Neither of us had ever been to San Francisco (unless you count a couple of long layovers in the Oakland Airport), but we’ve had some trouble visiting large cities on this trip because we’ve found they generally aren’t very RV friendly. Most notably, we completely skipped Seattle and Denver, both places we had hoped to visit. For RVers visiting a large popular city, there is often a choice of either staying close to the city (for a price) or staying far outside of the city, which somewhat kills the allure of visiting the city in the first place. However, we were determined to make our visit to San Francisco work (despite its reputation for high prices) because we had an extra incentive: visiting friends!
Our friends Cody and Jaz live on the east side of the bay and our friends Coleman and Kelly live outside of Sacramento but Coleman currently commutes to the bay for work. For those of you familiar with the area, yes, Coleman has one of the longest daily commutes of anyone I know. With traffic it can be an hour and a half in the morning and two and a half to three hours at night.
The last time we saw these guys was at our wedding back in April. You may also remember them from our visit to Folsom Lake on our way to Texas in March. These are some of our favorite people and we were super excited that a weekend campout worked with everyone’s schedules.
The plan was for us to camp outside of the city at the Olema Campground near the Point Reyes National Seashore. We were about an hour from San Francisco but the area was beautiful and the rate was less than half of what the RV parks within the city were charging. (I checked with three different parks closer to the city and found rates ranging from $75 to $100 a night. Ouch!) Furthermore, we wanted to stay somewhere that would have space for all of the extra cars as well as room for Cody and Jaz to set up their tent. The Olema Campground was perfect.
Olema was one of the tiniest towns we’ve stayed in. It was so small that the campground also housed the local post office and public laundromat. Beyond the campground there was a nice restaurant with an attached market selling picnic foods, beer, wine, and sometimes ice, a bed and breakfast, and a visitors center and a resale shop, neither of which ever seemed to be open. The town was cute, despite not offering much beyond the basic needs of a San Francisco tourist spending a day at the seashore.
THE POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
We arrived on a Monday, which gave us plenty of time to explore the area before our friends arrived on Friday. Our plan was to spend one day at the Point Reyes National Seashore and two days in San Francisco.
The two big draws here are the beach, obviously, and the Point Reyes Lighthouse, which we decided to save for the weekend because our bay area friends had never been.
The Limantour Beach at Point Reyes is perfect for walking. You can’t drive onto the beach, which we normally love doing, but without cars present the beach becomes very peaceful.
Like most Pacific beaches, the water was very cold. It was also a little late in the season for swimming. Furthermore, the waves were pretty intense due to a large storm brewing off-shore. A Pacific typhoon had apparently redirected off the coastline of Asia and was making its way to the Pacific Northwest. Oregon and Washington were bracing for some pretty intense weather and we were expecting some heavy rain later in the week. Ironically, the last time we planned a campout with this group of friends was during the Western Deluge, an unusaully large storm back in March that pounded on us from Oregon to Northern California and nearly flooded our campsite at Folsom Lake. Maybe we should plan our next group camping trip in the desert.
DRIVING IN SAN FRANCISCO
We both read that driving a car around San Francisco can be a pain in the ass. The streets are narrow, traffic laws are treated as mere suggestions, and parking is expensive and hard to find. The common advice is to park the car somewhere and use public transit instead. We didn’t follow this advice and actually had a great time driving the Jeep around the city. We were able to cover a lot of ground in two days by driving ourselves and Brandon thought the notorious hills of San Francisco were a fun challenge in our manual transmission Jeep.
The only downside was that we didn’t get the experience of riding on one of these awesome historic trolley cars.
We were able to find street parking just about everywhere, with the exception of Fisherman’s Wharf, and even parked next to another Jeeper near Lombard Street!
After talking with our friends, however, our experience driving in the city may have been a bit of a fluke. They all told stories of crazy drivers and nearly unavoidable fender-benders. We were visiting mid-week when tourist traffic is low and were able to strategically avoid morning and afternoon rush-hour by leaving camp around 9am and returning after dinner. The only major problem we encountered was that our Jeep was too tall to fit in any of the parking garages around the city.
DRIVING DOWN LOMBARD STREET
One very specific reason we chose to drive instead of use public transit was so that we could have the experience of actually driving down Lombard Street, the most curvy public road in America.
After driving down Lombard (it’s a one way street) we found a parking spot so that we could get out and take some photos.
After seeing Lombard Street in person it makes almost no sense to me. It was really fun to drive but I can’t imagine what the city planner was thinking when this was designed.
Also, I had no idea that people actually lived on this street! The entire street is lined with houses and condos, which probably cost a fortune, and are constantly surrounded by curious tourists like ourselves. There are plenty of signs asking the tourists to respect the privacy of the residents and keep to the public sidewalks, but the request was almost universally ignored.
SEA LIONS & BOAT WATCHING AT PIER 39
Visiting Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf was probably the most touristy thing we did in San Francisco but it was a ton of fun. The sea lions have taken over a portion of the docks and lounge around like a big pile of puppies.
Although they have many empty docks to choose from, the sea lions all cram onto just two or three docks. I’m guessing they do this for warmth but maybe they just really like to cuddle.
Pier 39 is a long boardwalk-style shopping district. We didn’t spend much time in the shops but enjoyed a nice lunch at the Fog Harbor restaurant on the pier.
Pier 39 was also a great place to catch a glimpse of the historic Alcatraz prison. Tours to the island were sold out far in advance so this was as close as we were able to get.
With a storm rolling in on the coast, it was a cold and windy day on the bay. A number of sailors were out enjoying the windy weather, despite the chill.
We also saw ferry boats, fireboats, commercial container ships, and various other large vessels. The San Francisco Bay is a very busy place to spend a day sailing.
THE HISTORIC HIPPIE DISTRICT OF HAIGHT & ASHBURY
The intersection of Haight and Ashbury is a landmark for the hippie movement of the 1960s. This neighborhood was the birthplace of America’s first head-shop, which rumor has it openly sold LSD, pot, and other illegal drugs. Note that this was long before the “War on Drugs” was a thing. The neighborhood was also once home to Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia. Times change, of course. Now, instead of free-spirited women with flowers in their hair you’ll find street peddlers hawking home-made reggae CDs and the only bell bottoms around are in the back of a vintage clothing store. Also, the actual corner of Haight and Ashbury is home to a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop.
Bell bottom jokes aside, this was one of the cooler vintage stores I’ve found in quite some time. Everything was meticulously categorized by decade, going all the way back to the 1920s.
Some of the business were very deliberately playing to the area’s history, with psychedelic paint schemes and nag champa incense wafting out the front door.
We came across this amazing VW camper van parked on a side street. We didn’t meet the owners but left an Alpha 1 business card under their windshield wiper. You can follow their adventures at www.liveworkwander.com and on Instagram @liveworkwander.
It’s easy to make jokes about what’s become of this area and reminisce about how cool it must have been “back in the day” but, in all honesty, we had a great time hanging out here. I found a great shoe store, an adorable bookstore, and we enjoyed a beer at Hobson’s Choice, home of the friendliest bartender in the bay. And the homeless population was generally harmless.We only witnessed one bum fight the entire time!
If you make this hippie-pilgrimage yourself, I highly recommend wandering one street over to Waller Street. Here we found some of the most lovely painted homes of our entire tour.
THE PAINTED LADIES
After admiring the houses on Waller Street we expected to be blown away by the Painted Ladies, a famous row of meticulously painted Victorian homes. The Painted Ladies were lovely, but we didn’t like them nearly as much as some of the other homes we saw. However, the park across the street was closed for construction which took away some of the allure. From the park you can view the houses from a higher perspective and see a view of the city behind them.
GRAFFITI HUNTING IN OAKLAND
I planned our first day touring San Francisco, so Brandon planned the second. The first activity on his list: driving around looking for graffiti murals in the industrial district of Oakland.
I had no idea any of this even existed and was a bit confused when he suggested this was how we should spend our morning. But I was pleasantly surprised. Some of the graffiti is just illegal tagging (which I expected) but there is also plenty of amazing art here. It was pretty clear that the larger works, like the ocean scene above, were done with the permission of the building owner. There is no way something of that scale and detail was a fly by night operation.
The murals added so much color and interest to an area that would have otherwise been very grey and monotonous. So far, Brandon’s tour is winning the creativity category!
HARBOR SHORELINE PARK
Brandon’s second activity was a visit to Harbor Shoreline Park to watch the container ships being loaded by giant cranes. These huge machines were supposedly the inspiration for the Imperial Walkers in Star Wars. This may just be a fan theory, but I suppose I can see the resemblance, from a distance at least.
Harbor Shoreline Park may not be on the typical tourist route, but this area plays an important role in the bay area economy. Long before San Francisco was a mecca for tech start-ups, it was already a major port for imports and exports. The bay is full of huge container ships waiting to unload their goods, and all of that happens here, at the docks surrounding Harbor Shoreline Park.
The park is an odd place. It’s just a plain city park right in the middle of the industrial area. There are informational displays about how the city is working to rebuild the wetlands that used to sustain local wildlife and a couple of telescopes to view the city across the bay. There was even a group of elementary school children eating lunch under a pavillion, presumably visiting the park on a field trip.
This type of industrial area is typical fare for one of Brandon’s tours. He finds big machines and industry fascinating. Just the other day I was reading him a section from one of my guidebooks that suggested visiting “Big Brutus”, the world’s largest electric shovel, while touring Kansas. I said this as a joke, intending to show that there really is nothing to see in Kansas, but Brandon was immediatly interested and started telling me everything he knew about electric shovels. And, of course, now we have to go see Big Brutus when we go through Kansas.
When we left Harbor Shoreline Park we went on what Brandon calls an “un-route”. This is when we turn off the GPS, put away the maps, and just drive around with no destination, generally looking for interesting residential areas. We ended up exploring the residential neighborhoods of Oakland, which were an interesting mash-up of industry and gentrification of the historically black neighborhoods.
I highly recommend trying the un-route next time you have some time to kill in a new city or even in your own hometown. You can learn a lot about a place and how the people actually live. You can always turn the GPS back on and find your way back to Main Street.
Brandon’s tours are not anything like what I would have planned, but I always enjoy them. He has a way of finding the realism of a place, what actually makes a city tick. If we always followed my tours we would only see the things my trusty guidebooks suggested, the things the local chamber of commerce wants us to see, mostly lots of pretty stuff and history. But between the two of us, I think we find a good balance.
A trip to San Franciso wouldn’t be complete without a tour of Chinatown, the oldest and largest in America. We had two goals: eat chinese food for lunch and find a cast iron tea set in one of the many shops.
We ate lunch at House of Nanking based on a recomendation from my Aunt Molly. We had potstickers, lo mein with veggies, and sesame chicken. It was all delicious and ridiculously cheap. A double win.
Chinatown is really a whole neighborhood but we only had time to tour one street. Grant Street was full of restruants and stores selling cheap souveniers. We noticed an unusually large number of the stores were having “pre-retirement” sales or other such going out of business sales. I have a suspicion that this was really just a way to attract the tourists and convince people that they were getting a good deal on whatever they were buying. Most of the shoppers were tourists who would never know if the “going out of business” sale had been going on for years. Just a suspicion. I could be wrong.
It was a bit of sensory overload but a fun tour. And we did eventually find the cast iron tea set I was looking for.
I never saw the movie, but Brandon says this is the same Zoltar fortune telling machine from the movie Big starring Tom Hanks.
The only way to take a photo of the Chinatown gate is from across the street. So you see lots of people on one side of the street with cameras and lots of people in front of the gate across the street, seemingly smiling and posing for no one. I was one of those people.
THE POINT REYES LIGHTHOUSE
On Friday, Cody and Jaz met us at our campsite in the Point Reyes area. Jaz showed me how to make homemade focaccia bread and we all stayed up late catching up. Coleman and Kelly were driving in from Sacramento the next morning.
On Saturday we met Coleman, Kelly, and Cody’s roomate Amy at the Point Reyes Lighthouse about 20 miles from our camp. None of our bay area friends had ever seen the lighthouse but all had heard of it and intend make it out here at some point. Unfortunatly, Saturday was also the day that our weather took a turn for the worse.
It was so foggy when we arrived at the lighthouse parking lot that we couldn’t even see the ocean below the cliffs. It gave the whole area an errie feel.
You have to walk down a very long set of stairs to actually see the lighthouse itself. Climbing back up these stairs is the equivalent of a 30 story building! And we all did it in the wind and rain!
Our friends Cody and Jaz.
I’m sure the view of the Pacific is normally lovely from here.
Coleman and Kelly looking adorable.
This lighthouse has been in operation since the mid-1800s and was a very interesting historical tour, though it is probably more pleasent in dry weather. We were all soaked by the time we got back to the parking lot.
Historically, the lighthouse keepers lived here at the lighthouse, keeping the light going night after night. It must have been a very lonely life, as evidenced by the numerous entries in the log book of lighthouse keepers getting drunk and running off. Some came back to work. Some never did.
From the lighthouse we all made our way back to the Olema Campground. It had started to rain while we were climbing all 300 steps back up to the parking area and continued to rain all afternoon. When the rain eventually let up that evening we were treated to a spectacular double rainbow.
No one minded too much that it rained on our campout (again). I made picadillo tacos for dinner and we spent hours playing Cards Against Humanity inside the RV. And this time I even remembered to get a group photo of everyone!
Overall, we really enjoyed our week in the bay area. It was great to see friends and stay in one place for longer than a few days. Our next few stops will be only a few days each, which is moving pretty fast for RV travel. Up next is Yosimite National Park!
A final side note: We have been having lots of trouble with cell service and wifi throughout California. We are getting the blogs written and posted as quickly as we can with the limited service we have available. For those of you that have tried to reach us by phone, email, or Facebook, we apologize for the slow responses. But no worries, we are doing perfectly fine, just really missing reliable internet!