The Future of the Great American Road Trip Is Electric

Taking on the state’s most iconic highway in what has become—for better or for worse—the state’s most iconic car.

The Future of the Great American Road Trip Is Electric

Everything you need to know to hit the road with an electric vehicle.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

Something was missing. We were cruising down California’s Highway 1, passing through the tiny coastal town of Pescadero. It was a warm, sunny day, a hint of a breeze brushing the leaves of the strawberry fields on our left. We were the only car on the road. It was peaceful and pastoral—but something was out of place. I rolled down the window. Sounds rushed in: the drumbeat of the Pacific, the chirp of the birds, the rustle of the grasses. Everything but the rumble of an engine. Ahh, that’s it, I realized. Our sweet, fully electric ride—a navy-blue Tesla Model X—emitted no noise other than the sound of an object moving through space at 40 miles per hour, one easily drowned out by the sounds of nature. I turned to my partner, Jeannie: “Now this is why people buy electric vehicles.”

Of course, that’s not entirely true. But it was a glimmer of a truth, one of many that would emerge over the course of the weekend as we drove from San Francisco down through Big Sur and back. Our goal was to, in a small way, test the feasibility of an electric vehicle road trip. We had a space-efficient vehicle with a 295-mile range and two reservations, one at a campground and one at a hotel, plus gear that would allow us to sleep in the car.

We also had a wee bit of range anxiety. Even though we’d carefully planned our route using a combination of Tesla maps and the West Coast Electric Highway map, there was the uncertainty of the unknown. What if a station was full? What if we wound up needing to drive farther than we’d thought? What if we just wanted to tool around and not worry about battery life? Tesla, of course, maintains an expansive network of super-fast Supercharger stations, including a handful near the part of the coast we’d be exploring. But we also wanted to investigate other options, places where you could charge any kind of vehicle, as well as alternative charging stations farther off the main highway routes. The 400-mile route we ultimately chose included three charging stops: one at a Supercharger on the way down, one overnight at a hotel with charging ports, and one at a public station on the way back.

We set out. Driving the Tesla Model X is a bit like driving an IMAX theater. The panoramic windshield allows you to see the skyline above you—in particularly green stretches, it’s almost cinematic in its loveliness. The SUV is also loaded with cleverly designed storage, the most comfortable seats I’ve ever cruised in, and lots of bells and whistles, the kind that if you’re tech-averse like Jeannie, might drive you nuts. Cars are not toys! she stated multiple times. I was perhaps more swayed by the toys: at one point, I voted to try the Christmas “Easter egg,” a somewhat mortifying three-minute affair that turned the car into a flashing, thundering spectacle.

An electric road trip down Highway 1 should definitely include a stop to hike the Overlook Trail to McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

An electric road trip down Highway 1 should definitely include a stop to hike the Overlook Trail to McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

After a few hours of driving, we stopped at our first station, a Supercharger in Monterey. We wanted to fully juice up, which the Tesla smartphone app estimated would take about an hour. Tesla’s charger was conveniently located near a Whole Foods, a movie theater, and within walking distance of the waterfront. We strolled for a bit, bought camping essentials like firewood and wine, and grabbed a bite to eat. By the time the car pinged us that we were nearly charged, we were fed, watered, exercised, and relaxed. Depending on the type of traveler you are, this is the real beauty of an electric vehicle road trip: Charging stations will be located in scenic and/or convenient locations that allow you to have that kind of experience as you charge, says Gil Tal, the research director of the Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California Davis. “Refueling activities will happen, for example, in malls, where you can choose restaurants and walk around and do some other activities,” Tal says. “The traditional gas station doesn’t have to be the same way with electric cars.”

The evidence is mounting: Tesla has built two Supercharger lounge stations, complete with coffee, Wi-Fi, and even food trucks, with more on the way. The state of California is adding EV chargers to all CalTrans rest stops. EVgo has a network of charging stations at Whole Foods, Rite Aid, and Raleys locations across the country, capable of charging most electric vehicles. Charging, for the most part, isn’t free. (Though Supercharging is free for owners of the Tesla Models S and X.) The amount you’ll pay varies with the vehicle and the charge station (see resources for a comprehensive guide to charging costs), although the Department of Energy says that, on average, it costs half as much to charge an electric vehicle as it does to fill a gas-powered car.

We arrived at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park as afternoon rounded the corner into evening and decided to immediately set up camp. It was, by far, the easiest camp setup I’ve ever done: We opened the trunk, arranged our Thermarest mattresses and sleeping bag (see our gear list below), and voila, we were ready, leaving the rest of the evening for dinner, wine, and s’mores. Before the trip, when I’d shared with people that we would be camping in a Tesla, I got a lot of weird looks. But to be able to set up camp in less than five minutes—in my mind, that’s true freedom. Once we were ready to sleep, we simply closed the doors and set the interior temp to a cool 68 degrees. Come morning, we’d only drained a few miles and, after coffee, we loaded our food box into the front trunk and drove off.

Proof that you really can camp in a Tesla.

Proof that you really can camp in a Tesla.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

On day two, with two successful experiences behind us, we felt more comfortable with the car (and its limits) and explored freely: coffee and pastries at the Big Sur Bakery, a hike near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, lunch at Nepenthe, migrating farther south along the highway without fear of running our battery down before heading north again. We had decided not to camp on our second night—although California is in the process of adding charging stations to state campgrounds, says Tal—in order to test out the EV offerings at a hotel in Marina.

When we arrived and asked where to plug in, the valet directed us to a corner of the parking lot with three standard 110-volt wall outlets (most public charging stations deliver 220 volts, and Tesla’s Supercharger plugs push a whopping 480 volts). I plugged in, then looked at the app. It anticipated that our battery would get two miles of range each hour—which meant it would take a full 24 hours to charge. We had about 12. Whoops. Another lesson learned. But this uncertainty, too, is changing. There’s been a massive increase in the number of hotels that offer proper charging stations, helping travelers get off the main highways where, until recently, most of the charging stations were located. Even major hotel chains, including Marriott, Hilton, and Starwood, have added charging stations to their properties as consumer demand has increased. (See resources below for tips on how to find a hotel with charging stations.)

We took our setback as a challenge. The next morning, we headed north again, intent on exploring the charging possibilities. We drove to Capitola for breakfast, hoping one of the charging stations in the public parking lot would be full. Not so much. I popped into the local museum and asked if there were more in the area: “That’s a huge issue for the city right now,” said the gentleman at the front desk. “We just don’t have enough stations to meet the number of people who need them.” After strolling the charming downtown, we drove 15 minutes north to Santa Cruz, where we hoped to charge at one of those pay-as-you-go booths while we walked along the waterfront. Another fail. The range anxiety we felt at the beginning of the trip never totally dissipated—an anxiety that drivers of gas-powered vehicles don’t have to cope with (although a little anxiety is worth the environmental benefits).

“It’s going to take many years for the average American to have a large-size, fully electric car. But when it happens, it will totally change the way we travel.”

Lest this all seem a bit disheartening—or out of reach (the Model X 100D starts at $96,000)—let’s talk about what will be within reach in the next decade. Tesla may be the shiniest, most headline-grabbing star in the electric vehicle universe, but there’s a lot more afoot. One of the greatest challenges facing us at the moment, is that most EVs aren’t big enough for a road trip, says Gil Tal.

“When we are going on a long road trip, most of us take a big car,” he explains. “And most of the electric cars we have today are the small, efficient ones. Or the electric expensive ones like the Tesla S, the Tesla X.”

But in the next two years, other car manufacturers—including Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, and Porsche—will release more road trip–friendly vehicles. Even Winnebago is rumored to have an electric RV in the works.

“It’s going to take many years for the average American to have a large-size, fully electric car,” Tal says. “But when it happens, it will totally change the way we travel.”

And that’s why the infrastructure blooming right now is so critical. Companies such as Tesla, Electrify America (a subsidiary of Volkswagen), and Blink are laying the groundwork for what they (and we) hope is a revolution in the way we road trip. Even Porsche is developing its own network of charging stations for the company’s forthcoming Taycan sedan.

As for us, after our second failed attempt to charge in a more off-the-beaten path way, we gave in and found a Tesla Supercharger near our final destination. It also happened to be near a Whole Foods. While we couldn’t walk on the sand as we’d hoped, we were able to do our grocery shopping for the week, a peak yuppie experience. By the time we rolled back in the Bay Area, we were fully charged—and, despite the hiccups, fully on board with our electric future.

Tips for Building Your Own Electric Vehicle Road Trip

Tesla offers several excellent resources for drivers, including a trip-planner tool and an easy way to search for chargers in any city.

Plugincars provides a guide to the costs of the major EV charging stations.

Charge Hotels allows you to search for EV-friendly hotels on your route.

PlugShare offers a comprehensive charging map of the United States.

The West Coast Green Highway is a network of charging stations that runs from British Columbia to Baja California. If you want to travel inland, Oregon is heavily outfitted with stations throughout the state—find suggestions here. Last year, the scenic Highway 2 in eastern Washington became the first electric highway in that part of the state.

East Coast EV owners, your time is coming: Both New York and New Jersey recently committed substantial sums to invest in EV infrastructure.

Want to rent an electric vehicle? Hertz, Avis, Sixt, and Enterprise offer Teslas in some cities. Hertz, Enterprise, and Alamo also offer intermediate-size electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf.

Traveling abroad? Europe has a sophisticated network that promotes long-range driving in an EV. offers a decent route planner with suggested charging points. Tesla also has a robust network of Superchargers across Europe—the company just opened its 10,000th charging station this month. (Future note: Ford has partnered with BMW and VW to roll out a super network in Europe by 2020.)

>>Next: The Gorgeous Gear You Need to Set Up This Summer’s Dreamiest Campsite

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at Afar, where she produces the Unpacked by Afar podcast and hosts Afar’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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