The Ultimate California Winter Road Trip
The Ultimate California Road Trip| Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
California is the perfect place to take a road trip during the winter.
While much of the country prepares for snow, the weather in California (outside of the mountains, of course) remains pretty reasonable throughout the season.
Depending on your starting point, and how much time you have, there are endless variations of this itinerary. Below you will find the details of our recommended, twelve-day, ultimate California road trip from Orange County.
Pack the car, it’s time to hit the road!
Day One: Orange County to Santa Barbara
With a full tank of gas and plenty of snacks for the road, make your way north on the 5 freeway out of Orange County towards Los Angeles. If you’re leaving on a weekday, it’s best to depart either before rush hour traffic (think 5:00-6:00 a.m.) or after (10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.). Even still, when driving through the L.A. area, always anticipate that you will run in to some variation of traffic! Before you hit downtown, you’ll pick up the 101 freeway towards Hollywood, and eventually Ventura. Without traffic, you can expect to arrive in the Ventura area in about two hours. Ventura is a quirky little beach town and worth a stop (there’s an In N Out right off the freeway!). About 20 minutes ahead, is the city of Santa Barbara, a fun college town with plenty to explore.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara:
There are a number of hotel and B&B options in Santa Barbara, so this is a good place to stop for the day. When we visited the area, we opted to stay in Santa Ynez , which is about 30 minutes north, and in wine country.
What to do in the Santa Barbara Region:
Check out the Wineries: There are 120+ wineries in the Santa Ynez area, so you could easily spend a couple of days drinking your way around them all!
Explore Downtown: There are tons of shops and restaurants in this vibrant beach-side town.
Visit Solvang: This little Danish town is a popular destination for travelers to the area. Here, you’ll find cute Danish buildings, delicious pastries, and even a windmill! Since the town is small, you can see it in just a few hours.
Eat at Pea Soup Andersen’s: Driving up the 101, it’s impossible to miss the giant billboards advertising for this eatery in Buellton (located just off the freeway). Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but go for the nostalgia and to say that you’ve been just once.
Day Two: Santa Barbara to Monterey
Get an early jump-start on your day, by hitting the road and stopping for breakfast in San Luis Obispo at the unique, Madonna Inn. From there, you’ll separate from the 101 freeway which heads inland, and instead switch over to California 1 or Pacific Coast Highway.
Just an hour north make your next stop at Hearst Castle. Plan to spend several hours at the castle, and be sure to make a reservation in advance as tours are quite popular. We highly recommend the Upstairs Tour as it was less crowded than the Grand Rooms Tour on our visit, and provided a more in-depth look at the estate.
After you’ve had your fill at Hearst Castle, continue up Highway 1 as it winds along the beautiful coastline. Don’t miss some of our favorite spots in Big Sur including McWay Falls and the iconic Bixby Bridge.
Have a late lunch and pint at Big Sur Taphouse, or dinner at one of the many restaurants with a view. Be sure to catch the sunset at Pfeiffer Beach’s Keyhole Arch, a photographer’s dream!
Where to Stay in the Big Sur Region:
There are a number of options if you decide to spend a night or two in Big Sur, from hotels to cabins to campgrounds. The hotels in the area are a bit on the pricey side, so on our trip we opted to stay in nearby Monterey, which is about an hour north. There are also some affordable accommodations in Caramel.
Days Three to Five: Exploring Big Sur and Monterey
Wherever you decide to stay, we recommend you spend at least two days in Big Sur and Monterey. There is quite a bit to explore in each location and this itinerary could easily be expanded even further if needed.
What to do in Big Sur:
Hike the Ewoldsen Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: You’ll be treated to scenic views of the coastline after hiking through gorgeous redwoods.
Explore Point Lobos State Reserve: This is a great alternative to doing to 17-Mile Drive. There are several easy hiking trails that take you along the shoreline and through groves of cypress trees. You may even encounter deer there like we did while exploring this stunning reserve!
Watch the Sunset at McWay Falls: No trip to Big Sur would be complete with a visit to the overlook for McWay Falls. It’s amazing every time we visit!
What to do in Monterey:
Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium: A must-do if you are interested in having a peak at life under the sea, or seeing sea otters up close.
Walk the Path of History: Only two miles long, the path is easily identifiable by the yellow markers in the ground. You’ll get a nice tour of the city, see some historic buildings, and may even learn a thing or two. Did you know Monterey was the capital of Alta California?
Where to Eat in Monterey:
Enjoy Fish and Chips at the British pub, the Crown and Anchor.
Grab a beer at the Alvarado Street Brewery.
Chow-down on a bowl of Clam Chowder at Old Fisherman’s Grotto.
Days Six and Seven: Monterey to San Francisco
Bid farewell to Monterey and head north on Highway 1. Stop for a breakfast burrito in Santa Cruz, and take a walk along the boardwalk. From there, you can take the coastal route, and continue North on Highway 1 to San Francisco. Points of interest include Shark Finn Cove, Half Moon Bay,and the famous Mavericks Beach. Another option is to take Highway 17 trough the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Jose. Points of Interest include Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and The Winchester Mystery House.
Both routes are beautiful drives, and if you have extra time you could potentially do both. If you are driving to San Francisco from San Jose, we recommend taking highway 280, as it is more scenic than the 101. Either way, heading north will lad you in City by the Bay, better known as San Francisco.
The two of us love San Francisco with its cool weather, endless dining options, quirky neighborhoods, and a huge list of must visit destinations.
Where to Stay in San Francisco:
There are no shortage of options in the city, though it can certainly be pricey. Our advice is to find something that is centrally located to all of the action. A good place to start is Union Square, which is pretty central and provides a number of hotel and dining options. Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist hot spot and will certainly be crowded, but is something to consider if you’re traveling with a family. Wherever you choose to stay, keep in mind that parking in the city is expensive. Street parking can be an option, though you may have to park on one of the city’s many hills! A Third option is to stay outside of the city and take public transit in via the BART or Cal Train.
What to do in San Francisco:
Certainly not an exhaustive list since there are so many things to do in and around the city! Here are some good places to start.
Walk or Bike the Golden Gate Bridge: It’s the iconic symbol of the city and everyone should try all three forms of transportation at least once. There’s a good chance the bridge will be crowded if you visit during peak times of day and you may even encounter some of the famous fog.
Indulge in a Chocolate Sundae at Ghirardelli Square: If you like chocolate like we do, then you’ll want to enjoy the deliciousness on display here. Grab a sundae and a seat.
Take in Fisherman’s Wharf: Definitely a tourist trap, but if you’ve never been to Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s worth a visit.
Lombard Street: Affectionately known as the “world’s crookedest street,” this is another tourist hot spot worth visiting at least once. Aim for a weekday and off-peak hours and you may actually be able to enjoy the short drive down.
Escape to Alcatraz: Take a boat across the bay to tour this famous former prison. Remember to book tickets in advance!
Go to the top of Coit Tower: The 210 foot tower is another iconic marker in the city, and a popular destination for visitors since it’s opening in 1933. Parking is limited, so be prepared to wait for a spot. Admission is $2-8 depending on your age.
Grab a slice of pizza in Little Italy: Every neighborhood in San Francisco is brimming with delectable eats, and it’s hard to go wrong wherever you choose to go. Since Julie and I both have Italian roots, we loved eating in North Beach, and had some tasty pizza at Tony’s Slice House.
Visit Sausalito: Get out of the city and head across the Golden Gate Bridge to this cute town on the water. It’s a good and popular bike ride from San Francisco and there are a number of quality dining options.
Explore the Redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument: Another destination outside of the city, and one in which you can stretch your hiking legs a bit. Since much of the monument is easily accessible, expect to find crowds if you come during peak times of day. On our visit, we parked at the top of Muir Woods and hiked down to avoid cars in the main lot.
Visit Land’s End: Parking is hard to come by at this location, but if you can snag a spot there is a ton to walk around and see at Land’s End. Don’t miss the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or the opportunity to walk along one of the many hiking trails to see coastal views and a different perspective of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Drive out to Point Reyes National Seashore: Point Reyes Station lies about an hour north of San Francisco, and then it’s about another 45 minutes out to the lighthouse. Along the way you’ll be treated to views of coastal cattle pastures, and can makes stops at Instagram worthy locations like the famous shipwreck, and the Cypress Tree Tunnel. If you have extra time, stop at Cowgirl Creamery to sample some delicious cheeses.
Day Eight: San Francisco to Sonoma
Head north on the 101 to Santa Rosa, about an hour from San Francisco. While in town, be sure to visit Russian River Brewing Company. Some of the best beers in the world are made here, including the famous Pliny the Elder and the elusive Pliny the Younger. The brew pub also serves some delicious food and we highly recommend the pizza. 🙂
From Santa Rosa, head east on the 12 for 40 minutes to the town of Sonoma.
Where to Stay in Sonoma:
In the heart of wine country, you’ll want to stay in Sonoma or Napa and then make your way around to the wineries from there. We have stayed in both cities, but prefer the small town feel of Sonoma. On our first trip to the region, we stayed at the Lodge at Sonoma and loved it!
Things to do in Sonoma:
Wineries: This seems to be a no-brainer if you’re headed to this region. Though I’m not a big wine drinker, Julie loves them all, with a particular nod to reds. We visited Menage a Trois, a wine that is produced by Folie á Duex (translated to “madness shared by two”…and also a great Fall Out Boy album! 🙂 It’s a popular, and inexpensive, California wine and one of Julie’s go to options.
Cheese Tasting: Along with chocolate, cheese is a fantastic option to pair with wine and we love it in its many forms. Check out Vella Cheese in Sonoma which has been hand crafting cheese since 1931!
Yountville: You may have heard of Yountville thanks to its two famous, Michelin starred restaurants, Bouchon Bistro and French Laundry. Since we didn’t have reservations or the deep pockets for either, we opted to grab some treats from Bouchon Bakery. Expect to wait in a good-sized line for these delectable snacks.
Days Nine to Eleven: Sonoma to Yosemite
An early start is essential as you leave the Bay Area behind. Journey along the 12 East to the 4 East, eventually connecting to the 120 East, bound for Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite is beautiful any time of year, but we think everything looks a bit more magical with a proper dusting of snow.
Admission to the park during winter is $25.00 and gets you seven days of access. The cost rises to $30.00 between April and October, or you can purchase an annual pass for $60.00. Remember to carry chains with you when visiting the park in winter, as the roads can be slick or covered entirely.
Where to Stay in Yosemite:
Yosemite Valley Lodge is our go-to for our trips to Yosemite. Located in Yosemite Valley, it’s a good location to make your home-base during your stay. Rates are a bit more reasonable than the luxurious Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
What to do in Yosemite:
Explore the Valley: Depending on the snow levels, hiking may hard to come by as many trails become impassable. However, you can comfortably walk around the valley and take in its beauty. Sunset views of Half Dome are some of our favorite.
Snowshoe to Dewey Point: The trek isn’t particularly difficult, but can be slow going with the snow. It’s 3.5 miles one way out to the point and the views are spectacular! A free shuttle takes you from the valley floor up to the Badger Pass Ski Area where the hike begins. You can rent snowshoes and trekking poles on-site and be on your way in no time!
Hike one of the famous trails: If the snow levels are lower, hiking can be a great option. In the past, we were able to complete the Panorama Loop Trail and the Upper Yosemite Falls trails, though there were some icy patches, so we recommend having traction.
Pack up the car and head home!
Ideas for Extending Your California Road Trip
1. Start in San Diego
San Diego is a fun region to explore, and you could easily spend several days there and not see everything. If you have just one day, we recommend starting your day with breakfast in the Gaslamp District, visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, taking in a sunset in LaJolla, and having dinner at Bronx Pizza.
2. Visit Orange County
This was our starting point, so we didn’t include it in the trip itinerary. However, if you are not from Southern California, you might consider spending a day or two in this area. Disneyland is a popular choice for theme park enthusiasts. We also recommend taking a drive along PCH and stopping in some of the beach cities. Laguna Beach is a favorite for views, and Newport Beach has a vibrant surf culture. Don’t forget to have a famous Original Frozen Banana on Balboa Island!
3. Stop in Los Angeles
L.A. is another stop that you could spend some serious time in depending on your interests. Having grown up in Southern California, the “Hollywood” sights have lost their glamour for us. We do enjoy visiting some of the museums like The Getty and The Huntington Library, going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and there are tons of cool little neighborhoods to explore and grab a bite to eat in like Koreatown, Pasadena, and Venice Beach. Long Beach is another great city in L.A. County, as it is home to The Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific. If you are fond of hiking adventures like us, consider heading to the San Gabriel Mountains for a day hike. Here are some of our favorites: Southern California Day Hikes
4. Visit Pinnacles National Park
For National Park enthusiasts, stay an extra day in Monterey and drive over to Pinnacles National Park. We recommend visiting through the East Entrance and hiking the Bear Gulch – High Peaks Loop, which will take about an hour and 20 minutes.
5. Continue North to the Redwoods
If you have a few extra days and don’t mind putting more miles on your car, you might consider heading all the way up to the top of California to visit Redwoods National and State Parks. Eureka is roughly five hours north of Sonoma, and the scenery along the way is breathtaking.
6. Visit the Shasta Region
One of our favorite hikes, Castle Dome, is located in the Shasta-Redding region of Northern California. Redding is a great town to stay in if you are interested in going on adventures to Castle Crags State Park, Lake Shasta, Burney Falls, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and more.
7. Hit the slopes in Lake Tahoe
The Sierra Nevada Mountains turn into a winter wonderland, and the Lake Tahoe region boasts some of the best snow sports terrain in California. If you are looking for a more laid-back vibe, stay in the Town of Truckee and ski in North Tahoe. If you are interested in nightlife, South Lake Tahoe is a great option to hit the casino after the slopes.
8. Walk among giants in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
You might consider stopping by these other two national parks on your way home from Yosemite. The Road into Kings Canyon is usually closed throughout most of winter, but many of the groves in Sequoia usually are accessible. Check road conditions before you visit.
9. Evade the Heat in Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks
Winter is the perfect time to visit the desert in California because the temperatures are much cooler than the blistering 100 + degrees that over the rest of the year. If you have time, consider ending your road trip with a visit to one of these unique places.
This has been an awesome road trip adventure and we hope you enjoyed it! Let us know what you think in the comments!