I started out with the given prompt of writing this to share some of my favorite "Summer camping tips," and more specifically, places that are especially nice to take your camper van. So, I decided to consult the experts, and as I was talking with my kids about some of our favorite seasonal trips, my 5-year-old blurts out, "But Dad, I love all the seasons!" Reflecting on that statement, I realized, so do I. So much so that I don't really have a favorite season, but simply enjoy where we live and that every season has something different to offer. So why limit this to the cliché "Summer camping" only? Especially when, to me, the best thing, and perhaps the entire point of owning a Field Van, is that it makes all the seasonal activities more accessible, more fun, and more comfortable. It's even opened up a few activities we wouldn't do without a van. So here are a few of our favorite seasonal spots and some tips we've picked up along the way.
One of our favorite areas in the Fall is the Central Coast of California. The area from north of Santa Barbara, all the way up through Big Sur to Monterey is a magical area with small sleepy coastal towns, beaches with minimal crowds, great restaurants, and lots of things to do. But the reason we go here in the fall is because, as the locals know, they regularly get what they call an Indian Summer during this time. During the actual summer months central coast weather is 60 degree days and fog that doesn’t burn off until noon. But come Fall, the temps climb up into the 70’s, the fog clears out, the tourists leave, and the sun shines on long stretches of beach all along the central coast. Camping here, especially the big sur area, can often require reservations. But in the fall we’ve usually been able to grab a spot at one of the smaller regional campgrounds. However, it never hurts to check ahead of time.
Pro Tip: if you’re passing through San Luis Obispo hike Bishops peak. A popular trail among locals, this lies right at the edge of town, but a short hike gives amazing views.
Super Pro tip: bonus points if you can find the “secret cave”. Drop into a narrow opening on the far side of the peak into a “cave” of sorts, except the back of the cave is a rock jutting out into mid air, open to views of the landscape below, with turkey vultures riding the thermals at eye level.
Need to get away from it all and answer the boon-docking call? Fall is one of the best times to head over Tehachapi, south of the Sierras and out to the desert and Mojave region. Nearly unlimited BLM land and free-use camping areas abound here. Bring the dirt bikes and 4-wheelers and hit the trail. This has become an annual Thanksgiving-time trip for some of our employees and is a great place to get out and away from it all.
Pro tip: Visit the old mining town of Randsburg. Not too far off the beaten path and accessible from much of the BLM camping areas via dirt roads. It's a trip back into the past and a local watering hole for dirt bikers and desert rats.
Maybe the thing I love most about a Field van – it is hands down the best winter road trip vehicle of all time. Nothing else even comes close, even if it is just getting to your local ski resort early on a pow day. Parking in the lot, making coffee and hot chocolate in the van. Being warmed by the soft hum of the diesel-powered heater while you put on your ski gear in a warm, dry, cozy space before heading out to face the elements and shred the mountain. Nothing makes that overall experience better than a van as your personal cabin in the parking lot.
Want to up the ante? Hit the road on a winter road trip, follow the storms for prime conditions, and make some amazing memories along the way.
Pro tip: Lots of ski resorts allow van camping in the parking lot, especially the more "mom and pop" resorts that cater to families.
Pro tip 2: SNO-PARKS are snow recreation areas throughout California that typically consist of a parking lot and often a restroom. Unless otherwise posted, overnight parking is permitted. The annual pass is cheap (under $50) and can also be used in Oregon and Idaho SNO-PARKS as well.
Not enough time for the epic winter road trip? Winter is one of the best times to see Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. These are places that everyone should see in their lifetime. Silent moments exploring the park that can only be had with the smaller crowds that winter brings are breathtaking. The majesty of the Giant Sequoias and the massive granite monoliths of Yosemite remind us just how small we are next to nature's grand beauty.
As ski season comes to an end but much of the high country is still inaccessible, we look to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada for awesome camping, mild temperatures, and the wildflowers of spring to put on a show! There are lots of dirt roads and dispersed camping in the California foothills if you know where to look. Time it right, and the wildflower blooms are second to none.
As the winter snows melt, spring is also the time for white water rafting! Many states throughout the country offer white water adventures for all levels, and California is no exception. I'm biased a bit to our local river, the Kings, which flows out of Kings Canyon National Park, but the options are many. Seek out a local whitewater company/guide service and make sure to follow all safety regulations.
Pro tip: While many whitewater rivers are cold and require the use of a wetsuit during this time, some of the tributary creeks come from lower drainages and have warmer water to create great swimming holes. Make sure you know local flows and hazards and always explore these places with a local guide or someone experienced in the area.
Earlier in this article, I called summer camping articles cliché, but let's be real… I love summer. Who doesn't love summer? I'm going to double down on the cliché summer activity and start with visiting Yosemite Valley. Now I'm not knocking Yosemite in any way (see my winter description earlier), but ask me, as a local, five years ago if I'd go to Yosemite in the summer, and my answer would be no way, not me, it's crowded with a capital "C."
However, we recently discovered one of my favorite family summer activities, and it was right under our nose in Yosemite Valley – Floating the Merced River. There is a window of time where the Merced River that flows right through Yosemite Valley is at just the right level that you can float along without a care in the world. Put in at the Stone Bridge below Curry Village and leave a car at the takeout at Sentinel Beach on your way upriver. This is a family-friendly activity that puts you right in the heart of the Yosemite mix. Even though the location would tell you otherwise, the river leaves the road system just enough that you feel like you've left most of the crowd behind. Floating along with views of Half Dome and Yosemite falls in the background while the kids splash, and swim is something we go back for year after year. Check the websites for river levels, which change rapidly, and must be below a certain point to put on the river. Bring lunch with you and take time to enjoy the beauty.
Pro tip: We usually take our own rafts, but you can do this float with simple inner tubes, kayaks, or paddle boards as well. You can also rent nice small rafts from Curry Village.
Pro tip 2: A bicycle helps in this, as there is no good parking right at the put in, and the curry village parking lot often fills up fast. We stop briefly to offload gear right at the bridge, then one person parks the van further away and bikes back to the put in.
Can’t handle the crowds? I get it. Summer is also the time to explore the backroads and BLM land. As the spring thaw subsides, muddy roads become firm, and high country access opens up it’s the best time to make sure some of those paths you travel are indeed dirt. I won’t give away all our local spots, but Sierra’s, like most mountainous areas of the country, have been mined, logged, and grazed over many years, which has left one amazing benefit for the more adventurous traveller- Networks of dirt roads to explore. Locally we can go from the valley at about 300 feet of elevation to over 8000 feet high in the mountains without ever touching pavement, with lakes and camping spots all along the way.
Pro tip: throw a kayak on top of the van or an inflatable inside to explore and fish some of the out of the way mountain lakes.
No matter what the season, take the time to explore. Whether you’re just dipping your big toe into camping at campgrounds for the first time or you’re only happy when the cell phone is out of range and you have to get the Maxx Tracks out, there is adventure out there for everyone.