One thing I looked forward to when I got to California was the drive up the coast via Pacific California Highway 1.
It did not disappoint. At times it is a challenging drive with curves and extreme drop-offs (often without guard rails), but the scenery more than makes up for any driving inconvenience.
My decision to keep each day’s driving to 3-5 hours at most turned out to be a wise move. I quickly lost track of how many stops I made just to take in the view and snap some photos. I credit the abundance of pullouts and overlooks, each more beautiful than the last, and seemingly endless opportunities to stare at the amazing views. At some point I had to accept I had seen enough through the camera and drive on past some stunning views.
I am in northern California now, staying for a bit with some friends in Arcata. And I expect as I continue up the coast and go along the ocean in Oregon that there will be plenty more stops along the way to take in nature’s wonder where land meets sea.
Click to open any image below and start a slide show to see them all.
As I thought about driving the California coast from south to north, I hoped I could find places to camp for the night along the ocean. Sounds of relentless surf are so soothing and grounding yet not always easy to find such a place to overnight in a van.
In the wee hours before dawn today I left Los Angeles driving in a low fog that became a dreary, smoggy, chilly morning. Driving through Topanga Canyon was fun but would have been visually stunning had the fog surrendered to the sun, but Sol never made much effort to give me a good view of the hills and canyons. Fortunately, once on the coast and with some morning hours to burn off the fog and miles to churn heading north up the coast, the day turned to blue skies and sunshine.
While I may have more chances along the western Pacific coast all the way to Washington, yesterday I stumbled upon the RV fee parking at Rincon Beach near Ventura. This stretch of Pacific Coast Highway 1 is clearly quite popular since there were only two spots left unclaimed. Most days I overnight at free spots or sometimes a National Forest or other federal land where the camping fees are low. I avoid RV parks and rarely visit state parks, but today I decided this spot was totally worth it. Going online to pay what by California standards is an average fee, turned out to be two to three times more than I have paid for a camp site for one night.
Settling in shortly after 1 p.m., knowing I would have a whole afternoon enjoying sunshine, sounds of the surf, and time wandering the beach and playing tag with incoming waves helped muffle my inner critic’s whine ”Did you really just pay $44 for a one night camp site?” I lost that game of beach tag when a faster-than-I-was incoming wave spread over my feet with the shock of the cold Pacific Ocean awakening an ”Oh yeah, I forgot about that” memory jolt.
Since I looked out west over the ocean, I was hoping for a glorious sunset to close out my afternoon camping by the beach. While any sunset over water is beautiful, yesterday’s lack of clouds at sundown made for a simple evening light show. Still, did not dampen my serenity from spending a pleasant afternoon watching and listening to cascading waves of surf and sound. And as you might imagine, I slept like a baby last night with that lullaby in my ears.
If you find yourself going to Sedona from Flagstaff, AZ, take highway 89A instead of 17 to get there as I did last week on my way to Phoenix. One of best mountain drives I have traveled in a long time. The video below gives you a small taste, but falls short of the experience of the elevation and extreme winding roads. Unlike some rocky mountain passes where road edges tend to be shear drops, 89A on the way to Sedona is lush with trees and guard rails! Nice concept, these guard rails on steep-sided roads.
As for Sedona, I am about to make a lot of people I know disagree with me. I loved the geography and the landscapes but Sedona itself was wholly depressing to me. Yet another beautiful natural setting, culture, and town completely neutered by money and privelege. I have seen too many of these amazing locations lose their culture, diversity, and personality from developers and money coming to town and conducting real estate genocide. Too pristine, too clinical, and too soulless for my tastes. I know many who love this place and embrace it as what they believe is a spiritual and soul-enhancing place, yet I see it as merely another Rodeo Drive built in the desert.
That said, I would like to come back some time to explore nature outside the town boundaries. Fortunately there are several national forest campgrounds on the winding drive in, and some good BLM land for boondocking south away from Sedona. Both would make excellent bases while exploring.
Continuing the drive I had mapped out to get into the mountains and away from the interstates, I stumbled on the delightful mountain-side town of Jerome, AZ. Like something one might drive through in Europe and the Alps, Jerome’s downtown buildings all seem to hang off the mountainside along the narrow and always winding road through town. A delightful drive, although I wish to be a passenger and not the driver some time when I can come back to explore Jerome. Too narrow, winding, and always a sheer drop off the edge to do much gawking (and forget about taking pictures!) as I steered VanGeist along the route and successful avoided rolling down the 1,000’+ sheer drops.
From there I wandered on to Prescott, encountering more winding mountain roads after Jerome more like those in the Rocky Mountains, meaning frequent sheer drops without guardrails and not as fun as the winding, moutain-side drive going into Sedona.
This part of Arizona I stumbled onto serendipitously is definitely on my list of places to return and spend more time. Maybe even stay a night in the Jerome Grand Hotel perched high up the mountainside with an amazing view, and wander the unusual and unique shops in the town. Certainly would be a good, physical workout!
Click video to play (and see options along bottom). Click on any image in the gallery to open a slideshow.
If you happen to watch (or read) Nomadland, you glimpse part of Quartzite, AZ, probably the best known BLM camping area in the U.S. This is my first visit, and I arrived with preconceptions of what it would be like. After finding a spot, setting up, and wandering about a bit, I quickly realized my expectations were way off.
Quartzite is also a town where a surprising number of permanent homes and residents exist. With a population close to 4,000, a median age of 69, and median income a bit over $20,000, it seems primarily a retirement destination. Yet I do wonder if those in houses really live here during the summer when temps average +100 degrees and often well exceed that mark. In the RV and van life world, this is the mecca of cheap, long-term in-vehicle living especially suited to the winter season. Many such dwellers will live here in the winter, then migrate north into the Arizona mountains, then back to Quartzite the next fall and winter.
It is a stark place, yet has a beauty apparent after you settle in, stare out the van window for some quiet reflection, then take time to wander through the landscape. Right now it is quiet here, although after Thanksgiving when the snowbirds descend en masse I imagine quiet would not be a useful description. Vegetation and wildlife survive despite the struggle evident by the disfigured saguaro cactus and long-dead weathered trees. The landscape of mostly scrub bushes, gnarly trees, and more rocks strewn about than I have ever seen, are obvious hints little rainfall happens here and few days of relief from blistering sunshine. Whatever vegetation dies here lives on in another form, the wind, heat, and low humidity weathering and preserving remains, vestiges of former plant lives in fascinating shapes and extreme textures. I expected a typical desert, but there is far less sand and soil here than you might think. In the eon-long war waged here between sand and rocks, clearly the rocks won long ago.
As someone who enjoys rock hunting, Quartzite is a treasure trove where one could spend hours hiking without ever looking up, step after step leading your eyes to one cool rock after another. On this morning’s two+ mile hike, I over-weighted my down vest’s pockets to the point I worried about tearing them and had to jettison a few choices I picked up. Truth is, if I stayed here long, I would undoubtedly fill boxes of rocks to take home.
This stopover of three days happened between time in Phoenix to resolve a van coach heating issue and an appointment in San Diego next week for some seriously cool van upgrades. It gave me a chance to check out BLM Quartztite since my tentative winter plans may include spending several months here. Better to dip my toes first now before showing up unaware for a long stay later. Where I am now is in Hi Jolly Campground, one of the free, 14-day-max-stay areas. There are LTVA locations (long-term visiter area) where one can stay up to seven months at a stretch, and I will settle in one of those campgrounds for the longer visit. LTVA spots are $180 flat fee regardless of stay, but offer the luxuries of onsite trash facilities, water, and dump stations, whereas the 14-day free spots require one to leave and go into town for those supports.
On my walk this morning I slowly felt my notions of this landscape change from desolate and stark, to appreciating the beauty and variety it offers if one takes the time to immerse, open the mind and senses, and let go of any preconceived notions and restrictions defining beauty in nature. From the amazing textures of weathered wood, to the variety of rocks, to the living vegetation that is surviving despite the odds, this Sonoran Desert landscape is a wonderland in its own way.