Roadtrip: California to Oregon
Updated: Apr 22, 2019
If you’re planning on driving between California and Oregon, there are three routes you can take.
Cruise right up the middle along the I-5
Meander up the coast on the legendary Highway 1
Or wind your way through the majestic Sierra Nevadas
The coolest part is you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
I-5 gets you where you need to go in a snap (and by snap, I mean you can get from LA to Portland in 15 hours without taking a single exit); Highway 1 is arguably the most scenic ocean drive in the world; and the Sierra Nevadas host King’s Canyon, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe all within a couple hours drive. People may call me a bit overzealous in my belief in the West Coast being the Best Coast, but when even your driving options are this good, you have to admit the competition is pretty lop-sided.
So when Jordan, Joey, and I started thinking through how we were going to get from Monterey, California up to Lebanon, Oregon, we had a lot to consider. What could three dudes do with five days, three epic routes, a handful of camping gear, and a beat up truck do?
Turns out you could do a lot.
Day 1: Redwoods, Rollercoasters, the Golden Gate, and A Makeshift Campsite
Santa Cruz has to be one of my favorite places on the planet. As far as I know, there are few spots where you get mountains, redwood forests, sandy beaches, killer surf, and chill vibes all in one spot. You could literally wake up in a rustic mountain cabin, drink your coffee under a redwood canopy, drive 10 minutes to downtown for a slice of pizza, and then walk half a mile to the beach for volleyball or surf. It’s a dream combination.
Being close to Monterey, it was our first stop. We first swung up to the redwoods to try to get a tour on a classic steam engine at Roaring Camp Railroad. Unfortunately, all the tickets were sold out. Sad day. So instead, we took a bit of a hike at Henry Cowell State Park and marveled at how insanely tall the trees were. It’s a bit mind-numbing to stand at the base of a 23-story tree and crane your neck trying to see the top.
Next, we hit up the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – one of the last remaining oceanside amusement parks on the West Coast. It’s like a carnival on the beach, complete with rollercoasters, carnie games, overpriced food, and a swimsuit dress code. We got soaked on the Logger’s Revenge, and then rode the Giant Dipper – a wooden rollercoaster designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark and the fifth oldest rollercoaster in the U.S. What it lacks in backflip thrills, it makes up with a million dollar view and a ton of hectic vertical drop.
After the adrenaline faded and we had got our fair share of sunshine and beach time, Pizza My Heart was next on the docket. You haven’t really visited northern California until you’ve had a slice from this God-sent. It’s iconic. If surfing culture, 50’s/60’s decor, and pizza had a baby, it would be this spot. And get this: for $7, you can get a slice of heaven AND a Pizza My Heart t-shirt. What more do you need in life than pizza and clothing?!
Full of cheesy goodness and armed with new apparel, we hopped back in the car to continue the trek north along Highway 1. Not many words can describe the beauty of the stretch of highway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. You feel like you’re winding through no-mans land with a green coastal range abruptly dropping off into a frigid blue ocean hundreds of feet below. I’ve taken a handful of people up and down Highway 1, but the most significant trip was when an Italian friend visiting the states for the first time told me that nothing she’s ever seen on the Italian coast can compare to the beauty of California coastline. Being there was like a spiritual experience for her. Even having grown up here, it’s still that way for me as well.
We pulled into San Francisco as the sun dipped below the horizon, giving the city a fitting golden glow on an uncharacteristically warm evening.
Fun travel tip: if you’re looking for the best view of the city, cross the Golden Gate and go to the the vista point immediately on the right. You’ll get the whole city in view, along with both bridges. If you’re not afraid of heights, then continue north to the next exit for Alexander Rd, swing a left at the stop sign, and then take a right to continue up Conzelman Rd. Oh man, if you’re looking for a classic drive up spot to spy on the city from the same height as the bridge, you gotta check it out.
One thing I’ve learned in all my traveling has been the necessity of being flexible. I’ve never put “camping” and “San Francisco” in the same sentence, so when we learned that there was a campground or two nearby we thought we could easily snag a spot. We were wrong. Not only are the campgrounds in the Marin Headlands tiny (like, they each only had three spots), they were near impossible to find. I won’t say I broke the law driving back up a one way road to avoid having to make a 5 mile loop, but…yeah...
No campsite meant we either slept in the nearby Sausalito hostel for $38 a head, or slept in my car. It wouldn’t be impossible, but I’ve doubled up in there before and it wasn’t the comfiest night I’ve ever had. Not to mention, this time around we’d have three pretty big dudes spooning the entire night. Sure great memories, but not ideal. Instead, we decided to forego hanging out in the city the next day and push directly east toward Yosemite National Park.
Three-ish hours later, we pulled off the road to a gated off-road trail at the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite.
Another fun travel tip: apparently, it’s totally okay to camp in the woods of a national forest without having a camping spot. Even with designated campgrounds around (the ones that come with bathrooms and showers and RV hookups), pulling off to the side of the road and setting up camp is A-okay. I don’t know the actual rule on this, but Jordan had talked to a Park Ranger at some point in the near past and they said it was relatively kosher.
So, at 2am, we set up camp: Joey and Jordan threw up their hammocks, and I put up my tent. We’d later joke that one day, when we’re all famous or something like that, they’d turn that little dirt road into a national monument. I’ll let you know when that happens.
Day 2: Yosemite and the Stairway to Heaven
Fearing we’d face the same camping situation as we did in San Francisco, we struck our makeshift forest camp at 7:30am and crowded back into the car to try to beat the rush of fellow adventurers filing into the park for the week. With the onslaught of snow Yosemite had gotten in the prior weeks, there were only two campgrounds with walk-in spots, and the last thing we wanted was to get the boot from arguably the most anticipated part of our adventure.
Fortunately, Camp 4 had a handful of hammock-ready spots we were able to claim for our own. And it even came equipped with our own Australian squatter named Ben! (In order to utilize all of the space in the campground, the National Park Service crams solo/small group campers into the same spots. You gotta learn how to make friends!). Ben had already been there for a week and was sitting at the table surrounded by an array of well-worn climbing gear. The guy is a climbing junkie who told us that what Mecca is for Muslims, Yosemite is for climbers. Cool dude.
Jordan, Joey, and I wasted no time in getting adventure-ready. As nice as it would have been to post up in the hammocks for an early afternoon nap and catch up on the sleep we missed from the night before, we knew that if we sat down now we probably would waste the day away. So Jordan and Joey consulted the map and decided on Yosemite Falls – a “stunning hike” with “breathtaking" views from the top.
It was breath-taking alright...in every literal sense of the word possible. A mere half mile into the trek, as our legs started burning and we were gasping for oxygen, I revoked Jordan and Joey’s trail-choosing privileges for the remainder of the trip.
Yosemite Valley sits at a comfortable 4,000ft above sea level. The top of Yosemite Falls is about a 4.4 mile hike with an elevation gain just shy of 3,000ft. To give you some perspective, the Empire State Building – from the street to the top of the antennae – is 1,454 feet tall, meaning this hike – from bottom to top – is the equivalent of climbing up every stair at the Empire State Building not once, but TWICE…and then do all that within an eight mile hike.
After one mile of straight up switchbacks at a 30min/mile pace, my heart rate was pushing 185bpm. If we were going to hike this thing, it’d have to be one mile at a time, on top of blood, sweat, and what tasted like tears…but that couldn’t be right...I’m sure it was just the sunscreen running down my face. One mile turned to two and we found ourselves at the base of the falls. We looked up at the top of the falls and thought Holy crap, we still gotta climb THAT?! But then we saw a mom carrying a baby and our competitive nature got the best of us. To keep our spirits up, we asked everyone we passed how much farther we had to go, ignoring the usual response of “We left the top about 40 minutes ago” and convincing ourselves that what they ACTUALLY meant was “Just five more minutes! It’s just around the corner!” Soon, the stairs and trail disappeared beneath one to two feet of obnoxiously wet snow. Still, we climbed.
And then (probably 40 minutes later) we were there – not just at the top of falls, but at the viewpoint ABOVE the falls. With Half Dome on our left, the valley a literal 3,000 foot drop below, and a level of crystal clarity that I can’t even begin to describe, we sat on the edge of the cliff and contemplated all the hotdogs we would devour as soon as we got back to camp.
I won’t lie. Many people will give you some sort of spiritual mountaintop experience they had in situations like this. And to be sure, I don’t think it’s possible to get to a spot like that and NOT contemplate life and creation in a spiritual way. But I also won’t say our brains didn’t kick into self-preservation mode and start obsessing over juicy, calorie-loaded hotdogs cooked over the glowing embers of a campfire. It’s just the way things go.
The only problem was those hotdogs were 4.4 miles of treacherous, knee-breaking downhill switchbacks away. So down the mountain we went, praying that each shaky step wouldn’t result in a broken ankle or twisted knee. Once, the trail got congested with downhill hikers waiting for a Search & Rescue crew to secure an injured hiker to a stretcher and prep him for the rest of the descent. I’ve no idea how they did it, but they had a large wheelbarrow wheel that apparently attached to the bottom of the stretcher and allowed the team surrounding it to carry the weight of the hiker. At that point, my legs were begging me to keel over and ask for a stretcher myself.
Switchback after switchback after switchback after switchback after switchback after switchback. We looked at each other and wondered if we had taken a wrong turn somewhere. There was no way we had gone up THAT many switchbacks on the initial climb, had we? Fortunate for us, this trail was a one-way-in, one-way-out. No navigational errors were made, and soon we reached the valley floor and looked up at the cliff behind us.
"Hey, remember that one time we were way up there?" we said, pointing back at the top of the falls and painfully laughing and swearing we’d probably never do it again.
But really…it’s going to be a while before any of us do it again.
And I don’t think hotdogs have ever tasted so good.
(...and neither has CranRas La Croix, party pack Oreos, peanut butter, and Rocky Patel cigars).
Day 3: Hammocking in the Rain, Corned Beef Hash, and Superheroes
It was a facetious offer, but it was out there nonetheless: if either of them got too cold, they could ditch their hammocks and jump in my tent. But when 6:30am rolled around and the zipper of my tent slowly slid open to reveal Jordan’s half-asleep face, I was a bit confused.
"Wha’re you doing?" I mumbled. Before he could give an answer, I heard the pitter-patter of rain drops on the tent rain fly. "Are you seri–"
"It’s flippin’ raining out here, Sam!" he replied, as he tossed his sleeping bag and pillow in beside me.
A weird blend of sleepy, hoarse laughter burst from my lungs; it was like my body wasn’t sure if it should start coughing or sucking down oxygen, so it started doing both as a comedy act. The laughter continued as I grabbed my pack and shifted to the right to give him some room near the door. I’ve managed with three people in my little two-man tent, but that was with no duffel bags and a pre-arranged, mutual spooning pact. With all my gear in the tent instead of the storage locker, it would be a tight fit for the two of us.
"Where’s Joey?" I asked.
"I think he’s still sleeping…"
"…so...we’re going to leave him out there?"
"It’s not raining that bad."
And with that we both fell asleep for another two hours.
Joey, on the other hand, had woken up a few minutes after Jordan and migrated to the car to sleep/read until the rain let up. In the end, it all worked out perfectly…except for all the wet sleeping gear. With another chance of rain on the way, it looked like we would have to sack our plan of staying in Yosemite another night.
On top of that, in our ravenous hunger the night before, we had devoured nearly all of our food. All that was left was four apples, some granola bars, PB&J sandwiches, and a ton of Oreos. We’re all college age guys and could live on less, but there’s no way our bodies could survive even a small hike after what we’d done the day before without proper sustenance.
Jordan, in typical Jordan fashion, ventured an alternative plan. “What if we pack up all our stuff in the car, get breakfast at that Majestic Hotel – on me – and then we hangout there, get some reading done, and then hit the road? What do you guys think of that plan?"
A hot breakfast in a warm, dry, classic mountain hotel sounded as good a plan as any, and soon we were sitting in the massive, fancy dining room of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel – wearing flip flops and house slippers and smelling like sweaty sunscreen and musky cigar smoke. The photo I got of Jordan captures the moment perfectly.
I’ve yet to go pro, but I consider myself to be an up-and-coming connoisseur of breakfast hash. I don’t know what it is about it, but whenever I see it on a menu, I have to try it. Apparently, I made the right choice. Not only did our own waiter (a outdoor junky named Ben) give us a hearty walkthrough of the beauty of this hash-goodness before he brought it out, but a second waiter from the tables across from ours came over and provided a play-by-play of how this particular recipe is his second favorite on the planet – and his family is super European and well versed in the hash-culture.
Needless to say, I will most definitely be ordering it again next time I’m there. It was as if every bite conjured both pleasure and sadness: pleasure in the warmth and heartiness of the food, and sadness in knowing that I was one bite closer to finishing it.
But I digress.
The rest of our day was spent in the car, and it felt like forever. The unfortunate reality is that with Yosemite being directly east of San Francisco, of the ten hours we had spent in the car over the past two days, only three of those were actually spent going north. "I feel like we should be farther than this!" Joey yelled from the backseat as we shot past a rain-soaked Sacramento along the I-5. I could feel his pain. He’s the tallest of the three of us, and my car isn’t exactly the friendliest on leg room.
In desperate need of showers, we decided on finding a cheap motel just north of Redding. We snagged burgers at Bartels (a local burger diner) and raced to the theater to catch a 7pm showing of Shazam! before cleaning up and passing out at a roadside Motel 6.
The only bummer was they didn’t have a hot tub.
I love hot tubs.
Day 4: Just Get Me Home, Please
You probably don’t realize it, but there are actually eight recorded wonders of the world as opposed to the commonly believed seven. We didn’t realize it either until we saw the sign for the exit just a few miles south of the Oregon border. All Star Liquors. Apparently, it’s world famous…or at least a legend among Oregonians who have to pay a hefty alcohol tax on liquor (one of the few things that give California a leg up in the competition). I’ve never seen any of the world’s Wonders, so we made it a point to stop.
I’m not going to say "let down," but it definitely didn’t feel like a world wonder. Even with such a wide variety of liquor, this roadside shop couldn’t compare with Bevmo or other alcohol warehouses. It was found wanting.
Still, it was our final foot-fall on Californian soil. Being in Oregon means you don’t even need to get out of the car to pump your gas. Someone does it for you. That was okay with us. All we wanted was to get back to camp.
Minus the excitement of the eighth wonder of the world, it was a quiet, dazed trip back up to camp. Even on the greatest of road trips, exhaustion always finds a way to settle in. Being out of your normal element, changing your normal routines, eating more (or less) – it all takes a toll on you. By the time we pulled up to camp, the sun slowly sinking behind the trees, we were practically ready for bed.
It’s a Wrap
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. This is really more of a journal entry than anything; something to help me remember all the awesomeness that comes with taking road trips with some of your best friends. I’ve done my best to include links for all the spots and routes we took in case you ever decide YOU want to do an epic road trip with your best friends. If you do, be sure buy a party pack of Oreos and cheers every time you do something significant. It makes it feel that much cooler.
Also, take a ton of photos, but go the extra step and actually WRITE about it. I don’t think you can ever have too many photos (well…as long as they’re good photos), but the world could always use your unique perspective on things. Photos don’t always tell the backstory, so do us all a favor and contribute!
Speaking of photos, I took all of these on my iPhone (crazy, right?!) and edited them with Adobe Lightroom Mobile. It’s a flippin’ fantastic app that takes blah photos and makes them awesome (if you have an idea of what you’re doing, of course). I highly highly highly recommend it for anyone who does phone photography.
The other option (and this one is my favorite) is to just invite me on your next road trip and I’ll be sure to capture it in all its awesomeness! (Enter shameless plug for creative work here).
That’s all I’ve got for you.
Go plan a road trip.
…and be sure to send me an invite.