Updated: Feb 26, 2020
When we started this journey, I had this romantic notion of travelling the Pacific coast, top down (okay windows open) soaking up the rays with windswept hair smelling the ocean breeze and camping on the side of the road watching the surfers and waves roll in. Too many Hollywood movies and about 60 years too late I imagine. I hate to burst my own bubble (and potentially yours too) but it was absolutely nothing like that. We were determined to use only free campsites as we transitioned to living van-life completely off grid and this was extremely difficult to say the least. It seems there are very few public lands left along the coast for free camping. All have been taken over by state or private parks charging anywhere from $30-90 per night and providing little to no services. Shame on you! The West coast state parks have nothing on their East coast cousins let me tell you. Often there were no water or electric hookup for that price and you had to pay for showers on top of that, sometimes hot, often not. Don’t even get me started on cell service and WIFI. We found this out the hard way and needless to say it expedited not only our off-grid plans but also our travels through some of the most beautiful coastal regions of Oregon and California. The weather and natural disasters also played a big part in our movements down the coast.
We started out in Seattle Washington, hitting the Pacific Coast where the Olympic National Park rainforest meets the sea. This was absolutely one of the highlights of our Pacific Coast trip. A remote and untouched natural coastal beauty compounded by our comparison to the red deserts of the mid-west from whence we came. Not to mention the fact that the sun was shining in October in Washington, which is more than I can say for Oregon.
As soon as we hit the Oregon coast we hit a wall of fog (not uncommon in these parts). It was cold and damp and miserable and we passed multiple scenic overlooks only to be greeted by a thick wall of grey fog. How disappointing. It was a constant battle against the weather to keep dry and warm, with our poor little tent camper really taking a beating and we experienced damp mattress and canvas for the first time on our journey. We ended up moving pretty quickly through Oregon, the highlights included; Gooney’s beach, The Ring Lighthouse Newport, Cape Perpetua & Siuslaw National Forest, Seal and Whale watching Coos Bay.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon - Just be sure you check the weather before you go as we saw nothing but (you guessed it) FOG the entire day. Bummer!
Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon
As we made our way to our first free campsite on the Pacific Coast, near the Redwoods in Northern California, we were feeling both excitement and apprehension. Arriving after dark was a little daunting as we didn’t know what we would find at the end of the road as we travelled further and further up the mountain in Six Rivers National Forest. We finally found the spot we were looking for entering the campsite through a huge puddle of water at the entrance. We quickly set up in the dark and fell into bed, waiting to see what the daylight would bring. Thankfully the day brought sunshine and we had a chance to dry out in the open air camp and meet some fellow van lifers who helped set us on the pathway to successful off-grid living. I’d say we were extremely lucky to snag a spot as it was very popular, especially on weekends. In the end, it was a great little camp with easy access to Jedediah Smith State Park (check out our video here) and the Redwoods National Park & Word Heritage Sites. We explored the whole coast from Crescent City, Del-Norte County, Klamath, Fern Gully and Prairie Creek & Humboldt SP/ Redwoods NP and Avenue of the Giants.
Moving on to the money pit, otherwise known as San Francisco, we went to see the Golden Gate bridge and Alcatraz of course, unfortunately the latter needed to be booked at least a week in advance so we missed out. A nice modern city with beautiful architecture and quaint diverse neighbourhoods that pushed our urban hiking to its limits. At the end of the day most cities offer the same myriad of experiences, are vein and superficial sucking your wallet and your soul so best avoided when on a quest to find a deeper more meaningful way of existence with limited resources.
Nappa Valley Wine Country, California
Big Sur Coast
Perhaps a little cocksure given our recent successful free camping experiences and the purchase of a shiny new generator in San-Fran, we set off for the Big Sur coast full of optimism for our next free camping adventure. Well what a misadventure it turned out to be. We arrived at sunset (our standard MO no matter how early we get on the road) and turned up the dirt road our GPS pegged for the free campsite, the ONLY spot on the Big Sur coast you’re legally allowed to free camp. Well that dirt road got steeper and slipperier and more hazardous the further we went up and all the turnarounds and every other inch of spare road was taken up by cars and vans camping the night. We had a hell of a time turning around in a private driveway before our camper pushed our car back down the steep grade and almost off the edge of a cliff several times. Luckily there was a perfect spot at the bottom of the road where we camped in our car the next two nights as the camper door was now busted and couldn’t be closed. We had no food or gas and all our clothes were dirty and so were we. It was 70 miles to Monterey, the nearest town. We were totally unprepared for how remote this part of the coast was. In the USA you never seem to be far from essential services but of course there is always an exception (and of course we found it). There is a thin line between living off-grid and being homeless and having to sleep in the car definitely felt more like the latter. Crisis talks and a few tears later we re-grouped and made our way to Monterey, enjoying the Big Sur coast along the way, finding free showers at a state park and stocking up on necessities before tackling the DIY door job to give us our home back. Lesson learnt, always scout ahead and make sure you have everything you need before you go (including a full tank of gas).
As fete would have it, the wildfires in Santa Monica broke out as we were making our way further down the coast forcing us inland again. Unfortunately we missed the coastline from Santa Barbara to San Diego. We ended up camping in the mountains in Los Padres National Forest in Maricopa before heading into LA to meet up with friends. Highlights include; The Hollywood sign, Hollywood Walk of Fame & Universal Studios.
So even though it didn't quite all go to plan and it wasn't at all how I'd imagined it, the quintessential Pacific Coast road trip is still a must as you are sure to not only have an adventure but see some absolutely stunning and amazing scenery and natural wonders.
Where we stayed:
Olympic National Park; the park was officially closed for the season but actually you could still camp and hike, there were just no facilities or rangers on duty, 7 nights. FREE.
Cape Lookout State Park, no hookups, 1 night, $21 pn
Beachside State Park, no hookups or showers, 1 night, $24 pn
Sunset Bay State Park, electric only, 1 night, $29 pn
Valley of the Rogue State Park, Full Hook Up, 4 nights, $31 pn
The Redwoods - SandCamp Six Rivers National Forest, no hookups, vault toilet, 7 nights FREE
Yosemite National Park, Sierra National Forest Fish Camp, < 5 miles from West Entrance, 5 nights FREE
Giant Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks - Hume Lake Ranger District, Buck Rock Campsite, no hookups, vault toilet, 4 nights, FREE
Big Sur - Willow Creek Road, no services, 2 nights, FREE,
Camp Roberts Rest Stop, toilets and water, 1 night, FREE
San Francisco - Samuel P Taylor State Park, no hook-ups, 3 nights, $35pn
LA - Los Padres National Forest in Maricopa, 7 nights, FREE,
Long Island RV Park, full hookup, 4 nights, $60pn
GnTonefortheroad Off-Grid Travel Tips:
When it comes to off grid living there are really four essential components you need; a free campsite, a power source, fresh drinking water and waste management.
We probably should have done a little more research (as usual) but simply bought what we could afford when it came to solar panels. We got a small 7KW trickle charger which has been ample in mid summer to keep our little van battery topped up. We have very little running off the battery anyway, just a few LED lights. Step 1, switch the fridge to run on propane. Step 2, disconnect the propane alarm (this was a huge draw on our power). Step 3, don’t use the onboard water tank as the water pump uses too much power & limit use of heater and A/C obviously. Step 4, invest in a generator to keep all the electronics charged and/or run heating & A/C. This was an essential component we were lacking and come Autumn/Winter, the little solar panel was not keeping up with demand and our battery was being run into the ground. Now we get by running the generator for just a few hours each week and don’t have to pay to charge up anymore. What size solar panel or generator you need really depends on your rig and power consumption as well as local sunshine hours.
Potable drinking water is usually pretty easy to find at gas stations, RV parks, state parks and the like for free. You can buy cheap spring water from most supermarkets as well.
You’re probably wondering about waste. For personal waste, we use the good old fashioned method Mother Nature provides along with a shovel. We burn our toilet paper in the campfire and pack out our food waste and dispose of it at gas stations or other public waste bins. We use a sponge bath to stay clean or use state park showers after dark to avoid the day use fees. Showers at gas stations cost up to $12 so not a budget saver. We use the local laundromat to wash clothes about every 3 weeks and hand wash our smalls when needed.
We plan to continue our off grid adventures and attempt to cross America using only free campsites over the next 12 months. For all our up to the minute adventures follow us on facebook, instagram or twitter and now youtube @gntonefortheroad and feel free to like, share, comment or contact me for more info. We’d love to hear about your free camping adventures too. So stay tuned as we #keepitreal #keepexploring #beyond40.
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