Help plan our driving trip- San Diego to San Francisco

Greetings! Since I have had such amazing luck polling the TMs in the past for travel planning, I’m back to solicit ideas for our (that’s going to be Mr Kitty and I) first post-pandemic-lockdown trip this fall. Here are the basic guidelines:

  • Trip is booked for the beginning of September;
  • We are starting in San Diego and will end up in San Francisco;
  • We will have five and a half days/five nights to tool around SD and get from there to SF, then four days/five nights in SF;
  • We are not beachy people, but we are foresty/hiking/history/animal people;
  • We are ‘meh’ at the thought of LA (though intrigues by the tar pits), will not need to do theme parks, and can take or leave wineries;
  • We WILL have to do All The Zoos/Aquariums, and definitely want to do Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Any points of interest (Muir Woods is on the definite list), driving paths, must-do food spots (we will be hitting up Nepenthe), highly recommended places to stay, and areas to completely avoid would be very appreciated!

If you like hiking, Griffith Park is one place in LA you might like. The best view of the city - day or night - is from the Griffith Observatory. There is also a pretty decent zoo and the Gene Autry Western Museum is there.

The big choice is I5 or 101.

I5 is faster, but hot, boring and very little to see or do. I mean, there is Casa de Fruta if if take the turn off to San Jose, I guess.

101 winds a lot, but beautiful for most of the drive, it will take longer. Santa Barbara has a nice little zoo. So does San Jose.

The 17 mile drive is a must do, out of Carmel to Pacific Grove/Monterey . The Monterey Bay aquarium is the best aquarium anywhere. Period. Stay the nite in Carmel or Monterey and go for a whole day.

SD then stay the nite in Santa Monica or Santa Barbara. Continue up 101 to Carmel, get one of those little hotels. Spend the day walking in Carmel. Next morning drive to Monterey via the 17 mile drive. Stay a day at the Aquarium, there are some nice beach hotels there in the Cannery Row area, it has lots of historical stuff. Or stop in Monterey first, then Carmel.

Definitely take 101 unless you’re in a hurry, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

You might consider touring San Simeon, aka Hearst’s Castle.

You’ll need to make a choice as to how you proceed up the central coast. If you take 101, you’ll need to go as far as Salinas, over to the Monterey Peninsula, and then south to nepenthe. If you take Highway 1 up the coast it will go directly to nepenthe first (which is more direct), but it is much more twisty and slow. Scenery is spectacular.

Either way, you can follow up your meal at nepenthe with some hiking opportunities at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, or Andrew Molera state park.

Yeah, but the cup flipper has been dead for decades, right?

Don’t take I5 unless you want to get to San Francisco fast. I’ve used it from the Bay Area to Anaheim many times, and it is fast but boring.
I agree with seeing Hearst Castle. Stop off at the Madonna Inn in San Obispo for lunch and make sure to use the men’s room. It has theme rooms if you want to stay over night. I’ve done it, amusing but not worth planning a trip around.
Santa Barbara is beautiful but a bit yuppified from what it was when we first went there. Still, nice pier.
Agree with Carmel/Monterey and the aquarium. My Jeopardy prize was a week in a resort in Carmel Valley (60 miles from home.) There are wineries there, and downtown Monterey, one of the first capitals of California, is an interesting if brief visit. When you go to the Aquarium keep walking down the road that goes past it and you’ll find a cove with otters. No more than a few hundred feet past the Aquarium, no big hike.
Since this is a vacation I say you should take 1 instead of 101 north from Carmel. 101 is quite boring the rest of the way. If the elephant seals are there you can visit Ano Nuevo state park where they go to breed. Santa Cruz is fun. Go up to Half Moon Bay and then take 92 over to 101 and then turn North.
If you are in San Francisco and like hiking you can hike from the Golden Gate Bridge south to Land’s End. Great ocean views and you’d never guess you were in a city.

Whatever you do, do NOT take 17 over from the coast, it is scary and awful. Not that it’s likely you’d think to do it, but it has to be said. Terrifying bit of road and the traffic is murder. Highway 1 is magical–takes a lot longer but you’ll see things you will remember forever. See all the redwoods you can. Sequoia/King’s Canyon NP has the really big ones, Big Sur and Big Basin have the coastal redwoods, and all redwoods are worth looking at and hiking around in. Read Cannery Row before you hit Monterey if you haven’t read it already. The contrast between what was and what still is is pretty neat.

I mean, really, you can’t go far wrong exploring the Pacific coast. It’s unique and everyone should experience it at least once.

One thing I should mention about 1 and other coastal roads is that there are frequent state parks/beaches where you can park and look out over the Pacific. You can see the waves crashing against the rocks and some sea lions if you are lucky. On 101, on the other hand, you can pull of the road to observe an outlet mall.

Or, take I-280 north into SF rather than US-101. Much more scenic. And it will take you right past the Flintstone House.

You should do some portion of the drive on 101 and some portion on SR-1. Study a map ahead of time and find all the good roads that connect between the two: There aren’t very many.

Definitely take 101 between LA and San Luis Obispo – SR-1 is rather drab there, IMO. (ETA: Although SR-1 and 101 are the same road for part of the way there.) From SLO northward, both SR-1 and 101 get steadily more scenic as you head north.

The biggest and bestest zoos are in San Diego, Los Angeles at Griffith Park, and San Francisco. If you’re into zoos, those are the ones to see.

I’ll give you a maybe on the zoos at Santa Barbara and Oakland.

As for forests: There are redwood forests all over the coastal mountains from Big Sur up through Sonoma County. Lots of National Forest land, lots of State Parks, lots of County Parks, millions of miles of hiking trails. Big Basin has already been mentioned (in the mountains between Santa Cruz and San Jose).

I’m not sure why Muir Woods is so famously rated above all the other good redwood hiking areas. IIRC, there’s a trail that runs about a mile up the mountain from the visitor center and then just ends (it butts up against private land, I think). Compare Big Basin: 35-some miles of main trail from the summit (at the junction of SR-9 and Skyline) to the ocean, with umpty-ump side trails in all directions, mostly through redwoods. You could spend a whole year hiking these trails – ask me how I know that!

If you are on SR-1 through Santa Cruz, you could find your way to SR-9 which runs through a redwood-filled canyon up to Skyline, then down to San Jose. Or turn north on Skyline, take that as far as it goes, then head down to I-280. (Look all that up on Google Maps.) SR-9 passes by Cowell Redwoods, another huge redwood park with miles of trails. These parks all have visitor centers too, of course, which are basically mini-museums. Still more possibilities in Marin and Sonoma Counties, if you get up north that far.

Lots of hiking possibilities in the San Luis Obispo area too. Right behind the Madonna Inn (on 101) is a mountain with a big M on the side. There’s a trail running up to the top of that, with good long views at the top. The trailhead is near the Inn, IIRC. Or take Los Osos Valley Road out past Los Osos to Montaña de Oro State Park and hike up Valencia Peak.

History: The history of California is largely the history of the Spanish and Mexican times. You will probably want to visit some of the Missions – Many still stand, and many of them are still working Franciscan missions. Many of them have visitor centers (again, mini-museums) and gift shops, run by laypersons. The monks don’t get into doing that.

Some missions in particular that I know of with good visitor centers are in Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Sonoma.

There were also many old Adobe villas and haciendas, some of which still stand and are now State Historical Parks or museums. They typically had a large house, stables, workshops, a blacksmith shop, and other such amenities. Some are in San Miguel (small town on 101 just north of Paso Robles, there’s a mission there too); San Jose; General Vallejo’s villa near Petaluma and a historic home in Sonoma. ETA: Also San Juan Bautista, near 101 a little south of Gilroy, with Historic Park and a Mission.

Other museums feature railroad history, logging history, oil-field history, and maritime history. There’s a maritime history museum in Vallejo (which was once a major ship-building city). It features a fully installed, fully functional periscope that was rescued from some decomissioned submarine.

Botanical Gardens:
There’s a fabulous Botanical Garden in Santa Barbara, up in the hills above the Mission. You could visit both in one day. It’s a huge botanical garden, so seeing much of it is a good hiking expeditions too.

There’s a fabulous Botanical Garden at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, called the Strybing Arboretum. You have to pay to get in and pay even more to park anywhere within 100 miles of the place. You could spend at least half a day there, and many more halves of days at the nearby Cal Academy of Science Museum, the Art Museum, and umpteen other smaller attractions at Golden Gate Park

Yep. Nothing on the 5 but Ugly and Bad Smells

…and Bakersfield (nearby), but Gatopescado already covered that here.

To integrate what a couple of posters have already said: going north from Carmel, take Hwy 1. The next big stop is Santa Cruz – that may be a little beachy for you, but there are a lot of places to stay if you need to break there.

Heading north from Santa Cruz, you can either continue on Hwy 1 or take Hwy 17 to the San Jose/Silicon Valley area. I strongly recommend against Hwy 17, it’s not scary, but the traffic can be murder, it’s one bottleneck after another. Hwy 1 is almost as fast from there, and it is a very relaxed drive, at least until Half Moon Bay.

It’s true I-280 is scenic (for a freeway) north of Cupertino, but to get to it from Santa Cruz you have to take 17. In my opinion it’s not worth it. If you want to leave Hwy 1 at Watsonville and take 92 over to 280, as someone suggested, that’s not bad either and you can see some of 280.

Lots of spot-on suggestion here. I will add just a couple…

In Monterey, there is a great paved walking path leading out of the tourist area around the wharf and the aquarium to Lover’s Point, and continues paved/unpaved around to Asilomar State Beach. Awesome views, architecture, and wildlife all along makes it a great walk.

In Santa Cruz go north/west from the touristy Boardwalk and park along West Cliff Drive. There is a surfer museum in an old lighthouse, and you can watch the surfers in the water below the cliff as if in a stadium. It’s not something you see every day.

And to echo everyone else, I-5 is fast but not scenic, US-101 is not as fast but more scenic, and CA-1 is not at all fast but very scenic.

Oh, and in Carmel, go to the Carmel Bakery for a baked good and coffee to take on your morning stroll on the beach, just down the street.

At the appropriate spot on I-5, you can do a Facebook check-in at “Stinky Cows on I-5”. :slight_smile:

The only reason is that, if you’re staying in SF, you can bop over to Muir Woods as a half-day trip, to check “redwoods” off your list.

17 Mile Drive will take you through a gated community of a million trees (Monterey Pines), expensive homes, golf courses, and the ocean. They will charge non-residents to get through the gate.

(In my experience (high school) you could always get through the gate by telling the guard “I’m taking her (point to your passenger) home.”)

Just south of Carmel off Highway 1 is Point Lobos, with a dozen lovely hiking trails that lead through rocky forested headlands to sweeping ocean views.