My wife — who’s temporarily living in Atlanta these days — is visiting us here in Southern California.
So I took a few days off last week to take a mini-vacation: Sharon and I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to visit the infamous “castle” built by William Randolph Hearst.
The plan was to follow the PCH as far as we could, keeping in mind that the scenic drive disappears and changes names in places.
For us, though, getting on the highway was fairly easy. We drove due west to Seal Beach and then turned north on California Hwy. 1.
Long Beach can be a very pretty place. But along Hwy. 1, it’s not so great: The highway passes through what seems like the world’s largest industrial area. Lots of warehouses, small factories and billboards. So you won’t mind if I skipped taking pictures of all that.
We took our first photo of the day as we drove through a tunnel below a runway at LAX.
Traveling north past the airport, we hit lovely Marina del Rey. However, I’ve taken pictures there before. So we paused only to shoot this road sign — and even that was at a stoplight.
Sharon, though — who was on camera duty while I drove — couldn’t resist taking this snapshot of female bodybuilders working out along Lincoln Blvd. Which is what they call the PCH in that area.
Traffic moves slowly here, as you’d probably suspect. So even before we had gone very far, we were a bit behind where I expected to be at lunchtime.
However, food beckoned. We answered that call — in Santa Monica.
I’ve not yet spent much time up this way, but I made a mental note to bring my daughter up here and explore one weekend. The Santa Monica pier looks particularly inviting.
Thanks to a poorly-market detour, we had already become separated from Hwy. 1. Our target highway was that one, below the cliffs.
Instead, we were at the intersection of Ocean Ave., and the famous Wilshire Blvd.
Wilshire, of course, runs through Hollywood and into Los Angeles. East, in that direction there.
Here on the zero block of Wilshire is a giant bank building and a nice little park.
Sharon spotted this statue, a good 14 or so feet tall, and asked me why there was a giant phallic symbol here.
I walked around to the other side to discover it was, in fact, just the opposite of what she thought. The statue was of a nun: The one for whom the city is named.
I stepped away from Sharon, just in case she was suddenly struck by lightning. That didn’t happen, so we walked up the street in search of cheap eats.
Just a few blocks east is the Third Street Promenade, a nice little shopping area.
On the corner is a gorgeous art-deco-styled Barnes & Noble.
Sharon knew if we went in there, I’d a) be there for hours, and b) I’d blow our vacation budget on books. So I had to make a note to return here. After Sharon flies back to Atlanta.
Another cool thing we saw on the Promenade: A dinosaur who spits water.
Two of them, in fact.
I didn’t know dinosaurs spat water. Oh, the things you learn on vacation…
I also stumbled over this modest display of civic art.
I Googled the Sterling Foundation and found that it helps ]teens go to college — teens who, in some cases, might the first members of their families to attend.
We didn’t walk far before we saw this cute little Greek diner.
Mmmm. A gyro sounded perfect. So we took a table inside the quaint little joint…
…and had a delicious lunch.
With our faces stuffed, it was time to try to get back on schedule. We still had a long, long way to go.
This was our direction: Past Pacific Palisades and on through the Malibu region, which you see curling around to the left.
So off we went. For most of the day, we kept the sun roof closed so I wouldn’t get sunburned right off the bat.
Malibu was much less dense than I had expected, but every bit as rich.
Very expensive-looking homes perched on the hills above the Pacific Coast Highway.
Meanwhile, the richest-looking homes of all sat right down on the water. I was kind of shocked how close these homes were built to the Pacific Ocean.
I’ve always read that homeowners in these parts discourage visitors from stopping and checking out the beaches. Beach access points exist and are clearly marked. Parking spots, not so much. Therefore, I missed a lot of great opportunities for pictures: You can’t take them if you can’t stop. Sharon shot a lot of these from our moving car.
Sitting atop this particular hill are the Hughes Aircraft lab facilities.
Man. What a view these folks have. I can’t imagine how they get any work done at all.
Shortly past there: Pepperdine University.
Someone told me recently that Pepperdine sits directly across the PCH from the ocean. Absolutely true.
Every once in a while, we could find a place to stop and let me fire off a few pictures. Again, note how close to the freakin’ water this modest-sized beach house is.
I presume this was high tide.
Not far past Pepperdine was Zuma Beach, where we took a short break.
The water was gorgeous and looked very inviting. I kind of wished we had more time to stay and enjoy this little place.
A flock of pelicans soared overhead…
…not pooping on my wife. I was thankful for that.
And, of course, I must include the obligatory “sun behind a palm tree” shot:
As we moved further up the coast, the terrain became more mountainous. The Pacific Coast Highway would, at times, soar above the beach houses along the shore.
But still, we could only pull over in a few places. There just wasn’t anywhere to safely stop and take pictures. Especially not heading north, like we were.
That’s one tip to remember, should you ever make this drive: Start up north and drive south. There are a few scenic outlooks marked on that side of the PCH.
At several points during our drive, I was reminded very much of the numerous drives I took up and down the Cape of Good Hope peninsula near Cape Town, South Africa. The geology here is very similar: Shorelines that are rocky at times.
And strings of mountains that come clear down to the sea.
Those signs weren’t kidding. We spotted a large number of rocks laying all over the highway. I wasn’t sure whether to slow down, so I could spot rocks falling from the mountain…
…or speed up, to get us through that stretch a little more quickly.
Even after we were in the clear — supposedly — we found ourselves driving on a road that was literally carved from the side of a mountain.
There definitely wasn’t a lot of room for error here.
Finally, we rounded one of these gorgeous bends to spot something I had read about a while back: Mugu Rock.
Not only is Mugu an interesting rock formation, but also it’s the spot where our journey — which had become mostly westernly since lunch — would turn north again.
When they built this part of the Pacific Coast Highway in 1925, I’m told, they really didn’t think they could build a road around this bit. So t’hell with it; they just blasted their way through…
…creating a picturesque notch that has been used in dozens of automotive TV commercials ever since.
Naturally, we got out and took a bunch of pictures.
Looking back the other way, I spotted this sign.
Man, the idea of a tsunami rolling in off the Pacific and pinning us against that rock cliff was terrifying. Just what I needed: Something else to worry about.
The ocean was quite rough here, however, pounding the shore to little bits with a loud crash.
Speaking of car commercials: Ford really ought to pay me money for posting this picture.
In case you’re curious: This was the longest road trip we’ve taken with the hybrid Fusion I bought last summer. Fabulous car.
After Point Mugu, we departed the immediate coastline and toward the towns of Oxnard and Ventura. This was farm country.
I was delighted to see everything so green, given the severe drought in these parts.
Among my regrets from our trip: We didn’t have time to stop in Ventura. I thought this little place was just gorgeous.
What a lovely little town.
I’ll have to go back there one day.
On the other side of Ventura, we had a choice: Take U.S. 101 — a nice freeway — and make up our lost time, or stick to my original goal of trying to stay on California Hwy. 1. They run parallel for a few miles. Hoping for a few interesting pictures, we chose the latter.
First thing we did was stop near Emma Wood State Beach, where this interesting mountain looked like it had collapsed in on itself.
In addition to the two highways, a railroad track ran along this stretch.
Views like this, however, was the real reason we kept stopping. Just look at those waves, crashing into the bay.
Sitting atop one rock here, I found a shoe. Just one shoe. No mate. No owner.
No explanation. No nothing. Just a shoe.
We climbed back into the car but didn’t get far at all before we ran into our next unusual sight: Recreational vehicles, parked end-to-end along the highway.
There were hundreds of them. Stretching for miles.
We were stunned. I didn’t really see that many people. Just the RVs.
That was better than shoes, I suppose.
I stopped in the middle of the pack and shot back south, along the sea wall.
As far as the eye could see. Amazing.
Just past there, Hwy. 1 ended, so we leaped back onto U.S. 101.
The downside: There were neither as many interesting sights nor as many places to pull over. The upside: We finally began making decent time.
Note the mountains disappearing in the mist. Notice the flat little island at the far left, with what appears to be a causeway leading out to it.
That wasn’t a causeway. That was a pipeline. That’s an oil operation, just barely off shore, called Rincon Island. It was built in 1958.
It really was getting late. We had a big lunch, but we knew we’d be getting hungry soon, and we wanted to be somewhere near our hotel for dinner. So it was time to make some serious tracks.
Because of that — and because there are so few places to pull over anyway — we took very few pictures of the Santa Barbara area.
And that’s a shame, because Santa Barbara, too, was a very pretty little city.
At some point, we passed Gaviota State Park. That was a landmark for us, because it meant we had to say goodbye to the Pacific Ocean for the day.
We turned due north, inland towards those mountains…
…and through this little area called Gaviota Pass.
It was here, on Christmas Day, 1848, that the Mexican Army waited to ambush John C. Frémont and his 300 men who were en route to Santa Barbara.
However, Frémont — realizing the peril — chose an alternate route.
The next month, Frémont was successful in winning his part of the Mexican-American War with the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.
Only the southbound part of U.S. 101 travels through the pass proper. We were on the northbound lanes, which pass through the mountain via a tunnel built in 1953.
Although there are no bike lanes in the tunnel, bicycles are allowed inside.
Once we passed through that mountain, our route took us west again, through some very hilly country…
…which eventually flattened out just a bit…
…by the time we hit the town of Lompoc.
By now, we were getting hungry. We probably should have stopped here for fast food or something, but we were determined to press on to our hotel near Pismo Beach.
This is where we made our first real mistake of the day: I had planned to stay on Hwy. 1 past the main gate of Vandenberg Air Force Base. However the GPS built into my car suggested a faster, alternate route that would help us link up to Hwy. 135.
I succumbed to the temptation. The lesson I learned: Never take GPS’ word for anything. Because GPS lies.
So here’s what happened: We turned northeast on something called Harris Grade Road. Which turned out to be a very small, somewhat terrifying road that took us up and around a number of mountains. Without guardrails.
I slowed the car waaaay down. Both Sharon and I have a bit of an aversion to heights. We both turned green.
By this time, the battery on my camera had died for the day. I suggested to Sharon that she take a few pictures of this incredibly narrow, terrifying road — it’ll make a great story later, I said. Pictures, hell, Sharon said. I’m not opening my eyes again until we’re down.
You’re reading this, so you know how it ended: We eventually reached Route 135, slid into Santa Maria and picked up U.S. 101 again. Which we probably should have never left after driving through the tunnel at Gaviota.
From there, it really was a short drive to Arroyo Grande, where we checked into our hotel.
As you can see, we were very close to Pismo Beach. We never managed to get over to see the actual beach there: The whole time we were there, we were either sleeping or running around points north.
The hotel, though — a Best Western — was quite nice. Much nicer than I would have thought.
The only downside of the place: The patio around the pool and hot tub was being resurfaced, so the pool area was closed.
That was OK, though: We didn’t come to enjoy the pool.
Our room was on the second floor, just past the elevator.
As you saw, we enjoyed gorgeous weather for the drive up on Thursday. Friday, however, dawned chilly and overcast. Rain was in the forecast. It was hard to complain — folks here need rain so much — but, still. We’d have to work around the weather.
After a quick breakfast, we jumped back onto U.S. 101 for a drive over to Morro Bay. I’ve always heard how pretty it is there.
After we passed through San Luis Obispo, however, we came across a row of very interesting mountains.
These are what are called the Nine Sisters — nine mountains of volcanic origin that stand roughly in a row between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay. That one, I believe, would be 1,559-foot Bishop Peak.
This one with the rocky adornments is Hollister Peak — at 1,404 feet, the tallest of the nine.
This is Cabrillo Peak, with Black Hill lurking behind.
Finally, the last of the nine — Morro Rock, at the very mouth of the bay — came into view from the highway.
We’d spend quite a bit of time looking at that rock. First, though, we had to drive through the town of Morro Bay.
It was a very pretty little seaside town. The big industries here, evidently, are fishing and tourism.
It was yet another place I’d like to spend a day or two exploring. But, alas. We didn’t have that kind of time.
This is Morro Rock, as it appears from Embarcadero, the harborfront street.
Like I said, the day was overcast. The clouds must have been low, because every once in a while, one would drift between us and the 581-foot-tall rock.
The rock guards the base of the bay, where lots of sailboats and fishing vessels are moored.
A family of seals — they were very loud — kept watch over the boats.
And a seagull kept watch over the seals.
Just behind the row of shops and restaurants along Embarcadero are a number of docks. Fishing boats and tour vessels came and left as we strolled along the boardwalk.
Business was a little sleepy on this misty Friday morning. I’d imagine the place is hopping on a sunny day.
Despite the big oily boats, this is still California. So everyone here is ecology-minded.
Like I said, a number of cute little shops lined the street.
Sharon found herself a bit chilly, so we ducked into one and bought her a Morro Bay sweatshirt. Then, I wondered why this place was named after me.
A few of the restaurants doubled as sports bars. I wondered how good satellite reception could be with all that bird poop on the dish.
And, speaking of cute names: Sun-N-Buns for a bakery.
At the end of the row of shops was a tiny little park.
We drove around Embarcadero to get a little closer to Morro Rock.
The rock, as I said, is of volcanic origin. This diagram is posted nearby, explaining how the action of wind and water over the past 20 million years wore away the volcanic mountain, leaving only the plug.
Another part of the same diagram explained the Nine Sisters.
For a while, the mountain was used as a quarry. The nearly breakwater, for example, is made entirely of rocks chipped away from Morro Rock.
Here’s a look back at downtown from the base of the rock.
Lots of folks were out there, even on a blustery day, shooting pictures of the Peregrine Falcon nests there.
Sharon, however, is more interested in shells and sea creatures. She walked along the beach and the breakwater, looking for artifacts.
She really should be more observant, however. You never know when a giant gull will snatch you off the beach, fly to her nest and feed you to her young.
Once I got all the pictures I wanted, I took a break and waited for Sharon to do her thing.
I did find a few signs that made me laugh. This sign tells you to not climb on the giant rock — it’s a nature preserve — but it’s OK to walk your dog here.
Or does it?
Captain Nasty, it turns out, is a local funk band.
I couldn’t help but notice the enormous amount of bird poop all over Morro Rock.
I’m not sure why all the poop kept leaping out at me. But it did. That, alone, would keep me off the mountain.
We took a quick detour to the far side of the bay to see the estuary…
…but, quite frankly, it was time to eat lunch and move on to our next stop. There were a number of nice-looking eateries on Embarcadero, but only one was cooking food right there on the sidewalk.
This was Giovanni’s, a fish market and eatery where you can munch with a view of the rock.
Naturally, we had to eat fish and chips.
However, we decided to pass up the Fried Twinkies and Fried Oreos.
Our tickets at Hearst Castle were for an evening tour. It was still a bit early to drive the few miles there, so we decided to drive past the estate and check out a nearby colony of elephant seals.
The terrain in these parts was just a bit flatter than what we had seen earlier. Flatter but very rocky.
Here, I’m looking back over the water to Morro Bay, far in the distance. You can see Morro Rock, just above the direct center of the picture.
Look to the left to find another large cloud.
While we stood there taking pictures, our weather luck finally ran out. A layer of clouds rolled in out of the mountains and it began to rain.
The spot where the seals hang out is called Piedras Blancas. We got out of the car, pulled on our jackets and hats and walked over to the observation point. Where, sure enough, among the rocks…
…we could see seals. Sleeping on the beach.
Turns out, this is molting season for female and juvenile elephant seals. Mating season is over. The seals return to the beach and spend days or weeks laying on the beach until they shed their skins.
I had to laugh at this sign, however.
“Faster than you think”? Not today, they aren’t. If you don’t stand there long enough to see one twitch or vocalize, you’d swear they are dead.
Still, there weren’t very many seals to watch. Most of the crowd was further up the path. Despite the wind and the rain, we decided to walk over there and see what everyone was looking at.
Sure enough, we hit the motherlode: Hundreds of elephant seals. Thousands, maybe.
As far as the eye could see. Most were very drowsy. Only a few were moving around or tussling with each other.
Sharon managed to capture one of these li’l fellas heading for a quick dip in the water.
He’d move a few feet and stop and rest. And move a few more feet. And stop and rest again.
Kind of like me, going up stairs.
We shot a selfie in the rain…
…and decided that we would go on to the Hearst Castle, even if it was too early. At least we’d be out of the weather.
That’s all the story I have for you today. Tomorrow, I’ll walk you through our evening tour of Hearst Castle.