Cruising along America's edge

Travelers willing to brave the often-white-knuckle drive along the rocky precipices of Northern California's Highway 1 earn a remarkable reward.

Published October 22, 2006

Normally, the road is shrouded with fog in the morning. Not wispy haze moving on little cat feet as poet Carl Sandburg described, but woolly sheep fog, so deep that the light of day can't slip through.

But on this July morning, just before a killer heat wave will grip Northern California, the road that impossibly zigzags along the coast is lit bright at sunup. From a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean, some miles north of San Francisco, we gaze seaward with nothing to block our line of sight all the way to Japan. We are at the edge of the Earth, or at least the edge of America. One more step west, young man, and you had better know how to swim.

We are driving Highway 1, north from the Golden Gate Bridge, past pricey real estate and throwback hippie havens, beyond surfer-dude beaches, scenic lighthouses and promising B&Bs, and through grasslands where the world's luckiest cows get a taste of saltwater with their cud. For five days we negotiate perilous corkscrew turns and chug up bumpy hills. Tough passes level off to reveal panoramas so overwhelming that we are emboldened to think about relocation and a new way of life. Yes, we could

live here, in a house with western exposure. If we win the lottery.

Gorgeous scenery makes you think like that. If not for Highway 1 the wilderness would be off limits to all but the most adventurous travelers. But the road pulls back the curtain so everyone can get a peek. The natural tableau, from tender baby blooms to punishing waves, encourages thoughts about your place in the world. From out of nowhere, you vow to live more authentically. If water can cut such dramatic headlands, surely you can make a dent in your own troubles.

At the least, go with the flow.

In Marin County, we drive parallel to the San Andreas fault, mindful that a good shaker could buckle the road and cause biblical rock slides. We pass the spot where the fault exits the continent, making a beeline into the Pacific.

We are on one side of the earthquake fault and on the other is the Point Reyes National Seashore, a wondrous 71,000-acre expanse of headlands dotted with wildflowers, rugged bluffs and historic cattle ranches. The Point Reyes Peninsula rests on the Pacific tectonic plate, completely separate from the rest of the North America. Scientists say it is inching farther away from the mainland every year. Maybe the Big One will cause part of California to drop into the sea.

When Highway 1 finally slopes away from the coast, we head toward nature's skyscrapers, the redwoods. It is best to stay on the road here and not go poking around where you don't belong. The state's infamous marijuana plantations don't welcome visitors.

Like the landscape, the vibe changes as the road moves inland. Behind us is funky chic, up ahead are plaid wool shirts and dungarees, still the uniform of the lumberjack. (The occasional Hawaiian shirt seems out of place.) The Redwood nation has a California address but a Pacific Northwest feel. We no longer look down at craggy cliffs slicing into the sea, but rather peer skyward at prehistoric trees reaching 300 feet into blue. Highway 1 ceases to exist, becoming the more serviceable U.S. 101 and blazing a trail nearly to Canada.

After a time the road heads back to the ocean and the chilly towns of Eureka and Arcata, where Humboldt State University students live in the real Wilderness Lodge. No surprise that environmental studies and forestry are popular majors here.

Our journey ends in Crescent City, about 30 miles from Oregon. When the fisheries and mills were running full tilt, Crescent City hummed. Today it looks frayed but hopeful, like a boxer training to get back into the ring.

It has one thing going for it.

One of the world's most beautiful, and demanding, roads runs right through the center of town.

Nature and nerve

Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, stretches 700 miles from San Juan Capistrano in the south to Leggett in Mendocino County at the northern end. There, rental cars join lumber trucks roaring up 101, a twisting, still mostly two-lane highway. The trucks, and the road, have no mercy, so you had best be on your toes.

From San Francisco south, Highway 1 snakes through the glorious wilderness of Big Sur and around Monterey Bay. The road escorts you along the rolling central coast where William Randolph Hearst built his castle, then moves you past the vineyards of Sideways and toward the Mediterranean architecture of Santa Barbara.

It's a gorgeous ride that deposits you in traffic-choked Southern California.

We chose to drive the section of Highway 1 not exactly less traveled, just more varied and wild. And by wild, I mean the road.

Everyone should drive the Pacific Coast Highway once. For some people, once is enough. Fifty miles can take two hours, if you're lucky and don't get stuck behind a driver more nervous than you. The trip slows considerably if you come upon a Caltrans crew that has narrowed the road to one lane to deal with a rock slide.

Maximum posted speed limits read 55 but more likely you'll be doing 25, or less when you curl around hairpin turns. With steep gulches threatening on one side and unstable rock bluffs on the other, you won't be the first driver to pull over to dry sweating palms or soothe a passenger with a weak stomach.

This road is not meant to be driven in a rush. Never mind the clusters of ninja motorcycles, their riders hunched over and bedecked head to toe in colorful leather, coming at you like kamikaze gnats. As careless as they might seem to a couple plodding along in a minivan, the daredevil bikers have the right idea. They are feeling the road, driving for the sheer pleasure of the journey.

The closest we get to freedom is the wind coursing through wide-open windows. That's wild abandon for Floridians used to tightly sealed cars, ice-cold air blasting.

When planning your trip, you could be like me and remain determined to drive north so you've got the inside lane, hugging land. (The return trip is best by faster inland highway, usually the 101.) Drive south on Highway 1 and you teeter on the edge of the continent, the sheer drop to the water just inches from your spinning wheels. There are long stretches with no guardrails. So what if there were; even a gentle slide overboard would end badly.

Passengers might prefer taking the journey southbound. A southerly trip will afford them the best view because they can stare forever at the impressive coastline stretched out before them.

But I have the keys, so we do it my way.

Rooms with a view

The aching beauty of the Northern California coast is just one reason we risk death to drive the road. The other is the towns along the way, where we get a taste, usually organic or artisan, of the golden life.

We vow to stay each night in a place where we can see water, even if in San Francisco that means looking through a playhouse-size bathroom window standing on tippy-toes.

Hotel Del Sol, in the Marina District, puts us near the Golden Gate Bridge for less than $150 a night. A good start, we think, and things only get better.

A waterfront room at the rustic Jenner Inn gives us good vantage of the Russian River slipping into the Pacific. We stare at the deep blue sea for two days from our deck at the Agate Cove Inn in Mendocino. The Klamath River meanders in front of our window at the Historic Requa Inn, built in 1914 and a popular stop for hikers seeking rest and excellent meals after trekking through the Redwood National Park. (Be sure to save room for the wild blackberry bramble.)

The walls are thin at the Requa and the innkeepers warn not to talk about anything in your room that you don't want analyzed over breakfast. Only the local Yurok Indians are allowed to fish the river for salmon and we feel very connected when we eat their bounty for dinner.

Our overnight stops are plotted at fairly even intervals; I have driven Highway 1 several times and know at which point I will be ready to scream uncle.

To break up the drive, we stroll tie-dyed Bolinas, a hippie hamlet difficult to find because the locals tear down directional signs as fast as the state puts them up. If you want to know what the townsfolk are interested in, check out the bulletin board at the general store. My favorite headline from a yellowed newspaper clipping: "Researchers Surprised to Find No Link Between Marijuana and Lung Cancer."

In Bodega Bay we remember Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and feel a wee bit edgy when a flock of seagulls fly by. A lovely dinner at the River's End in Jenner is punctuated by an amber sunset, the best of the trip.

We watch members of the Northern California Kite Club send up their crazy animal-shaped fliers in front of the Point Arena Lighthouse. A woman from South Dakota tells us she loves to fly kites on the bluff because the wind barrels ashore uninhibited by mountains or buildings.

We listen to opera from a picnic table perch in Mendocino during the town's annual music festival and wish we'd brought warmer jackets. Artisan cheese and flavorful heirloom tomatoes are front and center at the Thursday farmer's market in blue collar Fort Bragg. We buy a bag of peaches and eat them in one afternoon.

A trio of enormous Roosevelt elk ambling through tall grasses entertains us in Humboldt County. In Richardson Grove State Park, the musty smell of moss and ferns was almost as overwhelming as the cathedral of redwoods above us. The air feels wet here, and cool in our lungs. And the silence, so heavy we think we can carry it home.

The road leads us to these places. It demands our attention, and we give in, curving when it curves, climbing when it climbs. We know who was in charge, and it isn't us.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.



Driving tips

- For safety's sake, heed speed limits. When the sign says 15 mph around a hairpin turn, do 10.

- Do not be afraid to use the many turnouts to let cars pass you on the two-lane road. Highway 1 may be new to you but some drivers are actually commuting to work.

- Splurge on a fun rental car. Get a convertible or at the very least something sporty, like a small SUV. We drove a minivan without much pickup. Uncool.

- Take turns driving so everyone can enjoy the scenery.

- Get gas when you can; don't let the gas tank go below half.

- Forget what you know about time and distance. On Highway 1, 50 miles can mean a two-hour drive, or more.

- Brake for bicycles and brace for motorcycles, both in abundance.

- Don't rush it. The experience and the road demand time.


If you go

Helpful guidebooks: Hidden San Francisco & Northern California by Ray Riegert Ulysses Press, updated 2006. Comprehensive guide includes traditional material (sites, lodging, food) plus tips for women traveling alone, as well as gay and lesbian travelers. Interesting information about geology plus flora and fauna.

Travel Smart Trip Planner: Northern California by Paul Otteson (John Muir Publications, 1997). Tips about lodging and food. Also helpful for people who want to hike, kayak or camp.

Places we stayed: There are many hotels, inns and B&Bs along the coast at a wide range of prices, though you won't find much under $100 a night. Make reservations before you go, or at least inquire about availability. Sections of Highway 1 are remote and you could get stuck without accommodations.

- Hotel Del Sol, 3100 Webster St., San Francisco; (415) 921-5520 or toll-free 1-877-433-5765; www.thehoteldelsol.com. A '50s-style motel updated in Key West colors. In the Marina District not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. Caters to kids; free parking. Continental breakfast included; about $150 a night.

- Jenner Inn & Cottages, 10400 Highway 1, Jenner, Calif.; (707) 865-2377 or toll-free 1-800-732-2377; www.jennerinn.com. The inn has 21 accommodations scattered around the village on the Russian River. No children in waterfront rooms. No TV or phone (or cell phone reception), breakfast included; about $140 to $300 a night.

- Agate Cove Inn, 11201 N Lansing St., Mendocino, Calif.; toll-free 1-800-527-3111; www.agatecoveinn.com. A cluster of 10 accommodations in several buildings on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Kids welcome. No TV or phone, great breakfast included; $140 to $300 a night.

- Historic Requa Inn, 451 Requa Road, Klamath, Calif.; toll-free 1-866-800-8777 or www.requainn.com. A hotel built in 1914 is now an 11-room inn on the Klamath River. Rooms are cozy, floors creaky and kids are discouraged. No TV or phone (or cell phone reception), breakfast included; dinner extra and worth it. $85 to $195 a night.

A special treat: Highway 1 is gorgeous from the ground, but from the air the ribbon of road looks like it's running through velvet. Get the bird's-eye view on an airplane tour out of Little River Airport near Mendocino. An hourlong ride is $180 for up to three passengers. Contact Coast Flyers at (707) 937-1224 or www.coastflyers.com. Winter and spring are best seasons for whale watching.