California Bound: 800 Miles on the 101

My road trip to San Francisco began on a Tuesday morning, after parting ways with Nicole at the airport. Martha the Rental Car was stocked with fresh Portland donuts, Trader Joe’s snacks, plenty of water, and good music. I found my way back to the coast and drove south on the US 101 through Oregon.

We’ve been on the run
Driving in the sun
Looking out for number one
California here we come
Right back where we started from

Hustlers grab your guns
Your shadow weighs a ton
Driving down the 101
California here we come
Right back where we started from

Even though I’d been exploring Oregon for a couple of days, there was still plenty more to see—and to be surprised by. There were a few places I wanted to visit, but I figured I would also stop anywhere that looked interesting along the way. First up was a visit to Heceta Head Lighthouse. The 56-foot-tall lighthouse is 124 years old and shines a beam visible for 21 nautical miles—the strongest light on the Oregon Coast. I parked and headed for the lighthouse trail. (And I didn’t have to pay for parking because the woman who arrived before me found an extra ticket!) The walking trail, a short hike uphill, provided some of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever seen. I stopped more than once just to gaze at the coastline and subsequently had to pick my jaw up off the ground in order to keep going. I marveled at the large lighthouse and stared out at the sea. The sun warmed every inch of me. Sea lions barked in the distance. The wind blew salty air through my hair. I could have stayed on that cliff forever, but the day was early and I had many miles still to drive.

Only a mile and a half down the road, I made an unexpected stop when I stumbled upon the Sea Lion Caves! I spent my childhood (and all of my adult-life thus far) enamored by marine mammals of all kinds, so obviously, I couldn’t pass up the detour. I paid $14 to take an elevator 200 feet down and watch 150 sea lions swim and sleep and bark in a dark cave. It was worth every penny.

I hopped back on the 101 and kept going south. The coastal drive was quiet and easy. The beautiful scenery made the miles fly. I made other stops along the way, including a visit to the Prehistoric Gardens. The roadside attraction features 23 life-size dinosaurs alongside a winding walking path in a slice of a prehistoric rainforest near the Oregon coast. It felt like walking through a scene straight out of Jurassic Park—you know, minus the whole running-for-my-life thing. When the sun began to set, I pulled over to watch the glowing sky melt into the ocean near Sisters Rock.

Sometime during the next few hours, I crossed the border into California. I couldn’t see much in the dark, especially as I drove through the Redwood Forest. The road was twisty-turny and so dark. The stars and moon, completely invisible under the canopy of towering trees. Long stretches of the road were under construction, reduced to a single lane, and my anxiety grew in the black of night. I arrived at my Airbnb for the night—a quaint little studio bedroom in Arcata—cleaned up, and crawled under the covers, exhausted from a long day on the road.

By morning, I was well-rested and ready to take on a new day. I enjoyed a cup of pour-over coffee and some oatmeal for breakfast in bed, and then I was back on the road. I was bummed to have missed the redwoods after I’d miscalculated my travel time, so starting with a drive through the Avenue of the Giants was the perfect remedy. The scenic highway spans 32 miles through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, lined on either side with coast redwood trees that soar more than 300 feet high. I drove along the windy road, stopping every few minutes to get out and just stare up at the trees—round and robust, floating high above the ground. The pictures do it little justice. I stumbled upon Rockefeller Loop, a little trail hidden alongside Bull Creek and Eel River, and meandered among the trees. The air was fresh and cool, the canopy blocking out most of the day’s sun. The ground was soft. It was peacefully quiet out there.

I wanted to visit Glass Beach next and, unfortunately, the only way to get there was down California State Route 1. I thought driving through the redwoods at night was bad! The mountain road was impossibly windy and long. At nearly every turn, signs cautioned driving a mere 5 or 10 miles per hour. I held my breath the whole time, fingers crossed that the road would end soon. Over an hour later, it did. I continued on and made it to Fort Bragg—sunny and warm, the ocean breeze blowing gently. The area is known for the abundance of sea glass lining its shores, a result of years of dumping garbage on the coastline near the town, but the glass is slowly diminishing due to natural factors and thousands of visiting tourists. Tiny flecks of white and green and brown dotted the beach underneath a bright sun. A black lab pup named Hazel greeted me as I walked across the sand, but otherwise, Glass Beach was a bit underwhelming.

I had hoped to finish up my road trip with a visit to Point Reyes to watch elephant seals roar along the shore, but I ended up driving in circles and never quite made it. When the sun had nearly set, I gave up—only 20 miles from the lighthouse. Cell service was spotty and I didn’t want to risk dropping Martha the Rental Car off late. I cut my losses and headed back to the highway for the final stretch of my drive.

I was hesitant to share this part of my trip because it was such a complicated experience. I wasn’t unfamiliar with driving long distances alone; in fact, I was more than used to occupying myself with solo dance parties and pep talks and dreams of my future life while on the road. Martha the Rental Car, a nearly-brand-new white Altima, was a trusty companion. Familiar music beat through her speakers as she glided along the roads with ease. We had witnessed stunning coastlines, colorful sunsets, soft ocean waves, and trees as tall as the sky. And yet, I was still uneasy. Maybe it was the unfamiliarity or the quiet. Maybe it was the hopes I had built up in my own head. As I traversed through Oregon and Northern California, I was filled with both wonder and worry.

The road snaked through small town after small town, but, before I knew it, I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge—a beautiful span of crimson red, even in the dark. I had traveled more than 800 miles down the 101, plus another 400 or so through Washington and Oregon. All on my own. I was immensely proud of myself, but I also sighed with relief knowing it was almost over.

When I left Martha the Rental Car for the last time, just four days later, we had racked up over 1,200 miles together. The final part of my journey still lay ahead of me: soaking up the sunshine in San Francisco!

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4 thoughts on “California Bound: 800 Miles on the 101

  1. Erin says:

    love this so much! Heceta Head is one of my favorite places, that stretch of highway is just the bees knees. You’re so brave for taking a trip alone, let alone driving on some really tough roads! Next time I wanna come 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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