Van Camping California’s Hwy 1: An Adventure Along the Pacific Coast

California's Highway 1, often referred to as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), is a dream route for van campers. Stretching over 600 miles from Dana Point in Southern California to Leggett in Northern California, it offers breathtaking views, diverse landscapes, and an array of camping spots that cater to every type of traveler. Whether you’re a seasoned van lifer or new to the road, exploring Highway 1 in a van is an unforgettable experience. Here’s how to make the most of your journey. 

Preparing for the Journey

Before hitting the road, ensure your van is well-equipped for the trip. Essentials include:

  • Comfortable Sleeping Arrangements: A good mattress or sleeping bags.
  • Cooking Supplies: Portable stove, pots, pans, and utensils.
  • Food and Water: Stock up on non-perishables and refillable water containers.
  • Navigation Tools: GPS, maps, and guidebooks.
  • Safety Gear: First aid kit, flashlight, and emergency supplies.

Additionally, familiarize yourself with California’s camping regulations and respect the environment by adhering to Leave No Trace principles.

Iconic Stops Along Hwy 1

1. Dana Point

Starting your journey in Southern California, Dana Point is a charming coastal town with beautiful beaches and a bustling harbor. Doheny State Beach offers camping right by the ocean, perfect for your first night under the stars.

2. Santa Monica and Malibu

As you drive north, you’ll pass through iconic beach cities. In Santa Monica, take a stroll on the famous pier. In Malibu, enjoy the scenic Zuma Beach or hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. Malibu Creek State Park offers excellent van camping facilities.

3. Santa Barbara

Known for its Mediterranean vibe, Santa Barbara is a great spot for wine tasting and exploring historical sites. The nearby El Capitan State Beach provides beachfront camping with facilities for van campers.

4. Big Sur

Big Sur is the crown jewel of Hwy 1, with rugged cliffs, redwood forests, and stunning coastal views. Popular spots include McWay Falls, Bixby Creek Bridge, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which offers some of the best camping in the area. Be sure to book your campsite in advance, as this region is highly sought after.

5. Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea

Further north, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best in the world. The 17-Mile Drive offers a picturesque route through Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach. Carmel-by-the-Sea, with its charming shops and art galleries, is another must-visit. Consider camping at nearby Veterans Memorial Park in Monterey.

6. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is known for its vibrant boardwalk and surf culture. The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers a peaceful retreat among towering redwoods, perfect for van camping.

7. San Francisco

Cross the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and explore the diverse neighborhoods of San Francisco. While urban camping options are limited, nearby spots like Half Moon Bay State Beach offer coastal camping close to the city.

8. Point Reyes National Seashore

North of San Francisco, Point Reyes is a nature lover’s paradise with hiking trails, wildlife viewing, and dramatic coastal landscapes. The nearby Samuel P. Taylor State Park offers convenient camping facilities.

9. Mendocino Coast

As you near the end of Hwy 1, the Mendocino Coast offers rugged beauty and tranquility. Van Damme State Park and Russian Gulch State Park are excellent choices for camping, offering scenic views and outdoor activities.

Tips for Van Camping on Hwy 1

  1. Plan Ahead: Campsites along Highway 1 can fill up quickly, especially in popular areas like Big Sur and Santa Cruz. Make reservations where possible.
  2. Stay Flexible: Weather and road conditions can change, so have a flexible itinerary.
  3. Pack Light and Smart: Space is limited in a van, so pack only what you need and ensure everything has a designated spot.
  4. Respect Local Communities: Be mindful of noise levels, local regulations, and clean up after yourself.
  5. Take Your Time: Highway 1 is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Stop frequently, soak in the views, and explore off the beaten path. 

Van camping along California’s Highway 1 is more than just a road trip; it’s an adventure filled with stunning scenery, diverse attractions, and the freedom of the open road. Whether you’re winding through the cliffs of Big Sur, exploring the quaint towns of the Central Coast, or marveling at the rugged beauty of the northern coastline, Hwy 1 offers a unique and unforgettable van camping experience. So pack your van, hit the road, and let the magic of California’s Pacific Coast Highway unfold before you.