Go Left, Young Man

Cross-Country Detour Down the West Coast

The trip plan was pretty simple: Catch Pacific Coast Highway at the top of Oregon and head south about 1,300 miles, keeping the ocean immediately to our right, until we hit LA. Then we'd turn left toward Texas and continue east to South Carolina. We'd head cross-county, but in stages, planning to store our bikes in friends' garages for a bit and continuing each leg of the journey after short breaks.

Sure, we've been down parts of the Coast Highway many times before, but we never tire of the route; the small towns, scenic vistas, and twisty roads always make it a welcome path. So off we went, following the coast down the length of Oregon, through the redwoods of Northern California, across the Golden Gate, along Big Sur, and into SoCal—with me on my Honda Valkyrie Interstate built in the last millennium and my buddy on his Gold Wing. We anticipated a wide swing in the weather, from Oregon's cooler, wetter climes to the warmer embrace of the Southern California sun. I packed accordingly, strapping both an all-season jacket along with mesh gear on top of the luggage already loaded with rain gear, as well as a heated jacket liner and an assortment of gloves. As I've gotten older, it's become an increasingly higher priority to stay comfortable and prepared for any weather extreme. For this trip, I also added a tire-pressure monitoring system and a cover for my bike. The former eliminates any lazy excuses for not checking my tire pressures, and the latter provides some level of security during those nights when you're parked in a dark motel parking lot.

Heading down the coast, we encountered the usual scenic places to explore: lighthouses, cliff-top overlooks, wave-scoured shorelines, and more. No matter how many times we've seen them, they always deliver seductive views and amazing photo ops. What does seem to change from trip to trip is the wildlife along the way. Migrating gray whales, sea otters, pelicans, elk, and elephant seals can all pop up unexpectedly along the route. It's always a treat to spot whales and sea otters, but thats usually from a distance. Elephant seals, on the other hand—after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th century—are increasing in number and can now be found right up on the beaches, staking out territorial areas for breeding. There are signs warning folks to stay away from them, which is probably a good idea; the big bulls can reach a length of 16 feet in length and weigh upwards of 5,000 pounds.

Leaving Oregon and crossing into Northern California, you swing through large stands of redwood trees, with protected groves found in Redwood National Park and a few other California State Parks. It's hard to describe the scale of these giants, which often tower more than 300 feet tall, and the density of the forests are a change from the open vistas that comprise most of the run down Oregon's coast. If you are taking this route down through the redwoods, watch for the short loop roads off the Coast Highway that detour you through the more scenic groves; paths such as the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway are a scenic alternative to Highway 101. It's just 10 miles out of your way, but it snakes through a magical, old-growth redwood forest and is well worth the time. Along the way you'll pass numerous trail-heads such as Big Tree and Ah Pah, if you're inclined to take a short walk; also be sure to keep an eye out for the wild elk herds that roam the park.

For most of the trip, we sought out small mom-and-pop motels that were clean and cheap. In Mendocino, however, we opted to splurge on a bed and breakfast to make the most of this sometimes-spendy but scenic California town. Lodging and restaurants aren't the cheapest in this burg, but the upscale coastal community perched on a bluff above Mendocino Bay is always a picturesque place to spend some time.

Leaving our B&B (and unfortunately my credit card) behind in Mendocino, we continued south. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge generated a bit of excitement as the wind was gusting to about 40 mph, which is not an unusual occurrence for San Francisco Bay. Alas, the best-laid plans often go awry, and so it was that at this point my riding buddy had to pull out of the trip due to personal reasons. I opted to continue on riding solo, and as soon as I crossed the bridge into San Francisco, I took a sharp right onto the Great Highway to avoid having to slog through downtown. The Great Highway traces San Francisco's western edge as it runs along the Pacific Coast for approximately 4 miles. I found it to be a good way to skirt the city gridlock and continue south along the coast.

If you're riding down the coastal side of the San Francisco peninsula, you have several interesting options for overnight accommodations. One such place is the Pigeon Point Lighthouse complex—a lighthouse thats been converted into a hostel. They offer the traditional dorm room arrangement as well as individual rooms at reduced rates compared to local motels in this area. But since it was the middle of the day, I continued on through Santa Cruz and into Monterey. Monterey's fabulous aquarium is well worth exploring, though the rest of the town has devolved into tacky tourist streets packed with T-shirt shops and ice cream stands. I'm sure John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts are turning in their graves. I chose to stop for the night instead in sleepy Pacific Grove, about 2 miles past Monterey and much more peaceful, with its incredibly scenic walkway along the coast that you share with sea lions and otters. Crossing the Monterey Peninsula, I took the direct route south to the ultra-upscale community of Carmel-By-The-Sea. If you are looking for an even more scenic run, opt for the private 17-Mile Road, where a $10 toll will let you cruise around the lower part of Monterey Peninsula next to the ocean while viewing multi-million-dollar homes that overlook the sea. This route is actually worth the time and fee, but I'd done it before, so I continued directly through Carmel and down Pacific Coast Highway toward Big Sur.

Big Sur is a sparsely populated region of coastal California where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. The rugged terrain offers stunning views, with a narrow twisting road hugging the coastline punctuated with iconic bridges that cross the many creeks and canyons that extend to the sea.

Migrating gray whales, sea otters, pelicans, elk, and elephant seals can all pop up unexpectedly along the route.

South of the Big Sur area, and once I passed central California's Hearst Castle, I could feel the approaching hustle and bustle of Southern California. The population density was clearly increasing, and the culture seemed to be changing. Gone were the long stretches of unoccupied beach and a lonely, rustic coastline; now the sands were crowded and surfing looked like the activity of choice. Instead of the 45-degree, misty clouds of the starting point up north, here the days were marked by the sun shining down on beach volleyball games. Things had changed a great deal in a short time. But then, thats what makes a road trip interesting.

By this time my original cross-country plans were falling apart. I had lost my riding buddy, I was experiencing some mechanical difficulties, and now had a few other items getting in the way of continuing on to South Carolina. Instead of making that left turn toward Texas, I decided to postpone stage two of the trip and ended things just outside LA. Im still looking forward to riding the Lone Star State.

West Coast Tour Essentials

Riding Highway 1 and Pacific Coast Highway—whether all or part of it—should be an entry on any motorcyclist's bucket list. With its easy accessibility to rental bikes, an abundance of hotels and campsites, and a generally temperate weather pattern most of the year, the Pacific coastal route is biker nirvana.

Bike Rentals

With locations in Los Angeles, Carmel, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, you can easily fly out and rent a bike from EagleRider, which carries a nice selection of late-model Harleys and metric machines. eaglerider.com

Road Notes

Dress for extremes; you'll be riding along the coast, where wetness and high winds rule the day, especially in the winter and spring months. If you're heading north to south, like I did, obviously temperatures will get progressively warmer, so bring lighter layers to change into.

Redwood Parks and Info - redwoods.info Pacific Coast Highway - wikitravel.org/en/pacific_coast_highway Big Sur - bigsurcalifomia.org