Solo Travel: A California Road Trip

Solo Travel: A California Road Trip

Sometimes you just need to getaway for a little bit. Whether you need a break from a stressful job or just some time away from the everyday routine, hitting the open road can be just the thing you’re looking for.

I do like a good road trip, and when I need a little getaway taking a drive is my go to.

Last February I took a roadtrip down and up the length of California from Lake Tahoe to San Diego and back again. I got epic views of the Eastern Sierra Mountains, and mellow coastal vibes on the beaches of Southern California, and all the trials and rewards that come along with solo travel.

Driving down highway 395

Driving down highway 395

Manzanar Historic Site

Manzanar Historic Site

Day 1: Highway 395 & the Eastern Sierras

I was on the road by 7AM, it was also 17 degrees out and just barely light. But I had wanted to get an early start on the day. My plan was to drive the whole way to San Diego down highway 395, and I wanted to make sure I would have enough time to make stops along the road whenever I wanted to.

Also I should note that according to google maps it takes nine hours to drive from South Lake to San Diego, but with all the stops I made it took me more like 11 hours.

One of my favorite things about road tripping by myself is that I can pull off the road whenever I want or whenever I see something cool to photograph. And that is pretty much ever stop I took. I would see something pretty and pull off to the side of the highway and take a bunch of pictures. I’ve always loved photography and this was the perfect opportunity to get some practice in.

I did make one stop that wasn’t solely photography based, at the Manzanar Historic Site, just north of Lone Pine. Manzanar was a Japanese internment camp during World War 2. The camp has been partially preserved and recreated to show what it looked like back when it was operating.

I read the book Farewell to Manzanar when I was in middle school and it really made an impression on me. It’s an important part of US history that I think gets glossed over or completely left out a lot of the time. So if you haven’t read it I’d highly recommend it.

The site is free to visit and walk around. You can see the old barracks and buildings, there’s even a basketball court. The landscape around the camp is desolate and beautiful. And while it might feel a little haunted or sad, I find the history important and interesting.

Torrey Pines State Beach

Torrey Pines State Beach


Day 2: San Diego

I grew up in San Diego, and my parents, brother, and a bunch of my friends all live there, so I was lucky enough to get to crash out at my parents house. I spent most of my time down there catching up with friends and hitting up some of my favorite spots, like Naked Cafe for brunch, Nati’s for mexican food and margaritas, and Torrey Pine beach.

For all my favorite restaurants & things to do check out my San Diego City Guide

rainy day road trip

Malibu State Beach

Santa Barbara Mission

Day 3: San Diego to Santa Barbara

The drive from San Diego to Santa Barbara is about four hours depending on traffic. I wanted to take the scenic route and opted to take coastal highway one, because you know views and stuff.

It ended up raining a good part of the day so I didn’t make as many photo stops as I might have. But it cleared up a bit around Malibu so it seemed like a good time to go to the beach. It was still pretty stormy, but Malibu State beach was still a nice break from driving.

When I got into Santa Barbara that afternoon I stopped by one of my favorite places, the Santa Barbara Mission. It’s a gorgeous building and has been a cultural and historic landmark for 200 years. My favorite part is the big park across the street with a rolling lawn and flower gardens. It was the perfect place to get out and stretch my legs.

My grandparents live in Santa Barbara so I had a nice little visit with them and stayed the night at their house before continuing my journey up the coast.

Downtown Santa Barbara

Refugio State Beach

road trip snacks

Refugio State Beach

Phil's Fish Market & Eatery, Moss Landing

Giant tacos in Moss Landing

Manresa State Beach

Manresa State Beach

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Day 4: Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz

It’s about six hours up highway 101 from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz, it’s a gorgeous drive through the central coast.

Before leaving town I took a little time to run around downtown Santa Barbara. It seriously is the cutest, the Spanish style architecture is beautiful and the tree lined streets make it feel very quaint. But after some coffee and a little window shopping I was on my way.

Next I headed up the coast a ways to Refugio State beach where I parked the VW right next to the water and took in the fresh air. Refugio State beach is also a campground, so it’s a great place for a little weekend camping trip right on the beach. I hung out there for a bit and ate the lunch my grandma packed me (so awesome right? Grandma’s are the best) with nothing but the sound of waves and the wind.

After my sandwich and orange slices I forged onward up the coast through Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo. I cut over to highway one at Moss Landing to pick up an early dinner at a seafood restaurant known for it’s giant fish tacos. Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery is not to be missed if you like seafood. And their giant fish tacos did not disappoint.

My plan for the night was to camp at Manresa State Beach just south of Santa Cruz, however upon getting to Manresa State Beach and I found a ton of no camping signs. I was a little confused. When I’d looked at the website it had said that Manresa State beach had a first come first serve camp ground, but when I pulled into the parking lot all I saw were “no camping” and “day use only” signs. Was I in the wrong place? Was the campground somewhere else? I drove around looking for the campground but never found anything so I came back to the main parking lot and decided to watch the sunset while I figured out my next move.

I found out later that the campground is in fact a little further up the beach, so I’d either missed the turn or the road may have been closed off for winter (even though the website had said it was open).

Either way, my original plan to camp had been foiled and I need to figure out a place to stay for the night as it would be getting dark soon.

I managed to find a relatively inexpensive hotel room near the boardwalk using the app which was a lifesaver.

I love the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and even though it was closed for the winter I took a walk through the brightly colored carnival rides and caught the end of the sunset looking out over the beach.

Check out other awesome California Destinations

Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz

Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz

Wilder Ranch State Park

Wilder Ranch State Park

Wilder Ranch State Park

Day 5: Santa Cruz to South Lake Tahoe

I woke up early the next morning, grabbed some coffee and headed over to my favorite place in  Santa Cruz. My brother and I used to meet up at a spot called Pleasure Point to go surfing when I was in collage in San Francisco and he was in Monterey. It’s a fun little surf spot and there’s a nice path that goes along the top of the cliffs with great views. It’s a great place for a walk and on any given morning you’ll see tons of people jogging, walking their dogs, and strolling their kids along the path. I took a nice little walk down memory lane and watched the surfers paddle out into the morning line up.

After my walk I figured it was time to hit the road, I had one more beach I was interested in checking out before heading east and up into the mountains.

Wilder Ranch State Park is known for its beautiful trails that wind out and around the bluffs. You can hike, bike, or horseback ride the trails and there is a museum with a bit of history as well.

I took the opportunity to get in a little hiking, the trails are fairly flat and easy so it’s more like a walk, but still really nice. The trails take you out along the cliffs and it feels wonderfully wild, with the ocean waves crashing against the rocks, the wind in your hair, and hardly any sign of civilization near by.

After realizing I’d spent probably a little too much time hiking around I headed back to my car to begin the drive home. I’d be getting back to Tahoe a bit later than I’d planned but it was worth it. From there I headed north and east through San Jose and Sacramento getting home in about five hours.

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Solo Travel: A California Road Trip

3 thoughts on “Solo Travel: A California Road Trip

  1. Nigel William

    Hi, Natalie! Yet another great story I really enjoyed reading! It looks like you had a great time, Photos are beautiful, I liked the colours. Besides a great writer, you can think a little about a photography career. 🙂 I was wondering, what you would advise to anyone who`s planning to go on a road trip by themselves?

  2. Pingback: 24 Hours in Silver Lake LA - Nattie on the Road

  3. Pingback: An Epic California Road Trip Up Highway 395 - Nattie on the Road

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