Growing up in Vancouver there was always something especially romantic about the idea of going to California. Its appeal eventually became one of necessity, for after purchasing a 1991 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van several years ago, my wife Michelle and I learned that most of the special parts and upgrades it needed were only offered by a company called GoWesty, which was inconveniently located in the small coastal community of Los Osos, California. We had to go.
We’ve since turned the vehicle into a super reliable camping tank of sorts by repeatedly making the GoWesty pilgrimage. We also have family in Los Angeles, which is less than a day’s drive from Los Osos, so the entire west coast has become something of a milk run for us; we’ve come to know just about every twist and turn, every campground, every gas station, and every worthwhile pull-out along the way.
The state’s proximity to BC is also a big draw. It’s not that much of a mission to drive from Vancouver to California in a single day, even stopping for a leisurely lunch in Portland along the way. Once you’re in the “Golden State”, however, we recommend you take your time and explore, because California’s crazy diversity is what really keeps us coming back time after time. And there is still so much for us to explore.
Of course, it would be folly to try and “see it all” in a single road trip. California is the second largest state in the contiguous USA, and the terrain varies from wild beaches and granite mountain peaks to expansive deserts and dense forests. So for the purposes of this guide we’ll only be hugging the coast, getting dirty for a few days of camping and then cleaning up in a really nice hotel, all the way from the top of the state to close to the bottom.
There are two main options in getting to California’s coast from Vancouver by road. The first is via the soulless Interstate 5 (aka I-5), which takes you through Seattle and Portland on your way south. From there, you could continue down through Salem and Eugene, and take Highway 199 west into California from Grant’s Pass, OR. This route leads you into the dazzling, dwarfing coastal redwoods forests of legend (aka Star Wars’ forest moon of Endor), and it is by far – in our experience – the most magical way of entering the state.
The second route is even more picturesque. This is the long way via Highway 101 – a smaller, slower, prettier snake of asphalt that winds its way south along Oregon’s jagged coastline through dozens of small towns (eg. Cannon Beach, Tillamook, Coos Bay). It, too, spits you out into the coastal redwoods. If you can’t decide which route to take, just pick one for the way down and the other for the way up. Problem solved.
Welcome to California! Though it’s possible to do this drive in one day, remember that this is a camping trip, and as such it should really involve some camping. Break up the journey in two or three slow nights of woodsmoke and moonlight. Kick things off in the coastal redwood forests of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, your first campground on your big adventure.
You’re in the most northerly facet of the sprawling Redwoods National Park, which we’ve written about previously (and more extensively) here. From here, you follow the 101 south and savour your first beach just south of Crescent City before the road steers you back into the forest for mile upon mile of rolling Mendocino ruggedness (for a magical detour through the coastal redwood forests, take the Avenue of the Giants scenic byway just north of the community of Pepperwood).
Once back on the 101, hang a right onto Highway 1 at Leggett and head west to the coast and Fort Bragg, a challenging road of some 45 miles that snakes like crazy, up and down and around a seemingly endless range of steep hills demanding every moment of the driver’s attention. The big pay-off is, of course, the Pacific Ocean, which is invariably revealed with appropriate drama — fog or shine.
Continue south through Fort Bragg, Elk, and Point Arena, soaking up the wildly winding, craggy, empty, gorgeous miles all the way to Sonoma State Beach just north of Bodega Bay. There are several campgrounds just off the road here, with a few that are right on the beach (see below). From there, follow Highway 1 towards Petaluma and the hotel stay you’ve earned in San Francisco, where a hot bath and a cozy bed awaits.
THINGS WE SEE & DO
– Getting among the trees is essential. Taking any of the backpacking trails in Jedediah Smith State Park is hugely recommended. The Wellman (1.5 miles), Hatton (4.3 miles), and Hiouchi (4.4 miles) trails make for solid excursions of varying lengths, and swimming in the Smith River – especially placid and clear near the campground in summer – is a cool respite.
– Beyond the forest, check out the vast beach at Kuchel Visitor Center, which is just south of the small town of Orick. The Visitor’s Center itself offers a ton of information about the park and its history, and helps in orienting first timers.
– Orick is home to a gigantic, nine ton “peanut” carved from a redwood trunk by resident loggers and sent as a protest/insult to President Jimmy Carter (previously a peanut farmer) who sought – successfully – to expand the National Park’s borders in the 1970s.
– Keep an eye out for the Roosevelt Elk that wander around the fields at the aptly named Elk Meadows. Majestic creatures! The park is also home to black bear, deer, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, skunks, fox, beaver, and river otter, plus countless bird species. Keep your ears peeled for Spotted Owls at night. They might be extremely rare, but this is their house.
– Take a breather and behold the beauty of the Humboldt Lagoons.
– Must drive detours: the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Avenue of the Giants, Coastal Drive, and the graded but unpaved Howland Hills.
– Ladybird Johnson Grove (named after the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson) is super dreamy; a hilly section of old growth forest. We find it to be the most peaceful (and yet readily accessible) area of the park.
SIDE TRIPS | If you’re find vulcanism and geology even a little bit interesting you’ll dig the epic nature of Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is just east of Redding. It’s centred around Mt. Lassen, which is the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range (the last time it erupted was in 1915, and evidence of its violence abounds far from its slopes). Great camping at tranquil Manzanita Lake (aim for the quiet “A” loop). It’ll take a day or two off the coastal route, but the to and from roads are gorgeous (especially the section of Highway 299 that crosses Whiskeytown Lake).
WHAT TO EAT & DRINK
– You’re skirting a lot of wine country (eg. Sonoma, Napa), so picking up a bottle or two for campsite consumption is a good idea. Ridge Vineyards’ beautiful Lytton Springs headquarters is just off the 101 south of Geyserville. Grab a bottle of Zinfandel to pair with your hot dogs!
– Stuff yourself with enchiladas at Torero’s in Crescent City.
– Pick up some camp beers and feast on pizza at North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg.
– Picnic on sparkly, singular Glass Beach in MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg, where millions upon millions of ocean-softened pieces of bottle glass have washed up.
– The tiny town of Orick is anchored by The Palm Cafe, an unmissable road diner that serves up hearty breakfasts and delicious pie.
– The 101 Drive Thru in the small town of Willits has the region’s best burgers, shakes, and fries — an essential stop for anyone driving through the Redwoods.
– Blue cheese burgers, a dozen different omelettes, and kick ass buttermilk hot cakes at Queenie’s Roadhouse in the coastal village of Elk.
– excellent donuts, cookies, bacon slippers, and savoury mini pizzas at Franny’s Cup & Saucer in Point Arena.
– Once in the Bay Area, a visit to Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley is an exemplar of local, organic, seasonal sourcing. This is where – in 1971 – the concept of eating locally was (re)born on the West Coast, and it’s still going strong. The more casual (cheaper) cafe is located upstairs, but the main floor restaurant – with its four course set piece dinners – is a rite of passage.
– While in Berkeley, check out the newly opened second location of San Francisco’s famed Flour & Co. bakery cafe for housemade cinnamon toast, awesome muesli and extraordinary veggie pot pies.
– Coffee and lemon tarts at San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery is a must. Go early when you’re heading out of town and get some sandwiches for the road (we usually unwrap ours on the beach in Carmel). The bread here is outstanding.
– Bar Tartine is the restaurant cousin of Tartine Bakery. They do a beef tartar on toast spread with tonnatto sauce that will blow you away. Excellent wine list. The last time we were there we chomped their “signature” porridge bread and nibbled on delicate croquettes made with sprouted lentil, peas, kefir and coriander. Delightful, hearty stuff.
– We’re suckers for the aged cheddar cheeseburgers and garlic fries at San Francisco’s Super Duper Burger chainlet.
– A self respecting food fetishist can’t go to San Francisco these days with jawing a “cruffin” from Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. The muffin-shaped croissants filled with pastry cream are delirium-inducing.
WHERE TO GET DIRTY
– In the Redwoods, try for sites #56 or #58 at Jedediah Smith State Park. They’re both in a group of sites that are right on the Smith River, isolated from the rest. There’s good birding along the river (lots of mergansers and kingfishes), and a cell phone signal. To snag one of these you’ll need to book well in advance.
– There’s lots of good camping in the Humboldt Redwood State Park all along the Avenue of the Giants. Albee Creek is the best of them. All of the sites are great, but #23 and #33 stand out from the rest on account of shade, isolation, and meadow views.
– Cross your fingers for sites #1 through #8 at Wright’s Beach campground in Sonoma Beach State Park off Highway 1 just north of San Francisco. These spots are literally right on the beach and are usually taken, so book months in advance if you can.
– If Wright’s Beach is full, try the Bodega Dunes sites a little further south. We’re partial to site #19, which is level and somewhat isolated. Keep your eyes out for an endangered Western Snowy Plover, a rare bird that continues to elude me.
WHERE TO GET CLEAN
Our San Francisco hotel of choice is the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental. The gorgeous 1926 landmark is centrally located high on the top of Nob Hill and is thankfully serviced by cable cars (calves rejoince). The rooms offer incredible views and there’s a decadent restaurant and bar called the Top of the Mark on the 19th floor. After enduring the dirt and dust of campsites to get this far, it’s nice to wrap yourself up in a bit of luxurious comfort, and The Mark has it in spades. There’s a lot more camping ahead, so kick back with a bar of soap and martini.
THE MIDDLE BITS
We tend to think of California as a monolith with a north and a south, but it’s the middle bits that really do it for us. After leaving San Francisco down Highway 1 through Steinbeck country (preferably detouring along the coast through towns like Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, Pescadero, and Santa Cruz) we like to stop at sandy, picture-perfect Monastery Beach for a breather just south of Carmel before we make the big plunge toward Big Sur and beyond.
When we think or dream of California, this particular stretch of road – the three hours between Carmel and Morro Bay – always makes an appearance. Moments here -a whale’s breath sparkling crystalline, terror as you cross the ludicrous man-made span high above Bixby Creek, the war of roar between the waves and McWay Falls – sear into the back of the brain like polaroids to be viewed again and again from the low vantage of future doldrums. Maybe it’s a trick of the light of the sun on your right that makes it so mystical. Or maybe it’s the absence thereof in oppressive fog. Or perhaps it’s the song Echoes by Pink Floyd, which feels anthem-like in its appropriateness here as you tussle – ever-distracted – with the asphalt. Slow clutch, bit of gas, shift down, brake, quick clutch, shift up, accelerate, grip hard, repeat. Concentrate. To blink is to risk.
Big Sur possesses the mind indelibly. As the writer Henry Miller put it in the 1950s, “Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.” It’s really no wonder that the landscape turned farmers into sculptors and drew poets and artists of every stripe since the 1860s, when the Homesteaders Act started settling adventurous types along this coast on free, 160 acre plots.
Big Sur zaps brains, drawing to it the giant literary likes of Robinson Jeffers, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Richard Brautigan, among many others. Kerouac’s scribblings in Big Sur are heavy with personal epiphany, which was something Thompson couldn’t stand. When he was a younger man trying to kickstart a career in writing, Thompson actually moved to Big Sur to try and meet Henry Miller (which he didn’t). It was along the cliffs that he wrote his first published work (a magazine article) and his novel, The Rum Diary, which went unpublished until 1998. As revealed in a private letter to a friend shortly after the book was published in 1962, Miller had also been possessed by Big Sur; it was his, and it frustrated him to no end seeing it romanticized by his lessers:
“I have tonight begun reading a stupid, shitty book by Kerouac called Big Sur, and I would give a ball to wake up tomorrow on some empty ridge with a herd of beatniks grazing in the clearing about 200 yards below the house. And then to squat with the big boomer and feel it on my shoulder with the smell of grease and powder and, later, a little blood.”
But I digress. If there’s a terminal to the Big Sur drive it’s the tight concentration of coastal towns south of Cambria, places like Cayucos, Morro Bay, and Los Osos. all of which (in varying degrees of laxness) exude a chilled out, Tofino-esque surf vibe that is oh-so-easy to slip into and damn well tricky to leave behind. It’s usually in Morro Bay that we turn around for the drive home, but it’s also where we’re most often forced to take it easy while the van is under a mechanic’s knife. One of our editorial staff – Monique Nicholas – went to school next door in San Luis Obispo and has never failed us with cheap and cheerful restaurant recommendations hereabouts (see below).
THINGS WE SEE & DO
– Explore the arts centre and performance venue that is Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library.
– Walk the idyllic, quiet, botanically diverse 3 mile Oak Grove trail that starts/ends at Big Sur Lodge.
– Take the short hike down to the McWay Falls overlook in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (the 80 ft high waterfall drops onto the beach below).
– Hike the beach trails of Andrew Molera State Park.
– Hang with the countless Elephant Seals beached and belching on the sand near Cambria.
– Check out the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum where the evolution of the sport is revealed by way of a staggering exhibition of boards lining the walls. There are also plenty of historical photos, a mini library of skate books, and lots of ancillary fascinations besides.
– Watch the rippers ride the outdoor Los Osos Skatepark, with its bowl section and glassy smooth pool coping.
– Drive the Turri Road for no other reason but to take in one of the most beautiful landscapes in North America. It reminds me of the rugged territory around the Cape of Good Hope; a sunny version of Glencoe, Scotland. If you’re into birds, keep an eye out for Western Bluebirds on the fence posts.
– Browse the shelves and stacks at Los Osos’ eclectic Volumes of Pleasure bookstore (not a fount of erotica, as the name might suggest).
– Take the aromatic, eucalyptus-tunnel drive down to Spooner’s Cove near Los Osos. Like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The cove itself and the adjacent cliff paths are worthy of hours.
SIDE TRIPS | We’ve only made one visit to the newly christened Pinnacles National Park to date but it remains one of our favourite diversions in the state. It’s full of great hikes and cool caves, not to mention bobcats and California Condors (watch the high ridges at dusk). It’s a day/night off the 101, and the best campsite therein is #56 (isolated on both sides with a clear view of the Condors’ ridge). Yosemite National Park is considerably further afield, but at some point its many dizzying wonders will need to be part of your California plans (the best of the valley campgrounds is Upper Pines).
WHAT TO EAT & DRINK
– Mmm, nothing but morning love for the huevos con chorizo at Guerrero’s Taqueria in the small town of Pacifica. The back patio of picnic benches is a favourite road oasis.
– We always stop for restorative juices and smoothies at Good To Go outside Carmel.
– Patio feasting at Big Sur Bakery. An emblematic place that feels fully tapped into the spirit of the immediate environment.
– For a “view” restaurant experience that qualitatively rivals The Pointe at The Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, hit Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch in Big Sur. Ridiculously gorgeous.
– If you’re a beer wonk, The Libertine Pub can be found on the water in Morro Bay, sporting 50 taps. Good fish ‘n chips, too.
– Noi’s Thai Takeout in Los Osos is a busy go-to counter service spot with a down to earth surf vibe. Little more than a shack just up from beach. Plenty of patio tables.
– Los Osos’ little, always joyous Back Bay Cafe is great for a wake up. Killer coffee, sweet toothed baked goods, and wonderful staff right on the water (pro tip: pastrami sandwiches at lunch). Birders in search of Avocets and shore birds galore will love the beach here.
– Pick up a growler of “Golden Glow” APA at Central Coast Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo.
WHERE TO GET DIRTY
– There’s good camping inland at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The best site is #171. It has no neighbour on one side (it’s the first in a loop), it’s close to the restrooms (but not too close), and it has direct access to the Big Sur river (the babbling sounds of which soothe day and night). Diverse canopy includes sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders and willows; a bewitchingly perfumed place, always smelling of healthy dirt and woodsmoke.
– Limekiln State Park is a bit of a weird one as it’s located under a bridge in a steep-sided canyon that exits out to the ocean, beach and all. The road noise above can bother some (it can be heard above the ocean din), but there are campsites that are more recessed further up the canyon in the woods. The best are sites #29 for privacy and either #1 or #4 for ocean views.
– We use the campground at Morro Bay State Park as a base of operations not only for nearby hikes but also because it’s a ten minute drive to GoWesty in Los Osos, where we buy parts for our Westfalia. Many of the sites have shore power, so we can charge up our batteries and get a lot of Scout work done by tethering our cellphones for WIFI.
I mentioned the eucalytpus tunnel drive to Spooner Cove in the What To See & Do section above. Do it and stay the night in Montana D’Oro State Park. Islay Creek campground has plenty of sites, with #1 being the best of them because it has no neighbour on one side and is the closest to the water.
There’s a different feel to Highway 1 south of Morro Bay. Beach towns like Pismo Beach and Oceano have a harder edge to them that should be soaked up, but we often stick to the 101 instead after it joins the 1 at San Luis Obispo. The countryside just south of here justifies inland adventures through Santa Barbara (ahem, wineries), and it’s gorgeous all the way through the 101’s return to the 1. The drive cuts through the dramatic mountains of Gaviota State Park, where the ocean is revealed on a down slope in fantastic fashion. Los Angeles feels imminent, even though it’s still three and a half hours south. The drivers are a little faster, a little more reckless (a wholly subjective opinion, though based on experience), and there are suddenly a hell of a lot more of them, especially south of El Capitan State Beach where the hamlet of Goleta leads into the city of Santa Barbara proper.
It’s by no means a bad feeling. It’s actually quite the opposite. Thrilling is more like it. For a while, the 101 races past small, unseen towns like Carpinteria and teases the sandy strand of Rincon Beach Park without giving up a wide angle of the water. The nearness of the ocean is the one constant throughout; you can always sense it on the right with the sun. It’s revealed in all its glory again at Rincon Point. To us, it’s this pretty headland, along a stretch of the 101 renamed in 2006 as the “Screaming Eagles Highway” (after the US Army’s famed 101st Airborne Division), that marks the coastal gateway of southern California. Surf boards appear on roof racks more than cargo boxes do, even when the road goes inland at Ventura and into Oxnard. When the highway hits the beach again at stunning Point Mugu, it’s a clear, hot, breezy, beautiful shot down to Malibu, which gives way to Santa Monica, which opens up to LA – in all its bewildering, spread-out, unfathomable glory. You’ve made it, traveller. The hot bath that awaits is well earned.
THINGS WE SEE & DO
– Chill out in Eldwaylen Ocean Park, located on a Pismo Beach bluff overlooking the Pacific. The view is panoramic and they have picnic tables and public grills for BBQing.
– Watch the moving mayhem of surfers ripping the crowded right point break at Rincon.
– Drive the Decker Canyon Road. Once upon a time on our way back home from LA we encountered a landslide just north of Malibu. It closed the Pacific Coast Highway so we had to take this route around to keep north. Little did we know it would take us up and over the Santa Monica Mountains, all the way to Thousand Oaks and the 101! Don’t get too distracted by the amazing scenery though…this road is wicked twisty!
– If you dig classical art and architecture, the Getty Villa is your bag. Current exhibition is on Roman mosaics.
– Downtown Los Angeles is an Art Deco treasure trove of beautiful buildings. Make a plan and explore.
– We have family in Venice, so we usually do laps of its main shopping drag – Abbot Kinney Boulevard – and hit the Venice Beach boardwalk for people-watching.
– Get your Big Lebowski on at Bowlmor Lanes in Santa Monica. 24 lanes, all backlit and amped up with video screens. So much fun. Bonus: it’s fully licensed. Extra super bonus: vintage arcade on site.
– Walk the hell out of The Sunset Strip. Hit Amoeba Music for vinyl and maybe catch a show at a legendary venue like The Roxy Theatre, Whisky a Go Go, or The Viper Room.
SIDE TRIPS | I can’t get enough of the desert, so whenever I’m in southern California I like to split the Mojave and spend at least a night in Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. In the former I prefer to stay in the free Emigrant Campground near the west entrance (fewer people) and in the latter I aim for site #14 in the White Trunk Campground.
WHAT TO EAT & DRINK
– Pig Pen burritos at the Honeymoon Cafe in Pismo Beach.
– Pono Burger in Santa Monica makes the best burgers we’ve yet to encounter in California. “Pono” is Hawaiian for doing things the “right way”, and that’s very much the case here. Best in show: “Paniolo” with organic beef, oak smoked cheddar, bacon, coffee/bourbon BBQ sauce, and buttermilk battered onion rings (see it to believe it in the gallery below). Also of note: insanely good milkshakes made with organic ice cream.
– Questionable coconut shrimp, diner-style burgers, and bananas foster bites at The Cliff north of Laguna Beach. The food is decidedly secondary; it’s all about the view. There’s no shame in that when you’re a tourist!
– Meatball sandwiches, pizza, and good cocktails at Gjelina in Venice. This place is a mainstay on our LA itinerary. Never fails. If you can’t score a seat, just do take out and enjoy it on the curb around the corner.
– Espresso at Intelligentsia in Venice. If you need wifi and a place to guiltlessly get work done, this place is so macked that it’s almost comical, so you don’t need to concern yourself about the anti-social optics of getting shit done.
– Dusk cocktails at The Rose in Venice, if you can get a seat.
– Lodge Bread on Washington Blvd in LA is a new spot from chefs Alexander Phaneuf and Or Amsalam. They make superb breads and enormous cinnamon buns. People make jokes about artisanal toast. If this place is the punchline, it’s more delicious than hilarious.
– It doesn’t make sense to leave Los Angeles without first indulging at Primo’s Donuts.
– The Lobster Roll (or really anything at all) at Son Of A Gun.
– Pastrami on rye or the Pastrami Dip at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax in Los Angeles. The real deal.
– Mixed bag of delicious vendor fare (aim for Mexican) from the Mar Vista Farmers Market in LA. It goes down on Sundays from 9am to 2pm where Grand View meets Venice Boulevard.
– Craft beer at The Cannibal in Culver City.
– The oxtail gravy and cheddar poutine at Animal in LA.
– Go to LA’s Grand Central Market with an appetite and gorge on the good stuff from Egg Slut, like the Gaucho brioche sandwich that sees seared wagyu under an over-medium egg spread with chimichurri and loaded down with red onions and arugula. Also of note are the burgers from Belcampo, which rival those from Pono on account of their delicious simplicity.
WHERE TO GET DIRTY
We tend to stay in a hotel or with family when in LA, but the view from Moro Campground in Crystal Cove State Park (near Laguna Beach) is sometimes too dreamy to pass up. That being said, we’ll only stay if we score one of the better sites. These are #51 and #60, with #60 possibly being the most photogenic on the planet (the feature carousel image associated with this story was taken when we were last there, staying in site #54 — pretty breathtaking).
WHERE TO GET CLEAN
The Ace Hotel is always fun. We like that it’s downtown and but only when Michelle and I are on our own. When we’re travelling with the kids, however, we like a few more creature comforts before we start the long climb back to Vancouver. For this we turn to the calm, quiet, sedate (in comparison to the Ace) Beach House, which is located right on Hermosa Beach between Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach. It’s a low-rise hotel of some 90+ studio rooms, 80% of which have a view of the ocean (in varying measure of awesomeness). The rooms are luxurious in comparison to the more spartan Ace, and there’s no “scene” to speak of save for 26 miles of beach out front. Bonus: there’s a house spa offering two hour massages. The drive home is over 2,000 km, so give yourself a break.