San Francisco to Pinnacles National Park Road Trip: Camping Edition

Hipcamp Photographer Anita Yung and her partner set out on a 4-day, 3-night road trip in a GoCamp campervan rental to chronicle their Hipcamp adventures from San Francisco to Pinnacles and back.

Day 1: Picking up Balou in SF and heading to Tucker Ranch

Silicon Valley views.

After signing off at work, we headed straight to pick up our GoCamp van rental in San Francisco. Our trusty van, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter named Balou, came with all the necessities and then some—all we really had to pack was our clothes and toiletries. Top-notch features included an induction stove, a counter fridge, a sink with a full 5-gallon water tank, cooking supplies, and a full bed with cozy bedding. Plus, camp chairs and a portable folding table were included and ready for us to bust out at our campfires. The van also came with a detailed manual, instructing how to operate all that came with it. We were set!

We stopped by our local grocery store and stocked up our little fridge for the 3 nights we had ahead of us. Since we got started in the evening, we had a quick takeout dinner, then headed south to our first Hipcamp site: Tucker Ranch.

Located up a steep mountain range, Tucker Ranch has a glorious view. Our van was stellar at climbing, and we felt at ease with its power. We arrived just after dark and settled in the peaceful location—a fire ban was in place during our trip, so we opted for the cozy bed to read our books before tucking in for the night.

Resident horses say hello at Tucker Ranch.

Day 2: From the South Bay to Pinnacles

The next morning, we woke up to the sound of a peacock for a funny surprise. We opened the van door at one of the property’s two campsites and saw for the first time its expansive view from the Los Gatos hills out overlooking Silicon Valley. It was breathtaking to see it in the light and the perfect view to start our day. We cooked our breakfast on the van’s induction stove—eggs on toast—and then walked around the Tucker Ranch property a bit. A few friendly horses appeared, and it was just a magical scene to see them roam with the backdrop of the valley. Around mid-day, it was time to pack up and head to our next site about two hours south, near Pinnacles National Park. We were both excited and eager for a campfire, so we hit the road. 

We arrived around 3pm to Pinnacles Border Site, our campsite nestled in the San Juan Valley. This Hipcamp is more of a primitive campground with 12 campsites on the same flat area, all marked with numbers. Our Host Bill, who was there speaking with other campers, welcomed us with firewood and told us about a short hike up the property to a great sunset viewpoint. Even though the campsites were side by side, it was nice to say hi and meet the other campers—everyone was really friendly and respecting of each other’s spaces.

The setting for Pinnacles Border Site’s 12 campsites.
Dinner time at Pinnacles East.

We prepped our dinner and firewood, then set up our camp chairs before heading up the hill to watch the sunset. It was beautiful and perfectly quiet—the high vantage point provided a nice overlook of the camp area and the sun crested the other mountain top. Afterwards, we made our way down the hill, cooked some pasta in the van, and ate our dinner over the campfire. There’s just something about watching the flames of a campfire that makes food taste that much better, especially before a restful night in the van.

Day 3: Pinnacles back up to Grey Oaks

We woke up to most of the campground emptied, assuming most people were heading out to hike the Pinnacles. The campground is just a quick, 10-minute drive from the Pinnacles National Park east entrance and visitor’s center, making it the perfect basecamp when campsites in the park are too hard to snag. Although we didn’t hit the park this time and instead opted for chill nights at camp, the park is incredible for hiking, rock climbing, and cave exploring. Try the 6.4-mile High Peaks Loop for the park’s most famous views, and keep an eye out for the elusive California condors who live here.

It had rained heavily in the middle of the night, which was quite relaxing while sleeping in the van and listening to it hit the roof. We made some coffee, tidied up the van, then got on the road north toward Watsonville, about an hour’s drive north back toward SF. I used to live in Santa Cruz and required a stop at my favorite hidden gem of a burrito place: Ranch Milk. Unassuming in a gas station, it is one of the best breakfast burrito spots in Watsonville. We filled up our tank and ate burritos that tasted just a great as I remembered.

The campsite setup upon arrival at Grey Oaks.

Our last Hipcamp stop? We arrived at Grey Oaks, just 15 minutes east of Watsonville, at around 3pm and were greeted by our Host Zak with a small basket of farm-fresh eggs from his chickens! What a delight! He showed us to our campsite, which was tucked behind some trees with a picnic table and campfire ring (with free firewood!). Zak also gave us an over-the-fire popcorn maker, kernels, and butter—and wow, it did not disappoint. The campsite was amazing, one of four sites that share two communal composting outhouses. Everything was so well maintained that our stay was beyond comfortable, and a little on-site walking trail led us to Grey Oaks’ horses and chicken coup for visiting, as well as a koi pond. For dinner, we roasted hot dogs over the fire and cooked veggies over the induction stove in Balou the van. The firewood was cedar and smelled heavenly. Cooking the popcorn was the best part—we ate til’ our stomachs hurt.

Day 4: Grey Oaks back to the city along the Pacific Coast Highway

Rounding out our road trip back to the Bay Area.

We woke up rested and full of energy, having had one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time! We had a slow morning, enjoying the pace. We cooked the eggs that the Hosts gave us and sipped coffee in the morning sunlight. We decided to take Highway 1 along the coast back to San Francisco since it was a beautiful and sunny day. We popped into Pescadero for a cup of coffee and then smooth-sailed up the 1. The GoCamp van was incredible and I only wish I owned one now. We stopped at an oceanside parking lot on the way back and left the doors open, watching the surfers from the bed. It was just the perfect amount of space with everything we needed and nothing more. We can’t wait to book our next trip.

Looking to take your own camping road trip?

Read on for more road tripping tips and scenic spots to hit.

Anita Yung is a designer of interiors and experiences with a background in photography and creative production. She is a Hipcamp photographer.

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