Posts in Nature

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!

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Coho Ferry
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).

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Butchart Gardens Sunken
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.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Jordan River
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.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island China Beach
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.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Cowichan River
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.

Generic Van Life - Washington Olympic National Forest
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.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Tillamook
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.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Cannon Beach
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.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Portland Bridge
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.

Generic Van Life - Northern California Golden Gate Night
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.

Generic Van Life - Northern California Golden Gate Day
Aaaaand woke up to a lovely sunny view of the bridge and city
Generic Van Life - Northern California Stickers
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!

Generic Van Life - Northern California Chandelier Tree
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!!

Generic Van Life - Northern California Redwoods
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.

Generic Van Life - Northern California Hiouchi
Foggy skies over vibrant mountain water in Hiouchi, CA

 

California Chronicles: SoCal

Soaking in our last doses of the hot sun and sandy desert of Southern California in and around Joshua Tree National Park and Los Angeles, CA.

California was a bit of a milestone for us. Reaching the Pacific Coast meant that we had officially driven from ocean to ocean in the United States and discovered so many new places and landscapes that we thought we’d never see. For many aspiring vanlifers and Instagram voyeurs alike, Southern California seems like the mecca of travelling around in your pastel coloured VW bus hopping from beach to beach to surf and live the #vanlife dream. Now I’m not saying that that’s not true but there are a few main factors that need to be kept in mind when it comes to travelling through Cali:

  • It’s expensive as hell. We had heard gas is at least 50 cents a gallon more than other states but be prepared for a full dollar more. We paid $2.50/g in Quartzsite before crossing the state line where gas was $3.79/g in Blythe. We were used to gas prices between $2.20 – $2.50 on average so this was certainly sticker shock. Aside from gas, Justin was paying about $4 more for cigarettes and our grocery bill was at least 20 bucks higher every time.
  • You can’t park on most beaches. There are plenty of beaches that you can spend the day at while your van is parked in the parking lot (that you probably had to pay to park in), but expecting to make a trip of camping along coastal beaches ain’t happening.
  • California works like Canada. If you like lots of rules, regulations and taxes, move to California. If you like lots of rules, regulations, taxes and being cold, move to Canada.

All negativity aside, California is absolutely beautiful and it’s quite obvious why so many people want to live there. Truthfully, I didn’t want to like it because it’s so saturated and expensive but when you’ve got everything from arid desert to lush mountain tops and a roaring coastline, there’s no denying it’s a pretty magical place.

Generic Van Life - Southern California JT
We’re not the stealthiest in the city but less those orange stripes, I think we could hide pretty well in the desert

Our first stop was conveniently just outside of the town of Mecca, in Box Canyon. It was Easter Sunday so I figure that’s why the area was very full with huge groups of families BBQing and playing lawn games – or in this case, sand games, I suppose. Some people even appeared to have rented portapotties and brought trailers stocked with ATVs. Naturally, we trekked on a little further into the canyon where there weren’t many people. We found a great spot as secluded as you can really be in the open desert, with rocky cliffs and a view of the Salton Sea. With the way the rocks were shaped, it felt a bit like being on the moon. At least that’s how I remember the moon looking last time I was there…

Generic Van Life - Southern California Mecca
Boondocking on the moon. Or Box Canyon. One or the other.

Joshua Tree was next on our list and with so many different places to explore within the park, we spent the whole day checking it all out. Little tidbit about the name – the trees in that area look like the byproduct of a cactus and palm tree love affair and are called “Joshua Trees” because the Mormons thought they looked like the biblical figure, Joshua. Bit of a stretch I’d say, but to each their own. Anyway, there are plenty of these guys around, along with rocky boulders and cottonwood trees. We hiked around Hidden Valley for a while, climbing up rocks and took in the panoramic views that make the park so popular.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Hidden Valley
Find the human!
View from a boulder climb in Hidden Valley
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FYI – these are Joshua Trees

From there, we made our way to Keys View, which was our favourite spot. You can see the Salton Sea, Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, the San Andreas Fault and the highest peak in Southern California, the San Gorgonio Mountain. That was a lot of name-dropping but this was a seriously cool spot. Clouds were hanging below the mountain tops while a layer of fog rolled over the Sea.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Keys Lookout
Looking out over a big ol’ chunk of Southern California

By the time we reached Cottonwood Springs, the sun was setting and it painted the sky with all kinds of vibrant colours. From fiery reds and oranges on one side to pastel shades of pink, purple and blue on the other, everywhere you looked was a sight to see. Once the colourful light show came to a close, things got pitch black so I can’t really comment on those cottonwood trees but I’m sure they’re lovely. For your convenience, there is BLM land immediately outside of the south entrance that made for a great place to hangout and work for a few days. When it’s 30°C, the sun is keeping the battery at 100% and the cell signal is great, why would you want to work anywhere else? We also got a chance to try out using the projector on the side of the van – let’s just say there’s never been a better use for the iTunes Visualizer.

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The colourful sunset in Joshua Tree

Making our way out of the Coachella Valley area, we drove through the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains on a crazy twisty windy road to get to the gym. I used to take two buses to get to my gym in Toronto and now we’re driving through mountains – not bad! Continuing on this mountain voyage, we made our way into the San Bernardino National Forest to camp for the night and had the place to ourselves.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Winding Road
Just your run of the mill commuter road

Everyone’s heard LA traffic is crazy so we woke up annoyingly early to get into the city and enjoy as much of the day as we could before finding somewhere quieter to sleep. Like any good tourist, we made our first stop in Beachwood Canyon to see that oh-so-popular Hollywood sign. Beachwood Canyon is the “Hollywoodland” that the sign was originally put up by real estate agents to promote. Jump ahead 50+ years and we’ve got a bunch of tourists gawking and a bunch of angry neighbours who don’t want them to be there. We got a decent view but it just didn’t cut it so we disobeyed the “local traffic only” signs (that are there for the sole purpose of scaring you) and headed to Lake Hollywood Park. Ok, let’s just make it clear that this drive was the most hilarious and terrifying drive we’ve had thus far. As Justin pointed out, all the goat roads and switchbacks we’ve taken in the mountains were all preparation for the obstacle course that is driving through the Hollywood Hills. Picture this: the streets are barely wider than our van (and are meant for 2-way traffic), the roads are basically all switchbacks and we were going uphill the whole time on about a 12-15% grade – WHILE other cars are trying to come down and cars are closely behind us making the same voyage. We actually had a Tesla Model X behind us while we barrelled through polluting all over the place. Anyway, we finally reached the park and got the view we were looking for and drove out on the route that we probably should have taken in. Oops!

Generic Van Life - Southern California Hollywood
Checking out the sign from Hollywood Lake Park

We carried on through Hollywood and Beverly Hills and all those other buzzword places before eventually parking up in Santa Monica and just relaxing on the beach. Of course we barely scratched the surface on LA but I’ve gotta say, it’s pretty damn ugly. With the insane traffic and mindless drivers, we’d like to come back and explore without the van (don’t tell Clementine I said that). It’s a big city that would be much easier to scoot around and find a place to park in in a smaller vehicle. In terms of car camping, the city of Los Angeles has a map that shows you exactly which streets it’s legal to vehicle dwell in. That’s generally awesome to hear but finding one of these spots not already inhabited by a crusty RV is the challenge, along with trying to have a peaceful sleep while parked on Hollywood Blvd. We were ready to get as far out of the city as possible.

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Clementine, meet Santa Monica Beach

We committed to the 3 hour drive into the northern bit of Los Padres National Forest where we stayed a few days at Aliso Campground. It’s a free spot but has designated sites with fire rings and vault toilets. We rarely take a day to not work or drive so this was a much needed break, especially after battling the LA traffic that didn’t let up from Santa Monica to Santa Clarita. This was one of those drives that seemed to drag on forever but there was a solid 40 minute portion where we drove through wine vineyards and it smelled absolutely amazing.

Generic Van Life - Southern California San Bernardino Lookout
What a place to stop and have breakfast! Mountain views from the San Bernardino National Forest

California, you’re beautiful and you smell good but you come at a high maintenance price tag. If only your inhabitants would realize that and stop littering!! So many spots are covered in trash and it’s a huge bummer to see. We’re off to Central California next and hoping for more views and less garbage.

 

 

West Third Coast Best Coast

We never knew Texan beach vacations were a thing until we had one. Cruising through America’s third coast in Corpus Christi and Galveston, TX.

On a lovely grey day, we made our way down toward Corpus Christi to do some beach camping on Padre Island. We would have loved to go all the way to South Padre, which is right on the Mexican border, but it was a little out of the way and we weren’t convinced that the heavy rainclouds would magically transform into clear blue skies just a couple hours down the coast. Weather aside, it was super rad to be able to drive right onto the sand and set up shop. The park ranger told us that the first 5 miles of the beach are hard-packed sand that’s easy enough for any vehicle to drive on, whereas after the 5 mile marker, things get a little softer and 4×4 is probably wise. I’m sure the distant miles of the beach are quiet and secluded but Clementine doesn’t have the best track record with driving through soft sand.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Padre Island
Room with a view

The next day promised warmer temperatures and a clear sky but in the time we got to the beach and lost cell service, the weather forecast must have changed significantly because all the day brought was fog so thick you could cut it with a knife. In fact, the fog was so damp that after sitting outside for a couple hours, we were soaking wet. It was hilarious to have to dry your hair with a towel when it wasn’t even raining – you could see the fog travelling through the air like thick clouds at eye level. Despite being such a blah day, there was a lot of traffic passing by our spot with all varieties of vehicles looking for a place to camp, or perhaps ambitiously thinking the fog might clear if they just trekked on a little further. It created a very mystical backdrop for the day’s activity since cars only came into view when they were about 250 metres away; it seemed as if at any moment, the Black Pearl would approach the shore to steal all of our rations.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Padre Island Fog
Foggy days. Note the windows

We stayed two nights on Padre Island before giving Clemmie a much needed bath and moving onto the next beach (get a car wash after staying on the island. The salty air creates such a thick film on the windows and body that becomes a rust magnet. Even if you don’t feel like it, just do it). Our drive took us back through Corpus and seemingly every oil refinery in Texas. It’s not exactly the nicest view to look out on from your million dollar beach home but a nice waterside drive nonetheless. Another landscape this drive brought us through was the heart-wrenching state of Port Aransas and its surrounding areas. With Hurricane Harvey only a few months behind us, the debris and remnants of very tough times were still quite apparent. We first saw a bunch of collapsed trees and fences and thought that was bad until we reached the “heavy debris area” where the city had created landfills essentially in the area between the split highway. Mountains of furniture, clothing and building materials were piled one after the other. Looking at this stuff was like looking at parts of peoples’ lives destroyed and accumulated with no hope of being salvaged. It was clear that relief efforts were slowly helping to rebuild local businesses and homes but it was shocking to see the state of this part of the coast some four months after the hurricane while fancy beach homes and chain restaurants closer to Corpus showed no signs of damage. I think that instead of avoiding these areas, we should be encouraged to visit them and support the local businesses so they can get back on their feet.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Galveston Homes
Pastel mega beach houses looked pristine four months after flooding

Our next stop yielded harder sand and calmer waters. Magnolia Beach is situated in Lavaca Bay so worries of the tide coming up to the van in the middle of the night were non-existent in comparison to the rough waters at Padre. With a thunderstorm looming, the air was warm and humid and left us with perfect sleeping temperatures and a mellow soundtrack of calm waves hitting the shore. We were parked about 2 feet away from the water and couldn’t have asked for a better spot. The beach is a shell beach so it’s easy to drive on and there were even some big rigs parked further down – an A+ spot to check out if you’re in South Texas.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Magnolia Beach
Magnolia Beach was calm and peaceful. Waking up to this was perfect

Further down the coast, we took the Bluewater Highway from Surfside Beach to Galveston. There’s a $2 fee to use the San Luis Pass that connects the lower island to Galveston Island but it was well worth it for us to cut down on the driving time and to give us a much more scenic journey. Said scenery also made one thing quite clear: this is rich people territory. Colourful beach houses on stilts lined both sides of the road with towering palm trees and perfectly manicured lawns. From what I’m used to in Toronto, homes that big would generally be 2 or 3 separate apartments but Justin reminded me that these were single family homes. And not just homes, vacation homes.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Jamaica Beach
Because why not have a mini-putt beside your pond?

We stayed in Jamaica Beach, about 20 minutes away from the town of Galveston. As lovely as the area was, it was an abnormally cold week yet again so we didn’t get a chance to do much outdoors. We went into downtown Galveston on our way out and grabbed our share of the golden food group at one of the many deep-fried seafood joints before scoping out what I was most excited for, serial killer Robert Durst’s house!! He lived in Galveston for a little while, disguised as a mute old woman, before slaughtering his neighbour and throwing his remains into Galveston Bay. Now that’s a tourist attraction! If you’re into true crime then…this probably still isn’t worth the stop since someone seems to live here and either isn’t bothered by it or got a really good deal from their real estate agent.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Robert Durst House
This is “the chop house” where Robert Durst resided in Galveston as “Dorothy”
Generic Van Life - Third Coast Galveston Pier
Galveston Pier has a little amusement park on it but to our (mostly Justin’s) chagrin, it was closed

To leave Galveston, we took the free ferry to the Bolivar Peninsula. This is about a 20 minute ride across Galveston Bay where you can either stay in your car or step outside to let the wind blow through your hair and the seagulls fly alarmingly close to your head. The lady beside us was throwing Ritz crackers at them so they continuously hovered along the edge of the boat, just plotting whom they were going to poop on. Luckily we made it out untarnished and continued on about 10 minutes down the road to the Bolivar Flats. This is a mud flats meets beach area with a designated zone that you can camp for free in. From the highway, you’ll turn down Rettilon Road and see a big ol’ sign welcoming you to the beach at the end of the road. It’s full of confusing rules and arrows pointing in misleading directions so if you find yourself standing there a bit confused like we did, stand looking at the sign and everything to the left of it until the wash is free reign. To the right of the sign and past the wash requires a permit that’s like 10 bucks and lasts you a week. There appeared to be virtually no difference in beach quality and both sides have access to a portapotty and garbage bins, which is pretty handy. Sadly, the winds picked up and the temperature seemed to plummet when we got there so we stayed inside but we certainly could not complain when the Gulf of Mexico was in our backyard.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Ferry
Look at these things. You can see the evil poo-plotting in their eyes
Generic Van Life - Third Coast Bolivar Flats
Once you see these signs at Bolivar Flats you’re in the clear. But I probably didn’t have to tell you that

Despite not having very beachy weather, we had a wicked time driving and camping along Texas’ Gulf Coast. It was nice to do this in the off-season because I’m sure it gets pretty busy down there in the summer. What’s your favourite third coast spot?