Photographer-writer Timothy Shivers embarked on a rejuvenating 5-day California road trip, capturing the dreamy coastlines along Highway 1.
A few years ago I experienced a devastating break-up. It was the kind of split that sent me into a downward spiral, and soon, I was on a flight home to none other than mom. Being from a small desert town in southern California, she suggested we get in the car and go up the coast. No booked rooms, no real itinerary, just driving. I remember crying in silence next to her, watching out the window as we drove on winding Highway 1. I think I knew it then, and of course hindsight confirms it now: that open coast has a certain healing property to it.
I think of California in this way often. It tends to be what you need, when you need it. The dramatic range of the country’s western edge, the year-round envious weather, and the quickly changing landscapes as you drive a short distance any-which-way makes it a top contender for a bucket list-worthy road trip.
This summer—two years after that breakup—I went solo (sorry, mom) and shed no tears. I wanted to photograph California in a way that I never have been able to before—stopping when I want to stop without feeling guilty or needing somewhere to be. I started in Yosemite in the north and ended in Palm Springs in the south. The journey included climbing down potentially dangerous cliffs in Big Sur and getting my shoes dusty finding the perfect Joshua Tree in, well, Joshua Tree. With a special emphasis on nature, I sought out beautiful hikes and the best places to sleep, all with the perfect shot in mind.
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Day 1: Yosemite
Do: Hike the Mist Trail (Vernal and Nevada Falls). Seven-miles round trip, this is a popular route, but rightly so. You’ll pass two waterfalls that deserve their own applause before making it to the top, with a view of Half Dome worth a standing ovation (you’ll actually just want to sit and rest when you get there, but you get the idea). For an evening jaunt, rent a bike and stroll through Yosemite Valley at your own pace, stopping every other minute for yet another breathtaking view (note: Swinging Bridge is one of my favorites). 12 miles of designated bike paths that are flat as a pancake make for a lovely sunset view.
Eat: I wouldn’t say Yosemite is known for her food: expect grab-and-go cafe-style meals. Curry Village Pizza Deck is a popular spot in the evenings, and with good reason. If you’re looking for something more upscale, go to The Ahwahnee Hotel for sit-down dining.
Stay: If you can manage to grab a spot, Curry Village is your cheapest option that is also “closest to home” (it is situated perfectly in Yosemite Valley). With popular attractions like Half Dome and El Capitan surrounding the grounds, staying here means you’ve got the major benefits of the park at your fingertips. You can choose from a variety of lodging options, including tent camping, canvas-tents, and cabins.
Day 2: Big Sur
Do: Big Sur is small, and is a place to be as much as it is a place to do. With that said, swing by the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which functions as an arts center, bookstore, and performance venue. It is a magical little corner. Then, go to McWay Waterfall Trail—it is worth the 20-minute trek. A lesser-known journey lies along the Old Coast Road: 14-miles starting just north of Andrew Molera State Park and ending at Bixby Creek Bridge (also worth the stop). The drive will give you elevated views of the ocean while feeling more off the beaten path than Highway 1.
Eat: Deetjen’s (below) has a restaurant open for weekend brunch and it is a must. Nepenthe is another option, albeit more upscale, just up the road (the view while eating a potato wedge is honestly worth it). Dining is limited in this area, so keep the Restaurant at River Inn Big Sur in your wheelhouse as well—don’t miss their view of the river in the back of the property.
Stay: Deetjen’s Big Sur or bust. While their website may be as ancient as their roots, a stay at Deetjen’s gives you an unmatched authentic experience of Big Sur. The history of the Inn dates back to the 1930s, and in 1990 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. While the property gives you everything you need for a cozy and restful stay, there is an indescribable quality to the Inn of a bygone era.
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Day 3: Los Angeles
Do: If there ever was a perfect road trip day, the drive from Big Sur to Los Angeles is it. For how populated and beautiful California is, this stretch feels particularly isolated and thus that much more special. There are a number of pull-offs along the route to stop, stare, take pictures, and stare more. Once you make your way out of the mountains into San Simeon, stop at Boucher Trail head for a flat and easy but unknown coastal hike that runs through Piedras Blancas Light Station (plus many views of elephant seals). As you continue south, book a visit to Hearst Castle. Or, if you don’t have time, be sure to keep your eye on the Hearst property just north of the highway—if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a herd of Zebras that dates back to Hearst’s private zoo (wild, right?).
Eat: Hidden Kitchen in Cambria is a 100% gluten-free cafe featuring all-organic, sustainably-sourced fare. It’s also the perfect mid-day option for a long driving day from Big Sur to LA. Lilly’s Taqueria in Downtown Santa Barbara is another go-to along the journey. While you’re in town, Backyard Bowls is next door for one of the better Açai bowls you’ll find on the route.
Stay: I’m an East LA type of guy, and while I always think I’m over the well-known lures of Silver Lake, I’m not kidding anyone. Silver Lake Pool & Inn is the perfect urban oasis in the middle of it all, conveniently situated just south of Sunset Junction. At 54 rooms, the hotel is cozy and design-forward, complete with a sun-soaked, inviting pool that makes leaving the luxurious rooms tempting.
Day 4: Joshua Tree
Do: Head east early to avoid the dreaded LA traffic. Make your way to the Integratron as you find yourself now in the Mojave Desert (welcome, earthlings) and stroll through historical Pioneertown. Joshua Tree National Park itself is bigger than you’d imagine, though time spent here can be as involved or as casual as you wish (or, as the weather wishes for you). For a manageable hike, check out Hidden Valley Nature Trail. For those who want to go deep into the park, I particularly enjoyed the Cholla Cactus Garden.
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Eat: Frontier Café is an easy stop for a quick bite and quality coffee, and Pappy and Harriets is an easy win with its beer garden, live shows, and good food (which is not as common here, in the middle of nowhere).
Stay: Joshua Tree boasts plenty of city-dwellers from LA serving up the perfect mid-century Airbnb. This is all fine and dandy, but a lesser-known, truly hidden gem is Merchant House in Morongo Valley. The house is owned by interior-designer Denise Portman and artist Sara Marlowe Hall, mother-daughter duo of Merchant Modern, a consignment store in Venice, CA. The house is situated atop a hill that provides privacy, which comes in handy for an outdoor shower, outdoor bathtub, or outdoor cold plunge—pick your poison. With every detail curated from artists around the globe, including paintings from Sara Marlowe Hall herself, you feel like you’re spending the night in an art gallery. The simple nature of every piece in the home elevates the desert landscape and leaves you feeling like you’ve experienced something truly unique. As someone whose job it is to travel, believe me when I say this is hard to achieve.
Day 5: Palm Springs
Do: Sit at a pool and do nothing, amirite? After five days of go-go-go, I used this opportunity to sit and bake in the desert sun. This seems to be what Palm Springs is all about. If you’re the shopping-before-you-head-home type, Cabazon Outlets is a 20-minute drive. I also rode on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. With views of the entire Coachella Valley, the experience was more impressive than I had pictured. I was particularly interested in photographing palm trees, and while they are literally abundant in a town called Palm Springs, I found the mid-century modern homes in the neighborhood “Visa Las Palmas” an especially picturesque backdrop as I drove around finding the perfect angle.
Eat: Cartel Coffee is the best in town, and conveniently located at Arrive Palm Springs (more on that below). King’s Highway, a roadside diner at Ace Hotel, is always a vibe—especially if this is your first trip to the region. I’m also a sucker for a sloppy burger—only God herself can judge me—so Heyday spoke my language. For a higher-end meal, Workshop is a solid option.
Stay: Arrive Palm Springs was the perfect place to end my trip. With just 32 (really spacious, comfortable and lux) rooms, the property and pool gave me the energy I needed to round out my Palm Springs stay, and the perfect ending of my road-trip.