It's 11:40 p.m., and we've been driving for about 14 hours straight. Technically we're on a road trip, but the road disappeared a few minutes ago, and now our rented minivan (lovingly nicknamed "The Fogslayer") is gliding precariously through a slippery, sandy trail that's being quickly reclaimed by the surrounding desert.
Eventually, we make it up the dusty hill to our destination: a tiny house in the middle of Joshua Tree. We climb out into the warm desert air, stretch our limbs, and turn off the headlights. But there's still ambient light. We slowly crane our necks up toward the source: no big deal, it's just about a billion stars we've never even seen before. "Holy $#&!" someone mutters. "Is that the Milky Way?!"
This is just one of many extraordinary experiences we encountered on our journey down the California coast. Travelocity and the Travelocity Roaming Gnome invited four of us — Casey, a California newbie from the East Coast; Justin, an L.A. local and expert in navigating curvy roads and desert terrain; Jason, our producer; and Aubree, our photo director — to road-trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Our goal? To wander wisely, seeking out the most interesting places we could find and using trustworthy tips from our all-knowing leader, the Roaming Gnome, along the way.
After booking our car, flights, and hotels on Travelocity, we met up in San Francisco and drove on from there. The first leg of the trek took us along the Pacific Coast Highway (known to Californians simply as “PCH” or the 1), which meanders along the ocean cliffs of Northern California, making for some amazing mountain scenery and truly breathtaking ocean views.
Luckily, we set aside enough time to stop and enjoy the views and take some photos, because this drive is gorgeous.
Our first stop was The Mystery Spot, a little roadside curiosity near Santa Cruz nestled in a beautiful part of the Redwood Forest. According to the legend, the Mystery Spot is a cabin built on a strange magnetic peculiarity that causes weird, seemingly physics-defying things to happen.
Casey: OK, this was crazy. Look how slanted we are!
Justin: I couldn’t figure out the physics of it, but I still feel like it’s more of a real-life optical illusion than a warp in space-time or something. It’s definitely a cool place to see!
Casey: Oh, you nonbeliever! What about when we stood on either side of those pieces of wood and then switched spots? How did I get taller? Those boards were LEVEL. We saw it!
Justin: Did we though? Did we? I mean, we did...but did we?
Aubree: Running the risk of sounding like a maniac, I am a total believer. I legit believe in wizards and all things magic. So this place got me! I can't say for sure what's going on here, but I can say I like it!
Justin: It’s really good for photos, too. You probably won’t have good cell service, but you can get some good pics to post later.
The Winchester House is a must on this trip. Located in San Jose, the Mystery House is a bizarre architectural oddity with a fascinating history. Here’s the short version: Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, was told by a psychic that she was cursed by the ghosts of everyone who died at the barrels of her family’s rifles, and they would continue to haunt her...unless she did something for them (aka give them a home). In order to appease the ghosts, she spent the next 40 years or so building elaborate rooms, bizarre hallways, and other strange architectural additions to her mansion.
Justin: This was my favorite part of the entire trip! You could spend a full week exploring this place. Definitely take the tour. It’s amazing.
Casey: There are like 160 rooms! And the whole place is so bizarre. There are stairs that lead straight to the ceiling, other staircases that lead to nowhere, a hidden closet, a door that opens to an eight-foot drop. I was scratching my head the whole time. And I agree — the tour is a must.
Justin: They’re doing a special candlelight tour for the month of October, where you tour the house by candlelight, and they tell a bunch of ghost stories. I’m definitely coming back for that.
Ventana Big Sur is an oasis in Big Sur, a town that’s already an oasis. The rooms are amazing (some have their own private hot tubs!), and the labyrinthine pathways will make you feel like you’re lost in the most comfortable, accommodating forest you’ve ever encountered.
Casey: Honestly, we could have ended the trip here, and I'd have been happy. They give you massages when you arrive! And the dinner, oh man. To be honest, I was worried you guys weren't food sharers. Thankfully you are! Everyone's meal was SO GOOD.
Justin: Also, they have the best free continental breakfast on the planet. Every other free breakfast I ever have will be a disappointment now.
Casey: That is so sad because it is so true.
Justin: One of the pools is clothing-optional. Don’t worry, you won’t accidentally run into any naked people or anything like that. But it’s fun to sit in the restaurant and try to guess if the people dining next to you are uncomfortably clothed nudists.
Aubree: I was the only one smart enough to get up early to hit the Japanese baths. It was definitely one of the highlights of this trip. Seriously, it made me feel like a better person. At this point in time, I WAS MY BEST SELF (and by best self, I mean a person who throws a peace sign AND duck lips. Help.)
Big Sur to Joshua Tree
The first leg of the trip is absolutely beautiful, so take your time and stop at the many scenic viewpoints along the way. Also, the next gas station you’ll encounter is far away and overpriced, so be sure to fill up your tank and use the restroom before you leave Big Sur!
Casey: Yes, do that. Trust me.
Justin: Trust me when I say you should trust Casey on that.
Keyhole Rock is a famous natural rock formation located on a beautiful little beach. Check this out before you leave Big Sur! It’s a little difficult to find, so ask the locals how to get there. They’ll gladly give you directions and maybe tell you a few other cool places to check out, too!
Casey: Keyhole was so cool. I'm glad we went back to see it.
Justin: It was really hard to find! If we hadn't asked some locals how to get there, we never would've found it.
Jason: Apparently there's a natural sort of "light show" that happens at the end of December/early January when the sunset lines up perfectly with the hole. Next time!
Casey: I know we learned about this kind of stuff in school, but this was one of those moments where I was like, "Nature... How do you do dis?!" I was awed. Plus, there's purple sand there! It matched my blanket. Speaking of my blanket — bring one! Or make sure you dress for wind. Naive East Coaster that I am, I thought California would be all sunshine and all warmth all the time. Whoops.
Post–Big Sur Drive
As you leave Big Sur and drive farther south on the Pacific Coast Highway, you encounter curvy, winding highway and the most beautiful views you’ve ever seen in your life. The ocean to your right is awe-inspiring, but don’t forget to look to your left for some incredible mountainscapes as well.
Justin: The views on the drive down from Big Sur are UNBELIEVABLE.
Casey: I love the East Coast, but the California coast was crazy. I've never seen anything like it. I felt like we were visiting the Cliffs of Moher or had just stepped back into the Jurassic period. I definitely didn't pack the right shoes. I thought we'd just be zipping down the coast, looking out the window, but we got out at almost every vista point. And we even saw some whales!
Justin: Stop off at Elephant Seal Beach! It’s right off the highway, and you can see a bunch of lazy seals lying on the beach and making odd noises with their mouths (that’s the only sound they make). It’s free, and they have guides walking around to teach you a thing or two about elephant seals.
Casey: Personally? Not a fan of elephant seals. I love animals, but those dudes are not my type. Too aggressive about their sunbathing, in my opinion. I prefer the fat squirrels that hang out nearby trying to get food from people.
Justin: You're not supposed to feed them.
Casey: I didn't. But clearly someone does.
Madonna Inn is a great, quirky place to stay in San Luis Obispo. You’ll feel like you traveled back in time to the 1950s. The main building also features an ornate floral dining room, a great bar, a wine cellar, and a few interesting gift shops. Be sure to check out the secret garden and the immaculate pool area.
Justin: If you hate the color pink, then you’ll need to get over that before going to Madonna Inn.
Casey: All-pink everything.
Justin: The dining room is out of this world. In fact, the decor throughout the entire hotel is amazing.
Casey: Um, how about that drink?!
Justin: And the cake.
Casey: And the cake!
Jason: Um, can we talk about the LION that lived there?
Justin: Oh, yeah! Apparently the hotel used to have a lion on the property. Like, a real live lion. They got rid of it a long time ago, but the lion cage is still there. We looked around for it, but we couldn't find it. That might just be a joke they tell people at the front desk, so you spend a whole day wandering around looking for a lion cage. I'm not gonna say I did that, but...I totally did that.
Justin: There are two ways to get from San Luis Obispo to Joshua Tree. You can take the route through L.A., or you can go around it. If you’ll be rolling through the city before 4 p.m., then it’ll save you a little time to go through L.A. If you’ll be driving through Los Angeles between 4 and 8 p.m., you’re going to hit rush hour, and that will suck. Take the other route.
Casey: That was the most California thing you've ever said.
Justin: Surf's up, bro dude! Gnar-gnar. Mulholland. Dodger Dog. Earthquake.
Casey: Everything about California fascinates me, especially Joshua Tree. I've never seen any place like it!
Justin: Everywhere in Joshua Tree is sweaty. And we had to keep the house windows closed at night because there are tons of giant bugs that wanted our light, and they had no problem intruding on our personal space to get to it.
Casey: I'll never forget that grasshopper.
Justin: A grasshopper flew into the window of our house and it was — and I'm not even exaggerating here — a little over 18 feet long.
[Both look into the distance — Casey in New York, Justin in L.A. — to think fondly of their grasshopper friend.]
Aubree: I think the desert heat might have melted your brains. That grasshopper was a monster, and he legit attacked me! I'm glad he lived, but I'll hate him forever. FOR. EV. ER.
Casey: We saw the Milky Way!
Justin: We saw a lot of stars.
Casey: And the sunrise. Plus, our buddy whose place we stayed at had those awesome yard stars. Is that what they're called?
Justin: They're called "solar-powered lawn lights" — no, you're right. They're called yard stars. The residents put them all over the hills so the night stars blend into the hills, and it just looks like you're surrounded by stars in all directions.
Casey: I loved waking up there. I ALSO loved breakfast. Crossroads Cafe is A+.
Justin: The house we stayed in had a "cowboy tub," which is basically like if you had a jacuzzi that didn't heat up or make bubbles. It seems kinda weird, but sitting in a big tub of cool water in the middle of a stark, unforgiving, 105-degree desert is pretty amazing.
Aubree: You get this wrong every time; it's perfectly (and adorably) called a Cowboy Cool Dip! CCD!
After a warm wakeup in Joshua Tree, be sure to stop by the National Park. It's expansive but totally doable if you're in a rush. We were able to hit up most of the noted sites within an hour. That said, we didn't do any hiking, so be sure to factor in extra time (and shoes and water) for that.
The drive from Joshua Tree to L.A. takes you right through Palm Springs, a popular weekend escape destination for L.A. residents. The town is filled with awesome hotels and restaurants that are ideal for a mini vacation.
Just outside of Palm Springs, the historic Cabazon Dinosaurs stand triumphantly behind a gas station and a few fast-food restaurants. The two dinos (named Mr. Rex and Dinny) were built in the 1960s by Claude K. Bell, a sculptor for Knott’s Berry Farm, to attract patrons to his restaurant. The restaurant is now closed, but the dinos are still standing tall.
Casey: I recognized these guys.
Justin: It's a great place for photos, and the brontosaurus has an awesome dinosaur-themed gift shop inside of it.
Casey: Admittedly, it's not as off the beaten path as some of the other places we visited, but it was worth it for the GIFs alone.
Aubree: Fun fact: Jason was able to catch several snacks in his mouth! In the face of high winds, pressing heat, and a looming T. rex. The man CANNOT be stopped!
We stopped for a night in Palm Springs and stayed at the Saguaro Hotel, a brightly colored and beautifully accommodating hotel. Like most hotels in Palm Springs, the pool is the centerpiece of the property.
Justin: That's how you pronounce it.
Casey: They spelled it phonetically on the hotel transportation and robes and things. Smart.
Justin: How did you pronounce it before?
Casey: Sag-ware-o. Sah-gur-o. I called it a lot of things.
Justin: It's a type of cactus that only grows exclusively in the Sonoran Desert in the southwestern U.S. They can grow up to 70 feet tall, live to be thousands of years old, and they don't even grow an arm until they're around 100 years old.
Casey: I had no idea. We don't have cacti in New York.
Justin: The pool was amazing. I couldn’t get enough of it. I even went for a night swim after everyone else went to bed, and I stayed in there so long that I got kicked out because they had to shut down the pool area. It was worth it. The water was the perfect temperature.
Casey: We call you Nightswim now.
Aubree (to herself): I came up with Nightswim.
Justin: Yes you do. And I like that.
Casey: Anyway, before your lil' nighttime splash, we ate at Dish. When we made the reservation, they said it was more of a "dining experience" than a meal, and they weren't lying! They served us a bunch of what's called amuse-bouches — small, one-bite creations.
Casey: We had several before our starters, then a few more throughout the meal — on top of the entrées. And then dessert. Again, I'm very glad y'all like to share.
We hit the road early to head back to L.A. to try to beat the morning traffic. This part of the drive is much shorter than the others but still offers some cool views, especially if you pass by the San Gorgonio wind turbines.
Casey: Those were cool. They're massive!
Justin: Fun fact: I know nothing about those windmills...other than that they're huge and really cool to look at, and it's ridiculously windy along that stretch of the 10. Also, they really like hard rock 'n' roll. They're big metal fans.
Jason: And make sure to look left! The San Jacinto Mountains are enormous and tower over us humans.
Once we got to the city, we met up with the Travelocity Roaming Gnome at a block party in Downtown L.A. to grab some sno-cones from the Tropical Sno truck and enjoy the great weather. Downtown L.A. is filled with enormous skyscrapers, and it really feels like a separate city within Los Angeles.
We also learned that if you walk around in Downtown L.A. with a big celebrity like the Roaming Gnome, people will really want to stop and chat with you!
The very last stop on our trip was completely spontaneous. Tired from our adventure-filled three days on the road, we asked a few co-workers where we could go to grab a drink with a view and a place to rest. They pointed us to Mama Shelter, a hotel with a rooftop, restaurant, and cool decor everywhere.
Casey: Mama Shelter was perfect.
Aubree: Mama Shelter was perfect! Those flatbreads tho!
Justin: I went home.
Casey: Yeah, you went home since you live in L.A., but the rest of us closed out our night here. We could see the Hollywood sign!
Justin: I can see the Hollywood sign. I'm looking at it right now. Look, there it is. Right there! Casey, how would you describe our road trip in three words?
Casey: Not enough words.
California is a huge state with a range of different climates and geographical regions. A single day's drive down the Pacific Coast Highway can take you from picturesque redwood forests to rocky coastal regions to expansive grassy plains to sprawling deserts. You can see the typical sites or take time to check out the atypical. If you're a fan of seeking out the unusual, then grab a few good friends and venture down the coast of California for a most epic road trip.
If you're going to road-trip, road-trip smart. Wander Wisely by booking flights, cars, hotels, and more on Travelocity, and share your #gnomewidsom!
Photographs by Aubree Lennon and design by James Devogelear and Tyler Naugle for © BuzzFeed.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this draft referred to San Francisco as "San Fran." We are sorry. Sincerely, the East Coast.