Essential Info for Backpacking California
For as long as I could remember I’ve wanted to visit California. Places such as San Francisco Bay, Mullholland Drive, Big Sur and Death Valley. For me these places had almost a mystical romanticism about them no doubt filled by a lifetime of consuming Californian culture. Having grown up with the movies of Hitchcock (several of them set in San Francisco) the music of The Doors and the writings of Kerouac & Steinbeck, I just had to come and see the “centre of the universe” for myself.
Whilst nowhere on earth could ever live up to the romantic expectations I had set, backpacking California did prove to be an unforgettable experience. It was not however, necessarily the easiest place for budget backpackers like me and represented a steep learning curve even for a seasoned traveller such as I.
California has 2 major airports, LAX and San Francisco and these serve daily inbound and outbound flights to and from pretty much everywhere in the world. Because of the sheer volume of flights, you can pick up some real bargains if you are flexible about when you can travel and don’t mind the occasional gruelling stopover. I recommend using Skyscanner or Clear Trip to scour flights; it certainly worked for me as I found a direct flight from Manchester to LAX for £200.
There are numerous other airports in California mainly running domestic flights. However, one option you may wish to consider is flying into San Diego. BA and American Airlines are now using the airport which is fast becoming a major international hub. San Diego is also situated right at the southernmost point of California (bordering Mexico) so it’s perhaps the perfect place to begin your trip before heading North up the coast.
Citizens of most, ahem, “Western” countries do not need a Visa to enter the US. Rather you obtain an ESTA (Visa Waiver) at least 72 hours before traveling (I suggest doing it as soon as you book your flight) which you then present at immigration.
However, the ESTA does not guarantee entry and there are a growing number of cases of travellers been turned around. Surprisingly. this is nothing to do with the controversial Presidency of Donny T but rather, is a response to the growing number of backpackers entering the state to take “trimming” jobs on California’s cannabis plantations.
When you reach passport control you will be asked a number of questions regarding your visit to the US and your life back home. Come prepared for this with a clear itinerary, at least a few nights accommodation and crucially, an outbound flight. If they ask about your job back home, say you are on leave and will return to work following your trip.
Public transport in the US is frankly, patchy. Major cities are very well serviced by metro, bus and train, but once you get out of them, its become pretty damn difficult to get around. Visiting National Parks and smaller towns can prove near impossible unless you are willing to be patient and use some ingenuity.
If you have a drivers licence, consider renting a car for at least part of your trip. They can actually be picked up relatively cheaply, gasoline is affordable and you can always sleep in it to help your budget recover. There are some truly epic California roadtrips you can do so this option is well worth exploring.
If you don’t have a licence or cant get a car, hitchhiking is possible and Craigslist lists ride shares. There are also a growing number of dedicated ride-share sites but personally I never had any luck with them.
As with transport, accommodation is also a bit of an issue in Cali. LA, San Francisco and San Diego have plenty of hostels but they can be pricy ($30-$50 for a dorm and underwhelming. Outside of the main hotspots though, there are no hostels to be found whatsoever. Amazingly there is not one hostel in the entirety of Big Sur or Napa Valley & only one in Santa Cruz. There are lots of motels around and Air B n B has decent options but these options can be pricy. They are best avoided unless you are desperate or fancy a splurge.
My advice is to invest in a tent. This will come in useful for national parks and you can camp safely at most beaches. You may find yourself camping amongst the countless homeless of California but they are usually harmless and well meaning – do keep any expensive valuables on you at all times though. It rarely gets cold in California so you can camp out all year round without fear of freezing except in Yosemite, where its gets truly bitter in fall and winter.
Couch-surfing is also alive and well in the small towns and suburbs. I had some great experiences using Couch-surfing in Cali. Use it and appreciate it.
Food & Drink
Food & drink in California ranges from the terrible to the sublime and from the cheap to the bankrupting. Eating out is significantly cheaper in small towns or off the tourist trails and best avoided altogether in LA and San Francisco. I learned to exist on instant noodles and spaghetti carbonara with the occasional binge on a $3 taco or slice of pizza.
Going our drinking can be pricy when you add on a $1 tip for every beer you buy but there is some first rate hooch to be had in Cali. The state has more microbreweries than pretty much anywhere else on earth and makes first rate pale ales. The Sonoma and Napa valleys also make incredible wine.
California has legalised the use of medical marijuana and next year it will become completely legal. There are huge plantations in the North and many householders now grow their now plants (now legal to do) so pot is pretty much everywhere. You can get yourself a marijuana prescription by visiting a “weed doctor” and telling him all about that terrible back ache/insomnia you suffer from. This is America though, so healthcare does cost money; expect to pay $50 for your cannabis card which you then present at a licensed dispensary. If that sounds like too much hard work, you can buy it on the street. Its extremely unlikely that you will have any issues with the law as smoking is pretty much tolerated throughout the state these days and you will smell burning bush from Melrose avenue, to Fishermans Wharf to Disneyland!