“I’m going to start in L.A., travel up the coast and then see where the road will take me,” my boyfriend explained to me through the microphone of his laptop. “I’ll be home in two or three weeks, babe”. Maybe there was something wrong with the Skype connection, because that blurry dude on my computer screen could not just have told me that he was going to travel. Alone. After he had me cancel my flight to come see him in California because he had injured his leg the week before.
His internet connection must have been fine because he could clearly observe my excited smile turn to an angry frown. “Babe?” There was no answer coming from my side, only frantic typing. “Okay,” I announced a full ten minutes later. “But I’m coming with you.” I had just booked the next best flight out of the heart of Europe to Los Angeles.
Not even 24 hours later, I was sitting in a plane, westbound. Our original trip would have lasted almost a month longer than the one I was going on now, so I had to figure out how to cram all my California must-sees into two short weeks – a perfect distraction for my nervous self that had to withstand an 11-hour flight and pretend that I wasn’t scared senseless of flying. By the time we touched ground in L.A., a solid plan had formed in my head: an introductory 2-week itinerary for Central California.
Los Angeles (2 – 3 days)
We were going to spend our first few days in Los Angeles, the city of dreams (and the city of nothing of interest, if you asked me). I kept my expectations low, and my enthusiasm lower – and was proven wrong right away. We both thought we’d be overwhelmed be the sheer size of the city, so we took baby steps and discovered Los Angeles little by little. The first day had us digging into Eggslut breakfast sandwiches at Grand Central Market before craning our necks to take in the full scope of the downtown skyscrapers. We must have looked every bit the small-town-dwellers from the Austrian Alps that we are, marvelling at the impressive mountains of steel and glass that shot into the sky next to us.
We wandered through Little Tokyo and tried to spot as many kitchen appliances with cute faces on them as possible, then took our rental car over to the beach. We soaked up the sun at Santa Monica Pier as long as possible, before falling exhaustedly into bed, jetlag galore.
The next day, we explored bits and pieces of L.A.’s entertainment industry (and also spent a good hour calculating how much of the content we consume is produced here, despite the fact that we live on the other side of the globe – we came up with 83%, with no scientific evidence whatsoever, of course). Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Hollywood Lake Park… we did it all, only missing the Universal Studios tour, another stop that would surely have been worth the ticket price. Instead, we used our third and last day to visit some of the free attractions Los Angeles has to offer.
Death Valley (1 day)
The real adventure we had picked out lay beyond the city limits, however – a road trip through the Californian backcountry. The palm trees and beaches of my stereotypical mental image of Cali began to fade away and were replaced with the vast nothingness that starts somewhere behind Los Angeles and stretches to – to where, actually? We imagined dusty plains and harsh mountains all the way to the East coast, our minds blown away once again by the scale of everything in North America.
We headed straight to Death Valley National Park, passing through the Mojave desert with its distinctive Joshua trees on the way. As the landscape kept changing, we started to feel a slight pang of regret – so many things to explore, so little time. We stuck to our two-week itinerary, but made a mental note to come back and maybe even make the slight detour to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon next time. For now, we contented ourselves with the great views passing by our windows and looked forward to seeing Badwater Basin, the lowest point of the Western hemisphere. In fact, Badwater has a few more superlatives to its name: it’s one of the hottest places on the entire world, and hosts one of the toughest annual ultramarathons each year, where runners withstand the crazy heat and run 135 miles through the desert.
That kind of physical effort is extreme even if it weren’t for the drastic temperature changes. Death Valley goes from scorching hot to freezing cold in a matter of hours, if not minutes – come sunset, the desert temperatures drop quickly. We drove up to Dante’s View, a viewpoint in the mountains next to the desert, and got a taste of the temperature differences ourselves – while the glistening white surface of the desert was burning hot, a cool wind chilled us to the bones as we drank in the view.
Yosemite National Park (2 – 3 days)
We continued up North on California’s Route 395 and headed to our most-anticipated, but also most-feared destination: Yosemite National Park. With both of us being total and complete outdoor buffs, spending 90% of our free time climbing impossible mountains, the boyfriend’s leg injury put a huge damper on our Yosemite enthusiasm – what’s the point of going if not for some serious hiking?
Turns out, Yosemite (much like many other popular tourist spots in the U.S.) is perfectly accessible by car, meaning that you can get the views without even having to lift a foot (if that’s your thing). We entered the park via route 120 (Tioga Pass) and stayed clear of the hoards of people that are usually clustered around Glacier Point, in Yosemite Valley, to explore the lesser-visited East of the park.
Mountains are where I feel most at home in the entire world, so it was comforting to leave the simmering heat of the desert behind and change altitude for a while. Still, the mountains in Yosemite don’t look like any other I’ve seen before – the polished granite looks smoother than a baby’s skin, even if they’re looming dangerously over your head in impressive formations. It took only two seconds for me to add another mental note to the must-come-back-to-list.
There is lots to explore around the National Park as well: Mono Lake with its captivating calcium-carbonate spires, the ghost town Bodie, or natural hot springs near Bridgeport reservoir. And if you drive up a little further North, you’ll see Lake Tahoe, which crosses over into Nevada.
San Francisco (3 days)
We left the mountains with a heavy heart, but our next stop made it a little easier to say good-bye: We were heading to San Francisco. The Bay City greeted us with fog, as is customary, and we greeted it back, with excited smiles and a list of places to go and things to do.
We started out at Fisherman’s Wharf, but didn’t even make it to Pier 39 – who knew that so many people could fit onto one little pier? Instead, we walked around the busy neighbourhood and took in our first sights of the city. The Golden Gate bridge to our left, Alcatraz straight ahead, the hilly skyline of the city right behind us – this is really San Francisco, we had to remind ourselves. This is really happening, we are really here. We used the rest of the day to walk around the Presidio, a park and former military base right where the Pacific Ocean meets the San Francisco Bay, and biked across the Golden Gate bridge.
Breakfast came with a view the next day – we grabbed a snack and headed up Twin Peaks Viewpoint, before diving into the city once again. We wandered around the Mission, took the obligatory Painted Ladies picture (you know, the houses from Full House), strolled under the giant arches of the Palace of the Fine Arts, were impressed by the tiny Cable Car Museum, and even hopped onto one of them ourselves. Before hitting the road again the next day, we visited Union Square and tasted our way through the Ferry Building’s farmer’s market.
To be honest, by the end of our three days in the city, we still felt a bit overwhelmed – we preferred the relaxed, sunny Los Angeles to busy, touristy San Francisco. But since our mental we-have-to-come-here-again list was growing anyways, we thought we’d might as well add the Bay City to the list – after all, we only got a tourist’s glimpse into everybody’s favourite West Coast stop. I’m sure as heck not done yet with eating all the vegan delicacies that can be found in this capital of culinary creativity – reason enough to come back.
Santa Cruz (1 day)
Having had enough of the city life and foggy days, we spent the next day in sunny Santa Cruz, a surfer town known for its perfect breaks. I could sit for hours on the little cliffs, overlooking the surfers – totally in awe, of course, since I don’t know the first thing about the sport (despite having tried, several times, myself). Santa Cruz was a little breather in between busy days, long drives, and the bustling neighbourhoods of San Francisco. I organised my thoughts, journaled, buried my feet in the sand, and relaxed.
From Big Sur back to L.A. (3 days)
With newfound energy and a little beachside Zen, we hit the road again for our last bit of adventure: following California’s Highway One along the coastline back down to Los Angeles.
We started out in Monterey, a pretty little seaside town that had barely shaken off the daily morning fog when we arrived. As the white steam lifted from the streets and beaches, we discovered its charm – turquoise waters, friendly seals, and a world-class aquarium invite travellers to stay for a little while. We continued down South, stopping where we pleased: grabbing a bite and a smoothie in adorable Carmel-by-the-Sea, taking in the views along the seaside, flipping a coin at Bixby Creek Bridge, letting it decide whether we should climb down the steep cliffs or not (it said we should, but if you’re thinking of doing the same thing, think twice: the way down is only for experienced climbers).
We skipped the wine-tasting in San Luis Obispo and headed straight down to Santa Barbara to enjoy the sandy white beaches. As we hiked up the Lizard’s Mouth Trail the next day, leading us to a gorgeous view over the area (and an even prettier sunset point), we counted the offshore oil platforms visible from the land and toasted to a great trip. California surprised us and made us wish we didn’t have to catch a flight the next day – we’d rather have stayed and gotten dusty all over again in the endless deserts and jagged mountains, cooled down with a swim in the lakes or the Pacific, and relaxed on the beach, a good book in hand.
In the end, California still has me dreaming. If you’re on your way through California, or planning a trip there, make sure of one thing: take enough time for everything. And if you cannot get enough of that Californian beauty? Discover the state’s South or drive up to see the North, there are plenty more places to explore.
A few practical things to know before you go:
- While booking a flight last-minute can be a very good deal (especially if you’re flying from outside the U.S.), prices for accommodation can quickly become exuberant if you don’t book in advance. We usually use Airbnb or Hipcamp, where you need to book well in advance to get a good price for a beautiful place. California is very popular, so if you’re Couchsurfing, try to look for a place well before your travel dates, too.
- Also, if you need it, check out the visa regulations for the U.S. here.
- It’s very handy to have a car in the U.S. – if you are thinking about renting one, do so before you leave. Going directly to a rental agency and asking for a car on the spot will cost you more than just doing it online, especially if you’re booking with a non-U.S. driver’s license.
- Likewise, try to choose an agency that is not directly at the airport if possible. The further away from major transportation hubs, the cheaper the rentals usually are.
- Extra-tip if you are going to San Francisco and want to visit Alcatraz: buy your ticket online as soon as possible, otherwise you won’t be able to go. They sell out quickly!