As the calendar flips into July the days get longer (and hotter), the subtle scent of barbecue and fireworks fills the air, and I can’t help but to be reminded of so many quintessentially American Summer traditions. Ask anyone that grew up in the states and they’re sure to have their own favorites; baseball in the afternoon, opening up the fire hydrant on a city street, or chasing the ice cream truck through the neighborhood. If you ask me though, the undisputed king of these summer traditions is the great American road trip.
Maybe it’s the freedom of it, the allure of barreling down an open highway on your own terms – taking as many (or as few) pit-stops as you please along the way. Maybe it’s the sense of wonder and how massive the country seems when you drive through it instead of flying over it. Maybe it’s just the fact that my parents refused to fly us anywhere growing up (seriously, I’m not ruling out Stockholm syndrome from 13-hour driving days in the back of a minivan). Whatever it is, for me there’s nothing like planning the route, packing up the car, and hitting the road to see America up close.
This past month, my wife Nicole and I needed to get from Omaha, Nebraska to Santa Barbara, CA for a wedding. Naturally, we decided to make a road trip out of it. In planning our route, we knew we wanted to check off a few California bucket list items including hiking Yosemite National Park and driving Highway 1 through Big Sur. We also had some friends (and a very cute goddaughter) to visit in and San Francisco and wanted to check out Santa Cruz as a possible place to post up when we get back from traveling. So, we hopped on Google Maps and planned out a route with stops in Boulder, CO, Park City, UT and an all-star California lineup of Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Santa Barbara, and then back to our current home base in Venice Beach.
(The Route - An epic drive through some of the best landscapes the US has to offer)
All-in-all, the trip spanned 13 days, 6 states, and close to 2400 miles on the road! We saw some of the most incredible landscapes in the country (and the world, if you ask me), ate delicious food (and some not-so delicious food), caught up with friends and family, and made some lifetime memories. Since I could spend days talking about every stop on this trip, I figured it would be best to give you the highlights from my 3 favorite stops in California along with my best recommendations in each place for food, activities, and lodging (depending on your budget). Be sure to read to the end for a special summer discount to help you get geared up BANDITS style!
(Checking out Half Dome peak and rocking "Earth Chase" by Pedro Oyarbide)
Favorite Stops and Recommendations:
*Please note I have not been offered compensation of any kind for any of these recommendations, it’s just a bunch of stuff I like.
Mammoth Lakes + Yosemite National Park (California)
Before venturing into Yosemite, we spent the night in the ski-town of Mammoth Lakes on the eastern side of the park. In the morning, we made the roughly 30-minute drive to the park’s eastern entrance. Once inside, we slowed WAY down to gape at pristine mountain lakes, waterfalls, and meadows on our way to the Yosemite Valley on the western side of the park (where most of the action is). It is truly a sight to behold as every corner along the main park road reveals vistas more stunning than the next. My only regret is not spending a whole week there.
(Nicole taking in sunrise at Tenaya Lake in her "Got Snaked" bandana)
- The “Four Mile” Hike in Yosemite - stunning views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome
- Catching sunrise at Tenaya Lake
- Ribs and Beer post-hike at Priest Station Cafe
- On the Cheap – The Glacier Point Lodge (Glacier Point, YNP)
- At the halfway point of our hike, we reached Glacier Point. Maybe we were just starving but I thought the little lodge/café had a surprisingly good selection (with Vegan options!) of pre-prepared choices along with typical order-at-the counter burgers, pizza, etc.
- A Bit of a Splurge – Priest Station Café (Big Oak Flat, Western Side of YNP)
- We stumbled upon this non-nonsense café on our way West out the park. After a long day of hiking, an extra cold draught beer, a plate of ribs w/ mashed potatoes (on special!), and a lovely sunset view from the outdoor patio were just what the doctor ordered.
- Going BIG - Skadi (Mammoth)
- Though we were on a bit of budget this trip, I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews for this modern, upscale interpretation of ski lodge dining. Plus, great mountain views!
(Yosemite Falls as seen from the "Four Mile" hike, which was more like fourteen)
- On the Cheap – The “Four Mile” Hike (Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point, YNP)
- Since we only had one day in the park (and since we were woefully late in signing up for a pass to hike Half Dome) we opted for this rigorous hike with million dollar views of Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, and Half Dome. Don’t let the name fool you by the way – it was a very strenuous 14-mile up-and-down round trip with about 3,500 feet of elevation gain from the valley to the point.
- Splurge/Going BIG –
- Other than the park entry fee ($35 for a 7-day pass) there’s not much within Yosemite that constitutes “luxury.” However, to hike to the top of famous Half Dome, it’ll cost you an extra $20 – if you’re lucky enough to get one of just 300 coveted daily permits. Permits are given out via a lottery system with enrollment open March 1-31. An additional 50 permits are made available via lottery 2 days ahead of any given date – needless to say, it’s a tough ticket to get. More info here.
(The majestic Half Dome peak in Yosemite National Park)
Big Sur + Highway 1
I’m not sure how I lived in California for nearly 10 years and never drove through this magical place. The dramatic, pine-covered cliffs pitching straight into the sea. The morning fog eerily creeping in and out of the coastal coves. Its ALL as good as advertised and then-some. As corny as it may seem, if you have the chance to make this drive in a convertible – take it!
- Eating a home-cooked meal on our riverside deck at the idyllic Ripplewood Resort
- Admiring the sunrise views over McWay Cove (and wondering how this can be a real place)
- Listening to the theme song from “Big Little Lies” while cruising 17-mile drive on an appropriately spooky fog-filled day
- On the Cheap – Ripplewood Cafe
- Classic diner with tasty (and huge) breakfast burritos. Bonus – one of the few spots along this stretch with decent wifi.
- A Bit of a Splurge – Nepenthe
- The food can be pricey (and a bit hit or miss) here, but the location alone makes it 100% worth it. We grabbed a cocktail and an appetizer here just to soak in the incredible views.
- Going BIG – Deetjens Big Sur Inn
- This cozy, low-ceilinged log cabin is the way to go if you value tasty food over tantalizing vistas. Pro tip: Grab a drink at Ventana or Nepenthe at sunset to enjoy the views, then come to Deetjen’s for the best eats in Big Sur.
(The almost-too-beautiful-to-believe McWay Falls and McWay Cove in Big Sur, CA)
- On the Cheap – McWay Cove / McWay Falls
- A short, easy hike leads down from Highway 1 to offer the perfect view of this breathtaking place. A waterfall empties out onto white sand as crashing ocean waves give way to tranquil turquoise waters in the almost surreal cove. It has to be seen to be believed.
- A Bit of a Splurge – 17 Mile Drive (Carmel-by-the-Sea to Monterrey)
- At $10.25 per vehicle this could probably be in the cheap category, but before actually taking the drive it seemed a bit steep. In retrospect, this was another cost that was 100% worth it. This famous stretch of road winds you along the craggy coastline from Lover’s Point Park in Monterrey to iconic Pebble Beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea. On the drive, you’ll weave through moody, old-money mansions, eerie, windswept dunes covered in a perpetual layer of fog, and of course gorgeous golf courses.
- Going BIG –Hot Springs at Esalen
- These hot springs are open to the public only by reservation ($35/person) for night bathing from 1am – 3am. You can make reservations for up to 30 people here. Clothing optional.
(The view from our cabin's back patio at the Ripplewood Resort in Big Sur)
- On the Cheap – Camping
- There aren’t THAT many lodging options in Big Sur and a lot of demand (especially in summer months). What that means is that even basic lodging starts around $150+ a night in high season. If you’re looking to keep it frugal in Big Sur there are plenty of great camping (and car camping spots) – just make sure to book way in advance! Learn more here.
- A Bit of a Splurge – Ripplewood Resort
- Though not cheap by any means, this Big Sur mainstay is one of the more reasonably priced lodging options in the area. The best way to go is in one of their rustic cabins nestled next to the babbling Big Sur River. Each cabin has a full kitchen and a small patio to enjoy the tranquil riverside setting. This is where Nicole and I stayed on our trip and absolutely loved it! Tip – you won’t get wifi or phone service in the cabins (which is actually really nice), but you can get on wifi at the Ripplewood Café next to the hotel office.
- Going BIG – Glamping at Ventana Big Sur
- As their website says, “The pleasures of outdoor living, with world-class amenities.” Heated blankets, housekeeping, and curated picnic baskets make this the perfect place for the camper who wants to experience the great outdoors without all that pesky “roughing it.”
The so-called “American Riviera” will always hold a special place in both my wife’s and my heart. SB was my first California landing spot after college, and the place that made me realize I would, from then on, always think of the Golden State as home. She grew up here, with an inconceivably fun-loving, kind-hearted, and welcoming group of friends that has taken me in as one of their own over the years. It has been either the beginning or the ending point to so many journeys in both of our lives, and this one was no different.
(Santa Barbara from above as shot by our friend and SB Local - Blake Bronstad)
We capped off our road trip in true SB style, celebrating the beautiful union of two of our best friends at Casa de la Guerra – an historic adobe-style residence in downtown Santa Barbara constructed in 1828! We ate tacos, drank craft beer, danced all night, and took way too many shots of tequila.
All this is to say – you can trust that the recommendations below have been vetted by true locals.
- On the Cheap – Santa Barbara Public Market (Downtown)
- Santa Barbara’s take on the food hall has something for everyone – Corazon Cucina for fresh Mexican cuisine, Empty Bowl for Thai style noodles, and Big Eye Raw Bar for poke bowls and oysters. Plus, all the wine and craft beer options you could want!
- A Bit of a Splurge – Los Arroyos (Montecito)
- There’s plenty of delicious Mexican food in Santa Barbara, but this Montecito staple is by far my favorite. A warm evening on the patio enjoying their incredibly fresh burritos, salads, and made-to-order guacamole (not to mention the best margaritas in town) is a Montecito memory not to miss. Note - Visit the Montecito location for the full experience!
- Going BIG – Arigato Sushi (Downtown)
- This long-time local favorite might just be my favorite sushi spot in all of California. Get there early for first-come first-serve seating and enjoy inventive rolls, fresh in-season specials, and a long list of special sashimi. Insider tip – try the “Spicy Thruster” hand roll and the “Locals Only” Special (hint: it shows up to the table on fire).
- BONUS: If you’ve got room for dessert, go visit our friends at McConnell’s Scoop Shop on State Street downtown. You can’t go wrong with an ice cream sandwich (with cookies made in-house) or one of their seasonal shakes. The lines can get long but trust me it’s worth the wait!
(Elegant, simple, delicious - an ice cream sammie at McConnell's Scoop Shop)
- On the Cheap – Beach Walk on Butterfly Beach (Montecito)
- One of the best (and most popular) beaches in Santa Barbara is also its most picturesque. It's one of only a few west-facing beaches in the area, meaning that you'll get stunning sunset views over the water.
- A Bit of a Splurge – The Santa Barbara Wine Trail (Funk Zone / Downtown)
- Don’t want to take the 2-hour drive to vineyards to the North? Then try this tasting tour of central coast wineries that have production facilities in the city. You’ll still get some of the best wines the area has to offer and you’ll finish your tour in the area known as the “Funk Zone” – steps away from great restaurants and nightlife.
- Going BIG – Paragliding (Hendry’s Beach)
- If you’re the adventurous type (and what BANDITS fan isn’t?) then check out Eagle Paragliding for bird’s eye views of the beautiful central coast and a rush you won’t forget. They offer solo and tandem glide options, training courses, and packages for all levels.
(A balanced breakfast at The Inn on Summer Hill in Summerland, CA)
- On the Cheap – Cheshire Cat Bed & Breakfast (Downtown)
- Unfortunately, there aren’t many “cheap” options in Santa Barbara outside of Airbnb, but this quirky little bed and breakfast downtown offers a great value for your dollar. It’s conveniently located, has large well-appointed rooms, and is run by some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
- A Bit of a Splurge – The Inn on Summer Hill (Summerland)
- Just south of Santa Barbara in the laid-back beach town of Summerland, this family-owned inn has stylish rooms, sea breezes, and fresh breakfast included in your stay. Also, each room has its own fireplace to keep you cozy when the ocean air turns cold.
- Going BIG – Belmond El Encanto (Riviera)
- Santa Barbara does not lack for top-tier hotels, but this recently renovated gem is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. Set in the hillside Riviera neighborhood above the Santa Barbara Mission, the hotel offers a secluded setting amongst lush gardens and some of the best views in the city. It’s dripping in old-school, understated elegance and is quintessentially Santa Barbara.
Now you’re ready to road trip California like a pro! Whether you’re starting out in SoCal or driving down from the North, these tips should keep you busy at some of the best stops along the way. Now that you know where to go, you’ll need just one more thing to make your California cruise complete – a BANDITS bandana!
It just so happens that our featured design of the month comes from none other than Santa Barbara based design duo Alex & Zack Suhadolnik – check out their “Got Snaked” bandana here and get 20% OFF all July long using code JULYFEATURE at checkout. As an added bonus to all you dedicated road warriors (and anyone that may have already used the signup discount), you can get 10% OFF of any of our other designs during July when you use code ROADTRIP10 at checkout.
Use those discounts, grab your favorite BANDITS bandanas, and set out for an adventure on the open road!