Let me set the scene: I’ve just returned from a 6-month stint in California and all I get from friends is the sarcastic quip, ‘Mate, did you go to California?’ YES MATE I DID.
Why were all my friends being annoying? Because I couldn’t stop talking about it; California truly is amazing. You can ski, surf, hike, swim and do it all in the same week.
Last year was a blast so I decided to return this year to see what I missed out on. So, here’s your ultimate road trip guide to the West Coast.
California’s pretty big so where do you start? There’s a bunch of different routes you could take to cover all the best places to visit on the West Coast, but here’s my top 3.
If you want to go an awesome USA West Coast road trip, this is the guide for you! We have outlined the top three road trip routes, as well as detailed West Coast itinerary.
So that for every stop you know all the best things to do, where to stay, where to eat and more! So read on, and start planning your American road trip dream!
- 1 How to road trip around the US
- 2 USA West Coast road trip itinerary
- 2.1 San Francisco
- 2.2 Santa Barbara
- 2.3 Los Angeles
- 2.4 San Diego
- 2.5 Joshua Tree
- 2.6 Sequoia & Yosemite
- 3 What to pack for a West Coast America road trip
How to road trip around the US
The easiest way to road trip around the US is obviously to rent a car and drive around. Roads in the US are wide and easy to drive on.
Most cars come with modern GPS devices, but even if it doesn’t have one Google Maps is very trustworthy. You just type where you want to go and it will usually get you to the right place.
However if you don’t know how or want to drive, you can also road trip to the best towns on the West Coast of the US by bus. The US has a fairly reliable bus system, you just won’t have as much flexibility on your departure times.
USA West Coast road trip itinerary
Top 3 things to do/see:
- Bike across The Golden Gate Bridge
- Get a boat taxi across the Bay
- Hang out in Mission Dolores Park
San Fran was weird. Boy it was so weird. The city has a kind of unique, relaxed energy that makes it addictive to stay in. Every corner has something and someone different.
Daytime San Fran is very different to night-time San Francisco and they both have a lot to offer. Ya girl can’t ride a bike so had to drive this bit but it is well worth renting a bike and cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge.
It’s definitely one for the bucket list and does not disappoint. Lots of places offer bike tours and it’s a great way to see the tourist attractions and get a base for your first day.
Whilst travel writers always promote walking as a sure fire way to get to know a city, why not try a boat taxi as an alternative?
When I first read boat taxi I thought major ship, fifty seats but it’s actually a small, yellow boat like the size of a big dinghy.
Waves can be a little choppy but you’ll get to see the whole bay and stop off at popular places like Pier 39 to see the infamous sea lions who reside there.
It’s a hop-on/hop- off type thing with a flat rate of 10 USD per person. If you ask nicely enough, you might even get to drive the boat.
If you’re after a more ‘authentic vibe’ walk up some hills and check out Mission Dolores Park. San Francisco is known for its liberal, hippie counterculture of the 60s.
In the park you’ll find people playing the bongos, walking on tight ropes and smoking weed.
Top tip: Return your rental car to the same place that you picked it up so you don’t get hit with extra fees.
Where to stay in San Francisco
We have listed below some cool places to stay in San Francisco for every budget.
Luxury: Fairmont Miramar – If you’re looking to treat yourself, this is a great place to do so. Located right on the beach, with a pool and epic sea-view, it’s a great place to chill after a long day exploring San Francisco.
Mid-range & Budget: HI San Francisco Downtown Hostel – This lovely hostel is a great choice for both mid-range and budget travellers. They have both dorms and private rooms for both levels of privacy and budget.
Top 3 things to do/see:
- The beach?
- The beach?
- The beach?
Santa Barbara is the next major city on the coast but if you want you could stop by Monterey on the way down; it’s famous for its aquarium and the bay’s rock formations.
As for Santa Barbara, it hasn’t got much that the rest of California can’t offer you but if you’re after the image of a ‘typical’ Californian lifestyle you’ll find the embodiment of that in Santa Barbara.
Many people visit Santa Barbara on a day trip from Los Angeles, but I think it’s worth stopping a bit longer. The city is known for its party school along with its serene beaches and great seafood.
Top tip: On your way down to the next location, take the slightly longer route down Pacific Coast Highway so you get views of the ocean all the way down.
Where to stay in Santa Barbara
There are lots of cool hotels, apartments and Airbnbs in Santa Barbara. I have listed some options below for every budget.
Luxury: Harbor View Inn – Located right on the beach and with a beautiful pool, this hotel is the perfect place for those who want to relax even more, after a long day at the beach (it can be very tiring)!
Mid-range: The Wayfarer – This hotel is a short walk away from the beach and also has a pool. It’s great choice for those still looking for something nice but without spending as much.
Budget: Casa del Mar Inn – This lovely hotel is close to the beach and all the main attractions of Santa Barbara.
Top 3 things to do/see:
- Hike to the BACK of the Hollywood sign
- Explore Korea Town and go to a speakeasy
- Hit up Venice Beach on a weekday
Los Angeles is a monster of a city. The traffic is no myth but suck it up. Unfortunately, there is no easier way than to drive in L.A. because of its vast expanse.
There is SO much to do in L.A. but the peak for me was a literal peak. The Hollywood sign is a must see but why not see it whilst getting a great view of the whole city?
Careful with this one though, we spent ages driving around the Hollywood hills looking for the trails. Plan which route you want to take. For the most rewarding hike take the Brush Canyon Trail.
If you don’t fancy a 6.4 mile hike you can always drive up part way, find somewhere to park and walk the remainder up Mount Lee.
L.A. and the surrounding areas of Malibu and Long Beach are known for their beaches. Kick back and relax on Venice or Manhattan Beach. Perfect time? 10am on a Tuesday.
L.A. has a lot of neighbourhoods but if you’re after ‘edgy’ fun then go to Korea Town. You’ll indulge in some of the best Korean food you’ve ever tasted as well as treating your ear buds to dulcet tones in a karaoke bar.
BUT, if you’re looking for something more off the grid try Break Room 86.
I won’t ruin it for you but it’s a speakeasy with hidden doorways in the most unexpected places; retro decor in the cool way, not the try-hard way.
Top tip: If you’re single, get on a dating app and ask for recommendations for local hot spots but just be careful they don’t follow you to the location…
If you’re not single, anytime you get in an Uber ask for recommendations, they ALWAYS know.
Where to stay in Los Angeles
I’ve listed below some cool places to stay in Santa Monica, one of the coolest areas of LA, for every budget.
Luxury: Shutters On The Beach – If you’re looking to treat yourself, this is the perfect place to do so. Located right on the beach, this hotel has a beautiful pool, spacious rooms and epic beach views.
Mid-range: Arizona Apartment – This modern apartment is close to both the beach and main attractions of Santa Monica, perfect for two travellers who want a bit of privacy and freedom.
Budget: HI Los Angeles, Santa Monica Hostel – If you want to save a bit, this hostel is a great option. It’s really close to the beach and in the heart of Santa Monica, with spacious dorms and lots of social common areas.
Top 3 things to do/see:
- Snorkel and swim with the seals in La Jolla
- Balboa Park/ San Diego Zoo
- Gaslamp Quarter
San Diego is known for its miles and miles of white sand beaches, so make the most of it. La Jolla Cove is a small, picturesque beach enclosed by the cliffs.
La Jolla has a rich marine life making it a popular destination for snorkelers. It gets quite busy but make sure you stay for sunset.
A San Diego whale watching tour is another popular activity. The beauty of the West Coast is that migrating whales can be seen at any time of the year here.
Ok, so you’re reading the word park up there in my top 3 and you’re wondering why would I go all the way to California to sit in a park? Balboa is no ordinary park.
There’s museums, performances, shopping, art and the world famous San Diego Zoo. The zoo is home to over 3,700 different animals.
After a day of exploring everything the park has to offer, take a night-time stroll through the Gaslamp Quarter.
Tucked into 16.5 blocks, the quarter is packed with restaurants and bars where you can have fun as you immerse yourself in Victorian architecture.
Top tip: As with any major city there can be problems with homelessness. Be careful with Airbnb as I ended up staying in a homeless heavy district.
Where to stay in San Diego
Given you’re already driving a lot in this road trip, you probably don’t want to waste too much time driving within cities. These accommodation options for every budget are all in great locations in San Diego.
Luxury: Wyndham Garden San Diego – This beautiful property is located in the heart of San Diego, close to the Old Town. It has spacious rooms and a big pool where you can chill.
Mid-range: Old Town Inn – This cute hotel also has a pool for you to relax at the end of the day, big rooms and a cosy atmosphere at a more affordable rate.
Budget: Old Town Western Inn – Similar name, different place. This lovely hotel is right in the heart of the Old Town of San Diego, perfect as base for your San Diego adventures!
Top 3 things to do/see:
- Explore the national park
- Smith’s Ranch – drive-in movie theatre (open Thu, Fri, Sat & Sun)
- Pappy and Harriet’s restaurant and bar
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most popular weekend getaways from Los Angeles, and it’s easy to see why.
If there’s one thing you know about Joshua Tree it’s either that they are famous for their weird looking trees or that it’s the place people go to ‘get away’ and ‘be at one’ in the desert.
Whichever one you’re after make sure you check out the National Park. You can drive to the different viewing spots because the heat is simply unbearable in the summer.
Joshua Tree is in the middle of nowhere so what is there possibly to do in the evening? Go to a drive-in movie theatre.
There aren’t many left in the US which is why Smith’s Ranch in the neighbouring town of Twenty-Nine Palms is perfect. Just remember to take 5 USD cash as they don’t accept card.
After the movie, if you’re in the mood for a drink then head over to Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Expect BBQ food, live music and drinks in mason jars.
Top tip: When you enter the national park, make sure you buy an annual park pass as it works out cheaper for you if you want to visit other national parks in the country.
Where to stay in Joshua Tree National Park
You will need somewhere well located to relax after all the driving in this West Coast road trip itinerary. I’ve listed some options for every budget below.
Luxury: The Art House – This apartment has an outdoor jacuzzi, do you need anything else? Jokes aside it also has big common areas, perfect for a family or group of friends.
Mid-range: Joshua Tree Bungalow – This cute bungalow has a big garden and is located right in the heart of Joshua Tree.
Budget: View at the Top – This lovely and spacious apartment is located on top of a slight hill, with incredible views over Joshua Tree.
Sequoia & Yosemite
Top 3 things to do/see:
- General Sherman (the world’s biggest tree)
- Hike to Glacier Point
- Try anything LOCAL e.g. drink in a honky tonk, stay on a citrus farm, visit the local fair
I’ve combined these into two because you could theoretically drive through one and stay in the other. Sequoia comes first and if you’re interested in big trees then WOW, you’re in heaven.
Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park are right next to one another so you can smash them out in a day.
Though, the most impressive landscape I’ve ever seen has to be in the next national park along the route, Yosemite.
For those who don’t know, Yosemite is home to the tallest waterfall in America and around 300-500 black bears.
3.5 million people visit every year to witness its magnificent landscape. Still don’t know what I’m talking about? You know that massive rock on the default background of a Mac? Yeah, that big boy.
There are numerous hikes you can do but always check with the park rangers to find one suitable for your ability. Glacier Point is by far the best viewing point but Nevada Falls is also impressive.
Glacier Point is also accessible by car so if you feel you can’t do a 4.8 mile hike with an elevation of 3,200 feet then consider driving. However, you’ll miss out on plenty of stop-offs for pictures on the hike.
Lastly, experience something LOCAL.
Stepping into central California is how you might imagine stepping into the South of North America is like. Thick, lazy accents and ‘cowboy feels’, pick-up trucks everywhere and American flags.
Top tip: If you want to witness the impressive waterfalls in the parks go in the spring as there is no water in the valley during the summer and many paths are closed in the winter.
Where to stay in Yosemite National Park
Your United States West Coast road trip is coming to an end, you’ll want to stay somewhere special for the occasion! Here are some options in Yosemite for every budget.
Budget & Mid-range: Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort – This is THE place to stay in the Yosemite area (even if it’s technically outside the national park). It has beautiful cabin-style rooms and a tasty vegan-friendly cafe.
Luxury: Yosemite Valley Lodge – Sitting directly in front of Yosemite falls itself, this is the perfect place to stay if you want to splurge a bit and treat yourself. You won’t find a more prime location.
What to pack for a West Coast America road trip
There aren’t many things you will need besides your usual travel essentials and outfits. However I’ve listed below a couple items you should definitely remember to pack.
Water bottle – You can drink the tap water anywhere in the US. Save money and the environment by refilling your own water bottle. I like these steel insulated ones because they remain cold for hours.
Power bank – I always recommend travelling with one, but especially so if you’re going on a road trip, you don’t want to run out of battery while driving! No music and no GPS is a bad combination
Motion sickness tablets – There’s a lot of driving in this road trip itinerary, if you’re prone to getting motion sickness you’ll want these tablets
Camera – Don’t forget a camera to capture all the awesome America road trip memories you’ll create on this trip!
Final thoughts on our United States West Coast road trip itinerary
So, there you have it: my ultimate guide to a USA West Coast road trip.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to extend your trip then you can see even more in the neighbouring states by going through Death Valley to Las Vegas (after all, if you’re doing this road trip with friends, a girls trip to Vegas is a must on any travel bucket list!), to the Hoover Dam and finishing in the Grand Canyon.
As always let me know where your travels take you!
Looking for more US travel tips? Check out these guides: