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Last year, my family left the continent for a vacation in the Scottish Highlands, so this year I wanted to do something that was simple, less expensive, and stateside.

We decided on a two-week trek through California. 

Pretty much the whole state. 

Turns out it’s a really big state.

While our two-week California journey was not cheap nor easy, it was epic. Where else can you see every geological feature in one location — desert, farmland, mountains, rivers, lakes, plains, and beaches — and experience so much cultural diversity? We passed through rural agricultural and mining towns, gave away our camping gear to the homeless in Los Angeles, visited the posh coastal communities along the Pacific Coast Highway, and tasted the culinary treasures in the iconic cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.    

First Stop: San Francisco

Our journey started in San Francisco in mid-June. We have relatives there, so we were able to crash in their basement and live like locals for a couple of days. My teen (Will, 15) and tween (Nadine, 12) learned from their cousins how to take public transportation and buy fresh fruit from a Chinese market. They shopped at Amoeba Records and the hippie-fied boutiques in the Haight (where I’m sure they experienced their first — at least I’m hoping it was their first — contact-high on the street), ate giant burritos in the Mission District while checking out the best alleyway graffiti art I’ve ever seen, and savored delicate falafel in the Sunset District. As a family, we toured Muir Woods (make reservations and set aside two-three hours for the hike) and Golden Gate Park, saw (and smelled) the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf, and dipped our toes in the ice-cold Pacific. All in all, it was a great two days of fog-filled fun in The City. 

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Second Stop: Lake Tahoe

On the third day, we packed up the car, shed our sweatshirts, and headed to Lake Tahoe, a three-hour, drop-dead gorgeous drive through the Sierras from San Francisco. My husband’s giant family of seven siblings decided on South Tahoe for this year’s family reunion and rented a 20-person home (Vrbo:Vacation Rental By Owner — approximately $200/night per family). Lake Tahoe covers the market on summertime vacation needs. You can lounge on the sunny beaches along the lake (I highly recommend Nevada Beach where the locals hangout), take a remote hike to smaller, less-populated lakes and beaches (try Angora Lake Trail), golf, gamble across the border in Nevada, or walk the kitschy boardwalk. North Tahoe offers more pristine views and fewer tourist attractions—better for a quiet retreat, I hear.  

Although South Tahoe sometimes feels a bit like the touristy mountain town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, nothing beats basking in the California sun, spread out on a vast beach that overlooks snow-capped mountains. In late June — snow. On a couple hikes through the Sierras, we stumbled upon giant Sequoia pine cones as long as your forearm, and patches of unmelted snow left over from Tahoe’s winter wonderland. You are shockingly reminded that this lush, green paradise was recently covered in snow when you attempt to cool off in the lake. It stays a mere 52 degrees in June! But the clean, crisp air and blue sunny skies are perfectly conducive for stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking around the lake.       

Third Stop: Yosemite and Big Sur

After the resort-esque respite of Lake Tahoe, we embarked on the more challenging stint of our trip. From Tahoe, we headed southwest to Yosemite (a four-hour drive) where we hoped to snag a camping spot for the night, followed by Big Sur the next night. Because I’m cheap and a nature lover, I was all about camping a portion of our trip. My son has probably outgrown family camping, and I also underestimated my survival skills. I’m more of a ‘glamper’ by nature: air mattress, gourmet campfire food, etc. In addition, we had the tiny problem of obtaining camping gear. I refused to pay another luggage fee to haul our gear to California (plus, we didn’t want to shlep the gear throughout SF and LA), so I shipped some cheap Amazon sleeping bags to my in-laws in SF and borrowed their tent (to be shipped back to SF from LA). I’m not sure if camping actually saved us money; the sites were $50 a piece, the sleeping bags $100, and the postal fee was around $50. However, when I inquired about the cost of renting a yurt at our campground in Yosemite, the manager told me they rent for $200-$500/night! Ouch. Maybe it was worth it.

In Yosemite, we found a family-friendly campground along a river not far from the National Park entrance (all sites were booked when I attempted to schedule six months prior). While the site was perfect, sleeping on the dry, packed earth without an air mattress was a challenge. My son aborted mission in the middle of the night and slept in the car; the rest of us had to flip over every 30 minutes and still ended up with bruised hips.

As for the park (a $35 fee good for a week’s entry), Yosemite is known for its giant sequoias and the breathtaking mountain faces of Half Dome and El Capitan. This is the site where John Muir convinced Theodore Roosevelt to protect The United State’s lands and begin the National Park Service. A lot has changed since Roosevelt’s wilderness mission, though. The eco-tourism trade is thick in Yosemite, so be prepared for traffic and crowds — busses full of international tourists. We hiked a lesser-known trail in order to avoid the crowds, but if I had the whole trip to do over, I would have skipped Yosemite and headed straight to Big Sur. Yosemite was too much to see in a day trip and was too crowded to find my forest zen.

 In Big Sur my husband, Billy, was able to snag a riverside campsite in the beautiful Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground. This campground was stunning, but our six-hour road trip got us there too late to fully appreciate it (more of that later). On the drive from Yosemite, you pass through mining towns, and seemingly endless golden plains (where you don’t see another human for 50 miles at time). Deer are rampant, and the center of the state is interesting as well, but once you make it into Monterey, you wish you would have spent less time driving and more time gazing, mouth wide open at the gorgeous coastal vistas. 

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Fourth Stop: Monterey

Monterey is home to top-notch dining and a world-class aquarium (and the setting of Big Little Lies, which I started watching on the flight over). We stopped for a quick fresh-catch fish taco and beer once we hit Monterey, but had to keep moving. The sun was about to set, and we wanted to make sure we saw the coastal drive from Monterey to Carmel. The Pacific Coast Highway is mesmerizing with its iconic views of the crashing sea below. Don’t expect to drive over 25 miles per hour on this cliff-side road, though; the zig-zagging, narrow highway demands your undivided attention (kinda difficult when just over the cliff is one of the most breathtaking landscapes you’ve ever seen). 

Carmel by the Sea is a posh seaside town known for its fairytale houses, boutiques, art galleries, museums, and restaurants. Our motley crew, road weary and dirty from the previous night’s campground, hid our black feet under the cast iron table of Treehouse Cafe restaurant where we ate a fabulous meal al fresco and sipped some California Chardonnay. After dinner, we reluctantly headed south to Big Sur where we set up camp for the night.

Fifth Stop: Los Angeles

The next morning, we leisurely broke down camp, meditated along the river, just a stone’s throw from our tent, and headed from Big Sur down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles. The views were incredible. In hindsight, we should have camped two nights in Big Sur and spent more time in Monterey and Carmel. However, we were still able to witness the pristine coastline, kept impeccable and undisturbed by the state of California. You can see the natural mating grounds of elephant seals and might even witness a whale break the surface of the churning sea below. The beaches are mostly private or preserved along the coast, but you are able to witness the beauty from above — the way nature intended it to be. I kept wondering what the coastline of Florida would look like without resorts and high-rise hotels. This drive was the highlight of the trip for me (that and hiking through the Sierras in Tahoe).

We arrived that evening in Los Angeles with its sprawl and congestion — a shock from the slow meandering of the day’s road trip. I had reserved an Airbnb ($120/night) in the Glassell neighborhood (a quiet, primarily Latino, residential neighborhood) to avoid the chaos of downtown LA. The house became an oasis from the traffic. If you’ve never driven in LA, be prepared for an hour-plus drive anywhere you go. Twenty miles equals an hour drive; five miles, for some reason, does too. As a family, we checked out the tourist trap of the Sunset Strip and Hollywood. The Walk of Fame with its iconic stars is not what you see in the movies — it smells of urine and is peppered with hustlers hawking “Hollywood Tours,” street performers, and many drug-addicted youth. My son, who would like to have his name on a billboard, got a quick dose of Hollywood reality. In sharp contrast, the Hollywood Hills and neighboring Silverlake neighborhoods offer beautiful homes and hipster galleries, respectively. The dichotomy of extreme wealth and poverty is evident throughout the city.

After attempting to make it to the Griffith Observatory three times and failing hard due to traffic, a concert, and terrible GPS directions, we resigned, on day two, to having a beach day instead. After the previous day’s experience on the Walk of Fame, we wanted to avoid the other tourist trap, Venice Beach, at all costs. Our Airbnb host, Mika, suggested Manhattan Beach, a lovely southern California-style beach town where, she said, the locals hang out. The sand and waves were beautiful and the boardwalk offered all your sweet and savory needs. Parking, shockingly, was ample and affordable — not the norm in LA.

Next Stop: Home

On the third day in LA and our last day in California, I came to the realization that I loved Louisville and was ready to return — what I find to be the perfect end to an epic vacation. Travel can be the perfect reset to the monotony of life. Beyond broadening one’s world view, interesting travel helps create perspective, empathy, and gratitude for the things we never noticed we had. Since our return, I’ve cooked every meal at home and am actually content with the size of my house. Houses, for the most part are a lot smaller and a lot more expensive in California, and everyone seems to do just fine. 

Sometimes fun is hard. This trip was the opposite of relaxing and ended up costing more than 10 days in Scotland after a car rental, camping, eating out, and accommodations for seven of the nights (in Tahoe and Los Angeles). Nonetheless, fun was had in copious quantities in the giant, sunny state of California. If you are looking for an epic road trip your family will be talking about for years (especially if they are teenagers), I think California is where it’s at.

P.S. How to travel internationally – and solo. 

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