Roadtrip in South USA in February (Houston to San Francisco)

Author: Pieter De Pauw

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After looking for a travel destination for end February, we ended up deciding on a roadtrip from Houston (TX) to San Francisco (CA).  Talking to friends and relatives about this, most of them thought we were crazy as we told we would drive 3500 miles in only a fortnight.   Looking back though, we never had the feeling of being too long in the car. It truly was a fantastic trip through very diverse landscapes and views.

Probably, Feb-March is one of the better times for this itinerary with moderate day-temperatures between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius (60 – 78 F).  Importantly also, there were less tourists, so motels and hotels had plenty of vacancies and so there was no need to pre-book our nights, giving us full freedom to do what we wanted to do and go where we wanted to go.

South USA road trip itinerary (© Google Maps)
South USA road trip itinerary (© Google Maps)

Day 1: Brussels – Houston (TX)

We arrived in Houston at around 7pm, picked up our rental car and drove West, out of Houston and spent a well-deserved night trying to recuperate from the jet-lag.


Day 2: Houston (TX) – Marathon (TX)

Today was driving day during which it became very clear that the South West of the 2nd biggest US state is a remote area with endless roads and pristine vistas.   Coming from a hectic European city, we enjoyed the quiet landscapes with the Yuccas a lot.

Day 3: Marathon (TX) – Valentine (TX)

We had to scrape a bit off ice from the windshield in the morning, but as the sun rose, the temperature rose quickly as well and when we arrived in the Big Bend National Park around noon, the day was warm and sunny .  The Big Bend was named after the curve in the Rio Grande, a river of almost 2000 miles forming the border between the US and Mexico for more than 1000 miles.  The park has a large variety of flora and fauna due to the diverse ecology and changes in elevation, ranging from dry and hot deserts to cool mountains.

Walking the Window Trail (approx. 5.6 miles) from the Chisos Basin gave us a breathtaking views over the desert.

We drove back to civilization via the Old Maverick road, which –in fact- is a dusty gravel road but still very suitable for a regular passenger car, at least if you don’t drive too fast.

Day 4: Valentine (TX) – Las Cruses (NM)

Carlsbad Caverns National Park was on our way today, which has Carslbad Cavern as its primary attraction.  This huge cave is a result of sulfuric acid dissolving limestone.  The “Big Room” of the cave is almost 1.2 km long, 200 m wide and 78 m high, making this the seventh largest discovered underground chambers in the world.

A bit further, White Sands National Monument is a 710km2 field of sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals.  We arrived in late afternoon and walked in the dunes, quickly feeling as if we were somewhere in outer space all on our own. Make sure you follow an existing trail and don’t go too far as we experienced fast that all dunes look more or less the same, making it very hard to find back your way.

Day 5: Las Cruses (NM) – Tucson (AR)

We made a little detour from Las Cruses up to Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city at the other side of the border.  The numerous border patrols (one out of 2 cars was a border patrol car) and the large wall separating Mexico from the USA, also known as “border fence”, “rotted fence” or “border wall”, are quite impressive sights along this route. 

Further West, the Chiricahua National Monument is famous for its vertical rock formations, and preserves the remains of a volcano eruption more than 25 million years ago. We drove through, made a couple of stops for some scenic views over the rock formations and headed back into the direction of quiet Tucson where we strolled around the Arizona university campus.

Day 6: Tucson (AR) – Palo Verde (AR)

Spectacular, those Saguaros!  We never imagined a cactus being that tall (they can grow over 20m / 70ft tall), they are larger than some of the trees we have in Europe, and some of them are up to 150 years old.  We did a very nice and easy 5 miles trail loop in the Saguaro National Park, inspecting saguaros, other cacti and watching for woodpeckers and the famous jackrabbits.

Around sunset, we drove along the SR 85 up to Lukeville, the border between USA and Mexico.  This is the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a UNESCO biosphere reserve and the only place in the USA where the Organ Pipe cactus grow in the wild.  You will find Saguaro cactus and Organ Pipe cactus everywhere along the road.

Day 7: Palo Verde (AR) - San Diego (CA)

We took the I10 West up to the Joshua Tree National Park, home to the Yucca Brevifolia or Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert.  There was a little snowfall when we entered the park (Feb 20), leaving a nice thin white cover on some of the rocks and plants.  We were not really prepared for the colder temperatures (close to freezing), so we decided to make it a drive through with a couple of small stops.

A 3 hours’ drive in the afternoon took us to San Diego.  What a beautiful city!  Finally, we were back in a fully civilized area with nice restaurants and little cozy neighbourhoods; wandering around, it never felt as the 8th biggest city in the USA.   We were told that the city has an excellent climate with mild winters and warm but dry summers.  We decided we might retire here one day…

Just before sunset, we drove to Cabrillo National Monument.  This monument commemorates the first European expedition setting foot on the West Coast of the United States in 1542.  It offers a fantastic view over the bay and San Diego.  In winter, migrating Gray Whales can be seen off the coast, but we didn’t see any though (we were a probably a couple of weeks too late). 

The Fort Rosecrans National cemetery with too many graves and monuments dedicated to people that lost their lives during several battles, is a nice pristine area just next to the national monument.

Day 8: San Diego (CA) – La Jolla (CA)

Today, we took the time to explore San Diego by daylight and went to the harbor and the big warship USS Midway Aircraft Carrier which has a naval aviation museum.

After lunch, we headed back north to the very scenic and cozy village La Jolla, which is not only a place with home prices among the highest in the USA, but also a great place to see marine wildlife: sea lions, seals, pelicans, cormorants, hummingbirds,… We obviously came for the latter.

Day 9: La Jolla (CA) – Laguna Beach (CA)

Alarm clock at 5 am: I had to see the seals on the Children’s Pool beach at La Jolla.  I was on my own and enjoyed watching a seal giving birth to a little pup followed by sea gulls trying to feed from the placenta.  Several seals with small pups came on shore to nurse.

Later in the morning, we walked along the coast and could observe (and smell!!) hundreds of sea lions on the rocks.  It seemed like they had endless discussions on who could get the best place to rest.

Day 10:  Laguna Beach (CA) – Ventura (CA)

The day before, we had booked our tickets for the Warner Bros studio tour East of LA (Burbank).  I am personally not a huge fan of guided tours, but I was told this was part of 20th and 21st century culture.  After all, WB were the producers of Friends, Harry Potter, Bonnie & Clyde , Psycho, and many other successful shows and movies…  The studios were truly impressive; different styles of houses that are constantly being re-used for several series or movies, the use of moving plants to cover up part of the setting, the fact that they need to be at least “one season ahead” and thus have to add leaves to trees in the winter,… Knowing those techniques, we are watching the movies and series a bit differently nowadays. And of course, sipping from a coffee cup in the real “Central Perk” décor is a memory we will not forget!

We drove back West to Ventura, a place known for its surfing conditions and its Pier.  A scene with a setting sun helped to capture an unforgettable moment on the beach.

Day 11: Ventura (CA) – Pismo Beach

We headed North on the famous and scenic State Route 1 along the Pacific Coastline of California.  Along the road, we stopped in Santa Barbara, which was worth a 2-3 hour stop to visit the church, the county courthouse and a stroll through the city, showing many signs of the Spanish and Mexican period up to mid-19th century. We spent the night in Pismo beach, another village with a pier once used to transport coals directly into boats.

Day 12: Pismo Beach - Monterey

We had never seen Sea Elephants (or Elephant Seals) before, but discovered these huge creatures  on the beach at Piedras Blancas in southern Big Sur near San Simeon.  The Elephant Seals were nearly hunted to extinction at the end of the 19th century for the oil rich blubber, but made a come back in recent years. These huge animals come ashore for only a couple of months each year to give birth, breed and molt. 

The McWay Falls in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is another place worth a visit along Highway 1.  A short trail leads to an idyllic view; one would believe to have arrived in Hawaii.

Day 13: Monterey – San Francisco

Monterey is another scenic city: a bit posh, but definitely charming.   After a disappointing Whale watching tour (we ended up seeing one spout of a Gray Whale), we had a look at the mansions and golf courses of Pebble Beach along the scenic 17 Mile Drive.  The small entrance fee is worth every penny. Top attraction is the Lone Cypress (official symbol of Pebble Beach), one of the most photographed trees in the world.

Day 14&15: San Francisco (CA)

Many travel blogs and articles write about “what to do” in San Francisco, so I won’t repeat the entire list.  We stayed in the center of SF, and decided to explore the city by foot in 2 days: Marina District, Lombard Street, Russian Hill, China Town, Golden Gate Park and Bridge,  Financial District, Mission District.

We were surprised how fast the weather can change; as we walked to the Golden Gate bridge, the skies were blue, but upon arrival, the bridge was completely covered by misty clouds. 

We had nice seafood dinner in one of the many restaurants in the Pacific Heights and Marina District.  Life was good in San Francisco.  Too bad we had to go back to Belgium…


Day 16: San Francisco (CA) – Brussels


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