Having come back to the coast from our detour to Sequoia and Kings Canyon, we have the plan to drive northbound via the coastal road number 1 through California. In doing so, we tackle the other big city of the state – San Francisco. Again the fog is rolling in, we even have a slight drizzle as we drive up the coastal road, and this means when we park the RV and get our bikes off it is seriously cold. Our bike ride thankfully warms us up as we speed into the pier area along the bay’s coastal bike path.
With many highlights to be seen and choosing those that stand out most, we have had Alcatraz on the list already for a while. Not in the least because we had a small wish to leave our kids there and never return… Spoiler alert: we did not do this, but the prison island is for sure a very impressive place to visit. From military fort to federal prison to claimed by Native Americans to a National Parks site, all the history of the ‘the Rock’ comes by, culminating in a cellhouse audio tour which was actually also available in Dutch!
We spent the entire afternoon exploring the island, both inside the buildings as well as walking outside to see all the nesting seabirds and different buildings that were added over time. The cellhouse tour – in DUTCH – is an absolute gem, and being able to walk through it with our boys and listen to their mother tongue made it all the more intriguing. Another Junior Ranger badge claimed on this special NPS site and satisfied with the time spent, we ride our bikes back and have dinner with a view across the Golden Gate Bridge. We even park the RV for the night across the bridge on the vista point with plenty of other campers for a free night with a view.
San Francisco city
Now the view was there, somewhat, but mostly clouded over by a big dollop of fog… That does not stop us from exploring of course, but means we have to dig into the closet and find warm coats and socks/shoes again for today’s plans! We are going to check out San Francisco further, and the best way to do so is by bike of course. We have been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to get around the city, including finding free parking to put our RV for the day at a small distance from all the highlights. First things first; crossing the Golden Gate by bike – the boys are very excited about this, and while the noise on the bridge is deafening the experience is worth it!
On the other side of the bridge we start the day by visiting Fort Point, a fort with many destinations since it was built, but mostly there to protect the bay of San Francisco from any intruders (both international as well as national during the Civil War). Built so sturdy – and never really attacked – the designer of the Golden Gate specifically built the bridge in a way the fort could be kept as is and get a nice arch itself spanning it. Now maintained by the NPS, we score another Jr Ranger booklet and venture out into the fort to find all the answers and hear more about its history.
After the fort we ride/drive down the coast and park the RV at Crissy Fields before continuing together by bike. As always, Bo and mum are a real novelty with our ‘tandem’ bike, and we get a lot of people asking us about the contraption and how it is working out. Mostly people just find it very cute, especially when Bo puts his back into it going uphill standing on his pedals and really helping to get us all the way up! And at Fort Mason that climb is a bit of a steep one, but we easily make it across and hit the San Francisco Maritime NHP. The big museum is closed, but the outdoor Hyde Street Pier with a range of different ships is not, which is really fun to explore.
We pick up another Jr Ranger booklet and go out on former ferry boats (before the Golden Gate was built, the highway 101 would go through this pier, on to a ferry and continue across the bay), sailing ships and a tug boat. The boys get to raise the flag, scrub the decks and many more things giving an excellent idea about life out at the San Franciso bay over the centuries. We have a picnic lunch overlooking the shallow bay where a continuous stream of swimmers come out to practice in a full wetsuit, and then continue along the harbourline to avoid climbing for as long as we can :-).
We manage to do so for a while, but then ride inwards towards Powell Street to find the end of the cable car line SF is so incredibly famous for. Here, the end of the line means the cable car is put on a wooden platform and turned – by hand! – to make sure the car can drive back the way it came facing the right direction. The line to ride the car is long, and it has really become a tourist attraction, not a means of transportation, but a real fun thing to see. With our bikes we are actually walking up Powell street as it is too steep to ride (even with the Bo-motor), seeing the cable car pass by several times.
At the other side of the hill, after a short break to catch our breaths, is the free Cable Car Museum, which is right at the crossroads of all the different lines and explains how the cable cars actually work. Maybe it’s us, but we never realized these trams are actually driven by an underground cable the driver ‘grabs on to’ by means of a big tweezer-like device in the tram itself! It is a real skills, and keeping the cables running non-stop requires some serious monitoring; you would not want one of those drop off the steep roads here filled with tourists! The museum is a fantastic way to learn about this means of transport, and see the workings under ground of the different cables under the crossing right in front of it.
From the museum, we ride through Columbia Ave by the famous ‘City Lights Booksellers’-bookstore and then downhill towards Fisherman’s Wharf again for some well-deserved ice-cream. The last bit of riding is familiar territory, so we make a dash for the RV, stopping briefly at the outdoor gym, and call the city sight-seeing a day. Time to cross the Golden Gate one last time and make our way further north along the coast!
Muir Woods NM & Point Reyes NS
Right above SF and technically still part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is Muir Woods National Monument. As parking is highly restricted we decide to go there in the evening right after our city trip to pick up info at the visitor center including Jr Ranger work and badges. We then drive to the outskirts of the National Monument and park our RV along the road right in the middle of the woods for a quiet night among the trees covered in darkness.
The next day we drive through the park as Sven rides his bike along the road towards the next park; Point Reyes National Seashore. At the visitor center we gather some info, but it is already clear here that it is the Sunday of the 4th of July and it is busier than we have seen things in a long time. We still take the drive out to the lighthouse, but parking is a mess and while we do have lunch there and search the horizon for jumping Humpback whales, we return empty handed. A better bet turns out to be Drakes Beach, with ample parking and as we stroll the beach we get greeted by pelicans, seals and other beach life. The sun even makes a short appearance, really brightening up the afternoon!
We continue our drive along the Californian coast, manage to find a state park where we can dump and fill up our water (we almost ran out!), and roll into a parking lot at the edge of a cliff overlooking what is called the ‘harbor seal nursery’. From our window we see dozens of these lying out on the banks below us, lazing around waiting for the sun to set or taking a short dip in the natural bay where the adults teach the young ones to swim. All of this for free – a true gem!
Following route 1 means curvy roads and foggy spells, which takes your speed down considerably so you might as well enjoy the view. There are plenty of beautiful vistas to go around, so you will not be bored, while every once in a while you roll into a cute town filled with anything quirky you could think of. Another highlight at the northern edge of California are the groves of Redwoods that are still left here and cared for by different organizations.
Family of the Sequoia trees in the Sierra Nevada, these trees also grow very old and mostly very tall, and have earned their spot in the list of natural wonders you can find in the US. Add to that the mist/fog and the trees and their old forests get even more mysterious. We take the Avenue of the Giants, and with a long day of slow driving behind us decide on a early stop on a proper campground. With a laundry facility and proper WiFi we are all set to get some things organized, and as a bonus an RV with two German boys roll in to play with. The camp host also has a son and before we know it we are around a fire with smores again… NICE!
The next morning we take it slow (it was a late night for all) but then do say our goodbyes and drive to one of the official Visitor Centers in Redwoods NP for some info. We decide to take the gamble on LadyBird Grove which pays off as we manage to find a spot for our RV as two Dutch give us room to take the one spot we could fit into – lucky break! The trail is muddy and wet but fun to do, an we again get to link an earlier experience having visited the Lyndon B Johnson estate with this grove that was dedicated to his wife.
After this loop we take the parkway to the next loop, where we get surprised by a heard of elk, many of them male with formidable antlers; Long time no see! We walk the nature trail on which we are in search of the banana slug (prize for the first one is an extra chocolate chip cookie), but come back empty handed/stomached. Across the road on the short trail to Big Tree however we immediately have 4 different ones, but Sven saw it first so the prize is his! With that we end the day and take the parkway out towards the town of Klamath. We park along a back road and get kindly warned about a orphaned baby bear roaming the area at night… let’s see if it comes out tonight!
Of course it did not, or we did not notice which is a good chance as well… we get up and drive before breakfast to a parking at the beach. With low tide coming in we are looking to do some tide pooling and Endert Beach is supposed to be one of the better ones at this coast. A short 1km hike to the beach and it surely does not disappoint! Sea stars and snails, Hermite crab and anemone, the rocks are covered in them and they are really easy to find and see. So we spend a long time on the foggy beach before going back to our RV. On the way back out we drop Sven at the start of a trail for a run, and we continue to the visitor center for the pledge/badge action and lunch. Sven comes back after some missing bridge mishap, which is our cue to continue north into another familiar state: Oregon!
Oregon Caves NP
Our stay in Oregon is very short-lived as we have visited the state last year already, but driving into it we do check into the Oregon Caves visitor center. With tours suspended due to Covid we only aim for the information at hand and the boys to score a badge, and while we had some more time, we decide to make a dash for the Washington border so we have more time for Washington-based parks we have wanted to visit since last year as well. So we drive on and find a rest area just south of Portland where we park at the end of a long line of trucks for an easy night before crossing the Columbia River once again the next day.
Next week: From the US to Canada – Finally!