Recent mudslides had taken away entire sections of the outer track of the narrow highway that carried us down from the top of Mount Hamilton in Northern California. As we passed the first fenced off missing section, my 10-year-old son, Carmelo, dramatically wailed, “We’re dying,” from the back of our rented Mercedes Sprinter motor home.
“Are we?” asked his seven-year-old brother Rocco with genuine concern. “I’m fine,” I called back. My sixteen-year-old daughter, Perdida, assured the passenger seat, “Mom’s a great driver – everything’s fine,” with exaggerated confidence.
Moments later, a pickup truck crossed the centerline and almost hit us. I cursed loudly and carried on, trying to distract my freaked-out kids by observing the pretty yellow and purple wildflower landscape around us — and luckily we were traveling through California during a rare, historic super boom ? This was the hardest ride I had ever taken, and also my first real vacation as a single parent.
I was excited to jump on the #vanlife trend, the apparent millennial dream on Instagram. When I was 22 I had lived in Australia for a year in a VW campervan and I still look back on it fondly. I loved the idea of recapture some of that spirit of freedom — plans can change on a whim — on another trip, this time with my kids.
It was a sense of spontaneity that led us to Mount Hamilton. We had taken the tight road, full of hairpin bends and sharp turns, to the top to see the 135-year-old Lick Observatory, inspired by noticing it on Google Maps. The road seemed like a nice alternate route from Sonora to Santa Cruz.
Much to my children’s delight, our ride took us past coyotes and roadrunners, and a cowboy tying up a bull on a ranch. At the observatory, it felt incredibly satisfying to watch my kids interrogate a University of California astronomy student in the dome of the 36-inch Great Lick Refractor—the largest refracting telescope in the world when it was built in the 1880s.
Our road trip had begun exploring gold rush towns, but detoured to this unplanned drive over the mountains to the coast after days of torrential rain put a damper on camping. So I reversed the route towards Santa Cruz and drove up the famously scenic Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) through San Francisco before flying to Canada. All in all, we would road trip nearly 900 miles, cramming multiple trips of activities into one week.
Driving around in our motorhome meant we could stop wherever we wanted, let curiosity guide us. Just outside Santa Cruz we fell into the tiny Bigfoot Discovery Museum, where my Sasquatch-obsessed 10-year-old questioned its founder, Michael Rugg, who claims to have first seen the elusive creature when he was four. Rugg has since devoted his life to proving his existence. As a gritty “Bigfoot” movie shot in Northern California in 1967 played on a loop at the museum, Carmelo said, “That’s the Patterson-Gimlin movie” — breaking the ice with Rugg, who seemed happy to be a fellow genuine believer to meet.
The #vanlife experience didn’t come without its challenges, including the pressure to keep everyone entertained (and not bickering) all the time. Our Mercedes Sprinter fell short with a full kitchen, bathroom with shower, Wi-Fi and a party-ready stereo, but traveling with kids in a small space is tough, great as it is. Check in at well-equipped campgrounds, such as the family-friendly grounds at Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA Vacationwith a pool, huge bouncy castle and kids club, provided a much needed break.
But exhaustion aside, there were numerous highlights. I had to drag my boys away from a gold panning experience Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, the area where gold was first discovered in California in 1848; they still cherish the little vials of gold flakes and garnets they were allowed to take home.
We stopped by Groaning Caves, climbing a spiral staircase 50 feet down to explore stalactites and stalagmites, experiencing total darkness for the first time in our lives. We took a cold, sodden but stunningly beautiful walk through mighty giant sequoias Calaveras Big Trees State Parkwhere there was still snow on the ground.
Although we mostly prepared food in the van, we squeezed into dinner Grange, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Sacramento’s Citizen Hotel where my kids ate fancy chicken strips while I ordered filet mignon. We enjoyed $2 tacos at Cascabel in the cute little town of Angels Camp, and juicy burgers with a view of the ocean Jack O’Neill Restaurant & Lounge in Santa Cruz.
As we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge towards the end of the trip, Carmelo gasped as he recognized the landmark – one of his favorite Lego video games is set in San Francisco. “I never knew this was real,” he marveled. Perdida confessed that they felt like they were in a movie when we stopped at a gloriously windswept beach dotted with pelicans off Highway 1 to walk in the surf.
Could I live in such a small vehicle with my kids indefinitely, as some #vanlife evangelists do? Hard no, but ask my kids and they’ll insist this was the best holiday they’ve ever had. They loved sleeping in the cozy quarters, having fun at the campsites and being able to stop wherever we wanted. Despite all the bumps in the road and nearly tumbling down a mountain, I’d love to jump behind the wheel again.
Lola Augustine Brown traveled as a guest of Visit California, which has not reviewed or endorsed this article.
Tips for trying a #vanlife inspired road trip
Choose a suitable motorhome. The better equipped the van is, the less room to move you have inside. Make sure you choose a van with the correct seat belts and car seats for your children. The smaller the van, the less you’ll spend on gas and the easier (and cheaper) it will be to park, especially on city streets.
Rent from a reputable address. For this trip in California, the Mercedes Sprinter was rented from Quaint Vanlife Rental near Sacramento. They offer low-cost vans that can accommodate two to five people, for $129 to $300 (US) per night.
Get route inspiration. Tourism agency websites often offer ideas. Visit California, for example, suggests cool routes visitcalifornia.com/road-tripsranging from two nights to a week-long tour that takes you all over the state.