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Backpacking America – Part 3, The West Coast

A Guide to Backpacking the American West

The West Coast is a logical place to kick off an epic American adventure for a few reasons. Firstly, most backpackers or overseas road trippers will arrive at an international airport, and Los Angeles has a very big one. Secondly, many people coming to the Lower 48 for a road trip may want to buy a decent used car for the journey, and there are loads of cheap used cars to choose from in Southern California.

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Starting out in Los Angeles, there are literally hundreds of things to do in the city and surrounding suburbs, but staying for a long time will get expensive. Also, many attractions in L.A. are a bit kitschy, since the city is most famous for its glitzy movie industry. Take it all in, get a photo of the Hollywood sign, visit the mediocre beaches to get some sun and check out the nightlife, just don’t stay more than a few days because there is tons more to see in America. To help plan a few days in the area, there are endless resources on the internet.

Often overlooked by visitors is the huge immigrant population in Los Angeles, coming from literally all parts of the world. Neighborhoods with a large population of immigrants are not always the most architecturally interesting, but these areas provide a glimpse into the real America today, and offer exceptional and affordable eating options; especially for Mexican food. Don’t miss it.

Finally, remember that waitstaff in American restaurants and bars rely on tips to earn a living. Standard tips should be between 15 to 20 percent of the total meal bill, and about $1.00 per drink or cocktail. This applies even if the service was not impeccable, because these people work hard at what is not a high paying job. Help them out so that they can backpack around Europe or elsewhere someday.

Escape from L.A.

Heading north out of the city, take State Highway 101 to set off on one of the most beautiful drives in North America: The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH for short) and Big Sur. Given its popularity, it is best not to undertake this drive on the weekend when traffic can slow to a crawl. The drive provides exceptional views of the Pacific Ocean, with its rugged coastline and small pocket beaches. Along the way there are plenty of places to stop and eat, or get out of the car to hike and take photos. For a stop-by-stop overview read this review by National Geographic.

While the main PCH drive is only around 250 miles (400 km), it will take an entire day, so plan accordingly for overnight accommodations. This part of California is not well covered with cheap accommodations, given its close proximity to the wine country, but campgrounds are abundant and there are a few hostels, though they should be booked in advance.

Near the top of Big Sur is the Yosemite National Park, home to some of the most incredible scenery in North America. To the south of Yosemite are Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, which also have beautiful and unique natural formations along with some of the tallest trees in the world; the giant Sequoias.

Driving down through this park system could take days, and it is definitely backtracking towards L.A., but if time is not a major concern it is well worth the investment to experience this beautiful place.

At this point, if it happens to be winter or early spring, this is a great opportunity for anyone who enjoys skiing or snowboarding to hit the slopes. Eastern California is home to big mountains and has some of the nicest ski areas in the country, many of which are actually located within the national park system. The cheapest day pass and lift ticket prices are usually found at Yosemite’s Badger Pass and Tamarack Lodge, both near the town of Mammoth Lakes. Another option is to see what is on special on Liftopia.com, a discount lift ticket seller.

No matter what time of year you are traveling, be aware that the inland portions of California are not heavily populated, so stocking up on a few provisions is a good idea, as grocery stores can be few and far between.

Once back on a northern trajectory, aim to reconnect with Highway 101. Near the Oregon state line, the other giants of the tree world stand protected inside Redwood National Park. Even taller than the Sequoias, a Redwood tree called Hyperion is suspected to be the tallest tree in the world at approximately 397 feet (121 meters), and some Redwoods have diameters as large as 30 feet (9.1 meters). Standing under one and looking up can prove to be a very humbling experience, and one of those impressive memories that travelers take with home with them.

On to Oregon

Known for being just above California and just below Washington state, Oregon doesn’t get much love, but it should. Oregon is actually a very laid back state with lots of nature and a few modern hippies trying to keep the state a secret so it doesn’t become overpopulated.

One of the most impressive things to see in “The Beaver State” (Oregon’s official nickname) is Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the U.S.A., and Hell’s Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America. Otherwise, just take in the clean, green landscape and responsibly enjoy some of Oregon’s many exceptional local craft beers. Finally, Portland is a nice city to spend a day or two enjoying civilization after a prolonged trek through the untamed West.

Next time: Backpacking America – Part 3, Washington State and The Bad Lands

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