California's Highway 1

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

It's July and I'm in Redding, California. I have to return my borrowed SV650S to American Suzuki in Los Angeles. I could strafe Interstate 5 through the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys under the blistering summer sun and get there in a day. Or I could add a day to my trip and savor the serpentine bends and ocean breezes of California's coast road, Highway 1. - Is there a choice?

"California One" was begun, not as I had assumed as one of FDR's New Deal projects, but by joining a piecemeal collection of existing coast roads, starting in 1919. The intention was to create a continuous coast highway from Mexico to Oregon. It's true that many of the intermittent stretches of highway were linked during the 1930s and '40s, but it wasn't until 1964 that the more-or-less continuous road from Leggett to San Juan Capistrano was finally accorded a single designation: Highway 1.

From Redding, though, I first have to get from the Sacramento Valley to the west coast. That means traversing the Siskiyou Mountains and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and reprising one of my favorite roads: California 36. The northern reaches of the Golden State are blessed with exquisite twisties, and those on 36 are some of the finest and most challenging. The tarmac inevitably tracks the meandering creeks, canyons and cliffsides through the Siskiyous, presenting an unsuspecting rider with blind decreasing radius turns as well as a sublime succession of fast sweepers. Especially enjoyable is the rollicking ride through the western slopes down to Rio Dell on Hwy 101.

South on 101 takes me along the Avenue of the Giants. The towering trunks of the redwoods and their dense-needled branches create a cool microclimate of dark tunnels and glades. Big trees are a strong roadside theme: the "one log" house; the 24-ft diameter "grandfather tree" and, of course, drive-through trees by the dozen. I rode my bike through Leggett's "Chandelier Tree" on a previous visit in 2001, but decide to pass it this time.

Leggett is the northern end of California 1. The 15 miles leading to the coast was the last section to be completed, in 1951. As a result, the 100 miles of California coastline north from Rockport to Ferndale became the longest stretch without a highway, earning its "Lost Coast" appellation. Between Leggett and Rockport there are some of the twistiest stretches of tarmac anywhere: the narrow blacktop, just a single lane in places, zigzags through the trees and leaps over the slopes like a startled deer. Straights for overtaking the crawling motorhomes and dawdling cars are scarce, but somehow I manage…

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