The Complete Guide To The Ultimate California Road Trip

by Alexa Allen

As August dawns upon us, so does everyone’s favorite time of year: festival season! It’s the time to go out, splurge on desert fashions and dance it up next to some of your favorite celebrities in where else but Sunny California.

There’s something for everyone in the Golden State; you just need to know where to find it. As you pick your looks and pack for the most epic time of the year, consider squeezing a little more out of your vacation time to catch a glimpse of everything else California has to offer year round.

For all you adventure seekers, here’s a comprehensive guide to the most epic California Road Trip a local could think up.

San Francisco

The #1 problem with being a California tourist is that all the tourist places are touristy for such a good reason! With this in mind, no one will blame you for starting your trip off on the right foot at California’s northernmost tourist stop: San Francisco.

The Basics 

Without a doubt, San Francisco remains one of the most uniquely diverse centers of California culture. You truly can’t visit the state without perusing through this city and for good reason. Clear your tourist palette with such must-see stops as The Golden Gate Bridge (aka the most photographed bridge in the whole United States), the mind-blowing Alcatraz Island and Union Square for some serious retail therapy. Once you’ve checked those off your California bucket list, you’re free to delve a bit deeper into this beautiful city by famous cable car or foot to see San Francisco at its finest angles.

The Japanese Tea Gardens

Unwind with some tea and lunch at the peaceful Japanese Tea Gardens located in Golden Gate Park. Created in 1894 as “Japanese Village” exhibit, the Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese Garden in the United States. Standing at approximately 5 acres, the Japanese Tea Garden is one of the most popular attractions in Golden Gate Park, but well worth the visit and $9.00 admission fee. This classic property hosts timeless, religious and culturally rich features including its koi ponds, pagodas, private stone paths and a number of native Japanese plants throughout the tranquil space. Snap a pic atop Drum Bridge to complete a well-rounded trip and, of course, keep mere evidence that you’ve visited.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

Next, take a stroll through Chinatown and try something new you can reallybrag about. You can stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to catch a glimpse of workers crafting your favorite fortune-telling treat in a cozy, open kitchen. Conclude your free tour of the factory with a fresh cookie or invest in some naughty ones to take along with you on the rest of your road trip. The options are endless and all of them are absolutely delicious. 

Fisherman’s Wharf: Piers 39 and 45

Since we all know you’re going to end up there one way or another, conquer Fisherman’s Wharf like a local at Piers 39 and 45. At the end of Taylor Street, Pier 45 is home to Musée Mécanique, your new favorite penny arcade that, for some reason, is oftentimes overlooked. No ordinary arcade, this Pier 45 staple holds over 200 classic coin-operated machines that you can still play, including the famous ‘Arm Wrestler’ featured in The Princess Diaries and classic photo booths.

Finish your visit with the sun setting over Pier 39 and watch some adorable sealions relish the day’s last touch of golden sunshine.

Yosemite

From San Francisco, take the 140 highway through Mariposa, a small Gold Rush town complete with rare museums and great lunch stops, and you’ll arrive at your next location: Yosemite Valley. California doesn’t get enough credit for its splendid natural views or surplus of recreational activities, but Yosemite is host to all, especially in the spring.

Merced River Canyon 

As you pass through Merced River Canyon to your destination, consider challenging the thrill-seeker in you with a guided rafting adventure down the rapids. Rafting is an excellent choice whether your crew is full of first-timers or regular adventurers.

In the beginning of the season, the Merced River from Redbud to Lake Briceburg presents more of a challenge, while the river ride remains straightforward  within Yosemite Valley. There are plenty of rental points along the river to pick up a rental, but you may need to call ahead in the peak season to ensure there is a raft to accommodate your group. Remember to be honest and inquisitive about your experience, rafting level and water conditions to select the most appropriate route and equipment for your group. If you are interested in rafting, Southern California also has you covered, you can a rafting company similar to American White Water Expeditions to get some of that socal rafting experience!  

Yosemite Mariposa County

Of course, the best way to experience Yosemite National Park is on foot! The hiking trails through Yosemite lend themselves to every hiking level and the vast scenery is breathtaking. There are so manyhikes in Yosemite Mariposa County, so be sure to do your research to select the best one for both your group’s skill level and what you’d like to see on the trail. 

You’ve most likely heard of the strenuous Half Dome Hike: a 17-mile trail beginning at Happy Isles which offers an incredible view nearly 4,800 ft. above Yosemite Valley at its conclusion. It’s a popular attraction, but trust me… you don’t have the pre-festival time for this hike. A trail purely for experienced hikers, the Half Dome Hike can be easily substituted with the less acclaimed but more practical Lembert Dome Hike.  At the end of this 4-mile roundtrip hike, you’ll experience stunning views of the lush Tuolumne Meadows and river, the Cathedral Range and other spectacular mountain peaks. 

Silver Fox Vineyards

After an exhausting few days of seemingly endless activity, slow down and relax with an appointment at Silver Fox Vineyards. Established in 1989, Silver Fox Vineyards is 2.5 acres of panoramic beauty at 3,000 feet. Owned and operated by Karen and Marvin Silver, the establishment boasts the latest vineyard technology to produce several of their handcrafted gold medal wines. The Silvers welcome visitors to their winery and tasting room to meet the owner, winemaker and enjoy a class of their renowned double gold winning Cabernet Sauvignon.

Los Angeles

Without question, Los Angeles remains a land of opportunity for tourists and locals alike. There is always something to do and no shortage of things to see, especially if you’re just planning to pass through for an evening or two.

The LACMA: Chris Burden’s Urban Lights Exhibit

Unsurprisingly, LA is a never-ending hub of culture, arts and entertainment. You can experience all three at any of Los Angeles’ unique museums spotted all around Los Angeles County. The LACMA has been the site of Instagram’s most recent craze. Though not new to Los Angeles, Chris Burden’s Urban Lights installation offers an ideal picture that screams ‘City of Lights’ upon first glance. Note that the lights themselves are free to view (and even photograph), but if you’d like to enter the museum, prepare to pay a small fee.

Griffith Park Observatory Trails

If you’re attempting to avoid the obvious, make the trip to Griffith Park Observatory to catch a view of the entire city. During the morning hours, you can walk one of several trails that grant you a generous view overlooking downtown Los Angeles at a distance. If you have leisure time, it’s worth it to make a picnic of it with friends or a loved one. At night, you can get a clear, incomparable view of both the stars and the city lights.  Overlooking the valley, you may even catch a glimpse of the Hollywood sign while you’re up there. 

Venice Beach Boardwalk

If you’re trying to take advantage of the amazing year-round weather, you can’t pass up a visit to Venice Beach. Known for its colourful spirit and performances, Venice Beach Boardwalk holds live music, art vendors and street performers to entertain for hours on end. Everyone from mimes to fire-eaters to broken-glass-walkers spot the mile long west side of the boardwalk. Meanwhile, on the boardwalk’s east side, quirky beachside restaurants, souvenir shops, and surf shops dominate the long stretch of Pacific Ocean. You can make an adventure out of just walking around. Or you could, you know, just enjoy the beach! Famous for its eccentricities, Venice Beach Boardwalk is a stop you can’t afford to miss.

Rooftop Cinema Club

What better way to take advantage of LA weather than spending your night on a rooftop? When the sun goes down, you can hit up one of the hundreds of rooftop bars throughout the city. There’s no shortage of LA nightlife events, and there’s something for everyone. Rooftop Cinema Club puts on one of my favourite events in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles. Throughout the year, they host rooftop movie nights complete with fun girl boss classics such as Legally Blonde and delicious street vendors in two picturesque venues. Throughout April, they’ll be celebrating anniversaries with all kinds of classics including Love and Basketball, Mean Girls and Dirty Dancing. Seriously, it’s the perfect girl’s night out.

San Diego

Finish your epic California Road Trip with a visit to California’s southern gem, San Diego. San Diego is what I like to refer to as Los Angeles’s and San Francisco’s fresh-faced, laidback younger sister. The weather can’t be beat, the views are California’s finest and the food is out of this world. 

Old Town San Diego

Start your visit with a trip to Old Town San Diego for some of the best Mexican food you’ll ever eat – outside of Mexico, that is. As the first California settlement, Old Town San Diego is considered the “birthplace of San Diego” and remains ripe with explorable history and culture. Wander through this quaint, colourful town to peruse one of its many specialty shops filled to the brim with gems from around the globe. Stop, watch and dance to one of the touring mariachi bands, or take a pensive picture by the fountains at Fiesta de Reyes. Not to mention, there are a ton of museums, historical sites and haunted buildings to tour. Both physically and historically, the very heart of San Diego’s diversely rich culture, Old Town, is the place to be to celebrate California’s heritage.

Balboa Park

In 1977, Balboa Park was declared a National Historic Landmark and a National Landmark Historic District. Since then, it’s been recognised as one of the Great Places in America. Aside from its numerous accolades, Balboa Park offers all day activities like lush gardens, extensive hiking trails, fantastical art classes, shopping and live entertainment for all ages. At all times of year, you can catch a comedy, musical or puppet show in one of the park’s ten performance spaces, including The Old Globe Theatre, modelled after Shakespeare’s London Old Globe. If you consider yourself all danced out after Coachella, don’t worry! Balboa Park boasts over 17 museums and cultural exhibits committed to local San Diego history, the arts and recent innovation all around the globe that you can explore.

Ortiz’s: California Burrito

Do yourself a favor and delight in one of Ortiz’s legendary, fat, oozing California Burritos. There’s not much to say about this other than do it. You can thank me later. 

Sunset Cliffs

Nestled in the small community of Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs is named appropriately for its blunt cliffs tucked against the Pacific Ocean and prime seating during golden hour. If you’re in this region at the day’s end, you’ll note dozens of drivers, pedestrians and surfers pulled over against the cliffs to watch the sun set over the ocean. And it’s truly a sight to behold. End your epic California adventure at the edge of the west coast savouring its most rewarding display: a radiant Golden State sunset cast across a clear, colourful sky.

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