San Francisco was on the short list of places to settle at the end of our trip, and I had expected to spend some time there visiting friends and getting to know the city before continuing north. We did visit a couple friends, having dinner at my grad school friend Mary’s apartment in Menlo Park with her husband and twin toddlers, and brunch with Ji-Young at her place in Oakland. We had a wonderful time sharing good food and conversation, but after these visits there was no draw to stay in the city. After the peacefulness of nature and the relaxed vibe of the beach, the city was crowded and overwhelming and neither of us wanted to stick around. We passed through San Francisco in an afternoon, and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and headed north away from the city in the same day.
California’s Highway 1 follows along the coast, offering impressive views of high cliffs dropping dramatically to the vast ocean below. From the birds-eye vantage point, the rough surface of turbulent water extends endlessly out to the horizon in various shades of deep blue, bright turquoise and stormy grey, while tremendous waves splash against huge boulders dotting the shoreline below. Highway 1 winds up and down slowly meandering alongside the coast.
The views make this drive spectacular, but it is not for the weak-stomached. I have been carsick exactly once in my life, during a family road trip in California when I was about 9. I have a vague recollection of the car whipping around curves on a mountain road, but the smell of the sea was in the air, rushing in the windows open for relief from the heat in a car with no air conditioning. The combination of winding road, sea air, heat and discussion of seafood for dinner was too much for my 9-year old self to handle. I always thought this memory must be false – a mountain road with ocean-scented air? It didn’t make any sense…until we hit Highway 1. Twenty-five years later and this road was still a challenge. This time around our vehicle has air conditioning, and I had unlimited access to water and crackers, so I was able to keep the nausea at bay, but there was none of my usual activity in the passenger seat. Normally when we drive I knit or write for the blog, but on this section of the trip all I could do was look out the window or risk wrath from my stomach. Thankfully, the views were so beautiful and dramatic that I did not need more entertainment!
Samual P. Taylor State Park
The first stop north of San Francisco was Samual P. Taylor State Park, a 2800 acre park comprised of redwood groves, grasslands and forested hills raising from Lagunitas Creek. We arrived on a Saturday to a fully-booked campground and were lucky to sneak into a site due to a cancelation. It’s amazing how things have been working out for us with last-minute campsites!
We stayed two nights here, so we didn’t have to drive every day, and treated ourselves to a nice, long bike ride on the bike trail that goes through the campground. We only rode a small fraction of what we learned is the Bay Area Ridge Bike Path, a trail that forms a huge, though incomplete, loop around the San Francisco Bay. Currently 340 miles of the trail are open to riders and hikers.
After the ride, I wasn’t ready to sit down again so I hiked the Pioneer Tree Trail. The Pioneer Tree is an old growth tree left standing even as all its brethren were chopped down to feed Samuel P. Taylor’s paper mill. As with many long-lived trees, a past fire burned a huge hollow in the middle of the base of the tree. The opening is just wide enough for a person to squeeze in sideways. I entered the hollow and sat in the midst of this ancient giant, contemplating the shortsightedness of people who deplete resources that take hundreds or thousands of years to replenish. The hollow was cozy, with protective walls almost all the way around. The dry leaf litter carpeting the ground was soft with age and I could easily have curled up with a blanket and slept soundly through the night.
Manchester Beach State Park
North of Samuel P. Taylor State Park the drive was even more amazingly beautiful than the previous day. We traversed through rolling hills of pasture, looking over fences at herds of cattle, sheep and even occasionally pigs. Some cows had jumped the fence to sit at the edge of the highway, where they had a better ocean view. After a days’ worth of driving we found a nice beach-front state park to stay for a couple days. We had no trouble finding a spot in the remote Manchester Beach State Park.
We could not see the ocean from our campsite, but we heard it, sounding in the distance like an infinitely long freight train. Unlike other beaches we have visited where the crash of the waves punctuates the intervening quiet, at Manchester Beach the waves roar continuously, sounding more like a huge waterfall than the ocean. After settling in, we set out to walk to the beach to see the waves for ourselves and enjoy a romantic sunset together.
The first night we missed the sunset, because the trails we thought would lead us to the beach were closed and it took a bit of time to figure out how to get down to the beach. The trails are closed to protect burrows of the endangered mountain beaver. The mountain beaver isn’t a beaver, it is a primitive rodent that has out-lasted its closest relatives and is considered to be a “living fossil”. It also doesn’t usually live in the mountains. Apparently it is quite common in my home state, though I had never heard of it before. Most people haven’t, even the creature’s nearest neighbors.
After detouring around the mountain beaver habitat, we made our way to the beach, to arrive just after the bright disk had sunk beyond the horizon. What we see in the fading light was ridge after ridge of the largest waves either of us have ever seen. The waves break nearly 200 yards from shore, and they must be over 20 feet tall. As soon as the water thrown on shore by one wave starts receding, the next wave is already there, gathering the water up to crash again. Wave after wave, every few seconds, with no break. The power of water and the immense energy the ocean hold is on full display here at Manchester Beach.
[ John here: I wholeheartedly agree with Heidi. I’ve seen a lot of waves growing up near the coast in Florida, and I can say without a doubt this location produced the craziest sets of waves I’ve ever seen. Being so big was impressive to me, but even more impressive is the frequency they would roll in at; 99% of the time there was another wave right behind the first, and never lull between them. Just about all the waves I’ve seen and played in in my past roll in one at a time. This is why we heard the constant roar, and not the crash, silence, crash, silence we’re used to hearing when along the coastline. Anyway, please do stop here it you’re passing by, either on a bicycle or a car. You won’t ever forget the time you spend at this amazing and beautiful park.]
We spent most of our one full day at Manchester State Park on the beach, marveling at the size of the waves. Inspired by shore birds that forage in wet sand at the water’s edge, then scurry up shore away from each wave that comes in, we played a wave-chase game. As a wave gathered up, we would run out to the edge, waiting for the wave to come up behind, then try to out-run it. It was a lot of silly fun. John was really good at the game; I was hesitant to get close to the monstrous waves, but I had a few good runs.
After the wave-chasing game, I went for a beach hike. Manchester State Park contains over 3 1/2 miles of wild, open beach. Sand is a difficult hiking surface so I usually avoid hiking on it, but walking on such a rare piece of undeveloped land was a sublime experience. I saw many, many birds on my hike, including the protected snowy plovers running from waves, vultures scavenging on the washed up carcass of a dolphin and a flock of noisy white birds with bright orange beaks who were too fast to photograph.
Manchester Beach State Park is one of my favorite, if not the favorite, of the state parks I have visited due to its remote location. Being far from any big city, it is not a popular destination. The undeveloped scenery is stunning, and power and number of waves is like nothing I have ever seen before. If ever you drive Highway 1, I highly recommend stopping here! (Disclaimer: amenities are limited; there is a dump station and water fill-up, but no showers and only vault toilets.)
Upon leaving Manchester Beach, we drove to the northern terminus of Highway 1, the end of the scenic alternative to Highway 101. Along the way we stopped for a few more views, and stumbled on our last roadside attraction.
April 26-30, 2014