USA, CA: Highway 1 - The Convict Coast RV TripWe were headed for the town of Pacifica and the start of one of America’s best known routes. For anybody who likes to get behind the wheel of a convertible, sedan, or luxury RV motorhome, Highway 1 is the road that will turn all other scenic routes into mere back street thoroughfares.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2010
Across the bay we spotted brightly coloured bay ferries, a few fishing boats and the waterfront—Fisherman’s Wharf. The seaport was once better known as the Barbary Coast, a district of wharves and saloons, brothels, bordellos and backroom gaming houses. Before the 1906 earthquake, this part of town was a dingy, ill-mannered place to hang out. Saloons with names such as North Pole, The Fair Wind, Thirst Polar, Life Saving Station and the Castle might lure any unsuspecting male who, slipped a ‘Mickey Finn,’ found himself on a slow boat to China—the word Shanghaied was coined in the waterfront vestiges of the Barbary Coast.
Yet in the early hours of Wednesday, 18 April 1906 that all changed. San Francisco was trembled with an immense magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Within minutes 30,000 buildings on 497 city blocks were destroyed. The result was 3,000 dead and 225,000 homeless. It caused more damage and destruction than any other natural disaster in America’s history.
It was Sunday morning as we manoeuvered the 30 foot (9.2m) RV into heavy traffic at the northern entrance to the mighty, imposing Golden Gate Bridge. With no freeway through the city centre my mate and I just cruised with the flow of traffic. We were headed for the town of Pacifica and the start of one of America’s best known routes. For anybody who likes to get behind the wheel of a convertible, sedan, or luxury RV motorhome, Highway 1 is the road that will turn all other scenic routes into mere back street thoroughfares.
Slowly, rolling hills rose to form mountains above a stunning coastline. We passed through Half Moon Bay and followed the curvature of the coast all the way to the surfing capital of Santa Cruz, a town loaded with heavy traffic and mature Victorian houses. At the end of State Street was the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the last true boardwalk remaining in California. The amusement park and boardwalk were built in 1924 and still house the original Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Louff Carousel. Today, the town pulls in an undercurrent of hip Silicon Valley couples who like the laid-back feel of the 1960s that made Santa Cruz famous.
A few miles south of Santa Cruz we pulled our motorhome into Seacliff State Beach where we reversed carefully into a shady campsite and hooked up our lines. One of the features of this campground is a long pier that was perfect for fishing off accompanied by a few cold beers. For us a spot of fishing is a great way to end any driving day, that and a hearty campfire meal.
The next day we dropped into the Salinas Valley, an area that became home for the Okies during the dustbowl Grapes of Wrath era. Suddenly, the highway widened to six lanes. Produce shacks sold vegetables. Weathered farm buildings were entrenched in fields of plowed earth—this is an area known as the ‘Artichoke Capital of the World.’
An hour later we parked up the rig in Monterey. Monterey had more than once been the capital of California under the Spanish flag, first raised here in 1602 in the name of Spain by Sebastian Vizcaino.
Known as a popular town for authors where the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson wrote novels while staying here in 1879. It’s a town of former canning factories and wharves so admired in John Steinbeck’s life and literature and depicted in his book Cannery Row. Monterey capitalises on tourists. It has had to since the sardine stocks were decimated in the 1940’s. The town is a perfect stop for families, with the Monterey Canning Company, Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row all stacked with restaurants, bars, shops and museums. Opened in 1984, the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is architecturally designed around the once dilapidated Hovden Cannery and today definitely worth a visit.
The second Spanish mission completed in California is in nearby Carmel, named in 1602 when the Spaniard Sebastian Vizcaino’s expedition explored the region. Carmel was named for the Carmelite Monks that were traveling with Vizcaino. Carmel Mission was originally founded in Monterey in 1770. In 1771 it was moved to its present site, nowadays a few blocks away back from the touristy town centre.
Shortly after leaving Carmel, the coast road turns into the most scenic and photographed route in America. Big Sur was our next stop, not so much a town, more a rural community scattered and hidden in a redwood pine valley, sewn together with campgrounds, private homes, cabins, inns, motels and a store or two. The name Big Sur came from the Spanish El Sur Grande, meaning The Large South. The picturesque campground here is on the river in a secluded part of 700 acres of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
That night in Big Sur dancing light glittered off the coursing waters that swirled over boulders in the river as a black-creosote night enveloped us. Our campsite was set in a huge redwood glade. It grew cold. In a concrete pit we lit a fire beneath a swaying forest canopy. The fire roared, crackling like bacon in a frying pan, like all fires, both warming and mesmerizing. In the darkness soothing lights illuminated other campsites and RV’s. The scent of pine was puissant. We barbecued marinated chicken breast and ate well and polished off the last of our wine before retiring from the heat of the fire to the warmth of the RV.
The stretch of State Highway 1 south from Carmel to San Simeon was completed in 1937. Convicts—chain gang labour-pick-axed the rugged cliffs and isolated hillsides rock by rock and on the windblown plateaus curve by winding curve. Across the Monterey County line was Los Padres National Forest. It was spectacular and abandoned! On sinuous roads cut from 1000-foot high cliffs, bends swept gracefully below canyons the texture of moleskin.
The untamed nature of the land made us wary when we saw large slips of scree and boulders being repaired, a place imbued with tussock, moorland, jagged shorelines, storied mountains and photogenic headlands. Ahead however traffic was now fender to fender.
Further south fenced cattle country, uneven meadows and fields of wavering grass were divided by water, coursing out from the foothills into a briny sapphire ocean. Lonely black cormorants careened above lonely black crags battered by constant sea swells. Here RV’s had free-parked near gray sandy beaches. Seals on the beach bellowed or playfully rolled in kelp and flotsam. A white lighthouse and red-roofed buildings sat below coastal fields where the sea swept around more rocky headlands that had eroded away brontosaurus-sized coves.
At San Simeon Beach as fog rolled in across ocean vistas, is the entrance to Hearst Castle. On the ridgeline we could now see the turrets and towers and slender palm trees. The newspaper and magazine tycoon William Randolph Hearst started building the castle in 1919. When completed it had 165 rooms, equivalent to 90,000sqft.
From Morro Bay we continued south through San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, and Santa Maria until we hit major traffic in Santa Barbara. Families were now heading back to Los Angeles, but we had one night left to camp on the road before sleeping in the five-star luxury of the Shangri La Hotel in Santa Monica. Leo Carrillio State Park was the perfect end to a trip with 1.5 miles of beach with tide pools, coastal caves and reefs for exploring and giant sycamores shading the main campground.
All there was left to do was put another couple of steaks on the barbeque, open another beer and start planning for next year’s all American RV trip.
Know Before You Go Info:
- Get acclimatised to the RV; adjust the mirrors, seats and switch on the headlights.
- Buy a Rand McNally Atlas and obtain campground directories and state maps.
- Drive on the right-hand side and watch out for blind-spot on right hand turns.
- Beware of sea breezes on high bridges that turn your vehicle into a giant sail.
- Our RV had no central locking – make sure all doors are locked when parking up.
- For an extended stay buy an America the Beautiful: National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Pass – Annual Cost US$80.00.
- Campground fees: From US$ 10.00 to US$50 in private campgrounds.
Shane Boocock flew to Los Angeles courtesy of Air New Zealand and United Airlines and was hosted by the following organisations.
El Monte RV: www.elmonterv.com or T: 562 483 4980. El Monte RV is privately owned offering RV rentals from hundreds of different locations across the United States. They feature the largest number of RV models in the motorhome industry.
Handlery Union Square Hotel, San Francisco
351 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
T: 415 321 7564 W: www.handlery.com
Hacienda Hotel, LAX
525 Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo CA 90245
T: 310 615 0015 W: www.haciendahotel.com
Shangri La Hotel Santa Monica
1301 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90401
If you would like to read this article in full or licence it for your own publication, please click here to contact Shane.