5 Fundamental Rules of a Successful California Road Trip

Road trips rule. Keep these five things in mind before taking off on your next one. And whatever you do, don’t drop your camera in the ocean.

I’d made it to Malibu, over halfway through my Pacific Coast Highway road trip—and I still had no idea if I was taking one of the best road-trips of my life, or the worst.

On the plus side, I was driving a truly magnificent Ford Mustang Convertible from Sixt through some of the most stunning coastal scenery you’ll find in the States. (That’s a bonus tip, by the way—always aim for a convertible, so you can throw the top down when the sun comes out and feel the wind in your hair. It’s the California thing to do.)

On the flip side, my expensive camera had just tumbled into the ocean, and despite trying the ol’ “bag of rice” trick, my brand new mirrorless camera was looking less than healthy (read part one for the full story).

I desperately needed it working, because I was on assignment for American Tourister, trying out and showcasing some of their new luggage.

No camera? No work commitments met—and a lot of stress landing on my shoulders.

This could get really messy.

Deep, calming breaths, dude. Time to remember the five rules of a successful road trip.

Rule 1: Never Hurry (Santa Barbara to Los Angeles via Malibu)

You’d be crazy to race through the coastline around Malibu. The long sweep of Santa Monica Bay is a photographer’s dream (and my camera was kinda still working, so I was taking every opportunity to use it before something else went wrong).

My main stopping-off point of the day was at Point Dume, an enormous promontory with a beach and nature reserve filled with sheer cliffs, headlands jutting into the sea, and rocky coves screaming to be explored on foot.

Craggy coastline in Malibu, California
Craggy coastline at Point Dume in Malibu, California

For me, this is the whole point of road-tripping (especially with a set of hot wheels). The car allows you to indulge your curiosity at every turn, to check out every turnoff or signpost that grabs your attention, but still have enough horsepower at your disposal to get to where you need to be at the end of the day.

A good road-trip isn’t defined by where you’re going—it’s about where you are, from moment to moment.

Other recommendations for the area:

  • Escondido Falls are a beautiful sight for road-weary eyes and features some of the best hikes in the region
  • El Matador State Beach, a long strip of pristine sand, can be found along the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, just before you reach Point Dume.

Alas, now it was time to head to L.A.—and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

Rule 2: Avoid Cities, Because They Suck for Road Trips (Los Angeles to Laguna Beach)

Road-trips are about the open road, the wind roaring, the landscape opening up, the sky and the horizon stretching away endlessly in every direction.

Cities kill that feeling dead.They’re about brakes, traffic,

They’re about brakes, traffic, gridlock, and frustration. They’ll drain all the momentum from your journey and suck all the hope from your heart.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles is just too big to go around. There’s no alternate route—you just have to go through.

Historic Route 101
Historic Route 101

After 3.5 hours of nightmarish traffic from Santa Monica through to Long Beach, my blood pressure was back up to where it had been before hitting the Malibu coastline.

It was a huge relief to see the City of Angels recede in my rear-view mirror, but the damage was done. I felt bone-weary, encrusted with traffic grime, and resenting every single car I met on the road.

Enough. I needed a proper rest.

Rule 3: When You Stop, Stop Properly (A Luxury Stopover in Laguna Beach)

Yes, it’s possible to spend your road-trip staying in super-cheap motel rooms with water stains on the ceiling, rust-crusted bathrooms and grey bedsheets as thin as tissue-paper. I’ve stayed in plenty of hostel dorms that fit this description exactly. At the old age of 31, I felt like it was time to try something a little different.

Plus, in California, I found the cheap hotels to be in really, really poor shape.

If the reason is budget-related, you’re probably not using the right tools to find a bed for the night. In my experience, it is often cheaper, and always much easier, to use sites like Hotels.com to find your accommodation in advance, taking advantage of special advance or online-only deals, than to spend the last few hours of daylight frantically hunting for somewhere to stay for the night.

I had plans to meet up with a college friend in Huntington Beach, and in the afternoon, I’d planned to continue onwards. But I couldn’t go on. I was done.

Rule 3, I succumb to your delicious embrace.

I’m not an advance planner, so I was that guy spending the last few hours of daylight frantically hunting for somewhere to stay for the night.

I didn’t want the most affordable room available—there were plenty much cheaper, but that wasn’t the aim here. I just wanted everything to stop. I wanted the total absence of stress that comes when you pay for exactly the kind of high-quality experience you want.

At the Surf & Sand Resort , I found it.

The thinking behind Rule 3 is that by the time you stop for the night, you want everything sorted out already, and you want something good. Road trips can be stressful (especially when you drop your camera in the ocean), and a bad night’s sleep can destroy the enjoyment of the next day, undercutting the whole reason you’re taking the trip in the first place.

My balcony overlooked the beach, so I could fall asleep listening to the waves crashing onto the beach. The room was perfect. Everything was immaculately clean, and through the open balcony doors, all I could smell was the fresh air of the ocean.

I dropped my things, stripped off, and headed out into the moonlit darkness for a rejuvenating night swim.

Rule 4: Forget The Rules And Improvise

I peered closely at my ailing camera, brushing bits of rice from the casing.

Oh man. Seriously?

There’s a grain of rice jammed deep in the SD card slot, and it wouldn’t come out. It’s not a dealbreaker since the Fujifilm X-T2 has two SD slots—but it’s one more thing wrong with it at a critical time. The final stretch of the trip is ahead and I needed this thing to work.

Time for Rule 4.

I had a plan for this trip, and it broke. My camera is now too much of a risk to rely upon, and getting it repaired is going to be expensive (Fujifilm quoted me $1,250 for a replacement)—and way too slow for the purposes of this trip. How can I improvise a solution?

The answer is a little crazy, but it works: I get my sister to overnight my spare camera and lenses all the way across the States.

(Let’s not talk about how much this costs me. You wouldn’t want to see a grown man cry.)

Typical Pacific Coast Highway sunset :)
Typical Pacific Coast Highway sunset, somewhere south of Huntington Beach

It was the right call, though. The damaged camera keeps working for the rest of the trip, but just a few weeks later, it breaks completely. It could have stopped working at any time, and the consequences of that happening would have been far worse than the hassle of organizing for a backup.

On a road trip, your best plans will always fall apart. My carefully-planned coastal route on the first half of the trip was mangled by road closures. I underestimated how draining the city traffic would be. My camera became a ticking bomb. Obstacle after obstacle presented itself.

But there was nothing that Rule 4 couldn’t handle. The right mindset will always get you to the finish line.

Rule 5: Share Your Ending (Laguna Beach to San Diego)

The coastline south of Laguna, through Del Mar and down into San Diego, is a natural paradise, and I was so relieved to have a working camera (and a backup) to capture it all.

For countless millennia, the waves have been carving a long bite out of this piece of California from Long Beach to San Diego, throwing fine golden sand back onto the beach and exposing ragged fangs of lava-like rock, some of which are now offshore.

Pretty much anywhere around here is a good place to stop—you’ll usually find a great view or a way to climb down to the beach.

You’ll stand on ragged escarpments, marveling at the gentle violence that has created this truly epic coastline.

Coastline in Encinitas, California along the Pacific Coast Highway
Coastline in Encinitas, California along the Pacific Coast Highway

You’ll see kids recklessly cavorting in natural blowholes, laughing as they’re blasted out like a cork from a champagne bottle when the next wave hits.

You’ll see the wildlife—especially if you stop off at La Jolla Cove, where sea-lions gather to lazily enjoy the afternoon sun. (I really do mean lazily. Sea lions might be the only wildlife you can photograph with long exposures!)

That said, sea-lions—and all wildlife—deserve respect. Hoards of tourists tried taunting them and playing with them. Not only are they immensely powerful and fast when roused, they’re also not there for our benefit. For the love of all that is holy, give them the space they deserve.

But in the end, it’s about the company you keep in those final few miles, when you’re tired and gritty-eyed and a little emotional. I pick up another friend I haven’t seen since my college days, and we drive to my final destination, Ocean Beach, San Diego.

Sundown in Ocean Beach, San Diego
Sundown in Ocean Beach, San Diego

Surfers were out in the waves, catching the last hour of sunshine, and the sea was a sheet of hammered bronze—and I couldn’t have wished for a better sight to close out California, and my time exploring the Pacific Coast Highway.

I’m calling this road trip a success.

In the spirit of shared endings, I’d like to thank American TouristerHotels.com, and Sixt Rent a Car for helping me join all the dots and always getting me where I needed to be.

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