I’ve taken this trip and seen all these places many times, and this trip includes some of my favorite places in the world (out of 40+ countries & 48 US states)!
The basic idea: Make a loop starting in and out of Los Angeles, including Las Vegas and San Francisco.
- Starting in Los Angeles, drive or fly to….
- Las Vegas. See the strip, hit the casinos, and all the wild fun that is Las Vegas. I personally don’t gamble really, but it’s still fun to wander the casinos, see shows, lounge by the pool, eat well, and be checked out from daily life.
- Take a day trip to the Grand Canyon. There are plenty of tour operators there offering these trips, or if you have a car of your own, just drive to the north rim.
- En Route to San Francisco if going by car:
- Sequoia National Forest is amazing and I definitely prefer it over the nearby Yosemite, which is indeed beautiful but can get crazy crowded during peak times. If you only have time for one park, I highly recommend Sequoia, and it’s on the way, sort of. There are substantial mountains, so it’s in the spring or winter you cannot drive directly from Las Vegas, you’ll need to go around the mountains due to snow. These roads are usually open by June or July.
- Yosemite National Park. It’s beautiful – just expect some crowds.
- Gold Country near Sacramento is delightful if you have a longer trip (3 weeks+).
- San Francisco. SF is lovely, expensive, dense, fun, historic, and a truly wonderful place. Ride a trolley, wander the markets and chinatown and italian north beach, cross the Golden Gate Bridge over to the charming waterfront Sausalito where you can eat well and wander art galleries, visit Alcatraz island, and have an irish coffee where they invented it. If flying, you can fly to Oakland, just across the bay bridge.
- Great side trip: wine tasting in Napa Valley (arguably the best or one of the best wine areas in the world. Note: it’s posh, delightful, expensive at some places – you can eat at Michelin starred “best restaurants on the planet” type places, or “slum it” over in Sonoma Valley (nearby) which is more down to earth and more about the wine. I love both, just know Napa is nicer but more expensive).
- If Driving: Leave SF to Big Basin State Park redwoods, especially if you haven’t been to Sequoia National Park. Stay the night in Santa Cruz, and don’t miss the pier especially if you have kids or teens. Go ziplining in the redwoods, or ride a scenic old fashioned train.
- Pop by Monterrey Aquarium when heading south, it’s worth a stop off the 101 for a while.
- If you have time and like serious driving with cliff-hanging spectacular views, take the 1 south from Monterrey into Big Sur. History buffs should check out Hearst Castle.
- Moving south, San Luis Obispo is a cute town great for a break, but not a big destination…
- Solvang is very cute. A bit “disney” feeling, but legit: it’s a danish village, perfect for a stop for a walk and bite and perhaps some wine tasting – this is still wine country, after all.
- Santa Barbara is definitely worth a stop. Rent a bike, wander the downtown, and experience relaxed California living.
- Back to Los Angeles
DRIVE: This is best done by renting a car. The drive to Las Vegas is flat desert, but cool in that you’ll feel just how big the USA is, and see some great desert landscapes. Road trips are part of the great american tradition – kick up some music, and enjoy. It takes about 5 hours, so it’s a chance to disconnect, eat some junk food, stop by random little towns and drive on route 66. The drive down the coast is wonderful, and some of the stops like Big Basin state park, and Sequoia National Park are best done via car. Best if you have more than 2 weeks.
A note on times: What I’d do personally – 3 weeks:
- One week in Los Angeles. Car not needed for most of this week.
- Then rent a car and plan 3 nights in Las Vegas
- One night in Sequoia if summer or fall and the mountain-pass roads are open
- One night in Yosemite
- 3 Nights in San Francisco. I might save a few bucks by staying in Sausalito across the bridge, it’s relaxed and less hectic and has great views of the city and is a good base to see SF & Napa.
- 1-2 Night(s) in Santa Cruz
- 1 Night in Monterrey or Carmel by the sea or a Yurt in Big Sur
- 2 Nights in Santa Barbara
- 2 Nights in Los Angeles, or Malibu, or Orange County near Laguna Beach, or San Diego
That’s a “best of the american southwest” in 21 days.
FLY: If you do this by plane you’ll miss the coastal part with lots of stops, but save a lot of time – so if you are trying to do this plus L.A. within 2 weeks, I’d suggest flying. If you do fly, book your flights well in advance – ideally 47 days on a Tuesday night is the best time to book.
FLIGHT: Check Southwest Airlines >> click sales. If staying at our AirBnB listing, try to fly in & out of Burbank if < $30 more, as you’ll save time, hassle, and cost getting to and from the house.