We are so rich. So lucky. America is a truly amazing country and we, as heirs to her bounty, have full privileges. The Grand Canyon? It's yours. Half Dome? It's mine. The roads to take us there? Just waiting. Here are 10 of our favorite rides. We collect these destinations much like children gather seashells or marbles. Some were found by instinct, others were gifts from readers who wrote in to let us know where to sniff for roses during our frequent wanderings around the country. The smell of a good ride is, of course, a blend of rain on hot asphalt and gas-station coffee. The sound is throttle and humming tires.
Can you hear it calling?
The most popular portion of California's celebrated Pacific Coast Highway 1 is the southern segment between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. It is not the most panoramic portion, nor is it the most indulgent. It is, however, the most unbearably crowded scenic road in California. A more unspoiled Pacific Coast Highway lies quietly above San Francisco.
Just four miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza, Highway 1 escapes the diligence of U.S. 101 and snakes its way toward the white sands of Stinson Beach. Much of this initial section between Stinson and Bodega Bay squiggles inland from the crashing surf over rolling, grassy hills freckled with towering eucalyptus stands. Pulsating coastal winds caress tall grasses, making them undulate like a golden extension of the sea. Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds in 1963, is a large coastal town by Northern California standards. You'll find all the amenities here along with a lot of smoked salmon and saltwater taffy. From Jenner to Gualala (pronounced "Wah-lal-ah") you get your first taste of real isolation. The grassy headlands erupt with dense growths of wind-sculpted Bishop pine, and you'll ride for many miles in solitude. There are occasional cattle ranches, many dating back to the 1800s, and the infrequent 20th-century home secreted away on a bluff. It's impossible not to wonder who lives in these decadent structures so far away from the struggling masses.
The resplendent, remote areas of this coast offer many vertigo-inducing views of the steep, craggy shoreline and the unrelenting ocean that shapes it. There are pristine pocket beaches skirting the cliffs and caves at low tide. This road has many hazards, one of the most imposing being tourists vying for the best overlook. Occasionally, travelers will stop in the middle of the road--for good reason, however. Don't mistake the cattle grates for speed bumps--there really will be heifers on the highway. Also take serious note of the signs warning of irregular road surfaces or slide areas. This winding path is never predictable, and the road surface is, at best, threadbare.
Connecting the vast portions of untamed backcountry are tiny towns and villages. Almost all offer fuel, food and lodging. Joyfully, there are no Burger Kings or Best Westerns. Each establishment--from bed and breakfast to beach bungalow--is personalized by private ownership.Gualala and Point Arena are two of the more prominent stopping places between Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg, while smaller digs like Elk and Albion offer micro-samples of coastal society. The coast here was populated more profusely in ancient times. In the still-existing town of Caspar, archeologists have found evidence that humans thrived on these shores more than 11,000 years ago. These people evolved into the Pomo tribes of Native Americans, and many of their ancestors remain. The Spanish named the Mendocino area as they sailed past the unapproachable shores in 1587, but Russians were the first non-natives to settle the region. Russian architecture remains blended into the essence of many older settlements.
If you have more than one day to ride I guarantee you'll enjoy a stopover in Mendocino, "the Jewel of the North Coast." The sea surrounds Mendocino on three sides and the fourth is walled with dense pines. If you don't see it from a distance you could ride by without even realizing what treasure lies near. The town was all but abandoned in the 1930s after its prominent saw mill closed. Mendocino's rebirth didn't begin until the '60s when it was reincarnated as an artist's haven.
There are many overnight facilities scattered along the coastline within easy distance of Mendocino proper. You can stay as a guest in a farmhouse or be a recluse in your own remote, solar-powered cabin. The choices are extensive, but in the peak summer months the place is booked up, down and sideways. On summer weekends it's nearly impossible to drop in for a night, but midweek allows for more spontaneity. Some people prefer to explore the North Coast during winter when the swirling fog and empty roads make the journey slightly surreal.
California's Highway 1 continues north for another 55 breathtaking miles, lancing historic Caspar, Fort Bragg and Westport. If you're hungry to ride among the redwoods, try the loop made by taking Highway 20 east, U.S. 101 south, Highway 253 west, then Highway 128 west back to Highway 1 north.
Truffles at Mendocino Chocolate Company on Landsing and a walk in the redwoods that line Highway 20.
Summer is peak, so you'll need reservations. Fall and winter are our favorite times, and accommodations are easier to come by.
Watch for cattle on the road. They are almost as dangerous as sightseers.
We found the Web site www.mendocinocoast.com to be helpful, and our favorite book is Hidden Coast of California by Ray Riegert at www.amazon.com.