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When you consider the views, the sightseeing and the open road stretching ahead of you, it’s no surprise that making a California road trip itinerary is a bucket list item for many people, residents and tourists alike. America romanticizes the road trip unlike anywhere else in the world. Perhaps the first western migrations of European colonizers instilled a rose-colored image of the wide-open road. Or maybe giants of literature etched stories of the quintessential road trip into our landscape, a map and a notebook in hand as they drove through cities and national parks. Whatever the reason, a road running into the horizon screams with the hot wind of an American summer.
While travel by train reigns in European narratives, travel by car creates a sense of independence held so closely to American culture. The East Coast to West Coast road trip fills most travel books, but what could be more iconic than driving up the Pacific Coast Highway? Though both Alaska and Texas claim the largest portions of United States territory, California’s population outnumbers all of Canada’s population by almost two million.
Like its vast population, California is teeming with diverse lands and climates. From the arid beauty of the south, alive with sunset-colored poppies and sea creatures, to the redwood forests of the north, filled with the mist and salt of the nearby ocean. The jewel of the West Coast has too much to explore in just one week. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, a California road trip itinerary will offer you your fill of adventure. Pack your bags. Bring camping gear and any recreational additions (maybe a vintage longboard to cruise along winding roads, a surfboard to shred down the coast or a mountain bike to fly through dusty trails). Turn on your Spotify playlist and your navigation. Roll down the windows. Ignition. Reverse. Drive.
Things to know before embarking on your coastal cruise
Even Californians might not be privy to these helpful tips. Don’t skim this section in a fit of confidence. Everyone should always prepare thoroughly for a road trip. Misadventures can befall you whether or not you’ve planned your trip down to the mile.
- Prepare for spotty service. You never know when your phone will fail you. Whether it’s unreliable service, a dead battery or a cracked phone, technology won’t always be there to rescue you. Make sure you know where you’re headed, or at least have a general sense. Most people consider the days of memorizing phone numbers to be obsolete, but what happens when you need to call your partner or friend and their contact information lives on a dead phone?
- California is colder than you think. The combination of cold water and wind can make for chilly weather and foggy mornings, even with sunshine.
- The PCH, Highway One, the Carrillo Highway, the Shoreline Highway or the Redwood Highway? They’re all the same. The Pacific Coast Highway has many nicknames. Don’t panic if you see or hear these various names, although some confuse the 101 with the PCH (Highway One). Though they overlap a fair amount, they are distinct highways.
- Keep track of bathrooms and gas stations. Long stretches without gas stations or bathrooms plague Cali Coast road trippers. Plan for these.
- Leave No Trace. If you don’t recognize this slogan, please look into it. These guidelines to environmental interaction help protect fragile ecosystems.
Your California road trip itinerary
Day 1: San Diego and Los Angeles
Start the day with an early morning surf. You can even cross the border with your board to catch some waves at Playas de Tijuana if you crave an international start to your day. The border ventures into the water, disappearing into the waves. If you don’t have time, venture up to La Jolla or further north to Cardiff. Not a surfer? Head to Cardiff anyway for Bump Coffee, a walk-up shop at Pipes Beach with CBD, coffee and empanadas.
Leave San Diego behind for the glamour of Los Angeles. Explore the Strand by bike and make sure to stop at the beach breweries. End the day with dinner and a show at Catch, Hotel Casa Del Mar’s restaurant that offers seafood and panoramic views of the ocean.
Day 2: Santa Barbara, Solvang and Pismo Beach
Visit Lotusland, the nearly 40 acres of botanical gardens located in Santa Barbara.
Head north to a random splash of Danish culture – Solvang. Be sure to bring your camera to photograph the European charm in the middle of California. And, please, eat an aebleskiver, a delicious Danish dessert similar to doughnut holes.
End the day at Pismo Beach. Choose from more than 100 campsites in the area and have a coastal campground meal.
Day 3: Rest
Take a break and enjoy all the recreational activities Pismo Beach has to offer. Rent a dune buggy and tear up the giant dunes, take your bike out for a spin or hop on your surfboard.
Day 4: Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz
Spend the day with seals, cliffs and redwoods. If you can wait to eat, Big Sur Bakery is worth it. Get up early and make a beeline for those pastries. Hike the Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Trail, a 2.4-mile trek with waterfalls, vistas, redwoods and wildflowers, to assuage your sugar-induced guilt.
Stop in Monterey solely for the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Or, if you have the time, get out on the water with a paddle board or a kayak for a chance to see wild marine life.
Maybe Jordan Peele’s “Us” ruined Santa Cruz for you, but nothing can scare locals aware from their quirky town. Nothing says quirky (or maybe disgusting?) like an abundance of banana slugs, which happens to be UC Santa Cruz’s mascot. Check out the unusual accommodations from tree houses and cabins to yurts and surf vans.
Day 5: San Francisco
Do what you will in the city of hills, literary history, markets and Pride. San Francisco can’t disappoint.
Day 6 and 7: Mendocino and Eureka
Take your time driving along the northern coast. Choose your camp spots carefully. There are so many, it’s tempting to bail and go for the easiest to find.
Check out downtown Mendocino and be sure to get in the water. Head up to Fort Bragg to gawk at Glass Beach (remember: Leave No Trace), and then to the tide pools of MacKerricher State Park.
Race down the Avenue of Giants on your skateboard or in your car. Either way, don’t miss the towering old-growth redwoods, perhaps the most stunning stretch of your road trip.
End your journey in Eureka.
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