California is a land of amazing contrasts, great experiences and wonderful landscapes. How best do you get a flavour in ten days or a fortnight? I still think the route I took, on my first recent visit to California, takes some beating.
Fly into San Francisco
- a great city to spend a day chilling and acclimatising to the new time zone. Remember, that San Francisco can be quite cool, even in the summer. June and July are prime seasons for "June gloom" as Californians call it. In Europe it would be known as sea haar, or sea mist. It means that San Francisco and - indeed the rest of the Pacific coast - can be a little cool.
San Francisco a great city to chill (occasionally quite literally) for a day or so before starting your road trip
I speak from experience having shivered in Carmel during July. So, pack a sweatshirt.
The ideal is to find yourself a hotel in downtown San Francisco
and take a day to wander around Fisherman's Wharf. Yes it is a tourist trap, but it has to be experienced. You can also take a trip out to Alcatraz. And, if you are a chocoholic, then you have to take in Girardelli Square and the Girardelli shop, with its river of chocolate. Oh, and you should also take time to try a cable car ride.
From San Francisco head to the coast (optional stop at Santa Cruz), then follow Highway One (also known as PCH - Pacific Coast Highway) down to Monterey. Here again you can sample the very touristy fisherman's wharf area and enjoy watching the seals (holding your nose in the process because they do have a rather unsavoury stink).
Carmel mission with its bougainvillaea.
Just south of Monterey head into Carmel, with its manicured streets and lack of brash advertising. Chill out in Clint Eastwood's 'Hog's Breath" pub. Spend some time walking in the bay. Visit the neat little Carmel Mission with its bougainvillaea.
A short distance down this road is the Point Lobos State Park. This is well worth stopping off at to see the seals and the sea birds. If you are lucky you will also see the sea otters lying on their backs in the swell hammering seashells on a stone laid on their bellies. Watch out in this area and, indeed, on much of this coast for Poison Ivy which is prevalent in the scrubby bushes.
A sea otter at Point Lobos
Returning to PCH you head down past Big Sur and onto Morro Bay, with its giant lump of rock. Morro Bay has a bit of a reputation of being a destination for older people, but it's well worth stopping of at least for a walk around the harbour. If you are feeling peckish try Margie's Diner, which serves the most amazing platefuls of typical diner fare. American portions are big, the Margie's portions I have experienced here and in their nearby St Louis Obisbo diner are positively huge!
Continuing on our way to Los Angeles past Hurst Castle on the hilltop (the queues for the buses have always deterred me from visiting. But those who have say it is amazing. In Los Angeles
there are many attractions, but bear in mind that the freeways can be slow. If you have two or more in your car, remember you can use the car pool lane. Disney
is at Annaheim, but many visitors will also want to see Hollywood and perhaps take in one of the tours. You may even want to see how the stars live.
Once you have "done" Los Angeles, however long you want to stay there, I suggest heading to La Canada, which is to the North West of Los Angeles. There I recommend taking the Angeles Crest Highway. This breathaking road will whisk you up out of Los Anges and into the mountains. If you come from a country where the elevations are less, it is quite a thrill to see the roadside signs rising up to 7,000 feet.
Make sure to stop and enjoy some of the trails and the magnificent views before the road comes back down, past ski centres to the I15. My preference then is to take the road to Big Bear City and Big Bear Lake. This is real Alpine scenery and from there you are about to experience yet another of California's 'wow' changes of character.
From Big Bear Lake take the road to Lucerne. The name might suggest a continuation of the Alpine scenery, but you are in for a shock. The road snakes down into a desert valley that looks like it is straight out of a Wild West movie. Pine trees are a memory and here you have the desert scrub in its place, with the backdrop of red mountains.
From there we take the road to Barstow to stay for the night. First time there we arrived after dark and the temperature was still over 90F. There's not a huge amount in Barstow, apart from the factory outlet malls a small way back down the I15 towards LA. It's a good place to stop for the night, possibly after a good pizza at Di Napoli's Firehouse.
From Barstow continue on the I15 towards Las Vegas
. I like to turn off at Baker (which claims the world's biggest thermometer at the Bun Boy diner) and head to Kelso. This road will take you right out into the Mojave Desert, with its desolate beauty.
The restored Kelso Depot.
Kelso is not anything like the Scottish Borders town it takes its name from. Basically it is a railroad junction and you will usually find three engines there, either pulling one of the huge long freight trains or waiting for one to arrive. There's not much in Kelso, apart from the restored depot fronted by the macabre sight of a broken cross, presumably over someone's grave.
From there we headed south to Needles and on to Lake Havasu City to see London Bridge in its (relatively) new home. Then it was back on the road to Kingman. A fine family restaurant.
From Kingman head north over the Hoover Dam to Las Vegas. If you are an electronics fan, this is a good chance to stop at the huge Fry's Electrical outlet, but make sure there is plenty of space on your credit card.
What can we say about Las Vegas
. It's big, it's tacky... but it is fun. Just don't get carried away with your gambling otherwise you may end your holiday here! Look out for bargains midweek. The hotels fill up with Californians coming over the border to Nevada at the weekends, but during the week there can be deals to get you to stay and get you to eat in the casinos - in the hope that you spend money on their tables or slots.
New York, New York in Las Vegas and yes that is a roller coaster!
The hotels here are huge. The MGM Grand, for example, has 4,204 bedrooms!
If you have a three days slack on your journey, you should head from Las Vegas north to St George and then Hurricane to head down to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. But, be careful of trying to cram in too much, if you have only ten days or a fortnight to spend.
If you don't think you have time, just turn around and take the road to Pahrump, a short distance back down the I15. The first time I was in Pahrump was in 1993 and it was just a grid of streets with the occasional building. Now it has grown to the point where it is quite a sizeable city, albeit with many parts still looking a little unfinished.
Zabriskie point, Death Valley
This is a good place to stay before heading into Death Valley the next day. Or for the true Death Valley experience, stay at Furnace Creek of Stovepipe Wells.
You come in to Death Valley from the east side and there's a chance to stop at Zabriskie Point to look out over Death Valley. If you arrive in the summer months, be prepared for a shock. It can feel like you have stepped out of the air-conditioned car into a fan oven!
The hottest I have experienced in Death Valley is 126F, but the record temperature recorded was 134F.
From Zabriskie point you head down into Death Valley. The landscape is more like something from the moon than the earth, to eyes attuned to European landscapes. Our destination is the lowest point in Death Valley (and in the USA for that matter) - Badwater (-282 feet). On the way take the Artist's Drive (a scenic loop that takes you up to where the rocks are different colours due to the minerals in them). It's also worth going down to Devil's Golf Course, where the salt lake has been whipped up by the wind into shapes you would certainly not want to golf on, let alone walk on!
If you are feeling adventurous and and can stand the heat, try the walks by Golden Canyon and up to Natural Arch. But, be sensible. Remember this is called Death Valley for a reason! Keep yourself covered, wear a hat and drink plenty of water.
If you are a car enthusiast, you should keep your eyes peeled throughout your time in Death Valley. During the summer in particular many manufacturers use this national park for hot weather testing and the car you see in disguise may well not be in the showrooms until next year, if ever. One of the places you usually see some motor manufacturer's test cars is around the Furnace Creek Inn or Ranch.
From here, you head north to take in Scotty's Castle and the awesome Ubehebe Crater - a vast hole in the ground caused by a build up of geothermal steam.
There is a road out of the top end of Death Valley across to the 395 at Big Pine, but although it is marked as a road on many maps it is actually unsurfaced for much of its distance. I've driven it several times, but you may prefer to head back and climb out of Death Valley via Stovepipe Wells to Lone Pine.
Bodie Ghost Town where time has stood still
If you have time, head past Lee Vinning and take in Bodie Ghost Town. Bodie used to be bigger than San Francisco but it was burnt down twice. The fire fighters were drawing so much water from the reservoir that the outlet blocked up with rocks and the town was badly damaged. The second fire was once too often and the town was abandoned.
What houses and shops remain have been caught in a time warp. You look into a kitchen where the crockery still sits covered in decades of dust. In the shop tailors dummies and patent medicines stand where they were left.
After an overnight stop, it's time for one of those amazing changes of character that make California such a stimulating place to visit. Head back down to Lee Vinning at take the Tioga pass in to Yosemite. The pass takes you up into a world so different from Death Valley where you have been just a day before.
Here the air is fresh and the breezes are cool. All around is granite and pine forests.
The breathtaking view from Glacier Point with Half Dome on the left
Do some trail walks, enjoy the scenery and spend time in Yosemite Village and Bridalveil Falls. But do not leave yourself short of time for the drive to Glacier Point
, south of Yosemite Village. This is one of my most favourite views in the world and well worth the 19-mile drive. Note that the road is only open during the summer months (approximately
May to October).
Again if time permits try to fit in a good few hours to walk in Sequoia Grove. These giant redwoods are just amazing and you will want to really take time and trouble to appreciate them. The walk to the grove at the top takes time but is really rewarding.
From Yosemite it is time to head back to San Francisco and more sightseeing in this fantastic city.
If you have time to spare, do take a day to head over the Golden Gate and spend time in the beautiful wine regions around Napa and Sonoma. Many of the wineries are open to the public.