Although I have done a fair amount of traveling around the United States, I am embarrassed to say that I have spent very little time in California. I really have no excuse. Living in Texas, I am just a short and relatively inexpensive flight away from the so-called Golden State and yet, apart from a whirlwind tour of Los Angeles back in college, and a 24-hour jaunt to San Francisco for a wedding, I haven't taken a single trip there.
Fortunately, the chance arose when Anna and I were invited to her cousin's wedding in Yosemite National Park. We decided to capitalize on the opportunity and turn the weekend wedding getaway into a 10-day California road trip! We flew into Los Angeles, drove inland through Sequoia National Park up to Yosemite, attended the wedding, drove west to Big Sur, and then cruised down the iconic Route 1 back to LA. It was a phenomenal trip and one I would highly suggest to anybody in LA with a car and a little vacation time on their hands. Here are our tips and recommendations for the journey.
1. Rent A Convertible.
I know, I know, it sounds cliché and unnecessary. That is what I thought too going in. But I was wrong, it was awesome. For much of the trip, while we were slowly crawling along on National Park roads, having the top down made it a lot more fun. It gave us the chance to enjoy the beautiful surrounding landscapes and it seemed like the long drives went by faster with the top down. We rented this great 2002 BMW through Relay Rides, which is our new favorite company. It's basically Airbnb for cars, a service which allows people to rent out their personal vehicles for a daily or weekly rate. It is, on average, much cheaper than traditional car rental agencies and it allowed us to rent a BMW convertible for the price of a compact.
2. Stay at Oak Flat Lookout
Oak Flat Lookout is an old fire lookout tower in Sequoia National Forest that is owned and operated by the National Fire Service. It stands on top of a mountain outside of Bakersfield, CA and is a little over a 3 hour drive from Los Angeles. To get there you have to drive for an hour on a winding dirt road which leads you through rolling yellow hills and past cattle ranches before making its way all the way up the mountain to the lookout. The tower has one cozy room with two twin beds, a table and chairs, and a propane stove. There is a wraparound balcony and windows on all sides providing 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. We spent the evening drinking wine, playing cards, and watching the incredible sunset over the mountains. It was by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever spent the night. The lookout is available to reserve here and it costs from $50-$75 per night depending on the season.
One word of caution is that the road up the mountain is in rough shape, especially towards the top. There were multiple points along the way where we were bottoming out the BMW, praying we would make it as we slowly inched over a huge bump in the road. I would highly recommend using a vehicle with high clearance if you plan on coming up here.
3. Check Out Giant Forest in Sequoia
This one is a given. These trees are ancient and huge. I want to live inside of one like a keebler elf.
4. Stay at The Wawona Hotel
The Wawona Hotel is a beautiful, historic Victorian-era lodge in Yosemite National Park. Full disclosure, we didn't actually stay there, but we did attend a wedding there, and it looked amazing. Ivy-covered exteriors, immense pine trees, sunset swims, cocktails on covered porches, what's not to love? There were some great hikes and swimming holes nearby and it was only half an hour drive to Yosemite Valley.
5. Stop in Big Sur
Another obvious one. While driving down Route 1 through Big Sur I am pretty sure I pulled over every quarter mile to take photos. Every single bend in the road provided a gorgeous new vista to gawk at. My suggested itinerary for Big Sur would be as follows: hike, beach, camp, repeat. Its a simple formula but it works.
6. Stay at Laura & Ben's Amazing Airbnb in Arroyo Grande
When looking for a place to stay midway between Big Sur and LA, I came across this adorable looking property on Airbnb. We only stayed for one night but wish we had stayed longer. Ben is a high school art teacher who spends his summers and spare time building new structures to rent out. We stayed in the reclaimed vineyard water tower pictured above. They also rent out a large teepee and a glamping tent which both looked fun. Other custom built features of the property include a map covered bathroom with both an indoor and outdoor shower, a large open air kitchen with fireplace, and a hobbit door leading to a wine cellar. Dogs, cats, and chickens roam the property freely and there are even two friendly horses. Ben and Laura were full of great local recommendations and at night they gathered the other guests around the outdoor fireplace to drink and swap stories. The whole experience was magical.
7. Miscellaneous Tips
- On the way from Oak Flat Lookout To Giant Forest we stopped at Bravo Farms. I love a good roadside novelty, and this place had novelty in spades. BBQ, antiques, ice cream, a petting zoo, a "world famous" seven story tree house, mini golf... the list goes on. I got a cup of ice cream the size of my head and we wandered around for a solid hour. It was pretty great.
-We loved Buckeye Flat Campground in Sequoia. It was right next to a beautiful stream perfect for swimming. There was even a natural rock waterslide which I convinced Anna to go down even though she hates cold water more than anything else on the planet.
-Manresa State Beach was another great campground we stayed at north of Big Sur. The tent sites were large and it was a short stroll down to a nice beach.
-We had two awesome breakfasts on the trip, one was at 24th Street Cafe in Bakersfield, and the other was at Katy's Place in Carmel-By-The-Sea
-Hearst Castle is definitely overpriced but I would still recommend it if you haven't seen it before. The house/ grounds are crazy and it is cool to imagine hanging out up there with Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and Winston Churchill.