Ever since you got your hands on the keys to your first car, perhaps no two words created such a tingle of excitement as “road trip.” The idea of pairing the open road with friends and a vague itinerary seemed like a match made in heaven. And it still is, especially when you add California’s natural beauty, bustling cities, and endless highways into the equation.
And what with Spotify playlists, Instgrammable moments, and sites like Yelp to help you find those amazing cafes along the way, road trips are better than ever. To get you rolling for your next California road trip, here are some essential stops between San Diego and San Francisco so you can design your own version of the road to happiness in the Golden State. And to really get you revved up, we’ve got a special Hit the Road package, too, which includes a $25 gas card.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, San Diego
Take a walk on the wild side at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve north of San Diego. Here you can explore eight miles of trails spread over 2,000 acres and get spectacular views of the Pacific and a nearby lagoon. This is unspoiled coastal California at its best.
Laguna Beach Art Galleries and Art Walk
Pretty as a picture, Laguna Beach has had a thriving artistic community for more than a century. The colorful town brims with galleries of every description, but to really get an insider experience, time your visit for the monthly gallery art-walk, held the first Thursday of the month.
Huntington Beach Pier
A California surf culture icon, the Huntington Beach Pier has for decades served as the location of storied surfing contests such as the Vans US Open of Surfing. The pier has lost none of its cred and remains a popular hangout for locals and visitors, perfect for getting that sunset #OMG social-media shot. It’s also where you can rent a board and do some shredding yourself.
The Queen Mary, Long Beach
The Queen Mary may have retired from her oceangoing days, but she remains a super-popular attraction in the Port of Long Beach. Today her appeal is all about attractions ranging from special events and live concerts to fine dining — and even the chance to stay aboard the famed luxury liner in one of her staterooms. Pro tip: The Fourth of July fireworks show is a hot ticket.
Griffith Park Observatory, Los Angeles
It’s hard to imagine the scope of a 400-square-mile city, but take in the view of Los Angeles from the Griffith Park Observatory near the top of Mount Hollywood and you definitely get the big picture. Throw in some Hollywood history (those famous scenes from Rebel Without a Cause and The Terminator) and nearby bun-burning hiking trails, and you have a great L.A. adventure.
Beverly Hills Golden Triangle
Welcome to the retail and dining heart of Beverly Hills, where swank is king. Designer names like Prada, Valentino and Cartier are a dime a-diamond-encrusted dozen here. So whether you’re coming for some serious retail therapy or are just staying on the sidelines as a spectator enjoying some window-shopping, the celebrity spotting and platinum-level playground atmosphere will make it a visit to remember.
State Street and Goleta Beach Park, Santa Barbara
With its red-tiled roofs, stately palms, and epic stretch of beach, Santa Barbara has earned its awning stripes as an escapist’s haven. While in the American Riviera you won’t want to miss the boutiques, galleries and cafes of State Street. And if you’re traveling with a four-legged buddy, a short drive north to Goleta Beach Park will reward you with the perfect spot for some ruff-housing, fresh air, and beachy scenery.
Big Sur and Hearst Castle
A California road trip without experiencing Highway 1 as it snakes through coastal Big Sur would be like tippling an olive-less martini. Not a good idea. Jaw-dropping vistas (best enjoyed safely after parking at a viewpoint), hidden bistros, and bracing coastal breezes make a Big Sur sojourn an exhilarating experience. Pair it with a tour of Hearst Castle in San Simeon at Big Sur’s southern tip. This is where mega-wealthy publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst created surroundings of extreme opulence with exquisite gardens and architectural treasures air-lifted from Europe so he could entertain Hollywood royalty in over-the-top style.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The historic seaside town of Monterey is worth stopping at for a long list of reasons including dining on local seafood, enjoying area hikes, and antiquing. But that list is incomplete without a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A center for research, education and wide-eyed wonder for both kids and your big-kid persona, the aquarium is full of amazing displays featuring every imaginable creature of the deep. Hot tip: If you can’t get enough of otters and octopi, take the Behind-the-Scenes Tour.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Pescadero
A beacon for mariners since 1872 and a popular attraction for travelers just off of Highway 1, Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park makes for a great stop to check out the dramatic coastal scenery and maybe even spot a migrating gray whale (December through April). After some whale-watching and snapping some shots of one of America’s tallest lighthouses, drop by the small fishing town of Pescadero a few miles north for a local beer at Duarte’s Tavern and amazing fish tacos at Mercado & Taqueria de Amigos.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
You really can’t do better than beginning or ending your California road trip in the city of bistros, bridges and Barbary Coast history — San Francisco. Thanks to its compact size and patchwork of diverse neighborhoods, the city creates an amazing urban tableau that includes everything from tony shopping districts like Union Square to the restaurant-and-bar mother lode of the Mission District. But by all means take it to the bridge, as in the Golden Gate Bridge. When you cross the historic bridge north into Marin, set your playlist to a certain song by Tony Bennett. It will be the perfect soundtrack to a road trip you’ll never forget.
And we’re happy to ride shotgun with our “Hit The Road” package, offering road-trip-worthy extras at 12 of our California hotels stretching from Orange County to San Francisco. Click here for details and get your motor running.