Fly into Los Angeles and rent a car. Cruise along Wilshire Boulevard, one of the most famous streets in California, heading from coastal Santa Monica, past the downtown L.A. business district, through Korea Town, into Beverly Hills, down the Miracle Mile, and on to inland Los Angeles. Stop by LACMA and the La Brea Tar Pits along the way before checking in to your hotel.
Go to Disneyland! If this is your first trip to California, get the Park Hopper pass and spend some time in California Adventure. You’ll get a light and fluffy overview of many of the Golden State’s star regions and attractions.
Head three hours east on I-10 to taste the sands of California’s vast arid deserts in bright, fun-loving Palm Springs. Hike out to a native palm oasis in one of the Indian Canyons, visit a date farm, or play a round of golf. In the evening, dine at Pomme Frites, then head to Mixie’s Boy Bar to dance and drink into the night.
No visit would be complete without Yosemite National Park. Hop back on I-5 and take U.S. 99 to the south entrance and drive up to the world-famous Yosemite Valley. Board the valley shuttle to avoid the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Take the short hike to Bridalveil Fall or tackle a tougher climb to Upper Yosemite Fall. Then take Tioga Pass Road (summer only) to Tuolumne Meadows, leaving behind the crowds as you enjoy the alpine meadows and lakes. Reserve in advance to spend the night at one of the High Sierra camps.
Continue east on Tioga Pass to U.S. 395, turning north to Mono Lake. Spend half a day exploring the silent, eerie Tufa Preserve and swimming in this controversial body of salty water. Drive about 20 miles north on U.S. 395 to Highway 270 to the slowly decaying ghost town of Bodie—a hard-bitten mining town that once rivaled Tombstone with its one-a-day murder rate. Return south to the tiny town of Lee Vining for a casual dinner and crash in one of the rustic lodges.
Head north on U.S. 395 to join in the fun and adventure at Lake Tahoe. In the winter, stay at Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, or one of a dozen other alpine ski resorts. In summer, dive into the pristine waters of Lake Tahoe. At night, the casinos on the Nevada side heat up with high-end nightclubs and always-busy gambling floors.
Drive west on I-80 to visit California’s legendary Wine Country. New to wine tasting? Start at the Culinary Institute of America, a chef training center with cooking classes and a restaurant in St. Helena. Next, go wine tasting at any of the stellar vineyards lining the Silverado Trail. End your day by dressing to the nines to dine out at Bouchon, or head farther north to dive feet-first into a Calistoga mud bath.
Take Highway 121 west to U.S. 101 to explore San Francisco’s North Bay. Visit Muir Woods and walk the main trail among the redwoods before stopping off for lunch at the Pelican Inn. Finish with a winding coastal tour through the Marin Headlands before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to spend the night in “the City.”
You’re probably staying downtown, so take a stroll along the Embarcadero and check out Fisherman’s Wharf. Grab a casual meal at Fog City Diner then take Fell Street to Golden Gate Park to wander around the Japanese Tea Garden or just people-watch. For dinner, dine upscale at Hayes Valley’s Jardinière, then round out your evening with some live music—perhaps the San Francisco Symphony or Biscuits and Blues.
The most beautiful way to head back south is along coastal route Highway 1. Stop in Monterey to watch the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium before heading to beautiful Carmel. Stop for lunch and stroll the zillions of art galleries downtown. Get back on Highway 1 to cruise the stunning Big Sur Coast Highway. Spend the night at one of the many Big Sur campgrounds (advance reservations recommended) or rustic cabins.
Traveling farther south, take a break from the beaches by taking Route 46 east to experience the inland valleys of Paso Robles. This off-the-beaten-path agricultural region is rising in prominence as a producer of fine wines to rival Napa itself. A cute downtown area gets lively with local college students, but the wine roads seem pleasantly crowd-free and the tasting experience at wineries like Midlife Crisis and Hunt Cellars feels friendly and personal. From Paso, it’s an easy drive down Highway 1 to have dinner and spend the night in coastside Cambria.
A few miles north of Cambria, Hearst Castle draws visitors for tours through the fantastic property. Walk through bedrooms filled with ancient European art in the Guest Houses, picture partying in the grand rooms with their antique furniture, or imagine taking a dip in a swimming pool clad entirely in precious marble. For a more history-oriented experience, take a nighttime tour, when volunteers dress in vintage 1930s party clothing and you’re treated as an invited guest to the Castle. Fill out your day with a beachcombing expedition to Cambria’s Moonstone Beach before dining in the quaint downtown.
Time to head back to Los Angeles. A great way to spend your final day in California is to stroll the chaotic Venice Boardwalk, then compare it to a quiet walk along the Canals. Dine on Washington Street, then head up to Santa Monica for some kitschy fun on the Pier and a final shopping trip on the Third Street Promenade.
Have breakfast at Cora’s in Santa Monica and take a final walk on the beach before heading to Long Beach Airport or LAX for your flight home.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon California.