Commonly a road trip in the United States brings to mind two things: Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway. Both are scenic and historic and replaced nowadays by larger roads but still parts of the olden days remain. We had already done bits and pieces of Route 66 and so it was pretty obvious that we would have to go do the other way as well, we were even in the neighborhood.
Starting from Los Angeles we took highway 101 north and spent a night at the parking lot of a Walmart supercenter in Oxnard. To be accurate, highway 101 is actually a part of the Pacific Coast Highway which in reality is a combination of different highways that follow the coastline all the way from Mexico to Canada. However, we were heading specifically to highway 1, the most scenic part of it. We found ourselves on it after taking exit 132 towards Lompoc and were a little disappointed. Sure we were off the major highway but we were still missing the coastal views. All we could see was well irrigated farmland with imported workers from Mexico picking strawberries and stuff. It was interesting in its own way though, I could imagine the men and women line up on the side of a road somewhere and rush to jump in the back of a pickup to go to work. That's what they did in Machete. I saw some of the movie in Lima but didn't really understand it since it was dubbed in Spanish…
We were pretty surprised to find ourselves back on highway 101 before seeing anything particularly scenic, especially not Jessica Alba. We rejoined the bigger highway at exit 187A and got off once again at exit 201 to Morro Bay. Here the views were starting to improve, we had finally reached the coast and were gazing at the Pacific Ocean. We stopped at Morro Strand State Beach where they had free parking and took a short walk on the sand before eating lunch. After finishing our ice-cream we started to go over our options for the rest of the day. It was still early afternoon so we weren't ready to stay there even though they had a campground with available sites for $35 a night. We got a map from the office listing all state parks along the coastline and picked a couple that we thought were a reasonable distance away. Supposedly trying to park overnight anywhere along the road for free would very likely make a highway patrol man give you a $200 fine so we were planning to find an actual campground for a change.
Continuing north we started to pass increasingly scenic stretches of the coast with vertical cliffs rising straight from the ocean and the highway twisting and turning its way along their tops. With so many state parks to choose from it was impossible to make a decision of where to stop. Eventually we ended up taking a left turn to Hearst San Simeon State Park for two reasons: we wanted to let some faster cars pass us and there was a left turning lane to get us there. In hindsight it would be easier to go along the coast from north to south because that way all the attractions would be on the right side of the road…
It was worth a left turn to stop at Hearst San Simeon SP though. We found a big parking lot next to a beach and a long pier stretching towards the ocean. Not feeling like going for a swim we decided to take a walk on the pier instead and got to see some pelicans make a splash when diving for fish from mid-flight. The tranquil bay was teeming with life: in addition to the pelicans we could see seagulls chasing them and a couple of seals playing around. Then we realized that one of the splashes was too big for any of these. Suddenly we saw a massive black back gleaming in the sun just above the surface of the water before disappearing beneath it. Neither of us had ever seen a whale before. A couple of locals told us that it was a humpback whale but we had no way of knowing for sure. We watched it surface and dive several times all over the bay, it was impossible to determine where it would appear next. For such a large creature it moved surprisingly smoothly and fast while chasing small fish. Well, at least the information board next to the beach said those things eat fish, but we could clearly see it going after the seals too. Maybe it was just messing with them… Still, I wouldn't have liked to be one of the people swimming there at the same time with it.
After taking a good while to look at the leviathan we got back into the car and headed north once more, but only for four miles until we took another left turn. This time we saw a sign advertising a viewpoint to a colony of elephant seals. With very little idea of what those would be like we got out of the car and walked to the somewhat crowded boardwalk to see what the fuzz was all about. It was easy enough to see.
Elephant seals have got to be some of the ugliest creatures in the world. They look like massive brown sacks of lard, which is essentially what they are. They have huge trunk like noses that flap around noisily as they snore while baking under the sun. And they didn't just snore, they also growled, trumpeted and farted. They smelled and their skins were peeling like after a really bad sunburn. We saw one of them trying to detach itself from the pile and return to the ocean but its efforts proved futile as the gentle waves kept pushing its fat body back. I guess it must have looked graceful once in the open water, but I had a hard time imagining it.
Truth be told the seals were fascinating to look at. I mean, sure they were ugly, but one could only stand in awe of the only creature on the planet that truly rivals humans in the race towards obesity. They looked to be in a desperate need of a gastric bypass, or the new diet advertised in a magazine promising weight loss of up to 400 pounds. Let me pause right there for a minute: weight loss of up to 400 lbs! No wonder the seals were so fat, they had made it to shore in the United States…
We decided to return to the road and head on towards the two campgrounds that we had been looking at. It took quite a while to reach Limekiln State Park, which proved to be a small but scenic spot set atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. Sadly it was full, which didn't really surprise us since none of the places we had passed before it had had vacancy. We were doing our road trip in the middle of July, the biggest season for such activities. Reservations were apparently vital and we didn't have any. Our second option, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park turned out to be day use only, despite what our map said. Thus we were left without a plan and were forced to just continue on. To make matters worse they had signs on the side of the road telling us two things: overnighting anywhere but in a campground was punishable with a $200 fine and highway 1 would be closed to traffic after 10 p.m.. I didn't quite get how they would actually close the highway and what they would do to people who were stranded there without a campsite. You can't just say that people can't camp on the side of the road or drive further!
Luckily we didn't have to do either of these things. We eventually reached Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park where we found that they have overflow possibilities even though the actual campground was full. We were offered a spot on the day use parking lot for $35, the same price others were paying for a proper campsite. Being out of other options this one wasn't really that bad, but they could have worded it a little better. They told us word for word: "It's just a parking lot", "we let people who are too tired to go on stay there", "you need to be out by nine a.m.", "you still need to pay the full price". They were almost mean. We took the spot of course but were a little bummed out by the fact that we were paying full price even though we got less than other people. We had to leave earlier than even the allowed generator hours (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.)! With $35 we didn't even get to use their dump station which would have cost $10 extra. For $35 we got a spot on a parking lot when others were getting actual campsites. We retaliated by using the flush toilets next to us even though we weren't sure if that was allowed. So to inflict actual damage we also filled our freshwater tank from their faucet. They deserved it and so did we.
The next day we got up early and left the parking lot by 9 a.m. as required and started heading towards San Francisco. In the beginning the scenery was equal to that of the previous day but pretty soon we found ourselves back on bigger roads. We had high hopes of making it as far north as Humboldt Redwoods State Park, but pretty soon it was becoming clear that that would not be happening. Approaching San Francisco was slow and getting slower. For a city of "just" 805'235 people the traffic was surprisingly congested, but then again we were going straight through the city. Following highway 1 we pierced suburbs and iconic hilly streets to the west of the downtown area. I was driving and only got honked at twice, which I thought was a pretty good performance considering that I was sitting behind the wheel of an RV. Eventually we joined highway 101 and followed it over the Golden Gate Bridge, which was pretty cool and made cooler still by the fact that going north we didn't have to pay the $7 toll the people going south were paying. The bridge was one of those few things that you know is there and think smaller than it actually is. Usually things are always thought to be bigger than they actually are, but like the Eifel tower the Golden Gate Bridge was truly massive and magnificent. Sadly it was also packed with pedestrians behind the fence so we skipped trying to find a parking spot at the other end to stop for pictures. In my original plan for this trip I only wrote "drive the Golden Gate Bridge" under San Francisco, it didn't say anything about stopping there. Thus we continued on, returning to highway 1 just north of the bridge and losing sight of the colossal structure once and for all.
North of San Francisco highway 1 turned out to be even narrower and slower to travel on than it had been before. We didn't seem to be getting anywhere on it and the scenery was far less attractive than it had been between San Fran and LA. Once again all the possible campsites were full, except for one RV park where we stopped to find out that they were charging $65 for a site before taxes. Eventually we stopped to ask at the full campground of Sonoma Coast State Park if they would have overflow parking. We would have been fine with that by then, after getting over the previous annoyance. They didn't accommodate us but directed us to Chancellor Ranch (or something of the like) just a little further where we ended up getting an overflow spot on a semi flat field for $43.60. We didn't have hookups but then again they were charging $59.95 for those so at least our spot was cheaper. We also got to use all of the facilities, which mainly meant getting a hot shower for the second time since starting our road trip. That pretty much made it worth the money.
The next day started cloudy as we kept on heading north on highway 1. The scenery was somewhat better than what it had been the previous day but not as great as the day before that. The going was slow even when we didn't stop at viewpoints or such. In the end we were pretty glad when we reached highway 101 once again. We had planned on making it up the coast in two days but it had taken three and we weren't still anywhere near the border to Oregon. In the beginning the scenery had been well worth the slow going but not so much in the following days. We were glad we saw San Francisco even briefly and got to drive the Golden Gate Bridge, but if I were to do this again I would probably stick to highway 101 from there onwards. It's a big road but still smaller than I-5 going in the same direction so you could probably see things there as well. We were glad that we made it through even without reservations to different campgrounds, but those would be highly recommended especially in high season. Then again the whole point of a road trip is to be free to go anywhere. It's a somewhat difficult equation but luckily we've been able to solve it so far…