With an internationally renowned coastline, some of the world’s most stunning national parks and desert landscapes straight out of a Western, California is a good looking place.
Known as the ‘Golden State’, as much for its clientèle as its climate, California is the most celebrity-dense state in the USA. Glitz, glamour and the millionaire lifestyle are in evidence everywhere you look – from the boutiques of Rodeo Drive to the wineries of the Napa Valley – so you might be wondering where backpackers fit into all this.
Actually, California is great for backpackers. From the glamorous beaches of southern California to the vast, unpopulated forests of the north, backpacking along the West Coast of the US is a feast for the senses.
Planning your trip
Stretching 900 miles from tip to tail, the climate in California is so varied it’s impossible to make any generalisations. The best way to plan your trip is to have a rough idea of what you want to do and take it from there.
If you plan on hitting the beaches or going trail hiking then summer is the ideal time to visit; it’s warm and balmy along the coast, temperate in the national parks and super hot in the desert resorts.
For snowboarders and skiers the winter season runs from November to March; at altitude the snow is reliable and California boasts some amazing resorts, although yes, they do come with a price tag.
Californians will tell you the best time to visit is spring – it’s when you’ll see the state in all of its natural splendour. Springtime in California is a bit like summer in the UK; mild, sometimes sunny, often changeable. It’s well worth packing a poncho and going between March and May, though. The mountainsides and deserts are in full bloom and it’s much quieter everywhere. That’s good news for backpackers, with great value deals to be had on accommodation, eating out and attractions.
The US rail service, Amtrak, is an easy way to travel between cities. It’s cheaper than hiring a car, but obviously not quite as flexible. To give you an idea of prices, a single ticket from LA to San Diego costs approximately $37 (£25) if booked in advance. $159 (£110) will get you Amtrak’s California Rail Pass, allowing you unlimited travel by rail and on Thruway buses for 7 days during a 21 day period.
Most major cities and towns have excellent public transport networks, including metro, tram and bus routes, with fares coming in between $1-$3 (70p-£2) depending on the length of your journey.
California is also a cyclist’s paradise and, with the exception of hectic LA, it’s a great way to explore. San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo are all, incidentally, rated among the most bike-friendly communities in California by the League of American Bicyclists.
Staying in California
The Green Tortoise Hostel in San Francisco is undoubtedly one of my favourites. Billed as San Fran’s ‘party hostel,’ it has great facilities, a fun vibe and is located right in the heart of the action downtown. The facilities are excellent, in room and throughout the hostel, with prices starting at $34 (approximately £23) per night for a dorm bed. Guests will enjoy complimentary brekkie and Wi-Fi plus use of the hostel’s sauna, massage chair, and ballroom… yes, you read right. The Green Tortoise has a huge ballroom complete with a selection of musical instruments – the scene of many an impromptu knees-up!
If you rock up in the City of Angels, USA Hostels Hollywood is great value considering its enviable location (just a block from the Walk of Fame). As you’d expect, it’s got a hip and stylish atmosphere plus all the facilities for a comfortable stay. Along with Wi-Fi, power sockets and bedside lights, all dorms are en-suite and start at around $38 (£27) per night including breakfast. This is definitely a hostel for meeting people; it’s a really sociable place with regular gig nights, comedy shows and barbeques during the week. The hostel also runs a free shuttle bus to Santa Monica and Venice Beach, giving you the chance to explore the city without spending a penny.
San Luis Obispo Hostel, located just outside pretty Pismo Beach on the Central Coast makes a great stopover between cities (roughly halfway between San Fran and LA). This traditional clapboard house is full of old-fashioned charm, and you feel more like you’re staying in someone’s house than a hostel. Rooms are quaint, come complete with hand-quilted comforters and the usual mod-cons, including Wi-Fi. All that olde-worlde kitsch comes at a price, though, with rooms starting at $67 (£47) – worth it for the authentic experience alone.
Eating in California
California is the biggest producer of fresh food in the US, so the state has a huge influence over America’s cuisine. To wash it down, California produces over 90% of the nation’s wine-making grapes, and has twice as many breweries as any other state. Regardless of where you eat or drink, it’s likely to be local and have a creative twist.
With that in mind, if you’re in LA, the Farmer’s Market is a uniquely Californian experience. In 1934, a group of farmers pulled their trucks into an empty car lot to sell their produce… and the crowds gathered. Eighty years on and the Farmer’s Market is something of an LA institution.
Over 100 artisan food producers have set up shop here. The market is permanent and open seven days a week; there’s something to suit every budget here from food trucks, to fine dining restaurants to pavement cafés selling American and international dishes. Check out Fritzi for awesome hotdogs, Veggie Grill for amazing vegetarian snacks and Tusquella’s for freshly caught seafood. If you’re into your food, you have to go.
It’s possible to eat well for less than $5 (£3.50) if you hunt down one of California’s myriad food trucks. Food trucks in the US aren’t what we’re used to in the UK; no greasy bacon baps and instant coffee here! These nomadic snack-shacks roam the neighborhoods serving everything from All-American, to Pan-Asian and South American street food.
Devilicious in San Diego claims the ‘food is so good, it’s bad’ and it’s true, the asparagus grilled cheese tasted really sinful. Kogi Korean and The Lime Truck can be found in various locations around Orange County, serving dirt cheap American comfort food with a twist. Most food trucks have websites allowing you to check out their schedule to make sure you’re in the right place at the right time!
What to see
Don’t leave San Francisco without visiting Alcatraz Island, home to the world’s most infamous prison. Decommissioned in 1963, Alcatraz Prison held over 1,500 federal prisoners in its lifetime, ranging from money launderers to mob bosses. Some people report it gets booked up fast, but I just strolled up, booked a ticket and boarded the next ferry. Tickets can be purchased from several independent tour operators with prices starting at $31 (£21) for a day tour, including transfer by boat and an audio tour of the prison.
For something a bit different go for the night tour ($38 / £27) where you’ll experience the island by night and learn about its grim past from a personal tour guide. Don’t miss sunset over San Francisco Bay; it’s absolutely breathtaking.
California is brimming with talent and has given us some of the biggest music stars in the world. The state provides great opportunities to discover new artists and enjoy old faves. Without a doubt Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, is one of the best festivals in California – the world, in fact – and takes place near Palm Springs every Summer. Calvin Harris and Guns N’ Roses are headlining this year but the support acts are just as impressive, with the likes of Ellie Goulding, Major Lazer, Sia and CHVRCHES set to appear. Sad to say it’s pretty much sold out for 2016 but you’ve had the heads-up for 2017 right here!
If you’ve had enough of the stifling city, head for the coast. California’s got almost 1,000 miles of it, so there’s room for everyone. From poser’s paradise, Venice Beach, to the castaway beauty of Little Corona, the beaches of California are many and varied.
One of my favourites is Pismo Beach, smack bang in the middle of the Central Coast region and halfway between San Francisco and LA. As such, it makes the perfect stopover and, complete with ramshackle wooden pier, it offers a nostalgic slice of American beachlife. If you can, stay awhile; within a half hour drive of Pismo Beach, there are a further six state beaches, two nature reserves and three state parks.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco is a must for any budding Einsteins or Hawkings. This funky science museum takes a really unique approach to learning; it promotes simply-designed, hands-on experiences accompanied by plain English explanations. It’s got a really good restaurant with amazing views across San Francisco Bay too. The Exploratorium is pricey during the day but if you head over on a Thursday evening it’s open until 10pm – tickets cost just $15 (£10.50) and it’s much less crowded, giving you loads more time to experiment!
My top 5 things to do in California
1. Grab a lift to Venice Beach, LA, and do one of two things: work out, or watch them working out. Either way, soak up the sun as one of the beautiful people!
2. Eat tacos or quesadillas or… just eat anything and everything from an authentic American food truck.
3. See Alcatraz after dark. Are you brave enough to get banged-up in the, reputedly, haunted cell 14D? I’ll let you find out why it’s called The Hole.
4. Get upstate and see the geyser, Old Faithful, at Yellowstone National Park. Afterwards stop off at the Redwood National Park andwalk among giants.
5. Head to Land’s End, San Francisco, and watch the sun set into the Pacific behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
Arianwen Morris is the publisher of the travel blog Beyond Blighty – a collection of anecdotes, tips and advice for the independent and adventurous budget traveller. She has just completed a six-week adrenaline-fuelled tour of New Zealand. You can follow her adventures on Twitter with the handle @BeyondBlighty or the hashtag #ScaredBritless.