You can’t take a road trip without pit stops. Here’s the lowdown on 7 spots

Whether you’re heading north, south or east from Southern California, your road trip needs a few pit stops. Here’s a close look at some famed fixtures and underappreciated gems.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Your car trip is going to be just fine, really. But right now, you’re hearing that dreaded four-word chorus from the back seat. And no, you’re not there yet.

But maybe you just need the right pit stop.

Here are seven. Three are north, on the way to San Francisco. Two are east, on the way to Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, Las Vegas or Death Valley. And two are south, on the way to San Diego.

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All have been around for decades, but for all their roadside familiarity, there have been some changes. Here’s an update:

Interstate 5 to San Francisco

Harris Ranch

The straightest route to San Francisco (a 388-mile journey from downtown Los Angeles) will take you right past Harris Ranch, where choice steaks await.

The main Harris Ranch complex seats 455 people at a time, and ranks among the state’s highest-grossing independent restaurant operations. Visitors can choose among the Steakhouse, the Horseshoe Bar and the Ranch Kitchen, which gets the heaviest traffic.

And now there’s a new barbecue option. The Harris Ranch Express BBQ opened in late April at the Shell station in the Harris compound. The new place, open 10 a.m.- 8 p.m. daily, is aimed at travelers in a hurry.

Nothing on the menu costs more than $10.75, which gets you beef brisket and cheddar cheese on a French bun.

The ranch parking lot includes the San Joaquin Valley’s only hydrogen cell fuel station, along with a Tesla Supercharger station.

Info: Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant, 24505 W. Dorris Ave., Coalinga, Calif.; (800) 942-2333. Ranch Kitchen open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

Harris Ranch.
Harris Ranch. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Highway 101 to San Francisco

Madonna Inn

The Madonna Inn has been an eccentric haven for U.S. 101 travelers for nearly 60 years.

Along with the powerfully pink color scheme, road trippers can behold the Gold Rush Steakhouse and the more casual Copper Café, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Menu main dishes range from a ham sandwich at $12.25 to a filet mignon at $44.95.

If your legs need stretching, the inn buildings are surrounded by great Central California scenery — meadows and hills and a bike trail that connects to downtown San Luis Obispo.

Then there’s the hotel, a favorite among honeymooners: 109 rooms, no two alike, with pool and spa; horseback rides; and pink tennis courts. Rooms for two from $209.

Info: Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo; (800) 543-9666. Copper Café open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

The pool at the Madonna Inn.
The pool at the Madonna Inn. (Madonna Inn)

The Apple Farm

The Apple Farm started in 1977 as a restaurant with an Americana theme. Ownership has changed over the years, but that theme endures, now strengthened by a bakery, a three-level gift shop and a 105-room hotel complex.

Dinner main dishes are about $14-$29; the signature dessert is a hot apple dumpling.

Whether or not you do dessert, burn a calorie or two by strolling around the six-acre property. The gardens are sometimes wedged into tight slots between buildings and parking spaces, but they’re full of color and visual puns.

Landscape manager Joseph O’Keefe has used more than 700 pots and baskets to maximize impact.

Rooms at the inn (which includes a small pool) usually start about $129 (plus a $12 per night facility fee).

Info: Apple Farm Restaurant & Bakery, 2015 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo; (800) 255-2040. Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

The Apple Farm.
The Apple Farm. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Interstate 15 east to Las Vegas or Death Valley

Mad Greek Cafe

About 65 miles beyond Barstow, just before you decide whether to bend north toward Death Valley or continue straight to Vegas, you’ll reach the dusty hamlet of Baker, home to the Mad Greek Cafe.

Baker’s main drag, Baker Boulevard, has several fast-food spots and gas stations, one traffic light, the world’s tallest thermometer (134 feet) and UFO Alien Jerky, a novelty shop with a space-alien theme.

You’re likely to see the Mad Greek first because it stands on a prime corner at the southwest end of town. Every surface that’s not painted blue is painted white. What’s not painted white is covered in mirrors. What’s not covered in mirrors or inscribed with Greek vocabulary lessons is adorned with statuary.

The restaurant is open around the clock. The gyro sandwich is the biggest seller, with prices topping out at about $13 for shish kebab. Strawberry shakes and baklava shakes (a recent addition) are also popular.

“I’m there for somebody who doesn’t want Jack in the Box, doesn’t want Del Taco, doesn’t want Carls Jr.,” owner Larry Dabour, who lives in Las Vegas, told me in a phone interview.

Info: Mad Greek Cafe, 72112 Baker Blvd., Baker, Calif.; (760) 733-4354. There’s another location in Primm, Nev.

tatue at the Mad Greek Cafe.
tatue at the Mad Greek Cafe. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Interstate 10 to Joshua Tree or Palm Springs

Hadley Fruit Orchards

Hadley Fruit Orchards is where you get a date shake and maybe a sandwich or dried fruit and nuts.

This is a ritual stop for my family on the way home from any desert trip requiring Interstate 10. For many families, this ritual dates back 50 years. But it’s different now.

In February 2016 the Hadley’s retail operation abandoned its longtime home in the rustic, low-slung market building on Seminole Drive just west of Ruby’s Diner.

Hadley’s has built as its new home a shiny space a block north.

It feels more spacious, and the menu is longer, but it’s not as homey as the old Hadley’s. I’m hoping the new site will grow on me. Meanwhile, the date shakes are as good as ever.

Info: Hadley Fruit Orchards, 47993 Morongo Trail, Cabazon, Calif.; (951) 849-5255. Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekends.

Interstate 5 to San Diego

Cliffhanger Café

If you’re passing through La Jolla on Interstate 5, you have easy access to chain restaurants. Nothing special about that.

But you’re also just 1½ miles (use the Genesee Avenue exit) from the Cliffhanger Café and Torrey Pines Gliderport.

This casual eatery sits atop a 350-foot seaside bluff, and as you eat, you can see hang gliders and paragliders taking off and drifting above the waters below.

If you’re a fan of stark, modern architecture, keep an eye out for the Salk Institute on the left as you drive in.

The cafe serves snacks and lunch — sandwiches, salads and soups — which you can eat at picnic tables. Sandwiches are $9.49; breakfast burritos, $7.99.

On weekends in summer, burgers join the menu — and there’s usually a local band playing from 1-4 p.m.

Info: Cliffhanger Café, Torrey Pines Gliderport, 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla; (858) 452-9858. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.

Cliffhanger Café.
Cliffhanger Café. (Chris Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Pannikin Coffee & Tea

Pannikin, wearing a friendly coat of yellow paint, is a beloved stop in Encinitas for breakfast, lunch, coffee, tea and hanging out.

It’s been a tempting stopping spot since the 1980s, with umbrella-shaded outdoor tables, works from local artists on the wall and a bohemian surf vibe. (The beach is five blocks west.)

Info: Pannikin Coffee & Tea, 510 N. Coast Highway 101, off the Leucadia Boulevard exit of Interstate 5. Encinitas; (760) 436-5824. Open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Pannikin Coffee & Tea.
Pannikin Coffee & Tea. (Chris Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

If you have a favorite pit stop, send us a note, subject line Pit Stops, at

Follow Reynolds on Twitter: @MrCSReynolds


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