JUST 10 miles south of San Francisco, the California coastal highway emerges from a landscape of subdivisions and suburban commercial strips to confront the Pacific Ocean in all its most imposing and treacherous grandeur. The road — Highway 1, far north here of the famous Big Sur stretch better known to tourists — weaves through a dense eucalyptus grove, ascends a steep incline, passes through a jagged gap between two steep rock walls, and emerges as a ribbon of clifftop roadway known locally as Devil’s Slide.
As the traveler heads out onto a blustery promontory jutting into the ocean and begins to descend, expanses of ocean — 500 feet below — sweep past the car windows, and the road veers impossibly close to the edge, meandering between a face of gray, crumbling stone and a precipitous drop to the sea.
The stretch lasts only about two miles and takes only five minutes, but it’s a spectacular drive. It also defines a clear psychic border between the city and a section of coast so close by that it’s almost a suburb, yet remarkably quiet and unspoiled.
Devil’s Slide is also an experience that has to be sampled soon. In 2011, two tunnels, currently being bored into the adjacent mountain, will open to traffic, and this section of road will be closed to vehicles. San Mateo County does expect to keep it open as a path for pedestrians and cyclists.
Devil’s Slide’s days as a heart-stopping gateway to an unusual coastal road trip will be only a memory.
With my children, Timothy, 12, and Eleanor, 10, I started a trip down this coast in July in San Francisco, near the landmark called the Cliff House. The Cliff House is a familiar destination for a meal or a drink and souvenir shopping with a view of crashing surf. But we were headed for the Giant Camera, the last vestige of the Victorian seaside amusement park known as Playland.
Shaped like a 35-millimeter camera sitting on its back, lens pointing upward, the Giant Camera contains a large camera obscura, an optical device conceived over 2,000 years ago.
Within the darkened building, a mirror and two lenses project the majestic shoreline view outside down onto a six-foot-wide parabolic table. We saw, sharply defined against a velvety black interior, a cinematic bowl of living seascape, as the table’s concave surface roiled with luminous waves, ocean spray, seagulls and seals — seemingly holographic.
This introduction behind us, we set out toward Devil’s Slide.
Most drivers heading away from the Bay Area’s sprawl use the freeways inland, but for those who use the coast road as a commuter route, the name Devil’s Slide is irksomely eloquent, implying unpredictable natural wrath. The erosion that formed the promontory has not stopped, and the road is plagued by rock slides, some of which have caused protracted closures.
Still, Devil’s Slide is renowned locally for its stark beauty and treacherous mystique. It played a starring role in the 1960 thriller “Portrait in Black,” in which Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn shove a car containing her dead husband over the edge.
Toward the southern end, a fair hike down, is Gray Whale Cove Beach, which has a good-sized parking lot on the eastern side of the road. We decided to forgo this to avoid having to dart through moving cars and stopped instead at one of two narrow coast-side pullouts nearby. Standing at the top of the cliffs, we had a clear sense of their imposing height and scale.
From here down to Santa Cruz, the next sizable city, is only 60 miles, and the drive can easily be done in under two hours. But we took three meandering days, lingering in seaside towns and along the water.
The beaches where we stopped are state parks and, for the last several months, coastal residents had feared that some of them would be closed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger because of the state’s budget crisis. For the remainder of this fiscal year, however, the beaches will remain open, as savings were found elsewhere in the budget. Although most of the shoreline is public in California, state-owned beaches provide ample parking and well-maintained paths. Montara Beach, a well-sheltered and generally peaceful strip of pale gold sand, is the first of these beyond Devil’s Slide, and we found it carpeted with delicate sand dollars. From November to April, gray whales pass by on their annual migrations.
In the late 19th century, shipwrecks caused by jagged offshore rocks propelled the construction of the Point Montara Lighthouse, which stands about a half mile south of the beach and is still operated by the Coast Guard. Hostel accommodations are available on the lighthouse grounds.
On Day 2 we stopped at the town of Princeton-by-the-Sea, where expansive tide pools displayed amber sea stars, pearlescent anemones and magenta urchins. Vocal seals, dive-bombing pelicans and scurrying snowy plovers animated the broad expanse and, a few hundred feet northward around a point, the kids discovered wind-sculptured stumps of smooth, gray rock punctuating an otherworldly landscape. In winter, crowds gather on the clifftops above this spot to watch extreme surfers challenge waves up to 70 feet high.
Continuing south past the town of Half Moon Bay, known for its fall pumpkin harvest, we spotted ranches offering horseback riding and “u-pick” farms promising strawberries, cherries, boysenberries, kiwis and ollalieberries, depending on the season.
At the Pescadero Marsh Natural Reserve, where I was once a volunteer docent, great blue herons were swooping up into nests the size of tractor tires. And at nearby Pescadero Beach, the incoming tide was gradually cutting off three sheltered coves from one another. From a slope strewn with soft driftwood and pastel stones, which Ellie was contentedly stacking into well-balanced towers, her brother skimmed rocks into the surf. I watched the sun setting beyond a chain of sea stacks that trail out into the water.
We stopped in tiny Pescadero for dinner at Duarte’s Tavern, a fourth-generation family restaurant celebrated for its cream of artichoke soup and cioppino. Frank Duarte set a cask of whiskey on his new bar here 115 years ago, charging a dime a shot, and that bar is still in lively use. His hand-written 1899 property deed hangs unassumingly on the wall next to a plaque announcing the selection of Duarte’s as an “American Classic” by the James Beard Foundation.
The next morning, after a deep, salt-air sleep at the Davenport Roadhouse, named for a whaler whose landing here became a bustling loading zone during prohibition, we set out for Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve, where the huge, lumbering creatures known as elephant seals come to mate, birth, nurse, molt and rest.
Tours fill up quickly here in the midwinter mating season, when full-grown males — typically about 15 feet long and weighing up to two and a half tons — engage in fierce, chest-bumping battles to secure leadership over harems of females. Like rubbery minivans engaged in primal combat, they rear up and lunge into each other with sumo-gladiator defiance. I asked Chris Tomkins, a state park employee, what we could expect to see on our off-season visit. “Right now it’s a bunch of young males mock-fighting,” he said, “and generally learning to be jerks.”
We made the three-mile walk out over rolling dunes to the gusty beach and watched a few entertaining skirmishes. The adolescent males faced off, their mouths gaping and emitting a dull, hammering bark while a hundred or so females lazed around looking unimpressed.
Pelicans briefly escorted us at eye level as we drove to Natural Bridges State Beach, where one massive sea stack boasts a tunnel, the last of three that gave the beach its name.
A mile beyond that, sunlight pierced through the cloud cover, and our last destination, the 102-year-old Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, came into view. It rose up against a vivid blue sky, its multicolored towers, gondolas, Ferris wheel and tilted rides anchored by the complex, curling armature of an old wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper.
The Dipper is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, and we climbed on for the ride. The sounds of wind and seabirds had given way to clattering tracks and exhilarated shrieks. But at the highest points, we were treated to vertiginous views of the ocean we’d just spent three days savoring.
DRIVING THE GREAT HIGHWAY
To get to Highway 1 from San Francisco, take the Great Highway south alongside Ocean Beach, following signs for 35-Skyline Boulevard/Highway 1/Cabrillo Highway South, toward Pacifica.
WHERE TO STAY
The Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel (16th Street and Highway 1, Montara; 888-464-4872; www.norcalhostels.org/montara) offers shared rooms for $23 to $25 a night per person for adults. Private rooms are $63 to $105.
Davenport Roadhouse (1 Davenport Avenue, Davenport; 831-426-8801; www.davenportroadhouse.com) has eight comfortable rooms for $70 to $210, depending on size and season.
WHERE TO EAT
Barbara’s Fish Trap (281 Capistrano Road; 650-728-7049), on Princeton-by-the-Bay’s picturesque harbor, serves clam chowder in sourdough bowls for $8.95 and fish taco salad made with red snapper for $14.95.
At Duarte’s Tavern (202 Stage Road, Pescadero; 650-879-0464; www.duartestavern.com) crab cioppino is $31, and cream of artichoke and cream of green chili soups are $8 for a bowl big enough to be a meal.
WHAT TO SEE
The Giant Camera (1090 Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco; 415-750-0415; www.giantcamera.com) is behind the Cliff House; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in good weather. Admission is $3; $2 for age 12 and younger.
Parking at most state beaches is free to $10. A directory of California state parks is at www.parks.ca.gov.
At Año Nuevo State Park (650-879-2025; www.parks.ca.gov), about 10 miles south of Pescadero, self-guided tours require a permit from the entrance station. Guided seal walk tours during breeding season, mid-December through March, require reservations up to eight weeks ahead; tickets cost $7.
At the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz; 831-423-5590; www.beachboardwalk.com) individual rides start at $2.25 and an all-day, unlimited-ride wristband is $29.95 a person.