How to Take the Ultimate California Road Trip
Here's what it's really like to live the #vanlife.
This spring, inspired by a mix of real longing and Instagram-fueled nostalgia, I found myself gripped by the desire to #vanlife it for a while. And not just any van would do: I wanted a vintage VW Westfalia, the cute pop-top camper ubiquitous in the Berkeley of my youth. Maybe I missed childhood, or maybe I'd been seduced by the gauzy road-trip lifestyle pictured on social media, but the dream held an allure I couldn't shake. I planned a loop of California and found Out Westy, a rental outfit in Santa Cruz that specializes in Westfalias. With our two kids, Bennett, 6, and Emeline, 2, my husband, Taylor, and I primed ourselves to hit the road.
As the trip drew near, I panicked. The pictures I'd seen online tagged #vanlife captured toned influencers doing sun salutations in front of their vans or posing in the wilderness in understatedly fashionable hats. They'd embraced minimalism and a casual rootlessness. Their vans seemed far sexier than mine. Life with two kids makes me a failed minimalist and decidedly rooted. Within minutes of leaving our home, my kids were yelling and throwing pretzels at each other. I grimaced. Four people, one van, 1,200 miles? Was this really my idea of fun?
Related: America’s Best Road Trips
Still, arriving in Santa Cruz, I smiled as we pulled up to Outwesty Camper Vans, where we were greeted by the shop's mellow owner, Dave, and his terrier, Benny. Dave, a self-described Westfalia addict who's been restoring vans for a decade, introduced us to Georgia, a burgundy "89 automatic. "Can we pop the top?" Bennett called, swinging from the van's crossbar. Unfazed, Dave showed us the cubbies and the kitchen, the fold-down bed and the pop-up roof. We packed our not-so-minimalist life into the tiny spaces, and Dave waved us off.
Pulling away, I felt a surge of joy. The van was sweet. "We're inside a tiny time machine," Taylor said. I savored the retro feel of manual locks, the trucklike steering, and the smell of vinyl. We'd been warned that Georgia topped out around 65 miles an hour, so we prepared for life in the slow lane. We pumped up Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again," which would become our trip's anthem. Another Westy driver passed us, flashing a peace sign, and we caught a huge persimmon sunset beyond Monterey. It was dark and moonless by the time we hit Big Sur. The coastal hills blackened. The stars above the ocean dazzled us. We drifted along the dark highway, under spangled grandeur.
That night in Limekiln State Park, we discovered that making camp in a van is surprisingly easy. We shuffled bags, flattened beds, popped Georgia's top. The kids snuggled into the roof bed, and we stretched out on the back-seat bed, falling asleep to the waves nearby.
Waking the next morning, I gasped. The whole gorgeous Pacific Ocean was there, just outside the door. The ravine we'd camped in was turning pink as the sun rose. Within seconds the kids were on the beach. Other Westy owners came over to chat. I drank coffee at the water's edge. After some oatmeal, we were off on a hike. The day was warm, the beach deserted. I hadn't seen the news and I didn't care.
As we left, we were diverted onto a tiny, winding road. "Good job, Georgia," Taylor said, patting her dash before beginning to sing "Georgia on My Mind." Georgia was on my mind, too. After all, she was chugging on a side road up a narrow cliff. We had no Internet, no map. We would have to embrace this particular precariousness. Our fate was in her hands.
When we reached San Simeon State Park, the sun was low. We pulled up and watched elephant seals, laughing as their husky snorts filled the air. We checked out neon anemones in tide pools. Kayakers and surfers were wandering back to camp after a day on the water. We unpacked, and Bennett climbed trees while I cooked burgers. I felt happy—I'd joined a particularly lovely subculture. The kids built a sleeping fort before conking out. As I drifted off, someone crooned "This Land Is Your Land" in the distance.
Red Rock Canyon
After a brief detour to L.A. for sightseeing and showers, we waved farewell to cosmopolitan glamour and headed for the desert. Forlorn and improbable developments lay scattered among the Joshua trees. As we entered the high Mojave, a windstorm picked up. Taylor gripped the wheel, his knuckles whitening. The van shuddered. Our arrival in Red Rock Canyon State Park offered no peace: the blowing sand was shrapnel-sharp. We watched the sun set through the windshield, grateful for our in-van dinner of boxed macaroni. We played dominoes, listened to the howling wind, and, blessedly, fell asleep. When I ventured out later, everything was still. Oblong cliffs cut eerie shapes against a starry sky. The desert was cold and silent. Our van was a four-wheeled cabin in a lonely universe.
The dawn was stunning. We ate bacon and eggs in the sharp pink light, then headed out to explore fabulous formations—red sandstone mushrooms, top-hat turrets, crooked caves. After the hike, there was a big drive ahead, crossing the vastness of remote American space. Dirt roads disappeared into distant hills. Georgia felt like a small submarine trawling an ancient seafloor. The kids sang a few songs and then passed out in the back seat. A lone coyote crossed our path.
As we crested the ridge that leads into Death Valley National Park, my jaw dropped. The landscape is pure geology, a rift gashed between mountain ranges. Everything is mineral and earth crust. The next day we explored Death Valley's highlights—the enchanting one-way road called Artist's Drive, the rainbow-colored rockfalls at Artist's Palette. We hiked Golden Canyon, one of Death Valley's richly colored ravines. Bennett and I chatted about books, and Emeline hiked a whole mile on her own. I felt happy in my family and my body and the sun. That afternoon, I did yoga on the warm yellow rocks outside the van.
But here is a truth Instagram doesn't show: we were short on clean clothes, and when I woke up cold in the night, even the crescent moon just out the door couldn't quell my longing for a real mattress. So just after sunrise, we rolled back toward Bakersfield, past the Central Valley's cows, crops, and derricks. At the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve, just outside Buttonwillow, we stopped to stretch, eat, and see elk. A few hours later, we pulled into Mission San Miguel, a stunning 1790s Spanish mission that still holds original frescoes. By midafternoon, we were back in Santa Cruz, saying hi to Benny and Dave.
"I don't want to give the van back!" Emeline said. I felt her pain. Our time with Georgia felt intimate, unpretentious, full of songs. I loved driving a vehicle that made everyone from park rangers to fellow freeway warriors smile. I loved flashing peace signs to other Westy drivers and stopping for impromptu picnics. Being in the van made us emblems of a happier America—more hopeful, joyful, and wayward. I felt exhausted but alive. I also felt sure I could do without hearing "On the Road Again" for a long while.
Our Subaru was blessedly modern and quiet. We were back in 2018, ordering groceries by app from the car and takeout to meet us at home. Even so, we splurged on a final adventure, an enchanted hour at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. On the roller coaster, Emeline's face was so full of light I could watch it forever. That night, I was supremely grateful for my bed, but I missed Georgia. I'd gotten my wish, but now I had a new one: I'd like to #vanlife it again— to get back in the slow lane, and maybe even go slower.
How to Plan Your Own Van Trip
Find an Operator
Before renting a van, find out what gear is included in the cost—extras can add up. Also ask about vehicle maintenance, insurance, and roadside assistance policies, especially if you're renting a vintage vehicle. For a list of operators around the world, go to vanagon.org.
Map Your Route
Some operators put limits on daily mileage or allowable travel areas depending on the season. Enlist the company to help you map out a loop that hits your ideal sights without netting you any overage charges.
Get Ready to Slow Down
Many vintage vans won't go much faster than 65 miles an hour, so build in a cushion when planning drive time—what might map as a four-hour route could take five. Add an hour or two to GPS estimates, just to be safe. If nothing else, you'll have extra time to take pictures.
Ask the operator about necessary hookups before booking your campsites. Some companies retrofit their vehicles with built-in batteries and water tanks, but for many you'll need to find a campground that offers RV sites for power and water. Popular sites fill up early, so book well in advance.
Even in the roomiest vans, storage space disappears fast. Leave extras at home, and if you're traveling for more than three days, build in grocery stops so you don't have to pack all your food at once.
Want More Trip Ideas?
Wilderness and Coastal Charm in Maine
Drive north along 95 from Maine Campers in Eliot to Mount Desert Island, then spend a week winding back along U.S. Route 1. First stop: Acadia National Park, the centerpiece of Mount Desert Island. From there, drive south to the Camden-Rockland area, where you can explore Rockland's lauded Farnsworth Art Museum and sail to North Haven and Vinalhaven islands. Around Boothbay Harbor you'll get the classic New England fishing-town feel (hello, lobster rolls!) plus museums, craft breweries, and a botanical garden. Plan a stop in Portland, home to an über-cool food and beer scene, and a detour to hang out at nearby Sebago Lake before cruising back to Eliot.
Camping and Hiking in Scenic Colorado
From Rocky Mountain Campervans, just outside Denver, drive south to Colorado Springs to hike Garden of the Gods, then cool off in Cave of the Winds. That night, you'll camp in nearby Cheyenne Mountain State Park. The next morning, drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park for a full day and night on the dunes. The next day, stop in Durango to grab a growler at Ska Brewing before driving to Mesa Verde National Park. On your way back north, make a stop in Salida for rafting and Brown Dog Coffee in Buena Vista for the world’s best sticky buns.