bench on California Highway 1

California Highway 1

Contrary to our Midwestern assumptions, it turns out there are cold, rainy days in California. And they can come in relentless succession. When we left our Airbnb in New Mexico for two weeks of reservation-free wandering up California’s famous Highway 1, the coastal camping trip we envisioned was warm and carefree. Just a few days into our trip, we were knee-deep in the consequences of our own spontaneity: the rainfly on our old tent had a gaping hole, Odin’s doggie bed was a moisture magnet, evening temperatures routinely dipped below 40, and mudslides, as it so happened, are a legitimate concern in this part of the country.

Ironically, we captured none of that. Scores of photos, and yet apparently we were only inspired to take out our phones in those rare moments when the sun deigned to grace us with his presence. Not a single day passed without a downpour, and yet this post will visually perpetuate the very stereotype that led us to sidestep research and bolt straight for the coast.

ragged point on California Highway 1

Not a single day passed without a downpour, and yet this post will visually perpetuate the very stereotype that led us to sidestep research and bolt straight for the coast.

And still, despite our clumsy iteration, we’d recommend this coastal drive to anyone. Perhaps with a bit of weather research first and a more appropriate set of clothes than we packed, but this trip is well worth any upfront effort, or in our case, course correction along the way. Bookended with two metropolitan meccas, California Highway 1 hugs the coastline with stunning ocean views out one window and rolling meadows out the other. Here are our most memorable stops on our climb from Los Angeles to San Francisco on California Highway 1.

bright yellow field off California Highway 1

California State Parks

Despite California’s immense population, development along Highway 1 is wonderfully sparse. The land seems to have been divvied up between the cows and the California State Park System, which owns more than 340 miles of the state’s coastline. The parks range from small spots for daytime beach access to expansive networks of campsites and trials. Here were our two favorite stops.

Leo Carrillo State Park

Tucked amid the mansions of Malibu, Leo Carrillo State Park has over a mile and a half of beaches, tree-covered campgrounds (both of which are dog-friendly), and several hiking trails. Each campsite has a fire ring and sturdy picnic table, which Odin used as a lookout fortress. At the beach we found a myriad of trucks with the Universal Studios logo. We gawked at these along with the ever-present wildlife: dolphins, whales, parakeets, pelicans, and one lone bobcat Odin proudly scared away.
tent under big tree at Leo Carrillo State Park
dog under picnic bench at Leo Carrillo State Park
morning coffee camping at Leo Carrillo State Park

The one catch with Leo Carrillo State Park is the price tag. While we were tickled to overhear retired Days of Our Lives stars at the local Starbucks debating which multi-million dollar house to buy next, Malibu’s average income means astronomical prices for everything else: four dollar toiletries suddenly cost ten bucks, the camping permits rivaled our average Airbnb nightly rate, and one of the grocery stores had only valet parking. After a few days enjoying this park between rainstorms, our budget was ready for us to keep moving north.

clear skies over campsites at Leo Carrillo State Park
beach at Leo Carrillo State Park

Hearst San Simeon State Park

Located just five miles south of Hearst Castle, Hearst San Simeon State Park extends from the beach back up into the surrounding foothills. In addition to its extensive hiking trails and elephant seal viewing areas, the park also has two separate campground loops. While the first one is ideal for RV camping, the second is more primitive and tucked back in the foothills. For us, this was the ideal campsite: serene views and few people.

Tent Set up at Hearst San Simeon State Park

Believe it or not, these photos were taken after waiting out an hour long deluge of rain in the car. Then the skies cleared up, and we enjoyed a long hike and s’mores by the campfire before crawling into the tent wearing every layer we’d packed. Odin, who never gets to sleep in our bed, seemed to be the only one celebrating the cold. Snuggled in between us and buried with blankets for warmth, he couldn’t stop wagging about the family slumber party. 

Dog in Hearst San Simeon State Park

Solvang: The Danish Capital Of America

The day we detoured 10 miles inland to visit the tiny town of Solvang, the sun came out for a few hours. A little over 2 square miles with just under 6,000 residents, Solvang is the Danish Capital of America. The jovial man in the information hut explained. In 1911 a bunch of Danish immigrants living in the (get this) expensive midwest were on the hunt for affordable land where they could found a town and school shaped after their homeland. Land in California was cheap, they scooped up 9,000 acres here in the Santa Ynez Valley, and convinced their fellow midwestern immigrants to make the trek out west to join them.
Once the town realized it had a tourist destination on its hands, Solvang started to actively cultivate the Danish aesthetic while the valley’s wine industry filled the town with tasting rooms. Between the windmills, bakeries, wine, and vitamin D, we wound up at the local animal hospital dropping Odin off for two nights of boarding, and we settled into the town which turned out to be the highlight of our California adventure.
windmill in Solvang, California

Sevtap Tasting Room

Neither of us had ever done a wine tasting before, but aside from eating, that seemed like the thing to do in Solvang. We wandered into one of the town’s four windmills, decked out in our hiking boots and rain gear no less, and quietly sat down at the corner of the bar. Our nerves immediately vanished when we met Chelsea.

Upbeat, laid back, she was the ideal guide for wine newbies like us. Chelsea’s explanations made each wine feel distinct, and yet approachable: you could kick back with this and a bag of salt and vinegar chips, this would rock with risotto. She had such a plethora of pairing ideas that one of the other customers challenged her to come up with the ideal Girl Scout cookie and wine combo. Her eyes lit up with the challenge. 

Sevtap Tasting Room in Solvang, California
wine tasting at Sevtap in Solvang, California
Sevtap Tasting Room in Solvang, California

The wine itself is the creation of Art Sevtap. This one-man winery boasts delectable creations. As a data analyst, I was delighted to find that all of his blends have exact percentages on the label. When we asked Chelsea why he did that, she laughed. He told me it’s so he doesn’t forget! Of the six red wines we tried, our favorites were the bubbly Mediterranean Nights and the easy-going Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend Yes Dear. If we had a physical home, we’d probably have left this place the newest members of their wine club.

Sevtap Tasting Room in Solvang, California

Santé Wine Bar

As we finished up at Sevtap, we asked Chelsea where we should go next. Following her recommendation (and the raves on Google), we walked into Santé Wine Bar later that evening to find her enjoying her own glass of wine with other locals. Her recommendation exceeded every expectation we could have had. 

There is a reason all of the online reviews pivot on the French owner and wine-maker, Eric Chamerat. Never before have we been so excited about how wine is made, the difference between the grapes, the history of different varieties. Eric’s enthusiasm for wine is downright contagious, and his wry humor makes it all the more accessible. His personalized tasting provided a window into how each wine was created, and his genuine love for his work triggered admiration not just for his wine, but for his entrepreneurial spirit. When we told him that we had recently started our own business, his face broke into a huge grin. Congratulations! You shall never sleep through the entire night again! He laughed. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it.

Sante Wine Bar bottles in Solvang, California
Sante wine bar in Solvang, California

All of SWB’s wine is created in tiny batches, which means Eric is constantly experimenting. Frankly, we would have happily sat down with a bottle of any of the wines we tried, but if forced to pick, here were our two favorites. First, there was the 2015 Petite Sirah which was so big and bold we picked up a bottle for dear friends in St. Louis. And then, there was the 2014 Greanche. Never before have we tried a light red wine that had so much flavor. A bottle of this is currently on the road with us, patiently waiting for the next celebration, whenever it decides to come along.

San Francisco

Highway 1 cuts straight through San Francisco, and while the drive triggered a few What’s Up Doc flashbacks (if you haven’t seen this movie, do it!), the majority of our attention was dedicated to avoiding a wreck while driving a stick-shift through the city’s iconic rollercoaster streets. The final stretch of our Highway 1 journey was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, which after a seemingly endless stream of rainstorms and cold nights felt like crossing a well-earned finish line. 

under the golden gate bridge

Silicon Valley

Just as we went out of our way in London to see the historical sights of Shakespeare for me, we sought out the tech giants for Jay while we were in the bay area. On our self-guided tour of Silicon Valley, we found the famous Google bikes employees use to get around campus and the Android sculpture park. Yes, these are statues dedicated to operating system versions, and yes, Jay loved it. We finished with a drive around Apple’s campus on One Infinite Loop. An infinite loop, Jay explained, is a programming error. And while he still thinks it’s hilarious that the company was able to choose this name for the road encircling its campus, I’m still trying to understand why a massively influential tech giant would want all their mail addressed to a common rookie programming mistake. 

android sculpture park at Google
google bikes on their campus
the android sculpture park at Google

Muir Woods National Monument

Last but not least, we visited Muir Woods National Monument just across the Golden Gate bridge. Here we hiked beneath the coastal redwoods and their mind-boggling height. When we stepped into the forest, we felt like we’d shrunk. Quiet, majestic, with a ground full of clovers, this was another incredible national monument we’re grateful to have visited during our travels. 

Muir Woods national monument sign
big tree with human inside in Muir Woods
Muir Woods walking path
clovers on the floor of Muir woods
looking up in Muir Woods

Back to Airbnbs

By the time we were this far north, cold evenings and incessant rain drove us out of our tent and back into the arms of a local Airbnb. After our tour of Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco, we settled just north for a week in a little town called Novato. Thrilled to have found a reasonably priced Airbnb in the area, we quickly booked it for five nights only to discover when we unlocked the door that we had just set a new record for the smallest Airbnb we’ve lived in. Join us next week for that featured stay!

ocean and beach off California Highway 1
field overlooking the ocean on California Highway 1
hills overlooking ocean on California Highway 1
California Highway 1

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2 Responses

  1. Zowie! Love your blog. Writing is excellent, photos superb. And the puppy is prime! So jealous of your wonderful adventure. Keep it going! Can’t wait for the next installment.

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