Driving the California Coast

Even though we’re presently in France, I wanted to share our experience driving up the California central coast from a few months back.

We started the day early in Cambria. It was a crisp sunny morning and after weeks in the southwest the dense cool air felt healthy. We got some coffee and spent the next couple hours cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping to take in the scenery and snap pictures. After driving through most of Big Sur we pulled off the road, over the rumble strip and onto the dirt along side. Ahead of us in large letters a yellow sign read: “Impassable in wet weather” – That’s how we knew we were at the start of the “Old Coast Road”

As we did a quick check of the car we saw two mountain bikers at the trailhead. Dust from their bikes was lingering in the air and started to cloud as the rest of their group reached the end of the road. We’d heard a little about the Old Coast Road online: It winds up through redwoods and cattle pastures into the mountains high above the PCH. It isn’t more than 15 miles, but we’d been warned it could take several hours. Apparently delays from fallen trees, washouts, and herds of cattle crowding the narrow dirt road were a regular thing.

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A warning before we started on the old coast road

The group of mountain bikers descended the one-lane slope from the trailhead towards the PCH, allowing us enough room to start up the road. With the Jeep switched to 4-wheel drive, we slowly crossed a cattle guard and made our way onto the trail. We started climbing at a moderate pace. A few miles in we were flagged down by a confused German man (the only other person we saw on the road) waving awkwardly at us with both hands. Despite looking like he’d taken a wrong turn, he just wanted us to take pictures of him with his car. Many pictures actually, and after several different poses he reluctantly accepted his camera back and we continued on. A huge dust cloud formed behind us as we drove inland through grassy hills and scrub brush watching the ocean shrink in the rear view mirror until it disappeared behind a ridge.

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Winding through the mountains on our way up

The steady incline leveled out and gave way to a short (but steep) decline into a redwood grove. The road had narrowed and we slowed to a crawl over the larger rocks and bumps. The constant crunching of the tires over the dry rocky terrain became white noise, only interrupted occasionally by Bethany saying that she was feeling car sick. We carefully made our way around blind corners and through massive redwoods, several leaning ominously over the road. Deer watched us cautiously from a distance in the woods and it became clear at that point that this road really didn’t get much traffic.

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A blind corner on our way into a redwood grove

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Taking a break in the shade

As we left the shaded redwood grove the road snaked west, back toward the ocean and we started to climb steeply again. After a long ascent we made it to the top and were rewarded with a stunning view. Grassy hills and coastal plains rolled out for a few miles to an incredibly deep blue ocean. A narrow, cream colored string of sand and surf outlined the boundary between land and sea. Huge banks of clouds that had effortlessly rolled in over the pacific ocean collided with the Big Sur mountains, trapping them along the coast. It felt like the whole scene was a show put on just for us, and that we had front row seats from our vantage point on top of the mountains.

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Looking out to the Pacific

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Our view from above the clouds

A couple hours later we rejoined the highway at Bixby canyon and continued up the coast. We passed one beautiful vista after another, but the view from the peak of the old coast road is the one that I will never forget.

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Bixby Canyon bridge from the Old Coast road

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