Coast Roads Part 2

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Route 1 North
Leaving the Peninsula and Pebble Beach we headed north around the great sweep of Monterey Bay, past the welcoming dunes of Sand City and the chilled seaside city of Santa Cruz, where wooden roller coasters still run at the amusement park, surfers flock to the never-ending breaks and 60s/70s dropouts can still be found hiding from Nixon, the draft and pretty much everything else which has happened since they took their first tab of acid. (NB for movie fans, Santa Cruz) was also the setting for 80s vampire flick The Lost Boys…)

The roads were pretty quiet until we got close to San Francisco, but as this was just a passing visit we pushed on through and out of the city over the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sure everyone is aware, but this really is quite a structure, built in the 1930s over the Bay Strait, linking SF to Marin County it was for some time the longest suspension bridge in the world. It carries three lanes of traffic in each direction and thereby designed to cope with future traffic capacity, which contrasts sharply with the folk who commissioned the recently opened New Forth Road Bridge which is already maxed out at rush hour – but enough of my gripes about the incompetence of bureaucrats and politicians.

Being one of the most iconic bridges in the world it was great to drive across and add to the road trip memory canon. We cruised up the 101 freeway for 30 miles or so before cutting across country to rejoin the Coast Highway at Bodega Bay, which we then followed for around 180 miles up to Fort Bragg. This is another very scenic stretch of coast and although it’s significantly less rugged than Big Sur, it’s no less dramatic – tree-lined mountains and grass-covered hills roll more gently down to the shoreline, where it joins with more rocks, reefs and skerries in the booming surf.

The Lost Coast

Heading out the next day from Fort Bragg, Route 1 took us up the coast again for a short distance before turning inland and into the forests of the Coastal Redwoods. A couple of hours or so meandering through these groves we came to a turning signposted for Cape Mendocino. I’d read about this in one of the guidebooks as it’s California’s most westerly point and located on what’s known as The Lost Coast. It’s called this due to its inaccessibility as the winding road to it from the forest crosses two mountains and the one leading away up to Eureka and back to civilisation crosses another mountain as well as a bleak and windswept moor. Perhaps daunting to some, to us it sounded an ideal place to put the Jeep Wrangler through its paces, so off we headed.

The ascent of the first mountain was not bad – the road climbs from about 200 feet above sea level to 3000 feet in the space of 5 miles or so and apart from a few potholes it was pretty smooth going and the view from the top down the valley and over the far countryside was stunning. Going down was trickier as there had been a few recent rockfalls narrowing the road, but some astute steering and braking ensured we got down safely.

The second mountain, however was a whole different ballgame – many stretches of the road were just dirt and gravel track, in 4 or 5 places landslides had halved the width of the road, with only a couple of traffic cones marking the danger spots and there were plenty of places where the angle of ascent/descent were so steep it felt that sliding would be inevitable. However, after 90 heart-pumping minutes we reached the coast and what a sight it was – a 10 mile stretch with the road at sea level, cliffs and mountains rearing up on the one side and on the other a shoreline so peppered with boulders, sharply angled rocks and long jagged reefs that there was barely any beach to be seen. Truly extraordinary.

After that the drive back out offered yet more sections of steep hairpin bends, eye-brow raising drops to valley floors and at one point on the moor, in came the fog to envelope us in its thick blanket of cotton wool, reducing visibility to 20 feet or so – seriously atmospheric. In total it took about three hours to do the 50 or so miles, which I’ll admit is a long time, but it was absolutely worth the effort and as for the Wrangler – nary a grumble. The engine temperature increased barely a jot, the cooler fans hardly kicked in and the acceleration and brakes were never less than superb. Full marks to Jeep from us.