Road Trip: Northern California
From surf to summit: A great American road trip you'll never forget.
The one-lane state-park road I was driving in northern California threads cautiously for a half-dozen miles through a towering forest of coast redwoods, the tallest trees - the tallest living things-on earth. Here and there, it edges so closely between the ancient giants, some of them more than 1,000 years old, that I feared scraping both sides of the car. These stately redwoods surely qualify as a natural wonder; they certainly awed me thoroughly. But would I and my car make it unscathed to the end of the road, nosing erratically as it does through the shadowy canyon formed by their massive trunks? I had my doubts. By any measure, this short woodland path through the redwoods is extraordinary. And yet it was only one of many bedazzling sights and experiences I enjoyed on an economical, 1,200-mile drive recently that took me north from San Francisco along California's rocky coastline to the Oregon border and back south again by way of winding roads through the soaring Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada. My surf-to-summit route, one of America's most spectacular drives, is a scenic treat from beginning to end. But don't figure a great trip like this is going to bust your budget. You can see it all for yourself for much less than you might expect.
As a onetime Californian, I plotted the drive to show my wife Sandy five of my favorite places. For me, "favorite" usually means somewhere in the remote countryside. So we headed for a sprawling, semi-wilderness region of state-and-federal park and forest lands, where lodging and dining prices tend to be very affordable. Along the way, I found many low-priced rooms that boast lovely water or mountain views. Indeed, a couple can stay in a historic, pine-shaded lodge at Lake Tahoe, one of California's most popular High Sierra retreats, for as little as $44 a night midweek during peak summer season. You might catch a glimpse of the sparkling blue lake from your balcony. Just down the road a few minutes on the Nevada side of the lake, a gambling casino advertises nightly "All-U-Can-Eat" buffets for $6.99, featuring ribs on Monday and steak on Tuesday.
We're both hikers, so we broke up the drive by taking exciting day hikes. At Point Reyes National Seashore, we walked through groves of fragrant eucalyptus to a wave-splashed cove where portly sea lions frolicked among the rocks. At Mount Shasta, a 14,162-foot-high, Fuji-like volcanic cone tipped with snow, we wandered through fields of multicolored wildflowers. A maze of cliff-side paths tempted us in the coastal village of Mendocino, a logging town turned artists' colony. None of these hikes added a penny to our budget.
Several times, we stopped at roadside beaches to wade in the chilly Pacific surf or investigate the squirmy marine life of tidal pools; no charge for this either. Once we watched a small whale swim past just offshore, its blowhole spouting as it glided slowly north. A terrific show, and all for free. Often we picnicked beside a tumbling stream - lunch al fresco with a million-dollar view for the price of a hunk of cheese and crackers from a local market. Now and again, a no-fee swimming hole beckoned.
The San Francisco Bay Area's three major airports - San Francisco International, Oakland, and San Jose - are all convenient to this drive and are all serviced by low-cost airlines; Oakland and San Jose offer both Southwest Airlines and America West flights, while San Francisco is serviced by Southwest as well as ATA, National Airlines, and Sun Country.
An Internet check indicates that auto rentals in August, peak vacation time, are least costly at San Francisco. Dollar (800/800-4000) quoted a weekly rate of $116 in mid-August for an economy car with unlimited mileage. At San Jose, the airport's lowest rate was from Payless (800/729-5377), at $116 a week. At Oakland, the best I could find was $150, quoted by Dollar. Balancing airfares against car rental rates, San Jose may be the airport for budget travelers in summer.
On the road, I suggest budget-priced lodgings at each of five overnight stops. In summer, advance reservations are advised, but if you go without, you will spot inexpensive motels and lodges dotting most of this route. Somewhat isolated, they should be open to price-dickering. Room rates below are for two people per night (except where noted) during the summer high season.
I chose this route for its magnificent scenery. Few drives anywhere treat you to so much for so little.
Point Reyes National Seashore
You may want to keep a swimsuit handy as you drive up the coast, although Northern California's beaches invite exploring rather than swimming because of frigid water and treacherous currents. (Summertime can also be foggy; September and October tend to be the sunniest months.) A case in point is Point Reyes National Seashore at Olema, a sprawling, semi-wilderness park that encompasses forests of wind-sculpted pines, lofty precipices, hidden valleys of ferns and huckleberries, rolling grasslands, and yes, miles of empty, wave-swept beaches. I've sunned myself on these sands, only braving the surf up to my knees. There's no charge to enter the park.
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