Road-Tripping Down the California Coast: An 8-Day Itinerary


Last week I came back from an eight day road trip along the California coast, which has been one of my major travel dreams for as long as I can remember. My Tumblr literally has a tag called “take me to California” so being there felt surreal. I mean, it really is as gorgeous as it is in pictures, if not more so! I had a ton of fun, so here’s a detailed itinerary of what we did! And I’m sticking this under a cut, because it’s long and photo-heavy…

Day 1: San Francisco + Muir Beach Overlook

We landed in San Francisco at around 10AM. By the time we picked up our rental car and drove to a dinky part of town to eat at the first restaurant we saw (Popeye’s), it was around 1PM. We drove on the Golden Gate Bridge, but it was so foggy we literally couldn’t see it at all! But then we drove towards Muir Beach Overlook, which gave us an absolutely majestic view of the sea. We spent quite a bit of time here taking pictures and just enjoying the view, and then we drove down to Half-Moon Bay, which was quite cold, but a nice place to chill for a little bit. At around 7PM we drove to Saratoga to stay at the Saratoga Oaks Lodge, which was fine (actually, it looked like the sort of place Sam and Dean Winchester would stay in for a night) but definitely way overpriced for what it was.

Day 2: Big Basin Redwoods + Carmel River Beach

We had breakfast at the Lodge, then explored the little town of Saratoga for about an hour. It’s a very prototypical charming small town. After checking out of the Lodge, we drove down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. We had really wanted to see the Redwood Forest north of San Francisco, but it would have been an incredibly lengthy detour, so I was really pleased when I discovered another one! To get there, we had to drive up a winding mountain, which I enjoyed, but I think we were all a little nauseous afterwards! I saw only one Redwood, but we also hiked 3.6 miles to these really secluded falls that were quite lovely. I’ve never hiked that much before! It was invigorating, but exhausting, and I had to slather myself in bug spray.

After, we drove down to Santa Cruz and had lunch at Mozaic, a Middle Eastern place with delicious food. The Lebanese owner came over to say hello because he recognized one of my friends as being Lebanese from the wrap of her hijab, and then he gave us free pita and hummus, which was delicious! We didn’t get to see very much of Santa Cruz, as we still had to drive to our next destination, which was Carmel River State Beach.

Carmel River State Beach is not the same as Carmel Beach, which is closer to the actual town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, but it was lovely all the same! We chilled on our picnic blankets until past sunset; it was chilly and way too cold to actually go into the water, but we enjoyed just eating snacks and taking pictures. Then we went to buy groceries and to check into our Airbnb.

Day 3: Carmel-by-the-Sea + Monterey

This was a packed day! We started in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a town that made me feel like I was on the Italian Rivieria or in a little Spanish village. It’s got such a strong Mediterranean flair. We found this great cafe tucked into an alley and even just sitting there having a muffin and latte made me feel so content. We spent some more time wandering the town and the beach, then left for Monterey.

In Monterey, we just went to the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, which is basically a pier/boardwalk type of area; it’s got a very touristy beach town kind of vibe, which I adored. We had lunch here, and then got to the main activity of the day, which was one of my favorites of the whole trip: 17 Mile Drive.

17 Mile Drive is just what it sounds like: you drive around for 17 miles seeing specific points of interest. You do have to pay for admission, but it’s per car and it’s not that expensive. All the “points of interest” are just ocean views, but they were absolutely gorgeous. The weather was fantastic, so the water was blue and sparkling. We climbed rocks and took plenty of photos. We actually spent several hours doing this drive because we wanted to take our time just taking in the views.

For dinner we stopped at a super generic burger place where we all freaked out about how hot the host was. Literally, when we walked out to greet us, I said “Oh my God” out loud and then the four of us just collapsed into giggles. It was amazing.

Day 4: Point Lobos Natural Reserve + Big Sur

We started out with Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which I had actually never heard of; one of my friends put it on our itinerary. Initially I was pretty cavalier about it, but as we explored more it quickly became one of my favorite activities of the trip! Point Lobos is basically just, well, a natural reserve with ocean views. I don’t remember at any other point in the trip feeling so…one with nature, I guess? It sounds so trite to say that, but I felt so utterly at peace. I kept smelling some kind of herb that reminded me of tea; it was like walking through a witch’s garden. It was also quite foggy and cloudy, which is my favorite kind of weather, so I was just very happy.

Then we drove to Big Sur! What you never hear about Big Sur is just how damn confusing it is, and we had done our research beforehand and knew that Big Sur isn’t just a single place but a whole area with various attractions. The problem is, a lot of the places have similar names, so it gets really confusing trying to figure out where you’re going. Mainly, we knew we wanted to see McWay Falls, and after one wrong detour, we got to it! Unfortunately half of the path was closed because part of the bridge had fallen down, but we were still able to get some pretty incredible views.

The drive through the Big Sur area itself is beyond stunning. We drove over Bixby Bridge and just kept stopping to take pictures. We were literally hugging the edge of a cliff for close to three hours, with nothing but blue open ocean for miles. Absolutely incredible. We wanted to stop in Pfeiffer Beach, but they turned us away because apparently a woman’s body was found??? We all got kind of intrigued wondering if we were about to stumble into a Law and Order episode, but a few days later we found out it was just an old woman who drowned, so less intriguing and more just sad.

We continued driving our very scenic route until we got to the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, a lovely little hotel that is right on the beach. We sat by one of their fires and just listened to the ocean. Later that night, at around midnight, I went to sit out on the beach alone, while the moon was full and I could see the stars.

Day 5: Hearst Castle

After breakfast at a cozy mom-and-pop place with terrible coffee, we made our way to Hearst Castle. Hearst Castle is huge, and they offer several different tours, each with a separate entrance fee ($25 each), but it was absolutely worth it. This tour took the better part of our day, even though the actual tour portion is only an hour, because it took some time getting to and from the castle, and we also wandered the gardens on our own for quite a bit.

Hearst Castle is beautiful, but also fascinating – it was designed by Julia Morgan, a prolific female architect and also the first female architect to be licensed in California; she was a trailblazer in many ways. Hearst Castle seems to be kind of a mixture of Spanish Revival and Gothic architecture; it is very much an example of Gilded Age decadence. Every bit of the building, inside and out, is overflowing with tiny, gorgeous, overwhelming detail. The castle became a kind of like a king’s court, becoming a hub of social activity for Hollywood stars and other celebrities, at William Randolph Hearst’s invitation.

After that we drove down to Solvang, or Little Denmark as I like to call it, as it was founded by Danish immigrants and is famous for its Danish architecture. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, nearly everything was closed, as it was past 6PM. We managed to find a place open for dinner, where we shared appetizers and laughed so hard at nothing that the waiters stared at us.

Day 6: Solvang + Santa Barbara + Malibu

We had traditional Danish pancakes at Paula’s Pancakes, and then we walked around Solvang for a bit, but even at 9AM, the shops were just barely starting to open. Still, we got a good eyeful of the pretty architecture, but if I were doing a trip here again, I would definitely plan to come here in the middle of the day. We couldn’t stay longer, because we had to drive down to Santa Barbara, famous for its Spanish architecture and red-tiled houses.

We began with the Old Mission Santa Barbara. You can see the church from the outside, but they do offer a self-guided tour to go into the gardens, which I highly recommend. I loved walking through the inner courtyards and learning the history of the place. After, we went to Paseo Nuevo, which is an open-air mall. Unfortunately, most of it was under construction; the bits we did see were lovely, but the construction definitely made everything rather unsightly.

We then drove down to Malibu – Point Dume, specifically, to chill on the beach and watch the sunset. The water was still too cold to even dip your feet in, so we just kind of sat there, but it was nice. The most eventful thing that happened was that seagull stole my bag of chips. I was sitting on the picnic blanket by myself with a half-full, rolled-up family size bag of chips beside me, and this random seagull waltzes onto the picnic blanket, literally looks me in the eye, grabs the chip bag in his beak, and then runs away. He then proceeded to empty the chips onto the sand and all the other seagulls gathered and fought over the food. So. Definitely my rudest encounter with a bird.

After briefly visiting a lovely friend and her lovely cats, I swung by Roscoe’s Fried Chicken and Waffles, and it was delicious. If you’re in LA, you simply must try this. I’ve never had fried chicken that tasted as good.

Day 7: Central LA + Santa Monica

We had driven to LA the night before; we stayed in an Airbnb that was quite centrally located, which was nice.

So this day was…fine? I’m not a big city person, so I definitely wasn’t all that into our activities. My favorite part of the day was our breakfast at the Chaumont Cafe & Bakery; I had a delicious egg croissant and an almond chocolate pastry. We then went to hit everything that a tourist in LA should hit.

We started with Rodeo Drive, which was quite quaint, like a little cobblestoned alley in Paris. Then we swung by the Grove, an open-air mall which I also thought was really lovely, as malls go. And then my two least favorite parts of the entire trip: the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Griffith Observatory.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame was really something I could have done without, but I was also kind of glad my friends made me do it. It’s like Times Square; it’s just one of those things you have to do. But it was crowded and very urban and just generally unpleasant. Then we went to the Griffith Observatory, which was ridiculously crowded, so crowded that we had to park 0.8 miles away and trudge uphill to the observatory, and I nearly died and was exhausted for the rest of the day. It wasn’t worth it at all – the Hollywood sign was still too far to properly photograph, and the observatory itself was obscenely crowded, so I just couldn’t wait until I got out of there.

But the day was still not over, for there was still Santa Monica Pier! This was one of only two places in LA I had actually wanted to see (the other being Venice Beach). It was completely different from how I had envisioned it, but it was quite nice all the same. Much smaller and compact than I had thought; the boardwalk is quite small, mostly taken up by the amusement park. After a dinner of fried seafood, we headed back to our Airbnb.

Day 8: Getty Villa + Central LA

The Getty Villa was a last minute addition to our itinerary. One of my coworkers recommended that we check it out, and I’m so glad he did, because this ended up being my favorite thing in LA. It’s designed to look like an actual Roman villa, and damn, do I wish I could live in a Roman villa. It was one of the most majestically beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. And there was an herb garden with so many delightful smells! They also had a museum component with Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities, which I spend quite a bit of time wandering.

I then broke off from my friends to go have lunch with another friend, whom I’ve known online for ten years but had never actually met in person. We went to In-N-Out, which I’d been dying to try, and I liked it well enough. I don’t think it deserves the hype, honestly, but for what it costs and what it is, it was pretty decent food.

I then reunited with my friends at Venice Beach, which was…interesting. So, Venice Beach was the other place in LA that I had wanted to see, besides Santa Monica, and if Santa Monica defied my expectations, Venice Beach blew them out of the water. I mean, I guess this is what happens when you form opinions about locations based on television shows, but for some reason I always thought Venice Beach would be…calmer? Cleaner? Prettier? As it was, it was just kind of unpleasant – very crowded and kind of boring, honestly. I could barely see the beach for all the people on it.

To be fair, it was the middle of the day on a pretty warm Saturday. I think maybe if I’d gone to visit on a less busy day I would have enjoyed myself way more, but I do still think it’s funny how expectations can be so radically different from one’s actual experience. The same thing happened with Santa Barbara – I had built it up in my head as looking a certain way because of the TV show Psych, but it looked totally different. Venice Beach is such a TV show staple that I expected it to look as pristine as it does in literal filmed television shows, which I guess is my bad.

And then, being in Venice, we went to see the Venice Canals, which were…fine, I guess? I don’t really have much to say. They weren’t bad, just underwhelming. I’m definitely glad I got to see them, as they’re a staple, but…again, expectations.

Anyway, after that we went to Manhattan Beach, mainly because we needed to kill time before our 11PM flight, and this was actually a pleasant surprise. It was basically a quiet suburb with a charming small-town feel and a pristine beach that cut across the whole thing.

Bonus: Food!

We ate so much good food. I just ate with complete abandon. It was incredible. So many pastries. So many fries. Chicken and waffles! Pasta for the first time in ages! A croissant with egg and cheese! Fried shrimp! Biscuits! Man, did I live it up! What a fantastic vacation!

4 thoughts on “Road-Tripping Down the California Coast: An 8-Day Itinerary

  1. I am glad you finally made it to California and I love all your photos!!! I really want to go to Hearst Castle now. And I’m so glad you finally got to meet Nikki who was actually the first online friend I ever met irl. And I’m still jealous about Abby’s cats.

    Liked by 1 person

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