Not glamorous but it’s the swiftest way north.
Given a chance to drive or fly, I chose the road. It might be my stubbornly independent spirit or an American upbringing. Cruising down a freeway that is dependable and open, without tariff or detours, is a luxury, the ultimate freedom, and California is full of highways lying in wait. Going solo on a long distance drive up through California’s Central Valley can revive a worn spirit if done well.
A well worn route
Mom and dad met in San Francisco but settled in Southern California. Several times a year they’d stretch sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon, my siblings and I would pile in and we’d drive up over night. My parents took turns napping and driving while we slept – or that was the plan. The car trembled each time trucks rushed past us on the narrow two lane highway. I shuddered as well often too scared to sleep but loved arriving in San Francisco at dawn. Today there’s an asphalt ribbon running up that valley – a multi-lane, state-of-the-art divided highway.
Having fuel that is affordable makes driving a joy as well. Given a choice, the carbon offset between what an airplane burns and a car disgorges makes driving more ecologically effective for medium distance trips.(Public transportation is best for short trips and flying is best for long journeys, such as cross-country.*) I drive a small, compact car which, while nearly ten years old, still gets decent mileage. These factors make driving solo between San Diego and San Francisco an easy decision. I wanted the car’s freedom to pull over on a whim too.
I love having company on the road but if that’s not an option I’ll drive by myself. It means being vigilant on several levels. Without someone to spell me, pulling over to stretch and eat, staying alert and doing my Drivetime Yoga stretches helps the ride go smoothly.
As a woman alone on the road there are safety concerns but having driven the Interstate 5 dozens of times over the years gives me confidence. I don’t take chances. It’s like developing street smarts, you learn to be cautious and prepared.
A few safety issues
No one should spend an inordinate amount of time in a dark, deserted rest stop. But given the choice, there’s relative safety in numbers. I pull through, checking out how many cars versus trucks are there, how well lit it is and if I can find a parking space close to the bathrooms. I’ve napped and taken advantage of clean facilities, stretched stiff muscles and admired the scenery while pulled over with a small crowd of travelers.
- Fill the tank and keep an eye on the gas gauge. Running out of gas on a pounding, vast freeway far from stations is no fun. Avoid the annoyance, loss of time or danger of getting stuck in a compromising situation.
- Make sure the tires are adequately inflated and in good condition. Properly inflated tires also improve mileage.
- Pay attention to the temperature gauge. Regular oil changes and fluid checks are important long road trip or driving at home. If driving up mountain passes, watch that the car doesn’t overheat.
- Travel with insurance and road service options. I’ve been a Automobile Club member for decades. They’ve helped me change a few flat tires over the years.
- Let family and/or friends know where you’re headed and your route. Share progress reports online with texts, Skype or Facetime (but never while driving!)
Not the lonely traveler
I’m not alone. For company there’s nothing like an audio book. Long road trips or commutes are the only time I have to really listen. Downloading favorite podcasts is simple with my smartphone. My old buggy has a CD player and I rent books from the library. I love browsing the stacks for interesting titles and favorite authors.
Bugs – An issue on a long drive.
The joy of discovery
I love having the freedom to pull over on a whim. I’ve discovered some cool truck stops, eaten my share of fresh pie and locally roasted coffee. There are interesting, little towns to poke around in when you need a break. On the last trip I ended up staying over in Stockton. With a few hours before meetings in the Bay area, the few hours walking around the downtown core were packed with cool discoveries. Roadside attractions are plentiful on smaller roads like Highway 101 but not as much along the I-5 corridor. A parallel route like the smaller, Highway 99 are more interesting but also packed with narrower and fewer lanes. It’s a toss up.
View from the top of the historic Orestimba viewpoint.
Don’t be a road ninja
Not an energy drink fan, I knew that I would be too tired to do the trip by myself in one swoop. Where to spend the night? Apps are a great help for last minute booking but it’s easier to have a destination in mind and know where you’ll be sleeping. On the recent trip I choose a budget hotel, knowing there were less than 12 hours between checking in and out. Hotel rewards program can work in your favor. I’ve booked with Hotel Tonight, used Trip Advisor for referrals and have never had a bad experience with Airbnb. I always call the hotel directly before arriving to make sure they know I’m checking in late and to confirm. Before booking, I like to call and see if there’s a better rate with my AAA membership.
The historic spot, Orestimba marker.
On my return trip I needed a rest and pulled over for a brief stretch. The viewpoint road curled up and away from the freeway. A few other cars were parked there, so I felt comfortable getting out to walk around. Once out of my air conditioned capsule, the heat was punishing.
It was an unusual pinnacle, braced between that asphalt ribbon and the aqueduct carrying water to the parched Southern Californian homes. But there was more to discover. Rolling hills swept to the west, dotted with a few cattle. A cluster of green trees stood in contrast to the dry, golden hills. To the East the flatlands was a patchwork of fields, industrial outcroppings and clusters of homes. A rock memorial stood at the top.
Orestimba is a local Indian word meaning “meeting place.” Nearby are famous Indian rocks and a Sycamore grove where mission padres met with Indian leaders. The marker points to “The Old Road,” that traversed the west side of the valley from San Pedro to San Antonio. It was erected on April 20th, 1974 by Estanisla Chaper 58.
I’d found my meeting place, not with other people but my own spirit. Perhaps it was the ghosts of the padres and native Americans, but I felt strong, connected and happy. It was a good long distance drive. A few more chapters in my audio book remained between me and home.
If you go:
The distance between San Diego and San Francisco is about 460 miles. That means nearly 8 hours of driving. The road going up the San Joaquin, or the Central Valley, is almost a straight shot once you get over the ‘Grapevine’ pass. It’s not the most interesting drive, often hot and the traffic zips through between 65 and 80 miles an hour – most often on the high side. Lots of trucks use this route as well. Amenities and rest stop facilities are about ten to thirty miles apart.
Have you ever taken a long distance drive? How did it turn out? Found your ‘Orestimba?’
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I love road trips! I am the same as you … given the choice the road is my pick, you get to see so much along the way! We do the Canada to Florida trip every year or so. Love it!
That sounds like a very long trip but takes you through such beautiful and contrasting places. Lucky you!
Your article brought back memories of our own family road trips between Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Always fun! Nothing like annoying your sister for hours across the Mojave desert in a pitch black backseat! (I’m sure she disagrees.) Love the views from Orestimba – I’ll have to look for that on our next trip. Thanks for the tip, and the trip down memory lane! #WeekendWanderlust
Thanks Rob. I have memories of torturing my little brother in the back seat too!! Road trips are a great freedom. I hope they continue to be possible for a long, long time.
I also have cozy memories of playing games and sleeping with my sibs in the back of the station wagon while my dad drove through the night on family vacations. Currently we’re back in the States doing our version of an “epic” road trip (2500 miles so far) renewing ties with friends and family while we wait for our application for a residency visa for Portugal to go through the channels. It’s been awesome to drive without an itinerary and follow the road as it unwinds. The US really is an amazing country and it’s been fun to rediscover it!
How wonderful, Anita. I envy you the freedom of an open itinerary and a Portugal residency too. You’re so right about the U.S. being an amazing country. I so hope to take off and explore it more after the winter.
Good tips. As I get older I’m not very keen on driving 8 or ten hours in a day anymore. Will if I have to, but would rather not. Also don’t like driving at night much these days. The old eyes ain’t what they used to be.
I don’t imagine that anyone’s keen on driving 8 or more hours a day. It’s very hard on the body – at any age. It’s also dangerous! I don’t know how truck drivers do it. Night driving isn’t my favorite either and I’m noticing eye tricks more. Ahhhh, mortality!
How amazing and you are obviously one brave and gutsy lady. I love the audio books for company on the road also. You are doing well in meeting your own Orestimba.
Thanks, Paula. I think I’ve been lucky, more than brave or gutsy. Also stubborn and just decide what can or can’t be done – until it can’t! Don’t ask me to Bungee Jump – brings out my inner wimp!
I’m a huge fan of road trips! I must agree with you though, that it’s an ideal time to take advantage of all the great podcasts that are available.
Driving solo can be a lot of fun, actually, because you can stop wherever and whenever you wish without having to consider the desires of anyone else. Those random stops can lead to serendipitous discoveries – like Orestimba! I’d never heard of it until today and it sounds like you hadn’t heard of it before you pulled off, either.
Thank you for sharing all those useful tips, especially the one on keeping your car in tip-top shape.
Thanks, Linda, and YEP, driving solo gives you a chance to take chances on a whim. I loved discovering that solitary look-out, a place marked in history but otherwise forgotten. How many more there must be to discover!
The longest road trip I’ve done alone was Los Angeles to Minneapolis. I decided it was the perfect opportunity to visit National Parks and Monuments, and planned my route accordingly. While there were some hairy moments – car trouble and over-zealous cowboys – along the way, it remains a very proud accomplishment. I love road-tripping, and the solitary road trip is a great way to get your head back on straight if it needs it. 🙂
That’s one long road trip but I envy you the freedom of doing it on your own. My last long road trip, 3 weeks, was with 3 others and they had very different agendas. I just had to grit my teeth and barrel through from Point A to B because that’s what Yelp, or Trip Advisor, or some other App told them what was important. Could’ve been a generational thing too. I learned a lot.
Great guide! Audio books are great but personally I would crank up the stereo and sing my favourite songs as loud as I want because there’s no one there to tell you to stop! I love road trips and road trips in the US are definitely my favourite. There’s always adventures to be had!
Sophie, I used to sing at the top of my lungs in the car too – without others around, of course. A solo road trip is perfect for that. Love those long roads.
Perhaps it’s because I used to drive for a living, but I actually find the long journey’s quite relaxing!
Nice to hear that your past profession didn’t turn you off to driving. It’s always more fun when you’re your own boss.
I love reading about girls doing it for themselves and travelling solo! I decided to drive around Vietnam by myself for three months on a motorbike and I loved that trip so much! I did get a little lonely at times though. Thank you for sharing such excellent safety tips: better to travel safe and stay happy and healthy 🙂
You’re much more intrepid than I am – driving around a foreign country by yourself for months. It’s a great opportunity and yes, it’s also lonely sometimes. Here’s to traveling fearlessly whatever gender!
We love taking road trips! Great tips! Audiobooks and podcasts are such a perfect way to stay entertained. The scenery at Orestimba looks great too–perfect spot for a break!
Thanks, Jenna. Aren’t audiobooks and podcasts perfect on any long travel day? Thanks for writing and yes, Orestimba was perfect and a surprise discovery.
Great tips, and I love the fact that you’ve highlighted that being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely. Because you can be in good company when it’s just yourself! We’ve been living out of our car for the last 6 months almost having driven up the West Coast of the US. I think the most underestimated tip is to have your car serviced and checked before you go – and also I would add not to overload your vehicle too much. We sold our home and left our rental each time we did a big 6 month roadtrip so everything we owned came with us. Were seriously worried there for a while that the car was too heavy to go!!
Awesome tips 🙂
I envy your mobility! It sounds like you’ve learned the hard way about not carrying too much with you. I did a several week road trip with 3 people this summer. Packing and unpacking the car got so tedious. The less you need and carry the better – but I’ve never tackled a long trip like you did and carrying my home with me.
I love long drives and road trips too. We have done the Los Angeles to San Francisco trip thru the I-5 plenty of times (I prefer the 101 even though it takes longer). I drove to Yosemite this year thru Hwy 99 and that was interesting. I can’t get tired of these trips there is always a new place to stop.
Nice to hear about your road trips, Ruth. The 101 highway is definitely prettier and more interesting. I’ve driven the 99 to Yosemite several times too. Stopping along the way at interesting places has to be one of the best aspects of a road trip.
I love road trips! Like you, they started with family trips. My dad didn’t like flying, so we drove. I find them a great to refocus and renew. You are so right about the great finds along the way. Your tips on safety and car preparedness are perfect. My safety rule is, if it feels the least bit off, keep moving. I do have to admit, I tend to be a Road Ninja. haha Thanks for the great post!
So nice to hear from you, Nancie. I love road trips where you can stop when you want and take your time. Glad to hear you take care but don’t get too tired.
What a nice way to spend time by yourself!
Thanks, Trisha, driving solo certainly is for me.
I do love a good road trip – I would choose it over flying as well 🙂
Given the time, a vehicle and usually, good company, I’d choose driving over flying most any time.
Go! Go! Go! We did North America in an RV for 5 years!!! So many discoveries!
Yes, yes, yes. We’re both road trip gals for sure, Carol.
I get bored on highways. I drove up to the north of Sardinia to visit my sister last week – only a 2 hour drive, and I hated every minute of it – especially on the way there, as I had to drive at night!
Sorry to hear about your driving boredom. It’s agonizing when the road is long, hard and boring. That’s behind my love of audio books and podcasts. Don’t know how available they are in your area.
Hi cuz. Enjoyed your writings to the max. Envy the freedom you enjoy. I loved our Minnesota visit. Just way too short. Sooooo you’ll have to snatch our lil sweet pea, Fawnee, and head our way again next summer. Be well my dear, and peace to you. JONI Hugs
Dear Joni, Thanks and so sweet to find you here. Would love to drag Fawnee out to visit again but you should find a way to get here too. We have rooms waiting in San Diego and Laguna Woods!
I love long road trips! It’s so nice to get that much time to yourself without distractions.
Sounds like we’re on the same page, um, road, Mags.
Long distance can be quite the challenge and I agree with all of the tips you gave here. I’ve driven to Austria by myself once and it went fine until I ended up in a major traffic jam on the German Highway. I have to say that generally I find driving in the USA a lot more relaxed than in Europe but I’ve not yet been to California so not sure about that area of America …
Sad to hear you think that driving in the U.S. is more relaxed than driving in Europe! We can be very fast and inconsiderate. Traffic jams are the worst. I do my best to avoid them.
I’ve actually done this drive (but with a few friends years ago). Interesting the change of scenery along the way. I’ll have to check out your driving yoga moves – great idea!
Thanks, Jen, I hope you try some Drivetime Yoga! That road may not be the most interesting but it is fast.
We drove this route once, but we were two. If you are a solo driver it’s very difficult. I remember driving alone on a 10-hour stretch when I was in my 20s. I didn’t know what to do to keep my attention awake. Music and news did the trick for a while, but after that I began talking to myself out loud.
Dear Anda, It’s true a long drive by yourself can be very hard and difficult to keep alert. I’ve had that experience too but it was mostly hard because of prior fatigue.
Driving the open road is a fantastic freedom. I’ve take many road trips across the U.S. and always love the “little” things and towns I wouldn’t have seen by flying. Great tips to help anyone who is looking to make a solo drive like this a success!
Thanks, Jackie, You’re lucky to have driven cross country and I’m with you on loving the ‘little’ things you find on the side roads.
There is something soothing and relaxing about driving. When I got my license I used to just go for a ride, headed nowhere, just to drive. Now that I don’t have a car for years (over 5) I have lost practice but roadtrips are a great way to see some countries, incl the US
There is something very special about driving and the freedom of the road. It’s pretty much the only way to see most of the U.S. and I’d like to do much more here.
These are great tips for surviving a road trip! And I’m with ya! I love the open road, but I much prefer the central coast to the central valley! 🙂
Toccara, you’re right about the central coast vs. the central valley being a more intriguing drive. I tackle the inside route for speed.
The drive up the coast of California is one of my all-time favorites!! There are so many gems along the way to discover! I love stopping to see the elephant seals in San Simeon near Hearst Castle. Will have to check out Orestimba next time we make the drive!
Hi Jen, The coast route is undoubtedly incredible and beautiful. Lots to see. That’s not a trip to do alone necessarily – so much to savor and share.
Drivetime yoga? I’ve never heard of that! That is pretty cool. I love the idea of podcasts as well. I am one of those people that don’t find driving relaxing..but I love road trips! Someone else just has to drive. Haha 🙂
Sounds like you’ve found what works for you. Given the right kind of car, road and company you might like driving better.
Often, I feel I can sit through long drives but sometimes I forget that people with me cannot and they get tired especially the one driving. It’s best to have proper stops and all to make the trip more enjoyable.
A car is a small space and a long trip means that everyone has to feel free to communicate their needs and concerns. It can be a bonding experience for sure.
I love solo road trips! Although it’s been a few years since I last took a solo trip anywhere haha! I’ve loved exploring California so far, and can’t wait to see more!
Great to hear. There’s so much to see in California and then things are different in the seasons, and change with economy.
Elaine, you are an amazing woman and I feel fortunate we reconnected. I admire your fortitude, zest for human nature, but have a little concern for your independent travel philosophy. I can only make one comment, “YOU GO GIRL”
Go in peace.
Dear Tom, Thanks so much for your support and don’t worry, I stay careful. I’ll certainly keep going as much as I can!!
Elaine, thank you for this post. We plan to road trip the U.S.A on our third year of full-time travel. These will be great tips for me since I’m the only driver in the family. Would love to visit Orestimba, on our way.
Thanks, Brenda. I hope the tips help. Orestimba is just a knob of a hill along a very long road but still a special spot.