Sometimes when you are an adult, you like to buy a motorcycle and ride off into the sunset only to realize you’re not sure where you can see the sunset so you go get a burrito instead. Burritos are great, don’t get me wrong, but burritos and sunsets can be enjoyed together if you just know where to look.
Let’s take a look at California, the land of dreams and droughts. California certainly is not lacking in a wide variety of scenic drives considering its size and climate. The scenery varies in appearance more than my bipolar ex-girlfriend, so there really is something for everyone and anyone looking to escape.
First things first, let’s talk coastline. The California coast is famous for plenty of reasons and not all of them deal with beached whales or whale beaches (there’s another ex-girlfriend reference). The coast has a lot to offer just by size alone, considering the general coastline is 840 miles long. That’s quite the trip for anyone with will and wheels.
The simplest way to traverse this distance is obviously the aptly--albeit it uncreatively--named Pacific Coast Highway. Also called Route 1, the PCH runs along the pacific ocean coast, that’s America’s left coast for you geography majors. Actually, those names aren’t even the half of it. There are many names and designations for the PCH, including Shoreline Highway and Cabrillo Highway. One section in Big Sur, from Carmel to San Luis Obispo, is officially a National Scenic Byway and while the entire coastal highway is eligible for designation as part of the California State Scenic Highway System, currently only a few big chunks around Los Angeles and San Francisco actually hold that official classification.
Since the Big Sur Coast is widely considered one of the most scenic drives in the nation, we’ll cover that first. So speaking as if we’re chilling in San Francisco, the Big Sur drive is just south, near Monterey. In Monterey there are a few beach options, several historical museums about the area and a wax museum (themed around John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row book), an aquarium and some beautiful coastal parks. Farther south, you arrive at Carmel by the Sea, which in my estimation is the spot for the three tourist Ss -- shopping, swimming, surfing. You have white sand beaches and some restaurants and of course stores to get your retail therapy on. Treat yo’self.
You like bridges? Well guess what, you get to navigate Bixby Bridge on this trip, champ! According to one Google reviewer (those exist, apparently) “The best way to cross Bixby Creek Bridge is on a Ducati 999” but I’m sure whatever you ride is fine as well. The bridge spans 714 feet and clears 260, including the longest single-arch span (320 feet) in California. And it cost under $200,000 to build so you know it’s totally safe and not scary at all! It looks so cool when you’re not on it. When you’re on it, I mean, it looks like a road obviously. It’s definitely a landmark and has a spectacular view, so don’t let my irrational fear of bridges get in the way of you spending an exorbitant amount of time above stable ground considering philosophy and modernity.
Keep going, though. There are plenty of beaches along here, and even what some think of as California’s top park in Point Lobos State Natural reserve. There are hikes, tidepools, animals, and visitor limits. I kind of threw that last one in there like it isn’t important but it is. You should try to get there early to get in, because it’s an ecological reserve and foot traffic is strictly controlled.
You got rejected from the reserve? That’s too bad. Hop back on your bike and run down the PCH some more, guys. Plenty still to see. Lighthouses, more tidepools, more parks. You can watch sea lions mate and give birth (in the winter months) at Point Piedras Blancas, and that’s a free, no visitor limit show. Who wouldn’t want to see that? You can even film it on your iPhone, ya sicko. Make sure to avoid vertical filming though, as a courtesy to your viewers.
You also have myriad options to hunt for jade, including Moonstone Beach and Jade Cove. Both again are pretty common-sense names so hopefully if you’re a huge jade hunter you’ll be able to find those. And of course, if you’re into whale watching like the half-drunk version of my best friend Kyle, stop at Morro Bay State Park. There’s a huge rock you can’t climb but can take selfies with, and beach access, and whales aplenty. (In whale season, though. If you go off season do not blame me.)
Also, I neglected to mention until this point the friggin birds, but they deserve their own section so that’s fine. I love birds and bird watching (or ‘birding’ as we birders call it) and the California coast has friggin birds galore. So break out your binocs for this trip. And actually, at Morro Bay there’s a heron/cormorant/egret rookery where they roost year-round so catch that. Spring will have nesting babies if you’re into that. Don’t bring your mom along unless you want to spend the entire drive up PCH listening to “When am I getting a grandchild, Nate? I want a grandbaby! You’d be such a great dad based off of the limited information I have from your pet ownership and brief visits with your niblings over holidays!” Or is that just my family?
Yeah, I know Big Sur is dope and you’re pretty much done with me at this point, but if you stop reading now you’ll have no idea what the northern coast of California has. Well, okay, you know it has beaches and whatnot, obviously, but I can get more specific than that and you can’t. Maybe. I don’t actually know you so I won’t speak to that. Ugh, moving on.
Another (of the many) scenic drives in California is the Northern Pacific Coast, going from San Francisco up to the Redwood Forests. Of course with this one we can include the Golden Gate Bridge which is totally an awesome sight to behold while not on it. Being on the GGB is like doing a hooker. It looks cool in theory, and you know it knows how to do what you need it to do, but once you’re on it you’re thinking “This was a terrible idea” and “Is this seriously still happening?” and “I’m way too high right now” and “Is this thing stable?” Again, maybe that’s just me and bridges but maybe I have a good point.
You’ve got Stinson Beach which was the name-spiration for Barney Stinson because of the birds it gets. Winky emoticon. It’s got a nice lagoon where herons and egrets fish, which is actually way cooler than bridges and I’m surprised you think otherwise.
If you’re going the right direction you’ll probably hit Point Reyes next. Tons of birds here as well and motorcycles are common enough that birds won’t be too scared of you. Statistically, I tell you this for your future Jeopardy! appearance, half of American bird species have popped up in this area, so you’ll definitely see a nice selection of dinosaur descendants here.
Further north you’ll hit bays. Not to be confused with hitting baes, which is illegal, Greg Hardy. Tomales Bay, Bodega Bay, and Jenner Bay for your perusal. Tomales has nice swimming, it’s pretty warm, people go clamming there if they’re weird and like clams. Jenner and Bodega are part of the Sonoma Coast State Beach which is like four miles of beach or something absurd like that. Just north of Jenner is a nice hiking trail. but if you’re on a motorcycle you have no need for hiking, so nuts to that!
If you’re around in spring check out the Kruse Rhododendron State Park. It’s a literal forest of rhododendrons. That’s a weird word for sure, so make sure you take a picture of the sign out front to prove to your naysaying friends that it is indeed a real word and is spelled correctly.
If you model your life after Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Man of the House like I do, you should pop out to the peninsula at Gualala Point or the beach farther north at Manchester to gather driftwood for your magical driftwood collage. If you model yourself after JTT in Speedway Junkies, you should probably get that drug addiction taken care of and then go snorkeling at Point Arena. It’s badass.
If you like feeling giant, especially with regards to your wood, keep driving to visit Van Damme State Park. Jean Claude Van Damme was named after this forest because just like the trees here, his growth was stunted due to his environment. I assume. The trees here are short, so they’ll make you feel adequate, and even the shortest amongst us will be able to tower over them like a giraffe visiting a Christmas tree farm.
Of course you can watch whales, see tide pools or swim most everywhere, but if you keep heading north you’ll reach the artsy Mendocino. They have art (duh) and wineries and little boutiques, it’s a swinging hot spot. You’ve heard Joni Mitchell, right? I’m 140% sure she’s going on about Mendocino considering the location and descriptions. Five or ten miles north is Fort Bragg and MacKerricher State Park, which have seals, hikes, and (Fort Bragg specifically) another museum talking about the logging history of the region. See what I mean? Vintage Joni.
Clearly I’d be remiss to not mention the Redwoods. If you continue north the road will actually go through the forests and not along the coast (for a while). You can camp or fish here at the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, but it’s no frills, so don’t be expecting a lavish getaway. Even a bit more north is the Standish Hickey State Recreation Area with more redwoods and hikes, so if you’re sick of redwoods at Sinkyone, don’t keep going north expecting a break.
Now’s the part where I point out you definitely have more options of sights to see throughout these scenic drives. I mean scenic means that there is plenty to see, and these are some of the most scenic drives in California, so definitely have a look around. I’m just saying there is hardly a dearth of scenery, so be prepared to take pictures, be awestruck and admit to yourself that Big Sur is the best southern California scenic drive and Northern Coast is likely the best northern California scenic drive. You really can’t go wrong with either of these coastal jaunts, but if you hate it or you found something else to be the actual best scenic drive in California (more specifically scenic California coast drives) come back and show me some evidence to support your claim. I’ll be waiting.