We towed our Little Guy from Texas to California and back in a two-week teardrop adventure (II). After following Route 66 to Los Angeles, we sticked around in California. The Golden State hosted us on seven campgrounds in eight days. Tag along for this teardrop-proof California itinerary.
Day 1: Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park gave us a very warm welcome to California. The upside of the hot summer months is less visitors in most national parks.
We drove into Joshua Tree through the Cottonwood Spring Entrance, making the Cholla Cactus Garden our first stop.
After the Cholla Cactus Garden, the first Joshua Trees start to appear. The short Arch Rock Nature Trail is a fun introduction to Joshua’s typical scenery: jumbo rocks, Joshua Trees and jackrabbits.
We took a 20-minute detour from the main park road to Keys View. It’s the highest point in the park and comes with sweeping views of the Mojave desert.
CAMP: JUMBO ROCKS CAMPGROUND
Combine dry desert heat with dry camping, and camping candidates are fairly limited. As a result, we had the stunning Jumbo Rocks Campground almost to ourselves. This is dry camping at its best: no hookups, no drinking water and no flush toilets or showers.
You can climb the jumbo rocks for a spectacular sunset over Joshua Tree.
Day 2: Malibu & Los Angeles
Los Angeles was the end point of our Route 66 road trip from Dallas. Despite several deviations along the way (including Joshua Tree), we couldn’t skip the quintessential picture on the Santa Monica Pier.
Our stay in Los Angeles was short but not so sweet. Covid-19 hit the city hard, and little to no tourists left L.A. in the hands of the homeless. Venice Beach and Santa Monica were a mere shadow of their bustling selves. The only action came from the dozens of homeless camps.
We manoeuvred the Little Guy past the city’s other main attractions in half a day. Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame lost the little glamour they had left, as businesses and theaters were forced to shut down because of the pandemic.
Our final stop in Los Angeles was Griffith Observatory, to snap that other quintessential picture of the Hollywood Sign.
After an underwhelming meet and greet with Los Angeles, we moved to Malibu for the night. As we were waiting for a table at the popular Paradise Cove Beach Cafe, we learned that L.A. summers are nothing like Texas summers. Our rain jackets in the car saved us from the dropping temperatures and chilly ocean breeze. The beach cafe delivered what it promised: seafood and cocktails with ocean views and toes in the sand.
CAMP: MALIBU BEACH RV PARK
Waking up to the Pacific Ocean makes you forget about anything else. The Malibu Beach RV Park is expensive and privacy non-existent. But the ocean views are unparalleled, even from our mountain view spot. Another fan of the views is Matthew McConaughey, who’s airstream was parked here for many years.
Day 3: Sequoia National Park, CA
Sequoia National Park is a pleasant four-hour drive through California’s abundant agriculture. Sequoia’s main attractions are scattered along Generals Highway, the only park road. Entering from the Foothills Visitor Center, our first stop was Moro Rock Trail, a 0.5-mile stairway that leads up to fantastic views of the park.
Next up is tunnel log, a car tunnel carved into a fallen Sequoia tree. There’s usually a line for this iconic picture, but an early morning in pandemic-times we had the log to ourselves.
We made it as far north as the General Sherman Tree, by volume the largest known tree on earth.
If you continue driving, you’ll enter Kings Canyon National park. After a big tree hug, we made our way back to the Potwisha campground and out of the park. By noon, the sharp curves were lined with cars entering the park, so arrive early.
CAMP: POTWISHA CAMPGROUND
Potwisha Campground is located just three miles from the park’s southern entrance. We were happy about that, as the road becomes increasingly curvy after entering the park. The campground is as far as our Little Guy got, since the next portion of the road is not suited for vehicles longer than 22 feet.
Beware that there is zero cell service in a 30-mile radius and no personnel at the campground, so save your spot number while still in civilization. Or you’ll end up staying at a random empty spot like us. There is a river that runs right through the campground, offering a welcome escape from the California heat.
Day 4: Paso Robles, CA
We wanted a taste of California wine country without going to Napa, so we opted for its Central Coast little brother instead. Paso Robles is home to over 200 wineries, said to be less pretentious and more laid back as compared to their Napa Valley counterparts. We visited only one winery in Paso Robles, but this turned out to be entirely true.
We stayed the night at a working winery on the outskirts of Paso Robles. As we were leaving the outdoor shower, the owner casually invited us to a barrel tasting. This turned into an entire evening of tasting and talking about wine and world politics. We ended up buying an entire case of Pianetta wines, resulting in a camper fridge full of wine for the remainder of our trip.
CAMP: PIANETTA RANCH AND WINERY
I booked this one of a kind stay through Hipcamp. The camp spot comes with a restroom, an outdoor shower and amazing views of the winery. We had the entire space to ourselves due to Covid-19 policies.
Day 5: California Highway 1, CA
We headed back to the California coast to drive the scenic California Highway 1. Mountains on one side and the Pacific ocean on the other, this curvy road is as stunning as it is scary – especially towing a trailer.
Every stop along the way was a risky undertaking. Try parking a trailer on a congested two-lane road without driving into the ditch, or even worse, the ocean. But the spectacular views made up for the nerves. Our first stop was Ragged Point, “the portal to Big Sur”.
McWay Falls are part of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, but can also be seen from the road. As this is one of the most scenic spots of the Big Sur Coast, parking is extra tricky here. The overlook trail and beach access were closed when we visited.
For lunch, we maneuvered ourselves into Nepenthe’s parking lot. Perched on top of a cliff, this restaurant serves spectacular views of the Big Sur coastline.
Last but not least, we came up close with the impressive Bixby Creek Bridge, the poster child of Highway 1 (and Big Little Lies).
CAMP: PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK
Despite months of monitoring Reserve California, no Big Sur campsite spot opened up. The limited RV spots along the coast sell out months in advance in high season. Instead of a sea breeze at the California coast, we got California desert heat in Pinnacles National Park.
Only a short deviation on the way to Yosemite, we set up camp at Pinnacles Campground. The trailer’s AC saved us from burning up at night, but our hike the next morning did just that.
Access roads to the trailheads were closed to car traffic, adding four more miles to the already strenuous High Peaks trail. We caved about two miles into the actual trail and returned under a merciless midday sun.
Day 6 & 7: Yosemite National Park, CA
We spent the next two days in majestic Yosemite National Park. Yosemite has something for every visitor, with plenty of challenging hikes as well as stunning viewpoints requiring zero effort.
Day One: Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley, Valley View, Glacier Point
Tunnel View is the first viewpoint when entering Yosemite from the southern entrance. The breathtaking view of Yosemite Valley could just as well be a painting.
Once in the valley, be prepared to feel like a tiny human.
There are many trails departing from the valley. I had my eyes set on Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail, a 7.2-mile loop. But we underestimated the long drive into the park, putting us at the trailhead at the hottest time of the day. We decided to skip the hiking and went for more stunning viewpoints instead.
On the other side of the loop through Yosemite Valley lies Valley View, a perfect picnic spot.
After our first day in the valley, we headed back south to our campground. On this road, you can take the turnoff to Glacier Point. It takes about an hour to arrive at this impressive viewpoint, but in Yosemite the drive is definitely part of the destination.
Day Two: Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, Tioga Pass
On our second day in the park, the Little Guy was part of the journey. We crossed the park from south to north and entered Highway 120, also called Tioga Road. After exploring the north side of the park, we exited east through the Tioga Pass Entrance.
Our first stop on Tioga Road was Olmsted Point. The northern side of the park shows the valley from a different perspective and is definitely worth to explore.
Shortly after Olmsted Point awaits the beautiful Tenaya Lake.
The Tioga Pass comes with sweeping views from start to end. Once you exit onto the equally scenic US Route 395, it’s a three-hour drive south to Death Valley National Park – our next stop.
CAMP: SUMMERDALE CAMPGROUND
Yosemite campgrounds fill up very quickly, so we settled for a campground just outside the park’s southern entrance. The river and trees in Summerdale Campground offer a welcome break from the Yosemite Valley heat. The only downside is the long drive into the park, but this goes for every campground not located in Yosemite Valley. We gladly returned to our little green oasis after a day of exploring.
Day 8: Death Valley National Park
We visited Death Valley the day after the highest temperature on earth in over a 100 years was recorded. That probably explains why we had the road and park entirely to ourselves, although the pandemic also contributed.
When we arrived as the sun was setting, it was all fun and games. Until we realized it was getting dark at record speed and we still had a 40-minute drive ahead. In addition, the temperature was going up by the mile. The car was making sounds we’d never heard before, and the roads were pitch-black and misty. We couldn’t have been happier when we finally arrived at the Stovepipe Wells hotel and campground.
The next day, we woke up at 5 AM. As we didn’t want to put the car through another round of suffering, we planned to be out of the park by 10 AM. Needless to say that hiking in Death Valley in summer is a suicide mission, so we sticked to easily accessible viewpoints.
If you are staying at Stovepipe Wells, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are just five minutes away. It’s a popular spot to watch the sunrise, which is what we did. At this time of year, popular translated to four people.
Death Valley’s famous thermometer is located next to the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. At 7 AM, it was already 40 °C.
Right after Furnace Creek is the turnoff to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the US at 86 m below sea level. You can walk out onto the salt flat, but given the heat we didn’t make it too far.
The next stop we had to bypass, as Artists Drive is not accesible to vehicles longer than 25 feet (8 m). It’s a scenic 9 mile loop where part of Stars Wars IV was filmed.
Our final stop was Zabriskie Point. By now, you could already cook breakfast on the car. We said this otherworldly park goodbye and exited through the Death Valley Junction.
CAMP: STOVEPIPE WELLS
I was ready to switch our camping spot for a hotel room as soon as we got out of the car. We arrived at 9 PM and it felt like a hair dryer was blowing into our faces. Luckily, we could use the hotel pool and showers to cool off.
Not surprisingly, we were lonely campers that night. Even the hotel was completely empty. Our Little Guy’s AC was working overtime, but managed to keep us cool at night.