My husband, 11-year-old son and I started our California road trip in San Francisco. With an ambitious itinerary, we headed off from San Francisco International airport in our Dodge Avenger rental car (GPS equipped) to visit friends and see what we could see in 10 days. National Parks, beaches, prehistoric history, small town charm, wildlife, oddities and great food were favorites.
Here are the high points, several unexpected, as we traveled from San Francisco through Monterey, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Joshua Tree, Yosemite and back to San Francisco. These highlights are listed in order.
1. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, San Francisco- After watching the seals at Pier 39 and eating clam chowder out of bread bowls at Boudin, the tourist hotspot for sourdough bread, we stumbled upon the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, two blocks past Fishmerman’s Wharf. The park consists of a fine collection of historic ocean vessels including the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha and the 1890 steam ferryboat Eureka. Visitors can explore each vessel of the park. Also stop in the park’s visitor center across the street from the pier to learn more about San Francisco’s maritime history. We ran out of time before we made it to the museum.
2. Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium, San Francisco– Another unexpected highlight was going to Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium, also near Fisherman’s Wharf. I went to please my son, but discovered LeRoy Ripley, who later changed his first name to Robert, was a genius when it comes to cultural anthropology. Instead of a tourist trap, I found myself engaged by the displays of items that Ripley collected himself or inspired in others. The exhibits evoked images of my own world travels and my interest in other people’s passions. My son was enthralled and now wants to become a modern day Robert Ripley. If you go, and if you’re a member of AAA, ask for a discount.
3. Whale Watching, Monterey – With a plan to drive down Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, we headed from San Francisco to Monterey. I booked our whale watching trip online with Princess Monterey Whale Watching a couple days earlier. The trip was splendid. Along with learning about whales and ocean facts from the narration by the whale expert on board, heading out into Monterey Bay was a treat. We did see two grey whales which did not disappoint. They spouted water and showed us their tails, once in unison. Getting a picture of them was a bit tricky. The sea lions who hang out near the wharf in Monterey were much easier subjects.
4. Old Mission, Santa Barbara – Looking for a place of interest to stop between Monterey and Santa Monica, a search using my cell phone turned up the Old Mission in Santa Barbara. The stop was a terrific way to learn about Spanish and Catholic (Franciscan) influence in California, important details about Chumesh Indian history, and religious art. The biggest surprise was discovering that Juana Maria, the inspiration of Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, is buried here. Because my son read the book in 4th grade, seeing her grave had added significance.
5. Santa Monica Pier and the beach, Santa Monica – Visiting Santa Monica’s iconic pier is a must with every California visit. The last time we were there, our son was 1 1/2 years old and was enamored with a performance artist who blew enormous soap bubbles. At age 11, he was all about riding on the roller coaster. He also roller bladed with a friend of mine while I rode along on a rented bike ($7 per hour). A highlight for our son was swimming in the ocean. Undaunted by the chilly water, he took off his shirt, shoes and socks and headed into the waves.
6. La Brea Tar Pits, Las Angeles- The La Brea Tar Pits fits beautifully into anyone’s hankering to be like Robert Ripley. The park chronicles the Ice Age where mastodons, dire wolfs and saber cats roamed. If you don’t want to pay the admission price for the Page Museum where skeletons of animals excavated from the pits are on display along with excellent explanations, you can still get a feel for the tar pits impact thousands of years ago when they trapped unsuspecting animals in their black stickiness. We went to the museum which is definitely worthwhile, but we were most interested in Pit 91 and Project 23. These excavation sites provide a look-see into the excavation process. Project 23 is a current excavation project where you can watch folks uncover bone treasures.
7. Byblos Cafe, Orange – The city of Orange, not far from Disneyland, has a lovely town center situated around a square complete with a gorgeous tiled fountain and orange trees. The highpoint here was eating at Byblos Cafe, (129 W Chapman Ave.) a Mediteranean restaurant specializing in Greek and Lebanese food that’s worth driving for. The city of Orange is celebrating its 125th year and has the largest historic district in California.
8. Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego- Upon the recommendation of our nephew who just became a Navy Seal and lives in the area, we headed here to wander along the rocks of the tide pools. This is among the most beautiful scenery on earth. Seriously. And, I’ve seen a lot of scenery. A highlight was finding two sea anemones in one of the tide pools. We did have to look and look. If you go, stop in the monument’s visitor center for a well done exhibit on 16th century explorers. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, was the first European explorer to land on the shores of California’s coast.
9. Niederfrank’s, San Diego– First opened in the 1940s , Niederfrank’s (726 A Ave, National City), serves up ice-cream that has been featured on The Today Show and is a menu item in several of southern California’s best restaurants. With any flavor, you can’t go wrong. Tasting to help in decision-making is allowed.
10. Farmers Market, Joshua Tree– On our way to Joshua Tree National Park, we stopped by the Saturday farmers market held in the town of Joshua Tree. Our original intention was to meet up with a friend of my brother’s who lives there. The surprise was discovering a small artsy town we would like to come back to. If you go, the Greek food sold at the farmers market is splendid and perfect for road trip eating.
11. Ranger Talk with Shelton Johnson at Yosemite National Park – I am a huge fan of park ranger talks and the National Park’s Junior Ranger program. I’m never disappointed. At Yosemite, my son and I were enthralled by Shelton Johnson, the ranger who, on that day, conducted the talk and walk about bears. “Come in closer,” is one of Johnson’s methods of pulling participants into audience participation and bear facts that one won’t forget. Johnson is a master storyteller which is one of the reasons why he is featured in Ken Burns’ PBS series on the National Parks and has appeared on Oprah. One day I hope see Johnson’s one man performance as a Buffalo Soldier held at the park in the summer. Oh, yeah, Yosemite in April was perfect. Although all the park was not open, the amount of tourists made visiting park highlights easy. Finding a parking spot was never a problem.
12. Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco – Alcatraz was at the top of our son’s To Do list. We reserved tickets a week in advance for our visit, something I recommend. Our tour was the 3:30 trip, the last one of the day. At first, I was annoyed with myself for not picking an earlier schedule since we missed the ranger talks held earlier in the day, but once I found out we had plenty of time for the tour, my disappointment abated. The lighting was perfect.
Plus, while we were in the dining room, one of the guides announced he could give a tour of the prison’s hospital to 8 people. We scampered over to him lickety split and headed upstairs to see where the famed Bird Man of Alcatraz lived, as well as, learn about the filming of the movie The Rock and how the prison hospital worked.
Post and photos courtesy of Jamie Rhein, member of Midwest Travel Writers Association