Date Archives May 2018

Surfing our Way Up-Island

Camping in Vancouver Island’s rainforests outside of Port Alberni before catching some good food AND waves around Ucluelet and Tofino, British Columbia.

Anyone who has been before knows that Vancouver Island has got it goin’ on. We’re hoping we can one day venture out to what’s truly considered “up-island” (Campbell River, Port Hardy, etc.), but for this leg of our journey, we were en route to the furthest west we’d be going in Canada.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Cathedral Grove
Cathedral Grove is a must-see stop on the drive to Port Alberni

After scouring around the BC Sites and Trails website, we found a few really awesome free campsites within an hour of Port Alberni. Bear in mind that even though they’re a full hour’s drive, they’re less than 30km (18 miles) away – AKA some rough dirt road driving. What has now come to be one of my favourite camping spots to date, the first place we checked out was Arden Creek. A surprisingly well maintained logging road brought us to a small opening within the trees where the very discreet road in made its way down to the water. There are four designated campsites, each with different scenery ranging from a rocky beach to a crystal clear river hidden by mossy trees. This place was downright magical.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Arden Creek
What a campsite! Arden Creek was wicked

We decided to stay there a few days while relaxing in the trees and watching the tide of the Alberni Inlet roll in and out like it was going out of style. Once we were ready to start trailblazing again, we headed to Nahmint Lake, another gem of a BC Recreation Area hidden among old growth hemlock trees. As beautiful as it was, the drive to reach it gave Clementine a run for her money. Potholes are one thing but this road had some majorly steep grades that were quite a challenge when you’re a 34 year old bitty that weighs well over 5000 pounds. Just when the engine got a break from hill climbing, the brakes got their share of stress on a not-far-from-vertical descent down the mountain that made us look forward to climbing it on the way out (not). On one rock, someone actually spray-painted “KEEP ‘ER PINNED” as a reminder to keep that gas going…thanks helpful Canadian vandals! Anyway, the spot was super nice and definitely delivered on being remote. With all the vegetation and wildlife around, there was so much life enveloping the van into its flourishing mossy grasp. If you’re looking to get your jungle fix without leaving BC, it’s well worth the steep rocky drive in.

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Our campsite at Nahmint Lake

Ultra scenic highway 4 led us through the mountains, by the wayside of picturesque Kennedy Lake and finally, back out to the ocean. The rain came down hard that day and created a misty haze in the trees that looked pretty cool and doubled as a free carwash that was much needed after the alternating cycle of mud and dust that was the Nahmint Lake drive. As the clouds cleared, we arrived in the small fishing town of Ucluelet where we ate some tasty fresh cod at a food truck called Jiggers and passed by a bunch of other vans on the same pilgrimage.

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Rainy days on Highway 4

Continuing on the tail end of highway 4, we headed into Pacific Rim National Park where we camped at Green Point for a few days. I’m proud to say that this was our first time paying for a campsite in months and on this part of the island, it’s well worth it because boondocking is next to impossible. With our newly acquired 2018 Discovery Pass in tow, we got to explore Long Beach and sleep under the familiar jungley trees from Nahmint Lake. The only downside was that the trees created almost complete shade so it was consistently chilly and not great for solar, but luckily every campsite had an electrical hookup to keep that fridge cold.

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Nahmint Lake is surrounded by huge hemlock trees among tons of other plants. Keepin’ it green!
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Tidal pools disguising themselves as tempting hot tubs

Unlike many other coastal beaches, Long Beach is nice and sandy and has tons of really cool tidal pools that look like mini tropical oases. This also makes it a great place to surf since the waves in this area are pretty reliable. As it turned out, the weekend we were there happened to be the Rip Curl Pro surfing competition so Tofino was bustling. We went into town to grab some Tofino Brewing beers and some tasty cured meats and cheeses at Picnic Charcuterie before making our way to Cox Bay to scope out the competition. When we got to the beach, we were greeted by a thick fog that made it hard to see what was going on 20 metres away but were pretty confident that not many people were out surfing. We ate, drank and were merry with all the other people on the beach before heading back to the campsite for the night.

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Thick fog swallowed up all of Cox Bay

Tofino is a pretty tourist driven town with gorgeous scenery in all directions that felt more like Australia than Canada. It’s an easy place to spend money but also a great spot to just walk around and take in the views. The next day, we rented some surfboards and wetsuits and spent the afternoon at Chesterman Beach surfing (or at least attempting to). Turns out the fog was too thick for the judges to see anything the day before so all the events were being jam-packed into one marathon of a competition on this final day of the weekend. Chesterman was much better suited for beginners so we happily got endlessly knocked over there. I mostly belly rode the whole time, which was super fun, but Justin managed to successfully stand up and surf the waves. Truthfully, the hardest part for me was carrying the damn longboard because it was double the size of me and super awkward. In any case, we had a great time in the water and were completely exhausted by the end of it.

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Tubular, bruh!

With one night left on the island, we managed to find a free spot near the local landfill (glamorous) that had a road as pothole-ridden as those in Mexico. To illustrate just how bumpy it was, we had an avocado in the banana hammock that got rocked back and forth so vigorously that it made guacamole on the ceiling – yum! We had a much-needed sleep before heading back to Nanaimo to catch the ferry to Horseshoe Bay where we’d begin our journey to the mainland and start heading east. Summer’s on its way and we’re stoked to be back in Canada!

Lower Vancouver Island

Starting our return to Canada off right by heading straight to one of our favourite places, Vancouver Island. We partied with friends in Victoria before making our way around Jordan River, Cowichan Lake and Nanaimo, British Columbia.

Hello Canada! We are back and ready to get all up in your business! Or, just drive across you while visiting friends and family and marvelling in your beauty. The ferry ride over was an A+ way to cross the border: beautiful scenery, a beer-stocked boat and the smoothest border crossing we’ve ever had. Like most humans, the border always makes me nervous even though we’ve done nothing wrong, but this one was so chill that the lady actually laughed when we bothered to claim some auto parts we were bringing back. Plus, no need to deal with that Peace Arch congestion that can take hours to go through. Also worth noting that Clementine is about 18’ long so we were able to pay standard vehicle price, which ended up being just $80 USD total for us all to cross – MUCH less than we’d pay in gas driving through Seattle to Vancouver and taking the BC Ferry to the Island. Win-win!

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Non-stop beautiful views on the ferry from Port Angeles, WA to Victoria, BC

The great thing about being back in Canada is that we know a bunch of people scattered far and wide so we can cash in on some valuable shower and driveway time. Isn’t that what friends are for after all? We spent a week in Victoria staying with a friend’s awesome parents (shout out to John and Ruth if you’re reading this 😉) and some old friends while catching up on work and enjoying the lack of rain that coastal BC can be known for. We even managed to get in some beach time at Gonzales Bay, where you can sunbathe and party at the foot of multimillion-dollar homes that you’ll never own. What a life! We also broke all the rules of stealth camping and had a party in the van while parked on a city street but managed to get away with no police visits or tickets and escaped with just a hangover. Success!

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Seal Molting Gonzales Bay
There was also a seal molting on the beach

One place we checked out that wasn’t previously on our radar was The Butchart Gardens. Lucky for us, we were given a 2 for 1 admission pass so we took the opportunity to explore all the flowers that you normally just see on postcards. We didn’t think we were all that interested in flowers, until we visited. Basically, the area is an old limestone quarry that’s been converted into a dream-like sunken garden, along with Italian and Japanese gardens and a rose garden. Perfectly manicured greenery and flowers of every colour filled every direction, along with the highest concentration of extremely happy old people I’ve ever seen in my life. The place was packed – even when it started to rain and everyone huddled under clear bubble umbrellas so as not to miss any of the pretty floral views. They have some odd restrictions about not wearing period dress or cosplay but all in all, it was a pleasant surprise how much we enjoyed it (no, we weren’t planning to dress in cosplay even if it was allowed).

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The sunken garden was something out of a fairytale

I’ve mentioned the difference in gas prices before between the US and Canada but we were ever so fortunate to come back into Canada when Vancouver is experiencing the most expensive gas prices in North America. Currency conversion aside, we’re paying almost as much per LITRE ($1.62) as we were paying per gallon in some states ($1.99)…and there’s 3.78L in a gallon, so you can do the math. Anyway, we couldn’t let that stop us from continuing around the Island and heading to Jordan River. A popular surfing spot for people who actually know what they’re doing, the river meets up with the coast at a rocky beach filled with crabs and other tidal sea life. We camped right along the beach and enjoyed being back out of the city for a few days.

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No surfers around in the thick fog at Jordan River

Continuing toward Port Renfrew, we stopped at China Beach where we explored the woods and I failed massively at skipping rocks. In Juan de Fuca Park, there’s a botanical beach with lots of little sea critters and these crazy bonsai-esque trees that grow in all kinds of warped twisty directions. They almost end up growing into each other and carve interesting paths in the hiking trail, dictating which way you’ll walk around them. Sombrio Beach is another cool spot with the classic west coast rocky beach that the high tide can do such a good job at hiding. You can easily kill a couple hours flipping over a few rocks and seeing all the crabs scurry on to their new homes while playing the tough guy card and pinching their claws at you.

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These twisty “natural bonsais” wrap their way around the park

We spent the next day exploring Lake Cowichan and the Cowichan River Park where we hiked around and watched crazy kayakers battle the river. These provincial parks have plenty of no overnight camping signs at trailheads and parking lots so we eventually circled around Cowichan Bay in hopes of finding a spot to camp for the night. Unfortunately, most of the more remote areas around here have become rich peoples’ houses so we went on a little further before stopping in a town called Chemainus. Turns out they’ve got designated RV parking spots around town where you can stay and enjoy a view of the ocean. We spent the evening at a park by the water with a boat ramp and relished in the definite start of summer with the sun not setting until well after 8 PM.

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Watching people kayak counts as kayaking too, right?

One pitfall about Canada is that there are very few Planet Fitness locations where we can grab a shower…and maybe a workout if we’re feeling ambitious. We didn’t have any friends to phone up in Nanaimo so we racked our brains and took a different approach by visiting the pool. I’m normally not a fan of public pools at all but this place was $7 and had a wave pool, waterslides and a huge hot tub! After a long day of working, it was a fun and relaxing way to unwind…until a kid puked in the pool and everyone had to get out. Oh yeah, that’s why I don’t like public pools. Anyhow, we got all shampooed up and headed to a BC Recreation Area about 20 minutes away from Nanaimo and hunkered down for the night. This place meets up with the Trans Canada Trail so there were a few hikers and equestrian folk around since the area has lots of corrals and grassy land for the horsies to roam around. There was even a BBQ in one of the sites that seemed to be open for use.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Nanaimo Bars
No trip to Nanaimo could be complete without a couple nanaimo bars

We’re now on our way toward Tofino and stoked to explore everything in between. Vancouver Island is a magical place and is FULL of amazing free camping spots that just take a little research to discover. Canada seems to be much less prominent when it comes to finding spots on websites like freecampsites.net (the bible) but by taking some time to dig around BC’s Sites and Trails site and talking to locals, the Island is full of great surprises.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Butchart Gardens
Another Butchart Gardens photo because it was THAT magical

Vancouver, not BC, Washington, not DC

Our last days in the US of A spent around the Olympic National Park in Hoodsport and Port Angeles, Washington.

We were just about at the top of Canada’s pants (also known as America) and what better place to spend our final days in Washington than in the forest overlooking Mount Washington itself? After talking to a German couple in Tillamook, we learned about the Coho Ferry that runs from Port Angeles, WA to Victoria, BC and decided to avoid the Seattle traffic and sail right into Vancouver Island. Sticking to western Washington State, we found an amazing spot in the Olympic National Forest with a view of Lake Cushman and the snow capped mountains. We could have stayed here forever, soaking in all the amazing views and reliable AT&T service.

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One of our favourite spots so far, atop a mountain in the Olympic National Forest overlooking Mt. Washington

Once we finally parted ways with that wicked spot in the National Forest, we visited the National Park only to find out that it was still largely buried in snow. 118” of snow, to be exact. I was really looking forward to hiking to the natural Olympic Hot Springs, but unfortunately, the road leading to the trailhead was so severely damaged by a storm a couple years ago that it’s closed indefinitely so they would be quite a trek to reach by foot. It’s always worth checking the road conditions before you go to avoid disappointment. Speaking of road conditions, we seemed to arrive just at the right time when the road up to Hurricane Ridge was fully plowed and open to drive on. It’ll only get you as far as the Visitor Centre but the drive is pretty spectacular. At 5242’ (1598m) elevation, this is where they measured the 118” of snow. Luckily, from the Visitor Centre, you have a clear view of Mount Olympus and its surrounding mountains that make for a pretty epic snowy scene. It’s hard to believe that within 20 minutes, your drive goes from rainforest to forests blanketed in snow. It’s a super cool place to check out that looks good in any season. The National Park also has webcams set up at the Visitor Centre so you can get a sneak peak of what the conditions are like before making the drive.

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No shortage of snow at Hurricane Ridge

We spent our last days in the cute little town of Port Angeles where we stocked up on all of our American goods before heading toward the border. Just a short drive from the city, we spent some time at the Ediz Hook Bird Refuge and relaxed on the rocky beach with a view of Vancouver Island from one angle and Mount Baker from the other. The harbor of Port Angeles also looked pretty magical in the twinkle of lights from docked and visiting boats – a pretty great little seaside town that made for an awesome farewell to our time in the states.

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The pretty view of Port Angeles from Ediz Hook

The time has finally come to venture back to Canada and start a new leg of our journey. Five months absolutely flew by and although we got to see a ton of cool stuff, there’s still so much more to discover. With a limit on our time in America, we tried to make the most of every day we had and really hope that you Americans are doing the same – politics and beliefs aside, America is a beautiful place that is so diverse and accessible to people willing to uncover it. We’ll have another dip down in the Midwest on our way back to Toronto where we’ll be sure to savour every dollar spent on that sweet, sweet, cheap gas that we’ve reluctantly bid adieu to.

Take a Break from Pumping Gas in Oregon

Living that sales tax-free life through Coos Bay, Cannon Beach and Portland, Oregon.

A very fitting entrance into Oregon, the day we arrived was POURING. We knew it was a rainy place so we sort of just accepted that that’s what life is like there but were pleasantly surprised (for the sake of Oregonians) to hear that was a storm. And a storm like that always does a great job at enlightening you as to where you may have a few leaks….yay…! With a caulking gun in tow, we spent the night at Bastendorff Beach, just west of Coos Bay, and noted how similar, yet different Oregon’s coast is to California’s. With more trees, less cliffs and way more rain, it makes for a much moodier take on Big Sur’s flower-coated shoreline.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Bastendorff Beach
Once the rain stopped, turns out Bastendorff is a pretty nice beach

As any roadtrip goes, the time to buy gas always creeps up quickly. After having filled up in 20 different states at this point, we approached the fill-up by parking, turning the engine off, getting out of the car and preparing to pre-pay. This time, however, no one else appeared to be getting out of their car but instead, stared at us like we were doing something very strange. When we tried to go over to the attendant to give him some cash, he too looked at us like we were doing something very strange. Turns out full-serve gas stations are alive and kicking in Oregon and are pretty much the only type of gas station there is! As it turns out, Oregon and New Jersey are the only two states where pumping your own gas is a foreign concept. Earlier this year, Oregon made some new regulations where in counties with less than 40 000 people, folks can pump their own gas after 6PM (among a few other guidelines), which was met with hostile reactions. “It should only be a trained and certified employee handling these dangerous gas pumps!” “ You expect me to go outside in the rain and cold and risk my life pumping my own gas?!” “How am I supposed to pump my own gas when I don’t know how??” Ok Oregonians, put on your big boy pants and join the rest of the world – you know it’s not that scary when grandmas do it daily without a flinch. What was comedy for us was pertinent information for others when the gas station had diagrams on how not to insert the pump upside down. All joking aside, it clearly creates more minimum wage jobs and kinda makes you feel like a VIP when your gas gets pumped for you. We were even able to get cigarettes delivered to the van without having to go outside or even stand up!

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Mossy trees by The Devil’s Elbow Park

From Coos Bay, we continued up the coast toward Heceta Beach where we slept a night in the thick of the rainforest, surrounded by huge ferns and miles of lush vegetation. Close to the Devil’s Elbow State Park, this was one of those roads that had no clear destination or reason to exist at all, but made for an excellent sleeping spot that felt like the rest of the world was far, far away. We even found a little painted rock left by a previous camper with a hashtag on it to connect with others exploring the Pacific Northwest. It’s always fun to continue writing the stories that others have started in remote locations.

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Look at this cute little guy!

Out of the forest and back on the water’s edge, we headed to Cook’s Chasm to see Thor’s Well. We didn’t know that the Spouting Horn was there as well so it was a really cool and unexpected surprise to witness this geyser-like spoof of mist shoot up into the sky as the boisterous waves came crashing into the shore. Funnily enough, it took us some searching to actually find Thor’s Well because it’s secondary to the main attraction of the Spouting Horn. If you’ve never heard of the Well, it’s a round pocket in the rocky shore that appears to suck the water from the ocean into its depths. In reality, it’s not all that deep and it certainly isn’t draining the ocean, but it sure looks cool! It’s best to witness on a stormy day but can be really dangerous to get near with all the sneaker waves that Oregon’s coast sees. As the signs point out, never turn your back to the ocean!

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The Spouting Horn at Cook’s Chasm

Continuing north, we stopped in cheese land – or Tillamook as it’s actually called, and lived the absolute dream: camping on a cheese farm. Blue Heron French Cheese Co. is a haven of fine meats, cheeses and all the accouterments needed for a delicious picnic. The cherry on top is that they also have a little wine bar inside where you can do a tasting of 5 wines for 5 bucks! Oregon’s becoming the new kid on the block in the wine scene so it was great to try some local blends and even take a bottle back to the van. Not sure if the owners are RVers or are just really kind, but the grassy knoll of the parking lot is open to overnighters with a simple registration inside. It is, of course, a farm so there are lots of friendly goats and silly donkeys around while colourful peacocks and not-so-quiet roosters sing you all kinds of songs to wake up to. Oddly enough, the roosters on the farm still weren’t as loud and vocal as the roosters that roam the streets in Key West – can’t miss that wakeup call. I highly highly recommend it as an overnight stop and a cool place to visit on any Oregon trip.

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Cheese farm living
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Our neighbour for the night

After saying farewell to our short-lived life on the farm, we stopped in a couple of cool coastal towns, like Manzanita, before making our way to Cannon Beach. I’ve heard lots about Cannon Beach and it was definitely lovely but a little too windy that day to even hear each other speak. The houses that line the coast up here are gorgeous and generally a lot more humble than those of California’s coast, while still boasting panoramic views of the ocean and all that magnificent greenery that Oregon’s so known for.

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Windy days at Cannon Beach

Like California, we stayed pretty coastal in Oregon and will save the interior for another (read: warmer) time. We got lots of rave recommendations from friends about Crater Lake and camping along the Umpqua River but after checking the conditions and reading that the road into the Lake was closed due to ice from a blizzard, we reluctantly passed on visiting. It is our mission to avoid winter, after all. Luckily, spring had sprung in Portland and sunny skies with cherry blossom-lined streets were in high supply. Portland is also a very van-friendly city with plenty of free street parking in residential and commercial neighbourhoods where you’re bound to see at least one other crusty van parked at every turn. I think it’s a mix between having a very open-minded and unbothered community, along with a massively underfunded police department. In any case, the city has also allowed tenting and sleeping on the streets so you’ll see plenty of tent cities along the highway and other underpasses. Surely far from an ideal living situation but we even saw one group of people that had solar panels at their city campsite, which is actually kind of impressive. Anyway, we spent most of our time around the Hawthorne and Division areas of Southeast Portland, where there were plenty of interesting shops, bars and restaurants that made us feel like we were back in Toronto. It’s got the same mature neighbourhood feel but the houses aren’t as astronomically expensive so people can actually afford to maintain them and keep them looking nice instead of cramming in 12 students and letting the property fend for itself.

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Boats at Cathedral Park in Portland

Portlandia is one of my favourite shows so it was pretty cool to spend some time in the self-described “weird” city. Weird probably wouldn’t be my first word to describe it, but friendly might be; we were parked on a residential street for a little while while waiting for an oil change appointment when a guy yelled down to us from his balcony and asked if we needed to use the restroom or anything. How generous! It’s evident that unlike some other stuffier cities, Portland is pretty laid back and certainly accepting of alternative lifestyles, like van dwelling. When we finally got our oil change, we got to talking to the guy at the shop who gave us some recommendations for cool places to check out nearby that we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to visit. Multnomah Falls, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens (Washington) are definitely on our list for next time! We spent the rest of our evening at Cathedral Park and admired one of Portland’s many bridges getting lit up as the sun went down. Oh and of course, all the while drinking Stumptown Coffee.

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St. John’s Bridge in Cathedral Park

Just one more state to go until we’re back in the motherland and it almost feels like we’re already in BC with the mountainous, tree-covered scenery and with a city by the name of Vancouver. Washington, here we come!

California Chronicles: NorCal

Slept beside the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco before driving through the towering Redwoods of Northern California.

We were officially out of the endless summer that California is so known for and on our way north. With a free day and a full tank of very expensive gas, we took a cruise around San Jose and Silicon Valley. Wanting to check out the new Apple Park, we may or may not have tried to drive into the trippy loop through the employees only entrance before getting stopped by security. I don’t think many Apple employees come to work in an ’84 Dodge van so our tour was pretty limited to a drive around the loop where Priuses and Segways ran wild. We did a lap around the other tech offices in the area before it started to pour and we headed for San Francisco.

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Arrived to a nicely lit up view of the bridge and city

Not the most ideal evening to sit in the park and pretend you’re on Full House, so we just drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and found our spot for the night at the rest area on the Marin side. Staying at rest areas is usually a last resort for us, but this one has the most spectacular view of the city and bridge (and Alcatraz!). There’s also a Northern California recreation area on this side that offers sites for tenters with a free reservation. We woke up to busloads of tourists coming to snap their photos and a sunny view of that bridge we’ve all heard so much about. We ended up chatting with a bunch of other vehicle dwellers before heading on to Petaluma where we got to tour a sticker factory! Travelling through the country has allowed us to link up with lots of friends and people we’ve worked with that we never thought we’d get to see, which is really rad.

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Aaaaand woke up to a lovely sunny view of the bridge and city
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STICKERS!!! So many awesome stickers at Mrs. Grossman’s in Petaluma, CA

Taking in all of the delicious grapey smells of Sonoma County, we spent a couple days camping among peaceful forests and waterfalls before venturing into the grandfather of all trees, the Redwoods. We saw a sign along the 101 highway mentioning a “drive-thru tree”. Intrigued, we followed the signs and ended up in Leggett where, for 5 bucks, you can drive through a massive 2400 year old tree – if you’ve got a compact enough car. Sadly, Clementine is a full-figured girl so we walked through instead but it was still really crazy and really cool. You can see all the marks along the sides of the little tunnel where people have realized they’re too big to fit and continued to scrape on through. The tree itself is called Chandelier Tree and is older than Jesus! Think about it!

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That’s one big tree!

Being amongst these huge sequoias in the Redwood Forests is incredibly humbling and serene. To think that these giants have been around through so much, from the medieval days to the World Wars, makes all your minute problems seem pretty insignificant. It’s a similar feeling that I get in the mountains where you realize that things that might seem so important right now are really just another ring on the tree or a rock on the mountain. If these trees could talk, I’m sure they’d have plenty of wise words to say.

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Looking like a van for ants on Howland Hill Road

There are a variety of enormously treed forests amongst the Redwood National and State Parks that all have different hikes and scenic drives to offer, but our favourite was the Jedediah Smith State Park near Hiouchi. Take the Howland Hill Road scenic route and feel so small in the jungle of trees. I probably have more photos on my camera roll of this drive than any other because it would not cease to keep blowing my mind. I’ve said it a hundred times now but these trees are just so damn big!!

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When these monsters fall, there’s no chance you’re moving ’em so instead, you get to drive through them!

As expensive as the gas is and as saturated as the van scene may be, California is undoubtedly a magical place and I completely understand why so many people live there (fun fact: the population of California is greater than the entire population of Canada). It’s got such a diverse landscape and really does have something for everyone. Because we only had two weeks to explore it with the clocks on our visas ticking, we decided to stick to the coast and leave the interior for next time. We cannot wait to venture back and explore Death Valley, the Sierras and everything in between.

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Foggy skies over vibrant mountain water in Hiouchi, CA

 

California Chronicles: Central California

Spent a windy night north of San Luis Obispo before making the glorious pilgrimage down the coast to Big Sur, CA. Oh, and got kicked out of two camping spots twice in one night…cheers, Central California.

Sure, San Luis Obispo is more so part of Southern California but heading that way marked the end of the desert and the beginning of the lush, grassy mountains that would continue up the rest of the glorious California coast. We got word of a spot amongst the mountains that was supposed to be beautiful, but a little on the windy side. After our Drumheller experience, we laughed off 40 mph gusts since we managed a night of nonstop 100 km/h winds on the edge of a canyon just fine. By “fine” I mean we were terrified but ultimately, didn’t die or do any damage to the van – score! Anyway, we headed up the winding dirt road and spoke to a couple people who had stayed where we were the night before and were on a mission to find a spot higher up the mountain in hopes of a less windy night. We’re not afraid of a bit of wind! Let’s stay! The view was spectacular, after all.

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Sunshine and grassy mountains in San Luis Obispo

We spent the evening hanging out with a fellow Canadian traveller when the wind started to pick up. By the time we went to bed, the gusts were gaining momentum so we just parked on a different angle and settled in. Fast forward a few hours and it sounded like every bolt holding the roof on was hanging on for dear life. We were rocking like a canoe and not in a peaceful lullaby kind of way. No big deal – we’ll just move the van a bit further in to be shielded by the nearby mountain. The amount of wind blowing into the front of the van kept choking it out so it was a challenge in itself just to get it started but eventually, we found sweet salvation and went back to bed. Ok, now fast forward another couple hours and the wind changed direction drastically so we had to move again. This time, we saw 3 or 4 other campers trying to find a new spot as well – it was 4:30 AM so I don’t think they were just trying to get a head start on their day. We ended up having to drive down the same skinny dirt road that was sketchy enough in the daytime and ultimately parked at a trailhead beneath a “no overnight camping” sign. We managed to get a couple hours of sleep before the area became a construction site with bulldozers and other noisy machinery out to re-grade the road – restful night!

Generic Van Life - Central California San Luis Obispo View
Take the wind out of the equation and this is a beauty spot!

The next leg of our journey was what I had been waiting the whole trip for: driving down California’s Highway 1 to Big Sur. Normally, we could have started in San Luis Obispo and gone all the way to Monterrey but a portion of the highway was closed due to a mudslide so we had to take the 101 to Monterrey before going as far south as the highway would allow. The road was closed at Gorda so despite not being the most efficient route, it was pretty great to drive the coastal highway south and north to see it from both angles. Sometimes seeing those stunning views from the rearview mirror just doesn’t cut it.

Generic Van Life - Central California Coast
Gorgeous coastal views weren’t in short supply

If you’ve done this drive before then I don’t need to remind you of how beautiful it is but if you haven’t, this is my not-so-subtle nudge to start planning a way to do it. From the roaring coastline to the sandy beaches and everything in between, the entire drive is absolutely breathtaking and evoked an emotional response within me. Everything is rich with life and smells fresh and vibrant to a point where you can just stand in one spot and be overwhelmed with peace and joy. Just like Southern California however, the views are clouded by trash, which is so sad to see.

Generic Van Life - Central California Big Sur
If you could virtually smell these flowers, you’d be loving it

We then disappeared into the forest and made our way to the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Miller is one of my favourite writers and along with some other beatniks, was the reason I knew Big Sur would be so special. The “library” is self-described as the place “where nothing happens” and delivers on being a peaceful retreat surrounded by obscure garden art and towering redwoods – and books, of course. If you like playful cats and having a cup of coffee in the forest, then it’s worth stopping in.

Generic Van Life - Central California Henry Miller Library
Lots of garden art at Henry Miller’s

On the entire drive down to Gorda, we were keeping our eyes peeled for forest roads that we could potentially camp on since this part of the coast borders Los Padres National Forest. You’re pretty much SOL anywhere north of Big Sur, but there are a few forest roads close to Gorda that are relatively unmarked and make for some great dispersed camping. We pulled onto Los Burros road, where we passed plenty of other campers doing the same thing. This road eventually leads to Naciemento-Fergusson Road where we read that you’re no longer allowed to camp on, BUT has some other dirt roads off of it that seem to be fair game. I spoke to the dude giving info at the Gorda highway closure and he said that he believes you’re allowed to camp on Naciemento going southbound, just not northbound but he wasn’t entirely sure. The forest roads are worth exploring if you’re up for it! Being able to wake up in the quiet, grassy mountains to a view of the ocean is just the best.

Generic Van Life - Central California Los Burros
Los Burros Road camping

We spent the next day exploring some of the parks and soaking in all that fresh salty air. The McWay Falls in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is pretty much what I think of when I imagine what paradise is supposed to be like. Unfortunately you can’t access the beach from there so we headed to Pfeiffer Beach where we walked in the purple jade-filled sand and watched the ocean crash onto the rocky shore. Certainly not a sunbathe-in-the-sand-with-an-umbrella kind of beach, but an amazing place nonetheless. Keep an eye out for the only unmarked paved road without a gate in between the post office and the state park to access its hidden entrance.

Generic Van Life - Central California Pfeiffer Beach
Rocky shores at Pfeiffer Beach

After leaving Big Sur, we found a little street close to a beach in Moss Landing where we’d heard is a good place for an overnight but ultimately ended up getting kicked out by the police. Fun! We sought out an RV-friendly Walmart and hunkered down for the night in the comfort of being surrounded by 5 or 6 other big rigs (you generally know it’s a safe bet when there’s a 40ft RV with a tow trailer parker already). Around 12:30 AM, we got a knock on the window by Walmart security who then asked us to leave before the tow trucks arrive. Double fun! In the several months that we’d been on the road by this point, we’d never gotten kicked out of any spots (other than by the wind) until it happened twice in one night. This is a reality of van life and sometimes you’ve just gotta roll with the punches and keep moving. Lots of people are under the impression that all Walmarts are cool with overnight camping, but with all the inconsiderate litterbug RVers and increased insurance costs, many Walmarts are transitioning over to no longer allowing it. As with all spots, try and do your research first and note that it’s always courteous to ask permission if you opt for a Walmart. Out of desperation, we ended up at a Flying J in Salinas that is plastered in 2-hour parking signs. Luckily by going in and asking, they gave us special permission to stay the night.

Generic Van Life - Central California San Luis Obispo
The sunset over San Luis Obispo to remind us of prettier times

Central California really brought its A-game when it came to views but also gave us a run for our money when it came to boondocking. Taking the good with the bad is all part of it and makes for a funny story. After all, you can’t be that surprised that people don’t want you staying on their property for free all the time – if anything, it makes you appreciate all those really awesome successful spots even more!