My affections with the US are obvious. If I wasn’t so smitten with my home in Byron Bay, on the East Coast of Australia, this is where I would wander.
We explored Cali in a Volkswagen over a 6 week period, visiting as many hidden gems as possible. We visited most places, but the stand outs for me were Yosemite National Park, Big Sur, San Diego, LA, Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park & the Slow Coast. I would definitely recommend hiring a car & just getting lost for a few weeks.
1. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is an INCREDIBLE National Park. I implore you to go. It’s inland about 2 hours, but it is definitely a worthwhile adventure. Try to time it that you arrive an hour or 2 before sundown where you really see the land come to life in colour. The driving route takes approx 1 hour & you want to be there as the sun sinks over the valley.
2. Big Sur National Park
This, you cannot miss! Big Sur delivers.
Sure, it’s one of the most scenic coastlines in the world, it’s #vanlife friendly, the views are mind-blowing, it’s a nature lovers heaven. But these are all secondary. It’s the crazy juxtaposition of the place, the red cliff faces that crash into turquoise seas, the dense lime green forest that meets the ocean that really sticks with you.
You can set up camp inside the National Park on one of the best ‘bluffs’ in Cali (I’m talking panoramic ocean views) for less that $15 US. The sunsets are red hot & you can settle in with a beer after a big day hiking, surfing or swimming. The best piece of advise I can offer, particularly if you haven’t booked in advance (ummm yep we did that!), is arrive at your chosen camp site just before 10am to secure a no show or unfilled site for that evening. These are few & far between especially in peak time, but its your best shot. Many of these sites fill up a year in advance – so it could be your only shot. but trust me when I say the risk is worth the reward.
All the usual suspects pictured below – including Bixby Bridge, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parl, McWay Falls.
3. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is nothing short of divine. It’s highly accessible from the northern parts of Cali, but worth the drive in my opinion even from San Diego. It’s got undeniable charm & magic that can’t be described, only felt.
Go for a few days or a few weeks. You’ll be impacted either way. As soon as you drive through the gates you can feel how big it is & almost immediately, perspective sets in. There are camp sites scattered throughout, but it depends what time of the year & what accessibility is like – keep in mind even shoulder season can be icy, particularly in the north end. I would recommend grabbing a central camp site (we stayed in Yosemite Valley, Camp 4). This area is virtually on the Vernon & Nevada Falls Trail & an easy 30 min walk to the Yosemite Falls trail. You are putting in at least 15 kms per hike, so make them count right? We woke one night to our kombi rocking, soon realising it was a bear (don’t worry, perfectly normal for the end of bear hibernation season), so by no means do you have to sacrafice nature for a central location.
Hint: I would try to visit Napa on the way back through to San Fransisco, because who does’t like a wine pit stop.
Grand Canyon National Park
Honorary mention goes to the Grand Canyon which is next door in stunning & desolate Arizona. If you visit, make sure you walk to the base. It takes a good 10 hours & is a 40 km return trip, but it knows just how hard to push you to create one of the most magical experiences you will ever have. Be sure to organise camping permits prior to your trip if you are not staying at Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch is the only accommodation inside the canyon besides of course camping (which is also very limited) & it provides a hot meal & the best shower of your life. A cheeky loop hole for you… if your dates are not available (which they certainly won’t be unless you are booking a year in advance), you can put your name down at the rangers station the day before, then arrive at 5am the next day to be in the ballot for cancellation / no-show spots.I know this seems nuts, but it is absolutely worth it!