Southern California and the Golden Coast

the land of movie stars, celebrities, walks of fame and golden beaches, Southern California is known the world around as a premier destination, but southern California is so much more than just the coast, and in this itinerary we are going to take you inland as well to experience everything SoCal has to offer.

#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
James

States: 
california

Start/End: 
los angeles

Total miles:
1,800

Suggested days: 
At least 16

Type: 
scenic road trip

Recommended for: 
First-timers to the United States, honeymooners, photographers, road trippers, 

Suggested season: 
year round

Overview

From the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the stunning Eastern Desert, this route is perfect for those who want to experience the beauty of the open road and some of America’s most untamed areas. In other words, you will get to experience a true American road trip that includes the sun-soaked beaches, nightlife and celebrity-infused atttractions of the land of Hollywood, intriguing desert towns and unimaginable scenery. You will begin by arriving at Los Angeles International Airport. We have no doubt that you are going to want to spend a few days in this city of 4 million. But…save it for the end of the trip, when you have a chance to unwind and relax after your epic SoCal road trip. On this trip many of the drives between towns will be relatively short, but when you get to the eastern part of the state, the drives will stretch out a bit, so be prepared for this. Through the course of this trip you be travelling through two distinct geographical climates.  This will be a trip of a lifetime, so get in, buckle up and shift that car into drive. You are about to experience some of the best the United States has to offer.

How to Prepare

We recommend approximately 16 days for this trip in order to experience each town and activity without feeling too rushed. You have a lot of miles to cover, so we suggest spending at minimum a day at each stop.  This itinerary is full of suggestions of some of the best places to fully experience the area, with overnight stops in the towns along the way. Plan your trip accordingly so that you experience the places that spark your interest the most. These areas can be crowded in the summertime, and for good reason. There are multiple events and the weather is beautiful. Wintertime is still beautiful in these places, however, you are more likely to run into wet weather and many of the outdoor experiences that you have in the nicer weather will not be available.. On the other hand, summertime temps in these places can often exceed 100 degrees, so take that into account as you decide your travel dates. The majority of this trip will be short drives between stops, but this is to allow you the most time at all the amazing places that you have traveled so far to see. Though this itinerary is a day to day guide, it is only a guide and you should feel free to adapt it however you want, taking as much time as you need to fully experience this wonderful part of the world.

DAY 1: land in los angeles, head to Santa Barbara

1.5 hours/95 miles

This is a shorter day for a good reason. We suggest arriving early into LA and renting your car from the airport and setting out north toward your first stop, Santa Barbara. It is the perfect town to get prepared and excited to start your road trip. With the Santa Ynez Mountains as dramatic backdrop, Santa Barbara has a great Downtown, with Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings that reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage. Upscale boutiques and restaurants offering local wines and seasonal fare line State Street. On a nearby hill, Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786, houses Franciscan friars and a museum. The best place to start your Santa Barbara Tour would of course be the Santa Barbara Visitor Center.

Best way to see Santa Barbara:

Self-Guided Wine Tour

Best place for a swim:

Arroyo Burro Beach

Best place to watch the sunset:

Stearns Wharf

Best place to shop local:

The Funk Zone

Best selfie:

Moreton Bay Fig Tree

Best place for dinner:

The Boathouse

DAY 2: san luis obispo

1 hour 39 minutes/94 miles

From Santa Barbara you are going to head north on the 101 to one of California’s hidden gems, San Luis Opisbo. Nestled in the heart of the Central Coast Wine Country, SLO is the unofficial headquarters for the region, with towns like Los Osos, Morro Beach and Oceano within striking distance and well worth a visit. The Los Padres National Forest is juts outside of town and have numerous trails to explore the region. One can’t miss stop once you get into town is Bubblegum Alley. Yep, its an entire alley lined with chewed bubblegum. 

Best hike:

Bishop Peak

Can’t miss it:

Mission Plaza

Visit a waterfall:

Reservoir Canyon

Best place to get a little history:

Dallidet Adobe and Gardens

Best place to see wildlife:

The Whale Trail

Best place for dinner:

NoVo Restaurant

DAY 3: Salinas and Monterrey bay

1.5 hours/67 miles

As you continue north on Highway 1 toward Salinas, you have two stops that you have to make. The first stop is in the town of  Cayucos for breakfast at Bill and Carol’s Sea Shanty. The breakfast’s here are as amazing at the name suggests. Your second stop will be in San Simeon and Hearst Castle. Built between 1919 and 1947, Hearst Castle was the joint concept of William Randolph Hearst, the publishing tycoon, and his architect Julia Morgan. Listed as a a National Historic Landmark and California Historical Landmark, the castle is well worth a visit. When you get in to Salinas, head to the Traveler’s Hotel. It’s a great place to rest your head for the night.

Best hike:

Fort Ord National Monument

Best place for wildlife watching: 

Salinas River Wildlife Refuge

Can’t miss it:

The Steinbeck Center

Most eclectic shopping:

Cannery Row

Best place for a stroll:

Fisherman’s Wharf

Best place for seafood:

Sea Harbor Fish Market

DAY 4: Fresno

2.5 hour/132 miles

Fresno is located in the beautiful San Joaquin Valley, and is the jewel of California’s agricultural heartland, the Central Valley. Originally founded in 1872 as a stop on the Central Pacific Railroad, today Fresno is a metropolitan city with a population of around 500,000. Home to California State University, Fresno is a fun college town with a sophisticated air. One point of interest and a must visit is the Forestiere Underground Gardens. Created in the early 1900s, the gardens consist of Roman-catacombs-inspired subterranean passages and courtyards. Fresno is a multi-cultural city with a number of distinct neighborhoods that highlight its diversity.  One can’t miss park is the sprawling, trail-lined Woodward Park is home to the Shinzen Japanese Garden. Its a great place to stretch your legs.

Best place for a stroll:

The Blossom Trail

Must see:

St George Greek Orthodox Church

Best place to shop local:

Vineyard Farmers Market

Best historical selfie:

Fresno Water Tower

Can’t miss food:

Mediterranean Grill and Cafe

Best Local Beer:

Tioga Sequoia Brewing Company

DAY 5: The Bakersfield Sound

2 hours/110 miles

Located on the banks of the Kern River, Bakersfield has an important place in the annals of American music. It all started in 1954 with Wynn Stewart. Known as the Bakersfield Sound, it was the first genre of country music to be significantly influenced by rock and roll, and as a result, the first to rely heavily on electric instrumentation and a defined backbeat The Bakersfield sound became one of the most popular and influential country genres of the 1960s, initiating a revival of honky-tonk music and influencing musical icons like Merle HaggardCreedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead. Bakersfield keeps that tradition close today with numerous honky-tonk bars and music festivals. In addition to the fantastic music scene, Bakersfield is a great outdoor town with numerous recreation opportunities located right outside of town in the Sequoia National Forest

Best place for a hike:

Badger Gap

Can’t miss it:

Buck Owens Crystal Palace

Best place to shop or farm local:

Murray Family Farms

Best place to see some wildlife:

California Living Museum

Eat some Basque cuisine:

Wool Growers

Go honky-tonkin:

Rustic Rail

DAY 6: barstow and the inland empire

2 hours 20 minutes/130 miles

Once a small mining center and railroad town in California’s Mojave Desert, Barstow today is known as the commercial, cultural and economic hub of the Inland Empire. Barstow is a great starting point when touring the western Mojave Desert. Outdoor explorers, amateur geologists and hikers enjoy nearby Rainbow Basin and Owl Canyon CampgroundAfton Canyon, and the beautiful Kelso Dunes. Fancy a trip into the past? Check out the Calico Early Man Site,the historic Harvey House Depot, or the Calico Ghost Town, a restored silver mining town. Ever thought about exploring an abandoned and haunted water park in the middle of the desert? Then check out, Lake Dolores.  After all your outdoor adventures, head to Barstow Station. Family owned and operated since 1973, it’s a great place to stock up on supplies.

Best place for a hike:

Castle Mountains

Best photo op:

The Giant Fire Helmet

Best museum:

Route 66 Museum

Best Americana throwback:

Skyline Drive-In Movie Theater

Can’t miss it:

Main Street Murals

Best taco in town:

Lola’s Kitchen

DAY 7: needles

2 hours/117 miles

Named for the nearby pointed mountain peaks, Needles was founded in 1883 to support the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The city’s location along the Western bank of the Colorado River, which serves as the California/Arizona border, was once its major draw. As in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, it was an important stopping point for travelers entering California in search of opportunity during the Dust Bowl era. Today, Needles is an eclectic little desert town straddling the gap between history and the future. The first thing we would recommend doing when you get into Needles is to the Pirate Cove Resort. It’s a great place to cool off after your road trip through the desert.

Best place for wildlife:

Havasu Wildlife Refuge

Can’t miss it:

Mystic Maze

Best place to get some jerky:

Gus’ Really Good Jerky

Best way to experience the desert:

Dead Mountains Wilderness Area

Best historical experience:

El Garces Train Station

Can’t miss dinner:

The Riverfront Cafe

DAY 8 and 9: Joshua Tree National Park and the Coachella Valley

3 hours/160 miles

You may have heard the Coachella because of the international music festival that takes place here every year, but there is so much more to this remarkable area. The first is of course Joshua Tree National Park. Named for the region’s twisted, bristled Joshua trees, the park straddles the cactus-dotted Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, this is a one-of-a-kind place that is well worth a full day’s visit. When you get to Coachella, get a room at the Turtle Back Mesa.  After that, head to the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. It’s well worth a visit.

Best outdoor experience:

Tahquitz Canyon

Can’t miss it:

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum

Best place for a stroll:

Old Town La Quinta

Best photo op:

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Best chance to see a ghost:

Palm Springs Ghost Tour

Best dining experience:

Birba

DAY 10: Through the Salton Sea to San diego

3 hours 15 minutes/153 miles

Today you heading to the Pacific Ocean, but before you do, there is one body of water that you need to see. The Salton Sea was formed between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through poorly built irrigation controls south of Yuma, Arizona. Almost the entire flow of the river filled the Salton Basin for more than a year, inundating communities, farms and the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad. In it’s heyday, the Salton Sea was a getaway for celebrities and the wealthy, but as the lake started to dry up, the crowds left and it now exists as a ghost town. The best place to stop to understand this geographical history would be the Salton Sea Visitor’s Center. If you are interested in touring a winery in southern California, you should stop in Temecula, the only known winery area in Southern California. Once you arrive in San Diego, we recommend staying overnight near the Gaslamp district or right by the Pacific Ocean.

Best place for breakfast:

Farm of Palm Spings

Best kept secret:

Temecula Vineyards

Best ghostly experience:

The Whaley House

Go for an ocean swim:

La Jolla Beach

Can’t miss it:

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Treat yourself in San Diego:

The Gaslamp Quarter

DAY 11: San Diego

2.5 hours/140 miles

Welcome to San Diego. There is so much to do in this town, that it would hard to cover here, so what we would reccomend is to start your day at the San Diego Visitor’s Center. They will have everything you need to get the most out of your stay.

Best place for breakfast:

Breakfast Republic

Can’t Miss it

San Diego Zoo

Best beach town:

Carlsbad

Tour an aircraft Carrier

USS Midway Museum

Best Fish Taco:

Taco Surf Taco Shop

Best kept secret:

The seals at La Jolla Cove

DAY 12: san Diego to Santa Monica

3 hours/150 miles

 Today’s priority? Just enjoy the beautiful southern California coast. With charming beach towns to visit like Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica, this won’t be difficult.  The first thing you are going to need to do though is get breakfast. Head to Swami’s Cafe in Carlsbad for the best breakfast west of the Mississippi. Then, take Interstate 5 north along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Los Angeles. This scenic drive will give you the feeling and vibe of Southern California, with the lush vegetation along the coast and the crazy traffic on the freeways: two things that definitely characterize it.  Stop in Oceanside for a quick walk along the coast, then take Hwy 1 past San Clemente, to your stop for the night in Santa Monica.

Best viewpoints on the coast:

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Best place to shop:

Fashion Island-Newport Beach

Can’t Miss it:

Venice Beach

Best place for a stroll:

Santa Monica Pier

Best Taco:

Casa Martin

Best place to stay:

Casa Del Mar

DAY 13: Los angeles and Fabulous Hollywood

1.5 hours/50 miles

In the morning, you might consider a quick run along the coast before heading to Los Angeles to see the world famous Universal Studios, where classic films and television shows are brought to vivid life around you, and you might even run into some movie stars. In the evening, check out some iconic Hollywood locations, such as the Kodak Theater and the Walk of Fame, where celebrities have been honored for decades with their names imprinted on glossy stone stars embedded in the sidewalk. During the evening, take Sunset Boulevard into Beverly Hills, then follow this scenic drive head back to Santa Monica.

Best photo op:

The Hollywood Sign from Canyon Lake Drive

Best place to see a celebrity:

The Hollywood Roosevelt

Can’t Miss it:

Rodeo Drive

Best place for a stroll:

El Pueblo de Los Angeles

Best local tradition:

In-n-Out Burger

Best place to shop:

The Grove