Northern and Central California

A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures

by and - last updated on 7/2/2024

Due to COVID we planned to stick to traveling in the United States in 2021. Northern and central California has been on our list for a while...the lure of San Francisco, the hills, the seafood, giant redwood trees, wine country, Yosemite and Pacific Coast Highway are irresistible when you start thinking about it...

California has the most diverse terrain in the United States. From the Mexican border to Oregon, it stretches for over 1,040 miles and includes jagged coastline, the Sierra Nevada mountains, central valley farmland, dry deserts and an ideal climate for growing wine. California has nine national parks and 280 state parks - which is more than any other state. For those that love the outdoors, scenic cities, beautiful mountains, rolling hills and coastline and like to sample food and sip wine along the way - California is the place to see.

We are sharing with you our two week itinerary which is a large loop, starting and ending in San Francisco. We had both been to San Francisco before but never together and it was convenient to fly directly to San Francisco from Tampa... plus there is so much to see there we thought it was the ideal starting point with temperate weather, beautiful vistas and great food. We were excited to get away from the hot and humid Florida summer.

Interesting Facts about California
  • California's size is 163,696 square miles (101,676,000 acres). 49,294,000 acres of California are part of either a National or a State Park. That represents 47.05% of the entire area of the State.
  • California has 280 State Parks, which is one of the largest State Park Systems in the world. Those State Parks receive over 68 million visitors every year.
  • California's overall size is 163,696 square miles, of which 155,959 square miles of are land and 7,737 square miles are covered by water. This makes California the third largest State ranked by area size; Alaska is #1 and Texas is #2.
  • California is the most populous state in the United States, with over 39 million residents as of 2021.
  • California has the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States.
  • Death Valley is the hottest, driest AND lowest National Park in the country! Despite its morbid name, due to these extremes, a great diversity of life lives within this park.
  • California is the birthplace of the internet. In 1969, the first ARPANET message was sent from a UCLA site.
  • In 1850, California became the 31st state. Prior to its statehood, the state was an independent country for one month in 1846.
  • On average, California experiences over 100,000 earthquakes a year.


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A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
 
Trip Itinerary & Overview Map

As you can see in this static map, we had a number of destinations (as well as a number of side trips) that would require a considerable amount of driving. Each of the itinerary stops is linked to our content (or page) to allow you to view our content.

Locations / Start & End points are both San Francisco International Airport
  1. San Francisco Hilton Financial District.
  2. Bonita Point Lighthouse and Fort Baker area.
  3. Sausalito, CA.
  4. Santa Rosa, CA in the heart of the Sonoma County Wine District.
  5. Salida, CA - overnight rest stop along the way to Yosemite.
  6. Yosemite National Park, CA where we stayed at the Rush Creek Lodge.
  7. Frontieres Underground Garden Fresno, CA - this was an entertainment side stop, as we had read about this place and also wanted to get lunch.
  8. Santa Monica, CA
  9. Santa Barbara, CA
  10. Morro Bay, CA.
  11. Monterey Bay, CA to explore the Monterey Bay and Carmel by the Sea areas.
San Francisco       Map
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We flew into San Francisco and our plan was to spend several days here and explore some of the sites we had not previously visited, as well as to visit an old friend of ours - and - have some good seafood. This is a photogenic city and it is easy to move about - take your pick of transportation; walking, cable cars, buses, etc.

Bonita Point & Sausalito       Map
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We visited this area on the day we departed San Francisco, and since we started the drive north to Santa Rosa early in the day, we decided to visit an area on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge that is not widely known. The Bonita Point area has previously been an Army Coastal Defense Artillery station and later was a missile base (and is now just an old Light House). The north side of the Golden Gate Bridge is adjacent to the Fort Baker area, and the route into Sausalito is just beyond.

We completed this phase of the trip with lunch in Sausalito, in a deli that serves excellent food (the "Venice Gourmet Delicatessen"). They provide sidewalk seating and a beautiful view of the Sausalito Bay.

Santa Rosa / Sonoma County       Map
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One of the reasons we visited Santa Rosa was because of it's location in Sonoma County, with a number of vineyards (450+) scattered around the county. Our first stop was at DeLoach Vineyards. They are located at 1791 Olivet Road northwest of Santa Rosa.

The wine tastings were comprised of their Russian River Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and several different Pinot Noirs. We enjoyed the Chardonnay quite a bit, and obtained a bottle as we were departing.

Muir Woods National Monument       Map
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We had intentionally bypassed Muir Woods on the way up to Santa Rosa because our National Monument reservations were not valid until the next day. Yes, you have to have a reservation from the Park Website as they only allow a certain number of cars to enter each day.

If you were to be in this area and you had a desire to see Muir Woods, there are tour bus services that will collect you from various locations and take you to the Park. Note that the parking restrictions do not apply to tour buses, because they drive in and drop you off and pick you up later. There is a park entrance fee of $15 per adult.

Rush Creek Lodge & Spa, CA   3D Map

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Rush Creek Lodge is not quite "inside" Yosemite National Park, it is located approximately 1.5 miles outside the Park on route 120. We wanted to have a place where we could relax after a day of hiking or site-seeing, a place where we could have an adult beverage and a comfortable bed - and this place met all of our expectations!

This is the newest Lodge in or near Yosemite National Park, and it is really very comfortable; lots of parking, nice sized pool, super sized hot tub, dining room, and a nice bar. When you step inside the lodge and discover a warm and inviting ambiance; The lobby features a towering stone fireplace, natural wood accents, and an expansive deck overlooking the picturesque landscape. The guest rooms, ranging from cozy cabins to spacious suites, offer modern comforts with a touch of rustic charm, each featuring plush beds, private balconies, and stunning views of the surrounding beauty.

Yosemite National Park, CA       Map
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A Journey Through Nature's Masterpiece: Towering granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, meadows bursting with wildflowers, and ancient sequoia groves – Yosemite National Park is a symphony of natural wonders that leaves visitors breathless. Immerse yourself in the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and discover why it's a must-visit for any nature enthusiast.

This is a stunning park; it is not only geographically diverse, it is a huge park at 1,187 square miles, elevation ranges from 2,127 to 13,114 feet and contains five major vegetation zones. Curry Village is somewhat near the center of Yosemite, and it is 30 miles driving distance from the Rush Creek Lodge. Yosemite is also home to one of the tallest waterfalls in the world.

Forestiere Underground Gardens, Fresno, CA       Map
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We were just north of Fresno on Route 99 and pondering where to stop for lunch. Celeste did some Google research on what there was to do or see in Fresno, and she discovered the Forestiere Underground Garden. After discussing it, Celeste did some further research and we agreed that we would combine a "lunch stop" with a visit to the garden site. We had no idea of what to expect from an "underground garden", but it sounded interesting.

This subterranean wonder, carved by hand over a period of 40 years by Italian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere, is more than just a garden; it's a testament to human ingenuity and a fascinating glimpse into an unconventional life. Forestiere, frustrated by the harsh climate and infertile soil, sought refuge and a means to grow his fruits and vegetables underground. Using nothing but simple tools and his unwavering determination, he carved a network of tunnels, courtyards, and rooms, transforming the barren earth into a thriving oasis.

Santa Monica, CA   3D Map

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Because of the fires burning in & around King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, we had to modify our trip plans because the cabin we had rented (in the Sequoia National Park area) to allow us to visit those two National Parks, was not available due to the evacuation requirements. So we wound up staying an extra day in Yosemite and we added a side trip to allow us to visit Santa Monica. My first ever software industry job had been in Santa Monica, so it was a treat to visit there again after all these years.

The iconic Santa Monica Pier, stretching out into the sea like a welcoming arm, offers amusement park rides, street performers, and breathtaking panoramic views. Sunbathe on the golden sands, ride the waves with a surfboard, or simply stroll along the beach promenade and feel the salty air invigorate your senses.

Santa Barbara, CA       Map
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Santa Barbara was even nicer after a brief side-trip into Santa Monica - a more laid back vibe, beautiful beach and coastline and our stay at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort provided us with an ideal location to explore this pretty city.

Santa Barbara's stunning coastline forms the backdrop for endless possibilities. Relax on the pristine sands of Butterfly Beach, ride the waves at Hendry's Beach, or kayak alongside playful sea lions at Stearns Wharf. As the sun dips below the horizon, stroll along the pier and savor the mesmerizing sunset, painting the sky in fiery hues.

Coast Highway & Big Sur, CA       Map
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A driving route north from Santa Barbara to Monterey Bay can be done several different ways, but if you have never driven the coastal route north, you will have never had the opportunity to see the diversity of California geography. We drove north on US 101 to Morro Bay, where we stopped for a photo opportunity and we then continued north on Route 1.

We had hoped to visit Hearst Castle, but unfortunately the access road to the castle was still being rebuilt after a storm damaged it. The castle complex was built by William Randolph Hearst and was designed by Julia Morgan during the timeframe 1919 through 1947. The Hearst Castle itself was donated to the State of California by the Hearst family, but the 83,000 acre Hearst Ranch that surrounds the Castle still belongs to the Hearst Family.

Monterey Bay, CA       Map
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After the long drive up the Coastal Highway to reach Monterey, we were excited to get out of the car and begin to explore this area. Monterey's previous life as a "Sardine Cannery Town" ended in the early 1950's and they have been evolving into a tourist town ever since.

We had several restaurant "tips" that we wanted to research, the first being near to our hotel the "Monterey Bay Inn". The restaurant "Osteria Al Mare" was primarily an Italian Restaurant, good menu/good food and excellent service staff.

Carmel-by-the-Sea & Point Lobos, CA       Map
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Carmel is immediately south of Monterey and the most scenic way to arrive there is to drive south on the "17 mile loop" and exit once you've seen the Carmel beach area and head into the village section. The houses along the coast are all unique and all very expensive !

Point Lobos is south of Carmel and is a California State Reserve area that provides some hiking and beautiful Pacific Ocean views.

A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Trip Overview
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
San Francisco
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Bonita Point
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Santa Rosa
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Muir Woods
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Rush Creek Lodge
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Yosemite National Park
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Forestiere Gardens
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Santa Monica
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Santa Barbara
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Pacific Coast Highway
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Monterey
A Two Week Driving Itinerary Exploring the Golden State's Diverse Wonders and Hidden Treasures
Carmel-by-the-Sea
 
Trip Itinerary & Overview Map

As you can see in this static map, we had a number of destinations (as well as a number of side trips) that would require a considerable amount of driving. Each of the itinerary stops is linked to our content (or page) to allow you to view our content.

Locations / Start & End points are both San Francisco International Airport
  1. San Francisco Hilton Financial District.
  2. Bonita Point Lighthouse and Fort Baker area.
  3. Sausalito, CA.
  4. Santa Rosa, CA in the heart of the Sonoma County Wine District.
  5. Salida, CA - overnight rest stop along the way to Yosemite.
  6. Yosemite National Park, CA where we stayed at the Rush Creek Lodge.
  7. Frontieres Underground Garden Fresno, CA - this was an entertainment side stop, as we had read about this place and also wanted to get lunch.
  8. Santa Barbara, CA
  9. Morro Bay, CA.
  10. Monterey Bay, CA to explore the Monterey Bay and Carmel by the Sea areas.
 
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