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An Epic Road Trip Up California's Highway One

On the drive from L.A. to San Francisco, we seek out the detours, pit stops and people who make it worth taking the long way.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve; Portrait of the Municipal Winemakers tasting room

Left to right: Coast with the most: The Pacific shoreline on a clear, calm day at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve; portrait of the Municipal Winemakers tasting room in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.

Santa Barbara County Km 185

A few kilometres down a winding, oak-canopied road in the Santa Ynez Mountains, I pull onto the shoulder. A 30-second rain shower wets the blacktop and suspends a film of perfumed smoke low in the air. Many hills in the area are scorched black from last winter’s wildfires, but that’s not it. I follow the scent on foot around the next bend to the Cold Spring Tavern, where the beer flows, the barbecue pit burns all day and a country singer plays in the barroom.

Flowers; Cold Spring Tavern

Left to right: Flower power is going strong; at Cold Spring Tavern, your tummy’s not the only thing growling.

This old stagecoach station dates to 1886. A collection of timber structures is decorated with pre-vintage lighting, colourful signs and an arkful of taxidermy: I count nine deer plus a bear, a coyote and one trout that has hung out over the window so long, it appears to be petrified. And as the first stop on my four-day drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the Tavern proves how rewarding it can be to take the longcut. Most drivers make the 625-kilometre run in six hours, zipping up Interstate 5 through the state’s interior, but I’m tracing Highway 1 to check in with the inhabitants of the Central Coast – an often bypassed part of the state. Lined with beaches and carved by mountains, it’s bisected by detours and slow roads that attract dreamers and free spirits seeking their own rewarding route.

Cold Spring Tavern

A welcome party at Cold Spring Tavern.

Today’s crowd includes geared-out bikers and cyclists, young families, ladies out for a Saturday lunch. I take a seat in a corner near newspaper clipping tributes to a history of departed tavern pooches (and one mountain lion) and bite into the tri-tip sandwich: slow-cooked beef kissed with smoky oak tannin and drizzled with a tangy, spicy jus.

Casa Dumetz; Sonja Magdevski

Left to right: Slake your thirst in the Casa Dumetz tasting room; winemaker Sonja Magdevski at Casa Dumetz.

Bell Street, Los Alamos Km 320

Salomon Pico, who inspired the legend of Zorro, Spanish California’s nobleman vigilante, once holed up in the hills above this two-road western town. While that era is long gone, the Spanish names of towns, counties, mountains and the descendants inhabiting them are still here. Much groundwork was laid by Spanish missionaries, including the first grapevines planted in California, over 200 years ago. More than 8,500 hectares of Santa Barbara County are now devoted to growing wine grapes.

Los Alamos; tempura avocado

Top to bottom: In Los Alamos, a sign of the (old and new) times; the tempura avocado from Conrad Gonzales’ Vallefresh taco counter in Los Alamos.

A tiny portion of that fruit finds its way to Sonja Magdevski’s busy Casa Dumetz tasting room on Bell Street, a.k.a. California State Route 135. While in Macedonia on a Fulbright scholarship in 1998, the ex-journalist visited a vineyard once worked by her father. “I came home and finished my thesis, but I’d fallen in love with the vine,” she says, pouring me a taste of her grenache blanc. The wine’s fruity richness hints at nectarine and raw almond, with a saline track and a round finish: gifts of the local limestone topsoil and the longest growing season of any California wine region. Magdevski now makes the wines for the nearby Hilliard Bruce Winery, and her own Casa Dumetz, Feminist Party and Clementine Carter labels (the last named for her favourite Western character), with fruit she sources from farmers all over the county.

Magdevski pours her Feminist Party grenache-syrah-mourvèdre blend and Conrad Gonzales, the chef who runs the taco kitchen in the adjoining Babi’s Beer Emporium, delivers a tempura-fried wedge of avocado, topped with yuzu kosho and served on a purple-corn tortilla with a mask of black mole sauce. The buttery, spicy taco lifts the full-bodied wine into lightness.

Zack Zeman

Enter sandman: Sun Buggy’s Zack Zeman.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area Km 435

“This,” Zack Zeman tells me as he digs my back wheels out of the sand, “is a problem of momentum.” We’re up on a 30-degree slope in 6,000 hectares of rolling sand abutting the Pacific Ocean, roughly midway between S.F. and L.A. Here’s a place that lines up the contradictions that make California: These dunes are a geological anomaly, the only instance of their kind between Las Vegas and Oregon, and are both a haven for protected birds as well as a playground for the 1.4 million off-roaders who visit each year.

“We live in a horsepower-driven culture,” says Zeman, who oversees operations for Sun Buggy Fun Rentals in adjacent Pismo Beach. A local guy who describes himself as a nerd, not a gearhead, he’s always been drawn to the dunes. “My first date: out here on the sand,” he says. Following a stint in Bay Area real estate, he moved home 16 years ago to guide newbie off-roaders. Zeman regularly interrupts himself to point out the shorebirds that share the park – like a whisper of wandering tattlers skirting the waves offshore.

My buggy consists of a seat welded to a squat steel frame, with two fat wheels in back for grip and a pair of slim wheels in front to steer. It feels like it’s going a lot faster than its top speed of 60 kilometres an hour as I dive down an embankment. Zeman warns me I’ll be finding sand on my person for days. I can already feel it in my smile.

Big Sur; Oceano dunes

Left to right: Big Sur, where mountains meet coast; buggyin’ out on the Oceano dunes.

Fergusson Nacimiento Road Km 660

Just North of San Luis Obispo, where the hills rise and fall sharply, like the earth’s teeth with brief green valleys in between, Highway 1 finds the coast and follows it to Monterey. But a May 2017 landslide dropped 4 million cubic metres of earth and rock into the ocean, wiping out the roadway in one fell swoop. (It’s due to reopen in September.) A long and leisurely detour brings me through an active army training base where I catch glimpses of a herd of elk, and an attack helicopter practising manoeuvres. Then, via a narrow road with dozens of switchbacks, I’m gifted with the dramatic reveal of the Pacific Ocean.

Goldenback fern; Jamie Siebold

Left to right: The goldenback fern is endemic to Central Coast chaparral and scrubland; Jamie Siebold, mountain woman.

Ventana Big Sur Km 775

From 1,000 metres up I can still make out the blows of migrating grey whales just offshore. Jamie Siebold, resident naturalist at Ventana Big Sur, stands by the remnants of a landslide triggered by heavy rains in the spring of 2017. A felled redwood points upslope. “The topsoils all along the coast were once the sea floor,” she explains. “They got pushed up by layers of rock, and now they’re just sitting there. When it gets wet, it can slide.”

Siebold is a former veterinary technician from Kansas who, a few years back, sold all her belongings to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Then she resettled in California. “I live to hike – I needed to be outside every day.” Now she guides Ventana guests on walks through the mountains and woods and along the coastline of Big Sur (and also runs the resort’s glamping program).

As we move from redwood forest to mountain chaparral, Siebold points out indigenous plants and trees, like delicate Indian paintbrush, fragrant mountain sage, bay laurel trees and a type of fern that stores its pollen underleaf. A few California condors circle overhead, scanning for carrion. We encounter a mountain man, owner of tan coveralls and a beard that would make any hipster jealous. He’s out foraging for mushrooms, which he trades with locals and restaurants. “I’ll trade chan-terelles for lion’s manes,” he tells us. “Chanterelles are good for the belly, but lion’s manes are good for the brain.”

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve beach

There’s a secluded California beach for each of us, like this one with views of harbour seals and otters in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve Km 820

After watching a sea otter bob and weave busily in the kelp near China Cove, it’s time to head for my final destination. By the time I reach San Francisco, I’ll have stretched the trip from 625 to 1,150 kilometres – nearly double – but the road has paid me back in inspiration. And when I empty my pockets later that night, I find a few unexpected Central Coast souvenirs: a cork, a bay leaf and a small pile of sand.

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