California, to be exact Northern California (NorCal) the usual first thoughts are sunshine, ocean, and beautiful natural landscape. In my case, the latter is one of the main reasons to take this road trip. The other is a “dressed rehearsal” of an idea for a project car. There is something special taking an epic road trip in this state. In one day you can go from 30 degrees in rugged, winding, mountainside roads. Then, later in the day, you can be 70 degrees in flat, open farmland roads perfect for cruising. California has something for everyone, car guys, road trippers, outdoors enthusiasts, which all have one thing in common, it takes driving a road at some point to reach your destination.

Northern California: The Start Of Something Epic

The road trip officially began once picking up the car that was the test subject for future Sexto Elemento road trips. The car was a Kia Sorento, so the car guys out there are probably asking themselves what is a car enthusiast doing with a Kia Sorento? Well, first hear me out. One of the most common things we heard on our Route 66 (click here) road trip was “I wish I could do that trip, how did you afford to drive from the beginning (Chicago, Il) to the (famous) end (Santa Monica, Ca)? That question came from car guys and many others. The quick answer is to fly to your desired destination, rent a car and go. We are trying to do something different for future road trips.

The Kia Sorento: our steed for this adventure

Road Trip: The Purpose

The NorCal road trip acts as a dressed rehearsal of a different kind; it was to test out a theory, can you build the ultimate fun car? What does the ultimate fun car entail for us? First, it must be fun to drive (track or the streets). Second, reliable enough for epic road trips even after the abuse of “spirited driving.” Third, can it save you money by minimizing hotel/motel stays? One of the biggest expenses on a road trip is where will you sleep, can you build a “fun car” that can also be comfortable enough to sleep in, allowing freedom to rest anywhere? All three are a tall order for one car to do, our background caters to the first two, but the third needs some R & D (research and development).

To summarize the primary purpose is a project car that caters to performance driving, reliability and, comfort for road trips, all this in our philosophy of low budget, high quality. The Kia Sorento is the pure test of number three, comfort for in-car camping and long drives. This post will be the narrative story with some tips mixed in. A future Sexto Elemento Road Trip guide dives deeper into the subject. The information for our road trip guide will come from this R & D road trip and others.

The First Stops

The first goal is to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and seeing the views of the city whiz past you in between a pattern of lines made by the cables of The Golden Gate Bridge and the speed of the car driving past them. The Golden Gate Bridge crossing is a view that must be seen and driven in person, no matter how many times you see videos or photos it does not equal to the experience of doing it yourself.

Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point (North)

On the drive out of San Francisco, there is a parking area to enjoy your last view of the city. Besides the constant flow of tourist, the views of a glittering blue ocean due to how the sun reflects on the water on a clear day, the city backdrop and the ever-menacing and ocean-battered Alcatraz Prison sits in the middle.

Four (sight, hearing, touch, and smell) out of five senses get bombarded with stimuli walking The Golden Gate Bridge. Walking the pedestrian section of the bridge is a highly recommended experience, the further you walk across the bridge and ocean the more intriguing the views (sight) get and you can feel the vibrations (touch) of cars driving past you, on the railings or sidewalk. The lulls of traffic help enhance the sound of boat horns, seagulls and most noticeable the wind howling past (hearing) you the further you are out on the bridge, it also brings the aromas only a sea breeze can bring (smell).

The view and the walk on Golden Gate Bridge

Napa Valley

The next stop was Napa Valley. If you go to Napa two things must be done. One, drink local wine as in a wine tasting at a vineyard. Two, drive the Silverado Trail. Of course, spread these two activities out and drink responsibly. Napa has an American Tuscany-like feeling, small-town atmosphere, friendly people, great driving roads lined with vineyards or other fantastic natural landscapes.

Castello di Amorosa peaking out of the bushes.
Vineyards and Napa Valley are a great combination for lush great landscapes.

The Mountain Road Through Wine Country

No better way for a car guy to start a morning than driving around roads snaking around mountains with colorful vineyards. There are different ways to get on the Silverado Trail which is just east and runs parallel with CA-29. The Silverado Trail signs are clear and will be easy to see. The drive from south to north starts flatter and then the elevation changes and the road curves more and more, inching closer to the vineyards. Driving Mountain roads is one thing, driving mountain roads with vineyards adds a new dynamic view to the road.

Just outside at the entrance of Castello di Amorosa.

“Use as much one lane road as you can but don’t cross the double yellows. Take the racing line, smooth on the brakes, hit the apex but not the mountainside, exit the corner wide within the double yellow lines and set-up the next corner” is what is said routinely in my car-obsessed mind while driving the first mountain roads of the NorCal Road Trip. Since these roads were unfamiliar, the GPS map section helps somewhat predict the next corner, how tight, the switchbacks, etc. If you are near the area, a detour is worth it, and the reward is a fun and scenic road.

The road that leads to a vineyard castle (Castello di Amorosa) in Napa Valley

Napa has the perfect balance for a fun driving road to take your significant other, romantic stops like vineyards and wine tastings and fun driving roads carved into a spectacular landscape. All can be done on a budget, pay for a wine tasting at a vineyard with a great view like Sterling Vineyards or buy wine and some food and stop at by a scenic rest area. The adventure continues through more mountain roads and romantic vistas.

Stopping by Sterling Vineyards was a great place to explore.

The Starting Line For Lake Tahoe

For this road trip, the starting line for epic mountain road driving is US-50 through El Dorado National Forest. The landscape of Sacramento city life fades away to incremental elevation change (almost mile by mile). The forest and mountain road views only improve the closer you get to Lake Tahoe.

Starting on US-50 as the city landscape transforms into rainy mountain roads.

Some pull off sections on the road have cliffs with drop-offs, with no guardrails. US-50 to South Lake Tahoe got cloudier, greyer and the feeling of rain is ever-present for the entire drive. The thud of large raindrops hits the roof first then raindrops splash on the windshield, making the drive from fun to more intense due to the visibility and wet roads.

First stop and view of Lake Tahoe on a cloudy and rainy day.

The Lap Of Lake Tahoe

A lap of connotes speed in most instances in the car culture world, on a road trip, it is the opposite. You maximize pleasure by taking your time. The best road trips are the ones with a basic plan, plenty of time and wandering around. The Lap Of Lake Tahoe is a perfect example. There were no major plans, just notable stopping points and the rest was random driving and wandering. The Lap Of Lake Tahoe consists of CA-89, CA-28, NV-28, and US-50 (the exact the order we drove it).

The start of The Lap Of Lake Tahoe from our hotel. A quick side note, the building on left is in Nevada and the Kia is in California.

Emerald Bay

The first (planned) stop was anywhere near Emerald Bay, located on the Southwest corner of Lake Tahoe. The weather was ominous, we stopped at a pullout section on CA-89 with the famous alpine lake as the backdrop. A peninsula of water, bordered by trees makes the view that rivals even Lake Como in Italy. What some may feel is a dreary, cloudy day is the opposite for us, it adds layers of character and interest to the fantastic landscape. A visit to Emerald Bay State Park is worth a visit, for the view alone.

First view of Emerald Bay.

Temporary Ghost Town Parks

The state parks following Emerald Bay felt like ghost towns due to it being off-season and the cloudy, cold rainy weather kept people away. The idea was to drive as deep into the park as possible. There has always been an attraction in exploring areas with minimal or no people.

How the mountain road looked the majority of our time in Lake Tahoe, wet, chilly, and cloudy.

The first was D. L. Bliss State Park, famous for its Balancing Rock in Lake Tahoe. “The park is named for a pioneering lumberman, railroad owner, and banker of the region. The D.L. Bliss family donated 744 acres to the State Park system in 1929. (California State Parks Website)” The drive to the Lester Beach felt like arteries-like roads because they snake around and weave into the state park.

Roads coming from the left, right, middle felt like driving on arteries of a forest.
No one at the beach or anywhere else inside the park.

The second was crossing over to Nevada during The Lake Tahoe Lap, Sand Harbor. It stopped raining, the white clouds still blanketed the skies like layers of cotton stacked on top of each other. The clouds added more texture to the temporarily abandoned park atmosphere.

No other cars or people in sight.

Sand Harbor became the perfect place to stop for more in-depth exploring. The unique views between boulders, beaches littered with large rocks and stones by the shoreline or stacked up. You can stay at Sand Harbor wandering around, and not notice time passing by. You can get purposely lost walking marked trails, or you can make your own between rocks and boulders.

Someone using the boulders for a time-lapse photo on his phone.
All alone and only the Sand Harbor Park views to accompany us.
Boulders around and inside the shoreline of a beach is a unique view.
How the marked trails looked with posts along the way with history or facts about the area.

The estimated time for The Lap of Lake Tahoe can be about 3 hours if you drive non-stop. Double the time if you stop and enjoy the scenery around you, the latter is ideal. If you are in Lake Tahoe, plan out approximately 6 hours and drive around Lake Tahoe. You will enjoy your time between the mountain roads, beaches, parks, and pull out sections.

Along The Lap Of Lake Tahoe, there are plenty of times to pull-over and enjoy a new view of Lake Tahoe.

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