Western road trip Part 1: The Coast

Bixby Bridge:Big Sur
Bixby Bridge along the Big Sur coast.

Is there a better way to spend summer’s longest days than the quintessential American pastime: the Western road trip? I think not.

So it came to be that I spent a month (parts of June and July) traveling from coastal California into Oregon and on to Idaho and Wyoming. The roughly 3,000-mile loop was completed through Utah, then back to SoCal.

Big Sur drive

I’m splitting the trip into four posts. This one will cover the coast from SoCal to Point Reyes. Part two will detail coastal camping in Northern California and southern Oregon. Part three will encompass Portland, the Columbia Gorge and the drive to Boise. And part four will visit Sun Valley and the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, then the Wind Rivers and Grand Teton in Wyoming. Whew. Covered a lot of ground in a month.

Rather than just wing it with accommodations, I had reservations pretty much the whole time, including camping. Unless you like sleeping in your car in a Walmart parking lot, I highly recommend advance planning during the height of tourist season in the West. I started searches (and ultimately made reservations) through the reservation agencies ReserveAmerica and Recreation.gov and cross-referenced by using Hipcamp — an amazing site with a searchable database of California campgrounds — and CampsitePhotos, another extremely useful site that lets you look at photos of individual campsites at public and private campgrounds throughout the U.S. For now, you can only book sites through the above-mentioned reservation sites, but Hipcamp is working on becoming a one-stop shop for research and booking.

I had to keep it dog-friendly, which can be a challenge. Other than the campgrounds, I’m not going to get into hotel details, but if you want to know where I stayed (and the copious research I did) hit the red Follow button to the right and email me.

Despite all the planning, glitches are usually inevitable. My trip was blissfully glitch-free, with the exception of the very start. Since I was hauling kayaks, I decided to take the household Subaru Outback rather than my small hybrid. But the usually trusty Suby decided to be finicky literally the night before I left, requiring a visit from AAA to secure the driver’s side door, which all of a sudden wouldn’t stay closed. Then it would close but couldn’t be opened, from outside or inside. A day-long service visit the next day scuttled my Big Sur camping reservation for that night, resulting in a night in Cayucos instead — not a shabby alternative but it meant more driving miles the next day. By Morro Bay, the newly-fixed door failed again but I figured out that the door would open when the driver’s side window was open.

Condors:Big Sur
California condors over Big Sur.

With a reservation in Half Moon Bay, I had to scoot through Big Sur fairly quickly on my first full day of driving. But the weather was gorgeous, the air was clear and there was plenty to see and stop for, including several California condors that halted traffic near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. At one point there were eight soaring over the cliff. It was the first time I’d seen the big endangered birds, which were reintroduced to Big Sur in the late 90s.

Kitesurfers at Big Basin Redwoods State Park beach.
Kitesurfers (not condors!) at Big Basin Redwoods State Park beach.

One of the only sections of California coast I’d never been to is the stretch between Monterey and San Francisco, and wow, was that amazing, particularly the beaches between Capitola — new favorite town — and Half Moon Bay. Pescadero, San Gregorio, Big Basin — each beach prettier than the next. This is a spot I’ll definitely return to, maybe to kayak at Elkhorn Slough. Or perhaps take up kitesurfing.

Pigeon Pt. lighthouse , north of Santa Cruz.
Pigeon Pt. lighthouse, on the San Mateo County coast.

After a night in Half Moon Bay and dinner with a friend in Palo Alto (so happy to get my Delfina pizza fix!), my friend and I kayaked the next day at Pillar Point Harbor. It’s similar to paddling at Morro Bay, with abundant bird life but fewer of the ticky tacky trinket shops. And kudos to Half Moon Bay Kayak, which let us park near their rental stand to unload our boats and even let us use their wheeled carriers. Way to go, guys!

Cormorants on a rock jetty at Pillar Point.
Cormorants and friends on a rock jetty at Pillar Point.

After loading up the kayaks, I headed north along another beautiful stretch of sunny coast. That situation ended right around Pacifica and it was an interesting fog-shrouded drive to my hotel in Ocean Beach. It was the first time I’d stayed on that side of the city. The foggy dog walk that night felt like a creepy scene out of the movie Zodiac.

Blue:Sutro
Dogs-eye view of Sutro Baths.

The next day, the fog lifted and it was yet another gloriously warm and sunny (so rare for summer) day in San Francisco. The clear weather called for a visit to Sutro Heights and Lands End in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the northwest point of the city. This area offers the best bay views — I saw a diving whale’s tale from the Coastal Trail near Lands End — and is one of the most dog-friendly spots in one of the country’s most dog-friendly cities. That said, not all sites allow pets, so be sure to check NPS regulations before you take poochy for a jaunt.

Dog-friendly Crissy Field.
Dog-friendly Crissy Field.
Crissy Field kiteboarder.
Crissy Field windsurfer.
View of Ocean Beach from Sutro Heights Park on a sunny S.F. day. Like Waikiki!
View of Ocean Beach from Sutro Heights Park on a sunny S.F. day. Like Waikiki without the crowds!

I had to tear myself from Tartine the morning I left S.F., but time was a’wastin’ — I had friends to meet in Point Reyes. This was my fourth trip or so to Point Reyes National Seashore, and as usual it did not disappoint. I missed out on kayaking on Tomales Bay thanks to funky tides and too much else to do, but a hike on the Estero Trail and visits to Drakes Beach and North Beach made up for it.

View of Tomales Bay.
View of Tomales Bay.

Dog owners: pay close attention to the pet rules here. Dogs are allowed only on certain beaches (Bluey stayed in the car at Drakes) and only on certain trails. This is for the benefit of wildlife, particularly northern elephant seals and the western snowy plover, which nests on this sandy peninsula.

Old boat on Tomales Bay.
Old boat on Tomales Bay.
Drakes Estero, from the Drakes Estero Trail.
Drakes Estero, from the Estero Trail.

A few more road trip tips: If your car is equipped with Bluetooth, be sure to load up some podcasts on your smartphone to help pass the time. Judge John Hodgman is a favorite. And I was so engrossed with Serial that I missed the turnoff to Inverness and almost ended up in Stinson Beach. Also, as summer progresses and the West continues to dry up like a beer keg at a frat party, be sure and check websites like NIFC for fire activity (click on Sit Report in right rail). I was lucky and didn’t encounter any, but there are presently more than a dozen burning in California and even the normally-damp Northwest is afire.

Next up: Anderson Valley, Bigfoot country, and camping the Northern California and southern Oregon coasts.

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