A guide to the ultimate California Roadtrip on $250.

Apr 17, 2016 · 13 min read

Disclaimer — you’ll be sleeping in your car.

The view on entering Yosemite.

If, like me, you’ve had lifelong dreams of the Big Sur and an epic roadtrip (shamelessly inspired by Thelma & Louise and Jack Kerouac), then I’m here to tell the tale of how it can be made a reality on $300.

Last month, my boyfriend & I, having finished a coding bootcamp in San Francisco, were craving an escape. With a long distance relationship on the horizon as I was returning to Ireland, we made the spontaneous decision to rent a car and go on an adventure. Having spent all of our savings during this 5-month period as students in one of the world’s most expensive cities, we pooled our collective funds & had a total of $600 — $300 each…

We did one night’s worth of research, printed a rough 2-page itinerary & packed up our lives. It turned out to be a mind-blowing, never to be forgotten experience. I would not have thought it possible to do such a trip on this budget, and in fact, to have had perhaps more fun being broke.

He did the driving, while I took photos & kept our travel journal. I’m sharing the details of our journey, budget, stopping points, and tips if you’re thinking about your own roadtrip.

Driving route & destinations:
I’ve created a Google Map of our entire trip (with each day’s driving routes color-coded). You can find it here!

Budget Summary:
Gas: $83 (total distance = 1500 miles).
Coffee Shops: $30
Dinner: $168
Parking: $22
Air B’n’B (2 nights): $112
Snacks (Ice-cream & Wine) $69
Other (incl. Yosemite fee) $34
$518 ÷ 2 = $259 each

Trip Summary:
1,500 miles driven.
8 days on the road.
6 nights sleeping in a car.
Most played tunes: Drake, G-Eazy, and this Spotify playlist.
$259 spent each.
1,200 photos & videos taken.

1. An awesome roadtrip partner. Goes without saying.
2. A car.
3. GPS (we used Google Maps on our smartphone).
4. Pack as much food/snacks as you can squeeze into the back seat.

^Check it out on Google Maps here!

Estimate of driving hours: 5 hours
Miles: 220 miles
Noteworthy places: Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Big Sur, Morro Bay.
Highlight: Mc Way Falls!

We left Fremont (SF Bay Area) and the first leg of the journey brought us to our coastal starting point — Monterey. It was about 9am, and on Monterey State Beach, we toasted our decision to hit the road with already warm orange juice. There’s nothing like the first time dipping your toes in the Pacific Ocean.

It was just 10 minutes drive to the sleepy little town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. We stopped off for coffee at a spot on the main street called Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co. Best scones ever. We strolled around the streets, the lady in an art gallery told us that Carmel was a place filled with ‘old money’ and lots of elderly people. #retirement.

Leaving Carmel, the Big Sur began. We put Bixby Bridge in Google Maps, and Siri took us to the infamous starting point. It was mind-blowing. We were stunned, and after Brixby Bridge, we must have pulled over at least 10 more times to take photos. The weather was perfect. It was mid-March. In the car, I sat back and took it all in — cruising along a cliff edge, endless blue sea, and open road. We were honestly speechless. We stopped briefly at the Henry Miller Memorial Library — a quirky little place, honouring the writer who inspired the writers of the Beat Generation. A little further on, we came to Pfeiffer State Park & across the road — Mc Way Falls. Photo opportunity! Whoa.

Back on the road, we drove through Lucia, then San Simeon, and decided to continue on to Morro Bay. Thankfully, Morro Bay was a town as opposed to the previous two strips along the road-side. We saw a glowing ‘Pizza’ sign on the main street and rushed in.

So let’s cover the little fact that we’d decided to sleep in our car… With life-savings of about $350 each, a blowout splurge on this trip was not an option. Realising it was a choice of either not going, or essentially living out of our car, we went with the latter. (Might I add, I’d never slept in a car before. Ray had, once). The process of finding a parking spot for the night became a hilarious game, as we’d debate the various criteria, such as lighting, safety, proximity to coffee. I just remember repeating over and over again that night — ‘this is real. Oh my god, this is actually real’. This first night we settled in the parking lot across from Mc Donald’s. Feeling classy, brushing our teeth outside the car, wondering if pyjamas would be a thing. Note, they’re not.

Estimate of driving hours: 2 hours
Miles: 90
Noteworthy places: Moonstone Beach, Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo.
Highlight: The Thursday night market at St. Luis Obispo.

Waking up, we shook ourselves off, and spent a couple of hours at Top Dog Coffee bar on the Morro Bay main street. As we were both in the middle of searching for new jobs, we’d agreed to try and spend some time being productive. We each had an interview scheduled for that morning, so were grateful for a little quiet.

First stop of the day was Moonstone Beach. We sat on the high cliffs at the seafront, and read. It had been so long since we’d had time to indulge in a book, so this was such a novelty. Ray was reading Ken Robinson’s Do school’s kill creativity? and I had finally gotten to start Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg).

I’d taken a sneaky little browse on Air B‘n’B whilst we were in Carmel the day before, and had booked us a place to stay tonight. I surprised Ray, so off we went to Arroyo Grande. For $50, my expectations were low, but we were so surprised by this place, it was glorious. There was even a giant hammock in the garden. The inability to shower that morning was probably the toughest thing about sleeping in the car, so that was our first port of call.

We happened to be in this area on Thursday night, and it turns there is a really popular weekly farmer’s market on that night in San Luis Obispo. (It’s on from 6pm, and finding a parking spot is tough if you arrive later than that). It consisted of endless food stalls, and our eyes were definitely bigger than our stomachs. We had churros to start, a burrito, Thai food, and amazing ice-cream from the Ice-Cream lab’ afterwards.

Mc Way Falls, along the Big Sur.

Estimate of driving hours: 3 hours
Miles: 150
Noteworthy places: Santa Maria, The Butterfly Preserve, Santa Barbara, Malibu.
Highlight: Santa Barbara pier & waterfront.

First thing in the morning, we set off to Santa Maria (about 30 minutes from San Luis Obispo). Third day on the road, it starts becoming somehow like normal life. We got some work done in Starbucks, but didn’t stay long in Santa Maria. We arrived in Santa Barbara in the afternoon & explored the Coronado Butterfly Preserve. We didn’t locate the butterflies, but a couple told us it was probably a little too early in the season. It’s a cute spot for a walk, and about 10 minutes through the forest leads you to the sea. Next we drove to Alameda Park (I’d read on TripAdvisor that it was cool), but it was a let-down, with nothing of interest there. Next, we parked close to the Santa Barbara pier, and took a stroll to the end. The sun was setting, so we got gorgeous photos. The pier was lively, but every eatery is pretty expensive. We got some delicious food at Farmer Boy — would definitely recommend it. (On the Alley is another Santa Barbara food spot, which looked even nicer, but it was closed when we got there). You know shit is real when you drive to Mc Donald’s to use their wifi so you can finish downloading the movie you’re going to watch in your car that night. This is how the night ended.

Estimate of driving hours: 2.5 hours
Miles: 65
Noteworthy places: Bel Air, Beverley Hills, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood.
Highlight: Hollywood Boulevard is a weird & wonderful must-see.

All I remember from last night is not being able to find a good parking spot to settle for the night, and Ray saying ‘f*** it, I’m driving to Malibu’. I burst out laughing when I opened my eyes the next morning. It’s not often that you get to wake up in a completely different location to when you fell asleep. (And 50 meters outside Starbucks). Armed with coffee, we drove to Point Dume Beach. It’s a gorgeous cliff-side walk, and when you reach the edge, you can climb down to a little secluded beach. (We were thrilled because it’s one of the primary shooting locations in the Iron Man 3 movie). We drove around this area, and then around Bel Air, marvelling at the incredible houses, discussing how rich these people must be, and sketching out our future we’re going to be this successful plans. After Bel Air, we arrived in Beverley Hills. It was strange, actually being in all of these places, which previously I’d only heard of from movies and shows. We walked the length of Rodeo Drive. Window-shopping was fun. Both of us are into fashion, so we entertained ourselves discussing what we’d buy if we had money. Hollywood is close by, so we headed in this direction, and found parking so we could explore Hollywood Boulevard. It’s the most commercial place I’ve ever seen (second being Miami), yet it’s definitely a must-see. We saw the stars craved into the pavement, held a giant snake, and managed not to buy a single tourist souvenir. There are great views of the whole boulevard if you climb to the very top of the Hollywood & Highland Center. We grabbed some food and ate it here, with the Hollywood sign in sight, far off in the distance. Hollywood was a much too sketchy place to settle for the night, so we drove to Santa Monica a little before midnight. It was popping, with a ton of bars & clubs with blaring music. (Note: If you want a lively party spot, Santa Monica is it!)

The drive into L.A.

Estimate of driving hours: 1 hour
Miles: 25
Noteworthy places: Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory.
Highlight: Low-key chilling on the beach in Santa Monica.

Waking up in Santa Monica was perfect. We picked up our morning coffee and headed straight to the beach. There’s something so wonderful about just laying out a blanket, having a good book in your hand, and the sun blazing overhead. We were about 20 meters from the sea, and I think we could have stayed there forever. We got crazy excited the night before as we approached Santa Monica in the darkness — all we could see were the glowing lights coming from the amusements on the boardwalk. We strolled over in the afternoon, and restrained ourselves from wasting money trying to win a teddy bear. It would be a great date spot! (Venice beach is about 5 minutes from here, but we didn’t check it out.) We set off again. L.A. bound. I’d cheated, and booked us our second Air B ’n’ B of the trip. The drive into L.A. is cool. Lots of tall grey building, big city vibes. We ditched our things at the Air B ‘n B, and headed off for the Griffith Observatory. We drove far up into the steep hillside (there’s free parking up there!). There are lots of trails you can do up to the Hollywood sign, which I’m sure are great, but we arrived an hour or two before sunset, and the shortest trail is about 1.5 hours. The Observatory has incredible views. (I whipped out our selfie stick with absolutely no shame.) We got dinner that night at the Grove, which is a big mall outlet, more like a shopping village. We hit Blaze Pizza, and Veggie Grill, then stocked up on candy ( ‘sweets’ to us Irish folks) and spent the night watching movies on the deck of our little Air B ’n’ B studio.

Estimate of driving hours: 4 hours
Miles: 200
Noteworthy places: L.A. City Hall Observation Deck, The Last Bookstore, our car.
Highlight: Driving endless miles. On a whim. Freedom!

We decided to spend the day exploring Los Angeles, so ventured deep into the city (there’s no such thing as free parking in L.A). Our first stopping point was the City Hall. There’s an Observation Deck on the 27thfloor there, and you get a 360° view of downtown. Afterwards, we visited The Last Bookstore, it’s Cali’s largest new & used bookstore apparently. It’s quirky!

So Los Angeles was definitely the toughest destination to be without money. There was so much to do & see, but most of it, we couldn’t afford. Our spirits were pretty low. Ray pulled over and bought 2 massive bags of fruit from a Mexican street vendor. Nothing like fresh pineapple to cure bad vibes. We decided to bail L.A. there and then. We’d both been blown away by the Big Sur, so decided to head back up North, and do it again. I was back on Cloud 9 within 10 minutes. So it turned into an evening of driving. (Arm yourself with great playlists before you go. We had the same 20 tunes on repeat most of the time!) It was a perfect few hours of driving, both of us deep in thought for most of it. (We had a ‘wine o’ clock’ routine, where it was time for me to have a glass whilst Ray drove. It was wine o’clock early that day!) We continued until we got to San Luis Obispo, and our dinner spot was Thai Jasmine Palace. It was an early night, both of us exhausted.

On route to Yosemite.

Estimate of driving hours: 7 hours
Miles: 320
Noteworthy places: San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, Monterey.
Highlight: Round II on the Big Sur!

San Luis Obispo is an amazing little town. I get such a great vibe from it. We spent the morning at Scout Coffee — a hipster spot, great for people watching. We caught up on emails, and had some downtime. We decided to treat ourselves to a Wholefoods visit afterwards. We bought falafel, hummus, pizza & salad, and had a delish lunch whilst watching TED talks on our Mac. We set off to do the Big Sur again, and it was just as good, second time round. The divine coastal drive is so…soothing somehow. (Going south is a slightly better route, as you are on the sea-side of the road, not the inside lane). We were much calmer this time around, but still pulled over at the side of the road multiple times to take in the views. We got to Monterey about 9pm, and stopped by a weird food joint/sports bar called Taste of Vietnam. We’d planned to visit Yosemite the following day, and were still 3 hours from it after dinner, so we decided to pull a late-one. I fed Ray the Ben & Jerry’s we’d picked up at Safeway for the first leg, and there were constant jokes about ‘street races’ as we followed the endless highway. It felt strange going inland, away from the coast, and much of the drive was deserted streets with no lighting. Cue ghost stories. We spent the night in a town called Oakhurst, really close to Yosemite.

Estimate of driving hours: 3.5 hours
Miles: 180 (excluding driving around Yosemite Park)
Noteworthy places: Yosemite National Park.
Highlight: Finding a real-life rainbow!

Waking up in Oakhurst, the air felt fresher already. The drive to Yosemite National Park only took about 25 minutes. Entrance for one car to the park was $25 (it’s $30 for the months of April-October). We were handed a map, and welcomed into this massive expanse of natural beauty. We entered the Park close to Wawona (here is the official park map) in the bottom south-west corner. I had no idea how big the Park actually was, and I would 100% recommend travelling around the it in a car (otherwise you’d be relying on the shuttle buses). The contrast in conditions was bizarre — in parts, the ground was covered in heavy snow (with cable cars, and people skiing), and elsewhere was warm & sunny. We drove North — past the Badger Pass Ski area, and Grouse Creek. The views at Inspiration Point & Valley View are incredible. Perfect photo opportunity’s. We came across a giant waterfall that was attracting lots of attention, and pulled over. We climbed towards it, and there was a tiny little rainbow that had formed, right in front of us. I for one, didn’t know this was possible! I was only aware of the Irish myths about finding leprechauns & pots of gold at the ends of rainbows. (See photo for proof!) In Yosemite, you feel surrounded by tall cliffs and mountains, or deep valleys all the time. We took an unplanned nap lying in a meadow, surrounded on all sides by postcard views. We explored only about one-fifth of what Yosemite has to offer. We managed to catch the beautiful sunset as we were heading towards the exit about 7pm. It was the perfect ending. The drive back towards San Francisco was a quiet one. We stopped in Oakdale, famished, when we saw a flashing sign saying ‘fine Mexican food’. We arrived back at Mountain View around midnight.

Yosemite — March 2016.

If you’re debating embarking on an adventure in California, I say ‘do it!’ This was my first long roadtrip, and even with a really minimal budget, it was probably the best trip I’ve ever taken.

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Originally published at cognitive-unbias.com on April 17, 2016.

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