Driving Highway 1

Spanning the majority of the California coastline, Highway 1 graces many adventurer’s bucket lists. Every convertible driver’s dream road runs parallel to arguably the most beautiful coastline in the United States. Living in San Francisco, it’s typically a cheaper and much more convenient flight to Los Angeles, but a few weeks ago I found myself in circumstances that returning from a road trip made taking the otherwise-known Pacific Coast Highway the best way back home. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to turn it into an adventure.

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The journey begins navigating the crowded freeways of Los Angeles. Traffic, of course, exists in every major city, but it just seems to carry a different level of frustration in LA. Luckily it is short-lived and soon I’m on the open road with a plan for my evening destination to be Montaña de Oro, a state park just west of San Luis Obispo that I have been to briefly once before.

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The weather was stereotypical California – sunny and 75 degrees, so I expected the highway to be crowded. It wasn’t, however, and I made sure to roll down my windows and crank my music to really take in the ocean drive. Driving has always been somewhat meditational for me. I really enjoy the calmness that takes over when hitting the open road – highway 1 in particular. With the smooth traffic, I arrived earlier to Montaña de Oro, giving me time to take a longer hike down the beach than I had anticipated. I have no destination in mind to photograph, but the beach is abundant with tide pools and creative rock features to shoot while I searched for a place to watch the sun set.

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About an hour in, I came across a family barbecuing on the beach. They told me about a cave that was a half mile away from their picnic spot which they had discovered earlier in the day. Already sunburned, they were packing up for the evening and showed me a phone snapshot of what I could expect. It looked perfect, so I set off to find it. It wasn’t too long before I found the cave and perfect it was. The overhang provided some nice shade to retreat from the beating sun and an opportunity to dig into my Field Trip beef jerky for an afternoon snack.

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I was hoping for my “money-shot” to be at sunset, which was still an hour away, so I spent the extra time scouting around looking for interesting foreground subjects and unique compositions that would make a great photograph once the sky lit up. Finally, I settled on a tide pool that I thought could provide a nice orange reflection of the setting sun. Clear skies are what most people consider “beautiful weather” and I agree until my photographer hat goes on. Except when photographing stars, stormy and dramatic skies almost always make for a moodier shot. Since today I was graced with clear skies, I knew that there would be a lot more watching this sun set rather than photographing. I’m always okay with this. It’s important to me to stop and take in moments with my own eyes rather than always experience them behind the lens of a camera. I walked away this evening with a few photographs to remember, but it’s the time to stop and reflect that is much more valuable.

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Day two begins with an early start with the intent of seeing a popular location that everyone knows all about on the central coast, but I had only seen from afar – Morro Rock in Morro Bay, California. Carrying only my iPhone camera, I parked near the rock, picked up a morning coffee, and started a stroll down to the cove where the sailboats hang out near the base of the giant rock. This morning, the typical fog that frequents Northern California has made it’s way south, covering the rock and filling the harbor. It’s a cool site to see the rock peeking in and out of the fog and start my morning watching the paddleboarders paddle around the calm waters.

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Back on the road and halfway to my destination, Big Sur would be my second stop of the day. Only a three hour drive from the Bay Area, I have spent a lot of time in this gorgeous stretch of coastline, so there would be no exploring this afternoon. Instead, I drove straight to Julia Pfeeffer Burns State Park to see McWay Falls, one of the most visited landmarks in Big Sur. Tourists typically crown the short walkway to the waterfall overlook, but surprisingly today I had the waterfall all to myself. I snapped a few photos to add to my growing collection of this location, and noticed that the arrival of spring has what look like small oranges blooming on the trees near the overlook.

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My next stop is to be Davenport, California, but not before hugging the corners of probably the most dangerous part of the PCH. Big Sur’s steep cliffs are not for those with a fear of heights as the drop to the ocean is sometimes 500 feet on the other side of the highway. After making my way over the Bixby Bridge and out of Big Sur, Davenport is not much further up the highway. The remains of an old pier lie on the beach side of some railroad tracks in Davenport. I wanted to photograph the pier as a long exposure, but as I arrived mid-day, the conditions didn’t allow for this to happen with my normal setup. However, after stacking on two LEE Big Stoppers, the view out my camera lens turned to night, allowing me to expose a photograph of the pier that lasted over ten minutes. The result was a smooth ocean that looks like you can skate across it.

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Davenport brought to an end my itinerary for the day, and after a few more snapshots my home in San Francisco was the final destination of my trip. Driving this coastline makes me feel incredibly grateful that I live in this state where these views are just outside my front door. I was once told that “people vacation where you live” and this thought was on my mind during this entire trip. Now that this adventure is over, I will be marking “Drive Highway 1″ off of my bucket list, but adding a new item with a caveat…”Drive Highway 1 from the northern tip of California to the southern.” Next time I plan to allot more time to really enjoy the scenery and take in the many moments that grace the west coast.

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  • Sounds like a great time and some great photos to go along with it.

  • It certainly does look like a really beautiful and fun drive. Sometimes exploring your own backyard can yield the most exciting results!