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California Road Trip: From Los Angeles to San Francisco and San Diego

California Road Trip: From Los Angeles to San Francisco and San Diego
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If this were a walking trail, I’d say that my road trip to California was a circular route… of almost 2,000 km!

The United States has always been on my bucket list, especially California, driven by the presence of movies in my life. I have been a movie enthusiast since childhood, and there was a time (one of those childhood dreams) when I even aspired to be an actress.

Life worked out my destiny and led me to travel – a great alternative! But why not combine two beautiful experiences: travel and movies!

So, my California road trip could have been just a trip to Los Angeles, but because I always want to make the most of every travel, why not explore the coastline of that American state in a van?

In this article, I’ll tell you about the main places I visited on this two-week trip. But believe me when I say that, given the richness of this region, there’s still so much to see.

Main spots on this trip

Embark on this California road trip

Stop n.º 1: Los Angeles

I could have started this California road trip directly in San Francisco and ended in Los Angeles, thus saving many kilometers and hours of driving. Still, Los Angeles was the place I most wanted to visit, so that’s where we started.

As soon as we landed at LAX, we picked up the van that would be our home for the next two weeks. A black campervan with green Hawaiian flowers (flashy!) with two seats, a bed, and a little kitchen on the back (which we never used).

From there, it was straight to Hollywood, which did not disappoint!

The first stop was Universal Studios, where we went on a tour that took us through the sets of films such as “Jaws,” “Back to the Future,” “Psycho” or “War of the Worlds,” experiencing an earthquake and a flood, among many other attractions and sensations. Outside the tour, we went to the scariest House of Horror I’ve ever been to and learned some of the secrets of the special effects.

It’s worth saving a whole day for Universal Studios, as there’s so much to see and do.

Marlene On The Move at Universal Studios, Hollywood

And, of course, I couldn’t go to Los Angeles without going to Hollywood Boulevard and seeing the Walk of Fame, as well as Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now TCL Chinese Theater) and, what was my surprise, when I caught a Cirque du Soleil premiere at the Dolby Theatre with a red carpet and… Matthew McConaughey arriving!

Being in Hollywood is like being in a world of its own, the kind we often see on television. My time in the city was brief, not least because I wanted to go to Santa Barbara to surf at Rincon and visit the Channel Islands Surfboards headquarters in Carpinteria to buy a surfboard. But I would like to come back one day to explore it more.

Venice beach, Los Angeles, California

About the van

We rented the van from Escape Camper Vans and had to sign a disclaimer that we weren’t taking it to Death Valley. It was also essential to ensure it was in good condition and that the rental contract had unlimited km, as we were going to do hundreds of them and wanted to avoid being surprised at the end with extra costs.

When in Los Angeles

  • Visit Universal Studios
  • Visit Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
  • Stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Go to the Griffith Observatory
  • Walk on the Santa Monica Pier
  • Walk along the Venice Beach wall

Don’t want to sleep in the van?
Find the best place to stay in Los Angeles

Stop n.º 2: San Francisco

As I said at the beginning of this article, this was a circular road trip, so I had to go up and then down. And what better place to go than San Francisco.

From Los Angeles, we took the freeway to San Francisco, making only one stop for lunch and to book an overnight stay. We stayed in a motor inn so we could park the van safely.

It’s incredible how the landscape starts to change as you get closer to San Francisco, with large warehouses appearing on the horizon and arrows indicating that you’re close to Stanford University and Cupertino with the famous Silicon Valley.

I have to confess that I spent just one day in San Francisco before starting my descent down the coast, so a lot was left unseen.

However, I made sure to visit downtown, ride the cable car down the typical sloping streets, and go to Chinatown, the first one I visited in my life. There, I saw Alcatraz Island (from a distance) through the window of the Empress of China restaurant.

Getting sick in my California road trip

Although I took this road trip to California at the beginning of October, it got very hot when we drove between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Stupidly, I traveled for many hours with the air conditioning in the cold setting. By the evening, in San Francisco, I had an ear infection.
It turns out that in the United States, no actual medication is sold without a prescription, and the only thing I could buy at the pharmacy was throat tablets!
The result: I went deaf in one ear and had aphonia for most of the rest of the trip.
At the time, I was traveling without travel insurance because I thought that I would get away with it, being so similar to my own country. But the truth is that this episode taught me always to take out insurance when I travel. Even more so when I get a discount on it!

When in in San Francisco

  • Ride the cable car down the sloping streets
  • Visit Chinatown
  • Visit the Golden Gate Park
  • Go to Alcatraz Island
  • Lose track of time in the bookstores of North Beach

Don’t want to sleep in the van?
Find the best place to stay in San Francisco

Stop n.º 3: Santa Cruz

Maybe this town is missing from the list for most travelers, but for surfers like me, it’s a must, as it’s one of the leading surf spots in California.

Santa Cruz is famous in the surfing world because it was here that Jack O’Neill invented the first wetsuit (you’ve probably heard of the O’Neill surf brand). It’s also the hometown of surfers such as Peter Mel, Darryl “Flea” Virostko, Zach Wormhoudt, Anthony Tashnick, and the legendary Jay Moriarity. These surfers made a name for themselves surfing the giant waves at Mavericks, one hour north of Santa Cruz. You can learn about the latter surfer in the movie “Chasing Mavericks.”

Santa Cruz is a laid-back town with interesting shops, but beyond surfing, it lacks attractions, in my opinion.

Santa Cruz downtown

When in Santa Cruz

  • See Steamers Lane from the lighthouse viewpoint
  • Visit the Surf Museum

Don’t want to sleep in the van?
Find the best place to stay in Santa Cruz

Stop n.º 4: Monterey and the 17-Mile Drive

Remember the HBO series “Big Little Lies”? Well, Monterey and the whole region are just like that, with that vibe.

The series hadn’t come out yet, and my stop in Monterey seemed to follow the script of locations chosen for the recordings. I started off at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, bathed by a marina full of boats, where I tasted the best chowder! How can you resist when you’re strolling along and handed a small glass filled with velvety white seafood cream? I had to go in to eat the whole thing!

Another must-see is the Monterey Aquarium, where I learned about the marine fauna and flora of the California coastline. Did you know that there are vast forests of kelp here? I could feel them on my legs as I surfed and sat on my board. In a habitat where sharks, among other animals, live, I also got a few scares. Eh, eh.

We drove from Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea along the coast, following the breathtaking 17-Mile Drive. This scenic road takes us along a route with incredible sea views, steep hillsides with ancient vegetation, past bays of fine white sand, and some of the most outstanding golf courses in the country.

17-Mile Drive surfing in California

When in Monterey

  • Go to the Old Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Pass through Cannery Row, the epicenter of the canned sardine industry
  • Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • Go whale watching
  • Follow along the 17-Mile Drive

Don’t want to sleep in the van?
Find the best place to stay in Monterey

Stop n.º 5: The Big Sur

Don’t expect big towns or apparent starting and finishing points in the Big Sur because you won’t find them. But as soon as you start heading south along the coast, you’ll realize you are in it.

In my case, I only got to know the Big Sur by following the road and marveling at the incredible scenery, passing by the beautiful Bixby Creek Bridge. However, if you want to explore the area further, there are natural parks to discover. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is the largest and owes its name to the first European settlers who arrived there in 1869.

California road trip passing the Big Sur

When in the Big Sur

  • Cross the Bixby Creek Bridge
  • Visit one of the natural parks

Stop n.º 6: San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo isn’t particularly full of attractions. Still, it’s roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, making it the perfect stop-point for any trip along the California coast.

In my case, it was the ideal pit stop to eat one of the best ribs of my life. It was Mo’s Smokehouse BBQ then, but it’s closed down (according to Google). However, there are other highly-rated restaurants in the city.

When in San Luis Obispo

  • Visit the Hearst Castle (1 hour from San Luis Obispo)
  • Stroll through the city center
  • Stroll around Mission Plaza, in front of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
  • Stop by the Bubblegum Alley

Don’t want to sleep in the van?
Find the best place to stay in San Luis Obispo

Stop n.º 7: Malibu

Back in Los Angeles, we had to stop in Malibu before heading down to San Diego. Not only is this one of the most iconic areas for longboarding but it’s also known for its beachfront homes and luxurious lifestyle. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), this is really noticeable.

I couldn’t surf there since the waves were small, and I had no longboard. Instead, I walked along Surfrider Beach, watched the seagulls, and passed by the lifeguard station.

Marlene On The Move at Malibu, during her California road trip

When in Malibu

  • Drive along the PCH
  • Go to the Malibu Pier
  • Longboard at Surfrider Beach

Don’t want to sleep in the van?
Find the best place to stay in Malibu

Stop n.º 8: Huntington Beach, San Clemente and Encinitas

Actually, I’ve put three stops here because my California road trip also had a significant surfing component, and apart from Rincon, which I mentioned above, these were the other three places where I surfed the most.

Starting with Huntington Beach, an iconic beach in this sport. Considered the “surf city” of the United States, Huntington breathes surf with its surf shops, cafés, and surfers who fill the line-up. Not to mention the Huntington Pier, built at the beginning of the 20th century and a landmark in the city.

For me, Trestles in San Onofre State Park in San Clemente is a thousand times better than Huntington. I’m talking about the place where the World Surfing Championship final has been held in recent years.

Getting to Trestles is an adventure, as you have to cross the park on foot, passing the train tracks. The beach is divided into five waves: Cottons, Upper Trestles (my favorite), Lower Trestles (the best known), Middles and, finally, Church.

It takes about 25 minutes to get from the parking lot to the beach, and I suggest you bring water, a hat, and food if you want to spend the day. Don’t be surprised if, when you’re there, you hear the train passing by or noises coming from the US Navy military base right next door.

Trestles, California

Finally, Encinitas. I’d never heard of Encinitas before this road trip to California. Still, while researching the best surf spots I could go to, I came across Swami’s.

To get there, we parked at Swami’s Seaside Park and walked down the wooden structure that leads to the beach to surf the wave that breaks over a slab.

I can’t tell you much about Encinitas itself because here we met a local surfer who, seeing that we were traveling by van, invited us to have dinner with him and his wife and spend the night—with a real bath!

Marlene On The Move's California road trip

The inconveniences of traveling in a van

Let’s be honest: traveling by van is not all roses—at least not in the model we used, which is not a motorhome. Not having a bathroom has its drawbacks.
I took advantage of the fact that supermarkets in California opened at 6 am and went to buy bread and use the bathroom daily. Here, I used the toilet (we only appreciate it when we don’t have one) and took the opportunity to wash myself as well as possible. Bathing was often done using jugs of water.
If dawn was early, so was bedtime, not least because Californians start eating dinner at 5 pm, and by 8 pm, almost everything is closed.
In the evening, we had movies to watch on the computer. But as we didn’t have internet (at the time, I didn’t know about the wonders of eSIM), we parked outside Starbucks. We took advantage of the WiFi, which stayed on throughout the night.

Stop n.º 9: San Diego

The last stop on this California road trip was San Diego because we wanted to go all the way to the end of the map of this US state, near the border with Mexico.

To tell you the truth, it was a touch-and-go kind of visit, as we didn’t stay long. Just enough to surf in the La Jolla area and have a delicious lunch in an Iranian restaurant, which, unfortunately, I haven’t kept the name of. It was also interesting to see many seals lying on the rocks in this area.

Wildlife at the shores of San Diego, California

When in San Diego

  • Stroll through the Gaslamp Quarter
  • Go to the La Jolla Cove area
  • Visit Legoland

Don’t want to sleep in the van?
Find the best place to stay in San Diego

Other information to consider on a road trip to California

Taking this California road trip was a real learning experience for me. In addition to the information I’ve provided throughout this article, there are other tips to bear in mind.

  • Planning: Having your route pre-defined will allow you to calculate the distances between destinations and the time to cover them. But leave some time for spontaneity. After all, you’re traveling by van. Even if you can’t find a place to sleep, you can always park at night in a good, quiet area with good lighting, preferably near a police station.
  • Campervan: Renting a van from a reliable company with good reviews is essential. Try to do a brief inspection when you receive the van. Start it up, check the oil and water levels (if applicable), and look at the tires’ condition, as you’ll be doing a lot of miles.
  • Driving license: Depending on your country of origin, you may need an International Driving License (as was the case with us). Try to find out before you go with your local US embassy or consulate or by searching on the official website of the California Tourism Board. Motoring associations in your country (if there are any) can also provide that information.
  • Travel insurance: As I said above, you never know when an illness or situation will arise in which you need medical assistance. That’s why it’s so important to take out travel insurance so that you can travel easily.
  • Accommodation: Always be aware of where the hotel you want to stay in and whether it has parking for your car. This is if you want to avoid sleeping in the van every day.
  • Luggage: Be smart with your suitcase. Remember that you won’t always be staying in hotel rooms, and your luggage has to fit comfortably in the van, especially when you’re sleeping there. Also, remember to take some essential items with you, such as car chargers or a flashlight.
  • Speed limits: In the USA, highway patrols don’t mess around, so always respect the speed limits and the driving code. Drive calmly and safely.

As I bring my California road trip to a close, I can’t help but feel happy about the incredible experiences I’ve had. I chased my childhood dream of visiting the movies Mecca, surfed in amazing waves, explored some of the most stunning landscapes, and met some truly unique people.

I hope my journey also inspires you to embark on your own road trip along the Californian coast and discover the beauty and richness it has to offer.

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Are you thinking of taking a road trip to California? Here are all the tips and my favorite places to visit for a great adventure.

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Marlene On The Move

Marlene Marques

Marlene is the creator of Marlene On The Move. A journalist by profession, she created the blog to share her adventures around the world. It is not unusual for her to set off to discover new countries and cultures with a surfboard as luggage.

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