If you’ve followed Intrepid Escape for any period of time, you’ll have seen that I love nothing more than a good road trip. It’s all about the flexibility to plan the exact trip you want. Not to mention the open roads, good music, and great company (the latter is not absolutely necessary).
So what better place to do it than California? Specifically Northern California. I was doing this trip in winter, mainly as it’s my dream to ski at a few places on this itinerary. However, you can do this road trip any time of year, but the route will change as certain roads are open/closed. It’s also an A to B road trip, but it can absolutely start and finish in San Francisco if that’s easier. It means one less flight and no relocation costs on the car hire.
My focus when writing this article is to provide you with a detailed itinerary, or a list of places and ideas to create your own bespoke trip. I recommend about two weeks, or a minimum of 10 days. However as always, it can be shorter or longer. I won’t be going into huge detail in this article, but over time I will be talking about each destination further in their own blog. So use the map above, save this article to your favourites, pin it on Pinterest and grab a pen, as you won’t want to miss these spots.
I hired a car with Hertz.co.uk, which starts from just £20 a day. Scroll down to find out more!
A quick note: I haven’t focused on things to do in San Francisco in this article, but if you want a spectacular experience check out this Seaplane Tour of San Francisco. Breath-taking!
For some unknown reason a lot of people head to San Francisco, but don’t actually make it far outside. One of the greatest things about this city is just how much nature and countryside surrounds it. Sonoma County is one example of that. Just 45 minutes north of San Francisco, it’s one of California’s top food and wine destinations.
They call it a place to connect with nature, from the rugged coastline to the huge Redwoods. It has 425 wineries and some incredible food to discover.
Things to do
Zipline in the Redwood Forest: the whole Russian River area and the ancient Redwoods are just begging to be explored. I did a Zipline tour with Sonoma Canopy Tours, which was a fantastic way to see the forest and learn about these incredible trees. But if I had longer and better weather, I would have enjoyed spending more time hiking in the forest. The highlight was a zipline 800 feet long!
Drive along Highway 1: Highway 1 pretty much covers the length of California and includes iconic spots like the Big Sur. However if you fail to go past San Francisco up into Sonoma County, you’re missing out. One of my favourite spots was Duncan’s Landing (marked on the map).
Unbeaten Path Hiking Tour: If there is ever a place to learn about the local area it’s here. I spent time with Margaret from Unbeaten Path Hiking Tours. On the Redwoods to Coast Discovery Tour we learnt about the Redwoods, how the Native Americans used the land, the geology, the coastline and even spotted birds and seals. I really recommend this tour and Margaret is an amazing guide.
Want more? I always like to include things I didn’t do due to time or the weather. That list includes wine tasting in one of the 425 wineries. You could grab a Kayak or Canoe and explore the coast from the water (guide recommended), or drive to Lake Sonoma.
Autocamp Russian River: This is outdoor living with a difference! I stayed in a luxury Airstream right in the heart of the Sonoma Redwoods. Autocamp really thinks about the finer details too, like having S’mores kits for your fireplace or the little touches inside your trailer. Highly recommended.
S’mores: toasted marshmallows on an open fire, sandwiched in chocolate and biscuit. Delicious!
Timber Cove Resort: Honestly one of the best places I’ve stayed in a while. This is the high end option, and the ocean views are incredible. They describe it as Rustic Modern or Hippie Chic. It also has a brilliant restaurant called Coast Kitchen which you must try out.
Or for your own freedom take a look at these romantic AirBnB getaways!
Eat & drink here
For dinner I suggest Coast Kitchen at Timber Cove Resort, Main Street Bistro and Cabaret in Guerneville and lunch at Stewarts Point Store (it has fantastic fresh sandwiches in their bakery).
Three valleys brought together to create one region, and it’s a stunner. Also just a stone’s throw from San Francisco, but it can often be overlooked. But this area has a huge amount of untouched hiking, craft beer, an amazing food scene and of course lots of wineries. In fact, Tri-Valley has even created its own trails specifically for beer, coffee and wine.
Things to do
Mount Diablo: This is a must see. When I went there were huge numbers of cyclists taking on the climb, and fair play to them. For the rest of us, you can drive to the 1173-metre (3849 feet) peak, and if you have long enough you can also hike it. The drive up there is spectacular and there are so many amazing lunch spots and viewpoints. Once you’re at the top you can really appreciate how large the Tri-Valley region is. You can even see the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day.
Lake Del Valle: You are spoilt for choice with what you can do at Lake Del Valle. Stand-Up Paddle Boarding, fishing, boat rental, swimming, hiking, nature watching and picnics. And the one thing I wish I had time for; Stargazing. With very little light pollution for 100 miles south of the lake it’s one of the best spots for stargazing in California.
Become a Trailblazer: From the Craft Beer trail (definitely would be my pick), the wine trail and to caffeine trail. Tri-Valley has specially designed cards and stamps with prizes to be won for ticking off a certain number of places. From free mugs to charity giveaways. It’s a brilliant way to bring support the local businesses and create a fun way to see something you love. You can also find an Ice-cream trail and a Bike trail on the Tri-Valley website.
Want more? There was plenty more I didn’t manage to do. From checking out the cowboy town of Livermore, to the world’s oldest functioning lightbulb (Centennial Lightbulb). I would have also loved to hike at Pleasanton Ridge, and dropped by the Blackhawk Museum, full of classic cars.
The Rose: If ever I’ve stayed somewhere with fantastic attention to detail, it’s here. Quite literally a luxury boutique hotel right in the centre of Pleasanton. It has fantastic staff and really takes care of the finer details, all the little things other hotels neglect. Plus they have amazing free cookies!
Eat & drink here
In the evening grab yourself a spot at the bar at Revel Kitchen & Bar (they also have incredible cocktails), and for lunch try Danville Harvest. Get your morning coffee from Inklings in Pleasanton (up the road from The Rose, and a stop on the coffee trail). Or if brunch is your thing I recommend Nonni’s Bistro.
Yosemite Mariposa Country
Now it’s here you may want to change the route depending on the time of year you’re travelling. I had to do it this way as the most of the roads crossing Yosemite are closed (such as Tioga Road, continuation of the 120, and Glacier Point Road). They usually reopen in late May or June. And Mammoth Lakes was one of the top places on my list. So I went to Yosemite first, then up to Lake Tahoe. In winter this is the only way to travel to Mammoth Lakes from Yosemite.
In this article, Yosemite is split in to two regions as it has two local tourism boards. It has so much to offer, so this makes it a little easier to break down. This was my second time in Yosemite, and honestly you can’t visit this place enough. Waking up at Autocamp and driving into the National Park is such an amazing feeling. You are surrounded by pure beauty and stunning scenery whichever way you turn. I really love Yosemite, what an incredible place.
Things to do
Skiing at Badger Pass: It’s one of the only places in America you can ski in a National Park! The ski area here is very small, so you really only ski here for the novelty of skiing in Yosemite for a day or half day. But that view over the National Park is amazing. The skiing is mostly suited for beginners, but that made it good for me as an intermediate skier, as the harder runs were empty.
Explore Yosemite Valley: You really can’t put a time limit on this one, but allow at least a day. Personally, I think taking a day trip from San Francisco is a mistake, as I loved waking up in Yosemite. I’ve now stayed in the Airstream (below), I’ve camped in summer and stayed in Yosemite Valley. Waking up in the National Park and taking in the incredible scenery before breakfast.
Wherever you go in Yosemite Valley you can’t go wrong, but I personally loved the spot at Valley View and the Artist Point viewpoint. But also make sure you see the intimidating El Capitan rock face and Bridalveil Falls. I had a car but I highly recommend using the free shuttle service, especially in summer.
The Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls: These are simply a must visit any time of year. The Upper Yosemite Falls trail will most likely be closed in winter, or only half open. But the Lower Yosemite Falls is open all year round. The Upper Yosemite Hike is a tough hike so I only recommend this if you are fit and active. But it’s honestly incredible. The Lower Yosemite Falls is much more accessible and easy for any ability, it doesn’t take long.
Want more? The final place on my personal list is Glacier Point, with some of the best views of the valley. I also would have loved to learn about the gold-rush at Mariposa Museum. Finally, I did pop by the famous Ahwahnee hotel (featured in many movies), and from here you can head to Ahwahnee Meadow to enjoy the views of Half Dome.
Autocamp Yosemite: similar to the Autocamp Russian River, I stayed in a luxury Airstream in Yosemite. Waking up in the Yosemite National Park is an amazing feeling. And so was having S’mores for breakfast on my own log fire.
Eat & drink here
I suggest dinner at Charles Street Dinner House (but expect to queue if you don’t book in advance!), grab a coffee at Pony Expresso, and drink craft beer at the Hideout Saloon.
Yosemite’s Tuolumne County
A short drive away from the Yosemite Valley you find the other side of Yosemite, Yosemite’s Tuolumne County. It’s here you find the Giant Sequoias, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and some of the towns on the edge of Yosemite. It’s equally as stunning, and cannot be missed on this trip. I also stayed in one of my favourite lodges on the trip, read on…
Things to do
Giant Sequoia Trees: An absolute must, summer or winter! In winter I highly recommend crampons or spikes for your shoes as the path isn’t treated. Sequoia Trees are just incredible. Not only are they huge and hundreds of years old, they’ve adapted to live in fire-prone environments. Due to a lack of ladder fuels (low branches), thick spongy bark, they rarely die from fire.
In fact they rely on the undergrowth to be destroyed periodically, and they communicate with each other through the complex root system – which we are just beginning to understand. Make sure you go with a guide (such as Echo Adventures Cooperative) so you learn about the forest and trees in as much detail as possible.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir: This is an area usually open all year round, being warm in summer but not frozen over in winter. I hiked it in winter and it was plenty warm enough (although take some layers for the times you’re not in the sun!). It’s a really peaceful spot, with barely anyone there.
The standard hike isn’t too challenging, but there are further hikes available, although not all year round. Smith Peak is a 13-mile round trip and the Poopenaut Trail is a tough 2.5-mile hike. Either way you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of the Wapama Falls.
Columbia Historic Park: This area is known for the gold-rush era, and Columbia Historic Park is a living gold rush town boasting the largest single collection of gold-rush era structures in California. It’s a chance to go back in time with actors, functioning trades (such as the blacksmiths) and merchants in 1850s attire. You can even pan for gold.
Want more? I would have loved to check out some craft beer in Tuolumne itself, although I did have a great pizza at Emberz. Also Jamestown was on my list, but I simply didn’t have time for both Jamestown and the Columbia Historic Park.
Rush Creek Lodge: Easily one of my favourite places that I stayed! Not only was I totally looked after in an amazing suite, but they have fantastic food and cocktails in their restaurant. It’s right up the road from the Giant Sequoia trail and Hetch Hetchy, but also close enough to explore the Yosemite Valley from. I was blown away by the environmental mission of Rush Creek, and their sister site Evergreen Lodge.
Squaw Valley & Alpine Meadows
Being a winter trip, skiing formed a large part of this itinerary as you’ll see in the next 3 destinations. So you may want to adapt a few of these to suit the time of year. Usually it will be swapping skiing for hiking or mountain biking. But I’ll also try to drop in a few extra recommendations too. It’s a 4-5 hour drive from Yosemite, and you have to go up to Lake Tahoe rather than across to Mammoth Lakes due to the road closures I mentioned before.
Driving Tip: please make sure you check the local weather and take advice about snow chains on some of the mountain roads. I was OK with 4×4, but I didn’t hit a snow storm.
My next stop was Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows in North Lake Tahoe, a ski resort that’s been on my list for as long as I can remember, and part of the Ikon Pass. I was staying right on the slopes at the Village at Squaw Valley, you have to love a ski in ski out resort. Everything you need is here, however some people chose to stay in nearby towns such as Tahoe City or Truckee. In Truckee you’re not far from Northstar ski resort either.
Things to do
Ski at Squaw Valley: Having proudly hosted the 1960s Winter Olympic Games, Squaw Valley has built a great reputation in the area for the some of the best skiing. In particular for it’s view over Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada. It has a fantastic mix of beginner and intermediate slopes, and lots of snow parks and jumps for the thrill seekers, including the iconic extreme skiing zones like KT-22, the Palisades and Silverado.
Interestingly, its often known by the nickname Squallywood, for the amount of people showing off. Most of the lifts follow the runs meaning people often ski or snowboard here to be seen. Not necessarily a bad thing. With an average of 450 inches snowfall and 300 sunny “Bluebird” days, this is California skiing at its finest.
Ski at Alpine Meadow: A short drive from Squaw Valley is Alpine Meadow, included on the same ski pass. They have plans link it with a giant cable car, which will be fantastic. It offers the same snowfall and sunny days as Squaw Valley, but it has a totally different vibe to it. You’ll find a more laid back atmosphere, it’s far from being somewhere to show off.
A lot of the runs meander away from the chair lifts, and you really have to know the mountain to find the challenging skiing. For me, I preferred the vibe here. And being a bit closer to Lake Tahoe gives you an even better view of it.
High Camp: This is a must visit all year round. It’s at the top of the Aerial Tram from Olympic Valley, so you can head up there even if you’re not skiing. And the views are spectacular all year round. As well as the observation deck they also have a the Olympic Museum, a swimming pool and hot tub. It might be a novelty, but stopping for a break from skiing and a dip in the hot tub sounds amazing doesn’t it? It was too cold when I was there, but in Spring it opens.
Want more? If I had more time here, I’d love to try Disco Tubing, and watch the sunset from High Camp. Then there’s enjoying the hot tub in spring, and hiking or mountain biking in summer. And then of course you have the whole of Lake Tahoe at your disposal.
The Village at Squaw Valley: located right on the slopes, this huge complex is perfect. My lodge was designed to be self-catering (although I ate out) and had views of the slopes. There are a lot of nice touches, like the huge underground carpark meaning you park right under your lodge. Everything you need is in the village, including the dining and drinking options I’ve mentioned below. There’s also a hot tub in each building, although my tip is to go to the one in building 5 as that has the best view!
Eat & drink here
In the evenings I ate Rocker@Squaw and Auld Dubliner. Both have a nice selection of good quality pub grub and craft beers. For a delicious sit down lunch on the slopes it has to be Granite Bistro at High Camp.
Tahoe South & Heavenly Ski Resort
Staying on Lake Tahoe, and probably one of the shortest drives on the trip, I headed down to Tahoe South. Don’t forget to check the weather before you leave, and make sure you don’t need snow chains. You can either travel around the North shore of Lake Tahoe or the shorter more direct route south. I’d make sure you do both whilst you’re here.
My visit here was all about the skiing. Although I am also very keen to visit in spring/summer. That’s what is so amazing about this trip, you could do it in each season and have a totally different experience. Heavenly Ski Resort, part of Vail Resorts, has also been a bucket list ski destination for me for a long time.
Things to do
Ski at Heavenly Ski Resort: The skiing here is quite simply some of the best I’ve seen. It has 9 high-speed lifts, 4,800 skiable acres, 3000+ metres elevation, and two terrain parks. But forget that, ski here for the views. They are unbelievable. You also cross the California / Nevada Stateline. On the Nevada side you have views over the Carson Valley, on the California side it’s views over Lake Tahoe. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Heavenly also has a nice link with Kirkwood and Northstar. If you get a pass for 3 days or more at Heavenly, you can also ski at Kirkwood and Northstar. In addition to that it’s part of the Epic Pass. If I’m honest, I had my best day skiing on the trip here at Heavenly. Sometimes it felt like we had the slopes to ourselves. Which leads me to a nice tip, avoid the weekends! That goes for all of the ski resorts in California, they get incredibly busy at the weekend.
Visit the Casino: Being right on the Stateline meant I could walk out of my hotel, cross the road and I was in Nevada! How cool is that? And here you guessed it, they have casinos. There are 4 Vegas style casinos right there, they almost look out of place. South Tahoe is so small, and the other way is Heavenly Village, a cosy collection of shops and restaurants. It’s a little surreal.
Regardless, I like a flutter (please gamble responsibly!), and my favourite was the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. It had the best atmosphere and of course some amazing music memorabilia on display.
Snowmobiling: Why not hit the fresh powder on a snowmobile? There are plenty of trails through the mountains and Zephyr Cove Snowmobile Center or Lake Tahoe Adventures offer guided tours. The backcountry trails reach nearly 9,000 feet (2740 metres). It’s another way to stop and admire the incredible panoramic views of Lake Tahoe.
Want more? Because my visit was all about the skiing, that’s all I wanted to do! There is of course so much more. In winter you can hit the shops, find a spa, ice-skating, go fishing, and in the spring/summer there’s golf, kayaking, boating, cycling and even swimming. It’s an outdoor adventure-lover’s dream!
Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel: This was the perfect hotel for exploring Heavenly and Tahoe South. It’s a full service hotel right on the Stateline (California side), but most importantly is only a 5 minute walk from the Heavenly Gondola. I love how easy it is to get to the slopes. The rooms are very spacious, and the free breakfast was amazing.
The hotel is right in the heart of the South Shore, and across the road from the casinos on the Nevada side. I hear they have some amazing mid-week and low season deals, so I definitely recommend checking them out.
Eat & drink here
Oh yes and I was treated to some amazing food! Firstly you have to try the Mexican food at Azul in Heavenly Village. Not only is the food locally sourced, but they have great cocktails. They are right next door to the Social House sandwich shop, which has a hidden cocktail bar at the back! I loved Sprouts Café which has incredibly healthy homemade and organic food. For drinks, before the casinos head to Pick 6, and if you fancy a local dive bar head to Whiskey Dick’s.
Get ready for another long but spectacular drive! You’ll pass through the Carson Valley and pick up the 395. Along with some spectacular mountain scenery you will want to stop and admire the views over Mono Lake. If you have time check out the salt formations.
Arriving at Mammoth Mountain to ski was a dream come true for me. But the area is so much more than that. I quickly realised after talking to a few locals that I didn’t have enough time here. But that’s been true of most places. There’s also plenty to do in summer, and during the summer months it’s connected to Yosemite via the Tioga Pass, making that route possible.
Things to do
Ski Mammoth Mountain: Another ski resort on my bucket list and another one on the Ikon Pass. Mammoth Mountain has legendary California ski status, and it’s easy to see why. It’s California’s highest four-season resort and 3369 metres (11,053 feet) above sea level.
About the skiing, just wow. Another resort for fantastic views. The resort is actually built on a volcano in part of the Sierra Nevada range. Although largely considered inactive it makes for a fantastic landscape. The ski resort is effectively one massive mountain, which makes is surprisingly easy to navigate. The Upper Panorama Gondola is the show-stopper, taking you to the highest spot. From there you have some amazing and challenging black runs. However there are also some easier blue runs, so most people can get back down from the top. Incredible.
Hot Springs & Benton Crossing: Not only are there numerous Hot Springs in this area, it’s just incredibly stunning! I could spend days just driving around, stopping and taking photos (just look at the photo below). Wild Willy’s Hot Springs is the best known. Just be warned it’s a long walk in winter, as the main road to it is closed (around a 45-minute walk). Keep that in mind as you’ll be wet and cold once you get out!
Convict Lake: There are a lot of lakes in the area, but Convict Lake is stunning and has that magical mirror effect. It’s said to be named Convict Lake after a group of escaped convicts took refuge here in 1871. I dropped by for a quick photo opportunity, but it quickly became apparent I needed more time here. So perhaps allow a couple of hours to enjoy it.
Want more? Well where do I start? As I mentioned I didn’t have enough time to fully explore Mammoth Lakes. But in winter you can snowmobile, head to the Woolly’s Tube Park, try Cross-country skiing, and even Snowcat tours. And of course summer is full of wonderful hiking, mountain-biking trails, a bike park adventure centre, golf, fishing or even just riding the gondola is an adventure in itself.
Sierra Nevada Resort: I stayed in Mammoth Village, which was easy because I had a car so could drive to and from the Main Lodge. The resort had everything I needed, including spacious rooms and a diner next door for breakfast. I also loved the bar and cosy fireplace for relaxing in the evenings. If you want ski in ski out that’s available at Mammoth Village and Eagle Lodge.
Eat & drink here
Mammoth Brewery and Eatery: I love a good brewery, and one with great food is even better. Mammoth Brewing has been producing award-winning beers since 1995. I can verify they are awesome, and so is the food. In addition to that, it had a really friendly vibe about it. I was alone yet made friends with some people and had a really good chat. That kind of place is priceless when you’re travelling.
Jimmy’s Taverna: A fantastic Seafood & Greek restaurant in Mammoth Lakes. As they say “bringing seafood to a whole new altitude!”. This is a restaurant that focuses on the finer details, from the incredible staff to the décor. And the food matched it, honestly one of the top dining experiences on my trip.
Rafters: I went here each day for a delicious breakfast right next door to my hotel.
Renting a car with Hertz at San Francisco Airport
I picked up my car at San Francisco Airport. Hiring a car with Hertz.co.uk starts from just £20 a day. For an epic road trip behind the wheel of an iconic America vehicle, check out the new Hertz American Collection – Hertz.co.uk/American-collection.
I genuinely had the chance to fulfil a dream driving around California in a Ford Mustang GT. This car is an absolute beast! To get an idea of the fun I had, check out my short video below. What. A. Car!
Want more? See a great guide of things do to in California here.