California Dreamin':

The Ultimate Road Trip Guide

Destinations  »  North America  »  USA

California:

Ultimate Road Trip Guide

Destinations: Check out the Map!

Length of Stay: 30 nights (August 2018)

Lodging: $39.98/night Average

Welcome to the best coast! This ultimate California road trip guide will go over the best way to travel this amazing state. In 2018, it was my fourth time going to California, and I was keen on seeing the Northern part of the state because I hadn’t ventured higher than San Francisco before. When Josh and I sat down to map out the trip, I was psyched to be spending sometime in the Redwoods. There’s something sedative about being surrounded by trees. I couldn’t wait to see some of the world’s largest, in person. We departed through the huge pine trees that silhouetted the sky as we drove away from Portland and continued the journey down the coast. We peeled through thin layers of chilly fog as the sun was setting as we pulled into River’s Edge Campground in Humboldt County, CA. The couple who owned it were super friendly and waited up for us despite our late check-in.

As we made our way down the coast over the next several weeks, we were in for a surprisingly diverse State that has great forests in the North, countless cliffs along the Central coast, and beachy surf culture that quickly changes to desert in the South. The landscape of California is just as diverse as its people and culture. If you want to just get a sampling of what this state has to offer, we have broken it down into 3 main regions (Northern, Central, and Southern California) which can be seen if you keep scrolling down. Take a look at the map if you want to see the relative geography of our destinations. We mostly drove down California Hwy 1 (better known as the Pacific Costal Highway or PCH for short) which would have taken us 22+ hours if we drove non-stop. We had the luxury of taking our time, but even if you wanted to take the quickest route through the state, it would still take 13 hours of nonstop fast driving!

As we made our way down the coast over the next several weeks, we were in for a surprisingly diverse State that has great forests in the North, countless cliffs along the Central coast, and beachy surf culture that quickly changes to desert in the South. The landscape of California is just as diverse as its people and culture. 

If you want to just get a sampling of what this state has to offer, we have broken it down into 3 main regions (Northern, Central, and Southern California) which can be seen if you keep scrolling down. Take a look at the map if you want to see the relative geography of our destinations. We mostly drove down California Hwy 1 (better known as the Pacific Costal Highway or PCH for short) which would have taken us 22+ hours if we drove non-stop. We had the luxury of taking our time, but even if you wanted to take the quickest route through the state, it would still take 13 hours of nonstop fast driving!

See how this fits into the North American Road Trip:

Northern California

Northern California

The morning started out not surprisingly, magical. We picked fresh blackberries straight from the vine and made blackberry pancakes for breakfast. Sunlight shimmered through the leaves of the trees as we turned into on the Northern entrance of the Avenue of the Giants. After roughly 200 meters in, we hopped out to take a few photos, not realizing the unfathomable was coming just around the corner. Every twist and turned featured towering redwoods and giant sequoias, each more massive than the one prior. Every so often we’d pull over to explore little antique and trinkle shops along the way. Tea, coffee and little snack bars weren’t hard to find in the depths of the forest.

Read more about the route we took and which stops were our favorites among the giants in our post here. On the way out of the Redwoods we passed by Confusion Hill in Leggett, CA and decided to made a quick pitstop to see what it was. Turns out it's similar to Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, see our post about the differences between Confusion Hill and Mystery Spot.

Santa Rosa bound, we started cruising inland a bit, further away from the 101. We crashed ay my buddy Jake’s house in Windsor, CA for the night parked on the street outside his house. Everyone in that household was a musical artist of some shape or form, and we were certainly treated to some amazing live music.

Read more about the route we took and which stops were our favorites among the giants in our post here. On the way out of the Redwoods we passed by Confusion Hill in Leggett, CA and decided to made a quick pitstop to see what it was. Turns out it's similar to Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, see our post about the differences between Confusion Hill and Mystery Spot.

Every so often we’d pull over to explore little antique and trinkle shops along the way. Tea, coffee and little snack bars weren’t hard to find in the depths of the forest. Read more about the route we took and which stops were our favorites among the giants in our post here. On the way out of the Redwoods we passed by Confusion Hill in Leggett, CA and decided to made a quick pitstop to see what it was. Turns out it's similar to Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, see our post about the differences between Confusion Hill and Mystery Spot.

Santa Rosa bound, we started cruising inland a bit, further away from the 101. We crashed ay my buddy Jake’s house in Windsor, CA for the night parked on the street outside his house. Everyone in that household was a musical artist of some shape or form, and we were certainly treated to some amazing live music.

With the rising sun and on a timeline to pick up Josh' cousin, Casey, from the San Francisco airport we were coastline bound. Meeting an old friend for coffee in the early afternoon before he landed. Smiling and longboard in hand, we eased out of SFO and headed straight for 710 Ashbury street. We weren’t the only Grateful Deadheads that were there, taking advantage of the photo opt and making Jerry jokes. We gratefully stayed two nights with a family friend and we’re treated to really comfy beds and a good night's rest.

Waking up early to head out the next day, we piled in the truck and headed straight for Muir Woods. When Molly went in 2016 she was able to park for free right outside the visitor center. However, during our trip in August 2018 we learned we now needed a prior online reservation to go. The park service requires guests to book an arrival time in advance and pay $8.00 for parking. This is to limit the amount of tourist traffic into the park because it has become quite a popular spot.

Central California

Central California

Central California

We set out from San Francisco and continued down the coast. It was a lot faster getting hitched up and ready with three people as opposed to just two. Casey’s first time seeing the view of the coastline from the pacific coast highway made our day. Even though it wasn’t my first time seeing the waves crash against the shore from the highway, peering down from the cliffs at the teal frothy water never gets old.

Driving through Santa Cruz, the cutest laid back surf town we’d yet to experience, we pulled into a hip little campground right on a marina where we met the man with the world’s most relaxing voice and his dog - the happiest dog in the world. We could have talked to this guy for hours, or just listened to him from that matter, because his voice was so soothing. He explained how him and his wife (and dog) we’re on their way from Oregon where they had gotten smoked out from the fires and needed to leave, fortunately they made it out safely.

From Santa Cruz, or on your way out, a popular place to visit is Mystery Spot. After visiting Confusion Hill, I did feel a little biased about what to expect. Read details length of time, expenses, parking and overall experience in our post here. Eager to use our solar panels, we arrived at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground and checked into our site. These spots fill up very quickly and reservations can be made online ahead of time, which is definitely recommended.

From Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground it was a short drive to the Bixby Bridge, a popular photo hub early in the morning and at sunset. There were still lots of people and limited parking even though we got there early in the morning. Thank goodness we were not towing a 26 foot long trailer with us to this tiny pulloff on the PCH.

Lucky for us, Highway 1 had opened up entirely just two days before our road trip down the coast so we were fortunate enough to drive down the entire length of it. It had been closed for months prior due to mudslides. I had actually gone to California Roots, a musical festival in Monterey in May of 2016, and couldn’t get all the way up the coast via Hwy 1 so it was a real treat and experience to finally be able to complete it.

After Santa Cruz we continued onward to Santa Barbara, and camped at Santa Barbara Sunset RV Park, we loved the location because we were able to longboard everywhere. In the morning, we checked out Jeannine's Bakery for a delicious brunch and then headed to the courthouse - an absolute must see if you visit. Plan your perfect day trip to Santa Barbara here. We were more than halfway down the coast, and traffic started to get more intense the closer and closer we got to LA. Luckily, we were able to elude the city life for just two more days camping at Emma Wood State Beach.

Emma Wood was hands down all of our favorite campgrounds throughout our entire time in California. Sites fill up super fast and there is no hookups, but if camping seaside is what you’re craving, you can’t bypass Emma Woods. There was something truly sedating about being parked just feet away from the ocean. The solar panels our batteries topped off throughout our whole visit and there’s nothing like falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves. We enjoyed watching the water fluctuate with the tides and the small children scream and laugh as the waves would come over the edge of the seawall that had been weathered down by the ocean over the years.

We set out from San Francisco and continued down the coast. It was a lot faster getting hitched up and ready with three people as opposed to just two. Casey’s first time seeing the view of the coastline from the pacific coast highway made our day. Even though it wasn’t my first time seeing the waves crash against the shore from the highway, peering down from the cliffs at the teal frothy water never gets old.

Driving through Santa Cruz, the cutest laid back surf town we’d yet to experience, we pulled into a hip little campground right on a marina where we met the man with the world’s most relaxing voice and his dog - the happiest dog in the world. We could have talked to this guy for hours, or just listened to him from that matter, because his voice was so soothing. He explained how him and his wife (and dog) we’re on their way from Oregon where they had gotten smoked out from the fires and needed to leave, fortunately they made it out safely.

From Santa Cruz, or on your way out, a popular place to visit is Mystery Spot. After visiting Confusion Hill, I did feel a little biased about what to expect. Read details: length of time, expenses, parking and overall experience in our post here. Eager to use our solar panels, we arrived at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground and checked into our site. These spots fill up very quickly and reservations can be made online ahead of time, which is definitely recommended.

From Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground it was a short drive to the Bixby Bridge, a popular photo hub early in the morning and at sunset. There were still lots of people and limited parking even though we got there early in the morning. Thank goodness we were not towing a 26 foot long trailer with us to this tiny pulloff on the PCH. Lucky for us, Highway 1 had opened up entirely just two days before our road trip down the coast so we were fortunate enough to drive down the entire length of it. It had been closed for months prior due to mudslides. I had actually gone to California Roots, a musical festival in Monterey in May of 2016, and couldn’t get all the way up the coast via Hwy 1 so it was a real treat and experience to finally be able to complete it.

After Santa Cruz we continued onward to Santa Barbara, and camped at Santa Barbara Sunset RV Park, we loved the location because we were able to longboard everywhere. In the morning, we checked out Jeannine's Bakery for a delicious brunch and then headed to the courthouse - an absolute must see if you visit. Plan your perfect day trip to Santa Barbara here. We were more than halfway down the coast, and traffic started to get more intense the closer and closer we got to LA. Luckily, we were able to elude the city life for just two more days camping at Emma Wood State Beach.

Emma Wood was hands down all of our favorite campgrounds throughout our entire time in California. Sites fill up super fast and there is no hookups, but if camping seaside is what you’re craving, you can’t bypass Emma Woods.

There was something truly sedating about being parked just feet away from the ocean. The solar panels our batteries topped off throughout our whole visit and there’s nothing like falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves. We enjoyed watching the water fluctuate with the tides and the small children scream and laugh as the waves would come over the edge of the seawall that had been weathered down by the ocean over the years.

Southern California

Southern California

It was only a short drive from Emma Wood to Dockweiler RV Park, but a drastically different vibe. Dockweiler was the most reasonable RV camping we could find in LA. Honestly, it wasn’t a bad experience, it was just a LA experience - lots of people in a small space. The park offers full hookups and the beach is the only one in LA where you can have bonfires (in the fire pits).

We were able to catch a short Uber ride into Venice Beach for the day where we rented Bird scooters and were able to ride around the hipster neighborhood. Venice beach is beautiful, but the homeless population is high. With access to public showers, public bathrooms and water fountains prominently lining the beach access ways it makes you even wonder if you can blame them for wanting to reside in 72 degree sunny, breezy weather everyday. We thought about birding all the way up to Santa Monica to play on the swing sets of muscle beach, but ended up just heading back to the campsite for the night as we had an early start in LA the following day.

In the morning, we set out for a tour of Paramount Pictures in central LA. We lucked out and Molly got us a free tour from a family friend who works there and were shown around the campus on her cart. We were able to sneak onto a few movie sets and see how quickly whole interiors of buildings are built, and then torn down for each new shoot. We even met a few people in the archives department who showed us the original Forrest Gump shoes! Check out our post from Monument Valley for a shot of where he stopped running.

After Paramount we headed to the Griffith Observatory, which has free admission, but the planetarium (highly recommended) is $7 per adult as of August 2018. The catch: parking is $8/hour. From the top you can see the famous Hollywood sign if you look carefully, which is pretty cool even from a distance. Unfortunately, the smog in LA is pretty bad so the view of the city isn't too great from atop the observatory.

As we approached the bittersweet ending of our road trip, and our time with Casey, we stayed in Carlsbad for a night. We had intended to go and see the Cabazon Dinosaurs, but it was about an hour and a half from the coast. Instead, we ended up meeting a my cousin Karli, also a blogger, in Solana Beach for pizza and beers. Pizza Port was a laid back pizza joint right on the beach and we could have stayed for hours. The food was good, the company was great and we were all in utter denial that California was coming to a close.

We arrived in San Diego the next morning and dry camped for our last few days with Casey at Kumeyaay Lake Campground. The price was right, but we battled some serious ants while we were there and we were excited to finally have AC again once we had full hookups at Sweetwater Regional Park. There’s so much to do in San Diego, but the highlights would be to visit Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and Mission Beach.

Each has a different vibe but are all equally as beautiful. I enjoyed doing a week introduction to Core Power Yoga while we were there and checking out the different locations around San Diego county (which is huge). We spent two weeks total in San Diego. Though we intended on eventually leaving Sweetwater Regional Park to get a little closer to the coast, we couldn’t justify it - the price was too good and we had full hookups.

We spent most of our time in Bonita (near Chula Vista). Heading to Palisades Park in the mornings on Saturdays and Sundays at 10am to do yoga with Namasteve Yoga was the highlight of the weekends. THIS is an experience you can not miss if you ever visit San Diego. A donation based yoga class on the top of a cliff that overlooks the ocean?! Sign me up… If you’re looking to get a little bit of work and play in, we did just that, at Newbreak Coffee & Cafe.

If you get there early in the morning, you can join the van lifers and park in the parking lot beach right outside of it. Reluctantly, we started to prepare for the journey home. We enjoyed our final sunsets in San Diego by unrolling our yoga mats and practicing as the sky faded from yellow, pink and blue pastels to the fiery orange and reds. We listed our RV for sale on Craiglist, hoping that we would generate from interest prior to arriving in Colorado ready to sell it.

Leaving San Diego we set out for the last free place on earth, Slab City. We were simply amazed at the love, creativity, and passion that went into the artwork that resides there. We were fortunate enough to meet some of the "Slabbers" themselves, who informed us that in order to be considered a resident of Slab City you had to survive at least two summers in the heat. Read more about our short day trip to Salvation Mountain here. From there we pulled out of the dust and continued on through the desert. The sky was baby blue and the only thing in site was the horizon that split the separation of land and sky.

As sky turned hot pink and royal blue, we had finally arrived at our final California destination - Joshua Tree Lake Campground and were greeted by the super hospitable and friendly elderly couple that worked there. Their RV was ironically parked right next to ours and was lite up with Christmas lights. If you are hoping to visit Joshua Tree, we’d recommend staying there. The sky is brilliant both during the day and at night. The sunrises and sunsets that we saw in Joshua Tree were like none I’d ever seen in my life, more magnificent and beautiful than ever. The desert sky in Joshua Tree made it our favorite U.S. National Park.

The old man described it as a “light show” that he likes to enjoy everyday. Him and his wife had been living there in the campground for about eight months. I was grateful that we woke up early one morning to watch one, but then also take time to just walk around the campgrounds.

The Joshua Tree Music Festival is held at the campground annually. Exploring an old school bus, little leather hurt like structures and wandering around the stage where “stargazing” parties were held left a lot to be desired for when we venture back. At night, there was no light pollution in the sky. The milky way was fully visible, painting a huge archway from horizon to horizon of stars that seemed to be infinity expanding. When we got to Joshua Tree National Park, we couldn’t have had a more perfect day. Read more about how to map yours out here.

It was only a short drive from Emma Wood to Dockweiler RV Park, but a drastically different vibe. Dockweiler was the most reasonable RV camping we could find in LA. Honestly, it wasn’t a bad experience, it was just a LA experience - lots of people in a small space.

The park offers full hookups and the beach is the only one in LA where you can have bonfires (in the fire pits). We were able to catch a short Uber ride into Venice Beach for the day where we rented Bird scooters and were able to ride around the hipster neighborhood

Venice beach is beautiful, but the homeless population is high. With access to public showers, public bathrooms and water fountains prominently lining the beach access ways it makes you even wonder if you can blame them for wanting to reside in 72 degree sunny, breezy weather everyday.

We thought about birding all the way up to Santa Monica to play on the swing sets of muscle beach, but ended up just heading back to the campsite for the night as we had an early start in LA the following day.

In the morning, we set out for a tour of Paramount Pictures in central LA. We lucked out and Molly got us a free tour from a family friend who works there and were shown around the campus on her cart. We were able to sneak onto a few movie sets and see how quickly whole interiors of buildings are built, and then torn down for each new shoot. We even met a few people in the archives department who showed us the original Forrest Gump shoes!

Check out our post from Monument Valley for a shot of where he stopped running. After Paramount we headed to the Griffith Observatory, which has free admission, but the planetarium (highly recommended) is $7 per adult as of August 2018. The catch: parking is $8/hour. From the top you can see the famous Hollywood sign if you look carefully, which is pretty cool even from a distance. Unfortunately, the smog in LA is pretty bad so the view of the city isn't too great from atop of the observatory.

As we approached the bittersweet ending of our road trip, and our time with Casey, we stayed in Carlsbad for a night. We had intended to go and see the Cabazon Dinosaurs, but it was about an hour and a half from the coast.

Instead, we ended up meeting a my cousin Karli, also a blogger, in Solana Beach for pizza and beers. Pizza Port was a laid back pizza joint right on the beach and we could have stayed for hours. The food was good, the company was great and we were all in utter denial that California was coming to a close.

We arrived in San Diego the next morning and dry camped for our last few days with Casey at Kumeyaay Lake Campground.

The price was right, but we battled some serious ants while we were there and we were excited to finally have AC again once we had full hookups at Sweetwater Regional Park. There’s so much to do in San Diego, but the highlights would be to visit Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and Mission Beach.

Each has a different vibe but are all equally as beautiful. I enjoyed doing a week introduction to Core Power Yoga while we were there and checking out the different locations around San Diego county (which is huge). We spent two weeks total in San Diego. Though we intended on eventually leaving Sweetwater Regional Park to get a little closer to the coast, we couldn’t justify it - the price was too good and we had full hookups.

We spent most of our time in Bonita (near Chula Vista). Heading to Palisades Park in the mornings on Saturdays and Sundays at 10am to do yoga with Namasteve Yoga was the highlight of the weekends. THIS is an experience you can not miss if you ever visit San Diego. A donation based yoga class on the top of a cliff that overlooks the ocean?! Sign me up… If you’re looking to get a little bit of work and play in, we did just that, at Newbreak Coffee & Cafe.

If you get there early in the morning, you can join the van lifers and park in the parking lot beach right outside of it. Reluctantly, we started to prepare for the journey home. We enjoyed our final sunsets in San Diego by unrolling our yoga mats and practicing as the sky faded from yellow, pink and blue pastels to the fiery orange and reds. We listed our RV for sale on Craiglist, hoping that we would generate from interest prior to arriving in Colorado ready to sell it.

Leaving San Diego we set out for the last free place on earth, Slab City. We were simply amazed at the love, creativity, and passion that went into the artwork that resides there. We were fortunate enough to meet some of the "Slabbers" themselves, who informed us that in order to be considered a resident of Slab City you had to survive at least two summers in the heat.

Read more about our short day trip to Salvation Mountain here.From there we pulled out of the dust and continued on through the desert. The sky was baby blue and the only thing in site was the horizon that split the separation of land and sky.

As sky turned hot pink and royal blue, we had finally arrived at our final California destination - Joshua Tree Lake Campground and were greeted by the super hospitable and friendly elderly couple that worked there. Their RV was ironically parked right next to ours and was lite up with Christmas lights. If you are hoping to visit Joshua Tree, we’d recommend staying there. The sky is brilliant both during the day and at night. The sunrises and sunsets that we saw in Joshua Tree were like none I’d ever seen in my life, more magnificent and beautiful than ever. The desert sky in Joshua Tree made it our favorite U.S. National Park.

The old man described it as a “light show” that he likes to enjoy everyday. Him and his wife had been living there in the campground for about eight months. I was grateful that we woke up early one morning to watch one, but then also take time to just walk around the campgrounds.

The Joshua Tree Music Festival is held at the campground annually. Exploring an old school bus, little leather hurt like structures and wandering around the stage where “stargazing” parties were held left a lot to be desired for when we venture back. At night, there was no light pollution in the sky.

The milky way was fully visible, painting a huge archway from horizon to horizon of stars that seemed to be infinity expanding. When we got to Joshua Tree National Park, we couldn’t have had a more perfect day. Read more about how to map yours out here.

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By |2019-05-15T05:18:29-04:00August 2nd, 2018|California, Destinations, Road Trips|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Jose February 12, 2019 at 9:42 am - Reply

    Great post about California! I would like to read about San Jose and Silicon Valley

    • worldlywander February 13, 2019 at 1:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks 🙂

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