation: Nature's Hideaway AirBnB (3 nights)
Driving time: 3-4h
Ever since studying Ansel Adams at college, I’ve had a love of landscape photography and dreamt of one day visiting some of the spectacular locations depicted in his work. So, for me, the imposing mountainous terrain and reflective lakes of Yosemite National Park were the pièce de résistance of the entire trip. I was blown away by the natural beauty and geology of the entire park. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before and without wanting to sound too gushy, it was quit e a humbling experience, leaving me marvelling and reflecting on what an wonderful world we are lucky enough to live in.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite National Park spreads over 1,000 square miles, boasting an array of giant granite cliffs and domes, the largest of which is 4,800 ft tall. It’s absolutely vast area with plenty to explore, with a awe-inspiring waterfall and magnificent landscape around every corner.
It’s an easy and picturesque drive from one of the many towns outside the park itself, such as Mariposa, Oakhurst and Coulterville. We opted for an AirBnB in the historic town of Mariposa which was much more affordable than any of the hotels in the main valley and about an hour’s drive from the park entrance. Entry to the park is a very reasonable $30 per vehicle which gives you access for seven days from the day of purchase.
You can easily spend two full days marvelling at the beauty of Yosemite, but I recommend getting in early both days to ensure a parking space and avoid queues. If, like us, you’re visiting in the summer months, this also gives the chance to explore before temperatures get unbearably hot. We spent the first day on the valley floor taking in the magnificent waterfalls, lakes and mountains from below. There’s a shuttle bus that transports visitors to and from all of the key parts of the park where you can do numerous hikes (of varying ability) to scenic viewpoints, paddle in the Mirror Lakes and learn about the history of the area.
On the second day, we opted to drive the route upwards once entering the park to take in the views looking down at the glacial valley from above. Our first stop was the impressive Bridalveil Falls, followed by Tunnel View and Upper Cathedral Lake, finishing at the spectacular Glacier Point from which you can see the entire valley it all its glory. This is where the real magic happens and you get the full scale of the park - it has to be seen to be believed!
Days 10-12: Lake Tahoe
Accommodation: Hotel Azure (2 nights)
Driving time: 6h (taking the scenic route via Yosemite)
One of the best things about road trips is taking the time to explore the areas between each location stop. The drive from Mariposa to South Lake Tahoe is a classic example of this and is out of this world! Driving the scenic route through Yosemite itself (via Lee Vining) is slightly longer but so worth it. Great stopping points to relax and/or have a picnic lunch are the tranquil Lake Tenaya and beautiful Tuolumne Meadows which are both absolutely stunning. This route is really spectacular so take your time and enjoy the drive.
We opted to spend just two nights in the South Lake Tahoe area, giving us one full day to explore the area. With this in mind, we headed to Emerald Bay - a beautiful area approximately 20 minutes drive from the main town, with crystal clear waters and incredible views. Like Yosemite, getting there early is essential to get a parking space before taking on the mile-long walk down to the bay itself. The perfect way to enjoy this spot is from the water itself, whether via boat, swimming, kayak or paddle boarding. We chose to hire kayaks from Kayak Tahoe and spent the morning calmly gliding through the placid bay itself and visited the tiny but very pretty Fannette Island in the middle which was idyllic. We only hired the kayaks for 2 hours but could've happily carried on for longer as the time flew by, and there was so much to see. Just taking a moment to sit back in the kayak, relax and take it the scenery around was amazing. Once you’ve dried off, make time to walk up to Cascade Falls before relaxing alongside the lake on one of the many beaches in the area. Pope, Kiva and Baldwich are all very popular.
The other interesting thing about South Lake Tahoe is that it’s on the state border between California and Nevada. With gambling illegal in California but legal in Nevada, what hits you as soon as you cross the border is a number of casinos, bars and restaurants. It’s a bizarre feeling but worth experiencing if you fancy a more lively night out.
Days 12-15: Napa Valley
Accommodation: Inn On Randolph (3 nights)
Driving time: 3h (travelling direct) or 4h30 (driving through the valley)
Our final stop was the legendary and world famous Napa Valley. Home of award-winning wine, fine food and natural baths, Napa sells itself as a luxury destination for visitors every year. Again, I would recommend driving the scenic route, going north from Lake Tahoe towards Wilbur Springs before going south through the valley. This journey takes in a selection of the gorgeous vineyards along the way, really giving the full experience of entering wine country.
The first thing to know about Napa is that it is very expensive. Generally, the prices in the US are high for us Brits given the current exchange rate - we found costs at mid-range restaurants steeper than you’d pay in London and accommodation rates reasonably high - but Napa was by far the biggest hit to the budget.
The main activity for Napa is obviously exploring its wonderful wine culture - visiting the vineyards, tasting the wine and breathing in the stunning scenery. You can see immediately why this beautiful valley is the perfect spot for hosting vineyards as it stands majestically dappled in an amber glow reminiscent of the wine-growing areas of Tuscany and the South of France.
Wanting to sample the wine and not worry about driving, we booked a day tour with Platypus Tours which came recommended by our lovely boutique B&B and was one of the more reasonable options at $110 per person. Whilst this in itself is fairly dear, what’s important to note is that Napa wineries charge a tasting fee of $15-20 per person which, unlike other wine tours I’ve done, isn’t included in the overall cost and adds up very quickly. Visiting four wineries, with a tasting fee each and the tour guide’s expected 15-20% tip on top meant it was easily the most extortionate day of our entire trip. However, that’s not to say it wasn’t a fabulous experience and a great way to see the area and sample some delicious wine.
Within the tour, we visited four wineries of different sizes, starting at Provenance Vineyards in Rutherford, continuing on for a picnic lunch at Varozza Vineyards in upmarket St Helena, followed by the Italian-inspired Benessere Vineyards and finishing the day at the family-run Flora Springs. All were gorgeous locations with their own individual character offering an eclectic selection of wines and approaches.
For the second day, there are some fascinating towns in the area full of character. Visit Sonoma to learn about the history of the area, St Helena for upmarket shopping (and property porn!) or Napa itself for craft beer, bridges and the famous wine train where you can enjoy a gourmet meal. Alternatively, a great way of seeing the valley is by hiring bikes and cycling around the beautiful countryside.
Day 16: Sausalito / San Francisco
Driving time: 1h
If you're able to book an overnight return flight from San Francisco, spend your final day in the gorgeous seaside city of Sausalito, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Enjoy a leisurely lunch on the waterfront and explore some of the quaint antique shops before (reluctantly!) heading to the airport for your flight home.