Unique Oregon & California Coastal Adventure (Tips from a Road Trip Cut Short by a Pandemic!)

Huge sea stacks right at the waters edge, with a large beach at the bottom of a hill of sand and yellow vegetation

When we stepped out the door and went over our packing list one last time, we had no idea what was in store for our first road trip with our toddler, our two dogs and our new rooftop tent. Our unique Oregon & California coastal adventure will always be a trip to remember, and we learned many tips on our road trip cut short by a worldwide pandemic!

My hope is that this unique, unprecedented story gives you tips for your travels during this pandemic. While everyone’s comfort levels are different it seems like we’re in this for the long haul. In my opinion, road trips are the safest form of travel right now, so buckle up and come along for the road trip of a lifetime 🙂

Woman with red hair dressed in pink smiling at toddler dressed in blue, with the woman sitting on a bench and the toddler standing with his hands on the back of the bench. In the background is San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge
Our first trip with our toddler was (mostly!) a success despite a pandemic

Day 1: March 11, 2020

Seattle –> Fort Stevens

Highlights: Fort Stevens Beach, Wreck of the Peter Iredale, Beach driving

Drive Time: Approx 3.5 hours

Camping: Fort Stevens State Park

A little back story: we planned this trip for months. With a new adventure car (Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro) and a rooftop tent to match, we were itching for an adventure. Our son was about to turn 1 ( in early March!) and so we were brave and decided we would all head off to California.

As the beginning of the trip loomed closer, the worldwide situation seemed to get bleaker. First, there was the first US case in Seattle. Then cases in other states. Then a community transmission. We considered canceling my son’s birthday, we stopped going to storytimes, and we wondered whether we could pull this off. This is all to say this was not a decision we made lightly. In the end, we figured we would be safer outside of America’s hotspot area.

A shipwreck partially buried on a beach, rusted and decayed by time
Peter Iredale Shipwreck

So we made a huge packing list, added gear to our car, bought Noel a baby sleeping bag, and were finally out the door. The drive to Fort Stevens was uneventful, but the beach itself was amazing! Despite the amount of times we have traveled the coast, we had never been! We were able to drive our 4Runner on the beach at sunset, visit a real shipwreck, and sleep beneath the forest with the sounds of the waves crashing close by.

Pandemic Travel Tip: There is no better social distancing than camping.

You eliminate all sorts of touchpoints and you have your own space. We camped for most of this road trip, and because it was March we had cold-weather gear. The reason we felt comfortable continuing this road trip for as long as we did was the fact that we had minimal human contact! Camping with a toddler is a learned skill; the first night was really not easy. But Noel loves camping, and the fresh air made sure he had a great night sleep!

One of the best ways to socially distance is to rooftop tent camp. This car and rooftop tent overlooking the ocean made us feel much safer on our unique Oregon & California coastal adventure!
Our sleeping setup! This view is from New Brighton State Beach

Day 2: March 12, 2020

Fort Stevens –> Beverly Beach

Highlights: Cannon Beach, unique cliffs at Cape Kiwanda, sunset at Beverly Beach

Drive Time: Approx 3 hours

Camping: Beverly Beach State Park

Our second day got off to a bit of a slow start; we tried (and failed) to find a take-out place to get some fresh fish for lunch, and the detour cost us time. But all was well once we made it to Cannon Beach. Cannon Beach in Oregon is probably one of my favorite beaches in the world, and Haystack Rock just offshore never disappoints.

Looking for more information about an Oregon road trip? Some of my favorite places are outlined in my Oregon Coast & Portland road trip post!

After a visit to run the dogs out there, we traveled to the Three Capes Loop to visit Cape Kiwanda. The cliffs gleam a stark orange in the sunlight and although windy, there were starfish and shells abound.

A large mossy rock sits just offshore, reflecting in the sand on the beach
Cannon Beach’s famous Haystack Rock!

We finished our day by setting up camp at Beverly Beach State Park. We have been to the beach before, but never the campsite. It was so nice to watch a Pacific Coast sunset and then walk 2 minutes back to our home for the evening.

Pandemic Travel Tip: Minimize exposure by bringing your own food, and eating outside.

Before we embarked on our trip, we decided to bring along some Mountain House instant meals, as well as to bring easy dinners such as soup and grilled cheese. For breakfast we usually had instant oatmeal and fruit! Although we did not spend our whole trip eating this food, it kept us away from others and feeling safer. When we did get food we always made a point to get to-go, or eat outside on a patio!

The sun shining on orange cliffs on a beach, with high sand dunes directly behind them and a dog walking around in front of them
The landscape (and my dog Mason!) at Cape Kiwanda

Day 3: March 13, 2020

Beverly Beach –>Sunset Bay

Highlights: Newport harbor, Neptune Scenic Beach area, Sunset Bay Beach

Drive Time: Approx 2 hours 45 min

Camping: Sunset Bay State Park

Our third day on our unique Oregon & California coastal adventure got off to a rainy start as we headed into the Newport Bay area. Inland from the coast, this area is a picture-perfect fishing town. After eating breakfast on the patio at The Coffee House we stopped by the docks to see the seals. We spent some time watching them fight each other off the dock, and then continued on to Neptune Beach. We discovered this beach on a road trip a few years ago (Oregon Coast road trip) and fell in love with the remoteness, as well as the diversity in marine line. While this time we did not get as lucky spotting sea stars and anemones, it was still as quiet as the first time we visited!

A harbor with docks filled with sleeping and fighting sea lions, with a tall bridge a fishing boats in the background
The seals in Newport

The rainy day continued as we traveled down the coast, stopping at a few more beaches along the way. We finally made it to Sunset Bay, where it was cold and rainy. Setting up camp in the rain isn’t my favorite memory, but the rain stopped long enough for us to enjoy the end of the day on the beach.

That night was a long one; it hailed and it rained and it dropped to almost freezing (in C). We stayed warm and dry because of the gear we so thoughtfully planned out before the trip.

Pandemic Travel Tip: Get quality gear!

Nothing ruins a trip like bad weather and bad gear! Our rooftop tent is a Tepui that fits 2-3. This was its shining moment, when we realized that we could camp in any conditions and stay dry. Our toddler stayed warm in his Patagonia base layers, Carter’s sleeper & his Morrison sleeping bag. Finding warm layers for a baby was incredibly challenging, and full disclosure, we returned the sleeping bag after it got a hole and started leaking down feathers everywhere!

Looking down a cliff at layers of waves coming in to beach, and hills all along the coastline
Views from Highway 101

Day 4: March 14, 2020

Sunset Bay –> Trinidad, CA

Highlights: Shore Acres State Park, Coastline drive from Gold Beach -> Bandon, Pistol River Scenic Viewpoint

Drive Time: Approx 4 hours

Airbnb: Trinidad Guest House **If you sign up for Airbnb using my referral link you will get up to $50 USD off your first stay, and $15 to use toward an experience worth $50 or more, and I will receive up to $20 travel credit, at no extra cost to you!

We woke up to dreary weather on our fourth day, but despite the bleak outlook of the day we were so thankful to be warm and dry! We packed up quickly and took a detour to Shore Acres. This park is home to some of the most epic crashing waves during storms, and people travel from all over to watch the waves that reach seemingly impossible heights. I stood in the pouring rain looking for the perfect wave, and while none were as impressive as the biggest waves you can see, it was still such a force of nature.

A woman dressed in gray and blue, with a pink hat, overlooking the ocean and three large rock formations
Roadside view of Sisters Rock

We then took a small detour through some forest roads to join back onto Highway 101 to make our way to California. The entire Oregon coast is amazing, but the Southern portion really takes the cake! The weather couldn’t make up its mind: we went from pouring rain to sunny skies back and forth all day. We had a chance to stop at a few overlooks and beaches, including the beautiful Sisters Rock and Pistol River Beach.

After sitting in traffic behind a rollover for what seemed like hours, we finally entered California. Our stop for the night was in Trinidad, where we stayed at a lovely Airbnb- our first of the trip.

Pandemic Travel Tip:

Choose your Airbnb with care. I am notoriously picky about Airbnb’s we stay at, and we have stayed at over 50! (See how I pick the best of them in my Adventure Planning Resources post!) Airbnb has put a lot of measures into place, including the option for hosts to commit to enhanced cleaning protocols. Just beware, a lot of places have strict cancellation policies, and those haven’t changed due to the worldwide situation!

White and gray dog prancing across a reflective beach, with large sea stacks in the background
My dog Ollie enjoying Pistol River Beach

Day 5: March 15, 2020

Trinidad –> Fort Bragg

Highlights: Moonstone Beach, Snowstorm in California, Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Drive Time: Approx 6 hours *Would not recommend with a toddler!

Camping: (reservations, we didn’t end up camping that night): Van Damme State Park

Airbnb: Treehouse near Redwoods **If you sign up for Airbnb using my referral link you will get up to $50 USD off your first stay, and $15 to use toward an experience worth $50 or more, and I will receive up to $20 travel credit, at no extra cost to you!

After a night sleeping in a real bed, a chance to dry out the rooftop tent and a slower start to our morning, we reached our first beach of California: Moonstone. Anytime we have traveled through Northern California we are usually passing through or going to see the redwoods, so we have never been to this part of coastline. I would highly recommend checking out these beaches!

Huge snowflakes falling along road and trees and shrubs lining the sides of the road
Ascending into snow on the road to the Lost Coast

With our new 4Runner and its off roading capabilities, we were excited to try some trails. We found a road called “The Lost Coast” and my husband and I had each separately researched it. Essentially it is an area of the coast that is seismically active and therefore Highway 1 actually routes inland to avoid it. These roads and its coastline are supposedly rugged. We started off in an old town called Ferndale. From here we climbed into, unexpectedly, snow. We drove through a Winter Wonderland to reach farmland overlooking the Pacific. We excitedly descended to the empty beach, looking forward to the rest of the drive. Except this seemed to be the only ocean portion. For another hour and a half we winded through farmland and forests, leaving the ocean behind. We found out later there were two parts to the road, and we took the wrong one. Oops.

With dulled spirits we wove in and out of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, taking time to get photos of our tiny toddler under the enormous trees. The winding roads back out to the ocean were too much for the little guy, and a multi-vomiting event ensued. It was all over him, all over his carseat, and lucky for us we had spaghetti for lunch! It was clear we were not camping that evening.

Looking out at the blue sky and ocean in the distance, and snowy landscapes in the foreground
I don’t know if I have ever seen snow and ocean at the same time!

After a very stressful next hour we realized we would need to find a last minute Airbnb. Thank goodness people respond fast, and we found a (literally!) last minute booking that had a laundry machine, located in Fort Bragg.

Pandemic Travel Tip: Prepare a backup plan!

Although this should be the case for any sort of travel, it is especially important when you have a lot fewer options. If I were to plan our unique California & Oregon coastal adventure again, I would have had backup Airbnbs stored in my phone for every camping night. There was no way we could have continued traveling with a car, baby and carseat smelling like puke!

Small toddler in gray sweater and blue pants, with a green hat, sitting at the bottom of a tree that is huge in diameter, in California's coastal redwoods!
Noel looks tiny in front of a redwood!

Day 6: March 16, 2020 *Shelter In Place Orders in Marin County go into effect

Fort Bragg –> San Geronimo

Highlights: Mendocino Coast, Gualala

Drive Time: Approx 4 hours

Airbnb: No longer listed on Airbnb

Six days into our road trip and it finally felt like things were going the way we planned them. There were no food stops that took us way off schedule, no freezing temperatures or storms, and no one puked! Looking back it was the calm before the storm, as the entire trajectory of our road trip would soon change.

Light blue ocean with waves hitting the rocks, and small sea stack formations in the center of the photo and right offshore
Views from a roadside stop in Westport, California

We spent the day exploring a coastline we have never visited before. The Mendocino Coast offers views parallel to those in Big Sur, with far fewer people. There are countless overlooks and beaches, and the town of Mendocino itself has many great food options. We ate a picnic lunch, away from people. We beach hopped and just enjoyed the beautiful weather we were finally experiencing.

Arriving late at our Airbnb, we were notified by our host that the entirety of Marin County, as well as surrounding counties, had been put under a stay-at-home order. This is when things got real. We hadn’t escaped the threat, we had walked right into it. We weren’t sure at this point what that would mean for our trip, so we committed to minimizing interactions with others. Keep in mind that at this point there were no masks, and people were panicking without a real clue as to how this would play out. It was a little terrifying to be on the road with my family and not know how serious the immediate threat was.

A road cutting through a cliffside, where the blue ocean and cloud filled sky are pictured right next to the road.
The Mendocino Coast has views like these
Pandemic Travel Tip: Research the status of the area you will be staying

Although everything was moving at such a fast pace in those early days, knowing that cases were on the rise in the previous few days in Marin County may have kept us better informed. We had watched Washington State gradually shut down during that first week of travel, but had no idea that the situation was worsening quickly in California as well. Checking numbers of cases and restrictions/mask orders can help you better prepare!

A woman in pink and gray, with a camera around her neck, looks at the camera. In the background there is greeney, cliffs and the ocean
There are so many photo opportunities along this stretch of coast!

Day 7: March 17, 2020

San Geronimo–> Santa Cruz

Highlights: Muir Beach, Golden Gate overlook, Sutro Baths, Santa Cruz boardwalk

Drive Time: Approx 3.5 hours

Camping: New Brighton State Beach

We woke up to a beautiful day in San Geronimo, and it was soon clear that nothing about the rest of our unique California & Oregon coastal adventure would be normal. Stores were closed, streets were empty, and the world seemed to stand still. We started our day out at Muir Beach, just North of San Francisco.

Houses and trees line small cliffs that drop off into a calm beach
Muir Beach is just one of many San Francisco area beaches to enjoy!

Next stop was nearby Golden Gate. We’ve been countless times, and we have a favorite spot to view the bridge. From Sausalito you can check out Battery Spencer and the overlook. It’s usually packed, and there is usually a line to park. Good luck getting a photo of you and the bridge. We pulled into a spot at the busiest section, and we were the only ones there. It was one of the eeriest experiences I’ve had. There was a coyote in the visitors area having a nap. (Note: Wildlife is wild. Do not approach wildlife, and do not provoke them.) It was quiet and peaceful. We spent over 30 minutes, us and the coyote, enjoying the views over San Francisco. When another car pulled up the coyote meandered to another spot, but stayed within our view.

A pool of water and pieces of old buildings being overtaken by vegetation sit in stark contrast to the ocean in front of it
The pool of tide water is mainly where the bathhouse sat in its glory days! Here is some information of a relic of a bygone era: https://www.nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/cliff-house-sutro-baths.htm

After marveling at the photographs we took and the experience we had, we continued to a new place, Sutro Baths. This old bath house next to the ocean was left to decay, a relic from the early 20th century. We toured around and enjoyed the beautiful weather. Then it was on to Santa Cruz. After visiting one more beach we happened to drive by the boardwalk. Just as at Golden Gate, time stood still. The rides stood quiet, the gates boarding the place up. No one walked the surrounding streets, and we drove around multiple times to get photographs of the strange scene. We ended our day with an ocean view campsite at Brighton State Beach, wondering what was next for us on this trip.

A coyote walks on the other side of the highway barrier, with hills, San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge in the background
Even as we were leaving the coyote was just leisurely walking around the area
Pandemic Travel Tip: Take advantage of places that may usually be busy

If there is one positive thing to come out of this whole mess, it is that places are significantly less busy. Animals had a chance to retake over their homes, and lines ceased to exist to see beautiful things. Although this was mainly the case at the beginning in March, there are still way less people traveling now. Take advantage of this, and find yourself an empty Golden Gate or a shell of an amusement park.

Usually flashy and busy entrance to Santa Cruz boardwalk sits still, with ticket booth closed, no people in sight and the rides not running
Probably the only time the boardwalk will look like this!

Day 8: March 18, 2020 *State parks close down, we lose our reservations

Santa Cruz –> Carmel-by-the-Sea, Big Sur

Highlights: Carmel City Beach, Walking around Big Sur, Garrapata Beach

Drive Time: Approx 2 hours

Camping: Riverside Campground & Cabins (originally reservation for Limekiln SP cancelled)

We were starting to panic. By this point, we had booked campsites up until Big Sur. And on the evening of the 17th, we got an email saying state parks and campgrounds would be closing. We were halfway down the coast of California and had nowhere to go. We spent a large chunk of time calling private campgrounds and looking for a place to stay that evening. After a lot of back and forth we were able to find a river side spot in Big Sur, which kept our plans on track.

Looking out at turquoise ocean waves coming in next to large cliffs, in which a road can be seen cutting through the greenery
One of my favorite views along Highway 1 in Big Sur!

We spent the day exploring Carmel and Big Sur, which are two of my favorite places in all of California. There is something magical about the white sand in Carmel, and the way the light hits the water. The town is filled with gingerbread looking houses and restaurants with amazing food. And Big Sur is one of the most amazing landscapes I’ve ever seen. Steep cliffs drop off into beautiful blue water, waterfalls flow into the ocean and you can even find purple sand!

We really savored this day on our unique Oregon & California coastal adventure because we deemed it would be our last. We knew stay-at-home orders were just around the corner, and we had no idea how safe it was to be away from home anymore, even if most of our time was spent outdoors.

Small baby in blue facing away from the camera, with arms out trying to balance while walking down a beach. In the background are greenery filled cliffs and a white and gray dog!
Noel was just learning how to walk, and it was so cute seeing him trot down the beaches
Pandemic Travel Tip:

Support local. It was clear that restaurants took a hard hit at the beginning of the shut down. We saw in Washington how quickly restaurants were starting to struggle. We decided to do what we could to support local businesses in Carmel, a town we deeply love. Our favorite restaurant, Forge In the Forest, was offering food to go. We ordered lunch two days in a row. We got coffees from Pangaea Grill, which was serving to go snacks as an effort to make some sort of money. Restaurants have now had time to adapt, so take advantage of their new to-go menus, or outdoor dining.

Dark blue water and dark clouds, with beams of light coming out of the clouds and hitting the water
Such a beautiful sunset!

Day 9: March 19, 2020 *Statewide stay-at-home order

Big Sur –> Northern California

We spent a rainy night by the river, and woke up feeling confident in our decision to call it and turn around back home. We spent the morning at Carmel Beach enjoying the last of the Southern California weather, and it was so special to realize that despite all of the changes and worries, we made it to Big Sur.

Looking from steps that lead down to a beach, with pops of color from wildflowers dispersed through greenery
Garrapata Beach in Big Sur is beautiful!

The rest of the drive was a very boring drive on Interstates to get to Northern California, where we would rest before attempting a 10 hour drive to get home the next day. Later in the day we saw the statewide stay-at-home order, and that further solidified our decision. There wouldn’t be restaurants open, there would be no camping open, and they were even closing down beaches.

Pandemic Travel Tip: Pack extra essentials, you can’t guarantee you can get them

There were a few things that we relied on getting every few days: water and milk. We needed those, as well as formula, on our 2nd last day of the trip. With the panic of the stay-at-home order, everyone went crazy. There were no containers of formula, and there was no water. We ended up with single formula packs and Evian water. Make sure you have all that you need. If this year has proven anything, its that our economy was not meant to withstand sudden needs for large quantities of items!

Day 10: March 20, 2020

Northern California –> Home

Man dressed in car with hat backwards smiling as he hugs toddler dressed in all blue who is hugging his face and smiling. In the background is San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge!
Dada & Noel!

There is no better way that I can describe this road trip than extraordinary. Not only did the landscape change as we traveled down America’s West Coast, so did our circumstances. We started off vaguely worried about the impact the virus was starting to have in Washington, and hurried home during a 10 hour long drive because the world was shutting down around us. Our unique Oregon & California coastal adventure will not soon be forgotten!

We didn’t realize it then, but the fact that we took that trip really kept us going throughout quarantine. It would be months and months (7 in fact!) until we would leave the borders of Washington again. While we have just started to ease back into modified travel, we know a lot of Americans have been utilizing road trips to explore safely.I hope that if you choose to travel, you stay safe, you stay healthy, and that these tips are helpful along the way!

If you’re ready to plan your travel, check out my Adventure Planning guide!

Samantha,

A Truthful Traveler