The Very Best Way to Experience the Pacific Coast Highway

We are convinced there is no better way to explore the coast than by sprinter van. The more vehicles we saw creeping cautiously along the winding and precariously steep cliffs that etch out the Pacific Coast Highway, the greater our conviction.


VANdal, being just 22 ½ feet long — the same size in length as a full size, quad cab pickup trick — easily maneuvered around every corner and climb. Because its frame is also designed to European specifications, it’s a mere 70″ wide, substantially narrower than your average SUV.In addition, the Mercedes sprinter outfitted by Outside Van offers a substantially smoother ride than the rest. One reason is that Outside Van built VANdal with a two inch rear sway bar and an additional leaf spring, increasing the vehicle’s cornering and weight-bearing abilities, respectively. At night, VANdal has three 55-watt HELLA 500-series driving lights, and when no other traffic is present (as is often the case on the backroads we prefer), we use the 22″ LED light bar by Rigid Industries which, in short, transforms night into day. The light bar projects a beam about 250 meters straight ahead, 25 meters to each side, and 25 meters up, illuminating elusive roadside critters, and virtually eliminating the stress of nighttime driving.


It may not seem like much, but trust us – when you see many an RV, fifth-wheel, or rent-a-camper out on the road white-knuckling the steering wheel, “trying” in vain to enjoy the iconic beauty of the California coast, you’ll come to appreciate the luxury and simplicity of an Outside Van. While other drivers battle the jerky nature of a poorly crafted RV, or suffer without being able to fully stand in a vehicle that gets abysmal gas mileage, we are content to move about the well-insulated, limo-quiet cabin, enjoying the ability to indulge in espresso while driving every now and again, and knowing we are fully capable of stopping at any roadside overlook along scenic roads like the PCH without fear of getting stuck or being too large to park nearly anywhere we wish.


Oh, AND we averaged 17.5 miles per gallon, a substantial win over your average RV…Fully loaded, including five stand up paddle boards and a Yakima storage box on top.


From the Golden Gate Bridge on July 24th, our drive took us up the coastal highway across the headlands and along the entire Sonoma Coast. With stunning views and breathtaking coastline on every turn, it was truly a drive worthy of anyone’s bucket list. If you’ve never driven California’s coastline with the sole intention of enjoying every mile of this scenic slice of America, our advice is DO IT. Get out your calendar and plan it now. You won’t regret it.


After the foodie frenzy that was San Francisco, our bodies were craving some movement. Eager to combust some of those carbs, we took to a terrific trail run at the Point Reyes National Seashore.


Point Reyes is enormous, with many sections to explore from forest to beach to estuary. Preferring a solid distance trail run, we selected an easy, wide trail canopied by trees and meandering with modest elevation change along a stream leading to the beach.


We took the Bear Valley Trail to Arched Rock, aptly named as you can see here…


The last quarter mile took us down the cliff, where we found the magnificent Arched Rock serving as a gateway to a small stretch of open beach where the steep cliffsides and the sea converge.


It was a scene far more beautiful in real life than any iPhone photo could capture, and certainly quite gratifying to take in that view after running five miles to get there.


We continued to explore Point Reyes afterward with a stop at the now-closed Drakes Bay Oyster Company, controversial for its recent loss against the government in the US Supreme Court over its right to operate a commercial oyster farm on federal land, especially when its compliance with the National Wilderness Act is in question.


Furthering our trek up the coast, we snacked at scenic cliffside overlooks, and watched as the sun set with glory over the Pacific, unhindered by anything to block its last rays of light.


As dusk crept in, Mendocino became our destination for a secret camp spot. We arrived just in time for a music festival right at the cape in their quaint, refined historic district.


Short, sandy paths lead accessibly from downtown to many overlooks along the cape, some of which feature remnants of the historic logging piers and all boasting 360 degree views to drink in.


The sound of the ocean crashing against the rocks at the cape was absolutely mesmerizing. At surface value, it was easy to see why people love Mendocino County.


That said…. If you visit this area, we warn you that the resident people are a rather fickle and older bunch, and overnight parking laws are heavily enforced (though, luckily, leash laws were not).

On paper, Mendocino appears to be a quaint, charming town full of history, natural beauty, and a desire to be hip & cool by jumping on the organic brewery bandwagon. In reality, we found its beauty to be robustly offset by its stuffy and citizens; an enclave for socially constipated, unoutdoorsy people who hover around the same few restaurants, art galleries, Lily Pulitzer shops, and a gas station selling the most expensive gasoline in the country.

This was one of the few times we were asked to leave an area by police (which we did with no trouble, finding overnight parking right on the beach three miles south of town at Van Damme State Park & Beach).


After coffee at the cape that morning, we said goodbye to Mendocino with our sights set on the Redwood Forests of Northern California.


The further up the coast we drove, the more dizzying the hairpin turns became. But we noticed something else as well: With each northward mile, the landscape was changing dramatically for the greener. The dry, arid cliffs were starting to give way to lush green forests. We were at the start of the redwoods.


Our first stop to appreciate the preservation of these ancient, massive trees was Humboldt Redwoods State Park where we could stand in awe at the Avenue of the Giants. (The tiny tourist in us tried first to see the legendary Drive Through Tree, but alas, VANdal was too tall…)

We lunched and hiked in the Redwood National Forest amid trees over 2,000 years old and 200 feet high, appreciating how the shade of these massive trees cooled the air temperature by over 14 degrees.

Working our way up to Oregon, our last coastal northern California destination was Gold Beach and Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

What a sight as we entered the canyon to feel ourselves enveloped by five-leaved ferns climbing straight up canyon walls along a lazy riverbed.

Even in the dry season, it was clear why Steven Spielberg chose Fern Canyon as the on-site location for Jurassic Park II: The Lost World.

Bonus: Sighting two enormous elk chomping on some leaved as we hiked back to VANdal.


Oregon was almost in reach and, thankfully, so was our last curvy road. (Bethany tends to get a little carsick). The Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest became our portal to expeditions throughout most of the state of Oregon in the next phase of our tour. It was a bit disappointing to have traversed this area at dark because the area appeared stunning by headlight — Deep canyons carved by the angry, flowing whitewater of the Smith River. Without a single dam along its entire length, the Smith is considered one of the crown jewels of the National Wild and Scenic River program.

Having made it to Destination: Oregon, we crashed for the night at a lovely rest area at Valley of the Rogue. Travelers, take note: A perfect overnight camp spot with amenities and natural beauty galore. A nature trail along three miles of the Rogue River, restrooms, and large green space made it a perfect stop for us and Katie Lou, affording a good night’s sleep before starting our first adventures in Oregon the next day, with a plan to head to Crater Lake National Park, followed by a long-anticipated visit to Bend.

And THAT, in a nutshell, is why the Pacific Coast Highway is better in a van. So go out and take the advice of every Travel Channel, National Geographic, and Trip Advisor article out there and make it the road trip of a lifetime…But remember that to truly appreciate and enjoy the experience of a drive like this, the sprinter trumps your mom & dad’s camper in every way.

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