This road trip was an introduction to California for me. I had just moved to Los Angeles from Seoul, South Korea and wanted to see as much of the state as possible before starting my 9 to 5. In early August, we drove up on Route 1 along the coast and it was gorgeous. Of course, it takes a lot longer than a direct route to San Francisco, but so worth it if you have the time. We stayed with friends in Oakland for three nights, which cut down on a major cost of visiting San Francisco, before heading toward Yosemite. Even in August, temperatures were low everywhere we went and I was wearing every warm layer I had with me the whole time.
Day 1 – Driving up
Leave Los Angeles as early as you can and take Route 1 up the coast. We got a late start at 12:30pm on Friday and arrived at 12:30am in Oakland. Since the point was to see more of California, we made stops for coffee and food on the way up, and by the time we entered Big Sur, the sun was setting. It’s gotta be the most gorgeous part of the drive, so make sure you leave in time to catch it during daylight.
Stop for coffee in Santa Barbara and check out state street if you are making good time.
Stop for food in San Louis Obispo and take a walk around to stretch your legs – again, if you have the daylight to spare.
Stop at Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery about five miles north of Hearst Castle State Historical Monument in San Simeon (you will see signs). Depending on the time of year (we were here in early August), the beach will be covered in seals playing and sleeping. You can check it out from a look out point right off of the highway, and then keep on going.
Keep driving through Big Sur. The picturesque roads are on green, windy mountain ridges that overlook the ocean. This is definitely the prettiest part of the drive. Stop if you have time!
Arrive in Oakland, where you can save money on lodging, and celebrate! We stayed with our friend who was having a party in his studio to show off the art car he was building for Burning Man.
Day 2 – First day in San Francisco
Check the traffic before crossing the Oakland bay bridge into San Francisco – it can be really bad, so you might want to kill time and have breakfast in Oakland first.
In the city, park near Alamo Square along with many other tourists to take pictures in front of the painted lady houses from Full House. The park was under construction when we were there so it was not so picturesque, but it was a right of passage.
Walk over to Haight Street for great thrift shopping and a photo in front of the Haight Ashbury street signs.
Go back to your car and drive through Golden Gate Park to the foodie favorite Mission Chinese for dinner. To be honest, I thought the food was good, but not great. The kimchi appetizer and the mapo tofu were good, but the lamb pho was essentially a bowl of insanely salty water that we had to send back (which we never do). Still, it’s worth a shot if you want to see what the fuss is all about – just get there before 6pm so you don’t have to wait forever.
Drive to John Muir beach to watch the sunset. The area is gorgeous and the beach is scattered with people having camp fires.
Day 3 – A full day in San Francisco and Oakland
Eat breakfast – we stopped at Matching Half for great sandwiches to go.
Head to the de Young Museum, located in Golden Gate Park, to see the collection of American art, international textile arts and costumes, and art of the ancient Americas, Oceania and Africa. We saw the Ruscha and the American West exhibition, which was great. The sculpture garden was the highlight, complete with a Turrell Skyspace titled Three Gems. I was happy to see Conversation Piece V by Juan Muñoz, since his Last Conversation Piece at the Hirshorn in DC has always been one of my favorites. The very organic feeling Apples by Gustav and Ulla Kraitz was beautiful as well.
Drive to Land’s End in Golden Gate Park and park in the Legion of Honor parking lot. Walk through wooded, flower-lined trails past the labyrinth and down to a beautiful beach with perfect views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Take another route up.
Stop in to Legion of Honor, the other half of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, for ancient and European art.
Make a quick stop to walk around the grand Palace of Fine Arts.
Drive through the famous Lombard street, which at least for us was not as much of a traffic jam as I would have expected.
Have dinner. The bottom of Lombard Street is pizza town. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana is extremely good, offering many different styles. Okay I’m obsessed with pizza.
Drive to Coit Tower, check out the murals and the views from the top if you want, and then walk down the stairs of Telegraph Hill. The houses and gardens along the stairs are cozy and beautiful. When you get to what looks like the bottom, with a cul-de-sac to your left, go across the street and to your right to find where the stairs pick up. At the bottom, you can take the trolley from the Embarcadero back to Coit Tower to get your car.
Watch the sunset from Treasure Island – you can take or leave this tip at your discretion. The manmade island is not exactly beautiful, but it’s interesting and it has an amazing view of the city. If you’re in to urban exploration and doing something off the beaten path, check it out. There are other things you can do there too.
Head back to Oakland and go to movie at The New Parkway Theater. Sit in an assortment of thrifted seating and watch indie movies you may never have heard of. Best part – if you want, you can order a full meal and drinks to have while you watch.
Day 4 – Last day in San Francisco
Drive in to town and check out SOMA. We had breakfast at Coffee Bar and then I walked to SFMOMA, because traffic and parking are crazy near the museum. It took 45 minutes and wasn’t very scenic, but I love an excuse to walk and it’s a good way to really see an area. I stopped at SOMA StrEat Food Market which was really cool and would be a great lunch stop. I also found the leather district.
Another nice lunch idea would be to get to Yerba Buena park, right across from the museum, get takeout from somewhere like Lemonade, which is on the park, and have a picnic.
Spend as much time as possible at SFMOMA. I think it’s one of the coolest modern/contemporary art museums in the country. I spent three hours before I was kicked out at 5pm, and it wasn’t enough. Highlights were the California and the West photography exhibition, as well as Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher’s Learning to Love You More, plus unique solo exhibitions of Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, and Diane Arbus. They have a very cool Calder collection as well.
Check out Chinatown and Nob Hill – do some shopping (lots of thrift in Nob Hill) or just drive through to check them off the map.
Head to the vibrant Castro district for dinner. We ate at Lark Restaurant for mediterranean food, which was good, and then hit Blackbird for cocktails, which has a great atmosphere, but slow service and mediocre cocktails.
Time to leave the city and get a head start on the way to Yosemite. We drove two hours to Merced and got a last minute cheapo room at Travel Lodge for the night at about 1:30am.
Day 5 – Getting to Yosemite
Have breakfast – we ate outside next to a fountain at Toni’s Courtyard Cafe, which was cute and really pretty good.
Drive for an hour and stop in extremely cute and cozy Mariposa. Choose camping provisions from the awesome selection at Pioneer Market.
Grab some espresso and delicious baked goods at Moonbow, next to the Mariposa Visitor Center.
Drive in to Yosemite. We hadn’t reserved a site since this was a last minute trip for us. When we got there around 1:30pm, the ranger made some calls and said there might be space at Yosemite Creek Campground, one of the few first-come, first-served areas (this changes throughout the year).
It took us about an hour to get to Yosemite Creek from the Arch Rock entrance on the 140, and once we turned off the main road, the drive became increasingly full of potholes. If we hadn’t had a Jeep, it would definitely have taken longer. Luckily, the campground was only half full! There are very nice spots along the creek that runs through the campground, and the sites include a large bear bin and a fire ring. There are bathrooms throughout, and some very nice volunteer campground hosts who could answer any questions we had about the park.
Wake up, make breakfast, and drive to the valley.
Explore! We didn’t sleep well the night before since it was very cold at night (in August – take note) so we took it easy, walking through the valley for a while before we laid a blanket down for a little nap.
When we woke up, we hiked up to the lower Yosemite waterfall – a very short and easy hike. From the end of the trail you can climb through the rocks to the base of the actual falls. The water was freezing, but we put our feet in and sat by the water for hours. Some brave souls went swimming but never without a squeal. Here is a list of more day hikes in the valley from easy to strenuous.
Eat! If you’re hungry for a real meal, there are lots of restaurants in the valley – it is surprisingly touristy to be honest. There is the Half Dome Village Pizza Deck that is actually pretty good, plus an ice cream and coffee shop, multiple burger grills, and a couple more formal dining rooms in lodges and hotels.
Go home, or don’t! We drove home that night because there was no camping available anywhere in the valley. If you thought ahead (like, 6 months ahead) and got a spot in advance, spend another night. Spend 100 more nights! We could have kept our place in Yosemite Creek as well, but it was over an hour’s drive from the valley and we were ready to head home.
Written by Evy