On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Yosemite National Park, T+L takes the wheel for an unforgettable Airstream adventure down California’s Pacific Coast Highway and beyond.

By Kate Betts
July 03, 2014
Credit: Jake Stangel

Video: See America’s Best Road Trips

Right off I should tell you that my husband, Chip, and I are not what you’d call car people—or “glampers.” We’ve had our share of outdoor adventures (climbing Kilimanjaro as newlyweds; camping by a glacier in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay), but we’ve always wanted to take our kids, Oliver, 14, and India, 9, on a road trip to Yosemite, and when we learned about Airstream 2 Go, the new company that rents the iconic trailers for short-term excursions, it was settled. We would tow the Airstream behind us from Los Angeles to Yosemite and then west to the Monterey Peninsula and down Route 1.

I explained to the kids that we’d also be climbing the granite faces of Yosemite, and kayaking in Monterey’s Stillwater Cove, and along the way we’d see America from our glamorous little vessel. They were excited. I should have been, too. Everything had been taken care of, including the customized itinerary created with the help of the Bozeman, Montana–based outfitter Off the Beaten Path. But the idea of towing 28 feet (and three tons) behind us was keeping me up at night.

Video: America’s Best Road Trips

“Driving won’t be an issue,” said Dicky Riegel, founder and CEO of Airstream 2 Go. “You’ll learn how to get into the curve.” And he was right, sort of. Driving the rig from behind the wheel of a GMC Denali felt easy for about five minutes.

“Do you rent drivers, too?” I asked Mona Heath, the patient Airstream 2 Go manager who was trying to teach me how to back the damn thing into a space in the parking lot in East San Gabriel. “Jackknife! Jackknife!” my husband shouted as several orange rubber traffic cones disappeared under the rear wheels.

We loaded up the Denali with iPads and itineraries and supplies for the next eight days, and lurched onto Route 5, headed for Yosemite. After a few miles the used-car lots and bulldozer dealers flanking the highway gave way to orange groves and vineyards stretching as far as the eye could see. “The Salad Bowl of America!” my husband proclaimed as he cautiously eased into the right lane, shifting gears from automatic to manual as huge trucks roared by. This is it, I thought, as we lumbered north, Jay-Z and Adele blasting on the radio. We were officially unhooked from our daily routine, ready to explore. By the time we got to Fresno, the endless acres of fields had morphed into red-earth rock cuts and stands of ancient, angular live oaks jutting into the blue-sky horizon.

If travel is about dreams and imagining yourself in places you’ve never been, then an Airstream adventure channels romantic notions of freedom, communing with nature, and nostalgia for seeing the world just outside your window. I had envisioned our newly refitted silver bullet parked in the valley beneath El Capitan, or perched on the craggy cliffs of Big Sur. I hoped the definitive American road trip would summon all sorts of revelations about the country, my family, and my own adaptability. We would bond, live in nature, and revel in Woody Guthrie’s endless skyways and golden valleys. But when we pulled into the High Sierra RV Park in Oakhurst, 15 miles south of Yosemite’s South Gate, all the nostalgic fantasies of Ansel Adams views out my bedroom window vanished. “Well, this is nice,” my husband said hopefully as he began the jackknife procedure, backing into our “riverside” parking spot overlooking a parched Fresno River. Oliver tried to cheer me up by hanging a string of festive LED lights along the Zip Dee awning of the Airstream. The kids didn’t care about the view; they were thrilled by the silver bullet and its sleek interiors, the flat-screen TV, and an accordion door that enabled privacy in the queen-size bedroom. That evening, as Chip struck up a conversation with our neighbor, a middle-aged guy who was driving his mother around California, Oliver and India struck out on their own adventure, joining a group of kids kicking around a soccer ball just outside the lot.

The next morning we locked up the trailer and detached the Denali. We would hike in Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove before making our way to the top of Sentinel Dome. We tilted our heads back in amazement at the towering sequoias and the ponderosas, identified by their jigsaw-puzzle-like bark. As we hiked up to Sentinel Dome, with its glorious view of El Capitan, our conservancy guide told us about gold-rush pioneers and forest fires, and explained that granite naturally exfoliates the rock faces to create their impressively smooth silhouettes.

The second day we were up early to meet Aaron Jones, our climbing guide, inside the Yosemite Mountaineering School. He had that cool-dude vibe of a 28-year-old with 42 El Capitan ascents under his belt. After measuring us for shoes, harnesses, and helmets, Aaron taught us to boulder on the Swan Slab. The kids were quick studies in Aaron’s lesson in threading the rope through the pig’s snout and the carabiner. “On belay!” they shouted, carefully passing ropes hand over hand. Before I could even assemble my harness, Oliver had scrambled up a crease in the face.

“Slow down, boy,” India said as Oliver casually hopped down from the 5.6 climb like a daddy longlegs. It wasn’t as easy for their elders. Years of rock climbing couldn’t prevent Chip from falling off on his first attempt. And I was barely able to hoist myself up the face more than two inches. Defeat crushed me for a nanosecond and then, with a deep breath, the immensity of the valley seemed to extinguish the anxieties of urban life we’d left behind in New York. I was hooked on being unhooked.

On day three we hitched up the rig and headed west, driving past the giant San Luis reservoir as the golden hills of the Diablo Range rose up around us. By midday we had crossed the San Juan valley, the wind whipping through the surrounding fields of garlic and giant eucalyptus as we sped toward Monterey. In Castroville, also known as the artichoke capital of the world, we stopped at a farm stand. The temperature had plunged from 102 to 62 degrees, so we dug around in the back for fleeces before stocking up on artichokes the size of small melons, fresh peaches, pesto, jams, and homemade muffins. We thought our next park, a place called Marina Dunes, would be the ideal location for a cookout, roasting artichokes, chicken, and marshmallows over an open fire. Despite the freezing temperatures, we huddled around the picnic table and feasted on our home-cooked meal and on the expansive view of the Pacific just beyond our parking spot.

By day four we were floating through our itinerary, fully decked out in the northern California uniform of Polarfleece and shorts (the Birkenstocks would come later) and settling into our new daily rhythms. We stared at the neon-orange jellyfish inside the giant tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and in Carmel, the artists’ colony that had once attracted writers Robinson Jeffers and Sinclair Lewis, we kayaked with harbor seals in Stillwater Cove, just off the 18th hole of Pebble Beach. Very early the next morning, we went tide-pooling at Pacific Grove, scrambling over kelp-covered rocks to see the periwinkles and sea anemones clinging to the granite crags. In the distance, seals slept in the surf, their heads bobbing as the tide moved in. That morning, I realized that Dicky Riegel was right about this trip: we were completely in awe of the magnificent landscape and marine life all around us.

We left the fog and chilly temperatures of Monterey behind on day six and headed south, hugging the shoreline on one side with the Santa Lucia Mountains rising on the other. We stopped for lunch around a redwood picnic table under ficus trees and sunshine. Is it possible to become blasé and nonchalant about those coastal views down Route 1?

We pulled over a few more times to stretch our legs and let cars pass. And on Bixby Bridge we encountered another Airstream, idling on the other side of the 320-foot Art Deco arch. One of the lanes was closed so we inched along at 10 miles an hour, listing slightly to the right, where there was a straight vertical drop to the frothy sea below. “Kids, put your iPads away,” Chip said. “This is one of the most spectacular views in America.” We only had two more days to go, and one stop in Santa Barbara, before we would return the Airstream to Los Angeles. At the Ocean Mesa at El Capitan campsite just north of the city, I got up early on our last morning and sat outside in the sun. One thing still weighed on me, something I hadn’t yet done that left my adventure incomplete.

After we had packed up, unhooked the electric plug and the waste hose, and reattached the stabilizing bars on the Denali, I took the wheel. Inching slowly down the driveway, veering cautiously away from two towheads on bikes, I could feel the rig creaking behind me.

“This is easy!” I yelped.

“Well, technically,” Chip said, “we’re still in the parking lot.”

To rent an Airstream, go to airstream2go.com. Rentals from $3,080 for four days. Custom itineraries can be arranged through Off the Beaten Path.

T+L contributing editor Kate Betts is the author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.