While I've mostly lived in the eastern and central parts of North America, I have spent a lot of time visiting California. My wife did her PhD at UC Santa Cruz during the 2000s, and my parents live in Eureka California, in the far north Humboldt County.
The main north-south routes in western California are Highway 101, a multi-lane artery that runs through the wine country of Sonoma Valley, and Highway 1, which winds along the coast. Highway 101 is lovely, but Highway 1 is one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
This post is a collection of my many drives along Highway 1 over the years when I've had a decent enough camera to record the scenery.
(If you just want to see the pictures, here's the entire Flickr set - and there's a slideshow at the bottom of this post.)
When I was visiting Santa Cruz, I spent a lot of time on the stretch of Highway 1 south from San Francisco to Monterey Bay, and that 90 minute drive from Pacifica or Half Moon Bay (or vice versa) is a compressed experience of the sublime gorgeousness of the entire coast.
In Toronto, my drive to the airport took me through the wall of condos along the QEW and then up through the old industrial concrete of the 427. After six hours in the air, I would leave Silicon Valley and find myself among the endless empty cliffs and boundless ocean.
The first time I took this road to Santa Cruz, I had Arvo Part playing on the car stereo - the sublimity of the scenery still reminds me of that powerfully spiritual music.
People often make fun of Californians for their flaky New Age spirituality, but I think the environment there inspires spirituality, and one latches on to whatever is available, whether you're a Spanish Catholic Missionary or a bearded Vedic Deadhead.
The road from San Francisco hits the coast at Pacifica, and just south of there is a precarious road with a stunning view of rocky islands and WWII-vintage coastal fortifications - often looming evocatively out of the mist.
They've recently built a by-pass tunnel, so some of this scenery will only be available to hikers or boaters in future.
North of San Francisco, Highway 1 first passes by epic coastal cliffs that either have spectacular views (where you can sometimes still see San Francisco in the distant mist), or really remind you of Myst.
Then it passes through gorgeous farmland and hill country...
... with rolling hills and volcanic outcrops reminiscent of Middle Earth (or at least New Zealand).
A few years ago, after a delayed flight ruined all of my other travel plans and got me into California late in the evening, the guy at the Hertz desk told me they had a special where I could upgrade to a fancier car for a small extra fee. After the day I had had, I figured why not and went for it - and then I had an entire waking-up-early-due-to-jet-lag-enhanced day devoted to driving up the coast highway in a Mercedes-Benz C300. That was a lovely drive indeed.
Yes, I felt like I was in a car commercial. in fact, if you drive Highway 1 frequently enough, you can recognize which car commercials have been shot there - and there are many!
After all the years I've done the coast highway, I've found my personal highlights. Conveniently, they're both pretty close to each other, near Point Arena.
Just north of town is the Point Arena Lighthouse. I'm sure it's an interesting historical artifact - but I've never been inside, because the real spectacle is the coastal scenery just south of it. Striated rocks stretch towards the lighthouse, scattered about with tidal pools. Seals often lounge about on the rocks at low tide. I first saw it last year on a cloudy day::
... but came back this year on a sunny day:
If I ever get into SLR cameras and high end lenses, I'll definitely try them out here.
To the south is the old heart of Point Arena, the pier. After earthquakes and such, the town has moved a bit north and a bit inland, but the pier is still there, with a cafe and restaurant nearby. Last year I caught the sunset there:
There's also a lovely hotel just up the hill, called the Wharf-Master's Inn. If you visit in the off-season like I do, you can get a lovely room with a jacuzzi and an ocean view balcony for a quite reasonable rate.
Not everybody knows that the Russians once settled along this coast. Fort Ross has been rebuilt and gives a vivid sense of what life was life back then, as well as some spectacular coastal views.
Part of what makes California's coast so gorgeous is that it's constantly (in a geological timeframe) sliding off into the ocean. The hillsides dissolve, leaving the denser rocks behind to be battered by the sea. This makes for an especially striking coastline, with cliffs and outcrops all along.
This stretch of California is also distinct culturally: the town are quite out-of-the-way, but they're also very California, and touched by the innate spirituality of the landscape, so they're a mix of podunk backwoods and new-age hippiedom. Every hamlet has an artist studio, a Vedic meditation centre, and a gourmet espresso drive-thru shack.
So the next time you're out in California, don't just race down Highway 101 (or worse yet Highway 5). Take some time to wind your way along Highway 1 - it's worth it.