Road Trip Recap: 8 Days in Southern California

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Southern California has long been an area of the United States that I’ve wanted to visit. While I spent a quick two days in Joshua Tree last year, I decided that it was time to properly explore the region.

For those of you that are new here, my travel style usually consists of choosing a region of the country and embarking on a small road trip. My plan for Southern California was to begin and end in San Diego, with a trek through the High Desert and a drive down the Pacific Coast.

So here’s my eight-day Southern California road trip recap, with suggestions of what to see, where to stay, and places to eat.

Southern California Road Trip

My Southern California Route

Botanical Building, Balboa Park

Day 1: San Diego

An early morning flight out of Philadelphia had me descending into San Diego around noon, with a good portion of the day left to explore! I headed directly to the famous Balboa Park, where my growling stomach reminded me that I had not eaten much all day. Lunch at The Tea Pavilion left me refreshed and recharged to tour the Botanical Building, the Museum of Photographic Arts, and the outdoor beauty of Balboa Park.

After a quick dinner at In-N-Out Burger (of course!), I made my way downtown to enjoy a Padres game at PETCO Park. I love visiting MLB ballparks when I travel — and this stadium marked my 10th visited. Due to a chilly night and the Padres not being a very good team, I enjoyed having nearly an entire section to myself! A few photos of the stadium & another burger from Hodad’s later, I was left feeling tired and ready to rest up for more exploration the next day.

Total driving time: 30-60 minutes (to and from attractions)
Where to stay: The Best Western Seven Seas was a reasonably priced property located on San Diego’s Hotel Circle. The hotel was perfectly located for every major San Diego attraction.

PETCO Park, San Diego Padres

California T-Shirt

Day 2: San Diego

Cabrillo Tide Pools, San Diego

The morning of my first full day in San Diego was spent at Cabrillo National Monument, located at the tip of Point Loma Peninsula. My main objective was to check out the tide pools, as I was fortunate enough to visit when low tide actually occurred during daytime hours. While I was able to see a few different forms of marine life, the realization set in that I had come a bit unprepared. My #1 recommendation if you decide to visit the Cabrillo Tide Pools? Make sure to bring shoes that you don’t mind getting wet! After exploring the rest of Cabrillo National Monument — including the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, the monument to explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and many hiking trails that give you spectacular views of San Diego Bay and the city — I was off to my next destination.

La Jolla Cove is famous for the many seals and sea lions that sunbathe on two rocky points. As I walked down the pathway that hugged the coastline, I began to hear the loud “barking” of the sea lions and knew I was headed in the right direction. Soon enough, I was standing among the throng of people who were there to see, smell (they stink), and get a selfie with the sea lions. I was a bit surprised at how close you could get to them, but chose to play it safe and give them their privacy. My favorite moment was seeing two “cuddling” sea lions — one wanted to cozy up with his buddy, who was just not having it and kept nudging him off.

San Diego is known for being a city with some of the most sunshine annually. For this reason, I was particularly excited to take in sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Upon arriving, I did not find skies perfect for a gorgeous sunset but instead experienced what the locals call May Gray. Despite the overcast skies, the sun still managed to poke through and provide a pretty magical ending to my day.

Total driving time: 2 hours (to and from all attractions)
Where to stay: I once again stayed at the Best Western Seven Seas.

San Diego, California Attractions

Day 3: San Diego to Borrego Springs

After a chaotic morning that involved swapping out not one but two rental cars (don’t ask), I was off to the desert! My first stop was Julian, a town famous for their apple pies. Locals will argue over three establishments that have the best apple pie in town, so I decided to take it upon myself to determine the true winner. Visits to Apple Alley Bakery, Mom’s Pie House, and Julian Pie Company left me with a sugar rush, full stomach, and a declaration that Apple Alley not only offered the best slice of pie, but the best overall experience as well.

From Julian, my next destination was Borrego Springs. Settled in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs was a welcome sight, as my car’s air conditioning apparently had had enough of the 100° temps as well. After checking-in to Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort, I was off to photograph a few of the Sky Art sculptures just before sunset. I also tried my hand — with little success — at a few star photographs before heading into town for a couple much-needed cold drinks at Carlee’s Place & tacos at Los Jilberto’s Taco Shop across the street.

Total driving time: 2 hours
Where to stay: Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort is a really cool old West-style hotel with a great staff and location — just a 10-minute walk to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center and short drive to downtown Borrego Springs.
Where to eat: Heading into the summer months, not many restaurants are open very late. Carlee’s Place was a low-key bar that seemed to be a local favorite & Los Jilberto’s Taco Shop was conveniently open the latest and offered delicious, affordable tacos.

Borrego Springs Attractions

Day 4: Borrego Springs to Joshua Tree

My day started with seeing and photographing more of the many Sky Art sculptures in the morning light, then I made my way to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center. With the heat already at a sweltering level, it was nice to escape to the indoors and learn more about California’s largest state park. Named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish word borrego, or bighorn sheep, Anza-Borrego boasts five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails. The park features wildflowers, palm groves, cacti, and sweeping vistas & also offers visitors the chance to see roadrunners, golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer and bighorn sheep.

Before leaving town, I stopped at Carlee’s Place again for lunch — and quickly came to the realization that the establishment was a local favorite. People of all ages came flooding through the door, including two women in their 70’s who fancied vodka on the rocks.

Two hours later, I arrived in Joshua Tree with enough time for dinner at John’s Place before heading into Joshua Tree National Park for sunset. Because of the magical sunset I had experienced the year before, I was excited to scout out a prime location for photographing another sunset. Once that spot was secured, I witnessed a sight that put the previous year to shame. With a smile on my face and a growing love for this special National Park, I drove back to my hotel knowing that there would be many more visits to Joshua Tree in the years to come.

Total driving time: 2 hours
Where to stay: This was my second time staying at Super 8 Yucca Valley. There isn’t anything particularly special about the property, but the extremely friendly staff and reasonable rates is what brought me back.
Where to eat: Don’t be fooled by the unassuming, diner atmosphere of John’s Place. The restaurant features a diverse menu and delicious food.

Joshua Tree National Park Sunset

Day 5: Joshua Tree Area

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park

My only full day in the High Desert was spent primarily at Joshua Tree National Park. I woke up early and made my way into the park, with the Cholla Cactus Garden being my first stop. Being one of the two most distinctive cacti in Joshua Tree National Park, the cholla has a fuzzy, almost friendly-looking teddy-bear quality. But, as I learned, you should not be fooled! The branches of these unique plants grow in cylindrical joints that easily detach from the main plant when spines hook into some unlucky flesh or clothing. Despite getting some cholla on my shoe (and a park ranger removing it with pliers), the morning light was perfect for photos and an enjoyable walk along the Cholla Garden pathway.

Based on the recommendation of several people, I decided to have an early dinner at the famous Pappy & Harriet’s in nearby Pioneertown, known for their mesquite barbeque, live music every night, dancing, and friendly service. I grabbed the only open seat at the bar, made quick friends with the couple sitting next to me, and selected the catfish sandwich, described by the bartender as “stupid good”. Hands down, one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in a long time! Should you decide to visit Pappy & Harriet’s, take note: reservations are HIGHLY recommended. They even suggest making a reservation a few weeks in advance.

My day was ended by heading back to Joshua Tree National Park for sunset and an attempt at astrophotography. I set up at Quail Springs and waited for the darkness of night to descend on the area. As luck would have it, the combination of a rapid temperature drop and high winds eventually forced me to succumb to the elements and call it a night before I would have liked. Lesson learned: pack more than a hoodie next time!

Total driving time: 2-3 hours (including driving in the park)
Where to stay: I once again stayed at Super 8 Yucca Valley.
Where to eat: The highly recommended Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has live music every night and a great atmosphere.

Joshua Tree Attractions

Day 6: Joshua Tree to San Luis Obispo

Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort

The time had come to escape the heat of the desert and find relief back on the coast. A five hour drive out of the High Desert, through Los Angeles traffic, and a scamper up the Pacific Coast Highway found me arriving in San Luis Obispo. Embracing the SLO mentality, my primary activity for the evening was a relaxing soak at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort. A scenic climb up a maze of stairs brought me to my private tub, aptly named Shangri-La, at the highest point of the hill. A glorious, hour-long soak was just what I needed after my long drive that day. After a sunset walk around downtown San Luis Obispo — which included a stop at Bubblegum Alley — I was ready to call it a day.

Total driving time: 5 hours
Where to stay: Avenue Inn was a surprisingly nice stay for the price. The property is a short walk into downtown San Luis Obispo.

Day 7: San Luis Obispo to Santa Monica

My final hours in San Luis Obispo consisted of a morning walk down “Main Street” (Higuera Street), a quick visit to the historic Mission San Luis Obispo, another peek at Bubblegum Alley, and a stop for some much-needed allergy medication.

As I worked my way down the Pacific Coast toward the Los Angeles/Santa Monica area, I mapped out my plan of action for the day — visiting filming locations of The Karate Kid! Yes, I am a nerd and The Karate Kid was one of my favorite movies growing up. My first stop was to the home of Ali Mills, Daniel’s girlfiend, in “The Hills”. A local man passed me twice in his Jeep, each time yelling “golly!”, indicating that I looked like a typical tourist. Which, admittedly, I very much did. Next up was a visit to Daniel’s high school, now an adult learning center. The property looks almost exactly the same and I had a blast recalling scenes from my beloved childhood movie!

I finally made my way to my Santa Monica Airbnb for check-in, grabbed a delicious dinner at The Brixton, and waited for the LA traffic to subside before heading to Dodger Stadium for an evening game. A beautiful night for baseball, I had the chance to see the Dodgers absolutely trounce the Pirates and cross off my 11th MLB stadium visited. Being from Philadelphia, I was very excited when ex-Phillie Chase Utley had the chance to pinch hit late in the game. Without a doubt, Chase Utley is still the man!

Total driving time: 3.5-4 hours
Where to stay: I booked a great Airbnb in Santa Monica that featured a spacious bedroom, a very clean bathroom, and a small balcony.
Where to eat: My Airbnb host suggested eating at The Brixton, a trendy bar in downtown Santa Monica & Dodger Stadium offered the typical ballpark fare, including the famous Dodger Dog.

Dodger Stadium

Day 8: Santa Monica to San Diego

For my last full day in Southern California, I started off with a quick visit to the iconic Santa Monica Pier. My time was spent seeing the Route 66 “End of the Trail” sign, properly caffeinating at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, photographing the Santa Monica Pier sign, and accidentally stepping in dog poo.

A three-hour drive south had me back in the San Diego area and headed toward the University California, San Diego campus to see a unique public art installation called Fallen Star. Installed by Korean artist Do Ho Suh in July 2012, Fallen Star is a house perched at an angle off the edge of the Jacobs School of Engineering building. As a lover of quirky attractions, and knowing tours are only conducted two days a week, I had to make a stop!

Fallen Star in San Diego, California

After one last stop in La Jolla to see the stinky, barking sea lions, I was off to the North Park neighborhood of San Diego to hang out with a friend. Situated to the northeast of Balboa Park, North Park is a hot spot filled with trendy bars, art galleries, music venues, and shopping. We met up at Alibi for a few drinks before making our way to Mike Hess Brewing for beer and City Tacos, one of the rotating food trucks. Knowing that I would be flying home the next day, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect ending to my road trip through Southern California!

Total driving time: 3 hours
Where to stay: I enjoyed the Best Western Seven Seas so much, I decided to book another stay for my last night in San Diego.
Where to eat: Of course I had to pay In-N-Out Burger one last visit & Mike Hess Brewing is great for beer and a rotating food truck schedule.

La Jolla, California

Have you ever road tripped through Southern California? What are your favorite stops?

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