Three epic California road trips

Mark Ellwood

Photography by Pgiam/Getty Images

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March 2017

Make the most of your Californian adventure – hire a car, customise your adventure, and head off on one of these incredible road trips. Local writer Mark Ellwood shares three of his favourite routes.

Northern California Triangle

Best for… natural world wanderers


The journey: San Francisco – Napa Valley – Yosemite (8 nights)

San Francisco

Begin in the city by the Bay, San Francisco (three nights) and head to trendy Pier 2620 to check in. Hopefully you’ve remembered to pack some comfy shoes to tackle its notoriously undulating hills, or rely on one of the three remaining cable car lines to scale the steepest slopes. The least-crowded is the California Street car, which easily scales Nob Hill and leads to spectacular views including the so-called Painted Ladies on the southeast slope of Alamo Park – they’re superb examples of San Francisco’s gingerbread house-like Victorian dwellings.

Indulge in some outdoorsy pursuits in Golden Gate Park, where the winding paths and landscape studded with copses make ideal terrain for jogging or biking. Once you’ve worked up enough of an appetite, hit the foodie mecca of the Ferry Building Marketplace, an erstwhile commuter terminal repurposed as a gourmet mall – try the bourbon and cornflake ice cream at Humphry Slocombe

Drive across the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, but be sure to hairpin back as soon as you reach the other side, as the viewing area there is the best vantage point for snaps of both bridge and city

Napa Valley

Hire a car and head north to Napa Valley (two nights). Drive across the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, but be sure to hairpin back as soon as you reach the other side, as the viewing area there is the best vantage point for snaps of both bridge and city. Once you arrive in the valley, hit some of the 300 or so wineries – standouts include sparkling specialist Mumm and Beringer with its neo-Gothic tasting room. Grab an order of fresh tacos from C Casa and find a relaxing spot on the outdoor deck. Settle down to for a sound night’s sleep at the luxurious yet cozy River Terrace Inn.

  • Get your foodie fix at the Ferry Building Marketplace

    Did you know…?

    At its peak and before the iconic bay bridges came into existence, the ferry terminal catered for around 50,000 commuters every day.£407 pp

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  • Journey across one of the world’s most famous bridges © Easyturn / Getty Images
  • Get the perfect snapshot of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies © Getty Images


Finish off your road trip with a visit to Yosemite (three nights), the Lincoln-endorsed green space that forms the anchor of America’s century-old national park network. It’s just undergone an expansion, its largest since 1949, with 400 additional acres in Ackerson Meadow on the western edge. Set up home for your stay at the quaint Yosemite View Lodge before heading out to explore. The best spots for jaw-dropping snaps? Glacier Point, at the top of an almost 975m cliff and Tunnel View, offering a great vista across almost the entire park. There are 750 miles of trails to hike here – try the Mist Trail, an 8-mile horseshoe that takes in the Vernal Falls – particularly noteworthy each spring when the melting snow recharges them and creates spectacular downspouts.

Best time to go

Spring sees new life emerging in Yosemite while the Napa vines are beginning to bloom. Autumn is prime time for beautiful foliage, farmers’ markets and the wine harvest.

Classic California Coast

Best for… laid-back beach lovers

The journey: San Francisco – Monterey – Santa Barbara – Los Angeles – San Diego (14 nights)

San Francisco – Monterey

Start in San Francisco (three nights), as above, then take your hire car south along Highway 1 – it’s best tackled in this direction, as you’ll enjoy more vertiginous views of the ocean from the roadway. Hit the former fishing town of Monterey (one night), renowned now for its world-class aquarium – the Outer Bay room features an enormous tank filled with lazy hammerhead sharks and foul-tempered tuna. Stop for the night in the Pacific Hotel in Downtown Monterey.

  • Take some time to appreciate the natural beauty and grace of Joshua Tree National Park © Getty

    Enjoy the great outdoors

    California is home to eight stunning national parks, including Death Valley, Yosemite and Joshua Tree.

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Santa Barbara

As you head down the coast, pause in the wilds of Big Sur at Bixby Creek Bridge, a 220m single span concrete bridge that’s a beautiful legacy from the Work Projects Administration era, or explore Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, a short, 10-minute walk from the car park to a viewing point of the McWay Falls. The best man-made attraction here, of course, is the architectural sugar rush of Hearst Castle, the celeb-studded retreat of the late publishing magnate (and model for Citizen Kane) William Randolph. Like a millionaire magpie, he filled it with luxuries snapped up from across the world, although the elegant minimalism of the Neptune Pool seems almost more impressive. Nearby, a small slice of sand offers a perch for a colony of seals in autumn and early winter. Park nearby and clamber down the trails for views of the blubbery animals frolicking in the chilly water.

There’s impressive wine-tasting in the area, too: pick up a map to drive around the vineyards in red wine hub, Paso Robles or head down to Santa Barbara (one night) where you can get a one-day tour of wine country. Bed down for the night at the wharf-front Harbor View Inn.

Los Angeles - San Diego

Continue your journey with a trip to exciting Los Angeles (six nights) – for suggestions on what to do, see the West Coast highlights route below.

End the trip by soaking up the surf and sun in San Diego (three nights) with a stay with a stay at Paradise Point Resort & Spa. The best beach, of course, is the wide swathe of sparkling white sand known as Coronado Island, a resort enclave that dates back to the 1880s. Opt for brunch at the Crown room at the five-star Hotel del Coronado on Sunday if you want to elbow-rub with the local elite, or chow through some of the country’s best tacos at one of the city’s Mexican joints, a legacy of its location on the border. Lucha Libre is renowned for its gloriously garish décor.

Best time to go

Late summer when the fog and haze that can linger over the coast during the heading summer months is starting to ease but temperatures are still ideal for lazy beach days.

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West Coast Highlight

Best for… non-stop culture cravers

The journey: Los Angeles – Palm Springs – Las Vegas (10 nights)

  • Channel your inner surfer on the beaches of San Diego © Getty

    Surf’s up

    The Beach Boys’ famous song ‘Surfin’ USA’ mentions 16 different surfing spots including Del Mar in San Diego County.£527 pp

    Book a fly-drive to San Diego
  • Discover California’s verdant vineyards © Paso Robles Wine CountryAlliance
  • Catch a performance at LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall © Harley Rouda / Alamy Stock Photo

    Note perfect

    Free, self-guided audio tours of the concert hall are available most days between 10.00 and 14.00 and take approximately an hour.€367 pp

    Book a fly-drive to Los Angeles

Los Angeles

When it comes to places to stay, Los Angeles will spoil you for choice. Check in to one of the many world-famous residences, like The Beverly Hilton and Hollywood Roosevelt or try the contemporary Lowes Santa Monica, then get exploring. Start by exploring some of the emerging corners of the city (four nights), especially Downtown, which is becoming the de facto arts district. Billionaire collector Eli Broad custom-commissioned a namesake temple, The Broad, to house his astonishing contemporary art collection, which just opened next to Frank Gehry’s signature crumpled metal Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA philharmonic. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion nearby might technically be home to the LA Opera, but it’s best known as the longtime, former home of the Oscars. For views across the city, scale the new sky-scraping viewing platform at the Oue Skyspace, or jump on the hop-on hop-off open top bus tour to catch a glimpse of the major sights from a privileged view.

Palm Springs

Head inland to Palm Springs (two nights), the Sinatra-era resort town that still oozes retro-glamour. Drop your bags at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa before hitting the sights. Canyon Drive is the main drag, and the best shopping strip, especially on Thursday nights when late-opening VillageFest takes place – pick up some midcentury-inspired swimwear from Trina Turk. Don’t miss the local delicacy, a date shake – which nods to the vast date plantations nearby – from Palm Springs Fudge & Chocolates. If you’re outdoorsy, opt instead for a trip to the Mojave Desert’s Joshua Tree National Park, named for the sturdy yucca so common there (and beloved by U2). Come at dawn or dusk for the best views, when the park floor is soaked in an otherworldly red glow and the temperatures are a little less punishing.

Las Vegas

Continue further inland towards Las Vegas (four nights), which rises like an alien citadel from the empty desert floor. Gaudy and delicious, it’s a worthwhile stop even if you’re no gambler: come for a show by the likes of Celine Dion, Britney Spears or the the Backstreet Boys. For some quirky culture, hit the Neon Museum, a boneyard turned bona fide museum comprised from a haul of classic-era signs from the Sahara Hotel and Moulin Rouge. Detour off the strip for one of America’s best Thai restaurants, unprepossessingly located in a dank strip mall: Lotus of Siam, owned by James Beard nominee Saipin Chutima. Of course, no stay in Las Vegas would be complete without an iconic hotel, so rest your head at the famous and fabulous Bellagio to top off your journey.

Best time to go

Late spring enjoys moderate temperatures as you head into the desert, making it perfect for hiking, golf and sightseeing.

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