USA – 1 month West Coast Road Trip

We usually are backpackers who explore countries using local transport, but for the USA we had to do a roadtrip! We spent 1 month driving in California, Nevada and Oregon and we only scratched the surface. We had a great time and the drives were mostly pretty amazing.

The USA is a great country to travel with so many different landscapes, towns and cities. Our main motivation was to visit some of the magnificent National Parks and see some of the most famous cities in the world.

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Lassen National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

Our 1 month itinerary

  • Day 1 LA – explored Hollywood
  • Day 2 Santa Monica and Pacific Coast Highway – brought camping supplies and stayed Santa Maria. As it was a public holiday weekend all the ‘cool’ places were booked out, including all the campgrounds
  • Day 3 Pacific Coast Highway – visited Morrow Bay and Pismo Beach. Spent the night camping in King City which was an average place but the campground was nice. It was very hot here at 48 degrees Celsius!
  • Day 4 Pacific Coast Highway – we visited the Big Sur and Monterey then spent the night in Santa Cruz where we explored the beach, watched the surfers, rode a wooden roller coaster and went to a yoga class
  • Day 5-7 Yosemite National Park – it was a long drive to get there from Santa Cruz but it was well worth it. We mostly spent time visiting the valley, hiking and camping. Check out our blog post on this amazing National Park here
  • Day 8-9 Lake Tahoe – drove through Yosemite National Park via Tioga Rd (closed in winter due to snow). We visit other parts of the park such as Tuolumne Meadows and other beautiful lakes along the way. We then drove all the way to Lake Tahoe where we spent time camping and enjoying the lake for 2 days
  • Day 10 Lassen National Park – we drove through Tahoe National Forest all the way to Lassen National Park where we hiked to the volcanic activity then spent the night in Reading as it was too cold to camp up at the National Park
  • Day 11 Crater Lake National Park – Such a beautiful place and where we got engaged! After we spent the night in the wonderful town of Bend in Oregon. We camped at one of the amazing State Parks just outside of Bend
  • Day 12-15 Portland – the drive to Portland was very scenic and we spent a good few days exploring the city, drinking the local craft beer, eating great vegetarian food and resting
  • Day 16-17 driving the Portland Coast and the Redwood National Park – A long but scenic drive with some nice view points along the Pacific Coast. We stayed at KOA (we wish we knew about these sooner as they are amazing campgrounds with lots of facilities).
  • Day 18-20 San Francisco – highlights include the Mission, Alcatraz and cycling the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a fun city to explore with lots of steep walks. Sadly there is lots of homeless in San Francisco and pier 39 is crazy touristy but the seals were cute
  • Day 20-22 Sonoma Valley – only an hour north of San Francisco it was wine time! It was really great hiring a bike and cycling the vineyards
  • Day 23-25 Las Vegas – we flew to Las Vegas from San Francisco airport where we were able to do a 16hr day trip to the Grand Canyon National Park, see Calvin Harris and lose some money on the slot machines
  • Day 26-30 Palm Springs – we stayed with family in Palm Springs which was a good base to take a day trip to Disneyland, rest by a beautiful pool and enjoy the architecture of this pleasant city. We also hit up the outlet malls!
  • Day 31-32 LA – Our final day and night in LA before our late night flight home. We went to the Getty Center, Griffith Park and Moby’s Vegan Restaurant Little Pine which was amazing. We treated ourselves and stayed in Beverly Hills for the night
  • Home – a ‘quick’ 12hr flight back to Auckland, New Zealand

Regrets

It was a big itinerary for a month and we did have some regrets which include;

  • Spending too long going up the Pacific Coast Highway. Most of the Big Sur was closed due to slips and the towns along the way were average
  • We should have spent another night at Yosemite National Park. By the time we arrived and got set up we really only had one full day in the park
  • Another night in Lake Tahoe would have been nice as we were getting tired and the lake was beautiful to swim and kayak
  • Stayed one day too long in Portland but we were hoping to see some friends which unfortunately didn’t happen
  • We should have booked our Grand Canyon Bus tour a few days in advance and not the day before. As a result we couldn’t get the day we wanted and had a huge day as we had Calvin Harris tickets for the same day. This meant we were up at 5am in bed 3am the next day…
  • We didn’t book accommodation in advance for the Labor Weekend Public holiday (4 September) – we didn’t expect all the campground to be 100% full over this weekend (stupid). It resulted in us staying in 2 average places (Santa Maria and Kingcity) and we had to pay a lot of money for a bad motel in Santa Cruz.
  • We didn’t know what KOA were until the end of the trip – they are so good
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Lake Tahoe

Things we are glad we did

  • Booked our camping in Yosemite months in advance – see our guide here
  • Booked our Alcatraz tickets weeks in advance
  • Had a good size hire car – we drove a lot and we were glad we had a medium sized SUV
  • We flew from San Francisco to Las Vegas which saved us 11hrs of driving
  • Camping! We brought over our tent and went to Walmart to buy an air mattress, sheet, pillows and blanket as well as a pot for cooking and other utensils. The campgrounds were all great and staying in them really enhanced our experience
  • Have travel insurance – we didn’t need to use it but you are stupid if you go to the USA with no travel insurance. The cost for health care in the USA is crazy expensive and could financially ruin you or your family if something goes wrong.

Eating in the USA

Being vegetarian here was a little bit difficult but most places did included a few options. We especially enjoyed the small town diners. They were great value and generally let you pick and choose what you wanted to have. Alisdair almost had pancakes everyday! The unlimited coffee was hit and miss and espresso coffee was almost non-existent but we made do and generally the 5 cups of coffee you have at breakfast kept you buzzing for the whole day.

The supermarkets also have lots of variety, much more than New Zealand. Buying food from supermarkets meant we saved a lot on food as surprisingly the USA was not as cheap as we thought (see our budget below). We loved Wholefoods, they have great salad and sandwich bars. We also liked picking up bread and cheese from supermarkets and having picnics in rest-stops and small parks. The fresh salsa and corn chips were also a staple for our long drives and something I miss.

What did it cost? 

In total we spent around $12k NZD ($8.2k USD) for 4 weeks (excluding flights and shopping). Our budget was $340 NZD per day for 2 people but we ended up spending $406 per day. It was a pricey holiday for us and for that money we could have easily done another 5 months in Central America. What made it so expensive for us was the NZ exchange rate with the USD, some unexpected accommodation costs and eating out in expensive restaurants with family in San Francisco, Sonoma and Palm Springs.

Here is a summary of our costs in New Zealand dollars – USD exchange rates current as at 14 December 2018.

  • Transport (petrol and car hire) $3,500 ($2,400 USD)
  • Accommodation $3,000 ($2,000 USD)
  • Food $3,100 ($2,100 USD)
  • Activities $1,300 ($892 USD)
  • Drinks $389 ($267 USD)
  • Coffee $110 ($$75 USD)
  • Other $669 ($459 USD)

We kept tack of our spending via the Trail Wallet Travel App. 

Summary

Although it was an expensive trip, we loved camping, the National Parks, diners, Disneyland, seeing family and exploring some great cities. We would highly recommend a USA road trip.

We are returning to the USA in July 2019 to visit Katie’s brother in Alabama! We are excited to return to the USA but we image visiting the South to be a whole different experience…

Enjoy!

Want to learn more about Yosemite National Park? Check out our blog post – Camping and exploring Yosemite National Park

Where to next? Canada? A week in Vancouver or Mexico? How to survive Cancun as a backpacker 

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Driving the Oregon Coast
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Grand Canyon National Park
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Exploring Palm Springs
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Los Angeles from Griffith Park – our last night
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