by Hank Leukart
May 21, 2009

4,200 miles on Pacific Coast Highway

Three PCH road trips lead to Redwoods, San Francisco, Hearst Castle, and new lives.

Pacific Coast Highway snakes through a Redwood forest in northern California.

Pacific Coast Highway snakes through a Redwood forest in northern California. (view all Redwoods & San Francisco, Ca. photos)

This is the last of three essays about three road trips I took on Pacific Coast Highway over the past seven years in 2002, 2006, and last week, in 2009. Start with the first essay to start at the beginning of the three trips.

V

ENICE, California — On a rainy day in 2002, my then-girlfriend and I left Gold Beach and continued our Pacific Coast Highway road trip by driving up the Oregon coast slowly, stopping to enjoy the ocean views and experience local flavor in each tiny coastal town. When we drove through Oregon’s long stretch of sand dunes, we stopped to photograph ourselves in front of the dunes. From dark Pacific Northwest clouds, rain poured down, soaking our hair, but it only invigorated us as we moved closer to Seattle, excited to live together for the first time.

Meanwhile, on an equally gray morning in 2006, after having sped through Redwood National Park at dusk the evening before, my brother Brian, his girlfriend Beatrice, my friend Brad, and I continued toward my new life in Los Angeles. Under a gloomy sky, we drove over a Golden Gate Bridge enveloped in mist and took obligatory portraits in front of the art deco masterpiece. Aiming to complete a whirlwind one-day tour of San Francisco, we played the part of frenzied tourists well. We navigated our car down Lombard Street (the most crooked street in the world), we ate crab at famous Castangola’s (one of the oldest restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf), we took a trolley ride through the city, we ate delicious Dim Sum at Cold Mountain in Chinatown, and we strolled through Union Square.

Frazzled from the big-city pace, we took a relaxed detour through the dramatic 17 Mile Drive at Pebble Beach. We watched sea lions, gazed at Cypress trees, and marveled at the peculiar description on an informational sign of rugged Joe Point, a rock formation off the coast: “Joe was a Chinese man who lived alone in a driftwood home near this point in the early 1900s… No one knows for sure if the Point was named after Joe or if he was named after the Point.”

Mulling over Joe’s mystery, we continued on to the winding highway through desolate Big Sur, the same stretch of road that started the journey to Seattle with my girlfriend four years before, this time at night, under a full moon. I couldn’t help but think of the optimism my girlfriend and I had shared as the four of us drove in the opposite direction. On the tops of Big Sur mountain crags, we stopped frequently to stare into the dark, watery void below us, with only a stripe of reflected moonlight visible in the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, on my recent 2009 PCH road trip to help my friend Erin move her life to Los Angeles, she and I enjoyed a surprisingly first-rate breakfast of blueberry pancakes and an omelet at patriotic Mattie’s Pancake House in Brookings, Oregon. We then proceeded leisurely to the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile scenic road through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which brings cars within inches of enormous Redwood trees along the highway. When my brother, friends, and I drove near here in 2006, we arrived at the Redwoods too late at night to experience the wacky tradition of driving a car through a hollowed-out tree. This time, however, Erin and I were right on schedule, albeit in the pouring rain. Excitedly, we paid a four dollar fee and inched our car forward, penetrating the narrow opening at the tree’s base. Heavy rain soaked us while we took photos of our dubious accomplishment, and we quickly pulled our car out of the hole. Admittedly, it was a mildly sexual experience — but probably not worth four dollars.

“Excitedly, we paid a four dollar fee and inched our car forward, penetrating the narrow opening at the tree’s base. Heavy rain soaked us while we took photos of our dubious accomplishment, and we quickly pulled our car out of the hole. Admittedly, it was a mildly sexual experience — but probably not worth four dollars.”

We spent the night in Palo Alto, where the Palo Alto Creamery served us the best blueberry pie of our trip, and we continued our California culinary tour the next morning with fried artichokes at the World Famous Giant Artichoke Family Restaurant in Castroville, California. Filled with artichokes, we began navigating the hairpin curves of Big Sur yet again, this time in the daylight. At viewpoints, I pretended to push Erin over the edge of the perilous cliffs one time more than she thought funny, but the embarrassing secret photos she took of me peeing off a steep cliff into the ocean made up for my antics. After a short hike to the Pfeiffer Falls waterfall just off the highway, we navigated the car over the ragged cliffs and followed the snaking road toward San Simeon.

Erin and I bought tickets for the Hearst Castle Experience Tour (recommended for first time visitors) in San Simeon, and we took a bus to the top of a mountain above William Randolph Hearst’s ranch, upon which his mansion sits. Our incompetent tour guide was a woman remarkably adept at sharing with us, in an unidentified (fake?) accent, only the most tedious possible anecdotes about the estate’s history. As she slipped in and out of her baffling character, it became clear to us that she couldn’t decide whether we were imaginary guests visiting Hearst during his era or simply tourists in 2009 hoping for insipid factoids. But even she couldn’t ruin the lush views of San Simeon, the spectacular swimming pools, and the remarkable lavish Castle architecture. Some well-timed iPhone Wikipedia research allowed us to give ourselves a tour within our tour. Our tour was more fascinating, consistent in tone, and lacking a Welsh-Bombay-French Canadian accent.

When Erin and I left Hearst Castle, we left PCH and drove on the 101 into Hollywood. As we passed through Hollywood tourist-ground zero in her purple Toyota — the intersection at Hollywood Blvd. and Highland Ave. — the reality of Erin’s move from Seattle began to feel real. She felt nervous about switching careers, especially in a challenging economy, but she pushed forward anyway. Having accomplished the same thing just three years earlier with my 2006 PCH trip, I wanted to reassure her, but I knew the challenges that awaited her well, and I too felt uneasy.

Meanwhile, Brian, Beatrice, Brad and I were nearing the end of our 2006 trip as we zipped from Big Sur to San Simeon to San Luis Obispo to see Bubble Gum Alley — it’s an alley with thousands of pieces of bubble gum covering the walls. After the thrill of so much chewed gum, we took a leisurely drive down the Malibu coast in our silver BMW and finally reached Venice Beach.

A circle of quirky Venice locals played bongo drums and performed rhythmic dances as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, smearing the sky with smoggy reds and oranges. My brother Brian and I stood together on the beach, wading in the ocean surf, gazing down the coast at the Santa Monica Ferris wheel and swanky seaside hotels. My old life in Seattle was 1,400 miles away. It would be three years before I visited the Pacific Northwest and my friends there again.

In 2002, my girlfriend and I continued driving north in her red Saab, until at last, Seattle’s Space Needle appeared on the horizon. Exhausted, we pulled into the garage of the apartment that now belonged to both of us, and as we began moving her luggage inside, our life transition via Pacific Coast Highway felt complete.

Unbeknownst to us, a Pacific Coast Highway trip that would take me away from my life in Seattle was just four years away. WB

Comments

  • May 28, 2009, 10:28 PM

    Mike Gerrard

    I really enjoyed reading this, as we also recently drove the Highway and it brought back so many memories. It's beautifully written and evocative, and really shows people something of the magic of the Highway's many experiences. Thank you. Mike Gerrard

  • March 4, 2010, 9:16 AM

    Alison Grimes

    Thank you so much for the essays on this highway. My husband and I are going to take this trip for our 25th wedding anniversary and this was by far the best reading/research I could do. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  • March 4, 2010, 12:23 PM

    Hank Leukart

    Mike: Glad you enjoyed it! Alison: That sounds like the perfect wedding anniversary trip. Have a great time! If you have extra time, you might try being extra adventurous and driving all the way to the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. I have never done it but it's supposed to be spectacular.

  • November 28, 2011, 7:32 PM

    Bruce Sances

    thanks Mike! I favorited this page so I could read it more before our upcoming trip from San Fran to LA (Santa Ana). Just what I needed - something showing highlights on where to go from someone that did the trip, although you went much further than I will. cheers.

San Francisco’s art deco Golden Gate Bridge appears through fog under overcast skies in 2006.

San Francisco’s art deco Golden Gate Bridge appears through fog under overcast skies in 2006.

San Francisco’s Lombard Street is the most crooked in the world.

San Francisco’s Lombard Street is the most crooked in the world.

Big Sur is home to California’s most beautiful coastline.

Big Sur is home to California’s most beautiful coastline.

San Simeon Pier reaches into the Pacific Ocean from William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach in California.

San Simeon Pier reaches into the Pacific Ocean from William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach in California.

A sculpture of an artichoke sits outside the World Famous Giant Artichoke Family Restaurant in Castroville, California.

A sculpture of an artichoke sits outside the World Famous Giant Artichoke Family Restaurant in Castroville, California.

Hearst Castle’s famous swimming pools enhance the opulent estate.

Hearst Castle’s famous swimming pools enhance the opulent estate.

A tourist looks at the Pacific Ocean as the sun sets under a smoggy sky in Venice, California.

A tourist looks at the Pacific Ocean as the sun sets under a smoggy sky in Venice, California.

How to Take a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

  • One of the most picturesque cities in the United States, Seattle is best seen from a kayak on Lake Union or Lake Washington and from the top of the Space Needle. Nearby Mount Rainier National Park offers beautiful hiking below the massive peak of Rainier.
  • Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park have stunning beach hiking, temperate rain forests, and glacier-capped mountains. If you have time, do the three-day backpacking trip from Ozette to Rialto Beach.
  • While passing through Portland, Oregon, visit famous Powell’s Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world. You can also visit the beautiful and fragrant Portland Rose Garden and the Pittock Mansion, situated 1,000 feet above the city’s skyline.
  • Crater Lake, though not on Pacific Coast Highway, is the deepest lake in the US and one of the bluest lakes in the world. Stay overnight in Prospect, Oregon and grab breakfast at the Prospect Cafe and Trophy Room.
  • In the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area in southern Oregon, you can stop and gaze at the dunes, go hiking, or even rent a dune buggy from Spinreel.
  • Quaint beach towns Reedsport, Coos Bay, Bandon, Gold Beach, and Brookings dot the southern Oregon coast. Be sure to stop in a couple to enjoy beaches and local cuisine, such as the excellent seafood at Wild Rose Bistro in Bandon and the tasty pancakes at Mattie’s Pancake House in Brookings.
  • In northern California, Redwood National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park provide lots of opportunity for hiking trips and seeing gorgeous, old-growth Redwood trees. If you only plan on driving through, it’s worth a detour on the remarkable Avenue of the Giants to see the trees from the comfort of your car. It’s here that you can drive through the base of a Redwood tree.
  • Between these two parks in California’s Humboldt Country sits charming Eureka, a city that played a role in the California Gold Rush and lumber industry. It’s worth a stop at Carson Mansion in Eureka, a quintessential example of Queen Anne Style Architecture.
  • San Francisco is a city too large to appreciate during a short road trip, but if you have some time, go see the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and Union Square. The Dim Sum at Cold Mountain in Chinatown is notably authentic and tasty. Charming Palo Alto, home of Stanford, is also a fun stop. If you visit, don’t miss the pie at the Palo Alto Creamery.
  • Visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to check out the oldest seaside amusement park on the West Coast and tons of hippie college students. There’s always a long line at Tacos Moreno, but the tacos are tasty and bona fide Mexican.
  • See classic costal scenery with cypress trees in Monterey and on the 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Peach.
  • Big Sur is home to California’s most beautiful coastline. If you can handle the hairpin turns, the drive on Highway 1 through this area is a must. There is ample opportunity for excellent beach and forest hiking in Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Take a three-hour tour of the Point Sur Light Station for the engrossing view. If you want to stay overnight, the Big Sur Lodge has reasonably priced, isolated rooms with hiking, whale watching, and bird watching opportunities.
  • San Simeon marks the south end of Big Sur, and it has plenty of viewpoints worth checking out. The San Simeon Pier on William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach is worth a photo. The Experience Tour at Hearst Castle will let you see the beautiful estate, though some tour guides are better than others.
  • Take the beautiful drive on PCH through Malibu, and visit a beach there, such as Zuma Beach near Pepperdine University, which is a great place to sit and read or take a swim. The tuna melt at The Beachcomber on Malibu Pier is one of the best in Los Angeles and the restaurant is romantic to boot.