Pacific Coast Highway: California: USA
Pacific Coast Highway: From the roller-coaster hills of San Francisco to the dazzling seascapes of the North Coast, this California highway is paved with scenic riches. Majestic cliffs rising over an endless, churning sea; workaday fishing towns set in tidy coves; ancient forests nourished by moist ocean air; and ridged hills that parade toward the shimmering blue waters of the Pacific — these are but a few of the sights to be savored along California’s North Coast. No wonder residents, who are never far from nature’s bounties, consider this coastal strip one of the state’s most prized possessions and regard its main thoroughfare — Rte. 1, known simply as the One — as a highway to heaven.
It would be hard to imagine San Francisco Bay without this heroic, ruddy marvel. North across the bridge, the Marin Headlands — part of the vast Golden Gate National Recreation Area — offer exhilarating city and ocean views. From here, north of the Golden Gate, the city is framed by the bridge’s twin towers. Beyond, urban bustle gives way to natural splendor: the rounded hills, gray-sand beaches, and soaring seaside cliffs that characterize the North Coast. (Traffic lights will be few and far between for the next 150 miles, but the road’s many curves do a splendid job of governing the traffic flow.) A few miles north of San Francisco, take the Panoramic Highway west toward Muir Woods National Monument.
Muir Woods National Monument
They are nature’s tallest trees, a living link to the age of dinosaurs. They are the redwoods of coastal California, and while specimens here are dwarfed by their siblings to the north, the redwoods of Muir’s Cathedral Grove — the last such remaining stand in the Bay Area — are awesome by any measure, soaring 250 feet above the ferny forest floor. The oldest among them, at 1,000 years, was a mere sapling when Vikings first set foot in the New World. Six miles of trails guide visitors along the banks of Redwood Creek and into the heart of the grove, which the naturalist John Muir, exaggerating only slightly, called “the best tree-lover’s monument in all the forests of the world.”
Point Reyes National Seashore
Back on the Panoramic Highway, follow the steep, tortuous road through Mt. Tamalpais State Park. At Stinson Beach the road regains the shoreline and there parallels the notorious San Andreas Fault, following it north up Olema Valley and Tomales Bay. Extending some 650 miles from the Mexican border to Cape Mendocino, the fault marks the junction of the Pacific and North American crustal plates. As these huge landmasses grind past each other at a speed of two inches per year, pressure builds up and is then suddenly released when the plates jump. A well-marked trail offers a first-hand glimpse of some of the damage caused by one such memorable jolt, the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Just north of Olema, a turnoff leads to 70,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore. Eons ago, this orphaned hunk of southern California granite was dragged about 350 miles northward by the San Andreas Fault. Wildlife far outnumbers people here. Bobcats, elk, mountain lions, and several exotic, introduced species of deer roam freely within the park’s borders, while offshore a lucky visitor may spot a gray whale, an orca, or the fin of a great white shark.
Tomales Bay State Park
Tomales Bay, a 13-mile-long inlet that separates Point Reyes from the mainland, is tranquil, protected, and uneventful — everything the Pacific is not. Along these restful shores, the ocean’s rages are quickly forgotten and every sense is tickled by a different delight: the scent of pine, the whir of waterfowl, the succulence of a fresh oyster, the warmth of the waters along Hearts Desire Beach, and the beauty of the bay itself, backed by the hills of the Bolinas Ridge.
Movie buffs may be struck by a sense of déjàvu when they enter the village of Bodega Bay, for it was here that Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds. Today the town is more notable for its splendid seafood and harborside views. Spend an afternoon strolling along its anchorage or hiking the trail from Spuds Point Marina around Bodega Head, a rocky promontory that protects the tranquil waters of the bay. Bodega Head also marks the beginning of Sonoma Coast State Beach, a chain of parks that parallels the drive for the next 14 miles. No seaside pleasure is absent here. Climb the dunes or look for underwater treasures in the tidepools of Salmon Creek. Picnic beneath the cliffs of Schoolhouse Beach. Marvel at the pounding force of the Pacific along the rocks of Duncans Landing. Or stand at Goat Rock, near the point where the wide Russian River empties into the sea.
Van Damme State Park
Proving that trees don’t necessarily have to be tall to have presence, this park’s pygmy forest — mature pines and cypresses stunted by the combined effects of highly acidic soil, poor drainage, and wicked, salt-laden winds — barely reach the knee in some locations. Still, not everything here is pint-size. A network of trails and old logging roads along the Little River leads into the heart of a mature, second-growth forest, featuring Douglas firs, Pacific hemlocks, and redwoods. Fern Canyon is especially lush, upholstered with a generous growth of ferns, assorted wildflowers, and a waterfall.
Gracious, picturesque, and charming in every way, this hamlet of 1,100 residents seems to have been imported from the coast of Maine. Saltbox houses, Victorian gingerbread mansions, and weathered picket fences grace its tidy streets. The East Coast ambience is no accident: the town’s settlers, lured west by the logging boom, were homesick New Englanders. Hollywood has used this Cape Cod look-alike as a stand-in for numerous movie and television locales. Fans of the television show Murder She Wrote, set in fictional Cabot Cove, Maine, are sure to recognize Jessica Fletcher’s cottage when they pass by the Elisha Blair House, built in 1888.
Russian Gulch State Park
The next headland to the north marks the starting point for this small but diverse natural reserve, among the coast’s most picturesque and remarkable. The park’s main attraction is Devil’s Punch Bowl, a 200-foot-long sea-cut tunnel that has collapsed at its inland end, forming a blowhole that becomes active during winter storms. The route crosses an arched bridge over Russian Gulch.
Jug Handle State Reserve
At this unusual oceanside park, it is possible to climb the stairs of history, one eon at a time. Thanks to coastal erosion and shifting landmasses, five discrete terraces stairstep from the sea, each about 100 feet higher and 100,000 years older than the one below it. With each step the ecology matures, ascending from tidal pools at the first level to pygmy forest at the top. A well-marked tour explains the flora and fauna at each level, as well as the mighty forces that built this living time machine.
Flower fans will rejoice at the dazzling displays at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, two miles south of Fort Bragg. Not a single square inch of this 47-acre preserve is wasted, and each season brings a new riot of color, from blooming dahlias, foxgloves, and roses to blazing Japanese maples. There’s nothing flashy about Fort Bragg (even the town’s best eatery is named, simply, The Restaurant). But the village is not without its attractions, including a trip through the region’s history at the Guest House Museum and a ride on the Skunk Train, an old-time logging railway that chugs through redwood forest to the town of Willits, 40 miles inland.
MacKerricher State Park
After hours of driving ever so slowly on this long, serpentine road, what could be more thrilling than to gallop freely along a wide crescent of sandy beach? For equestrians MacKerricher State Park is a rider’s paradise, but you need not be on horseback to enjoy the beauty of this 2,200-acre preserve, the largest of Mendocino County’s coastal parks and home to more than 90 species of birds. Along 10 miles of ocean frontage, cliffs, beach, and headland vie for control of the shore but never hold it for long. From the playful seals that bask on the rocks below Laguna Point to upland fields of tall grass, poppy, and huckleberry, all the gifts of the Pacific Coast are gathered here in one splendid package. Make the most of your visit: pack a picnic basket and spread a cloth on the grass overlooking the coves and bridges.