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Over the summer we had a couple of articles about road trips to consider if you’re far under your mileage limit on your leased vehicle, and you are not considering purchasing the vehicle at the end of the lease term. We setup the conditions that we would consider road trips of up to 1,500 miles (city to city) that get you back to where you started from. We also promised that there would be six trips total, and we only provided four in the summer – so year-end holiday week seems like a good time to describe the other two trips.
As a reminder, in the initial road trip article we outlined a seven-state trip to see baseball games in seven cities in the Midwest as well as a tour around New England. In the subsequent road trip article we described a trip in the southern part of the mountain west which would allow you to see five national parks and a few other natural attractions, as well as a trip focused on music in the southeast. This time we’ll look at two trips that are entirely within a single state: California and Texas. Did we choose this theme because these are two of the three largest states in the contiguous US, or because they are the two most populous states, or even just because these are the states that hosted all seven World Series games this year? In a word, yes. But it also helps that in both states there is plenty to see and do regardless of what your interests are.
A Grand Tour of the Golden State
We start this road trip from San Diego. Obviously, if you already live there you could see some of the sights at another time when you’re not about to embark on a 1300+ mile road trip. But, in case you are actually going to start this circuit elsewhere, here’s some of the things you’ll want to see in San Diego (by no means an exhaustive list):
- The Gaslamp Quarter – many great restaurants and entertainment options in this section of downtown
- Coronado – on a peninsula across San Diego Bay from the city itself, with great views of the city, beaches and parks.
- The San Diego Zoo
Once you’re ready to leave San Diego its time to head up I-5 to Los Angeles, 120 miles away. About half of this drive will keep you within a few miles of the coast with terrific views of the Pacific Ocean (but of course keep your eyes on the road if you’re the one driving). Then you’ll head just a bit more inland to have the most direct route into the city of LA itself. Like in San Diego, there’s way too much to do to suggest everything, so we’ll stick with three major things to do, which are also in line with our previous road trip themes:
- Go see a game at Dodger Stadium – home of the defending National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers, and also, believe it or not, the third oldest stadium in use by a Major League Baseball team.
- Visit Hollywood – the symbolic center of the US film and television industry, see the famous Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Blvd., and if you plan it right see a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
- Go to the beach – many of the beach towns allow for more than your typical day at the beach – like Santa Monica with the amusement park on the pier, Manhattan Beach with its pier and the Strand with beautiful beachfront homes so your view is great wherever you look, or of course, Venice Beach, with it’s very eclectic group of beachgoers that create a unique sight of its own.
If you left the Los Angeles area from the beach, we suggest you ride along CA-1 (PCH) up through Malibu and continuing along into Oxnard and Ventura where you can connect with the US-101 highway that will take you into Santa Barbara, a very nice little city along the coast that is definitely worth stopping in on your trip. After Santa Barbara you’ll head inland from the coast a bit, but it will be quite scenic as you head for San Luis Obispo, another small Central Coast city that is worth a stop with it’s combination of museums, a nice downtown, and being home to a major state university as well.
San Luis Obispo also provides the crossroads for how you’ll be continuing the drive north: stay on the Pacific Coast Highway (which is a bit of a slower road), and you’re drive will include views of the Pacific Ocean most of the way, and also provide you the opportunity to go to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and also see Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey, and Pebble Beach. If you choose to stay on US-101 you’ll be able to see Paso Robles, another central coast town known for wineries and olive groves, and continue north nearby Pinnacles National Park, which is known for its caves and the opportunity to see golden eagles and the California condor.
- See the bayfront area: Embarcadero, North Beach, and Fisherman’s Wharf area – great restaurants (the North Beach section has a lot of Italian restaurants in particular) and other entertainment, plus great views of the bay and the bridges.
- Visit Alcatraz: once the worst of the worst in the US federal prison system were detained here – now it’s open for tours, and accessible by ferry.
- See Lombard Street: in particular the section that makes it the “crookest street in the world” (when folks aren’t making a joke about either Wall Street in New York City or Pennsylvania Ave in Washington D.C.). You can drive it – slowly and carefully.
To leave San Francisco we suggest you use the Golden Gate Bridge, and head north into wine country – the next place to visit is Sonoma and Napa Valley. The beautiful area will provide potential places to stop, but also a very scenic view as you now begin to make your way east across California. From the Napa Valley you’ll continue to Lake Tahoe – most of the lake is in California (with the rest in Nevada), and the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, which is in this area (Olympic Valley, CA), and besides the lake there are several national forests that you’ll pass through, and of course some mountains as well. Across California from wine country to South Lake Tahoe is around 170 miles.
After you’ve enjoyed the Lake Tahoe area you’ll head south on the eastern side of the state using highway US-395. While the trip north was along the Pacific Ocean, now you’ll be going south along the Sierra Nevada mountains, and passing a number of national parks that may be worth a stop as well: Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, all to the west of your route along US-395, and Death Valley National Park to the east. None are right on the side of the road, but you will be close to all of these. Also, if you didn’t do any skiing near Lake Tahoe, there’s another opportunity at Mammoth Mountain, which is also very close to the highway you’ll be using to go south.
As you reach the southern end of US-395 you will be east of Los Angeles, and depending on the side trips you made off the highway so far you may want a more direct route back to San Diego, or if you’re looking for one more excursion we have one in mind. To get back to San Diego most quickly, you’ll continue on US-395 and follow the road to I-15 South, which ends in San Diego. Along the way you will pass Temecula, one more very pleasant small city, that includes wineries (of course, that’s basically a requirement in California), an Old Town section with buildings built in the 1800’s, and several golf courses in case you didn’t get your fill at Pebble Beach. All in all, this route will bring your total road trip distance (excluding around town driving) to about 1,300 miles, with around 530 miles in the southbound leg from South Lake Tahoe to San Diego.
If you are enjoying the road trip (and your traveling company) and want to make one more stop, we have one in mind that keeps you below the 1,500 mile: the Palm Springs area. At the southern end of US-395, instead of following the road to I-15 and staying on that to San Diego, you’ll want to get on I-10 east and go out to the desert. Palm Springs is known as a getaway location for the folks in LA, and was made famous by the celebrities that have made it a getaway through the years. Here you’ll find great golf courses, resorts and restaurants. If you haven’t had your fill of parks on this trip, you’re also not too far from Joshua Tree National Park. Also, nearby is the Coachella Valley, where they hold the Coachella music festival each April. Once you’re ready to head back to San Diego you’ll get a scenic ride through the California desert, until you pick up I-15 to make the rest of the drive. Overall, this excursion will add about 100-150 miles to the trip (depending on what you do in Palm Springs), bringing it close to 1,400-1,450 miles total.
Looping the Lone Star State
For the Texas road trip we’re going to start in “Big D” – Dallas, and head west. You’ll pass through Fort Worth, within an hour of getting on the road, but if you’ve never been, it may be worth stopping. The city’s nickname is “Cowtown” because of its historical significance in the cattle trade, and with that in mind you can find rodeos at the Fort Worth Stockyards as well as the National Cowgirl Museum.
Once you’re on the road out of the D-FW metroplex it’s about 150 miles west on I-20 to you next destination – Abilene, a small city that was once a frontier settlement, and is now home to a few museums that focus on Texas history and the old West, as well as Fort Phantom Hill, which is part of the Texas Forts Trail. Then, once it’s time to saddle up and head off into the sunset you’ll continue on I-20 to another pair of adjacent cities (however, on a much smaller scale): Midland and Odessa. You’ll reach Midland first, driving west on I-20, and when you get there you’ll be in the Permian Basin, the home of the West Texas oil industry. There’s two things that may be of interest to see in Midland: the George W. Bush Childhood home, and a museum focused on the petroleum industry. When you’re ready for the short drive on I-2o to Odessa, some more varied sights await you, including a 8-foot tall statue of a jackrabbit, the Presidential Archives and Leadership Museum, a replica of Stonehenge, and the Odessa Meteor Crater.
- The Alamo – the famous mission built in the 1700s and the site of a major battle in 1836 in the Texas battle for independence from Mexico. It is now preserved as a museum. You won’t forget it.
- The Riverwalk – walking distance from the Alamo you’ll find the miles-long Riverwalk, lined with shops and cafes, and definitely worth visiting.
- See the view from the top of the Tower of the Americas, a 750 tall building with a publicly accessible observation deck
There’s also a number of museums covering various themes, and amusement parks in the area as well. San Antonio is the largest city you will have visited so far (around 1.5 million residents, slightly bigger than Dallas), so there will be no lack of things to do while you’re here.
Once it’s time to leave the Alamo City, the next stop is Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico, so you’ll head south on I-37, past Corpus Christi and onto the barrier island, a drive of about 170 miles. Padre Island has a national seashore, plenty of beaches, fishing at the Bob Hall Pier (and elsewhere), and there are also opportunities to see baby sea turtles released into the wild or do some birding as well.
After leaving Padre Island the next destination is the largest city in Texas (and fourth largest in the US) – Houston. This will be about 240 miles to the north and east, and again, there’s no lack of things to do, but here’s a few suggestions:
- Go see the World Champion Houston Astros play baseball at Minute Maid Park.
- Visit Space Center Houston – an affiliate museum of the Smithsonian, and a great place to learn more about space and science.
- Check out the relatively small downtown area, especially the Theater District and Historic District.
- Go see and hear some live music – start on 6th Street, the main area downtown with bars and clubs that regularly have live music of many different types being performed (not just “both kinds – country and western”).
- Visit the Texas State Capitol – modeled after the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. it looks very similar to that building with two notable differences: the building is pink, and it is seven feet taller than the U.S. Capitol, because everything’s bigger in Texas.
- Visit the many parks and trails and enjoy nature in this section of the Hill Country with the Colorado River winding through the area. For a specific suggestion, visit the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve. If you enjoy golf there’s also some good courses nearby.
The road trip is wrapping up when it’s time to leave Austin. It’s time to head north on I-35 to return to Dallas. This trip will be about 195 miles, and wrap up a trip that totals 1,461 miles (just in the city to city driving), during which you’ll visit five cities with over 800,000 residents, three of which are also among the only 10 cities in the U.S. with over a million residents. Hopefully the trip will also provide a multitude of great memories as well.
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