A Road Trip through California: Sacramento to Monterey

Everyone knows that a road trip through California is a bucket-list worthy travel experience, but where exactly should that road trip be? Most people think of the coast, and right so, but every part of California has its own unique beauty. Last week we spent a few days on the Monterey Peninsula and were surprised by the beautiful nature scenes we passed during our drive from Sacramento through the Central Valley and west to Monterey. We went by car (“we” meaning me, my husband, my almost-4-year-old son, my 5-month-old son, and my 2 dogs!), and the drive was 3 hours from our home in Sacramento.

Taking road trips is not as fun now that we travel with kids because we never know when one of them will go into crisis mode…but this time, armed with a good book and relaxed by my kids’ long naps, I sat back and took in the strange beauty of  central California from the passenger window.

I love California. While this part may not be as spectacular as most of California, it brought back the wonder I’ve experienced exploring this state’s incredible nature over the past 9 years here.

I had made the drive several times before, so I was familiar with the terrain, but this time it surprised me as though I were seeing it for the first time. After about 90 minutes driving south on I-5, passing flat expanses of farm land and vineyards, we suddenly came upon these creamy hills, charred by the ubiquitous summer sun. They went on and on, softly undulating as we drove by, and I couldn’t help but imagine that they covered in velvet.

We passed fields of all sorts. I’m not sure what these oranges fields were– the plants appeared to have gone to seed with an occasional sunflower thrown in.

And because the entire mid-section of California is agricultural, orchards of fruit and nut trees appeared out of nowhere.

As we headed west toward the coast, we passed the San Luis Reservoir.

It seemed to go on and on.

We made our way through the Pacheco Pass…

…the hills became more rugged and filled with funky oak trees like this one.

The native oak trees of California are a favorite of mine.

After descending the hills as we got closer to the ocean, there were farms all around.

I wish I knew what these fields of purple and green were. We passed several of them.

Soon enough, we caught glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, and the landscape changed to sand dunes covered in purple and green ice plant. We opened the windows and felt how the air had gone from hot and dry to cool and moist.

The oak trees were replaced by eucalyptus and cypress, which meant that we were about to arrive at our destination, a vacation rental 2 blocks from the ocean (it’s the second one, the little yellow house):

This beautiful trip through the heart of California reminded me of other road trips in which the journey was almost as great as the destination. What are some of your favorite drives and why?


  • Kristina says:

    Hi Jenna,

    I found you on twitter and decided to see your blog! I think this post has great pictures. I like the contrast between the blue and yellowy-brown. Very nice. I’ve never been to the west coast but would love to go one day.

    – Kristina

  • Annie says:

    This actually looks a lot more like Central Washington than what I would expect Central California to look like! Your vacation rental looks beautiful, I’m excited to hear more about your trip!

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks, Annie! I would not have thought of this as looking like Central WA because the CA valley is so hot and dry– not something I think of with WA. But I guess the central and eastern parts of WA have a lot of farmland, like this area of CA does.

  • Andrea says:

    Beautiful photos – I love how California has so many different landscapes!

    • Jenna says:

      Yes, CA has so many different landscapes (and climates!). It’s quite amazing. Thanks for stopping by, Andrea!

  • Cailin says:

    I recently just drove across Canada and as boring as the prairies can be and people say they are I was actually in awe of them from time to time. I was also amazed at how huge the sky looked with all of this flat land surrounding you for miles and miles and the horizon just went on for ever.
    I also loved driving through the forest & wild animal filled highways of Ontario and of course driving through the rockies in Alberta and BC were just jaw dropping 🙂

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Cailin! I agree about the prairies. I drove through Kansas several years ago and found it quite beautiful. As you said, the sky seems to go on forever. And I can imagine that you have some pretty amazing drives there in Canada!

  • Abby says:

    Your family is so adventurous!! I can’t imagine driving with both of my dogs, let alone with two young kids and a husband. 😉

    • Jenna says:

      lol. I don’t know if I would say adventurous or foolish! But luckily everything went really well– the dogs and kids loved the whole vacation and did very well in the car.

  • Matt says:

    I love how the dogs eyes are closed in the first picture. Looks like he’s deep in meditation.

    • Jenna says:

      Yeah, isn’t that funny?! He kept inching his way farther and farther into the backseat (by lying on top of the carseat first).

  • Suzy says:

    That picture of your son in the back of the car is such a classic road trip image! Maybe you can send it into AAA or something. I love the oak trees in California too. There is something so wise and mysterious about them.

    • Jenna says:

      Wise and mysterious is a good way of putting it. I agree.
      There was something about the dogs being in the car with us that kept making me laugh, especially when this one kept trying to sneak his way into the backseat. I have another photo of my son using his neck pillow, which I thought was pretty cool! He’s a real traveler!

  • Theodora says:

    I love roadtripping — and sticking the camera out of the car window and shooting. And, wow!, your son is GORGEOUS. Lucky you!

    • Jenna says:

      Yes, I love roadtripping, too, especially when I have no idea what the way is going to be like. And thanks for the compliment about my son! 🙂

  • Nice photos. Love the one of your son and the dog; it looks like they are both sleeping. I used to live in Monterey and Pacific Grove. I miss being able to drive through the produce fields.

    • Jenna says:

      Wow, you used to live there– how fortunate! When I was there, I kept saying to myself, I wonder how I can move here!
      Thanks for stopping by, Charles!

  • Ana says:

    I’ve never been to Central California so I had no idea what it looked like. I do now thanks to you 🙂
    I’m not a huge fan of road trips, I get bored and restless, but if I had to choose a favourite drive I’d say the south-west of France, hands own.

    • Jenna says:

      I haven’t driven in southwest France, but I can imagine it is GORGEOUS! It is actually on my list of travels that I want to do soon.

  • Love these photos – they really showcase the diversity in landscape.

  • Fred Acker says:

    Hey Jenna,

    Great photos. I get out to Cali a lot (usually 2-3 times a month) and love the central section. Well, I also love the northern and southern section too but that’s another story 🙂 If you get the chance (and the kids and dogs are up to it) try a quick road trip during the harvest season and grab hold of some of the local goodies. Nothing like “Fresh Garlic Stuffed Olives” to make the day complete.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for the tip. We drove through the areas where they have the garlic and artichoke festivals. Lots of local goods for sale around there.

  • monique says:

    hi jenna
    I found you via act of traveling (emiel)- and now see you are a neighbor ! (don’t you love blogging?) – Lovely pictures and i grew up in the central valley. After years living abroad in europe, we’ve settled in nearby davis (we have a 4 yo and an 8 yo). you may want to check out my latest post which talks about the bike culture here. glad to have found you and look forward to your future posts.
    ps I love california too, and after living and visiting many places, am content it is where we are building roots with the kids. even if it is “back home.”

    • Jenna says:

      Monique, Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. I’d love to talk to you more about your experience living in Italy and other places. And I love Davis (my husband was a student there, so we both love the town).

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