LA to San Francisco by RV - Oct 2013
After the success of our trip from San Francisco to Seattle a couple of years back, it seemed only natural to do the stretch of coast from LA to San Francisco. Our son, who lives in San Francisco, told us that the Fall is the best time of year for weather in California, which is how we found ourselves doing the trip in October. Not wishing to do the trip both ways we found that it was easy to book an RV for a oneway trip. This meant flying to LA from SFO to collect the RV, but even taking in to account the airfares ($75 with Southwest inc baggage in the hold) and one way fee from Apollo, this was still cheaper than taking the RV back again.
We picked up the RV on the Monday before the Columbus Day weekend and headed for Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Parking there is not easy - most carparks specifically state no RVs, but in the end we parked in one that was nearly empty and ignored the "no RVs" sign, but paid the usual fee - $4 per hr as I recall, and got away with it.
We always like to book first and last night, and as we wanted to see the Getty Centre, we booked 2 nights at Malibu RV Park ($45 per night), about 25 miles from the Getty. Although we felt happier booking, I guess the site was about 80% occupied so I don't think there would have been any trouble turning up "on spec".
The Getty Centre website clearly states "No RVs". I telephoned from the UK and the answer was inconclusive. Sometimes they accept RVs where the coaches park, and if there are no school trips in we could park there. Most school trips finish by 1.30pm- but this would mean having to squeeze everything in to a half day - not long enough. Then I was told that sometimes you can park over the road in a car park for the Leo Baeck Temple. A quick inspection on Google Street View showed a sign saying "No Getty Centre Parking". This didn't look promising, and we nearly decided not to go. But then we thought we'd maybe never be back, so let's give it a try and see what happens.
Actually nothing could have been easier. Arriving at the Getty car park, we were told that we couldn't park in there - it's underground and with clearance of only 12 ft we'd take the aircon unit off if we tried. However, we were directed to the Leo Baeck temple car park, told to park there but come back and pay the Getty the $15 parking fee. They were just so helpful, and we were right - you definitely need a whole day for the Getty if you have any interest in the arts whatsoever! A couple of pics which "Trekkies" will recognise as Starfleet HQ in the new "Startrek Edge of Darkness" film.
The plan was now to head to Santa Barbara, have a look around and then head up to Cachuma Lake campground, having read that the only RV site actually in Santa Barbara was right next to the freeway and not particularly pleasant. Again we found that parking was a real problem in Santa Barbara - no RV parking on the streets at any time. Eventually we found a carpark that would take RVs opposite the tourist information office on the seafront.
Cachuma Lake campground ($38) was great, with a huge number of pitches and probably only 5% occupied. This was where we found that the space heater in our RV didn't work and the temperature INSIDE the Rv dropped to 4 deg C (39 F) over night.
The plan now was to head for Kirk Creek Campground in the middle of the "Big Sur" coast, via Cambria, recommended by another member here. Cambria is just delightful and we regretted no putting more time aside to explore it.
Parking along Main Street was easy and there are just so many interesting places to browse. We could happily have spent half a day or more there. We decided to give Hearst Castle a miss - it's $25 per floor to see, making a total of $75 a head, and we do stately homes "in spades" in the UK, so headed off to Kirkwood Creek to find it closed due to the Federal shutdown because it's owned by the Forestry Service. This was a blow as many of the sites along Big Sur are in Forestry ownership, but we needed somewhere for the night and eventually found "Fernwood" which had just one vacancy remaining at 5pm ($50). What a relief.
The following 3 nights were at Big Sur Campground and Cabins, a nice privately owned site which we had pre-booked as it was the Columbus Day weekend, and thank goodness we did because there were no vacancies anywhere for those who hadn't. It was however eyewateringly expensive at $70 per night, up from their usual $55 because it was a holiday weekend. We spent 3 fabulous days doing day hikes in the hills above the coast using "Hiking in Big Sur" website as our guide - a fabulous resource - and we did the Ewoldson Loop, Andrew Molera Bluffs loop and the Tanbark and Tinhouse Trail. All were equally enjoyable on good trails, and gave us a view of Big Sur that not 1 in 100 will see.
The final day was spent exploring Point Lobos and Monterey. Point Lobos is a great day out for those who want to spend a day out walking along the coast, but don't want the long climbs associated with the hikes listed in the "Hiking in Big Sur" site. There are loads of level walks and would be a great way of spending a day hiking and maybe just sitting in a quiet sunny spot with a good book, which if we had an extra day is what we would have done.
This was not a cheap trip. The RV cost us $1360 for 8 nights, plus $430 for RV sites, plus $300 for gas to cover 630 miles, making a total of $2090 (£1300) for 8 nights before we did anything. Although Apollo estimated that we would get 10mpg, the hilly and twisty road meant that we only got 7.6 mpg in practice. Then there is the difficulty in parking in LA, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara.
If you are a first time RV'er and you like the wide open spaces I would recommend that you do the trip we did last time and head north from San Francisco, up through Oregon and Washington State, where the scenery is every bit as spectacular, fuel is cheaper, and RV sites are less than half the price of the cost in California. Parking is MUCH easier and the whole scene is more RV friendly. By contrast, between LA and San Francisco, there are approx 10 million people living within 4 hours drive of Big Sur and so it tends to be much busier. Booking your site in Big Sur for weekends is essential even out of season as even in October there is wall-to-wall sunshine and daytime temperatures are in the mid 20s C/mid 70's F and the pressure on facilities is intense. You should be OK to turn up unannounced outside of Big Sur during the week though at this time of year.
Whilst we enjoyed the trip, I think that if we were doing it again, we would give serious consideration to hiring a car, and stay either in motels/B&Bs, or in lodges, perhaps basing ourselves in Cambria to cover the south side of Big Sur, and a lodge at Big Sur Campground and cabins for the north end, or even a motel up near Monterey. There is very little accommodation of any sort on the Big Sur Coast so you need to base yourself in the north or south of the area and then explore by day trip - regardless of whether you are lodging or RV'ing.
If you have not RV'd before, you need to know that whilst the driver and front seat passenger get a great view, anyone down the back is at a much higher level and cannot see out the front at all.
The view out the side is limited - most RV's have a window on the left hand side, but very little on the right. This means that if you are travelling from North to South, your passengers will not only be unable to see out the front, but the view out the side will be inland (normally a road cutting) and they will see nothing of the spectacular coast. Children will be bored out of their skulls, and adults sharing will feel very short changed if they are not in the front! If you really must do it by RV, and you have reasons not to head north from San Francisco, do at least give very serious consideration to hiring a car to do whatever you want to do in the LA area - Getty Centre, Unversal Studios etc, and then only pick up the RV when you are ready to head north - it's a liability around LA. A car can be parked anywhere, fuel consumption will be less ruinous, and visibility will be much better for passengers in the back, and if you are travelling north from LA any passengers in the back of an RV will at least have a view out the side window over the coast. .
Just my thoughts - others will have different ideas!
Roger and Pat