West Coast Road Trip
You could spend months in the West Coast and there would still be plenty left to see. So here are our tips for an efficient road trip if your schedule is tight!
If you have between 10 days and two weeks, here is a list of the things you can’t miss in the West Coast of the USA.
Although California can be endless, and sunset drives by the sea sounds just perfect, make sure you leave some time for Nevada and Arizona. Natural or man-made, what you’ll see there you won’t find anywhere else in the world!
Either start your road trip in Los Angeles or in San Francisco, it doesn’t really matter. Wherever you find a cheap flight to can be a good starting point. We decided to make it a circular trip and book a return flight to and from the same city.
Just keep an eye out for special offers and it can be a lot cheaper than you imagine. We are subscribed to websites such as Scott’s Cheap Flights and Exprime Viajes (for spanish speakers) and we usually find great deals when booking well in advance, or even unbelievable last minute fares!.
With that said, let’s dive in into our itinerary!
1. LOS ANGELES
2. ROUTE 1
We had very high expectations about this part of the trip, and it definitely lived up to them. A long day of driving with so many different landscapes that will make you want to stop and enjoy the views every 10 minutes!
We started our South-to-North drive from Santa Barbara, after a morning stroll to the beach and pier (we’d driven by the insultingly wealthy Malibu and the surf-centered Ventura on the day before, which are also part of Route 1), and we made our first stops in the San Luis Obispo Area to check out the rugged coastline around Pismo Beach, San Luis’ historic centre and the view of the Morro Rock from Morro Bay.
We had some fun with elephant seals near Cambria, and kept going up with some of the best roadside ocean views ever. Choose the right music and enjoy the perfect road trip vibes! The Big Sur area and its amazing Redwood Forests deserve its own paragraph (see below).
Once you cross Bixby Creek Bridge, you’ll find the cute town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, gateway to the wide Monterrey Bay, which ends in Santa Cruz. A good place to stop driving and have some seafood by the Wharf (pier) while you see the lights of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (the amusement park sitting on the beach) reflecting on the bay at night.
If you have more time, we recommend you do this in two days, spending a night in a Big Sur campsite and going for a hike before you resume the driving.
3. BIG SUR
Without a doubt the highlight of the Route 1 for us. The beauty of its coastline is only matched by the overwhelming Redwood trees or the waterfalls that end right into the ocean.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park barely needs any introduction. From the southernmost tip, Salmon Creek with its waterfalls, the hotsprings tucked inside the forests, or McWay Falls, flowing right into the Pacific Ocean, every scenery and viewpoint is worth a stop and a few pictures to help your mind retain so much beauty.
The road goes in and out, whimsically offering tourquoise ocean and cliff views, to dense forests of impressive Redwood Trees. Log cabins are the only man made features (and some of them will offer delicious lunch options) until you exit the Park and cross the scenic Bixby Creek Bridge. Make sur to stop right after crossing it and enjoying a view often seen on movies and TV.
Would have set up our tent gladly in any of the campgrounds we drove by. But as we said at the beggining of the post, some sacrifices have to be made when the schedule is tight. We’ll come back to Big Sur, no doubt!
4. SAN FRANCISCO
Reflecting on our itinerary while writing this post, we feel it was very well balanced between days of overwhelming nature and days of intense urban activities. Arriving to San Francisco after drivin along Route 1 and Big Sur was the perfect counterpart.
San Francisco, in our opinion, is the place where you should spend the most days of your road trip. There is a lot to see, of course, but there is also a lot to enjoy and soak in, and for that you can’t be in a hurry.
We spent 4 days in the city, and we could have stayed even longer (except for the price tag, of course! SF is by far one of the most expensive cities in the USA). Our first impression was that San Francisco feels very very different to L.A., and it has a more european vibe to it. It’s as picturesque as you remember it from the movies, with its steep streets, the Golden Gate Bridge and the lively parks.
We stayed in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, and really enjoyed the neighbourhood, although it gets really crowded during the day. It’s a good vantage point to rent some bikes and cross the Golden Gate Bridge towards Sausalito, or to take the ferry to Alcatraz (which exceeded our expectations). Not far either from well know spots like Lombard street or the busy and lovely Polk Street.
We honored Uber’s birthplace by using it to move around instead of driving ourselves, and reach the Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury or Castro, to then end the day at Mission Dolores Park, so busy and pleasant on a sunny day!
Great museums and architecture, amazing food variety, a cool (and cold) nightlife… there’s not much we didn’t like about San Francisco. Get a more in detail look at our favourite things to do in SF in our next post! (coming soon)
One of the most famous, vast and beautiful National Parks of the USA. Not just because of the raw beauty and nature but because of its 3.000km2 of park for you to explore!
Located 300km East of San Francisco, it deserves a few days to properly explore it, but we managed to fit it in our itinerary and spend a day hiking around the essentials. A perfect day of raw nature to disconnect from the urban days of sightseeing in SF.
If, much like us, you only have a day (or a few hours) to visit it, you need to plan you route in advance and study the map to properly enjoy it. As our first experience in a USA National Park, we were surprised by how well managed and taken care of it was, and by how prepared it is for visitors to get to know it. True it wasn’t high season (September), but we found no issues driving around and finding parking spots near the highlights like Tunnel View (viewpoint towards the famous rock formation «El Capitan«). Be aware it may be harder in summer! The map you’ll get in the visitor centre will be very useful if that’s your case, as it shows the bus lines and stops within the park. And it’s a completely free service!
We mixed it up between doing some driving ourselves, and taking the bus to the starting point of the hike we planned to do.
Walking by the Merced river along waterfalls and forests, and seeing probably one of the best sunsets of our life was definitely worth dedicating a day of our road trip to Yosemite. Read here our more in-depth post about How to make the most of ONE DAY in Yosemite!
6. DEATH VALLEY
A 4am wake up call was no problem at all, since we were so excited for the next day! We were driving across Death Valley, and we’d been excited about it for months.
Death Valley is a deserted valley located in Southeast California, within the northern tip of the Mojave Desert, and next to the Great Basin Desert. The first thing you need to know when visiting it, is that it’s probably one of the hottest and more dry areas in the world, so come prepared as you can find temperatures well above 50ºC.
Located right on the border between California and Nevada, its 7800 km2 host a variety of interesting stops:
Alabama Hills, with its moon-like deserted landscapes; Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for the classic desert feel; Artist’s Palette for colourful, picturesque hillsides; Devil’s Golf Course; and of course, Badwater Basin, the lowest point of North America at 86m below sea level… and as a bonus point, when exiting the valley towards Las Vegas, you can make a pit stop at Area 51 Alien Centre!
Read our in-detail post about our day in Death Valley here!
7. LAS VEGAS
Man-made madness: even if you don’t think it’s for you, we recommend you spend a day or two enjoying the lifestyle of this unique city.
8. GRAND CANYON (SOUTH RIM)
Grand Canyon National Park, and the South Rim (south edge of the canyon) in particular, are located 4 hours away from Vegas. Perhaps to much for a day trip from there, but perfect if you will stay in the area or continue your trip from there.
This is the widest and most impressive section of the whole Grand Canyon, and is very well managed and maintained by the US National Parks Service. In its website you can find almost all the information you need to plan your trip, but we also tell you what we did in this post! (coming soon).
GRAND CANYON WEST. Being in Las Vegas, there is a very tempting option of visiting the so called Grand Canyon West, which is a short 2 hour drive from the «city of sin».
There are several reasons why we recommend you don’t: it’s managed by the local natives, the Hualapai tribe and not the US National Park Service, and although it has some cool attractions like the Skywalk, they are not included in the entrance fee, much more expensive than the entrance to the main section of the Grand Canyon.
Also, with it being a lot closer to Vegas, it also means it’s a lot more crowded!
For the full experience, visit either at sunrise or stay long enough for a banger sunset in one of the many Viewpoints (find the one that has a better orientation for sunrise or sunset); walk along the Rim Trail or take one of the free buses to the main viewpoints and attractions. And of course, to make your trip an even more unforgettable experience, book a helicopter ride to see the massive canyon from a different perspective. This will make you realize the sheer size of it!
9. ANTELOPE CANYON (and Horseshoe Bend)
If you want to test your photography skills, or you’ve decided to stay overnight near the Grand Canyon National Park, drive a couple hours up north to Page to enjoy another natural wonder.
IMPORTANT! For this visit you must book well in advance, as it gets sold out very quickly once the tours become available. You can’t do it on your own, since a local guide and organized tour is required.
Antelope Canyon has two different parts: Upper Antelope Canyon, and Lower Antelope Canyon. The tours are organized by different companies owned by the Navajo Tribe (which manages the park) on each one of them, so you have to choose which one to visit, or book a combined tour for both. You can do it from this site: antelopecanyon.az, or you can contact each company yourself with the details you’ll find there too.
PHOTOGRAPHER TIPS. Those dreamy shots you’ve seen of Antelope Canyon?? They’re harder to get than you imagine. Patience is key, as it will be packed with tourists. Ask your guide to help you out and point you to the best spots.
And if you want those light beams filtering in, make sure you visit it during the summer months, when the sun is more vertical and can reach the bottom of the canyon.
Your choice: sun beams=summer; empty canyon=winter!
Make sure you book the «photographer tour», which is longer and allows you to take your camera and tripod (not allowed on standar tours).
Upper Antelope Canyon is the most famous one, and probably where 90% of the photos you see online have been taken. Lower is usually less crowded and also a bit cheaper.
After visiting the Canyon you may want to head to Horseshoe Bend which, apart from the parking fee (10$), is free to visit, and a view of the Colorado river you’ll never forget.
These are the essentials and highlights of our trip. We really hope they are helpful when planning your road trip to the West Coast of the USA, a trip we had been wanting to do for so long, and that certainly lived up to what we expected and more!