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Your Perfect California Coast Road Trip: An Insider’s Guide

by | March 28, 2017

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for California and the Pacific Northwest, Sheri Doyle of Pacific Northwest Journeys.

Trusted Travel Expert
Sheri Doyle

A former corporate attorney, Sheri Doyle brings her legal-eagle eye for detail to the itineraries she crafts. She plans urban and adventure trips all over the Pacific Northwest—in both the United States and Canada—as well as the northern California coast and parts of the Canadian Rockies. Her self-drive itineraries typically run to 20 pages, covering everything from detailed driving directions to activity suggestions and restaurant recommendations in each location. Geared to your interests and preferences, each itinerary is a personalized guidebook to save you hours of research time. As a resident of Seattle for nearly three decades, Sheri has traveled extensively within the region; she’s repeatedly hiked the trails, kayaked the waters, slurped the oysters, and attended the jazz concerts at every place she recommends. She has slept at most of the hotels, too, and gets preferred rates at many of the top properties, which saves her clients a bundle—especially in the popular summer months.

Expect trips orchestrated by Sheri to start at $650 per day for two travelers.

Things to Do and See

Hidden gems
One of Sheri’s all-time favorite adventures along the northern California coast is to drive the one-lane, unpaved road off Route 1, just west of Leggett, to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. It’s a white-knuckle trip that will have you praying you won’t meet anyone coming the other way, and you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to do it, but the reward at the end—a black-sand beach out in the middle of nowhere—is fantastic.

If that’s too daunting, the drive to the “Lost Coast”—the stretch of coastline from Ferndale to the Avenue of the Giants, just south of Eureka—is paved and not quite as difficult, but also leads to fantastic beach views that you’ll share with more cows than people.

Cheap thrill
Along the Avenue of the Giants, there’s a great short redwoods hike to Founders’ Grove in Humboldt State Park, which has no entrance fee. The Ladybird Johnson Grove in Redwoods National Park is another easy, free redwoods trail.

Getty Center, Los Angeles

Enjoy a picnic with a view at the Getty Center, Los Angeles Photo: Visit California

Prime picnic spots
In Los Angeles, pack sandwiches to take up to the Getty Center Museum (or get take-out from the café there) and enjoy the gardens and the view over the city and toward the Pacific. Before or after your picnic, take in some of the art and architecture; admission is free.

Pretty much any pullout off Highway 1 in Big Sur makes for a delightful picnic locale. If you’re heading south, stop for treats at the Big Sur Bakery.

Most overrated place
Muir Woods isn’t exactly overrated, but it is very busy and the crowds can be overwhelming; you’ll have a more peaceful experience among the tall trees if you can take the time to go farther north into Redwoods National Park for at least a night or two. For a day trip from San Francisco to a scenic rural spot, try Point Reyes National Seashore; there aren’t a lot of massive redwoods here, but the landscape is gorgeous, and there are great local eateries in Point Reyes Station (Cowgirl Creamery makes spectacular cheeses).

gigantic Redwood trees at Redwood National Park

Looking up at the top of the gigantic Redwood trees at Redwood National Park in Northern California is almost impossible from the ground. Photo: Visit California/Carol Highsmith

Where to Stay and Eat

Hotels worth the splurge
Most rooms at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur cost more than $1,000 per night, but the views are staggering and the craftsmanship remarkable. Sheri’s travelers get daily breakfast for two plus a $100 resort credit. Even if you don’t stay there, at least stop for lunch at Sierra Mar, the hotel’s restaurant with an amazing vista of the Big Sur coast.

Another favorite splurge—even though it’s not right on the water—is The Resort at Pelican Hill, in Newport Beach. The bungalows are 850 square feet, giving you plenty of room to spread out and feel right at home—and those are the entry-level rooms. Sheri’s travelers get daily breakfast for two plus a $100 golf or spa credit (the spa here is one of the best anywhere). Lunch by the Coliseum pool is a must, even when not staying at the resort.

The ocean view from Sierra Mar restaurant at Post Ranch Inn California

The Post Ranch Inn, and the view from its Sierra Mar restaurant, are worth the splurge. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

Restaurant the locals love
If you’re in Trinidad—which is the optimal base for forays into Redwoods National and State Parks—head to the Larrupin’ Café for fantastic BBQ ribs.

Dish to try
Fish tacos are a staple on the southern California coast. You’ll find them everywhere, but for a simple beach-shack ambience, try Back on the Beach, just north of downtown Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Meals worth the splurge
Two places on the Northern California coast are worth including in your itinerary for their excellent tasting menus: MacCallum House, in Mendocino, focuses on organic and sustainable ingredients; Restaurant 301, at the Carter House in Eureka, has a particular focus on wine pairings (the inn’s owner is also a winemaker).

Contact Sheri

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Best Times to Go

May: The weather is generally nice, even in the north of the state, but it’s before the busy summer season. Fall can be great as well, although fog is sometimes a bigger issue along the coast in the fall than in spring.

Worst Time to Go

July and August can be freezing in San Francisco. Mark Twain never said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco—but he might as well have. It’s usually warmer in September.

Must-have App

Waze, to avoid traffic jams—particularly in southern California.

Airport Intel

LAX is one of the U.S. airports that everyone loves to hate, and with good reason—the food options and layout are subpar, even in the renovated terminals (except for the international one). Look into flying in or out of San Diego, Orange County, or even Long Beach, if possible. And SFO is known for weather delays, so you might consider Oakland or San Jose instead.

Tipping Tip

A number of California restaurants have gone to a no-tipping model in which a service charge is included and no additional tip is expected; always check your bill.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

Trying to cover too much ground in too few days, and staying only one night at each stop. Either pick a shorter section of the coast or alternate single-night stays with longer stops so that you’re not in the car all day every day; that way, you’ll have time to do things on your layover days that would be hard to fit into a driving day.

Driving south to north. Plan your coastal drive from north to south, which makes it much easier to pull off at scenic spots on the ocean side of Highways 1 and 101 (no left turns across traffic necessary) and puts you closer to the coastal action.


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