The Ultimate California Road Trip

A California road trip should be on everyone’s bucket list!  It was one of our best holidays ever and surpassed all expectations.   I’d read a number of blogs on the subject and used them to plan our own vacation, so thought I’d share my itinerary here which took us from LA to San Francisco over four days.  We spent two weeks in California overall, with a few days in LA and San Franciso at either end of the trip which you can read about in my San Francisco Hidden Gems and Best Things To Do In LA posts.

Santa Monica pier at sunrise

California road trip planning

When planning a California road trip the first thing to decide is whether to go north to south, or south to north.  What made up my mind for me was the price of flights; it was far cheaper to fly in and out of Los Angeles from the UK, compared with San Francisco.   We ended up catching a cheap internal flight back to LA for a few days at the end of the holiday and it actually worked really well doing it like that.   To see how flight prices compare you can check Expedia here for some great deals!

I also have a guide to packing for a road trip here, which is full of useful tips!

Santa Monica

Our California road trip started in Santa Monica which has a lovely beach and iconic pier.

Santa Monica fair

Popcornopolis food stand on Santa Monica pier

Ferris wheel cars on Santa Monica pier

Route 66 ends on the pier too!

Route 66 sign on Santa Monica pier

We spent hours playing in the arcades and loved wandering along the boardwalk in the evening watching the beautiful sunset.

A tightrope walker on Santa Monica beach at sunset

It felt very safe on my early morning runs and there were plenty of other people out exercising at that time, which was  perfect, before it got too hot.

Exercising on Santa Monica beach

We hired bikes on one day, which were included with the GO Los Angeles card we used to visit a number of attractions, and rode to Venice Beach.  My younger son was too small for an adult bike and the kids ones only had ‘pedal backwards’ brakes, which I wasn’t confident he would be able to use, so we hired a tandem at no extra cost!  It was perfect as he could use the pedals but didn’t have to do any hard work.

Rainbow painted lifeguard station on Venice Beach

Venice beach street art wall mural


Venice Beach wall art with 'Life is a beach, grab a bucket' on it

At Venice Beach we had a wander around the canals which are a real hidden gem!  We wandered around the walkways and it was so peaceful.

A bridge over the canals at Venice Beach

A lovely hanging chair at Venice Beach canals

Venice Beach canals are so peaceful

The locals at Venice Beach canals have all sorts of water craft to get from A to B!

Flamingo boat at Venice Beach canals

The famous Muscle Beach workout area wasn’t too busy this early in the morning.

Muscle Beach street art wall mural

We stopped at the skate park to wonder at the amazingly talented skateboarders.  We could have watched them for hours…

Skateboarder at Venice Beach skate park

Venice Beach skate park

The shopping centre at Santa Monica is perfect for the shopaholics among you and there are some great restaurants there too.  I’d always wanted to try the Cheesecake Factory and was surprised how great their mains were, as well as the amazing desserts.

Caramel Pecan Turtle cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory


We stayed in a really cool Air BnB duplex in Santa Monica which I would recommend for 2-4 people.  Having your own kitchen, lounge and washing facilities is really handy, compared with a cramped hotel room.   If you’re a new AirBnB customer then you can get a $35 travel credit if you sign up using this link.

On day 1 of our California road trip we drove to Morro Bay with short breaks in Santa Barbara and Solvang.

Santa Barbara

We parked on Stearns Wharf (the pier) which is free for 90 minutes.   It’s enough time to have a wander around the little shops and maybe grab a drink or bite to eat.  It’s where I discovered taffy, a chewy candy sweet which became quite addictive and is featured in my Best California Desserts post!

Santa Barbara pier sign

Souvenir store on Stearns Wharf

We then drove to the courthouse building, having read about the great views from the top of the tower.  I spotted this amazing painted house on the way and just had to stop for a photo!

Colourful painted house in Santa Barbara

The courthouse is a lovely hidden gem and although we only intended to pop in for 20 minutes we could have stayed for hours!

Santa Barbara courthouse building

We came for the lovely panoramic views from the tower, which were great even on a cloudy day.

View from the clock tower at Santa Barbara courthouse

Views from the top of the Santa Barbara courthouse

They have a the most fascinating antique clock, which was mesmerising and chimed every 15 minutes using its complex mechanism.  Honestly, I’ve never been so enthusiastic about a clock’s inner workings but this is really special!

Antique clock in Santa Barbara courthouse

Clock-themed murals in the clock room at Santa Barbara courthouse

We then toured the mural rooms which show the history of the local area and are absolutely awesome in scale.  There are volunteers around the building who explain the history of each room – it really is a fascinating building.

Wall murals at Santa Barbara courthouse

Our next stop was Solvang which meant we headed away from the coast and into the mountains.  There were vista points along the way and we stopped at one to look at the stunning scenery which really can’t be appreciated in photos – it has to be seen in real life!

Vista point between Santa Barbara and Solvang


Solvang is a city of Danish settlers which is a unique place full of Scandinavian architecture, windmills and bakeries.  It really doesn’t feel like you’re in California and is really cute.

Windmill in Solvang

Solvang windmill

I would have liked to have taken a tour on one of these horse-drawn trolley cars but we didn’t have time.

Horse-drawn carriage in Solvang

We did, however, have time to stop for cake at one of the many bakeries there!

Solvang bakery sign and shop front

Cream puffs in a Solvang bakery

Solvang city shops

We wandered around the shops, stopped for cake and ice cream and generally spent a lovely, memorable afternoon in this incredible place.

Morro Bay

We then headed back to the coast for overnight stay in the town of Morro Bay.  This is a lovely, chilled place and is overlooked by the enormous rock in the bay.  We took a walk along the seafront for dinner and then strolled towards the rock for sunset, which was beautiful.

The rock at Morro Bay with sun setting behind it

Harbor House Inn

Seagull at Morro Bay

I went for a run first thing next morning, hoping for an awesome sunrise, but the rock was shrouded in mist!  The power station looked really eerie too, like a creepy film set.  Not quite was I was expecting.

Morro Bay power station in the mist with the sun rising behind it

We stayed in the Harbor House Inn which was a great value motel, with large rooms, easy parking and a short walk to the shore.

Luckily the mist cleared as we were leaving so I managed to capture a decent view of the rock, on the way to our next stopover.

View of the rock at Morro Bay

Pacific Grove

Day 2 of our California Road trip was from Morro Bay to Pacific Grove.  Due to the Pacific Coast Highway closure, we then had to take a long detour inland onto highway 101 to get to the north of Big Sur, so we stayed for two nights in Pacific Grove which is a small town right next to Monterey.  We stayed at the Butterfly Grove Inn which was our favourite place on the whole trip.

Butterfly Grove Inn sign, at Pacific Grove, California

The rooms were extremely spacious and we had a bath as well as a shower!  Breakfast was included in the price and my family loved making homemade waffles each morning there.

Pacific Grove is the perfect base for exploring Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey.  It’s cheaper to stay in than Carmel and is a lovely, quiet and safe place to stay with a family.  We bought some lunch at a deli and took it to the beach to have a picnic.  Although it was a fairly chilly spring day there were young children in the ocean and families enjoying themselves at the park.

White GTS scooter with Pacific Grove beach in the background

It has a little lighthouse but it was only open on certain days of the week, so do check the schedule if you plan to see it up close.

Pacific Grove lighthouse

Something you HAVE to do if you pass through this area is the ’17 mile drive’, which goes from Carmel to Pacific Grove and costs $10 to enter.  The road winds around the coast, with vista points to stop for photo opportunities.

One of many beach vista points on the 17 mile drive which links Pacific Grove to Carmel

It passes through golf  courses, amazing coastline and enormous properties.  There is the famous ‘lone Cypress’ which is the symbol of Pebble Beach, home to three luxury resorts, and backdrop to many TV broadcasts.

Two trees on a cliff edge

There is the Ghost Tree, a landmark Monterey Cypress tree.

A ghost tree

We visited Carmel for an afternoon which is really cute and a great place to just wander around.

Sign for the town of Carmel


We spent a morning in Monterey which I found to be very commercialised, but we enjoyed playing 3-D mini golf.

Monterey Canning Co sign

If you plan to get a picnic then Campagno’s deli is awesome.  The sandwiches are enormous and the owner is really helpful.  Read reviews here!

On day 3 of our California Road trip we drove down the coast to Big Sur.  We stopped many times along the highway to appreciate the awesome views.

A sunny cove in Big Sur, California

View of the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California

It’s easier to stop on the southerly drive, so make the most of any vista points as you head south.  We visited the McWay waterfall which is accessible from the highway but we paid $10 to park in the state park where there are restrooms and a Pelton wheel.

View of a cove with a waterfall coming out of the mountainside on a California road trip

Pelton wheel

On our way back to Pacific Grove we stopped at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Sign at Point Lobos state national reserve

We parked on the highway as the car parks were full, and it was a lovely 10-15 minute walk along the ‘easy’ trail to the shore.  There are a number of hiking trails of different lengths with maps and signposts for each one.  At the shore there are amazing views of the coast and seals basking on the rocks with their pups.

Seals basking on rocks on the shore of Point Lobos State National Reserve

Santa Cruz

The final drive on our California road trip was to San Francisco but we included a stop-off in Santa Cruz for a few hours.  We parked easily opposite the funfair, but I imagine it gets really busy later in the day.   There was an inside area with pool tables, ping pong and pinball machines, which entertained us until the funfair opened.

I really love the cute cable cars and bright colours!

Brighly coloured cable cars at Santa Cruz funfair

A bright blue lifeguard shelter on Santa Cruz beach

My husband and I went on the Giant Dipper rollercoaster which dates back to 1924.  It was every bit as thrilling as the high-tech ones you ride in modern theme parks!

I would love to return to Santa Cruz to explore it further as our visit was too brief.

San Francisco

The final destination on our California road trip was San Francisco where we stayed for four days to explore this amazing city.  We did all the touristy things including Lombard Street (below), Alcatraz and the Painted Ladies.

View of Lombard Street, San Francisco from the bottom

We also discovered some hidden gems which you can read about in my 5 Free Hidden Gems In San Francisco post.

All in all it was an incredible road trip where we made some amazing memories.  I really want to return to California to spend more time exploring, particularly to Pacific Grove to see more of Big Sur.  We also want to visit Santa Cruz again!

If you want to find out what we did in Los Angeles on our California road trip, here is my blog on the best things to do there.


I’m always interested in your news and ideas, so please comment below, especially if there’s something new you’d like to read about on this website.

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  1. June 1, 2018 / 9:12 am

    Another fabulous blog which takes me back to my own trip and makes me want to do another. There’s just so much to see and do isn’t there.

    • AliRichards
      June 1, 2018 / 9:31 am

      Absolutely, and I can’t wait to go back!

  2. June 14, 2018 / 5:19 pm

    wow its great, i also want to make a trip for California. its amazing.

    • AliRichards
      June 14, 2018 / 5:29 pm

      Thanks! I’m sure you’d love it, there’s so much to see…

  3. June 14, 2018 / 5:48 pm

    This looks amazing! I’m a NYer myself but I’ve been to Cali a couple of times and it was great. I’d love to spend more time out West.

    • AliRichards
      June 15, 2018 / 7:11 am

      I want to go back soon! Would highly recommend…

  4. June 14, 2018 / 6:42 pm

    Beautiful. You make me yearn for a city I’ve not been to.

    • AliRichards
      June 15, 2018 / 7:11 am

      Thank you so much for reading!

  5. June 15, 2018 / 1:35 am

    Amazing post…. enjoyed reading it and loved the pics .. California is such a happening place, with so many awesome places to explore..
    I would love your response on my blog

    • AliRichards
      June 15, 2018 / 7:12 am

      Thanks for reading!

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