Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

California road trip: from San Francisco to Yosemite and the Big Sur

“Driving down the 101, California here we come”: fans of the teen drama The OC will know this Phantom Planet song all too well, and no Californian road trip would be complete without humming along to this tune on loop as you take in the magnitude of sights that await you on the West Coast. Hiring a car in the states is somewhat of a necessity, but it bestows on you the freedom to explore so much more than you would by simply staying in one major city. San Francisco is an excellent starting place for the perfect Cali road trip, so buckle up and let’s begin.

San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Credit: Unsplash/Joonyeop Baek

Flying into San Francisco or Oakland airport puts you fairly equidistant from the centre of the city. Either pick up a car at the airport or somewhere in the city is equally as convenient. If you want to take in the sights of the city for a few days (and we suggest you do), read our guide to San Francisco and discover the hidden gems tucked between the infamous tourist attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.

Napa

Vineyards in Napa Valley. Credit: Pixabay/David Mark

After a few days in San Francisco, you’ll likely feel ready to head out of the city towards greener pastures, and what could be more tempting than Napa Valley, the home of Californian wine. Stay for a few nights in one of the beautiful guest houses in Napa, or the surrounding towns such as Calistoga. Park up as you won’t need the car for a few days (excellent news for those drinking) and take the local shuttle bus to any of the wine tastings offered in the multitude of wineries available to you. We highly recommend Chateau Montelena and Castello di Amorosa for the view, plus Robert Mondavi for the modernist architecture and delectable vintage.

Robert Mondavi winery, Napa Valley. Credit: Ella Davis

Yosemite National Park

Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park. Credit: Ella Davis

Once you’ve had your swill of the good stuff, we suggest heading south to Yosemite National Park. The drive will take approximately four hours, but once you get there, we promise it will be oh so rewarding. Cascading hills and open roads lined with the tallest fir, pine and sequoia trees you have ever seen will provide you with one of the most beautiful driving experiences of your life. For those who have the time, you could easily set up camp here for a week or more and enjoy some astounding (and at times challenging) hikes. For those who are more pressed for time, the park is vehicle friendly and you can drive to the top of Glacier Point for the most breathtaking views of the valley below. Be sure to wrap up warm, the air is a little brisk at this altitude. By night, the wonders of nature don’t cease, and after the most glorious of sunsets, you’ll find yourself under a blanket of stars (which are best enjoyed from an outdoor hot tub – a luxury, maybe, but totally worth it!). Finish the night with a S’more cooked on an open fire and you’ll be forgiven for thinking you just experienced something close to heavenly.

Sunset outside Yosemite National Park. Credit: Ella Davis

Monterey Bay

Whale jumping in Monterey. Credit: Unsplash/Ilse Orsel

Ready for another drive? Hop back in the front seat and head back to the coast. Another four hours behind the wheel and you’ll find yourself in the gorgeous quaint seaside city of Monterey. Monterey Bay, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, is well known as one of the best marine sanctuary sites in the world. The waterfront is lined with cute tourist shops, art galleries and amazing seafood eateries to satisfy the hungry traveller. By day, you could take a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and spot sea lions and otters from the external balcony. Perfect for little ones, the aquarium is just as mesmerizing to its grown-up visitors – the jellyfish exhibit is somewhat trippy! Think you’ve spotted something bigger further out to sea? Wake up early and hop on board one of the many whale-watching boats that leave the pier every day, and you’ll be wowed with Humpbacks, Gray whales, dolphins and possibly orcas, depending on the season.

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Credit: Ella Davis

Carmel and the Big Sur

Carmel Beach. Credit: Unsplash/Emily Karakis

Just a short drive from Monterey is the charming town of Carmel-by-the-sea. The main road is lined with designer and boutique shops, which all lead down to the glorious white stretch of sand on the beach (one of California’s finest). Stay for a picnic and bask in the crashing sound of the Pacific waves. Feeling active? Grab a surfboard – after all, California is one of the surfing capitals of the world! From Carmel, you can begin one of the most epic drives the mind can fathom, along Highway 1, more commonly known as the “Big Sur”. This dramatic stretch of road winds endlessly along the west coast providing you with the most breathtaking natural vistas. Roll down the windows, open the sunroof and feel the warm Californian air sweep in as you witness some of the most magnificent scenery this gorgeous state has to offer. The Big Sur winds for roughly 90 miles, so this road trip only has to end when you decide you’ve seen enough!

Big Sur. Credit: Pixabay/charlesmiller