My wife and I recently celebrated becoming of a certain age and officially entering retirement with a little fly/drive trip to the northern California coast. We flew in and out of Oakland since we could get a good price on airfares from our home in Tucson. One of the few beneficial recent trends in air travel is the emergence of regional 'feeder' or 'relief' airports. One is no longer limited to a single major metropolitan airport, offering both price competition and the chance to start one's vacation from somewhere other than the middle of a traffic jam.
Anyway, we started out by going just a bit north, staying the first couple of nights in the organic farming center of Sebastapol. The first evening, we just took a hike around our digs and walked through some of the fields and just enjoyed the views and the sunset. The next morning we made a brief stop at Luther Burbank's experimental farm in town and then took off cross-country for Point Reyes National Seashore. We got a another good reminder on this leg that GPS is simply not to be trusted as one's primary navigation tool. We had mapped out a fairly scenic route, but when we plugged in Point Reyes from Sebastapol, the GPS insisted that the 'best' way was to go down US-101 and back through the northern fringes of the Bay Area. Not a chance. After feeding it enough way points, we got it to understand where we wanted to go. Within Point Reyes National Seashore the highlights are the various shore access points, of course, and the
Point Reyes Light. This lighthouse is viewable from a vantage point at the end of a half-mile walk down from the parking lot. Actually getting to the station itself requires descending (and re-climbing) some 300 steps. We settled for the view from above. We also took some short hikes around the Morgan horse farm and the replica of a Miwok village where a basket weaving class was in progress. I also got to point out the San Andreas Fault to my wife as it forms the eastern boundary of Point Reyes.
The next day we headed up to the town of Elk, south of Albion/Mendocino. We followed the Pacific Coast Highway, CA-1, and planned to stop at Fort Ross with its original and reproduction buildings from a Russian trading outpost ca. 1835. Unfortunately, the park was closed when we arrived and so we just pressed on to our digs for the night, a beach house on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Having arrived a bit earlier than expected, we headed up to Mendocino for the evening. This is where we got our one bad bit of new on this trip. Between Elk and Mendocino there are several bridges over narrow gorges where the short rivers draining the Coast Ranges drain into the ocean. It seemed that every one of those bridges was under repair, reduced to one lane, and required a 10-15 minute wait to cross.
Nevertheless, Mendocino turned out to be well worth the delays (on both legs of each round-trip commute). It's a very funky town with a fair bit of history, one of only two towns in California that are declared historic landmarks in their entirety. (Ferndale is the other.) It's full of shops, restaurants, organic food stores, and is just a pleasant place to walk around. On our first evening there, we just picked up some picnic fixings and headed down to Mendocino Headland State Park for a relaxed diner al fresco. The next day, braving the road construction again, we spent more time in town, toured the historic Ford House, did some window shopping, took a walking tour of the town, and stocked up on provisions for the next couple of days.
Another night in our oceanside beach house and it was time to head north once again. Along the way up to Arcata, we stopped at another lighthouse, Point Cabrillo this time, and then headed inland north of Fort Bragg to leave the coast and start inland through the Redwoods. This is probably as good a time as any to mention the stark difference between what a mapping routine will predict for a driving time and what can be accomplished in reality. For most of its length north of San Francisco, CA-1 carries a nominal speed limit of 55 mph. Computer-based software will, therefore, assume that that's how fast you'll be going and determine your travel time accordingly. However, 55 mph, on the twisting, narrow, two-lane CA-1 is a joke. 35 mph is more like it for long stretches - and that's what I would have liked to have maintained. But I didn't have the roads to myself. Often we would be behind slower traffic which adamantly refused to make use of the many pull-offs provided (and numerous signs telling them to let following cars by). Actual passing opportunities were exceedingly rare and usually obviated by oncoming traffic. The upshot was that real-world speed made good was more like 25-30 mph resulting in the drive taking twice as long as the software predicted.
In any event we eventually made it up to Arcata where we had an apartment just off the town plaza. A university town, Arcata reminded both of us of our own college days: hippies forming drum circles, a generally relaxed atmosphere everywhere, even the neighborhood home-made ice cream shop. It made a great base of operations for our visit to Redwood National Park, the highlight of which was the hike through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. A roughly one mile loop with interpretive brochures available, this hike gives a great introduction to the redwood forest, how it comes to be, and the forces that can sustain or destroy it. These are the kinds of combined scenic/historic/educational activities that our National Parks do so well.
The drive back to Oakland for the flight home was uneventful in its early stretches. We simply took US-101 which varies between two-lane small town road and freeway quality. We had given consideration to taking the 'back road', Avenue of the Giants, but fortunately decided against it. I say fortunately because when we got into the Bay Area we hit Friday evening traffic. Initially it helped that there were two of us in the car and we thus qualified for the carpool lane, but then we reached the northern fringes of the Bay and headed east on CA-37 around the northern edge of the Bay. We were headed for Concord where we planned to spend the night before our flight the next morning. We thought that this would keep us out of the worst of the traffic. Wrong! What it got us was a road with no exits and a ton of traffic. After covering a grand total of four miles in an hour and a half, we came to one of the few 'alternatives'. It was still 13 miles to the next major junction and the line of stalled cars stretched before us to the horizon and beyond. So we headed out northwest (Remember, we want to go southeast.) on the only other road available and started consulting maps, the GPS and some tea leaves. We did well for quite a while working our way slowly around to the east and south until we hit another jam in the Napa Valley. We took advantage of a winery that had a traffic light at its entrance for a restroom break and some local advice. With a (seemingly) 'short' wait of about half an hour in the latest traffic, we hit some local neighborhood streets to make the connection to I-680 south into Concord. After a night's sleep, we caught our return flight home and called it a RoadTrip