Can’t we stay a little longer? – Northern California coast – part 2

Last week, on Explores Inc.

This is part 2 (or the return trip) from the Northern California coast drive. If you want to see how I got here, check out part 1 of the Northern California Coastal Drive, which covers the northbound trip from San Francisco.

I don’t have any pictures for the first few sections of this post since I was driving at night so unfortunately you will have grind through the beginning with reading. Enjoy!

I hope you have a Plan B

Originally, I had planned to terminate my coastal drive at Redwood National Park and move inland to give myself a week to get to Las Vegas. However, I missed out on the opportunity to backpack somewhere for a few nights along the coast. I also wanted to see the redwoods and the northern coast one more time. After my experience hiking to Alamere Falls (and missing out on the Lost Coast) I decided to return to Point Reyes National Seashore for a few days of hiking. One small problem: I was in Redwood National Park which took 5 days for me to drive to from Point Reyes. Of course I was taking my time getting to Redwood driving northbound, but I still had about 400 miles of coastal highway driving. With all the turns, relatively low speed limits, and road construction, I would say 400 miles of coastal highway is the equivalent of nearly double the distance on a standard freeway.

With this in mind, instead of spending the night in Redwood, I would pay it forward by driving through the night for a few hours to at least get back into Mendocino County. This would give me some more time over the next few days to enjoy some places I passed through on the way up. I departed Redwood around 6pm and made it back to the Avenue of the Giants just before sunset. I drove a portion of The Avenue again to say goodbye to the redwoods and then returned to Route 101. By the time I arrived at the turn for Route 1 in Leggett, it was dark. This was the only time I drove on the coastal highway at night; something I tried to avoid as I knew it could be dangerous. Dangerous for multiple reasons: no lights along the road, fog, winding roads, windy roads, and occasionally animals (mostly deer).

(Sometimes) I’m glad I didn’t bike across the country

There were very few cars on the coastal highway at night, especially on the northernmost stretch over the King Range. After about 5 miles on Route 1, I had only passed a few cars. As I climbed uphill, I saw what appeared to be a bicyclist. I saw the bike lights and reflectors veer off to the left side of the road to allow me to pass easier (there was no shoulder).

It wasn’t unusual to see bicyclists on the coastal highway (especially loaded touring bikes), but seeing a bike at night on this stretch seemed peculiar. As I passed by him, I slowed down as he was moving very slowly, even for the grade he was up against. I rolled down my window and asked if he needed anything. He replied through huffs and puffs that he was okay and had made a conscious decision to bike at night. He had “overheated” and took a break from pedaling during the day and was now making it up by riding at night. Maybe it was hot for northern California, but it was in the 70s during most of the day. Anyway, the poor guy didn’t look great. He had a fully loaded bike. I asked if he was biking the entire west coast. He told me he had actually started in Arizona, biked north to Montana and then over to the coastal highway headed for Los Angeles. I suppose nobody would look their best after that journey. But he also stated that he had a migrane and he needed to “cool down”. I didn’t question his approach (he had already made it thousands of miles without my input), so I assumed he knew what he was doing.

As a semi-experienced bike-tourer, there are certainly uncomfortable times that you need to push through. I offered him my last bottle of water and he said “you know what, I could use some water, I’m running low”. I didn’t know what “running low” meant, but he seemed to be very short of resources. He said he wanted to get over the mountain range to the next town before he stopped. That was over 30 miles! And at the rate he was going, it was going to take at least 4 hours. It took me almost 2 hours to drive over the mountain range and reach the next town. Not only would he be moving slowly in the dark, but the road has no shoulder and it just looked creepy. I got back into my car and wished him luck. I hope he made it!

I followed Route 1 over the mountains and back to the ocean at Hardy. As I drove alongside the ocean again, the air became increasingly foggy. Every so often I would see a pair of eyeballs from the deer standing uncomfortably close to the road. I was glad none of them decided to jump in front of me. However 15 minutes before I arrived at my destination, I had to slam on the brakes for a skunk that decided to hang out in the middle of the road. I couldn’t tell if the thump I heard was the gear in the backseat and trunk slamming into the back of my seat, or if I actually hit the skunk. I think he got out of the way in time (although he was in no hurry) because I didn’t smell him after I continued down the road. It was so foggy, I couldn’t see him until I was less than 50 feet away. In total, I wound up driving about 4 hours from Redwood National Park to a point along the coastal highway a few miles north of Fort Bragg near Newport. It was extremely foggy when I arrived and I just wanted to set up my tent and go to bed. It was after 10.

Fort Bragg

The Pudding Creek Trestle Bridge – now a rail trail and part of my morning run – Fort Bragg

The next morning I awoke to another excellent ocean view. I was parked right on the edge of the cliff (which I knew) but the fog had completely cleared by 7am and allowed me to see another gorgeous rocky coastline to start the day. I packed up quickly and made an easy drive to Fort Bragg for a morning run along the old rail bridge and an excellent breakfast burrito at Cafe Javvy; a hole in the wall, but with great food.

The Skunk Train

Fort Bragg, like much of the Northern California coast, was established to facilitate the movement of lumber. I suppose you could call Fort Bragg the transportation hub for lumber transport in the late 19th and early 20th century. I visited the California Western Railroad museum (also known as the Skunk Train due to the odor emitted from the mixture of fuels that the train formerly burned). The train is now a tourist train that runs through the redwood forests from Fort Bragg to Willits. I didn’t take the train ($50/person!) but I’m sure it’s a unique experience. You can also ride a railbike where you pedal down the railroad. Behind the Skunk Train museum/gift shop, there is a free model train exhibit that is very extensive. I felt like a kid again, and it’s definitely a place to take children (assuming they are interested in trains).

Mendocino County

The beach by Mendocino

Eugene had contacted me and he decided he was going to start driving back to Los Angeles. We made plans to meet in Fort Bragg after he got into town. I told him that I would be heading to Mendocino to check out the final day of the Mendocino music festival. When we arrived in Mendocino we found out that we needed tickets (oops) and we were late getting to the show. We wound up getting lunch and exploring the beach below the cliffs instead.

A few days earlier, I had checked out a campsite near Gualala (about 90 minutes south of Mendocino) along the river. I was planning on camping out there for the night and I invited Eugene to join me. While we were hiking in Redwood National Park, he stated that he was looking for a camping experience and I told him that the site in Gualala was very scenic and he would have a good chance to see the stars. As a quasi-tourguide, I think I provided him a good experience as this section of the Gualala River is the epitome of the Redwood Coast and the stars were excellent under a clear sky. I think anywhere in Mendocino County will give you a good view of the stars. There is so little light pollution as Mendocino is far enough away from the Bay Area (and any large settlements for that matter).

The next morning I bid farewell to Eugene as he had to get an early start. He was driving all the way back to Los Angeles. I think he was taking a faster route as driving Route 1 back to Los Angeles would probably take over 12 hours. I took my time packing up and I fished (probably for the last time this trip) unsuccessfully (again) for an hour before heading farther south.

Since it was the weekend, the traffic around the Sonoma County beaches was very heavy; add a couple of car accidents and construction slow-downs, and the drive from Gualala to Olema took about 4 hours.

Finally some backpacking

When I got to Olema, I went to the Bear Valley Visitor Center to get a permit to camp in Point Reyes. When I day-hiked at Point Reyes previously, it definitely looked like people were camping in the backcountry, but the park employee at the visitor center informed me that there was no backcountry camping in the park (however looking at the fire permit, they mention it in condition 3).

All of my paperwork to camp at Point Reyes: campsite permit, parking pass, fire burning permit, and trail map. I draw the line the day they ask for my social security number.

I therefore had to pay $20 for one night at the Coast Campground; one of 4 established campgrounds in the park which is, like it sounds, right on the coast. Fair enough; how often do you get to camp on the beach? Well to be honest, I had basically been camping on the beach for the last week, but this would be a little more legitimate (and intimate since I was hiking in). It took a few minutes to get all of my paperwork finished at the visitor center. It seemed like an awful lot of work just to camp for one night.

Hiking along the coast at Point Reyes, a few minutes before reaching the Coast campsite

It was early in the afternoon so I had plenty of time to make the short (3 mile) hike to my campsite, set up, and enjoy the rest of the day. Unfortunately, there are no trees at the Coast Campground so I couldn’t set up my hammock; no big deal. There was a pristine beach that I almost had to myself just a short walk away. As I finished setting up camp, a woman walked by my campsite and asked “are those coyotes?” She was looking up the hill in the middle of the campground but I couldn’t see anything. I asked her where she saw them and she said she couldn’t see them, but she could hear them. I listened for a few seconds and despite never hearing a coyote in person, they were definitely coyote noises. Great, now I had that to worry about. Thanks for pointing that out lady!

Before she walked away, the woman said she thought they may have been elk sounds, since there is a herd of elk in Point Reyes. What we were listening to were definitely not elk. If they were elk sounds, we would be able to see an elk or two because the noises were coming directly from the hill in front of us. Either way, coyotes aren’t much of a concern as long as you store your food properly (and you aren’t a roadrunner).

Speaking of elk: believe it or not I think I heard them early the next morning (based on the noises I have heard on a national geographic documentary). No sightings though.

More red tape

Terms and conditions may apply – my fire burning permit at Point Reyes

The park is very strict with fires (and firewood), so I had to have an additional permit issued to have a fire. My permit allowed me to gather driftwood from the beach and I could only have a fire on the beach provided that the fires were certain distances from any potential hazards and under the right conditions (i.e. low winds). The problem is that there is no driftwood because, I am assuming, it has all been gathered by previous hikers.

I walked almost a mile along the beach and the only driftwood I could find was one gigantic log on the beach, but good luck burning that! At the time, I remembered the park employee at the visitor’s center mentioning driftwood, but I didn’t realize I was restricted to only driftwood. I honestly missed the part about “wood gathering is prohibited” (see condition 6) and I wound up gathering wood from up the hill and carrying it down to the beach to burn. After my fire, I looked over the permit and discovered I had failed to follow the rules. Whoops. At least I extinguished my fire in accordance with the permit; and isn’t that what really matters?

I hiked out the following morning with the intention to explore the more remote sections of Point Reyes. I’m not sure if the area was cleared for agriculture or if trees have difficulty growing due to the high winds, but I was completely unaware of the historic ranches that straddle the road on the way to the Point Reyes Headlands. All of the ranches simply have letters to identify them and there is a heavy dairy operation in the area. Therefore, the land is mostly grassy for grazing, which doesn’t help cut down on the wind.

Follow the signs

Point Reyes is famous for its lighthouse, opened in 1870. There were numerous signs for the lighthouse throughout the park, however each of these signs had a giant “CLOSED” sign slapped underneath. The lighthouse and visitor center were both closed for renovation/reconstruction. I assumed I could still see the lighthouse from a distance so I decided to make the drive.

Dunes forming on the road to the lighthouse

It was a miserable drive. The temperature decreased and the crosswinds grew stronger as I drove through the ranches dotting the peninsula. The road was also bumpy, degraded, and full of cattle grids. The winds are so strong that several dunes had formed right on the road, making the drive a little more interesting. I passed by several beaches along the western coast of Point Reyes, but I don’t know who would go to any of the beaches unless they are into kite-surfing. The beaches were just as windy and cold as the rest of the area. I drove as far as I could before the road was blocked, and to my dismay, I couldn’t even see the lighthouse. Even walking out to the edge of the cliff, it was not visible. What a bust! It was so cold, foggy, and windy. I can’t imagine how the people who used to work in that lighthouse must have felt. It was difficult to believe that the picturesque city of Sausalito was less then 90 minutes away.

The only consolation was that on the drive back from the lighthouse there is a sea lion colony that you can watch from the cliffside. Most of them were hanging out on one of the rocks a few hundred feet from the mainland. Why do they do that? Aren’t there other rocks? I wouldn’t have noticed the sea lions except two park employees were photographing them at the overlook, so I just pointed my camera where they were pointing their cameras and I eventually saw them too. They just looked like brown lumps on the rocks from a distance. I tried to zoom in, but it came out a little blurry:

I thought at least one of them would be balancing a ball on its nose

The return to the Golden Gate

The next morning I crossed back over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. I did have to pay the toll driving southbound ($8.35 I think). This was the first toll of the entire trip! How did I pull that off?

Getting back to San Francisco was not in the original plan, but I’m glad I did it. Even though I drove back faster than I drove up, I was able to appreciate the coast a little bit more with a few extra days going south. Also, I had to meet my girlfriend’s parents and extended family to pick up a package to bring back east (how convenient). I made a loyal return to the Bazaar Cafe while was waiting for laundry (deja vu). After taking care of the administrative stuff, it was time to finally start my journey inland toward Las Vegas. No problem, I had 3 whole days. What could possibly go wrong?

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