Gunshots & Cop Cars – Northern California, USA

We left San Francisco on the 27th of March with a long way still to go up the coast to Seattle but now we were heading north pretty much all the time instead of driving around all over the place like we did in our first two weeks.

Nikki had chosen some campsites up along the coast while we had wifi at our Airbnb so we'd saved them all on Google Maps and driven out of SF refreshed and ready for the remainder of our trip.

Walker Ridge

Our first campsite north of San Francisco was due to be a BLM campsite called Cowboy Camp but we arrived a couple of hours after leaving SF to find that it was closed! A very helpful ranger told us that there was an unauthorised event planned to take place there so they'd closed the site for the weekend. The very clean cut ranger asked us where we were from and told us he was going to an Iron Maiden concert in England soon – a lesson of not judging a book by its cover!

He told us about alternative options for camping and we decided on heading to one of his suggestions; Walker Ridge. Twenty minutes later, having followed his instructions, we turned off the road and found to our dismay that the tarmac ended and we were on a gravel road with about 8 miles left between us and our new campsite. We'd paid out for full coverage with our Escape camper van but driving on gravel roads wasn't covered so we were very hesitant to tempt fate.

A very nervous Nikki drove a mile or so before declaring we weren't going any further so we turned around and found somewhere to pull over and camp. We couldn't see any buildings or hear any people except for the occasional car in the distance.

We decided to stay two nights and then find an actual campsite with toilets. Our first afternoon was nice and peaceful; we read, we chatted, we bird watched and saw the occasional vehicle pass us, heading further than we'd ventured. The next day was a different experience altogether though.

Just after breakfast a 4×4 skidded to a halt on the gravel road just behind us and three of its passengers jumped out wielding rifles and wearing camouflage. Having successfully scared me and Nikki shitless they swiftly pointed into the trees and evidently went to stalk some kind of animal. We started breathing again. A little while later, silently, one of them walked out of the trees in front of our van and passed us, making his way back to the road.

That fun little experience was followed just after lunch by the the sound of gun shots ringing out across the valley, coming from close by. Nikki was understandably quite scared and I wasn't too calm either. Not knowing where the shots were coming from or going to was worrying and I studied the trees for a while and eventually spotted our new, scary, neighbours about 200m through the trees.

The sound of gunshots accompanied much of our afternoon and so did the fear that a stray bullet might find our van. We didn't move because we didn't know who was shooting or where they were aiming; all we knew was that they didn't seem to be aiming at us where we were parked.

Eventually the alternate sounds of what I guessed was a handgun and a shotgun died out and I eventually cautiously walked out to see if they'd gone. I found smashed targets and empty bullet casings strewn all over the dirt. Thankfully it was evident they were shooting at specific targets placed down low and not in our direction.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent hoping no one else turned up to shoot more and wondering if we should move to our next campsite a night early. In the end we decided not to.

In the morning we wished we had.

The crunch of tyres on gravel signalled the arrival of some new neighbours in the same place our gun toting ones had been the previous day. We groaned and hoped they wouldn't also be shooting. Then more crunching and the sound of a group of people was evident through the trees. Mexican music blared out and it seemed our new friends were just there to have some fun. I walked down and saw a four or five trucks, accompanied by some Polaris type off road buggies and some happy Mexicans.

I relayed this information to Nikki, happy that they were there to drink and go off-roading and that we'd more than likely have a gunshot free morning…

BoooOOOOoooom. Fuck.

It seems our new neighbours had also brought guns. The same handgun pops were joined by the also familiar shotgun booms plus a new bigger gun that was worrying loud. These were an unwanted and scary soundtrack to our breakfast, which was now being hastily eaten.

The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop pop-pop-pop sound of an automatic weapon broke the tense silence and we wolfed down the last of our breakfast and jumped in the van and drove out as quickly as we dared. [I can safely say that I have never been so scared in my life – Nikki]


Our experience of Colusa can be summed up by the question we got asked by a woman we met walking her dog "How did you even find Colusa?".

The campsite was basically a car park and the promised river side walk was technically beside a river but you couldn't see much of it and it was only a few hundred meters long.

Hmmm, not our most scenic campground

The one exciting thing that happened in the two nights we spent in Colusa started with a car turning up and parking nearby. Shortly followed by the very eagle eyed campground host Vince to see if they'd paid the entry fee. Snippets of conversation and quite obvious body language suggested that they hadn't and weren't too happy with Vince 'hassling' them. Vince went back to his caravan and left me wondering what would he do with people that don't pay and won't leave? Call the cops?

Apparently yes. About 5 minutes later a cop car pulls up and enters into a lengthy exchange with the man and woman from the car. The guy is calm and willing to leave but the woman kicks off. Getting worked up and stamping her feet, swearing at the police officer. This goes on for about 20 minutes until my wish comes true and another police car arrives. When I say 'arrives' what I mean is comes almost screeching into the car park with its lights flashing and guns the engine before braking and both cops jumping out ready for action. I feel a bit of sympathy as they both immediately approach the guy, who's been no trouble until the original cop points them in the woman's direction.

This continues for a while as the woman gets more and more wound up until the two new cops ask to handcuff the boyfriend which he calmly agrees to and rests on the bonnet of the second car. She kicks off and he's like "chill, they just want to make sure I'm not also about to kick off".

Then another car rolls up and another cop gets out. Three cop cars and four officers to deal with a couple that won't leave a state recreation area?! But now the new guy has blocked our view and most of the sound too so we miss much of what follows. They search the car and find some weed but that's legal so that's no issue.

Then the situation kind of deflates. The woman is simmering away, not getting more wound up and the four cops haven't got anything new to do so the group just does nothing but talk for a long time. Then eventually the cop cars leave one by one, leaving the guy and one of the cops just chatting about the weather or sports or something. And then the last cop car leaves, leaving the couple still in the park! What. They do then leave but I thought the cops would have made sure they left after all that fuss. [I've never really seen police responding to much before, but it reassured my opinion that I should never get on the wrong side of American cops – Nikki]

Woodson Bridge State Recreation Area

From Colusa we drove an hour up the Interstate 5 (I–5) stopping at Walmart before arriving, with only one wrong turn, at our next campsite. We parked up and spent the whole afternoon reading and listening to the various birds that were perched high up in trees or zoomed past us. We retreated to the van as soon as it started getting dark because there were so many mosquitoes.

Jeff the helpful campground host had suggested to Nikki that we explore some of the trails around the campsite and to visit the nature reserve over the road. So the next day we went exploring in the morning to find short, overgrown trails; doh! Then in the afternoon we went over to the nature reserve and there happened to be a ranger at the gate who suggested we find a particular field with a wild flower bloom. We tried following his vague description and came back to the van about an hour later having walked only a couple of miles and nowhere near his estimate of five or so miles. We heard his truck approaching as we neared our van and he stopped and asked us if we'd seen the wild flowers, knowing full well that we hadn't been gone long enough! He chuckled at his poor instructions and our early return and gave us a bit more detail.

We popped back to the campsite to eat and eventually managed to convince ourselves to get back out and try to find this field again. Was it pretty? Yes. Was it worth the roughly six mile walk in the sun along a gravel road to find it? Maybe.

Shasta-Trinity National Forest

We splashed out and bought take away on the way to our campground in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, having stocked up on food for the week we pulled into the drive thru at Jack in the Box. We decided that we couldn't do a road trip of America without going through a drive thru because they're everywhere and for seemingly everything; from fast food and coffee to pharmacies and banks.

The slight irony was that after we'd ordered and received our takeaway we ate in in the Jack in the Box car park, so we might as well have just gone inside! But it was the principal that mattered. [Surprisingly, the food actually tasted pretty good and I didn't feel truly disgusting afterwards! – Nikki]

From Interstate 5 we took a left toward the coast and drove into the mountains once again. One of the most scenic drives of America so far took us to an equally scenic campsite. I had no idea what to expect because Nikki had chosen Ackerman Campground but we drove around and picked a site with a view over the river and both marvelled at Nikki's good choice of campsite.

A macgyvered solution for shooting a timelapse on my phone

We felt surrounded by nature – and we were. Facing the river gave an unimpeded view of the river and the forest climbing up the hill beyond. For 180º there was no trace of human activity despite us being in a half full campsite. All that nature did come with one drawback though; bears were once again a concern [It was pretty scary to see paw prints all over the locked campsite bin! I couldn't believe they were paw prints at first – Nikki]. For the two nights we slept in the forest we stuffed all our food in an airtight box and slept with the windows closed.

I watched these massive turkey vultures circle around for ages Then one came close enough to get a good shot

During the day we read, soaked up the sounds of the wildlife and just enjoyed being alive. Big birds soared overhead from time to time and a hummingbird buzzed unseen around us for a while. The sound of people fishing and laughing wafted up from the river.

Our van hiding in the trees, with the river to the right and the bear bin to my left

Our forced decision to not visit Sequoia and Yosemite has lead us to find some other lesser visited places on our road trip. Sometimes that means we turn up somewhere like Colusa and spend a day or two a bit underwhelmed but then we move on and can find ourselves in another national forest surrounded by picturesque views.

We passed through some very stereotypically American places this week and got to experience an aspect of American culture we would rather have missed out; guns. Having seen them only in films and TV or worn as part of a police uniform it was strange to see and hear them being used for fun. I can tell you there's nothing fun about the sound of guns going off nearby and wondering where it's being aimed.


Some of the links in this post might be affiliate links.

It doesn't cost you anything extra if you end up buying the product using the link, and we might get a small commision if you do. If we've linked to something it's because we either own it, want to own it, or would buy it ourselves. We won't just link to random crap to get you to buy it.