Let’s talk about California.
Here are the main places we visited
And here is the general map of where we drove and what cities we saw!
So if you're reading this blog post because you want to travel to this beautiful place then let me tell you now all the things you should do and be prepared for!
Be prepared to drive a lot. In total we drove 1,594 miles over the 10 or so days. On the bright side, driving in this state was some of the best parts of the whole trip. You never stop seeing beautiful landscapes no matter where you are driving to.
If you are coming to California in the winter months, plan on a full cold weather and warm weather outfit. You can have snow in the mountains and then warm weather in Palm Springs, all in the same day. Within 10 minutes of driving it can go from warm to freezing so be prepared for it all.
I put the video here at the start, but if you'd like, you could wait to the end to watch it!
San Francisco (Day 1 -3)
We arrived in this beautiful city on January 1st around 2pm. Our first stop was In-n-Out down by the water. If you didn't already know, San Francisco is a very hilly city... and these aren't just small hills, these are insane hills. So when you're maps says it's only a mile to walk to something that you want to see, just know it'll take you longer than usual. My family and I stayed 2 miles from the main hub of the city so we had to drive to see everything. Thankfully, everything downtown by the water isn’t super hilly so once you get down there you are pretty much good for the day to walk around. On our first full day in the city we went on a bike tour of the Golden Gate Bridge. I definitely recommend doing that, it was a great experience and there were only 2 hills that you had to bike up. The ride down to Sausalito was very sweet and it was nice to see a different side of the city. Make sure you get the ferry boat ride back to San Francisco unless you love biking up an insane hill. Another recommendation is going to Baker Beach. It has beautiful and iconic views of the bridge and the Pacific Ocean. On our last day in the city we went to Alcatraz. It was so interesting and definitely worth it. We didn't get to spend much time at Alcatraz but we did the audio tour which was amazing. Make sure you book your tickets way in advance because they are sold out weeks in advance. So don't think you can just walk up the day of and get a ticket.
Yosemite (Day 4)
Yosemite is over a 3 hour drive from San Francisco, and it is completely in the wrong direction from going south toward Highway 1, but since Yosemite was one of the things I absolutely wanted to see, my family made the detour!
We stayed in a super small, adorable town called Groveland, California and if we had been there in the daytime I probably would have been able to get some photographs of it because it was so adorable and quaint. We stayed at Hotel Charlotte which I linked there, and we LOVED it. Such a cute place. I wish I could have been there an extra day but time was limited on this packed trip.
I think our alarms went off in the morning at around 5:00 am. I wanted to catch the sunrise in Yosemite and get started on our day as soon as possible. I recommend doing this for sure, even if you hate getting up early. Every morning that we got up early we got to see a beautiful sunrise and get started on the day! Groveland did not have anything open when we arrived at 8:30pm and nothing was open at 5am so make sure you have lots of snacks in the car. Yosemite also don't have much food. Since we went to Yosemite in January a lot of the roads are closed so be warned. I wanted to see the sunrise from Glacier Point but the road was closed and it would have taken another hour of driving into the park to get there. I can't emphasize enough how large these national parks are, the entrance is only the tip of where you need to be. Since a lot of Yosemite was closed we just did some hikes in the valley that were about mile or so. Mirror lake is worth seeing for sure. By the time noon came around we were almost ready to go we felt like we saw the most important parts of the park. Since we went during the government shut down we didn't have to pay to get in, which is a $30 fee for cars. We heard a lot about there being trash in the parks and no bathrooms but that wasn't true at all. We found open bathrooms and there was no trash anywhere in the park. So I am not sure if we just didn't see it but the park was perfectly fine with lots of rangers there too!
Monterey, California was just a pit stop on our way to the Pacific Coast Highway but if we had the chance to stay longer we would have! We ate dinner at the Alvarado Street Grill, and it was so good! In the morning we got up and walked to the beach while the sun was still around because this was the day it was going to rain like a hurricane on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Pacific Coast Highway (Day5)
As we traveled down this beautiful, winding road we were a little nervous for mudslides and slippery roads but we made through in one piece. It is an exceptionally beautiful road, with many easy off and ons for taking pictures. We certainly laughed the hardest on this section of our trip. There was one stop where a park ranger was giving a talk about all the seals who come up on shore to hibernate for the winter. It was very interesting and worth the stop. We also stopped to see the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, it was still pouring rain and freezing so I feel like we didn't get to truly experience all the beauty of it. It was amazing but was definitely not as enjoyable as it would have been if the weather had been nice. There is a film about the making of the castle that is worth the watch. The Pacific Coast Highway is one of those things you'd have to do no matter what. We 100% recommend.
Pismo Beach + Santa Barbara (Day 6)
The lady at our hotel that night told us that it never rains in Pismo Beach so we had the best luck for sure to be in California during the rain. Pismo Beach was a nice beach city but we didn't have much time to see things. We ate at Wooly’s Beach Bar + Grill and their fries made in skillets were to die for. We left at around 6 am to drive to Los Angeles for the day. On our way we stopped in Santa Barbara for some breakfast, if we had time we would have spent the day here, it was such a nice place. We ate breakfast at Sambo’s which was right on the water. This meal was also delicious, but also I don't think we had a bad meal in California at all.
Los Angeles (Day 6)
We continued on our way down the coast toward Malibu and Santa Monica, which was a very nice drive. It was crazy and sad to see the mountains black from the wild fires surrounding Malibu. I feel like I should start my summary of Los Angeles with the fact that my family and I aren't really “city” people so we only spent like a day in LA. We drove down Hollywood and Sunset Blvd. but we didn't really care about all the super touristy things. We drove by the Hollywood sign briefly and we took a couple photos and that was it. We spent the most time down at the Pier in Santa Monica and at the Griffith Observatory, but that's because I had a photoshoot there. The beach was nice and relaxing for once after speeding around this state. We took a stroll along the beach and tried to take it all in. That afternoon we drove to the Griffith Observatory. Parking is free at the bottom or you can pay for parking to drive up to the top. The hike was steep, but there were a lot of trails and options to get up there. I was sweating on my photoshoot for sure but at least on my shoot we got to stop and take pictures. The observatory is super busy at sunset, so it was crazy once we got up there. It does have really nice views up there so I recommend it for some good views.
San Bernardino (Day 7)
San Bernardino was a stop on our trip that wasn't planned at the start. We needed somewhere to stay in between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, so we decided to stop here. In the morning we drove on the Rim of the World which is the actual name for this road in the San Bernardino Mountains. The overlooks and scenic views were unreal, and this is the drive where the temperatures changed in less than 10 minutes as we went up the mountain. There are warnings as you go up that your car needs to have chains on the tires but we didn't have any so we just kept going. It's never got really icy or snowy on the roads so we were fine. We went all the way up to Big Bear Lake which was cool to see all frozen over. After seeing this we had to drive all the way back down and we stopped by the McDonald's museum to see what it was. It wasn't a restaurant, it was just a place full of memorabilia and other things so not gonna lie, it's not really worth it unless you are really into McDonald’s. It was the original site of the first McDonald’s but if If you're looking to grab a Big Mac, this is not the place.
Palm Springs (Day 8+9)
We left San Bernardino and began our drive to the desert. The first thing we did there was the Aerial Tramway, it cost 25$ to go up the 8,500 ft mountain but the views were worth it for sure. We went in the beginning of January, and we thought it was kind of busy but we soon learned that it can get up to hours of wait time to go up the mountain. We waited like 10 minutes so I'm not sure the best time to go, but try not to go at a busy time or day because it will take you hours to get up there. Up at the top there was a massive park where people were sledding, hiking, snowshoeing and camping. You can bring all of your stuff up to camp overnight but once the last car goes down you are stuck up there for the night so that's up to you.
The next day was the most driving we did in one day, it was like 4 hour total and we pretty much just went in a circle back to our hotel (sorry Dad). I feel like most of this Califronia trip was done for me and my photographic needs so my brother finally got to pick something to do which was some desert off roading. The thing about off-roading is that it sounds epic, but it ends up that you sign your life away to rent these ATV’s so then you're so nervous to break things that you end up just driving normally around the desert , but we liked to think that we were super cool and adventurous. Next we drove to the Salton Sea, Slab City, Salvation Mountain, and Bombay Beach. The Salton Sea and the towns around it are creepy and half abandoned. It felt like the apocalypse. I linked interesting articles about each place so you can see if you'd like to see it. Personally, I found them interesting and worth it but others might not. Slab City is considered the “Last Free Place to Live in America” There are no laws, no taxes, no government, no food or running water. If you want to go off the grid but also have a community to live in, Slab City is the place to go. At the entrance of Slab City you can see Salvation Mountain which is very interesting, I would recommend seeing this incredible landmark and testament to God's love and Salvation. The thing about this desert part of California is that you think you’re in the middle of nowhere and then you just keep driving farther into nowhere and then you hit these eerie towns. I thought it was really cool and different!
After this we then drove to Joshua Tree National Park the day before they closed the park because of the shutdown. We came in from the south and I just have to say that we drove into the park for 45 minutes and there was NOTHING to see. I was shocked because I thought it was going to be this amazing place from all the photographs I have seen. Thankfully, all we had to do was keep driving and the Joshua trees and incredible landscapes began to show up. So if you come in from the south entrance just keep driving, don't get disappointed. With that being said, we recommend coming in from the North or West entrance and not driving the whole way through. There is some hiking in the park and camping options but we weren't there long enough to do anything like that. It was an incredible park so check it out!
San Diego(Day 10+11)
We left for San Diego the next morning with high expectations. I had never heard anything bad about San Diego and it definitely lived up to all my expectations. The first place we went was La Jolla and we saw the coves. It was beautiful and the wind was bringing in huge waves which added to the charm. We saw more seals just laying about, very unconcerned about people. There was a beautiful walkway around the coast, and as always if we had more time we certainly could have filled the day with lots of amazing adventures and sights. We headed over to our hotel which was right on the Pacific. There was a walkway/boardwalk which we walked a lot. We left our hotel about 2:30 to go to the sunset cliffs for another photo shoot. The sunset cliffs at sunset were so beautiful and a bit busy but it's a long stretch of cliffs and beaches so there is room to catch the sun going down. We ate at this taco place called Mike's Taco Club which I think was one of my favorite meals. The next and final day on our trip we felt a little tired and beat up after this extensive trip so we decided to do what we thought was a little on the more relaxing side. We drove to park that is on the U.S and Mexico border. I'm not even sure why we went, I guess I kinda wanted to say I saw the wall between Mexico and the U.S or something like that. It was a pretty long walk to the wall but it was a nice walk along the beach if you're interested in that. We then went to Balboa Park which was amazing. Such a beautiful place, truly incredible. We definitely recommend taking a walk around the park, you could easily spend a full day there at the museums and all the various things to see, I think we were just tired after spending about 11 days here always on the move.
California was one of those trips that changed my life. I absolutely loved it, I already miss it so much, I thought back and I tried to think up things we would have changed about our trip but for me and my families perspective we wouldn't change a thing. There are some things we didn't have time to see like the Redwoods and Napa Valley, but when you have less that two weeks it's hard to fit everything. Just be prepared to drive a lot and be prepared for any kind of weather. Also make sure you've got snacks in the car because some of these roads are long with no towns for miles. Another nice thing about California is that we never had to pay one toll on the entire trip!
So if you're looking to be awestruck by God’s creation, California is the place for you!