For Aussie expat Rex Roberts, the legendary road trips snaking out from Los Angeles are one of the great things about living in the City of Angels. “Whether you’re just looking for a day trip or a multi-day adventure, it’s always amazing to get out of the city sprawl and hit the red desert,” says the co-owner of Australian-themed Los Angeles café Little Ripper, where lamingtons, jaffles and Melbourne-style coffee provide a taste of home.
Since moving to Los Angeles in 2013, Rex and his wife, Lorena Jurado, have made the most of California’s outdoor life and the lure of the road. “You’ve got the Pacific on one side and the mountains on the other, Mexico down one end and the Sierras at the other. What more could you want?”
Here, Rex shares his tips for five road trips to remember.
LA to … Palm Springs & Joshua Tree
At just over two hours from LA, the easy drive to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park knits together two iconic locations with the wild American landscape of popular imagination. Around 172 kilometres east of LA, the Rat Pack-endorsed modernist oasis of Palm Springs is a heady glimpse of a retro-glam past. "There’s a party vibe, great restaurants and plenty of chances to kick back in a poolside sun lounger with a drink in hand,” says Rex. One such opportunity arises at the art deco Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel, with a vast lagoon pool framed by palm trees and the San Jacinto Mountains (it’s also a close walk tomust-visit Italian restaurant Johnny Costa’s, a favourite of Frank Sinatra).
Another 45 minutes north-west awaits the starkly beautiful landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. “Arriving there feels like you’ve reached Mars with its red boulders and cliffs,” says Rex. “It’s jaw-droppingly vast and unique.”
Hiking is a must – try the aptly-named Panorama Loop for amazing views – while Rex also recommends a pitstop at barbecue restaurant and live music venue Pappy and Harriett’s in Pioneertown, which was built in the 1940s as a “living” movie set. “It was designed like an old western town, but with real people and businesses there. It’s a blast.”
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LA to … Las Vegas
The drive from LA to the glitzy lure of Las Vegas is all about the desert. “It’s flat and straight and the desert feels like it goes on forever,” says Rex of the minimum four-hour journey. “Make sure you have a great playlist and you download it before you go because connectivity is patchy.”
Taking the slightly longer yet more scenic Route 66 affords a stop at the Route 66 Museum in Victorville, which traces the history of the road that inspired writer John Steinbeck as well as the Beat generation.
Arriving at Las Vegas at dusk or night delivers maximum thrills. “It appears as a glow in the darkness that keeps getting brighter and brighter,” says Rex. There’s also no shortage of hotels from which to choose. For a taste of OTT opulence, the Bellagio and its famous dancing fountains are found midway along Sin City’s beating heart, The Strip.
LA to … Lake Tahoe
Nestled in the High Sierras, eight hours’ drive north of LA, the piercingly blue Lake Tahoe is an all-seasons outdoor paradise. Straddling the border between California and Nevada, the huge freshwater lake is a summer vacation hotspot while surrounding mountain resorts attract winter adventurers. Making it even better? Running along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Highway 395 is one of the most scenic roads in California. “It’s so peaceful when you reach the mountains,” says Rex. “We like to stop for an extra day of adventurous powder skiing in winter at Mammoth Lakes Ski Resort.”
Arriving in Tahoe gives you the choice of the Californian side, which has quaint little bars and restaurants like Moody’s in Truckee – where the New American menu means dishes like hangar steak frites with ranch sauce – or the Vegas-style casinos of the Nevada side (although a seafood dinner at Chart House, perched on a mountainside with views of the lake, is decidedly more serene). To stay? Designed in the style of the American West’s historic lodges, Edgwood Tahoe Resort packs plenty of lakefront wow factor.
LA to … Napa Valley & Sonoma
The quintessential Californian coastal drive has it all: beach meccas such as Santa Monica and Santa Barbara, the national park Big Sur and the acclaimed wine country of Napa and Sonoma.
“It’s like being up in the clouds on the side of a cliff, on this tiny little road,” enthuses Rex of the nine-hour, 800-kilometre trip taking in the iconic Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 1.
Taking a week – or longer – gives ample time to explore the route’s incredibly varied attractions. “There’s the legendary Rincon Point, one of the world’s best right-hand surf breaks at Santa Barbara,” says Rex. Between Santa Barbara and Big Sur, the town of Solvang is a quaint Danish fairytale come to life – stop by Paula’s Pancake House for Danish-style breakfasts and pancakes – while in Big Sur he recommends the eight-seat Japanese omakase restaurant at Treebones Resort: “You eat overlooking the Pacific. It's just magical”.
When it comes to wine country, Napa Valley pioneer Duckhorn Vineyard is the perfect pitstop where you can taste Bordeaux varietals such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon in the glorious gardens. A 23-kilometre drive away, the laidback Spanish colonial revival town of Sonoma is exemplified by the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, a dream of pink stucco and yesteryear elegance.
LA to … Yosemite
Yosemite National Park’s vertigo-inducing views, thundering waterfalls and imposing sequoia trees certainly justify the five-hour drive from LA. “It’s the size of the mountains and the trees that really grabs you,” says Rex. “It makes you feel small in the best way possible.”
From the thrill of driving through a tunnel carved into a fallen sequoia to natural phenomena like the Yosemite Firefall – a waterfall that appears to be on fire for a few short weeks each year thanks to the angle of the sun – it’s a place of unforgettable wonders. You’ll need at least one pitstop along the way, whether it’s authentic Mexican – including the famous wet burrito – at Casa Lupita (31732 Castaic Road, Castaic, +1 661-294-3079) or healthy mezze plates at Red Dot Vegetarian Kitchen in the mountain town of Frazier Park.
Tucked in the heart of the park, The Ahwahnee is a National Historical Landmark with a surfeit of rustic charm and Yosemite’s only fine dining restaurant. “Make the most of the drive by stopping at cute little towns like Mariposa and trying some of the country’s best diner food like eggs over easy,” says Rex. The gold rush town’s Sugar Pine Café fits the bill: “Order your eggs over easy and extra bacon – hell, even get the coffee.”
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