Road tripping during COVID: Our two-week road trip through California. Touring the coast, the Redwoods, wine country, and the desert while social distancing and staying safe.
Cancelling our big 10-year anniversary trip to Greece was painful, but all things considered we have been fortunate (so far) in 2020. We both remain employed, healthy, and are able to work from home. We are counting our blessings.
Like many of you, we miss traveling. However, there is no way we are getting on a plane right now nor until there is a vaccine. Being safe and socially responsible are things we take seriously.
That said, we had two weeks of time off booked for September for our Greece trip, and a stay-cation just didn’t have the same luster that it used to. My parents had just sold my childhood home on San Juan Island, WA and moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona in July, so we decided to take a road trip to visit them in their new house.
A lot of thought went into this trip and how we would keep ourselves safe. We came up with the following guidelines and preparations:
- We would only stay in motels with outdoor entrances or Airbnb houses where we wouldn’t have to share hallways and elevators with others.
- We brought our own pillows and comforters to use as hotels only wash the sheets.
- We put together a cleaning kit with alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, hand soap, and cleaning products to do a wipe down of high touch surfaces in our accommodations, and to wipe down any other surfaces as we travel
- We focused on outdoor attractions only. No museums, restaurants, bars, shops, etc.
- We brought a cooler and snacks, and picnicked, got takeout or delivery, or cooked in our Airbnb. Even where indoor dining was open again, we stayed out of restaurants except to pick up food.
- We brought a plethora of masks (to coordinate with our outfits of course) and face shields.
Aside from store trips and doctors appointments, my retired parents had been social distancing pretty diligently as well, so visiting them was a calculated risk. It’s been a month since we got home, and no one has COVID so I’ll call it a success.
In addition to COVID, we also had the wildfires on the west coast to contend with. We kept up to date on the fires daily and did a few last-minute plan changes to stay far away from active fire areas.
This trip was a lot more stressful and less carefree than any other trip we’ve taken, but after 6 months cooped up in our house, we had to go on an adventure.
Day 1: Seattle to Crescent City
We set off in the early morning and drove pretty non-stop all day. We had one quick visit to my Grandma’s care home in Albany, OR where we had a social distance visit with her on the patio and ate our sandwiches that we made that morning. We departed I-5 in Grant’s Pass to the 199, passing the famous “Sweet Cron” sign on the 199 highway in southern Oregon.
I hadn’t made a reservation yet for that night, because I kept worrying that we would have to cancel our trip due to COVID or wildfires, and there seemed to be a lot of hotel availability several days before. This was a huge travel failure, as it was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and everyone else apparently had the same plan. I reserved the last crappy room at the Crescent City Motel 6 for $169.00 a night. I’m normally a planner who books way in advance, and for Labor Day weekend I should have known better.
We arrived in Crescent City starving, and I also had the bright idea of getting fish and chips for dinner. Guess what? So did everyone else. We walked to Fisherman’s Restaurant down the road where there were quite a few people waiting for tables or waiting outside. Some people weren’t wearing masks at all, staff was wearing masks under their noses, and we really should have left and gone to the taco stand down the street. But we thought we might be able to just get a quick takeout order.
We were told our order would take about 20 minutes and would be brought out to us when ready. They were very busy and having worked in a restaurant during Labor Day weekend in a tourist town, I know they were doing the best they could. I can’t even imagine having to work in a tourist town restaurant on Labor Day weekend during COVID. Our food finally came out 45 minutes later, and it was a chilly walk back to our crappy Motel 6. The sunset was nice while we waited, but overall the evening was a complete fail.
Day 2: Driving the 101 through the Redwoods
We ate cereal and made coffee in our motel room, and checked out of the Motel 6 as quickly as we could. After yesterday’s travel fail, we were determined to have a better day. Fortunately I had reservations for the rest of our trip, so we had good accommodations to look forward to.
Before we left Crescent City, we gave it one last chance to delight us and went out to the Anchor Way jetty to see if we could spot some sea lions. Crescent City came through for us and there were dozens of fat sea lions sunning themselves on the docks. They were pestering each other and loudly barking and flopping about in big piles. It was amusing to see. The morning sun over Crescent Beach was beautiful, and we felt like today would be a great day.
The coastal drive south on the 101 was beautiful, with lots of beaches and rocky overlooks to the coast below. It wasn’t long before we made it to our first roadside attraction: The Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues at the Trees of Mystery. We did not tour the Trees of Mystery as it was Labor Day Weekend and we wanted to stay away from other people. So this was just a fun photo op.
Further down the 101 we pulled into Klamath to do the “Tour-Thru Tree.” There are a few drive-through trees in the Redwoods, some more expensive than others. Signs in Klamath led us to a small road with a pay booth. No one was at the pay booth, so there was an honor-system pay box requesting $5.00 that we deposited our money into and continued up the road.
The Tour-Thru tree looks like a really tight squeeze, so I got out to take a picture and make sure Paddy got the car through without incident. We have a Nissan Versa and it fit through just fine. Just go slow and straight. It was a little silly but a fun little photo op and break from the highway.
Just south of Stafford, the 101 splits off with a parallel road, called the Avenue of the Giants. This was the second time we had driven this road and it is something you cannot miss if driving through Redwood country in California. The two lane road winds through towering redwood trees, with lots of places to pull off and picnic, take photos, or just get out and stare in awe at these ancient, magnificent works of nature.
Also, there’s a giant ear of corn.
Our magical Avenue of the Giants tour was only slightly hazy from the wildfire smoke near Sonoma, and the temperature was perfect. Our stopping point for the night was Ukiah. When we got further south towards Ukiah, we stepped out at a rest stop and were hit by a 100+ degree heat wave. We were definitely heading into the lower valley.
We had a reservation at the Ukiah Quality Inn, which seemed to be the highest rated motel in the area at a reasonable rate. It was a refreshing change from the Crescent City Motel 6.
*Pro tip: not all chain hotel locations are created equal. I’ve stayed in the Walla Walla Motel 6 which was fine, and the Austin airport Quality Inn which was horrendous. Check reviews.
With COVID, 109 degree temperatures, and poor air quality due to the wildfire smoke, we spent the evening in our room and ordered delivery from Super Taco on Door Dash. It was excellent, we would definitely recommend their food.
Our Redwoods adventure day made up for our Crescent City travel fail.
Day 3: Ukiah to The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo
A few weeks before this trip, I was planning a re-route to avoid the wildfires near Monterey and Big Sur where we originally planned on going. Somehow I stumbled upon the website for The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, and wondered how in the world I had never heard of this place. It became a major destination focus on this trip. Be sure to reserve in advance, their themed rooms are pretty popular.
We continued our drive on the 101 south and opted to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, since we had never done that before. Had we not been in a pandemic, we would have planned for a couple days in San Francisco going to Tiki bars and seeing the sights, but we’ll have to save that for another trip.
*Note: It cost $8.75 to drive over the bridge! No regrets, but wow what a toll. You have to pay online after you drive over it at this website: https://www.goldengate.org/bridge/tolls-payment/
The weather got hazier as we drove further south. We stopped for a quick lunch at El Pollo Loco in Salinas. It’s a chain we’d never eaten at before and we were impressed. We loved their salad with avocado dressing and the chicken was bomb. We had to eat in our car though, which was hot and kind of messy. Se la vie in COVID times.
After a long day we finally arrived at The Madonna Inn. I was so excited.
What can I say about the Madonna Inn? Well, it’s eccentric. It was built in 1958 by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, and each room has a different theme and decor. Phyllis Madonna loves the color pink, which is everywhere in the hotel from the mid-century style Steakhouse to the signature goblets for sale in the gift shop, to the signature Pink Champagne cake in the on-site bakery. Some of the rooms are also very pink forward, such as ours:
Behold the Carin Room:
Pink glitter wallpaper. Need I say more?
Having booked the room in advance of our trip, we packed some fun outfits because if you have a hotel room like this you HAVE to do a photo shoot, right? Right.
Paddy was a good sport.
Fun fact: The Grimes music video for her song “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” was filmed at the Madonna Inn and in the Carin room:
The awesome thing about the Madonna Inn was that all the rooms have outdoor access, so no elevators or hallways to worry about during COVID. Be aware that some of the rooms (like this one) are only accessible by stairs, so if you are mobility-challenged be sure to ask which ones are best for you before booking.
After checking in and doing our epic pink glitter room photo shoot, we put on masks and explored the hotel grounds. There were lots of signs around telling guests to wear masks outside of their hotel rooms, and most people complied. Check in only allowed two people into the office check in at a time (not a problem, no one was there when we arrived except the front desk workers).
Most people were wearing masks in the indoor areas in the hotel (bakery, main lobby and gift shop) but a few had masks pulled down under their noses and on their chins, and two ladies kept taking them off altogether. So selfish.
The Goldrush Steakhouse interior was closed for indoor dining, with outdoor dining open. We will definitely have to come back here after COVID. Those pink booths are amazing.
We stopped to admire the cakes at the on-site bakery.
We ordered dinner to go from the Gold Rush Steakhouse. The menu is pretty old style mid-century steakhouse, and nothing on there intrigued me, especially for the high prices. It was hot, so we got some salads and a slice of the pink champagne cake. I feel like dropping the dough on a full steakhouse dinner experience would only be worth it if you were dining in that magnificent steakhouse. We’ll save that for a post-pandemic visit.
The salads were not memorable, but the cake was. We ate dinner and watched a hazy sunset from one of our room’s two balconies and enjoyed some pink champagne and wine.
We also learned that glitter wallpaper really comes alive at night. It felt so fancy to drink pink champagne amongst all the sparkles!
Side note–the bed in the Carin room has seen A LOT of action. It wasn’t very comfortable. For the price we would expect better, and I hope they upgrade the mattress. Not sure if every room has an old worn out mattress or if the Carin room does because it is one of the most popular.
After the pandemic, we would like to come back and enjoy all the Madonna Inn has to offer–the steakhouse, horseback riding, and the magnificent beach-style walk in pool. But for now, the Carin room was exciting enough and we stayed safe. I can’t decide if my next top room choice will be the Hearts and Flowers room or the Blue Romance room. Stay tuned!
Days 4 and 5: Paso Robles Wine Country
The Copper Cafe breakfast looked expensive and boring, so we just ate the breakfast options we brought in our cooler. The wildfire smoke was pretty bad, and our car was covered in ash. We were headed a half hour drive away to a little Airbnb house in Paso Robles wine country, but couldn’t check in until 1:00. We decided to drive over to Pismo Beach to take a look at the California coast. But first, we stopped into the Madonna Inn bakery to get two slices of cake for the road. Their cake is out of this world! If you don’t stay there, at least stop by for cake.
We pretty much just got out of the car and looked at the smoky beach (it was actually a sunny day–those clouds are actually all smoke and ash). I guess at least it wasn’t crowded during the pandemic? I had a plan for us to walk on the beach and do a picnic lunch here, but it was best to not be outside breathing the hazardous air and it wasn’t much to look at with all the smoke.
We hit up the San Luis Obispo Whole Foods and picked up lunch and groceries for dinner, along with some local wine and headed to Paso Robles.
Our Airbnb house was adorable. It was a guest house on a gated private property, with grapes growing in the front yard, nice views and a pool. Paso Robles was a higher elevation than the coast, so we were able to get out of the worst of the wildfire smoke.
It was 95 degrees, so I went and took a quick dip in the pool. It wasn’t heated and was mostly in the shade so it cooled me right off! However, even in 95 degree heat it wasn’t comfy enough to swim in for very long. It was nice to read in the pool loungers, however.
After doing so much driving for the past three days, we were ready to have some down time. We cooked some delicious halibut for dinner and some of the Madonna Inn raspberry white chocolate cake for dessert and binge watched Netflix.
Exploring wine country
The next morning, the wildfire smoke made its way up to our elevation so my lovely day of sunning myself by the pool was not going to pan out. It wasn’t as hot which was nice, but it left us without a lot to do but hang out and relax. We’re good at that though.
If we weren’t in a pandemic (and multiple wildfires), I would have had a whole afternoon of wine tasting planned, possibly with a wine tour for safe transport to the many wineries in the area. I felt like we had to taste some wine, so prior to the trip I had researched some wineries open on Wednesdays (many are closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), that had COVID-safe plans. We selected Niner Wine Estates. Their tastings during COVID are reservation only, are outdoor only with wide spacing between tables, and masks are required at all times except when seated at your table. In addition, they sanitize each table between guests, and have all the tastings poured for you when you are seated, so as to limit your server having to come to your table very often. All the servers wore masks.
We felt very safe. We were greeted outdoors by a masked host who offered us a welcome tasting of wine outside seated far from the entrance area. He took our wine tasting order (one white flight and one red) and once our table was sanitized and all our tastings poured, we were shown to our seats.
We chose the last tasting reservation of the day at 3:00 PM, partly because we wanted there to be as few people as possible, and partly because I had a lovely plan of driving around the countryside looking at vineyards in the late afternoon sun and taking lovely photos.
Unfortunately, the late afternoon sun/lovely photos part was ruined by the wildfire smoke. However, the vineyards were still pretty and the winery had very few people visiting.
We enjoyed the cabernet and the chardonnay the best at Niner, and bought a bottle of each to take with us. They had a nice looking menu as well, but we planned on getting take out in town.
We did a drive around the vineyards despite the smoke and back to town. It was really nice and we would love to come back and do wine tasting again sometime after the pandemic.
For dinner we got take out from La Cosecha in Paso Robles town. Outdoor dining was allowed, and restaurants had spilled their tables out onto the sidewalks and parking spaces in town to create socially-distanced dining. We still weren’t comfortable with this due to so many people walking by, some without masks. We ordered several small plates for takeout: the grilled octopus, the seared scallops, the fried “bombas”, and the beet salad. Everything was excellent. We would love to come back and dine in again after the pandemic.
Day 6: Long driving day to Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Thursday morning, we got an early start on the road for our long day of driving to my parents’ house in Lake Havasu City. The smoke was still bad, and got worse around Bakersfield.
We passed a really bad semi truck flip blocking the entire two-lane highway 58. I think we arrived just after it happened, traffic was beginning to back up for miles. I think the driver was okay, there were people walking around the crash outside on cell phones. Gasoline was leaking all over the road. Hopefully no one threw a cigarette out the window. Yikes.
It was a pretty bland road trip day overall. Lunch was a Del Taco drive-through stop in Barstow. Our one and only roadside attraction on today’s agenda was the Mohave Trails National Monument on part of old route 66, in the “town” of Amboy. The plan was to detour off highway 40 onto highway 66 and then re-join the 40 down the road, but there was a detour and we were directed straight off the 40 cutting over to Amboy on Kelbaker Road. It was an old, poorly maintained road through the desert which was a little nerve-wracking. I had flat tire nightmare panic the whole time. However, we were fine.
The Mohave Trails National Monument wasn’t much to see from the road. It was actually a nature preserve that is good for hiking and exploration with an off-road vehicle.
However, we got an awesome historical shot of old Route 66 and a rad mid-century motel and cafe. I want to come back and check out Roy’s cafe after the pandemic.
We made it to my parent’s house in Lake Havasu City, Arizona late that afternoon and spent time relaxing.
Days 7-8: Drive to Oatman, Arizona and some relaxing pool time
My parents took us on a drive on part of old route 66 through a winding canyon with a lot of harpin turns that was nerve-wracking, but beautiful. The drive took us through the old west town of Oatman, Arizona which is known for the wild donkeys that roam the town and surrounding area.
The town is about one block long, and full of touristy shops and saloons, and of course–donkeys. Tourists buy food pellets for the donkeys and feed them in the street, which keeps the donkeys coming back often for free lunch.
Unfortunately there were a lot of tourists without masks, so we didn’t get to explore the shops while we were there. We managed to catch a group of donkeys alone and got out to say hi. They were very sweet.
We spent the afternoon and the next day relaxing in my parents’ pool and enjoying some family time in their new house.
Day 9: Yucca Valley, California
We said goodbye to my parents and began our journey back west to California. Our last stop on the trip was an Airbnb house in Yucca Valley for three nights, which is near Joshua Tree National Park.
The drive from Lake Havasu to Joshua Tree was only about three hours, and we made it to the Joshua Tree area by lunch time. We stopped for lunch at Andrea’s Charbroiled Burgers in Twentynine Palms. Andrea’s had outdoor tables set up in their parking lot with canopy tents for shade. No one else was at the restaurant (from the dishes on the tables it looked like their lunch rush had just ended), so we decided to eat there. It was a lot more comfortable than trying to eat in our hot car and there wasn’t anyone around besides the two restaurant workers who were wearing masks. The burgers were good, I would highly recommend Andrea’s over the fast food chain options in Twentynine Palms.
Our next stop was in the town of Joshua Tree to see the World Famous Crochet Museum. Back in a lot by an art gallery, one woman’s crochet obsession occupies an old photo processing booth. It is tiny but amazing, full of interesting and colorful crocheted items. It’s free, but there is a donation can with a $0.25 suggested donation. I’m obsessed with unusual museums and this collection is definitely worth the stop in my opinion.
Our last roadside attraction for the day was the Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley. The park is a collection of white statues of Jesus and biblical figures in the foothills of the desert, installed in the 1950’s. It’s an interesting and unexpected sight and also free to visit.
We arrived to our Airbnb in Yucca Valley promptly at check-in time, anxious to see this unusual house that looked so intriguing in the photos.
The house is called The Ancestor, and was built by hand with materials from the surrounding desert by an architect in the 1970’s. The house truly was a work of art.
The Ancestor had a pretty large plot of property covered in Joshua trees, with a large deck on the upper level perfect for having margaritas and watching the sunset. There was a shallow wading pool (not heated) in the front, and an awesome enclosed courtyard hangout area off the kitchen with a gas firepit. The house had so many interesting little details and the hosts provided extra touches like upscale bath products and incense. The house also has a hot tub in an enclosed sunroom area that can be opened up to the outside. It was hands-down one of the most magnificent and unique places we’d ever stayed.
We went into town to pick up some groceries for our stay, margarita mix and tequila, and some takeout BBQ for dinner from Dickey’s BBQ.
Not only was Dickey’s BBQ delicious, they were set up perfectly for COVID safe pick up. Their tables were arranged in a square in the center of the restaurant, with direction for one way in and one way out, as well as 6 ft spacing signs for waiting in line. The staff wore masks and once we paid, they directed us to sit on the side bench to wait, and then deposited our order on the table instead of handing to us to maintain social distancing. We highly recommend their ribs and the turkey.
We spent the evening enjoying margaritas from the deck of The Ancestor and watching the sunset.
Days 10-11: Cabazon Dinosaurs and Yucca Valley relaxation
Our main intention in Yucca Valley was to get some sunshine and relaxation in before heading back to the rainy Seattle weather and an indefinite amount of quarantine in our house. However, we decided to get one more COVID-safe excursion in: The Cabazon Dinosaurs.
The Cabazon Dinosaurs is more of a roadside photo-op than anything else, and at $13 per person the park was a little small. You can walk through it in 15 minutes. However, it is all outdoors, and masks and social distancing were required. The giant T-Rex in the front of the park that you can see from the road has a stairwell up to a lookout from his mouth. We didn’t do that though, as we didn’t know if we would have to pass other people or be in a tight space with people.
Overall, it was a fun little excursion and provided for some great photos.
We spent the rest of the day and the next day relaxing on the property, getting some sun in the splash pool, and enjoying the desert before our drive home.
Quick tip about Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley: It is consistently 10 degrees cooler in Joshua Tree and the high desert than down in Palm Springs. The temperature stayed at 95 while Palm Springs was over 100 when we were there.
In addition, the wildfire smoke was much worse in the lower elevation areas in and around Palm Springs. We had almost booked a house with a pool in Palm Springs but were really glad we didn’t. The air was a bit hazy in Yucca Valley but the higher elevation kept it from being really bad.
Days 12-13: Long, smoky drive home
The wildfires in Oregon were really bad while we were on this trip, and there were large fires up and down the I-5 corridor through Oregon, causing hazardous smoke. In addition, many hotels were occupied by wildfire evacuees. We decided the best thing to do would be to drive home in two days instead of three, which meant 11 hours per day of driving, but no stops in fire-ravaged Oregon.
Our first day we drove from Yucca Valley to Redding, California. It was a pretty long, brutal day. We managed to make one roadside attraction stop at the giant olive in Corning, CA:
We rolled into the Thunderbird Lodge in Redding, CA tired and hungry. The Thunderbird Lodge is a re-vamped vintage motor lodge. It was average and clean.
Northern California was allowing dining in restaurants, and restaurants and bars were packed with people not wearing masks. I stopped at a Japanese restaurant nearby to try and order something to go, but left immediately after a large group of people without any masks whatsoever walked in and stood right next to me.
We ended up getting some gross takeout salads from a bar near the motel, getting side-eye glances from anti-maskers in the bar when we asked to wait for our food outside.
The next morning, we hit a Starbucks drive through (masks worn), but noticed customers not doing the Starbucks employees the courtesy of wearing masks at the drive through. We made one final stop in Redding before hitting the road at a gas station to fuel up and get some ice. There was a large “masks required” sign on the door to the gas station, but the two employees inside were not wearing masks, nor was the customer who walked in while I was in there. Overall, Redding was a pretty bad experience.
The drive through Oregon was so smoky we had to wear our masks inside the car for parts of the drive near Roseburg and Eugene areas. It was sad to see some neighborhoods demolished by fire from the freeway, and large portions of scorched land. I felt so sad for all the people affected by the fire. Businesses and homes lost, animals and even some human fatalities.
We were so happy to have been able to get out and get in a travel adventure this year. We miss traveling a lot, but we won’t be getting back on a plane until there is a vaccine or the virus is down to a dull whisper. This trip gave us lots of ideas of things we want to come back and see in California post-pandemic. We definitely will be visiting the Madonna Inn again, and we would love to spend some time in San Francisco and LA.
Stay safe out there. Mask up and protect your community. We will get through this.