Last March, during my trip to California, we decided to do as much as possible in a very short period of time and ended up visiting three National Parks in three days. Was it the best way to go? Probably not. Am I happy I did it? Absolutely! After all, isn’t traveling all about trying new things and pushing ourselves? The three national parks that we visited are Death Valley, Sequoia and Yosemite, three of the most beautiful and visited national parks in the United States. Although all three are located in the State of California, the total distance between them is of 780 km (490 miles), which makes for a lot of driving — through incredible landscapes of course, but not in the best conditions. The altitude varies a lot — we went from 86 m (282 ft) below sea-level to 1530 m (5000 ft) above sea-level in one day — and the roads are rough. And after all the driving, we didn’t have a lot of time left for visiting, but we made the best of it.
If you are going to be visiting many national parks, check out the “America the Beautiful” pass. For 80 USD per vehicule, you get free entrance to all the national parks for a full year. Since the entrance fee for seven days per park can vary from 25 to 30 USD, it can save you a lot of money. This year, I travelled to Death Valley, Sequoia, Yosemite, Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Badlands and saved approximately 100 USD just on entrance fees.
On our first day visiting national parks, we left San Diego in the early morning for Death Valley. After two tanks of gas, we finally made it by mid-afternoon. We were very lucky since the weather, windy, dry and cloudy, allowed us to explore the park even in the afternoon without burning and turning into dust. We got to see Badwater Basin, Golden Canyon and Zabriskie Point, almost run over a coyote and enjoy a picnic while the sun set over the mountains. It was so different from everything else I had ever seen and if I had had the opportunity, I would have stayed for a full week to enjoy the otherworldly atmosphere, go horseback riding in the sand dunes and try not to freak out at the thought of snakes.
The next day, we left our campsite in short shorts and tank tops to go walk in the Mesquite sand dunes before leaving the desert. We drove through canyons and up and down mountains and by 4 pm, we were at Sequoia National Park. Good thing we had no intention of staying long because we also had to drive to Fresno for the night. After entering the park, we went to the information center for a map and to change into jeans. Still in flip-flops, we drove through thick fog up the mountain and when we made it to the summit it had snowed, pretty heavily. We took some pictures with General Sherman and some of the other giant sequoias and walked in a few trails before driving back down through even thicker fog (if that’s possible) and then to Fresno. In this weather, a few hours was enough for me, but I would love to go back on a clear day to see the sequoias in all their glory.
On our last full day in California and third day of national parks, we left Fresno early and drove two hours to Yosemite. Yosemite, out of all three, is the one I was most excited to see and the one that disappointed me the most. Not because it wasn’t as grand or impressive or beautiful as I thought it would be, but because we didn’t really get to see it. You could say I am mostly disappointed because it rained all day, hiding the mountains and waterfalls, but also because I hadn’t planned enough time to properly enjoy it. We still had the chance to do a few hikes and see a silhouette of the mountains through the clouds and fog and we still left that night satisfied that we had tried, proud of what we had accomplished and filled with memories of wonderful scenery.
Now that I look back on this adventure several months later, I can see that it was a little bit crazy and we could have planned the whole thing a lot better. But, if I had to give advise to my old self while she was preparing the trip, I don’t think I would tell her to change anything because I learned a lot during that trip. It will certainly help me make wiser, more informed decisions while planning future vacations.
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As you have probably figured out already, I like to do a lot of research before a trip. About everything. It helps me feel safe during my trip and it builds up my enthusiasm and excitement before the big day. And even though I had already been to California twice, I still did a lot of research about activities, restaurants, where to stay, driving laws and rules, etc. But even after two trips and a ton of research, I still found a bunch of things that surprised me, and that is amazing!
there are Orchards everywhere
I don’t know why this surprised me. Our grocery stores are filled with fruits and veggies from California, but I never expected to see strawberry fields, olive trees and citrus trees everywhere. I guess I thought they would grow underground or something, I don’t know what I expected, but driving through California, fruit trees are what you see most. For hours at a time, we could see hills and hills of trees filled with hundreds of oranges or valleys full of vineyards. It was beautiful! I even picked oranges and grapefruits straight from the tree. The best part was stopping at little markets along the highway and buying fresh fruit for a couple bucks. I have never tasted better oranges in my life!
California is Huge
Being Canadian, I know America can look small on the map since it’s all one continent with only a few countries, but is absolutely gigantic in real life. I used to laugh at tourists who would come to Canada for a week and expect to see all of it. Anyway, I guess I became one of those tourists because I never expected California to be this big. We spent hours driving from place to place and sometimes even between two locations in the same city. If you are planning a trip to California and only have a handful of days or even a week, you should selected two or three cities and concentrate on those as you will lose so much time on transportation, you will barely get to see anything.
San Francisco was the most expensive city
I always expect LA to be more expensive as it is the biggest city, but San Francisco is actually a lot more expensive. We had to pay 40$ of overnight parking in San Francisco while we were able to find free parking everywhere in LA except Universal Studios which was 25$ for the whole day and at the beach which was 6$ for a whole day. I also found that food was less expensive in LA. Of course, we never went to 5 stars restaurants.
There are broken tires everywhere on the highways
Is that an American thing or just the West Coast? Because, everywhere we went, there were broken tires on the sides of the road. I have never seen that anywhere in Canada and I found that quite stressful. Do you all just throw out you tires on the highway or are these all from people who got a flat while driving? Isn’t it bad for the environment? If anyone has an answer about this, please explain it to me, as I do not get it!
The weather can change drastically
First surprising thing about the weather, it was beautiful, sunny and warm the whole time we were in San Francisco. No fog, no rain, no wind, just wonderful sunshine! Second surprising thing, everywhere else was foggy for at least part of the day. We would wake up in the morning to the sunshine and suddenly a few hours later it would be completely grey everywhere we looked and it would get super cold. Sometimes it went away after a couple hours or it would stick for the rest of the day or it would turn into rain. Also, the weather changed depending on if we were by the ocean or in the valley on the other side of the mountains. We would be driving and just see the fog coming. Apparently this is very common for California, I had just never experienced it or heard about it before.
you are always going up or down
It doesn’t matter where you are, or where you are going in California, it is never flat. You are either going up or down, and probably turning all around. There are mountains and valleys and cliffs and more mountains. And even on the highway or the freeway you will be going up and down as well.
There is a lot of traffic
The traffic in California is all day, everyday. In the middle of the night or at 2 pm or 5 in the morning, it makes no difference. I suggest you bring good music and maybe a book or newspaper as no matter where you are going you will be stuck in it. If you are from Florida, I would say you can compare it to I-4 right after the Magic Kingdom fireworks.
All of it is beautiful
Who cares about the traffic really because everywhere you look in California is beautiful. Every turn you take, you just want to stop and take a picture. You would expect parts of it to be ugly, just like every place as an eyesore, but if there is one in California it is well hidden.
I am sure I would still be surprised by a bunch of things if I were to go back, as I still have lots of things to discover in that part of the world. But three trips will have to do for now as I have my eyes set on different destinations!
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I had an amazing time driving all-around California. Just so you know, I think California is being unfair. It has everything! The beautiful white sand beaches, the mountains with enough snow for winter sports, the incredible landscapes, the desert full of adventures and things to discover, the delicious wine, the theme parks, the huge trees... Who thinks California should leave some for the other states, raise your hand! For all of you hoping to visit the Golden State, here is the itinerary of my latest trip to California. The trip was way too short and I wish I could have stayed longer and really explored all of the cities and parks that we visited, but it was also wonderful and I had the best time.
We were traveling for 17 days and drove all the way from Vancouver Island to San Diego and back. It was an awfully long drive, but we made the best of it and played some of the games I had prepared (we almost completed our licence plate map!) and it was worth it with all of the destinations we got to visit. I included the distance between each destination as a general idea, but the truth is, it is much longer than this once you add the exact address where you are going, and gas stops, and bathroom breaks (Still totally worth it, just giving you a heads up!)
Comox – Roseburg (1000 km)
The first day was spent in the car, from before the sunrise to way after the sunset. We left Comox, on Vancouver Island, at 6 AM for Nanaimo, took the ferry at 8:30 AM for Vancouver and drove all the way to Roseburg, Oregon, only stopping for food or gaz. We would have made it by 7 PM, but the traffic in Seattle was terrible and we only arrived some time after 11 PM.
Tip: If I were to do it again, I wouldn’t make reservations for that night. The last few hours were horrible. We were both exhausted and cranky after being stuck in traffic for five hours and I wish we could have stopped earlier. At the same time, I wouldn’t have wanted to drive more the next day so the reservation did push me to finish what we had planned.
Roseburg – Fort Bragg – Napa (800 km)
The second day is when the fun finally started. We left Roseburg early and headed to Fort Bragg. We crossed the state line and spent some time on the glass beach in Fort Bragg before driving to St Helena in the Napa Valley. It was, again, a lot of driving and not much else, but at least we were in California and the view was beautiful.
Tip: Be aware that it is illegal to fill up on gas yourself in Oregon and the gas stations close pretty early. If you plan on leaving early in the morning or drive late at night, plan a trip to the gas station before 7 PM to be sure you won’t run out while they are closed. We spent 45 minutes looking for a gas station that was open 24 hours.
Napa Valley – San Francisco (100 km)
We had almost the whole day to explore Napa Valley. We toured some vineyards, tasted some wine and drove around the valley. I was very impressed as I did not imagine it would be as big or that the mountains would be as beautiful. In the afternoon, we drove to the Golden Gate and took advantage of the perfect weather to explore the parks on either side of the bridge. Going to the Golden Gate right away was so efficient because we were going on it anyway and we didn't have to come back the next day. Plus, as we had no plans for the night since we didn't know exactly how long the drive would take with the traffic on the bridge, we got to stay as long as we wanted, explore the parks and take so many pictures.
No driving for us on the fourth day! We spent the whole day visiting San Francisco. We went to Union Square, Chinatown, Lombard St, Pier 39 and Twin Peaks. It was a long day with all the walking and going up and down… and up… and down. My favorite part was the view from Twin Peaks. With the perfect weather, we were able to see the whole city and the bay. It was beautiful!
Tip: If possible, leave the car at your hotel or park outside of the city. The streets of San Francisco are not fun to walk, but worse to drive in. Plus, finding affordable parking in the city is impossible. Walking and taking public transportation is the way to go in my opinion and will save you time and money. Plus, you might stumble upon some beautiful architecture, exotic plants or a nice Café while walking to popular attractions!
San Francisco – Carmel – San Luis Obispo – Santa Barbara (600 km)
The goal was to drive down highway 1 from San Francisco to Santa Barbara and visit Carmel, Big Sur and a bunch of cities on the way. Unfortunately, with the rain they had recently, most of the bridges in this area are unstable or simply closed for repairs. While we were still able to visit Carmel and San Luis Obispo, we had to do a huge detour, lost a lot of time and couldn’t visit Big Sur, which was very disappointing as it was one of the main things we were looking forward to on our trip. But, these things happen and we still had fun and saw some pretty incredible landscapes on our way to Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara – Thousand Oaks (100 km)
The sixth day was spent visiting Santa Barbara. This was one of my favorite days as we didn’t have a lot of driving to do, the city is beautiful and although we had things we wished to see, we didn’t have a tight schedule to follow and were able to just walk around and take our time. The Old Mission, the Downtown Area and the Wharf were some of my favorites, but I totally fell in love with the Santa Ynez mountains in the backdrop. Three words: Beau-ti-ful! We then drove to Thousand Oaks, which is close to Malibu, but a lot less expensive and spent the night there.
The Beach (60 km)
Day seven was our beach day! We drove to Santa Monica and parked there, then rented bikes for a ride to Venice. Both beaches are beautiful and Venice is definitely something to see at least once in your life, but I have to say I have a soft spot for Santa Monica. Every time I visit, I find myself imagining what life must be like for those who live there. I wish I could go for a run on the beach every morning (yeah right, like I could wake up to go for a run even once a week…) and see the sunset on the beach every night! The bikes were great as they allowed us to travel faster, but still stop to take pictures and browse through the tourist shops. Plus, my bike was sea blue and had a basket! So convenient! (I honestly loved that bike and would have kept it if I could. It's pretty and perfect for the beach)
Universal Studios Hollywood (35 km)
I’m not a fan of Harry Potter. What are you talking about?! It’s just a great series that I read a couple times and know everything about, no big deal! Seriously though, it felt like I was in Hogsmeade for real. There is snow and the buildings look exactly like they do in the movie and I had dinner at the Three Broomsticks and had actual butterbeer at the Hogshead. There was magic all around and it felt like I had died and gone to heaven! I had been to Universal Studios twice before and the Simpsons and Jurassic Park rides are a lot of fun and the Backstage Tour is great, but Harry Potter blew me away! … And I used to work in Disney World, I’m not easily impressed with theme parks. Definitely worth it if you are in California!
Hollywood – Disneyland (60 km)
We woke up on day 9 in the middle of Hollywood boulevard and with tickets for Beauty and the Beast at the El Capitan. Best day ever! The movie was amazing, the theatre seemed even more beautiful than the last time I was there (maybe it has something to do with the curtain made of Swarovski Crystals) and we had the whole day to see Hollywood. We went to the Chinese Theatre, the Dolbi Theatre where they shoot the Oscars, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and ended our time in Hollywood at the Griffith Observatory for some hiking and a nice view of the city and the Hollywood sign. In the middle of the afternoon, we left for Disneyland and spent the evening in the park riding Space Mountain and watching the fireworks, which have the same beginning as Wishes in Disney World and I might have cried a little bit… maybe… it’s a possibility…
Disney’s California Adventure
Day 10 was spent entirely in the California Adventure park. We woke up at 6 AM, after four hours of sleep to make it to park opening and stayed for World of Color (who would miss it?!). The Frozen Live show was wonderful, Cars is always super fun, but I have to say one of my favorites was drawing characters at Animation Academy. I guess I missed it since they closed it in Florida (please let it reopen once Star Wars land opens!!). And also Soarin’, and California Screaming, and Turtle Talk (how is it so much better in Disneyland?), and all the Disney food were magical!
Disneyland – San Diego (160 km)
Day 11 was spent doing everything we didn’t have time to do on our first visit to Disneyland two days before. The park was sooo crowded, like 4th of July crowded, but we still got to see the princesses and get our Beauty and the Beast book signed, do the Indiana Jones ride, Peter Pan, the Haunted Mansion and a bunch of other classics. We ate Grey Stuff, and churros, and pop corn (why is the Disney parks pop corn better than movie theatre pop corn? I mean, how is it possible?!), and spent about twice as much in food as all the other days of our trip combined, but it was worth it and delicious. Plus, eating (and reading Beauty and the Beast) makes waiting in line go by faster. After the parade, we drove to San Diego to be ready to explore in the morning.
We had another beautiful day in San Diego. We started our day in Balboa Park and rented bikes again as we had loved it in Santa Monica. Balboa Park is not the best place to travel with bikes… I recommend taking the free shuttle to the center and walking around so you don’t have to bother looking for a place to put the bike. Plus, the bikes are not allowed in certain areas and there are no bike trails. The architecture in the park though is incredible and I love seeing cacti as I never see any in Canada so I really feel like I’m on vacation every time I see one. We also went to Coronado to see the Hotel Del Coronado. It is a hotel from the Victorian era that inspired Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort. It is now an historical building and has been visited by a number of celebrities and politicians through the years. The beach at the hotel is open to everyone and truly beautiful.
San Diego – Death Valley (600 km)
Day 13 is when we started the drive back north while still making stops and detours to incredible destinations. We basically visited three national parks in three days. First stop: Death Valley. It was my first time driving through the desert and walking in the desert and it was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget. We also got to sleep in the desert, which was pretty cool.
Death Valley – Sequoia NP – Fresno (650 km)
The next day, we left the desert in our tank tops and shorts and drove all the way to Sequoia National parks where we arrived in our tank tops and shorts. And there was snow. Lots of it. And fog. Lots of it. So much so that half way up the mountain we could barely see the road in front of us and thank god for those white and yellow lane lines! After a short visit of the park, we drove to Fresno where we spent the night.
Fresno – Yosemite – Sacramento (450 km)
On this last day of exploring California we drove to Yosemite and it was pouring rain when we got there. It rained the whole day and so much that we only guessed where the mountains were. It was still impressive and we had a few good laughs about it. I will be back in California one day to see more of Yosemite that’s for sure! We later drove to Sacramento to get ready to leave California the next morning.
Sacramento – Portland (1000 km)
And here it had come, our last day in California! We left at 6 AM in the hopes of making it to Portland early so we could rest for the next day on the road. We also remembered to get gas before arriving in Portland so we would be able to hop on the highway and leave as soon as we were ready the next day.
Portland – Comox (750 km)
6 AM on the last day before work and we were on the road back home. Our goal was to leave Portland and hopefully speed through Seattle before the traffic hit. We got lucky and saw no hint of traffic the whole way to Vancouver. We even made it to Horseshoe Bay 3 hours in advance so we got to take an earlier ferry.
And that concludes, our two-week road trip to California and how I drove over 5000 km in 17 days. We had a blast! I will be posting articles about some cities and parks that we explored containing more details and pictures, but you can check out my Instagram @myjourneytoadventure for more photos of my trip and the ones to come. Also, I am thinking about starting to vlog. What do you think?
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Ever since I found out I would be moving to British Columbia and buying a car, I decided I would be spending my two-week Spring Break driving down the coast of sunny California. That was back in June, so I can’t believe how close we are to departure date!
I have been to California twice before: once in high school for a weeklong field trip and once, four years ago, with a friend. On the first trip, I didn’t get to choose where we were going, and on the second one, we didn’t have a car, which limited our travels. It has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember to visit Death Valley and drive down Highway 1. Having been to most touristy California destinations, I am packing this trip with places that I loved and bucketlist items.
One of my friends is coming along and she has never been to California or to any Disney park (:O). I can’t wait to show her how beautiful California is and why Disney is so special to me. For now, we are slowly planning our trip. From the itinerary to the accommodation and, my favorite, the activities we will enjoy, without forgetting the packing and travel insurance, the whole process is exciting!
1. The itinerary
This part has been on my mind for the best part of the last 6 months. While it was easy to decide which cities and national parks I wanted to visit, our time is limited and it was hard to choose where we wouldn’t get to go. The both of us researched and compared the cities and parks we were interested in and calculated the distance and time it would take to go from one to the other. While we want to do and see as much as possible, we also want to enjoy it and not fall asleep at the wheel or on a hike. We have finally decided on hitting Napa Valley, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Disneyland, San Diego, Death Valley and Yosemite. Unfortunately, we won’t have time to visit Lake Tahoe, Palm Springs, the Mojave Preserve or the northern parts of California, which are all places I would love to visit. It will be a jam-packed trip and we won’t get to spend as much time as I would like in each place, but I am very excited about each of the things on our itinerary. I think the most important thing to do while planning your itinerary is to prioritize the places where you want to go and make sure you have enough time at each place. Also consider carefully the distances and how long you can drive without it being dangerous. Other than that, have fun with your itinerary and consider the off the beaten track destination.
2. The Accommodation
Hotels and hostels are so expensive in California. Especially with the exchange rate so low for us Canadians. In an attempt to save some money, we decided on camping on the nights where it is possible (camping locations in the middle of LA are not exactly easy to find), staying at hostels where it is worth it (sometimes it is cheaper to stay at motels than rent two beds in a hostel), stay at a nice motel once in a while to enjoy some luxury (a pool and comfy beds with more than one pillow is considered luxury :P) and stay at Airbnbs for the rest of the trip. We have made reservations for all of our destinations except for certain nights when we will be camping at State Parks where it is first come first serve. By carefully checking different websites and considering all the possibilities we managed to find places close to what we want to see and attractions we want to visit for less than 500 CA$ per person for 17 days, not bad! When choosing accommodation, it really comes down to whether you have more time or money. Selecting cheap, but still nice, accommodation and browsing different websites to check for better prices takes time, but you can save a lot of money by doing it.
3. The Insurance
Okay so my situation is a bit complicated… I am currently in my own country, but in a different province so, for the insurance companies, already on a trip. Since my “trip” has already started, most companies won’t insure me for my trip to the United States. I had to call a bunch of different companies to find one that will insure me for the whole year inside of Canada and then for my trip to California. So that was for the travel insurance. It cost me 60 CA$ in total, not so bad. (Send me a message if you want their phone number, I can give it to you no problem) Now for my car insurance… I already have insurance for my car, which is crazy expensive in BC and does cover me in the States, but I am only covered for 1 million dollars. That is enough in Canada since no one will sue you for more, but they tend to sue for a lot more than that in the United States after an accident. Because of that, I need to pay for a higher insurance. Settling everything was complicated and took a lot of time, but I am now set for a stress free trip! The main think to remember is that you need to be safe during your trip, so no matter how complicated the procedure, having an insurance can save you from being deep in debt.
4. The Car
The trip we have planned is over 5000 km. As most of you probably know, an oil change is recommended after every 6 months or 6000 km. That means I need an appointment for an oil change right before we leave and probably right after we come back as well. At the same time, a check up to make sure everything is in order is a good idea as I don’t want to stay stranded in the middle of the desert because the engine stopped. Since someone backed into my car while I was in Quebec over Christmas, I am paranoid something like that will happen right before we leave and prevent us from going. I have been parking at the complete back of the parking lots every time I go shopping and try not to park in the streets as much as possible. I am telling you, everyone must think I am insane when they see me!
5. The Luggage
Honestly, I have started packing and making lists because of how excited I am for this trip. My friend and I have decided to pack our clothes in multiple smaller bags instead of one bigger suitcase to make it easier to fit everything in my tiny car. Plus, this will allow us to only bring a small tote into our hotel rooms or tent since we are moving almost everyday, so carrying the suitcases in and out everyday would be a hassle. We are bringing a small three-people tent and our sleeping bags, as well as a cooler, so we can go grocery shopping and make our own food instead of going to the restaurant everyday. California is tricky for the clothes because they have all seasons in one state. We will be going to the beach, cities with warm weather, cities with cold weather, the desert, mountains where there is snow: that means a lot of layers and a lot of different pairs of shoes! Good thing we are not going by plane! I will be making a more detailed article of exactly what I am bringing to California as well as a packing list.
6. The Activities
Planning the activities was my all time favorite thing to do for this trip. There are some I have already done like walk on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and go to Venice Beach, but there are also a lot that I have never done like visit a vineyard in Napa and hiking in Big Sur. We did a lot of research on Pinterest and the Visit California website, we watched movies and checked the movie releases and special events happening during our trip. We have a lot of great things planned. I am sure I will have more insight on which activities are worth the visit and which you could pass, so a complete article with lots of pictures will be posted right after our trip. Stay tuned for so many articles coming at the end of March that I can’t wait to write!
Have I told you yet that I am very excited for this trip? Well I am telling you again!! After California Dreamin’ for the last 8 months, California here we coooome!! My playlist of all the California songs is ready to go, my heart shaped sunglasses are cleaned, my bikinis are packed (as well as my winter boots for Yosemite) and, in just two weeks, I will be driving down the California Coast singing along to Party in the USA!
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