Roses and Spanish colonial architecture—this must be Santa Barbara.

Photo by Jenny Miller

Until recently, traveling with my mother had mostly been confined to resort lounging in Mexico—or some other low-key, kid-friendly locale that could accommodate my brother and his three boys—but that’s been changing since she retired 18 months ago. Since then, I’ve realized I have the perfect travel companion at my disposal: a fun, easygoing parent with two robust artificial knees and pretty much all the time in the world.

With that in mind, I invited Mom (who now lives in San Diego) to drive with me from Los Angeles, where I was visiting pals and researching a few stories, to my brother’s house in Portland. Call it a test-drive of the mother-daughter travel relationship—if L.A. to Portland went well, then Bali, or maybe the Greek islands, could be next.

It would be our second road trip: One June years ago, Mom flew down from my hometown of Portland to drive with me in my old Toyota Camry back from college in the Bay Area. On the way north, we were so taken with the tiny mountainous Northern California town of Dunsmuir, which had a peaceful river, railroad tracks, and even a Thai restaurant on its miniature main street, that we ended up staying the night and having an impromptu vacation there. I’d always thought back fondly on that unexpected stop—my first taste of spontaneous travel and further confirmation that I have a way-cooler-than-average mother.

The Santa Barbara Mission is a cultural and historic landmark.

Photo by Jenny Miller

Santa Barbara: delicious food, thrift shopping, and a mission

I’d be driving most of the 1,000 or so miles our trip, for which we’d allowed nearly a week. I settled in behind the wheel ready for the open road—only to face traffic. Friday afternoon may not be the world’s best window for making the drive from L.A. to Santa Barbara, but that’s what we had to work with. Oh well. Plenty of time for me to tell Mom about the month I’d just spent in Colombia, and my recent jaunt out to Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and the Salton Sea. Mom, in turn, told me about her recent induction into the world of smart phones. “I’m good at texting,” she declared proudly, brandishing her late-model Samsung. “It’s just like emailing!”

Several hours later, we pulled up to the valet at the 1934 colonial-style Canary Santa Barbara downtown. Our suite had heavy wooden furniture in its bedroom and sitting area, beautiful textiles, and a Juliet balcony overlooking the town. The whole place was basically Mom bait, and mine couldn’t have been more thrilled.

We had dinner reservations, so we headed downstairs to Finch & Fork, the hotel’s much-lauded New American restaurant, where I proposed we share the oysters, a kale-topped flatbread, plus the Friday special of seafood pot pie, and Mom in her typical flexible fashion agreed. The pot pie was the right move: It came out creamy and steaming, encased in a pastry crust and overflowing with every kind of fish and crustacean. I snapped a photo of Mom smiling behind it for my online archive of Mom pics. (This one couldn’t compare to her best attempt at a Mongolian yak herder ensemble, but it was a cute photo.)

The next morning, we hit the farmers’ market just in time for the rain. We managed to buy some jojoba oil and ogle plenty of glorious California produce before the downpour started in earnest. Next up: La Super-Rica, famous as Julia Child’s favorite taqueria. I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype, but after some locals tipped us off about what to order, we dug into some of the best Mexican food I’ve tried in the States. The standout was the restaurant’s namesake, La Super Rica Especial, a pile of al pastor pork chunks, strips of pasilla peppers, and melted cheese on flour tortillas. Always generous, Mom let me eat most of it.

Next, my frugal packrat of a mother did something she’s done hundreds of time in my life: She dragged me thrift shopping. Mom’s been scouring the bins since the ’60s, way before used anything was cool. She’s enough of an expert at extracting treasure from the trash that she once taught a class called “Junking With Judy.” On the way to lunch, we’d passed a few secondhand shops, so we backtracked and scoped out one of them but left after finding the prices too high—Mom is nobody’s $70-for-a-used-coat fool.

I was eager to get on the road to San Luis Obispo but Mom wanted to visit the Santa Barbara Mission, so we made our way to the cookie-hued, pink-and-white cathedral surrounded by agave plants. In our atheist family, interest in religious monuments doesn’t extend far enough to pay a $5 admission fee, so we got back into the car for the easy 90-minute drive northward. Around sunset, we located our hostel.

Central Coast: a rowdy hostel, In-N-Out Burger, and a castle

Although I’ve hosteled my way through Latin America, Mom’s first initiation into the world of communal accommodation featured a private room right off the common space, where the somewhat motley crowd carried on very loud conversations—not what I was hoping for. Never mind. We had a hotel to check out: The Madonna Inn, a tourist draw since the sprawling stone-sided palace fit for Fred Flintstone opened in 1958.

After parking in the capacious lot, we beelined to the inn’s hot-pink Gold Rush Steakhouse, decked out even more loudly than usual for the holidays, but without a reservation, we had to settle for cocktails (pink, of course) at the adjoining Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge. I was sure she’d love seeing her favorite color splashed over an entire restaurant, but Mom declared the place “tacky,” the biggest understatement of the trip so far.

Still in need of dinner, we then did what two gals on a California road trip are obligated to do at some point: We hit In-N-Out Burger for a couple of Double-Doubles, animal-style. To me, it tasted better than steak.

The entrance to Hearst Castle

Photo by Jenny Miller

On my insistence, we departed bright and early for our 11 a.m. Hearst Castle tour—Mom runs more than a bit behind schedule, and I wasn’t taking any chances. These days, if we ever clash, it’s usually about time—Mom likes to take hers slowly and I’m a fast-paced New York dweller working on chilling out.

With time to spare, we stopped in tiny Cambria, which someone had told Mom good things about, and enjoyed breakfast burritos from the Boni’s Tacos trailer, which we ate at the French bakery across the way. I went to the restroom and came back to discover my mother had bought us not one or two but half a dozen pastries to share. “I couldn’t decide,” she said, shrugging, clutching two fistfuls of brown paper bakery bags. “We can eat them if we get hungry on the way.”

Mom hadn’t seen William Randolph Hearst’s never-ending mansion since the ’70s, and I’d never been, so we eagerly boarded the bus that drives tourists up the sloping grounds, where all manner of exotic wildlife once roamed. The house, if I can use that term for a 165-room hilltop complex where the eccentric gazillionaire entertained the who’s who of Hollywood and beyond, had been decked out gorgeously with lights and fir trees—turns out the holidays are a great time for visiting coastal California sights.

NorCal: Big Sur, elephant seals, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and a spooky house

We left in time to catch Big Sur’s glorious vistas during daylight. On Mom’s insistence, we stopped to see a floppy herd of elephant seals relaxing on a beach just down the highway. I’d been rushing us along like a drill sergeant (I take my Big Sur very seriously), but relaxed when I saw these cuddly creatures piled together on the sand like overgrown puppies. I took a deep breath of sea air. Mom had the right idea to stop here.

Elephant seals know how to chill.

Photo by Jenny Miller

At last, we were racing north toward my favorite stretch of road in the whole country. My technophobe mother, who’s known to utter phrases like, “OK, I’ll fire up the computer tomorrow and figure out how to send you those photos,” was now buried in her smart phone, which she tapped firmly and deliberately with one finger, as though prodding a small mammal for signs of life.

Close to sunset we approached the tiny (and tony) beachside hamlet of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Mom suddenly thought to phone an old Palo Alto pal who has a home there—she wanted to check it out. After securing the address, Mom dragged me on another sort of expedition she’s taken me on since I was a kid: the real-estate scope-out. We crawled through the town scanning for street numbers, backtracking once in the encroaching gloam, until we found the cottage in question, where Mom, never shy, insisted we park and thoroughly trespass on the property.

“They won’t mind,” she declared blithely as she strided and I tiptoed in a full circle around the house, me keeping a nervous eye for the current residents. When Judy Miller makes her mind up to do something, there’s no stopping her, so I knew resistance was futile until Mom got her share of poorly lighted photos.

When I finally dragged her away it was dark, but luckily we had a reservation in nearby Monterey. It was another hostel, so we braced ourselves, but lucked out and got a room to ourselves (although we’d reserved dorm beds) after the nice guy at the front desk agreed that my cute mom and her artificial knees shouldn’t have to climb a bunk-bed ladder. We found a fun Hawaiian spot for dinner and a tiki cocktail, Hula’s Island Grill, then hit the sack.

The next morning we woke up early for a foray inland. I’d toured the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose at age 12, and it had left an indelible spooky impression on me; I was curious whether it would still resonate as an adult. We had plans to stay in Mendocino that night, so this wasn’t much of a detour. Unfortunately, when we reached the mysterious mansion-on-steroids—the 38-year pet project of Sarah Winchester (who believed she must have workers building 24 hours a day or the ghosts of all those killed by Winchester shotguns would haunt her)—we had to wait to take our tour.

As we wound through staircases that went nowhere, doorways that opened to 12-foot drops and chimneys that almost reached the ceiling, I realized I’d been overly optimistic with the day’s timing: We were well behind schedule, and now we’d be driving most of the way from San Francisco to Mendocino in the dark.

Confusion Hill in Northern California

Photo by Jenny Miller

A dark, twisty road during a downpour
Under normal nighttime circumstances, twisty Highway 128, which winds among sky-scraping redwoods, would be a challenge, but tonight the skies had decided, seemingly, to empty themselves of all the rain they’d been denying the state during these recent years of drought. The already slow evening traffic on Highway 101 crawled even more slowly, and by the time we turned off onto the smaller, unlighted road, I wasn’t sure our windshield wipers would hold out at their current hummingbird speed for the next 85 miles. We barely spoke, or breathed, except when Mom chimed in to say something encouraging as I navigated the numerous curves.

We were shaping up to be horrendously late for our dinner reservation at Wild Fish, in the town of Little River, and we had no cell phone service in the middle of the forest. About 60 miles in, we began to see temporary signs posted warning us of flooding, but the one time I felt our tires leave the road and begin to hydroplane, there’d been no sign posted. We needed to get off this road before it got us.

Finally, we reached Highway 1 and gratefully turned onto the larger highway, heading north for seven miles until we got to the restaurant. By then it was past 9 p.m. and we were more than an hour late. I sheepishly headed inside to explain, not imagining they’d agree to feed us. Yet to my surprise, several tables were still dining inside the warm and ambient place; they’d be happy to seat us in a moment, the hostess told me.

Soon we were digging into California oysters on the half shell and wild-mushroom risotto (for Mom) and rich, comforting bouillabaisse (for me), all organic and local. We ordered glasses of champagne and then we overheard news another table was discussing: Highway 128 had just been closed because of flooding. That was close. We toasted our good fortune, then headed across the road to Little River Inn for a sound sleep.

Mom and a morning coffee on the beach

Photo by Jenny Miller

Mendocino: a charming town, a famous breakfast, and redwoods
I opened the curtains the next morning to a shock. In our dramatic arrival last night, I’d completely forgotten Little River Inn’s prime waterside location. It had been impossible to see in the dark, but now I stared out to a brilliant blue cove just beyond us (the weather had improved). Breakfast is famous at the Inn, so we trooped to the pretty garden-side dining room to feast on house-made scones and crab cake benedict, plus Ole’s Swedish Hotcakes, the recipe courtesy of the original owner.

We then decided to explore the small town of Mendocino proper, just up Highway 1. Looks-wise, Mendocino slightly resembles old New England (there are a strangely high number of churches), but this is most definitely California. One of the churches had been given a snazzy burgundy repainting and turned into a health food store. “I’d come back here for vacation,” Mom declared as we motored out of town.

We headed into true redwood country now, joining up with 101 once again to head toward Humboldt Redwoods State Park and the “Avenue of the Giants” a 31-mile stretch of road paralleling the 101 that’s bordered by trees 300 feet tall. Cutting back to the main highway, we began to see signs advertising attractions: Drive-through trees! The World Famous Tree House! Confusion Hill! Each one warranted a photo. At the Chandelier Drive-Through Tree, I picked up a map of Sasquatch spottings—this was Bigfoot country, too, though he’d remain elusive to us on this trip.


We easily reached Oregon that afternoon, cheering as we passed the big green-and-white sign in the shape of my home state. During the long drive, I told my straight-laced mother for the first time about a life-changing experience I had with some psychedelic seeds in India; I wasn’t sure how she’d react. Her answer surprised me: “You know, I think I might have gotten a lot more into the hippie thing if I hadn’t had your brother so young,” she mused.

For our last night on the road, Mom insisted on treating us to a stay at the finest lodging the rinky-dink coastal town of Gold Beach had to offer, the Gold Beach Resort, which sounds way fancier than it is. Still, it had a hot tub and pool (the big draw for Mom), and our room overlooked the pale golden sand and gray-blue surf beyond it. We dined that night at the nicest place among the town’s half-dozen restaurants, Spinner’s, on clam chowder and pasta, toasting our road trip success. After the day’s revelations, I felt closer to Mom than I had in awhile.

By Day 6, waking up in Oregon, we were out of attractions and days (it was already the 23rd) and ready to reach my brother’s place just outside of Portland. We called him from the road to say we’d see him that afternoon. We pulled into to his driveway to find my two young nephews playing outside on this unseasonably warm December day. They ran over and hugged us, excited to see us, and happy the way kids are when it’s almost Christmas. We’d driven 963 miles without much incident and we were happy, too. I high-fived Mom and headed inside to wrap up the Bigfoot map for the kids. I made a mental note to Google Airbnbs in Greece later that week for another mother-daughter adventure.

>>Next: 7 Classic California Road Trips to Drive in Your Lifetime

Jenny Miller Jenny Miller is a NYC-based journalist who covers food and travel.