Driving California's coast in 10 days

LA Times | Travel

Early on the first day of 2009, a gold Toyota Corolla exited Interstate 5 in southern San Diego County and headed west, dodging puddles and \"SUBJECT TO FLOODING\" signs until it reached Border Field State Park, the coastal reserve where California's coastline begins. That was me, on the brink of...

By Christopher Reynolds // 01.29.09

Early on the first day of 2009, a gold Toyota Corolla exited Interstate 5 in southern San Diego County and headed west, dodging puddles and "SUBJECT TO FLOODING" signs until it reached Border Field State Park, the coastal reserve where California's coastline begins. That was me, on the brink of something big.

It was a cloudy, soggy Thursday morning. I stepped from the car and set off on foot, following an unhelpful set of signs until my sneakers were caked in runoff gunk from the rain-soaked Tia Juana River Valley. And so my New Year's adventure -- drive California from toe to top, cling to the coast, sleep only in lodgings along the water -- began with a quagmire at Mile Zero.

I could tell you that the next 10 days and 1,136 miles just got worse, that there were twisty little roads over steep cliffs, dense fog, bitter winds, raccoon invasions, bad meals, roadwork delays, gas at $2 a gallon, gas at $3 a gallon, coffee at $4 a cup, the scent of elephant seals, the inconvenience of law-enforcement intervention. It's all true. But you already know this was a sweet trip, because you've probably nibbled at it yourself.

To consume the California coast in a single gulp, never mind the off-season, never mind the off-year -- is more than a meal. It's a revelation, a rediscovery, a marathon. Or maybe I should just rely on the words of Mike, the 40-year-old Coloradan I found on Day 4 north of Santa Barbara, sitting on a driftwood log in his boxers, still soaked from a spontaneous leap into the Pacific.

"This is as good as it gets," he said. "For two minutes, you don't feel old and fat anymore."

Then I turned away so his beaming girlfriend, also in underwear and up to her neck in the frigid Pacific, could come ashore.

Of course, unless you can spend a month on a trip like this, you have to leave out places. I blew off La Jolla, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach -- didn't even stop the car in Orange County -- and never considered a theme park (although on my trip, I met a family from Oregon that built its whole three-week California trip around theme parks). I spent no time in Santa Monica or Santa Barbara and only a few minutes in San Francisco -- just long enough to jot down adjectives for the winds raking the Golden Gate Bridge observation point: Bitter. Evil. Nasty. Lacerating. This was at noon.

Anyway, every omission makes room for another discovery. And when you travel off-season, you find more bare beaches, thinner traffic, empty lodgings and a small but select group of fellow travelers. And, especially in this recessionary year, you save a lot.

Also, here's a lovely thing about the rocks, sand, surf, trees, deer, elk, elephant seals, sea lions, coyotes and skunks you run into on a trip like this: Not only do they look good, sound good and smell good (mostly), but they also have no idea that the rest of us are up to our necks in war, debt and doubt. Spend hours in their company and they'll never bring it up. This makes them excellent companions.

You could say my itinerary was half-planned. I would mostly stick to Interstate 5, then California 1 and U.S. 101, skirting the sea. To allow time for bike rides and duck feeding, there would be no 200-mile days, and I would allow myself detours. To allow for recession, the lodgings would average less than $150 a night. For the first three nights, I would have my wife, Mary Frances, and our 4-year-old, Grace, for company. Then they'd ditch me at a rental-car outlet and return to their big-city obligations.

But first, of course, I have to get past the Mexican mud.

Mile 15, Coronado: Ridiculous, meet sublime. With slime clinging to my shoes, I penetrate the perimeter of the Hotel del Coronado, inspect the seasonal ice-skating rink and the wide, sandy beach, then climb on the jetty rocks. No rooms for less than $300. I settle for a $3.75 cup of coffee.

By lunchtime, I've convened with Mary Frances and Grace to eat with friends and to check in at Paradise Point, a kid-friendly resort surrounded by the calm waters of Mission Bay, about 12 miles north of Coronado. We walk the shore, feed ducks and climb the observation tower, which is practically historical by California standards, having risen in the 1960s.

Mile 40, Point Loma, San Diego: A moment of reverence, please, for Juan Cabrillo, the European explorer who landed at Point Loma in September 1542 and claimed the coast for Spain. By many measures, he was a failure: He didn't find gold, didn't find an easy route to Asia, didn't find a passage to the Atlantic and didn't complete his mission. He died three months later.

But the six days he spent here made him California's first documented tourist, godfather to us all. Though nobody knows what he looked like, a sculptor's imaginary Cabrillo stands atop the hill, gazing heroically out toward all the top-secret Navy submarine stuff at the foot of the point. Grace, who has already climbed the circular stairwell of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and seen the nearly 100,000 military gravestones at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery, circles the great explorer without comment, then races to feed coins into one of those amusement-park machines that mash and stretch pennies.

Mile 177, Hermosa Beach: Bam: the sound of a volleyballer ending a rally with an authoritative spike.

Whoosh: the sound of an early-bird surfer, zooming dangerously close to the pier while most of his neighbors are still snoozing or savoring coffee.

Tick-tick-tick: the sound of two bicycles and a low-slung trailer, rolling north on the Santa Monica Bay Trail, a foot-and-bike path that runs 20 miles from Redondo Beach to Santa Monica.

That's us. Later come lunch and a pelican encounter on the Malibu Pier. Dinner and overnight at the Embassy Suites in Oxnard. The next morning we draw in the sand with sticks, then say our farewells. At the Oxnard airport, I relinquish the family's old gold Corolla, and the Budget Rent a Car people assign me a new white one for the rest of my mission.

Mile 411, Morro Bay: What will cheer a newly solitary traveler? How about the classic California meal -- locally raised top sirloin (from Hearst Ranch) and abalone (from the Abalone Farm in Cayucos) -- at the Inn at Morro Bay's Orchid Restaurant? Well, no.

Too much chewing and not enough flavor. Best thing about the meal is the shiny abalone shell they let me keep. Four-year-olds like shiny shells.

The best thing about the Inn at Morro Bay, apart from paying $59 a night, is that it sits within Morro Bay State Park, just a few miles from MontaƱa de Oro State Park. So the next morning, I can hike up 661-foot Black Hill in time to see the sun's first beams spilling over the blond hills to the north, the wetlands to the south, the creamy dunes to the west, and, of course, the 578-foot Morro Rock itself. (Another great thing about winter travel: Sleep until 7 and you can still brag about rising before sunrise.)

A few hours later, I'm down on the docks getting ready to rent a kayak from Sub Sea Tours when the kayak guys, Kevin Winfield, 51, and his son, Mario Battaglia-Winfield, 20, bust out their juggling clubs -- you know, those bowling-pin things.

Right there on the lonely deck, they spring into two-man, six-club action. At one point, Mario pulls out a cellphone and punches up a call.

"Yeah," Mario deadpans to whomever is on the other end. "I'm juggling two in one hand right now."

Mile 505, Big Sur: It's almost the law. You can't visit Big Sur without stopping at Nepenthe, the bohemian clubhouse, tourist restaurant and community icon that's been perched 800 feet above the surf since 1947. So I stop, spoon up a great bowl of chili and forgive management for the $4 coffee.

Even before the stock market crashed, 2008 was a rotten year here. On June 21, a lightning strike started the Basin Complex fire, which burned for weeks, blackening more than 160,000 acres, destroying at least 58 structures and advancing within a few hundred yards of Nepenthe.

Yet on this mostly sunny day, I see few signs of damage along the highway -- just some bare patches and a couple of 10-minute delays for roadwork. The trouble is all east and up, and we tourists are all busy looking west and down.

The magic and menace are still here. I can still walk out on the waterfall trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, linger at the turnout just north of Bixby Bridge, scramble on the wind-lashed rocks down by Rocky Point Restaurant.

And I should say this now: As much as I love Nepenthe, I realize that Rocky Point Restaurant, 10 miles south of Carmel, is better placed. You won't catch the same bohemian vibe, but Rocky Point (two years older than Nepenthe), sits down low, ever under assault from waves and winds, with a staggering vista of the cliffs to the south.

I get chowder to go, but the convergence of tumbled rocks, surging sea and rampaging wind is so absorbing that I can barely tear myself away.

Mile 683, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco: Bitter, evil, nasty and lacerating, as noted. (But, still, a nice bridge.)

Mile 741, Valley Ford, Marin County: First, the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais. Then an absurdly great Parkside Cafe burger and walk on Stinson Beach. And then the fault lands of Point Reyes and the green hills of West Marin take over. Scattered black cows. Long fences. The rising and falling road, the becalming scrim of fog . . .

On second thought, scratch the scrim.

North of Bodega Bay, the mist thickens. With visibility down to about 30 feet, I creep along from hairpin turn to hairpin turn. Maybe I'm surrounded by meadow. Maybe I'm teetering at cliff's edge.

It's after 4 and everything is dimming. Three cows lurch into view, then fade. I pull over to the shoulder, see no improvement, return to the road.

By now I must be 15 miles north of Jenner, where the hotel is supposed to be. Have I missed the turnoff? Will it be quicksand next? Will I spend the night in this car?

No. At last, Fort Ross, an old Russian fur-trading outpost that's now a state park, hovers into view. The ranger tells me the Timber Cove Inn is just five more minutes up the road. And so it is -- a wood-and-glass modernist mirage.

I check in, I eat, I drink, I chase a raccoon off my balcony. Then I collapse and dream of unlimited visibility.

Mile 883, Westport: "We had these ideas about growing our own food," Sunny Grigg tells me, sitting on his front porch. It's a cold morning at the Howard Creek Ranch Inn -- in fact, I can't feel my fingers -- and Sunny is the co-proprietor. His wife, Sally, is inside cooking breakfast.

"This was in 1973," says Grigg, 63. "We got here, and we had no idea how we were going to make a living. It was just the blind faith of youth."

The Howard Creek Ranch Inn stands about 18 miles north of Fort Bragg. You reach it just before the highway turns inland and the largely roadless "Lost Coast" of Northern California begins.

The core of the 60-acre property is its 1871 farmhouse and the converted barn across the creek. Sunny tries to create or redo a unit every year. (There are 13 rooms and cabins in all.) If you walk about 100 yards west, you come out on the sand-and-driftwood shoreline at Westport-Union Landing State Beach.

This is no fancy retreat. If the collection of mud boots for guests doesn't convince you of that, a swinging trip across the little suspension bridge over the creek will. And check out the moose head, piano, carousel pony and 12-foot lumber saw in the entry room.

As for those fussy travelers who might not like seeing the occasional pile of scrap wood? "If they don't like the idea that this is a work in progress," Sunny says, "they should go someplace else."

I don't want to go anyplace else. But I have miles to cover.

Mile 911, Leggett: Drive-through tree, $5. A no-brainer.

Mile 1,102, Klamath: Miles to go. But sorely tempted by the Trees of Mystery and 50-foot Paul Bunyan out front.

Mile 1,107, north of Requa: Three elk meandering along the roadside, and I don't even take time to stop.

Mile 1,123, Crescent City: The Battery Point Lighthouse ought to be the end of California. It clings heroically to its own little island, a survivor of the great tsunami of 1964, a perfect sibling and bookend to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, all those miles to the south in San Diego. Both were built in the 1850s.

If I had more time, I could get out to that island. If only I'd given this thing 10 nights, or 14. Then I could have added a Crystal Cove stop in Orange County, a Sausalito stop, a day to roam Big Lagoon and Redwood National Park up here.

And look, the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway! Doesn't the public need to know what can be found on the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway?


At 1:10 p.m. on Jan. 10, on a straight stretch of highway in Del Norte County -- about one mile shy of the Oregon border -- California Highway Patrolman P. Davis observed a white, rented Toyota Corolla doing about 65 mph in a 55 zone. The patrolman flashed his roof lights, pulled the offender over and wrote a ticket.

"You were glad to be done with that winding coast road," Davis said knowingly. "And it's a beautiful day."

The driver was apologetic, but also quietly euphoric, like a diner who'd just risen from a 10-course banquet, leaving only scattered crumbs. Really, it's a wonder no sobriety test was ordered.