Life is a Highway in California

The groundswell of nostalgia for one of America’s original highways means it is reappearing on maps.

When Ford rolled out its famous Model T, it fuelled an obsession in the US with the open road and gave rise to the timeless tradition of the great American road trip.

Today, California and its neighbouring states offer plenty of great routes. You just need to decide which way to point your convertible. Here are six California adventures on wheels to choose from. 

Road Trippin’ | San Francisco to Los Angeles, 800Km, 2 Days 

Cutting a serpentine swathe along the wild coastline of California, Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of the world’s iconic drives. 

It’s filled with dramatic sights, from the opulent hilltop pile that is Hearst Castle to the majestic arch of Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur and views stretching into the wide blue yonder.

Though you can do the drive in either direction, it’s better to head south, which puts you on the same side as the turnouts, so you can stop to snap photos. Hire a convertible (preferably a Chrysler Sebring or the thirstier but infinitely sexier Ford Mustang) at San Francisco airport, put the top down and away you go.

You can cover the route in two days, but why rush? If you’re a nature lover, kayak around Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, while dodging harbour seals.

Cashed-up types can drop out in the most luxurious way at Post Ranch Inn on the cliffs of Big Sur. The spa offers ‘shaman’ services, including a Drum Journey or a Fire Ceremony, among the more usual treatments.

Golfers will find two stunning beachside golf courses at Half Moon Bay and Pebble Beach, near Carmel.

Those with stars in their eyes can seek out former mayor Clint Eastwood in Carmel (sometimes he tickles the ivories at his Mission Ranch restaurant) or check out celebs dining at San Ysidro Ranch, Santa Barbara. By the time you reach Malibu in Los Angeles, you’ll think it’s just another pretty beach.

King of the Road | San Francisco to Utah Border, 980Km, 6 Days 

Don’t head out of San Francisco to the adventure playground of Lake Tahoe on a Friday. That’s when city dwellers hit the I-80 in droves to escape for the weekend. 

Take it easy and stay overnight at The Citizen Hotel in the state’s capital, Sacramento. If you’re game, request a room on the hotel’s 13th floor, which is said to be occupied by a friendly ghost.

Continue along the I-80 to Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Though renowned for skiing, it’s a four-season destination where you can enjoy nature any time. The historical town of Truckee, 19 kilometres north-west of the lake, is worth a stop on the way. 

Skiers keen to avoid the crowds should point their skis towards Alpine Meadows. Beginners try Northstar-at-Tahoe, where most trails are beginner or intermediate.

The lakeside Cal Neva Resort, Spa and Casino – known as The Lady of the Lake – at Crystal Bay was owned by Frank Sinatra in the 1960s and attracted the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Today, star-spotting is best at the Hyatt Regency and its private beach in Incline Village.

East of Lake Tahoe is the US 50, dubbed “the loneliest road in America” in 1986 by LIFE magazine. (The moniker proved so successful in attracting visitors, some question if it’s still applicable.) Drop off the range into Nevada’s capital, Carson City, which was once a bustling frontier town.

The highway narrows to two lanes at Fallon, venturing past ancient petroglyphs, the 180-metre-high Sand Mountain, desert valleys, ghost towns such as Ruth (said to have inspired aspects of Stephen King’s Desperation) and Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, where there are camp sites (there are motels in nearby Baker).

Get Your Kicks | Santa Monica to Santa Fe, 1,470Km, 10 Days

With the advent of superhighways, Route 66 (nicknamed the Mother Road) was decommissioned in the 1980s. Fortunately, the groundswell of nostalgia for one of America’s original highways, which connected Los Angeles and Chicago, means it is now reappearing on maps as Historic Route 66. Be warned, though: the route’s realignments over many years make the trip less than straightforward. 

Hire a Harley-Davidson from Route 66 Riders in Los Angeles if you’re in an Easy Rider mood. Start at Santa Monica Pier and head east via Pasadena. In San Bernardino, stop at the Route 66 Museum housed in the (now defunct) first McDonald’s. Spend the night in a teepee at the kitsch Wigwam Motel. 

Head into Arizona and soak up high desert country as you pass through Kingman, Flagstaff, Winslow and Holbrook. After crossing the border into New Mexico, spend a night at El Rancho Hotel in Gallup. Over the years, the surrounding countryside has provided the backdrop for many films (New Mexico has become known as ‘Tamalewood’) and El Rancho’s past guests include John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Before reaching Albuquerque, turn off the highway to Acoma Pueblo, one of the state’s most stunning Native American towns built on a 112-metre-high sandstone mesa. The Acoma people have inhabited the town for almost a thousand years. 

In the city of Albuquerque, Central Avenue (formerly Route 66) is dotted with retro diners and motels. Aztec Motel, with its neon sign, is one of the most photographed.

Finish up in spectacular Santa Fe, 100 kilometres north-east, where most of the buildings in historical downtown are Pueblo Revival style with flat roofs, curved edges and earth-coloured adobe.

Pink Champagne on Ice | San Francisco to Mount St Helens, 1,100 Km, 8 Days

If you prefer boutique vineyards to the big operators, you’ll want to sample the wines of Sonoma County rather than Napa Valley. Head north from San Francisco and linger among the vines before embarking on the drive along the Redwood Coast. Near Leggett, literally drive through a towering redwood known as the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree.

In addition to spectacular forests and coastal scenery there are quaint towns such as Eureka, where the Old Town historical district echoes San Francisco with ornate Victorian homes. The over-the-top Carson Mansion completed in 1886 (lumber baron William M. Carson dreamt up the project as a way to keep mill workers and craftsmen busy during an economic slump) is considered the finest example in the country.

Cross over the Oregon state line, zoom along the beaches at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and then head to the Dundee Hills wine region, 45 kilometres south-west of Portland, where pinot noir is king.

Put aside time to hang out in Portland, an idiosyncratic city where the marketing campaign is “Keep Portland Weird!” Cruise into Cadillac Cafe, which houses a 1961 pink Cadillac, for breakfast or lunch; tuck into Chinese at Hung Far Low; sample the beers at the many microbreweries; browse the shelves of Powell’s, the country’s largest bookshop; or kick back with pizza, beer and a movie at McMenamins Bagdad Theater & Pub.

From Portland it’s 80 kilometres north-east to Mount St Helens in Washington. This volcano was known as ‘America’s Mount Fuji’ until 1980, when an eruption blew 400 metres off its snow-capped 2,950-metre summit, leaving a huge crater.

Vegas Two Times | Los Angeles to Beyond Las Vegas, 2,145Km, 14 Days

The snarly Los Angeles freeways might darken your mood, but Vegas will lift them, baby. Its casinos offer tempting midweek accommodation deals.

If you like relaxing in your room with a coffee, stay at the new Cosmopolitan, which offers this rare treat (casinos do everything to tempt you onto the gaming floor, including depriving you of coffee). 

Beyond the 24-hour glitz, glamour and craziness of the hotels and casinos on the Strip (think real flamingos at the Flamingo, lions at the MGM Grand and sharks at Mandalay Bay) there are breathtaking natural sights in the desert.

From Vegas you can complete a circuit that includes the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon and Zion. Plan plenty of overnight stays for this epic four-state odyssey – it takes about six hours just to drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon.

Reserve a spot at Grand Canyon Lodge or camping grounds well in advance, as this park is popular. Lesser crowds congregate at the North Rim (open mid May to mid October). Head north-east to Lake Powell and rent a houseboat for a few days from Wahweap Marina to really take it easy. Continue east, where Goulding’s Lodge has rooms overlooking the dramatic red Monument Valley. Finally, check out the colourful pinnacles of Bryce Canyon and then Zion Canyon (via a shuttle from April to October) on your return to Vegas. 

The Golden Road | San Francisco to Death Valley, 800 Km, 5 Days

Freeways will quickly funnel you from San Francisco to Yosemite, but that’s not the idea of a road trip, is it? Pick up an RV from El Monte (25 locations in California) and head east to the SR 49, also known as the Golden Chain Highway because it connects historical gold rush communities in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. In the quaint hamlet of Mariposa, near the western entrance to Yosemite National Park, brush up on your knowledge of gold rush history at the Mariposa Museum & History Center and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum.

From here, take Highway 140 into Yosemite National Park. This spectacular 65-kilometre stretch takes you from the farms of the San Joaquin Valley through the foothills and along Merced River to a canyon. Watch out for deer and other wild animals, as they move to the lowlands when the high country is snowed in.

Yosemite is a campers’ paradise. During the warmer months, book your spot in advance or arrive super-early to nab one of the first-come, first-served camp sites. Other lodgings to choose from range from tent cabins in the back country to The Ahwahnee Hotel with its stunning views of the Half Dome rock formation. 

Come out on the eastern side of the park and take a right towards the town of Lone Pine at the foot of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous US. From here it’s not far to Death Valley, 

85 metres below sea level. Temperatures are scorching from April to October, so plan to see the park’s water-fluted canyons, sand dunes and snow-capped mountains at either end of the day or at a cooler time of the year. Some of the nine camping grounds are open year-round.   

Words by Katrina Lobley - Published in Voyeur May 2011
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 3.8 million
Area 1,302 km²
Time Zone GMT -7
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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