Road tripping the West of America!

My husband and I recently spent five weeks travelling though the west coast of America for their summer. We were driving and living in a campervan for the first two weeks, before hiring a car and booking accommodation for the rest of the trip.

If you are ever interested in travelling through America I HIGHLY recommend driving it. I think it would have to be the best way to see the most of the huge expansive country.

A map of our trip – we basically just did a big loop!

We used the app iOverlander to find all the camping spots for the trip. I couldn’t recommend the app enough. Users can also write reviews of the campsites so you can get a feel as to whether or not its a good place to stay. Of course the majority of these free campgrounds do not have toilets and showers, and also important to remember that the camping rules vary from state to state. We didn’t bring the van to Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco and LA after reading it was virtually impossible to “free camp” anywhere in those states. So definitely do your research. It might seem as though a van is the cheap way to go but it definitely depends on which states you’re travelling in!

We spent 15K AUD between the two of us for over a month (including flights)!! However, we tried hard to do it on a budget. We tried to only eat one meal out per day, and the other two we made in the van or in the accommodation we were staying in. We were super conscious of our spending, as we were going straight from the US to London; we wanted to keep as much of our savings as we could.

Here is a summary of our itinerary below:

Day 1: Los Angeles

We flew into LAX in the afternoon and stayed the night in a hostel. We had three days to get to New Mexico for a wedding so we were on a tight schedule.

Day 2: LA ➝ Palm Springs ➝ Phoenix, Arizona

We left LA at approximately 1pm – as soon as we could pick up our van. Thankfully just missing the end of the day traffic. We pulled over and stopped at Palm Springs which is about 1 hour and 45 minutes out of LA. This was totally unplanned but we were driving past and we couldn’t say no! We only stayed for a few hours but you could easily stay a few days there. However, the weather was awful (45 degrees awful). So we basically just drove through as we didn’t want to go outside.

What to do:

  • Drive through the Indian Canyons, Vista Las Palmas and Deepwell Estates for the most insane mid-century modern architecture. We honestly felt like we were on a film set it was so surreal!

We arrived in Phoenix by midnight, which was a further 4.5 hours or so from Palm Springs. It was still roughly 38 degrees outside so we decided we would book a room for the night rather than sleep in our van. We stayed in a hotel off the main highway so we could get up and leave easily the next morning. Again, it was extremely hot. The night time temperature only dropped to about 35 degrees, so we were pretty glad we weren’t sleeping in our van!

Day 3: Phoenix ➝ Albuquerque, New Mexico

We left Phoenix mid morning and finally arrived in Albuquerque just before midnight to join the start of the wedding celebrations. Alberquerque is about a 7 hour drive from Phoenix, and you are virtually driving along a long straight highway the entire time. This was probably up there with the most boring drive we did!

An extremely cheap and delicious lunch from the Nob Hill district in Albuquerque.

We were lucky enough to be able to park our van at our friends house, and could therefore make use of the toilet and shower in his house (big luxuries when you’re living in a van!) We stayed in Albuquerque for three fun nights of wedding celebrations, before hitting the road.

What to do:

  • Old Town
  • Tinkertown museum (honestly the weirdest experience ever but worth it).
  • Of course swing by Walter White’s house – 3828 Piermont Dr NE Albuquerque. Be prepared, the owner of the house sits out the front everyday yelling at tourists for taking photos. So make it quick!

Day 7: Albuquerque ➝ Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe was only just over an hour drive from Albuquerque, and after seeing photos of it on various blogs and Pinterest, I had to go! We stayed for one night at a free campsite in the forest.

What to do:

  • Kasha Katuwe ‘Tent Rocks’
  • Elrey Court hotel for drinks and beautiful interiors
  • Iconik coffee
The incredible Kasha Katuwe – photos do not do it justice!

Day 8: Santa Fe ➝ Colorado Springs

We left Santa Fe around lunch time, and arrived in Colorado Springs about 5 hours later. We spent the evening at a couple of different breweries before going to our campsite for the evening… the beautiful ’24 hour fitness’. Lol. Something I learnt from the iOverlander app is that 24 hour fitness clubs are always a solid bet to get a free place to sleep for the night. Particularly in cities where the campsites are very limited, or are just RV parks that charge up to $90 per night!! Keep in mind you don’t want to park your van at the gym carpark, then proceed to brush your teeth, get into your PJ’s, go the toilet… you need to keep it stealth. We would brush our teeth and get ready for bed at a public park, roll up to the fitness club and go straight to sleep. We made sure not to make any disruptions! Whilst we didn’t stay anywhere illegal, it is still slightly frowned upon, and you don’t want to get woken up in the night and asked to move on.

What to do:

  • Garden of the Gods
  • Red Rock Canyon
  • Trinity Brewery

Day 9: Colorado Springs ➝ Denver

We were going to stay in Colorado Springs another night but halfway through the day decided we would just kick on to Denver as there was quite a bit to see there. Denver was just over an hours drive from Colorado Springs, and again we stayed at a fitness club in Denver for two nights. There were a lot of other “van lifers” staying in these carparks and we met a few quirky characters. The second day in Denver I was desperate for a shower having not showered in three days!!! We did a google for some public pools that we could go to to use the showers, and luckily found a swimming hole that had showers we could use. We had to pay $10 for entry but it was so worth it for the shower!

What to do:

  • Denver Art Museum
  • City O’ City for brunch
  • Sloan’s lake park
  • Coors Brewery tour
  • Brewery hopping. We literally spent three days drinking beer and I don’t regret it at all.
The yummiest kimchi pancakes and scrambled tofu from City O’ City.

Day 11: Denver ➝ Moab, Utah

This was such a beautiful drive! Definitely the most scenic one we had done so far. We arrived in Moab after about 6 hours of driving. There was plenty of free, legal and beautiful camping spots here. We stayed the night in a peaceful little campsite with quite a few other campers. We explored Moab the next day and then kicked onto Idaho that evening.

What to do:

  • Arches National Park
  • We stopped at a few other cities while we were in Utah – Salt Lake City and Springville. We went to the one brewery in Springville – Strap Tank, which opened in 2016 and was the first brewery in the whole state of Utah!

Day 12: Utah ➝ Idaho

As I mentioned before, we drove through a few other cities in Utah before continuing on to Idaho. The drive took us about 7 hours in total, and we arrived fairly late at night (11.30pm or so). We stayed overnight in a small town at a campsite on the river – free of course! We woke up early the next morning and kicked on for another couple of hours before arriving in Boise. We stayed in Boise for three nights at the top of a hill which overlooked the city. It was probably one of the best camp spots we found! We also met a few other van lifers who came across this spot on the iOverlander app as well.

What to do:

  • Neckar Coffee
  • Explore the Hyde Park neighbourhood. The homes in Boise were crazy beautiful. Every street looked like it belonged in some quintessential coming of age American movie. Hyde Park also has the cutest little shopping strip with old fashioned ice-cream parlours, coffee shops, and a few bars. It gave me big Riverdale vibes!
  • Idaho wine region! We visited Koenig winery, Ste Chapelle winery and Hat ranch winery.

Day 15: Boise ➝ Portland, Oregon

We drove from Boise to Portland (about 7 hours drive) where we sadly dropped off our van, before getting the train up the coast to Seattle. 

Day 16: Portland ➝ Seattle, Washington

We stayed in Seattle for two nights at a lovely Air BnB in Ballard. It’s so overwhelming knowing which area to stay in when you’re in a new city, but Ballard was definitely a good choice! Super cool vibe there, heaps of restaurants, bars, cafes, shops all within walking distance and only a quick bus ride into downtown Seattle.

What to do:

  • Essex wine bar
  • Pike Place market
  • No Bones beach club
  • Wander around downtown Seattle, Ballard, and Capitol Hill.

Day 19: Seattle ➝ Portland

We hopped on the bus from Seattle to Portland which took about 3 hours or so. We stayed at an Air BnB in the Alberta Arts district for three nights. We were initially going to head straight to San Francisco after the three nights, but we loved Portland so much so booked another two nights at the HI in the Pearl District.

What to do:

  • The Bye and Bye
  • Breakside brewery
  • Bar Norman for natural wine
  • Virtuous Pie
  • Powell’s books
  • Buffalo Exchange thrift stores (these are all across America but the ones in Portland were the best I went to!)
  • Alberta Park

Day 24: Portland ➝ San Fransisco

We left Portland and hopped on an 18 hour train ride to San Franscisco. YES 18 hours!!! We met the most unusual people on this train ride, but it was such a hilarious experience. We still talk and laugh about it all the time.

Admiring the Painted Lady’s from Alamo Park.

Once we arrived in San Franscisco we stayed two nights at a hotel in the city. San Francisco was cool, but I definitely didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I think coming from Portland which had such fun vibes, amazing arts, culture and vegan food; San Fransisco just felt like another big city. San Francisco also had very limited vegan options, and what they did have was ridiculously expensive! Although, the houses and buildings in San Franscisco were beautiful!! 

What to do:

  • Go see the Painted Lady’s and hang out at Alamo Square Park.
  • Walk up the Nob hill for beautiful views and incredible houses.
  • Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
  • Explore the Mission District for cool boutiques, coffee shops and bars.
  • Go to Fort Point to get a good view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Day 26: San Fransisco ➝ Monterey, California

On our second day in San Franscisco we picked up a rental car and drove to Monterey, California which was only a couple of hours drive. We stayed the night at Motel 6 in Monterey, which was the cheapest central accommodation we could find, and still cost us $165 USD for the night. So just a heads up if you’re doing the Big Sur expect to pay big dollars for everything. 

Bixby Bridge! If you watch Big Little Lies you will know all about this spot.

What to do:

  • Alvarado Street Brewery
  • Bixby Bridge
  • Wander around Alvarado Street
  • Captain Stoker for coffee and breakfast

Day 27: Monterey ➝ Big Sur ➝ Los Angeles

The next morning we kept heading along the Big Sur and arrived in LA later that evening. 

What to do:

  • McWay Falls
  • Partington Cove
  • Julia Pfeiffer burns state park

Day 27 ➝ 35 … Los Angeles

We then spent the next week or so at an Air BnB in West Hollywood. If you are going to LA there is literally no point in going if you don’t have a car!!! You NEED one. It is so ridiculously spread out and sometimes takes a whole day to do one thing because of the traffic. Also important to stay somewhere well located! I would definitely recommend West Hollywood. I would also say you need at least a week here. Once again because it takes so long to get anywhere unfortunately it is not a city you can smash out in one or two days. 

What to do:

  • Santa Monica
  • Venice Beach
  • Walk up to the look out at Griffith Observatory to get all the good views!
  • Laguna Beach
  • The Getty Villa
  • Malibu
  • San Diego (a bit far and you could definitely stay the night, but we just did a day trip.)
  • Drive along the iconic Mulholland Drive
  • Vintage shopping on Melrose Ave
  • Alfred’s coffee

As much as I complain about the traffic, LA was still my favourite place! The vegan scene there is just insane. There is also so much to do there, we could’ve stayed longer! You’re so close by to Malibu, Laguna, Orange County, San Diego… So many day trips to be had. 

We hope to visit all the states in America in our lifetime! It’s crazy how different each state is from the other. You really get to experience so many different cultures just travelling state to state. I couldn’t recommend an American road trip enough!