Motorcycling Mendocino: California's Route 1 North of San Francisco

Ride your motorcycle north of San Francisco and west of everything. From the October 1999 isue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. ** Text and photos by Jamie Elvidge.**

Even if you've never been west of Waco, you've been touched by the splendor of the California coast. Like the indelible images of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon, the Pacific Coast is another one of America's dazzling jewels.

The serpentine highway that spans this rugged, remote shoreline is often referred to as one of the most scenic drives in the world and it is a motorcycle magnet. California's Highway 1 begins below Los Angeles at Dana Point and terminates in the little town of Leggett, 200 miles north of San Francisco. It's a worried little road that literally clings to the tumultuous shoreline. Every winter, chunks of it are either dug out or propped up to grant passage to the thousands of tourists who descend upon it each spring.

The most popular portion of this wondrous road is the southern section between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. It is not the most panoramic, nor is it the most indulgent...it is, however, the most unbearably crowded scenic road in California. A more unspoiled Pacific Coast Highway lies quietly above San Francisco.

From the south, the Golden Gate Bridge is the entry point into the wild coastal north. Just four miles north of the toll plaza, Highway 1 escapes the diligence of U.S. 101 and snakes its way toward the white sands of Stinson Beach. Much of this section between Stinson and Bodega Bay squiggles inland from the crashing surf, over rolling, grassy hills freckled with towering eucalyptus stands. Pulsating coastal winds caress tall grasses, making them undulate like a golden extension of the sea. The infamous San Andreas fault merges with the highway at Bolinas Lagoon and dances beneath and beside it for the next 117 miles.

Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds in 1963 and Yamaha introduced the Road Star 35 years later, is a large coastal town by Northern California standards. You'll find all the amenities here along with a lot of smoked salmon and salt water taffy. This town is where the westward Highway 12 joins the party, one of the many shortcuts from the Bay Area. The most commonly used paths from the mainstream U.S. 101 into the core of the Mendocino Coast are Highway 116 out of Santa Rosa, Highway 128 from Cloverdale and the twisty Highway 20 from Willits. It all depends on how much time you can allocate to bask in the splendor. The 200 miles of California's North Coast can been seen in a day or relished for a week.

From Jenner to Gualala (pronounced "Wah-lal-ah") you get your first taste of real isolation. The grassy headlands erupt with dense growths of wind-sculpted Bishop Pine, and you'll ride for many miles in solitude. There are occasional cattle ranches, many which date back to the 1800s, and the infrequent 20th-century home secreted away on a bluff. It's impossible not to wonder who lives in these decadent structures so far away from the struggling masses.

Jagged pickets of faded redwood strung with rusting barbed wire melt into the edges of the road. Wild roses grow vigorously here, and poppies, sweet peas and lavender are delicately sprinkled across the landscape from spring to midsummer. When I last traveled the North Coast in July, the road was edged with frothing mounds of pink and white wildflowers.

The resplendent, remote areas of this coast offer many vertigo-inducing views of the steep, craggy shoreline and the unrelenting ocean that shapes it. There are many pristine pocket beaches skirting the cliffs and caves at low tide. This road has many hazards, one of the most imposing being tourists vying for the best overlook.

Sometimes travelers must stop in the middle of the road for good reason, however. Don't mistake the cattle grates for speed bumps, there really will be heifers on the highway. Also take serious note of the signs warning of irregular road surfaces or slide areas. This winding path is never predictable, and the road surface is, at best, threadbare.

Connecting the vast portions of untamed backcountry are many tiny towns and villages. Almost all offer fuel, food and lodging. Joyfully, there are no Burger Kings or Best Westerns. Each establishment--from bed and breakfast to beach bungalow--is personalized by private ownership. The lodging in these coastal communities ranges from ritzy to ragged, but it's consistently quaint. The most easily obtained sustenance in the area comes in the form of fresh seafood, and there are eateries to fit everyone's style and budget. Fuel however, is always at a premium on the coast and you can expect to pay significantly more than the average inland prices.

Gualala and Point Arena are two of the more prominent stopping places between Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg, while smaller digs like Elk and Albion offer micro samples of coastal society. The coast here was populated more profusely in ancient times. In the still-existing town of Caspar, archeologists have found evidence that humans thrived on these shores more than 11,000 years ago. These people evolved into the Pomo tribes of Native Americans, and many of their ancestors remain. The Spanish named the Mendocino area as they sailed past the un-approachable shores in 1587, but the Russians were the first non-natives to inhabit the region. Russian architecture remains blended into the essence of many older settlements.

If you have more than one day to ride I guarantee you'll enjoy a stopover in Mendocino , "the Jewel of the North Coast." The sea surrounds Mendocino on three sides and the fourth is walled with dense pines. If you don't see it from a distance, you could ride by without even realizing what treasure lies near.

It's a bit Carmelized, but I like to think of Mendocino as California's most glamorous ghost town. It was all but abandoned in the 1930s after its prominent saw mill was silenced. For almost 40 years prior the prosperous little town had been the dominant supplier of the redwood used to build San Francisco, support a gold rush and stabilize a railroad. Mendocino's rebirth didn't begin until the 1960s when it was reincarnated as a cure-all for the creatively blocked. Today it's a premier artist's haven that renders breathtaking sienna sunsets.

When you walk down Main Street, which is fronted by a steep ocean bluff, you can be easily overwhelmed by the smell of blooming flowers and freshly baked waffle cones. The whole town brims with vivid gardenscapes tended by a communal green thumb and nurtured by a temperate coastal climate. The storefronts open wide with welcome, beckoning you to consider whatever cheerful curiosities await inside. There's a wonderful book store and a gourmet ice cream parlor on Main Street which are particularly worthy of a prolonged expenditure of time. The award-winning French Vanilla isn't easily forgotten.

There are many overnight facilities scattered along the coastline within easy distance of Mendocino proper. You can stay as a guest in a farmhouse or be a recluse in your own remote, solar-powered cabin. The choices are extensive, but in the peak summer months the place is booked up, down and sideways. On summer weekends it's nearly impossible to improvise, but midweek allows for more spontaneity. Some people prefer to explore the North Coast during winter when the swirling fog and empty roads make the journey slightly surreal.

California's Highway 1 continues north for another 55 breathtaking miles, lancing historic Caspar, Fort Bragg and Westport. If you're hungry to ride among the redwoods, try the loop made by taking Highway 20 east, U.S. 101 south, Highway 253 west then Highway 128 west back to Highway 1 north.

It's part rollercoaster, part scenic merry-go-round with a shiny brass ring in Mendocino.

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.