Tag Archives: Big Sur

Pacific Coast Highway

PCHThe Pacific Coast Highway (PCH in short) is one of the world’s most scenic roads, if not the most scenic one. As the name suggest it hugs the Pacific Coast, often perched on top of the very steep ledges.

It runs from the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico all the way to the top of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, but the most scenic, and famous, part stretches between Morro Bay in the south and Carmel in the north (both in California).

My first encounter with this fabulous road was in 2004 when with a few of my mates we toured the west coast after spending summer working in California. It was great trip and we were absolutely gobsmacked by the PCH. Back then we drove all the stretch from Los Angeles to the Olympic Peninsula but our time was quite limited and we wanted to see a lot of places so we were really rushing along. The other big downside of that trip was the fact that I couldn’t yet drive myself. So, even back then, I made a strong commitment to head back that way and drive the road myself.Wild Californian Coast

Over the years of my travels to the USA I did manage to drive some sections of the PCH in Oregon (which are almost equally stunning) but it wasn’t until my latest trip that I got opportunity to drive the most scenic bit of it, along the central Californian coast.

MalibuHere the PCH is officially designated as California State Route 1. We joined it on a sunny Saturday afternoon, right next to the pier in Santa Monica, and headed north. Initially the road is far from perfect. It is a busy urban thoroughfare joining Santa Monica with Malibu and communities further along the coast. By the way, I don’t really get the whole fascination with Malibu. I found it a rather weird collection of oversized ramshackle bungalows of, mostly, no architectural quality whatsoever, squeezed between the beach and noisy highway chock full of traffic. Honestly I don’t get why you would live there if you were a millionaire and could afford a house almost anywhere. Well, I guess no one said that the rich and famous must be particularly clever.

After Malibu, in Oxnard, the California Route 1 joins the US Hwy 101 and for a while becomes a busy urban freeway connecting LA with Santa Barbara. Only further north it gets less busy and more scenic again. We wanted to spend a night somewhere in the vicinity of Santa Barbara but all the motels we checked were full so we had no choice but to push along. We finally managed to find a room in a small city of Buellton located 45 miles from Santa Barbara. And even there we only found a dated room in a seedy motel, one of those establishments where the majority of customers are weird locals living there long term. Well, I guess beggars can’t be choosers, so we took the room.

The next day we continued along the PCH. California State Route 1 diverges from the US Hwy 101 in San Luis Obispo and gets seriously scenic after Morro Bay. From now on, for about 120 miles, the road becomes a driver’s nirvana. I just can’t describe how much fun it is to drive it. Every curve and every bend opens a new panorama. Add spectacular bridges built in 1920s and 30s (for example the Bixby Bridge), add remote tiny communities (Cambia, Gorda), ocean breeze and mist, glorious sunset and you might, just might, get the image how fantastic this stretch of highway is. It was definitely worth revisiting this part of California.Bixby Bridge

For the whole day we drove, and drove, stopping often and taking plenty of photos. It is one of those places where it is hard to stop taking photos, especially for me as I’m mildly obsessed with taking pictures. Still, it is a challenging highway, with plenty of bends and even more excited and distracted tourists driving along it. I really recommend concentrating on the driving. Don’t drive and take pictures at the same time (as I tend to do from time to time).

As I already mentioned, the PCH is full of tourists driving it, many of them in rented pony cars like Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger or, like us, Chevrolet Camaro. These are perfect machines for this road and (more importantly for some I guess) they look damn good in photos. You can see many people taking selfies with their cars. Silly? Maybe, but come on, it is a damn fun. You must be a really sad or snobbish individual to blame them for that.Big Sur Coast

After watching spectacular sunset somewhere near Bixby Bridge we spend a night on the outskirts of Monterey. It was our last night in the US as we were flying back to London the following day. Luckily our flight was in the evening so we could continue along the Route 1 rather than take the fast way to the airport via freeways. Things got busy and populated for a while but after passing Santa Cruz the PCH becomes wild again. In fact it is not much less scenic here than along the Big Sur coast. You would never guess than the famous Silicon Valley, with all the technology giants’ headquarters, is just beyond the hills and that you can rich San Francisco in a bit over a half an hour. It simply feels miles away from civilization yet it is easier to reach than, let say, Morden in London. In places like that it is easy to understand people’s fascination with California.

I would gladly continue further north but London was calling, so we turned inland. On the way to the airport we briefly stopped on top of the 281m high Twin Peaks which offer an amazing panorama of whole San Francisco. That was a perfect farewell to the Golden State.

But, as one of its famous residents says, I’ll be back.

American Highways

For me one of the biggest attractions in the US are the roads themselves. I have to admit I love driving so my opinion might be a bit biased, but it’s difficult to deny that highways and car culture in general, are important parts of American culture. Many countries have great roads, be it smooth German autobahns without speed limits or the narrow, twisted mountain roads of Italy, but no other country is as connected to its roads and cars as the USA.

Before my first visit to America I already had an image of its freeways, highways, pickup trucks etc. They are shown in countless movies, TV dramas and even comic books, it is virtually impossible nowadays to grow up in any modern country without being familiar with those aspects of America and its pop-culture. I still remember my first visit to America, when after landing in Miami, we were driven to Orlando (where we were about to start work in Disney World). During one of the short stops at the service station most of the guys from our bus started taking pictures in front of those massive American eighteen wheelers. Such is power of an icon.

During my first road trip in the USA I was only a passenger because I still didn’t have a driving licence. Those were two iconic trips, one from coast to coast, another one along the Pacific coast. Being both a geographer and map enthusiast I was responsible for navigation and a lot of the planning, and I loved every moment of it (even long featureless drives of west Texas). Only long drive across the entire country will help you understand how big it really is. Still, being a navigator is not the same as driving yourself. After coming back from my second trip during which we drove, among others, the famous Pacific Highway, I knew I’d be back in the USA. This time armed with a driving licence. The desire to drive myself was probably important factor why I decided to visit America again.

Since then, during many visits, I have driven thousands of miles along the interstate, state and county highways as well as special scenic byways. And I absolutely love it, every single mile of road. It doesn’t matter if it’s busy 12 lane urban freeway in LA, or empty, straight highway in western Kansas, or a twisted mountain road in Utah. They are all attractive in their own way.

There are some roads especially worth recommending. One of them, the Pacific Hwy, is in my opinion one of the most scenic drives on earth. Most people know about the stretch from San Louis Obispo along the famous Big Sur up to Monterey. It is spectacular California Hwy 1 where every twist and turn opens an amazing vista. If you can choose only one road in America make sure you choose this one. Pacific Highway is much longer however, continuing north of San Francisco through sparsely populated North California and then along the Oregon and Washington State coast. It might be a bit less wild than at Big Sur, but only a bit. On the other hand there are nice charming villages and small towns well worth visiting. Add lighthouses, sand dunes, wild beaches, huge forests and you get the picture. It is one of the roads I could drive over and over, and over again. We shouldn’t also forget about one short, but well known, part of the Pacific Hwy, the Golden Gate Bridge, which is probably one of the most photographed structures on earth. My long lasting irrational obsession with the idea of crossing it was an important factor in planning our coast to coast trip.

Another fantastic coastal road is US Hwy 1 in Florida. Connecting countless tropical islands this road run, mainly on long bridges and causeways over a turquoise tropical sea. Only 120 miles long it takes you from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Miami to the paradise of Key West. It is a perfect drive for an open top car and offers some of the best sunsets in the world. Sadly, we didn’t drive convertible, just ordinary sedan, but there were three girls and me on-board 😉

On the other side of the eastern US there is in some ways a similar road. It’s US Hwy 2 from Vermont across the Lake Champlain to the New York State. Connecting small communities on the remote islands of North Hero and Grand Isle it has feel of a quiet end of the road as well as the end of the world. Drive it slowly, shop in some locally owned stores, try food in some no nonsense, down to earth, local restaurants and you will understand the appeal of this route.

Away from the sea or lakes there are many interesting desert highways, especially in the south western United States. One of them is Utah Hwy 12 which is almost like driving in a giant open geology schoolbook as this unique road passes through some really spectacular formations. Connecting Bryce Canyon NP with Grant Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef NP, it is every geographers’ and geologists’ dream road, where every turn opens spectacular view of geological wonders. It is also relatively little trafficked especially outside the main summer season. Equally spectacular and much more popular is US Hwy 163 from Mexican Hat in Utah to Kayenta in Arizona. It is famous due to the spectacular vista over the rock formations of Monument Valley known to most of us from the epic western movies. Apart from some bored locals almost every car pulls over and everyone takes pictures. Yet another example of power of an American icon.

Another spectacular desert drive in the SW states include California Hwy 190 across the Death Valley and then US 395 along the eastern foothills of the magnificent Sierra Neveda. It is actually impossible to list all the spectacular desert routes here as most of the highways in Arizona, southern Utah, New Mexico, souther California or Nevada are simply fantastic.

Looking for something more on the mountainous side? One of the best mountain roads I have ever driven was not in Rockies or the Sierra Nevada, not even in the Appalachians, but in South Dakota. Yes, that’s correct. There are mountains in Southa Dakota even if they are called hills.The Black Hills to be precise. The road we are talking about is the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. It is loop, over 68 miles long, which follows four different local highways. This road is curvy and narrow, actually very curvy and very narrow. In some places it is just ribbon of tarmac, only wide enough for one car, squeezed between the rock walls and sheer drop on the other side. There are tunnels so narrow you have to honk before entering, so you won’t have a head on collision with some oversized pick-up truck, and pigtail bridges where you make full 360 degrees circles. In general this scenic byway is more like Spanish or Italian mountain roads than an American highway.

Some of the mountain roads were built just for the pleasure of driving. One of them is the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. Its construction started in 1935 during the great depression and didn’t finish until 1987 when the spectacular s-shaped Linn Cove Viaduct was opened The 469 miles long parkway is maintained by the National Park Service and runs mostly along the Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian Mountains. The parkway doesn’t connect any settlements, uses short side roads to connect to other highways, and there are no direct interchanges with other highways. It was design to be a spectacular drive, with numerous viewpoints, often running as close to the ridge as possible and I can confirm that its designers did a good job. It is a fantastic piece of highway, well worth getting out of the main roads.

Other spectacular mountain roads include California Hwy 180 leading into the Kings Canyon – Sequoia NP, US Hwy160 from Alamosa to Cortez in Colorado or finally California Hwy 120 and 41 in the amazing Yosemite.

If you don’t really like deserts or mountains there are some other interesting drives. How about the great American rivers? One of the best trips I’ve done was driving through the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. It is a great drive, especially if you leave the main intestate freeway and choose the old road instead. It’s not always possible but there are few preserved bits which offer spectacular vistas over the great Columbia River and some nice waterfalls as well. You can cover the most interesting part of this river in a day. But if you are looking for a more epic river drive there is no better option than the Great River Road along the mighty Mississippi. It is actually system of the US, state, and even county highways running as close to the river as possible. You can drive practically from the source to the Gulf of Mexico on either side of the river. Of course there are more and less interesting parts. My favourite part stretches from Davenport in Iowa to Minneapolis in Minnesota, especially the Wisconsin Hwy 35 from the Illinois border to the town of Prescott just few miles downriver from Saint Paul. Mississippi in this region flows between high bluffs offering some really great views. Other attractions along this route are tiny towns like De Soto, Genoa, Alma and Nelson or some slightly bigger ones like Winona or Red Wing. Being a road and infrastructure geek I also love all the bridges along the great river, especially the old narrow steel ones. Sometimes I crossed them back and forth just for the thrill of driving across them.

A lesser known river offering great roads along its banks is the St Lawrence River. The most interesting part of it stretches along the Canadian – US border from Cornwall to Kingston, which is called the Thousand Islands for a good reason. From the road you can see countless islands from big to tiny ones. Some of them are big enough for a castle (well, at least a replica of one) some are big enough for a house but on some, it is only possible to fit small hut or a birdhouse. I drove the scenic byway on the Canadian side of river but I’m sure the New York State side is interesting as well.

Many of the roads mentioned above are all relatively well known and you can find them in guidebooks and brochures. But the US is a country full of great driving experiences. I particularly like the empty roads of central United States. The best ones are designated as tourist roads but they still might not be well known outside America, or even inside the county for that matter, which is a pity. Take for example the Sand Hills Scenic Byway in Nebraska or Flint Hills Scenic Byway and Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway in Kansas. These roads gently roll across the empty but strangely interesting and wild landscape of the American prairies. For me the biggest attraction of them is this emptiness which is usually difficult to experience in Western Europe, maybe apart from Scandinavia and parts of Scottish highlands. Other less spectacular and less known scenic highways worth a drive are often designated by some states. Two of them are for example Arkansas Hwy 7 and Arkansas Hwy 21. These twisted and curvy roads run across the heavily forested parts of the Ozark Hills and are often as deserted as some roads in Wyoming. Great place to try your cornering skills 😉

But even if roads are not marked as scenic byways some of them are simple a joy to drive. I love the empty state and US highways cutting across the prairies of Dakotas and Nebraska or the farmlands of Kansas and Oklahoma. They are straight, usually smooth, with views stretching all the way to the distant horizon and the big sky above. And the lack of trees in those regions makes the horizon even further away and the sky even bigger. Great examples of such roads are US Hwy 189 in Wyoming, from Evanston towards the Jackson Hole or US Hwy 85 connecting North and South Dakota. With country music radio station turned on I can drive for hours, or even days, without getting anywhere in particular. I like it so much that probably half of my pictures taken in USA have roads or roads signs on them.

Why roads signs? I guess because they are as iconic as roads and places themselves. Imagine signs standing in the middle of nowhere and showing distances and directions to places like Death Valley, Dodge City or Deadwood. On one hand American highways are simple and logically marked, on the other hand you have to remember that apart from the federal system each state has its own highways with distinctive road numbers and road signs. I love those varied state highways shields. In Utah there is image of beehive, in Washington State, the profile of the head of George Washington, in North Dakota there is head of Native American. And those are only few examples. Compared with that, European road signs are deadly boring and logical.

Of course there is another side of the American road. Its busy urban freeways, those wide rivers of concrete and tarmac with gigantic multilevel junctions. For many it must be an image of hell on earth, like for example the infamous freeways of LA. But for me it has some strange magnetic pull. When I navigate through 12 or 16 lanes of LA or Dallas freeway it gives me some difficult to explain thrill and excitement. It’s completely opposite extreme to the empty roads of, let say, Wyoming. America is land of contrasts. Its emptiest roads are much quieter than anywhere in Europe but its busiest freeways are busier than anywhere else. Driving through some of the junctions is like entering a temple of car culture. One of these places is famous (among the road enthusiast) Texas High Five. It is a five (yes five!) level intersection of the Interstate Hwy 635, US Hwy 75 and some local roads in Dallas. And there are more of similar junctions, especially in Texas and California which are true car heavens.

So, if you really want to experience the real, non touristy, side of America you have to drive its highways, eat at the roadside fast food joints, stop for a break at the truck stops and sleep in the roadside motels. For some it might be unethical and environmentally unfriendly, for others boring and uninspiring. But if, like me, you love the smell of petrol and tarmac you will simply love it.

Pacific coast road trip.

September 2004, after three months spent at a mountain camp in the wilderness of Sequoia National Forest, California, we were ready to hit the open road. Our camp was situated at 7500 ft above the sea level and required a two hours drive to get to civilization. So we were eager to get some change. The coast was our destination.

We rented a car at the Fresno International Airport. The word “International” was a bit of an exaggeration, as at the time of our visit they only had one international flight a day to somewhere in the middle of Mexico. Californians say that Fresno and surroundings is the most boring and uninspiring part of California. They are right. We left the area as soon as we made ourselves comfortable in the car. Well, as comfortable as possible for four quite big guys in the economy class car.

After three hours we were approaching San Francisco. Nothing is better than driving to SF from Oakland crossing the Bay Bridge. It is a double deck suspension bridge and towards SF you drive on the top deck. The road leads directly to the downtown San Francisco and you have the feeling that you are going to land on the roofs of the buildings. Truly impressive.

But we didn’t stop in the city. This trip was all about the coast. Just before the dusk we crossed another famous bridge, the Golden Gate, on our way north by the US Highway 101. We were heading towards the wild coast of northern California. After an hour or so we left behind all the suburban sprawl of Bay Area. The road changed from freeway to dual carriageway first and to a two lane road after. All the other cars disappeared and by 11pm we had the entire highway just for ourselves. We hadn’t booked any accommodation for that night, so we kept going and going and going. The road became curvy and narrow, crossing forests and mountains, including Redwood National Park famous because of its trees taller than sequoias. We crossed the park around 3am when it was wrapped in a dense fog. It was one of those moments when you remember the dark episodes of the X Files and start worrying.

By the 4am we reached Brookings, one of the first settlements in Oregon and decided that enough is enough. We spent a few hours half sleeping in the parking lot of a local supermarket. This is the downside of a lack of planning when on a budget trip.

Because we couldn’t really sleep the following day started early. At 6 am the local McDonalds opened. It had a really strange profile of customers, mostly retired folks, a lot of them wearing the WWII veteran pins or caps plus some youngsters talking about God. A bit heavy subject at 6am if you ask me. We were clearly a bunch of  outsiders.

The morning fog disappeared quickly and we could finally appreciate the coastal views. And what views they were. The Oregon coast is absolutely amazing. Small bays, cliffs, lighthouses, little fishing communities, forests, mountains, sand dunes and, in midweek September day, almost total lack of tourists.

In a moment of craziness we decided to explore the wild beaches and coastal dunes. In some parts they are open for cars, but we realized very quickly, (after 100 yards or so) that an economy size saloon car, with two wheals drive, is not the best option for sand driving. Fortunately most locals drive SUVs or pick-up trucks which are able to tow a tank, so one of them helped us to get out of the sand. We decided to walk the remaining stretch until the beach. The beach was wide and wild, with trunks of trees, some of them could arrive all the way from Siberia. It is the kind of coast I like. Not like beaches of Florida or Mediterranean, crowded with tourists desperately trying to get tanned on small patch of sand.

The same day part of the coastal road, (still US Hwy 101) was closed and we had to detour inland. Being a map fanatic, geographer and on-board navigator, I decided that I knew how to shorten this significant (100 miles or so) detour. It all started well but after a while we found ourselves stranded at a T-junction in the middle of Central Oregon Coast Range with signs pointing to place called Deadwood in all three directions It was too late to go back. We turned right (if I remember) and after some time, on a very steep and narrow road, with very poor surface and with no sign of civilization (apart signs mentioning shooting to strangers), we managed to get back to the main highway. It happened to be actually the highway which we were looking for. It seems I’m not so bad navigator after all.

By the end of the day we crossed Columbia River, via impressive bridge in Astoria, and entered Washington State. This night we decided to spent in a luxurious wooden cabin at one of the campgrounds. We got there well after dark crossing another forest where another dark episode of the X-Files could be set.

Our next day started from a visit to Aberdeen. One of us was a great Nirvana fan and Kurt Cobain was born and spent most of his life in this town. It is one of those small boring towns, one of thousands in America. Apparently Kurt hated it. There is no sign or shop or anything mentioning the most famous of the Aberdeen residents. A lady at the place called: “The best hot-dogs on the world” told us that the idea of erecting a plate in memory of Cobain was in the air, but the city officials said no. After a quick photo, next to the sign with the town name, we were on the move again. We drove around the Olympic Peninsula,right next to the wild beeches and temperate rain forests of the Olympic National Park.

Temperate rain forests are unique to a few places around the world. Apart from the Pacific coast of Washington State and British Columbia they also exist in New Zealand and Southern Chile. They receive almost as much rain as the tropical rain forest but the temperatures are much lower. It is a real jungle where the massive trees are covered with other plants grooving on them. It is a one fantastic green mess. We went for a short educational trail in one of the park sections, which is a great experience but you have to be always ready for rain, it rains almost daily here.

By night we were approaching Seattle. To save some time we took the ferry from Bremerton across the Puget Sound to downtown Seattle. It cost just few dollars and save more than an hour or two of driving It was dark again by the time we reached our destination. Fortunately the view of Seattle’s skyscrapers from the ferry is equally stunning by either night or day.

In Seattle we stayed two nights in Green Tortoise Hostel. It is located right in the downtown and cost 20 dollars or so for a bed in one of the dormitory rooms. It is a great city, full of cafes (that’s where first Starbucks opened), cheap eateries and nice people. One of the best places to start your visit is Pike Place Market where you can buy almost everything. But it is more about the atmosphere rather than about the products. Especially fishmongers, shouting to the potential buyers and throwing fish between themselves, are a great sight. Another great spot is Space Needle, a tower offering great views of the city, Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound, and (on clear days) magnificent Mount Rainer with eternal snows on top.

Seattle has a quite good public transport network. The main hub is the bus tunnel witch runs right underneath the downtown. It is a bit like metro but you see trolleybuses arriving at the stations instead of trains. After leaving the tunnel they switch to diesel and travel to many suburbs of Seattle including the University of Washington campus. I recommend this place for cheap good food, nice atmosphere and good bookshops.

The next stop on our journey was Portland. It is three hours south of Seattle at the confluence of Columbia and Willamette Rivers. It is much smaller than Seattle but has the same progressive feel. Both cities have good public transport, mainly because the Pacific North West residents are much more environmentally conscious than populations of the other parts of USA.

We had just one evening in Portland so we decided to visit some of the many local brewpubs. Apparently Portland is the city where brewpubs and micro breweries first became popular. At least in the US. To find them you can go to one of the many drinking establishments in the Northwest District, along the 21st and 23rd Avenues. Some of the beers we had were really strong and after a few small bottles we went back to our hostel jaywalking.

After Portland we drove straight back south to San Francisco. It was the starting point of the last part of our coastal trip, the Big Sur. Some say it is the best scenic road in the world. In San Francisco we slept in Green Tortoise Hostel located right on the Broadway between clubs, bars and restaurants. It was Saturday night, so we didn’t sleep that much. This hostel, similarly to his brother in Seattle, was a bit crappy, noisy and full of cool dudes. Generally a great option for someone looking for fun but not really good for sleep.

The next morning we drove out of SF. The beginning wasn’t too promising, one of those not so good and very busy highways (a lot of people go to the coast on Sunday). The first interesting spot was Monterey. It is an exclusive place full of expensive mansions, gardens, golf courses and iconic cypresses.

But the real fun started from there. California Highway 1 makes its winding way squeezed between the Santa Lucia Range and the Pacific on its way towards Los Angeles. It is an amazing feat of engineering. This road crosses deep river valleys and runs on a very narrow strip of land right next to the high cliffs. Views are absolutely stunning. But you better use the view points (fortunately there are lots of them) because the road is very curvy and driving requires full of your attention. The weather was perfect during our trip but this part of coast is frequently covered by fog. It might make driving really dangerous.

It is a very empty coast. It is in fact one of the emptiest coast in the lower 48 states. On the way there are only few exclusive communities, art colonies or hidden private ranches. Hwy 1 is the most scenic and wild between Carmen-by-the-Sea (an exclusive small town where Clint Eastwood was a mayor for a while) and Morro Bay. No condos, no shopping malls, no crowded beach resorts or fast food joints, not even a single traffic light. True 121 miles of driver’s heaven.

After Morro Bay things get back to normal, little towns appear, and you can buy some food or gas. Closer to LA things get very hectic. California Hwy 1 joins US 101 and then becomes one of the many LA freeway. That’s where the real madness began and our trip ended in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica is one of the nicest parts of the greater Los Angeles. It has a nice wide beach with biking and walking trails continuing all the way to the neighboring Venice Beach. Both communities are practically joined and offer the same great SoCal lifstyle. Nice weather, surfing, good beach, good food and great people watching opportunities. It was a great place to spend the last night before flying back to grey and rainy Katowice.