Photography: Zoe London & George J Rockett | Words: Zoe London
I’ve done the West Coast of the USA five times now, and here’s my advice.
One of the things I often get asked to do most often, is give a rundown on arguably one of the most desired holiday bucket list trips out there: The West Coast. The beautiful sunshine state of California, projected to us in movies, songs, posters and more. It really is a trip of a lifetime, and there’s many different ways to do it. There’s absolutely no right or wrong, and it’s all down to personal preference. That’s what makes it such an awesome trip – no two people have the same experience. I wanna tell you about the routes I’ve done, the stops I know and how we set about planning our time, with rough guides on how long you need in each place.
The first road trip I ever did was planned by my parents. I was 13, and my sister was 10.
Our trip looked like this:
San Francisco > Monterrey Bay > San Luis Obispo > Huntington Beach > Disneyland > San Diego > LAX
My second trip was planned by myself with George in 2015, and looked like this:
Los Angeles > Las Vegas > San Francisco > Carmel > Los Angeles
My third, again with George in 2o16:
Los Angeles > Joshua Tree > Las Vegas > Los Angeles
My fourth, with Lily in 2016:
San Francisco > Monterrey Bay > Los Angeles
And most recently, our fifth in 2017, with George again:
Los Angeles > Las Vegas > Joshua Tree > Los Angeles
I wanna give you a rundown of various options, and roughly a price cost so you can work out what’s best for you. Let’s start with the flights, and flying into one of the major cities. The three options available to you really are San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas – the latter being in Nevada and not California. Flights are often cheapest to these places in a round trip, but you could if budget allowed you – fly in to one and fly out from another. I find flying in and out from the airport cuts flying budget in half, and gives you a good base to work from.
For me I think Los Angeles makes the perfect base, just with it’s proximity to everything and the fact it’s mostly centralised in terms of driving and flying onward. Staying in Los Angeles is cheaper than staying in San Francisco which is worth noting – San Francisco is a very expensive city with a lot of the hotels coming in at a huge chunk of the budget. The cheapest of the three to fly in and out from however is Las Vegas, with package round trips coming up cheaper combined with the very low cost of hotels on the ground in Vegas, can be a better option for those on a budget.
Where to go from there? Depending on which city you fly into, you have various options. We will start with the most expensive of the three which is San Francisco. The two conventional routes out of San Francisco are either down the Pacific Coast Highway 1 (PCH) to LA and San Diego, or inland toward Yosemite and onto the Grand Canyon/Vegas. Both are very different trips. I personally haven’t yet done Yosemite, just as it doesn’t appeal to me as much as PCH always did.
When driving along the PCH from San Francisco, there’s some various noteworthy stops. Monterrey Bay being the most obvious – as you can see I’ve stopped there twice – with it being a quaint little seaside town, bustling with life, full of restaurants and shops and with a world famous aquarium. It’s perfect for an overnight stay but no more than one night is needed here. Just a little bit further down from Monterrey Bay is Carmel By The Sea, a quiet sleepy pretty seaside resort, with a row of plush shops and hotels to stay the night. Charming restaurants await you here, with a quieter atmosphere than Monterrey, for your first overnight stop you choose one or the other. The historic 11 mile drive is also between the two, should that be on your radar. When I stayed with my family we then stopped again for another overnight stay at San Luis Obispo, but to be honest I wouldn’t recommend this. There’s really nothing noteworthy here, and the atmosphere isn’t as tourist friendly as Carmel or Monterrey Bay.
Onward from there, you can either slog it out with the remaining drive back to LA – roughly seven hours – or stop again along the PCH, and for that I’d recommend Pismo Beach, Malibu or Santa Barbara. All have great restaurants, pretty beaches and hotels, although out of the three Malibu is lacking in the above in favour of private houses, and you’ll find more to do at the other stops. From there you’re only two or so hours away from Los Angeles where you could stay for a few nights before flying home out of LA, or taking an internal flight back to San Francisco where you started. Of course this whole process can be reversed starting from LA and driving up before flying back. In terms of driving it twice? Not worth it. It’s a very long drive and while beautiful – you only need to do it once in one trip.
Now you could break up the backwards and forwards of the drive with a flight to Vegas. Something George and I did on our first trip, and although a little exhausting, well worth the hassle. We flew internally between LA to Vegas, then flew again Vegas to San Francisco, before picking up the car there to drive back to LA. You might be worrying about internal flight costs here, but flying between these three cities is very cheap on various different American flights. I’ve never paid more than $50 each to fly internally between the two. Each flight is pretty equidistant too, with the Vegas – LA flight being just over an hour and the LA – San Francisco flight being 50 minutes, with Vegas – San Francisco again one hour and fifteen minutes. Easy.
However, if San Francisco isn’t on your radar – for us we decided we preferred LA – you could break up a drive to Vegas with a stop over in the desert. You have two options really for stopping here, either Joshua Tree or Palm Springs. Both about two hours from LA and four from Vegas, but two very different vibes. If you want to keep it more LA, have more budget and aren’t interested in the national park or want to do a Coachella – Palm Springs is for you. If you want a more rustic, hippy and quiet experience – Joshua Tree is for you. We took a risk on the latter and immediately fell in love. We’re now getting married there. Joshua Tree isn’t for everyone though, and it may not be something you wish to do. Should you not, the drive from LA to Vegas can be quickened by not taking the scenic Mojave trail, and taking the highway.
You could also venture in the south direction even more from LA and take the drive down to San Diego. We did this as kids but only for the day, but I’ve heard great things about the food, ambience and coolness of the city being worth your time should that interest you more.
Something else to note is the proximity of Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, and you could venture out there even staying out there for a couple of nights to really experience it properly. As an option for a trip it appeals to me greatly to do LA > Joshua Tree > Las Vegas > Grand Canyon > Palm Springs > LA. I think this would be a totally different experience, bookended by the normality of the city of LA, mixed with the hyper sense playground that is Vegas in the middle, but broken up nicely by the arid beautiful desert and all it has to offer. Alternatively, should you take a few days in Vegas, various tour operator companies do offer one day helicopter tours starting from affordable prices to expensive ones to the Canyon based on what you fancy doing.
A lot of people fancy the trip out to Disneyland California, which is situated in Anaheim, about an hour and a half out of Los Angeles. I think you need a few days to do this – you’d be naive to think you could do it fully properly in one – and it’s best to stay either on site at Disney or nearby like neighbouring Huntington Beach, where we stayed as kids. To be honest I think this trip is only worth it if you’re purposefully going to do a Disney. It’s not as vast as Florida but it is the original Disney. Again this really is down to personal preference.
Renting a car is important. The obvious choice is the classic soft top Mustang – one George has chosen every time. It’s worth noting this isn’t ideal for more than two passengers, and doesn’t have much in the way of boot space for suitcases. We have to put one of our suitcases on the backseat strapped in, meaning it’s always out when we stop off mid drive. I have rented cars from Avis and also Alamo, and both were great experiences with the cars we wanted on arrival. It’s definitely worth noting you should always book this in the UK, as you will be stung with foreign driver charges should you wait until you get to the US – I speak from experience here. Not worth it.
My other main recommendation is to google the hell out of the road you wish to drive down. There’s so much cool stuff hidden out there in that vast land, but you won’t know about it unless you look. Here’s some of my top picks for cool secret road stop offs:
Alien Fresh Jerky on the 15 freeway along the Mojave Trail to Vegas
Seven Magic Mountains along Las Vegas Boulevard from Vegas to Los Angeles
Cabazon Dinosaurs on the 10 freeway from Los Angeles to Palm Springs
The rock at Morro Bay on the PCH from San Francisco to Los Angeles
Noah Purifoy Foundation in Joshua Tree
Lunch at Nepanthe on the PCH from San Francisco to Los Angeles
Route 66 signage from Las Vegas to the Mojave desert
Salvation Mountain and Slab City day trip from Joshua Tree to San Diego
The main thing is really be prepared to have a good budget, but there are ways to do things cheaply and effectively along this route. I really hope this lengthy blog post helped some of you looking to plan this holiday – I speak from experience when I say it’s one of the best trips you’ll ever do. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!