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America's West Coast - From San Francisco to Seattle

Updated on August 8, 2009
View of a small part of America's West Coast. Photo - Nemingha.
View of a small part of America's West Coast. Photo - Nemingha.

The splayed cable and steel struts of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge stretched for almost 2 kilometers across the bay while fog swirled around the base of its pillars, each the height of a 65-storey building. It could have been the entrance to a magical kingdom. The jagged coastline ahead promised to match the rugged individualism of its inhabitants.

Leaving the bridge and city skyscrapers fading to the south, we followed Highway 1 and later its big brother Highway 101 on a 1500 kilometer journey along the continent's west coast from San Francisco to Seattle. We had been told that this was the region of big scenery: snow-covered peaks and craggy coastline, rain-forests and rapid rivers. It was rumoured that a pioneering spirit - born of generations of explorers and settlers, cowboys and Indians, entrepreneurs and mavericks - was still alive. We ventured forth, trying to avoid the celluloid stereotypes of middle America.

Houses on a hillside in San Francisco. Photo - Nemingha.
Houses on a hillside in San Francisco. Photo - Nemingha.

An hour from the bridge we arrived at Point Reyes National Seashore - an ideal wilderness getaway for San Franciscans. Some parts appeared as untouched as Sir Francis Drake would have found them when he landed and built a fort there in 1579. Today, sand dunes drift over kilometers of beach, moors lie in solitude and pine forests contrast with salt marshes. At one of the coast's windiest and foggiest points, a lighthouse dating from 1870 provides a warning for contemporary mariners, but we could not find it. On the back roads at dusk, we lost our way when a dense cloud descended on the peninsula.

After spending the next day hiking, swimming and exploring the park, we drove north into Sonoma County, an area the Russians claimed in 1812. They built a fort, opened shipping routes and nearly decimated the sea otter population before losing interest. We did not hear any Russian accents, but that page in history can be enjoyed at a reconstructed fort and museum near Fort Ross.

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Thick, forbidding clouds set the scene as we approached our next stop, Bodega Bay. Here, fishing boats bobbed at anchor while pelicans, egrets and blue herons drifted in the mist. Alfred Hitchcock chose this location for his thriller The Birds and the nightmares of a whole generation were spawned. Today's birds are a fairly passive lot and spend their time waiting for the catch of the day, which often comes compliments of the local commercial fishermen.

The coast is extremely rugged, with abrupt cliffs, hidden sandy beaches, small coves and craggy headlands pounded by a wild surf that is renowned for its rips and undercurrents. Nature's grandeur is complemented by a large number of remarkable homes constructed by former city dwellers from the south, refugees from the rat race. Around each bend appeared a monument to architectural ingenuity - cathedrals of timber and glass, domes and curves, logs and shingles. Originality got an A-plus here, from ranch-style homes to gravity-defying cliff-side experiments.

Along this route Sonoma County blends into Mendocino County, with its Cape Cod cottages and Victorian homes. From a lively timber port in the 1800s, Mendocino has grown into a thriving artists' colony. Alternative types from the flower-power era have honed their business skills to develop an unparalleled marketplace for pottery, jewellery, antiques, batiks, books and paintings. This New England-style town is now a tourist mecca, yet still maintains an authentic feel - upmarket chic in a village setting.

The West Coast has taken to heart the idea of the country inn and prides itself on luxurious yet personal bed and breakfasts. We found gingerbread houses furnished with antique and period pieces, shingle and clapboard cottages overlooking the sea, and there were even "dude ranches" complete with tennis courts and golf courses. Here is the best opportunity to experience a rich and historical American culture in elegant surroundings.

Base of giant redwood, Oregon. Photo coutesy Flickr.
Base of giant redwood, Oregon. Photo coutesy Flickr.

An hour north of Mendocino was the Lost Coast. Its challenge "to go where no road has dared to go before" was obviously too much for common civil engineering. The rugged terrain signalled the beginning of redwood country and the road turned inland to join Highway 101 for the rest of the journey. Here we introduced ourselves to Sequoia sempervirens, the coastal redwood that inhabits the Pacific region from San Francisco north into Oregon. The redwoods live for 300 to 800 years, with a few more than 2000 years old. They grow to incredible heights, many more than 100 meters and with diameters of some 6 meters. Entering this forest is akin to visiting a towering cathedral and we felt almost reverent strolling among these mighty giants.

The most convenient way to experience the redwoods is via the Avenue of the Giants, 60 kilometers of road that runs parallel to Highway 101. It is a two-lane affair winding through dense groves punctuated by narrow shafts of sunlight that filter through the canopy above. It begs to be experienced in a convertible with the top down. But there are also many short walks easily accessible from the road, ideal for communing with a millennium of nature.

Just south of this forest we found the perfect location for our base, the Tudor-style Benbow Inn. It is one of northern California's grandest lodges and overlooks a lake, manicured lawns and flowering gardens. Elegant is the word to describe its regal fireplace, carved-wood panelling and period furniture. The Inn indulges your every sense, a welcome find in such a Wild West setting.

Before the lumberjacks arrived, gold-mining propelled the local economy and many of the settlers congregated in a nearby port town called Eureka, a word meaning "I found it". When the successful ones did find it, they displayed their wealth by building ostentatious mansions. The renowned Carson's Mansion, one of the best, is sometimes considered the most photographed structure in northern California. We understood why when we saw its lavish Victorian decoration.

Bandon, Oregon. Photo - Nemingha.
Bandon, Oregon. Photo - Nemingha.
Boats along the marinas in Lake Shasta. Photo - Nemingha.
Boats along the marinas in Lake Shasta. Photo - Nemingha.

Crossing into Oregon is like entering an untamed land. Towns become less frequent, houses more rustic and, with a few dramatic exceptions, the occupations of the residents more earthy. Log trucks rumbled by in one direction, fishermen in 4-wheel drives the other. Developers do battle with land that rapidly reverts to rain-forest in this cool damp climate. This is also a region where the locals are wary of outside money and investment. They want to preserve the land and develop it in their own way. A few decades ago, Oregonians, fearful that urban bad habits from the state to the south would would disturb their Utopia, rallied around the cry "Don't Californicate Oregon". At the time of our visit, they were busily promoting the myth of its inhospitable climate: "The Newest Rain Festival: January 1st to December 31st." However, we were not convinced as we enjoyed three glorious weeks of sunshine with rarely a cloud in the sky.

Watching the sunset is a universal pastime and there is no better place than from a cliff overlooking the Pacific outside the town of Bandon, Oregon. Here, a dozen jagged rocks jut from the sea forming silhouettes that imitate castles in a burning background, the largest becoming the head of a sleeping giant floating just above the surf. This clifftop location has been exploited by a few hotel and motel chains in the past few decades, but still retains a wilderness feeling. In fact, every grain of sand on the Oregon coast has been declared a state treasure with private ownership and permanent structures forbidden.

In the middle of these wilds is an intellectual and artistic respite at Cannon Beach. As summer approaches, the community draws creative types from all over the northwest, offering writing, painting and music courses for amateurs and professionals alike. Gourmet restaurants open their doors and tourists explore this town built of cedar, pine and fir. We arrived in the early autumn but found the residents as fresh and open as if their hectic season had just begun. And as visitors from Australia, we were made to feel a little bit like celebrities.

Highway 101 continues through Washington state, through Indian reservations and national parks, clear-cut and old-growth forests. It eventually loops around until Canada is just a ferry ride away. We opted for the boat to Seattle, a place they call the Emerald City, which is surrounded by lakes and mountains where the haunting television series Twin Peaks was set. This community belies its laid-back atmosphere by supporting some of the world's most dynamic aeronautics and computer companies (Boeing and Microsoft), and the most raucous music (grunge).

Tarmac ribbons bind America and with Highways 1 and 101 we had completed one loop, perhaps the prettiest, certainly the most dramatic. The road had taken us off the tourist path to a part of America more relaxed and possibly more intriguing than any other region. It is an area where natural wonders complement mankind's ingenuity and where the presence of a resourceful and friendly people is natural. We decided we had to come back another time.

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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      What a beautiful trip. I love to armchair travel through hubs and this is one I'd love to take for real. Can Bodega Bay still look the same? I love the look of an old beach town, and always being in sight of water.

    • MindField profile image

      MindField 

      9 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      You've captured the West Coast from San Francisco north far batter than most of us who've lived in or near the area could ever hope to do. I'm an Oregonian by birth and temperament (though long a California dweller) and your oh-so-accurate description of my home state brought me to nostalgic tears.

      Often the best travelogues are written by those visiting for the first time from distant parts. That is certainly true here!

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