*Thanks to Jucy for helping Matt, Emily and I make this road trip possible. Find out more at Jucy USAand follow them on social media @JUCYworld.
I LOVE a road trip; since Matt and I sold our campervan we’ve not had much of chance to go on van adventures. So when the opportunity popped up to plan a road trip with Jucy Campers in California we jumped at the chance. This was our first road trip with Emily who is 21 months old, so we wanted to make sure we did it right. The Jucy Trailblazer was the perfect size to accommodate the three of us without feeling too big. At night, Emily slept in the main part of the van with me, while Matt slept in the penthouse. We hired a car seat from Jucy as ours did not make it out on our flight from London, it cost a very reasonable $40. We found it took a bit more organisation to camp with Emily than we had been previously used to when it was just us; but we soon got into the swing of things. Emily loved hiding up in the penthouse and really enjoyed the freedom of exploring the campgrounds we stayed at. I love Jucy’s vans, you can’t miss the green and purple branding, it’s a real head turner. We got asked about our van by passers-by a lot, it seems it is quite an uncommon thing to see a small campervan in America. Big RVs with pop out sides towing cars are a very popular choices and made our Jucy van look like a baby in comparison! One huge positive of having a smaller vehicle is that it is perfect for navigating the small and winding national park roads as well as being able to fit into any campground or parking space you like. It might be compact but that doesn’t mean there is no space in these eye-catching beauties. Let me tell you more….
The Trailblazer sleeps four, the roof pops up to form ‘the penthouse’ and inside there is a very comfy double bed. A ladder attaches to the outside of the van for very easy access and it all zips up tight making it very cosy at night. I loved waking up in the morning, unzipping and admiring the view. If there is only two of you then sleeping up top means you can leave the rest of the van set up for ‘day use’. Downstairs the van has two bench seats with a fantastic amount of storage underneath and a table which can be stowed away too. The kitchen is in the boot and comes equipped with everything you need. Storage cupboards, two gas stoves, a chiller and a sink. Pots, pans, crockery cutlery and a bottle opener are all included. As is a duvet, pillows, blanket and towels, this is a great bonus as I’ve found in the past that this is something that not all hire companies provide free of charge.
First things first choose a rough route, you can book campgrounds before you go or if you prefer just rock up and see if there are spaces available. During peak seasons I would definitely recommend pre-booking campgrounds as popular ones often get reserved months in advance. Reserve Californiais brilliant for booking national park and state beach campgrounds. Search in the area you want to stay in and it’ll show you all the nearby campgrounds, it has an interactive map too. Visit California is a great website for planning and researching your road trip in California.
It’s always a good idea to check driving rules and regulations in the country you are visiting. In America they drive on the right hand side of the road and you can turn right on a red light. Also check tolls, these can be paid for online. If you are planning on driving over the Golden Gate Bridge make sure you pay for the toll using this website:goldengate.org
I always choose campgrounds with pitches that have a fire pit, there’s nothing like cooking on a fire by the beach or keep warming on chillier nights while stargazing.
There are often ‘camp hosts’ at campgrounds, they live on site and are there to help. You can usually purchase firewood from them for your campfire too. A lot of pitches in national park and state beach campgrounds come with benches and fire pits.
I find buying all your essentials once you’ve picked up your camper is a really good idea. Head to a supermarket for all your food supplies and firewood. That way you know you have everything you need for your road trip without having to worry about stopping later on in your journey.
It’s a good idea to buy water and keep a supply with you as national park and state beach campgrounds don’t always have drinking water.
Be sure to fuel up well in advance of getting low. Sometimes fuel stations can be few and far between, especially in more remotes spots such as Point Reyes National Seashore.
Starting in Marin County we picked up our van in Oakland and dropped it off in LA. Both collection and drop off was really straight forward. From Oakland we drove north to Point Reyes and worked our way down the coast towards San Diego, covering over 1000 miles in 7 days. *The route we chose had to be adapted slightly due to the wildfires in California and because of part of the Big Sur being closed after a land slide last
*The Big Sur re-opened in July 2018, two months ahead of schedule, so you can now drive all the way along this epic stretch of road.
Point Reyes National Seashore
After picking up our camper in Oakland we headed up north to Point Reyes National Seashore and stayed in an area called Inverness. This part of California is unlike any other I’ve been to before and reminded me of the Scottish Highlands; I guess quite fitting with the name Inverness too. Inverness felt like something out of Dawson’s Creek, dreamy sunrises over water inlets with rickety old wooden piers and rolling hills in the distance. It was so very tranquil, the days were sunny, if a little chilly and in the evenings all you needed was a jacket, beanie hat and campfire to warm up. Don’t miss the Cypress Tree Tunnel, it’s a very popular spot for photos and produces a very Instagrammable image! Point Reyes Lighthouse is also a must visit, the 308 steps are well worth the climb down and back up again. The views of nothing but uninterrupted ocean are out of this world. During whale season it is the perfect place to sit and stare out to sea on the lookout for these majestic creatures. At certain times of the day the lighthouse is open so you can have a look inside and learn a bit about its history.
The walk up to the lighthouse has incredible views of the rugged coastline, even on a foggy day you can’t not be impressed by the untouched beauty of this place. A short drive from the lighthouse near Chimney Rock elephant seals lazily snooze on the shoreline. This was on our itinerary but we completely forgot to stop there, so make sure you do!
I’d definitely wear layers on a trip here, the day started off warm but quickly changed to fog and drizzle. We warmed up after climbing back up from the lighthouse but quickly chilled down again.
On the way to Monterey we chose our route so we would get to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, It was such an awesome experience to drive over this iconic structure. We of course found somewhere to stop for photos too. There are viewpoints either side of the bridge, we stopped at Fort Baker. Check out Seven Places to Gaze at the Golden Gate Bridgefor more locations.
Monterey is a gorgeous seaside town famous for sea lions, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. Take a stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf and say hello to the sea lions, spend half a day exploring the aquarium and grab some lunch on Cannery Row. The waterfront street was once home to sardine canning factories and has kept much of its old industrial charm. I loved the aquarium and taking photos on Cannery Row, although a little touristy it was nice to soak up the atmosphere.
The Big Sur
This part of Highway 1 is undeniably one of the most stunning drives I have ever done. Rugged coastline, turquoise ocean and miles of open road. This stretch of the drive is pretty remote, forest on one side and coast on the other. *It’s worth noting that part of it is currently closed due to a landslide in 2017. But don’t let this stop you from planning an adventure along the Pacific Coast Highway, it can still be done. Bixby Bridge and McWay Falls are both beautiful must sees, the whole route is just so scenic and a photographers paradise. Plaskett Creek Campground opposite Sand Dollar Beach is a wonderful camping spot. Pitches come with a bench and fire pit. The campground has basic facilities with no showers but it’s worth it to be able to wake up to amazing views and complete silence. There are a whole host of campgrounds and lodges to stop the night at as well as eateries, we loved Big Sur Roadhouse.
If you are driving from the north you can still explore a lot of it and visit the famous natural landmarks dotted along the route. It is currently closed at Ragged Point. Either turn back on yourself or take a detour along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road back onto Highway 101, although the latter may not be the safest route to choose. The road is narrow and winds up through the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. The views are stunning but it is often only wide enough for one car and with a sheer drop off the edge of the road it is definitely not a route for larger vehicles or the faint hearted! We chose to drive back on ourselves and pick up Highway 1 at Monterey. Check this website for updates on the road closures along the Big Sur: bigsurcalifornia.org
*The Big Sur re-opened in July 2018, two months ahead of schedule, so you can now drive all the way along this epic stretch of road.
Carmel by the Sea
We briefly stopped in Carmel en route to Morro Bay. I adored this up-market seaside town, full of quirky side streets and oldy worldy homes. Clint Eastwood was once the mayor of Carmel, he also used to own the Hog’s Breath Inn, a quirky pub in the town. Don’t miss Carmel Bakery, they make delicious sandwiches and the array of cakes and sweet treats inside are to die for!
We didn’t have a lot of time to explore Morro Bay as we arrived late afternoon and left early the following morning. We camped at Morro Strand State Beach Campground, overlooking the beach and Morro Rock; it’s a lovely spot. I loved getting cosy by the campfire while watching the waves roll in and waking up to the sounds of the ocean. Being able to step straight onto the beach was awesome and Emily loved hunting for sand dollars.
Carlsbad, Encinitas and Cardiff by the Sea
We spent a lot of time in the Carlsbad area as we stayed with family for Christmas while we were on our road trip. I adore the surfy town of Encinitas, every other person is a surfer and there is a brewpub on every corner. Our favourite was Bier Garden, Baja fish tacos with a beer here while watching the world go by was a real treat! Cardiff has beautiful beaches, the famous Los Olas Mexican restaurant and a campground on abluff overlooking the ocean. Carlsbad is a great spot for stand up paddle boarding. We picked up boards at Sun Diego surf shop, first time rental is just $2 for a board and wetsuit. It’s two blocks to the beach so you might need a couple of rest stops on the way but it’s well worth it. We spotted dolphins and seals while on our paddle boards which was amazing to see!
The campground at Lake Jennings is another of my favourites, overlooking the lake it’s a peaceful spot with gorgeous views. Around 30 minutes drive east of San Diego the lake is a great base for exploring the city. Reserve a pitch overlooking the water, get the campfire going and relax with a beer in hand.
Packing essentials for camping:
Tea bags: Always at the top of my list for camping, you can’t beat a proper British cuppa!
Torch, tea lights and fairy lights: It’s handy to have a torch to light up your camp at night or to get to the toilets when it’s pitch black. Tea lights and fairy lights are of course optional, but I love making the van and our bench look a bit shabby chic and cosy in the evenings.
Anti-bac hand wipes: Good for cleaning the ‘kitchen surfaces’ and for your hands when cooking. Also a good cheat instead of washing up!
Zip lock bags: Handy for storing open food and keeping your van tidy.
Portable charger: Good for charging your phone, although the Jucy vans have USB ports so you can easily charge on the road.
Although there is ample storage I’d definitely recommend packing as lightly as you can. A lot of privately owned campgrounds often have washing facilities so there is the option to do laundry on the road.
There’s nothing like a road trip in a campervan. Having the freedom to go where you like and when you want is the best. Plus being able to stop at anytime along the way with all the essentials in the back is an awesome way to have an adventure. California was made for road trips and Jucy vans are made for exploring!
The Big Sur stretches roughly from Carmel to San Simeon along California’s stunning coastline for around 85 miles. It doesn’t have an official start or finish, so I thought this quote from the Lonely Planet guide to California summed it up perfectly: “Big Sur is more of a state of mind than a place.” I had read so much about this beautiful stretch of coastline along Highway 1 before I arrived in California but I didn’t expect it to be so cut off from the rest of California, it is literally one winding road with ocean on one side and rocky cliff overhangs or forest on the other. There was pretty much no phone signal on the entire route either. This is something I actually love when I’m away, that feeling of being totally cut off from the rest of the world for a short time to just be able to completely focus on new surroundings, take it all in and relax.
Matt and I drove Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I would really recommend driving south along the Big Sur with the ocean on the right hand side. All the lay-bys and viewpoints are on this side of the road so it makes it a lot easier to pull over and pull out again when it is busy.
There is so much to see and do on this part of the Pacific Coast Highway, it could be done in one day but the road is pretty small and slow with sharp corners at times. Plus with plenty of viewpoints along the way you definitely don’t want to rush. We stopped for the night at a campground, it really added to the experience.
Here are my 9 favourite things to do…
1. See elephant seals
Point Piedras Blancas is the place to stop to see an elephant seal rookery. Elephant seals can spend up to 10 months at sea and are able to dive an incredible depth of 1000 – 3000 ft. Males can grow up to 16ft in length and weigh as much as 2300kg. These magnificent creatures are huge and very noisy! Watch males tussling in the water for rights over females while the rest snooze and laze around on the sand. Grunting, snorting and belching are to name just a few of the strange noises that can be heard coming from the beach! For more information check out: www.elephantseal.org.
2. Have a glass of wine at Nepenthe
This lovely little spot has two options for eating and drinking, Nepenthe Restaurant or Café Kevah. It is the perfect place or excuse to have a rest on your drive with an afternoon beverage and a chance to take in those stunning views. Both eateries are situated high up with gorgeous views of the rugged coastline and Pacific Ocean. Matt and I chose to visit the restaurant, as it was higher up, the only trouble was the sea mist had come in and through the fog we could see nothing! Still, it was nice to stop off and have a glass of rosé.
3. Whale watch
There are plenty of opportunities to go on organised whale watching trips along the coastline, Monterey is a great place to book from. We were lucky enough to spot whales all along the Big Sur. If you want to save some money pull into a viewpoint and just watch the horizon. To see whales breaching is an incredible sight, or even just a slight peek of a tail slipping gracefully under the water. Whale Watchers Café at Gorda Springs Resort was a marvellous place for breakfast on the road. With ocean views from the café we ate a hearty breakfast and got to spot whales too.
4. Bixby Bridge
This bridge is a very famous landmark on the Big Sur. Built in 1932, it is one of the world’s tallest single span concrete bridges standing proud at 280 ft high. Driving south there is a lay-by on the right hand side just before the bridge, although usually very busy with tourists it is definitely worth stopping to take a photo of this very impressive structure. Whilst I loved this bridge there are others very similar along the route so stop at one of those for views without lots of other people around!
5. Go for a walk
There are so many great areas to walk along Highway One; Point Lobos State Natural Reserve was one of my favourites. Rugged coastline with kelp forests home to sea lions and sea otters make for an exciting walk. The park has mapped out trails with plenty of history, hike to Whalers Cove where a whalers cabin still stands and is now a museum. As well as walking, buy a permit to snorkel or dive amongst the kelp beds, awesome marine life and underwater caves await. If you are camping in a state park keep hold of your permit as this can be used to park for free in other parks and reserves.
6. Pitch a tent (or park up in a van)
One of the cheapest ways to stay overnight on the Big Sur is to camp. We hired a campervan through Wicked Campers and loved having the freedom to explore and stop where we wanted. We stayed overnight at Plaskett Creek campground, just over the road from Sand Dollar Beach. Cooking on a campfire and stargazing was a brilliant experience. The campsite cost a total of $34, a bargain compared to the hotels along the route. There are quite a few campgrounds along the Big Sur, my advise would be to book in advance during peak seasons as pitches at the more popular sites can get reserved very quickly. Having said that a few of the campsites do offer a limited number of pitches to simply turn up and pay for on the day. Take plenty of layers if camping, as it gets quite cold when the fog comes in.
7. McWay Falls
This iconic waterfall is definitely worth stopping for, found in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park this beauty is 80ft high and cascades onto the beach below. Park up and follow the half-mile trail to the coast, you can also spot whales at this picture perfect spot. I saw so many images of this iconic beauty before the trip and loved seeing it in real life. Benches along the trail allow you to sit and take in the beautiful views.
8. Watch the sunrise at Sand Dollar Beach
What could be better than watching the sunrise over the ocean with fog hanging over the hills behind and not another soul in sight? Waking up early in our camper we strolled over the road from Plaskett Creek campground and straight onto the bluff overlooking this crescent-shaped bay. The waves looked iridescent in the low light and the stillness of the early morning was incredible. I wish I had, had a surfboard with me as there were some great little peelers breaking out there!
9. The drive
The Big Sur is an iconic route, remember don’t rush the drive, take your time and enjoy! The road can get busy at times and often people behind us wanted to drive faster, so we just pulled over and let them carry on. Whether you experience it in the sunshine or the fog it is an epic journey and a blanket of fog hanging just above the coastline made for awesome photo opportunities. Pull over at every opportunity and take in the scenery. There were fresh fruit stalls at a lot of lay-bys; one day we bought avocados, blueberries and figs. It was so nice to have a picnic with local produce and stunning views. Mustangs seemed to be a popular choice of ride all along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, cruising with the roof down looked like a very cool experience.
Ad: Matt and I were given a discount by Wicked on our campervan in exchange for this blog post.
What could be better than hitting the open road in your own campervan? Having a kitchen and bed right there on the road with you means you are totally independent and free to explore…
This is exactly what Matt and I got up to in August in California; a collaboration with Wicked Campers saw us pick up an awesome van ‘Mystery Machine’ from their depot in Los Angeles. With its eye-catching artwork it got a lot of attention! We chatted to so many people, families would ask for photos next to it and people would wave to us on highways, it felt like we were famous! Let me tell you a little bit more about our beauty of a camper, it was a GMC Safari two-seater and around 16ft in length so it wasn’t too intimidating to drive. The ‘kitchen’, found at the rear of the van came complete with a sink, cool box, storage units full of utensils, pans, crockery, cutlery and a gas burner. Initially I was a bit sceptical as to whether the cool box would keep all our food chilled. We bought ice every two days to put in it and it did the job brilliantly so there was no need to worry about warm beers and burgers! During the day the van could be used as a seating area with bench seats and with ample storage under the seats it allowed all our gear to be hidden away. There was a table for indoor and outdoor use and two outdoor chairs, perfect for sitting next to the campfire. At night the seats turned into a large comfy bed. Bedding isn’t provided (something worth remembering if you have a travel budget) having said that at the depot there was a free shelf to help yourself to with all sorts of left over goodies. We found a kettle, perfect for making cups of tea. There was also bedding and pillows from previous owners, although we chose to stop off at a Target to buy pillows, a sheet and a sleeping bag which we unzipped to make into a duvet for two. Cosy.
At the time of picking up the van we chose to hire a Sat Nav as an extra add-on. I had bought a massive map but for an extra $5 a day it seemed like a no brainer, and we were right as getting out of LA proved a bit of a challenge…we were very grateful for it.
In my previous blog Planning for a Californian Road Trip I mentioned how much I was looking forward to cooking on a campfire. This lived up to my expectations and much more, it chilled down a bit in the evenings so a fire was the perfect way to keep warm and such a great way to experience our surroundings.
We drove just under 1000 miles in eight days and stayed at five different campgrounds with lots of stops in between. Starting with two nights in Sequoia National Park, followed by two nights near San Francisco and finished up with three nights along the Big Sur.
This lovely campground is right in Sequoia National Park. Facilities included a shop, cafe and coin operated showers within driving distance from our pitch. Some tent pitches are right by the Kaweah River and there is a great walk to Tokopah Falls within the campground. Lodgepole is in a great location to see all the sites of Sequoia. Each pitch had a bench, fire pit and bear box.
Here’s some more on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park:
In the seaside town of Pacifica, within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants and very easy to get into San Francisco; 30 minute bus journey to Daly City followed by 20 minutes on the train. As it sounds, this is a big RV park and we were the smallest RV by about 20ft! It isn’t that pretty to look at but is situated on a bluff with ocean views, free showers, laundry facilities and a pool.
Hidden behind sand dunes we weren’t too sure about this campground when we first arrived, the pitches were a bit close together and dusty but we learnt to love it. The beach was a steep hike over the sand dunes but worth the trek, it felt pretty wild and watching dolphins gracefully play in the waves was brilliant! The family next door to us were lovely offering us firewood and inviting us to join them on the beach for a sunset barbecue. Our pitch had a bench and fire pit, there were coin operated showers and plug sockets.
Found at the southern end of Big Sur, at the time of staying this campground only portaloos as the toilets weren’t in use! I don’t know for definite but I am assuming this was because of the drought, which was going on at the time of our trip. It wasn’t great but by that point we were pretty used to living out of our van so didn’t let it effect us, you can either be positive about these things and just get on with it or choose to ruin your trip by being miserable about it! We took the positive slant and had a great stay here. Each pitch had a bench and fire pit. Just over the road is the beautiful Sand Dollar Beach.
Here’s my favourite things to see and do along the Big Sur:
Lovely, clean and right on the beach, we could step straight onto the sand from our pitch! The beach had coin operated showers and plug sockets. This was our last night in the van and it couldn’t have been in a better place to end it. We watched seals play in the ocean and had prosecco (we are such posh campers!) while watching the sunset. Waking up during the night to the sounds of the waves was wonderful too.
Useful things to know:
Firewood – Plaskett Creek and Sunset State beach campgrounds had a ‘camp host’ who lived on site, buy firewood from them instead of buying wood from elsewhere, this helps prevent the spread of disease.
Water – Most of the campgrounds we stayed at had potable water facilities, although we always made sure we had enough with us.
Site full – I mentioned in my previous blog post about booking campgrounds well in advance for the summer season as at peak times everywhere gets fully booked. I was so pleased I had reserved pitches, as each site we turned up at was already full. Definitely something to bear in mind when planning a camping trip in California during the summer season.
Fuel – Fuel up when you can as there were limited gas stations in Sequoia and along the Big Sur. A lot of the gas stations have a pay at pump machine, I found that my UK credit card would not always work in these but I quickly learnt that you can prepay in the gas station up to the amount you need. If you fill up under the amount then your card only charges to the amount you used.
We had a fantastic road trip and loved the quirkiness of our camper, it was so comfy to sleep in and the kitchen had everything we needed to be self-sufficient on the road. It’s not everyday you wake up to watching the sunrise over the ocean from your bed or have the ability to pull over on the side of the Big Sur for a 30 minute nap in your bed! (and get woken up by a Mexican family queuing up outside to have photos next to your van!!)
More California camping and road trip adventures coming up shortly…
Matt and I are jumping on a flight tomorrow to Los Angeles for a road trip and camping adventure in California. We are looking to get back to nature with two nights in Sequoia National Park, followed by some city adventures for two nights near San Francisco on my birthday and then onto the Pacific Coast Highway for some sun and surf. We are following the coastal road all the way back down to Los Angeles stopping off along the Big Sur on the way.
We are very excited to be collaborating with campervan hire company Wicked. You can’t miss their vans covered in cool artwork. I am looking forward to reporting back about the van and the adventures we have along the way!
While researching the trip I realised that we would be in California during high season and booking campsites well in advance was a good plan as I found that the popular sites especially beach front ones were fully booked a few months ago! Of course many sites don’t have reservations and operate on a first come first serve basis, but as we are only there for a short time I decided I would book in advance rather than worry about where we were going to stay on the day. We have done it this way before in Australia and New Zealand though and it was easy peasy to just turn up.
We are staying in a mixture of privately owned campsites, National Parks and State Beach campgrounds. Privately owned campsites are great for shower and laundry facilities. National park ones are perfect for going back to basics and being at one with nature, often with limited facilities and sometimes no showers. The bonus though is that many of them allow campfires, which I really can’t wait for. The type of van we are using has a ‘kitchen’ in the boot so cooking outside while the sunsets will feel like such a novelty, the weather looks set to be warm and sunny too.
For reserving National Park and State beach campsites I used Reserve America and Recreation.gov. Both are good for trip planning and show current alerts in the parks. One thing I was surprised to learn about was a black bear warning for the campground I booked in Sequoia National Park. Each pitch comes with a bear proof box and all food, toiletries and anything that has a scent or odour must be placed inside so as not to attract the bears! I am slightly apprehensive and excited at the same time! I would love to see a bear but not too close to our van! Back to the research, Nomadic Matt has some useful blogs on road tripping in America and a good old-fashioned map and Lonely Planet guide to California have also been vital in planning this trip.
From previous camping trips abroad I have discovered a few very useful items that are easy to pack and save a bit of hassle on arrival at your destination…
Anti-bac wipes – I’m a bit of a clean freak so these are perfect for campervan cleaning and also good for cheating on the washing up!
Head torch – A very useful camping tool, especially for finding your way to the toilet in the middle of the night…
Re-sealable bags – Good for storing opened food and anything else you might need to store.
Power pack or car charger – A necessity for charging camera batteries or phones on the road.
Tea bags – Being an English girl I need a good cuppa!
Washing tablets – I hate having to spend on things like this when I’m away!
We will be covering around 1000 miles in 8 days; Check back for my adventures, photos and van stories coming very soon…if anyone has any suggestions on places to stop and things to see I’d love to hear them…
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