Central California on a Shoestring: My Credit Card Vacation

September 27, 2007 by

North America, Places to Go, Suggested Itineraries, Travel Advice & Inspiration

“I haven’t got any money either,”my friend Colin commiserated, as we discussed the absolutely irresponsible idea of spending a week exploring California.

“Well, all the banks are supposed to fail anyway,” I rationalized. “Won’t they take our credit card debt with them?” And so the trip was on.

California Tours - Griffith Park Los Angeles
The Griffith Park Observatory, the Los Angeles skyline
Photo by Colin Plant

I picked Colin up at LAX and headed inland, stopping for a snack in a posh Beverly Hills café before winding eastward along the Sunset Strip. After a star-studded stroll along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, it was Griffith Park, where music from the Greek Theatre was already reverberating through the Hollywood Hills, only recently re-opened after a devastating wildfire. The crystal-clear view from the top reached to the sea, a rare and beautiful phenomena we discussed over dinner at an East LA taqueria.

We hit the Grapevine early, and though the next day’s heat was closing in on oppressive, we couldn’t resist a side trip to the temptingly named town of California Hot Springs. The adorable inn and pools were sadly closed, so we continued up into the big trees of Sequoia National Forest.

The region is designated multi-use, where tree-hugging hippies and hard-working loggers meet but rarely greet. On the Trail of One Hundred Giants, we were pleased to see that all praise of “harvesting” the 2,500-year-old sequoias had been scratched off the path’s interpretive plaques.

Though the adjacent campsites were packed, a free, unimproved campground close-by was deserted. After dinner next to our very private stream, we followed a fire road illuminated by the full moon. Such peace. Our next campsite, inside Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, was quite the opposite: Lodgepole’s family-friendly, eco-Disney ambiance intensified by patrols of small black bears hoping for a treat in exchange for the rather risky photo-op.

California Tours - Sequoia Tree
Big tall tree
Photo by Colin Plant

With 800 miles of trails to explore, it was hard to settle on just one. So we chose a few: Tokopah Falls, Round Meadow, and as the shadows lengthened and tourists thinned, famed Congress Trail to world’s largest tree, General Sherman. We dallied beneath the President and spent twilight amongst groves named for the Senate and House. Silently and simultaneously, Colin and I both experienced a spiritual, moonlit awe. We awoke before Lodgepole’s other 190 sites, enjoying our coffee in the short-lived serenity of a nearby waterfall. And after our morning stroll through Grant Grove, we made camp hastily in King’s Canyon and hit the undulating 8-mile trail to Mist Falls.

Like so much of California, these woods are parched with two years of drought. But that day was unusual and unpredicted: Clouds swirled across the bright blue sky, bequeathing showers that woke from the suffering pines a fragrance that lifting us body and soul up the mountains. But as the showers thickened to thunderstorms, we began to worry. Would my cheap little tent hold up?

After some discussion, we simply folded down the seats of the car and settled in for a dry but lumpy night. The open hatchback framed fierce lightening strikes illuminating the glacier-scoured granite, and we thanked the gods and sub-prime lenders that we were too broke to afford a room at the lodge.

At first light, we threw the sodden tent and bedding into the car, cruising to a lower, dryer elevation, where a Technicolor desert canyon welcomes to the park. After spreading our sopping belongings on the rocks, we sipped coffee above the spectacular scenery, greeted by other campers inspired to an early start. “So how’d you like the fireworks last night?” “That was some show, eh?” “I’ve been coming here for 30 years, and never seen anything like that.”

This was our big driving day, across the scorched and smog-choked San Joaquin Valley, where more than one quarter of America’s crops are grown. Exhausted, we opted for a real hotel room, so close to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk that you could hear the screams from the Giant Dipper.

Our sound sleep did not prepare us for the trip’s first moral dilemma: The 17-Mile Drive. It is the only way to access gorgeous Monterey Peninsula, imprisoned within the gated community of Pebble Beach, which asks you to pay US$9 per car to drive on public, taxpayer-maintained roads. We did it, but wished we hadn’t.

Our love Carmel-by-the-Sea was true, however, for its sweet state park and lovely mission , final resting place of Padre Junípero Serra. After that brief cultural interlude, we scooted south toward the coast’s crown jewel, Big Sur. And, this being Labor Day Weekend, everyone else was there, too. Sigh.

California tours - sunset beach
California dreamin’
Photo by Colin Plant

We fought the crowds on each windy promontory, finally finding parking at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where we waited our turn for a photo of the waterfall pouring into the sea. After failing to get a seat at Nepenthe, we finally reached a perfect sandy cove, Sand Dollar Beach, where we collapsed after fighting the crowds to commune with nature.

“Every campsite is taken,” noted Colin.

“Every hotel room, too,” I worried.

We formed a battle plan as we frolicked in the waves: Plan A involved San Simeon, home to Hearst Castle. If everything was full, we would continue to Cayucos, Morro Bay and, as a last resort, inland to San Luis Obispo.

While we didn’t really believe that it was the Econolodge’s last room, we paid the extortionate holiday rates. At least downtown was hopping, full of festive, pheromone-addled college kids on the prowl. “This is silly,” I sighed, over my vegan enchilada. “Let’s stay at my place tomorrow. Orange County does have nice beaches.”

The next morning we lingered over coffee at the wonderful, over-the-top Madonna Inn and stopped for a brisk walk along broad Pismo Beach. We then headed inland, to the turnoff to (usually) secluded Jalama Beach, 14 miles from the main road. And miraculously scored the very last parking space.

We strategized in the sunshine: First, a late lunch in Santa Barbara, then a nice beach in Malibu after 5pm, when young families would begin heading home. But Santa Barbara turned out to be more crowded than Wal*Mart on Christmas Eve. “It’s a beautiful city,” said Colin. “But can we get out of here, right now?”

It was the height of Labor Day hell; you couldn’t see the sand beneath the umbrellas. Then I remembered the quiet beach town of Carpinteria, rarely crowded despite its many charms. We couldn’t get close to the sea, but did manage to find lunch.

We blazed through the stuccoed strip malls and seedy hotels of Ventura and Oxnard, hitting Malibu’s “27 Miles of Scenic Beauty” right on schedule, bypassing the more popular beaches, according to plan. And, sure enough, El Matador State Park had a few open spaces, and we watched one last spectacular sunset, filtered through the dramatic rock formations.

I’d promised Colin one last lovely beach, and after a late morning at my Orange County flat, we headed to Laguna’s sparkling Crystal Cove . “It’s been an almost perfect vacation,” Colin sighed. “The only thing it lacked was an island.”

“You want an island?” I smiled. “I’ve got an island.” And it was up to mansion-encrusted, yacht-fringed Balboa Island, perhaps 30 feet from the mainland across a photogenic bridge. We savored our final meal together at Wilma’s Patio, and returned to LAX, tanned, rested and ready to make those credit card payments. And all was right with the world.

Paige Penland

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s tours in California, things to see & do in Los Angeles, and along the California coast. If you need a place to stay, check out Hotels in California on Planetware.com.

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One Response to “Central California on a Shoestring: My Credit Card Vacation”

  1. Eliza Amos Says:

    If you’re in the Big Sur area, don’t miss Andrew Molera State Park (less of a crowd, bigger campgrounds, great seaside hikes). In cooler weather, try booking a room at Treebones Yurt Resort in Gorda–amazing!!

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