Seattle to Santa Barbara: Part 2 – NorCal and Central Coast

February 14-20

We left Harris Beach State Park and made our way into Brookings OR to do some laundry. Brookings is a beautiful area, but the town itself didn’t do much for us.

Jamie restocked on groceries at the market while I tended to our clothes at the laundromat.

About an hour later we were in familiar territory among Northern California’s Redwood forests. A quick walkabout along Cal Barrel Road in the National Park got us stretching our legs a bit, and gazing upward frequently. Nature’s kingdom. We had walked the same road a few years back on our way north to Seattle from Phoenix- with a dog, it was the only exploring we were permitted to do within the Park.

We climbed back in Arch and moved three hours south along US-101 to Leggett, CA. There was a campground right off the highway. It’d be our home for the night.

On the way to Leggett, we stopped off for a bathroom break in Garderville. I took a wrong turn getting back to the highway and used a pullout to fix my error. I let Charley out in the pullout for her own bathroom break, but she stopped mid-step and stared sharply at the road. A dog was standing in the middle, and fortunately an oncoming car and noticed and stopped short. I coaxed the dog over (after throwing Charley, now barking incessantly, in the car). No dogtag. Another couple stopped in the pullout.

“There’s a tent on fire just down the hill that we passed. Not sure where the dog came from, maybe they got spooked by it and took off.”

A tent on fire. Just another strange happening on the road.

The other couple were willing to take the dog and do some more investigating, as they were local. We thanked them, and continued down the road to Leggett.

Solitude. We certainly enjoy it. I know I’ve written about it countless times. But in Leggett CA at the campground across from the PEG House, a trinket/gift/convenient store with a restaurant and cafe, we ran into some eerie solitude. Jamie and I were shocked to find that, save for the camp host (whom we never saw), we were the only souls there. Among quiet tall pines, with a touch of uneasiness, we settled in for the evening. I went for a run down the steep bank to the winding Eel River before dark, still no sign of other campers.

But we did our usual routine, popped the Nest, pulled out the kitchen and camp lights, and had dinner and a campfire. I didn’t sleep much though, and kept my hatchet beneath the pillow, just for good measure.

We didn’t get murdered, so that was good. When we woke up, sure enough, still the only campers around. No late night arrivals. Grabbing a coffee at the PEG House, we prepared a simple breakfast in the parking lot: yogurt, fruit and granola, some cheese.

On the road shortly after, it was 1.5 hours south and past the split where CA-1 heads to the coast and US 101 continues inland. We’d taken the northern coast on our last time through the area. Although it was incredible, we wanted to get some new tracks laid down, and headed toward the Sonoma vineyards.

“It’s so dry all of a sudden, it’s crazy.” We were heading southeast, away from the temperate coast, and it was clear that the coastal mountains were greedy with the precipitation. In under a couple hours, we moved from lush damp forest to arid, sun-drenched hills.

We arrived at Dutcher Crossing Vineyard, our first of two stops (both dog friendly) in Sonoma Valley. A 25 acre estate, the small vineyard was near empty. The sun was welcomed after a chilly night in the forest, and it warmed us for a while.

In the back of our minds, we were still mulling over our plans for the night. No campground had been chosen, but we weren’t too concerned at the moment, enjoying wine and conversation with the staff.

Christopher Creek Vineyard was only 20 minutes away, and we were treated to a thorough lesson in viniculture from Olivia (that I always seem to forget 5 minutes later). We told her about our predicament with nowhere yet to sleep that night. She recommended we take a drive into Healdsburg for dinner and she mentioned a few inns. Well, they were far too pricy for us, as we realized the affluence of the Healdsburg area, but Pizzana served up a couple delicious pies and we decided to forego “roughing it” for the night. A night at the Best Western in town was the decision, after a walk through downtown Healdsburg.

A warm night’s sleep and hot shower got us going the next day. We pulled into the square in Healdsburg, got coffee from a shop nearby, and prepped breakfast from the fridge: hard boiled eggs, fruit, yogurt, granola. I realized on this trip that it’s easy to eat well on the road if you keep it simple.

We set our bearing for the Santa Cruz mountains, south of San Francisco. Past Sausalito and up onto the Golden Gate, we skipped SF and instead opted for scenic Route 35 along the ridge of the Santa Cruz range. Heading south, the ocean flanked our right, SF and then San Jose to the left. We got out and walked a bit up on the ridge, and I peeled off for a nice run along the oceanview trails.

We came down off the ledge in a winding, labyrinthic fashion, taking skinny roads around corners certainly not big enough to fit cars going in both directions. Slow, be smart I told myself.

Eventually we shot out into Santa Cruz. I think I expected it to be bigger, or more lively. We weren’t high on the city to begin with. But that changed, as we pulled into the cute Pacific Blue Inn, set down our bags, showered and changed.

Jamie had booked dinner that evening (a belated Valentines dinner, if you will), followed by a live show at the Rio Theatre, featuring one of our favorite bands, Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange).

It was an incredible show, so laid back and intimate. It’s hard to pick a favorite part of the trip, but this day certainly had to be up there.

We’d spend the following day getting our hands dirty in Santa Cruz. Breakfast was at the 11th Hour, a coffee shop and bakery nearby. After breakfast, a short drive over to the Glenwood Open Space Preserve in Scotts Valley gave us some fresh air, nature, and fun birdsong.

Capitola sits just a bit further along Monterey Bay and we made a lunch (and margarita) stop there and walked the Capitola Wharf.

We checked our the obligatory stops after that: the pier and boardwalk. Jamie got a recommendation from our friend Jeff to check out Humble Sea brewery, so we did that before a takeout dinner of authentic burritos from a grungy shop near our lodging.

We packed up the next morning, planning to head south on CA 1 out of Santa Cruz. Coffee from 11th Hour fueled us up. I snuck in a run along West Cliff Drive before leaving while Jamie made a stop at the grocery store and laundromat. How lucky am I??

We hooked around Monterey Bay toward Monterey and Carmel-By-The-Sea. Having been through the area a bit over a year ago, we moved along to the well known Big Sur coastal drive. It was busy. Friday afternoon and we’d forgotten it was a holiday weekend with Presidents Day. But the weather was perfect and we stopped when we felt like it. Pullouts are frequent on CA-1, and we used quite a few.

Campgrounds are in clusters along the drive, and after stopping at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and having no luck with open spots, we ended up at Fernwood Campground, shelling out $95 for a campsite in what I hope to be the most expensive site we ever settle into.

We watched sunset at Garrapata Beach that evening, and Jamie cooked up chicken pad thai while I prepared the campfire beneath the pine canopy.

Egg and cheese sandwiches to start the morning of the 19th. With Charley, we were limited to forest road hikes, so we drove to Coast Ridge Rd and walked a 7 mile out-and-back, ducking in and out of tree shade and watching low clouds stalk the coastline.

We carried on south toward San Simeon and Morro Bay after the hike. The vistas are never-ending, every curve of the cliffside offering more spectacular rugged coast.

Again we were confronted with the fact that campgrounds were just packed full on the holiday weekend. We checked the availability on line, stopped at a few locations, only to find all of them with signs at the entrance: “Campground full.”

We stopped at San Simeon State Park and read that same sign we’d seen a number of times before. I pulled over to throw out some trash at a can near the entrance.

“Figured I’d try, any cancellations?” I asked the park employee as I approached the entrance booth.

“Actually got a few sites left. Go take a look at them and let me know which one looks good.”

Solid. Motel prices were looking upward of $230 that night anywhere nearby, and we snagged a $35 campsite instead. I guess it’s always worth asking, even if the signs tell you there’s no vacancy.

We got a campsite only a couple minute walk to the beach, so we strolled along the shore and watched sunset before fixing up dinner and a fire. 

A good night’s sleep and basic breakfast prepped us for a fun morning. The three of us drove down to Morro Bay, just about 30 minutes south of the campground. We secured the last available campsite in Morro Bay for the night early that day, so we could enjoy the day without a lingering worry of “where we gonna sleep?”

Jamie and Charley went for a stroll along the boardwalk over the estuary preserve in Morro Bay while I took a run up Black Hill, offering a panoramic view of the Bay, the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” Morro Rock, and the rolling inland hills.

That evening, we took a trip into San Luis Obispo (SLO), home to Cal Poly, for dinner at Red Luna Tacos and a walk through town. I got a bottle of SLO-made bourbon from a local shop and brought it back to camp. It paired nicely with the fire and Mandolin Orange playing on the speaker!

After digging into the coast for a bit, we were ready to mix it up. Death Valley National Park was about 6 hours away, and we’d be heading there after dropping off Charley in Bakersfield with a dog sitter for a few days.

Stay tuned.

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