Whether on vacation or at home, it’s always good to get out of town and take a driving tour of the natural and/or cultural experiences that surround your home base. Whenever on a trip to a major city, I always try to leave the urban area for a few days to see the surrounding sights.
Just last week, in mid-August 2016, I did just that in Los Angeles. It was a busy yet epic six days. I thought I’d share with you the exact itinerary I used in case you found yourself with some extra time in La La Land.
Also listed below are out-and-back road trips I’ve taken in other major cities, such as San Francisco, Portland, and San Jose (Costa Rica). All pictures have been taken by me.
This is how to have an awesome trip:
Los Angeles-Los Angeles Road Trip // 6 days
Day One (Los Angeles, Las Vegas)
Start in Los Angeles in the early afternoon and immediately head out to Las Vegas on Interstate 15. Along the way make sure to stop at Calico Ghost Town – very kitschy, but it was built in the 1880s and is worth a look around. Continue on the interstate, and just before reaching Nevada you’ll pass Ivanpah Solar Facility on your left, the largest solar plant in the world. In the early evening, you’ll arrive in Las Vegas (technically the unincorporated place of Paradise) and have an hour or two to drive up the Strip (Las Vegas Blvd). After passing the casinos and the lights, you’ll make it to the north end of the Strip, where you’ll park at the Neon Boneyard, a walkway through classic neon signs from Las Vegas’ past with beautiful lights, colors, and fonts at every corner. We took the 8:30pm tour and spent the night in Las Vegas.
Day Two (Las Vegas, Valley of Fire, Zion National Park)
Leave Las Vegas and head northeast on Interstate 15. Take a detour off the highway to Valley of Fire State Park, a beautiful landscape of dramatic red rock formations. The must-dos are the Campground Road Scenic Loop, the panoramic Mouse’s Tank Road, and Atlatl Rock, a huge rock with ancient Native American petroglyphs. After the detour, continue on I-15 to Utah, where you’ll make your way to Zion National Park. We parked at Zion bus stop #3 (the beginning of Floor of the Valley Road) and took the shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava, where you’ll begin the Narrows hike. Hike on a paved trail for one mile, then through the Virgin River atop rocks for 1.5 miles, surrounded by beautiful 2,000-foot-high canyon walls on both sides. Then, turn right at the fork to follow Orderville Canyon for two miles – this is both difficult and dangerous, requiring ascension of multiple waterfalls, yet incredibly spectacular and fun (the less strenuous option is to turn left at the fork). Spend the night in the Zion area.
PLAN AHEAD: My problem was that I started the hike at 5pm and got the the end of Orderville Canyon by 8pm, leaving me 1 hour and 10 minutes to make the last shuttle at 9:10pm (yes, despicable decision-making). I literally all-out sprinted through a raging river in the dark for 4.5 straight miles in just 70 minutes and barely made it to the last shuttle on time. Therefore, I recommend that you get to the trailhead by 3:30pm at the latest and establish a turnaround time.
Day Three (Zion National Park, Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend)
Get up early this morning at 5am to make it to the Zion shuttle stop #3. Take the shuttle to stop #7 and begin the hike to Observation Point (for those willing to take the risk, Angels Landing is a scarier alternative). Observation Point is eight miles roundtrip and over 2,000 vertical feet to the top – exhausting and strenuous, yet beautiful as it passes midway through the lovely Echo Canyon. After a few hours of sweat, you’ll finally find Observation Point, the gorgeous vista shown below. Take your time on the way down, too – going downhill can be just as strenuous on the legs. If you get back to the trailhead before 1:30pm, you’re in great shape (both physically and time-wise). That’s because you have to drive to Ken’s Lower Antelope Canyon Tours by 3:30pm that afternoon. It’s over two hours away, but fortunately, Arizona’s time zone is an hour earlier than Utah, so you have an extra hour on your hands. Ken’s Tours of Antelope Canyon are absolutely astounding as you weave through the narrow slot canyon. Once done with that tour, drive out to the picture-perfect Horseshoe Bend if you have the energy, or, if not, spend a much-needed night of relaxation in Page, Arizona after a long, incredible day.
Day Four (Page, Dinosaur Tracks, Grand Canyon, Sedona, Winslow)
Begin the day in Page, Arizona. Drive south on Highway 89 for over an hour until you reach Highway 160. Here, take a left, and four miles down, turn left again into the parking lot labeled “Dinosaur Tracks.” A kind Native American gentleman will take you on a tour of T-Rex, Pterodactyl, and other dinosaur footprints for a small donation. Afterwards, drive out to the Grand Canyon and drive along the South Rim. Take as many stops as you’d like. By mid-afternoon, leave the canyon and drive towards Sedona. Along the way, pay a short visit to Bedrock City, an abandoned Flintstones-themed campground. Spend the evening dining and rock-watching in the beautiful Sedona. After the sun sets, drive out to Winslow, Arizona, and check in to La Posada Hotel and Gardens for the night.
PLAN AHEAD: We tried the Wahweap Hoodoos 9-mile hike this morning. Online it says that 2-wheel-drive vehicles can reach the first parking lot, but this is not true. We got stuck in the sand and had to be towed out by the kind keepers of the nearby fish hatchery. They said that it’s impossible to reach either trailhead without four-wheel-drive.
Day Five (Winslow, Route 66, Kingman)
Today is Day One of driving Route 66 from Winslow, Arizona to Santa Monica, California. Spend the morning relaxing and taking a comprehensive tour of La Posada Hotel and Gardens – this beautiful lodge is truly a historic gem! Drive past Winslow’s classic “Standin’ on the Corner Park”, stop at Two Guns, and take the original Mother Road through Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona. The best part of today’s drive is the stretch from Seligman to Kingman. The must stops are Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive In and the Hackberry General Store midway through. We went a bit off road in Kingman to visit the Santa Claus Ghost Town since we had extra time that night. Spend the night in Kingman’s “Hill Top Motel”, famous for its classic neon sign.
PLAN AHEAD: We tried visiting Meteor Crater along the way, but soon realized that it costs $18 per person to see it! Unless you want to fork over that much cash, don’t make the detour.
Day Six (Kingman, Route 66, San Bernardino)
Today is Day Two of your Route 66 journey. Drive out of Kingman this morning (have coffee at Beale Street Brews) and your first stop will be Oatman, Arizona. We spent about an hour in this historic mining ghost town – lots of kitschy stuff, but the real highlight is watching and back-scratching the local wild burros which roam around town. Lots of fun stuff to do in Oatman. Continue on the Mother Road through Needles – be sure to stop at the historic “66 Motel” sign. Other must-do stops along the way are Amboy Ghost Town and Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch. We also stopped in Goffs, California and Amboy Crater. Spend the night in San Bernardino, California at the world-famous Wigwam Motel. “Have you slept in a teepee lately?”
PLAN AHEAD: There is no gas in Oatman, and we were on “E”. We fortunately were able to coast in neutral for 13 miles straight down the hill and make it to the gas station in Bullhead City – but be sure to plan ahead so as to not cut it this close.
Day Seven (San Bernardino, Route 66, Los Angeles)
It’s a two or three hour drive this morning from San Bernardino to Santa Monica along the original Route 66, now surrounded by metropolitan Los Angeles. By the early afternoon, arrive at the “End of Route 66” sign on Santa Monica Pier. That will be a fitting conclusion for an epic, jam-packed six-day road trip!
Now that we’re on the subject of out-and-back road trips, I thought I’d throw in a few more that I’ve taken:
Portland-Portland (Oregon, USA) // 6.25 days
Day One (Portland, Cannon Beach, Seaside)
After a morning in Portland, take a 90 minute early afternoon drive to Cannon Beach. Spend the afternoon walking the beach, perhaps playing frisbee or swimming in the water. After a few hours there, drive to Ecola State Park, park at the first parking lot, and enjoy the grand overlook. If you feel up to it, take hike up the trail to the top of the cliff and back. Then, drive to the second parking and take a swim at Indian Beach. Spend the night in Seaside – nice little town with some family-friendly nightlife.
Day Two (Seaside, Three Capes, Cascade Head, Lincoln City)
Enjoy a morning run on the beach in Seaside, and then head out on Highway 101 (follow the coast the entire way). This drive to Tillamook is just over an hour, but give yourself time to take stops and short hikes along the way to truly appreciate the beautiful coastline. Lunch in Tillamook – I recommend “Hidden Acres Greenhouse”. From Tillamook, we tried to take the Three Capes Scenic Drive, but it was – and still is – closed off due to “slide activity” between Tillamook Bay and the northern entrance of Cape Meares State Park. A good alternate route is to take Highway 131 from Tillamook to Netarts, and from there, a nice stretch of coastal route to Cape Kiwanda. If you want to see the umbrella tree at Cape Meares State Park, it’s a 30 minute detour roundtrip to the southern entrance of the state park from Netarts. Either way, Cape Kiwanda was a super fun stop – it has a gigantic, mountainous sand dune, and I used my spare energy to climb all the way up. From here, continue on Highway 101 to Three Rocks Rd. Take a right, and find the Cascade Head Parking Lot. The 2-3 hour Cascade Head hike is a can’t-miss. We did both the upper and lower viewpoints, but you can easily turn around at the lower viewpoint without missing anything. Priceless views. We also saw elk. Spend the night in Lincoln City.
Day Three (Lincoln City, Depoe Bay Whale Watch, Thor’s Well, Oregon Dunes, Elkton)
Leave Lincoln City at 9 or 9:15am so that you can get to Depoe Bay before 9:30. This gives you 30 minutes to explore the “Whale Research Eco-Excursions” museum for half an hour before the 10am whale watch (reservations required). Then, your two hour tour starts, where you first learn about the important discovery about whales discovered by your own tour guide, and then an hour and a half on the water. High likelihood of seeing whales up close. After lunch in Depoe Bay, you have three or four hours to drive just one hour to Thor’s Well. You can use this time to stop at the Devil’s Punchbowl, or just to more beach time. Then, visit Thor’s Well and Spouting Horn, a bizarre and unique sight indeed. In the early evening, make a short excursion into the Oregon Dunes Overlook for a grand vista, and then drive an hour inland for a night in Elkton. Rest up: tomorrow’s a big day.
Day Four (Elkton, Crater Lake, Gilchrest)
Elkton is a cute little town with a nice little diner for breakfast. We took a road alongside the beautiful Umpqua River, stopping a few times along the way, on our way to Crater Lake where we had a boat tour scheduled. Unfortunately, the Oregon Fires of 2015 would have required us to make a 3 hour detour to make it to Crater Lake, so we never went. On a normal day, however, Crater Lake will be incredibly beautiful! We spent the night in the desolate town of Gilchrest.
Day Five (Gilchrest, Smith’s Rock, Mt. Hood)
Today is the other big driving day, along with yesterday. Fortunately, there is a nice stop along the way to Mt. Hood: Smith’s Rock State Park. This natural area is like a taste of the American Southwest in the center of Oregon. Once we arrived in the Mt. Hood area, we stopped at Trillium Lake and hiked around it. Very calm and peaceful. We spent the night at the Timberline Lodge, an incredibly historic and photogenic old lodge that would be worth staying at even if it wasn’t for the mountain. Lots to do here, even without the great mountain view.
Day Six (Mt. Hood)
Today, my parents read and relaxed at the lodge, while I went on a 12 mile hike to Paradise Park. The hike is incredible, offering majestic mountain views and unparalleled meadow. It was magical to walk through the cold mountain stream, surrounded by a rainbow of prime wildflowers and fluttering white butterflies, feeling the muddy base of the stream on the bottom of my bare feet. It was honestly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I give the day hike to Paradise Park five stars.
Day Seven (Mt. Hood, Fruit Loop, Oneonta Gorge, Multnomah Falls, Portland)
Finally, for the last day of this out-and-back trip, take the 10am ski lift for a great view of Mt. Hood, then drive through the Fruit Loop, a beautiful array of fresh fruit farms. Then, you will make it to the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. We did two short hikes in the gorge on the way back to Portland. The first was the Oneonta Gorge hike, where you climb over large boulders and logs and then swim through deep water to a giant waterfall at the end of the gorge. If you really want to get adventurous and cold, swim all the way to the base of the falls. Later on, make a stop at the tall, cascading Multnomah Falls – the most famous of them all – and then make a short detour in the afternoon for the Vista House, a historic building which offers great views of the Columbia River. Return to Portland that late afternoon, and get ready to tell everyone about how you just experienced some of the best things Oregon has to offer.
San Francisco – San Francisco // 5.75 days
Day One (San Francisco, Point Arena)
The first step – after a full day of fun in San Francisco – is to take Highway One from San Francisco to Point Arena, California in the late afternoon from 4-7:30pm. Don’t wait until the night – because we were watching a Casey Neistat talk that night, we had to drive there from 11pm-2:30am, and the danger of the cliffside curves made this a bad idea – so start earlier. Don’t make too many stops on this afternoon drive as you’ll have time to make stops on the way back.
Day Two (Bowling Ball Beach, Stornetta Public Lands, B Bryan Preserve)
After a night’s rest, spend a full day in the Mendocino area in Northern California. The first thing we did there was Bowling Ball Beach, which is full of odd, round boulders in the sand. The next stop is an absolute must: Stornetta Public Lands. Drive by the lighthouse and take a 5 minute stop at the Sea Lion Rocks to see the sea lions, but the real highlight is a 2 hour out-and-back hike in the Stornetta Public Lands. Great cliffline coast, and lots of places to climb down to the water’s edge. Lots of fun. This late afternoon, head over to the B Bryan Preserve for a 4pm tour of their large African safari animal preserve – they have a fascinating story, and it’s fun for animal lovers to pet the baby zebras and kiss the giraffes. You can even spend the night at the preserve hotel, which we did.
Day Three (Point Arena, Highway 1, Marin Headlands, San Francisco)
Today is a full day on the coast. Spend as much time making as many scenic stops as you’d like on your way back to San Francisco. Stay on the ocean the entire way back. We made a stop at Fort Ross – the history here is actually quite interesting, and it’s fun to explore the historical area. Also make sure to stop at Muir Woods; we didn’t have time, but if you do, it is a must see. Finally, just as you reach the city area, take a detour all the way out to the Point Bonita lighthouse in the Marin Headlands for a grand view of the Golden Gate Bridge and this really cool abandoned graffiti area (Battery Mendell). Night in the city. We recommend Marnee Thai for a great dinner.
Day Four (San Francisco, Yosemite)
Today is a driving day to Yosemite National Park. Since this is only a half-day drive, you have the option of either spending the morning doing something in the city, or spending the afternoon doing something in the park. Both are good options. Spend the night at the historic Wawona Lodge.
Day Five (Yosemite)
There are two distinct features that I think make Yosemite special: its giant trees and its beautiful valley. We spent a day for each while in Yosemite. Today was the day of the giant sequoias. We took the Mariposa Grove 6 mile trail through the sequoias – totally recommended and totally beautiful.
PLAN AHEAD: The Mariposa Grove is currently closed until spring of 2017. There are, however, other groves to visit in Yosemite.
Day Six (Yosemite)
For hikers in decent shape, take the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley today – about 9 miles. This is the best way to combine great views looking down on the valley with the incredible waterfalls of the park. Make sure to take the side trail to Panorama Point, bring lots of water, and take time to admire the incredible views along the way down. More experienced/daredevil hikers would prefer Half Dome, which we didn’t do (some day though!). Both are incredibly beautiful!
Day Seven (Yosemite, San Francisco)
Leave Wawona Lodge in the morning and return to the city by the early afternoon.
San Jose – San Jose (Costa Rica) // 7.5 days
Day One (San Jose, Drake Bay)
There are many places to visit in Costa Rica – the volcanoes of the north, the beaches of the west, the turquoise Rio Celeste, and a million other things. Our main goal was to see the wildlife, so hence we ventured to the “most biologically intense place on earth” (according to National Geographic). This was a full day drive, but we hired a private van to take us there, and because of this we made a few interesting stops along the way (cafes, outlooks, etc). In the early afternoon, we caught a lovely mangrove boat ride out of Sierpe that took us to Bahia Drake (Drake Bay). We stayed at the wonderful Hotel Ojala, which now has new ownership and is called the Tranquilo Lodge.
Day Two (Corcovado National Park)
Today, we ventured into the national park, famous for its diverse-in-fauna jungles and rainforests. We saw egrets, macaws, and lots of other birds. We also saw the famous walk-on-water Jesus Christ Lizard, as well as iguanas, spiders, tapirs, three kinds of monkeys, and much more that I can’t even remember. It was a fun, muddy, adventurous day of hiking.
Day Three (Caño Island)
Today is a trip to paradise: Caño Island. This island is the most lightening-struck place on the planet and a snorkeler’s and beach-goers paradise. The boat ride there offers an occasional whale or dolphin, although we didn’t see one. While snorkeling at two locations, we saw brilliantly-colored fish and coral as well as a giant sting ray, and on the golden beach we relaxed as the waves crashed in. There is an optional hike into the island to see ancient Pre-Colombian stone spheres, which we didn’t take.
Day Four (Drake Bay)
Due to sunburn at Caño Island, we did nothing this day. Today is a free day – perfect for a dolphin/whale watch tour, walking around town, enjoying the beach, and – for us – seeing toucans from our window.
Day Five (Drake Bay, Horseback Ride)
Today is a beautiful horseback ride – completely recommended. You ride through rainforest, little towns, farms, plantations, and jungles. Be prepared to speak Spanish. We made a stop at a little creek and a frog preserve along the way. Absolutely beautiful. When you get back, take the Jungle Night Tour. Your guide will not only find all the animals immediately, he will also teach you how to take perfect pictures of them, like one below, taken from a mediocre point-and-shoot.
Day Six (Drake Bay, Zip Line Tour)
Today, spend the morning on a zip line tour in the middle of the rainforest and the afternoon in the town of Drake Bay and on the beach.
Day Seven (Drake Bay)
One final free day in town.
Day Eight (Drake Bay, San Jose)
Today, say goodbye to your home away from home and take a public bus back – very cheap, partially because of it having no air conditioning. In the early afternoon, return to the capital, San Jose, after a beautiful trip.
Funny story: I had to go to the bathroom while on the bus, and it didn’t stop for another two hours, so I had to stop the entire bus filled with people just trying to get from A to B in order to use the bathroom. I’ll never forget that.
Out and back road trips are awesome. Make sure to make the most of your time wherever you go and to embrace the unique natural and cultural aspects to their fullest.