San Francisco To Palm Springs: The Ultimate Long Weekend California Road Trip Itinerary

Spring is here which means road trip season is just around the corner. We cannot wait to fuel up the car, pack some road-trip friendly snacks, turn up our favorite playlist, and drive along the California coast.

Our home state of California is one of our favorite places to travel, but, to do the state justice, we think you’d need to commit to a week-long road trip. Ana Kamin, editor of the online magazine, California Weekend, proved us wrong when she went on a weekend road trip that hit some of the state’s major highlights. We were so impressed we asked her to recreate the ultimate long weekend California road trip itinerary for us.

A few years back, I moved to the Golden State and was immediately in awe of California’s beauty and diversity. To discover as much as possible as quickly as possible, I would go on road trips almost every weekend. Over the years, I got to know California in ‘n’ out (pun totally intended). Wide beaches, majestic mountains, enchanting deserts, lush forests, world famous cities, charming little towns — it became clear that California has it all.

One weekender I’ve had on repeat is a San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip because there is always something new to see from a coastal cove to a food spot. My last time driving this road trip, I extended it with a day in Palm Springs and the trip turned out to even better.

So, here it is: my ultimate long weekend California road trip itinerary that I’m super excited to share it with you, dear Salt & Wind readers. Let’s hit the road!

Salt & Wind | Travel For Food Lovers | California Road Trip: Pigeon Point Lighthouse | Photo by James Besser

Day 1 | San Francisco to Monterey (~120 miles)

Pacific Ocean, Lighthouses, and Clam Chowder

Start your California road trip itinerary by heading from San Francisco to Monterey. Most people drive the 101 freeway until they merge onto Highway 1 but I say take the Great Highway starting at the Ocean Beach. The payoff is picture-perfect seaside views of surfers waiting for waves on the wide open Pacific.

Stop at Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay for a cup of warming chowder or the famous Dungeness crab roll. After, take a short break at Point Pigeon Lighthouse and clock in some history time at this the oldest lighthouse in California.

Before you arrive in Monterey, plan on a quick detour to Capitola, a little, candy-colored town just south of Santa Cruz. It was built as a vacation resort but we really like it because the colorful houses will make your Instagram feed pop.

STAY: The Monterey Tides is a newly renovated Joie de Vivre hotel directly on the beach.

 Salt & Wind | Travel For Food Lovers | California Road Trip | Big Sur Highway 1

Day 2 | Monterey to Cambria (~150 miles)

Winding Coast, Cypress Forests, and Pastries

Get up early and walk the beach because, let’s be real: the crashing waves, the rising sun, the sea air is what a coastal road trip is all about. By the way, there is a canyon under the Monterey Bay that rivals the Grand Canyon in height and depth -- impressive, right? 

Fuel up for the full day ahead with a proper breakfast. Drive a few miles south to the charming village of Carmel-By-The-Sea (which is worthy of a weekend stay on its own FYI) and order a hearty breakfast at the Tuck Box.

After breakfast head to Point Lobos National Park, which you could hike for days, but you don’t have all that time. Instead park in the main lot, head through the forest to the ocean, and walk along the roughed coast. Yes, this is a slightly more touristy route, but it’s no less spectacular. 

As soon as you head south from the Monterey Bay, the majestic Big Sur part of Highway 1 begins and winds on and on for over 100 miles.Heads up that due to mudslides of 2017, you will not be able to drive all the way through on Highway 1 until sumemr 2018 so you will need to make a detour inland

If you need another quick bite, stop in Big Sur at the legendary Big Sur Bakery for a full lunch or just a bite of their delicious pastries. Know that there will be many photo ops along the way but, if you decide to do only one, have it be McWay Falls —one of California’s most iconic views. Aim to arrive at the sleepy town of Cambria right around sunset.

STAY: The Cambria Beach Lodge is a 50s motel turned hip overnight stay with a delicious complimentary breakfast.

Salt & Wind | Travel For Food Lovers | California Road Trip: Native Hotel Malibu

Day 3 | Cambria to Malibu (~190 miles)

Palms, Pink Champagne Cake, And Old Hollywood Glam

From Cambria, you leave the wild coast behind and the SoCal vibes begin. Beaches, palms, yacht harbors are what awaits you between Cambria and Malibu.

At San Luis Obispo, Highway 1 makes a slight wiggle inland and one place not to be missed on this detour is Madonna Inn. The quirky, very colorful motel is a tourist magnet, but I think it’s unquestionably worth seeing so much carefully curated kitsch in one place. If you are not staying here for lunch, make sure to grab a slice of their super famous pink champagne cake. It’s a buttery, creamy carb dream.

Continue to Malibu, make stops and enjoy the scenery. Once in Malibu, before you check in into your hotel, wind down from the drive at Malibu Farm Cafe with cool agave lemonade and their delicious crab cakes with a caper aioli.

STAY: Now known as the Native Malibu, this formerly was a spot where celebrities like Marilyn Monroe came to escape the paparazzi. 

Salt & Wind | Travel For Food Lovers | California Road Trip: El Matador Beach Malibu

Day 4 | Malibu to Palm Springs (~130 miles)

Palm Tree Views, Hot Desert, and #thatpinkdoor

Since you got a good dose of Southern California in Malibu, we are skipping Los Angeles and heading straight to the desert oasis of Palm Springs. Stock up on some road food snacks, because, chances are you will be stuck at least once in the world-famous LA traffic. But hey, it’s famous, so you can count it as “things to experience in LA.”

Once in Palm Springs, it’s all about pool time. Or maybe not. Palm Springs has so much more to offer than cocktails at the pool (though we fully support that agenda). Visit Moorten’s Botanical Garden, an outdoor museum featuring all sorts of cacti and succulents, hike the Palm Canyon, take a mid-century house tour, stealthily visit that pink door….or just chill at the pool. 

STAY: The Ace Palm Springs. Yes, the Ace got so hipster that, at some point that it actually tuned chill again. Plus the onsite restaurant, Kings Highway, is one of our favorite spots for brunch, a date shake, or dinner. 

That's it: my ultimate California road trip itinerary! I hope you like it and if you go, be sure to tag @saltandwind and @californiaweekend so we can follow along.

Salt & Wind | Travel For Food Lovers | California Road Trip: Palm Springs


More California On Salt & Wind

Essential Malibu Day Trip
Los Angeles Gift Guide
Santa Barbara City Guide

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P.P.S. Hitting the road soon? Show us how you travel in good taste by sharing your adventures on Instagram with the #swsociety hashtag!

Opening photo by Patrick Tomasso, Pigeon Point Lighthouse by James Besser, Big Sur photo by Photo by Thomas Ciszewski, Malibu photo by Gerson Reprezaand all other photos by Ana Kamin

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