The West's best camping
California coast RV road trip
What's it like to haul an Airstream 300 miles up the California coast? Romantic, nail-biting, and yes, cooler than driving a convertible. Get our road rules and route
Going all the way
It’s time for me to bite the bullet and drive the hotel. I climb up in the seat, feeling the way I used to when I was a kid and my dad let me ride in front of him on his tractor. Man Skills advises me just to drive normally and trust that the trailer will follow. Hauling an Airstream is a bit like riding a bike for the first time: The sheer physics of it seems impossible when you’re an onlooker. But once you’re behind the wheel, you get the hang of it pretty quickly. (Plus, people slow down to check you out because, hey, the Airstream’s a looker.) Even when the road narrows and kinks, I learn that if I stay in the middle of the lane, point the truck where I want to go, and forget about what’s behind me, I’m fine.
At least, this is the logic that carries us into our Highway 1 homestretch in Big Sur. We haven’t cracked 15 mph, and the line of sports cars behind us is growing, but we resist the urge to pull off. Man Skills, who seems to have had several talks with Rick when I wasn’t around, informs me that we need a pullout the size of a small runway to get on or off safely. No dice. After what seems like miles and miles without pullouts, the road opens and we see the campground. Victory! Beer! I need a cold one.
We back in perfectly on only our second, um, maybe third time, navigating between a picnic table and a large rock. Hotel successfully parked, we crack some beers and sit on the steps that lead to the screen door. The ocean glints in the late sun. We take a walk to the cliffs, where a family of seals flops out on a rock 100 feet below us. When I look back, there is something almost spiritual about seeing our little silver bullet parked in a spot that looks unchanged since the days of Lewis and Clark.
And that’s when it clicks: The beauty of the Airstream, or any RV for that matter, is the sense of freedom it gives. Unlike road trips in a car, you’re pulling your own little hotel, and if you want to take it deep into the wilderness, hey, you can.
Other people must feel the same way, because there are rigs at least 5 feet longer than ours here. We enjoy the heady camaraderie of waving to fellow RVers. Then Man Skills and I get to work, finding some good-size rocks to use as wheel blocks so the Airstream doesn’t roll into the ocean. See? We’re old hands already.
Rule 1: Book an RV site in advance. Check out gocampingamerica.com, koa.com, and trailer lifedirectory.com for RV park listings, or reserveamerica.com for national and state park sites. If you’re desperate, many Walmarts allow dry camping (overnighting without power or water hookups) in their lots.
Rule 2: Arrive at least an hour before dark. You don’t want to back into a tight space or empty your sewage tank at night. Trust me.
Rule 3: Listen closely to your fellow RVers—as a newbie, you’ll need their advice. If you’re not into small talk, RVing probably isn’t for you.
Rule 4: Stay longer than a night to really experience your RV as a portable hotel. Just unhitch and explore the area.
Rule 5: Drive your big rig with confidence, and don’t waffle when changing lanes. If you have a tow/haul transmission setting, enable it for a smoother ride.
Rule 6: Don’t skimp on horsepower. Your tow vehicle needs to be able to pull the trailer easily—talk to the RV dealer, and research!
Next: Plan your route