From the beginning, March was lining up to expensive as we traveled California and experienced its high-priced gas, food and camping, but we were prepared to deal with it as we explored the amazing state with the most National Parks (9). Then what do you know, I just finished our expense report, and it’s the cheapest we’ve had while fully on the road! Not only that, but the sites are some of the best we’ve visited. Let’s get into it.
Total March Cost: $2,977
Total days in the camper: 31
Total days out of camper: 0
Cost per day: $96
States Visited: California
Total Miles: 3,140
March was all about California, and for once, it wasn’t about the unexpected expenses that shot up our previous monthly totals. Our per day spending of only $96 was the second lowest month since January, but the lowest month while fully on the road. We’ve experienced four national parks so far, along with some other California dreamin’ locations. Overall, we’re really happy with our costs and hope to continue the momentum through Oregon and Washington!
We started our California journey the first week of March in Joshua Tree National Park. It’s one of those places I’ve heard about, but usually only from TV shows or movies where people go to eat mushrooms and “find” themselves. I can see why. It’s pretty trippy coming from the Los Angeles landscape of concrete and metal to one of the desert, with Joshua trees throwing their limbs in crazy directions and large boulders thrown around in piles like a giant little kid left them. It wasn’t as astonishing for us since we’d spent the previous two months in the desert and seen some similar sites, but it was still cool. Our favorite part was probably our neighbors who we ended up sharing our separate sites with. They had two kids, four and six who loved Lucy and loved playing. It was fun hanging out and sharing stories over s’mores.
After Joshua Tree, it was on to Death Valley National Park. It was only $1/day more than Joshua Tree, but still very cheap at only $16/day. Death Valley was like nothing I previously imagined – which my simple imagination had pictured only two small mountains with a sandy valley running through the middle.. and some rusted, broke down cars. Instead, the vastness of the landscape was hard to even take in as everything seemed larger than life. The weather was beautiful with highs in the 60’s-70’s, so we didn’t get the full desolate desert feeling the park presents in the summer.
We did get some major winds though, with dust blowing through the air and gusts over 70 mph refinishing our windshield. It happened while we were driving out to “Racetrack”, which is one of those places I always thought would be neat to see, but never knew where it was. Turns out, it’s in Death Valley! It’s a nasty 27 mile one way drive over sharp rocks that sometimes pile together to make it feel like a gravel road. It took over 2 hours, but the damage to the 4Runner will last much longer, mostly because the wind gust that showered the windshield with rocks that left many tiny pits! The Racetrack was really neat, with rocks seemingly sliding across the desert floors over years, leaving a small path behind them. Scientists figured out why a couple of years ago, but it’s more fun to imagine they are pet rocks who have been set free, as my brother hilariously commented.
We also met some cool people in Death Valley; maybe the person I want to be when I grow up! Steve owns a 1957 Airstream which he meticulously renovated over three years while providing hospice care for his wife who had early onset dementia and has now passed on. Okay, that parts really sad, but you needed to hear it to fully appreciate Steve. His new partner, Julia, was a nurse her entire life before her husband passed, and she also helped with end of life patients and said she thought it was an absolute privilege to provide the final company and care for someone as they passed. So yes, they’re both saints. Steve and his previous wife also lived on a sailboat traveling the world for seven years, and before that, he was a pilot. He’s like Sir Richard Branson, but not as rich monetarily.
Steve and Julia told us about their favorite spot in California which we had to visit, Alabama Hills, just outside of Lone Pine. We decided to visit and it just happened they were there at the same time, so they made us enchiladas (Steve hand makes his own tortillas and bread, as you’d expect). Alabama Hills ranks as one of our favorite free camping site as it sits at the base of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US, and provides a stunning vista. If you’ve ever watched a western movie made before the 1970’s, it was probably filmed here as the location has doubled for sets in Texas, Nevada, Wyoming and even India and Pakistan! It’s beautiful and one we’ll always remember thanks to Steve and Julia.
After Alabama Hills, it was on to more National Parks, Sequoia and King’s Canyon. They’re right next to each other, so it’s appropriate to talk about them together. We weren’t as lucky with the weather as we were in Death Valley because it’s pretty early in the season and much of the parks are still covered in snow. In fact, most of King’s Canyon is closed until the end of April because of mud slides and ice on the road. We still experienced some beautiful hikes and got to see the thickest tree in the world (General Grant) and the largest tree by volume in the world (General Sherman). I love trees so it was amazing to walk through the Sequoia groves and think about how they’ve see the world change the last millenniums.
After the parks, we headed to the coast to get some warmer temperatures and beach time… but I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll cover that below.
We kept our spending low thanks to lower mileage, longer stays and we controlled food expenses really well. Like I mentioned earlier, it was nice to finally have a month where we didn’t have an unexpected large expense.
As we headed across California to the coast, we got excited to finally get some beach time and warmer weather, rather than the lower 60’s for highs and lower 40’s for lows we’ve experienced most of the trip. We packed a lot of summer clothes but hadn’t really used any yet!
We started in a small county park outside of Los Olivos, which was apparently the town “Sideways” was filmed. It was a rugged drive up into the mountains, but gave us some nice scenic views with wildflowers. However, it also gave us our first exposure to Calitrash, as I non-political correctly call them. We were woken up a 4:30am by a young man screaming at the girl who he was with, while she switched between yelling back and trying to get him to calm down. He continued until about 5:30am when she left, and then proceeded to yell at a national forest worker trying to collect payment the next morning. Luckily, he left later that day but we were still on edge the next night.
We hiked around the area and enjoyed the views of the central valley. The next few days I realized I took a little something home with me (in addition to the tick that bit me on the neck and left a nasty mark during the day)… poison oak. It was probably from a combination of Lucy running through it along with me brushing into it, but I probably compounded the issue while pulling numerous ticks off of Lucy as we we were hiking. I got it on my arms, legs and feet and it lasted over the next week. Yuck.
After the mountains, we stopped in Los Olivos for a delicious tri trip sandwich, before heading to Hobson Country Park on the beach which gave us quick access to Santa Barbara. As we pulled in, we identified more Calitrash and tried to get a spot away from them. They were three surfer dudes who were bleached out by the sun and burned out by the drugs. We were still too close as they kept us awake all night burning their piles of construction wood they probably stole from a wood shop… pieces of plywood, 2×4’s, etc. Luckily, they left… and then we got a new neighbor… a young couple whose quietness in the evening gave way to drinking all night, playing music and then getting sick outside their tent (in our view) the next morning. It was pretty amazing.
It wasn’t all bad though, as we enjoyed Santa Barbara, Ojai, San Simion and some other sites up the coast. We toured the Hearst Castle which was pretty amazing, but we weren’t able to go much farther up Highway 1 because of major washouts, including a bridge that had to be torn down. We’ll save that for next time.
Maybe I should factor in some additional expenses into the March report, as we suffered a heartbreaking accident. We try to keep our driving under four hours per day because it gets pretty exhausting pulling the camper. As we left the coast, we had the option to split the drive to Yosemite into two days, or drive hard and do it in one. The light at the end of the tunnel (Yosemite) shined so brightly that we went for it.
It was a lot of driving through some tough conditions as the area has experienced some major landslides, but we made it through. It wasn’t until the next morning that we realized at what price… I woke up and went outside to discover a major gash down the side of our precious Penny Lane. We’ll probably have to get the whole panel replaced along with some work on the door, but luckily it’s still functional. I guess some damage can be expected when driving a camper 30k+ miles in one year in some major rugged terrain, but I sure hoped it wasn’t.
Just so I don’t leave this report with so much negativity, I did want to share some wins. We pulled into Yosemite without any reservations (not advised) and scored a spot for six nights! The reservation system opens up five months in advance with most spots reserved out within a few minutes, so we got incredibly lucky to get our spot. The weather was also beautiful… but I’ll save that for next time. Let’s see if we can keep the spending low, keep finding amazingly beautiful sites and also limit any further damage to Penny Lane!