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California Dreaming

I recently wrote about my hiking trip through the Point Reyes National Seashore, with a hint that there was more to be revealed. Well, here is the second installment about my dreamy drive (in a Mustang convertible of course) through California on my way to and from the hike. Small disclaimer though, about the wheels: I got the Mustang only because the last Chevy Camaro had just been driven out of the rental car lot as I reached the row of convertibles.

Mustang with trunk open and backpack leaned against it

Even though it wasn't a Camaro convertible, this Mustang would still work for my California road trip!


Part 1: Northbound

Excited for my journey from LAX up to the Bay Area, I stowed the roof, tuned the Pandora app on my phone to play the Eagles, turned up the volume, and hit the road! First on my agenda was completing the last few miles of I-10 from LA to Santa Monica. That's because in a couple separate trips I've managed to travel the entire length of I-10 from Jacksonville, FL to Los Angeles, but somehow had never finished that last four miles. I knocked that off in no time and was on my way to Pismo Beach up the Pacific Coast Highway.

As Don Henley and the late Glenn Frey sung their stories about life in California, I traversed the curvy and scenic seaside road, past the surfers in Malibu and the RVs parked on the side of the road. I thoroughly enjoyed the views and the tunes until I noticed the car was, in a tribute to the Eagles' great friend Jackson Browne, running on empty! Between that and a small issue with one of the car's rear windows, I had to make a visit to the car rental location at the Santa Barbara Airport. While they worked on the window, I availed myself of the facilities and took some amazing photos of the airport's tile work and surrounding mountains.

Santa Barbara Airport, CA

Santa Barbara Airport tile work and surrounding mountains

Arriving on an early morning flight from the east coast had its advantages and disadvantages...I got a head start on my drive up the coast the first day, but by the time I got to Pismo Beach I was bone tired. I took a look at the beach, its lovely seaside park and the seabirds and headed directly to the hotel.

Colorful Pismo Beach, CA

I hadn't eaten since the flight, so I went to AJ Spurs Saloon and Dining Hall across the parking lot from the hotel, the only place that didn't involve getting back in the car. The menu listed the usual foods and drinks but also shared "A Cowboy's Guide to Life" by Texas Bix Bender. The guide includes such gems as "Don't squat with yer spurs on," "Never smack a man who's chewing' tobacco," and my favorite, "If you get to thinking' you're a person of some influence, try ordering' someone else's dog around." Before I even had a chance to take in the rustic appointments like branding irons, wagon wheels, saddles, taxidermied animals, and of course, spurs, I found before me on the table a cast iron pot full of vaquero stew and bowls of very flavorful black beans and salsa. I was so hungry, I barely had room for my dinner after scarfing all that down. I slept well.


The next day I continued north on the PCH for what ended up becoming a glorious wildlife viewing day! I first arrived in Morro Bay, where the otters were floating and napping in a section of the town harbor known as the sea otter nursery. The area around the harbor is pedestrian friendly and sports some interesting sculptures as well as signs requesting that visitors keep the noise to a minimum so as not to disturb the relaxing otters.

It's hard not to relax and smile when adorable sea otters are mere feet away! But don't sit on the really is made of bronze.

Farther up the coast in Piedras Blancas near San Simeon, I found the sea elephant rookery! The males come ashore in the summer to undergo a catastrophic molt, and while they just look like they are sunbathing, they sometimes get bored and occasionally decide they want to mix things up a bit. Oh, and their voices sound like really huge belches.

After learning about the sea elephants, I continued up the coast. The vistas from the road became even more dramatic and breathtaking, especially in the section near Big Sur. I made a quick stop at the Henry Miller Library ("Where nothing happens!"), a tiny gem tucked into a curve and under magnificent redwood trees. I left there for Monterey Bay.

Big Sur, CA

I made it up to the Monterey area in the early afternoon, which allowed for enough time to go kayaking in the Elkhorn Slough. It was a great way to get closer to the otters, seals and pelicans that call the area home. What a magnificent day it became!

The wildlife in Elkhorn Slough, CA


The next day I was scheduled to pick up one of the other Pt. Reyes hikers at the San Francisco Airport in the morning, so I headed out early for the big city. I was easy to spot in the white convertible, despite the crowds at the arrivals section of the airport and we (Bill from Kansas and I) headed for Golden Gate Park to kill some time. The traffic was kind of crazy and the GPS took us through some interesting neighborhoods (and kids' soccer games) along the way. We arrived at the bridge with hordes of other people in tour buses and all manner of wheeled vehicles, so we looked at the bridge and headed right out.

Our next stop was the Muir Woods National Monument, where I stood inside one of the iconic trees. (C'mon, I was a tourist, after all!) The trees dwarf everything and their peacefulness and majesty are humbling. This was a magnificent way to end my trip north on the Pacific Coast Highway, and it was a great prelude to my hiking trip! I dropped Bill off at the Point Reyes hostel, and spent the night in a little cabin in Lagunitas, just up the road from the next day's meeting place.

Muir Woods National Monument


Part 2: Southbound

Not wanting to repeat my itinerary on the way south after the Point Reyes trip, as tempting as the idea was, (hint, hint: Big Sur), I left the National Seashore and headed through the East Bay to the town of Concord, where I luxuriated in a real bed and my first hot shower in days. I woke up early, packed up my things and headed to Mount Diablo State Park. To arrive at the summit, you have to white-knuckle it on a road that is California's answer to the drive up Pike's Peak...except this one allows bicycle riders (GASP!), which made for a very slow journey to the top. The terror of hitting a rider lessened only when a California condor flew right in front of the car on an updraft. Now that was cool! (But obviously I couldn't snap a picture of it.) Mount Diablo gains its fame from being the peak of reference for many surveys of the surrounding areas. As expected, it was quite hazy the day I was there, so none of the photos came out very well.

Mt. Diablo summit marker

From Mt. Diablo, I headed south to Pinnacles National Park. I arrived with just enough daylight left to set up my tent and eat dinner. Fortunately, I could check in and pay for my campsite at the visitor center kiosk. I was really looking forward to being outside again, and awakening to the sound of birds in the morning.

I quickly discovered that the park had no cell service, so I drove back out about three miles in order to text home to say I arrived safely, and along the way I witnessed an amazing moonrise.

Moonrise at Pinnacles National Park

Moonrise at Pinnacles National Park

In the chilly morning of the next day, I hiked up the Condor Gulch Trail, and had breakfast next to a lizard warming itself in the sun. As I ate and admired the indescribable topography, a condor soared overhead, and I heard coyotes howling in the distance.

Pinnacles National Park's Condor Gulch Trail

After a beautiful and memorable morning of solitude in the park, I headed south again towards San Luis Obispo (or "SLO" to the locals), with a pit stop at the Mission of San Miguel. I'm in general not crazy about the whole idea of missions and what happened to the native populations in their wake, but I do love the architecture, so I stopped for photos.

Missions of San Miguel and San Luis Obispo

I noticed on my (trusty, old school, paper) map that I could take a road through the Santa Ynez Mountains to get down to Carpinteria, my next rest stop before heading home. Thanks to a backup on the 101, the GPS directed me along Santa Barbara Beach, where dozens of people played in several beach volleyball games. It was Southern California after all, and it brought me a pleasant surprise at the end of a long day. The hotel was nice and within walking distance of the post office and a good restaurant, so I had a good night's rest before my next night which would be spent on an airplane.


On my last day in Southern California, I met my childhood friend Amy in the San Fernando Valley and we drove down Topanga Canyon Road to Malibu for lunch. I had always wondered what those famous roads were like, so I had to experience them firsthand. Amy and I stayed for hours and enjoyed catching up after--well, I'm not even going to mention how many years/decades! We had fresh seafood on paper plates on an outdoor patio that boasted a view of the ocean. It was a bit chilly, but we didn't care, and I discovered later that my sister had dined at the very same restaurant when she visited Southern California and met an old school friend for a meal, too. How strange life is.

Meeting an old friend is a great way to end an epic journey.

Before it got too late in the evening, I was on my way back to LAX for the red-eye flight home, car top down, and Pandora set to play the Eagles full blast again. Wouldn't you know that as soon as I crossed into Los Angeles, the speakers blared "Hotel California"...the right soundtrack for the ending to an epic journey that I will remember for a lifetime!


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