Roadtrip Romance

Exploring the Central Coast by Camper Van

Photos and story by Tracy Wilson

Cruising northbound on Highway 101, the Pacific Ocean stretches to the horizon where it meets a picture-perfect blue sky. The view is expansive through the windshield of the Winnebago Revel camper van, like the observation car on an Amtrak train.

But this ride has no set schedule and the freedom to stop wherever and whenever we want to eat, sleep, and explore the Central Coast in comfort – and at a reasonable price.

For travelers looking for affordable options this summer, renting a camper van or traveling in their own recreational vehicle may be the way to go. Dreamy #vanlife experiences proliferated on social media during the pandemic and are now a click away for couples, solo travelers with dogs, or small families looking for flexibility and a connection to the outdoors.

Companies such as Outdoorsy, RV Share, and Cruise America allow travelers to search for and book rentals online, then pick up their vehicle in the region they want to explore.

Outdoorsy is the leading player in this outdoor travel marketplace with a deep inventory of affordable RVs and camper van rentals in more than 4,800 cities across the U.S. and a dozen foreign countries. The business model is largely the same as Airbnb, where people rent their homes-on-wheels through the Outdoorsy platform.

The Austin-based company recently conducted a survey of 2,000 adults to learn more about travel behaviors ahead of the summer season. The majority of respondents, 56 percent, said they could not afford a vacation because of inflation. But nearly 70 percent said they still planned to hit the road this year despite budget concerns. The survey also found that 52 percent of travelers would opt for rental vehicles to save money.

“Inflation is an ever-present variable in the travel consumer sector. Travel trends are typically reflected in people’s spending habits,” said Jeff Cavins, co-founder and CEO of Outdoorsy in announcing the survey results. 
“With that said, inflation’s effect on RV travel will be minimal. For families, heading outdoors not only offers a more affordable alternative to other modes of travel, but time in nature can also be a more fun and educational experience.”

Fun and education are great. But many travelers are also looking for comfort, and motor home and van rentals offer a dizzying range of luxurious options.

Rentals typically include a full or queen-size bed, a private shower and toilet, and a kitchen with an induction cooktop or microwave, a sink, cooking utensils, and a small refrigerator.

But many rentals go all out with name-brand comforts and bonus amenities that include Pendleton blankets, Nespresso espresso machines, air fryers, outdoor movie screens, hammocks, lounge chairs, Bluetooth speakers, iPads loaded with offline movies, and Starlink satellite internet.

Prospective travelers can read owners’ descriptions, view photos, and consider user reviews before booking to find the vehicle that best meets their needs. Although vans aren’t as spacious as motor homes, they’re much easier to drive and park. Prices range from $99 to $450 per night depending on the level of luxury. But most vans can be booked for less than $200 per night.

Keep in mind fuel costs and campsite fees. Basic tent campsites usually start around $25 per night, while RV sites with hookups can range from $35 to $50 per night.

An Outdoorsy search for camper vans in the Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo region brings up hundreds of vehicle options, as well as popular campgrounds, state and national parks, and road trip guides.

Camping along the Rincon Parkway north of Ventura is a popular option for RV camping with sites along Old Pacific Coast Highway. In Ojai, Lake Casitas offers an ideal setting for families. Davy Brown and Nira campgrounds in the Los Padres National Forest near Los Olivos offer remote options for campers seeking an off-grid experience, splashing in the creek or hiking amid wildflowers on Figueroa Mountain.

Cachuma Lake, just off Highway 154 north of Santa Barbara, offers nearly 550 campsites, including a handful of coveted waterfront sites with scenic views of the lake and coastal mountains. Anglers can find an abundance of stocked fish as well as kayak rentals and a restaurant, Hook’d Bar and Grill, offering breakfast, burgers, local beer, and live music.

For many travelers, the destination is only part of the journey. It’s really about spending time together as a family.

Retiree Ron Ragusa purchased his own Winnebago Revel van two years ago. He enjoys the freedom to roll out of his Laguna Beach home on a spur of the moment and head out to the mountains in Mammoth Lakes or the desert in Joshua Tree. But lately, his trips have revolved around spending planned time in the outdoors with his daughter, son-in-law, and two-year-old granddaughter. In early June, the destination was Cachuma Lake.

“I come here often because it is so easy in the winter you don’t even need a reservation,” Ragusa said. “When we were kids, we always traveled like this. It’s was the family on the road together.”

Ragusa shared a camp site with his daughter, Hayley Rinaldi, her husband, Anthony, and their two-year-old daughter, Harlow. The young Tarzana couple also purchased a van and they now enjoy time camping as an extended family.

Hayley and Anthony Rinaldi take their Ram van out for local surf trips, but are also eyeing excursions farther from home this summer, including camping at Leo Carrillo and Montana del Oro state beaches.

For Ragusa, the opportunities are endless: “There are so many roads we haven’t explored.”

Best Road Trip Campsites: 

Whether you are renting a camper van or pitching a tent from your own vehicle, here are a few favorite scenic destinations for car and RV camping in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties:

Near Ventura

The Rincon Parkway offers outstanding views of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands. The Parkway is located between Faria Beach Park and Hobson Beach Park on Highway 1, just off the Ventura Freeway. The Parkway offers 127 RV parking spaces. Tent camping is not allowed, and RV’s must be self-sufficient as there are no electrical hook ups, dump stations, water, or bathroom facilities. Despite the lack of amenities, these popular oceanfront spots book out months in advance. $43-$47 per night.

Near Ojai    

The Lake Casitas Recreation Area offers campers more than 600 campsites for tents and RVs. The lake is known for its bass fishing, but anglers can also hook rainbow trout, crappie, bluegill, and catfish. No swimming, but the Casitas Water Adventure waterpark is a great destination for kids when Ojai temperatures peak in summer and fall. There is a general store, and The Marina Cafe serves breakfast and lunch daily. There is a 2-night minimum when reserving weekends and a 3-4 night minimum when reserving holiday weekends. $25-$50 per

Near Santa Barbara   

Cachuma Lake, located about a 30-minute drive from Santa Barbara off Highway 154, is a popular option for families and offers a variety of camping opportunities, including nearly 550 basic and hookup sites, as well as yurts, cabins, and group sites. The recreation area includes a disc golf course, playground, kayak and boat rentals,  general store, and a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and a selection of local beers. No swimming allowed as Cachuma Lake is a reservoir. Sites may be reserved 6 months in advance. $35-$55 per night for campsites and $75-$200 per night for yurts and

Near Los Olivos     

Davy Brown Campground, located about an hour from Los Olivos, is a remote campground in the Los Padres National Forest with 13 sites for tent and small RV camping along Davy Brown Creek. This shady and tranquil campground is a great option for an early summer get-away to splash in the creek and hike in the Figueroa Mountain area. In the spring, visitors will find a spectacular wildflower display with California poppies, purple sage, blue dicks, and other native flora carpeting the hillsides. Be advised, the road into the campground is rough, narrow, and not suitable for large RVs. No cell service, but the dark skies are epic for stargazing. $30-$32 per

Near Avila Beach   

Flying Flags at Avila Beach is a ‘glampy’ resort perched on a bluff overlooking Avila Beach, offering spectacular coastal views. This dog-friendly campground offers RV sites with hookups as well as smaller car and bike camping spots. There are also quaint cottages, bocce ball courts, bath houses, a dog wash station, and a coffee bar. No open campfires. Four-night minimum stay on Fridays and Saturdays. This is an ideal spot for a coastal road trip with Fido as Avila offers a great dog beach as well. Be sure to enjoy fish and chips with a cold local beer on the historic pier. Rates range from $12 per night for tent camping to $200 for a cottage.

Best Road Trip Eats: 

Dining options can be tricky if you’re trying to park a recreational vehicle or road trip with kids or dogs. Here are a few of our favorite destinations for easy access and great eats in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties:

Industrial Eats   

181 Industrial Way, Buellton

Feast on salty meats, wood-fired pizzas, and crisp salads at this casual and dog-friendly restaurant tucked into a repurposed industrial building just off Highway 246 in Buellton. Street-park your vehicle, then grab a seat at one of the shared communal tables and enjoy seriously yummy food sourced from sustainable farms.

Shoreline Cafe in Santa Barbara    

801 Shoreline Drive, Santa Barbara

Whether it’s chilaquiles for breakfast or tacos at sunset for dinner, Shoreline Cafe offers beach vibes and great food right on Leadbetter Beach in Santa Barbara. Grab an outdoor table and sink your toes in the sand while enjoying burgers, burritos, or anything off the extensive menu. Kid-friendly, dog-friendly, and ample parking.

Mersea’s Seafood in Avila Beach   

3895 Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach

Located on the Port San Luis Pier, Mersea’s Seafood offers scenic views while serving up fabulous fish and chips, fish tacos, clam chowder, fried calamari, and more. This popular spot is dog-friendly, offers a kids’ menu, and features an outdoor patio where you can watch otters and seals swim underneath the pier.