Driving Southern California To The Northern Coast With A Tepui Roof-Top Tent
For years I pondered a life on the road, especially as a California native; having a coastline that extends well over a thousand miles, offering some of the best scenic driving in all of North America. I’d only experienced two or three quality road trips in my lifetime — all of which dated back to middle school. But even as young adventurer with dad in driver seat, there was something incredibly fulfilling about long-distance car camping and the many miles in-between home and a destination. Something that I now value as an adult who understands just how fast life passes.
This year in particular, I’ve found myself day dreaming often about one road trip in particular that took me north along the California coastline before cutting clear across the country to Glacier National Park and finally the Canada border — not a bad trip, eh? I had a bit more time on my hands back then; a distance concept for most of us now days.
With so many life-altering memories from that trip, I‘d forgotten what the northern regions of my home state (California) looked like. This amnesia was likely induced by the stunning beauty of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Nothing I have ever seen or done compares to these wild parks — aside from my wedding… just in case my wife reads this.
I had driven so many miles within my own state yet I couldn’t recall its coastal beauty. And thanks to Instagram account, my phone reminded me of this for years, showing image after image of the northern coast, from San Simeon to well north of San Francisco. As much as I hate to admit it, social media influenced me to do this drive again out of pure spite for those who seemed to be teasing me with their wanderlust-inducing photos: #LandscapePhotographer, #Travel, #DigitalNomad.
On the search for the memories that I so desperately wanted to recover, I once again bribed my dad into the driver seat of his Toyota FJ Cruiser for a road trip starting in Orange County and concluding near San Francisco and slightly beyond. It didn’t take much to line up the perfect vehicle for this expedition — with an FJ in the family. But this time I was brining more than some gear and a positive outlook on the road; I had a roof-top tent from Tepui Tents! The Autana Sky to be exact. This was a new method of camping for me, and I were excited to be off the dirt for a change.
Although roof-top tents have been in use since the 1940’s (discuss if you must), I hadn’t seen much of them in modern times, prior to the last three years. I’m sure the true overland crowd has been using them for much longer, and I simply didn’t notice. Even so, there’s no denying they’re uber-trendy at the moment; they make you look like a dedicated adventure seeker. Admittedly, every time I’d spot a vehicle with a Tepui tent on it, I assumed that person was living a desirable life.
As irony would have it, only an hour into the drive, we experienced many hand waves, thumbs-up, and pointing fingers. Even with a yakima wind fairing installed, the drive was regularly paused for a gas break. However each one of these stops provided ample time for onlookers to compliment the roof-top contraption, asking plenty of questions and commenting on its looks. I thought to myself, “this tent really does have a stereotype.” NOTE: The FJ Cruiser — the “blue beast” as I call it — is undoubtedly the least fuel-efficient car I’ve used for a road trip, and a roof top tent only worsened the blow to my wallet. The added size and weight reduced mileage by around 50 miles to the tank — not much of a surprise but individual driving habits will vary results. In the words, yes, our roof-top tent created enough drag to see a significant reduction on gas milage.
But back to the reason for taking this trip!
The California Coastal Landscape
Driving the Southern and Central California coastline is one of the more relaxing activities I’ve done in quite some time. After leaving Los Angeles, the coastal landscape opened up, like a book of poetry that draws you in, removing you from the confines of reality. For so many years excuses had kept these views from me, but not this time.
Ventura to Santa Barbara to Morro Bay to San Simeon, I repeatedly had to remind myself to push forward as San Francisco was many miles ahead; all I wanted to do was stop in each spot, fold open the tent and take in the sights and sounds.
It was in all of these places, where the land meets the sea, that I found the missing memories I had left behind. It was in these exact locations, that as a young adult I had found my purpose for “being,” and needed a simple reminder to refuel that found passion; a perfect purpose for camping.
The California coast is a place where dreams coincide with reality. But with the rise of social media the appeal of these many travel destinations has been skewed forever, portrayed through Lightroom presets and app filters that add an “artistic touch” to these already stunning destinations. In all truth, on a really good day, with the perfect lighting, it would be unjust to alter any photos taken along this coastline.
Even with all of the prior visions I held, every living and breathing moment in this setting was more than my eyes could process. For Hours, the only word I could speak was, WOW! And I repeated it, over and over again.
Tepui Roof-Top Tent
Having a roof-top tent at my finger tips during all of this excitement was a very powerful feeling. The Tepui Autana Sky has more room than my studio apartment and is readily accessible with much less setup than a modern tent. The 3-person canvas, window-support poles, and 2 1/2 inch foam mattress literally opens and folds closed by way of smooth hinges — to a perfect camping shelter, every time. Initially, when inspecting the tent prior to installation, I thought to myself, “This is going to be a lot of work.” To my surprise, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The design is simple and the user experience is very intuitive. It was convenient having two people for the installation and teardown, but once person could do it on their own.
With so many campsites on my bucket list I began to picture what the Tepui Autana would look like at each one — a beautiful image indeed. If it weren’t for the California crowds and a less than stellar reservation service — cough, Reserve America — I could have extended my road trip another week, using the tent as my mobile office in each relaxing location. There’s something to be said for camping on the roof and not the ground, and simply backpacking to the deeper locations whenever necessary.
Planning ahead is the key to camping along the California coast. Without reservations or an early arrival to self-service sites, the odds will forever be against you. This was the only factor that stood in my way of extending my road trip, especially with the Tepui Autana Sky on my side.
Fast forward a couple hundred miles, a couple gas-station visits, and a lunch break in Santa Cruz, and I finally arrived at my intended destination: Samuel P. Taylor State Park — Lagunitas, CA. Just 15 miles west of San Rafael, Samuel P. Taylor State Park is a majestic slice of wilderness; a stones throw from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. Whether you have a day or a week, this spot offers so much relaxation and peace. Just the place I envisioned for the Tepui roof-top tent.
The narrow road into the park meandered alongside Lagunitas Creek and was lined with coastal Redwoods, rich in their organic red coloration. The entire distance, the sun seemed to spear through the canopy of leafy branches, illuminating particulate in the air like some variety of fairy dust. I couldn’t help but smile the entire route while thinking, “Could I be dreaming?”
After crossing over Lagunitas creek, where Coho Salmon were currently making their journey upstream, I pulled into a small yet cozy campsite with nothing more than a table and fire pit. Surrounded by a healthy grove of Redwoods, I didn’t need much to feel completely at ease.
Depending on the location of a campsite, I learned the importance of reading reviews and speaking to the parks’ office prior to booking, especially for roof-top camping. Parking on level ground makes a significant difference when using the tent; the latter system relies on flat, stable ground. Fortunately, the site I reserved offered a plenty of space, both horizontally and vertically for the Tepui. As I setup camp, I noticed that the soft dirt began to move before my eyes, revealing an extensive network of gophers, all looking to seal a quick snack. Watching this take place reaffirmed my belief that roof-top tents are worth every penny, especially if you aren’t in love with traditional tents.
Of course, while road tripping to a location as beautiful as Marin, I never planned to remain put for more than a few hours per day. With multiple bikes, camera gear, packs, and shoes I normally have to rearrange the truck in order to secure my gear. Not the cast with the Tepui Autana! This roof-top design comes with an integrated (use is optional) 90×90 enclosed annex, or better known as my gear garage.
The annex zipped onto the main tent without much hassle; the trick was to properly locate the two doors, and align them with the rear of the vehicle. With my setup, I was able to position the rear zipper doors in alignment with the rear of my FJ Cruiser, allowing me to open the vehicle when needed. The large size of the annex doors makes this possible; they were more than adequate for road and mountain bikes as well. With over 2,800 acres of pristine wilderness, and a plethora of launch points for epic cycling, I could not have imagined leaving any of my gear behind. Note: The 8ft 6in telescoping later fits in the annex (with two bikes) with plenty of room to spare for changing and moving around.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park is a gem of a location offering scenery that you would expect to be hundreds of miles from the nearest civilization. Undoubtedly a cyclists paradise, I met a handful of friendly riders and shared stories with a few locals. Although I could have remained here for weeks, there was chatter of a not-to-distant coastline that I needed to see before heading home. So once again we folded up the annex, and closed up the tent before getting back on the road.
Only a 10-minute drive from Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Olema proved to be a quaint town with plenty of character and beautiful scenery. With its coffee and bakery, cyclists seemed to flock here, and for good reason. I pushed on to the Point Reyes National Seashore visitor center where I spoke with the rangers on the likelihood of hiking to the lighthouse. As predicted, a combination of fog and movie filming stood in my way. Although I simply wanted to lay eyes on it once more, fog city wouldn’t be have any sympathy for me. But that didn’t stop me from hiking the coastline; spotting the abundance of seabirds and marine mammals reminded me of just how special this national seashore is to the state of California.
With a few good memories, I hit the coastal roads for the drive down to Santa Cruz. It had been many moons since I laid eyes on the dreamy communities surrounding San Francisco. What began with Stinson Beach quickly escalated to a euphoric state of wanderlust as I climbed up Mt. Tam and finally meandered my way down to Mill Valley. From the scenic views to the perfect hiking trails and cycling routes, this place truly is God’s country. And no, I’m not referring to Silicon Valleys’ elite. Even with all natural distractions surrounding us, people still took the time to ask about the roof-top tent and the adventures we carried with it. This trip I will take with me, forever into the future. What a trip it was, and I much of it all to a roof-top tent. It was one ‘hell’ of a California adventure.