Posts tagged california

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.

Generic Van Life - Northern California Howland Hill Road
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: 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.

Generic Van Life - Central California Drive
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!

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
Generic Van Life - Southern California Joshua Trees
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.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Pastel Sunset
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.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Santa Monica
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.