Trip Guide

Best Winter Road Trips

4 Winter Escapes to Beat the 4 Season Blues

Don’t let winter put a chill on your outdoor adventuring. The so-called “off-season“ might be the best time to visit these Western hot-spots.

death valley dunes

Death Valley

Highlights: best time to visit, mild temperatures, hot springs.

Temperatures this time of year range from 40 to 70 degrees on average, with a monthly precipitation of .5 inches.

With temps topping 120, it's practically impossible to visit much of Death Valley in the Summer months, making winter trips ideal. Temperatures this time of year are almost perfect for camping. And with more mild temperatures, activities like hiking the dramatic, Eureka Dunes (above) and more remote overlanding can finally be done safely. And if you're still a bit skittish about the cold, a great way to cut the early morning chill or relax into an evening's stargazing is to visit the Saline Valley, where numerous hot springs offer a warm, welcomed oasis.

Big Sur ridge camping

Big Sur

Highlights: less crowded, milder weather, available camping, hot springs.

Temperatures this time of year range from 40 to 60 degrees on average, with a monthly precipitation of 9 inches.

Big Sur is know for its spectacular coastline and dramatic display of land and sea, but it's also known to be notoriously difficult to book a campsite. Luckily the winter months can offer a chance at reserving some of the finer spots, like Kirk Creek, Plaskett Creek, and Ventana campgrounds. And even if things still look tight, a passing rainstorm may keep many campers from honoring their reservations, offering up last minute spots to the intrepid and well outfitted. Also, make sure to check out Esalen and Sykes Hot Springs for some winter-time warmth.

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Yosemite

Highlights: less crowded, streaming waterfalls, seeing the valley covered in snow.

Temperatures this time of year range from 27 to 50 degrees on average, with a monthly precipitation of 6 inches.

With annual visitorship climbing to over 6 million, Yosemite’s popularity can be felt acutely. And while the warmer months bring the crowds, winter offers a rare opportunity to see the Valley in its raw and natural form. Head to the Park to see the waterfalls in full stream or the valley floor blanketed in a cloak of white. Nothing animates Yosemite’s towering granite walls and spires better than a passing storm, so if you’re up for a little precipitation and a lot of 'wow' moments, then winter is your season. We recommend visiting during the second half of February to catch the annual "firefall" from Horsetail Falls, where the setting sun appears to ignite the falling water as it cascades to the valley floor. Read more about when best to visit and where to camp in Yosemite

eastern sierra hot creek camping

Eastern Sierra

Highlights: Alabama Hills, Mount Whitney, remote hot springs, skiing Mammoth Mountain, bouldering the Buttermilks.

Temperatures this time of year range from 25 to 55 degrees on average, with a monthly precipitation of 1-4 inches.

With so much great stuff to explore in California, it's no wonder the Eastern Sierra is overlooked. Its unsung status as a vacation spot belies its sheer splendor and unique pleasures. There's world-class skiing, rare winter rock climbing, tons of dispersed camping, and sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada's rise from the Owens Valley up to the highest point in the lower 48 at Mount Whitney. We suggest you grab a beer cozy and head to one of the many backcountry hot springs, where even in the middle of January these naturally heated pools can hover around 104 degrees. Picture the face of Japanese Snow Monkey as it bathes in its snowy, mountain spring and you’ll get a pretty good sense of how good this feels. Looking to explore the Eastern Sierra backcountry? Read more about Dispersed Camping below.

Big Sur in 3 Days

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Written by Justin Lozano for Meonmibici

BIG SUR ROAD TRIP : 3 DAY GUIDE

I'm not a California Native, nor do I know about all the secret spots in every nook and cranny there is to know about the northern part of the state.  I do however read up a lot about my destinations before I even purchase my ticket. If I am going to fly across the pacific ocean and lay down a hefty amount of cash to play tourist, I want to make sure everything that my wife and I do during our vacation is well worth the penny.  If you're planning a trip down the California coast, or always wanted to go but was curious what to do there, maybe you can pick a thing or two from this post. With that set aside, here's how we spent 3 days checking out California's Big Sur.

An Overlander's Guide to 'Dispersed Camping'

No reservations needed, just a thirst for adventure, so head for the wilds where your new favorite campsite awaits.

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What is dispersed camping?

Adventure through the West and you're bound to come across National Forest or BLM lands. Surrounding most National Parks, these areas offer a form of camping not found within the more controlled boarders of the Parks. 

While National Parks such as Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Grand Canyon tend to only offer camping within designated campgrounds, often with reservations required, dispersed camping allows for camping in areas that are all first-come first-serve. These spots are usually only distinguishable by the dirt track leading to them, as many are unmarked. But show up at one of the Parks in peak season with hopes of finding a campsite, and you'll be glad to have learned a little about dispersed camping.  

Yosemite National Park has Sierra, Inyo, and Stanislaus National Forests, while Joshua Tree has San Bernardino, and Grand Canyon, Kaibab. All of these public, forest lands offer dispersed camping, which can save your road trip should you require a last minute place to camp, and may just change the way you think about camping from now on.

Why camp in a dispersed site? 

Referred to as 'primitive' camping, most sites have no facilities or running water, but don't let that deter you, as the sense of seclusion and overall camping experience is unbeatable. Think backpacking with your car, and you have pretty good sense for what it's like to camp this way. And seeing that finding a reservable campsite in a National Park without planning six months ahead of time has gotten to be about as easy as finding tickets to a Beyoncé concert (so we hear), these campsites can be invaluable.

Yosemite, for example, has over 7 million annual visitors but only 1,500 campsites, so finding a last minute place to camp can be a nightmare. This trend is true all over the Western US, as park visitor-ship continues to soar. And while you can now book spots online, the ability to do so favors those with ample foresight and quick fingers, and believe it or not, has even been plagued by so called 'bots' which automatically snatch up spots once available (hence the Beyoncé reference). All of this has made the option to camp within the public lands that surround many National Parks an almost necessary alternative. 

Aside from the utility of such sites, we just find this form of camping much more enjoyable. By ditching the amenities of a campground and the security of knowing exactly which well marked slot to back into, you gain not only a sense of exploration but also a felt connection to your surroundings. Most of us travel into nature to experience it directly, not to be coarsely stroked to sleep by the sounds of our neighbor's RV generator. We'll take the calls of a coyote or the wind through the trees over that any day!

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How to find a good spot? 

Finding your own secret oasis away from everything is the best part. As long as you're okay with a little adventure and some unknowns, you'll feel right at home even when your miles from it. Plus, with a little foresight and these tips you'll feel way more comfortable setting out to find one.

Start with a good map. Locate the green areas on Google Maps and you're halfway there. Green means 'public,' as in National Park, Forest, Monument, etc. These areas tend to offer camping and the National Forests and BLM lands are the ones with the most dispersed camping to be uncovered.

Paper maps never runout of batteries, and are often waterproof, two things most smartphones can't compete with. Pick up up-to-date maps before your trip or borrow ours. These can often be found at visitor's centers or ranger stations, so consider adding a stop there prior to setting out into the woods. 

Nothing beats a good satellite image. So flick Google Maps over to 'Satellite' and start exploring (best done at work, when you're "very busy"). Here you can follow roads into the backcountry just as you would on the ground. Keep your eyes peeled for pullouts and dead-ends, as these are often the best spots. 

Ask a local or a ranger. Above all else, local knowledge is a great resource no matter where you're traveling. Though many spots can be highly coveted secrets, it doesn't hurt to get first-hand info on current road conditions, things to look out for, and maybe even a whisper of a few hidden gems. 

Forest roads are the ones to follow. Often marked "Forest Rte 5N55," or a similar combination of numbers and letters, these road are often graded dirt and provide your best access to the remote camping spot of your dreams. 

Arrive early. Without light it is always more difficult not only to pitch camp but to find one in the first place. Allow plenty of time to explore before dark. Think of finding a nice spot as a part of your trip and not just the consequence of a day's end.

Getting to the site early all but guarantees a chance of finding a site unoccupied. No one likes a car's brights shining on their tent at 2 am, so this is a great way to respect your neighbors, if there are any, as well as find your own little slice of paradise. 

Drive! Get out there and explore. You didn't head out into the backcounty to experience the predicable, which nature certainly is not. Surprise yourself! This is what adventure travel is all about.

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What to bring?

Any trip out into the backcountry requires some forethought and of course a well prepared kit. While the list of things to bring along can grow long quickly, there are few essentials to grab before you hit the (dirt) road.

Carry some good navigation tools. Maps are an outdoors-person's best friend and never fail if you have a compass and know how to read them. National Geographic now offers free printable USGS quad maps, which is another great resource. Unfortunately, reading a map has become a bit of a lost art in our times, so the next best thing to a paper map...  

GPS and offline navigation are crucial for use beyond the range of cell towers. Anyone who's spent a night far beyond the city lights on a new moon will see the occasional satellite streak across the night sky: They're out there and are providing uninterrupted location data to your smart phone even when the closest cell signal is miles away. This allows your phone to function like a GPS unit, so download a few map layers within apps like Google MapsGaia GPSPocket Earth, and Hema Maps, and you'll feel way more confident when you reach the next fork in the road. 

Bring enough water, fuel, and food so that the only thing you're worrying about is whether the pasta is al dente. But in all seriousness, the car runs on gas, you run on food and water, so make sure to have plenty before heading to far afield. 

Pick up a fire permit. A permit is essential if you plan on having an open flame in the backcountry and are required even if you only plan on using a gas stove to cook on. Stop by a ranger station or get one online. They're free and can save a forest from being lost to future generations of visitors. Quick note here, over 80% of "wild" fires are caused by humans, so take this very seriously.

When nature calls, be ready to answer. Carry enough personal hygiene products to manage your bodily needs in the bush and be prepared to 'pack it out' if required. That's right, not every location allows you to dig a cat-hole, so make sure to carry the appropriate waste management items. Cleanwaste toilet kits are a great option here, but when it comes time to dig make sure to minimize the chance of water pollution, the spread of disease, and the aesthetic impact, while maximizing the decomposition rate. No one wants to see toilet paper hanging from the bushes, and animals can and will search it out, so dig at least 6-8 inches down and at least 200 feet from camp spots and water sources.

Patience and sense of adventure are always a traveler's best friend. They pack down small and weigh nothing, so bring extra.

Leave no trace. So whatever it is you decide to bring with you out on the trial, make sure to bring it back. Furthermore, if you see some trash, pick it up. By leaving a place better than how you found it you ensure that we'll have access to these amazing campsites for generations to come.

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Leave no trace & tread lightly.

Before we go, we've got to mention this one more time! Be a steward for the places you visit. Love them like they were your own, because they are. Don't just practice 'leave no trace' principles whenever you go outside, but help clean up after others as well.  

Not only do food scraps, spat-out tooth paste, and trash leave marks, vehicles do too. Make sure that in your search for the perfect site you don't trample vegetation and damage the land. Adhere to all 'tread lightly' principles.

Be respectful & get involved. 

Access to the wilds is not a given. It is something that has been fought for for generations and which is continually at risk. The best way to protect the places we love to visit is to 1. take good care of them when we're there, 2. respect the people and histories of the land we visit, 3. get involved to keep public land protected for years to come. Consider helping out in your community and adding your voice to the national discussion: Your Forests, Your FutureOutdoor AllianceThe Conservation Alliance, and Access Fund

Get out there & enjoy the wilds!

Need help integrating some dispersed sites into your next trip? We're here to help! While we certainly haven't seen them all, we love helping folks discover what for some is a whole new side of camping and for others a homecoming. We hope that this article helps you get further and stay longer in the places that make overland travel and our public lands so special.

Camping and Cooking in Canyon Land

No reservations needed, just the right ingredients for the perfect road trip.

The sky's the limit when it comes to adventure throughout the Southwest, so it's always helpful to have a few suggestions for ideal overnights, attractions, and camp-meals. Follow @asideofsweet as they explore the free-camping options and culinary delights of life on the (dirt) road through California, Arizona, and Utah. 

Big Sur & the South Coast

KnowN internationally for its natural beauty, cultural intrigue, and recreational bounty, Big Sur is undoubtedly worthy of its global appeal. One of the best in the west, this road trip should top everyone's list.

Perhaps no other road is more iconic or visually recognizable than the Pacific Coast Highway as it winds its way from Monterey to San Luis Obispo through Big Sur. And while Big Sur's north offers visitors numerous cultural attractions from five-star dining to bohemian shops and galleries, the South Coast remains a largely undeveloped and lesser visited stretch of coastline, tempting the adventurous to discover Big Sur the way it was meant to be experienced: raw, wild, and untouched. Plan your trip down the coast with both Surs in mind for a truly unique off-the-grid getaway.

 South Coast Ridge Road - One of the region's most cherished and spectacular known secrets.

South Coast Ridge Road - One of the region's most cherished and spectacular known secrets.

Culture

ESSELEN TO ESALEN

The Esselen Indians were perhaps the first peoples to settle in the Ventana Mountains and coastal Big Sur, their name meaning "the people from the rock." Traces of their habitation still remain along the inland river valleys, where hikers may visit petroglyph sites and find stone mortars used to process acorns in the fall and winter. 

Pico Blanco, the pyramidal limestone peak that hangs over the southbound drive unmistakably, was considered their axis mundi, the point of their origin and window through which all souls pass on their transit from this life. Yet perhaps the most recognizable symbol of this culture's presence in the region is not the remaining archeology or the scattered fragments of their traditions, but the now iconic Esalen Institute, drawing on their their legacy in name and location.

Conceived amid the psychedelia and new found self-discovery of the 1960's hippy era, Esalen hosted Ansel Adams, Timothy Leary, and Joan Baez to name a few. Considered to be the birthplace of Transpersonal Psychology and a leading voice on all things integrative, Esalen now offers year-round workshops and retreats focusing on just about everything from art therapy to zen buddhism. While access is often granted only to those enrolled in the onsite programs, they do allow midnight visits to their cliff-side hot tubs, which are fed by the same natural hot springs frequented nearly 6000 years ago for ritual and healing.

NEW CAMALDOLI HERMITAGE & TASSAJARA ZEN MOUNTAIN CENTER

Surely monastic life is not for everyone, but these two monasteries might make you think twice about a life of austerity if it meant living in Big Sur. Check out the New Camaldoli Hermitage and visit their chapel which holds daily prayers and offers a rare glimpse into the life and work of the 20 Camaldolese Benedictine monks in residence.

For a slightly more adventurous outing, consider visiting the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center during their Summer's visitor season, from April to September. Tassajarra, a Japanese Buddhist monastery, the oldest in the US, boasts some of the finest home made bread and an opportunity to sit in "zazen" meditation within the Ventana Wilderness. It is very isolated and you may need four-wheel drive to get there, as this monastery sits at the end of a 16 mile, winding dirt road, with sheer drop-offs and a steep, narrow descent over the last five miles. You're trip there will be well rewarded however, as a bath in their hot springs and the sounds of the Tassajara river will quite even the busiest mind. 

 A moment of Zen is easy to find in Big Sur

A moment of Zen is easy to find in Big Sur

HENRY MILLER MEMORIAL LIBRARY

This beat-era literary hot spot is named after the late author, Henry Miller, who penned such titles as Tropic of Cancer. The library is a cultural hub for the Big Sur community, offering outdoor film screenings on the weekends, live musical acts, and a worldly bookstore filled with plenty of perfect reads while on the road. When planning your visit keep an eye on their events calendar for readings, concerts, and films.

POINT SUR LIGHTHOUSE

Guiding many a passing ship through this dangerous stretch of coastline, the Point Sur Lighthouse sits at the northern entrance to Big Sur and can be visited daily by season as well as by moonlight one time monthly. You can't miss this iconic promontory on your drive south. 

HEARST CASTLE

At the terminus of Big Sur's South Coast, where the mountains give way to the pasture lands of San Simeon National Park lies the Hearst Castle. Built over a span of 30 years by the newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst, the estate sits overlooking the ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains on what is perhaps the most beautiful and gaudy piece of property on California's central coast.

Dining

BIG SUR BAKERY

Almost nothing tastes better after a morning hike or surf than a pastry from the Big Sur Bakery. Owned and operated by a former Four Season chief with a degree in 'Baking and Pastry Arts,' this small bakery offers some of the finest quick bites and cups of coffee in the area. 

NEPENTHE

A trip to Big Sur is never complete without stopping in at Nepenthe for dinner and drinks while watching the sun's last rays fall over the South Coast. Set amongst oaks and redwoods, with whale, woodpecker, and occasional condor sightings from the patio and deck, the restaurant at Nepenthe is truly romantic and a magical first night's meal. Quintessentially Big Sur.

TREEBONES RESORT

Once south of Big Sur, amenities are few and far between. While there's a restaurant and grocer in Gorda to stock up on food, ice, and essentials, Treebones Resort, better know for their yurts, is a worthwhile stop if you're in the mood for freshly rolled sushi and a laid back perch to watch whales go by. Dinners aren't served late, so arrive early and consider calling ahead if you're hoping to be seated in the dinning room. Show up for live music on Monday nights and camp just minutes away. 

Natural Attractions

Those who are looking to get outside an enjoy nature benefit the most from a visit to Big Sur. With countless opportunities for nature viewing, hiking, trail running, surfing, diving, kayaking, and spear-fishing, this part of California is paradise found. 

MCWAY FALLS 

Steps off of Highway 1 is the iconic beach waterfall, McWay Falls. Look for signs for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and find parking off the highway or within the park. Trails heading up the gorge lead to mountaintop views and traverse numerous ecosystems as the they wind their way to the ridge above. 

 McWay Falls within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

McWay Falls within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

PFEIFFER BEACH

The famous key-hole rock featured in so many photographs can be found at Pfeiffer Beach, which lies just south of the tow of Big Sur. Show up before sunset from December to January to catch this natural light-show in full effect. The beach itself is strikingly beautiful with red, white, and black sands mixing in the tide line and amazing scenery year-round.

SAND DOLLAR BEACH

If you're looking to spend the day(s) at the beach, taking in the sun, tide pooling, surfing, or "jading," then Sand Dollar is the place to be. With surfable waves at all tides and all sizes, bring your single-fin or step-up depending on conditions. This beach is great for families and offers an opportunity to find the highly coveted jade stones as the tide recedes or after storms.  

NATURAL HISTORY

Rising out of the sea to nearly 6,000 feet, the Santa Lucia Range dominates the topography of the South Coast, offset only by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean below. From coast to crest, the complexion of the area's numerous and varied ecosystems is shaped by Big Sur's unique interplay of land and sea.

 A typical evening's sunset with views towards Cone Peak

A typical evening's sunset with views towards Cone Peak

The coastal marine layer brings with it fog, which often hangs in the morning air, and allows this area to support the state's southern most redwood trees. Yucca and sage chaparral cling to the steeps, as oak dotted grasslands blanket the ridges. Incredible displays of seasonal wildflowers spring from grassy marine terraces and higher elevation hillsides after wet winters.

Where land meets sea, numerous coves open to kelp covered reefs and seaweed strewn beaches. The intertidal is dazzled by a display of bright green anemone, ruddy orange starfish, and eclectically camouflaged sculpin, and the marine grasses lining the shallow tide pools shine with an iridescence rivaled only by Hubble's images of deep space.

The commonly spotted Humpback Whale, Sea Otter, Mule Dear, and Coyote frequent the area. While seldom seen, rare, but endemic species include the Horned Lizard, Bobcat, Mountain Lion, Black Bear, Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle, Condor, and Killer Whale.  

 A rare glimpse of the California Condor, native to the area, and now benefiting from years of consecration effort

A rare glimpse of the California Condor, native to the area, and now benefiting from years of consecration effort

Camping & Driving

CAMPING

Seaside campsites offer some of the State's most coveted overnight options and 'dispersed' camping can be found throughout the National Forest lands, where numerous trailheads offer the opportunity to access wild areas on foot and countless coastal adventures abound. 

 Dispersed camping on Prewitt Ridge

Dispersed camping on Prewitt Ridge

Kirk Creek, Limekiln, and Plaskett Creek Campgrounds all offer coastal camping options just steps off Highway 1. Expect to find well maintained facilities and other campers enjoying some of the best campsite in California, if not the US. All sites accommodate at least one vehicle and Plaskett Creek offers large group camping. While most campsites fill months ahead of time, some offer first-come first-serve sites for the last minute traveller. 

If reservations fail you and all the campsites are full, as can often be the case, don't stress: the best know-secret is the South Coast's dispersed campsites within the Los Padres National Forest. With unsurpassed views of California's dramatic coastline and miles of scenic backroads, these infrequently visited tracks are not to be missed if you are prepared for off-the-grid camping and sometimes rugged byways. 

For suggested routes and campsites within the Los Padres, please refer to our map of the area:

DRIVING

The Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway 1, is an often narrow, winding, one lane road that skirts the edge of the Coastal Range. This stretch is best driven slowly, leaving plenty of time to take in the ocean views and stopping to enjoy the unparalleled beauty that attracts so many to the area. 

While not always a concern, seasonal forest fires in the summer and landslides during wet winters do occur and have the potential to close off much of Big Sur to through-traffic. Although Highway 1 offers a visually stunning route to explore, there are numerous other less-travelled roads within the Los Padres National Forest to tempt the adventurous. You'll need a four-wheel drive vehicle and plenty of provisions if you wish to travel these backcountry roads, so plan accordingly. There are no facilities along these tracks, nor at most campsites, so please obey all BLM/Forest Service guidelines and Tread Lightly principles and "leave no trace." Please also consider reading our Orientation page for more information on driving and camping within the National Forest. 

Big Sur & the South Coast offer the adventurous traveller a unique opportunity to see California the way it might have been before much of the coast was developed. It still remains a wild and in many way untamed landscape, where natural cycles often dictate the live's of those who call Big Sur home. With countless cultural and outdoor attractions, as well as some of the most spectacular camping and off-highway driving in the country, Big Sur earns our highest recommendation as an overland travel destination. An ideal stop on any road trip, it is a place we return to again and again to escape the grind of city life and to appreciate all that this beautiful region has to offer.