California Backpacking Guide
For as long as I could remember I wanted to visit California. Fabled places like San Francisco Bay, Mulholland Drive, Big Sur and Death Valley all loomed so very large in my consciousness after a lifetime of consuming Californian culture.
For me, these places had almost a mythical romanticism about them, they seemed to be like some real-life movie set where dreams would be made manifest. Having grown up with the movies of Alfred 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 “center of the universe” for myself.
Whilst nowhere on earth could ever live up to the high 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 traveler such as I.
Flights To California
California has 2 major airports, LAX (Los Angeles) 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 grueling 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 (ranging from small to medium in size) mainly running domestic flights. However, another international option you may wish to consider is flying into San Diego Airport. BA (British Airways) 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. There is an $11 administration fee and a short application form to be completed.
However, obtaining the ESTA does not necessarily guarantee your entry and there are a growing number of cases of travelers been turned around at immigration and put onto planes home. Perhaps surprisingly, this is nothing to do with the controversial Presidency of Donny Trump 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 booked 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.
If you are planning on working in the trimming business, do not mention this or that you intend to work in the US at all. Be sure to have at least a loose, “mock” itinerary ready, a few nights accommodation booked and dress as smartly as possible. Finally, it would even be worth considering flying into another American State and then entering California by land.
Transport In California
The US is the land of the automobile and therefore, public transport in the most advanced nation on earth, is frankly very 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. Public transport in California is, therefore, not the easiest way to get around.
If you have a drivers license, then do consider renting a car in California for at least part of your trip. They can actually be picked up relatively cheaply, gasoline in the US is affordable and you can always sleep in it to help your budget recover. There are some truly epic California road trips you can do so this option is well worth exploring.
Car Rental In California
If you are renting a car in California, then highly I recommend using Europcar US. You can check out their models and get a quote via this link here – if you do book throgh this link then I get a small payment.
If you don’t have a license or can’t get a car, hitchhiking in California 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.
If you are staying in Hostels, then as around or put up a poster to see if anybody wants to share a ride with you. I had a lot of luck doing this and managed to find travel buddies to drive me to Joshua Tree/Palm Springs, Big Sur and from Monterey all the way to San Francisco!
If you want to visit Yosemite by bus, you can reach it by way of the YARTS bus which leaves from Merced. Merced is a pretty run down smalltown, the kind you would see the hero escape from in a “rags to riches” movie or a Bruce Springsteen track. Merced can be reached by direct bus from San Diego, Los Angeles or Sacramento and then you simply hop onto the YARTS bus from Merced bus & train station. The Yosemite YARTS bus costs $20 and this includes your entry ticket to Yosemite so I think it is a great option. Do take care whilst in Merced and do not leave your stuff unattended in the bus station area as there are thieves operating.
There are also a number of ways you can visit Big Sur without a car and I wrote a whole post all about this which you can access here.
Where To Stay In California
As with transport, accommodation in California is also a bit of an issue. For example, LA, San Francisco, and San Diego have plenty of hostels but they can be pricey ($30-$50 for a dorm) and a bit 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 also be very expensive. They are best avoided unless you are desperate or fancy a splurge.
The Hostel Association run hostels at Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Francisco. Therefore, taking out a membership, which entitles you to a discount, may be a good investment if you are visiting all 3 cities.
My advice is to invest in a tent for backpacking California. This will come in useful for national parks and you can camp safely at most beaches in California. 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 it gets truly bitter in fall and winter. Tent’s can be picked up for $20 – $30 dollars at any camping store.
Couch-surfing is also alive and well in the small towns and suburbs but very hard to get a response in the big cities. So, unless you have a pretty irresistible profile, forget it in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I had some great experiences using Couchsurfing in the small towns of California such as Chico and Sonoma. A good piece of advice is to try to find a host in either Berkely or Oakland instead of San Frisco. 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, mac & cheese and spaghetti carbonara with the occasional binge on a $3 taco or slice of pizza.
California is a blessed land of bounty and abundance and produces pretty much anything and everything you could ever wish to eat. The delicious avocado’s are famous as are the artichokes which are typically cooked in butter.
If you are looking for the best places to eat in California, then check out this guide.
The food trucks that you will see around the state are a Californian fixture and some of them provide very high-quality food. Some of them are very affordable whereas others charge gourmet prices.
Going out drinking can be pricey 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 days of the Budweiser/Miller dominancy are long gone and there is now an amazing craft ale scene in California. The state has more microbreweries than pretty much anywhere else on earth and makes first-rate pale ales. If you happen to end up in the small college town of Chico, you can take a free tour of the Sierra Nevada brewery which includes a tasting session The Sonoma and Napa valleys also make incredible wine – California vine-yards can be organized all year round.
If you are looking for information about the best bars in California, or best mirco-breweries in California, then I will shortly be publishing a guide.
California has legalized the use of medical marijuana and next year (2019) it will become completely legal. There are huge plantations in the North of California and many householders now grow their now plants (as it is now legal to do) so Pot is pretty much everywhere. You can get yourself a marijuana prescription by visiting a Californian “weed doctor” and telling him all about that terrible backache/insomnia you suffer from.
Do avoid bogus weed Doctors. There is one on Venice Beach who is notorious for ripping of gullible locals. The best course of action is to make some local friends and discreetly ask them. Alternatively, Reddit is a mine of useful information.
This is America though, so health care 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!
However, attitudes in California remain conservative towards other drugs. If you found in possession of any other banned substances you can expect prosecution.
Things To Do In California
California really does have it all and there is something there to keep everybody happy and entertained. You can visit the original Disneyland in Los Angles, take a Hollywood studio tour or visit the palaces of the rich and famous up on Mulholland Drive. You can go camping and trekking out in Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks or learn to Surf in LA or San Diego. There are wine tasting tours in Sonoma and Napa or you can learn about the States colonial history by visiting the “missions” which are peppered throughout the state.
Below, are some of my personal highlights.
Highlights of Backpacking California
Los Angeles, the City of Angels, is world famous as the center of the entertainment industry. Basically, the city is built on the edge of a desert which joins the Pacific ocean and boomed in the 1920s as the Hollywood film industry hit its golden age.
L.A. is massively spread out and can feel more like several cities joined into one. Famous neighborhoods (or sub-cities) include Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and the notorious Compton. The best way to get around is definitely by car and driving along Mulholland Drive and the Hollywood Hills to catch the sunset is one of the highlights of any trip in my opinion.
Hollywood is good, but expensive, for nightlife, star spotting, studio tours, and celebrity houses tours but it is an extremely superficial and pretty weird place. If you hike up to the Hollywood sign bring lots of water – it is a desert afterall. You can also take Hollywood Studio Tours where you can go backstage and sometimes even see a blockbuster been made. These Hollywood Studio tours can be booked online or locally. Expect to pay well over $100 for an afternoon.
Santa Monica and Venice Beach feel like affluent beach towns where you can pick up a pair of in-line skates or a bike and cycle across the seafront. The Santa Monica Pier is also worth checking out, it’s where the legendary route 66 ends. The sunsets over the ocean are totally stunning. There are a few hostels in Venice Beach so I recommend staying here and then heading to Santa Monica either by bus, walking, cycling or blading!
The business and political hub of Los Angeles is known as Downtown. The area is a bit run down but is worth checking out for the clothes markets as well as the very impressive public buildings.
If you are backpacking California on a budget, my advice is to spend the minimum time possible backpacking L.A. as it can get painfully expensive.
San Fran is the more measured and classy antidote to the often superficial Los Angeles. The weather is cooler and the inhabitants that bit more “real”.
There is load and loads to do in San Francisco and you could easily spend up to a week hanging out here. The Golden Gate bridge is truly awesome both to gaze upon and to cross. My advice is to cross it by bicycle, either on your own or one a San Francisco bike tour, which pretty much every hostel seems to organize. You can then come back across on the ferry from Sausalito – you get to sail under the Bridges and get a close look at Alcatraz. Fisherman’s Warth seems to please tourists, Jack Kerouac Alley and the Beat Museum will satisfy literature fans and the art museum has an excellent collection but admittance is $20. The Haight/Ashbury region was the epicenter of the 60’s counter-culture and to this day is marked by a series of psychedelic murals and “head shops”.
San Francisco Bay is also home of the infamous Alcatraz Prison. You can take an Alcatraz tour here but you will need to book well in advance as they are very popular and do sell out.
Oakland and Berkley out in the Bay area are also worth visiting. The former for its nightlife and the latter for the student vibe and coffee shop culture. It was in the university town of Berkley that Allen Ginsberg wrote his legendary poem “Howl”.
There are quite a few hostels in San Francisco for around $50 per night. If you are backpacking San Francisco on a budget then definitely try your best to couch surf – even if it means staying out in the bay and day tripping into the city of the BART (Bay Area) metro system.
There are frequent buses between LA and San Francisco and you do not really need to book ahead.
Santa Cruz is a hip beach town with delightful wooden houses and sun-kissed surfers. The 80’s teen classic “The Lost Boys” was filmed here. The only Hostel in Santa Cruz is HI USA which does book up during high season. It costs around $22 per night but the “left food” cupboard is usually jam-packed with delicious free food! They also have film nights.
An even more expensive version of Santa Cruz. Lovely streets though.
San Diego is less famous than its big brothers LA and San Fran but is in many ways just as interesting. It straddles the Mexcian border and from San Diego, you can quite literally walk into Mexico. A trip to Tijuana is by the way, a fun way to spend a few nights and your budget will thank you.
San Diego is a progressive city with sustainable, eco-friendly and architecturally fascinating buildings. The revamped Gas Lamp quarter is where the best bars in San Diego are situated. It gets very lively most nights and is a great place to simply sit at a bar and get chatting to the locals about the world series.
Balboa Park is the colonial center and the Spanish buildings now house some cool art galleries and average cafe’s. You can also visit a retired, HUGE US Navy Aircraft Carrier which is moored down at the dock. Entry is $25 but it is worth it.
Backpacking San Diego is at its most fun when combined with a visit to Mexico so do leave some time to hop over the border.
Visiting Tijuana from San Diego is pretty easy. The tram runs all the way to the border where you simply follow the signs to Mexico. I found the border formalities were all done in under 5 minutes and I was hardly even asked any questions. Most Western Passport holders do NOT need a Visa for the “Baja California” area as long as you return to the US within 5 days. Entering Baja California does not affect your American ESTA visa and you will have no problems re-entering as long as you do so within your ESTA period. Do not attempt to carry any banned substances over the border with you.
Note that many Americans are a bit scared by the idea of Mexico and even many local San Diegans have never visited. If any well-meaning local tells you it is dangerous and to avoid visiting, politely decline their advice, Tijuana is perfectly safe as long as you exercise common sense precautions.
For me, the highlight of backpacking California was my trip to Big Sur. It is an absolutely stunning stretch of Coastline that sits between Monterey and Los Angeles. You can drive down Big Sur’s coast in a few hours but its best to camp here for a night, engage in a few of the hikes and simply get a feel for the area. I wrote a dedicated Backpacking Big Sur guide which you may find useful.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Federal Park is the pride of California. It’s a gorgeous green and crisp wilderness surrounded by high peaked stone mountains. Yosemite is great for hiking, climbing or simply getting some peace. Yosemite is definitely one of the most “comfortable” national parks I have ever visited. There is a hop-on-hop-off bus doing rounds of the area all day long and accommodation to suit all budgets and comfort levels. Visiting Yosemite can actually be done pretty cheap if you (1) camp (2) bring your own food.
You can reach Yosemite by taking the YARTS bus from Merced. The price of the bus includes your entry into the park.
I camped out at Camp 4 which is $5 a night. Bring as much food as you can and cook it on the provided firepit. It gets extremely cold at night so wrap up accordingly and bring a base thermal layer like you can buy here.
Joshua Tree Park
Joshua Tree is south of Los Angeles outside of Palm Springs. It is a huge desert area famed for its Joshua Trees – giant Yuka plants which apparently resemble the Biblical Joshua blowing a trumpet. It is a trippy, dreamscape which feels like an acid trip inside an old Western movie. Joshua Tree is best done by car – there is a road running across the park. You can base yourself in Palm Springs or camp inside the park. It gets very hot so bring lots and lots of water with you.
Joshua Tree inspired the themes for the acclaimed U2 album of the same name. It is easy to see why, it is a truly inspirational place.
Sonoma/Napa Vine Valley
California now produces some of the very best wine in the world. The Sonoma & Napa Valleys resemble the Mediterranean with their moderate climate, endless vineyards, and Spanish influence. You can come to Napa or Sonoma to do a wine tour and sample the local offerings. Some of the best vineyards in California are located in this region. The area was damaged by the terrible wildfires which struck California in 2017 and when I was there in November 2017, a lot of vine’s had been lost.
The towns in the valleys are small and welcoming. This is a great place to sample the wines or rent a bicycle. Weekends are also livel with a lot of restaurants, bars, and live music events.
Accommodation is expensive here so do look into campsites or try toy find a Couchsurfing host.
The monumentally opulent Hearts Castle was the inspiration for the balmy “Xanadu” palace in the classic film Citizen Kane (the film being inspired by Heart Castles builder, the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst). In its heyday, the sprawling site hosted Hollywood A-listers as well as political legends Franklin Rosevelt and Winston Churchill. The castle and its grounds are now a state park.
Visiting Hearst Castle is best done as a day trip by car. There are some bus tours available.
Where To Go From California?
You could spend a lifetime exploring California and still find new avenues and backways to excite you. I was there for a whole month and it still felt I was only scratching the surface. Once your times in California is up though, the question is where to go next?
Well, there are a lot of exciting options. California is bordered to the North by the super hip state of Portland which shares its Pacific coastline. Portland is now famous for hipster cities such as Oregon as well as its outstanding natural beauty.
To the east, you hit Nevada which is, of course, the home of Las Vegas. You can drive to Las Vegas through the spectacular Death Valley National Park or take a Greyhound Bus from LA. Alternatively, there are cheap flights there from San Diego.
To step the adventure up a few degrees, Mexico sits to the South and beyond that the entire stretch of Central America.
If you are flying out of California, then there are rather a lot of flights to New York in the East where you will change for European connections or if you head west you come around the world and end up in the far east. I flew from San Franciso to Hong Kong via Shanghai.