California 12-Day Itinerary: San Francisco, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe and the Pacific Coast Highway

I write this from our AirBnB apartment in San Diego, having just wrapped up a 12-day drive down US 101 South that started in San Francisco.  Although Dave and I have been to California a few times, this was our longest visit and we had a lot of firsts on this excursion.

We arrived in San Francisco after a three-hour flight delay due to the polar vortex and frigid temps in Chicago that grounded our plane for what seemed like an eternity. We checked in to the Hotel Zephyr at 2:30 AM and collapsed in to bed after a very long travel day. The next morning we awoke semi rested and ready to get out and explore.

We started our San Fran trip with a drive across the Golden Gate bridge on our way to Muir Woods national park. The drive is relatively short from the city, but once you arrive you feel like you’re a thousand miles from the city. Muir Woods is a wonderful park… there are different sections depending on how rustic you want to get, and how long you want to walk (or hike). We were really impressed with the trees of course, but the park is very well maintained and the walkways and paths are clear and wide. It creates a surreal-ness as you walk through the trees. We visited in late January and were gifted with pleasant temperatures and very few crowds. Most of our time in the park we were alone, which creates an especially magical vibe.

Some things to note when visiting Muir Woods… there is a toll to cross many of the bigger bridges in San Fran… you pay on your return to the city. Some of the bridges only accept a Fast Pass and others take cash so do your research before you head out. If you don’t have a Fast Pass you could be charged a hefty fine to cross the bridge. At Muir Woods you will need a reservation to park your car. Don’t bother driving to the visitor’s center thinking you’ll get your pass there. You have to buy it in advance online and bring it with you. There is no cellular service in Muir Woods; we did not do our research in advance and had to leave the park to find a place with WiFi so we could purchase our timed entry. We made the best of it with a small lunch and a pint at the Pelican Inn while we waited.

After Muir Woods, we drove back to the city for a delicious dinner at August (1) Five with friends. We headed back to the Zephyr after dinner, which has a great outdoor space, loaded with firepits and outdoor games, and had a couple cocktails by the fire. We ended the night at the Buena Vista for their world-famous Irish Coffee.

On our second day in San Fran, we did a tour of the infamous Alcatraz Prison. Alcatraz offers both day and night tours, but to ensure you get the day and time of your choice, book online in advance. We booked our tickets about a week before our arrival and were unable to get the night tour, which was our preference. The Alcatraz tour is self-guided, and you’ll receive an audio guide upon arrival (no extra charge). The tour is well done and is presented by former guards and inmates of the facility. The audio tour moves at a brisk pace so be sure to hit the pause button to stop and really take in the history. You’ll spend most of your tour in the cell blocks learning about different inmates, riots, and of course the escape attempts.

Even in January the prison was crowded with tourists. When you arrive at the dock, get in line ASAP so you can find a seat on the ferry. When you land on the island, be prepared for a climb to the actual prison facility. Only those with disabilities will be permitted to ride the tram to the top. There are sites to see on your upward climb so you can stop to catch your breath while you pose for a selfie. After returning to the mainland, we jumped in our car and headed to Sausalito for dinner and a walk along the water. If you’re craving good (and abundant) Mexican food, Saylor’s will meet your needs. The food was plentiful and delicious, and the service was fast and efficient.

Delicious Mexican Food at Saylor’s in Sausalito

The next morning our friend Kristen scooped us up and we spent the next three days wandering around Napa Valley eating a ton of food and drinking our body weight in wine. We made the Rancho Caymus Inn our home for two nights and I highly recommend it. The property shares a parking lot with Beaulieu Vineyard and the Rutherford Grill so we were an easy walk to good vino and decent food. The Inn is exceptionally comfortable and captures a rustic elegance that fits perfectly with the Napa scene. You’ll appreciate the spa-like bathroom, comfortable beds, in-room fireplace and outdoor patio at the Rancho Caymus. We enjoyed the outdoor fireplace with a bottle of red during the cool February evenings.

Before you head out to explore the copious wineries and vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, be aware that many require a reservation in their tasting rooms, and some tastings can run up to $70 per person. We visited the following tasting rooms that do not require a reservation, and most tastings were under $30.

Beaulieu Winery
V. Sattui
Robert Mondavi
Domaine Chandon

If you decide to join the winery’s club (sometimes included with the purchase of a few bottles) your tastings may be free so be sure to ask how to join and the benefits.

After soaking up the sun and wine in Napa, Dave and I parted ways with Kristen and headed to South Lake Tahoe. We hadn’t initially planned to include Tahoe in our Cali trip, but we had a few days to kill before heading south to San Diego and decided to give it a go. As it would happen, we drove in to Tahoe in the midst of a winter storm; if you plan to drive to or through Lake Tahoe during snow season, you must have snow chains or AWD with snow tires on all four tires. You will be stopped on route 50 and if you don’t have one of these you will be turned away. Fortunately we knew we’d be driving in the snow and were able to secure an AWD at the car rental. After a harrowing, white-knuckle drive through a blizzard, we arrived at our hotel. South Tahoe had received over 48 inches of snow already, and another 48 inches were in the forecast. Despite the precipitation, the roads were fairly clear and we found a good burger joint for dinner and a beer.

The next morning we awoke to learn that the main road in and out of Tahoe (route 50) was closed, so we were lucky we made it in the night before. We didn’t have the right clothes for skiing or other snow fun, so we used our two days in Tahoe to explore some of the town. We made our way to the Riva Lounge and enjoyed their warm fire, then afterwards we trekked to the Bear Moon Bar & Grill inside the Lake Tahoe Vacation Resort (family oriented but lacking atmosphere). We also checked out the Edgewood Resort and Spa which was upscale and glamorous. We had a great lunch here and soaked up the magnificent views of the lake (and some good Sauvignon Blanc). Our last night in Tahoe we had an excellent Bavarian meal of pretzel, sausage, schnitzel and strudel. And of course, German beer! When you’re in South Tahoe, give Himmel Haus a try!

We left Tahoe under much better weather conditions and made our way to Santa Cruz where we would kick off our Pacific Coast Highway drive. We planned a four-day trip from Santa Cruz to San Diego with overnight stops in different towns. There are a lot of opportunities to stop along the drive, and the number of quaint seaside towns is vast. I did some research before leaving home to help guide our route, and in hindsight, I’ve indicated what we would have done differently. Our four-day itinerary along the Pacific Coast Highway:

Day One:
We arrived in Santa Cruz Wednesday night after a long drive from Lake Tahoe. We stayed at the Hotel Paradox, a property in the Autograph Collection. This was the first of our “motel-chic” hotels along our PCH drive and was probably the most stylish and upscale. Motel-chic is a new trend where old roadside motels are transformed to boutique properties. It’s fun to see how these properties transcend their shabby histories for a second (or first) chance to shine.

In Santa Cruz we watched the sunset from the wharf over a chilled glass of white, and got a chance to observe a few dozen sea lions resting on the pier. It was comical to see them squeezing their girth on to the skinny wood slats. Our hotel was adjacent to the Riverwalk Park, and we were able to take the footbridge to dinner and the popular Pacific Ave. We ate at Laili which offers fresh and interesting Mediterranean fare in a large, open dining room. The service was friendly and fast and portion sizes are big.

Day Two:
We left Santa Cruz and made our way south to Carmel-By-The-Sea. It was my first-time visiting Carmel and I found the town to have as much (or more) charm than I had always read about. The little cottages had me dreaming about a future visit, and we’d claim one of those little jewel boxes for ourselves, even if for just a day or two.

We stopped for a light lunch at The Treehouse Café. They have great salads, an interesting, diverse menu and an outside patio. We worked off our meal strolling around town; the walk down to the beach from San Carlos street is easy…coming back is a workout! The beach in February was still active with walkers and a couple surfers. We took some pictures and made our way back to the car. We stopped at the Mission Ranch Hotel to take a quick peek at the historic property (currently owned by Clint Eastwood). We tried to take the 17 Mile Drive to Pebble Beach but there was a tournament going on and we didn’t have any credentials. Next time!

We headed to Monterey for the night and checked in to the Pacific Inn, another “boutique” motel. While the interior of the room was new, modern and stylish, the location of the property was in a questionable area. Due to the golf tournament at Pebble Beach, hotel availability was limited and expensive; I learned it’s a good idea to research if there are any sporting events or festivals going on during our stay and adjusting plans as needed. Regardless, we got a clean, very decent room for about $100 (and the most comfortable bed of the stay thus far). Under different circumstances, we would have elected to stay near Cannery Row or the Wharf. Or of course, a cottage in Carmel.

For dinner we drove to the wharf and had a hearty meal of steak, seafood and lots of wine at the Old Fisherman’s Grotto. This is one of two restaurants on the Wharf that gets four stars from Yelp. The dining room is reminiscent of an old-school steak house, complete with jacketed waiters, wood paneling, and low lighting. We received a significant complementary starter which surprised us (shrimp, calamari and artichokes) and our dinners were prepared perfectly. I would definitely eat at the Old Fisherman’s Grotto again.

Day Three:
We plotted our course to McWay Falls and almost immediately leaving Monterey we were met with the eye-popping scenery that the PCH is famous for. When you first see those bright blue waters crashing on the black rocks, it’s hard to look away; you can’t believe sea water can be that clear and blue. The good news is that the view is yours to enjoy for miles and miles. Take advantage of pull-offs to soak up all the beauty and stretch your legs. We stopped to eat at Morro Bay and had a water-side table at the House of JuJu. Despite the stellar Yelp review, we found our meal to be average at best. But, the view of the rock is excellent and the beers were cold. We didn’t spend much time in Morro Bay because it was starting to get late and we wanted to check in to our hotel in Buellton before 5:00PM. We wanted to stop in Pismo Beach but decided to pass due to the time. In hindsight, we would have spent the night in Pismo Beach and skipped Buellton altogether.

We arrived at the Sideways Inn in Buellton at dusk and settled in to the last Boutique Motel of our drive. This hotel looked the most promising online, and while the room, property and lounge are very cool and chic, the lighting in our room was weird and dysfunctional. We spent an hour in the lounge which is stylish but also suffers from weird lighting (think spotlights. In your eyes). The hotel serves a free continental breakfast that is delivered to your room via paper bag. Our breakfast consisted of yogurt, croissant (no butter or jam), a banana, an OJ and some granola.

Day Four:
We checked out of the Sideways Inn and made a detour to see the Danish town of Solvang. If you come through these parts, you really need to check this town out. It’s an adorable town with a European feel, chock full of shops, restaurants and windmills. We really wanted to spend more time in this little town, taking in the shops and maybe a pastry, but the long drive to San Diego loomed and we felt rushed. We wanted to stop in Santa Barbara and knew staying any longer in Solvang would put our arrival in San Diego well past 7:00 PM.

We arrived in Santa Barbara for brunch at the Finch & Fork, located in the Kimpton hotel. I really liked the design of the hotel, and after spending a short amount of time in Santa Barbara, I was wishing we had an extra day in our itinerary. It would have allowed us to take our time in Solvang and get a full day/night in Santa Barbara. We walked around on the wharf (it seems each town has one) and I saw a rainbow hovering in the palm trees on the beach. It was the most unusual rainbow I’ve ever seen.

We left Santa Barbara for the final leg of the drive to San Diego, where we would reunite with our daughter/stepdaughter Katie and spend our last four nights in California. We spent many hours in the car, saw many beautiful sites and had many laughs. I was taken aback numerous times by the striking beauty of the state, and silently scolded myself for taking so long to explore the serenity and majesty of this part of our country. I’m looking forward to planning our return!


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