Great Drive: California
Escape from Silicon Valley
By Kevin Miller
I’ve been spending this week in California’s Silicon Valley. While the area is famous for technology companies like Apple and Google, in my mind the most prominent features of the area are strip malls, office parks, divided parkways and expressways, and traffic. The first three days of my stay were filled with all of those things, plus tiresome restaurants with disinterested staff and odd menu choices (including Duck Confit Nachos the first night’s restaurant, and Duck Confit Gorditas at the second night’s restaurant; I passed on both).
Fortunately for me, I’ve got a cousin who lives “over the hill” in the coastal town of San Gregorio. She invited me to drive out CA-84 after work for dinner and experience her community and its amazing natural surroundings. The dinner and company were great, the natural setting wonderfully refreshing, and the drive to get there was amazing. The following night, with work done surprisingly early and skies sunny for the first time all week, I decided to re-explore those winding roads.
I looked at Google Maps and decided on a route out of Cupertino on Stevens Canyon Road. While the speed limit was a depressingly slow 30 MPH, the road had amazing curves and scenery. Winding uphill on narrow lanes thorough towering redwood trees growing incredibly close to the road, I eventually reached California Hwy 9, a twisty two-lane road with a higher speed limit which I followed to its intersection with CA-35, Skyline Boulevard. At the intersection of CA-9 and CA-35, there is a viewpoint, and a group of motorcyclists was there dressed in their riding gear. The intersection has a simple four-way stop with a sign pointing the way to San Francisco as well as the small community of Boulder Creek. View Larger Map
Continuing down CA-9 after a quick picnic at the viewpoint, I was thrilled to see a sign indicating 26 miles of curvy road ahead, which was essentially the entire distance to Boulder Creek. The trip was mostly downhill from the viewpoint, with a posted speed limit of 45 MPH, but plenty of stretches where quicker speeds are possible, and plenty of very tight, narrow corners requiring significant slowing and a reasonable amount of skill. Trees and rocky banks rise up immediately from the fog line on the road’s shoulder, demanding drivers’ attention. There were quite a few people riding motorcycles on this section of my drive, taking advantage of the mild, sunny evening and their bikes’ superior handling on the winding two-lane.
Driving with the window open with temperatures in the mid-60s, the towering redwood and willowy eucalyptus trees filled the air with their fragrance. Having the window also allows you to hear the tires doing their best to hold onto the pavement, the brakes working as hard as they can, and the engine revving happily to redline as you row through the gears (or, I could have heard that last bit if I was driving something other than a Nissan Altima Hybrid with a CVT and no manual gear/ratio selection).
After reaching the community of Boulder Creek with its timber-town heritage evident in the design of the buildings and names of businesses, I drove through colorful Ben Lomond before reaching Felton, where I made a right turn from CA-9 onto Felton Empire Road. Nothing could have prepared me for Felton Empire, which was about as wide as a hiking trail and at least as steep in some places. With trees and rocks even closer to the road than on CA-9 (because there was no fog line painted), and precipitous dropoffs just beyond the edge of the crumbling pavement, I literally crept along in some locations, the Altima feeling far too big for the tiny road, which was nearly dark just before sunset due to the thick canopy of trees. I eventually came out of the trees and made a left turn in the town of Bonny Doon onto Pine Flat Road, which I followed to CA-1, the Coast Road.
I reached CA-1 around sunset, and views of the setting sun from the Coast Road’s bluffs and beaches that time of day were truly breathtaking. After the challenging technical sections of my drive through the forested mountains, the relatively straight highway along the Pacific and its 55 MPH speed limit was a welcome change of pace.
After 27 miles, I turned right onto CA-84 in San Gregorio, where I had met my cousin the day before. While I had driven the road the day before in daylight with the opportunity to appreciate the fields, farms, and forests, I made my second trip in as many days on this highway at night. I was happy to find that the road (with speed limits between 35 and 55 MPH) was well-maintained, with new reflectors between lanes, and brightly painted fog lines along the shoulders. I made quick work of the section to CA-35, though its continuation into Woodside is narrower and not as well maintained, which forced slower going. I followed this to I-280, which led me back to my starting point in Cupertino.
Google Maps estimates just over 3 hours for the 111 mile round-trip, and that’s about the amount of time I spent on the drive. It was refreshing to escape from the noisy concrete jungle of Silicon Valley and experience a part of California I’d never seen.
If you’re going to follow in my proverbial tire tracks and take this trip, I’d recommend starting a bit earlier in the day than 6 PM, so that you can enjoy the entire route with the sun still shining. I would also recommend a weekday rather than a weekend, because the curvy roads (which mostly lack passing lanes and have few turnouts) are likely to be clogged with slow drivers on the weekends. Drive safely, and enjoy!
Editor’s note: For more from Kevin’s Great Drive series, see below:
Great Drive: California (Orange County)
Great Drive: Oregon (Clackamas Highway and Mt. Hood National Forest)
Great Drive: Washington State (Columbia River Gorge and Mt. St. Helens)
Great Drive: Washington State (Stevens, Blewitt, and Snoqualmie Passes)