California - don't tear me a new one pls :)

I know I know, this is for Europe travel, but as a frequenter of this board, I'm sure lots of you have been to(or live in) California, and I've posted a few questions on trip advisor without much response, and I love all you guys and gals! I won't get into it here, but if anyone is willing to answer some newbie questions about travelling to Cali, pls mssg me or leave a note below and I'll message you...I just want some info on car rental agencies/tactics, what to see/not to see...we'll be going Sept 21-Oct 6 (tentatively, may be an extra day or two, but no less) flying into San Francisco and out of San Diego...

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
4877 posts

Hi Nicole, I am a 4th generation Californian and have lived here my entire life. What information are you looking for besides car rentals? What are your interests? Have you read any guide books? Either come back and post here or PM me. I'm happy to help.

Posted by Kim
San Francisco
119 posts

You can message me. I live in San Francisco. We are doing a road trip from LA to SF this summer with a friend, so I will have lots of info after that, but I can at least tell you what I am planning and answer SF questions. :) Kim

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

Can I still say I am a native Californian (3d generation) if I don't live there any more? Most of my family is there, so I visit a lot, flying into San Francisco and renting a car. So I can help: The trick is to NOT rent it at the airport.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8760 posts

I've lived in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. If you have a bit of time in San Diego and love animals as we do you could waste time in much worse ways than a day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and/or Zoo. I've never seen an African plain so full of so many animals of so many species in such a natural looking place as the Wild Animal Park. If you are driving the most scenic way to go south is at least part of the Pacific Coast Highway, all the way from San Francisco via Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz and on south around the Monterrey Peninsula and Big Sur. While you are in the north, just over the Golden Gate Bridge is Muir Woods - a magnificent woods very easy to walk in that is full to the bursting point with Coast Redwoods. Santa Barbara is a great place to stop for a night on the way south, and we always stopped for a bite to eat in San Luis Obispo. I hope you have a wonderful time.

Posted by Richard
Los Angeles
633 posts

In San Diego....La Jolla, Del Mar, The Gliderport near Scripps. In Los Angeles there are the standards....Universal Studios, Venice Beach, Hollywood & Highland (even more oddballs than Venice Beach, Malibu. The nicest beach in Los Angeles for upscale homes and shops is Manhattan Beach (IMO). The most scenic is Palos Verdes or my favorite Point Dume. Downtown Los Angeles is being gentrified and actually pretty cool now. Lesser known studio tours like Warner Bros. and Paramount (I'd recommend Warner Bros. unless there is a particular show you are interested in but never a guarantee you'll see the stages) are smaller and more intimate than the Universal Studio tour. Of course driving the PCH through Big Sur. Check for road closure as there have been a lot in the last few years.

Posted by Nicole P
Truro, NS, Canada
713 posts

Thanks for the tips - a few of you I will send private messages to for help. I did get Frommers California Day by Day for my ipad mini (love it in non-book form! So much better to click on links and such instead of writing them down and going on the desktop). I was using their 2-week tour as a starting point, but we'll prob spend 2.5 days in SF (we'll be arriving prob mid-afternoon-ish) then we want to head to Yosemite and prob spend a few nights there (may go via Napa...not sure about that). Then over to Monterey/Big Sur areafor 2-3 nights (driving down the coast), 3 nights LA then 4 in San Diego (the Miramar airshow is on when we are there and hubby def wants to see, so there's a day)..in San Diego def the Zoo, maybe SeaWorld...oh, we'll spend a day between LA And SD in Disneyland...thanks for the Fodors tip, will check that out, and I'll be in touch!

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2612 posts

Near Malibu with a view of the Pacific Ocean is the Self-Realization Gardens. It is a beautiful peaceful garden that was dedicated to Parmashansa Yogananda (sp) Nice way to spend an hour or two. Of course, Balboa Park in San Diego and a drive to the east and you can go to St. Jacobs for pie. The Coves in LaJolla and you can see the seals and partake in all the controversy over them. Presidio Park with nice view of SD as well as Old Town for a bit of a tourist Mexican day. Have fun...Also about 45 minutes to Tijuana by train from Old Town. Near Big Sur there was a great little B&B owned by a family from Austria...can't remember the name. Love CA and I go as often as I can.

Posted by Sherry
San Jose, CA
1139 posts

I second the recommendations about Big Sur. It's a drive I do at least once a month, and my suggestion would be to tour the coast over 2 days, stopping half way (or at least 3 days, if you're going all the way to San Diego). That will give you time to enjoy the scenery (since the driver really needs to keep eyes of the road), and stop to take some walks in the hills or along the ocean. Also, as of a week ago, there were 2 places where traffic is stopped for rebuilding the road after rockfalls... so the drive will take longer than you think. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is amazing, both the exhibits and the views of the Bay; it can easily take at least a half day; recently I saw fascinating special exhibits on sea horses and jelly fish. Carmel has lots of good art galleries, if that interests you. Pacific Grove is my favorite town in the area (beautiful shore, and less touristy). Definitely trying to give yourself an hour or three at the Point Lobos preserve, just south of Carmel; it has stunning and varied ocean views and easy walks to viewpoints. There aren't a lot of places to stay on the coast, so I'd make reservations if it's a weekend, holiday, extended tourist season, or decent/good weather. bigsurcalifornia.org can give you listings. Most will be simple, rustic, and relatively expensive. If you want to splurge, there are places like Post Ranch Inn and Ventana, where you can easily spend 800-1000/day for a room, depending on the view and amenities. Don't expect TV, and FYI, much of the coast lacks cell phone coverage.

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

You should make your Yosemite reservations ASAP to stay inside the park, which I highly recommend. I checked and was surprised to find rooms available at all the in-park lodges and camps for a three-night stay around your time ( but not on the weekend). Usually they are fully booked a year in advance but you are coming late enough it is a bit quieter. Use the official website yosemitepark.com to book, NOT the website " National Park Reservations" which is a third party and charges booking and cancellation fees. Yosemite Lodge and Curry Village are the best located/most affordable. There are also some self-catering places just outside the park at Yosemite West and these are good too, although not right in the Valley like the others.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17792 posts

Nicole, As you're driving between SF and LA, you'll probably pass through the Redwood forest. You could also stop at Hearst Castle for a tour. It's been a few years, but I've driven through that area on several occasions. I don't know if they're still popular attractions, but you could also check out Olvera Street in the "old part" of L.A., Knott's Berry Farm and if you like Amusement Park rides, Six Flags Magic Mountain has some great choices (it's in Valencia, outside of L.A. as I recall). I agree with previous suggestions to visit the San Diego Zoo - it's incredible! Happy travels!

Posted by Nicole P
Truro, NS, Canada
713 posts

Tks for the heads up on Yosemite Lola - right now we are 80% sure of our leaving date (Sept 21, so we'd be in Yo most likely Sept 24), but gotta pin hubby down for sure on that, but we can always play with spending a day in Napa if we end up going a day earlier. I'll def start looking into that. We are much more budget minded when travelling for accom (we do couchsurfing and airbnb is my new best friend) so anything over $100 a night and I start to sweat a little, $150 and I'm in heart-attack land (lol) but sometimes you just gotta go for it. I am def taking notes here...for the record, we like zoos, aquariums, nature, scenery; not so big on culture stuff(wine/art galleries).

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

3rd gen Californian here. Miss my home state. Don't bother with Napa - it's overrated even if it wasn't out of your way, but it is. Once you're done with Big Sur you'll be entering several different much-vaunted wine regions. My favorite town to stay in between Big Sur and L.A. is Avila Beach. It's enchanting. The Avila Beach Inn has funky but clean rooms and a great public roof area where you can BBQ, watch movies, and drink some wine. Cambria is a place people throw around a lot, but I find it overpriced compared to other towns. Here's my proposed itinerary for this part of the trip: Day 1 from Yosemite - drive to Monterey, leaving as early as possible. See the aquarium and overnight in Monterey. Day 2: Departing very early again, drive to/through big sur, stopping to picnic ont he beach or go hiking in the redwoods. Arrive at San Simeon early afternoon, tour Hearst Castle (it's a must see, seriously!) Just south of Heast Castle you'll see a bunch of cars pulled over by the beach. Stop, because that's where the Elephant Seals are. On your way to Avila Beach, stop for a drink and look-see at the Madonna Inn in nearby San Luis Obispo, it's a trip. Overnight Avila Beach. Day 3: Depart Avila Beach, head for the Santa Ynez Valley, it's a great wine region. Wine taste, lunching in Los Olivos or Santa Barbara. You might as well stay on the 1 and enjoy the great views driving into L.A. on the Pacific Coast Highway, through Malibu (fish tacos!!) and into Santa Monica. I would not take less than 3 days to see the Central Coast, it's got some of the best sights in the state, and driving those twisty roads with limited time is just grueling anyway. Feel free to message me for more info!

Posted by Cindy
San Jose
39 posts

One thing people don't seem to get about California is that is has many micro climates. So elevation, nearness to ocean, being in an inland valley can all affect the weather. It can be 70 degrees in Palm Springs and 30 degrees at the top of a nearby mountain. Make sure your packing strategy includes the ability to layer.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Cindy makes a good point. If you're lucky, along the coast we'll be having our typical late summer warm weather (seems we get the warmest days in Sept and early Oct) but you never know. It can ALWAYS be - and often is - windy and chilly on the coast, even in Southern California. San Francisco is famously damp and cold. But the inland areas might still be quite hot that time of year, even in the high 90s. So pack smartly!

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

Nicole, the Curry Village tent cabins will be a wee bit over $100 but not so much as to send your heart into arrhythmia. They are simple and rustic but the bath/shower rooms are clean and have plenty of hot water. The location, near the Happy Isles trailhead with a view of Half Dome from some of the areas around camp ( but not from the cabins) can't be beat. We have stayed there before hiking up Half Dome and it is fine. The other budget option is Housekeeping Camp which has cooking areas for each unit (you supply the camp stove), but I find these concrete and canvas structures pretty dreary. If you want to go cheaper, consider renting gear and camping. You could use it in Yosemite and also camp along the Big Sur coast, which is a treat. You can rent a tent ( and sleeping bags and pads if you need them) at REI stores. MIT may be possible to rent at one location and return at another, but I'm not sure. I can check on that if you like. If not, you could rent just for Yosemite and return it to the same BaynArea location where you rented, before heading to Monterey. There is a hostel near Yosemite but I would not recommend it. Stay IN the valley for the Yosemite experience. Sarah---are you my long-lost cousin? My family roots in central California run deep. My early summers were all spent at Avila Beach (this was in the 1950's, long before the town was rebuilt).

Posted by Nicole P
Truro, NS, Canada
713 posts

I think where we are going to be renting a car, we're gonna take an extra luggage since we won't have to haul it on and off trains and buses (we always take 1 carry on/personal size each when going to Europe), so we'll have an extra carry on (as long as it doesn't get lost along the way - less essiential stuff only!) to carry some fleece and rain stuff..or if all else fails, buy some (like we had to last time in UK). Thanks for suggesting camping, but God, we did that 20 yrs ago and after a few camping trips, never again...not ready to relive THOSE days! I was checking airbnb and see some places near Yose for 75-100 with some great reviews. Thanks for some much help - I'm really overwhelmed (in a good way)...I have a notepad to make some notes and get in touch with some of you personally...

Posted by Susan and Monte
Granite Bay, CA
681 posts

Native Californian here, but honestly I've traveled more out of the state than in it. Funny how the grass is always greener.... However, I put off going to Yosemite because Lake Tahoe is essentially in my backyard, and I figured mountains were mountains. Then I went. Magnificent! Don't know if you'd have the time for Mammoth or Mono Lake or Bodie, all really great places to visit. Also, make sure you see the giant sequoias. Really, I need to vacation in California, too bad Europe calls us so strongly! Maybe when we are old and broke we'll see more of California.

Posted by Rosalyn
Berkeley
1010 posts

My bona fides: I've lived in California since 1960, you know, back in the last millenium. When Sherry says Pt. Lobos is "stunning," she's not even beginning to indicate its glory. Do not miss! On the other hand, Big Sur leaves me rather indifferent. Give the Monterey Peninsula at least two full days; and, as someone else suggested, stay in Pacific Grove. Yosemite is also smashing and a place you must go. We like the Napa Valley a lot, but we go only off-season as it has become very crowded and touristy between June and September. If you want to visit a northern CA wine area, pm me and I can point you at some quieter ones. Muir Woods is a great suggestion, as it's so close to SF. You'll get the Golden Gate Bridge and the redwood forest experience on the same daytrip.

Posted by Susan
Sausalito, California
3209 posts

Been here 47 yrs... I would not stay in Pacific Grove, I'm not a fan, but I love, love, love the small town of Carmel. Looks like a Cotswald village, very charming and right on the ocean with a fantastic beach, next to Pebble Beach. Even if you don't spend the night there, don't miss spending a couple hours there. If you do spend the night, which I love doing, I recommend: Lobos Lodge, Normandy Inn or the Monte Verde. I agree that Napa is over-rated. Nice, but way, way down on my list. If time is short I would not recommend. Do take the ferry from SF to Sausalito, very fun ride and charming town on the water. Or, rent bikes by Ghirardelli Sq and ride from there through the Marina, Presidio (Crissy Field), over the GG Bridge, down through Ft. Baker (at the base of the bridge and on the water where you can stop for a drink or food - beautiful place), then into Sausalito - then either ride back or take the ferry back. It will be a highlight of your trip! SF has a great walking tour co. called SF Guides at SFCityGuides.com. Lots of very fun 2 hr guided walks in many neighborhoods. They are free - donations welcome but no one notices if you donate or not. Sarah says it's damp and cold in SF in Sept/Oct - not my experience at all. Those are our warmest months and can be anywhere from high 70's to high 90's. We've had a very mild winter this year, mostly in the high 50's to high 60's everyday with blue skies and sun. We've had very few rainy days. Spent yesterday and today in SF and saw people in parks (Washington Sq in North Beach, and Crissy Field) in swimsuits soaking up the sun. Happy to help you more too, just PM me.

Posted by Sherry
San Jose, CA
1139 posts

A few other thoughts. If SF is ever warm, Sept/Oct is the time (having always lived in the Bay Area... for more years than I care to admit), but it can also be changeable. When the Central Valley cools down, fog no longer gets sucked into the Bay and SF can warm up. I'd suggest skipping Napa (or if you insist on that area, go to Sonoma Valley instead); better yet (and cheaper), there are some really nice wineries south of Big Sur, starting in the area naer Cambria (eg, along the road the connects Highways 101 and 1 just south of Cambria). If budget accomidations on the coast are of interest, the best you'll do in the Monterey area is along Highway 1 in the towns north of Monterey (eg, Seaside, Sand City); you'll need to drive for touring, but they are markedly cheaper. If you head south of that, Carmel is by far most expensive, Pacific Grove is moderate if you stick with the motels, and Monterey is expensive along the wharf but there are some cheaper areas; in my experience, Monterey is also a less scenic town then the others, particularly once you venture away from the aquarium and historic areas. In Big Sur (actual village, vs whole coastline) some of the lodgings have tent cabins that you can rent, right along the Big Sur River; it's probably the cheapest you'll find in that area; I'd suggest calling some of the places and asking who has them; they are on the right side of the highway when you're heading south, about half way through the village (which stretches for several miles). If you pass that area by, plan on staying south of the Big Sur coast; there are some budget motels a little north of Hearst Castle; that's probably the cheapest you'll find in that part of the coast.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
4877 posts

"Do take the ferry from SF to Sausalito, very fun ride and charming town on the water. Or, rent bikes by Ghirardelli Sq and ride from there through the Marina, Presidio (Crissy Field), over the GG Bridge, down through Ft. Baker (at the base of the bridge and on the water where you can stop for a drink or food - beautiful place), then into Sausalito - then either ride back or take the ferry back. It will be a highlight of your trip!" My cousin was visiting from Germany and we did many things, but the #1 one thing on her list of things she must do was riding bikes from Fisherman's Wharf to Sausalito and taking the ferry back. If you do this, and it is great, be prepared for it to be cold and windy while riding over the Golden Gate Bridge. Someone mentioned Bodie, a ghost town east of Yosemite. There is nowhere else like it. My great great grandfather had a store in Bodie when it was a bustling town. If you have the time it is definitely worth it.

Posted by Karen
Santa Rosa, CA
612 posts

Our first trip to California was almost 27 years ago for our Honeymoon in San Francisco. We moved to Northern California 13 years ago and we still love driving over the Golden Gate Bridge to spend the day or overnight in the city.
San Francisco favorites- Walk across the Golden Gate bridge, or at least to mid span. Walk through Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach. Take the ferry to someplace, Sausilito, Alcatraz. If you are into wine, spend a day or two up in Wine Country, a hour drive from San Francisco. Perhaps one day in Napa valley, and the second day in Sonoma County. My husband and I have our favorite wineries we take visitors to so PM me if you are interested in specific recommendations or ideas. Definitely stop in Carmel, especially if you are a dog lover. Carmel is the most dog friendly place on earth. We go to Carmel at least once a year. San Diego-definitely take the boat out to Coronado Island, walk or take a cab to the Hotel Del, and walk down the beach. The zoo in San Diego is one of the best we've been to.

Posted by Susan and Monte
Granite Bay, CA
681 posts

Also, while in SF of course do Lombard Street with the steep winding road, and at least drive through China Town (it's a kick), or walk it if you have time.
Typically, fall has the best weather for the coastline.

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

So this just shows we all have our own private California. Some say do this, do that, and others say skip those same things. My California was the one I was born and raised in, but since then I have discovered so much more as a visitor. Three-day inn to inn hikes along the beautiful coast north of San Francisco? Yes. Camping and hiking in Yosemite every summer? Yes. LA and movie studios? No, thank you. Is San Francisco cold and foggy all the time? It depends. My son lives in the Mission District. It can be a beautiful sunny day there, and we decide to go downtown. Jump on BART and head downtown, only to find fog. On another day, it could be different. We have seen plenty of sunny days in downtown SF, epecially in late September and early Octobeer.

Posted by Barry
San Diego, CA
588 posts

Nigel, funny you mentioned earthquakes, we had one just this morning here in the San Diego area, it was a 4.7, just before 10 AM local time. Nicole, if you have any questions about San Diego feel free to PM me, I've lived here for almost 40 years.

Posted by Nicole P
Truro, NS, Canada
713 posts

As much as an earthquake would be an experience, pls tell your earth shakers to put them on hold in Sept...lol

Posted by Barry
San Diego, CA
588 posts

I'll see what I can do as far as holding off the quakes! Some people are very scared of them but the way to view them it to keep them in perspective. I'd much rather go through an earthquake that usually lasts less than 10 seconds than a hurricane, storm or snow storm like the ones that have hit the east coast this past year and happen a lot more often. First of all they pretty much come as a surprise so there is no build up of worry to rack the nerves. The last one of any significance was in 1994, the Northridge earthquake.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8760 posts

I agree that SF can have sunshine. Cold summers though - remember Mark Twain. I used to live out by Lake Merced in the southwest part of the city just over the sand from the water and then in Daly City a couple of minutes further south. I used to leave home in fog so thick you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, go into the Mission for a day's work, go out at lunchtime into the sunshine, and head home just in time to arrive into a fog bank as I got close to home so another day for mowing the lawn went up the spout. We even had special traffic lights at road level so that you didn't have to try and see the ones in the normal position. Loved SF. My first ever earthquake was on on the GGB.

Posted by Susan
Sausalito, California
3209 posts

"So this just shows we all have our own private California. Some say do this, do that, and others say skip those same things." So true! I was thinking the same thing. Interesting how it also applies to Europe as we see so often in people's advice. Nicole, wanted to add not to miss going to the Ferry Building in SF... amazing place for foodies, great views on the water side and just plain fun. Be sure to get a Blue Bottle coffee :)

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8760 posts

Absolutely. For the Northridge earthquake I found myself in an office building 10th floor restroom. I'm still alive.

Posted by Glenn
Grand Falls-Windsor, NL, Canada
307 posts

As others have already indicated, absolutely plan on driving the Pacific Coast Highway from SF down to LA, not the main freeway...it's an incredibly beautiful and scenic drive and you will not be disappointed.

Posted by Edwin
Arlington, VA, USA
248 posts

Try to be in Oakland on a Sunday for brunch. Eat at Lois the Pie Queen, some wonderful home cooking. Heck, try any day of the week she has her place open. Another restaurant recommendation is the Florida Street Cafe for lunch. Call ahead of time to ensure they are open.

Posted by Chani
Tel Aviv
3511 posts

Best thing I did around Monterey was the Elkhorn Slough tour - saw lots of wildlife up close and personal, especially otters, soooo cute. The 17-Mile Drive is very pretty, but you have to pay to drive through Pebble Beach. There is an alternate route, just as pretty, that I took, but I can't remember it. I got the information from the Trip Advisor forums. . . as well as advice on cheaper lodgings. Then Point Lobos was gorgeous - warm, sunny weather (mid-October) then drove to Big Sur for the night. We woke to blue skies, and drove the scenic road along the coast to Hearst Castle. Sadly, though up where we were, it was sunny, all we saw below us was the marine layer over the coast. There's no way to know. On the way to San Diego, you pass Mission San Juan Capistrano. There are missions all along the way from San Francisco, this one is the most beautiful and interesting. Be prepared for really slow traffic through the LA area to San Diego. My experience is that early morning and late evening are best, rush hour and weekends are the worst.