Road Trips

Road Trip: LA to San Francisco in Two Days (Part I)


I’m a huge fan of those New York Times ’36 Hours In…’ articles. So huge of a fan that for Christmas this past year my husband bought me a bound compilation of all of the US destinations (he said ‘along with this gift comes a trip to the city of your choosing’. To which I replied ‘well no shit’. Because I’m a super-awesome wife and a very gracious receiver of gifts.) But the thing about these articles is this: the actual itineraries would be legitimately impossible to complete in 36 hours. That is, unless you either A. hate yourself and want to hate travel or B. have figured out how to rip a hole in space-time. For example, if you have 36 hours in New Orleans, you are traveling from all the way upriver on St. Charles to north of the airport to the 9th ward, all in a day and a half (except that no you are not, because you don’t hate yourself and you don’t know how to manifest a wormhole.) Or  worse, sometimes they cheat–there are THREE 36 Hours in Chicago options. Last time I checked, that’s 108 hours.

In addition to my time-crunch, I had another obstacle: very little money. Thus, this needed to be a budget trip. You know. In California. Where things are super cheap. (#sarcasm)

So when I set out on a two-day, 400-mile solo-and-budget road trip from LA to San Francisco earlier this month, I had a line from the Simpsons stuck in my head:

Marge (to Homer): I didn’t say you couldn’t do it, I said you shouldn’t do it.

All of the online advice offered that yes, you can complete a drive up the central coast in two days and not spend a fortune. But should you?

You decide.

LA to San Francisco in 2 Days: My Solo (Budget) Road Trip Itinerary

Day 0: LAX to Thousand Oaks

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Note: I’m calling this day zero because I did not even land in LA until after 2pm and really did not get on the road until the next day. But I did do some stuff this day, so I’m sharing. If you depart LA in the morning, days zero and one could be easily combined into one day.

2:30pm: Landed at LAX. I then took the shuttle to the rental car place, located a Camaro (because I couldn’t get the Bluetooth to work in the Mustang. Hello, first world problems) and headed north. My plan for the evening was to do nothing aside from ‘make it to my hour-away motel’, as I was coming off a rather long travel week the week before. But we all know that I’m not just going to land in LA and not do anything for the rest of the day.

4:00pm: Arrived in Santa Monica. I’m glad I got here around this time, because it seemed that it was a transition period between the daytime beach-goers and the nighttime restaurant and pier-goers. Which meant that I was able to find a parking spot maybe a half mile from the pier, right up the hill from the beach. I walked down to the pier, being generally excited about being on a west coast beach. And then I wandered around the pier, had a pretty epic hot dog from a cart, and walked back, pausing to watch people play on the various structures that made up a sort of hybrid outdoor gym slash grown up play ground.

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Note: all Santa Monica photos are iPhone photos because for some reason I chose to not take my real camera out of my backpack at this point in the trip. I have no idea why. Sorry.

6:00pm: Drove up the coast and through Malibu, stopping at a rather eccentric liquor store (because wine) and then turning north to drive up Malibu Canyon Road in the golden sideways light of soon-to-be twilight.

7:00pm: Arrived in Thousand Oaks. Is there anything to do in Thousand Oaks? Nope. That’s not why I was there. I was there because Thousand Oaks is north of LA and was home to a low-points Quality Inn (and I had Choice Hotel points to use) and said Quality Inn had a laundry room (and was actually rather nice). So I ended my day with some take away Indian from the strip mall across the street and some serious laundry-doing. Oh, the glamorous life of frequent, semi-longterm travel.

Day 1: Thousand Oaks to Cambria

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9:00am: Departed Thousand Oaks. Do I recommend getting an earlier start? Of course. But I was tired. So I slept until 8am. I’m not sorry.

10:30am: Arrived in Santa Barbara, just as a Sunday morning art and craft festival was kicking off along the waterfront. I found a parking spot in a lot right near Stearns Wharf and wandered down State Street and into town. I fortuitously chose to turn right on what I’m calling The Street of the Many Alcohols, as it was brimming with wineries and one brewery, and then eventually made my way back down to the water again to check out the arts and crafts. I then journeyed out to the end of the wharf, hoping to have breakfast/lunch at the much-lauded Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. But that was not to be. After dutifully putting my name on the list–as directed by the sign–and sitting there and waiting for a half hour, while no one called anyone’s name but people continued to enter the tiny restaurant and not re-emerge, I gave up and ordered a cup of chowder from the to-go window. The chowder was terrible, and eating it on the end of the pier in the wind was even worse. Moral of the story: eat somewhere in town and skip much-lauded seafood shacks if visiting Santa Barbara on a busy Sunday morning. Maybe next time, Shellfish Company. Maybe next time.




12:30pm: Sadly departed Santa Barbara, wishing I had far more time to spend there. Like days more.  I then continued north up the coast on 101 until forced to turn inland and chose to stay on 101 instead of following 1 through Lompoc (even though I heard there were many wineries there. I was, after all, driving.)

2:00pm: Arrived in Pismo Beach. The parking gods continued to favor me, and I found a spot right outside of the brewery I was looking for. Which was…closed, permanently. Relocated, I believe. I sighed and chose to walk around town a bit, which I found to be rather loud and drunken (ironic, as the brewery was no more). I think there was some kind of event going on, and I think that event involved professional underaged drinking. I located a restaurant I had noted–Splash Cafe–and found a line snaking around the corner. So…

2:30pm: Departed Pismo Beach. It just wast not my kind of scene. Loved Santa Monica. Loved Santa Barbara. Pismo Beach? Not so much. Maybe on a less-crowded, non-Sunday day. Or, you know, maybe not even then. There was a bowling alley. And a sandwich shop. All in all, I saw neither a reason to stick around nor a reason to return.

3:00pm: Arrived San Luis Obispo. You will note that at this point in the day, I’ve had a few wind-splattered spoonfuls of crappy chowder. So food needed to happen. I originally did not plan to stop in SLO on this trip, but friends I met the week before while traveling in Washington State said that I absolutely had to have a tri tip sandwich from Firestone Grill. And I am not one to ignore sandwich advice. I mean, I’d never even heard of a tri tip sandwich. But I’ve heard of cheesesteaks and po boys and Italian beef sandwiches, and I love all of those things. So I went to Firestone Grill. And I ordered a tri tip sandwich and a side of onion rings. And it was good.

4:30pm: Arrived in Cambria, where I had lodging reservations already made. It took me a little while to check into my motel because the woman at the desk was really super friendly. So that was nice. And so was the motel–a little place called Cambria Palms Motel, which really deserves a post all its own. But for now I will just say: it was super clean, super cute, and very inexpensive. It also featured a great little patio area with a fire pit. And it was set outside of town just enough to be peaceful but close enough that you could easily walk to a variety of shops and restaurants. Basically this was the unicorn-riding-leprechaun of budget lodging options.

5:30pm: Made my way to Moonstone Beach. When I said that I was staying in Cambria, most people urged me to check out Moonstone Beach. I can see why. Here’s why:




I spent maybe an hour and a half wandering the beach and taking photos. I saw several surfers and one whale. The whale was pointed out to me by a kind (and cute) guy with binoculars. I didn’t see said whale doing any kinds of whale acrobatics or anything, but I could clearly see that there was a whale right off shore, as it was doing that whale thing where it blows water out of its blowhole. So that was awesome. Thanks, cute binocular guy.

7:30pm: Departed Moonstone Beach. The beach was getting crowded. Because sunset. I wasn’t in the mood for a solo sunset walk on the beach (though I’ve done it and can assure you that sunsets are just as lovely when you are alone). And I decided that if I didn’t find dinner before everything in town closed (as it appeared to do around 9pm), I’d be sad. So I crossed the street and found a little restaurant overlooking the beach. I checked out the menu–proudly displaying CASH ONLY–and was like ‘yeah no’. I believe soup started at $13 and it went up from there. So I bid farewell to the ocean and headed back into town, where I found a mostly-empty bar and ordered fish and chips off of the kids’ menu (I told the bartender that I was only moderately hungry and that’s what she suggested. It was neither the first nor the last time I have/will have ordered a kids’ meal and a glass of wine.)

9:00pm: Back in my motel room, accidentally on time for Game of Thrones. I don’t typically watch tv when I travel, but when I do, it is Game of Thrones.

It is at this point where I realized that I really should split this post into two parts. Because while the trip spanned two days, reading this post should not take 48 hours. So–stay tuned for Part II, coming tomorrow! (Really. It is coming tomorrow. I know I say that a lot and then don’t post the next one for, like, weeks. But I already wrote it. I promise it is coming tomorrow.)

For now–what do you think of my first day? Is this a do-able distance in the time given? How’d I do on the budget-trip thing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Disclosure: I was not hosted in any way on this trip. Though my flights, two nights of hotels, and my car rental were on miles/points/free rental days (thus the Camaro). Two additional nights were at super-value motels, both of which will be mentioned and linked in these posts. Because they were super values and I encourage others to stay there. 

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