Our Exhilarating One-Week Drive From San Francisco To LA To The Sierras

Our driving adventures started back in 2016 when most weekends, we drove outside Wellington, our then home city in New Zealand. We  (most especially J) became more interested in long distance driving when we did an unforgettable drive in the South Island. Since then, we made plans to take a driving trip every year, and so far, we have adhered to that plan- from Cornwall in 2017, Puglia in 2018 and this year, from San Francisco to Los Angeles to the Western area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In fact, this year's driving trip was unintentional. We've had this part of California on our driving list, however, we were planning to do this "one day". But thanks to Alex Honnold for inspiring us to push this trip sooner than we planned. Our "one day" became this year after watching his epic documentary "Free Solo". 

Planning commenced at least one month before our trip. We decided to fly to San Francisco so we can take the Pacific Coast Highway 1 and be on the coastal side of the road- one thing that I was very nervous about because I heard that there is a "tall" bridge that we need to cross along the way. I don't know but there is something about tall bridges that I am so scared about. But anyway, it was J's driving trip, so I had no choice. :) We hired a car from Hertz at SFO then took the very scenic drive through Pacific Coast Highway 1 to Pismo Beach. And that's how our California road trip started.

Day 1: San Francisco Airport to Pismo Beach - almost 7 hours drive
Friends from California previously warned me that the drive through H1 is long and winding, but I was convinced that it's just the same as the Crown Range in Queenstown. I thought it wasn't that bad. Well, it wasn't really until we reached the Big Sur coast at sunset - then it became my biggest nightmare. Soon after we crossed the Bixby Creek Bridge, darkness unfolded. More than 200 miles of driving in pitch dark followed. That was when I started panicking and complaining about everything. I became the most annoying travel companion ever. Fear got the better of me basically. I was looking forward to seeing the Big Sur coast as I heard it is very scenic, but instead I saw total darkness. The only light on the road was from our car. There were no other cars on immediate sight. Nothing at all. I could feel that we were up high in the mountains so that made it worse. Lucky for me, J was very calm as ever. If it were some other man, it would have been a screaming match because of how I was behaving that night. I only let go of the "oh $h*t bar" when I felt that we were finally going down the hill and saw some lights from the distance.

And because of that "driving in the dark" experience, we thought of going back again sometime to experience the coast in daytime. So help me God.

Bixby Bridge

Day 2: Pismo Beach to Los Angeles- approximately 3.5 hours drive
Our scenic drive continued the next day as we headed towards Los Angeles. We stopped by Brophy Bros in Santa Barbara for lunch. The view of the harbour was perfect for a refreshing lunch of prawn cocktail, a bowl of boiled prawns and some seafood chowder. The drive between Ventura and Oxnard on the coast was stunning. Still on the Pacific Coast Highway 1, we passed by the wealthy area of Malibu, where colourful houses are perched on the hill above the water. 

As J wanted to drive along Mulholland Drive first, we exited H1 towards Pacific Palisades. We then took the "Traffic" Boulevard aka Sunset Boulevard where we got stuck for over an hour. Don't ask me why we took this route, but it was a good detour in my opinion. I enjoyed looking at the beautiful houses in tree-lined streets. When we finally hit Mulholland Drive, we couldn't find the view that J was looking for. We ended up driving round and round until it was dark again. By this time, I've had enough of driving on winding roads uphill in the dark. We took Highway 101 on our way to our hotel in Downtown LA and oh boy, did we get stuck in traffic once again- in a five to six lanes motorway! How was it even possible? At this point, everything on our trip was too much and I have decided to call California, the land of "too much". It was as if I have not been to California before (eye roll). Well, it was already too much and we were not even halfway our road trip yet. :)

Santa Barbara Harbour

Day 3: Los Angeles
It was a good thing that we decided to stay in Downtown LA because I didn't explore this part of LA when I visited a few years ago. My niece Farrah was kind enough to take us around on the only full day that we were in the city. Our first destination was Eggslut in Grand Central Market- where I had the queue-worthy (and my new favourite) egg and sausage sandwich (sorry Mc Donald's sausage and egg mcmuffin). We then headed to the futuristic Walt Disney Concert Hall. Its metallic exterior is impressive as well as its grounds at the back. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go inside the concert hall. Maybe next time.

The Bradbury is another place that I am glad I visited this time. Famous for a scene in the original Blade Runner, this building's elaborate atrium is astonishing. I didn't expect the interior to be that grand. It's one of those buildings that one must see when in LA. 

Then we moved on to The Last Bookstore, where books smelt so fresh like my favourite perfume. It is a real heaven for genuine book lovers- like J who happily bought ten books. Ah, the joy of watching him examine the book shelves- it was priceless. The Last Bookstore is not your typical tourist spot, but it is definitely a good place to visit. 

Finally, we drove to Venice Beach to visit Muscle Beach Gym. J was a bit disappointed as there were no muscly men working out that day. But at least we saw Arnold Schwarzenegger's mural. :)

We were not intending to visit other tourist spots, however we wanted to have lunch in In & Out Burger. Unfortunately, the closest one meant that we had to walk through Hollywood Walk Of Fame. After allyou really haven't been to LA if you don't have a photo with the stars.

Eggslut - Grand Central Market, 317 S Broadway, Los Angeles

The Bradbury- 304 S Broadway, Los Angeles

The Last Bookstore- 453 S Spring St, Los Angeles

Day 4: Los Angeles to Sequioa National Forest- almost 5 hours drive
After spending a bit of time with my sister from another mother on Saturday morning, we left Los Angeles and drove towards Sequioa National Park through Bakersfield. The drive took us about 5 hours but the drive was entertaining. The view on the road outside the city started as a very dry desert terrain followed by rolling hills and then sleepy towns. We stopped by Bakersfield for lunch at ihop, where I finally had pancakes. 

From Bakersfield, we passed by acres of oil fields that eventually led us to endless lemon groves. At some point during this journey, a loud siren came on inside our car that caused me to panic a little bit. At first I thought something was wrong with the car, but I saw something flashing on my mobile phone saying "Emergency Amber Alert". With my hands still shaking, I managed to silence the alarm. I had to ask goggle what this alert meant. Apparently, there was a 2-year old boy who was abducted by his own father in Merced- more than 200 miles from where we were. I also learned that an Amber Alert is activated in child abduction cases. This is a way to alert the community to help search for a missing child. Sadly, the boy and his father were found dead the day after.

Still shaken, I needed to divert my attention to the landscape that eventually changed to greener rolling hills. As we approached a slight elevation, I could finally see a forest. Then the Sequioa Moro Rock appeared before us. As we drove towards an elevation of 6,000 feet, I could smell the fragrance of the trees and could feel the freshness in the air- kind of reminded me of that feeling every time I traveled to Baguio in my university days. As much as I was scared of the heights, the cool breeze somehow comforted me. Then I started seeing giant Sequioa trees. 

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the Giant Forest. It was very busy. Somehow I wasn't as impressed as I thought I would be, but I was glad to see the General Sherman- known to be the largest tree in the world by volume. It was worth the drive, but it's probably one of those places that I would only visit once.

The Giant Forest

The General Sherman

Day 5: Exeter to Yosemite National Park - 2.5 hours drive
Yosemite National Park was the highlight of our California road trip. It was sort of like a dream come true for me. I've always had Yosemite on my list to visit, however I didn't know how I would go about it. Then J came up with the road trip idea. We were planning to go sometime in the next few years, but when we watched "Free Solo" early this year, we thought, "why not push it this year?". And so we did.

We drove from Exeter that day as we stayed there the night before. The drive was simply breathtaking all throughout- even when I was trembling because of the winding roads at almost 7,000 feet. Oh, and I must mention that before we officially entered the Yosemite National Park, we dropped by Yosemite Treats in Mariposa. It is a cute little cafe that sells amazing ice creams and numerous treats. It's a worthy stop, believe me.

Anyway, I was giddy with excitement as we drove through the park. The views are incredibly stunning. The first time I laid my eyes on El Capitan, all I could say was "wow"! Since we knew what we were looking for that day, we drove straight to El Capitan Meadows. The view here is seriously amazing. Then there is also the Tunnel View which imposes the view of the majestic El Capitan and Half Dome all in one landscape. To get here, we went through the very long Wawona tunnel which added to the excitement of our trip to Yosemite. Our last destination was Glacier Point for the spectacular views of the Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley.

To sum it up, our trip to Yosemite is incomplete. We plan to go back again in the future to stay at least one night, go hiking and see the waterfalls. The grandeur of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, the Half Dome and other landmarks are worth another visit- even if it means psychologically preparing myself again for a long and winding drive up to the mountains.

El Capitan and Half Dome

Day 6: Yosemite to South Lake Tahoe via Tioga Pass- over 4 hours drive
I was hoping that J would not think of passing through Tioga Pass- the highest highway pass in California at almost 10,000 feet, but I was very wrong. The night before, he mentioned that he wanted to go back to Yosemite Park on the way to South Lake Tahoe because he wanted to drive via Tioga Pass. Trust me, I tried very hard to convince him that it is a longer route and that we should go the other way. I was already panicking and we haven't even left the hotel yet. I obviously lost the argument and therefore, we took the Tioga Pass route to South Lake Tahoe.

I was so nervous that I kept asking J not to drive too fast and constantly reminding him of the speed limit in every turn. Don't get me wrong, J is a very sensible driver and he is good. The only thing is that, he loves driving through long and winding roads uphill and downhill. To be honest, Tioga Pass is a very scenic route. There are a few vistas here that offer incredible views of Yosemite, including blue lakes, beautiful meadows and even the Half Dome. Olmsted Point is one of them, then there is the Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Ellery Lake. 

The drive from Lee Vining (past Tioga Pass) to South Lake Tahoe was equally picturesque. It took us through beautiful valleys, hills and mountains- both in Nevada and California. When we reached South Lake Tahoe, we drove straight up to Emerald Bay. I liked the city itself, but I was not that impressed with the lake. I mean no offence,  but I guess because I have seen more attractive lakes.  

We stayed in a beautiful village called Heavenly that night. And to be fair, this is the highlight of our stay in South Lake Tahoe. It was a perfect place to rest after a few days of long driving. 

Tioga Pass

Heavenly, South Lake Tahoe

Day 7:  South Lake Tahoe to San Francisco- almost 5 hours drive
Then it was time to drive back to San Francisco as we were flying back to London from there. The drive from South Lake Tahoe was rather industrial as we took the route via Sacramento. There is nothing special to say if I can be honest. We didn't stop until we reached California because we thought that stopping elsewhere was not worth it. We basically couldn't think of any place worth stopping at.  

We chose to stay in Tiburon rather than in San Francisco because we wanted to enjoy the view of the city from this side, and it truly didn't disappoint. The view of San Francisco from our hotel was beautiful, and the city lights are truly magical. 

It was as if J was not exhausted from long distance driving for already 7 days that when we arrived in Tiburon, he wanted to drive some more. And so we headed to Golden Gate Bridge View in Sausalito to begin with. At this point, I was already quite tired to genuinely enjoy the view. Our adventure of the day didn't end here as we continued to drive towards Point Reyes. To cut the story short, we didn't get there as it was already dark and we still couldn't see a sign towards the lighthouse. In the end, we decided to go back to Tiburon.

City Lights View from our hotel in Tiburon

The drive through Golden Gate Bridge

Day 8: San Francisco
On our last day in San Francisco, we decided to play it by ear. It would not have mattered so much if we didn't see any of the sights as we have been to San Francisco (although separately) before. However, since our flight was not until late evening, we decided to drive around to maximise our time in San Francisco. Our first destination was Fort Barry in the Marin County. It was a pleasant drive to say the least. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco was different from those that I have seen previously in person and in photographs. It was pretty.

Then we decided to get closer to the Golden Gate Bridge and drove to Battery Spencer. We were lucky to find an empty car park, otherwise we would have not stopped and got out of the car because of the scorching weather. 

Afterwards we drove through Lombard Street to Twin Peaks for a panoramic view of the city. We then had lunch with my friend at New England Lobster Market in Burlingame before heading to their house in San Bruno for a quick catch up. It was a good way to cap off our trip to California.

View of Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Spencer

Panoramic View of San Francisco from Twin Peaks

This road trip I must say was carefully planned. Although we underestimated some of the driving distances, we did not have much of a detour. And although we took the wrong turns in few occasions, it was not difficult for us to find our way back. 

I can honestly say that this is one of my favourite travel experiences, even if it meant enduring my fear of heights for miles and miles. I am lucky in a sense that I had a very calm and understanding travel companion. During those times when fear got the better of me, he didn't say or do anything that made matters worse. He basically just reassured me and listened patiently to my constant ramblings. And for that, I am very grateful.

So, here's to more road trips with my favourite travel buddy.

Tin x


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