Some people say that travelling tends to stop once you have a baby. Certainly, a lot of things do change but with our daughter turning 9 months old, we decided to head off to West coast USA for a month in a family campervan. We thought it would be the perfect time to start travelling with her as she has just begun interacting with us, but isn’t yet crawling or walking around.
We collected our car in San Diego and drove through Los Angeles where most people will stop here and visit Hollywood, Beverly Hills or the many theme parks. The beach between Santa Monica and Venice is great and I certainly recommend a sunset walk here if you’re staying locally.
Two hours north of LA brings you to Santa Barbara, a beach town on the edge of some vineyards with plenty places to sample the local delights in wine tasting bars.
Continuing north along the beautiful Highway 1, a great stop for lunch is Hearst Castle; a mansion built in the 1930s by William Randolph Hearst. Entry costs about $25 and you can park any size SUV in the car park.
Driving north, you’ll reach Big Sur, where stunning cliffs overlooking beaches and bays with plenty of viewpoints. Monterey and Carmel both deserve a visit - just 20 minutes’ apart on this famous 17 mile scenic drive. You’ll pass Pebble beach, which regularly hosts the USA PGA golf tournament and don’t miss Monterey Bay aquarium.
Since this visit, I now rate San Francisco as one of my favourite cities! We stayed at the gorgeous Fairmont hotel on Nob Hill with fantastic city views, but there is plenty of affordable accommodation in San Francisco.
San Francisco has plenty to offer from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to beaches (I recommend eating some clam chowder at the Cliffhouse to the west of the city, with fabulous views over the ocean.
San Francisco has a vibrant Chinatown; Union Square is great for shopping and of course, the must-do trip to the former prison of Alcatraz. We also visited the ‘Bourbon and Branch’ bar for a glimpse into the 1920s Prohibition era with some amazing cocktails. And outside the city, if you head an hour north across the Golden gate bridge, you’ll reach Muir Woods, home of huge 300 feet Redwood trees.
After San Francisco, we switched our car for a family campervan (the Apollo Sunrise). At 27 feet long it’s the biggest vehicle we’d ever driven but it was easy to drive after we got accustomed to the size.
Yosemite was our first and favourite national park, with incredible views, stunning walks and cycle rides. As with the other national parks, there’s a free shuttle bus to takes you to different viewpoints so you can hop on and off as you like. If you have young children who can’t walk that far, you can still see so much of the park
We spotted lots of wildlife (but no bears), although I did see a rattlesnake just on the side of the path. I highly recommend visiting Mariposa or Tuolumne groves where you can see huge Sequoia trees which are even bigger than Redwoods in circumference and nearly as tall.
Leaving Yosemite, you head north to the Sonora Pass; a drive at 9,000 feet passing snow-capped mountains with snow on the side of the road.
On the other side of the pass, we had more great views as we passed Mono Lake and on to Death Valley, which is just below sea level. This day’s driving had the most varied scenery I have ever seen in a day - the 10 hours flew by.
By way of a contrast, when we arrived in Death Valley at 6pm, the temperature was touching 40 degrees C! We made a quick stop at the lowest point in the western hemisphere (Badwater Basin at -86m) before pushing on to Zion National park.
To enable us to undertake all these treks, we had a Baby Bjorn with us to make it easy to carry Ellie around whilst we walked.
We loved this park and feeling adventurous – we took the slightly scary trek up Angels Landing where there are chains at the end to help as the path is very narrow and there are 3,000 foot drop-offs. The last half mile is not for the faint-hearted but the views are breath-taking.
Don’t worry, there are less demanding treks and you can also hire proper equipment and walk through the river along the ‘narrows’ as the gorge decreases in size to only a few feet apart. This is a couple of hours walk in each direction, so being prepared is important.
Bryce Canyon is just an hour and a half drive. The famous ‘hoodoo’ formations are created where hard rock protects the pillars of softer rock below from weathering and erosion. The huge area has several different vantage points and again, all lengths of walking routes.
Lake Powell was created by the Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River - a huge area which we explored with a 2 hour boat trip but you can also take a 6 hour trip which visits a huge natural arch.
Here, we stayed in the campground part of Wahweap Marina, so we had access to all the hotel facilities and great swimming pool. Ellie loved the pool, so we had a day off driving and just relaxed with lovely weather.
How the weather changed as we drove to Grand Canyon; the rim of the canyon is over 8,000 feet in altitude and in mid-May we had a snow blizzard and couldn’t see into the canyon at all. We were freezing in the campervan overnight, but fortunately the following day brought clearer skies and an opportunity to gaze into one of the wonders of the world.
A walk along the canyon rim is a great if you want to escape the hundreds of people at each viewpoint you can drive to, or for the very active – you could hike down to the Colorado River. It’s a strenuous two day hike and people often suffer from heatstroke (a bit different to our weather as we were having snow storms!).
We found the campgrounds in the national parks are usually cheap (around $15-25 per night) and are quite basic, but in the campervan we were self-contained anyway.
Private campgrounds cost about $45-50 and offer electrical hook-ups. They tend to have better facilities and sometimes a small swimming pool. They can book up quickly so I’d advise you book in advance especially for places like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Zion. Many are first-come first-served and although we didn’t have a problem in May, it would be difficult in peak season (July/August).
By the time we reached Vegas, we’d been on the go or a while with lots of hiking we decided it was time for some well-earned rest so we spent 3 days by the pool at the gorgeous Delano hotel.
Every room is a huge suite with views of the Strip and the distant mountains. You have access to 5 pools at the next door Mandalay Bay hotel including a wave pool and lazy river which would be fun for kids of swimming age. A perfect end to a perfect trip and many more family adventures to come I hope!
For this trip, we flew into San Diego and out of Las Vegas, but you could also fly into LA and out of San Francisco or Las Vegas, depending on how much time you’d like to spend driving. We can also arrange multi-stop flights in North America - see some ideas (but we can tailor-make any route).
I can arrange campervans in the USA to suit all sizes and budgets - call me for a recommendation on which vehicle would suit your requirements best.
We’ve hand-picked some great properties, but we can find hotels to suit your style and budget anywhere in the US:
If you’d like to book a USA self-drive or visit LA, San Francisco or Las Vegas, I can offer plenty of advice and recommendations and book every part of your trip, just contact Chris – and if you’re travelling with a family, see my tips on travelling with children in a campervan.