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A Bucket List Road Trip in California

With a respectful nod to the beautiful interior of California, particularly Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Death Valley, there are few drives that offer the best of California like the stretch of Highway 1 from the Sonoma Coast to San Diego. My own road trip began in San Francisco, north to Bodega Bay and Jenner, over to the vineyards of the Russian River Valley before turning south to the Pacific Coast Highway through Marin, Monterey, Big Sur, Moonstone Beach, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Oceanside and finally San Diego before heading back up to Los Angeles for a finale at the Hollywood sign. That trip was roughly 1000 miles and some loose change worth of driving. That’s a lot of windshield time, but it was broken up by 30 miles of walking and some incredible experiences along the way.

The trip can be thought of as three distinct segments: San Francisco Bay and Sonoma, The Pacific Coast Highway, and the southern tier. Each segment could be a full vacation on their own, in my case, it was ten very full days of travel and adventure. But life is short, you’ve got to pack as much in to your days as possible while still feeling like you relaxed a bit during your time off. Here was the itinerary by segment:

Day 1: San Francisco coastal walk from Lands End to the Golden Gate Bridge, Irish coffee at the Buena Vista and dinner in Tiburon. There are some nice ferry options from Tiburon that afford great views in good weather but the schedule is limited.

Day 2: Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, cable car rides out and back to top of Lombard Street, walk down the zig-zagging Lombard and then walked to the Palace of Fine Arts.

Day 3: Muir Woods, Bodega Bay to Fort Ross drive along the spectacular Sonoma Coast.

Day 4: Vineyard tours and tastings in Healdsburg and the Russian River Valley.

Day 5: Travel day to Marin, beach walk between the crashing surf and the dunes and a visit to the Monterey Aquarium.

Day 6: The gorgeous 17-Mile Drive with crashing surf from the offshore storms, then down the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur to Moonstone Beach. Multiple stops along the way to take in the coastal views and visit a couple of waterfalls.

Day 7: Drive-by through central coast vineyards, beachside dining in Santa Barbara, Ventura to Los Angeles through miles of orange trees.

Day 8: Los Angeles!

Day 9: Oceanside and San Diego Zoo and friends and family time.

Day 10: Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and a visit to the Chinese Theater and the gritty and touristy Hollywood Boulevard.

Day 11: Warner Brothers Studio tour and a visit to see the Hollywood sign up close at Lake Hollywood Park.

Whew! Drove more than 1000 miles and walked almost 30 miles in 11 action-packed days through ancient redwood trees, coastal dunes, spectacular cliffs, iconic city streets, legendary bridges and highways, past famous cultural attractions with a splash of California’s best wines. If you’re looking for an adventurous drive this is one you should plug into your own GPS. Here are a few favorite places found along the way:

Golden Gate Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge
Russian River Vineyard
Koala at San Diego Zoo
R2D2 at The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
Sea nettles at Monterey Aquarium
Sunset at Moonstone Beach

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