Like many Angelenos, I think a lot about leaving L.A.—temporarily, of course, just for a road trip. The call of the open road is one of Southern California’s most romantic allures: If you can manage to escape the thunderdome of L.A.’s tense, traffic-choked freeways, there’s an entire state’s worth of wilderness waiting for you.
I also, like many Angelenos, am fixated on our wince-worthy gas prices. And like three-quarters of Californians, I’ve thought about breaking up with my gas-powered car in favor of an electric vehicle. That’s become an increasingly enticing prospect as gas prices spike and an electric vehicle market of mostly long-range luxury cars and shorter-range blobs finally makes room for an attractive and relatively affordable middle ground (assuming you can find one among supply chain shortages).
But I’ve also wondered how owning an EV would impact road trips (or, you know, fleeing town after the Big One). Specifically, could I still easily explore California’s national parks, which mostly require multi-hour drives from L.A. to comparatively more off-the-grid destinations? I decided to find out with a fuel-free trip to the state’s most beloved, grandiose bit of nature: Yosemite National Park.
As it turns out, driving from L.A. to Yosemite and back in an EV is refreshingly ordinary. Over the course of a four-day trip, I spent just under $46 in charging costs and about one cumulative extra hour of charging downtime for a trek that would’ve likely cost upwards of $130 in my own fairly fuel-efficient (about 30 miles per gallon) gas-powered car. I charged twice on the way up, once (plus a very brief second time) at my hotel and once on the way home. Had I needed to charge inside the park, I could have—though Yosemite’s dozen free-but-slow chargers are still too few to solely rely on them.
I’m among the 87% of California car owners who still drive a gasoline-powered set of wheels, so first I needed to temporarily procure a battery electric vehicle—and preferably one with four-wheel drive in case a snow storm rolled in during my early-spring trip. That actually narrowed my options quite a bit, but thankfully Hyundai was able to lend me a 2022 Ioniq 5 for this story. The 256-mile estimated range for the all-wheel drive retrofuturistic EV meant I’d have to stop and charge at least once on my 300-mile drive to Yosemite Valley. If all went according to plan, the car’s above-average charging speed capabilities would keep those pit stops pretty short, too.
Taking the trip specifically in a non-Tesla vehicle was actually one of the conditions I was most interested in. Tesla absolutely dominates the EV market right now; their vehicles’ long range and access to a well-established, proprietary network of fast chargers makes road trip planning pretty easy, especially in California. But what about other brands? More and more carmakers are getting serious about EVs, and by 2035, California will mandate that all new vehicles are zero-emissions—and before then, the state hopes to see EV sales triple to about a third of new car sales by 2026. In other words, there’s a good chance you might find yourself behind the wheel of a non-Tesla EV in the next few years.
As a first-time EV road tripper, I knew that my drive would take a bit more planning than a gas-powered car (and a slight adjustment to my natural Angeleno tendency to measure distances in minutes instead of miles). You just take for granted that there’s going to be a gas station wherever you’re going. As for public charging stations? They’re thankfully already pretty common in California but they do come with some novel considerations: How fast are they? What plug types are available? Are they occupied? If all of the pumps at a gas station are full, you simply wait a few minutes. But if you’re stuck in an area that only has slow EV chargers and they’re all occupied, it could be hours in the worst case. Range anxiety is often cited as one of the biggest obstacles to EV ownership, but I was more worried about charging anxiety: Completely running down the battery along the state’s charger-dense freeways is unlikely, but the thought of having to sit in a Walmart parking lot in the Central Valley for hours—cutting into precious vacation time—wedged its way into the back of my brain.
I’m happy to say that none of my overplanning anxieties actually came to pass. A more conservatively-timed trip north with a stop for lunch plus another charging top-off just to be safe added barely over an extra half hour to what would’ve been a five-hour trip in a gas car (and frankly, my legs were glad to have that second stop); for the more aggressively-plotted journey home, a one-stop trip was maybe 20 minutes longer than it would’ve been in a gas car.
I should probably qualify that I had pretty much ideal commuting conditions. Cold weather can negatively impact both range and charging times, but mornings near Yosemite never really dipped below 40 degrees. In the Central Valley, where the bulk of the driving took place, it was in the low 80s, but never quite hot enough to consistently run the air conditioning at full blast. And in every case where I needed to charge, I never had to wait for a functioning high-speed charger to free up. Had I ventured to Yosemite during a frigid snowstorm or a busy summer holiday weekend, it might’ve been a remarkably different experience.
If I have one key takeaway from my drive, it’s that—sort of like cell phone batteries in recent years—charging speed is just as important as capacity, particularly for a road trip. Hyundai says that on the absolute fastest-possible (but harder-to-find) 350kW public chargers, an Ioniq 5 can go from a 10% to 80% charge in just 18 minutes—still slower than a stop at the pump, but not that far off from gas station territory when you’re talking about hours-long drives. (It’s worth noting that this is on the high end of charging performance right now, though many new EVs are capable of reaching 80% charge within about a half hour.) That same charging span increases to about 25 minutes at a more common (especially along freeways) 150kW fast charger. However, at a lowly Level 2 charger, the type you find all around town in parking lots and garages, that time becomes a matter of hours depending on the precise speed. (In all cases, the charging rate above 80% slows considerably.)
This does mean that a little bit of pre-trip planning is pretty key. I loaded my phone up with a bevy of apps: A Better Routeplanner for an estimate of where I’d need to charge; PlugShare to scope out the speed and state of the chargers along the way; and Electrify America to initiate each charging session and see if the spots were occupied (I opted to solely stick to their stations as they were the fastest and most conveniently placed, and their $4 a month membership meaningfully lowered the cost of each charging session). It’s worth mentioning that the Ioniq 5 is pretty smart about sorting out much of this on the fly, but I didn’t want to leave things up to chance.
So what did this all mean in real-world terms? On the drive up, I reached a charging station in Bakersfield with half the battery already depleted (blame the Grapevine—more on that later) and stopped at a Panera Bread right next door for some lunch. By the time I was finished with my sandwich about a half hour later, I came back to a 99% charged car (with peak charge rates around 152kW). The charge was hovering around 50% in Fresno, so just to be safe—since I wasn’t sure how much uphill driving I’d have in store—a 22-minute charge back up to 93% seemed plenty to get me into the national park and then back to my hotel.
During the drive back to L.A. I plugged into a charger outside of a Walmart in Tulare at 26%. After a quick bathroom and caffeine stop inside and a walk around the parking lot with my dog, the charge level was already nearing that 80% threshold thanks to a speedy 240kW max rate. I ended up charging for 28 minutes in total to push the battery to nearly full, enough to comfortably make it back to L.A. without stopping again.
Off the freeway and inside the national park, the drive into and out of Yosemite Valley was oddly ideal for electric vehicles, and I never even needed to make use of the in-park chargers (other than briefly just to see if they worked). The low speed limits and persistent curves are perfectly suited for one-pedal driving, in which easing off the accelerator lets the regenerative braking take over to both slow the car and recover some energy; other than for a few particularly tight turns, I barely ever had to use the brake pedal. That also meant that, even amid the many elevation gains, the Ioniq 5 sipped but never gulped its battery while within Yosemite: Logging about 170 miles inside the park over two days (plus a half-hour catnap while parked with the air conditioning on) brought the battery to 51%, which was considerably more efficient than the EPA-rated 256-mile range.
On the valley floor, there are about a dozen chargers spread between the Yosemite Valley Lodge, Yosemite Village and the Ahwahnee Hotel. They’re completely free to use, and when I tested one out just for a few minutes, I was able to pull a 7.8kW charging rate (an hours not minutes-till-full speed). On a Saturday afternoon, one of the two chargers at the Ahwahnee was available, but all of the ones at the Yosemite Valley Lodge were full—including one that was blocked by a gas-powered car. While it’s helpful that they’re there (and free charging certainly beats the $6-plus-a-gallon gas stations in the park), there simply aren’t enough chargers to rely on them; their slow speeds are perfectly suited for daylong hikes and overnight stays, but that also means you’re unlikely to see much quick turnover if you need them for a quick stop.
In other words, stick to the plentiful (but not free) fast chargers along the 5, 99 and 41 freeways, because assuming that you’ll get your charging in at these slower ones is the only part of the road trip that could derail your travel plans. I spent my Yosemite vacation at the Tenaya Lodge, a hotel just outside of the national park’s southern gate that I booked for its pup-friendliness but that also came with the added bonus of free electric car charging (as well as a whole corral of eight Tesla Superchargers). I plugged in before bed at 46%, and with a sleepy but commonplace 5.9kW charging rate, the car estimated it would be full about eight hours later. For an overnight charge, that’s totally fine. But there were only two non-Tesla chargers at the hotel, and one of them was broken; what if the remaining one broke, too? Or what if it was occupied when I planned on using it, as was the case on most of my final night and morning? I knew this was a possibility as I planned the trip, so I found that if I needed a quick jolt in a pinch, there was an Electrify America fast charging station about 14 miles south in Oakhurst—except that it turned out to be broken the entire duration of my trip.
Ultimately, none of this ended up causing any real issues for my relatively long-range and fast-charging EV. In fact, the only aspect of the drive that posed a slight challenge was a peculiar spot that stymies gas-powered cars, too: the Grapevine. On the drive north, the slow, steady climb on the 5 into the mountains blows through battery, and the subsequent steep descent is too quick to regain much back: By the time I stopped to charge in Bakersfield, the car had exhausted 49 percent of its charge. Heading back to L.A., though, that same expanse only went through 44 percent of the battery. The initial steep six-mile climb headed south went through a whopping 11 percent of the battery, but the following 40-mile gradually downhill stretch only went through 5 percent. It may not sound like a huge difference, but those few percentage points are enough to make a one-charging-stop drive home way less nerve racking.
I could rattle off even more numbers: That, yes, charging was cheaper than gas, but it was in a car that retails for $51,100 before federal and state rebates (a cheaper trim of the AWD version with the same range goes for $44,000 before rebates). And I could talk at length about how, yes, electric cars still require natural resources to manufacture and charge their batteries, and still shed brake dust and wear down rubber—and don’t make up for inadequate public transit systems. But for now, I was simply trying to see if switching to an EV would mean compromising on the romance of a California road trip—and here I am, a few months later with some EV apps still on my phone, just waiting to be able to plan my next gas-free escape.