Windmill at John Muir House NHS
My goal after visiting Redwoods National Park was to drive down the legendary California coastal highway until I hit San Francisco; there’s two highways: US 101 and California State Route 1. When 1 splits off 101 it closely follows the coast – 101 remains inland.
I ended up zig-zagging back and forth on these roads, which are roughly 30 miles apart. First I went along the coast, then cut inland to meet up with a friend from Hilo. Then down the interior and a cut out to Point Reyes National Seashore, then down the coast to Muir Woods, and inland to detour around San Francisco.
Bodega Head State Park, along the coast
I took one day to go down from Redwoods to Ukiah, about 80 miles north of San Fran. This was in part due to some long stops, and in part due to the horrible roads. Horrible, not because of their state of repair, but rather because of the type of driving they necessitated. I’d heard CA 1, in particular, recommended as a beautiful drive. For me it was simply terrifying.
The speed limit is typically 55, but because you’re turning practically all the time (usually 15 or 20 mph turns), I averaged just 30 miles per hour. The road jackknifes all over; it really does follow the coast as closely as possible. You’re constantly slamming on the breaks, swerving back and forth, etc. The road isn’t properly graded for some of these turns, so for instance the road will tilt so you lean outwards as you go around a turn.
Add to this the California drivers, who are the worst I’ve encountered on the trip (to make a generalization). Particularly in Northeast California into the Bay Area, drivers regularly tailgated, didn’t allow merging onto highways, and were generally aggressive.
I’d considered hitting all my coast sites in one day, but decided due to the nature of the roads, and the size of Point Reyes, to split them into two days.
Before I visited Point Reyes, I stopped in a small town near Santa Rosa, Bodega Bay. This has a nice state park and beach; the town is famous as the site of the Hitchcock film The Birds. The star, Tippi Hedron, apparently still returns on a regular basis to sign autographs. Here I met a great-aunt and heard some interesting stories: escaping from East Germany in 1948, for instance. She had many similar mannerisms to my grandmother, so it was a unique visit.
Down the cliffs to the lighthouse
Point Reyes, a National Seashore, is an irregular peninsula that juts out from the coast like a fishhook. In fact, it acts as a hook for ships; there were 132 known shipwrecks along the coast here. For this reason, one major site in the park is a lighthouse. As if the shape of the peninsula weren’t bad enough, it’s also considered the windiest and foggiest point in the US (I don’t know exactly what that means – if it’s only along coasts or in the entire country). It was a beautiful day when I pulled into the seashore, but after driving 20 miles to the lighthouse it was cloudy and there was dense fog. It was a 1 mile hike out to the lighthouse, from the parking lot, and down a huge set of 300 stairs. Before this was a national park, the lighthouse keepers rigged up a set of steep wooden stairs and rails. They also had ladders down to the water so they could rescue sailors lost at sea – a dangerous task.
Many men stationed at the lighthouse were killed in storms after losing their footing or when their rescue ship overturned; others were driven mad. The lighthouse was in operation for over a hundred years, until 1975, when the Coast Guard installed an automated beacon. The wind felt really intense – some unexpected gusts knocked me sideways.
Looking back up through the fog
This road, about 10 miles out to the lighthouse, was similar to CA 1, but in horrible repair. It was the most godforsaken road I’ve driven yet. Never again!
The only campgrounds in the seashore were backcountry, meaning you had to pack all your gear in. They were semi-improved: pit toilets and a water pump were available. Because they were close to SF, they charged $20 for this. This was my first overnight of the trip. I took a scenic route, hiking up and down a ridge to reach the camp, about 7 miles. The weight of all the gear was definitely different from the daypacks I was used to, and I felt really out of shape. At least at the top of the ridge, the air was cool and clear, and the setting sun hit the trees just right. It was a wonderful hike, and good exercise.
The Sky Trail to the campground
Unfortunately, I forgot to bring a sleeping pad with me. It got cold, and the chill from the ground just wicks right into your body. It wasn’t a restful night, and I woke up at 6 to hike the 5 miles back to my van.
The other reason I left early was to get a head start on Muir Woods. This is a National Monument about 10 miles north of San Francisco. It’s a Redwood grove that was purchased in honor of John Muir (while he was still alive, in the early 20th century). Being so close to the city, it’s also a tourist trap. I grabbed the last parking space when I arrived at 9:15. When I left at 11, there were cars lining the road for a mile. Of course, I hit on a beautiful Saturday at the end of summer, when the crowds were probably worst.
Muir Woods National Monument, around the corner from San Fran
For all the cars and people in the parking lot, the monument itself was surprisingly serene. There’s a few miles of widely traveled trails; the grove of Redwoods is probably 2 square miles. It’s quite beautiful, more beautiful than any grove I’d seen in Redwoods National Park. And yet – I don’t know if it was the trail or what, but it felt very artificial. The forest seemed ‘tended,’ not like what I’d seen in miles of forest. It felt more like visiting a garden than actually going into wilderness. I enjoyed my time at the park, but it’s a peculiar hybrid.
Leaving the park, there were appalling traffic jams on CA 1 heading north; it felt like all of San Francisco was fleeing the city. People sat in their Mustangs and SUVs waiting for traffic to move; I’m just glad I was going the other way!
The bay area, for those not familiar with the geography (as I was not), forms a sort of backwards “G.” San Francisco covers the northernmost tip of a peninsula; north is the Golden Gate with its famous bridge (and the Muir Woods). The eastern shore of the bay is a composed of Richmond, Oakland, and various other cities. They form a huge urban sprawl that stretches down to San Jose. South of San Francisco is Silicon Valley: Redwood City, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Cupertino, and so forth.
Heading out from Muir Woods I visited a small historic site, “Rosie the Riveter.” This has a few locations in Richmond, and commemorates the World War II home front. Richmond swelled in size from 20 thousand residents to 130 thousand during the war. During the peak, its shipyards were turning out more than 1 ship per day; over 700 were produced during the course of the war. One ship was built in 3 days.
This is a new site, and the visitor center was unique in that it was located in an industrial park. Everything was immaculate, probably just a year old. There were two films which I watched, both extremely well produced (on par with Whitman Mission in Washington). But the site itself is quite small. One of the volunteers at the visitor’s center was a ‘Rosie’ during the war – she was 90 years old!
Visit the woods, then the house
Next I continued my loop down the east bay to another small site, John Muir House NHS. Unlike Muir Woods, this site is the house where Muir did the bulk of is his important writing from 1890 until his death in 1914. Muir, of course, is considered the father of the National Park system. It’s a nice site, but the 10 thousand square foot house is incongruous with our mental picture of Muir. Also unexpected by me: palm trees!
This tree was planted by John Muir
Alongside the house is a lone Sequoia planted by Muir, now about 50 feet tall and in good condition. It’s an interesting link to the past. Also curious, there’s a small adobe pueblo on site that predates Muir. By sheer coincidence (Muir inherited the house from his father-in-law), the pueblo belonged to Juan Vicente Martinez, for whom the town was named.
I left this site in mid-afternoon and finished my loop down the east bay, by crossing over into Silicon Valley, stopping for the night in Mountain View.