Coastal fog hung over Venice Beach, as it had for a couple of days now, as our group mounted the iron steeds provided to us by EagleRider for this four-day media tour up the California coast and points inland. Best known for motorcycle rentals, EagleRider has in recent years also offered tours and what better way to publicize that fact than take a bunch of writers and photographers on one of them. I wasn’t about to decline the offer.
But while the best-laid plans can ensure great roads, great hotels and great food, Mother Nature calls the shots on weather, and California’s normally sunny, balmy October days were smothered in a blanket of grey. For days, the mantra of everyone we talked to was, “This is the weirdest weather.”
It wasn’t raining, though, so taking a cue from EagleRider President Chris McIntyre, joining the tour on the first bike EagleRider ever owned, we left the rain gear stowed and headed out. Picking up the fabled Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, at Santa Monica we hugged the coast as surfers dotted the swells just offshore. At Malibu it was evident that serious money was present, as the steep hillsides were dotted with houses that seemed to have 10% of their footprint on land and 90% in the sky.
Dolphins danced in the sea, and at times blue sky beckoned teasingly, but mostly the grey blanketed us and limited our view of the shoreline. But what the heck, we were out riding the California coast on motorcycles. I could name about 17.3 million people who would have swapped places with me in a heartbeat. No bitching allowed.
After lunch on the pier at Santa Barbara, we left Highway 101, which we had joined north of Oxnard, to go inland over the coastal range. Right here, CA 154 is a short-cut to 101’s right-angle course, and the shorter route gives you a chance to see the interaction of weather and topography. While the clouds press in from the sea, the coastal range holds them back. The higher we climbed, the denser the fog became, until you couldn’t see the nearest bike in front of you. Then suddenly, we cleared the crest and there, on the other side, was blue sky and sunshine.
Our route took us through Solvang, a small community originally built by Dutch settlers, with numerous windmills dotting the landscape, some built for tourists and others seemingly in operation doing the work that windmills do. We then rejoined 101 and made our way to San Luis Obispo for our first night’s stop.
While accommodations are not something I normally feel moved to write about, a bed being just a bed to my thinking, this particular stop warrants more. We stayed at the Madonna Inn, which was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. With ornate, sweeping spiral staircases leading from one level to the next, and right angles seemingly non-existent, the real draw is the rooms. Each one is different, and named, with the name based on the decor. Imagine rooms such as Antique Cars, Pick & Shovel, and Safari and you may be able to get an inkling of what this place is like.
Our second day dawned chilly and grey but the excitement was tangible. We were headed for Big Sur. Before we got there we were stopping at San Simeon, the Hearst Castle, which is now a state park. Our schedule didn’t include time for us to do the tour, however, and with the low-lying clouds totally obscuring any view of the estate from the visitor center, below, we could only take their word for it that this place truly exists.
A few miles farther down the road we stopped again at a sea lion rookery. These mammoth mammals were more cooperative than the castle, lying together on the beach in plain sight below us like a batch of ginormous bratwurst. While most slept, a few put on a good show, acting tough and showing everyone else who was boss.
Then it was Big Sur. The clouds had lifted enough that we could see more of the shoreline than the day before and the views did not disappoint. The road wraps around the hillsides, and at every point of land poking out into the Pacific the view shows you the next bit of winding enchantment you are headed for.
Of course, the trick was to enjoy the views while not simultaneously driving over the cliff. Frequent stops were the order of the day. With Carmel our destination, a total distance covered of 120 miles, there was no hurry.
In Carmel, no surprise, we didn’t bump into former mayor Clint Eastwood, but we did head down to Cannery Row for dinner. This is the area made famous by John Steinbeck in his book of the same name, though Steinbeck would never recognize it today, as it has all been Disneyfied. But I have to tell you, being there has prompted me to read the book, and I’m definitely liking the book. The only Steinbeck I’d ever read before was “The Red Pony,” in junior high, and I hated that.
Grey again this morning as we headed north and then east, with Yosemite National Park calling to us. Following CA 152 we climbed through hills where, once again, we reached blue sky and sunshine but running down the other side the wind started kicking up. On a stop at the visitor center for San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area it seemed we would be blown away.
Now crossing the great Central Valley of California, the agricultural heart of the state, the road was straight and went through towns with names like El Banos and Merced. (Doesn’t El Banos mean “the bathrooms”?) From Merced to Mariposa, it got hillier and the terrain is that quintessential California landscape of rolling golden hills dotted with the green of oak thickets. It also started to rain. Really rain this time, not the mist and spitting we had ridden through on previous days.
We climbed and climbed, then descended into the canyon of the Merced River. There are three western entrances to Yosemite, and this is the middle one. Snaking our way upriver, every bend to the left revealed a long string of motorcycles moving in procession. It was pretty cool.
After a quick stop at our hotel, the Yosemite View Lodge, on the outskirts of the park, we headed on into the park to see as much of it as we could in the fading daylight and overcast. Reaching a junction, we made a hard right and were now on our way out of the park on the southern route. This roads climbs to a viewpoint, called Tunnel View, where the towering monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome, the sheer canyon walls, and the Yosemite Valley are laid out before you. For this moment at least, the clouds were cooperating and did not obscure our view.
Quickly we rolled motorcycles into places that afforded good photos but which would have caused park rangers apoplexy and the cameras went to work. Many of the tourists also felt we were suitable subjects for their own photos. Then the clouds closed in.
Next we headed for Bridal Veil Falls, which at this time of year was a mere trickle compared to what it’s like in the spring. Then EagleRider’s Gunter Kykillus, their go-to man in the German-speaking countries, orchestrated an arrangement where we lined up two- and three-abreast and he shot pictures of us all cruising down the road before splitting off around him for the next row to move up and be photographed and then back to the lodge. I’m still waiting to see those shots.
Leaving the lodge in the morning our route was back into the park, then a hard left to exit via the northern road. We had a lot of climbing to do and at this elevation, with heavy cloud cover, this was the coldest part of the trip. Up and over the top, and then down and out of the park, it was beautiful and smelled of something no one could identify, but suggested chamomile.
Finally reaching more level ground we escaped the shadow of the mountains and there, in all its glory, was the sun, blue sky, and warmth. Warmth! And this time it was here to stay. We stopped for a break and to get warm in the old mining town of Groveland and were teased with stories of what lay directly ahead. Groveland sits on a high plateau, and from here the road goes down. Way down. In a hurry. And any motorcyclist knows what that means: Fun!
We took off singly and in small groups, in some cases cruising, in other cases blasting, down the New Priest Grade Road. Scraping floorboards was the order of the day for anyone on a Heritage Softail, as well as various other bikes, and it was such a good time several riders went right back up to do it again.
Then we hauled to get back across the Central Valley, trying to reach the San Francisco Bay area before afternoon rush hour traffic made it totally dreadful. We cruised up the East Bay to Richmond and took the San Rafael Bridge over to Marin County. Two days later, as I was getting off the airplane in Denver, another passenger saw my EagleRider jacket and asked if that was us he had seen on the San Rafael bridge on Monday!
We cruised down through Sausalito and made the turn just before the Golden Gate Bridge to go up on the Marin Headlands for that classic view of the bridge, the bay, and the city. We then rode back down, crossed the bridge into the city, and worked our way through the heart of town to EagleRider’s San Francisco office, to turn in the bikes. There was a good bit more fine eating and drinking ahead for us, but the ride was over. A lot of people dream of riding up the Pacific Coast Highway, through Big Sur and across the Golden Gate Bridge, and to world-renowned natural wonders like Yosemite. We didn’t just dream it, we did it. Life can be so good.
By Ken Bingenheimer