In April 2022, we left the country for the first time since April 2019. Three years is a long time, but we had been making the best of the pandemic by exploring parts of Canada we had never seen before. Nonetheless, we were stoked to be in the international departures section of Edmonton International Airport this past April. Several months earlier, when it was looking like we might be safe to cross the border soon, I asked Mack where our first trip should be. He did not hesitate for one second– he just blurted out “California”. When I asked him why he just said it was the first place to come to mind. Perfect.
We had been contemplating buying a campervan on and off for years, so we decided to take the concept of van life for a test run– and where better than the Golden State? I did lots of research on campervan rental companies and settled on Escape Campervans. We chose their smallest model, the Sante Cruz, which is a Ford Transit with a bed, some storage, and an outdoor kitchen setup. I’ll do an entire post on the campervan soon, so stay tuned.
We spent many evenings watching vlogs and travel documentaries, reading blogs, and pursuing social media to research our route and the sights we wanted to see. We knew we did not want a strict itinerary; we wanted wiggle room to be able to wind up wherever the road took us, so we did not book any campgrounds or tours. We did, however, want a general route to keep the trip economical and maximize our time there. We went for a total of ten days and settled on this rough route:
In the end, due to our changing ideas about what destinations we prioritized and our not-so-flawless research about seasonal highway closures in Yosemite, our route looked more like this:
Before we knew it, it was time to fly. We hit the airport with our backpacks and flew into Hollywood Burbank Airport. We arrived fairly late, Ubered to our hotel in Koreatown, grabbed a bite to eat and got a good night’s sleep. The next morning, we took some time to stroll around Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip before heading out to Inglewood, near LAX, to pick up our van.
Picking up the van was such a smooth process and within an hour, we had gone to Target for groceries, had lunch at In-n-Out Burger, and were on the freeway. We stopped at Santa Monica Pier before hitting the Pacific Coast Highway for Santa Barbara. With the windows down, salty air breezing through, passing signs for towns like Malibu, the Pacific Ocean to our left and rolling foothills to our right, we were feeling fantastic.
Our first night in the van was spent in Santa Barbara. A beautiful college town wedged between the ocean and the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. We parked in a lot near the beach, cooked some dinner, then took off our shoes and went for a stroll. It was illegal to park overnight in the beach and marina lots, so we found a quiet residential street, pulled in and hunkered down. I was nervous for our first night of ‘stealth camping’ (we weren’t exactly stealthy in a bright pink, purple, and blue van) but nobody bothered us or seemed to be worried about our presence in the neighbourhood.
The next morning, we went back to the same lot from the night before to freshen up, grab a coffee and breakfast at the cafe, and then got back on the road headed for Big Sur. Today was the day we got a real taste of the PCH-Highway 101. It’s rapid climbs and descents, hairpin turns, and sharp cliffs. It’s breathtaking and jaw-dropping vistas. It was one of the best parts of the entire drive.
We didn’t know what to expect in Big Sur, but it certainly was not a massive redwood forest perched on the side of a cliff. We did some exploring but soon realized there would be nowhere to park for free overnight and no campgrounds available. We made the decision to cross the Bixby Bridge that evening and do another night of residential camping in the next town we found, which was Carmel-by-the-Sea. We enjoyed another home-cooked (van-cooked?) meal and strolled around the quaint little town before nestling away on another quiet street for the night.
We had been unable to find a shower in Carmel the night before and we were both feeling grimy. We grabbed breakfast at another little cafe and then headed into the next town, Monterey, where we were able to pay to use the showers at a local campground. Feeling refreshed, we kept heading north toward the city of San Francisco.
When we hit San Francisco, we headed straight to Fisherman’s Wharf and the world-famous piers. We took in views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island that we had only ever seen in movies. We rented bicycles and made our way out toward the bridge, enjoying the fresh air and the positive, vibrant atmosphere of the city. Afterward, I started to feel quite anxious about where we would spend the night. We had been planning to find an overnight parking lot or another residential street, but I was feeling weary of the potential safety risks and how vulnerable we’d be sleeping in the van in such a massive city.
We decided to head North, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the small town of Sausalito. We thought we would have supper at a restaurant there, then keep driving into more rural communities until we found somewhere we felt safe to park. Turns out, we didn’t have to drive much further. Sausalito was the perfect place to spend the night and it was one of the best nights of the trip, perhaps because it was so spontaneous and we were feeling so relieved.
In the morning, we grabbed a coffee and went to Target in nearby Marin City to stock up on food and supplies. Then we crossed the famous bridge back into San Fran and hit up Alcatraz Island. The ferry took us across the harbour to the most famous prison in US history and my true crime senses were tingling. We were able to explore the island on our own, although guided tours were available, and it was truly fascinating. It did not feel like a dumb tourist attraction; it is a well-preserved site steeped in history and heritage. Definitely worth the time and money.
That evening, after a feed of sushi and some stressful driving on extremely steep city streets, we headed as far East as possible– we were planning to hit Yosemite National Park bright and early. We spent the night in a Best Western parking lot in a town called Oakdale. I was lucky enough to snag two nights at the Upper Pines Campground in the heart of Yosemite Valley on the Recreation.Gov app and two nights at a registered campsite was feeling like a total luxury.
The drive into Yosemite National Park was striking. We were rapidly climbing into the mountains and the weather was beginning to reflect that. It was chilly, foggy, and drizzly. But it kind of added to the adventurous atmosphere. We spent that afternoon gawking at landmarks such as El Capitan, Half Dome Mountain, and Yosemite Peak.
The entire next day was spent hiking Upper Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America and the fifth tallest in the entire world. It was a gruelling hike, 15 km in total with 850 feet of rapid elevation gain. Every time we turned a switchback, expecting to be at the top, there seemed to only be more switchbacks. That said, it was completely and entirely worth it.
The next morning, feeling stiff but satisfied, we didn’t spare one second getting on the road. It was a big driving day. Due to our aforementioned lack of research about seasonal highway closures in Yosemite, we had to make the difficult decision to skip Sequoia National Forest and head straight to the desert through California’s interior.
After a long day, we found ourselves rolling into flatter landscapes, redder rocks, and hotter temperatures. We still had several hours to drive into Death Valley, so we decided to stop for the night. We found a little State Park called Red Rock Canyon that had plenty of vacancies in the campground, so we pulled in. After we went for a little hike amongst the otherworldly rock walls and buttes, we made supper and settled in for the night.
It was another early rise as Death Valley awaited. Being a national park, there aren’t any places to legally camp overnight outside of designated campsites– and this time of year, there is only one open, and it’s first-come-first-served. We were feeling nervous that we wouldn’t get a site, so we wanted to arrive as early as possible. The drive was long, flat, and straight, but super enjoyable. When we pulled into Furnace Creek Campground, we were so relieved to find it mostly empty. We reserved our site and got to exploring. Badwater Basin (the lowest point of elevation in the US), Artist’s Pallete, Zabriskie Point, and the Harmony Borax Refinery site were some of the landmarks we visited.
The desert was the only point in the entire trip where it was warm enough to take off our layers and we were delighted to find a resort right next to the campground. They had a pool and shower facilities so we bought a pass and spent the remainder of the evening swimming and lounging in the desert sun.
That night we slept with the windows open and fell asleep watching the incredible starry night sky. I left Death Valley feeling more alive than I had in ages.
We spent our final night in Santa Clarita, just outside LA, in a Walmart parking lot. We were too zonked to do any more exploring, so we went to a movie, which was actually super fun, as we realized we had not been to a movie since the pandemic started. On our final day in the Golden State, we dropped off our van and spent the day at Wi Spa while we waited for our evening flight back to Alberta.
Our trip to California was exactly what we both needed. We had so many wonderful experiences that I cannot wait to share in more detail in future blog posts. Exploring in a campervan is such a unique, exciting, and convenient way to travel. We were able to save money, rough it a little, and take the trip on our own time. I cannot wait for our next van trip.