Guide to California's Highway 1

Guide to California's Highway 1

Trujillo/Paumier Family in a van on Highway 1.
Trujillo/Paumier Family in a van on Highway 1.

There's a reason it's named number one. A guide to California's legendary Highway 1, from L.A. to San Francisco.

The thing you tend to forget when you're planning a road trip with young kids is that they don't like to leave the places they like. Children are natural-born Buddhists—fervent in their devotion to the here and now. Whatever the next roadside attraction might be, it lacks the deeply persuasive allure of the present one. And besides, once let out of the car, a kid will want to stay out.

Still, there are a few great road trips that can inveigle almost anybody, a few that can instill a lifelong curiosity about what lies beyond the next hairpin turn. The road trip that made me love road trips was on Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, which stretches from Mexico to the town of Leggett in northern California but is perhaps most captivating between Los Angeles and San Francisco. As a kid, I took that 380-mile journey several times in the sixties and seventies, when my parents drove my older brother and sister to college in the Bay Area. Highway 1 was the road to bohemia and liberation, and the trips were like movies, with the Lovin' Spoonful or the Doors on the radio, and the mist-shrouded bluffs of Big Sur beckoning like something out of Tolkien.

Of course, it's not only me. Highway 1 is the sort of road you see in car ads and movies, one that begs to be driven in a red convertible. It has stomach-dropping turns, wide, clean beaches, and cliffs that plunge to the frothing ocean. It cleaves to the edge of the continent in a way that no road on the more developed East Coast does. And just when you're thinking, Enough with the drama already, it offers up acres of soft green farmland—lettuce, strawberries, even the self-proclaimed artichoke capital of the world, Castroville. No wonder this highway is one of America's unofficial pilgrimage routes—for beatniks, surfers, food groupies chasing the latest fresh taste sensation, and thrill-seekers of all sorts.

Missions Ahead
L.A. to Santa Barbara

Last summer, when my husband, Art, and I took our East Coast-bred kids on a weeklong Highway 1 road trip from L.A. to San Francisco, I hoped that Ike, six, and Lucy, not quite three, would love it as I had. We decided to start off slowly (and fudge the amount of time they'd actually spend in the car) with a two-night stop in Santa Barbara. The road between L.A. and Santa Barbara—it's called 101 and lies inland—is the least interesting, most mall-ridden and generic part of the route, and we hustled through it. Still, as we got farther from L.A. in our rented van, the lion-colored hills, the oleander bushes, and the signs that read warning: AVOCADO THEFT IS A CRIME reminded me I was home again.

Santa Barbara is one of those lucky places—lucky in its Mediterranean climate, its lemon- and lavender- and sea-scented air, and its location, nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and a Nice-like curve of coastline where palm trees lean toward the sea. It was even lucky, in a way, in the earthquake that destroyed the town in 1925, allowing its civic fathers to build a planned city such as you rarely see in the United States, with a profusion of red-tile-roofed Spanish Colonial architecture.

On Stearns Wharf the first evening, we found a funky little novelty confection store, where we bought candy lipstick and Gummi penguins. Ike and Lucy ate them while we looked back at the mountains rising straight and misty blue in the twilight, their foothills stitched with glimmering lights. In a Mexican part of town the next day, we had lunch at a crowded taquería called La Super-Rica—an unprepossessing place painted aqua and white where we devoured wonderful chayote (squash) tamales and tacos made with grilled pork and calabacitas (zucchini).

I wanted to see the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the "queen" of the California missions. It was built by the Spanish (or, perhaps more accurately, by the Chumash Indians they aimed to convert) between 1786 and 1820—old, old, old, by New World standards. In the gardens there, near a Morton Bay fig tree with roots like a nest of anacondas, we found a plaque commemorating Juana María, "the lone woman of San Nicolas Island," who is buried somewhere on the grounds and was the inspiration for one of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins.

What I liked best about Santa Barbara, though, were the parks. The city has devoted considerable creative energy to them, and several have playgrounds that offer whimsical riffs on the local environment. In the shipwreck playground at Chase Palm Park, just across from the beach, Ike and Lucy clambered over a cement whale and a giant shell partly submerged in the grass, and played hide-and-seek in a small-scale mission painted with bougainvillea vines. In the honey-drip light of a Santa Barbara late afternoon, we walked around Alameda Park, where a Mexican family was celebrating its daughter's quinceañera. The men played soccer, kids ambushed one another with water balloons from behind the fan palms, and a guy sold Mexican ices in flavors like guava and tamarind from a pushcart with a tinkly bell. Across the street, at the Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, we admired some of the unfamiliar botanical specimens: an Australian tea tree; geraniums that smell distinctly like chocolate mint. The Keck is a "sensory garden," designed to be especially appealing to visually impaired people, so the scents are delicious. But Lucy wanted to hang out at the pond, which was swarming with big, shiny koi, families of turtles, and peppermint-pink water lilies.

By this point, Art and I were eager to get back in the car—this was a road trip, after all, and in lovely, complacent Santa Barbara, we really hadn't glimpsed the wackier edges of California. On our way out of town, we couldn't resist taking a detour into the hills to have lunch at an old stagecoach stop we'd heard about. Cold Spring Tavern is half hidden in a grove of oak and sycamore trees. Inside it's a warren of rooms, with stone fireplaces, sloping wooden floors, and oil lamps on the tables. It is also, as it happens, a biker hangout—though fortunately, these particular bikers were a mellow subset dedicated to sobriety. Outside, the bikers and their ladies stood around eating tri-tip, a local specialty of barbecued beef served on a roll, and listening to a surprisingly tight little blues combo. I liked the whole scene, though the motorcycles roaring up every few minutes were a bit unnerving and the food was only so-so.

The advantage to a less than stellar meal was that none of us ate much, and we had room for the dense, vanilla-y butter cookies in Solvang, a Danish theme park of a town with half-timbered houses and a windmill, set down incongruously off Highway 101. (Fake as it looks, the town was actually founded by Danish immigrants—schoolteachers, we learned—in 1911.)

Welcome to the Kitsch Belt
The Central Coast

Just west of Solvang, heading toward the coast, we discovered Ostrich Land—a genuine roadside attraction, and, like the best of them, utterly random. Why ostriches?Why here?In any case, you can feed them and Lucy did, many, many times, though it didn't seem to cut much ice with them. Ike said the ostriches looked like feather dusters on legs; there was something of the jaded party guest about them too, peering just past you for someone more glamorous or with more food pellets. In a field right next to the ostrich pen you could pick strawberries that were juicy and intensely sweet.

By dusk we'd reached San Luis Obispo and were pulling up to the Madonna Inn, a 108-room hotel built in 1958 that is so pink and gold and exuberantly tacky, it achieves a kind of camp apotheosis. (The afternoon we were there, a couple of L.A. hipsters were getting married, the bride in a Chinese-style sheath.) A lot of people stop in just to see the bathrooms—the men's facility downstairs has a rocky waterfall for a urinal. We planned to do the same and skip an overnight in one of the aggressively unique rooms. But once Ike got a look at the place, he wanted to stay, and we relented. Unfortunately, Flintstonian follies like the Jungle Rock Room and the Caveman Room are booked months in advance. On such short notice, we ended up with the Country Gentleman Suite, which was meant to resemble an English manor but looks more like a Technicolor bachelor's lair from a Rock Hudson movie or a Cindy Sherman photograph. On our way out the next morning, we dipped into the gift shop, which sells postcards of every room in the place. The kids picked out a few rooms they hoped to stay in someday, and I bought one of Phyllis Madonna, the sultry, accordion-playing beauty who'd dreamed up the inn with her construction tycoon husband, Alex, and who sweetened its early years with her famous cheesecakes.

The Madonna Inn isn't the only kitsch landmark in these parts. In the otherwise cute and tidy downtown of San Luis Obispo, you can visit Bubblegum Alley, a narrow passageway where, for reasons lost in the mists of time, local students and others have been sticking chewed gum ever since the early sixties. The walls are encrusted with a thick impasto of multicolored wads that give off an overpowering odor of tutti-frutti, Dubble Bubble, and peppermint. It's extravagantly icky—a school custodian's nightmare—so, naturally, kids love it. As for us adults, Art said he thought S.L.O. would be a great town to lie low in for a while, like an only-sorta-bad character from a Ross MacDonald novel—it's just out of the way enough, with a Spanish-style mission plaza, cool vintage shops, and a cluster of promising-looking bars and cafés whose back decks jut over the creek that winds through town. We liked the Big Sky Café, which serves earnest, neo-hippie California cuisine under a ceiling painted a star-spattered indigo. Art and I had mahimahi with tomato-ginger salsa; the kids ate macaroni and cheese in a surprisingly natural shade of yellow, and got crayons in little metal pails.

At this point on the route, a lot of people make their way to Hearst Castle, one of America's great monuments to the dream of buying lineage—in Hearst's case, piece by piece, bric-by-brac from Europe. There are tours geared to families, plus a treasure hunt for kids up to 12 at the visitors' center, with prizes for winners, but we felt our children were too young. We headed instead for the anti-Hearst Castle, a sort of folk art installation that is now a California Historical Landmark in the pretty beach town of Cambria. Nit Wit Ridge is a house of junk, or, if you prefer, found objects—beach glass, pebbles, abalone shells, beer cans, old appliances—made by a fellow named Art Beal, a.k.a. Der Tinkerpaw. On a tour of the house we learned that Beal was a half-Klamath Indian who'd been a long-distance swimmer, a vaudeville performer, and a trash collector. For a while, he worked construction at Hearst Castle, and some of the fixtures and a bathtub here were scavenged from Old Man Hearst's Shangri-la. Beal dedicated himself to building an entirely recycled house: he started in 1928 and didn't stop adding to it for the next 50 years.

Beyond Cambria, we wound our way past fields of cabbages, artichokes, and tomatoes. It felt especially good to be on the road. A lone egret stood by the highway. Gauzy scarves of fog wrapped themselves around the tawny hills. The fog was so beguiling that we didn't really mind it obscuring our glimpses of the coast. Besides, we had a bagful of olallieberry muffins from Linn's Main Bin in Cambria. Olallieberries are a local treat—part blackberry, part European raspberry—and the muffins were still warm. And before we got to Big Sur, our fourth day's destination, there were the elephant seals to look for.

The best place to see northern elephant seals—huge, comically magnificent animals that live only in the waters off Alaska and California—is at a reserve called Año Nuevo, 50 miles south of San Francisco. The best time to see them is mid-December to March, when the males battle on the beach for access to the females and also when pups are born (gestation is about a year). We'd heard that there was a turnout a little north of San Simeon, though, where you could view a colony that had recently established itself. You can hear them long before you see them. Elephant seals are noisy, and the noises they make are symphonically varied, from bleating and barking to snorting and yodeling. The noses on the males are lumpy, pendulous proboscises that make them look a bit like W. C. Fields. We watched for a long time while they undulated over the sand like giant squishy toys.

Hang on to That Cliff
Big Sur

"That jagged country which nothing but a falling meteor will ever plow" is how the poet Robinson Jeffers described this place. Henry Miller called it "the face of the earth as the creator intended it to look." Big Sur is by far the most dramatic stretch of coastline on the route—90 miles of switchbacking road that skirts sheer cliffs lording it over a fierce blue sea, redwood groves as grand and hushed as Gothic cathedrals, blond headlands scattered with wildflowers. Big Sur has a secluded, half-secret feel to it. They didn't get electricity here until the 1950's, but that didn't prevent writers like Jeffers and Miller, and lots of lesser bohemians with a fondness for hot tubs and geodesic domes, from making their homes here. The Esalen Institute, the mother of all New Age retreats, is in Big Sur. For a while in the late sixties, Esalen attracted an eclectic assortment of questers, from Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda to Joan Baez and the Beatles (Ringo and George). Today you can stay there, or if you're not a guest, visit the hot springs between 1 and 5 a.m., when they are open to the public.

We gave that option a skip, deciding to explore gorgeous Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. We walked the high trail that leads to a view of McWay Falls, a long, narrow band of water that plunges directly to the bell-shaped cove. The ocean is wild at this point—churning furiously, gleaming here and there with a pale, mentholated blue. You can't get to the beach itself, and there's something dreamlike, and frustrating in a dreamlike way, about its elusiveness.

At sunset we stopped at Nepenthe, the restaurant named after an ancient Egyptian drug that induced amnesia. A big, terraced place with outrageous views, it was built on the site of a cabin Orson Welles gave to Rita Hayworth. Art and I drank white wine, and the kids had pink lemonade with extra maraschino cherries. Not a Henry Miller (or an Orson Welles) moment, but a lovely one.

It was still light at 8:15 when we crossed Bixby Creek Bridge, the 265-foot-high arch known as the Rainbow Bridge. Far below, the soft, moss-green hills look like an elf world, speckled with vivid patches of Indian paintbrush, goldenrod, yellow lupine, and orange poppies. Of all our stops, Big Sur was the hardest to leave behind. And we wished we'd stayed the night there, at the Big Sur Lodge in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, or in one of the cozy cabins at a hippie holdover like Deetjen's Big Sur Inn.

Wet and Wild
Monterey Bay

North of Big Sur, on the Monterey Peninsula, the choices about where to stop grow tougher. There's the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row (an appealing, if touristy, complex of shops and arcades) in Monterey itself; the National Steinbeck Center in nearby Salinas; the butterflies of Pacific Grove (if you're passing through between October and early March, when migrating monarchs gather); and the fried artichokes of Castroville. There's kayaking in Monterey Bay, where you're likely to encounter cavorting otters, and hiking or biking on the 18-mile Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail.

Lodging can be expensive here, so we felt fortunate to find Asilomar, a beach and conference grounds owned by California State Parks and built, in 1913, as a YWCA retreat. Its architect, Julia Morgan, also designed Hearst Castle—though at Asilomar she got a chance to work in the Arts and Crafts style she loved. The result is a mosaic of stone and redwood structures that blend into the natural surroundings.

A stay at Asilomar feels a bit like summer camp: the rooms are small and simple but comfortable (many have fireplaces, and ours had a Murphy bed that intrigued both kids); deer roam the grounds; and the staff rings a bell when it's time to eat (family-style, at shared tables in the dining hall). In the high-ceilinged, redwood-beamed main building, there are pool tables and board games. If you're not attending a conference, you can feel like a stray—on one of our two nights there the four of us showed up for dinner with hundreds of elderly nuns. Still, the food was good, in a hearty, nouveau family-friendly way: a salad of watercress, local greens, and mandarin oranges, followed by roast beef and fingerling potatoes and pineapple upside-down cake.

Asilomar has an outdoor pool, but even in July it was too chilly to swim. Instead we waded into the tide pools on the state beach, which you can walk to on a boardwalk through dunes where yellow verbena, sagewort, and yarrow grow thick. The tide pools glistened with life: orange and purple sea stars, swaying anemones, hermit crabs in a perpetual hurry—whole, busy worlds in cunning miniature.

That helped put us in the mood for the aquarium, where we spent most of one day (because we had called ahead for tickets, we waltzed past the monster line). Several of the exhibits—the three-story kelp forest and the wonderfully psychedelic "Jellies: Living Art," for example—are triumphs of aesthetics as well as science. The interactive sections are clever and inviting: Lucy and Ike loved petting the bat rays, and the Splash Zone, an area for kids nine and younger, has real penguins, a crawl-through coral reef, and a huge molded clamshell you can climb into. The aquarium is ideally situated on the bay and feels, to an extraordinary degree, like an extension of it, as though the curators had managed to bring the ocean inside.

Our last morning in the area, we debated a visit to Carmel, the posh, pretty beach town where Clint Eastwood used to be mayor. But we decided we'd rather take a look at Point Lobos, a state park on the coast that I'd been hearing about for years. This is one of only two places (the other is at Cypress Point, across Carmel Bay) where you can see stands of Monterey cypress, wind-twisted trees that cling precariously to the outermost rocks on the shore. Silvery lace lichen dangled from some of the gnarled branches, and others were covered in a sort of paprika-colored fur—actually an algae that gets its unusual hue from beta-carotene. Far below, the roiling surf looked like so many overactive cauldrons.

The Home Stretch
Santa Cruz to San Francisco

It's a pleasure to roll into Santa Cruz, the sun-kissed banana belt of the northern California coast, the place where summer feels like summer. Alas, this was also the part of the trip where we threatened to pull over and put the squabbling kids out of the car. (There's a moment like that on every family road trip. Right?Tell me there is.) And it was also the point at which a silver-haired man in a Mercedes yelled and swore at us for littering, after he saw my husband toss from the car window a small bunch of wildflowers that were making the kids sneeze.

Luckily, summer city, as we thought of it, had plenty to cheer us up. For one thing, there is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an old-fashioned, remarkably clean amusement park with an actual brass-ring carousel that dates from 1911 and a bracing but not brain-rattling white wooden roller coaster (the Giant Dipper) built in 1924. The boardwalk has the fanciful, diligently exotic trappings of pre-Disney fun palaces: Moorish details on the Casino Arcade, carved seahorses on the carousel. I'm particularly fond of the age-guessing booth, where, strangely, the age guesser always surmises you're younger than you are, unless you happen to be a child. And I love the first inkling of twilight on the boardwalk, when neon the color of gumdrops spangles the sky, and teenage sweethearts in identical baggy jeans join the flocks of families.

We didn't have time to visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which occupies a lighthouse overlooking a popular surfing beach, Steamer Lane, where the local talent, seal-like in their wet suits, nose over long, white curls of wave. And we didn't have as much time as I would have liked on the Paci-fic Avenue pedestrian mall, a shaded promenade with a smattering of hobby shops and cafés, home furnishings stores, and—this being a college town—bookstores (especially the marvelous Bookshop Santa Cruz). We did have coffee and pastries one evening with my niece Caitlin, who goes to U.C. Santa Cruz, and her boyfriend, Nate. They introduced us to the sheltered back garden at Lulu Carpenter's, a café on Pacific, where we had a fulfillingly collegiate conversation about the death penalty and the drumming craze on campus.

We stayed that night at the Babbling Brook Inn, a bed-and-breakfast tucked into a forested garden off a busy street. It has a big waterwheel that splashed outside our window all night, and a waterfall, too. Our room, with its fireplace and soft white counterpane, made me sleepy the moment I saw it, but Ike wanted to wander the grounds, which he called Ewok Village.

The next morning we pushed on to San Francisco. We had only a day there to spend with family, and we'd been on the road for long enough that Lucy was starting to yearn out loud for her "real house, and real crib, and real computer." A single day in San Francisco is a torturous thing. What to do, when there's so much to do?In the end, we decided on the Walk, a tradition of our family holidays for the last few years, discovered and promoted by my intrepid sister-in-law, Pippa.

The Walk takes you from the Marina, a small, rocky beach where you can watch crazy windsurfers, past the open expanse of Crissy Field, a former air-field that is now an urban meadow, past a marsh that is a sanctuary for waterbirds, to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, and just under it, to eerie Fort Point, an echoing Civil War citadel that kids scramble around. I prefer to stand atop the fort, gazing out at the choppy blue waters of the bay and the ocean beyond, wondering who on earth the American government thought would be attacking from the Pacific during the Civil War, wondering what life was like in this dank chambered shell for the men stationed here, whose morose, mustachioed faces you can see in old photographs in one wing. You feel a pleasant thrill of exposure on the ramparts here, as though you're on the edge of something.

I love all our regular stops: the various goofy memorials to great dogs who've been walked there, the rock-balancing performance art of a local Zen kind of guy who piles small boulders on top of one another in astonishing feats of physics, the pipes you can put your ear to and hear underwater ocean sounds, the places where you can best see glowering Alcatraz, and the Warming Hut, the café where we always break for (very good) coffee and hot chocolate. To my mind, the Walk is the perfect blend of urban and natural: behind you, the San Francisco skyline rises Oz-like and tantalizing, in shades of silver-tinged tweed, clouds chasing one another around the skyscrapers like excitable children. Ahead of you, the Golden Gate Bridge looms gloriously, wreathed in fog. Often we spot seals not far from shore, and once my nephew jumped into the water and swam with one, who kept a guarded but seemingly friendly distance of 10 feet or so.

We usually have the discussion about whether it's true, as you always hear, that as soon as workmen finish painting the 1.7-mile bridge they have to start over, the salt air having already scoured away the new coat. I often think of that as a metaphor for the unending tasks in life—doing laundry, for instance. But that day, I thought of it in a happier light. I thought of how much, just about now, I'd like to start our road trip all over again.

Margaret Talbot is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The Facts
Santa Barbara
Harbor View Inn 28 W. Cabrillo Blvd.; 800/755-0222 or 805/963-0780;; doubles from $175
Four Seasons Resort Santa Barbara 1260 Channel Dr.; 800/332-3442 or 805/969-2261;; doubles from $480
La Super-Rica TaquerIía 622 N. Milpas St.; 805/963-4940; dinner for four $35
Cold Spring Tavern 5995 Stagecoach Rd.; 805/967-0066; lunch for four $38
Old Mission Santa Barbara 2201 Laguna St.; 805/682-4149
Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens 1300 Micheltorena St.

Central Coast
Madonna Inn 100 Madonna Rd., San Luis Obispo 800/543-9666 or 805/543-3000;; doubles from $147
Big Sky Café 1121 Broad St., San Luis Obispo; 805/545-5401; dinner for four $50
Linn's Main Bin 2277 Main St., Cambria; 805/927-1499; olallieberry muffins $1.95 each
Ostrich Land 610 E. Hwy. 246, Buellton 805/686-9696;
Bubblegum Alley Higuera St. (between Garden and Broad sts.), San Luis Obispo
Hearst Castle 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon 800/444-4445 or 805/927-2020;
Nit Wit Ridge 881 Hillcrest Dr., Cambria; 805/927-2690; reservations required

Big Sur
Esalen Institute Hwy. 1; 831/667-3000;; family of four from $310; hot springs $20 per person
Big Sur Lodge 47225 Hwy. 1; 800/424-4787 or 831/667-3100; doubles from $119
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn 48865 Hwy. 1; 831/667-2377; cabins from $150
Nepenthe Hwy. 1; 831/667-2345; dinner for four $100
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Hwy. 1, between Lucia and Big Sur; 831/667-2315

Monterey Bay
Asilomar 800 Asilomar Blvd.; 831/372-8016;; doubles from $125
Tarpy's Roadhouse 2999 Monterey-Salinas Hwy.; 831/647-1444; dinner for four $90
Monterey Bay Aquarium 866 Cannery Row; 831/648-4888;
National Steinbeck Center 1 Main St., Salinas; 831/796-3833;
Monterey Bay Kayaks 693 Del Monte Ave.; 800/649-5357 or 831/373-5357
Point Lobos State Reserve Hwy. 1, three miles south of Carmel; 831/624-4909

Santa Cruz to San Francisco
Babbling Brook Inn 1025 Laurel St., Santa Cruz; 800/866-1131 or 831/427-2437;; doubles from $165
Lulu Carpenter's 1545 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831/429-9804
Warming Hut Presidio, Bldg. 983, San Francisco; 415/561-3042
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk 400 Beach St.; 831/423-5590;
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, W. Cliff Dr.; 831/420-6289
Bookshop Santa Cruz 1520 Pacific Ave.; 831/423-0900
Año Nuevo State Reserve Hwy. 1, 10 miles north of Davenport; 800/444-4445 or 650/879-0227;

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