California is known for both its scenic ocean highways and its world-renowned wineries. Why not take the best of both worlds, and pair them together for an unforgettable and quintessentially Californian van road trip?
Travel blogger Molly O’Brien took a Cabana from Los Angeles along Highway 1, up to the Santa Ynez valley and into Livermore Wine Country, driving along the ocean for most of the journey. After spending a night in the Bay Area, she took the van back down to West Hollywood. Read her jam-packed itinerary and tips to help create your own California road trip.
Know Before You Go
- Pack some extra blankets — the van has a heater, but it’s always nice to have plenty of layers to bundle up at night.
- There are plenty of enjoyable, fun, safe places to park your van. I used Hipcamp and Harvest Hosts to book camping spots on a vineyard ranch in Los Olivos and a vineyard in Livermore. If you aren’t sure where to start, use Cabana’s trip planning service, Concierge.
- There’s oftentimes a community of people who spend time together at these group camps, so arrive on-site a bit earlier in the evening if you’d like to meet your fellow van travelers!
- Better route planning = a better experience. You can’t travel as fast as you can in a car while driving the van. Plan out your drive time so you’re not rushed, and you’ll enjoy a better trip experience.
- Sometimes you won’t have reliable cell service, so it’s important to map out your route beforehand and download a map offline in case you lose connection.
- Take time to read through the Cabana app FAQs, because most questions you’ll need answered on your trip are right there.
- Pay attention to your gas levels. It's easy to go through gas quicker than expected driving such a large vehicle, and you’ll need at least a quarter tank to turn on the water and heat in the van
Day 1: Los Angeles to the Central Coast’s Santa Ynez Valley (with a sunset s'mores stop in Malibu)
Your first step is to pick up your Cabana in West Hollywood any time after 3:00pm, which is a contactless and easy process. Download the Cabana app and follow the instructions to unlock the van with your phone, and embark on your journey.
There won’t be a point during this journey where you’re too far from civilization — but make sure you’re prepared with some tasty road trip snacks and anything else you’d need to spend a comfortable evening in this mobile hotel (just like you would in a static hotel).
Start off your adventure by driving along the 10 freeway in LA west toward Santa Monica. This road will turn into the Pacific Coast Highway. You’ll drive on “the PCH,” as it’s affectionately referred to by Californians, up past the iconic Santa Monica Pier and along Will Rogers State Beach.
You’ll take this road all the way up toward Malibu past Point Dume, and later Zuma Beach, which is famous for its iconic surfing. This highway offers gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean just feet from the road.
El Matador State Beach is a perfect pullout for a break from driving and a sunset stop. This beach straddles the line between Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. It’s an ideal destination to stop, relax, and enjoy a s’mores sesh on the beach using your camping stove.
Once the sun goes down, continue along Highway 1 from Malibu toward Ventura. You’ll switch over to the 101 North, heading toward Santa Ynez Valley where you’ll spend the first night among the vineyards of the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.
Spend the first night in SYV wine country. Here, the only sounds you’ll encounter are the chirping of the birds and the mooing of the cows on the nearby ranches. You might even be roused by one of the local roosters for the most natural of morning wake up calls. It’s a completely immersive way to experience a rural lifestyle without having to venture too far outside civilization.
Day 2: The Central Coast: Los Olivos, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, and Paso Robles
Morning in Los Olivos
Wake up early to explore the peaceful Santa Ynez Valley’s quaint ranch town of Los Olivos. You can make coffee right in your Cabana to start the morning off right before embarking on your adventure to walk around the downtown area. Here, there are plenty of spots to park your van.
Everything in this rural region is well spread out — so you feel like you have enough space to drive your van on the roadways — but it’s close enough together that you’ll have no problem exploring the entire town in just under an hour’s time. Downtown Los Olivos offers a variety of fun wine tasting rooms and cute local shops. Stop into Liquid Farm to buy some locally owned and produced wines as a souvenir. Next, Los Olivos Grocery is a great place to grab a hearty morning breakfast burrito and is a favorite among locals and visitors alike.
After you’ve checked out the cute (but compact) city center square of Los Olivos in the morning, head north on the 101 highway and make another pit stop at the famous roadside attraction, Ostrichland USA which is just north, in the town of Buellton. It’s a quirky stop on your way up through the Santa Ynez Valley that you won’t soon forget.
Next, your journey will take you through the vineyards of the Santa Maria Valley region on your way to the day’s second stop: San Luis Obispo.
Mid-Morning in San Luis Obispo
It’s about a 45 minute drive from Los Olivos to get to “SLO.” You’ll drive along the ocean past the seaside cities Pismo Beach and Avila Beach before arriving in San Luis Obispo. This is the biggest city between Santa Barbara and the Bay Area where you can stop for a break.
Explore the walkable downtown area of this lively college town, which hosts a range of fun, locally owned and operated boutique shops and restaurants such as the Libertine Brewing Company. After you’ve explored SLO, transfer back over to Highway 1 and head toward Morro Bay.
Lunch in Morro Bay
Morro Bay is home to more quaint shops, a gorgeous beach, and the majestic rock after which the city was named, “Morro Rock.” Morro Rock towers above the village and is one of the “nine sisters” of the San Luis Obispo region. These landmarks are proof of the powerful volcanic activity that once shaped the lands of this region.
There’s an artsy, eclectic atmosphere in Morro Bay. Stroll along the Embarcadero, and perhaps even pop into the local shops and boutiques before continuing north along Highway 1.
You’ll be paralleling the ocean along the highway again before cutting over on Route 46 inland toward Paso Robles (which offers gorgeous views of the entire pacific coastline below). Paso Robles is another iconic wine growing region on the Central Coast.
Late Afternoon in Paso Robles
Once you reach Paso Robles in the late afternoon, you can soak in the vibrant colors of a wine country sunset or stop into one of the local wineries. Spend the rest of the evening driving up historic highway 101 (which once served as the main road where the missionaries traveled back in the 1700s, formally called “El Camino Real”) to the Bay Area’s Livermore Valley.
Coming out of Paso Robles, first you’ll pass through San Miguel with its mission dating back to 1979, before hitting the agricultural scenery on this road which showcases where much of the western United States' food is grown. You’ll pass through the historic town of Soledad which is the gateway to Pinnacles National Park (one of the country's newest national parks and a fantastic stop for another road trip). Then, traveling farther north toward the Bay Area, you'll be amongst the Santa Cruz Mountains (another fun detour for another trip) where there’s more wine country to be found along with fantastic hiking opportunities.
Then, you’ll pass through Gilroy in the southernmost tip of the Bay Area. Gilroy is the proud “garlic capital” of the world, hosting an annual “Garlic Festival” to celebrate its strong (smelling) heritage.
As you arrive in Livermore and travel over the Altamont Pass, you’ll see thousands of wind turbine blades turning peacefully in the breeze. These windmills were one of the earliest wind farms in the US, dating back to the early 1980s. It’s one of the largest wind farm turbine concentrations in the world with almost 5,000 turbines supplying a power capacity of 576 megawatts (MW), producing about 125 MW on average and 1.1 terawatt-hours (TWh) yearly.
Finally, you’ll arrive in Livermore and park your Cabana at your host winery, which you can find and book using apps such as Harvest Hosts or Hipcamp. You’ll spend a quiet night under the Northern California stars surrounded by grapevines.
Day 3: Livermore Valley and a Scenic Trip Back to Los Angeles
Your time exploring California’s Coastal views and impressive wine scene is almost coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean the journey home can’t be just as enjoyable as the journey up.
Wake up in the Livermore Valley and explore this quaint, historic East Bay region which is located just about 45 minutes outside San Francisco.
There are a few cute coffee shops in the walkable downtown Livermore area. Grab a morning brew at The Press Cafe, a local cafe, while you browse the stores of the active artists’ scene.
Outside of the downtown, there’s a prominent wine country industry housed in this idyllic old western town setting. There are dozens of local wineries to explore in the Livermore Valley, many of which are family-owned and operated affairs, such as The Crooked Vine and the well-known, nationally acclaimed Wente Vineyards.
When you’re done exploring and grabbing some souvenirs to take home, you can make the journey back down to LA which takes about six hours. I recommend requesting a late check out for this journey, and planning to have the van back by 8 p.m. instead of 11 a.m.
Driving Down to Los Angeles
Depending on how much time you spend in Livermore Wine Country in the morning, you can either take Interstate 5 back down to LA which is only about a five hour drive (without traffic) or take Highway 1 back down which is much more scenic, but can range between 7-8 hours (the timing depends on traffic on this one lane road). Luckily you’ll never be short of gorgeous scenery to gaze at even if there is traffic.
Soak in the beautiful scenery along this route which spans from the Bay Area down through Monterey County, Big Sur, and the Central Coast’s Highway 1 Discovery Route, before arriving in Los Angeles where you started.
The Pacific Coast Highway Journey
Notable outdoorsy stops on Highway 1 include Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or exploring the blooms of the Calla Lily Valley at Garrapata State Park. For dining with a view, Nepenthe in Big Sur is well-known for its iconic views of the coastline and its famous Ambrosia Burger.
As you continue along Highway 1, see if you can view the real-life zebras grazing along the side of the road between the Hearst Castle and Cambria. Stop at the elephant seal rookery in San Simeon, or take a stroll along Moonstone Beach in Cambria to stretch your legs and see if you can find a real souvenir moonstone.
Whichever route you choose, you will drop the Cabana back off in West Hollywood for a similar contactless check out experience where you'll lock the van back up using the Cabana app.
Make sure to have your belongings with you before departing! And make sure to share your trip and tag @CabanaVans on Instagram.