We have traveled as far northwest as we can on our DNA Expedition so south we go, leaving the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. The Pacific Coast of the US stretches ahead of us 1500 miles to the Mexican border. We travel on the mostly two-lane road of Highway 101 as it snakes its way along the coast and passes a myriad of wild and scenic habitats. The human encampments vary from outpost logging towns and salty commercial fishing villages to savvy and chic cities. Most of the wild lands are just that – protected by state and federal parks – thank goodness. We cross the great Columbia River into Oregon and most of the way south we are a stones throw from the crashing surf. The road climbs higher and weaves along the cliffs. Make sure you have the gas tank full for this trip. The fuel stops can be far apart.
Our first stop is along the upper Oregon coast in a little village called Depoe Bay. This is where the fishing scene for the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed. The pocket-sized harbor claims to be the “smallest” in the world, we didn’t measure it but it looks tiny. The treacherous “inlet”- a pencil thin cut through rocks to gain access to the ocean – is where things get dicey. Ocean swells slosh through the cut constantly, threatening to batter any vessel that ventures out or in. They must have had a calm day when the movie crew was filming (unusual). Today the town is best known for its whales. Grey Whales visit here in the warmer months and we saw them thirty feet from the window at a local restaurant. Whale watching boats take you off shore to view them up close, if you want to brave that inlet. Our hotel was a wonderful getaway; the Whale Cove Inn
is perched high above Whale Cove and yes the whales do come in through a narrow cut and feed in the protected bay. The inn has beautiful suites, each with a private balcony overlooking the cove. The in-house restaurant “Beck” is run by a young couple. The food is creative and delicious. One note to consider is the inn staff checks out at 7pm so after that you are on your own. We were the only guests and had the place to ourselves – it was a little strange. A tour of the cute town revealed something most visitors would not know. We struck up a conversation with a resident shopkeeper who looked like a lifelong biker. We asked about the crime rate, a common question that we expected would confirm our feeling – low or no crime. The man glanced around and told us of a story about another merchant who had a gas station. One day an out-of-towner filled up the gas tank and tried to leave without paying. The oriental merchant did not want to call the police as in his home country the police are corrupt and cause more damage. Within seconds three other “locals” had pulled guns on the freeloaders who paid up fast and got out of town! So remember… the locals “pack heat” in the west.
There are many “pullouts” along Highway 101 where you can safely view the offshore sea stacks (vertical columns of rock), pocket beaches, sea lions basking and frequent lighthouses. The trees get larger as you drive south with a constant bath of fog and rain encouraging growth. Massive Douglas Firs are the first clue we are entering the temperate rainforest. Sitka spruce and western Red Cedar mix with Coastal Redwoods as we enter California. We are heading for Redwood National Park and further on to Humboldt State Park where the Avenue of the Giants (31 miles of road that parallels Hwy. 101) showcases the largest living things on Earth, the giant Redwoods. The oldest redwood ever found was logged out in 1933 – it was 2,200 years old! The average age of these incredible trees is 600 years old. Growing to around 367 feet tall (picture a 35 story skyscraper) and 22 feet wide, they tower over the landscape and anything on it (we felt like Lilliputians). Less than 5% of the old growth coastal redwoods remain today. Groups like Save the Redwoods League have worked for more than 90 years to protect these giants. These coastal trees have cousins’ inland that like higher elevations (Giant Sequoias) and you can visit them in Sequoia National Park.
We stop for a night in redwood country at an inn which was old (decrepit) quaint (rundown) and historic (past its prime). Chief inspector Jay discovered a bathroom with remnants of previous guests scattered around, and enough dust drifting about to warrant a foghorn. Since we were hours from other accommodations escape was not possible. The few other guests looked warily around as they discovered they too were captive. The creaky floors, dingy doors and dim lighting added to the ambiance. This was another inn where the staff checks out at 7pm – were do they go…? The ghosts must start their shift. The doors slam, “remember your key,” they warn or you’re out on the street (probably a better option) …House on Haunted Hill anyone?
We cleared out early and continued our drive admiring the magnificent redwoods. We leave their realm and come into the hills and valleys of Mendocino County. Vineyards, microbreweries and farmland fill the landscape now. We are heading for one of California’s famous cities, San Francisco. Set on hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, the city is famous for its diverse culture, sourdough bread, cable cars and too many other stellar features to mention. We stayed at an icon of the city, the Fairmont San Francisco that is still the social gathering place of the well to do. With its fascinating history and beautiful architecture, this hotel survived the earthquake and ensuing fires of 1906. Set high upon Nob Hill (or as my San Fran native father called it; “Snob Hill”) views of the entire city and bay unfold before you. Get ready to walk, sometimes straight up or down, as this is a great walking city. Shopping, restaurants, museums, Alcatraz, it’s all here. It’s amazing the giant redwoods with their cathedrals of silence are so close to this bustling metropolis. It’s just another view of the diverse DNA of this country.