Driving experiences should be fun. So the last thing you want is to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic while piloting your classic car from Los Angeles to the Monterey Reunion this August.
When drivers discuss America’s best scenic drives, certain ones always make the list. California’s famous U.S. Highway 1 from Morro Bay to Monterey along the Big Sur coastline is invariably near the top. And it can be spectacular – if you hit it right. Think weekday dawn patrol or that mythical opening that can happen when you least expect it on the weekend. It exists, but it is very rare.
Chances are instead that you will be trapped in a gaggle of motorhomes and slow-motion tourists for half of those 147 miles. This can lead to frustration and the urge to pass over a seemingly endless double yellow line, and who wants that?
Better to chill out and take a less traveled winding country road that is known to some but not all. When starting a new road trip, there’s a danger the traveler will preconceive too much and miss what hides just beneath the surface. Being open to chance meetings while stopping along the way will provide the best opportunity to experience an original journey.
This is what Steinbeck had in mind when he wrote Travels with Charley: In Search of America, his first person narrative of an eleven-week U.S. road trip. A dog-eared copy of his book never leaves my bag. His words “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us” should work for you too.
Our first off-the-beaten path starts 66 miles up U.S. Highway 101 from LA, near Ventura. It’s California State Route 33 to be exact. This beautiful passage slices through Ojai and links to CA SR 166 West, which will take you back to 101 along a more scenic route. There’s some great mountain and desert driving on the menu, including a stretch that doubles as a roller coaster ride. This uncrowded and spectacular byway is much more interesting than California Highway Patrol-laden 101.
When CA SR 166 joins US 101 just past Santa Maria you will head north 30 miles until you reach San Luis Obispo. From SLO you can either take Hwy 1 to Monterey along the aforementioned Big Sur route or continue inland along 101 and experience our recommended alternative road trip.
If, instead of taking routes 33 and 166 north, you follow 101 through Santa Barbara and beyond, the highway takes you to the quaint Danish town of Solvang, which is worth a visit for its windmills, sweets, and friendly people. Continuing north brings you to Santa Margarita, where you can pick up CA SR 58. This short detour will take you to infamous CA SR 229. This 8-mile long amusement park ride will have you bounding over an unlined connector featuring big dips and switchbacks. With a steep dirt bank on one side and an unguarded drop off on the other, and no good warning signs, you will want to be cautious here.
If you (or your passenger) want to avoid this amazingly fun yet challenging course that hooks up with CA SR 41 onto Paso Robles, you can just stay on 101. Once in Paso Robles you can stop to sample local wine and eateries. It’s also a good spot to gas up. County Routes G14 and G19 offer access to additional day trips if you decide to stay overnight in the area. While there’s excellent food and wine in several Paso Robles restaurants, if you wish to experience neighborhood flavor and an authentic Mexican restaurant, there’s Dos Hermanos, just north in the tiny Spanish village of San Miguel. It’s beloved by locals and visitors alike.
Fifty miles north of Paso Robles on 101 is the little town of San Lucas where you will experience one of the best-kept secrets in California. This is where CA SR 198 hooks up with CA SR 25 North, also known as the “Airline Highway”. This desolate 60-mile stretch has everything – long empty straights, 90-degree corners that come out of nowhere, and tight and twisty bits over rolling terrain. Here’s a slice of Americana so remote that it remains essentially unchanged from earlier times. This is Steinbeck country. All commitments and worries melt away and time will lose all meaning.
The driving adventure ends in the agricultural town of Hollister where CA SR 156 leads you west to 101 and south to Salinas. This is Steinbeck’s birthplace and home of the National Steinbeck Center – a regional landmark that’s well worth the stop. Then it’s on to CA SR 68 and into Monterey. After a full day behind the wheel you are guaranteed to collapse in your bed that night realizing the reason anyone takes a trip like this is to gather stories to tell on their next adventure!
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Editor’s Note: For more on Randy Wells’ writings about Steinbeck’s road trip see his Outdoor Photographer Magazine article: https://www.outdoorphotographer.com/locations/north-america/50-years-after-travels-with-charley.html#.VzXXZRa8zTQ
Story and Photos Copyright 2016 Randy Wells. All Rights Reserved.