I’ve never been a huge fan of road trips. I know they’re supposed to be about the journey and not the destination, but endless stretches in the car just aren’t all that fun for me. But then again, maybe I’m just driving through the wrong places.
When I went to visit California this past March, my friend told me he had a 3-day road trip planned for us that would amount to about 1,000 miles (1,500 miles if count the trip from LA to the San Francisco Bay Area, our “official” starting point.)
That meant that about 75% of our days would be spent in the car. Would that be fun? Would we really see anything? Would we even still be friends by the end of it? I was…skeptical. But he assured me, this was the best way to see California.
Things became even more worrisome as everyone expressed shock when I told them about our plans.
“Are you sure?”
“That is a lot of driving…”
But 1,500 miles later, I am a changed person. Not only was this trip perfectly planned down to where we would watch the sunset each night, but it honestly felt like we spent barely any time in the car (despite probably spending around 6-8 hours each day.)
So how did we do it? How did I see so much of California in only 3 days? Here was our brilliantly executed itinerary:
Day 0 — LA –> Bay Area (500 Miles)
After finishing up a day at the office (around 6pm), we drove up from LA to our official starting point in the Bay Area. To be honest, I slept for most of this drive. I was three hours ahead on Eastern Time and pretty exhausted. Thank goodness I can sleep just about anywhere, because we arrived around midnight (which was about 3am for me) and needed to get a fairly early start the next morning for the rest of our trip.
Day 1 — Exploring the Bay Area (200 miles)
The Bay Area in California is particularly special to me because I spent six years there growing up in a small town about 45 minutes out from San Francisco, which is actually where my road trip buddy and I first met before getting back in touch years later. And this was the first time I’d been back to the area about twenty years (that’s right, I’m not exaggerating — actually 20 years!)
But the downside of leaving the area when I was around six years old was that I never got a chance to explore and experience the amazing places so close by. Even though I’d spent so much time here as a child, almost everything we did was new to me, and thus, all the more special.
We started out with a quiet breakfast at the Woodlands Cafe & Market in Kentfield, where they had the most outstanding vanilla and lavender lemonade and lattes. Relaxed, quaint, and delicious — I could eat here every day and never get tired of it.
Then we headed to the Marin Headlands, exploring interesting sights such as Hawk Hill, Batteries Alexander and Mendell, and the Point Bonita Lighthouse. There was an amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the weather was (as expected) perfect. There is definitely a reason why everyone wants to live in San Francisco.
The rest of the afternoon and into the early evening, we walked along the very windy Ocean Beach, had dinner at the outstanding Beretta SF (get the walnut bread and panna gelato, trust me), and watched the sunset from Treasure Island.
Probably the most perfect day you can spend — beautiful views, amazing food and perfect weather. What’s more impressive was that the rest of the weekend totally topped it.
Day 2 — From Tahoe to Bishop (400 miles)
When you have one day to drive 400 miles and see everything in between, you have to get up pretty early. We were out the door by 7am and headed up to South Lake Tahoe (roughly a three hour drive). Once you hit the forest, you can’t help but take a deep breath. The air is brisk and fresh, and even in late March, there’s still snow on the ground. You know you’re in the mountains.
We ate breakfast at a small diner on the side of the road, knowing there wouldn’t be much for the next few hours until we reached Tahoe. We stopped whenever we could to take in the views — vast overlooks spanning the lake and snowy mountains. You’ll find few places more accessible and eye-catching than Emerald Bay and Eagle Falls, and by the time we had thoroughly explored, it was about 1pm, but we had a schedule to keep.
So we headed east, the Eastern Sierras squarely in our sights. And oh, the sights! This was the bulk of the driving — plenty of foothills and valleys. It was amazing how each direction you looked held something different. Jagged mountains, grassy hills…and absolutely no cell reception. It was great.
Along the highway, we pulled off to take pictures, explored side roads and detours. While we spent hours and hours in the car, it honestly felt like we stopped so often and saw so much that it never got to be too uncomfortable. Some of our best stops included Topaz Lake, Sonora Junction, Bridgeport, Mono Lake, and June Lake Loop, which eventually took us to Mammoth where we stopped at the Tamarack Lodge to check out the snow covered Twin Lakes, and finally watched an amazing sunset over Convict Lake.
This was easily one of our most memorable moments, sitting by the water, starting at the mountains and starting to feel the chill of the wind as the sun fell behind the clouds, but still in complete awe of where we were and how beautiful it was. There are some sunsets you just don’t forget.
That night we booked a room at the Creekside Inn in Bishop and ordered in some Imperial Gourmet Chinese to eat in bed while we watched The Dark Knight Rises on cable TV. Honestly, it just doesn’t get much better than that.
Day 3 — Exploring I-395 & Death Valley (400 miles)
The best possible way to start a long day is with an amazing cup of coffee. Lucky for us, Bishop has a place to grab exactly that — Black Sheep Coffee. So good, in fact, that we each grabbed a bag of beans to take home (which I’m enjoying now as I write this post!) Really outstanding — easy to drink, complex and delicious. Definitely the place to stop if you’re anywhere nearby and need a caffeine fix!
From Bishop, we drove south along I-395, which is an attraction in and of itself. Beautiful views wherever you look and some really fantastic places to pull off the main road and explore, including: Big Pine, Lone Pine, and the Alabama Hills. We sat in the Mobius Arch and ran around the dusty rocks taking in the views of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the United States, and then hit the road again to drive out past a (sadly quite empty) Owen’s Lake.
And this was all before we finally made it to Death Valley National Park — talk about the middle of nowhere! We took SR190 out to the park, passing through Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, exploring some of the best-loved stops such as Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the US, and the hottest place in the world!) and Artist Drive, all before climbing up the Mesquite Dunes to watch the sunset.
And finally, as golden hour ended and the stars came out over the unlit sky, we got in the car to finish our drive home.
Slow service at the only open Death Valley restaurant in Panamint Springs set us back about an hour, so we arrived in LA around 1am, exhausted and relieved, but in awe of how much we saw and did in only three days. An incredible thanks to my amazing friend for not only putting this trip together, but demanding to drive the entire time so that I could take in the sights (and sleep a bit in the car because oh my god, jet lag.) I think I might hire him to do all my trip planning from now on…