On the Road

Buckle Up for These Picture-Perfect California Road Trips

Leave from Portland, or fly south and rent a car.

By Margaret Seiler and Kat Merck Published in the February 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

The view from Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Big Friendly Giants

California’s state parks and rec agency called Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park the “last in a long string of redwoods parks”—but for anyone who hops in a car in Portland, blasts down I-5 to Grants Pass, and hangs a right on US 199, it’s the first, and it might be all you need.

The park claims 7 percent of the world’s remaining old-growth redwoods, a 300-foot-tall curtain between you and the rest of the modern world. Some areas are off-limits until spring 2021 while a bridge is built so visitors can access the park’s Grove of Titans without tromping through sensitive habitat in service of that FOMO-inducing Instagram shot, but there’s still plenty of majesty to soak in.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

Book a cabin up to six months ahead (reservecalifornia.com, $80–100) or stay in nearby Crescent City, home to forgettable but traveler-friendly hotels, motels, and harborfront dining. Continuing on 101 takes you through more redwoods- and beach-devoted state parks—Del Norte (the “e” is silent), Prairie Creek, and Patrick’s Point—as well as past the throwback tourist trap Trees of Mystery complex, with a café, “vintage” motel, and statue of an extremely hirsute Paul Bunyan that makes the one in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood look practically prepubescent. Investigate another mystery, mashed-potato waffle cones, at Trinidad’s Lighthouse Grill, or hold out for the brewpubs in Arcata.

Depending on the time/season/weather/road conditions, there are many different ways to get home. Go back the way you came, or stay on 101 along the Oregon coast. Turn inland and take the Bigfoot Scenic Byway (CA 96), with a photo-op stop by the statue in Willow Creek (watch for September’s Bigfoot Daze festival). Explore the stunning Trinity Alps Wilderness, which is about as far as you can get from the major metro areas of Portland, Reno, and San Francisco. Or stick to CA 299, past old gold rush sites like Whiskeytown (damaged in 2018’s Carr fire) and Weaverville (some of its original Chinatown is still standing) all the way to the I-5 on-ramp in Redding, with an optional pilgrimage to the soccer park that made its honorary address 15 Rapinoe Way to celebrate Redding native (and University of Portland grad) Megan Rapinoe. —Margaret Seiler

San Luis Obispo’s sticky (and infamous) Bubblegum Alley

The Most Coast

Fly into the regional airport at San Luis Obispo (Alaska has direct flights), a bucolic college town once anointed by Oprah as the “happiest place in America.” Peek into Bubblegum Alley, a 70-foot-long gallery of used gum dating to the 1970s, on the way to the legendarily kitschy Madonna Inn (madonnainn.com, rooms from $209). Built by local construction magnate Alex Madonna, the inn was decorated by his wife, Phyllis, in the 1960s. Room themes include Austria, Golf, and Caveman, among others. Don’t miss the landmark downstairs men’s urinal, featuring a working, stone-lined waterfall. (Women and others can peek in, too.)

Head north through Morro Bay, grabbing a couple of fish tacos at Taco Temple before stopping at Morro Rock, a Haystack Rock-esque volcanic plug that’s a hotspot for bird- and surfer-watching. Slightly farther north sits Cayucos and its immortal Old Cayucos Tavern, a Wild West–era cowboy saloon virtually untouched since 1906, with naked-lady murals and Texas hold-’em.

Hearst Castle and carnitas at Taco Temple

Half an hour up Highway 1 sits the iconic Hearst Castle, publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s Gatsbyesque mansion, open daily for tours and the last public restroom until Carmel. If you’ve got to go, go now—it’s nearly 70 miles of nothing but shore-hugging road and coastal scrub until Big Sur, where the half-mile Point Sur Lighthouse hike is a must for craggy, windswept Pacific Ocean scenery.

Need more fuel for the ’gram? Stay the night at Treebones Resort (treebonesresort.com, campsites from $95, yurts from $350), a cluster of cliffside yurts and funky campsites with artist-made “nests” and twig huts. Go a little more rustic at National Register of Historic Places–listed Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn (deetjens.com, rooms from $115), tucked into a lush hillside by a waterfall. Pro tip: Keep abreast of road conditions ahead of time, as washouts, landslides, and closures are common. —Kat Merck

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