The California Road Trip Guide

…start saving up your holiday days NOW

After printing out the seven rolls of film and therefore keeping Jessops in business, it’s finally time to share EVERY SINGLE THING you could ever possibly want to know about our Californian road trip. If you missed the vlogs, then I can confirm that we had a brilliant time. Three weeks away is always a treat and despite the fact that we experienced every single season (there’s photographic evidence of SNOW below!) and that I had a cold that just wouldn’t budge for practically the whole trip, we managed to do everything that we wanted to do, see everything that we wanted to see and eat a ridiculous amount of Trader Joe’s Scandinavian Swimmers candy. A bit of urban life, mixed with the most incredible National Parks and stretches of beaches that felt like they never ended, this California loop is a well-trodden one but for good reason. It didn’t disappoint.

Major props have to be given to Zanna’s California Guide and Lucy’s Williams‘ Cali posts (we took many hotel recs from her – thanks Lucy!), which came in so handy for our planning as they have both done similar trips and also a huge THANK YOU to you guys for giving me literally hundreds of titbits of advice via IG stories and email; our trip was flippin’ fantastic and I pin a lot of our enjoyment down to the suggestions you lot gave.

In the mood for planning a road trip of your own? I’ve collated all my general advice in this recent post, but if it’s California nuggets that you’re after, then I have you covered. Below I’ve shared the overview of our itinerary, we which feel worked perfectly for what we wanted out of the trip; a mix of hikes and chill time with the city-breaks of L.A and San Fran splitting it up. The drives in the U.S were much longer than those that we did in New Zealand, so I’d recommend spending at least two nights in each destination to give yourself a chance to really explore each place and not completely knacker yourself out. Want the nitty gritty of where we stayed, what we did, where we ate and what Breakfast Burrito I’d recommend? Read on…


Day 1 – Fly to L.A

Day 2 & 3 – L.A

Day 4 – Travel to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Day 5 – Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Day 6 – Travel to Yosemite National Park

Day 7 & 8 – Yosemite National Park

Day 9 – Travel to South Lake Tahoe

Day 10 – South Lake Tahoe

Day 11 – Travel to Sonoma

Day 12 – Sonoma

Day 13 – Travel to San Francisco

Day 14 & 15 – San Francisco

Day 16 – Travel to Big Sur

Day 17 – Big Sur

Day 18 – Travel to Malibu

Day 19 – Malibu

Day 20 – Travel to Long Beach (we stopped off here for the evening to see friends, but wouldn’t have done otherwise and instead would have added an extra day in somewhere else – maybe Sonoma or South Lake Tahoe) 

Day 21 – Fly back to U.K


Where we stayed: The Line – an industrial-chic hotel in the heart of Koreatown that I’ve wanted to say at for years. I have to say that I was pretty underwhelmed; it’s expensive, loud if you’re on the lower floors and the service was a little poop.

What we did: Our first stop with the sole purpose of kicking jet-lag in the arse and eating good food – I think we did a pretty good job. For daytime activities we visited the Getty Museum which I would highly recommend, the gardens are fantastic (would love to visit the Getty Villa next time) and wandered around Abbot Kinney and then down to Venice Beach where we rented bikes and cycled all the way down the beach to Santa Monica and back (YOU HAVE TO DO THIS!). If we’d had better weather we would have loved to have gone for a hike around the grounds of the Griffith Observatory too. In terms of food we loved Joan’s On Third and The Butcher’s Daughter for brunch and lunch (Eggslut and Gjusta were on our list too, but we didn’t get a chance to visit), and Gjelina and Sugarfish (the Albacore Tuna Belly is out of this world) for dinner.


Where we stayed: John Muir Lodge – there isn’t much choice when it comes to staying within the perimeter of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, unless you’re up for camping, but this lodge was perfect for our needs. Rustic but clean and cosy and complete with a generous breakfast buffet.

What we did: The trees! The views! What a beautiful place. We only had one day to explore here, so we spent it driving along General’s Highway and stopping off at all the viewing points, ending up at the General Sherman Tree – the largest tree in the world by volume, it’s pretty huge. We would have loved to have done the walk along to Moro Rock, however the road was closed due to bad weather when we were there. I didn’t feel too great in the afternoon, but Mark ventured into the Kings Canyon side of the park all the way to the end of the 180 and said there were some brilliant views. Food options are pretty lacking, so we just ate on-site at the John Muir Lodge restaurant and actually the veggie burger was good. Make sure you bring in snacks and lunch for during the day.


Where we stayed: Scenic Wonders Yosemite West Loft Condo – accommodation books up fast in Yosemite, so by the time we came to booking our stay here all the main hotels in the Yosemite village area were completely booked up or completely out our price range. This was the perfect compromise; a little cheaper (although still pricey – Yosemite is very oversubscribed!), and just a 20 minute drive out from the village, we’d stay here again.

What we did: We knew that this was going the be ‘the‘ stop of our road trip, so we made sure we had a decent amount of time here and Mark put a lot of research into it before we arrived and woah – this place is unreal. UNREAL. Being there is like being in a painting. If you can, stay within the National Park or else you’re looking at a trip of an hour or possibly more, just to reach Yosemite Village which is where it’s all at; Half DomeYosemite Falls, The Dawn WallEl Capitan, Bridal Veil, they’re all there. Drive in early so parking is easy as it gets very, very busy down there. Then once you’re there use the free shuttles to get yourself around as they drop you at starting points and pick you up from the finish points for a whole variety of walls. On the first day we did the Mirror Lake Trail, an easy 2 mile loop that takes in Mirror Lake (see picture above – it does exactly what it says on the tin) and Half Dome from it’s base. On the second we did the extremely popular Mist Trail up the side of Vernal Falls, a 4-5 mile walk that makes you extremely wet, but has views down the falls that are peppered with rainbows from the mist. Turn right at top of Vernal Falls towards Clark Point to get off the busy paths and still get an incredible view of Nevada Falls. On your way in or out of the park stop off at Tunnel View – it’s breathtaking. Food again is a little lacking here, so bring in your own supplies for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you can. The best option for dinner is The Majestic Dining Room so I’ve heard (we unfortunately couldn’t make our reservation there because of snow!), which would be a great treat after a day of hiking.


Where we stayed: The Coachman – Mark and I pipped this as one of our favourite stays of the trip. Completely up our street decor-wise, the whole place felt full of luxe nice touches but was extremely reasonable when it came to price. AND HELLO FREE S’MORE HOUR!!!

What we did: Being out of ski season (kinda), and not truly summer yet, the obvious choice for a day in Tahoe is to spend the day driving around the lake. Someone messaged me to say that there isn’t a blue bluer than Lake Tahoe and they are correct. It took us a few hours to drive round and aside from oggling at the houses in Incline Village (O.M.G), we stopped at Lake Forest Beach (free to park for cars, which isn’t the case at a lot of viewing points around the lake) and Emerald Bay, from which you can do a 1 mile walk from the car park down into the actual bay which would have been lovely if I wasn’t coughing up half a lung every five minutes. South Lake Tahoe is a pretty happening place so there were a tonne of places to eat and drink (one night we even went bowling). Freel Perk Coffee Shop and Sprouts came recommended for breakfast although we didn’t eat there as the hotel provided breakie supplies. Popular choices for dinner included Izzy’s Burger Spa, Basecamp Pizza and Freshies; we ate at Sonney’s BBQ Shack and it was wonderful.


Where we stayed: The Beltane Ranch – if Mark and I could move in here, we would. A five-bedroom ranch that looks like it’s out of a film but it’s actually real-life. Breakfast is served every morning around the dining table and you can opt to eat dinner out on the porch if you fancy. They bake cookies every morning for guests, do I need to say anymore? The most relaxing stay of the whole trip.

What we did: After almost a week of enjoying the great outdoors, Sonoma was our time to chill and so we did just that. Aside from a visit to the central plaza in Sonoma which is surrounded by brilliant restaurants and cute antique shops – I highly recommend a stop off at The Girl & The Fig just for their Strawberry Salad – we mostly lazed around the grounds of the ranch and sat on their front porch overlooking the beautiful gardens below, reading our books and drinking their wine. The perfect mid road trip break. The ranch provide a freshly cooked breakfast and give plenty of food options. We opted for a charcuterie board on our first night as we had a big lunch en route (we stopped in Sacramento for the California State Railroad Museum and food at Magpie Cafe), and ate the three-course Chef prepared menu on the second night overlooking the sunset which was just heaven.


Where we stayed: Zetta Hotel – I have to say that this one we were a little ‘meh’ about. Although nothing went wrong during our stay there, we just felt like there would have been better places to stay in terms of location and what we wanted to do in the city. For such a cool place, this felt a little ‘business-person’ hotel for us if you know what I mean?

What we did: Where do I start?! There is SO much to see and do and eat in San Francisco, that we made the decision to do less but do it real good, instead of rushing around and not really taking any of it in. It’s a short drive between Sonoma and San Francisco, so we managed to squeeze three almost-full days out of our visit. On the first day we visited Alcatraz which is a must-do. The audio tour is the best I’ve ever done, but book ahead (we visited on a Thursday and the next available tickets were on the Monday – thank you for warning us that we *HAD* to prebook). On the second day we had a shopping day mooching around The Mission, Panhandle and Pacific Heights parts of the city; Shop Anomie is a *must*, Mark enjoyed Topo Designs and Tanner Goods and Heath Ceramics was worth a peruse. For our final day we hired bikes (we got them from Blazing Sandals and they were fab) and rode along the waterfront to get ALL THE VIEWS of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you fancy going beyond the bridge and out to the west I’d recommend opting for an electric bike because things get hilly real quick. In terms of food you’re spoilt for choice. We didn’t find the perfect brunch place as Tartine Manufactory was a bit of a letdown for us, but for dinner we did good. Flour + Water is worth the wait if you can’t get a reservation (just hop over to Southern Pacific Brewing Company for a drink whilst you wait), The Progress cost us a bomb but was delicious (again one to book ahead if you can) and Chelsea and her fiancé took us to Lolinda which was brilliant – great vibe, great food.


Where we stayed: Ventana Big Sur – easily the most expensive stop of our trip, I have to say that I have never been to a hotel like it. Five star luxury TO THE MAX. There are multiple pools, a complimentary taxi service that will shuttle you around within a four mile radius, hotel concierge available on text – WHAT?! We spent two nights here over our anniversary and I can highly recommend it if you too are celebrating something special and want to go all out. We did one night in their basic room and one night glamping; if you do the same do the glamping first as the room was just so darn nice. Call up the hotel directly a couple of times to negotiate the best room rate as I was offered wildly different rates and nabbed myself a bit of bargain.

What we did: The drive down to Big Sur is what it’s all about. We stopped off so many times that I lost count of how many we went to and the names of them all. Basically stop at any pull over bit and you won’t be disappointed. Bixby Creek Bridge is *the bridge* that you would have seen a million photos of, but as it was Memorial Day when we went over it the traffic was intense. Drive over early morning to get a car-free view. When we reached the Ventana we took a moment to pause after a busy couple of days in S.F and the hot tubs, complimentary wine and cheese hour and incredible views from the sun loungers were just what we needed. We would have loved to have visited Pfeiffer Beach, although it was temporarily closed whilst we were there, so instead we visited Andrew Molera State Park and did a 2 mile round trip to the beach there which was stunning; we loved watching the surfers (WARNING: Due to heavy rain conditions we had to cross a river during this walk, I was wearing jeans LOLZ). The food in Big Sur is good. We ate at the hotel for breakfast each morning, kept going through the day thanks to snacks and the wine and cheese hour and then went for dinner one night at Big Sur Bakery which we loved (THE BREAD!) and the other night at Sur House which is the restaurant attached to the hotel that has incredible views over the ocean. Loved the view at the latter, but preferred the food at the former – a reservation is preferable for both.


Where we stayed: The Surfrider – a beachside hotel with the perfect view over Surfrider Beach, viewable from some rooms and the rooftop restaurant that’s only open to guests. We liked it here, but it was pricey and if you’re going to pick one $$$ stop to make on the Pacific Coast Highway, then make it the Ventana. A super chic decor, but things were pretty basic for the price tag.

What we did: The drive from Big Sur to Malibu is a solid 5-6 hour drive, BUT it’s down the Pacific Coast Highway and it’s stunning so take your time with it – don’t rush! I recommend a stop the San Simeon Elephant Seal Viewpoint, where the world’s largest group of Elephant Seals come to chill out on the beach. It’s so darn cute. It was moulting season when we visited so they were all lazily flapping sand over themselves – even seals know the importance of exfoliation, eh? The High Street Deli in San Luis Obispo was a great shout from Lucy for a lunchtime stop; slap-bang in the middle of the journey and the sandwiches were unreal and gigantic. Our hotel in Malibu was situated slap-bang next to Surfrider Beach and we could see the surfers from our room, which meant that when ‘The Cold 2.0‘ made a visit I could lay in bed, drink Lemsip and still have a great view. On our one full day that we had there we made stops at El Matador Beach which was beautifully rugged and full of character and then Zuma Beach which stretches on forever. The breakfast at the hotel was actually really good and their Breakfast Burrito was one of the best I had for the whole trip, but dinner options are where Malibu really shines. I got us reservations at Malibu Farm Restaurant which was ridiculously cute and situated at the start of Malibu Pier (we thoroughly enjoyed the Blue Tortilla Nachos), then for our final night – well what we counted as our final night because the night after was spent in Long Beach visiting friends and eating takeout pizza on the sofa – we went to Nobu because we wanted to be like Donna and Tom from Parks & Rec when they do ‘Treat Yo’Self 2017‘ and see Josh Groban eating his own sushi. We didn’t spot any celebs, but we did eat incredible (if extremely pricey) sushi that was the perfect way to round off an unforgettable three weeks.

Photos by Mark and I taken on a Canon EOS3 & Canon Sure Shot BF on 35mm 200 ASA/ISO film