The mention of California brings to mind swaying palm trees, surfers and the ocean, and that is exactly what one experiences riding along the California Pacific Coast. CA has a varied geography, with deserts (Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin), Mountains (Sierra Nevada and Coastal Ranges) the agricultural region of Central Valley and of course a 900 miles long coastline. The CA coast can roughly be divided into the Southern, Central and Northern Coast, each of which offers a distinct experience. Starting in San Diego, there are many beach communities dotting the shoreline, the drive/ride is slow going till one gets past Los Angeles. However it is totally worth the time to explore the coastal towns on route, starting with San Diego itself. I have spent many summers in the area over the past 15 years with my friend M and his family and C who grew up on the Island of Coronado, it has also been been the base camp for many of our motorcycle trips along the coastal highway.
Initially settled by the Kumeyaay people, San Diego was one of the earliest European settlements in California. Any trip to the West Coat of the US must include a stopover in the city. The old town area includes the Mission San Diego Alcala, museums, many shops and restaurants and one can easily spend a couple of days exploring the area. The famous San Diego Zoo and Balboa park are must dos when in San Diego. While some parts of the downtown are rather seedy, the Gas Lamp Quarter has a more chic feel to it, boasting many restaurants, lounges and shops. Another must do while in San Diego is a visit to the island of Coronado, the home of the famed Hotel del Coronado. A tourist mecca during the summer, the island provides a more laid back and relaxing albeit a somewhat expensive experience. Coronado is also home to a huge naval base, and some of the shops on the Island have been there for generations. Heading a few miles north of downtown San Diego one gets to the swanky neighborhood of La Jolla, home to UCSD (a University of California campus) and the Scripps Institute. The area boasts some very picturesque beaches and upscale eateries and bars. Going further north one enters the affluent ‘Orange County’, two interesting towns (amongst many) where we have often stopped for rest are Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano. Dana point marina and surrounding beaches are well known for surfing and sailing, the nearby town of San Juan Capistrano is home to one of California’s 21 old missions and is definitely worth a visit. The drive along the coastal highway as mentioned is slow going as it passes through the many beach towns dotting this part of the Pacific shore, however the the road opens up past Dana point. Southern CA coastline ends at the town of Santa Monica, which is also the western terminus of the famed Route 66 running east to west from just south of Chicago. Santa Monica is a quintessentially SoCal town and has always been a stopover point on our road trips along the coast.
The central coast of CA begins North of Santa Monica, the coastal highway around Santa Monica goes through some very famous beach towns like Hermosa beach, Venice beach, and Malibu. Another town know for its beaches just north of here is Santa Barbara another regular stop on our bike trips. This picturesque town is also home to the mission Santa Barbara and UCSB. Starting in San Diego this makes for a good place for an overnight stop. Another town along the coast where we have stayed several times is Morro Bay. Famous for the solitary volcanic ‘Morro Rock‘, the town boasts some very nice restaurants and shopping. East of the the coast here, there is a stretch of highway (SR 46) called blood alley know for the many traffic accidents that have occurred on this stretch of the highway. I personally think that a lot these simply because of irresponsible driving on the two lane highway. The road leads to the wine region of Paso Robles, we have visited this area on several of our trips, this much under-rated area is definitely worth exploring. Going further north, the coastal highway passes through rugged and pristine nature and the towns become more sparse. A good point to stop to take in the sights and for a break is Ragged Point at the southern end of ‘Big Sur‘. Arguably the most spectacular part of the the scenic CA coast, the 100 mile stretch of the highway passing through big sur has many hiking and camping spots on the way. Further along the PCH, one passes through the fairytale like towns of Carmel by the Sea and Monterey, and on to the city of Santa Cruz, this part of the highway is a bikers dream with its twist windy roads surrounded by nature. The central coastal highway then goes through some quaint towns like Half Moon Bay and ends around San Francisco.
San Francisco, a city initially established by the Spanish along with the Mission San Francisco de Asis, saw rapid growth during the California gold rush. The post second world war era saw the city develop as a hub of liberal activism in the US and the technological revolution starting in the ’80 has transformed the city into the capital of tech economy. A visit to Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown are a must and they provide a very unique experience of the city. Past San Francisco the PCH passes through rugged country with very few and sparse towns, the motorcycle ride experience is still wonderful through this part of the PCH. The famed California Wine country starts a few miles inland, with Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties as one goes Eastwards. The CA coast gets cooler past SoCal, and this part of the coast is downright chilly most of the year, the beaches are somewhat inaccessible with sharp drop over rugged cliffs, although there is some beach access at points along highway. The towns of Bodega Bay and Gualala have been usual stopping points for us during our trips north and we have stayed over in Fort Bragg a few times. Forth Bragg is also the eastern most part of the wine country being part of Mendocino county and is an interesting town in its own right, with a railway museum and restaurants and wine bars. Heading north the PCH merges with US 101 around the town of Leggett, famed for its drive thru tree. Highway 101 run winds back and forth from the shore for another 200 miles in CA till one enters OR. Here the highway once again runs by the coast, and while the OR coast is much less populated with fewer town along the way, it is also spectacularly scenic, but that is a story for another blog post.