Rear of white car
Friendly Friday,  Landscape,  USA

California dreaming: our first US road trip

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair

The Eagles

If you have never been on a road trip before, what would be your ideal first-timer destination? Could there be a better choice than California?

We have made nine road trips in the US to date; but our first remains in many ways our most memorable, and not just because it was the first. LA, San Francisco, the Big Sur, Yosemite, Joshua Tree … the list of iconic sights goes on and on.

For this week’s Friendly Friday challenge, let me take you back to this, our first US road trip.


Back in 1991 we decided that the time had come to be a little more adventurous, and extravagant, in our choice of holiday destinations. Until then we had focused mainly on Europe; although there had been a marvellous trip to New York in 1982, a year after we married, and a week in Egypt the previous year. Now we wanted to see more of the US. After briefly considering a packaged ‘Fly Drive’ holiday, we realised it would be cheaper and more fun to plan our own route.

These were the pre-internet days; so our research was done in guidebooks borrowed from the library where I worked at the time and using brochures which we ordered from the National Park Service. We pre-booked accommodation using old-fashioned snail mail, sending International Money Orders to pay deposits. Quite a few of our reservations were for Motel 6s; their central reservation centre made the process simpler, and their prices suited our limited budget.

There were visas to apply for, maps to be bought, US driving regulations to be studied and memorised … It was all very exciting and just a little bit daunting. And especially so for Chris who, as I had not yet passed my driving test, would be our sole driver.

Our route

My trip journal

Because this was such a special trip for us, I kept a more detailed diary than I had previously done. The following extracts cover just a handful of the many highlights from this very special road trip. The accompanying photos are not especially good scans of the best of our 35 mm slides!

Rocky cliffs and waterfall on to beach

Driving the Big Sur

We began our drive along the Big Sur. The road was very winding, with a notice at each bend very helpfully giving a recommended speed limit. The views were really spectacular but progress was naturally slow. It was later than expected when we pulled into a viewpoint called Willow Creek Vista. There we had our picnic lunch, admired the scenery and photographed the gulls and dramatic coastline. As we drove north during the afternoon we stopped off at two of the many state parks in the area. The first was the Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP, where we saw squirrels and blue jays, and took a short footpath that tunnelled under the main road to arrive at a picturesque little cove into which poured a pretty waterfall.

Tumbledown wooden buildings on a jetty

Cannery Row

At the aquarium we were able to stroke rays, handle crabs and see the various habitats that make up Monterey Bay, such as the tide pools so beloved by John Steinbeck. From the outside decks we saw seals on the rocks, cormorants and a pelican. Steinbeck might be horrified at what Cannery Row has become; but I think both he and Doc Ricketts would be pleased with the aquarium.

Yes, Steinbeck might be horrified, but we enjoyed Cannery Row. It is touristy, but with a very pleasant atmosphere and we found plenty to interest us. We saw Kalisa’s (‘La Ida Café’ in the novel) and went in the Old General Store, aka ‘Lee Chong’s’. We ate lunch in a lovely café; took lots of photos; and visited the Information Centre in an old railway carriage near the site of Doc’s lab.

Large grey seal

Año Nuevo State Reserve

This reserve is famous for the elephant seals that use the beaches, and although the mating season was over we hoped we would be able to see some. The warden explained that some had returned to the beach to moult and that we would be able to see them by walking through the dunes to the north. It proved to be a long walk and at times quite difficult in the soft sand, but when we finally emerged on to the beach the sight that greeted us was well worth all the effort.

It was like walking into a scene in a David Attenborough documentary, with numerous seals just at the foot of the dunes. One pup had even strayed on to the path and we had to make a detour around him. Their eyes, especially the babies’, were huge, and where they had already moulted their skin gleamed like pewter.

Several helpful wardens here guided us to good viewing points and told us a little bit about what we were seeing – when they could be heard above the deafening barking of the seals!

Bridge with lots of cars

The Golden Gate Bridge

As we approached San Francisco we thought we were prepared for the road to get a little busier, especially when it met Interstate 280. However the shock when it changed from a small two-lane dual carriageway to one with six lanes each side (and us in one of the middle lanes) was considerable. We found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of other cars, all going faster than us, overtaking on both sides (as is allowed in the US) and all apparently knowing exactly where they were going – unlike us! Luckily a slightly larger scale map of the San Francisco area gave us some clues as to what the road might do and which lane we should be in; and we were swept into the city on the right route, passing some prettily painted suburban terraces.

The road took us through the greenery of Golden Gate Park and out on to the famous bridge which was dramatic but, thanks to the traffic, somewhat hair-raising. On the far side of the bridge we turned off into the vista point parking area.

Prison cell with metal frame bed and toilet


We had decided to devote part of the morning to Alcatraz, despite having such limited time in San Francisco, as it seemed a sight not to be missed. We were not disappointed!          

The ferry took us the short distance across the bay and we landed on the island. We started the climb up to the gift shop. There a reformed ex-inmate, Leon ‘Whitey’ Thompson, was signing copies of his autobiography. We bought a signed copy of the book as a gift for Chris’s father John; and Chris posed for a photo with the ex-bank robber.

Inside the prison we exchanged our tickets for a Walkman with a taped tour of the building. This proved a great asset in bringing its past to life as, in addition to background information, it had interviews with ex-prisoners and guards, and atmospheric sound effects. We saw various cells, including that of the famous Bird Man, the segregation row, the route of the best-known escape attempt, the dining hall, hospital etc.

Sheer cliff and river

Yosemite Valley

We entered the park and drove down through more wooded hills, some of them destroyed by fire. Suddenly around the last bend the famous Yosemite Valley was in front of us, looking exactly like all the photos but at the same time much bigger and grander.

We drove down into the valley and joined the road that loops around the valley floor. We saw great views (and took countless pictures) of all the famous sights – mountains such as El Capitan, the Three Brothers and Half Dome; waterfalls such as Bridal Veil and the Yosemite Falls; and the Yosemite River itself. Despite the large number of other people also exploring, in some places it was quite possible to get away from them and appreciate the scenery in relative solitude.

Young lady sitting on rock by dramatic landscape

Yosemite – continued

After our morning’s tour of the valley, we drove up to Glacier Point, stopping for a picnic lunch en route. There we could look down on the valley, as well as looking across the nearby mountains to the whole Sierra Nevada range, in many places still covered with snow.

In the afternoon we returned to the valley, stopping at different viewpoints. We took a closer look at the Bridal Veil Falls (getting drenched in spray); and we walked to Mirror Lake with its classic view of Half Dome, as captured by Ansel Adams.

Mountain landscape

Tioga Pass

After breakfast we checked out and drove back to Yosemite National Park, but this time turning away from the valley to drive along the Tioga Road. This road, open only in summer, took us up through the Sierra Nevada mountains to the north of Yosemite Valley.

We saw a good variety of scenery including the Tuolumne River (racing over boulders on its way down to the valley) and a lovely glacial lake, hidden away among pine trees and with patches of snow still on the banks. Another halt was at Olmstead Point, a better-known viewpoint, with several coachloads of tourists. Despite the extra crowds, it was another worthwhile place to stop, with a view of Half Dome from behind (to contrast with its appearance yesterday from Mirror Lake) and some dramatic grey glaciated rocks and boulders.

Eventually the road took us out of the national park; but the scenery was still dramatic, as we climbed ever higher through the Sierra Nevada on the Tioga Pass. On their eastern side the mountains were steeper and less green, dropping down into the hot, bleak (but beautiful) Owens Valley.

Tufa formations in a lake

Mono Lake

Beyond Highway 395 a bumpy dirt road led down to the shores of this spectacular lake, where we sat at a picnic table in the hot sun to eat our lunch. Then we followed a short path through the outcrops of tufa (stalagmite-like salt columns) to the lake-side. The scenery was really breath-taking. The salt made the water a brilliant turquoise, as well as building the dramatic tufa columns.

Beyond the lake were the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains; and above a huge blue sky scattered with wispy clouds. To add to the atmosphere there were only a few other people around. This was ample consolation for having had to leave Yosemite.

Dead-looking trees on rocky ground

Bristlecone Pine Forest

At Big Pine we turned east and took a smaller road that climbed up into the White Mountains, and an even smaller one towards the north, climbing even higher! This took us to the Bristlecone Pine Forest. These trees are the most ancient living things on earth and they certainly look their age. Some are over 4,000 years old, and all are twisted and bent by the wind, so that they really justified the guidebook’s description of them as ‘living driftwood’, and were really photogenic.

Rock formations and cactus

Joshua Tree National Monument

As we got out of our beautifully air-conditioned car the heat hit us (we were later to learn that it had been 102F in the shade that day – and there wasn’t a lot of shade!)

The heat was of course very dry, and we were able to walk around for a while and take lots of pictures of the strange Joshua Trees themselves, the unusual rock formations and the surrounding desert. But we ate our picnic in the cool of the car!

What with the heat and having relatively little time here, we didn’t tackle any of the trails in the park. But there was plenty of interest within easy reach of the well-made (and very quiet) road. Our second stop was at Hidden Valley, with more photogenic rocks and a wide variety of cacti.

Large cactus in desert landscape

Joshua Tree – continued

However we soon drove on to the third, and most spectacular, halt, at Keys View. Being quite high up it was a much more pleasant temperature here. A short walk from the parking area brought us to a view of the whole Palm Springs Valley and the Santa Rosa mountains beyond. It was very hazy (caused by smog drifting up the valley from LA) but no less dramatic for that.

Our final stop was at the Cholla Cactus Garden where there was a group of Bigelow cacti, also called Teddy Bear cacti because from a distance they appear soft and fluffy (they aren’t!)

Mural of girl roller-skating

Venice Beach

We parked in a large car park near the beach and walked along the sea front, known as Ocean Front Walk. This was another place that was exactly as we’d imagined, just as described in all the guide-books; crowds of people, mostly young, mostly posing, with skateboards or roller-skates, slogan t-shirts and deep Californian suntans. There were also, of course, a fairly high proportion of tourists like ourselves. We saw fortune-tellers, kite-flyers, hair-wrappers, pavement-artists, as well as a lot of stalls selling Ray-Bans, t-shirts and even hats for dogs!

Of course we visited many more places than this during our busy two week road trip; Hearst Castle, old gold-mining towns, Palm Springs, San Diego … Every day brought new adventures, wonderful scenery or fascinating towns and cities, lots of history and the constant excitement of discovering what would be around the next bend.

We were hooked on road trips and would be back for many more; but this first one holds a special place in our hearts.

I visited California in 1991


  • manishambaliya

    Amazing! I know nothing about traveling all over the country, what a wonderful looking place to explore.

  • Anne Sandler

    Oh Sarah, thanks for showing us your California adventure. I love living here. When we went across country in 2013 and came across back into my State from Reno NV, I told my husband to stop the truck. He asked why, and I said I wanted to kiss the ground! It’s too bad you didn’t visit Sequoia/Kings Canyon National parks–may favorite. The Sequoia redwoods are amazing. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip. Come back!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Anne – we would love to come back one day to visit some of the places we missed first time around, and perhaps revisit some favourites 🙂

  • Albatz Travel Adventures

    Wow, you brought back so many memories of road trips to California – my first in ’74 or ’75 I think – I still have the photos but I suspect they weren’t that good – I remember taking a whole roll of film on waves – they were so huge to my eye but I only had a 35mm lens so they were tiny and unimpressive in the photos!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad to have brought back good memories for you 🙂 I know what you mean about those waves – that’s the sort of thing I would have photographed but been disappointed with the results. It’s only when you’ve been taking photos for some time that you develop an understanding of what things will look like on film rather than in reality. Of course today we can review our images instantly and take more if needed, rather than wait ages to see them developed!

  • Forestwood

    A magnificent trip to be your first ever road trip. I have only just heard about the Big Sur from Jane Lurie and now you mention it also! You are the third person to describe the change from 2 lanes to 12 lane roads in USA – I can’t even begin to imagine how stressful that would be to drive on! I can relate to your feeling of seeing things irl that you have only seen in books or on TV. They suddenly seem larger than life! Great post and the old diaries come in handy for remembering details of past trips, don’t they?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for stopping by Amanda, I’m glad you enjoyed the ride/read 😀 Yes, the old diaries are great – I regret not keeping such a detailed one again after this trip, until I started writing for VT in c 2006. In between all I have are some photos plus a few scribbled notes if I’m lucky!

  • Anonymous

    A very interesting road trip. We had done the same in 2009 from SFO to Dan Diego to Los Angeles via Carmel, Heart Castle and other sites. On the way . Memories are still fresh

  • wetanddustyroads

    I had to read this line twice … “a walkman with a taped tour of Alcatraz” 😄. How different was traveling those days!
    Thanks Sarah, it was great to read about your first road trip in the US and your photo’s are actually quite good – special memories for sure!

  • Susanne Swanson

    So true that California is a wonderful place to road trip! The scenery is magnificent and there’s no shortage of things to do! We had a trip last month down the coast to San Francisco last month and travel to some part of California every couple of years. You can’t go wrong! 🙂

  • rkrontheroad

    My father loved to drive and we took some crazy road trips when I was a child – cross-country and back in 2 weeks and he was the only driver! I moved out to Colorado from the east coast after another much longer road trip hitting national parks and hiking. Always a wonderful way to really see things.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Ruth 🙂 Yes, a road trip is a great way to see things as long as you remember to stop! I don’t think I’d fancy your father’s style of doing it 😉 I get spoiled as my husband does most of the driving and I get to see the scenery, although I am always chief navigator.

  • Terri

    Workers, fun to see places I’ve actually been to, Sarah? You know this would be perfect for Sunday Stills favorite vacation spots this week! Road trips are the way to go especially with restrictions we’ve all experienced the last year. Love your pic in front of Yosemite Valley. The Tioga road is amazing and I love that view of Half Dome from Olmstead Point!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ooh, is that the Sunday Stills theme? I hadn’t picked that up – I’m still running several days behind as we’re away at the moment catching up with friends and family in Newcastle. I’ll get there in the end!!

      Thank you for the kind words about these ancient photos. The scans aren’t too good but the pictures take me back to this wonderful trip!

  • Anna

    You were a pretty cool chick back in 1991! Loved your hair and shoes! 😀 In all seriousness though this must have been a great trip, you saw so many amazing iconic sites!

  • Oh, the Places We See

    We’ve taken a similar trip, but perhaps not this exact trip. A couple of the natural sites you’ve listed I don’t remember. But it was a great trip — scenery like no other in the U.S. I’d love to see Big Sur again — the whole coastline adventure was exciting. Come back. We love visitors!

  • margaret21

    Great that you kept such detailed notes of your memories. And what a lot you packed in! Somehow, I’ve never fancied a road trip – train journeys are more my style. But after reading this I can see the attraction.

    • Toonsarah

      Thank you Margaret 🙂 We love the freedom of a road trip, being able to stop whenever we spot something interesting or a great photo opportunity! You can’t do that on a train – but I do love train journeys too, for different reasons (and they’re less demanding than driving!)


    What a great trip Sarah, you must have been so excited whilst planning. We have things so easy now with the internet, hard to imagine life without it. Unlike you we have little experience of the U.S. Phil has had a few days in New York and I haven’t been at all, we have a long way to go to catch up with you 😊

  • maristravels

    I loved the memories your post brought back to me, memories of snail mail, getting info from guide books, using the library, International Reply Coupons, etc. What a world that was and what fun organizing things were, waiting for the envelopes to pop on to the mat in the morning or, just occasionally, the long distance call – booked in advance! I’m sure I haven’t done as many road trips as you have and I’ve enjoyed this post very much because this is one I did do although we didn’t cover all that you did (I prefer to linger in places and ‘leave something for the next trip’) so I’ve never been to Yosemite which I’ve always regretted. The USA never captured my imagination the way Europe or S.E. Asia did and my visits were mainly to cities but as we had friends in various places we did manage to see quite a bit of a few places. I look forward to more bits of your journal.

    • Toonsarah

      Thanks Mari, I’m glad you share my memories of that time 🙂 As that was our first road trip we did try to pack rather a lot in. In more recent years we’ve tried to take a bit longer and linger in some places at least, but back then (when we were working) time was very limited and we were impatient to cover as much ground as possible!

  • Nemorino

    This is something of a Blast from the Past for me, even though I have only been to three of the places you described: San Francisco, Alcatraz and Yosemite.
    As I may have mentioned before, I went out to Alcatraz in 1969, when it was occupied by the Native Americans, to help set up a transmitter so they could do a 1/4 hour live broadcast each evening on our station (usually right after the evening news) from the occupied island.

    • Toonsarah

      I don’t think you have mentioned that previously Don. It sounds really interesting. I didn’t even know about that Native American occupation!

  • SandyL

    Wow! What a great and detailed post on your first US roadtrip. Although I’ve visited these places, I certainly haven’t done as good a job in journaling or capturing the images. In fact, I don’t think I have any pictures from 1991!

    • Toonsarah

      This is the only detailed old journal I have. I found it and typed it up a few years ago 🙂 We do have mountains of old 35mm slides but only a few of them scanned. I’d like to do more but it’s a laborious task and as you can see, our scanner isn’t great.

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