While in Southern California this July, we decided to embark on a long weekend road trip from San Diego to Palm Springs. Our dream route had all the makings of an epic, incredibly diverse road trip, with stops at the beach, mountains, and desert. In reality, our limited time and the 100+ degree heat cut our grand plans in half. But we still managed to do and see quite a bit. In this blog post, we'll share our SoCal Road Trip highlights, along with the stops we missed and will have to revisit another time.
Full Photo Gallery
Car photography, as we found out during our Skagit Valley road trip, is an art form in itself. But the beautiful landscapes of Palm Springs were incredibly inspiring and we did some of our best car photography on this trip.
How We Planned the Road Trip
As travel photographers, we planned our trip around iconic photo spots. Pinterest and Instagram were the most helpful trip planning resources. Simply searching for the #palmsprings hashtag pulled up hundreds of thousands of ideas.
Road Trip Highlights
Start at the San Diego Airport
Having already spent a week in San Diego for a conference, we began our trip at the San Diego airport. This is where we picked up an Audi A5 Cabriolet convertible from Silvercar. If you're unfamiliar with them, Silvercar is a modern car rental company that allows you to book Audis via an app. We used Silvercar earlier this year to take an Audi Q5 to Skagit Valley. The experience was so seamless and made the trip so memorable that we didn't hesitate to use the service again in California. Our trip happened to coincide with the addition of the brand new Audi A5 Cabriolet to the Silvercar fleet. As a result, we were the second people to rent this particular vehicle from San Diego.
Full disclosure: Silvercar provided a complimentary car rental during this trip; all other travel expenses were paid using our own funds. All opinions, videos, and photos are ours, unless otherwise noted.
Drive North Along the Coast
From San Diego, we drove north on I-5 through Encinitas, making a brief stop in Carlsbad for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. Here's a little foodie tip: Café Topes is a hipster hotspot voted "best breakfast in Carlsbad." But with such a reputation, it's also very very crowded. If you're in a rush like we were, hop around the corner to Succulent Cafe instead. It's a unique open-air cafe that is in every way an Instagrammer's dream. Pictured below: a California signature, fresh avocado toast.
Stop in Wine Country
From Carlsbad, we headed east to I-15 and drove north. We're not big on wine, but if you happen to be, make a stop in Temecula Valley Wine Country. In addition to its picturesque hillside vineyards and golf courses, the city's Old Town is full of buildings from the 1800s and antique shops.
After Temecula, we continued northeast towards Palm Springs. Along the way, consider a stop to see the Cabazon Dinosaurs. This roadside attraction boasts two enormous dinos named Dinny and Mr. Rex. You might recognize them from various Hollywood films.
Where to Stay in Palm Springs
After the Cabazon Dinosaurs, Palm Springs is just a few minutes away along I-10. As a vacation town, accommodations in Palm Springs are abundant and stylish. So long as you have a vehicle, where you stay doesn't really matter. Some of the more iconic hotels include the hipster Ace Hotel and Swim Club and The Saguaro with its iconic rainbow exterior. We ended up at the pristine Avalon Hotel and Bungalows, a cozy escape just blocks away from the main strip in downtown Palm Springs.
Like many Palm Springs hotels, the Avalon has its own bar and restaurant, the Chi Chi. More on that below.
What to Eat in Palm Springs
Admittedly, we didn't do our foodie homework for this trip and instead planned our days around photographing the Audi. However, Palm Springs had so many restaurants that it wasn't hard to find good food. Here are some of our favorites.
Chi Chi Restaurant
This Avalon hotel restaurant was our default place to eat and that wasn't at all a bad thing! There's indoor air-conditioned seating, but the better seats were definitely outside around the pool. We had our breakfasts (the açai bowl was ace) and dinners here. The tail end of our stay overlapped with Palm Springs Restaurant Week, so we scored a delicious 3-course dinner at Chi Chi on our last night.
Sherman's Deli and Bakery
This was the only restaurant that we couldn't walk to from the hotel, but it was definitely worth the drive! Sherman's Deli and Bakery is a New York style family restaurant specializing in massive sandwiches. The hot pastrami sandwich we ordered was so large it pretty much had to be shared. While you're here, definitely pick up a dessert to go!
This gem of a restaurant was one we literally stumbled upon. A friend flew into Palm Springs from Hong Kong to meet up with us en route to LA. In an attempt to find a late night dinner joint, we walked a few blocks off the downtown Palm Springs strip and wandered into The Tropicale. The retro-chic decor is the first thing that will catch your eye. Food-wise, the menu is eclectic choices, and it's all really well done. Each of us took substantial leftovers back to the hotel. But best of all was our server--she provided the most friendly and attentive customer service we've experienced in years. Add this spot to your must-visit list.
Lulu California Bistro
When driving down the Palm Springs strip, the Lulu California Bistro is unmistakable. With a towering sign and tables that appear full at all hours of the day, we knew we had to eat here at least once. We stopped by for lunch and gaped at the menu that was much more vast than expected. Have a hankering for escargot, cotton candy, New England lobster rolls, or gluten-free pizza? You can get all this and more. It's worth dining here just for the experience.
Palm Springs Attractions and Photo Spots
Besides the Cabazon Dinosaurs listed above, there are quite a few attractions in Palm Springs worth visiting. Depending on when you visit, the weather might be unbearably hot during the day. That was certainly the case during the first week of July when we were here. A good strategy is to change up your schedule to work around the weather. Get up at sunrise and enjoy the golden hour sunlight (perfect for photos!). Seek indoor air-conditioning or the comfort of a swimming pool from 10am-5pm. Then head out again around sunset to again enjoy the golden hour sunlight.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
This is a must-do! Ride the aerial tramway to the top where you'll find two restaurants and stunning views of Palm Springs. There are also over 50 miles of hiking trails, so you could easily spend a full day up here. Perhaps best of all: the weather is significantly cooler up here; you may even need a jacket! We made the trek up about an hour before sunset, which made for spectacular lighting.
Convention Center and City Hall
Palm Springs is noted for having the largest collection of Mid-Century Modern Architecture. There are hundreds of notable examples, many of which are private residences. Two public ones that are easy to visit are the Palm Springs Convention Center, which looks like something out of the Flintstones, and City Hall. They also ended up being great backdrops for car photography.
Coachella Valley Vista Point
While seeking a sunrise spot, we drove up the Pines to Palms Highway and stumbled upon the Coachella Valley Vista Point. This observation point offers breathtaking panoramic views of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. Highly recommended to visit at sunrise or sunset for the best photos.
Joshua Tree Day Trip
From Palm Springs, there are several day or overnight trips worth considering. We considered a trip south to Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea. Instead, we headed about an hour north to Joshua Tree National Park. Having just a half day to visit, we departed Palm Springs at 4:00am to make it to Joshua Tree before sunrise. That ended up being the best plan as we were able to drive through most of the park enjoy it before the midday sun started to burn. Some Joshua Tree highlights for us included Skull Rock, Jumbo Rocks, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Keys View.
While it was entirely possible to visit Joshua Tree in just several hours, we definitely would love to return for a more thorough camping and hiking trip.
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