To kick off our official empty nester status last year, we did a California road trip after we dropped off our youngest at college in Oregon. Around June of that year, I realized we literally had nothing to rush home to and that made me a little anxious. So I started planning a trip to see all the things on the road south that we have never taken the time to see…
If you read my post about what it’s like when your kids leave the nest, you know my biggest piece of advice for this experience is to travel after the drop off! Even if it’s just for a few days – there is always something new to see!
We have driven the I-5 freeway more times than I can count. And yet there are still so many things we have missed on all of those focused destination family road trips!
We have driven to Seattle, Eugene, Portland, Yosemite, Sequoia, San Francisco, Idaho, CANADA – you name it- we have probably driven there on the I-5 freeway from our home. You can learn more about what parks we saw on a single itinerary here.
Here Are Our California Road Trip Stops In A Nutshell:
- Mount Shasta, California for one night at the Mount Shasta Resort
- Lassen National Park for two nights at the Highlands Ranch Resort
- Carmel and Big Sur, California for two nights at the Post Ranch Inn
- Ojai, California for two nights at Ojai Valley Inn
Our stop in Mount Shasta was not at all what we were expecting!! I was expecting a mountain town similar to what I have experienced in Mammoth, Lake Tahoe, and Jackson (okay- that last one may have been a stretch…).
What we found was definitely more of a hippy-vibe. I had no idea it is a destination with spiritual energy and vortexes! There were plenty of laid back coffee shops, crystal shops, and meditation leaders to be found.
Our intent with the stop was to see this gorgeous mountain that we have always just driven right past. So we did not really partake in any of the spiritual energy options available in this town. However if that is your thing- you definitely need to add this town to your list! We have visited Sedona a couple of times and honestly prefer that destination for vortex energy vibes.
We stayed at the Mount Shasta Resort and had a very quiet and peaceful cabin with very few neighbors (I am guessing this was because of the time of year that we were there). The restaurant there is on their golf course with an insane view of the mountain – there was even a wedding on the property the night we stayed so we got to enjoy watching the guests have a wonderful time that night!
We woke up in Mount Shasta and got breakfast at a local coffee shop. Then we needed to buy some warmer clothes at their sport shop downtown because we were headed to Lassen National Park where snow was in the forecast and we had not packed accordingly 🤷♀️.
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
After buying lunch supplies at a grocery store in town, we drove to McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. I had seen sooo many photos of this park on Instagram and Pinterest and have had it on my bucket list for oh I would say over ten years!
It’s quite a ways off the beaten path so going there on any of our previous road trips would have required adding time to our already tight schedules for those trips…
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park did not disappoint! We were there on the last Sunday in September so the air was crisp and the park was uncrowded.
The Pacific Crest Trail runs straight though this park (who knew??). We did the Burney Falls Loop trail, took as many photos as we could, and then saw the sign for the Pacific Crest Trail on the other side of the river. So we decided- let’s go walk a couple miles of this famous trail!
While I know the entire trail is 2635 miles, to say we even did three of them was pretty cool in my eyes.
This park is filled with incredible beauty, about five miles of hiking trails, camping, and plenty of picnicking options. It was the perfect afternoon on our way to our next stop ;).
Lassen Volcanic National Park
After the day at Burney Falls, we continued our drive to Lassen Volcanic National Park– another destination that has literally been on my bucket list for over ten years! This park gets heavy snow which makes for a very short window for when it is actually open and drivable. That is why we were never able to add it to any of our previous itineraries…
As it turned out- the snow was just starting to fall when we arrived around 3pm that last Sunday in September.
After a quick stop at the Loomis Museum at the Northwest entrance to the park, we were told if we want to drive the park, we better hurry up because the storm that is coming will be shutting the road down for the next two days.
Mind you, our accommodations were on the other side of the park and getting to them without going through the park would have taken HOURS. So to say our timing was impeccable is an understatement!
At every turn, the views were stunning- even as the snow kept coming down harder and harder. In fact- this SoCal girl who loves snow (but just can’t live in cold) was in snow heaven! We were only able to make quick stops along the way for photos as the rangers were not too far behind us shooing everyone out of the park because of the storm.
Highlands Ranch Resort Outside of Lassen National Park
We spent the next two nights at Highlands Ranch Resort. I give this property a ten out of ten review ☺️.
The food in the restaurant was amazing and our little cabin was one of my favorite cabins I have ever stayed in. We had dinner in their restaurant our first night and it was absolutely delicious!
However, there is no wifi or cell coverage in this valley so be prepared to be OFF THE GRID for your stay! Makes for some great catching up on your reading time 😀.
After leisurely waking up and getting breakfast at the resort (which was included in our room rate), we headed to the Kohm Yah-Man-Nee Visitor Center on the southern end of the park.
Sulphur Works Hydrothermal Area in Lassen National Park
This visitor center is on the edge of the park and stays open even when the park road is closed due to weather. They told us we were allowed to walk into the park as far as we wanted. So we set foot on the road and walked up past the Sulphur Works area which was a one mile walk north of the visitors center.
There we just enjoyed the snow and the scenery and had a very relaxing day with pretty much no agenda (the best kind of day!). I was really hoping to see the Bumpass Hell boardwalk but that was closed and will be for years as they repair it. I guess I will have to go back!
After our snow day, we drove to the town of Westwood, CA for dinner at a local diner there. Then we headed back to our cabin for an early night.
Carmel and Big Sur
Continuing on our road trip through California – our next stopover for an early dinner was Carmel. The drive from Lassen NP to Carmel is six hours with not a lot of scenery along the way. That makes for a long drive. But once we got to the Monterey area, the views were stunning.
I was shocked that we had never been to the quaint town of Carmel- it is soooo right up my alley!! I loved it so much – I am planning a return trip this December to see it all decked out for Christmas!
My main focus that day was to get to see the famous Bixby Creek Bridge which is about 25 minutes south of Carmel on Highway One. When we were sitting at dinner in Carmel, I realized it was getting closer to sunset time and we better get moving if we wanted to see the bridge!
I wasn’t even banking on seeing it in all it’s sunset glory- what a pleasant surprise!
Views on the Drive from Carmel to Post Ranch Inn
A Luxurious Two Night Stay at the Post Ranch Inn
We checked in to the Post Ranch Inn for a two night stay. This hotel is not in our typical price range for accommodations that we stay at when we travel. However I knew we needed to start this new chapter of ours with a huge celebration and what better way than to spoil ourselves with a stay at the nicest hotel you will probably ever stay at?
Everything about the Post Ranch Inn speaks for itself, but I must add that I have never in my life stayed at a more relaxing property. Plus – there were fresh chocolate chip cookies in our room EVERY DAY!
The quiet and luxury at this resort is incomparable.
We are hoping to stay here again someday because it truly was a place where we were just able to breathe and focus on enjoying our stay.
We only left the property to walk down to the Big Sur Taphouse to get burgers for lunch (which btw- were incredible!).
The Post Ranch Inn property is big enough to provide plenty of exploring opportunities to last an entire day!
Drive Down Scenic Highway One to Ojai, California
After two amazing nights at the Post Ranch Inn, we drove down the scenic Highway One to Ojai, California. There are so many places you will want to stop on this highway just to gawk at the views and take it all in (well and get some photos too!).
Do you believe we had never done this drive before? And we moved back to California in 1997 (after being away for grad school for four years- you can read all about our story here)!
We stopped in the Danish themed town of Solvang for dinner at the Succulent Cafe on our way to Ojai, California. I must have been quite tired at this point on our drive because I seriously do not even have one photo from this stop!!
Two Nights at the Ojai Valley Inn
For a hotel that had to come off the heels of our stay at the luxurious Post Ranch Inn, I was worried nothing would ever match up- but this property held it’s own in my eyes 😉.
We enjoyed ice cream from their ice cream parlor while sitting on the lawn people watching- which was perfect after the long and windy drive down Highway One.
Walk to the Cute Downtown Area of Ojai
I have read so many things about this small inland California town and had heard of it originally on the show Brothers and Sisters (yes- this is an old show!) and couldn’t wait to finally go check out this place for myself. Many Hollywood actors live in this town as well – but we did not see any on our two night stay here.
It is a short 1.3 mile walk to town on a super cute pathway. This path brings you right through the quaint neighborhoods of Ojai and is very shaded which makes it enjoyable even in the valley heat.
After wandering in and out of cute shops, we ate a late lunch (with margaritas) at Agave Maria. And then headed back to the hotel to do more people watching on the lawn and to catch the famous Pink Moments Sunset.
On our way back to San Diego, we stopped in LA to visit with our oldest daughter who lives there. It was a perfect way to end our first trip as official empty nesters 😊.
Let me know if you have any questions about any stops along our way! This was a really fun itinerary for us to take and I would love to share any tips I learned on it!