San Francisco to Los Angeles to Mexico

Before starting our big coastal road trip we wanted to do what almost all overlanders do when passing by SF: sleeping with a view on the Golden Gate bridge. It took a bit of stressful city traffic and driving around the bridge (we crossed 4 times) to find a nice spot where we were allowed to camp but we did find a nice spot in the end.

The next morning we started our drive along the mighty Pacific Ocean that should bring us in about 10 days to the city of Angels. As we crossed the golden gate bridge and drove through Silicon Valley, we were discussing again about the ‘promised land’ that California supposedly is. And how we only seem to hear about all the success stories and don’t hear about the ‘working poor’ Facebook moderators and other Big Tech employees that live in their cars in streets around the fancy headquarters.

In the next week we would drive through cute towns such as Santa Cruz, Monterrey and Santa Barbara that are definitely appealing but also full with homeless people. These homeless are all kinds of people who often have not made it in that incredible Californian (or US) ‘rat race’, that already starts in primary school.

The reason we were driving down these highways and through these towns was not to city trip. We were looking for some of that fabulous nature and scenery that we had been hearing about ever since we crossed into the US in Alaska. ‘Big Sur’ a stretch of very wild coast along Highway 1 that has received a mythical status among  road trippers. We wanted to see why.

Unfortunately (this becomes a bit of a mantra on this trip) an ‘unusually’ strong storm had wreaked havoc on this wild coast and several landslides had wiped away big chunks of the famous drive. Reparations were in full swing but would still take quite some time to complete. There was however an option to see a large part of the road but it would mean a detour of several hundreds of kms. We deliberated about it for a while but in the end, decided to go for it and it was definitely worth it. That being said we don’t think that this is the most impressive drive in the USA as some claim. But I guess we had been spoiled a bit the previous months.

For us the biggest highlight of Big Sur were actually some mammals we encountered at the southern end of the route near San Simeon. On a specific stretch of beach, a colony of Elephant seals calls it home. We had come across a (lost?) young female elephant seal earlier and were not that impressed by what looked like a ‘large seal’. But on this beach we hoped to be lucky enough to also see some of the males, who arrive there just before winter to mate. And we were in luck, we immediately spotted a couple of young males and they were big!! But, we had seen nothing yet because, on another part of the beach, a couple of older ‘Alpha’s’ had also arrived. Right now these giants were still lying lazy in the sun, looking ‘bad’ and scaring away younger males with just one stare (when they came too close to ‘their’ harem of females). However, a couple of weeks later, the beach would fill with more and more big males. What was now a peaceful beach would soon turn into a bloody battlefield where all the young seals would flee from, to avoid being squashed by the fighting males. For now it was just a couple of juvenile males that were sparring in the sea (and every once in a while testing the tolerance of the big Alphas).

Really happy about having seen these giants, we continued our drive south in the afternoon and had planned to take part in one of the true ‘American traditions’ that has nearly completely disappeared from the country: the ‘drive-in’ movie. We parked our van in one of the back rows, made some popcorn and got some drinks and enjoyed a Xmas movie (Caro’s favourite guilty pleasure) from the comfort of our van. The kids completely loved it!

We had planned to see another movie that night but unfortunately we could not find a place to park and sleep for the night in the neighborhood, so we skipped the second movie and drove to the next town.  There, after a lot of searching, we found a spot by the road next to a park in Pismo Beach. The next morning that little park had a really nice surprise for us. It turned out that a couple of trees in this park were the winter migration destination for thousands of Monarch butterflies from as all over the US and Canada. We had heard about such a place in Mexico but did not know they also came to California. It was truly amazing to see  over 25.000 butterflies in just a couple of trees. At first they were barely visible. During their sleep they close their wings and the bright colors are not visible. But as soon as the morning sun touched a branch of the trees, they would wake up, spread their wings and start to move around. We had been very frustrated the night before about not finding a sleeping spot but that was all forgotten very fast by this lucky find.

Before starting our final drive to Los Angeles, there was still one thing that we really wanted to do: visit a ‘Californian Mission’. These missions were set up by Franciscans under the Spanish rule, to ‘civilize’ the local Indigenous people. In most cases this came down to pure exploitation of the people and their resources. This string of missions (most of them set up by one guy) stretched from San Francisco all the way down to Baja California in Mexico. And we would even come across a couple of missions from this same founder in Central Mexico later in the trip.  Today most of the missions are still active religious institutions but we decided to visit La Purisima, where a mission has been turned into a historical state park. As we walked through the grounds and learned about the functioning of the mission and the different buildings, I could not help but expecting( hoping) to see that old 1950’s Disney Zorro come rushing through the bell tower arch in aid to the exploited.

The town of Santa Barbara was the start of the final stretch to LA. We slept by the side of the road once more. It was a loud night again but we slept next to the beach so the kids did not care. They built sandcastles (which were admired by sporty locals and homeless people alike) until sunset and again from sunrise.

The next day we drove to Los Angeles and Santa Monica and I wanted to get a picture of one these life guard huts that we all remember from the Baywatch series. When we drove through Malibu, I spotted a nice stretch of beach with a line of these huts. Perfect for that picture. While Caro was chatting with the life guard about finding a sleeping spot with our campervan in Los Angeles (he also slept in his van when working the LA beaches), I noticed some surfers arriving in the parking lot. One of them, an older but very fit little guy had some tattoos that looked very familiar to me. When we walked passed them, on our way to the van, I was sure to recognize Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. To me it feels too awkward to go talk to such people but Caro went over for a little chat that she described as ‘polite but not overly friendly’. LA to do list: ‘Spot a celebrity’: check!

That evening we went for a walk on the Santa Monica pier to see the sun set but in the back of our mind we were thinking about where in God’s name we would find a sleeping spot in this ‘hell hole’ called Los Angeles. We would try to find the place the lifeguard had told us about but got stuck in one of the infamous LA traffic jams. We decided to take a break and do some grocery shopping and on the parking lot we started talking to a couple who were asking about our Belgian plates. When they asked us about where we would sleep, we told them about our nearly impossible quest and they kindly offered to use their parking space in their gated community: saved by the bell!

The next morning we woke up early and drove out of LA to Anaheim before traffic got too crazy again. We had a surprise for our kids. They had been talking about an American amusement park since the start of our trip. We first wanted to go to Disneyland but when we saw the prices, this plan was quickly abandoned. One day at Disney for the four of us would have been around 1000 euro (not including a place to sleep)!!! Luckily our kids are not that interested in Disney so this was not really a big deal for them. Instead, we opted for ‘Knotts Berry’ park. Knott’s is a less famous park but chockfull of thrill rides that our kids like and also a couple of extreme thrills for dad (“bigger higher, faster and better than anywhere else”). We had a great day and were in the park from the minute they opened (with the national anthem!) until they closed the gates.

After that we had another unnerving trip through LA traffic to a sleeping spot in the Hollywood hills close to Griffith park. This park  in the hills has amazing views over the city, all the way to the ocean in Santa Monica. The Hollywood sign can also be seen from there. Our friends in Yosemite described it as a place to “observe LA without, having to deal with it too much”.

Most people come here for sunset to see the city change into a ‘sea of lights’. We avoided the crowds got up very early and saw the city wake up. Magic!

That was enough of LA for us but before heading further south, we did what we learned is another ‘Overlander classic’: we went to Ikea to have lunch. We needed to replace a number of items in our camper set up (yes Ikea kitchen/bathroom/bedroom gear is perfect for a campervan!), so this was a no brainer. It was crazy though how this multi national creates such a uniform customer experience across the world. Or as Leon put it: “For the first time in 6 months it feels like we are home”.Of course (as always) we lingered around the shop and the ‘Sweden shop’ too long so we got into bad traffic once more trying to get out of LA. Thank God for the ‘car pool lanes’! These lanes can be used by any car with more than one person and are almost always empty. We happily drove past miles and miles of traffic jams and arrived at our campsite by the ocean just before sunset.

Here in San Clemente beach, we planned our last week in the USA. We invested in a surfboard and some more surfgear and then drove to our final National Park in the USA: Joshua Tree. Another nice park with much more than just the typical Joshua Tree which looks like a cross between a cactus and a normal tree.

And then it was time for final preparations for the border crossing: carwash, laundry, grocery shopping and studying the border crossing procedure for Mexico.

Until now we had been travelling with our van in a rather familiar context. But now we were about to start a new chapter in our trip, which we were both excited and anxious about.

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