Please sign in to post.

Coastal California -- 2 week road trip

Hello all,

I'm planning a 2 week Coastal California road trip from Arcata to San Luis Obispo.

This is an extended and reversed version of a Lonely Planet itinerary. I originally intended to go inland to see sights like Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Lake Tahoe, but considering the time of the year that I will be traveling (Oct. 19 - Nov. 2), I felt it would be too risky due to potential snow, particularly around Yosemite and Tioga Pass.

This is my very basic itinerary thus far. Feel free to offer any suggestions!

Saturday, Oct. 19

Land at ACV at 9:07 p.m., rent car at airport, drive to Arcata for B&B (3 nights).

Sunday, Oct. 20

Explore Redwood National and State Parks

Monday, Oct. 21

Explore Redwood National and State Parks

Tuesday, Oct. 22

Leave Arcata early, stop in Ferndale for the afternoon, then continue through Avenue of the Giants to Mendocino (2 nights).

Wednesday, Oct. 23

Mendocino

Thursday, Oct. 24

Leave Mendocino early, stops at Gualala, Sonoma Coast State Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore before arriving in San Francisco (return rental car while in San Francisco).

Friday, Oct. 25 to Wednesday, Oct. 30

5 nights in San Francisco, explore via Muni Visitor Passport, stay in Union Square?
Wednesday afternoon: Pick up a second rental car, stop in Santa Cruz before arrival in Monterey (2 nights).

Thursday, Oct. 31

Monterey and Carmel-By-The-Sea

Friday, Nov. 1

Leave Monterey, stop in Big Sur before arriving in Morro Bay (1 night).

Saturday, Oct. 2

12:45 p.m. flight out of San Luis Obispo

What do you guys think? Let me hear your best suggestions, critiques, tips and more!

Posted by
13079 posts

I would not stay in Arcata, especially for three nights. Look farther north, like Trinidad. The View Crest Lodge ( cabins) or the Turtle Rock Inn if you prefer a B and B with ocean view.

Returning your rental car for your time in San Francisco is a good plan; you do not want to pay parking fees and risk a break-in.

Posted by
1672 posts

We lived in Monterey for 35 years - add a day to the Santa Cruz and Monterey area. Point Lobos State Park, just south of Carmel, is very beautiful. Rent a kayak at Moss Landing and explore Elkhorn Slough. There are also lots of redwoods in Santa Cruz.

I think you have too much time in Arcata.

I would not rule out Yosemite in early November. You don't need to do Tioga Pass - just enjoy the valley and the drive down to the Wawona area. You could make room for that area in your schedule by having one less day in San Francisco.

Posted by
2600 posts

No Hearst Castle? When I did my California Coast road trip (obligatory for all Europeans), Hearst Castle was definitively a highlight for me, I was surprised how ornate the interior was.

I think you should definitely break up your Monterey to Morro Bay drive day into a few days, that's the most beautiful stretch of the California coast after all.

Posted by
6871 posts

Leave some time for SLO (San Luis Obispo) - it's really a great town. I would cut time in Arcata and give more to SLO since you only look to have one short morning there. Definitely don't miss Point Lobos State Preserve near Carmel - it's one amazingly beautiful place.

Your itinerary made me realize just how much there is to do on the coast, even with two weeks. You could easily start in San Francisco and end in SLO and still have a full plate because there are countless stops along the way (and it depends how much time you want to spend in each). I would check out at least one of the lovely California Missions when you get a chance.

Posted by
2644 posts

Oct 24: are you planning to walk/hike the Tomales Point Trail to see the Tule Elk? It should be a great time of year for it. You can typically see the Tule Elk as you drive from Point Reyes Station along the road (approx 30 minute drive) to the Tomales Point trailhead, so you don't have to hike to see them if you don't wish. The 9.4 mile (round trip, out and back) hike allows you to see herds of them, usually much closer, while you walk and enjoy the surrounding views.

If you're planning that walk/hike, it is generally recommended to get there early in the morning - before parking fills up (there is overflow parking along the road) and crowds and wind pick up in the afternoons. That may not be possible with your current schedule of leaving Mendocino that morning, so you'd have to decide how to prioritize that day.

An option, though it would change your 2 night stay in Mendocino to 2 1-night stays, would be to stay the first night in Mendocino then the next night near Point Reyes. The Olema House is near Point Reyes Station and just 30 minutes from Tomales Point Trailhead.

Posted by
2086 posts

In SLO town, [San Luis Obispo] Thursday nights are the Farmers' Market, and they close off the main street downtown, have bands, BBQ and festivities. It's a lot of fun if you can schedule it. I also like to stay at one of the hotels in Pismo beach, which are atop the scenic, ragged cliffs, and sit out at night at one of the many firepits. Pismo is ten minutes outside of SLO.
If you're in Morro Bay, follow the coastal road paralleling the sand spit to Los Osos, [15 minutes] and explore Montana De Oro State Park, with beautiful coastal bluffs.
I prefer staying in Carmel, as it's very village-like, and explore Seventeen Mile Drive. Monterrey is much more commercial and feels more touristy.
The SLO airport is very small. Where do you fly to from there? You may get better connections out of the Santa Barbara airport.
The wine industry has really developed on the central coast. There's several options for wine tasting in the Paso Robles area.
Safe travels!

Posted by
2086 posts

P.S. Remember that October is fire season in CA, so be prepared to modify your routes just in case.

Posted by
162 posts

I forgot to mention that I plan on visiting Hearst Castle! That's definitely a must-see between Monterey and San Luis Obispo.

I am a little surprised people think 3 nights is too much for Arcata. Are the redwoods not worth exploring for 2 full days? Could 1 full day do them justice?

I was surprised by the amount of connections from SBP. My flight back has an 1hr layover in Dallas, departing at 11:30 a.m. Perfect for me!

I had originally planned to do Reno-South Lake Tahoe-Yosemite-San Francisco-Monterey-San Luis Obispo. However, I have read that, starting around early November, snow can be a significant problem in Yosemite if you are coming from the eastern side of the park i.e. Tioga Pass.

I'd much prefer to do that, but I wasn't sure if it was worth the risk.

All of this advice is making me wonder if it's worth flying into Reno, staying 3 nights in South Lake Tahoe, driving through Yosemite around Oct. 23 or so and reconnecting with this original itinerary in San Francisco.

Either that, or I can fly into SF, stay a few nights, then drive out to Yosemite and back to follow the coast down to San Luis Obispo.

Posted by
6349 posts

Native Californian who over the years has stayed in every place you’ve mentioned except the Madonna Inn. Simply not my type of spot to rest my head.

Few things to point out.
1. Reminder that Mother Nature cannot be tamed. With recent storms threats closure of Hwy 1 especially around Big Sur was considered.

October has been a lovely month for travel but these days not a guarantee.

Check and double check weather before and during your trip on a daily basis.

  1. Union Square is pricey. Use Booking.com or Hotel.Tonight websites to see if you can get a deal.

Personally i like what’s now called the Park Central on 3rd. Nearly floor to ceiling windows, Dave’s Bar
(now spruced up and called The Tavern) across the street. Yerba Buena Gardens and MOMA a block away. Its an easy stroll to the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building. Be aware the homeless population rivals LA so you’ll find many individuals along Market street and elsewhere throughout The City. Once you get to the Embarcadero you can ride a historic Muni tram to NorthBeach OR if you must ride one of the famed cable cars it’s another easy jaunt to Union Square where you can hop on the Powell Mason line. Get off at Union Street to saunter into North Beach by Washington Square.

  1. Take 280 out of SF especially if the Pacifica grade is problematic. Then take 92 over to Half Moon Bay.
    Very nice place to explore. In October the pumpkin farms will be doing business. Aratas is my fav.
    Then on Hwy 1 plan to stop at Duarte’s Tavern in Atascadero. Then to Santa Cruz but be sure to check the Anno Neuvo website to see if the elephant seals are there.

  2. Don’t forget to visit Pacific Grove which I find more enjoyable than Monterey. However do not miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Also be sure to stop at Point Lobos state park on your way to Big Sur. China Cove is a nice spot to stretch your legs to see.

  3. Absolutely stay in Morro Bay. One of my favorite coastal towns. Otters, fun shops, beach walks, good food. And if the movie theatre is still up and running nice spot to see a film.

The Comfort Inn suites is a great spot. Block walk to the main drag.

Don’t miss driving over to Montana Del Oro State Park. Main Street heads out toward the golf course and becomes Park View which takes you around to s Bay Blvd that then goes to LOs Osos Blvd.

Have breakfast at the Bayview cafe and if you are a kayaker off you go from there. Driving over You’ll pass the large estuary ( great for bird watching ) and the Elfin Forest.

On Los Osos blvd lunch at Celia’s Garden Cafe and if you like great coffee head down the street to SLO Roasters.

Those are my thoughts for a great taste of the CA Coastline.

Posted by
5262 posts

Ronald Reagan once said "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all." Not true! But it must be said that two full days exploring the redwood parks, presumably north of Arcata, is probably one more than you need, given your overall timeframe. Especially since you'll also be driving through the Avenue of the Giants, between Arcata and Mendocino, your third redwood exploration. Stop to walk through some of the groves on whatever redwood days you have.

"Stop in Ferndale for the afternoon"? Maybe you mean for awhile in the morning? Ferndale is close to Arcata and far from Mendocino, your destination that night. Mendocino and the coast are beautiful but you might consider just one night in Mendocino and another farther south (Bodega Bay? Inverness?), as another poster suggested.

From SF to Santa Cruz, I like the drive down route 1, which passes through Golden Gate Park and then runs over to the coast through Half Moon Bay and other beach towns. A faster route, and still scenic in places (and in other places not) is I-280 and 17. Avoid 101, the Bayshore Freeway, at all costs.

Monterey Aquarium is world class, if you like aquariums (I do). The 17-Mile-Drive nearby is an especially scenic way to explore the peninsula, Carmel is worth a stop and Point Lobos is not to be missed. You might consider a full day between two nights in or near Monterey.

The Big Sur coast is spectacular, with little development and many vistas out to sea. If the highway is closed, 101 is also a scenic alternative and a little faster. Hearst Castle is worth seeing (once, imho). Don't miss the elephant seals nearby if they're out on the beach -- it may be too early for them though. Park then follow your nose.

We like Morro Bay and I'd recommend the Back Bay Inn at Los Osos, just south of town. An easy drive into town one way and Montana de Oro the other.

Downthread you revived your original idea of visiting Yosemite. This would presumably be an alternative to the redwoods, and a good trip in itself. But why fly into Reno and take chances with snow in the Sierras? Fly into Sacramento, or one of the Central Valley cities like Fresno or Modesto if connections and fares work for you.

Posted by
996 posts

Your trip sounds amazing!

We just returned from San Francisco. If you're planning to use the MUNI visitor's pass, download the MUNI app for your phone. It made planning routes around the city SO much easier than doing it on my own. Also be aware that you can purchase your pass in various ways. The cheapest option is through the app on your phone so no additional paper to carry with you. A card or paper pass is slightly more expensive.

Also, have you thought about seeing Muir Woods while you're in San Francisco?

Posted by
162 posts

Downthread you revived your original idea of visiting Yosemite. This would presumably be an alternative to the redwoods, and a good trip in itself. But why fly into Reno and take chances with snow in the Sierras? Fly into Sacramento, or one of the Central Valley cities like Fresno or Modesto if connections and fares work for you.

Yeah I have been debating that with myself. I would love to see Lake Tahoe, but not when there's several feet of snow on the ground.

Also, if I have to sub out the redwoods for Yosemite, that seems like a more than fair trade. :)

I was thinking about flying directly into SF, staying there a few nights, then driving into Yosemite. I would then drive straight to Monterey from Yosemite.

If I flew into Sacramento or the Central Valley, I'd either have to skip SF or drive back there from the valley or after visiting Yosemite.

Also, have you thought about seeing Muir Woods while you're in San Francisco?

I have not, but I will add that to my list!

Posted by
3304 posts

I’ll just add one heads up to the advice you have gotten. The drive down Highway 1 from Mendocino to Pt. Reyes is quite challenging. Check out the timing on Mapquest or similar. You may have to forego one of your stops or stay a night en route.

Posted by
1878 posts

I have lived my whole life in the S.F. Bay Area, and I want to take this trip. I have seen all of these places over the years but not on the same trip. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is special for its elk herd, also you can hike to the ocean through Fern Canyon, which is just what is sounds like. Richardson Grove SP has great redwood groves and its right along 101. Muir Woods in Marin County is great but parking is tight even on a weekday. October in San Francisco is ideal. North Beach is a great area of the City, also check out the upper Fillmore Sacramento x Fillmore. You can take the California Street cable car almost to that neighborhood. Trust me it's the urban neighborhood-y kind of place that makes S.F. worth visiting. Walk along the Embarcadero but don't spend a lot of time at Pier 39. You can rent a bike and ride across the Golden Gate, have not done this for years but it's worthwhile and not hard at all. The Ferry Building at the foot of Market is great. Alcatraz Tours book up, plan ahead, it's worth going there. Further south, Big Basin SP is very special but a bit off the main roads. 17 mile drive and Point Lobos in the Monterey-Carmel area. Still further south, Hearst Castle, definitely. Cambria is a nice place to stay in that area.

Posted by
1556 posts

Moro Bay is not my favorite coastal town. I find it almost always cold. The shops aren’t all that great either. I’d keep on going the few extra miles to San Luis Obispo. I’d also bypass Pismo Beach except for possibly a drive out on the sandy shore.

Posted by
8289 posts

I agree with Claudia and vftravels on recs of where to stay in SF. My favorites are Nob Hill (amazing views) and North Beach. I don’t like Union Square, crazy chaotic crowded.

Anything is possible, but it’s very unusual for Tahoe/Reno to have snow in Oct/early Nov.
October is Indian summer here, usually warm and sunny.

Posted by
381 posts

I would love to see Lake Tahoe, but not when there's several feet of snow on the ground.

It took us three tries, on three different road trips, to get to Tahoe. Blizzards, once in March and the other time in May, all but closed down the road the first two times. As New Englanders who have done a lot of driving in snow, we found it very intimidating to encounter blinking digital signs that said, in big capital letters, BLIZZARD CONDITIONS. CHAINS REQUIRED.

But if you are close by when the weather report is clear, go for it. It's definitely worth the visit.

It's irrelevant how much snow is on the ground, because they're really good at clearing the roads. It's how much snow is on the highway and coming down from the sky that is relevant.

Posted by
13079 posts

The Redwoods are definitely worth two full days. Lots to see ( in addition to the trees) starting with the Fern Canyon hike, the elk near Orick, and lots more.

I was just suggesting that Arcata is not a great place to stay. We would much rather stay in or near Trinidad, or camp( we will be doing that in April, and I hope it warms up before then!)

For your Mendocino stay, consider the Point Arena Lighthouse lodgings.

http://pointarenalighthouse.com/lighthouse-lodging-2/

Posted by
5262 posts

I'm not sure about Arcata's appeal either, unless there's a particular B&B the OP knows about.

Muir Woods are a great way to see redwoods near San Francisco, but likely very crowded and wouldn't be a priority for me if I'd just been to the bigger and less crowded redwood areas to the north.

Posted by
6871 posts

I would keep your plan strictly "coastal" as you have it now, with perhaps a little tinkering based on more research. It is so easy to get side-tracked and expand your geographic range to all the wonderful parks closer to Nevada, but truthfully, you can't "do it all" in two weeks - so just pick a lane, so to speak. I would try to visit Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, etc. on a completely different trip. The truth is that California has a lot to offer in every region and inland vs. coast, that's why you see a stack of travel books in any bookstore focused on the southern and northern regions in CA (and not to mention big counties like LA and OC). You have so much to see just on the coast for 2 weeks (and that's even if you started further south than you're presently contemplating). I wouldn't add any more driving time just to do the parks injustice (meaning quick drive throughs and short shrifts - for example, it's easy to spend an entire week just in Lake Tahoe, I've done it several times). Save the parks for when you can spend more time in them and in a logical sequence.

By the way, there's a fantastic elephant seal rookery called Piedras Blancas right outside Hearth Castle area. You can view a webcam to see their activity, which varies a lot throughout the year.
http://www.elephantseal.org/view.htm

I'm just curious...how are you able to get decent flights into ACV (which I've never heard of before even though I've lived in CA for 20+ years) and SLO? Those are pretty small airports and nightly populated areas. I don't think I've heard anyone on the forum using those gateways before.

Posted by
162 posts

I'm not sure about Arcata's appeal either, unless there's a particular B&B the OP knows about.

Arcata and Ferndale were both mentioned by Lonely Planet as ideal bases between the redwoods and ACV.

Just by my preliminary searching on sites like AirBnB and Booking, there doesn’t seem to be a top of lodging options. Most of them are located a bit south of the park entrance.

I'm just curious...how are you able to get decent flights into ACV (which I've never heard of before even though I've lived in CA for 20+ years) and SLO?

I was surprised as well. They are slightly more expensive than flights to San Francisco, but they have relatively consistent service to major hubs like Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, etc.

I fly in and out of Pittsburgh, which has a growing amount of flights to the western side of the U.S., many of which are on either American or United. Luckily, those two carriers also fly into ACV and SLO!

Posted by
13079 posts

“The Redwoods” are scattered between various units of California State Park and National Park lands, with no discrete boundary you will be aware of. There is no traditional entrance gate into Redwood National Park. Some of the best redwood groves are north of Arcata, in Patrick Point State Park, and other groves. This is why I suggested spending two nights in Trinidad, rather than Arcata. (Along with my opinion that it is a nicer place to stay. Read some lodging reviews of Arcata on TripAdvisor and you will see what I mean.)

This Humboldt County Tourist Guide offers some good suggestions for touring, hiking, and seeing the redwoods:

https://www.visitredwoods.com/explore-the-redwoods/redwood-national-park/

I consider Fern Canyon a “don’t miss” in the north area. Stop in the visitor center near Orick to get maps and suggestions for your day in this area. (Day 2 of your trip, having flown into Arcata the day before). Then the next day (Day 3) drive south past Eureka, maybe stopping to see Ferndale (which unlike Arcata is a nice little town), and take the Avenue of the Giants. Benbow Inn is a nice historic inn but if that is not to your taste you might find something in Garberville.

Next day head on south, aiming for Fort Bragg on the coast (turn off for Highway 1 at Leggett). I like to stop in Richardson Grove as well but you will pay to park.

I flew into Arcata over 40 years ago, so this is not a new airport on the scene.

Posted by
794 posts

Do the coast this trip. Then plan to do a trip from Tahoe to Mojave/Los Angeles down hwy 395 on the east side of the Sierras. You can do Yosemite/Sequoia/Kings Canyon along with that and see a totally different California. It's one of the best, unknown, scenic routes in the USA.

Posted by
93 posts

WOW, Nathan and all the great ideas from everyone is making me want to take a road trip! I’m bookmarking this topic. Thanks everyone.

Posted by
3336 posts

5th generation Californian here! Born and raised in San Francisco and Sonoma County and now I live in Los Angeles.
**Arcata* - I personally LOVE this town. The town square is classic Americana with a great farmers market many days during the week. Lots of great restaurants. The town is the perfect place to see the area. Two full days there is perfect. Besides the Redwoods you can go to Glass Beach, drive out west to the windswept dunes and the beach (you'll feel like you are the only person in the world). Also make sure to eat at the Samoa Cookhouse just outside of town...it's an old eatery that was originally for the loggers and was built in the 1890s. It's a great experience and the small logging museum there will give you a sense of the history of the area.
Gualala - if you can time it so you arrive there for lunch try to get a reservation at St. Orres. It's a very unique inn/restaurant that is hand built, wooden, and beautiful. Just south of Gualala is Sea Ranch - stop off and there is a very unique chapel that is quintessential northern California style.
Bolinas - just near Point Reyes is the small town of Bolinas. The place is a holdover from the 60s-70s hippie movement and is interesting for a stop-off. For many years the residents have continually torn down the sign that points from the main highway to the town but you can see it on any map to drive out there. Very unique houses and cute town. They are welcoming but just don't want to be overrun by tourists.
Armstrong Grove - most people go to Muir Woods to see the redwoods. It is a stunning grove but very overrun with visitors because of its proximity to San Francisco...parking can be very difficult there if not impossible. I would suggest taking a small detour inland along the Russian River to a town called Guerneville. Just a couple of minutes outside of town is Armstrong Grove. Every bit as nice as Muir Woods but with hardly anyone there.
Big Sur and highway 1 - make sure to check that it is open before proceeding south from Carmel. It was just reopened a few days ago AGAIN since the highway was damaged by a slide in recent rains. Sometimes they will close it for further repair. If you can drive it then make sure to stop off at Ventana or Post Ranch Inn. They are both amazing resorts, for lack of a better word. If you can eat in the restaurant at Post Ranch Inn, do so. There is nothing else like it in the world. Stop off at McWay Falls at Pfeiffer State Beach.
San Luis Obispo - was lucky enough to live here for a while and can highly recommend it! Like others have said the Thursday night farmers market is worth planning for. The Spanish mission in town is one of the original 21 missions in CA that you should take a few minutes to walk into. Montana de Oro State Beach is worth a trip...drive all the way to the end of the road and then work your way back. Highly recommend stopping off near the small visitors center to take a walk along the bluffs. Otters, kelp, wild ocean. So beautiful. A nice stop between Hearst Castle and San Luis Obispo is the small village of Cambria - it's a little touristy but very cute and it a nice place to stop off for lunch. From Cambria you might consider driving up over the hills to Paso Robles - lots of wineries along this route with small, family run places that produce excellent wines! You can intersect with highway 101 and then go south to San Luis Obispo. I wouldn't stay in Morro Bay...it's a little rough around the edges and there isn't much to see besides Morro Rock and some touristy shops along the waterfront.