In just six days, you can experience California’s most famous cities and its biggest natural attraction. But you’ll be doing a lot of driving. Make it a full seven days and you have enough time for the state’s best coastal drive along Big Sur. If you have more time than that, it’s well worth adding another day to each of the main stops. Mileage and driving times are approximate and can vary based on traffic and weather.
Day 1: San Francisco
Spend your San Francisco day in Golden Gate Park. Indulge your artistic side at the de Young Museum or learn more about our world at the nearby California Academy of Sciences. Unwind with a walk through the park’s Japanese Tea Garden. Then make your way to the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world’s most famous photo-ops. End your day with a meal at one of the city’s culinary stars—or grab an authentic burrito at a local taqueria, which may be just as tasty. You won’t have as many dining options once you make it to Yosemite.
Day 2: Drive from San Francisco to Yosemite (200 miles/5 hours)
With a head full of art and science and a belly full of gourmet food, head to Yosemite. Leave San Francisco at 8am to reach Yosemite by noon. The drive to the Big Oak Flat entrance takes at least four hours; however, traffic, especially in summer and on weekends, can make it much longer.
Day 3: Yosemite
Spend a day touring around Yosemite Valley, seeing Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. If you want to break a sweat, hike the 5.4-mile round-trip Mist Trail. Spend a night under the stars at one of the park’s campgrounds or enjoy a night indoors at the classic Ahwahnee Hotel (just be sure to make reservations well in advance).
Day 4: Drive from Yosemite to Los Angeles (300 miles/6 hours)
Exit the park via its southern entrance and go south on CA-41. The majority of the trip will be spent on CA-99 South before using I-5 South, CA-170 South, and US-101 South as you get closer to the city.
Day 5: Los Angeles
You’ve been to the mountains; now it’s time for the beach! Experience the best of Southern California beach culture at the chaotic but entertaining Venice Boardwalk or the Santa Monica Pier. If time allows, head inland a few miles to stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame and snap a pic at TCL Chinese Theatre. Of course, some people would give all of that up for a day at Disneyland (you know who you are).
Days 6-7: Drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco (500 miles/8 hours)
You can make this drive in one long day if you make only a few stops (such as getting lunch midway in San Luis Obispo), but it’s better to break it up over two days and enjoy the coast. On the first day, stop in Santa Barbara for lunch at one of the great restaurants off State Street. Continue on to San Luis Obispo to spend the night.
On the second day, plan on stopping for a tour of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, then driving up PCH through Big Sur on the way back to San Francisco. (If you really need to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in one day, it’s quicker to take I-5, which takes around six hours.)
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon California Road Trip.