California is an iconic summer road trip destination. It’s one of those states you can end up almost anywhere and have a good time. During tourist season, the real trick is finding stops with hidden gems you can enjoy in peace. Luckily, with this guide all you’ll need is good company and a killer playlist — the rest is already planned.
1) SAN FRANCISCO
San Francisco is an iconic starting point. There’s so much more to this city than its Golden Gate Bridge and the 49ers. Two of my favorites include Alcatraz Island and the city’s Chinatown district. Alcatraz was once a federal penitentiary that is infamous for housing criminals like Al Capone, also known as Scarface, and George Barnes (Machine Gun Kelly). Today you can tour it and, if you do, absolutely try the podcast tour.
Chinatown in San Fran is one of the country’s largest and most established Chinatown districts. From tea lounges to Asian snack shops there are dozens of different shops to explore. If the history behind this cluster of oriental alleyways interests you, check out the Chinese Historical Society of America.
2) SAN JOSE
You can’t complete your trip down the Pacific Coast Highway without stopping in San Jose. San Jose is one of Silicon Valley’s epicenters and the downtown city architecture speaks to its history as well. Get lost at the famous Winchester Mystery House. Complete with 165 rooms, this mansion is not your ordinary historic site. Some people even claim it’s haunted. Just beware of those dead-end hallways and staircases leading to nowhere.
San Jose is rich with intriguing museums you won’t want to miss. Take a tomb tour at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum or get your fill of fine art at the San Jose Museum of Art. There are a few good areas to hike just north of San Jose too. Consider stopping at Mission Peak or The Sunol Regional Wilderness on your way in.
3) SANTA CRUZ
Santa Cruz isn’t exactly a hidden gem, but there are tons of cool places in the city and nearby that the tourists haven’t taken over yet. Experience strange, natural gravity phenomenon at The Mystery Spot, a museum located in the Redwood Forest in the Santa Cruz mountains.
I first discovered The Mystery Spot through Lorin Ashton, commonly known as Bassnectar. He wrote a song about the enchanting place that enticed me to visit. Now I highly recommend it to anyone visiting nearby. In some areas of the house (museum), a gravitational anomaly allows you to lean fully forward without falling to the ground. You’ll see water bottles, wallets, and anything else light enough float through the air.
The city is also home to gorgeous beaches and a boardwalk worth exploring. You can use a coupon to save 20% off all-day ride wristbands at the boardwalk or layout on one of the gorgeous county beaches. Natural Bridges State Beach is a great stop if you’re just looking for a view.
4) BIG SUR
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park has grown more popular over the years which makes it trickier to visit, but the views you will see and the people you’ll meet make it well worth the detour. The park itself is centered over the Big Sur river where you can swim, fish, hike, and marvel at the waterfall. There are tons of different trails ranging in difficulty and length so you can make a day of it or just go for a quick walk with a nice view.
For this stop, you’ll want to plan ahead because the campsites are always booked, even months in advance. If you’d like to sleep here, or nearby, you’ll want to plan accordingly. For anyone willing to park and hike to a campsite, there are a few last-minute options the locals can tell you about. Other campsites nearby are managed by corresponding towns and you can call the city directly to make a reservation. Sometimes there are options to do so online.
5) SAN SIMEON
Although there are a lot of mansions in California, none stand up to the legendary Hearst Castle. It’s story begins in 1865 when George Hearst bought 40,000 acres of land, which eventually spread to encompass more than 250,000 acres. Today the castle sits on a hill on 127 acres of land on the outskirts of San Simeon towering over the city. Explore the gardens, gape at the giant rooms, massive pools, wine cellar, airport, zoo, and more.
The town of San Simeon is very small so there aren’t many other activities, but you can stop at the Piedras Blancas Light Station to catch a good view off the pier. There’s a boardwalk here too for elephant seal viewing but it will be much quieter and less crowded than the one in Santa Cruz.
6) PIMSO BEACH
Located about an hour south of San Simeon is Pismo, a beautiful beach camping spot. Famous for its wineries and coastline, you can stay at one of three campgrounds on the beach. You’ll want to check out Pismo’s oceanside town parks, too. The weather is a bit cooler than its surrounding areas, part of why the history of people at Pismo beach dates back over 9,000 years ago. If you’ve had enough beach views, for now, check out the Dinosaur Caves Park or the Monarch Butterfly Grove.
Driving through California should be spontaneous and full of surprises, but it’s important to have a curated plan too. With this list of six stops you’re guaranteed to find adventure, and hopefully some privacy too! Find a nice balance between sticking to the route and making a few impromptu decisions. Sometimes it’s fun to end up somewhere surprising, as long as you can find fun things to do. But enough of the logistics. Enjoy the open road, good company, and remember to write a few things down to look back on later.
Have you driven through California? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions for me please leave these in the comments below.
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