Perfect 2-Week Road Trip Itinerary for the California Coast -

Itineraries

Perfect 2-Week Road Trip Itinerary for the California Coast

By the VanCraft Team | August 20, 2021

Green Valley Road

For years we have talked about doing a road trip along the coast of California. Drive along Highway 1 up the coast, stopping at fun coastal towns, seeing the dramatic cliffside views, walking among massive redwood trees, and seeing insanely beautiful national parks that California is home to.

This year we finally set aside two weeks in a van and hit the open roads of California. You probably could do this in a shorter amount of time, but we recommend spending at least 1 week to 10 days exploring this amazing area. We decided to go with a van instead of a car, because we wanted to have ultimate freedom and flexibility, with the chance to build in extra time where we liked and adjust our schedules if there was a hidden gem we stumbled upon. Driving is half the fun of this trip, and having our home with us the whole time versus rushing to the next town for a hotel reservation, was the perfect way to see California.

We went with the Short Wheelbase from VanCraft for this trip, and were so happy we did. There are a lot of reasons why we liked their vans – new updated interiors, clean & bright aesthetics, tall enough to stand – but the best part about the van hands down was the fact we did not have to plug in for power – EVER! We could essentially park anywhere and we had enough power from the solar panels to charge all of our gear each night (and that includes laptops, drones, cameras, phones, iPad, and GoPro). This not only saved us money on not having to pay for a campsite every night (usually range from $20-$40 USD/night) but also gave us ultimate freedom to park in some of the coolest viewpoints for epic morning views. The space in the van was enough to spread out, but still compact enough that we didn’t feel like we were driving a camper van. It is very easy to slide into a slower pace once you get a van, and we were tempted to stay several days at each location! So if you can, be sure to leave a little space between locations to allow for unexpected roadside picnics and gorgeous viewpoints.

Decorated Van

Coastal Views by Santa Cruz

Inside the Van

Bixby Bridge

BUDGET

One of the things we love most about van life is that it can very easily become a more budget friendly way to travel. When you take into account all the money you will be saving from being able to cook all your own meals and avoid expensive hotel rooms (especially during high season), it becomes quite appealing. Here is our whole breakdown for what a 2 week trip like this might cost (keep in mind these are estimates and might fluctuate with high season pricing/gas pricing):

  • Van Rate per night: $200 – $250 USD

  • Campsite per night: $0 if you free camp like we did or $10 – $50 USD if you opt for a site with bathrooms, showers & wifi

  • Cooked Meals per day: $20 – $40 USD

  • Fuel for entire 1400 mile trip (estimated $4/gallon at 20 MPG): $250 – $300 USD

  • National Parks Pass: $80 USD

  • Additional State Parks Fees : $10-$20 USD for any state park

TOTAL 2 WEEK BUDGET: $3,500 – $4,500 USD

*Note: Budget excludes any airfare or transportation getting to and from Los Angeles to begin trip

Van Interior

California Palms

Green Valley Road

THINGS TO BRING ON A CAMPER VAN TRIP

  • Audiobooks – Our favorite app to use is Overdrive / Libby – this allows us to access free audio books via our local library!

  • National Parks Pass – Costing $80, this paid for itself a couple times over. Be aware it will only work for NATIONAL parks. State parks you will still have to pay entrance fee.

  • Download offline maps – Crucial because service in National and State Parks is limited. If you download them before hand, you will have no issues finding the right trail! You can do this easily on the Google maps app by selecting settings —> offline maps —> type in the desired location —> download.

  • iOverlanderThe app shows you all the campsites in the area – including the free ones as well as what amenities are included and if wifi/cell service is strong.

  • Bug Racket – If there is one necessity we have for all van trips it’s this one. Bugs will always be getting into your van at night because you will inevitably have to open the door at some point and or have the windows cracked to run the fan (even if you do have a screen). This can allow you to rid the van of pests before going to sleep and not have to wake up to buzzing inside your ear.

  • Plenty of water – Don’t underestimate the amount of water you will need, especially when hiking. California is an arid climate, so make sure your are stocking up on water every few days and bring water with you on your hikes.

  • Camera – There’s some amazing scenery on this trip so make sure you have something to capture it with (even if it’s your phone!). You can check out the equipment we use HERE.

Van Life Tip: Don’t be afraid to spend a few dollars on the front end to decorate the van and make it your own, even if it’s just for the time you have it! For us, this made all the difference when living in our mobile home for 2 weeks. Here are a few of the things we bought before hand to really add to the vibe and made it feel like a home:

  • White sheets and pillow cases

  • Dream Catcher

  • Wall Hanging

  • Plants

  • Hanging Plant holders

  • Hanging Twinkle Lights

  • Hanging Ornaments

  • Fun Pillows

  • Picnic basket

ITINERARY

You could probably spend a whole month doing this trip, because there are so many fun small towns to see along the way. But here is how we decided to break down our trip:

San Diego (starting point)

Los Angeles (2 hour drive, 2 nights)

Ojai (1.5 hour drive , 1 night)

Santa Barbara (1 hour drive, 1 night)

Lompoc (1 hour drive, pass through)

Morro Bay (1.5 hour drive, pass through)

San Simeon (30 min drive, pass through)

Green Valley (30 min drive, 1 night)

Big Sur (2 hour drive, 2 nights)

Santa Cruz (2 hour drive, 1 night)

San Francisco (1.5 hour drive, 2 night)

Sonoma & Napa (1.5 hour drive, 1 night)

Lake Tahoe (3.5 hour drive, 1 night)

Yosemite National Park (2.5 hour drive, 1 night)

Sequoia National Park (2.5 hour drive, 1 night)

San Diego (5 hour drive, 1 night)

LOS ANGELES (2 NIGHTS)

There is no place in the world quite like the sunshiny, palm tree-filled city of Los Angeles. People spend weeks exploring this place and even more flock to the southern California coast every year for its mild temperature, gorgeous beaches, amazing restaurants, and bright sunny weather. Since this is likely where you will be flying into, you could even spend a day here before or after pick up the van. No matter when you decide to schedule it in, it’s worth it to take the time and enjoy some of the world famous beaches and all the dazzle that is L.A. You could spend a whole week in just L.A. area, so best to plan some time and not just rush through it so you can really take in the SoCal vibes.

THINGS TO SEE

Hollywood SignToo iconic to miss, we found the perfect little trail tucked into the Hollywood Hills. This neighborhood is fun to drive around, and if you come around sunset, the parking situation shouldn’t be too difficult. There are lots of hikers and folks just enjoying the views. There is also a hike to view the backside of the sign that takes about 1 hour, else you can take a short 5 minute walk to see it from the base.

Santa Monica PierDown along PCH is the famous Santa Monica Pier. It’s a beautiful stretch of beach lined with palm trees and a winding sidewalk that leads into a vintage looking wooden board walk. The main attraction is the year-round carnival at the end of the pier complete with roller coasters and Ferris wheel. It’s a great spot to spend the whole day – laying at the beach, watching sunset behind the pier, and enjoying the rides and games into the night. Be aware that parking is difficult and traffic may be thick, especially in the afternoon, so we recommend coming earlier in the day and leaving after the rush hour crowds.

Venice Beach Venice beach is a hip spot alive with the energy of younger and eclectic crowds. It definitely has its own unique vibe with the man-made canals, hipster coffee shops, art walls and boutiques dotted along the main road. It’s much more laid back than Hollywood or Beverly Hills with a more artistic and funky air about it. Be sure to check out Abbot Kinney Boulevard, named one of the ‘coolest blocks in America’ where you’ll find many pop up shops, art galleries, delicious little cafes as well as yoga studios to help you really soak in all that is life in Southern California.

El Matador BeachUp along the northern coast of L.A. you can find this unique beach. El Matador feels like the sandstone cliffs of Portugal. Most mornings you’ll find El Matador shrouded in a thick fog/marine layer that may burn off in the afternoon sun, but gives it a really great moody vibe to it (and perfect soft lighting for photos). The beach can get quite crowded but if you walk down to the base and keep going to the right you can find your own little private enclave.

Laguna BeachFrom the famous show “Laguna Beach” this really is one of the most picturesque beaches in all of Southern California. The day that we went the sun was shining and made the water shine an electric blue color that reminded us of Indonesia. Our favorite beach here was 1000 Step Beach because it was situated between a few rolling hills with incredible houses all along the cliffs. Laguna itself is a chic and sophisticated beach town filled with amazing boutique shops and upscale restaurants.

Newport BeachSlightly north of Laguna, Newport beach has a younger more vibrant energy to it. What gives Newport its popularity is the boardwalk that stretches for miles along the coast with incredible beach houses and cute little shops and ice cream parlors. One of our favorite ways to see the beach is to rent bikes and ride along the sidewalk to look at all the luxury houses and end at the pier.

Beverly HillsCruising up and down the palm -lined Rodeo Drive and seeing the mansions of Beverly Hills is a total vibe. It might be the most chic and posh part of all of Los Angeles! It’s worth spending a day checking out the cafes & fine dining restaurants as well as window shopping around some of the ultra luxury shops.

WHERE TO STAY

Los Angeles is such a vast and large region with many different places to stay. Here are just a few highlights:

Campsite

Leo Carillo State Park: Located along the northern PCH route from Los Angeles, this beach is unique with its rock formations and fun hikes nearby. It is a campsite tucked away from the hustle of L.A. but still close enough to drive in and visit!

Hotel

The Peninsula Beverly Hills: If you’re looking for posh, glamour, and Hollywood this is exactly the dazzling place you want to stay. Rooftop pool, private cabanas, perfectly manicured gardens, and lavish interior decorations complete with elegant chandeliers and upscale décor. Easy walking distance to Beverly Hill’s famous Rodeo Drive.

Shutters on the Beach: Just steps off the beach of Santa Monica, the location here couldn’t be better. The décor is Cape Cod vibe of shuttered doors and expansive patios straight onto the beach.

Montage Laguna Beach: Right along the beach this resort offers and expansive view into the rolling cliffs of Laguna. Complete with pool, golf course, spa, and fine dining restaurant this is the ultimate beach luxury experience.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach

Hollywood Sign

Beverly Hills

OJAI (1 NIGHT)

Ojai is a quaint and lovely town located less than 2 hours northwest of Los Angeles! It felt like the perfect getaway town with unique fashion boutiques, coffee shops, art galleries, and elevated cuisine. Its walkable streets make for the perfect afternoon stroll on the way to have a sundowner with friends. We stayed here for 1 night and were able to stop by the Farmer’s Market which happens on Saturday mornings! And if you plan to come during the month of April, you will find that it is the prime time to purchase the famous Ojai Tangerines. We easily could have stayed a long weekend or couple of days!

THINGS TO SEE

Bart’s Books – Located on a cozy corner just on Matilija Street, Bart’s Books is an iconic outdoor bookstore that can’t be missed. With books lining even the exterior walls, this book store is like nothing we have ever seen before.

Pixie Month – The month of April is the perfect time to catch the local tangerines in season!

Stroll the shops – The main street is lined with cute one-of -a -kind shops you can pop just pop into. Some of our favorites were Fig (an enchanting garden & plant store) , Found 203 Studio (chic boho home & décor), In The Field (a little bit of everything from clothing, to home goods, to trinkets), but take some time to explore and find your own hidden gems.

Enjoy a cozy café – There are so many to choose from, we spent some time at Tipple & Ramble and were happy with the choice! It features a cool picnic and patio area with a wide variety of drinks and snacks.

WHERE TO PARK

Lake Casitas Overlook – Other vans stayed the night here next to us, and the sunset and sunrise had incredible views. Not completely level, but enough to get a good night’s sleep.

Ojai

Bart's Books

Bart's Books

Pixie Season

SANTA BARBARA (1 NIGHT)

In Santa Barbara there are actually quite a few photogenic spots! You can visit the iconic rainbow arch just off the beach, and also the pink wall hidden in a cool eclectic district. There are interesting art galleries and trendy inviting cafes. The mission is really a beautiful building with an intriguing history. Don’t forget to walk along the boardwalk and enjoy the endless rows of palm trees. We caught sunset at Butterfly Beach and enjoyed sitting on the rocky cliffs as the sun disappeared behind the horizon.

THINGS TO SEE:

Shoreline Park – Lined with seemingly endless palm trees, the Shoreline park offers amazing views of the city, the coastline, and the Santa Ynez mountains. Sometimes you can even see whales from the shore!

Stearns Wharf – Located just next to the harbor, this picturesque wharf offers restaurants, a shellfish market, and a marine museum.

Butterfly Beach – Beautiful sunset views here!

Colorful Picture Spots – The Chromatic Gate, Pink Wall, and tiled stairs at Paseo Nuevo Shops & Restaurants are a couple favorites we visited during out time here!

WHERE TO PARK

Montecito – One of our favorite spots on the trip! We were able to park on a cliff with a perfect view out to the crashing waves. It is away from the hustle and bustle and is right next to train tracks. There were several other vans parked along this road.

Santa Barbara Beach

Pink Wall

Wake Up Views

Chromatic Gate

Butterfly Beach

LOMPOC (DRIVE THROUGH)

Lompoc is a little bit out of the way if you are rushing north, but we especially wanted to visit the flower fields here. It is less touristy than many of the other towns along this route, but is definitely worth a visit if you are coming in the spring or summer time!

THINGS TO SEE

Flower Fields – To be honest, the fields don’t look too impressive when first driving by. But once you pull over and get out of the car, you can start to appreciate the true size of the rows and rows of beautiful flowers. We were fortunate to have the place to ourselves and thoroughly enjoyed our stop over here. If it gets a little crowded, you could walk down the path to the right which leads into the middle of the flower field! The fields generally bloom between April and September. Varieties include Stock, Larkspur, Delphinium, Queen Annes Lace, Bupleurum, and Bells of Ireland among others. These fields are privately owned, so they ask to be respectful of the gorgeous blooms.

WHERE TO PARK

We drove through Lompoc on the way to Morro Bay, but you can stay the night at River Park.

Lompoc Flower Fields

Lompoc Flower Fields

Lompoc Flower Fields

Lompoc Flower Fields

MORRO BAY (DRIVE THROUGH)

There is a GIANT rock formation right on the coast and at the edge of a seemingly endless bay. It was windy when we arrived, and we enjoyed watching all of the kite surfers on the beach. Even with the windy conditions, we were glad we decided to make a stop here! The expanse is hard to describe, but in person it really is awe inspiring. Its a perfect spot to bring a picnic and enjoy the beach for a few hours to break up your. drive.

THINGS TO SEE

Morro Rock – It really is massive. And the beach next to it expands as far as the eye can see. They also have some fun sand dunes to walk through as well. Note that it can be quite windy here though!

WHERE TO PARK

We drove through Morro Bay and did not stay the night, but if you plan to camp, you can check out Morro Bay State Park.

Morro Rock

Morro Strand State Beach

Morro Rock

Morro Strand State Beach

Turn Out on Highway 1

SAN SIMEON (1 NIGHT)

When heading up Highway 1, you will want to stop to visit the famous elephant seals! There were so many of them piled up next to each other on the beach, and a lot of them were making their way into the ocean, or waddling around the sand. It was fun to see them and listen to their ‘conversations’ 😊 . It’s not too much of a detour and worth pulling over to see. You can continue heading north from here, but we actually decided to cut up through the Green Valley Road and visit Paso Robles. A local shop owner back in Ojai suggested we drive up through Paso Robles because the green hills were gorgeous and vibrant this time of year!

THINGS TO SEE

Hearst Castle – After 28 years of construction, this castle offers a variety of tours to explore the iconic estate that has been listed as one of the top 100 destinations in the world by Time Magazine in 2019.

Piedras Blancas Rookery – For the best view of elephant seals, the Piedras Blancas Rookery is the only spot in the world that provides free and easy access to the public for seeing these amazing creatures. (Please be respectful of the creatures as they are wild animals, and don’t try to feed them or throw anything down onto the beach)

WHERE TO PARK

We drove through San Simeon before heading to Green Valley Road, but you can park near Hearst Castle at San Simeon Campground.

Sea Lion Rookery

GREEN VALLEY ROAD (OVERNIGHT SPOT)

A simple road with a couple turnouts that lend themselves to some of the most incredible views we have seen along the west coast. The green rolling hills transported us to Scotland or even New Zealand, (just without the sheep 😉). The green hills were showing off, and we were completely enchanted by them!

THINGS TO SEE

Turn Outs – It is pretty self explanatory here. Not much else to see or do other than appreciate the view. Our favorite turn outs were near the beginning. We suggest coming for sunset because sunrise can sometimes be foggy and block the view.

WHERE TO PARK

Green Valley Road – There are several turn outs along this road, and we chose the first one. The sunset here was incredible and we were the only ones that stayed overnight. There is a nice flat spot right next to the boulder!

Green Valley Road

Campsite at Green Valley Road

Green Valley Road

Green Valley Road

Green Valley Road

BIG SUR (2 NIGHTS)

The stunning views along Highway 1 in Big Sur are simply incredible and definitely worth a drive. It is fascinating to see the landscape shift from sweeping mountain vistas to sharp cliffs and even waterfalls into the ocean. You will find many spots to pull out and take pictures because it is just that beautiful. Head north to Carmel by the Sea, which is a fun quaint little town to explore and stay in. Don’t be surprised if it’s foggy here – a majority of the year it has some portion of clouds (though you might get lucky with a bright sunny day) but the water is so electric blue that it will still be a deep sapphire color even on an overcast day. And that is also part of the ambiance we loved so much in Big Sur – to have the nice moody, mysterious vibes.

THINGS TO SEE

Bixby Bridge – It is hard to miss this iconic structure, as you have to drive right over it on your journey along Highway 1. There is a small turnout on the north side of the bridge if you want to pull over and grab a photo! you can also head up to the mountain just north of the bridge to drive up and get some amazing views with the bridge behind you looking out to the sea.

McWay Falls – The view is only a short hike from the parking lot, through a tunnel and to the overlook of the beach. You can also pull out on the cliff road to the north for a perfect view as well.

WHERE TO PARK

Safeway in Carmel – When in doubt, a grocery store parking lot can be a good place to park for the night. Especially if you see other campers there, you will probably be alright. The iOverlander app says this spot is closed, but we parked here for 2 nights because we arrived into the area late and night and wanted to explore quite a bit. If you want to be in Big Sur proper, check out Big Sur State Park.

McWay Falls

Bixby Bridge

Big Sur

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge

SANTA CRUZ (1 NIGHT)

A fun coastal town with its own quirks and cute cafes. They have a special boardwalk area with amusement rides but it is also just a fun foodie town to explore. The most interesting rock formation is only 15 minute’s drive to the north, called Shark Fin Bay. It is a simple hike down to the bottom, however we found the best views to be on the northern cliffs looking down into the bay. It was definitely worth the extra drive from town and we recommend spending a relaxing afternoon admiring the giant rock formation and crashing waves on the beach. Swim at your own risk, the waves looked pretty treacherous!

THINGS TO SEE

Shark Fin Cove – Named after the rock formation shaped like a shark’s fin. You can choose to stay up on the cliffs or hike down to the beach and enjoy the views from there.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk – One of the most famous and oldest seaside amusement attractions in California, this historic boardwalk has everything from rides and games to food and beach views.

Natural Bridges State Beach – The 65-acre state park has area for activities including windsurfing, kite flying, surfing, picnics, and of course swimming. The beautiful arches make for fun photographs as well!

WHERE TO PARK

Natural Bridges Drive – This was located on a quick side street in the town. We noticed many other campers parked here overnight and had no issues staying here.

Natural Bridges State Beach

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Shark Fin Cove

Turn Out by Santa Cruz

Turn Out by Santa Cruz

SAN FRANCISCO (2 NIGHTS)

There really is so much that is San Francisco. From the multicultural pockets throughout the city to the wavy streets that traverse up and down across the city to the iconic golden gate bridge, this city definitely has an energy all of its own. The area is bustling with hip restaurants and cafes, vibrant culture, and eclectic stores. But the best part have to be the amazing views that you get on almost every street due to the rolling hills and close proximity to the coast. One could easily spend a long weekend here, but one day is enough to see a couple sites while still being on the move.

THINGS TO SEE

Golden Gate Bridge – No trip to San Francisco is complete without the Golden Gate Bridge! This gorgeous landmark stands as a sentinel to the bay and caters to so many different view points. Our favorite spot is from Battery Spencer. You can drive and also walk across this gorgeous bridge. Do keep in mind, that if you are leaving SF, it is free to cross the bridge. But if you are coming into SF, then it costs approximately $9 USD.

Painted Ladies – This fun row of houses is instantly recognizable from the famous American sit-com ‘Full House.’ Locals bring blankets to hang out on the adjacent hill and enjoy the views.

Lombard Street – The steepest and windiest road we have ever seen. The roads in San Francisco are famous for being extremely steep, and this one is no exception! We couldn’t take the van down because the incline and bends were too steep, but it’s still worth a visit to see it in person.

Fisherman’s Wharf – If you didn’t get a taste of the sea lions at San Simeon, the wharf is a great place to spot wild life. Not to mention a fun place to explore by foot!

Ghirardelli Square – San Francisco is home to the famous Ghirardelli chocolate company where one of it’s original factories has been transformed into a busting marketing place of candy shops, ice cream parlors, and restaurants. Its a perfect place to spend an evening walking along the water’s edge, and seeing the famous Ghirardelli sign light up the sky.

Palace of Fine Arts – Originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, this old roman style building set on a pond and beautiful garden is an unforgettable spot for a picnic or nice photo shoot. You can wander the grounds or hang out on some of the benches facing the water’s edge. It’s especially beautiful at sunrise, sunset, and all lit up at night.

WHERE TO PARK

Vista Point San Francisco – This parking spot will go down as one of the best for this drive. It may feel crowded at night when everyone is there taking photos of the bridge, but if you wake up first thing in the morning and face the back of the van toward the bridge, there is no one around and you can enjoy the perfect view of the Golden Gate bridge from the comfort of the van!

Golden Gate Bridge

Painted Ladies

Golden Gate Bridge

Lombard Street

Vista Point San Francisco

SONOMA AND NAPA (1 NIGHT)

Located just north east of San Francisco, this famous part of California is known for its wines and gorgeous rolling hills of vineyards. We ourselves are not wine drinkers, but we were still in awe over the beautiful landscapes afforded by this secluded countryside. Sonoma is a quaint town worth strolling through on an easy afternoon. The fun shops and boutiques make for great window shopping and maybe some real shopping too if you like. The drive between Sonoma and Napa is beautiful, but if you really want to see the vineyards, head up the Silverado Trail. Feel free to stop at any vineyard that looks interesting, or if you are just in it for the views, drive as far as you’d like and then turn around. Napa is a bit larger than Sonoma and has a different vibe to it. Napa is generally thought to be the more luxurious and ritzier sister to the more laid back and expansive Sonoma. Better yet, explore them both and be the judge yourself!

THINGS TO SEE

Vineyards – You can opt to drive and explore the vineyards from the comfort of your car (a popular route is along the Silverado Trail, or you can choose to experience a wine tasting! Some spots to consider would be Chateau Montelena Winery, Pine Ridge Vineyards, and Far Niente. )

WHERE TO PARK

Sonoma City Parking Lot – The area really isn’t too busy and we had no issues parking over night here.

Silverado Trail

Sonoma Town Square

Sonoma Flowers

Silverado Trail

LAKE TAHOE (1 NIGHT)

The drive to Tahoe is a few hours outside of Napa Valley. We decided to spend our time on the north east side of the lake and were not disappointed. If you wanted to drive around the whole lake, it takes roughly 1 hour and you can’t beat the views! The lake has to be one of the most dramatic we have seen with ultra clear blue water surrounded by snow capped mountains and forests of evergreen pines as far as the eye can see. It’s a landscape photographer’s dream, and perfect mountain getaway any time of year.

As far as camping around Tahoe, it can be difficult to find a free spot. We ended up staying up a canyon just next to Mt. Rose ski resort and felt completely secluded and engulfed in nature. It seems the mountains around Lake Tahoe are snow capped year around, and the water typically remains refreshingly cold, which is perfect in the summer months.

THINGS TO SEE

Paddle Boarding / Kayaking – If you don’t own a board or kayak yourself, consider renting one to take out on the lake even for an afternoon. The water is incredible clear and the views are unrivaled. Our favorite spot was at Sand Harbor because it had all of the giant boulders and ultra clear water.

Be advised – don’t leave anything on top of the boulders because even though it is a lake, there is a still high and low tide so your belongings can get washed away if your out on the lake too long

Explore the Main Town – Lake Tahoe is a really cute town. You can stroll down the one main road where there are plenty of old classic American diners, ice cream shops, and stores to peruse through.

Skiing / Snowboarding – If winter sports are your thing, consider visiting Heavenly or Mt. Rose to enjoy some stunning views while sliding down the slopes.

WHERE TO PARK 

Mt. Rose – this spot required high clearance on the van, but we were able to drive (2-wheel drive) up into the path just enough to have a nice space all to ourselves. Had no issues at this spot and it was very flat!

Lake Tahoe

Mt. Rose Camping Spot

Stand Up Paddle Board on Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

Road to Lake Tahoe

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK (1 NIGHT)

From Lake Tahoe, you really have two choices, you can either go down the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas and experience Mammoth Lakes and Alabama Hills among other sites. Or you can head down the western side of the mountain range, enabling you to visit two renowned national parks, Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park. Even though the drive was longer, we opted for the National Park route and ended up in Yosemite for the night. We chose to camp just outside of Yosemite in a free site about 45 minutes to the park. We woke up to get in the park before sunrise to experience the solace of this special place without crowds and the beautiful morning light. We were happily surprised by the morning fog that lingers in the valley until the sun burns through. This created some incredible photos with the trees juxtaposed by the mountains.

To be honest, Yosemite was one of the most breathtaking locations of our trip and we easily could have stayed a couple days just basking in the beauty of this natural area. When we went, Glacier Road and Taft Point were closed (they close sometimes in the winter/spring due to snowy roads), so we will have to come back to capture these incredible views. But the National Parks Service is working hard to restore some of the roads at the moment, so it can be open to larger crowds in the future. Be aware, the waterfalls really are largest in the spring time, and if you go in the winter time, the water may not be flowing as powerfully. Regardless, you wont be disappointed by the breathtaking views of El Capitan (if you haven’t already, check out FREE SOLO on Netflix), Half Dome, and the beautiful waterfalls throughout the valley.

THINGS TO SEE

Yosemite Valley Waterfall – The water will be flowing the most between April and June and can be heard from across the valley. It’s easily accessible right from the main road.

Hike Half Dome – This famous hike offers some of the most stunning views one can ask for in Yosemite. Though it’s not for the faint of heart taking 10-12 hours.

Tunnel View – Upon exiting the park, right before driving through the last tunnel, you can turn around and see the entire Yosemite Valley.

Glacier Point – Also another view of this stunning national park. There are some amazing hikes around this area including Taft Point with large expanses into the valley as well as a very popular road for photographing due to its ‘S’ curve bend along Glacier road itself.

WHERE TO PARK

Hardin Flat – Incredible sunset viewpoint and even a fire ring! There was a brief moment of cell service too just right off the dirt road. We were initially concerned about cell service in Yosemite Valley, but were happy to find we had excellent reception!

Tunnel View

El Capitan

Yosemite Valley Waterfall

Hardin Flat

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK (1 NIGHT)

A few hours south of Yosemite and through seemingly endless winding roads and incredible vistas, you will find Sequoia National Park. Don’t be fooled by the uneventful drive at entrance of the park. The further you drive in, the more exciting and mysterious it becomes. Before you know it, these gigantic trees stand firmly everywhere you look. We could not help ourselves but to continue to pull over and get out of the car just to stare at these silent giants. The best time to experience this forest is going to be right around sunrise or sunset, because the golden rays of light stream through the tall branches and create a fairy-type effect as the flora and fauna show off their luster in the light. We couldn’t get over just how large these trees are and continued to take so many photos. It really is a must see as you continue your journey south from Yosemite back towards southern California.

THINGS TO SEE

General Sherman Tree – Only a short hike down to this magnificent tree, you will be surrounded by so many other giant trees as well. It is hard to describe just how large these trees can be (the base of the trunk was larger than the length of our van!).

Tunnel Log – Our van unfortunately did not fit under here, but we visited anyway 😀 If your car is shorter than 8 feet, you can drive through a tree! If your vehicle is too large, you will be able drive around the tree on the detour road.

This Secret Spot – We just decided to turn out randomly at this grove and were pleasantly surprised. You can turn out multiple places along this road, but we really liked this one for photos!

WHERE TO PARK

We drove through Sequoia and parked at Three Rivers Lake Overlook, but if you want to stay in the park, consider Lodepole Campground.

Sequoia National Park

Tunnel Log

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

SAN DIEGO (1 NIGHT)

A charming city with really cool eclectic restaurants and boutiques. Depending on the amount of time you have at the end of your trip, you may consider spending time here on the front end of your journey so as not to miss out.

THINGS TO SEE

Gaslamp Quarter – Where the most happening things happen. This is perfect for parking the car and walking along through the shops and sitting down at one of the swanky cafes.

In-N-Out Burger – No California road trip is complete without a stop at In-N-Out. So if you haven’t been yet on your trip along the coast, now is the time to grab a bite at California’s most popular burger chain!

Coronado Bridge – Driving over the bridge is actually pretty fun (not during rush hour of course). It gives you a spectacular view of the city and links you to the beautiful Coronado Beach.

Coronado Beach – Home to the famous Hotel Coronado, this beach is a picturesque spot known for it’s great surf and iconic beach front hotel

WHERE TO PARK

Marina Parking Lot – a very open lot with several other campers staying the night here. They say there is a height restriction for your vehicle, but we noticed some big rigs parked here without any issues.

San Diego

Carlsbad

Gaslamp Quarter

San Onofre State Beach

Pacific Coast Highway

So there you have it, our California road trip broken down exactly how we travelled it! Keep in mind with van life that you can make it as easy going or as busy as you want it to be. And regarding parking, some spots were definitely more scenic than others, but we were happy to spend $0 on overnight spots. When we have camped in a van before, we needed to plug in for power every night, which led us to more established camp sites (which could run anywhere from $10 to $40 per night).

Honestly, we can’t wait to go on our next van trip, and if you are on the fence about a van life vacation, let this be a sign for you to give it a try!

Have you done this road trip before? Are there any spots you would recommend?

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Interested in making your trip a reality? Rent or Buy a campervan today.

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