Roadtrippin’: Cruising Along California’s Big Sur

A New Year’s road trip from the cobalt-kissed coast to the heart of the Mojave Desert, one campsite at a time.
Joshua Tree National Park California
On a clear, new moon night, the Milky Way reveals itself to stargazing campers at Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: Ben Horton/National Geographic Creative

“It’s moving!” I whispered, beckoning my friend to look at the sea creature that had captivated my attention. It was bizarre and beautiful: a cross between an anemone and a sunflower with neon-green fangs instead of petals. “What do you think it is?” I wondered, tempted to see what its pale purple fringes felt like. Waves sloshed in and out of the shallow tidal pool by my boots, submerging and revealing the wackadoo ocean bloom. A few feet away, the Pacific Ocean extended for thousands of miles from the California coast, a sheet of deep, blue glass, calm as the day Magellan christened it Mar Pacifico.

Five hundred years after the Portuguese explorer first encountered (and waxed eloquent about) the favourable winds of the Peaceful Sea, scientists, navigators, and marine voyagers continue to discover the marvels that thrive in its depths. We thrilled in its more accessible curiosities. Jumping from one rock to another, poking, prodding, sniffing, and grinning like children in an Enid Blyton book, we examined the striking creatures around us. The rocks were encrusted with bottle-green mussels—more mussels than I’d ever seen—and the shimmering pools fostered coral, purple sea urchins, and all kinds of crabs. I took a greedy gulp of the brisk, salty breeze, licking my lips so I could taste the ocean. It looked more vast than the sky above.

Pebble Beach California

In contrast to the views on offer at Joshua Tree National Park, the Big Sur views are all about the Pacific, which lashes near the coast, water glittering like diamonds in the California sun. Photo: Frans Lanting/National Geographic Creative

I had spent the previous week in San Francisco, observing the way of the hipster. Over meals at tiny taquerias, conversations in the city’s marijuana-scented parks (medical marijuana is legal in the state), and long walks along its graffiti-vitalised streets, I steeped in the city’s charms. San Francisco has all the perks of a big city but maintains a gentle pace and fierce love for all things independent. Its residents are as colourful as the food trucks at which they patiently queue up, which made the city doubly appealing to a hungry traveller like me. I scarfed down pillow-soft bao buns in Chinatown, savoured smoked salmon at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and had so many cups of organic, artisanal coffee, I feared I might never enjoy a normal brew again.

Now, I was out to see the other side of California. To walk among towering redwood groves, hike through the magnificent Mojave Desert, maybe even take a dip in the Pacific (even though it’s freezing in December). What better way to experience all this than on a Great American Road Trip? And what better time, with the New Year only a few days away?

Our plan was to drive from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park, 1,000-odd kilometres away, in time for New Year’s Eve. We’d spend a few days exploring its desert landscapes, then loop back to the Big Sur for some ocean time before whizzing back to the city. Armed with a tent, sleeping bags, cooking stove, and brown paper bags full of avocados, bread, and meat, we set off on a chilly morning leaving the hilly city behind.

Hikers California Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is popular with astronomers and night hikers. The desert sanctuary’s remote location has minimum light pollution, giving campers exquisite views. Photo: Ben Horton/Getty Images

There’s something about the start of road trips—especially ones that begin when the skies lighten—that’s magical. Roads are empty, optimism is high, and with the right music, it seems as if the possibilities are endless. We had The Killers streaming through our speakers and California’s winter winds blowing outside our spotless windows. The montage changed quickly from pretty city homes and squat supermarkets to winding roads skirted by fir trees and wooden grocery stores welcoming us to Big Sur. Surf capital, hippie haven, and hikers’ refuge, Big Sur is a coastal region in central California where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific, dramatic cliffs greeting lashing waves. We were driving on the Pacific Coast Highway, a ribbon of tarmac that hugs the jagged coastline from L.A. to Washington State. It rose and fell with the terrain, playing hide and seek with heart-stopping ocean views.

We stopped frequently, to soak in the panorama of blue and explore coves like the one with the curious anemones, and others with colonies of jelly-belly elephant seals snoozing on the beach, babies nudging their lazy mommies to play. It was a wonderful day, despite the December winds that numbed our fingertips. So wonderful, that we completely lost track of time.

Before we realised, it was 7.30 p.m., the sun had long retired, and every Big Sur campsite we stopped at was full. Fires were roaring, hot dogs sizzled on grills, and families lounged in their camp chairs, soaking in the warmth of the flames. It looked cosy and comfortable, frustratingly so, since it was getting colder by the minute. California is warmer than most of the country but the temperature still dips to around 0°C by the end of December.

Camping is very organised in the U.S., and limited to designated camping grounds. Each site is divided into slots, which are large enough to fit a car and two family-sized tents. Sites are plentiful and vary in size, but almost always have spectacular settings. National parks like Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Yellowstone have room for over 200 campers, and sites are equipped with power outlets for RVs. Big Sur on the other hand, has more intimate grounds—about a dozen spaces—nestled among moss-covered redwood forests or on cliffs with ocean views that tempt you to sleep with the flap of your tent open (Don’t. It’s cold, and the racoons are looking for warmth). Sites generally have firepits, barbecue stands, and clean-enough public bathrooms. Some even have coin-operated shower stalls so you can camp for a week without smelling like ripe Brie.

elephant seals California Big Sur

Elephant seals are large, lazy, and very loud. Colonies roost on protected beaches along Big Sur, much to the delight of travellers who amuse at the loud honking sound made by the animals. Photo: Scott S. Warren/National Geographic/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Seal California Big Sur

Big Sur is filled with marine life, big and small, from curious sea anemones to playful colonies of seals. Photo: Worldswildlifewonders/Shutterstock


Stubbornly refusing to check in to a hotel on the first night of our camping trip, we asked a local inn for sites we might have missed (it’s illegal to pitch a tent in the wild, however remote). That’s when we heard about B.L.M. Lands, designated areas near most parks and reserves where campers can pitch a tent for free. The location isn’t as spectacular, there aren’t any facilities, and you cannot start a fire, but it was better than spending the night in the car. So we shivered as we set up the tent (another first for me), made avocado-ham sandwiches for dinner, and tried to savour the night sky, silently hoping a black bear wouldn’t pay us a visit. Then, we tucked into our sleeping bags, pulled our woolly hats low over our heads, and slept like babies.

The landscape changed dramatically once we left Big Sur. The rugged coastline gave way to dried-up vineyards, raspberry fields, ranches, and grassy knolls dotted with handsome bovines. As the day progressed, we whizzed past different sides of the country: L.A. with its flashier-than-thou convertible cars, manicured towns like Santa Cruz, lined with candy-coloured homes, arid patches of land where oil was being drilled, and picturesque villages like Harmony (population: 18), perched on a hillock by the sea with a solitary cypress tree bent by the wind.

For lunch, we stopped in Malibu, where Baywatch was reportedly shot. We missed seeing blonde lifeguards running in slow motion but what we did see, which cracked us up considerably, was a proper Tamilian temple, gopuram and all, watching over the Pacific. Save for the glorious beef burger we had at Malibu, the rest of our stops were limited to loo breaks, and the occasional vista point. We were making good time. Or so we thought.

Turns out Google Maps was wrong. At 9 p.m. we were hurtling down desolate roads, past towns long abandoned by people, now possessed by long, sinister shadows. Joshua Tree was still about 80 km away. The happy chatter in the car had died out. Meanwhile on the radio, a chirpy female jockey urged us to join the Vegas carnival. “Surrender to the night” she flirted, “Unlimited cocktails and shrimp!”

Her enthusiastic voice brought back a gush of memories from New Year Eves past. Blurry nights spent bar-hopping with girlfriends, cosy dinner parties with the family, the delirium of dancing until dawn broke, the crippling hangover that followed. A chuckle on my lips, I thought: Look at me now, hurtling through the Californian desert, thousands of miles from home, hoping to set up camp in the Mojave.

Redwood Forest California Big Sur

California’s dramatically different landscapes are a camper’s dream. There are stark desert landscapes, Pacific coves, and redwood forests to discover. Photo: Robert Harding/Indiapicture

It didn’t matter that it was nearly midnight by the time we had pitched our tent at Joshua Tree National Park. Or that I had left my down-feather jacket in San Francisco. We had made it. Mountains gleamed in the distance. Patches of snow crunched underfoot. Around us granite monoliths stood like sentinels and boulders were piled precariously, as if they might tumble any minute, like colossal versions of the Buddhist cairns in Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. It was cold, brutal, and breathtakingly beautiful. When the clock struck twelve, we clinked our disposable glasses of Scotch and toasted each other, the glorious night sky, and the steaks barbecuing on a fire we’d made ourselves.

The next two days were spent exploring the 3,200-kilometre desert sanctuary. The national park, which includes the Mojave and Colorado Desert, is riddled with well-marked trails that lead to abandoned gold mines, desert oases, cactus gardens, and former settlements. Some take only a few hours, other walks can stretch for days. Mornings, evenings, and nights were bitterly cold, but the afternoons from noon until about four, were perfect for hiking. Slathered in sun-block and armed with water bottles, we set out on the Skull Rock Trail, named after rocks that the wind has sculpted into alien-looking faces.

The desert is in the details. Looking closely, I saw the incredible ways in which its flora and fauna have adapted to survive: Cacti of all shapes and sizes, velvety yellow moss, and juniper trees with berries that look like white chocolate truffles. They are less fragrant than the junipers used when making gin, but crucial to this habitat. I marvelled at the genius of the Indians who inhabited this region many centuries ago, living off nuts, berries, and mesquite, a spiny member of the pea family. A pamphlet I had told me that Indian Cove, one of the other campsites, still had bedrock mortars: holes ground into solid rock over years of grinding seeds for food. To think that these exquisite structures, like Big Sur’s magnificent coastline, were sculpted over millennia by the forces of wind and water, was humbling. If these rocks could talk, I wondered, what tales they would tell.

Grilling sausages Camping

Food is a crucial part of a camping trip and there’s no better way to cook than to barbecue on a fire you started yourself. Photo: Lew Robertson/Getty Images

That evening, we had a barbecue dinner with some students from Pasadena who had the camping spot next to us. We’d offered to share our site with them earlier in the day, when they couldn’t find one. When they did, they invited us to dinner for hot dogs, with shots of Fireball, a potent cinnamon-flavoured whiskey that they said was an American camping tradition. It was an impromptu plan, and one of the nicest evenings on the trip. We exchanged notes on our travels as we grilled the frankfurters, laughing about how so many of us wanted to move out of our respective cities, set up a farm someplace, and quietly live off the land. Some clichés are true, I thought. The more I travel, the more I realise how similar we all are. One of the boys had a guitar, which he played softly, murmuring a country song about love and loss, while flames crackled and hissed a few feet away.

Not every campsite we encountered was as welcoming. At California City, we stumbled upon one that looked less like a campsite and more like a scene from the TV drama, Breaking Bad. A signboard proclaimed it was legitimate. But really, it was a fenced-in parking lot of a defunct airport, dotted with worn-out imitation Cessna planes. The only person we encountered was a lady with a scarred face who insisted she had been there only a week. Behind her, an RV that looked as old as the ghostly airport was parked, tyres deflated. The sound of a cat wailing like a banshee emerged from inside. Maybe she was cooking a pot of spaghetti, lovingly made from scratch, and not potentially illegal substances like my imagination would have me believe. But we weren’t sticking around to find out. Any campsite that feels, even vaguely, like a slasher movie is a no-go.

Save for that one, somewhat creepy incident in California City, every other camp ground we found was near-perfect. At Lake Cachuma—a stunning ground we randomly picked on Google Maps—we shared our instant coffee with Joel, a tree surgeon, who gave us his camp chair and table, because “his lady didn’t like either of them”. On our last night at Big Sur, we got a bundle of firewood from campers that were heading back to the city. We met interesting people from worlds far from ours, and saw sides of suburban California—some wonderful, some, well, different—we might never have encountered if we weren’t driving. We stumbled upon little gems like the Henry Miller Memorial Library, hidden among redwoods in the Big Sur.

Our last night was spent at Kirk Creek Camp Grounds, one of the Big Sur sites that was full up on our first night on the road, and my favourite. We arrived early (we’d finally learned our lesson) and had our tent up and the last of our steaks marinating by the time the ocean swallowed the sun. Hotdog buns were sliced and ready, sitting on the table Joel had given us. I was plonked on the camping chair, and my companion was tending to the fire.

Joshua Tree National Park Boulders

California’s Joshua Tree National Park gets its name from the strange-armed Joshua Tree, which gained international fame when Irish rock band U2 named their most popular music album after it. Photo Peter Mather/National Geographic/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Staring into Mar Pacifico, soothed by the hush of the waves, we chatted about the past year. It had been filled with travel for both of us. My friend had spent over six months away from home exploring Iceland, Greenland, Berlin, and had finally landed up in San Francisco. I had made many small trips, often alone, to parts of India and the world I had never imagined I would find myself in. And I did find little bits of myself, in the high mountains, in the depths of the ocean, and in forests bathed in the glow of fireflies. The more time I spent outdoors—rain in my hair, muck on my boots, face burnt from the sun—the more peace I gained.

Immersing myself in the wild, whether hiking or camping, helps clear the clutter in my mind. It makes room for me to appreciate and remember the smaller—often more important—things: the scent of a redwood bark, the warmth of new friends on a cold night, the sight of a blood moon rising over the boulders of the Mojave Desert. With every journey I take, I find my boundaries thaw, the judgemental voice in my head dims. I feel kinder and more forgiving, of myself and those around me. So why don’t I make the time to do this more often?

This, I decided, was my New Year’s Resolution. I would spend more time outside. Everything else would fall into place.


The Guide

The U.S.A. is among the finest countries on the planet to go camping. There are grand canyons to explore, dramatic coasts to hike along, sacred redwood groves to cleanse the soul, and vast deserts with breathtaking night skies. A camping road trip is also surprisingly easy and relatively inexpensive to pull off, provided you follow a few basic rules. Here’s a handy guide to get started.

Renting A Car

Driving license Indians do not need an international driver’s license to drive in the U.S. As long as their Indian license is in English, it can be used. Also required are a passport and credit card, the details of which the company stores when they hand over the keys.

Research Read reviews online before you select a car rental company. The apparently cheapest offer may have “hidden costs” at the end of the journey. Remember, they have your credit card details.

Caution Read the fine print and keep your route in mind before you make a decision. Our car company (Dollar), for instance, let us drive unlimited miles in the states of California and Nevada. If we crossed borders into any other American state, we were allowed only 300 miles per day, and would have been charged per mile for the additional distance covered. Also, inspect the car thoroughly before you sign the dotted line. Ensure the inspector from the rental company lists all dents and scratches in the form.

Insurance Third-party insurance is required by law, but most car rental companies do not include this in the base fare. Buy it before you get behind the wheel. You need insurance for every person who will drive.

Know Your Route

•    Plot your route before you start your journey. Go over it every morning before you hit the road. Get acquainted with the names and numbering system of the U.S. state highways. For instance, learning that all odd-numbered highways run from north to south made navigating much simpler for us.
•    Always carry a paper map with the routes and exits you have to take highlighted; mobile network is fleeting in rural America.


Jumbo Rocks California Big Sur

Jumbo Rocks is one of Joshua Tree National Park’s most scenic camping grounds, surrounded by stacks of boulders that look like mammoth art installations. Photo: Phil Schermeister/National Geographic Creative

Get the info There are few free camping spots. All sites have a notice board with information about camp fees, facilities, and directions to the ranger’s office, if there is one. Read the notices carefully. Some sites are no-fire zones, while others allow campers to stay only a limited number of nights.

Register Upon arrival, campers fill out a form (there’s always a stack near the notice board) with their names, vehicle number, and the number of nights they are staying. The form and money is put in an envelope and dropped into a box near the board. Site rangers allegedly collect the money daily, but the system runs largely on trust. Carry enough cash in small denominations; ATMs are few and change is hard to come by, even at grocery stores.

Campfires Purchase firewood locally. Bringing firewood from outside is frowned upon, even illegal in some national parks as it spreads animal and plant species that aren’t endemic to the region. Grocery stores close to camp grounds close by 6 p.m. so ensure you’re stocked up. You’ll need one entire bundle of firewood to keep a fire going for four hours.

Rangers Every national and state park has a ranger’s cabin, which it is crucial to visit before you go hiking. They provide valuable information about weather and wildlife. They may, for example, tell you about a hungry bear prowling around a particular trail.

Gear Carry everything you need from tents and sleeping bags, to floor mats, stove, torches, everything. Save for the occasional grocery store (5-25 mins away), where water, food, firewood, and random curios can be purchased, precious little is available.

Trash Clean up after yourself. Dump garbage in trash bins before you sleep or racoons will party on them and leave a trail of scraps for you to clean.

Book ahead Bookings for busier campsites can be made online at It is advisable to book at least 45 days in advance if you plan on camping in the summer, especially in popular parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Death Valley. Carry printouts of your booking; the wilds are most often internet-free zones.

Alternative sites If the campsites are full, ask camp rangers for a map of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands; they generally have one handy. These aren’t proper sites—no bathrooms, fire pits, ranger’s cabin—but campers can pitch tents here.

Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Blue Is The Warmest Colour”.


    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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