California is always a good idea.

Endless Summers. Sandy beaches. Wind-swept hair. No cares – the only way to explore the Golden State.

After traveling throughout California this past decade, which includes driving along the coast and heading inland many times – driving a California roadtrip has been a major itinerary in all of my USA travels since 2008, and will continue to be so. I am coming back for another go at it when I am there in September for 2 weeks, but will be including Redwood National Park and Oregon in this one too. (Making it count, you know!)

A Californian Roadtrip

As a seasoned California traveler, I have been to most of these places more than once. And I completely recommend you consider making these stops part of what you see on your California roadtrip – whether you start in San Diego or Los Angeles, and drive up to San Francisco; or start in the middle and do a circle of sorts returning back to San Francisco or LA.

There is so much to see within this area, so it really is dependent in what you’re interested in and how far inland you want to drive into California. But these stops are pretty amazing – and have been given the local seal of approval which makes me love them even more.

I really don’t recommend foreign travelers start driving in Los Angeles the very first time you ever drive here. The main reason being that even I get freaked out about navigating Los Angeles roads until I am used to the environment again.

I find it far more beneficial when fighting jet lag to have a day in LA, and then connect to another city, and pick up a car from the airport the following day. Las Vegas in Nevada is an easy adjustment, as is San Francisco. I haven’t driven in San Diego but I would expect it to be the same as the others if you start there. The smaller the city, the better it is to adjust – and always buy a GPS. I still get lost on roads and would not drive without one.

If you are considering a Californian roadtrip and want more tips and advice – definitely consider joining my US Travel Group which is full of seasoned travelers, Americans and people just like you – wanting more information on how to travel in the USA.

I have included a lot of coastal towns, as well as a detours and things to consider if you want to leave the coast – even for a bit. In awesome news – the landslide closure of Big Sur over the past 12 months has begun re-opening, and in July it will be fully operational within the Mud Creek area. This news made me decide to book a trip through here again to help the businesses find their feet once more – and to enjoy those amazing views now that I can. I have missed them!

Hopefully you consider any of these amazing towns like I have for your roadtrip through California. Some of my best memories exist right here. It feels like home.

San Diego

California Roadtrip San Diego CA

San Diego otherwise known as “the birthplace of California” is renowned for its harbour views, beaches, navy presence and world famous attractions.

San Diego is a necessity for any California roadtrip. It has enough attractions to keep you and your whole family busy, but it is not too overwhelming either. It is very popular with families who want to visit the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park – but also has a cool nightlife and stunning views for those traveling in couples or solo.

If you want a meal with a view – or a room with one, or just a relaxed escape with city vibes; San Diego is where you’ll find it. If you love Top Gun this town is right up your alley with a clear Naval presence and film locations from the movie to enjoy.

California Roadtrip San Diego

How long should you visit San Diego? – 1 day, 1-2 nights.

Don’t Miss: Waterfront Park, Gaslamp Quarter, Seaport Village, San Diego Zoo, USS Midway Museum and Balboa Park.

Palm Springs

*Optional detour*

Drive time from San Diego – 2 hours (139 miles)

California Roadtrip Palm Springs Main Street

Palm Springs is a real treat of a town for any visitor.

If you want to go off-coast and enjoy true American desert – or plan to see places like Joshua Tree National Park and the Coachella Valley – Palm Springs is the gateway to this whole area.

Palm Springs has an old world charm, which decades ago saw the likes of Hollywood royalty purchase homes like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Cary Grant. Frequent visitors to Palm Springs included Marilyn Monroe, Lily Tomlin and Elizabeth Taylor which only adds to it’s allure.

Palm Springs is very hot in Summer, and warm throughout other seasons – so bear that in mind when roadtripping through it. But for a town surrounded by mountains and historic architecture right out of the 1950s and beyond, this is one cool place to explore, even for an afternoon. It is true Americana right here – and I would take the detour if I had time to get there.

California Roadtrip Palm Springs The Pink Door

How long should you visit Palm Springs? – Half a day, 1 night.

Don’t Miss: Palm Springs ‘The Pink Door’ (1100 Sierra Way), Cabazon Dinosaurs, Joshua Tree National Park, Aerial Tramway, Enjoy The Architecture.

 

San Clemente

Drive time from San Diego – 1 hour (60 miles); Palm Springs – 90 minutes (108 miles)

California Roadtrip San Clemente Pier

San Clemente is the entry point into the Orange Country region when coming in from San Diego. Priding itself on being the “Spanish Village of the Sea”, San Clemente is known for its Spanish architecture and ocean and mountainside views.

It’s not too busy here, but has some nice pedestrian walkways which lead to the San Clemente Beach. The pier is also a highlight – and one of the longest i’ve seen in California. There are eateries in the main area of town, as well as what is located on the pier for the ultimate meal with a view.

How can you not stop here?

California Roadtrip San Clemente Pedestrian Walkway

How long should you visit San Clemente? – A lunch stop, half a day, 1 night.

Don’t Miss: San Clemente Pier, San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail, North Beach 

 

Dana Point

Drive time from San Clemente – 11 minutes (6.5 miles)

California Roadtrip Dana Point Doheny Beach

Dana Point is a real hidden gem with a notable surf history, and remains one of the few harbors in the Orange County area.

From the scenic views from the ‘Bluff Top Trail’ of the harbor and coastline below, walking around the harbour and taking a dip at Doheny State Beach, which people can swim, paddleboard and relax on; Dana Point is a very family-friendly stop. There are plans for some re-development within the marina area, so it will be interesting to see how they change that, but for now it’s everything you could want in a pit stop on your California roadtrip.

If you’re driving from San Clemente, a detour here is 100% necessary. If you want to visit Catalina Island, the Catalina Express departs from here too.

I just think it’s stunning.

California Roadtrip Dana Point Bluff Top Trail

How long should you visit Dana Point? – An afternoon stop, half a day.

Don’t Miss: Dana Beach Bluff Top Trail, Dana Beach Harbor, Doheny State Beach

 

Laguna Beach

Drive time from Dana Point – 20 minutes (7.6 miles)

California Roadtrip Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach is one of the prettiest towns in Orange County, which is also known for its environmental preservation.

I love it here. Not just because it is relaxed and idyllic, but also because it is home to the show which launched the reality hit The Hills, Laguna Beach. The views here are incredible. The beaches are amazing. The stretch along North Coast Hwy (Highway 1) offer many great views of the ocean, including Heisler Park.

There are many restaurants scattered along the main part of town, or you can just walk along enjoying the views with some ice cream.

What a great place to stop.

California Roadtrip Laguna Beach Highway

How long should you visit Laguna Beach? – Half a day, 1 night.

Don’t Miss: Heisler Park, Laguna Main Beach.

 

Newport Beach & Balboa Island

Drive time from Laguna Beach – 18 minutes (8.8 miles)

California Roadtrip Newport Beach Fashion Island

Newport Beach aka home of shows like The OC and Arrested Development is the ultimate “how the rich live” snapshot – which makes this one interesting place to visit on any California roadtrip.

Newport has its harbor areas to enjoy as well as the awesome ‘Fashion Island’ outdoor shopping mall – which is well worth browsing in. The mall is one of the prettiest i’ve seen, with water features everywhere.

California Roadtrip Balboa Frozen Bananas

Newport isn’t the only highlight here, with neighbouring Balboa and Balboa Island also on offer.

Balboa is home to the famous ‘frozen banana’ which dates back to the 1960s, (and was also featured in Arrested Development). But it also has some of the most beautiful coastal houses you will ever see when walking along the Balboa Bay Front Streets where the Ferry departs.

California Roadtrip Balboa Island Houses

California Roadtrip Balboa Island Beach

Balboa Island is very easy to get to from Balboa – it’s $1 per foot passenger each way on the small ferry (cash only), $2 per car (plus passenger fees). The ferry takes you right to the Balboa Island pier and beach, along with the Balboa pavilion and boardwalk area which also has an arcade and ferris wheel. There are heaps of cool eateries and shops to explore here too – so this can easily be a full day adventure for the family.

 

How long should you visit Newport Beach & Balboa? – Half a day, 1 night.

Don’t Miss: Balboa Pier, Eat A Frozen Banana, Fashion Island Shopping Mall, Balboa Bay Walk.

 

Huntington Beach

Drive time from Balboa – 17 mins (8.5 miles)

California Roadtrip Huntington Beach Lifeguard Tower

Huntington Beach is the most populous place in the OC – which you can spend a whole day exploring.

From the pier, to the happening main street, this is one beach town worth detouring to. Local food haunts here include “The Sugar Shack” on Main street, which has served breakfast and lunch daily since 1967. The food is so good here!

The shopping precincts here are also good, with Pacific City, just up from the main area of town, a favourite – and great coffee! Huntington Beach is also good for surfing, which explains why it’s often called “Surf City”, due to its consistent waves.

California Roadtrip Hungtington Beach Pier

How long should you visit Huntington Beach? – A lunch stop, half a day, 1 night. 

Don’t Miss: Main Street, Pacific City Shopping Mall, The Sugar Shack, Huntington Beach Pier.

 

Anaheim

Drive from Huntington Beach – 30 mins (18 miles)

Let’s face it – no California roadtrip can bypass Disney. If you plan on visiting Disneyland though, do not waste your time staying in LA or Hollywood. You need to stay in Anaheim to avoid sitting in endless traffic.

The best part about this area is that Anaheim is not the only place worth checking out. Old town Orange is a cute little town worth stopping in on. And for outlet shoppers – the Outlets at Orange are one of the best value shopping outlets in Los Angeles. For dining, the Anaheim Packing House is a must visit.

California Roadtrip Porto's Bakery

If you want to stock up on GOOD food, that is so CHEAP – A visit to the famed and busy Porto’s Bakery is in order. I stocked up here last year when heading to San Francisco from Los Angeles and paid less than $10 for an iced coffee and 4 freshly baked items (they give you one for free to try too!) – it is a must stop in LA in any instance!

If you’re here to see Disney, be sure to dedicate at least 2 full days here – more if you are traveling with family. You can’t go wrong no matter how long you spend here, with Disneyland, California Adventure Park, Knotts Berry Farm and the like all right here to enjoy.

California Roadtrip Disneyland

A very big reminder for those visiting Disneyland – in Adventureland there is a Dole Whip stand that must be purchased from! What is Dole Whip? Let me tell you – it’s pineapple flavoured soft serve ice cream which is so amazing i could eat it all day, every day, until the day I die.

Dole Whip is only available in Hawaii at the Dole Plantation, which I have also been to. Beyond Hawaii, Disneyland is the only place I am aware of who can legally sell this. Do not miss out on eating this – and it is not expensive at all to purchase one either. I had 2 last time! (They also have Dole Whip Floats.)

California Roadtrip Disneyland Dole Whip

How long should you visit Anaheim? – 2 nights minimum; 3-4 days if you want to enjoy Disneyland and other areas too. Though many people do a lot more.

Don’t Miss: Old Town Orange, Disneyland, Outlets at Orange, Dole Whip, California Adventure Park, Anaheim Packing House.

 

Redondo Beach

Drive from Anaheim – 48 minutes (31 miles)

California Roadtrip Redondo Beach OC Filming Location

Redondo is a beach which is often overlooked…but it shouldn’t be!

If you’re a fan of the hit show, The OC, this is a pier worth seeing. Numerous scenes were filmed on this pier and one of the restaurants on the back of the pier was used as the location Ryan Atwood worked. So, if you’re a fan of this show, you will appreciate this pier.

The beach alongside the pier is also lovely and worth a walk – and if you’re lucky you might even see some wildlife swimming in the waters too. There are a number of eateries located on the pier and surrounds, so if you’re looking for a meal or quick bite, you can easily find it here.

It is not overly busy here, like Santa Monica or Huntington Beach can be, but it is definitely a favourite for many doing a California roadtrip.

California Roadtrip Redondo Beach OC Film Location

How long should you visit Redondo Beach – Lunch stop, half a day

Don’t Miss: Redondo Beach Pier, Redondo Beach.

 

Los Angeles

Drive from Redondo Beach – 38 minutes (22 miles); Venice Beach 36 minutes (17 miles)

California Roadtrip Los Angeles Hollywood Sign

Los Angeles is a city with so much on offer – and so do it’s outskirts. LA is not just one city, but a place comprised of many towns that are worth exploring.

Whether you want to enjoy upscale areas, like Beverly Hills and Bel Air, metropolitan areas of Downtown LA or the celebrity areas of Hollywood and Studio City – to name just a few; LA has everything one could need and more.

LA is a huge city – so if you are planning to stay and see different areas, it would be wise to position yourself in Downtown LA if you are looking to explore things around there – especially if taking a train from Union Station. If you plan on seeing the Hollywood Walk of Fame, West Hollywood is a good choice for this. Beverly Hills is accessible from Hollywood, but does link out to Santa Monica beach and those regions too.

Traffic can take hours in LA. So why waste the precious ones you have sitting in it? Just like when visiting Disney, staying in Anaheim is a far better choice than anywhere near Hollywood – because sometimes it can completely back up your whole day with delays. So work out WHERE you want to do things, and then book your accommodation based on this.

How long should you visit Los Angeles? – 4 nights minimum, but more depending on what you want to see.

Don’t Miss:

Downtown LA: Union Station, Millennium Biltmore Hotel, Staples Center, Koreatown.

Hollywood: Walk of Fame, Hollywood Sign, Paramount Pictures Studio Tour, Griffith Observatory, Runyon Canyon, Universal Studios, Burbank – Warner Bros Studio Tour. 

Beverly Hills: The Grove, Original Farmers Market, Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills City Hall, Beverly Hills Sign, LACMA.

 

Venice

Drive from Los Angeles – 30 minutes (18 miles)

California Roadtrip Venice Beach California

Venice is a real treat. Although less desirable and more sketchy in some areas unlike Santa Monica, Venice is home to some really well known icons, and filming locations.

If you are a film buff, you’ll recognise places including the restaurant James’s Beach from I Love You Man and Venice High School which stood in for Rydell High in Grease. Those who are fans of the rom-com Valentine’s Day will also spot the Venice Canal (below) which appeared in that film – and is one of my favourite places in the Los Angeles area.

The Venice Boardwalk is the most popular place to explore here, with 2.5 miles of restaurants, endless souvenir shops and muscle t’s – which makes sense given this is the home of Muscle Beach – the world’s most well-known beachside gym.

California Roadtrip Venice Canal California

How long should you visit Venice? – Half a day.

Don’t Miss: Venice Boardwalk, Venice High School, Venice Canals, Muscle Beach, Marina Del Rey.

 

Santa Monica

Drive time from Venice – 17 minutes (3.5 miles)

California Roadtrip Santa Monice Beach

Santa Monica is located right next to Venice Beach – though many people prefer Santa Monica because it feels more friendly. Venice can have a sketchy aspect, but Santa Monica is more busy and suits families a lot more, mainly because of the Santa Monica Pier and it’s attractions.

Santa Monica has a really nice beach too. It really is a place that you can spend a whole day – particularly if you like dining and shopping. The 3rd Street Promenade is a highlight here, so there truly is more to Santa Monica than just beach which is why it is so popular.

California Roadtrip Santa Monica Pier

How long should you visit Santa Monica Beach? – Half a day, full day, 1 night. 

Don’t Miss: Santa Monica Pier, 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica Beach.

 

Malibu

Drive from Santa Monica – 30 minutes (18 miles)

California Roadtrip Malibu Drive

Malibu is one of my favourite drives when leaving LA because it is so beautiful.

As one of the most affluent areas of California – it stands as the locale where many in the entertainment industry reside with houses perched a top the cliffs above, or alongside the beach itself.

Not only are there amazing views as you drive along the highway, but seeing all of the houses scattered along the coast makes this a memorable drive too. There are beaches to enjoy along this stretch, but if you only have time to see it through the car window – it’s well worth the detour just to experience it.

How long should you visit Malibu? – Drive through it; lunch stop.

Don’t Miss: Driving Along Highway 1.

 

Santa Barbara

Drive from Malibu – 1 hour, 10 minutes (67 miles)

California Roadtrip Santa Barbara Beach

I love Santa Barbara. It feels so Mediterranean here, but there is also a clear Spanish influence down to its old town area and the architecture in general. All the red roofs and white buildings.

There is so much to enjoy here. Whether it’s a walk along scenic roads, through the old town Santa Barbara area, or just a stroll along the pier – you really can’t go wrong here and cannot miss this place when undertaking any Californian road trip.

Santa Barbara is a great lunch stop, or just a place to stretch your legs. But for me, I prefer to stay the night to allow myself to soak it all in. If you’re passing through anywhere near here – do not miss out on Santa Barbara, no matter how long you can give it.

California Roadtrip Santa Barbara Old Town

How long should you visit Santa Barbara? – Lunch stop, Half a day, 1 night

Don’t Miss: Old Town Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Pier, Main Street.

 

Solvang

Drive time from Santa Barbara – 42 minutes (33 miles)

Solvang Sideways Filming Location Wine Country

Solvang is a quirky town located along the California coast – but slightly more inward, as you begin to hit wine country areas of Los Olivos and Santa Maria in particular.

Established in 1911, Danish immigrants looking to set up a home colony for fellow countrymen – in a warmer climate saw Solvang become what it is today. Solvang, is truly a little piece of Denmark in California, which is very apparent as soon as you arrive and see all the little details.

The wine focused classic Sideways – which will make any non-wine drinker appreciate why people love it, filmed scenes right here at the Solvang Restaurant and in the surrounding areas, which makes it even more exciting to explore for people like me.

Solvang is a real treat to stop in no matter what the reason is – and is definitely the most charming city in the area. This will keep your Californian roadtrip interesting in any case.

How long should you visit Solvang? – Lunch stop

Don’t Miss: Solvang Town Center, Solvang Restaurant, Mission Santa Ines.

 

Pfeiffer Beach & Big Sur

Drive time from Solvang – 3.5 hours (200 miles) 

California Roadtrip Pfeiffer Beach Big Sur

In 2017, there was a landslide near Gorda, California, which ultimately cut off access to Big Sur from the South until it re-opened. Unfortunately, it has been more than a year and it will finally be re-opening in July 2018 (fingers crossed!) – so that I and all of you can drive through California’s most renowned coastal drive as part of your road trip.

Major stops along Big Sur include the scenic stops of Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, Bixby Creek Bridge and Point Lobos to name but a few. Pfeiffer Beach does have a $10 fee per vehicle – but it is so worth it!

What many aim for here at Pfeiffer beach though is the Keyhole Arch light show – when the sun streams through at sunset so visitors can capture the perfect moment. If you aren’t fussed by that – watching the waves push through the arch is relaxing. Most people spend longer here than they expect – and it’s not too busy in the off season which allows for a more relaxed visit. But, either way this is a must see along the Big Sur area.

Overall, the re-opening of the Big Sur scenic drive on the Pacific Coast Highway will help the businesses get back on their feet – so I am eagerly watching the progress on this now that they have announced July 2018. In 2017, we had to detour through Salinas – which is still a great place to visit (and famous for being the setting of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men), so to be able to see the road re-open couldn’t come soon enough and I will be back if it is re-opened before September.

California Roadtrip Big Sur

How long should you visit Big Sur? 1 full day, 1 night

Don’t Miss: Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, Bixby Creek Bridge and Point Lobos.

 

Monterey

Drive time from Big Sur – 1 hour (28 miles)

California Roadtrip Monterey

Monterey is a prime destination to explore in California.

Since it was the site of California’s first theater, public building, public library, publicly funded school, printing press, and newspaper – it holds a truly iconic place in Californian history. In addition to all this, it houses countless attractions from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Beyond these, fans of one of 2017’s biggest hits, Big Little Lies filmed right here which has brought a lot more tourism to the town. But the signature attraction, lies just outside the city center of Monterey, 17 Mile Drive. This drive costs approx. $10 to enter per vehicle and allows visitors to spend as long as they want exploring the different stops throughout the world famous drive.

California Roadtrip 17 Mile Drive Monterey The Lone Cypress

Stops on the 17 Mile Drive include Pebble Beach Golf Course, The Lone Cypress – the most photographed tree in the world and Spanish Bay. For $10? It is one of the best value attractions in America.

How long should you visit Monterey? – 1 full day, 1 night

Don’t Miss: Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, 17 Mile Drive.

 

Yosemite

*Optional detour*

Drive from Monterey – 3.5 hours (183 miles)

California Roadtrip Yosemite National Park Waterfall

There are many National Parks in the US worth seeing. But whenever a visit gets you near San Francisco and surrounds, a detour to Yosemite is a must.

I have visited so many amazing parks over the years, and Yosemite is one of the grandest I have ever seen. Whether you want beautiful waterfalls, scenic views, hiking options or just to be thrust out into nature.

You can stay here for 2 or more nights if you have the time, but if all you have is 1 full day, then that is still a great option for visiting. When we visited, we took in the views of the Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, took in a sunset at Taft Point which was incredible and just enjoyed the scenery. I do need to return here, because there is still so much to see – unfortunately for us, some of the park was still closed in June – so be aware of that when planning, as you may not be to access everything.

We did stay in Fresno and Bridgeport for one night each – Bridgeport was really cool as we stayed in an RV park which was situated on a lake, and right near the Travertine Hot Springs – which was an amazing site to enjoy the sun rise.

California Roadtrip Yosemite National Park River

How long should you visit Yosemite National Park? – 1 full day, 1-2 nights minimum

Don’t Miss: Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, Taft Point, El Capitan, Half Dome.

 

San Francisco

Drive from Yosemite 3 hours (170 miles); Monterey 1 hour 45 mins (110 miles)

California Roadtrip San Francisco Alamo Square

San Francisco is a city that meets all criteria – charming, historic, family friendly, outdoors, has a foodie scene and it’s very scenic.

When visiting there are so many options for visitors to enjoy. I love it for all of the film locations I can see – The Full House house on Broderick Street, The Sister Act church, The Mrs Doubtfire House on Steiner Street – which is around the corner from the Party of Five house on Broadway. Don’t even get me started on rom-com’s like Just Like Heaven and The Wedding Planner!

The city icons beyond this that make up this city are of course Alcatraz, Alamo Square row houses, Lombard Street the crookedest street in America (and so fun to drive down!), the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park, Ferry Building Market is a foodie lovers paradise – and of course Fisherman’s Wharf – though don’t stay there as its way too expensive compared to other areas which are more ‘local’ and in great locations. Stay above Market Street – and you’ll be fine. I usually stay in the Presido region and love it!

How long should you visit San Francisco? – 2-3 nights minimum

Don’t Miss: Alamo Square, Lombard Street, Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ferry Building Market, Mrs Doubtfire House, Golden Gate Park, Alcatraz.

 

Wine Country

Drive time from San Francisco – 1 hour 15 mins (75 miles)

California Roadtrip Castello Di Amorosa Calistoga

There are many wine regions in California – which are all great to explore.

However, I constantly return to Napa, and the surrounding areas every few years, because of the towns which are here.

Places like Sonoma – which has a lovely town square; Heraldsburg, a small town which featured in the horror classic Scream; Calistoga, home of Castello Di Amorosa – an Italian built castle winery which took 20 years to build; Napa – it’s waterfront areas and of course a photo in the ‘Giant Chair’ and if you have time – a drive out to the coast where Bodega Bay is located is really nice. Bodega Bay, being the filming location of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – my favourite of all his films.

The San Francisco wine county here is just brilliant. I can never get enough – and will be back here in September because I love it. If you need any further reason to do a California roadtrip – this alone should get you there.

How long should you visit San Francisco’s Wine County? – 1 full day, 1-2 nights

Don’t Miss: Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Napa, Heraldsburg, Calistoga, Bodega Bay, Castello Di Amorosa.

 

Has this made you want to head up to California?

An editor’s note here, if you want to go higher than wine country – Redwood National Park, Fort Bragg and the Oregon coast are amazing destinations too, which is why I am hitting them in September as well. It just doesn’t get more scenic than the Pacific coast.

I truly hope this helps you plan your own California roadtrip – and where you decide to visit, even if just to drive through it, or have a light snack. And don’t forget, if you are heading over soon, be sure to join my US Travel group to get even more hands on advice about visiting the United States.

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Roadtripping In California San Diego to San Francisco