The ultimate USA road trip: 11 things you must do in California

If there’s one holiday most likely to trigger Hollywood daydreams, it’s a road trip through California. Bikers, beat poets, and lovers on the run have covered endless miles of empty US highways in the pursuit of the open road.

California, the so-called ‘sunshine state’, is about the size of Britain, so it can be daunting working out a route. Most people decide to take the classic Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco (or vice versa) with stops at Big Sur and extensions beyond to Yosemite in the North or San Diego in the South. Here’s what to see (and where to stay) when you’re there...

1. Yosemite National Park

Basically 1,200 square miles of breathtaking scenery and the home of El Capitan, the vertiginous rock formation that’s the default screensaver and operating system on all Mac computers. Why? Because the late Steve Jobs got married there.

Spring is the ideal time to visit as the ice has melted enough for waterfalls to be flowing, yet you’ll still see snow on the top of the High Sierra mountains. Don’t miss doing a valley floor tour, either by foot or by coach, to some of the best sites including Glacier Point (for amazing views) and the recently re-opened Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (for the world’s largest trees). More information

Stay at:Tenaya Lodge (pictured below), just two miles from the South Gate, is perfectly placed to explore the national park from and appears like a mirage after the 4 to 5 hour drive from San Fran. Their Ascent SPA is a must to revive your aching muscles and signature treatments such as the firefall body renewal (no actual fire involved!) and the river rock stone massage are fantastic. There are five restaurants to choose from including great steaks and a fantastic Lobster bisque at Embers as well as activities - from nature hikes to star gazing - depending on the season.

2. Mariposa

Outside the park, the gold rush town of Mariposa (which means butterfly in Spanish) is a great place to base yourself if you want to explore the county further. There’s an interesting mining and mineral museum (including glow in the dark minerals!), a butterfly festival in May and traditional restaurants such as the Charles Street Dinner House serving American classics. There’s also a great centre for zip lining just a mile out of town. It’s not as scary as it sounds and we were zipping around six wires stretched over the owners horse ranch in no time. You can also pan for gold if you’re feeling lucky! More information

Stay at: For somewhere quirky a short drive from Mariposa, book the Restful Nest bed and breakfast on the atmospherically named Buckeye Creek road. It’s run by Lois and Jon-Pierre Moroni who welcome you as one of the family. Relax in their hot tub and spot deer in the garden. Plus their ranch-style home-cooked breakfasts will fill you up for a week.

3. Sacramento

The state capital of California tends to be overshadowed by San Francisco but is well worth spending a few days at on the way to or from Yosemite. Old Sacramento Historic District (or ‘Old Sac’) recreates its heyday in the gold rush with wild-west style buildings and paddle steamers on the waterfront. To see a hilarious picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger (as 38th Governor of California rather than the Terminator) visit the California State Capitol Museum in the centre of the city. Hang out with the hipsters who are moving here from San Fran at one of the many Temple Coffee bars or farmer’s markets. More information

Stay at: Why not give a Holiday Inn a try? There are three in the city and all are great value and convenient - especially the one Downtown which is only a short stroll from ‘Old Sac’.

4. Bodega Bay

Ok so it IS a bit of a detour (2 hours west of Sacramento and an hour and a half north of San Fran) but one worth doing if you’ve got the time. For this is where Hitchcock made his classic film The Birds (1963) starring Tippi Hendren and you can still visit some of the major locations. There’s the 150 year old Potter school (now a private house) just outside town, the hilly street the school kids ran down and Tides restaurant where you can still eat. It looks completely different now but there’s some fun memorabilia inside. Bodega Bay remains a fishing village (the crab rolls at Spud Point Crab Company are the freshest you’ll taste) and is wonderfully atmospheric - and yes there really ARE a lot of creepy looking black birds here. More information

Stay at: The beautiful Bodega Bay Lodge on a bluff overlooking the Sonoma coast. The rooms here are tastefully decorated to reflect the rugged Pacific views and there’s a great outdoor infinity pool, hot tub and fire pit that make you feel as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. Borrow one of their beach bikes for a romantic ride along Doran Park beach - two miles of wonderful windswept sand.

5. Santa Cruz

Just 75 miles south from San Franciso is Santa Cruz, famous for its beach boardwalk and historic amusement park which was used as the setting for eighties classic The Lost Boys. There’s a great surfing museum here too. More information

Stay at:West Cliff Inn, a lovely Victorian B&B which serves delicious blueberry pancakes and is within walking distance of the boardwalk.

6. Monterey

This wonderful little coastal town has been put on the map by the brilliant HBO series Big Little Lies starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. It was filmed entirely in the area and the location is another major star. Plus if you book a trip soon you may even see the second series being filmed (with Meryl Streep joining the cast). Don’t miss Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is located in a former sardine cannery and the best aquarium we’ve ever been to. There’s over 35,000 creatures including sea otters, penguins, incredible jellyfish, kelp forest and mesmerising Giant Pacific octopuses. It also runs an admirable Seafood Watch programme which encourages consumers and local restaurants to make sustainable seafood choices. That’s not difficult to do when the cooking is so good at Passionfish in Pacific Grove which takes part in the scheme. It was almost impossible to choose between the arctic char, fried California squid or albacore tuna with a pepper and sesame crust. Delicious! More information

Stay at: Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa perched above the pacific and just steps away from bustling cannery row where John Steinbeck used to hang out (and just a 10-minute walk from the Aquarium).

7. Carmel-by-the-sea

This seaside town is best described as a sugary sweet American pie. Everything about it is perfect - from the neatly manicured lawns to the fairytale style cottages in pretty pastel hues. Famous for having Clint Eastwood as mayor during the 1980’s (he owned the popular Hog’s Breath Inn and popularly overturned an archaic law which banned residents from eating ice cream on public streets) it also has a stunning beach and coastal drive plus more than 100 art galleries and antique shops in just one square mile. There’s a real foodie feel here too and lots of great restaurants to choose from although for something exceptional we recommend taking a short drive to Bernardus Lodgein Carmel Valley. Here, in their Lucia Restaurant they offer a real farm-to-table and garden-to-glass experience with top quality cuisine produced as much as possible within their 28-acre estate. 

Stay at: La Playa Carmel by the Sea, one of the most historic properties in town hence its nickname the “Grande Dame of Carmel”. Once a luxurious mansion (built at the turn of the century by an artist as a gift to his wife) it’s been restored and turned into a 75-bedroom hotel with original features like the beautiful stained glass windows left intact. But even more importantly it serves a fantastic Champagne brunch, has a peaceful outdoor pool and is the closest hotel to the beach. If you’re a dog lover head to Cypress Inn co-owned by Doris Day where dogs are as welcome as their owners.

8. Big Sur

The drive from Carmel down the Big Sur on Highway 1 to San Simeon is one of the best in the world. Drive south and all the views will be on your right hand side but do check road conditions before you go as due to heavy rains in winter some sections do get closed occasionally for repair. One of the first and most scenic stops is the iconic Bixby Bridge (seen in the opening credits of Little Big Lies) a 714ft long and 260ft high feat of engineering. There are plenty of places to stay as well as viewing areas dotted along the way. We loved the Big Sur River Inn where you can pull a chair into the river and dip your toes in while sipping on wine, the Big Sur Roadhouse and Nepenthe, a restaurant built into the side of a cliff. The last landmark is Hearst Castle, media mogul William Randolph’s spectacular fairytale former-residence. More information

Stay at: For an atmospheric camping-style retreat in the middle of the redwoods (but you don’t actually have to camp) try Glen Oaks Big Sur. You can choose between a fireside lodge, oak tree cottage or cabin - we had the dreamy Big Sur cabin that had TWO fire pits for toasting s’mores on (like toasting marshmallows in a biscuit!) and helpfully left in the room as well as a pair of outdoor clawfoot tubs for soaking in after a long hike.

Further down Highway One there’s The Sand Pebbles Inn with a fantastic view of the sea and ample parking for road trippers. Be sure to visit The Sea Chest next door for delicious seafood.

9. Santa Barbara

A Mediterranean-style city, also known as the American Riviera, and also a great base if you want to do another detour to Palm Springs – the desert town beloved by the Rat Pack. Owing to the huge nunber of vineyards in the area this is a great place to do some crisp Californian Chardonnay and local Pinot Noir wine tasting (Sideways was filmed here, too). More information

Stay at: The Belmond El Encanto, a beautiful hotel dating from the 1920s which sits in the hills overlooking the ocean.

10. Santa Monica

Hire bikes at Santa Monica Pier and pedal along to Venice beach watching the muscle men do their thing. Abbot Kinney boulevard is the hot spot for shopping, grab a coffee in one of the area’s hip café’s. More information

Stay at: The Georgian (, double rooms from £211 per night), an art deco ocean front hotel, built in the 1930s. During the last days of Prohibition it even had its own speakeasy and after a mega road trip you’ll certainly need a drink at the bar!

11. San Diego

If you’re a Top Gun fan this one’s for you. Retrace Maverick and Goose’s footsteps at Kansas City Barbeque where they sang “Great Balls of Fire”. Nightlife is centred around the historic Gaslamp quarter which has a laidback New Orleans style feel. More information

Stay at: The Fairmont Grande Del Mar (, double rooms from £341 per night), a stunning Spanish-style estate with an award-winning spa and championship golf course.

Plan your own USA road trip...

Getting there: With Virgin Atlantic (or call 0844 2092 770) who fly from London Heathrow to Los Angeles from £597pp including tax and have also launched a direct flight to San Francisco from Manchester tree times a week from £481pp.

Getting around: There are plenty of companies to choose from but we recommend and the key thing is to get a good price for a pick up in your starting point - whether San Fran or LA - and drop off at the other end. This can really bump up the fees so check it - and also add a second driver if you can as it is a VERY long drive for one person.

Words by Emma Justice and Charlie Moore