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  1. #1

    Default Los Angeles to Napa Valley and back


    My family is planning a road trip in a rented VW bus along the California coast this August.

    We had initially planned to drive to California and then travel up the coast, staying at hotels, but we just decided to camp in the bus instead. I think it's a good decision for us: We have three kids, we love adventure and road tripping, it will potentially save some money on hotels and dining, and flying will allow us to spend more time at our destination (California).

    However, I'm a little worried we're late in the game for reserving campsites. We'll be taking about 12 days to drive from LA up to at least Napa Valley and Sebastopol (though we could go as far north as Mendocino), and back. Our pace and attitude will be leisurely.

    We're in the very initial stages of planning and not asking anyone to plan our trip for us. :) We just would love some insight into:

    • Best campgrounds/parks along or near the coast between LA and Napa Valley. We basically just want our Midwest kids to get to spend a bunch of time near the ocean.
    • How far in advance you need to make reservations, and if we're too late.
    • Any free places to camp along or near that route.
    • Any must-see coastal towns or attractions. We'll be stopping at obvious places like Big Sur, just want to know if there are any little-known gems or places a little off the beaten path that might be fun.

    Thank you in advance for any insights! I lurked on this forum quite a bit before our road trip to Florida last year and it was a huge help. :)

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin


    Welcome to the RTA Forum!

    Actually, I have a question for you first - Where are you renting the VW Bus from? I'm not sure I've every heard of them being available for rent in the US, at least not without going to a specialty (expensive) rental agency. I will say that trying to sleep 5 people inside is going to be some very tight quarters, especially on an every night basis.

    One other question, are you only focusing on the coast or do you plan to hit the mountain destinations (Yosemite, Sequoia, etc) as part of your trip. I don't have a lot of specific details about good places to camp, but I can tell you that when I lived there, I did plenty of camping all over the state and I rarely if ever made reservations. Having said that, the most popular sites at State and National Parks (like within yosemite, or julia pfeiffer burns state park at big sur) will fill up quickly. It looks like California uses Reserve America so I'd start by browsing around there to see what is still available on your travel dates.

  3. #3


    Thanks! I found two places that rent them, one in LA and one in San Francisco. They are between $850 and $950 a week, so I guess that's kind of expensive, but still less than combined hotel and car rental.

    We know it will be crowded and plan to have a night or two in a hotel in the middle to stretch out a bit. We also don't plan on spending much time in the van aside from driving and actual sleeping time. Plus two of the kids will share one bed and the third is a toddler who will be easy to fit in somewhere else. But maybe we're being optimistic!

    We seriously considered Yosemite, we just don't know if the detour east will rush us too much. What do you think? We definitely want to make it up to Napa Valley because we're considering moving there within the next few years and we want to get a good feel of the communities there.

    Do you know what "site type" I should reserve for camping? I couldn't find an explanation of the different types. Just "standard"?...

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Joplin MO


    I would seriously recommend that you rent a real RV instead. It's going to take you about 2 days to discover that a VW bus is too cramped for a family of 5, even with small kids and a toddler.

    You can't count on finding ANY free campsites these days. The closest you are going to get will be parking overnight in a truckstop, with permission.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin


    The campsite type generally refers to if its an RV site with electric and/or water hookups or a primitive site that's just a plot of land, more popular with tenters. I'm guessing that what they would be calling "standard" but I'd have to see it in context.

    I have to agree, that your plan to make 2 kids share a bed and just kind of cram the toddler in there is something that you will likely regret. Everyone needs their space, and that might be even more true when you've got small kids. A RV would be a better choice, and I think you'll find when you factor in campsite fees that even the VW will not really be a money saver vs. cars/hotels.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Melbourne, Australia

    Default BUS or Campervan?

    Are you renting a VW campervan, or a VW BUS?? If the latter, and it is not properly fitted out as a campervan, with a bed up top, then there is absolutely no way you will have one - let alone 12 - comfortable nights. If it is a campervan, fully fitted out, I doubt very much that it will have legal seating for five, including fitted childseats.

    I'd be checking all that first. We had a VW BUS for well over a decade, and there is no way it could have slept us with even one child. I'd also look again at your budgeting. You could well pay almost as much as a cheap motel room, for a camp site each night.


  7. #7
    Join Date
    May 2011
    Southern California


    Don't get me wrong -- I love RV's, and would probably be game enough to try a truck camper or camper van. But seriously, you can get a rental car and nights in hotels (with real showers, real beds, and room) for less than $950 week. A sedan will run about $250 a week and you can get decent hotels for $50-60/night.

    California State parks that beach state parks will reserve quickly, particularly on weekends and in the summer. So if you decide to go the RV or campervan route, you might start NOW to reserve, if they will take you. A standard site should get you what you need. BTW, they aren't cheap. It will set you back $35 a night (OUCH). If you shop carefully, you can get a hotel for $10 more, that will include a shower.


  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    South of England.

    Default Cramped, if possible.

    I have to agree with what has been said. A VW camper is far from ideal for a family of 5. Even though the 'Pop tops' are designed to sleep 4, they would be confined in space with just two people. I know there are some available that are equipped with a 5th seat and you might be thinking that if the kid's are 'little one's' you may squeeze the sleeping arrangements. If you know it will be crowded and you are going to add the expense of a couple of nights in a Hotel, is it really worth it ? I know the whole 'romance' of the VW is tempting, but it could put a big 'downer' on an otherwise wonderful trip. If you want to camp, as I love to do, look for at least a 25ft Class C RV.

    A 'Standard RV site' usually refers to just that, it's that RV grounds Standard. You will get Riverside, Pull Through, [open each end rather than backing in] Delux and the like to choose from. The standard site may well have 'Hook ups' [Water and electric supply] but may not have 'Full Hook up' which could add a Sewer connection for waste, and Cable connection. [Phone TV etc]

    I would highy recommend Yosemite, heading inland there on the way up and then across to Napa and head down the coast, putting the Ocean and Oceanside Pull outs on your side of the road. That will also save you having to cross the traffic at this busy tourist time to pull off Oceanside. The one thing to consider is the RV's are quite big [wide] and the coast is a slow going twisty one in places. Many do it and it should not be a problem for you, but it's something else to consider when deciding on how to travel. With the RV you simply use the Pull outs to let any traffic that you might be holding up past.

    Yosemite gets booked out really quick, so I would check asap if it's an option. You might already be looking at places outside of the park. If you have the option, try and get in one of the 'Pines' campgrounds in Yosemite Valley.

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