Palms to Redwoods: Driving the California Coast
Overview. There’s much mystique surrounding California and its long and rugged coast. Beautiful mountain vistas meet endless surf. The coast of California is much varied. The climate, for instance, is a balmy mix of Mediterranean-desert subtropical in San Diego to a much more temperate and moist at the Oregon border with many microclimates in between. The coast stretches from approximately 32 degrees, 32 minutes North latitude to 42 degrees parallel for about 650 miles. For the most part the California coast can be driven along State Highway 1 and U.S. 101.
San Diego to Los Angeles. The first section of the drive is the suitable for swimming, especially in the summer, because of its southern latitude. Water temperatures can warm up to the seventies at the height of summer, especially around San Diego. Starting just north of the border strands of mostly state managed recreational beaches begin in the city of Imperial Beach south of San Diego. Take Route 75, or Silver Strand Boulevard, north to the city of Coronado for an aptly named stretch of beach which is a mix of restricted government reservation and state beach. The road turns into the city of Coronado for a spectacular trip over the Coronado Bay Bridge not before passing the famous red-roofed Hotel del Coronado. Across the San Diego Bay, anchoring Point Loma, is Cabrillo National Monument which has an impressive collections of tide pools and an historical interpretation of Cabrillo’s 1542 landing with excellent views overlooking the city of San Diego. La Jolla is another scenic spot that shouldn’t be left out of any itinerary. Opaque waters around this sheltered cove make it a great place for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking among the kelp beds and harbor seals. The Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, part of the University of California San Diego, has a good cross-section of local sea life. North of San Diego the Torrey Pines State Reserve is a good place for hiking atop pine-covered bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Carlsbad has a number of state beaches that are good for swimming before reaching Camp Pendleton where there is limited access to the coast. Crossing into Orange County the scenery at once becomes noticeably more mountainous as the land rises abruptly from the Pacific. This makes for a more dramatic drive with scattered views. Mission San Juan Capistrano is worth a side trip although it is an abrupt turn away from the shore three miles inland off I-5. Stop at Laguna Beach’s Heisler Park for good views and nice beaches and Crystal Cove State Park. In Newport Beach ferries depart to Catalina Island but otherwise beaches can get crowded in this surfing mecca. Long Beach has the crowds as well but a booming and well-developed waterfront with access to the Queen Mary on permanent display in the harbor. Continue to the rugged Palos Verdes peninsula just south of Los Angeles. Besides the beautiful scenery there is the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and Ft. Mac Arthur Military Reservation, which is part active military reservation and part city park with great views overlooking the ocean. There is a youth hostel there built from an old military barracks and the Korean Bell of Friendship. Further up the coast is Venice Beach, a bohemian community that has an interesting off-beat boardwalk area good for people watching. Approaching Santa Monica marks the end of the wide Los Angeles County beaches and the mountains come down to the water’s edge at Malibu.
Malibu to Santa Barbara. The drive up State Route 1 through Malibu is scenic but a little overrated. Try turning right into one of the side canyons that goes into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area if you want to flavor some scenery famous for Hollywood backdrops. It was in these mountains that MASH scenes and the original Planet of the Apes were filmed, as well as many more productions. Back down at the beach try Carillo State Beach for some swimming and snorkeling. The landscape will level out again after Point Mugu as you approach Oxnard. Oxnard and Port Hueneme, home to the U.S. Navy Seabees, is a great place to take a charter boat to the Channel Islands National Park. The closest island is East Anacapa, about one hour away. The visitor center for the park is located farther north on Route 1 near Ventura. There are some wide beaches between Oxnard and Ventura that parallel the highway. After passing Ventura the Mission San Buenaventura is an interesting side trip and just along the roadside. Founded in 1782 this mission, also known as the “mission by the sea”, was the ninth to be founded among the twenty-one California missions. Its simple white exterior is of mixed Spanish colonial and Moorish design. Santa Barbara is only twenty miles up the road and one should allow at least a half day to explore this beautiful city known for its strict built-to-code red brick hacienda style architecture and its population of university students. If you are in a hurry the two things that should not be missed, besides the backdrop of mountains and water, are the Mission Santa Barbara and the El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. Known as “Queen of the California Missions” it was founded in 1786 as a mission church for the Chumash Indians and was tenth in order among the Spanish missions of Alta California. The Presidio, founded in 1782, is closer to downtown that the Mission, and has the second oldest surviving adobe building in the state called El Cuartel. The Presidio at Santa Barbara was also the last military garrison built in the New World by the Spanish.
Santa Barbara to Monterey. This stretch of coastal drive along Highway 1 is one of the most scenic in the United States. Known as the 'Central Coast' It is along this drive that you will pass California’s Big Sur Coast along with many other scenic highlights. Taking your time along this stretch will only add to your experience. After Route 1 leaves Santa Barbara the journey takes you long some stretches overlooking beautiful, if not unspoiled and un-crowded beaches, that look south out over the Channel Islands. Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach are especially beautiful and have a secluded feel despite being within eyesight of US 101/1. The other side of the road will be met with steep mountains. The scenery becomes more characteristic of central California with oak groves interspersed with vineyards and artichoke plantations. A nice detour is the trip to Nojoqui Fall, a beautiful cascade that drops 164 feet in the Santa Barbara County backcountry. To get there follow 101 just after Routes 101 and 1 split. About 6 miles south of Buelton take Alisal Road at the Nojoqui Summit. The falls are reached by a short .3 mile hike and are part of the Santa Barbara County Parks. Picnic tables and restrooms facilities are available. Highway 1 will split from U.S. 101 at Las Cruces and heads toward Lompoc. If you take US 1 North towards Lompoc there is a turn off for the secluded Jalama Beach at the end of a serene and bucolic 14 mile county road. Watch for California Black Tarantulas along the road. The beach is operated by the Santa Barbara County Parks and is $10 per vehicle (September 2013). The Las Cruces Hot Springs at the split of 101/1 are another worthy diversion and can be reached by a 1100 yard footpath. The springs average between 90-96 degrees Fahrenheit. The La Purisima Mission is worth a stop if you have time. Founded in 1787 it is the eleventh of the California missions. Its characteristic red adobe walls make it unique among the missions and is now a state historic park. Highway 1 heads towards the coast thereafter skirting around Vandenberg Air Force Base which owns the coastline at Point Arguello. If time permits drive to Surf Beach, a secluded public-access beach on Vandenberg Air Force Base with beautiful sand but a rough surf. Just west of the town of Guadalupe are the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve, part of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex which stretch 18 miles and cover 22,000 acres. This preserve is 592 acres and is a Santa Barbara County Park. It was here that Cecil B. DeMille filmed scenes from the 1923 classic The Ten Commandments. Also Pirates of the Caribbean 3 also used this location for some of its filming. To get there turn left on Main Street in Guadalupe. Pismo Beach is a scenic resort town with many hotels right on the coast. The Point San Luis lighthouse can be seen on the north shore across the bay and is a beautiful diversion. The next scenic highlight is the famous Morro Rock, a Gibraltar-like piece of volcanic outcrop, that juts up in isolation from the coastline more than 500 feet. The views from the promenade in the town of Morro Bay are the best but be sure to crop the awful Morro Bay power plant from the view (what were they thinking when they put this eyesoar up?). Although it's tempting to run up to the top of the 586 foot rock it's unfortunately not allowed because of the fragile ecological preserve. Morro Rock is at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, a coastal range that is home to the most southerly groves of coast redwoods, the tallest living things on earth. This tree makes its first naturally-occurring appearance, if headed north-bound, in the Silver Peak Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest. Other highlights on this stretch of road include, in addition to the Big Sur Coast (roughly south of the town of Lucia to north of Big Sur), is the Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument, the palatial estate of the newspaper mogul, now a state historic park, which overlooks the ocean. The Ventana Wilderness is also a good place to hike and the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is not to be missed if not for a quick view of the waterfall that spills over a cliff and onto a beach. The McWay Cove Waterfall, as it is known, drops 70 feet into the ocean is one of the gems along the coast. About ten miles south of Monterey is the iconic and much-photographed Bixby Creek Bridge. Stop along the side to take in the vistas south which look toward Point Sur, or the dizzying drop to the churning ocean below. Just before reaching Monterey, Point Lobos State Reserve is worth a dedicated visit ($10 per car, September 2013). Clear but cold water can be seen among jumbled rocks in this marine and shoreline sanctuary, a popular spot with divers and one of the few places where the Monterey Cypress grows in the wild. Monterey is another highlight and most interesting historically. It is one of four California cities that had a Spanish presidio along with San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, and its nearby Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carlo, founded in 1770, the second of the California missions, is the oldest extant mission building in the state. The Royal Presidio Chapel in Monterey dates from 1785 and still serves as the diocesan cathedral for Monterey. If time permits the Monterey Bay Aquarium built in a converted cannery highlights native marine flora and fauna and remains one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. Point Pinos Lighthouse is another worthy diversion on the Monterey Peninsula. Seventeen-Mile-Drive along the coast winds its way around the peninsula and is considered a beautiful drive unto itself despite the toll of $9.50.
Monterey to San Francisco. Follow Highway 1 around the wide Monterey Bay towards Santa Cruz. There area number of good state beaches along this section but you will compete with the resident surfer population. Santa Cruz is a regional counter-culture capital and home to the ultra liberal UCSC. You will share the city’s boardwalk with hippies, surfers, and university students. If the hippie scene is too much for you try the Santa Cruz Mission for spiritual respite. Still an active parish, the mission also has a section which is administered as a state historic site. Beyond Santa Cruz there is another sixty miles before reaching San Francisco. There are a number of state beaches, too many to mention, but if you get tired of the coast, travel a few miles inland to Big Basin Redwoods State Park off Route 236 for a sylvan reprieve of towering coastal redwoods only a few miles from the shore.
San Francisco to the Oregon state-line. San Francisco needs no special introduction. At the minimum it is a beautiful city that occupies the tip of the peninsula and it famously framed by the Golden Gate Bridge - one of America’s most iconic manmade landmarks. You have to be the best judge of how much time you want to spend here and what you want to see as there is much. Museums, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, Chinatown, Lombard Street, the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and Victorian houses are just a few places. Whatever you decide it won’t be disappointing, but plan accordingly. When you are ready to leave take the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and plan a stop at Muir Woods National Monument, a grove of coastal redwoods that tower over 270 feet. If you saw redwoods further south and choose to bypass this grove plan on taking some time at Point Reyes National Seashore about 40 miles north of San Francisco. It has both wide beaches and rocky sea cliffs and a famous lighthouse. In a nutshell it is a good place to hike and bike and take in more nature. Points north will be similar as the huge northern California forests begin to compete with agricultural fields from here on. Fort Ross State Historic Park along Highway 1 warrants a stop. It was the headquarters of the Russian fur trading empire in California. Founded in 1812 most of the buildings are reconstructions except the commander’s house, which is an original building. North of Fort Ross until the Oregon state line is unofficially “the redwood coast”. It is along this stretch that you will find countless groves, both federally and state managed, that contain the world’s tallest living trees. The best place to view and hike the redwoods is in Redwoods National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park. In addition there are few, if any, spots along the coast that are not worth a view. Rugged sea cliffs topped with fir trees abruptly meet pounding surf along the same stretch. Isolated beaches provide haven for sea lions and seals. If you seek the history and culture of civilization the most unique place is Eureka about 120 miles south of the Oregon line. Eureka is famous for its collection of elaborately decorated late nineteenth century Victorian homes many built by lumber barons. Brookings, Oregon is the first town across the state line and is known for its beautiful flowers. The Oregon coast is no less spectacular and is famous for its sea stacks, volcanic cliffs, and tidepools. Surprisingly as you come to the end of the California coast you will notice the contrast in flora. While tall evergreen trees that typify the Pacific Northwest are common, plants such as the palm can still be found here because of the relatively mild weather.
More by this Author
Hot Springs Mountain. A classic San Diego hike because the summit is the highest point in the county. Not without its red tape, Hot Springs Mountain (6,536' ), near Warner Springs, is located on the Los Coyotes Indian...
San Diego’s self-anointed nickname “America’s finest city” is maybe too cliché to underwrite what is in most respects a fine city. The weather in this city of 1.35 million is impeccable....
- EDITOR'S CHOICE59
A short list of eleven historic cities in the United States arranged by founding date and some honorable mentions as well.