Exploring California’s Central Coast
From Big Sur to Santa Cruz, the Pacific Coast Landscape is Filled with Rugged Beauty, Windswept Cypress Trees and Rocky Cliffs
It’s just like in the movies. The narrow, two-lane road snakes along, hugging the cliffs. On one side, the Santa Lucia Mountains soar upward. On the other side, is a sheer 900-foot drop to the sea. Except that, unlike in the movies, I am not in a little sports car. I’m in a 28-foot Class C motorhome.
Ah, Highway 1. It’s good to be back.
This stretch of California’s coastal highway through Big Sur is one of the top scenic drives in the world … as well as one of the most dangerous. National Geographic Traveler declared it a “Drive of A Lifetime,” and it’s designated an All-American Road, a distinction reserved for highways so extraordinary, they are destinations unto themselves.
When I was a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my mom would make this same drive in our 1966 Dodge van. Now it’s time for me to show my children, who have grown up land-locked in Nashville, Tenn., the same stunning vistas and hairpin turns.
Since they were little, they’ve heard my stories of this drive, swimming next to seals in Santa Cruz, finding starfish in tide pools and watching the otters play near the shore in Monterey. Our quest is to find out if such wonders still exist.
We begin our central coast tour in the funky beach town of Santa Cruz at the northern end of Monterey Bay. It’s a college town, surf town and longtime hippie haven. It’s also the home of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a historic oceanfront amusement park that has been welcoming families since 1907.
If you want a campground that’s close to the action, Santa Cruz North Harbor RV Park is a small facility with water views and restaurants right on the marina. You can take a water taxi to the beach, or walk the ½-mile trail. It’s a quick drive to the boardwalk, where you can park your motorhome in one of the outdoor lots.
We hit the boardwalk as soon as we pull in to town and our first stop is an unlikely one — the 1911 Looff carousel. Tweens would normally skip right past a carousel, but this historic beauty is a rite of passage. The reason? The brass ring dispenser — one of the last ones left in the world. Riders on the outside horses have to lean out to grab a ring, then try to lob it into a target. It’s harder than it sounds, thus the challenge — and the expression “grabbing for the brass ring.”
Next up is another National Historic Landmark, the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster dating back to 1924. It’s one of the oldest operating roller coasters in the world, and part of the thrill is the ricketiness of the coaster itself. Every time a train car makes the big drop and begins its wild 46 mph ride, the whole coaster shakes and rattles like it’s about to fall apart. Of course, it’s perfectly safe; to date 60 million riders have taken the plunge.
If you prefer a quieter ride, park your motorhome at the far end of the boardwalk and board the Roaring Camp Railroad. The steam train makes a three-hour-long trip from the beach to the mountains and back. The trains, some of which date back to 1875, originally hauled lumber from the redwood forests. Now, they haul passengers in open cars over historic trestles and through canopies of redwoods. It’s a beautiful ride and a genuinely unique experience.
We wake the next morning to the sound of barking seals. My daughter spots a starfish during a stroll on the beach, and we see a few otters farther out in the water. People of all ages are taking surf lessons. We wander up to the Surfing Museum, staffed by some of the original members of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club from the 1930s. It’s fun to see the vintage boards and watch experienced surfers hit the waves at Steamer Lane.
Many visitors overlook Monterey in favor of its prettier neighbor, Carmel-by-the-Sea. But I’ll take the straightforward charm of Monterey any day (besides, it’s just too hard to navigate an RV down Carmel’s storybook streets).
Monterey was established by the Spanish in 1770, and served as California’s capital under Spanish and Mexican rule. It later gained prominence as a fishing town, driven by the lucrative sardine industry and made famous by novelist John Steinbeck, who described the city in all its gritty glory in Cannery Row.
At the height of the sardine-fishing boom in the 1940s, Cannery Row processed 250,000 tons of fish a year, making it a $50-million-a-year industry. By the 1950s, over fishing had depleted the bay, and the sardines were gone. The canneries closed, and the town was deserted.
Glimpses of the past still remain at Cannery Row. Otters play in the ruins of the sardine chutes — huge tunnels that were used to suck the fish into the canneries. The good news is that after 50 years, the tiny silver fish have returned to the bay, now a National Marine Sanctuary.
These days, the biggest draw is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the world’s largest, with more than 600 species of marine creatures. It sits on the site of a former cannery, but most of the 1.8 million yearly visitors don’t care about the history — they’re there to see the otters.
The newly updated sea otter exhibit is designed so you can view the cute critters from up above or watch them wrestle and play underwater. The Aquarium’s biologists have learned that rescued otter pups quickly become dependent on humans, so now they strive to expose them to minimal human contact, instead utilizing the older otters to serve as surrogate mothers and mentors. The experiment has paid off, as more pups develop the skills they need to make it back to the ocean.
It’s easy to spend all day here. The Ocean’s Edge Touch Pool, a favorite of my childhood, still enchants, as kids lean over to pet bat rays and sea stars. The Jellies Experience uses black light to illuminate jellyfish, that swim by looking like alien life-forms.
If you need a break while visiting, treat yourself to Point Reyes oysters on the half shell at Cindy’s Waterfront in the Aquarium. The restaurant features farm-to-table menus and sustainable seafood. The view is excellent, and each table has its own set of binoculars.
Because the Aquarium is right on the bay, the back deck is part of the show. On the day we visited, we saw shorebirds divebombing an otter, trying to steal an abalone off its belly. Less than 30 yards away, a pod of dolphins swam by, jumping and churning the water.
Leaving the Aquarium, we made the short drive south to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a 550-acre park that is often called “the crown jewel of the State Park System.” (Plan on driving your dinghy, as the Point Lobos parking lot fills quickly and vehicles longer than 20 feet are not permitted on weekends, holidays or during summer. Also note, motorhomes
longer than 40 feet are not permitted along Highway 1 from Carmel south to San Simeon.) Point Lobos is indeed a natural wonderland. There are tide pools teeming with sea stars, anemones and sea urchins, otters playing in kelp beds and harbor seals resting on the beaches. In the winter, gray whales can be seen migrating off the coast.
The docents are happy to lend out binoculars and point the way to the best tide pools. Trails lead past one of only two native stands of Monterey cypress, but my family is content to stay on the rugged coastline. It’s not the western-most point in the lower 48, but looking out to sea, it sure feels like you are standing at the edge of the world.
The stretch of highway from Point Lobos into Big Sur is where the real adventure begins. You won’t be the only ones on the road; the white-knuckled drive is made by more than 3 million people a year. But again, this route is best driven in your dinghy vehicle. The views are breathtaking, and the hardest part is keeping your eyes on the road. This is California’s wild coast, and the attraction is the scenery itself. Fortunately, there are many turnouts to stop and ogle the view. Just make sure you look for ones that are pullthroughs, so you can easily re-enter the road.
Some of the area’s beaches are inaccessible, but views of the ocean and the redwoods are easy to find. Not to be missed is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where a short trail from the parking lot leads to a bluff overlooking McWay Falls. Water from McWay Creek drops 80 feet onto a deserted cove, like some modern day Shangri-La.
From here, it’s another 55 miles south on Highway 1 to San Simeon (famous for Hearst Castle), but we head back to base camp in Monterey, 40 miles north.
SAN JUAN BAUTISTA
After recharging in Monterey, and an obligatory stop in Castroville at the Giant Artichoke, we make our way toward the last leg of our journey — the historic town of San Juan Bautista. As we pull up, I am struck that it looks exactly the same — not only as it had when I last visited 30 years ago — but from the climax scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” which was filmed at the mission and village square in 1958.
The village square is a State Historic Park, and it really is like stepping back in time — not in a costumed re-enactment way, but as if time has stood still.
The mission itself dominates the square. Founded by Spanish missionaries in 1797, Mission San Juan Bautista is the oldest mission in California, and still operates as a Catholic parish. Within walking distance of the old mission is Mission Farm RV Park, which is set in a walnut orchard and has lots of shady spots with full hookups, showers and laundry.
I had told my children stories about seeing the San Andreas fault line, which runs right next to the mission. Sure enough, you can still see where the fault runs, as numerous earthquakes have shifted the land so that one side is 4 feet higher than the other.
Nearby is a large cork tree, planted by Spanish missionaries. The kids got to feel the spongy bark of the tree, and another bedtime story myth is fleshed out. Cork really does grow on trees.
Our trip has come to an end, and we leave with sea urchin shells as souvenirs. The best part is that all those stories about otters and seals and dolphins — they weren’t fairy tales. My kids finally believe me.
For More Information
California State Parks
Mission Farm RV Park
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Point Lobos Foundation
Roaring Camp Railroads
831-335-4484 | www.roaringcamp.com
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Santa Cruz North Harbor RV Park
831-475-3279 | www.santacruzharbor.org/rvReservations.html