road trip trip reports

California road trip during atmospheric river apocalypse week

waves crashing on the water
Winter strom waves hitting Monterey Bay Aquarium in Jan 2010.

New Year’s Eve was a washout for my area of California around Monterey. I spent the first week of 2023 driving 900 miles from Monterey to Orange County and back. On New Year’s Eve, the day before my road trip, San Francisco saw 5.46 inches of rain, ranking second in daily rainfall weather records for greatest total rainfall since 1849. On November 5, 1994 it rained 5.54 inches in San Francisco.

There were floods, falling trees, rockslides and mudslides in many places around the San Francisco Bay Area closing roads and freeways. Even around Monterey County Highway 1 Big Sur suffered rockslides in multiple places shutting down the highway for the first weeks of 2023.

New Year’s Day 2023

In November I discussed visiting family the first week of January to avoid the road traffic crush of Christmas week when 20 million people move across California in their cars going north and south, east and west and all over locally in every city and town to shop and visit.

Checked CalTrans New Year’s morning for road closures. Nothing listed along the 101 on our route south and we took off for the 170-mile drive south to Holiday Inn Santa Maria in the afternoon.

Trip stop: Mile 124 Atascadero, California.  In-N-Out Burger is adjacent to Highway 101 at Exit 220B San Anselmo Road. Atascadero is also known for DSHA, an all-male maximum security psychiatric hospital for mentally ill criminals and the largest employer in town. The psych hospital is not next to Highway 101.

a tray of food on a table

In-N-Out Burger is our traditional road trip food stop when traveling across California. 

Holiday Inn Santa Maria

One night at Holiday Inn Santa Maria cost 16,000 IHG points or $80 for my cost to buy IHG points. I originally had booked a $116 King Standard Room with $2 extra to add breakfast. I changed my reservation to points after my IHG Diamond elite status was extended through 2023 by purchasing InterContinental Ambassador membership for $200. Breakfast was complimentary for Kelley and me as IHG Diamond elite. Holiday Inn Santa Maria made a tasty omelette. Kelley had a tri-tip burrito. Santa Maria is known for its beef.  Grazing black cattle are generally seen in grassland alongside Highway 101 on surrounding hillsides south of Santa Maria. However, each year reveals more hillsides between Santa Maria and Buellton converted from grasslands and oaks to vineyards for the wine industry.

a room with a christmas tree and a decorated tree

Holiday Inn Santa Maria lobby during holidays. Buellton, California for gas Highway 101 goes right through Buellton, California 34 miles south of Santa Maria. Take the Buellton exit for Highway 246 and turn east for cheap gas and fast food eats all within 1/2 mile of the freeway. Gassed up in Buellton for under $4.00 per gallon, a price rarely seen since February 2022. Car ready for the remaining 170-mile drive all the way into Orange County, California.

The plan was cut over to Highway 1 Malibu in Oxnard, but that atmospheric river threat was scheduled to arrive by 5pm and our 2pm Getty Villa free tickets would put us back on the road driving across the freeways of Los Angeles in potential rain torrents. We opted to stay on Highway 101 and skipped the Getty Villa visit to reach our Orange County hotel before the rain storm began.

Holiday Inn Santa Ana – Orange County Airport

A 4-night stay at Holiday Inn Santa Ana – Orange County Airport using the Chase 4th night free award priced at 60,000 points, or $300 as my cost to buy IHG points. That was a significant discount on the $147 after tax rate for a standard room. Our stay had breakfast included, although the breakfast buffet was nothing to brag about compared to your standard Holiday Inn Express breakfast. The breakfast convinced me that I will opt to pay $20 daily parking and stay at Crowne Plaza Costa Mesa next time I need an IHG hotel in the area.

Only while eating the same buffet food on Day 4 at Holiday Inn Santa Ana did I actually learn there was a Toast to Toast breakfast menu we could have ordered from for our morning meal. There were no menus on any tables in the breakfast room and none of the staff ever mentioned a menu option alternative to the buffet. I only realized what I missed on my last morning when I saw someone order a made-to-order breakfast. Kelley had stopped coming to the buffet after day 2.

a plate of food and a banana on a table
Holiday Inn Santa Ana-Ornage County Aiport breakfast buffet.


a menu of a breakfast
Holiday Inn Santa Ana -Orange County Airport Toast to Toast breakfast menu.


There were a couple times driving around Orange County during our stay when the rain was coming down so hard driving was difficult. I did not encounter flooded roads, but the concrete channels snaking through the southern California valley towns and cities actually showed real river action from all the water runoff.

a parking lot with cars and grass and trees

Holiday Inn Santa Ana – Orange County Airport room view of Highway 55.

There were four days and nights of rain in Orange County. By our departure day on Friday, January 6 the skies were beautifully blue again for the 370-mile drive back to Monterey.

 a pool in front of a building

Holiday Inn Santa Ana – Orange County Airport outdoor pool with rain puddle. 

Friday morning I checked the CalTrans road closure page and no impediments were seen for driving Highway 101 back home to Monterey. Another glorious day of driving through the California hills suffused in brilliant green grass. No flooding was seen along the way. 

Back home this past week we stayed home most days as wind gusts over 50 mph downed trees and broke our heavy wind chime hanging on the deck. Road closures were close to home with Highway 1 in Carmel and Highway 101 in Monterey County and Santa Clara County shut down for hours at a time due to fallen trees and flood water after some days of heavy rain. We were left in the dark for hours with power outages on a couple of days this week.

I drove 900 miles during the California atmospheric river apocalypse of January 2023. Yet, my experience of the devastation wrought on so many communities across the state is primarily from TV and social media videos.

By chance and luck, I planned my California road trip travel days on the best weather days the California coast saw in the past two weeks.

a white truck parked on the side of a road with green hills

A California road trip on a green grass day is a sight to behold.