A West Coast road trip is a real classic. From San Francisco you drive through vast deserts and megalomaniac cities. You walk for hours through nature parks without encountering more than a handful of people. You settle down on warm sandy beaches where surfers do their tricks and maneuvers. Or you peer across the edge of the Grand Canyon and finally take a gamble in Las Vegas. A West Coast road trip is an unforgettable experience. Cruising miles of highway you have an ultimate sense of freedom! To help you plan your road trip, I share the route we made along the west coast of America.
Roadtrip West Coast USA
With good planning and preparation you can drive this Roadtrip West Coast USA in about 3 weeks. You could also easily spend 3 months. Keep in mind that you have to drive considerable distances. Plan some extra days if you want more time to discover the National Parks and cities. You can also start your West Coast USA roadtrip from San Diego, Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Do you have questions or do you want to share your travel stories? Leave a comment.
After an 11 hour flight from Amsterdam we arrive at the international airport of San Francisco. With a considerable jet lag we go to customs and after answering a few questions and collecting our luggage we follow the signs towards the car rental. There are several car rental companies and the prices can vary considerably. It is therefore advisable to pre-book a car. After retrieving the car keys and setting up our navigation, the Roadtrip West Coast USA can begin!
(Tip: you can collect your car directly from the airport, for example when you book via SunnyCars)
We drive into the city and catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, the most famous building of San Francisco. Unfortunately for us the bridge is largely covered in fog. We park the car at Travelodge Fisherman’s Wharf, a motel at the old sailors neighborhood Fisherman’s Wharf and close to the Diner Brenda’s French Soul Food where we have dinner tonight. We are also close to a pick-up point of the cable-car so this is an ideal location for exploring the city. In San Francisco you won’t find many skyscrapers but instead many Victorian houses in Alamo Square and Dragon’s Gate. China Town is decorated with lanterns and gold decorated temples. Each district has its own colors and atmosphere.
- Travel time from San Francisco International Airport to San Francisco city centre: 14 miles / 25 minutes
- Accommodation: Travelodge Fisherman’s Wharf, 1201 Columbus Avenue, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco: 60$. On a budget but definitely recommended is Green Tortoise, 494 Broadway Street, North Beach, San Francisco. 40$. Or choose the luxury Hotel Beresford, 635 Sutter Street, Union Square, San Francisco: 100$
- Please note: all mentioned hotel prices may differ in other seasons or on popular days. View the booking websites for current prices.
- Fun things to do in San Francisco: Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge or visiting Alcatraz.
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is a small but beautiful national park about 2.5 hours driving from San Francisco. In this old volcanic area you make beautiful hikes in a spectacular landscape with rugged rock formations and dark caves. Pinnacles National Park has more than 30 miles of trails, almost 50 kilometers. These are self-guided paths where you’ll encounter few other hikers. However, with a bit of luck you can spot the California Condor, the California red-legged frog or other animals. At the highest point in the park, North Chalone Peak, you have a beautiful view of the surrounding valleys. The park is open all year round.
- San Francisco to Pinnacles National Park: 126 miles across the US101 / 2.5 hours
- Pinnacles National park east entrance: 10 $ per car per week
After a long hike in Pinnacles National Park we decide to continue to Bakersfield. This means we will be a lot closer to Death Valley. In the dark we drive in the middle of nowhere, between desolate industrial areas that seem to go through and through. The road to Bakersfield is characterized by heavy industry and oil refinery. It offers a desolate glance, especially when you realize what natural beauty you will encounter the next days.
In Bakersfield we choose a more luxurious hotel instead of a motel, so that we can take a dip in the pool of SpringHill Suites Bakersfield. In the morning a typical American breakfast awaits us before we continue our journey towards the desert; homemade waffles with lots of maple syrup and berries, coffees and lots of sweets.
- Pinnacles to Bakersfield: 170 miles over the I5S / 3 hours
- Accommodation: Hotel SpringHill Suites Bakersfield, 3801 Marriott Drive Bakersfield: 90$
The visits to the various national parks were in retrospect the highlights of our trip. Death Valley was perhaps the most impressive park. If you want to see more than just the highlights of a park, then I recommend to make one or more hikes. This way you can deviate from the beaten track. I would recommend to plan a visit of several days – by the way, this applies to all parks. Only then do you have the opportunity to really discover the details and particularities of a park.
When you take a little more time you discover that Death Valley is much more than a dry desert. The sky is deep blue and sand is everywhere. The heat is surging above the road. On the other hand you will also find differences of day and night in the park. From the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes as you expect them in a desert, Badwater Salt Flat where you are confronted with the harshness and deadness of the desert. But also the Golden Canyon where the rocks in the evening, when the sun sets slowly, turn yellow, orange and red in the desert. Colorful rocks, vast dunes and snow-covered peaks. How alive can a dead desert be?
- Bakersfield to Death Valley: 218 miles / 4.5 hours
- Entrance park (Hwy 190) at Visitors Center, 20 $ per car per week
- Accommodation: The Ranch At Death Valley or Panamint Springs Motel & Tents
In the US you can drive for hours without encountering a gas station, as it turns out when we drive to Las Vegas. In the desert, mile by mile you see the same environment. We leave for Las Vegas in the afternoon, while the surrounding desert becomes darker and darker. Suddenly a sea of lights looms on the horizon. With open mouth we drive on The Strip, the main street of Vegas, past an illuminated Eiffel Tower and Ceasars Palace, huge hotels where the neon lights flash and where the big casinos do everything to lure potential gamblers inside the hotel.
You can best discover Las Vegas by walking the Strip, past the watershow of the famous Bellagio, and seeing how couples with a gondolier navigate under the Rialto Bridge at The Venetian. Las Vegas is a unique experience, but on the other hand I also found it very disappointing. Las Vegas is one big gambling palace and everything is show. In the casinos, the poker chips are pushed over the table, outside the people – addicted to gambling or to the glitter of the city – walk around with a sad look. Despite these double feelings, it is a special and overwhelming place. Where else can you take a ride in a roller coaster from your hotel?
- Death Valley to Las Vegas: 149 miles / 2,25 hours.
- Accommodation: Hotel New York New York, 3790 Las Vegas Boulevard South: 100$, or: Ceasars Palace, the Bellagio, The Venetian.
The Grand Canyon truely is a unique experience. Just sitting on the rim of the canyon and looking out over the gorge in silence, peering into the deep, leaves a deep impression. We make different hikes in the National Park Grand Canyon. We descend into the gorge, and the next day we hike from one view point to another and are deeply impressed by the beautiful surroundings. At the end of the day we are rewarded with an incredible sunset that sets the canyon in all colors.
In the evening we drive from the Canyon to the little town of Williams, near the South Rim of the park, where we find a good motel (read the blog!). If you want to stay in or around the nature park you have to book in advance, because the wooden cabins and other accommodation options are limited. Right here and now we put something on our wish list: if we ever visit the Grand Canyon again we’re going to descent to the bottom of the gorge during a multi-day hike. A hike that is only suitable for those who are in good shape. Something that also also has to be spectacular is a helicopter flight over the canyon, flying into the gorge where the Colorado River thunders through.
- Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon: 275 miles, 4 hours
- Accommodation: Grand Canyon Inn, 317 Arizona 64, Williams: 64 $
- Entrance Grand Canyon National Park: 25 $ per week
In the morning the car window is hidden under a layer of wafer-thin ice. A few hours later, the air conditioning is at maximum to provide a bit of cooling. The many contrasts during this journey are remarkable; immeasurable cities and raw nature, vast deserts and oil fields, extreme heat and ice-cold snow. On our way to the border with Mexico we drive on dusty desert roads to Route 66 town Seligman, past antique Cadillacs and abandoned gas stations.
Finally we park the car at the University Inn. The coming days we will explore the student-like city of Tucson, a supplement from my boyfriend to the otherwise fairly classic road trip route. In the town of Sahuarita, in the desert south of Tucson, the Titan Two Missile Museum is housed in a missile silo from the Cold War. A short distance away are the Pima Air & Space Museum and the Plane Graveyard, a vast plain in the desert where thousands of US Army aircraft are based. From the museum you can make a tour of the military complex.
- Grand Canyon to Tucson: 317 miles / 4.5 hours
- Accommodation: Motel University Inn, 950 North Stone Avenue, Tucson
- Plane Graveyard: 15.50 $. “Boneyard” / AMARG Tour: 7 $. Missile Museum: 9.50 $
In the most southern tip of California you’ll find the city of San Diego against the Mexican border. Here you defy the waves on a surfboard, eat fish or oysters at the harbor or wander through the city to discover the atmosphere in different neighborhoods. First, we discover Little Italy. The Italian coffee is a relief after a couple of weeks of Starbucks.
The highlight of San Diego is to rent bikes for a couple of dollars and to cycle along the boulevard towards La Jolla. We slowly cycle along the beaches of the Pacific Ocean. Every now and then we stop for an ice cream and to make photo’s of the seals. We cycle along sandy beaches and marvel at the most beautiful American houses: a feast for the eyes! In the evening we have dinner and a few beers in the Gaslamp District, a lively neighborhood where you can still taste the atmosphere of the old San Diego
- Tucson to San Diego: 411 miles / 5.5 hours
- Accommodation: Travelodge Mission Valley, 1201 Hotel Circle South, Mission Valley, San Diego or La Jolla Beach Travelodge: 100$
- Bike rental San Diego: from 6$ per hour
Santa Monica & Santa Barbara
After all the hikes, nature parks and countless miles in the car, we skip the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Instead we drive to Santa Monica. We walk across the pier and the coastline. Here, we enjoy the sun and the sea breeze. We continue our journey along the coastal road to Santa Barbara. In the colonial buildings with their special architecture we see the Spanish influences. Under the palm trees we walk to State Street to look for a restaurant.
Not much later we are at the end of State Street on the wooden pier of Stearns Wharf, one of the oldest ports in California. On the pier we look at the annual boat show and under the fireworks we walk across the wide sandy beach. The next day we can’t resist to drive around the most famous district of Santa Barbara, Montecito. The owner of the motel tells us exactly where all the celebrities live in their mega-villas. If you want, you can look for the home of Oprah Winfrey.
- San Diego to Santa Monica: 134 miles / 2.5 hours on Highway 1
- Santa Monica to Santa Barbara: 90 miles / 2 hours on Highway 1
- Accommodation: Orange Tree Inn, 1920 State Street, Santa Barbara: 110$
Monterey & Carmel-by-the-Sea
The last stages to San Francisco take us past the picturesque towns of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey. These stages are perhaps the most classic example of California. Highway 1 meanders along the California coast, over cliffs and through mountains and forests. You will find waving palm trees bathing in the sun, wonderful surf spots, luxurious beach villas and meter-high cliffs. We frequently stop at a viewpoint.
Just outside Monterey is the peninsula Punta de Los Lobos, one of the many Californian nature reserves with small bays and hiking trails to viewpoints. Our last stopover is the pier of Santa Cruz, where the seals and sea lions welcome us again.
- Santa Barbara to Monterey: 237 miles / 3,75 hours
- Accommodation: Monterey Bay Travelodge, 2030 North Fremont Street, Monterey, CA 93940, $100; Pacific Inn Monterey, 2332 N. Fremont Street, Monterey, CA 93940-5407, USA, $120; Carmel Bay View, Junipero between 5th and 6th, Carmel, CA 93921, USA, $120.
Then the journey is nearing its end. The last days in San Francisco we spend watching the sea lions at Pier 39 and strolling through the Ferry Building Marketplace. Here we eat oysters at the Hog Island Oyster Co. We walk through the city and look back on a great road trip. With the Lonely Planet in our hand we traveled through three states. We spent a good deal of hours in the car. We also took the time to hike in nature parks, take relaxing walks on the beach and discovering new cities. Above all, we made unforgettable memories.
- Monterey to San Francisco: 118 miles / 2 hours
- Accommodation: Travelodge Fisherman’s Wharf, 1201 Columbus Avenue, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco: 60$. Green Tortoise, 494 Broadway Street, North Beach, San Francisco. 40$. Hotel Beresford, 635 Sutter Street, Union Square, San Francisco: 100$
Finally, the best season for a road trip West Coast USA
The most popular seasons to travel to the West Coast of America are spring and autumn. Around May and June the temperature is pleasant and ideal for beautiful nature hikes. In the summer months the temperature can rise considerably and this route is a lot more touristy. In the autumn you have good temperatures, but fewer tourists. This is why spring and autumn are the most popular seasons to visit the West Coast. We chose December: the temperatures are pleasant and ideal for hiking. December is not touristy and you can escape the crowds. An additional advantage is that both flights and overnight stays are a lot cheaper than in high season.
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