An Escape Campervan cruise down the California coast with Calvin & Hobbes

Cruising down the California coast’s Cabrillo highway from San Francisco with Calvin & Hobbes and no agenda can only mean one thing: adventure!  There is little doubt that memories of this five-night escape make it, perhaps, one of Christa’s and my most memorable road trips ever.  Since then we’ve threatened to replicate the event – or at least do something similar – but we fear we might not be successful.  Quite often, your first experience of something is also your best and most memorable.  But what do the comic characters Calvin & Hobbes have to do with our trip?  Here’s a little insight into our five-day saunter.

Christa discovered Escape Campervans online though one of those impromptu ads that somehow seem to find you when you’re not looking for it.  After doing some research we figured they seemed to be solid, offered us what we didn’t know we were looking for, and – arguably most importantly at the time – at a price we were happy with.  After some lengthy considerations we chose to rent one of their Mavericks, electing to go with the slightly more spacious five-sleeper option despite there only being two of us travelling during our November excursion.

Having fun with our campervan in San Fran before hitting the road

We flew from Calgary to San Francisco where we enjoyed a weekend exploring the city from our Airbnb base, prior to picking up our Maverick at their then-downtown depot on the Tuesday afternoon.  I was tickled to discover that the external artwork theme of our five-day rental van was based on my favourite cartoon characters, Calvin & Hobbes.  The vehicle was kitted out with a queen-sized bed, fold-away in-van table and cushioned benches, a two-burner propane stove, a small refrigerator for perishables, a small water tank and a sink. 

Arriving in San Francisco

Flying in from Canada with limited baggage space, we elected for the optional bedding kit and kitchen kit. 

The bedding kit included pillows, pillow cases, comforter, duvet cover and fitted sheets. 

The kitchen kit included bowls and plates, cups and mugs, two pots, one pan, cutlery, cooking utensils, dish towel and scrubber, can opener, bottle opener, cutting board, kitchen knife, coffee drip and fire lighter.

We elected not to rent the additional camping chairs and tables.  Had we done so, these may have made some of our stops a little more comfortable, but generally we were able to find camping sites with picnic tables and benches nearby that we could use.

All items – except our baggage – were stowable in the various cabinets that were cleverly tucked away throughout the vehicle.  We left the bed made up, enabling us to pull over at a moment’s notice, indulge in a nap or enjoy the spectacular views along the Cabrillo highway from the comfort and privacy of the tinted windowed van with double side doors wide open.

A rest moment beside the highway enjoying the ocean outside our door

Departing from San Francisco, we maximized our time on the road and minimized our time in campgrounds.  As a result, we generally started consulting the GPS for suitable local camping accommodation as the sun began to set, meaning we would roll into a campsite well after dark.  This made us a little less choosy about the amenities on offer and even less so about the views and settings.  So, there may have been better camping destinations to stay in that we were not aware of, but what we found served our purposes just fine. 

Collecting our luggage from the Hilton, our overnight accommodation in downtown San Francisco, before transferring to our comic-style campervan and hitting the state campgrounds for five nights

Our route and overnight camping spots are shown here and linked to the clickable map below.

Our five night route map that took us from San Francisco to Hearst Castle and back
  • Night 1: Half Moon Bay RV Park (and campground): this location no longer supports tent and campervan camping and is now solely for RV use.  At the time it had simple camping facilities and served our brief, unglamorous overnight stop perfectly well.  We arrived very late and management had were very accommodating, leaving details for us at the locked office upon our arrival that enabled us to check in settle in perfectly well.
  • Night 2: Sunset Beach Campground (south campground): we arrived here late at night and could not orientate ourselves.  We eventually found a site that we assumed we could use, making it our own for the night.  To this day, we still don’t know whether we were in the lot – let alone the right campground – that we had tried to book into, but everything seemed to work out in the end.  We could probably have found something slightly more scenic elsewhere, but it ended up being quite adequate for our brief overnight stay, despite the rain and racoons!
  • Night 3: Fernwood Campground (Big Sur): nestled in a valley alongside the Big Sur River this was our favourite – albeit coldest – overnight stay, because of the riverside and valley setting.  We were sad to have not been able to get there earlier and enjoy it before sundown, but we woke to a glorious morning and enjoyed the slowly evaporating valley mist around us followed by some great washrooms.
  • Night 4: Plaskett Creek Campground: sadly, the dry weather conditions in the area resulted in water restrictions and high fire danger, so we felt a little limited in what we could do during our overnight stay here.  Washrooms were locked due to water shortages and we were unable to make an outdoor fire because of fire bans.  Sunset in November is early, so evening entertainment was limited to board games cooped up in our van.
  • Night 5: Half Moon Bay: after a long day of southbound exploring we had to turn around and head back towards the outskirts of San Francisco in order to return our campervan by the following morning. We chose to revisit the campsite at Half Moon Bay where we’d spent our first night and which was now familiar to us.  It had been a convenient stop on our outbound journey and now became an equally convenient overnight stop upon our return.

Our schedule didn’t leave us much time to explore inland or all of the highlights by any means.  None the less, we did endeavour to stop at as many of the state beaches and little villages as time would allow.  Most of the state beaches required a small access fee.  Our carefree schedule, lack of planning and the earlier fall closing times of the state parks and beaches meant that some of our impromptu visits were curtailed or cut much shorter than we would have liked.  Here is a list of some of our most memorable places that we detoured to, explored, and would likely go back to.

Day 1: Leaving San Francisco and driving to Half Moon Bay

Navigating Lombard Street … just for kicks
Identifying with my roots; too bad I didn’t find a home in the neighbourhood that had my name on the title deeds, too!
Catching the Golden Gate Bridge after sunset before heading to Half Moon Bay

Day 2: Half Moon Bay to Sunset Beach Campground

San Gregorio State Beach
Parked at Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Pigeon Point Light House silhouette
The elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park were a worthwhile and memorable sight to behold
Tons and tons of barking elephant seals line the beaches

Day 3: Sunset Beach Campground to Fernwood Park Campground (Big Sur)

The fishing village of Moss Landing was shrouded in fog making it feel eerily calm
Moss Landing was home to hoards of pelicans, gulls, seals and otters
Monterey Harbour’s waters appeared placid before a storm
Something about the quaintness of Carmel-by-the-sea’s downtown shopping area was very inviting
We spied some very unique homes as we drove along the coastline leaving Carmel-by-the-sea
Fernwood Park – our favourite campground of the trip
Valley mist evaporates in the morning sun at Fernwood Park campground

Day 4: Fernwood Campground to Plaskett Creek Campground

Just the roadway to the New Camaldoli Hermitage is worth the detour, let along the modern monastery itself
Lunch and a spectacular view from the lawns at Lucia Lodge
Attempting to capture the golden beauty of sunset at Sand Dollar Beach
Sand Dollar Beach near Plaskett Creek campground
Sunset at Sand Dollar Beach

Day 5: Plaskett Creek Campground to San Simeon / Hearst Castle and return to Half Moon Bay

  • Nacimiento-Fergusson Road: we only drove up the first part of it and had to drag ourselves away from its allure because of our time schedule
  • San Simeon beach elephant seals
  • Hearst Castle’s architecture, excesses, extravagance and legacy
  • Return drive to Half Moon Bay, covering ground quicker than our southbound journey that had taken 3 full days
  • Sunset somewhere on the side of the road above the Pacific Ocean
A perfect view demanded a perfect morning cup of Joe
Enjoying some of the views along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road
Morning light along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road
Hearst San Simeon State Park elephant seals

Our journey really was like that of a tortoise; slow, impromptu exploration as we took our little home everywhere with us.  It was perfect.  This may not be everyone’s ideal vacation.  But, if you want spectacular scenery interspersed with little hamlets, towns to explore, dramatically varied beaches, stunning walking trails, forests, elephant seals, birds, and the freedom to pull off the side of the road and camp on a whim or take a nap with breathtaking 180-degree dramatic ocean views, then this just might be the type of trip you’d come alive on.

Dramatic coastline and highway in every direction

The Escape campervan was just perfect – and provided perfectly rustic yet adequate amenities – for our needs.  The van was easy to drive.  The space was great for the two of us.  The fuel economy was better than I had anticipated.  The pick-up and drop-off were effortless with no surprise costs and overheads.

My only regret was that we were limited to doing this trip during November for personal reasons. Consequently, sunlight hours were a little short and nights became quite cool.  This would not have been as big a deal had we arrived at our campsites and set up earlier. But this would have meant that we’d have had to sacrifice on exploring time, which we weren’t prepared to do.  Also, the fact that there were fire bans during that time did limit the opportunity we had to sit outside around a campfire for warmth and ambience, sipping on a glass of wine and reflecting on our day’s discoveries.  Despite that, we enjoyed every inch of our 513-mile journey immeasurably.

IAC’s Moral-of-the-moment: “Road trips should be shared, whether with your significant other, or with those whom you encounter and who enrich your journey along the way.”

Playing games in the campervan

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