There’s no better way to explore a place than on a road trip
A trend had started to appear in our conversations with friends, family, and fellow travellers. Every time we’d mention that we loved road trips, we’d be grilled, almost harassed, for not having been to California. On revealing that I had been to 70+ countries and the US was not one of them, people would refuse to believe that and quiz Savi on why she didn’t force me to tag along when she visited the East Coast in 2010. This year, as part of our whirlwind trip around the world, we decided to put an end to this seemingly embarrassing fact of our travelling life. We were going to drive in the US, and how 🙂
Although our initial plan was to spend 3-4 months driving the whole breadth of the US, we succumbed to our desire to visit Costa Rica, Mexico, and Guatemala and cut our time in the US to 2 months – enough to squeeze in a gorgeous 18 day long road trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas and back.
Planning a road trip in California and Nevada
Forget the US, California itself is so big that you could spend months driving around the state and not get bored. Add to that the numerous national parks and you’s start spending nights worrying about the route for your road trip. Our suggestion would be to select the top few places and experiences you’d like to have and plan your road trip around those. There’s no point in cramming everything in one trip – there’s always a next time 🙂
Renting a car in the US is easy and straightforward. There are plenty of providers to choose from and if you book a month or so in advance, you can grab a great deal. We used EconomyBookings.com to compare rates from different providers and got an excellent deal for a Toyota Yaris including collision damage waiver for USD 30/day. We didn’t face any issues with the car or the rental service and really enjoyed the fact that we could rent from right across our hotel in San Francisco 🙂
Fuel is really cheap in the US – on an average USD 2.5 per gallon (roughly 70 cents a litre) and we spent a total of USD 85 on fuel for our 2,300 km road trip – the least we have spent on a roadtrip by a mile.
What to do on your road trip in California and Nevada
We had seen so many stunning photographs from California and Nevada on Instagram and Facebook in the past few years that we could barely contain our excitement. We decided to fly into San Francisco and start from there – you can choose to fly into San Jose or Oakland instead and make your way to San Francisco.
Day 1 – 4: Get settled in and explore San Francisco
Well, if you’re flying into the west coast from outside the US, chances are that you’ll fly into San Francisco. We opted not to rent the car on the first couple of days that we were in the city just so that we could settle in and absorb everything that this laidback and chilled city had to offer. Our favourite places and experiences were:
- Walk along the bay and spend some time on Pier 7 – the view of the city from the fag end of the pier is absolutely gorgeous. Even though Pier 39 is supposed to be great, we found it overly crowded.
- Have a coffee at Blue Bottle coffee at the Ferry Building
- Explore the hipster area along Mission Street
- Walk aimlessly from one end of the city to the other – we walked from Pier 7 all the way to Lafayette park and ended our walk at Union Square
On our last day in San Francisco, we decided to rent our car and drove to Land’s End – the view of the Golden Gate Bridge is amazing on a clear day. From there, drive to the Golden Gate Bridge – if you want a great view of the bridge minus the crowds, head to Battery Godfrey (south-west side of the bridge). After you have absorbed the stunning views, drive on to the Northern side of the bridge (no toll needs to be paid when going towards North but you must pay $6 if driving South on the bridge) and take a left on to Conzelman Road. Whilst more people try to get a shot from Battery Spencer (thus making it SUPER crowded), we decided to drive further on to Hawk Hill – the view from there is out of this world.
If you don’t want to drive, you can always rent bicycles in the city and make a day of it. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a bicycle will be an experience in itself 🙂
Where to stay in San Francisco
We wanted to stay somewhere central and comfortable so we opted for Hilton Union Square – it’s as central as it gets in San Francisco. We asked for (and were luckily given!) a room on the 41st floor overlooking the entire city, The Bay Area, and Golden Gate bridge. Night or day, it was a sight to behold. The rooms were well-equipped and spacious and the hotel lobby had a nice cafe serving delicious breakfast. Since it’s bang in the middle of the city, expect a lot of business guests in the hotel lounge. Another thing that really worked out for us was the location of car rental offices right across the street from the hotel’s entrance. Take our word for it – it’s a big advantage in a city like San Francisco where driving can be a big pain.
Day 5: Drive the Pacific Coastal Highway
Both of us had our own experiences that we were looking forward to when it came to this road trip in the US. Savi was most excited about exploring the street art in West Hollywood whereas I could not wait to drive down the much talked about Pacific Coastal Highway. I was worried that after Iceland, New Zealand, and Ladakh, this drive might not live up to the hype. Thankfully I was wrong. It’s a beautiful drive that takes you through stunning coastal vistas, gorgeous mountainous landscapes, and quaint little villages along the sea.
The best piece of advice we can give you is to start early. Technically you can drive the entire stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles along California State Route 1 (also known as Pacific Coastal Highway :)) in a day, but you won’t be doing it justice if you did that. We’d suggest taking a good 6-7 hous driving from San Francisco to a mid-point on the stretch (more on this later).
Have breakfast at Cafe Lumiere in Monterey (some of the finest coffee we had on our road trip) and drive along the coast through Carmel, Big Sur, and Cambria. Bixby Bridge is a popular photography spot so make sure you do stop here. Bruised Passports’ tip: don’t stop at the vantage point before the bridge begins (if you’re coming from San Francisco). Instead, cross the bridge and park your car right after a tiny hillock. It’s a perfect place to picnic and if you walk up the hillock you will have an amazing view of the bridge and the coastline sans the hundreds of tourists 🙂
Some other interesting stops along the way are McWay Falls (water falls directly into the ocean) and Pfeiffer State Beach. We chose the beautiful coastal town of Morro Bay as the mid-point of our drive on the Pacific Coastal Highway.
Day 6 and 7: Morro Bay
We fell in love with this waterfront city the moment we stepped foot in it. From the long stretches of sandy beaches to the ochre sunsets, there’s nothing not to love about Morro Bay. The iconic Morro rock stands guard between the ocean and the city as thousands of sea birds dot the skies. If you are in the mood for whale and dolphin watching, there ain’t a better place along the Californian coast. We managed to see humpback whales only a few hundred feet from the shoreline. It’s the perfect place to enjoy gorgeous seaside views, scrumptious sea food, and soul stirring live music. You can see more pictures and read about our experiences in Morro Bay here.
On Day 7, continue your drive towards Los Angeles. We found that the second half of the Pacific Coastal Highway wasn’t as pretty as the first half, so if you want to save time, you can take the expressway all the way to Los Angeles.
Where to stay in Morro Bay
We stayed at Pleasant Inn which is situated just a few blocks from the harbour. It’s a quintessential American Motel which has been recently refurbished to give it a more luxurious look.
Day 8-11: West Hollywood, Los Angeles
After spending the first week of our trip in laid-back cities and lush landscapes, we were looking forward to the glitz and glamour of West Hollywood and it did not disappoint. What amazed us was the fact that a city just 1.9 square miles in area offers so much to the visitors – from the array of fine dining restaurants on Sunset Boulevard to the quirky street art on Melrose Avenue – it has something to offer to all visitors. WeHo, as it’s lovingly called by locals, is at the heart of Los Angeles (LA) and is the perfect place to explore everything that LA county has to offer.
It was amazing to explore the area on foot. Some of our favourite experiences were hunting for street art spread across the city of WeHo, walking along the palm-tree lined alleys of Beverly Hills, watching the sun go down from the Sunset strip, and sampling delicious food in some of the conscious restaurants dotted around the city (Gracias Madre was our favourite :-))
When we got tired of walking around, we’d slip out for a drive to explore the neighbouring areas. If you find yourself in the area, you must go for a sunset drive to Griffith Observatory and spend an hour or two there, watching the sun go down over Los Angeles and the famous Hollywood sign. If you’d rather spend a languorous afternoon on the beach, then head to Venice beach and find a secluded spot (can be difficult later in the evening) to witness the sunsets that California is so famous for.
Where to stay in West Hollywood
We stayed in Petit Ermitage, a quirky, Moroccan-themed hotel bang in the middle of West Hollywood. The all-suite hotel boasts of spacious and well done up rooms as well as one of the best rooftop pools in the city. There was nothing better than coming back to a refreshing cold beverage by the pool after a long day of exploring. We had dinner at the rooftop restaurant on one of the nights and really enjoyed the lamb shanks and chicken cous-cous. Breakfast at Petit Ermitage was a bit overpriced for what it was, but things tend to be expensive in this part of the US 🙂
Read all details about our experience in West Hollywood 🙂
Day 12-14: Death Valley National Park
In every trip we take, there is always one place we visit that surpasses our expectations. On this road trip through California, Death Valley National Park was that place. When we booked 3 nights here, our friends who had been there commented that it was way too much time. People often visit Death Valley National Park on a day trip or at most an overnight stay – what would we do for 3 nights?
Well, if we could rework our itinerary, we’d add on a couple of nights to it. We fell in LOVE with this place. I was most excited about shooting the night skies here since this national park has some of the darkest skies in the world. However, I was blown away by the landscapes and panoramas on display during all times of the day. Some of our favourite experiences were:
- Driving to a dark area every night to photography the millions of stars in the sky. The good thing is that there is hardly any civilisation here so you only have to drive 500 metres from your hotel to witness truly dark skies.
- Watching the sun set over the mountains whilst enjoying a picnic at Badwater basin – this place resembles the salt flats of Bolivia.
- Soaking in the lunar like landscape from Zabriskie point
- Going for aimless drives in the national park. Mark our words – Death Valley National Park has some of the most stunning drives in this entire world. The landscape makes you feel as if you are on another planet. The Artist’s Drive is just a small example of this. The colours of the mountains that loom large in front of visitors resemble the colours of an artist’s pallete, hence the name.
- Chilling at the Mesquite sand dunes. Given the proximity of these sand dunes to the highway that cuts through Death Valley National Park, you can expect many people here, especially at sunset. However, if you walk in a bit, you can find some untouched dunes all to yourselves. It’s the perfect way to spend an evening enjoying the sunset.
While the panoramas reminded us a lot of our trip to Ladakh, the Death Valley region had a certain calmness to it which we have never experienced before. We would return in a heart beat 🙂
Where to stay in Death Valley National Park
As we mentioned earlier, there aren’t any big towns or cities inside the park, so accommodation options are limited. We stayed at the Furnace Creek Inn, the luxurious wing of the long established Furnace Creek Ranch. The rooms are well-equipped and comfortable, and all necessities have been taken care of (which include a coffee machine – yes please :-)). What’s more, there is a big pool for guests and the view of the pool from the terrace against the valley makes for a stunning photograph. The hotel grounds are beautifully landscaped and you’d actually feel as if you are staying in an oasis in the middle of the desert. It was delightful to have access to such luxury in the middle of nowhere. A big bonus and a thumbs-up for the decent WiFi at the property – to be honest we weren’t expecting any, given the location.
Day 15-17: Las Vegas
We wound up our trip in the mecca of hedonism – Las Vegas. After long and hectic days in Death Valley National Park, we were in dire need of some lazy days spent with each other and we got those in Las Vegas. We opted for a hotel that was away from The Strip so that we could enjoy some peace and quiet and yet be in close proximity to all the madness of The Strip so that we could go and experience it when we wanted.
The first day in Vegas was all about ordering room service, enjoying the pool at our hotel, and gambling away in the evening at the hotel’s casino. A perfect day without moving around much – just what the doctor ordered. That said, our itchy feet got the better of us and we could not resist getting out and exploring Las Vegas and the surroundings. Even though we had already had our share of dramatic landscapes in Death Valley National Park, we decided to drive out to Valley of Fire National Park one evening and enjoyed the ever changing colour of the rocks as the sun changed its angles. Highly recommended!
If you, like us, decide to stay away from The Strip, make sure you head out there to spend an evening walking up and down and taking in all the crazy sites and sights. Do make sure you catch the musical fountains right outside The Bellagio (every 15 minutes in the evenings) and visit the different casinos along The Strip.
Another quirky experience around Las Vegas was the Seven Magic Mountains, a colourful art installation by renowned Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. Seven tall towers of colourful, stacked boulders in the middle of a desert make for an amazing view. Make sure you head there soon after sunrise as crowds begin to pour in as the day progresses.
Where to stay in Las Vegas
We stayed in a quieter part of the city, a short 20 minute drive from The Strip. JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort and Spa is perfect for a relaxing vacation. This place is a city in itself – you name it, and you can probably find it here. With a massive casino, a beautifully landscaped pool area, plenty of restaurants to choose from, and a spa that offers some of the best treatments, you can’t really go wrong in choosing this hotel. We got a city facing room on the 6th floor and could see The Strip from the comfort of our balcony – a sight to behold especially at dusk when the skies would be bright orange and the city lights would come on. The hotel provides a free shuttle to The Strip and back, so you don’t even need to worry about driving in the maddening traffic of the city.
Day 18: Drive back to San Francisco and fly out
That’s it, the trip is over. The last day is just for the long drive from Las Vegas to San Francisco through the desert. It took us 9 hours of pretty much non-stop driving (just a couple of stops for coffee and quick lunch). If you are unable to catch a flight on the same day, just stay in one of the hotels around the airport and fly out the next day.
We had an amazing time on this road trip in the US and can’t wait to go back and drive there for longer. Have you driven through California and Nevada? What were your favourite parts?
Planning to visit US this year? Read all our posts on our travels within USA