California dream drive

California’s Pacific Coast Highway, aka Highway 1, shows up often on lists of the most scenic drives in the US, even the world, but it’s not the most practical way to get from Southern California to the Bay Area. Planes fly from San Diego to San Francisco in just 90 minutes. Google Maps says the drive up Interstate 5 can be covered (at least theoretically) in 7 to 9 hours. Going up the coast road adds a minimum of 4-5 hours to the journey, but you trade the hot, flat, dusty Central Valley panoramas for sublime seascapes.

I’ve lived in California for more than 45 years but had only traveled Highway 1 once. In the summer of 1995, Steve and I incorporated the famous drive into a family road trip to San Francisco, where we had arranged a house trade. To be honest, my memories of the glorious views out the front windshield commingle with those of the awful traffic that bogged us down in some stretches and the complaints from our sons, then just 11 and 6. So when we decided to drive up to Palo Alto for a high-school reunion to be held in the fall of 2017, I agreed it was time we took the high, slow road again.

Then came the heavy rains in early 2017. They weakened the cliffs, and a huge landslide on May 20 (2017) wiped out a bridge and closed several sections of the road. Throughout the summer, we assumed we’d be able to find local back roads that would enable us to slip around the blocked parts. But when October rolled around, we had to face the grim reality that the impassable sections still were well and truly impassable. Sadly, we headed north instead on Highway 101, a pretty road. But no Highway 1.

This year another reason to visit the Bay Area materialized.And to our delight, we heard at the end of July that — after 18 months — Highway 1 was once again open to travelers. On August 15, we drove from San Diego to San Simeon, spending the night in a little hotel set a few blocks from the ocean.

We took our current service-dog trainee with us, another reason it made sense to drive.

North of Morro Bay (about a half hour south of San Simeon), the landscape changes dramatically. Most of the development disappears, and the scenery gets more rugged and arresting. But the road north from San Simeon is even more wondrous. Here are a few of the highlights we encountered.

About 4 miles past Hearst Castle, we stopped to see the colony of Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. They’re so much more huge than our local seals and sea lions; they astonished and delighted us.

Continuing north, some of the road looked pristine, but some sections, though passable, were clearly works in progress.

In Big Sur, we noted the presence of the legendary Esalen Institute…

…then we stopped for a brief hike to McWay Falls, one of the few waterfalls on earth that flows directly into the ocean.

We wound up with lunch at Nepenthe, where Steve remembered his folks taking him as a kid.

The day was misty, and we missed seeing some of the archetypal views. I wouldn’t mind going back sooner than in another few dozen years.

4 thoughts on “California dream drive

  1. Lee September 10, 2018 / 10:30 pm

    Nice little road trip! How close did the elephant seals let you get before they became excited at your proximity, if indeed, they became excited at all?

    • jdewyze September 10, 2018 / 10:33 pm

      Some folks got really close to them but that looked a little scary — even if we hadn’t had a frisky young Labrador retriever with us!

  2. Michael September 20, 2018 / 3:08 pm

    Hey J

    Nice piece. I stayed at Esslen one short week (5 nights) when I was a kid. There was some event there, the details of which I have long forgotten,but not the road trip getting there. It is probably the most scenic coastal drive in the US, and at least one of the best anywhere.

    Esslen I recall as drafty old clapboard buildings hanging not very securely to the rocks and cliffs. The food was like summer camp and the people running it nice but flakey.

    Going home I recall a fog that was such that we didn’t know we were on that famous arch bridge until we were halfway across it.

    Personally one of my favorite part of California is the twisted coastal range north of St L Obisbpo to the Central Valley. But the optimal way to see that is a light plane.



    • jdewyze September 20, 2018 / 5:20 pm

      I came away enflamed with the desire to take a course there someday. It’s now on my To Do list!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s