Circling Back to the Oregon Coast and California Redwoods

Between the pandemic and smoke, we spent a biiit more time at home this year. (Anyone else?) Luckily, early December presented a (rare) clear weather window in the Pacific Northwest, so we packed the van and headed west to the ocean.

This wasn’t an adventure trip with Type 2 fun. Nope, this was a vacation, a chance to revisit areas we fondly remembered from kicking off our van trip in 2013.

We had simple goals as we drove over the Cascades: 1) turn our faces to the salty ocean spray during beach walks and 2) wander with necks craned back in the towering redwoods of Northern California. 

Since covid disclaimers are all the rage, here’s ours: other than gas fillups, we were completely self-contained and alone for the entire week. Well, we rescued an injured seagull, but I don’t think they can catch the virus…

For those Googling for specific hikes and campgrounds, skip ahead to the section.

Waldport beach
Beach walking near Tillicum Campground.

The Beach

Travel in mountains stokes me with possibilities, but the beach acts as the ultimate grounding agent. Standing next to a massive body of water strips away day-to-day worries for both of us.

The southern Oregon coast is special because it’s a mix of treed areas and dunes, with steep cliffs interspersed with perfect sand beaches. We’d hike through an emerald green tunnel and then burst into the sun onto rolling dunes as far as we could see. The contrast is fantastic.

We leisurely skipped our way south in the van, stopping to camp, hike, or eat meals at vistas. Our only headache was toasted batteries – they’re five years past replacement age. New ones incoming soon.

Enough about the beach. Off to the redwoods!

The magical Alder Dunes area north of Florence.

The Redwoods

Time scales for redwood trees are too long for my brain to really grasp. Take the 1,500-year-old Big Tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park as an example: when colonialist settler loggers first arrived in the 1850s, the tree had lived 90% of its current life. Somehow it survived the axes and is part of the 5% of remaining old-growth redwoods.

At 286 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter, the footprint is a fair portion of most houses and is as tall as a 30-story building. According to The Hidden Life of Trees, if humans were able to digest wood, one that large could feed us 3,000 calories a day for our entire lives.

big tree prairie creek
The Big Tree. 1,500 years old, 75 feet around and 286 feet tall. Each gnarled branch looked like it was 500 years old!

Next to such majestic, old beings, humans seem small and short-lived, skittering about our frenetic little lives in the time a redwood grows a few more inches in diameter. Hiking beneath them feels like traversing nature’s cathedral, a quiet, reverent place where anything over a whisper feels rude.

One fascinating aspect of redwoods is the ability of their seeds to sprout on the stumps of their fallen forefathers. The little seed taps into the root system of the elder tree, gaining access to the vast subterranean network of nutrients. Tree lottery winner! The symbiosis of the trees is clearly apparent, with the gigantic snags often circled by their offspring.

Since there is no possible way to fully capture the coast and redwoods in words, I’ll end this here. Instead, below are some of my favorite photos from the trip, which of course don’t capture it either.

fern canyon hike
In the heart of the marvelous Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods SP

Resource List: Campgrounds and Hikes

First, a quick list of our favorite campgrounds and hikes on the Oregon Coast and California redwoods during our trip.

A note to van lifers: While we usually boondock camp, most coastal property (other than the entirely-public beach) is private. I was happy to pay for the pleasure of empty campgrounds with beach access. 

I noticed that iOverlander moderators have closed many camping spots due to overuse and complaints from locals. For an impacted area like the coast, I think paying for a site is the way to go. We can boondock camp in the desert and wide-open national forests!

For summer, book six months ahead of time for the coast and the redwoods. I prefer the off-season. Sure, the weather is iffy and it gets dark early, but there are ZERO crowds. 

Fog rolling in at Prairie Creek. In the summer, this road is lined with cars.

Oregon Coast (from Waldport to CA border):

  • Tillicum Campground: campsites overlooking the massive beach south of Waldport. For $25 a night, you get a million-dollar view. The beach offers endless walking opportunities.
  • Alder Dunes Campground & hike: a secluded spot north of Florence with a 6ish-mile hike from camp through tree tunnels and over dunes to an empty beach.
  • Tahkenitch Dunes hike: this hike spends a mile deep in the coastal rainforest before bursting out onto the dunes. Mushrooms were everywhere! For reference, there’s a campground at the trailhead, though it was closed.
  • Cape Blanco hike: Oregon’s westernmost point! The lighthouse is cool, but my favorite part was getting down on the beach and wandering through all the giant driftwood logs. We didn’t camp here, but there’s a state park as well.
Driftwood (and Chelsea) on Cape Blanco beach.

Northern California Redwoods:

  • Florence Keller County Park: most county parks resemble parking lots, but we pulled into this gem north of Crescent City to avoid dark, foggy conditions and WHAMMO were in tall trees with secluded spots. Many reviews say it’s the place to go during peak tourist months when everything books up.
  • Prairie Creek Campground: a stunning setting in the redwoods that must be absolute mayhem when it’s busy. In the off-season, it was quiet and provides access to many loops in the park.
  • John Irvine to Fern Canyon to Miner’s Ridge hike: try this ridiculously awesome 12-mile hike for variety. Miles and miles beneath 250-foot redwoods, then down into a canyon with walls covered in ferns, and then along a beach, where we saw Roosevelt Elk (they sport 4’ antlers, whaat). From there, you loop back through redwoods. A top-10 hike for me.
oregon mushrooms
  • Prairie Creek/Foothill/Circle/Cathedral Trail hike: all manner of options available here, but this 5-mile option goes by the Big Tree mentioned above plus other giant redwoods, overlooks spawning salmon habitat, and gives you a chance to see elk in the prairie.

Note: stop and wander down any of the short signed trails off the Newton B. Drury Parkway. Anywhere in the redwoods is worth seeing! 

Enough chit chat. Photos, go.

Yachats beach
What a trip to the beach does to us! (No, we didn’t get soaked by that wave.)
It wasn’t all easy though: Chelsea forgot the French press. This cowboy coffee kiiinda worked.
Thick seaweed (or something!) coating the rocks at Pebble Beach by Crescent City.
Our rescued seagull (Lefty), who Humboldt Wildlife Care took in. Not before he spent a night in the van though… Newsflash: seagull poop is stinky!
driftwood sunset
Sunset on the beach near Brookings.
Ocean-spray dew on a spider web near Yachats.
Out of the tree tunnels and onto the sand during the Tahkenitch Dunes hike.
A stop in the redwoods for a quick hike at one of the many pullouts.
Clearly this chunk of log on Cape Blanco was put here to stand on!
Two sculptures made of plastic at the Washed Ashore project in Bandon. They’re 8′ tall!
henry the fish washed ashore project
Henry the Fish’s eyeball from the Washed Ashore project. Check the detailing out.
Detail of Henry the Fish at the Washed Ashore project.
Henry’s scales.
washed up stump Cape Blanco
An old hollow stump on the beach at Cape Blanco. I could climb inside it!
Hopping logs over the creek in Fern Canyon.
Don’t eat these!
I forgot my headphone adapter, but Chelsea was nice enough to tolerate me playing my keyboard. (Stop pretending you don’t travel with a piano. Everybody is doing it.)
Let’s end with a puzzle: Dunes from 10,000′ or the beach from 3′?

How to Travel Iceland in a Camper Van

Camper van Iceland night shot

There are many ways to explore Iceland. You can rent a car, bicycle tour, hitchhike, or take the public bus. My hands-down vote, however, is to travel Iceland in a camper van.

As part of a month-long trip in summer 2016, we spent 2.5 weeks exploring the perimeter of the island via van. We followed a counterclockwise loop, nipping off the Ring Road to check out quiet roads whenever possible.

Even in July, the crescendo of tourist season, our camper van created access to areas we otherwise would have skipped. As a way to streamline your travel experience, bask in the brilliant nature of Iceland, and still travel in relative comfort, it’s the way to go! (If you’re worried about finding bathrooms and showers, read on below.)

This post is aimed at helping anyone looking to rent a camper van in Iceland. Whether this is your first time traveling by van or you’re experienced like me and Chelsea, you’ll land ready to rumble.

Go Camper rental iceland

Benefits of Traveling Via Camper Van

We are not fans of planning an entire trip. It always leads to having to pass up fun opportunities. While it’s necessary to plan ahead to book a vehicle, a camper van creates an otherwise free-flowing schedule. The cheapest way to tour Iceland is to hitchhike and tent camp along the way, but we are no longer tough enough for such things.

Compared to renting a car and staying in hotel, you’ll save money by renting a van. On top of that, a van also allows you to carry lots of food so you can eat when you are hungry. Given that eating out usually costs at least $25/person, this can potentially save a boatload of money.

Beyond that, you’ll be able to linger in beautiful areas. The flexibility of not needing to stick to polite business hours for arriving at a hotel or a host’s home opens up hours of watching perfect sunsets or hiking late into the day.

Lunch time! Stop when the view is good and eat.

Lunch time! Stop when the view is good and eat.

How to Choose Your Van

We’re experienced van travelers and know what makes for a comfortable vehicle. Unfortunately, most camper options were booked because we decided to head out with little notice. (High season – July and August – requires planning ahead by at least a few months, it seems.)

After contacting six different companies, we rented a simple camper van from the friendly folks at Go Campers. (Kuku Campers and Happy Campers are other solid options, from what I saw.) Their prices were competitive and customer service was great. I also like that their vans also have a small, simple logo instead of a bright, flashy designs on the side.

Wildflowers firing away at a camp spot somewhere seeeecret.

Wildflowers firing away at a camp spot somewhere seeeecret.

From what I saw pricing various companies, a basic camper costs about $100/day in the low season. Add ~25% for high season. (For comparison, a rental car is somewhere around $60-$100/day in high season.) Mid-range campers start closer to $200 and feature amenities like a heater, sink, fridge, and live-in chef (if you ask nicely). We would have gone with a fancier camper, but they were all booked up.

If you aren’t comfortable driving a manual transmission, make sure to let your rental company know! From what I saw, many of campers are manuals, but there are also automatic options that cost a bit more.

Lastly, let’s talk insurance. All companies will try to sell it to you. If you don’t have coverage, be warned that there is gravel on ALL roads (paved or not) and you may come back with a few chips. When the pavement runs out, you’ll be warned with the sign Malbik Endar. (It translates as “Norse God of Potholes Attacked Here.”)

Open roads in the east fjords.

Open roads…

How to Not Smell Like a Dirty Dirtbagger (aka Staying Clean)

Let’s get this out of the way: Stop worrying about finding frequent showers or toilets (WC, as they say here). It is easy to find a shower and bathroom in almost every town. That said, there are no rest stops, but gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores all have easy-access bathrooms. Worse-case, in the more remote areas you may need to scurry off the road to find a nice sheltering rock…

One option for staying clean is to jump in a frozen fjord. PFFFFT. Go with one of the signature elements of Iceland: Geothermically-heated pools in almost any town, no matter the population. For ~$5, you get access to a shower and the soaking pools, not to mention the occasional sauna and gym facilities. Our favorites: overlooking the ocean at Hofsós in the north, a great fjord view in Patreksfjordur, and the seaside ones in Drangsnes.

I mentioned this in my previous post and will restate it: before jumping in the pool, you MUST take a real shower. (Don’t worry, showers aren’t co-ed, and some places even have private stalls.) Take off your swimsuit, scrub your dirty parts per the handy instructional diagrams, and then put your suit back on. Nudity in the pools is not a thing here, so don’t plan on airing your junk for all to see unless you want to be the seriously weird foreigner. (And probably get kicked out.)

A perfect black sand beach in southern Iceland.

Sorry, no pool pics. How about a black sand beach instead?

How Much Time Is Needed For My Trip and Where Should I Go?

If you’re cruising the 870 mile Ring Road, 10 days seems to be the accepted won’t-crush-your-spirit-and-go-home-exhausted trip duration. Clockwise or counterclockwise – who cares? Since it’s a circle, I vote for choosing where the weather is best and heading that way.

We tend to travel slower than many people. Our goal for this trip was less than 2-3 hours each day driving. In 2.5 weeks, we were able to visit almost every area of the island without feeling rushed.

If you want the quiet solitude and scenery of many of the pictures in this post, head to the eastern or western fjords. (The western were our favorites.) Lots of wild camping, fewer people (less than 20% of tourists in Iceland go to the west fjords), and stunning scenery. As soon as you get off the Ring Road, you’ll see less traffic and tour buses. Always a positive in my opinion!

A perfect beach camp spot in the north near Husavik.

A perfect beach camp spot in the north near Husavik.

Where to Sleep

There are well-signed campgrounds everywhere in Iceland, often right in town. Any map will show you where they are. Most feature cooking, shower, and laundry facilities, plus water refill opportunities. They cost about $10/person.

Until recently, the Swedish idea of Allmansrätten was the law of the land. (Camp anywhere for one night.) Since July 1, 2016, this is no longer legal in Iceland, and it’s probably a good thing with tourism BOOMING. If you want to camp on someone’s property, you need to find the landowner and ask them. I vote for just staying in campgrounds. (To be clear, we wild camped all but three nights and found out about the new law only upon returning our camper. Ooooops.)

Breath-mint hay bales in a freshly mowed field in the east fjords.

Don’t camp on private land without asking! We simply admired these newly-wrapped hay bales in a freshly mowed field in the east fjords.

Staying Connected

Iceland’s affordable internet and cellphone access beats the pants off Europe and North America. Since I work remotely while we travel, staying connected is a priority. It is SO easy here. Even if you are on vacation and checked out of work, it could come in handy to access directions, find things to do/see, check business hours and locations, research an interesting topic or just make a phone call.

There is fast, reliable cell coverage almost everywhere in Iceland. It’s also super cheap. Using my unlocked iPhone, I simply picked up a Nova SIM card at the duty-free store at the airport and added data to it. For $40, I got 50 GB of data (1/12 the cost of data in the U.S.).

Since you’ll likely have a number of items that require charging (headlamp, phone, camera, computer, etc), I recommend bringing some kind of rechargeable battery pack with multiple USB ports on it like this one. Then you can plug that into the inverter while you drive and charge multiple items.

Plugged into my hotspot checking on work at one of the best offices I could ask for.

Plugged into my hotspot checking on work at one of the best offices I could ask for. (Shot not staged – I wrote an offer for a new employee here!)

Pack Efficiently

It may be tempting to bring a ton of gear. “Hey, we’re car camping, and I use that inflatable couch sometimes…” Don’t do it!

In the smaller vans, depending on the design, you shuffle your gear from the rear sleeping compartment up to the front seats when you want to lay down. Pack everything in easy-to-access duffel bags or small suitcases. Thank me when you quickly find your hat before a hike instead of unpacking the entire contents of your van.

Speaking of hiking, check out the cliffs of Latrabjarg, the western-most point in Europe.

Speaking of hiking, check out the cliffs of Latrabjarg, the western-most point in Europe.

Must-Have Items

To help me sleep during always-light summer nights, a sleep mask rocked my world. Ear plugs are always helpful for camping, and a thermos for hot tea or coffee on-the-go is handy and a zero waste option.

Chelsea wished she had brought her old-school hot water bottle to keep her warm at night. Consider bringing something like this if you sleep cold and your camper van doesn’t have a heater.

Metal water bottles are great for avoiding buying bottled water, especially since you can fill up at any waterfall with delicious, cold snow-melt water. Most gas stations have fill areas too, or a restaurant will help you out. (We found Icelanders so nice and helpful.)

We always travel with a couple of reusable bags for groceries/changes of clothing/dirty laundry/etc and they were always in use. Lastly, we also travel with wet wipes, a handy hygiene improvement device. These are available at prices you’re used to for purchase at any grocery store in Iceland.

Fresh water everywhere!

Fresh water everywhere!

Bring Warm Clothing

Pack light, but keep in mind you’re at the Arctic Circle. Bring base layers, insulating layers, windbreaking layers, a puffy jacket, high-quality rain jacket, warm socks, lined hat with great ear coverage, gloves, waterproof shoes and so on. The wind in Iceland cuts hard and you are almost guaranteed to do some exploring in the rain. We’ve also had a fair number of beautiful sunny days, to be clear. A 20 degree F sleeping bag will likely work, though Chelsea has had a few cold nights despite sleeping in all her layers in our heaterless camper.

I want to emphasize that waterproof shoes are key. I brought running shoes as well, but my feet were often a bit damp if I wore them on a hike through mossy or grassy areas. Even if it’s not actually raining, the trails are likely mushy or lined with wet foilage.

Chelsea bundled up in a random giant chair by the side of the road.

Chelsea bundled up in a random giant chair by the side of the road.

Check Van Supplies Before Leaving

You may feel the urge to floor it out of town in a jetlagged haze the second you get your camper keys. Resist that urge and go through the van’s kitchen and camp equipment to make sure you have everything you’ll need.

Knife? Cutting board? Lids for the pots? Scrub brush for dishes? Water jug? Inverter to charge your gear? Camp chairs? Make sure you leave with everything you were expecting. We hit the road with a van that was missing a knife and ended up having to buy one along the way.

Also, know how to access your spare tire. (Every car manual shows you how.) We picked up a shard of gravel and wound up with a flat in the middle of nowhere. It was an easy change for me, but if you aren’t comfortable changing a tire, you might want to prep yourself in advance. Goodyear and Firestone have stores in the bigger cities and fixed our flat for about $20.

We TOTALLY mistimed ski season.

Don’t forget your ski gear. We TOTALLY mistimed ski season…

Food Food Food!

Iceland may toe the Arctic Circle, but people here don’t just eat dried fish. Grocery stores are well-stocked and easy to find, at least in the big cities. Even in far-flung corners and tiny stores, we were pleasantly surprised to find some organic and vegan options.

Netto was our favorite store, but their discount brand Bonus is another good option for staples. Fruit and vegetables (many organic) are abundant, including grapes, blueberries and mangoes.

Stocking up in the tiny town of Seydisfjordur.

Stocking up in the tiny town of Seydisfjordur.

To read labels, Google Translate is fantastic. (Download the offline version before you arrive.) Since we don’t eat any animal products, we use it to translate ingredient lists. That said, we found that many labels were in English, not to mention there often was a great selection of nondairy milks and cheeses and vegan meats. (Even soy yogurt in some places.) As a bonus, a vegan lifestyle mitigated how ineffective our cooler was since plants don’t spoil very quickly.

Lastly, if you’re buying alcohol for your trip, grab it at the airport when you arrive to avoid paying the luxury tax. We don’t drink much at all (except for kombucha!), but did snag a couple bottles of liquor for friends in Reykyavik.

You'll never find a grocery store at the top of a pass... But can you spot the van?

Fill the van with food so you can hang out in places like this! Can you spot the van?

Dealing with Basics: Laundry, Ice

Laundry is offered for about $10 (wash/dry) at most campgrounds. The frequently overcast skies made it tough to dry things, so dryers were nice! Since 100% of Iceland’s power comes from renewable energy, you can feel good about supporting the local economy.

Note: Many dryers in Iceland use a water reservoir drawer at the top of the dryer instead of a plumbing drain. If you don’t empty this when you start the cycle, your clothes will NEVER dry.

Totally random, but finding ice for our cooler was surprisingly difficult at times. Big cities have bagged ice, but in smaller areas you’ll need to ask at gas stations or restaurants for them to bag some ice. Apparently people don’t travel with coolers? The grocery store Bonus consistently had it, but isn’t everywhere.

No, of COURSE this photo isn't staged. We always meditate in a sea of lupin...

We simply meditate in a sea of lupin instead of doing laundry. It’s advanced, I know.


Get After It!

Whaaaat else? Nothing at all! Rent that van, plan your trip, and have a kickass time.

If a van is in your budget and you want to maximize your flexibility for your trip to Iceland, I can’t recommend it enough. If anyone has questions, please fire away in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you out. Rented a camper van recently and have feedback? Help future travelers out by posting a comment.

*Thanks to Go Campers for partnering with us on our van rental! We appreciate it, and can’t wait to get back to Iceland for another adventure.*

I hope you're ready for sunset locations like this!

I hope you’re ready for sunset locations like this!

Happy Wife, Happy Life – Keeping It Together On the Road

Columbia River Gorge in the fog

Some people get cranky when they’re hungry. I summon NARG.

NARG is an ugly, surly monster. He lacks empathy or logic and excels at blaming. Slumbering most of the time, this Creature From the A-Hole Lagoon climbs out of the depths and controls my being when my stomach grumbles too long.

Chelsea created this all-caps creation to separate the venomous devil of a cranky person from her usual (awesome, sweet, playful…HA) husband. That raging maniac telling her she’s the hungry one? That’s just NARG, not her husband. Feed the slavering beast and I return to Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde’s shadow disappearing into the foggy swamp.

Along with keeping me fed and subduing my alter-ego, we have a few other coping mechanisms for traveling together. You might wonder how our marriage survived eight months in 75 square feet of a camper van, not to mention weathered the 4,000 mile bike tour last summer without the van. It’s a good question, as I seldom write about our travel ethos or discuss practical advice regarding surviving (enjoying!) our travels.

Well, I’ll say this: there were no pre-established ground rules. They evolved. Slowly, in some cases, and immediately in others, usually after I was overly controlling and tried to tell my (always stubborn) wife what to do. Some practices evolved via discussion, others from necessity. It’s still a work in progress.

It's all about balance!

It’s all about balance! Chelsea and our friend Brooke demonstrating perfect form on a hike in the mossy Oregon coast range.


To wit (I’ve always wanted to write that): we recently did an excellent interview over lunch with my friend J.D. Roth, founder of the popular finance site Get Rich Slowly. The interview discusses many of our thoughts and philosophies related to staying sane and happy while exploring the world together, with ideas that apply to any kind of travel, whether by van, plane or bicycle. The discussion began because J.D. is about to launch on a long RV trip around the U.S. and is interviewing inspiring people along the way. I’m honored to be included.

We talked about many things, but one of my favorite quotes from our chat came from Chelsea. It totally sums up our current approach to travel (and life, for that matter). “I guess the bottom line is to be easy-going and adaptable,” she said. “When you’re nomadic, you’re open to serendipity. It permeates your whole life. You find yourself saying ‘yes’ a lot more. It’s a very ‘yes’ experience.”

When NARG isn't around, C and I get along. :) Here we're enjoying a walk on the Oregon beach. Always sunny in the NW!

When NARG isn’t around, C and I get along. Here we’re enjoying a walk on the Oregon beach. Always sunny in the NW! (Photo courtesy of Nicole B.)