The quintessential guide to exploring the best spots along California’s stunning west coast, anytime of year.
California is considered an adventure van lifer's paradise for good reason. With warm temps year-round, there’s no shortage of options for surf, camping and everything in between. This itinerary is perfect for those looking to spend a week (more or less) touring up the best of our beloved California coast in a fully outfitted adventure van.
Using VanCraft's San Diego camper van rental office as your launch point, drive the few hours it takes to get up to scenic Santa Barbara (dubbed as the “American Riviera”) for some sight seeing and a chance to stretch your legs. Take in its sparkling water and clear blue skies while enjoying some food at any one of SB’s numerous seaside eateries.
Then stick around for sunset, while deciding where to sleep for the night. While you can camp for free in the hills of Santa Barbara, there are always places to stay in town, if you’re in the mood for local nightlife. Bonus points for those opting to crash in one of our adventure camper vans, as you won’t have to worry about drinking and driving. Oh, and your memory foam bed is conveniently located in the backseat. It’s a win-win all around.
Should you find yourself with an extra day or two, Los Angeles is only two hours north of San Diego. This an the ideal pit stop for touring any one of LA’s famous neighborhoods or grabbing some real deal tacos (because you can’t leave Southern California without trying our Mexican food). If you’re an avid surfer or rock climber, Malibu and/or Rincon are also worth checking out.
Before making your way to Big Sur, we’d suggest stopping in Morro Bay and Montana del Oro State Park. Catch some heavy waves along Hazards Canyon (though beware of territorial locals...and great whites) before fueling up on gas and groceries for the days ahead.
While camping options in Big Sur are typically limited (with summer being its busiest time), the following campsites are optimal for booking in advance: Plaskett Creek, Limekiln, Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, and Andrew Molera (this last one does not allow for car camping). Though it is illegal to camp anywhere along the 101, there are additional free camping spots if you’re willing to drive a bit inland.
Just a 1-2 hour detour from the 101, camp in the mountains above Big Sur’s coast for some of the best views on the planet (beware of sections with steep dirt roads). Thankfully, both our short and long wheelbase campervans are fully capable of making this drive, just make sure to avoid these roads if it has recently rained or will be raining soon. And for any off grid camping, always be sure to abide by the 7 Leave No Trace Principles.
Today’s the day! Get after all that Big Sur has to offer by checking out any or all of the following highlights:
- Sand Dollar Beach (the largest unbroken swathe of sand along the Big Sur coast, making it a great spot to chill, even on the windiest of days)
- Mcway Falls (an 80-foot waterfall that flows year round)
- Esalen Institute Hot Springs (take advantage of their public night bathing hours from 1-3am with same-day booking...it’s magic)
- Bixby Bridge (known for being one of CA’s most photographed bridges)
- Point Sur Lighthouse (which stands atop dramatic volcanic rock just off-shore)
- Andrew Molera State Park (find epic surfing at its Big Sur Rivermouth)
Since our adventure van rental kitchens come fully stocked with cookware, dishes, utensils, and cleaning supplies, you’re more than able to whip up the breakfast of your choosing before spending another day on the road. Gourmet eggs on toast, anyone?
Next up is driving through Carmel by the Sea, another one of our favorite coastal beach towns. Monterey is your best bet to stop for lunch, a quick refuel and grocery shop before making your way further up the coast. Should you have another few days to spare, continue north on the 101 to iconic San Francisco. Otherwise, your next stop is to the east at Yosemite National Park.
Some notes worth keeping in mind:
- While campgrounds in Yosemite sell out months in advance, there are still several first come first serve options.
- Some campgrounds even allow for two vehicles per site.
- If you’re up for exiting the park’s main boundary, you’ll find a lot more options for free camping.
- You are also permitted to camp for free in national forests as long as you are ¼ mile away from an established campground.
As a reminder, iOverlander is your best bet for locating these free sites while maps.me will get you where you need to go with offline turn by turn navigation. Just make sure to download both apps, and corresponding maps, before losing cell service.
Hooray, you’ve made it to Yosemite, the premier rock climbing destination in the world. Time to get your hands dirty and explore a bit. Here we’ll break down your best options by season.
- Half Dome Day-Hike (on the more difficult side; permits required)
- Merced River (for floating, swimming, hiking, fishing)
- Mist Trail Hike (a personal VanCraft favorite)
- Glacier Point (for sunset and impressive views of Half Dome)
- Firefall (Big Sur’s famous, fiery light tunnel)
- Valley Floor (extra beautiful when covered in snow)
- Skiing Badger Pass
- Ice Skating
For winter camping, it’s worth highlighting that our adventure vans come with auxillary radiant propane heaters, and for winter ski trips we offer camper van rentals with Espar furnaces to stay extra toasty, as available.
If you’re cutting your trip at six days, now’s the time to start making your way back down. Options include stopping to explore the redwoods in Mariposa Grove, or for something even more off the beaten path, check out Nelder Grove. Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park are similarly on your way south. Just add an extra 1-2 days if you want to have time to explore some of the biggest trees on Earth!
Next time you’re looking to soak up all the beauty California has to offer, let this 5-7 day itinerary be your guide. From its cliff-lined beaches, most incredible national parks and iconic of cities, there’s something for everyone.
And when it comes to living your best van life, VanCraft has you covered. Tag #vancraft during your next trip so we can see everything you get into using our most dependable of Sprinter van build outs. You can receive an instant camper van rental quote for our short wheelbase adventure van here and our long wheelbase adventure van here.