California is pretty smug about having everything. You can famously surf at Huntington Beach in the morning and ski at Big Bear that afternoon. You can whale watch off San Diego and less than three hours later stare across the Mad Max-like expanse of the landlocked Salton Sea. You can stand atop the highest spot in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney, and stare down into the lowest, Death Valley.
For years, though, the Golden State’s most insufferable claim to look-at-me-aren’t-I-specialness has been California Highway 1, a.k.a. the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), a ribbon of eclecticism that hugs the shore from Dana Point in Orange County, traces the iconic coastlines of Monterey and Big Sur, slips through the glittering Oz of San Francisco and brakes to a halt in Leggett, a map speck in a redwood forest, 656 miles north.
It’s also one of the most storied stretches of pavement in America; one that any self-ordained road warrior must drive at least once. And so there we stood, my wife Carolyn and I, on Santa Monica Pier, watching the silhouetted mountains to our north slide gently downward toward the PCH as it rolled through Malibu.
The men and women of Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach were already on the scene, hanging from the big-boy monkey bars, pecs and posteriors threatening to burst through skin that resembled shiny vinyl body suits. Hulking on a bench behind them was a homeless man, slumbering loudly, his ribbony shoes laid neatly side by side as if awaiting someone to shine them.
A parade of vintage Volkswagens—Beetles and Microbuses—rumbled off the pier to cheers from Los Angelinos, who worship all things new and collect all things old. The chugging cars peeled off in various directions, many of them heading for the PCH’s northbound lanes. We followed.
You can make the trip between L.A. and San Francisco in five easy hours if you take Interstate 5, the straight-away through California’s flat, agricultural Central Valley. But that’s a paradoxical waste of saved time when you can in four days wind your way up the California coast, marveling at the state’s catalog of contradictory wonders.
At first the broad sands of Santa Monica and Will Rogers state beaches, with the gently splashing Pacific beyond, stretched to our left. But before long a solid wall of Malibu “cottages” arose between us and the sea; tenements of extravagance occupied by Hollywood’s most well-heeled beachcombers.
On this street-facing side, the collection of garage doors and barred windows more resembled East L.A. than a privileged playground. But every once in awhile glimpses of the grandeur beyond peeked through: Vast expanses of windows, wide balconies, and rooftop aeries overlooking the sea. Our heads swiveled as we scanned the swiftly passing back doorways, wondering if we might catch a glimpse of such Malibu denizens as Jennifer Aniston, Sly Stallone, or Dustin Hoffman. Alas, all we saw were maintenance vans and garbage trucks. I wondered aloud how the stars manage to pull right out into the speeding traffic of the busy road. “Well,” my wife offered, “Tom Hanks probably isn’t driving a Ford Focus.”
Before long the cottages dwindled and we came upon Zuma Beach, populated by surfers whose black wetsuits, from a distance, caused them to resemble the seals that occasionally peered down at them from protruding rocks. We stopped to admire some colorful parasailers near Point Mugu, then hit the gas to get past the less colorful Oxnard and Ventura, beyond which we alternated our gaze between the vineyards of Ventura County wine country on our right and the rocky seascape on our left.
Lunchtime coincided with our arrival in Carpinteria (home of the California Avodaco Festival) in Santa Barbara County, and we parked where everyone else seemed to be going: Padaro Beach Grill. Soon we find out why— sourdough bread to die for. While dining on a picnic bench overlooking the water, we tilted faces toward the sun, each keeping a protective hand over our fries lest the seagulls help themselves.
We zipped by Santa Barbara on this trip because a few years earlier we had spent a glorious weekend there, sharing the hotel pool with George Hamilton, who had winked at Carolyn before settling into a lounge chair. We had a quieter, more intimate spot in mind for the night, two more hours up the road, on Morro Bay.
For a coastline that ceaselessly celebrates its bays—from San Francisco to Monterey to Santa Barbara—Morro Bay seems to be way down on the must-see list. Which is rather inexplicable, since it is punctuated by one of the most dramatic natural features you’ll find on any bay around the world. Rising nearly 600 feet from the sea, Morro Rock resembles the dome atop a submerged U.S. Capitol building. You don’t see it coming as you wind up the PCH—you make a turn and there it is, a few feet offshore, filling your windshield with its almost ominous weight. Your first instinct is to find a place to park and climb that thing, but it’s actually against the law for anyone but members of the local Salinan and Chumash tribes to do so, and then only for their annual solstice ceremony. It’s a far cry from just a few decades ago, when Californians, environmentally friendly as they are, nevertheless seemed determined to chip Morro Rock into oblivion, using its sturdy decite composition to build breakwaters up and down the shore.
Even from five miles up the road, at the sleepy beach village of Cayucos, Morro Rock dominates the horizon. We pulled up to the cozy On the Beach Bed and Breakfast and checked into our second-floor room, which offered a sweeping panorama of the bay from the rock to the town’s lovely pier. We browsed the handful of charming shops on Cayucos’ small main street and dug into the homey food at Duckie’s Chowder House (Duckies, in keeping with California’s manic determination to be everything to everybody, may be about as far away as you can get from the East Coast, yet it offers among the best New England and Manhattan clam chowders I’ve had).
After dinner we strolled out onto the pier, watching the sun cast the distant rock aflame in red light. On shore, the lush green hills above Cayucos, more evoking Ireland than the rocky California coast, began to fade in the gathering dark.
We were eager to get to the storied wilderness area of Big Sur, which begins roughly 40 miles north of Morro Bay, but the breathtaking ocean and mountain views began well before that. Nestled on a mountain to the east, like a stucco cloud, was Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s palatial home overlooking the town of San Simeon. Neither of us had been there, but we didn’t consider a stop because with its 60,000-square-foot main house and expansive gardens, Hearst Castle, like Santa Barbara, demands a trip of its own (and requires reservations.) Soon after we sped past the turnoff for Hearst Castle, Carolyn—owner of the world’s most sensitive sniffer—wrinkled her nose. With a touch of dread she asked, “What’s that smell?”
A few more turns, and we found out. It was February, and at this moment a short stretch of beach—a rookery near Piedras Blancas Light Station—was crowded with 18,000 or so honking, bellowing elephant seals.
We smelled them before we saw them; the kind of odor that finds a crevice in your nostrils and just hangs in there like the world’s worst car air freshener. It’s precisely the stench you’d expect from a beached armada of vaguely slug-like creatures—some 5,000-pounders are the size of minivans—that have nothing to do but loll in the sun, fight, mate, and fight some more. They’d been there since late fall. Most of the females that had given birth shortly after arriving were re-impregnated by now (mature male sea lions, with their gelatinous gait and wobbling Jimmy Durante-like schnozzes, are nevertheless quite the lotharios). In just a few weeks, the seals would head back out into the open ocean, and this beach would be empty and quiet.
Once again, California was offering us one of its trademark studies in contrast.
Practically within sight of Hearst’s whitewashed, ornate, spired wonderland lumbered a fleshy, lumpy traffic jam of wobbling, sand-and-poop-smeared bohemoths. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I moved to open the windows. “Please don’t,” Carolyn pleaded. Big Sur is one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes—a Lord of the Rings-like fantasy of plunging mountains, raging streams and pounding surf.
How rugged is the terrain? Last Christmas a North Hollywood couple’s car overshot a turn and plunged to the rocky shoreline below Ragged Point, one of the most spectacular spots along the road. No one even noticed the wreck until January 3. We, on the other hand, took those turns like a cat on a cornice. Around here the road alternately soars atop great cliffs above the sea and plunges downward to cross seaside creeks and canyons on sweeping arched concrete bridges—the same ones that we see in those advertisements for cool cars.
We traded off driving for each crossing, the most impressive of which is the double-arched Big Creek Bridge, because neither of us wanted to miss the fun. We just had to pull over at a vista point to get a picture of it—a graceful, marble-like double rainbow against the rugged cliffs and wild sea.
Those bridges and the jagged coastline are the chief tourist draw in these parts—so much so that most drivers miss a true inland gem: Limekiln State Park, which pops up to the right moments after you’ve crossed the Vicente Creek bridge. A helpful ranger accepted our admission fee but warned us the hiking trail was closed above Limekiln Creek because the bridge was washed out.
We walked as far as the stream, through a redwood forest that dampened every human voice, animal squeak, and watery splash. Someone had thrown a plank across the water, so we took our chances and made it across. We found a soft spot on the bank, lay back and stared up into the canopy of trees. The lacework of forest sounds filtered down, reminding us that some of travel’s most moving moments come when you sit still.
Monterey was our goal for the night, but first we wound our car among the homes, quaint and grand, of Carmel-by-the-Sea (no sign of leading citizen and former mayor Clint Eastwood).
California-based literature dictates the prominence of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in the local guides, but there’s also an appealing bustle amongst the shops and restaurants of Fisherman’s Wharf, where Chinese silks, Spanish wine and whale oil once fueled the local economy.
With its world-famous aquarium and 248-year-old mission church, Monterey is one of coastal California’s most charming small cities. But cities require a level of attention we were not willing to cede, so we headed just a bit farther north, to spend the night in Sand City—aptly named because it’s the last town before you get to the untouched beach that stretches 10 miles. If it’s seafood you hanker for, there are spots aplenty in Monterey.
We, on the other hand, were more than delighted with Googie Grill, an all-comfort-food eatery with a gourmet touch (chicken schnitzel—ja!). It was a short walk from out hotel, The Monterey Tides, and after all that precision driving we needed to stretch our legs.
Morning brought a nice, long walk along the beach of Monterey Bay. Just over the dunes, motorists were bearing down, grinding north and south on the PCH. On our side we roamed a castaway world, with barely another human in sight at this hour.
We lingered to watch the sandpipers play tag with the surf, then wandered back to the hotel to start the next leg of our trip.
The PCH was closed north of Salinas. This is one of the great intrigues of driving the coast highway: On any given day, a length of the road might wash out, or a boulder that has sat in place for millennia may decide to take a roll into the highway’s center lane. We never did find out why we were diverted, but the road brooks no arguments, so we were forced to head a bit farther inland, along route 17. The switch in trajectory was slight, but our new route took us through a wildly different scenic mountain route passing vineyards and the Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve. After a couple of days hugging the shoreline, it was actually fun to take a woodsy detour.
Still, we were dumped onto the not-fun-at-all I-280 North freeway that, if we weren’t careful, would have blurted us out somewhere in Silicon Valley.
“We need to get off this road!” said Carolyn, studying possible escape routes on her phone (thanks, Silicon Valley). She found it: A few miles up was an exit for Route 92, a delightfully winding two-lane road that crosses the coastal mountains back to the sea. For a short while we drove parallel to a long, thin lake, then turned to cross it on a small bridge. The sign read: Crystal Springs Reservoir.
“I know this spot,” I said. “This used to be called Lake San Andreas—it’s one of the few places you can actually see the San Andreas Fault.”
“Interesting,” said Carolyn, who has grown used to me as a font of semi-useless information. “Let’s get off this bridge.”
We climbed the east side of the coastal range, rejoined the PCH, and rolled into our destination for the night, the small town of Pacifica (about 38,000 residents) just south of The City, as it called, San Francisco.
You would not expect a Holiday Inn Express to provide one of the most memorable window views you’ve ever had, but that’s what we got from our second-floor room. Across Rockaway Beach, at the foot of a towering promontory, a procession of rock towers stood in defiance of the relentless surf. As the sun set, the spray was illuminated in reds and oranges against the rocks’ black outlines while surfers paddled the periphery, seeing how close they could get without being pulverized.
At similarly scenic spots around the world, you’d pay a week’s wages for one night in a room with a view like this. Yet so plentiful are jaw-dropping natural wonders along the PCH, they even come framed in the window of a Holiday Inn (not to mention the Best Western next door). We sat in our room, sipping wine and watching the sky grow dark beyond the rocks.
Carolyn tilted her head to get a view of the mountainous bluff that rose above our hotel.
“I want to get up there,” she said. And the next day we would.
DAY 4: PACIFICA TO SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
It was neither a long nor difficult walk to the top of the bluff on the south end of Rockaway Beach. In fact, the town has put in a paved switchback trail that gets you most of the way to the top—after that you need to hop a small wall and follow the dirt trails that lead temptingly to the summit.
I puffed as I tried to keep up with Carolyn, who is one of those people with a congenital need to see what lies on the other side of any given hill.
I found her sitting on a rocky point, hundreds of feet of sheer cliff on either side of her. She was focused on the tall rocks below—the same ones we saw from our window—still holding their own against swells of sea water that rose and fell, frustrating the seagulls that kept re-lighting, hoping each time to find a spot that would remain dry.
To the south, silvery waters stretched to more black cliffs, and at their feet stood more stubborn rocks. North of us, mile-long waves rolled dramatically into the bay, slowly, rumbly, exhausted travelers from Japan, the sun creating rainbows in their spray. Above, an American Airlines jet passed, its landing gear extended, its engines drowned out by the surf.
Unbelievably, the gate for our flight back to the East Coast was less than a half-hour away from the rugged beauty of Pacifica. From an aeronautical perspective, Pacifica sits just beyond the runways of San Francisco International Airport—one last reminder of how California has cast itself as the place where worlds collide. I edged out to Carolyn’s perch.
I sat beside her, eyes closed, the wind in our faces, the road at our backs.
Photo by Bill Newcott
A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in the February-March, 2017 issue of a AARP the Magazine