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.

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.


Morro Bay: Sea, sand and the Rock

Rock and dunes

The splendors of California’s Central Coast are many but they don’t include the over-touristed T-shirt shops that tend to populate some waterfronts. I’m talking to you, Morro Bay Embarcadero. Seriously — how much clam chowder in a bread bowl can a person eat? The cure for chowder and saltwater taffy overdose is simple: get out on the water and head to the Morro Bay sand spit.

Technically part of Montaña de Oro State Park, the sand spit is four miles long and separates Morro Bay from the Pacific Ocean. It’s an easy paddle from the Embarcadero along the Morro Bay waterfront to the spit. Once there, you can hike clear across dunes from the bay to open ocean. Since we’re a one-kayak family, one of us rents from Kayak Horizons, which has quality sit-insides at reasonable rates.

Morro kayak

In early March, we headed over to the spit on glass-smooth water. It’s a good idea to pay attention to tides when embarking on a kayak adventure to the spit. We paid attention and still went over right after low tide, occasionally getting stuck in the muck near the mud flats. Kayak Horizons lists tide times for Morro Bay on their web site.

But getting close to the mud flats is sort of the point of kayaking here. The marshes are part of the Morro Bay Estuary, a bird sanctuary home to more than 250 species of land, sea and shore birds. In other words, you do not want to forget binoculars and a camera. We’ve seen pelicans, egrets (see below), herons, and too many other sea bird species to list, along with sea lions and otters en route.

Speaking of birds, the spit is home to snowy plovers, which like to nest on the dunes, so certain areas are off-limits. Those spots are signed and roped off, and pretty darn scenic:

Dunes pano

Traipsing across the dunes at the Morro sand spit and hearing the open ocean on the other side always seems otherwordly to me. I almost expect to find the Statue of Liberty wedged on the beach on the side, a la Planet of the Apes:

Ocean view-spit

You can pack a lunch and make a day of it, staying mindful of the tides and making sure your kayak is pulled up high enough on the bay side. I brought a snack of apple, cheese roll and several Brown Butter Cookie Company cookies from Cayucos (original sea salt, my favorite). Wow, this is looking a bit like a scene from a Wes Anderson movie:


There’s a great view of Morro Rock from the ocean side of the sand spit:

And of course it’s birds galore on the little-peopled beach, where the ocean is fairly rough and tumble:

Birds on beach

On the dune walk back to our kayaks, the light was getting really nice and brought out the great colors of the coastal sage scrub with the rock in the distance:

I wove my kayak between docked sailboats, keeping my binoculars peeled (wow, this does sound like a Wes Anderson film) for my landing spot at the public boat launch at the end of the Embarcadero:

Morro Bay boats

We worked up a powerful hunger padding and hiking. So it was off to Dorn’s for some, ahem, clam chowder. In a real bowl.

Some photos here were courtesy of http://stevehymon.smugmug.com/.