Daniel and I had been on the road for a pretty long time. We’ve been traveling since the start of the year and road tripping for more than five months. It was after we drove back from Texas that Daniel let me know that he was getting ready to get off the road and settle down for a while.
I understood; while my tolerance for travel is higher than his, there are lots of things that you start to miss when you’re living out of a suitcase or car for an extended period of time. (Like sleeping in your own bed, being able to buy bulk groceries, not having to eat out of an ice chest, or being able to wear something other than one of the five shirts in your suitcase.)
So with this in mind I proposed one last leg of our trip: I wanted to do a tour of California. Daniel lived in the Bay Area for five year, but didn’t see very much of the rest of the state. Since the Bay Area is not at all representative of the rest of California I wanted to show it to him. Also, California is a good state to road-trip through because it has such a diversity of different landscapes: there are beaches, deserts, forests, farmland, cities, and mountains.
We planned to drive up the California coast and then come back down the eastern side of the state. This would allow us to see all of the beach towns and the redwoods on the way up , and then on the way back we would see the mountains and Yosemite. So with this plan we set out of the last little bit of our travels.
The Southern Coast
During the ten years I lived in the Bay Area I would drive down to my parent’s home near Santa Barbara three or four times a year. As a result, I know the stretch of the 101 freeway between San Francisco and SB so well that I’m a little bit sick of it. Here are some of my recommendations for the area:
Driving out of the Santa Barbara metro area my first stop is usually in Pismo Beach, which is about two hours up the coast. It’s a little beach town and it’s fun to walk around, but most of the reason we stop is because Daniel loves the cinnamon buns at Old West Cinnamon Rolls. The rolls are huge–you probably want to split them with someone. You can also choose from a bunch of different toppings. We’ve tried quite a few and think that the cherry pie filling is the best.
If you’re stopping in Pismo Beach for food, I also recommend the Splash Cafe. It has the best clam chowder, fish tacos, and seafood salad. (They also have a location in San Luis Obispo which is less crowded.)
Just outside of Pismo Beach is Avila Beach. The thing to do there is to visit the Avila Valley Barn. It’s a combination fruit stand, petting zoo, and corn maze. I took Daniel there for the first time on this trip and he was like, “why are so many people visiting this fruit stand?!” But once we finished he admitted that he’d enjoyed it. It’s one of those things that is just more fun than it sounds.
Continuing north you hit San Luis Obispo, which is about midway between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I really like San Luis Obispo; it’s a college city with a nice downtown. Every time I visit I become more and more convinced that I need to move here. Unfortunately the job market in this city is pretty skimpy, and it really isn’t close to any other big city. Maybe I’ll retire here :/ .
You can spend hours walking around the shops in SLO. Daniel always visits Boo Boo Records and spends an hour or so combing through the $1 music bin. While he does that I usually head next door to the international crafts store, or to Phoenix Books, which is one of those used book stores where they’ve run out of shelf space and half of the shop is covered with huge piles and stacks of books that would probably bury you in an earthquake.
San Luis Obispo is also the location of the Madonna Inn. This is a hotel that’s known for it’s gaudy pink decor and use of stonework. There are 110 rooms, all of which have a different theme. It’s also famous for its men’s restroom, which has a waterfall for the urinal. If you’re a woman, I recommend getting some male passerby or employee to check if the room is clear so you can go see it. It sounds strange, but everyone who visits checks it out.
After San Luis Obispo Daniel and I switched over to Highway 1, which continues to follow the coast. If you’re trying to make good time, Highway 1 is never the answer as it’s a one-lane, windy road. The benefit of taking this route is that it is scenic and very beautiful–which cannot be said for either the 101 or the I-5 running though that portion of the state.
Right after the 1 and the 101 diverge is the town of Morro Bay. Morro Bay is another little beach town that, for whatever reason, always seems to be overcast. If you are in Morro Bay you should go to the Shell Shop. They sell tons of seashells here and they’re all very inexpensive, which is bad news for me, because I’ve never been able to visit without buying a load of shells.
Past Morro Bay is San Simeon, where you can tour Hearst Castle. It’s also where lots of elephant seals come to sleep and fight on the beach. Poor elephant seals. They are just so ugly, and regular seals are so cute. I wonder if they look at normal seals and think they got a bum deal in life.
And then, still on the 1, comes a long stretch of nothing much. The road gets windy and there are fewer and fewer cars. The beaches give way to bluffs, and you spend a lot of time driving with a sheer drop to the ocean on one side. Now and then you’ll pass a little restaurant perched on the edge of the water, but there aren’t really any proper towns for quite a while.
It isn’t until you reach Carmel-By-The-Sea that you start to hit civilization again. Carmel-By-The-Sea is really cute and very snooty. It has a very calculated charming feel, the sort of feel that comes with old money and overbearing HOAs. Clint Eastwood was the mayor of this town at one point because, like with Reagan and Schwarzenegger, Californians seem to have a thing for electing movie stars into political positions.
North of Carmel-By-The-Sea is Monterey, where my sister Grace is currently learning Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute as part of her service in the Air Force.
After passing through Monterey you hit the Bay Area. Daniel and I didn’t stop here since we drove through late in the evening, but it was nice to see San Francisco again, even if it was just from inside of a car.
The Northern Coast
It’s common to hear people refer to the Bay Area as being in northern California, but if you actually look at a map of the state you’ll find that it’s just past the halfway point up the coast. It is, however, the last big population center. After the Bay Area there are no large metropolitan centers on the coast until you reach Portland, Oregon. This is sort of baffling, as this stretch of west coast is absolutely beautiful.
The northern California coast has an entirely different landscape than the southern coast. While southern California has lots of dense shrubbery (we refer to it as a “Mediterranean landscape”, as that sounds nicer), the northern half of the state is all big trees and forests.
If you stick to the coast you end up at the little town of Mendicino, which sits just south of the town of Fort Bragg, and about three hours north of San Francisco. Daniel and I stopped at Mendocino to eat lunch (which was cold leftovers, such is road trip life). The downtown is small and quaint, filled with lots of older houses on a peninsula that juts out into the ocean. It looks like a movie set, and was in fact used for the background shots in Murder She Wrote, where it was used to portray a small town in Maine.
Fort Bragg, on the other hand, is larger and less touristy. If you go through this area you should stop to visit Glass Beach. This is a beach famous for the copious amounts of sea glass that wash ashore from the remains of an old landfill just off the coast. If you like beach-combing, this is the place for you.
Highway 1 and the 101 meet again at the town of Leggett, about an hour north of Fort Bragg. Here Daniel and I switched back to the 101. This was mostly so we could drive through the Avenue of the Giants, a 30 mile stretch of the highway famous for the giant redwood trees on either side of the road. The coast redwood is the tallest tree in the world, and walking or driving underneath them makes you feel very small.
This stretch of the 101 is really kitschy. There are all kinds of mom-and-pop roadside attractions. Just past Leggett there’s the Chandelier Tree, a big redwood with a tunnel chopped through its trunk. For ten dollars you can drive your car through and take a picture. After the drive-thru tree there’s the tree that’s a gift shop, the Grandfather Tree, the “eternal treehouse”, the Bigfoot museums, Confusion Hill, the Big Corn, and more. I love this stuff. Something about this sort of cheesy Americana is irresistible to me. It’s so charming and weird.
Daniel and I spent a night in Ferndale, a tiny dairy town full of old Victorian houses. If you’re in the area and looking for a place to stay we recommend the Gingerbread Mansion, which is a BnB in a big Queen Anne Victorian.
Just north of Ferndale is Eureka, which at 27,000 people is the largest coastal California town north of the Bay Area. (“Eureka” also happens to be the official motto of California.) Eureka is next to Arcata, the home of Humboldt University, and has loads of hippies. Basically, it seems like the hippies that didn’t like the city vibe of the Bay Area all migrated north to Eureka. Eureka, like all the towns in this area, has lots of redwood groves that you can hike though and quite a bit of their economy is around forestry and the tourists who come to see the trees.
The area between Eureka and the Oregon border is probably one the prettiest parts of America. (Having spent five months driving though our country, I feel pretty confident in this assessment.) It’s also quite desolate. The towns are small and few and far between. It’s interesting to think about why population centers form where they do. This part of the coast has much nicer weather than Seattle, but unlike Seattle hardly anyone lives here.
Daniel absolutely loved this area. I told him that we’ll have to move here and see if we can convince anyone else to follow us out. Or we would need to open some kind of large business to bring jobs and other people to the area. The only other alternative is to become okay with living as hermits–which actually isn’t even that far off from how we’ve been living for the past year, now that I think about it. (But if anyone is interested in starting a compound in NorCal, hit us up in the comments.)
Daniel and I stopped 15 miles south of the Oregon border in a coastal town called Crescent City. We stayed here a week and spent most of that week looking at the redwoods.
Crescent City is small, with a population of 7,600. However that population number includes the 2,600 inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, which is on the north side of the city. Pelican Bay is the only supermax prison facility in California, and is where violent offenders, prisoners with a history of violence during incarceration, and lots of life-termers are sent. It is infamous for its Secure Housing Unit, a facility where prisoners are kept in isolation and confined 23 hours a day in a cell with no windows. (If you want to hear personal stories about the SHU I recommend this episode of Ear Hustle, which is one of my favorite podcasts.) I completely went down the rabbit hole reading about some of the especially frightening inmates at Pelican Bay and ended up scaring myself pretty thoroughly.
Another interesting thing about Crescent City is that it has a history of destructive tsunamis. Something about the way the seafloor in that area is shaped focuses tsunamis towards the city. In 1964 an earthquake off of Anchorage caused four tsunamis that essentially wiped out the town, and there have been several smaller incidents since then. So that’s also kind of scary.
Also, on the roads around Crescent City I saw several signs for the State of Jefferson. Some googling showed me that this is the northern California secessionist movement. Essentially, a few rural counties in northern California and southern Oregon want to break away and form their own state, tentatively named Jefferson. Their reasoning is that these regions tend to be more agricultural and “redder” than the rest of California or Oregon, and they want their own state so that the laws better reflect their political beliefs.
Growing up in California I had always heard about the “crazy” northern California secessionists. There have even been recent ballot propositions to break up the state. I’d always dismissed these ideas, but the more I read about it the more intrigued I became. While I’m pretty sure I do not support breaking up California, it poses an interesting question: what, if anything, is the process for changing state lines? Are the state boundaries static, or is there some flexibility? It’s a thought-provoking topic.
Anyways, the downtown of Crescent City is pretty nondescript–it’s like any little town you’d see anywhere in the country. The reason to visit is not for the town, but for the landscape surrounding it. Crescent City is both on the beach and surrounded by huge groves of redwood trees. Daniel and I spent most of our time hiking through the forest or walking on the beach. It was a pretty relaxed visit.
Writing about how pretty a landscape is always comes across as flat. There are only so many ways you can say, “it’s beautiful!” But the northern coast of California is really beautiful. Imagine all of the big trees and mountains of the Pacific Northwest with none of the snow, and less gloom during the winter. If you are even a slightly outdoorsy person I recommend a trip to this part of California.