Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry. Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.
The road is life.
I have, for quite some time now, become marginally obsessed with the fantasy of hitting the great open road of the United States of America with nothing but my ideas and an open mind.
Kerouac’s On the Road, Thelma & Louise, Easy Rider, Bob Dylan, Edwin Markham’s poetic detailing of Death Valley and all the rest had forged an image of the ‘American Dream’ in my mind. One day, albeit a rash and somewhat reckless day, I quit my job, went home to my girlfriend and booked flights to Los Angeles: “we’re doing it,” I said perhaps having let my coffee-induced adrenaline take over. “I want to wear a cowboy hat in the desert,” I told her with childish excitement. She laughed at me – but agreed, thankfully.
Now there are a few things to consider here, the first being that I have never taken anything like this on before. Is it really as easy as just booking a flight to America, hiring a car and hitting the road? Not exactly, no… but it’s not far off. In this piece, I’ll be detailing our route across California, handing out a couple of handy pointers and explaining how you can be as reckless as us. Firstly, here’s a quick map of the route we finally decided on:
You obviously need to start creating your road trip playlist as soon as possible. Three weeks in a car requires a lot of songs so that you don’t start to hate your favourite artists after having their banger drummed into your head for hours. We’ve embedded ours at the bottom of this article to give you some pointers, we’ll also chuck in tracks here and there to make this fun. First up, The Modern Lovers:
Booking flights is the easy part, trying to come to some sort of agreement in regards to a specific route – not so. In case you were wondering, California is colossal – it isn’t the most populated state America for nothing and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it has an uncountable list of things you’re going to want to see. The best advice I can give you is to stick to your plan, you have no idea what’s going to come around the corner. Without trying to sound too much like a walking-talking cliché, I was insistent that we didn’t need to pre-prepare an agenda. I was wrong.
Most people book a return flight and, in doing so, you’ve set yourself a deadline (not trying to be a mood kill). The last thing you want to be doing is Googling how long it takes to drive from place-to-place and hopelessly searching around Los Angeles while circling that god-damn freeway. We decided to loosely split each destination into a few days, spreading it across the city, the desert, the coast and the mountains. That said, it was the barren desert that really got us going so Joshua Tree, Palms Springs and Death Valley took precedent.
If you’re anything like us, you’re not going to want to spend a fortune on this trip. That said, there are areas you’ll be able to save a few quid and, in contrast, certain aspects you should really attempt to avoid cutting corners. We flew with Norwegian Air from London to Los Angeles and they offered by far the cheapest, direct route. You can opt not to have the in-flight meal and save £25 per person, share a suitcase between two people and, if you’re feeling particularly unsociable, you could even save £25 per person by not reserving a seat.
Next up, booking a car. Listen, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in this thing, so it might be an idea to get a motor with air-con, an option to plug your phone in for music and sat-nav and, if you’re feeling flush, something comfortable. I’m not the sort of guy to offer technical advice on a good or bad car, nor am I the guy who likes to splash the cash… that said, here I am:Yes that is a Ford Mustang. Yes that is a convertible. Yes I am wearing those shoes with those shorts.
What can I say… we went for it. You’re probably only ever going to do this journey once in your life, what’s an extra couple of hundred pound in the greater scheme of things? You can make some of that back by not sitting next to your road trip partner on the plane. In all seriousness, highly recommend getting a decent vehicle… you have a long way to go and besides, even though I hate myself while typing the words, you’ll feel pretty wonderful driving through the streets of LA with the roof down. Honestly, as lame as it might sound, it was fantastic.
Note to reader: We’ll offer links out to separate articles offering more detail and nice pictures of specific locations. This article is already long enough and I know you’re only here for the cool-looking snaps.
First stop, LA.
What a place to start. Landing into LAX airport you’re greeted with a quite extraordinarily large flag of those iconic stars and stripes as you head down to security. There’s something quite incredible about seeing the American flag, I don’t know if it’s because, in depressingly stark contrast, I feel the exact opposite when I recognise the St George’s loosely hanging from you nearest Sports Direct. It has a whole different iconography in the States, people respect it. On a personal note, I loved seeing it on every corner – it reminded me where I was and how far away from home.
I’ve got to be honest, driving out of the car rental company with the roof down, at sunset, on the wrong side of the road, was surreal. As we pulled up to the first set of traffic lights with downtown Los Angeles in our sights we both burst out into a fit of laughter at the absurdity of the situation.LA is a great place to begin your journey, throw yourself in at the deep end. LA is America, it’s massive, it’s over the top, it’s complicated.
You need to try to plan your days quite well otherwise you can easily find yourselves aimlessly wandering around Koreatown without a clue where to go. Also, you need to drive everywhere. Pick your neighbourhood, park up, explore, move on.
After a couple of nights in LA we packed up our stuff, bid farewell to Hollywood and set off on the open road. In reality, this was the beginning for us. Wandering around Los Angeles felt like any other holiday, seeing the sights and hitting the bars. The route to our second destination, the iconic and somewhat bizarre Palm Springs, signified the first real stint of driving across America, the introduction to our road trip.
It will take just under two hours to make it to Palm Springs, the desert resort city in Riverside County and a fair chunk of that is spent getting out of LA. The drive is spectacular and the sudden realisation that you’re driving into the desert is one that will stay with you. The switch in temperature, landscape and environment is dramatic. Famed for its reference point as a former hangout for Hollywood stars, Palm Springs has taken on a somewhat sad and surreal resort-like vibe these days.
Don’t get me wrong, the place is amazing. The mid-century modern architecture on display is daring and striking, but the feeling of living in the past is somewhat overwhelming. Locals still revel in old tales of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Elvis. The truth is that the increasing numbers of retirees moving to the Coachella Valley has significantly altered the glitz and glamour of the place.
We stayed for two nights and it was probably one too many. The Palm Springs Art Gallery is a must, as is the local karaoke bars. It just so happened that we arrived during the annual ‘White Party’ so the bars were a lot of fun.
During our stay at Palm Springs we ventured out to Salvation Mountain, Slab City and Salton Sea. It takes about 90 minutes to drive there and don’t forget your passport. You’ll be heading in close distance of the Mexican border and will be asked to prove identification. If you have two days planned at Palm Springs, you’re better off spending one night at Salton Sea, the place is incredible.
Joshua Tree is only about 50 miles down the road from Palm Springs so it will take around an hour to get there. If you take Route 62 you’ll drive through Yucca Valley which is a real nice place with plenty of thrift shops. It’s probably one of the most enjoyable drives on the journey as you dip through Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, it’s good to stop off at little towns and shops to talk to the locals. People are super friendly and you don’t want to drive with urgency, desperate to reach your destination – it’s easy to fall into this trap!
We rented a shack in the desert, isolated from the main Joshua Tree town and down a dirt road. I got my cowboy hat, I got my desert shack:
I know, right?
You are, of course, only here for the Joshua Tree National Park. Make sure you buy a ‘Single Vehicle Entrance Fee’ which will cost between $15-$25 and will be the best money you’ll spend. The pass lasts for seven days and you’ll get to see an amazing collection of natural phenomenon.
Be sure to head down to the Joshua Tree Saloon on an evening to make yourself feel like you’ve walked straight into a John Wayne movie. They also put on some pretty decent knee-slappin’ music and serve nice grub.
Yeah, also make sure you get chance to drive off to Pioneertown as well. It’s a crazy old working set from the western movies, there are loads of pictures in the below link. While you’re that way on, there’s a great opportunity to see ‘Giant Rock’ – it is a massive freestanding boulder which has become the source of a million different conspiracy theories. Again, we chucked all those pics in the below link to break this up a bit:
As explained earlier, the aim of this trip was to see as much of California as possible. The differing landscapes, temperature and general method of living. After nailing some of the desert, we dusted down our sandy boots and headed off for the coast.
Got to be frank, it was a somewhat gruelling five-and-a-half hour drive from east to west, but it was worth it when we got there. We took Route 101 and stopped off in some really great little surf towns like Ventura and Santa Barbara.
After some pretty wild nights in LA, Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, we identified the coast as our moment to have a bit of downtime. We’re stateside for quite a while and allowed ourselves a couple of nights to splurge, relax and take a load of… enter, Cliffs Resort Hotel:Feels like at this moment we should have Snoop Dogg playing in this article as you imagine us strolling into this super nice hotel. To scrap that image, we went in the opposite direction and had dinner before seizing the opportunity to head into town to visit ‘Tastes Of The Valleys’ wine cafe to sample some local grapes.
From chugging down beer in a Joshua Tree saloon bar to sipping on fine wine in on the coast in a matter of hours – just shows how bizarre but brilliantly diverse California is.
San Luis Obispo, Cayucos & Santa Cruz
The next few stops on the coast is Far Out trying out some alternative options to visit on the coast. California had endured a pretty bad storm over winter which destroyed a main bridge linking Route 1 to Big Sur which was really disappointing. That said, we managed to find some hidden gems along the way.
San Luis Obispo is a bit of a college town so you’ll have the opportunity to actually find out what those fraternity guys are really like… turns out, pretty bloody friendly. Being Far Out, we opted to stay at the SLO Brew Lofts – quite literally a brewery with new rooms that recently opened. The beers are cracking as well, seriously. This was meant to be ‘downtime’… but it wasn’t.
This quaint little seaside town is only 20 minutes down the road but has an incredibly different atmosphere. It’s the first time since we arrived in California that we felt true community spirit of a place. We wanted some beach side action so booked a room at the Shoreline Inn which suited us nicely. Get yourself across to the Old Cayucos Saloon and cardroom, prop up the bar and shoot some pool.
As lovely as the coast had been (and it was enjoyable), we were ready for a bit more excitement. Due to the bridge collapse we decided to have a little stop off at Santa Cruz on the way, striding down the boardwalk and desperately trying (and failing) to win a stuffed toy in the arcades.
Next stop… the city by the bay.
Here we go then, with an introduction from a track taken from our actual road trip playlist, we arrive in San Francisco:
We have two major cities scheduled in, this was the second. The one thing you’ll notice about California is just how different things can change in a short space of time. It’s a five-hour drive from LA to San Francisco but the two cities couldn’t be more different.
Spending five nights in San Francisco, we visited countless bars, restaurants, cafes and even managed to catch Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore playing at iconic music venue The Chapel.
Seriously, San Francisco was so great we’ve been forced to create a whole new guide. Yep, another link away with bloody great pictures.
We go again, with another introduction from our road trip playlist…
Three-and-a-half hours up the road and we have Tahoe… a ski resort! We started this in LA, we went to the desert, then the beach and now we’ve somehow ended up at a ski resort rife with bears.
We got ourselves a spot at Cedar Glen Lodge in North Tahoe and were quite swiftly told not to leave food in the car and to be on bear watch; terrifying and thrilling in equal measure. Tahoe, as a place, is ridiculous.
The state of California, with absolute credit to them, have struck up a great working relationship with Nevada in order to keep the lake in perfect condition – piling mountains of cash into its preservation. The water, beaches and forests are immaculate. At a time when the President of the country has shown absolute disregard for the environment, it’s a genuine thrill to see a state still dedicated to preservation.
It was at this point we discovered some pretty devastating news. Our plan has taken us to drive down Route 395 to Death Valley and we’d factored in a little bit of time to stop off and see the great Yosemite National Park. We know you need a whole bunch of time to see Yosemite, we just didn’t have it. However, it would turn out we had zero time to see Yosemite.
The heavy winter had meant that our access to the park, down Route 120, was closed. If we wanted to see Yosemite we’d need to drive seven hours back around. Gutted. Let this be a lesson, shit happens on road trips that are out of your control… you need to get back in the saddle.
Peak. We’ve absolutely peaked.
I did mention earlier that we’ve forced ourselves into a plan and that we’re horny for the desert. The last leg saw us head back down into the baron heat for some Death Valley action… but not without a special treat on the way.
We’ll break this desert programme with a short mention from…The Travertine Hot Springs.
Right, it’s a six-hour drive from Tahoe to Death Valley but we’ve got your back with arguably the best tip you’ll find in this here travel piece. After two hours of the journey, still a bit disappointed by the Yosemite news, we checked ourselves into a cheap motel in Lee Vining and dug out our swimming gear – we soon found out that you don’t actually need them, a lot of people go nude.
You’re in the middle of nowhere, you’re alone down a dirt road… then, all of a sudden…this:
Moving on, we’re heading to Death Valley. Get yourself on Route 395 forget that the freeway ever existed and enjoy a nonchalant four-hour drive back into the desert. From the snow peaks of Tahoe to the desert of Death Valley in the matter of hours.
From Route 395, join Route 192 whichallows you to see a lot of the standout attractions as you drive through the national park. Motels, hotels and Airbnb’s are super expensive here. That said, we’re here to bloody help you out with another cheeky tip – Longstreet Hotel, Casino, and RV Resort is a very, very surreal and strange place. It sits on the border of Nevada and California and is just minutes from Death Valley junction. It’s cheap and incredible.
After three weeks of driving, eating, drinking and sweating, we end up back where it all began – Los Angeles.
It’s been one hell of a ride and, to end it all, we’re spending the last of our dollars on a nice couple of nights in Pasadena. Soak up the last rays of sunshine, visit the last touristic spots like the Griffith Observatory and let the dread of flying back home takeover. We did 2655.8 miles together and it was fantastic.
To finish up we enjoyed Hotel Constance and sampled some local nightlife, once again have a read of our guide to LA for the best spots we found.
California, you’re Far Out – thanks for having us.