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Motorcycle Road Trip: The Pacific Coast

 ©Radius/Jupiter ImagesOn the Pacific coast, California Route 1 is the one—a truly singular stretch that slides along the ocean and past some of the finest scenery anywhere on Earth. At times peaceful and often dramatic, the lovely two-laner scribbles through mountains, leaps over bridges, and slips into quaint villages where you can stop awhile, look around, and then look forward. On this 310-mile journey, the views and the omnipresent Pacific Ocean will remind you why you bought a bike in the first place.

The Grapes of Napa

Courtesy of Gary McKechnieA tangle of two-lane roads stretches and snaps across Napa Valley, which makes this segment a thrill a minute for motorcyclists (and motorists).

Although drinking and driving along any route (let alone such a twisty one) is a very bad idea, do stop and at least explore some of the valley’s nearly 400 wineries. Many have free tours, and you can forego the free tastings and pick up a bottle for after you’ve finished the day’s ride. Some wineries even sell their own produce—appetizing provisions for a picnic. After riding here you might agree: If there’s a Garden of Eden in America, Napa Valley might well be it.

 “The Calistoga of Sarafornia”

In the 1860s, a man named Sam Brannan believed that a mining town blessed with natural hot springs could become a health-oriented resort. When he claimed that this town would be the “Calistoga of Sarafornia!” (as opposed to the Saratoga of California), the slip became permanent. And the town did, indeed, become a popular resort. Heated mineral waters are still percolating into its hot springs and whirlpools, and its downtown is filled with boutiques and restaurants.

Through the Grapevine

Courtesy of Gary McKechnieIn the vineyards south of Calistoga, harvesting reaches its peak between mid-September and mid-October.

But even when the grapes are off the vines–in Napa, in neighboring Alexander Valle, and throughout Sonoma County—the area’s canopied lanes and steep drops and ascents make for a breathtaking journey.

If you have time, make tracks for nearby Lake Berryessa, a popular gathering place for riders.

The Terraced Town of Tiburon

Courtesy of Gary McKechnieAs seen from Sausalito, the town of Tiburon provides a gorgeous Mediterranean-style backdrop for yachts on San Francisco Bay. Sausalito itself has a distinct Mediterranean feel, with stylish architecture, waterfront promenades, and rising hills. Indeed, the town evokes the Côte d’Azur, yet it also offers something the French Riviera cannot: an incredible view of the City by the Bay.

A Bridge over Troubled Waters

Courtesy of Gary McKechnieIt took decades of planning and four years of construction to complete the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world’s most iconic structures.

At the point where it crosses San Francisco Bay, the contents of 16 rivers slip into the Pacific. At tidal surge, the flow here is three times greater than that of the Amazon River and 14 times greater than that of the Mississippi.

For the most memorable view, head to the two-lane road leading into the Marin Headlands at the north side of the bridge. At a pullout, park your bike on the sidewalk, and capture one of the best souvenir photos of your life.


Courtesy of Gary McKechnieVisual vignettes that would be at home in a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm permeate the storybook town of Carmel. On a leisurely walk, you’ll see architecture that makes you think of a Swiss village one minute, a Spanish market the next, and the English countryside after that.

Ride your bike down the block to the Pacific Ocean, and then look for Scenic Drive. This narrow two-lane route darts along the waterfront and spins you into residential neighborhoods featuring fantasy-inspired residences.

By the Sea

In the Big Sur region, the yawning Pacific Coast often sweeps out to sea like a scene from a Maxfield Parrish painting. Indeed, California State Route 1 is one of America’s most picturesque drives, offering mile after mile of dramatic vistas and convenient pullouts.

Courtesy of Gary McKechnieEven from high atop a mountain, you can often hear the muffled sound of crashing waves, echoing like a booming cannon. And the ocean views will accompany you throughout your journey along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Don’t despair if you can’t ride its entire length: just one PCH mile is far more seductive than 99 miles along an ordinary interstate.

The House on the Hill

The legacy of publisher William Randolph Hearst, the Hearst Castle has 165 rooms, 30 fireplaces, and 127 acres of gardens. His guests had their choice of swimming in an outdoor pool filled with 345,000 gallons of spring water or in a “smaller” indoor one filled with just over 200,000 gallons. You’ll learn more about this mansion and the man who built it on a tour. The tiny surrounding town of San Simeon is the terminus for this ride along the PCH. If you haven’t had enough, though, just turn around and head back north to Seattle.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth piece in our eight-part series on motorcycle travel by Gary McKechnie, author of Great American Motorcycle Tours, which has just been released in its fifth edition. To prep for a trip like this, be sure to read the first two articles in Travel Tips. And check out Motorcycle Road Trip: Red Rock Country for another great itinerary.