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Here's What Happened When I Road Tripped Around Southern California For A Week

Cruising California.

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California is a land of many scenic views: It's got beautiful beaches, beautiful deserts, beautiful farmlands, and more.

The best part? You don't have to choose between them on your next West Coast trip — just take a tour that combines all of the above! That's what I did recently, and it was amazing. By following a somewhat unconventional route east, north, and back south down the coast again, you can hit all of Southern California's sweet spots in one trip in just a week.


1. Fly into Orange County, and spend the night there.

Annie Daly

John Wayne Airport is a much less crowded alternative to LAX, and you can still pick up your rental car and spend a night on the beach. Newport Beach and Laguna Beach are two good choices here.

If you're coming off a long flight, there are several nearby airport hotels, like the unfussy Courtyard Marriott Santa Ana, where you can watch the sunset from the serene, sandy beaches, or order room service and crash early in prep for your big adventure.

2. Leave Orange County and head into Palm Springs.

A hot desert land of sharp lines and bright colors, Palm Springs is a total culture shock from the soft surfer zen you just left. It's a fairly boring 100-mile two-hour journey, but you'll get there early enough for a brunch at Kings Highway, the celebrated diner of the Ace Hotel Palm Springs. Don't miss the avocado toast or ricotta pancakes, with a classic Bloody Mary.

Ace Hotel is also an amazing place to stay in Palm Springs. The rooms at this SoCal location of the hippest hotel brand are so cozy that you'll want to sleep in, but the pool, staffed with an all-day DJ in the shadow of a gorgeous mountain range, is where you should spend the bulk of your day.

3. Hit up Palm Canyon Drive.

When you're ready to dry off, head to Palm Canyon Drive. The main strip of Palm Springs, it's lined with midcentury modern art and design boutiques and furniture shops; A La Mod furniture is my favorite. Before calling it a night, enjoy a root beer float or milk shake, including lactose-free flavors, at Great Shakes.


4. Wake up early and hit the road.

Pick up a coffee at the Stumptown kiosk in the Ace Hotel lobby and leave as the sun is coming up for a day trip into the desert. Taking Route 10, you'll pass through a handful of little desert towns with their own claims to fame; if you're hungry, Keedy's in Palm Desert is a rare find.

The real adventure, however, doesn't begin until you drive by Coachella and onto Route 111, passing the mysterious Salton Sea and Bombay Beach on your way to Salvation Mountain, which is quite literally in the middle of nowhere.

5. Hop back in the car and drive to Joshua Tree National Park.

Annie Daly

It's easy to become transfixed with Leonard Knight's powerful ode to spirituality and its eerily quiet surroundings, but you've got to hop back in the car to pass through Slab City, a cross between a commune and art installation where cell phone service is non-existent, on your way to Joshua Tree.

Annie Daly

The 60-minute drive here is so gorgeous and legendary, and the plateaus and arches you'll drive through are Pixar-like in their existence, but eventually you'll arrive at the visitors' center to grab a map for a quick day hike. (However, if you're there during the heart of summer, skip the hike; it's WAY too hot.)

If you're unfamiliar with the roads, get out of there before sunset and leave an hour of driving time in daylight, at the least. After that hike, though, stop in Indio for the closest In N' Out Burger and their legendary tiny peppers.


6. Make it another early morning and do an early-morning drive to the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Facebook: MojaveAirport

You could spend an entire week solely in Palm Springs if you wanted to (eating at Cheeky's, checking out the flora at Moorten Botanical Garden), but you should make it another early morning and drive to visit the Mojave Air and Space Port.

7. And then make your way out to Bakersfield for the evening.

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If you're not an aviation fanatic, the stop-off may not be as exciting for you. The saving grace is a tiny little diner, the Voyager Airport Restaurant, where the menu items are named after moments in aerospace history and each table comes with landing views and a tower radio.

From here, you can spend a quiet night in unassuming Bakersfield. Catch a view of the many art deco sights, like the Fox Theater, and sleep at any number of the airbnbs available just outside of downtown; I stayed at a gorgeous condo maintained by a fun couple who knows their wine. Make it an early night because you'll need the rest.


8. Wake up early and head to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Annemarie Dooling / Via Instagram: @travelinganna

From Bakersfield, it's a 93-mile drive to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Both are underrated, which means short lines, and not to be missed. The drive from desert into lush forest is yet another culture shock of the best kind, and you can park your car at the visitor center to do any number of day hikes past Moro Rock, Crescent Meadow, and the Big Trees Trail before finally meeting up with the General Sherman, the largest living tree in the world.

9. Exit the park via Route 180 and head another 60 miles into the adorable hidden gem of downtown Fresno.

Annemarie Dooling / Via Instagram: @travelinganna

From here, it's all panoramic views through Kings Canyon; this is where a steady rental car with four-wheel drive really pays off. Do not dare get into your car and go until you've eaten the locally sourced burgers and veggies at Dusty Buns, had a tall, hot cup at Cafe Corazon and caught a glimpse of the shimmering top of the iconic Tower Theater.

10. Get back in the car and head to the artichoke capital of the world.

Annemarie Dooling / Via Instagram: @travelinganna

You may be tired, but if you can make the two and a half hour drive through hilly farmland, you'll be sleeping at Pezzini Farms in Castroville, California, the artichoke capital of the world. The very gracious Pezzini family rents out their farm studio, loves meeting people from across the U.S., and you have access to the farm grounds, a gorgeous deck that's perfect for stargazing, and a hot tub. After a long day of driving, sleeping in a chic studio on a completely dark and silent farm is the best medicine.


11. Wake up early and hit the Pacific Coast Highway.

The Pezzini Farms market offers sweet artichoke cupcakes, and you'll need them to power through the next park of the trip, which is drive-heavy and aesthetically pleasing. Go south, starting at Carmel-by-the-Sea, and make your way down the rocky Big Sur stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway.

12. Stop at all of the roadside landmarks on your way into Big Sur.

Annemarie Dooling / Via Instagram: @travelinganna

There are many highlights to see in Big Sur, so be prepared for roadside stop-offs and lots of photo ops at landmarks like the colorful purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach to the iconic swoop of Bixby Bridge (above!) and the views of McWay Falls.

13. And spend some time in the iconic Henry Miller Memorial Library.

First make a lunch stop at the Big Sur Bakery, where you'll find a succinct menu of farm-fresh lunch items and coffees. After that, be sure to check out the Henry Miller Memorial Library. It's got a very distinct commune feel, with a boat in the yard and lots of art installations all over the lawn. Performances run all year round, and the library also has a great collection of books about Big Sur and the surrounding area for sale.

14. Play with the seals!

Flickr: scpgt

You may or may not want to stop off at Hearst Castle; it's a beautiful architectural monument, but costs a pretty penny to visit at $25 per person. You might want to save your cash and pull over a few minutes away at Piedras Blancas viewpoint, instead, to take a #sealfie. Seriously — there are seals everywhere, and the area's quite famous for them!


15. Hit the road again and head to San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispo is often known as one of the surfiest surf towns in the world. But amidst that chilled-out vibe lies the Madonna Inn, a resort so bling Liberace would blush. Stop here for dinner! The food here is actually only okay, but the entire hotel is dripping icing-like with shimmer pink crystals – and that's what you're stopping for. You can even take some of that ambiance home in the form of one of their iconic colorful crystal goblets.

16. Drive one more hour to get to Santa Barbara, where you'll sleep for the night.

Flickr: 23024164@N06

Make it just over another hour and Santa Barbara is a lovely place to lay your head down for the night, with dozens of great airbnbs over the beach, and the vague scent of vineyards wafting off the breezy mountains.

17. Head to Disney California Adventure park!

You've got one more full day left, and to make it count, leave Santa Barbara and head to Disney California Adventure park to end your vacation in the Happiest Place on Earth. Not to be confused with Disneyland, this park is its sister hub built in 2001, and it's focused all on the history of California.

It seems kind of silly to spend a day at a theme park when you've just experienced national parks, desert, and actual aerospace hubs, but Disney's California Adventure park is a super sweet send-off that will remind you of nearly every facet of your California trip.


19. Take in one last view of the sea.

Annemarie Dooling / Via Instagram: @travelinganna

The best part about staying in Anaheim is that it's just minutes from John Wayne Airport, so you can sleep in late, then drive over at leisure to say goodbye to your trusty steed rental car and grab your late-morning flight out of town.