When I told my friend Fanny from Italy that we would be driving an RV around California, she expected to be driving a small car and not a fully fledged mobile home. For her RV meant Rental Vehicle and once we turned up at the pick up site in Cordelia, I could see her excitement and fear of what we would refer to from that moment as the ‘Beast’. At more than 10 meters length (sorry I still can’t get my head around Imperial) this vehicle is by no means a regular car. “Have you ever driven an RV before?” Aldie the vehicle manager asked. “Um, not really,” Fanny replied hesitantly. “Alright then let’s start with the generator.”
When I accepted the offer to drive and blog about my road trip in California for Mighway, I left out a slight detail that I don’t know how to drive, but thankfully my friend came to the rescue. “It’s actually not that hard,” Fanny said with a smile, once we made it down the freeway towards San Francisco. “But what is all this overtaking on the right all about?”
One of the most difficult things with driving an RV, especially in a city, turned out to be finding an appropriate place to park overnight. We wanted to spend some more time exploring San Francisco which meant leaving the ‘Beast’ somewhere safe and legal. We asked our friend Joe who recommended to leave the RV at Ocean Drive close to Highway One, which is well-connected to the city via public transport. A Google search confirmed the existence of a parking lot frequented by RVs staying there overnight. However once we arrived we couldn’t find that elusive spot and had to make do with a side road inside Golden Gate Park instead, where we managed to stay for two nights without any issues.
We took great pleasure observing the eclectic mix of people who frequent the park, from a guy riding a giant bicycle to a rollerskater dressed from head to toe in a shiny golden costume. San Francisco is a weird and fun place indeed.
Fanny’s friend Cami was in town and offered to drive us in her car around the city to visit China Beach for a nice shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, The Mission for a heart warming Burrito at Taqueria Cancun and a breathtaking view of the entire city from Twin Peaks.
San Francisco to Portola Redwoods
Determined to get a nice sunrise shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, we got up early and headed to Fort Point, but were greeted by the infamous San Francisco fog. instead of letting it ruin the shot I tried my best to get a moody photo of the bridge instead.
As we drove across the bridge and emerged on the other side, the fog began to clear revealing the golden grassy hills and the azure blue waters of the Bay. It is fascinating how the Bay Area’s microweather works, one second you’re surrounded by cold and grey weather and the next you’re drenched in the most beautiful sunlight.
It was time to stock up on supplies and as we were approaching one of the many superstores along the highway near Richmond, we took the next exit and drove up to Walmart. This is when we got confirmation from security that we could actually stay at Walmart overnight in one of the green-marked parking lots. A big plus for our thrifty RV travel options for the future.
We must have spent at least two hours in Walmart and it was definitely time to move on. We took the 580 and then 880 south straight into the heart of Silicon Valley. The leafy four lane roads and small but immaculately kept homes didn’t really scream ‘tech’ to us but the geek in me couldn’t be more excited to be driving through Cupertino. “There it is” I shouted and pointed to the construction site on our right. “Let’s pull up here and fly the drone!” As the drone went up I could see the entire extent of Apple Campus 2 on the live feed of my controller. A massive perfect circle surrounded by a park and beyond it Suburbia.
Instead of taking the highway I found a small road the led through the mountains on Google Maps and directed Fanny to drive towards it. Alpine Road was much smaller than we anticipated but it was a stunning drive up the winding roads into the rolling hills of Portola Redwoods State Park. The tree line began to lift and we found ourselves on the top of a ridge overlooking the entire landscape below. Russian Ridge was the name of the little rest stop, where we left the Beast, and flew the drone once more for a perfect shot of the surroundings.
The sun was beginning to disappear when we took a small road down the hill without checking the map. The trees grew taller, and the forest thicker. “Are you sure we are on the right road?” Fanny asked. “I’m not really but let’s just continue on it for a bit.” It was already dark when we spotted a sign for a campground followed by the visitor center for the Portola Redwoods State Park. “Let’s stay here I asked Fanny.” “I think this is great!” She looked very relieved.
We paid our 35$ fee by dropping a self-payment envelope into the Iron Ranger (it’s a metal box) and put our name down on the reservation sheet. The campground was set right in between the trees and you could hear the laughter of the families having a great time around their campfires. We set up camp and called it a day.
From the Redwoods to Big Sur
We woke up to the sound of a black and blue feathered bird singing in front to our window, whom the Ranger confirmed to be a Stellar’s Jay: “They can be annoying!” She added.
We drove up to Alpine Road and made our way west towards the coast. The fog had returned and covered the entire landscape in a thick white blanket. It was only when we arrived at Highway One that the we could see beyond the road and behold there was the ocean right in front of us. It was a serene experience seeing the waves crash against the rocks and doing so straight out of our home on wheels.
The journey continues down Highway One past Santa Cruz and Monterrey where we eagerly awaited the legendary sight of the Big Sur. Once again the fog didn’t want to have any of it and pretty much ruined our view. There were occasional spots where the fog lifted to give us a glimpse of how the Big Sur might actually look like. However I managed to get some nice shots and we kept our spirits high with good music and conversations.
We knew that parts of the coast were closed off so we weren’t surprised to run into a roadblock at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and turned around to head back to Monterrey. Once again we faced the dilemma of finding a place to stay at short notice but thanks to freecamping.com we found a rest area at Camp Roberts on the 101.
From Camp Roberts to Carpinteria
We didn’t check out the rest stop’s vending machines everyone was raving about on Google Map, and instead continued south on the 101 and later 41 to Morro Bay. We mainly did our planning on the fly and Morro Bay did look promising on the satellite image. We weren’t disappointed as the giant Morro Rock came into view and spent a couple of hours relaxing on the beach with the seagulls, whilst soaking in the sun and cool ocean breeze.
On our drive south we passed a little seaside town at Pismo and stumbled upon a beautiful diner set within an old vintage train car. “I’m not really hungry,” we both admitted but still decided to check how it’s like inside. The moment we stepped in the restaurant, we felt like traveling back in time straight into a 1950’s movie. The diner looked exactly like you would imagine an American diner to be from that era, except for the ‘follow us on Facebook’ signs on our table.
We looked through the beautiful menu set in classic vintage fonts and went through the options: “Greek salad? Light Falafel…?
“What about juicy ribs instead?” Fanny looked at me all excited.
I smiled: “Ribs it is!”
The sun began to set when we turned the corner on the 101 at Gaviota bathing the grassy hills and cliffs in a warm golden light. “Train tracks!” I shouted out loud. Fanny knew exactly what to do and we came to a stop on a roadside kerb. “Look over there! I thinks it’s the fire at Santa Barbara!” whilst pointing to a column of smoke on the screen of the controller as I was flying through the layers of smoke above the highway.
It was dark once again when we arrived in Santa Barbara and drove through the streets trying to find a place to park only to be discouraged by signs forbidding parking for oversized vehicles. It was only in a small side street along the highway near Carpinteria that we finally found a quiet spot to set up camp.
Carpinteria to LA
It took us a bit of negotiation to come to a decision of where to head next, but Malibu and LA emerged as the winners. From Carpinteria we followed the Pacific Highway south and eventually arrived in Malibu amidst the fog and grey skies once more. “I don’t know about you but I have enough of this fog, and to be honest Malibu looks a bit like a Favela just with expensive cars,” Fanny looked at me all disappointed.
We watched the surfers go about their morning routine before continuing down Pacific Highway to LA. “Let’s stop somewhere here,” Fanny said as we swerved our way through the neighborhood of Venice Beach. The weather was still pretty much cloudy but some rays did make it through, inviting us to sunbathe and get our feet wet in the cool waves.
Venice Beach promenade was high on our list, where I bought my rather fitting ‘Cali’ baseball cap whilst Fanny admired the kids skating like pros at muscle beach. “I know what they mean now when they call it muscle beach,” Fanny looked at me and pointed to the bare chested, six pack toting bodybuilders.
Driving through LA with an RV is quite an experience by itself. Finding a spot to park even more so. It felt surreal being in LA, a place you think you know so well from all the movies and TV shows, but it turned to be completely different in real life. We didn’t have time to explore the city as we prefer to see what nature has to offer and headed to the Angeles National Forest instead in order to find a place to stay overnight.
On the way up the mountain we came across a beautiful vista point where you could see downtown LA in the distance. “Let’s stay here?” Fanny looked at me excited! “Seems like a good spot,” I nodded.
LA to Golden Acorn Casino via San Diego
What seemed like an unsuspecting Vista Point, turned out to be a popular spot for rich kids and their expensive cars. Only the trash reminded us of their late night party that went on throughout the night. We were once again alone at our vista point. The Sun had risen a couple hours ago and cast long shadows in the creeks below us. I flew the drone before the light became too strong and made breakfast for the both of us.
We had to once again negotiate the streets of LA and merged onto the beachside road heading south to San Diego. We were now on a specific mission to pick up an electric car converter at the Apple Store in San Diego, so that I could run my laptop off the RV’s batteries instead of relying so much on the generator.
“I would love to spend some time on the beach” Fanny told me and we both headed back to Mission Bay, which we had spotted on the way into town. Even though Fiesta Island is a man-made beach, the fact the we could park the RV right next to the water for free was enough reason for us to spend the rest of the afternoon soaking up sunshine and watching people on their jet-skis zipping across the water.
We continued our trip east on the 8 towards Arizona but it was already getting late and I could see that Fanny was getting tired. “Look at those windmills” I pointed to the horizon. “How about we pull over to the Casino over there?” We came to a stop on the parking lot of Acorn Casino and looked at each other. “I read that it’s OK to stay overnight at a Casino!” I said to her. “We should just go inside and ask for permission from security!”
I had never been inside a proper casino before. The lights and sounds of the hundreds of slot machines were overwhelming. There were Game of Thrones themed slot machines, and another Walking Dead one next to it. Everything was glowing brightly, calling out for punters to approach the machine like a light bulb would for insects. We both stood there watching the the surreal scene whilst waiting for the guard to finish his call to management.
“It’s all good! You can stay here overnight!” he said.
“Thanks so much!”
Blown Tire near Yuma
On our drive to the Casino we noticed the the RV was shaking more than usual. However today the wobbling worsened and I immediately got in touch with Aldie from Mighway to check what we had to do. All of us suspected that it was just the road conditions and we continued on. A visual check of all the tires didn’t show any issues either but we wanted to make sure and headed straight to Yuma instead of stopping at the Algodones sand dunes to have them checked by a professional.
The wobbling stopped and both of us were relieved that it must have just been the road conditions. The road was pretty much flat cutting straight through the middle of the desert close to the border to Mexico, where we took a break in a half abandoned town to take photos of the fence separating the two countries. The fence stretched across the landscape like a giant metal snake. It reminded me of the Great Wall of China, just without the towers and the beauty of its history.
We were once again back on Highway 8 cruising through the desert, when all of a sudden the RV shook violently, followed by a loud bang. Fanny held on to the steering wheel tightly like her life depended on it and guided the injured Beast off the freeway to the roadside curb.
“That was definitely the tyre,” I said to Fanny as we came to a standstill in the middle of the desert, my phone showing that it was 42c outside…
Follow along with Alex as he travels through California on Instagram, and when you’re ready to have your own adventure, rent an RV with Mighway!