Ever dreamed about cruising down the famous Highway 1, with the ocean on one side and mountains on the other?
Then this is your sign to book some plane tickets to California! The dreamy golden state has everything from beaches to hikes and good vibes, and renting a van is definitely the best way to discover everything it has to offer. If you’re looking for inspiration to plan out the perfect California road trip, we’ve got you covered. Here’s the best way to create California dreams from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Day 1 and 2: San Francisco and the Bay Area
Our first evening on the road led us to the top of Twin Peaks! If you’re looking for the best view of San Francisco, you should definitely take the road up the hill and enjoy the sunset while you’re there. When you’re in the bay area, you obviously want to see the Golden Gate bridge, so why not sleep right next to it? There’s a great vista point on the far end that accepts vans for the night and the best thing was there was other Travellers Autobarn van just like us sleeping there too!
Before going down Highway 1, take the time to stay a couple of hours up north to discover the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and its surroundings. We had the best day hiking right next to the ocean on the Pirate’s Cove trail and finishing off with our feet in the sand at Stinson Beach.
Day 3 to 5: Big Sur and the California Coast
If we had to choose the favorite part of our road trip, this would definitely be it. Once you get out of the Bay area and drive down Highway 1 to the coast, the road follows the cliffs and the ocean breeze gives you all the good vibes you need.
Santa Cruz is definitely a stop worth making. The cute surfer city has amazing coffee (we stopped by Cat and Cloud) and is surrounded by beaches all along the coast. And believe it or not, most of these beaches were almost empty, one of the perks of a California road trip in the middle of winter!
Our absolute favorite city on this road trip was Monterey. We stopped for the night and arrived just in time to watch the best sunset of our lives (nothing less!) right next to Asilomar State Beach. If you’re a fan of craft beers, you won’t be disappointed by Fieldwork Brewing Company, a cute little biergarten right in the middle of town.
We continued our way down south, crossing the famous Bixby Bridge and stopping by the Pfieffer Big Sur State Park for a quick morning hike. The beautiful thing about California is that state and national parks are everywhere and all those that we’ve seen are quickly accessible by van. As overnight parking is prohibited off Highway 1 all along Monterey County, we were lucky enough to find a spot right outside on a cliff by the ocean. We slept to the sound of waves and woke up to a typical and amazing Big Sur view.
California is a very rich state and you can go from coast to mountains on the same day. So if you love the great outdoors, hiking, and colder weather, you have to spend a couple of days in Sequoia National Park.
The road that leads to the forest in itself is amazing. The 45 minutes drive is a bit steep and sinuous, but the setting is magical. Even on more challenging roads, we always felt safe and in control in our Travellers Autobarn van and its smaller size made it easier to park and drive around. As you go up, the air gets fresher and the giant sequoia trees start revealing themselves. If you think you have seen some big trees in your life, think again! The average sequoias rank from 200 to 300 feet tall, making you feel like a tiny little creature in a giant’s world.
To get the absolute best view of the vastness of this national park, you have to climb the 350 stairs to the top of Morro Rock. The landscapes are absolutely breathtaking as you find yourself in front of mountains as far as the eye can see.
Our best tip to visit Sequoia National Park in a van in winter would be to arrive early enough to snag a spot at Potwisha Campground. As the road between Sequoia and Kings Canyon is closed, dispersed camping isn’t really possible. It’s a first-come, first-served campground, so we were lucky enough to spend the night there and enjoy the park as much as possible.
Day 9: Joshua Tree National Park
Talk about a change of scenery! We left the majestic mountains and forest towards the desert to visit Joshua Tree National Park. We made a quick in and out in a day but were happy to discover this famous national park.
We loved how the decor could change from Joshua Trees to huge boulders and even a sea of cholla cactus. We honestly felt like we were on a movie set! If you love rock climbing, you can find many spots in the park that let you practice your favorite activity and get an overhead view of both Mojave and Colorado deserts.
Day 10 and 11: Oceanside and San Onofre Surf Spots
A California road trip wouldn’t be a California road trip without stopping by a couple of surf spots. After all the road we had done in the last few days, we were happy to slow down a bit and spend some time on the beach again.
Oceanside area has tons of great waves for all types of surfers. You can choose to stay in the city and park your van at the marina or drive a bit and enjoy the beaches in San Onofre. There are so many cool vans and campers to spot on your way to one or the other, proving that love between surfers and vanlife is still going strong.
Day 12 to 14: Los Angeles and Malibu
As the end of our road trip approached, we headed closer towards Los Angeles and got a couple of days to visit the area. The hills of Malibu are a must as we parked for the night and woke up to a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean. Many state parks face the coast and are easily accessible when parking by the side of the road.
After rolling around the city of angels and spotting the famous Hollywood sign, we fell in love with the vibe in West LA and Santa Monica. With the help of iOverlander, we found some safe spots to sleep at after a walk on Venice Beach or a beer on the heated terrace at Wurstküche.
Why We Chose to Travel in a Van
Once we hopped in our Travellers Autobarn chevy van in San Francisco, we were ready for our next 14 days on the road. If it’s your first time in a van, don’t worry, the staff and support line are always there to help!
The best thing about renting a van is that you always have everything you need with you. As the Kuga van is equipped with a sink and fridge powered by solar panels and a gas stove, we could eat and sleep wherever we wanted to go without having to pack and unpack anything. We didn’t have to plan and book our stays in advance which gave us more flexibility on our California road trip. With the unlimited miles feature that comes with every Travellers Autobarn rental, we were able to change our plans a couple of times and are so glad we had the freedom to do so.
It’s incredible to look back at all we’ve seen and done in only two weeks. As first-timers on the West Coast, we weren’t sure what to expect when we landed, but this California road trip is definitely the first of many to come. We’re telling you: stop hesitating, rent your van and book your tickets, you won’t regret it!