Planning a visit to the San Luis Obispo area from the SF Bay Area? Personally, I think the best way to visit Central California is by hopping into 4-wheels and having yourself a good old-fashioned road trip! A road trip can be great fun, especially when you do it with your besties or your loved ones.
And while a car is the most common way to go about it, this road trip can be much more fun if you travel in a campervan!
That’s right, during the last holiday (President’s Day) weekend, Papu and I jumped into a Travellers Autobarn campervan as total van life newbies and embarked on a 4-day journey through California to explore a few lesser-known spots in our home state.
It’s hard to believe that our trip is over and that we’re back home in the SF area because we had so much fun exploring the outdoors and roughing it in a campervan!
There are so many cool spots in Northern and Central California along the way, including the likes of Pinnacles National Park, Montaña de Oro State Park, Paso Robles (a very happening wine region), and Morro Bay (sea otters galore).
I invite you to continue reading so that you can discover some of my favorite, lesser-known towns/parks and consider adding them to your own San Francisco to San Luis Obispo road trip!
Disclosure: Travellers Autobarn kindly provided me with a comped vehicle to explore Central California, but all opinions are my own. You’ll get nothing but honest thoughts from me! This post may also contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out useful and free content. Thanks a lot!
Table of Contents
SAN FRANCISCO TO SAN LUIS OBISPO: ROAD TRIP OVERVIEW
While you can certainly drive from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and other parts of Central California in a matter of just hours, what fun would it be if you didn’t stop to explore a little? This road trip itinerary features a lot of amazing hiking, wildlife viewing opportunities, wine tasting, and even gastronomic experiences.
I personally think the best part about this road trip is the lack of crowds. Because you’ll be visiting more off-the-beaten-path destinations, you’ll be dealing with less foot traffic on hikes and less congestion on the roads. This means you’ll get more time doing what matters–exploring and having fun!
The stops I’ll detail in this post include:
- Pinnacles National Park – DAY 1
- San Luis Obispo, CA – DAY 1
- Montaña de Oro State Park – DAY 2
- Morro Bay, CA – DAY 2
- Paso Robles, CA – DAY 2 & 3
- Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA – DAY 3
- Monterey, CA – DAY 3
- Drive back to San Francisco, CA – DAY 4
We visited these towns in the order you see above, however, you can definitely adjust the order as you see fit!
For example–on the way down from SF to San Luis Obispo, you will be passing through Paso Robles, CA. Feel free to visit Paso Robles first before moving on to SLO.
If you want to visit the seaside towns of Carmel and Monterey first, you can choose to drive down the Pacific coast to get to Central California and come back up to SF along the inland route using US-101.
As you can see, there are lots of options here! Check out the map below for a high level overview of what stops you’ll be making!
HOW MANY DAYS WILL YOU NEED FOR THIS TRIP?
Personally, I’d recommend 3-4 days for this road trip. I was able to visit all the destinations listed above in 4 whole days.
If you cannot swing 4 days, consider opting for 3 days and cutting out a town or two from your overall road trip itinerary.
If you have more time to spare on this road trip (lucky you), don’t miss the end of the post where I provide a few other suggestions on where else to visit along the SF to SLO route!
SAN FRANCISCO TO SAN LUIS OBISPO: CAR RENTALS
If you don’t have a car of your own, chances are, you’ll need to rent something for this trip.
This is the fun part! You can either go the regular route and rent a car OR stretch your “adventure muscles” and choose to rent a campervan!
If you are the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search! Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices across the major rental car companies, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees. You’ll only be charged if you show up to pick up the car.
This is by far our favorite way of renting cars–so much flexibility! You can’t beat it.
For this trip, we decided to try out #vanlife in a campervan for the first time ever! We rented a Kuga Campervan from Travellers Autobarn (thank you, Travellers!), which served as both our transportation and our overnight lodging.
Our Kuga Campervan was a Chevy cargo van that Travellers Autobarn converted into a campervan. The vans are replaced with a hightop, making it even roomier (and possible for us to stand straight up and walk inside the van). While it is smaller than your average hotel room, it was actually quite comfortable to live in!
The Kuga Campervan sleeps a max of 3 people. The dining area converts into a queen bed, and the overhead storage can be pulled out to make a single bed above.
There is a mini-refrigerator, a stove, and a sink–all the common appliances you’d need to make your own meals!
For longer trips on the road, this can be a huge money-saver! Instead of needing to pay for a car rental, meals at restaurants, and hotel rooms where you decide to stop, you can actually get where you need to go, prepare/eat meals, and stay the night–all in your convenient little campervan.
After we made our campervan reservation with a departure location of San Francisco, we patiently waited for our travel dates to arrive. On the day of our trip, we picked up the vehicle from the Travellers Autobarn depot in Hayward, CA, and were on our way!
Overall, traveling and living in a campervan was a super fun experience! It was a little cold sleeping in the van in mid-Feb, so do bring good sleeping bags or extra blankets with you if you plan on traveling in the winter!
ARE YOU ROAD TRIP READY? YOUR QUICK CHECKLIST:
License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
Spare Tire | In addition to carrying a spare tire with you, don’t forget to check your current tire conditions before you set off as well.
Jumper Cables / Car Jump Starter | A must-have for any road trip! If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool was sent from heaven and serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one!
iOttie car mount | This is my partner in crime on any road trip. It’s got an amazing grip and popping your phone in and out of the mount could not be easier. If you’re renting a rental car and you’re not sure if it has a navigation screen, bring a phone mount with you. The iOttie attaches by suction, so it’s easy to transport from car to car.
Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This convenient little kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more.
Coming from out of state? If you are planning on driving from SF, check flight prices from a few different Bay Area airports: San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), or San Jose (SJC). You can save a lot of money by comparing flight prices between nearby airports!
SAN FRANCISCO TO SAN LUIS OBISPO: THINGS TO DO
PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK
2.5 hours from San Francisco, CA
The first stop on this SF to SLO itinerary is Pinnacles National Park, located ~2 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area.
As one of the country’s least-visited national parks just 76 miles from San Jose, CA, you can truly enjoy Pinnacles’ unique landscape–virtually free of crowds! The park encompasses 26,000 acres of unique rock formations and remnants of an extinct 23 million-year-old volcano.
While you’re here, you can brave a journey into Bear Gulch Cave, home to a colony of bats! Hiking and rock climbing are also very popular activities in Pinnacles, as is watching for the majestic California condors overhead.
If you’re looking for just one hike to hit up, my favorite hike here is by far the 5.5-mile Condor Gulch Trail to High Peaks Trail Loop, sure to wow you with impressive views. To do this hike, you’ll start by parking at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area accessed from the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park.
One of the most fun parts of the hike is when you reach the famous ‘Steep and Narrow’ section, complete with railings and footholds to assist hikers up and down a few pinnacles themselves. Squeezing our way through the rock formations was a ton of fun!
This trail not only features spectacular views of the crazy rock formations, but it was also a butt burner! I’d definitely recommend packing a sun hat, water, and a few snacks to accompany you on this hike.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to look up! More often than not, you’ll be able to catch glimpses of California condors, the massive birds that inhabit the Pinnacles area.
SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA
1 hour 50 minutes from Pinnacles NP
As you continue to move further south on Highway 101, you’ll soon hit San Luis Obispo, a pleasant university town with a historic Spanish mission in the middle of downtown. If you’re interested in learning more about the mission’s history, visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
Centered around the old mission lies the historic downtown area of SLO. What you’ll find here (on Higuera Street) is traditional Spanish-style buildings housing various restaurants, shops, and cafes.
I’d highly recommend making time to explore the shops and sample a few of the coffee shops in the downtown area! Grab a cup of coffee, explore the shops, grab another cup of coffee!
My favorite coffee shop in SLO was definitely Kin Coffee. They have a huge variety of very creative matcha lattes, plus bagels shipped all the way from New York! Having been born and raised in NY, I am picky about my bagels–these bagels were delightful!
If you’re looking for entertainment for the kids, check out San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum or San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum.
Once you’re done exploring, it’s time to call it a night in San Luis Obispo! This is where you’ll end your first day–either check into your hotel or get settled in your campervan for a good night’s sleep.
Where To Stay If You Aren’t Camping: Madonna Inn
- This is one of California’s quirkiest places to stay! From the outside, it’s already unique as heck. On the inside, you’ll find that each one of its 100+ rooms is decorated in a completely different style than the next!
Pro Tip: If you find yourself with more time in the SLO area with nothing else to do, consider stopping by Pismo Beach, CA. Pismo Beach is a classic Central Coast beach town famous for its sand dune ATVing opportunities, boutique shopping, dining and wine-tasting, award-winning boardwalk, and beautiful coastline! If you’re visiting in the winter, don’t miss Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, where thousands of butterflies migrate to spend the winter.
MONTANA DE ORO STATE PARK
25 minutes from San Luis Obispo
Day 2 begins with a trip to one of the coolest coastal state parks in all of California, Montaña de Oro State Park!
Honestly, the more I explored this state park, the higher it jumped up on my list of favorite state parks.
This is a spot perfect for outdoor enthusiasts, coastal lovers, and nature lovers all around. Montaña de Oro translates into “Mountain of Gold”, and it’s really noticeable why it’s named that. The park is best known for its yellow/gold wildflowers that cover its hills in the springtime!
I visited in late February, and already the wildflowers were peeking, totally ready for spring to officially hit.
The best way to see what Montaña de Oro State Park has to offer is by going on a hike. There are so many awesome options that suit every skill level, from the easy 4.1-mile roundtrip Montaña de Oro Bluff Trail to the longer Coon Creek Trail (7.1-miles roundtrip). Both will bless your day with ultra-scenic views!
Don’t forget to pack a cooler to store your picnic lunch and post-hike drinks!
We started the Montaña de Oro Bluff Trail from Spooner’s Cove at about 9:30am, after enjoying yet another coffee in San Luis Obispo upon waking up. We completed the out-and-back trail around 12pm. We definitely stopped a lot for photos, but who could blame us–the bluff views of the ocean as well as the views of the poppy-dotted hills were to die for!
Once we finished our hike, we headed back to our campervan to grab our sandwiches and drinks. We sat at the iconic Spooner’s Cove (a great spot for tide-pooling during low tide) to enjoy our light meal before heading to the next stop of the day.
Take a look around this area before leaving–if the tides are low, check out the tide pools. If the tides are not ideal for tide pooling, why not try beachcombing for pretty shells instead?
All in all, I have no doubt that you’ll love this state park. You’ll get a jam-packed morning of rugged cliffs, secluded sandy beaches, tide pools, coastal plains, streams, canyons, and lush green/golden hills galore.
MORRO BAY, CA
15 minutes from San Luis Obispo / 20 minutes from Montaña de Oro SP
Next up is Morro Bay, one of the more off-the-beaten-path destinations to explore on your San Francisco to San Luis Obispo road trip.
Morro Bay is a small, beachy town filled to the brim with family-friendly activities. It’s a great place to get out on the water for beach/water activities, such as sailing, kite-flying, surfing, and kayaking.
No matter where you are, you’ll surely spot Morro Rock (what the city is best known for), a humongous rock formation jutting from the water.
Explore the energetic Embarcadero, filled with shops and art galleries, or spend a few hours dining or grabbing cocktails at sunset at an oceanfront restaurant. If you don’t know what to order, just get seafood! Morro Bay is a fishing town, and the seafood is as fresh as can be.
Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant is a good choice, where you’ll find oysters cooked to your liking (raw, grilled, or even smothered with garlic butter).
Looking for something more casual than an oceanfront restaurant? Head straight for Giovanni’s Fish Market, Morro Bay’s oldest fish market and seafood restaurant. You can’t go wrong with the fish & chips and a clam chowder bread bowl. There will almost always be a line, but don’t worry, it moves quickly!
While you’re here at the northern edge of town, be sure to spend a few moments at Morro Bay Pier–more popularly known as the Otter Viewing Area! Yes, you read that right–otters! Quite literally the cutest creatures ever.
During my visit, we saw at least five otters sunbathing, including a mama otter and a baby otter cuddling. If you haven’t had your heart melt from seeing an otter clean its face, then I recommend you hang out here until you see it for yourself. Way too cute to miss. You might even be inspired to buy otter-related souvenirs after that!
Looking for more shopping after all that eating and wildlife viewing? I recommend taking a stroll on Morro Bay Boulevard, where you’ll find a nice variety of thrift stores and antique shops including Tara Lee’s Antiques, Castaways Thrift Store, Revolve, Electric Valley Vintage & Goods, and more.
The Morro Bay Farmers Market is also held around here on select days!
Looking for more shops to peek into? Aside from Morro Bay Boulevard (between Napa Avenue and Main Street), check out Main Street between the blocks of Morro Bay Boulevard and Dunes!
Want to explore the town on a pair of wheels? You can go the touristy (but fun) route of renting a surrey from Beachfront Kites Surreys and More.
After you’ve gotten your fill of Morro Bay, it’s time to make your way to Paso Robles before calling it a day!
Where To Stay If You Aren’t Camping: Estero Inn
38 minutes from Morro Bay
About 30 miles east of Highway 1, you will find the quaint, hidden gem of a town known as Paso Robles. Paso Robles is one of California’s fastest-growing and up-and-coming wine regions, and I love it because it’s really not too much of a tourism hotspot at the moment.
This town almost reminds me of Napa and Sonoma in Northern California, with how its downtown area is structured, brimming with things to do! Spanning across several blocks in the downtown area, there are many wine tasting rooms, artisan gift shops, and gourmet shops selling quality items such as olive oil and soaps.
If you have daylight left, make a stop in the center of town and allocate a few hours to perusing the various shops, grabbing some wine, and hanging out by the tree-lined town square. Paso Robles has great weather, so it’s almost always ideal for sipping and eating al fresco style.
Since you’ll be spending the night in the Paso Robles area, there’s no rush to see it all on the first day! You’ll be able to take advantage of the amazing tasting rooms and wineries in the area the next day.
Within the downtown area, I’d recommend grabbing a few cookies from Brown Butter Cookie Company to bring home to friends/family, grabbing drinks at The Alchemists’ Garden, and getting yourself a good old-fashioned hamburger at Mutiny Burger!
Since you’re here during the night, be sure to check out Bruce Munro’s Field of Light at Sensorio. This popular immersive art installation is made up of over 58,800 stemmed fiber-optic lightbulbs, gently illuminating the landscape in morphing colors.
Reservations/tickets are required, so be sure to secure those ahead of time because they do sell out!
Since our road trip was so last minute, we weren’t able to secure tickets to check out Sensorio for ourselves. Bummer!
Instead, we headed for our ‘campsite’ for the night–a secluded spot on a hill overlooking some gorgeous vineyards! We found this campsite on Hipcamp, and while we did have to pay a fee to stay there, it was a way better alternative than sleeping in a dingy Walmart parking lot.
Start your next day in Paso Robles off with some breakfast. From there, visit a few of the popular winery estates with epic views including Justin Winery, Calcareous Vineyard, and DAOU Vineyards (Calcareous Vineyard and DAOU Vineyards are the most scenic in Paso Robles).
Do note that a lot of wineries require advance reservations. I recommend making reservations as early as possible as the more popular wineries do become fully booked–especially on weekends.
Pro Tip: The wineries in Paso Robles are mostly clustered together into the East Wineries and the West Wineries. That means you’ll want to stick to one of these sides when picking which wineries to visit.
If you’re a sucker for nostalgic shops and antique stores like I am, save some time to treasure hunt! Paso Robles is another great town to roam around for vintage finds.
Where To Stay If You Aren’t Camping: Allegretto Vineyard Resort Paso Robles
2 hours from Paso Robles
After getting your fill of Paso Robles, it’s time to start making your way back up to Northern California again! Our next stop is Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA.
With a bathroom break out of the way and a car full of snacks and drinks, hop back on the US-101 for a few hours’ drive back up to the Monterey Bay Area.
ALTERNATIVE ROUTE: If you’ve never explored the Big Sur region, you can veer back to Highway 1 and take the scenic route, the Pacific Coast Highway, up to Carmel. However, do take into consideration that this route takes longer than driving up the US-101 N.
However you choose to get there, once you do get there, you will be met with charm and romance, all wrapped up in one jam-packed town called Carmel-by-the-Sea.
This quaint and romantic seaside village boasts a great selection of shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants. You will not be able to resist the charm that the town of Carmel carries, evident the minute you step out of your car!
Some of my favorite things to do in Carmel include:
- Shopping and dining on Ocean Avenue
- Wine tasting (we recommend Talbott Vineyards and Folktale Winery)
- Taking a food and wine walking tour
- 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach to Monterey, CA
All in all, Carmel is a great town to grab a bite to eat, learn about the local gastronomy, and do more wine tasting!
If you’re looking to call it a night around here, both Monterey and Carmel are great areas to stay in. Both these towns provide various hotels and B&B’s to unwind and relax, but the options in Carmel are more tranquil and romantic.
Where To Stay: L’Auberge Carmel
More of an adventurous traveler? You might also like: Camping in Carmel: 15 Best Camping Spots Near Carmel, California
10 minutes from Carmel
Just minutes from Carmel-by-the-Sea, you’ll find Monterey Bay. This seaside town is even more sleepy than the last, but that might just be due to the overcast skies that frequent the area. Don’t fret because they’re actually a lot to do here!
Highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium (often considered as one of the best aquariums in the world), Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and spotting cute little otters in the water.
When in Monterey, you definitely cannot miss walking down Cannery Row, the setting of two John Steinbeck novels. You’ll notice many warehouses that used to be sardine canneries now serve as home to popular restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing, and biking are also popular activities to do here. We love Monterey so much that we dedicated an entire post to showcase some of the best things to do in town!
If you’re planning on stopping in both Carmel and Monterey, consider taking the scenic 17-Mile Drive.
NOTE: You’ll definitely want to spend your third overnight in either Monterey, CA or Carmel, CA before rounding out your trip with the final stretch back to San Francisco the next day.
Where To Stay: Spindrift Inn
BONUS: NITT WITT RIDGE
25 minutes from Morro Bay / 38 minutes from Paso Robles
While we didn’t get the chance to visit this roadside attraction, I did want to share it with you in case you had interest in fitting it into your own itinerary!
Nitt Witt Ridge, a California Registered Historical Landmark, is a quirky-as-can-be house on a quarter acre in Cambria, CA.
This extremely intricate and artsy house was designed by a reclusive artist named Arthur “Art” Harold Beal. Since buying the house in 1928, he spent the next 50 years carving out the terraces with only a pick and shovel and creating his own version of a castle on a hill (somewhat inspired by the nearby Hearst Castle, where he reportedly worked for a time).
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Art was an eccentric garbage collector who gathered and kept much of what others threw away to build his home.
The building materials you’ll see here include beer cans, toilet seats, abalone shells, washer drums, car rims, tile, car parts, and old stoves. Other materials are actually remnants of Hearst Castle. This blend of materials and elements is both impressive and perplexing, making it a fun landmark that you shouldn’t miss if you’re passing through!
Tours are by appointment only, but typically run at 11am, 12pm, or 2pm. The suggested donation is $10 per person for a 40-minute tour. This is a residential neighborhood with very limited hillside parking.
9 minutes from Morro Bay
Located just up the road from Morro Bay, the small town of Cayucos is your ticket to the Old West!
At Cayucos, expect a variety of fun saloons, antique stores, historic buildings, and the town’s pride and joy–the historic pier, built all the way back in 1872. While the boardwalk may be old, it has been refreshed with charming new boutiques, trendy shops, and dining spots.
While you’re here, do stop by Brown Butter Cookie Company and try the amazing buttery cookies!
GOT MORE TIME? OTHER AREAS TO CONSIDER EXPLORING
SAN FRANCISCO TO SAN LUIS OBISPO: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
Aside from the usual clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without on your SF to SLO road trip:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- Spare Tire | In addition to carrying a spare tire with you, don’t forget to check your current tire conditions before you set off as well.
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- iOttie car mount | This is my partner in crime on any road trip. It’s got an amazing grip and popping your phone in and out of the mount could not be easier. If you’re renting a rental car and you’re not sure if it has a navigation screen, bring a phone mount with you. The iOttie attaches by suction, so it’s easy to transport from car to car.
- Jumper Cables / Car Jump Starter | A must-have for any road trip! If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool was sent from heaven and serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one!
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
- Travel Pillow | If you have room in the car for a regular pillow, I find that they are the most comfortable for long car trips. If you need a more portable option, this memory foam travel pillow works well not only for car travel but also for camping!
- Travel Blanket | For all your napping needs–especially if the driver likes AC and you’re trying to snuggle up for a nap. This one is packable so it won’t take up very much in your car.
- Slip-on Sandals | Slip-on/slip-off sandals are a must for that extra comfort while sitting in the car. This allows you to make lots of stops without having to go through the process of putting your sneakers/boots back on.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more.
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- GoPro | Capture all those awesome action/adventure moments with a top-of-the-line action camera. Your regular camera or iPhone won’t be an option if you’re engaging in action sports like mountain biking, rock climbing, or whitewater rafting. For water sports, you could always get a waterproof case, but GoPro has time and time again proven to be the best for underwater photography.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on rivers or lakes, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a warmer windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Osprey Daylite Daypack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Laundry Bag | Summer and/or outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Sunscreen | Sunscreen is absolutely necessary for a California road trip. Even if it’s overcast or cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply it whenever you’re outdoors. No matter where we go, we like a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that damage our environment. For the face, we are absolutely obsessed with Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from a river or lake to a car. This one here is a great option.
- Travel Clothesline | This is a small and portable clothesline that allows you to hang up your wet clothes almost anywhere. I’ve found that it’s really handy whenever I have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be air-dried. I love it for its multi-purpose functionality!
- Dry Bag | Another multi-purpose item on the list! Dry bags are completely necessary for keeping your dry belongings (clothes, electronics, money, etc)… dry. Don’t set foot on a kayak or SUP board without putting your stuff in a dry bag. Trust me, it’s better than ending up with a phone or camera submerged in water in the case where the boat tips or something. It’s also super handy for carrying around wet bathing suits and towels. Or even doubling as your laundry bag!
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
Traveling by campervan? Don’t forget to pack these extra things:
- Cooking supplies
- Sleeping bags/blankets
- Boardgames and cards for entertainment
- Cooking materials, snacks, drinks
- Camping chairs
Looking for more California road trip travel tips? Read more: