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California Dreaming

After three two week family trips to Europe and three more to Hawaii (all major island) I would like to visit California. It appears to be about 800 miles from end to end and a lot to see in two weeks. I would like to ask you RS Californians and others who are not how do I start planning such a trip. I received w wealth of information from this Forum when planning the other trips look forward to reading your thoughts on this matter. This would be two weeks in the fall of 2019. Many thanks.


Posted by
2634 posts

Fall is a fabulous time in San Francisco. It can be the most pleasant time of year to be a tourist. And fleet week in October is quite lively, though hotels might be harder to come by.

There are California's cities, coasts and beaches, forests, amusement parks, wineries, trails and national parks. I'd start by deciding what type of trip you want. Or maybe a sample of some of each. Whatever you love to do, it's probably available!

Posted by
1198 posts

Well, ha ha, do you have a guidebook? There is a LOT to see and do and you won't be able to do it all in two weeks, so surveying the landscape of possibilities might help. If you did a strictly coastal trip (as most seem to do), you could get an open-jaw ticket, start by flying in to S.F. and spend some time around there Point Reyes, Napa, and S.F. - but that means cutting off the farther north section which includes Redwoods State Park. You could of course drive up to see them but that cuts into your time. Then head south to Monterey via Santa Cruz and then take interstate 1 the rest of the way to LA and spend two days there and fly out. A skeletal outline looks like this. You could add Cayucos between Big Sur and L.A.. Or Santa Barbara. You could add more time in any of these of course. But this list includes a lot of outdoors and nature. If you prefer cities/museums, you would want to add more time to those. A drive along the CA coast is a classic trip though. Outside San Simeon (between Big Sur and Cayucos) is the Hearst castle. And the sea lions! And in October you might see some whales migrating, although that's probably a little early... And of course, Yosemite is the most beautiful National Park in the Nation, just sayin'
Im getting homesick ;p

Napa - 1 (night)
Pointe Reyes - 1
S.F. 2-3
Monterey/Carmel - 2
Big Sur - 1
L.A. 2-3

Posted by
6868 posts

I've lived in Southern CA for over 20 years, and it's a wonderful, beautiful, diverse state in terms of land, people, food, attractions, etc. I still didn't manage to see large chunks of it, sadly. You're in luck because there are more travel books on CA than just about any state in a local library or bookstore. I would get some books out, start reading, and try to narrow down what you're interested in. The State and Federal parks alone could take you two weeks, and California has many (Death Valley and Joshua Tree, for example, are amazing and unique as of course are the well known parks like Yosemite, etc). It's a huge state and many areas that are underrated, including the Central Valley and the Northern Sierras. You can also check out the visitor's guide on the web and order yourself a hardcopy with a nice map of the state. It will come in handy, and you can adjust the sample itineraries as you find fitting. Lonely Planet also has an entire book dedicated to California Road trips. There are also many Welcome Centers you can visit once you're on the ground. They're staffed with very helpful people and lots of information to help you with your trip. I think this will turn out to be a great trip! You can't go wrong, CA is one of my favorite places of all. The only trick is to navigate around heavily populated/ high traffic centers during peak times - traffic can be as bad as you've heard about.

Posted by
784 posts

I spent 2 years living in the northern part of the state (Eureka area) and 2 years in Monterey. Plus tons of separate trips. As you noted it's a big state with lots to offer. I'll assume you plan to rent a car as it's hard to get around otherwise unless just sticking to somewhere like San Francisco.

Highway 101 from North of San Francisco is a beautiful drive. You have lots of vineyards to visit both in Sonoma and Mendocino, red wood trees,lots of green( although with the drought it may be dryer than when I last visited). Eureka is a good stopping point with several activities. Very lumber industry oriented.

Along the coast is Highway 1 with spectacular scenery especially between Monterey and Morro Bay. Lots to see in the Monterey area including the Aquarium. Decent sea food restaurants.

Of course there is lots to do in the bigger cities - LA, San Fran, San Diego.

Eastern CA there's the Tahoe area, Sequoia NP, Mammoth Lakes, etc. Outdoors oriented.

Lots more to chose from.

Posted by
8276 posts

Blue, lol, that was clever!
Fall is our best weather, imo, sun and blue skies.
Others will happily go into detail for you, but I’d say drive Hwy 1 from anywhere south (LA maybe) going north at least as far as San Francisco. I’d allow at least 2 nights to stay in Carmel (Big Sur area) which is a charming Cotswold-like town on the ocean, include Marin County (north end of the Golden Gate Bridge) and Sonoma/Napa counties for Wine Country.
Time for Yosemite and Lake Tahoe if you’re interested. And of course, a good 4-5 days in San Francisco.
Don’t know your hotel budget, but my favorite hotel is the Stanford Court Hotel on Nob Hill. Great location and amazing views.
Be sure to visit the Ferry Bldg, ferry ride over to Sausalito (in Marin) and back, the Embarcadero walking south to Oracle Park, see a Giants game at Oracle Park if possible, the Haas-Lilienthal house (old Victorian, now a museum), visit Crissy Field at the Presidio, rent bikes if that appeals, Chestnut St, Fillmore St, North Beach/Washington Square (Tony’s Pizza is amazing - sit outside), Palace of Fine Arts, the Legion of Honor art museum, and be sure to drink Blue Bottle coffee (Ferry Bldg or corner of Fillmore St and Jackson St)... : )

I highly recommend SF City Guides Walking Tours Co. They’re free, but ask for a donation at the end. They have many walks offered every day and are all really good.

Edit: LoL i was typing at the same time as everyone else!

Posted by
369 posts

The coastal trip from San Francisco to San Diego suggested earlier is how we spent our first trip to California before we moved here. Another good option that I would recommend for two weeks in the fall would be:

Visit San Francisco for up to a week with some day trips, such as a trip to Napa or Sonoma and another trip to see the redwoods in Muir Woods (reserve in advance) and/or visit Point Reyes
Spend several days in the Monterey Bay and/or Big Sur areas
Spend several days in Yosemite National Park--again, reserve well in advance, or find a quieter area of the Sierra Nevada to visit.

I've lived here for 40 years, and although I've seen a lot, there is a great deal still to see--two weeks will make for a good trip to one region or to see a cross-section (north to south or coast to mountains) of the state.

Posted by
690 posts

Hi Jim,

As a native of California, I may be biased, but it is a beautiful place to travel. The challenge is there is so much to do and see and much depends on your interests. I have taken a couple of 2-week California vacations. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started, but it would be helpful to understand more about your interests. For example, do you want to experience nature (hike, bike, camp), do you want to see the big cities, are amusement parks on the agenda?

Northern California Coast Drive: : starting in San Francisco and driving North along the coast

  • Fly into San Francisco and stay a few days in the city: you don't need a car in the city, so take Bart or Uber/Lyft to your hotel and then rent a car when you are leaving (even though we are local, we rented a convertible for the trip)
  • Head up to the Sonoma coast. It has something for everyone from hiking, kayaking, great food, farm tours, and wineries. Jenner is a good location and Timber Lodge is a delight.
  • From there head up to Mendocino for a few days again great hiking, wineries (Anderson Valley), quaint town
  • Go further up to few the Redwoods and Lost Coast (Ferndale has lovely Victorians)
  • Turn around and head back the fast way (101) and leave your final nights for Napa (more wine tasting) or back to the City before heading home.

Southern California Coast Drive: start in San Francisco and drive South along the coast to LA (drop off car in LA)
- Fly into San Francisco (same advice as above)
- Drive down Highway 1, stopping for lunch in Half Moon Bay (if you golf they have a great course at the Ritz Carlton or save it for Pebble Beach), stay in either Carmel or Monterey. Here you can kayak, scuba dive, hike, wine taste, or just relax.
- Next stop is Big Sur (you can stay here and relax) or drive further down Highway 1 to stay in Cambria. Hearst Castle, wine tasting, kayaking all available along the coast. Pismo has dunes for ATV.
- Next stop is Santa Barbara for a few nights and then off to LA to finish your trip, either visiting museums or amusement parks along the way.

For additional ideas on road trips, check out these recommendations from Sunset Magazine:

Hope this gives you some ideas to think about.


Posted by
166 posts

I live in WA now, but I'm a native Californian. Assuming you're looking at it lengthwise, you can sort of cut it into 3 geographical areas, then plot your course around what it is you want to see/do. Here are some (not all) highlights:

Starting at the top, you have the Redwoods on the coast (will be beautiful that time of year, and not too crowded), along with lots of wild coastline. Mt. Shasta is inland (14,000+ ft. volcano with lots lakes and stuff to do), and farther south and east is Lassen Nat'l Park (active volcanic region), with Lake Tahoe (hiking, golf, gambling) at the lower right corner of that top third of the state.

In the middle portion is the Bay area, with lots of big city stuff in and around San Francisco, wine country just north of that, then really pretty coastline from Point Reyes to Santa Cruz to Monterey all the way down to Big Sur. Just east from that stretch of coastline is probably the least interesting portion of the state from a tourist perspective (with the exception of Paso Robles wine country). Across the largely agricultural central valley to the east you'll find the heart of the Sierras, with Yosemite, King's Canyon and Sequoia Nat'l Parks. A bit farther east is Owens Valley (under-rated and off-the-beaten track, access to highest peak in lower 48, Mt. Whitney) and then Death Valley Nat'l Park is right up against the Nevada border.

The lower portion extends south from Santa Barbara (lovely place!) into the LA area (all the big attractions like Disney, etc.), and then down into San Diego (great beaches, zoo and craft brew scene). That time of year, it might be a nice change of pace to also see the desert east of LA/San Diego, specifically the Palm Springs area (for golf, spa, shopping), or Joshua Tree and/or Anza Borrego (for hiking and wilderness).

Obviously that's a high-level tour, but hopefully it helps you think about where everything is in relation to the things that you really want to see and experience.

Posted by
2069 posts

Hey, don't leave out San Diego!

We here much prefer San Diego to the congestion of LA, although the Getty Museum is pretty incredible, along with seeing a concert in the Hollywood Bowl.

San Diego offers Del Mar Beach, [we think all our beaches are much more accessible than LA's], La Jolla, Torrey Pines Park and golf course, Coronado "Island", Balboa Park, Pt Loma, and the downtown Gaslamp area, to name a few.

What type of activities are you looking for?

Also, fall is our fire season, so prepared to be flexible.

Safe travels!

Posted by
78 posts

I've done a couple of California based vacations in the last few years. I'd suggest picking one general area, as California is bigger than many countries.

A few years ago I did a vacation based around the Pismo Beach area (I stayed at an Airbnb on Shell Beach). Several beach towns to visit--my favorite was Cayucos. You are also close to San Luis Obispo and there's an area with several wineries. I also did a day trip to Solvang, which is California's little Danish town.

Another recent trip was based in Northern California. Spent time in Santa Rosa, Boonville (several wineries, the excellent Anderson Valley brewery), the Ukiah/Willetts area (interesting small towns in Mendocino County, but really hot in the summer, so you might choose to stay someplace on the coast instead, there's a heritage train out of Willetts if that's of interest to you), and the Lost Coast area (drove 30+ miles down a super windy narrow road to Shelter Cove--loved the black sand beach--water is super rough and dangerous everywhere except a small sheltered area right by the town).

Posted by
1884 posts

Another vote in favor of a walking tour with SF City Guides while you are in San Francisco.

I note that most commenters, whether from within or without California, are emphasizing the natural appeal. That's fine, but I am most attracted to the cultural and historical wonders of this state - so much of what makes our nation exceptional originated here in California.

For San Francisco, I suggest you read "Imperial San Francisco" by Gray Brechin and a good labor history that covers the strike movements of the early 1930s -- when our local unions set the bar for workers' rights around the country.
Don't forget that the League of Nations was formed here long before the oligarchs of Silicon Valley were a twinkle in anyone's eye.
People know about Mark Twain and Joe DiMaggio, but what about Dorothea Lange and J.K. Galbraith?

You have an image in mind when you think of Berkeley -- probably Mario Savio giving a speech -- but do you know that 16 of the elements in the periodic table were discovered by Berkeley scientists? That Robert Oppenheimer and the Unabomber did their work in the same part of the university campus? That Frank Lloyd Wright projects dot the landscape?

Posted by
794 posts

I've lived almost 30 years in CA, both north and south. A lot is going to depend on what you and the family want out of a trip. If it's major tourist stuff (Disneyland, the Bay Bridge, etc) in the cities that's going to be different than if you're more aligned with the more rural attractions (Yosemite, Redwoods, etc). Likewise, if you can delay into September it will be better than August, unless you really want multiple days with temperatures over 100f.

There are two basic routes I'd look at. First, to make the most of the cities, San Francisco to L.A. via the coast. Second, San Francisco to Las Vegas via hwy 395.

If you take the coast road you'll have time to spend in both the major cities, and a great drive from Santa Cruz, Monterrey, Big Sur, San Simeon, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and into L.A. This can be done in a days hard driving, but to really see the area two weeks is a start.

The other route I suggest would be S.F. , Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, Carson City, a detour at Lee Vining to Yosemite and Sequoia, Bishop, Lone Pine, Death Valley, and home via Las Vegas. This is one of the most beautiful routes in the entire USA., and if you like the outdoors this is the way to go. This is the California most tourists never see.

Pick a route, and once you know where and what you want to see or do, we can help with more specific suggestions.

Posted by
5697 posts

Are there kids in your party ?? Then Disneyland may be a must-visit. (Unless you want to hear days of whining.)

Posted by
6335 posts

CA Native here. Great state. Lots to see and explore.

What is it you want to see?

Amusement Parks?
Joshua Trees?
Ghost towns?
Hot springs?
Cable cars?
Flea Markets?

Sadly you’ll miss the Pageant Of the Masters In Laguna Beach which ends in August this year.

But if you are into jazz the venerable Monterey Jazz festival is in September. Other September events In the state are: Danish Days Festival in Solvang, Gold Country Fair in Auburn, Sacramento Crawfish Festival, Capitola Arts and Wine Festival, Valley Of the Moon Vintage Festival, and the Tall Ships at Dana Point.