It was a toasty 90 degrees the morning we left Las Vegas, Nevada, on what would be one of the longest road trips we’ve ever embarked on: 12 days and more than 1,500 miles with two adults and one dog packed into a Nissan Frontier. We planned on camping the entire trip in a double sleeping bag in our GFC platform camper. A little apprehensive, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
We did our fair share of research and planning for this trip since we knew that embarking on this trip during June would be busy. Kids were out of school and the weather was perfect. We wanted to avoid fire season in California which typically starts in July. Luckily, we had no issues with forest fires our entire trip, but we brought along a propane fire pit knowing we’d likely encounter burn bans.
We normally find dispersed or free camping on public lands, but as we did research, we found that a lot of areas didn’t have dispersed camping available and we didn’t want to worry about finding a place to sleep every night. To make it easier, we booked campgrounds 3 months in advance because we knew how popular some of the destinations on our list would be, such as Lake Tahoe and Big Sur. We also had our dog, Rio, with us so we had to make sure the campgrounds we stayed or places we went to were all dog-friendly as well. Going this route definitely saved us money compared to booking a hotel or vacation rental every night.
Feeling like kids again
The scenery in Lake Tahoe is jaw-dropping. The bright blue water sits among the tall pine trees with snow capped mountains as the backdrop. The water is so clear and blue it doesn’t look real. From Lake Tahoe we made our way toward wine country with a stop in Sacramento to check out what the town had to offer and visit family. We had a fun time exploring Old Town Sacramento and felt like we were in an old Western movie.
After Sacramento, we made our way to wine country, driving through Napa Valley and camping in Petaluma. On our way toward Petaluma, we stumbled upon Wooden Valley Winery, which had great staff, dog-friendly outdoor seating, and the best value for tasting and purchasing wines.
We hit the road again after 2 days exploring wine country to finally start the Pacific Coast Highway. Starting from San Francisco, we made our way south toward Los Angeles, stopping off at various beach towns along the way.
We got our fill of oysters, clam chowder (try the California chowder at Bayside Cafe), and fish and chips (our favorite version was at Abalonetti Bar and Grill); and we visited one of the biggest and most grandiose homes in California, Hearst Castle. Luckily it was finally open after being closed due to COVID-19, so we reserved a tour online. We didn’t know what to expect, but I’m glad we squeezed it into the schedule.
We also explored Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. One of the most popular stops (and one I was looking forward to the most) along Highway 1 was Big Sur, but sadly it was really foggy that morning so we really didn’t see much of the famous scenery. We didn’t have much luck finding parking or many dog-friendly activities in Big Sur, but not letting this set us back we continued on the journey toward Morro Bay and stopped to watch the elephant seals in San Simeon.
Some of our favorite stops along Pacific Coast Highway were Pismo Beach and Solvang. The dunes (and surprisingly the sandwiches and barbecue at Beachwalk BBQ) in Pismo were unlike anything we’d ever seen; we felt like kids again running up and down the dunes. Solvang felt like we had left California and were transported to a small town in Denmark. We had a great time strolling the streets lined with Danish architecture and we found delicious sausages, beer, and desserts—Danish Mill Bakery, Inc. is a must.
We continued on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway south all the way to Los Angeles and from there made our way home back to Las Vegas.
If you’re considering a trip along the PCH, start from the north and head south, which makes it easier to take advantage of the many pull-outs to see the coast. Also, prepare for any and every type of weather: We ran into a mix of weather during our trip, including unseasonably cold temperatures in Lake Tahoe and record-breaking 100-degree heat in Santa Cruz.
If you’re truck or car camping, bring a 5-gallon water jug with an electronic spout, a 12-volt electric refrigerator, and a camp kitchen box with supplies so you can cook some of your meals at camp. The water jug lasted us at least 3 days on the road before having to refill, and the fridge meant we didn’t have to worry about spoiled food or finding or refilling ice.
Things will never go as planned on long road trips like this, so be prepared for setbacks like waking up to fog covering Big Sur or showing up somewhere that doesn’t allow your furry companion. Some planning, preparation, patience, and positivity will go a long way as you enjoy this famous coastline.