Central Coast Splendor


By Ray Riegert

If the North Central Coast were an oil painting, it would portray a surf-laced shoreline near the bottom of the frame, pearly beaches and bold promontories at the center, and forested peaks in the background. Actually, a mural would be more appropriate to the subject, since the coastline extends 150 miles from San Francisco to Big Sur. The artist would paint two mountain ranges parallel to the shore, then fill the area between with a patchwork of hills, headlands, and farmland.
Even after adding a swath of redwoods along the entire length of the mural, the painter would have only begun. The North Central Coast will never be captured-on canvas, in print, or in the camera's eye. It is a region of unmatched beauty and extraordinary diversity.
Due south of San Francisco is Half Moon Bay, a timeless farming and fishing community founded by Italians and Portuguese during the 1860s. The oceanside farms are so bountiful that Half Moon Bay dubs itself the pumpkin capital of the world, and Castroville, farther south, claims to be the artichoke capital. While local farmers grow prize vegetables, commercial fishing boats comb the entire coast for salmon, herring, tuna, anchovies, and cod.
The seaside town of Santa Cruz, on the other hand, a quiet retirement community, was transformed in the 1960s when the University of California opened a campus there and created a new role for this ever-changing place. Originally founded as a Spanish mission in 1791, Santa Cruz became a lumber port and manufacturing center when the Americans moved in around 1849. Then in the late 19th century it developed into a tourist resort filled with elaborate Victorian houses.
Like every place on the North Central Coast, Santa Cruz is reached from San Francisco along Route 1, the tortuous coast road that twists past sandy coves and granite cliffs. Paralleling it is Route 101, the inland freeway that leads through the warm, dry agricultural regions of the Salinas Valley. Between these two roadways rise the Santa Cruz Mountains, accessible along Routes 35 and 9. Unlike the low-lying coastal and inland farming areas, this range measures 3000 feet in elevation and is filled with redwood, Douglas fir, alder, and madrone.
Different still is the Monterey Peninsula, a fashionable residential area 125 miles south of San Francisco. Including the towns of Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel, this wealthy enclave is a far cry from bohemian Santa Cruz. If Santa Cruz is an espresso coffeehouse, Monterey is a gourmet restaurant or designer boutique.
Farther south lies unique Big Sur. Extending from the Monterey Peninsula for 90 miles along the coast and backdropped by the steep Santa Lucia Mountains, it is one of America's most magnificent natural areas. Only 1200 residents live in this rugged region of bald crags and flower-choked canyons. None but the most adventurous occupy the nearby Ventana Wilderness, which represents the southernmost realm of the coastal redwoods. Once a nesting place for rare California condors, Ventana is still home to wild boar, black bear, and mountain lion.
The Esselen Indians who once inhabited Big Sur and its mountains have long since vanished. Together with the Costanoans, who occupied the rest of the Central Coast, the Esselen may have been here for 5000 years. By the time the Europeans happened upon California, about 10,000 American Indians lived near the coast between San Francisco and Big Sur. Elk and antelope ranged the region. The American Indians also hunted sea lions, gathered seaweed, and fed on oysters, abalone, clams, and mussels.
Westerners did not settle Big Sur until after 1850, and Route 1 did not open completely until 1937. During the 1950s, novelist Henry Miller became the center of an artists' colony here. Jack Kerouac trekked through the area, writing about it in several of his novels. Other Beat poets, lured by Big Sur's dizzying sea cliffs and other-worldly vistas, also cut a path through its hills.
Over 300 years before settlers arrived in Big Sur, Monterey was already making history. As early as 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer in Spanish employ, set anchor off nearby Pacific Grove. In 1602 Sebastian Vizcaíno came upon the peninsula again and told a whale of a fish story, grandly exaggerating the size and amenities of Monterey Bay.
His account proved so distorted that Gaspar de Portolá, leading an overland expedition in 1769, failed to recognize the harbor. When Father Junípero Serra joined him in a second journey the next year, they realized that this gentle curve was Vizcaíno's deep port. Serra established California's second mission in Monterey, then moved it a few miles in 1771 to create the Carmel Mission. Neither Serra nor Portolá explored the Big Sur coast, but the Spanish were soon building yet another mission in Santa Cruz.
In fact, they found Santa Cruz much easier to control than Monterey. By the 1820s, Yankee merchant ships were plying Monterey waters, trading for hides and tallow. This early American presence, brilliantly described in Richard Henry Dana's classic Two Years Before the Mast, climaxed in 1846 during the Mexican War. Commodore John Sloat seized the town for the United States. By 1849, while Big Sur was still the hunting ground of American Indians, the adobe town of Monterey had become the site of California's constitutional convention.
An added incentive for these early adventurers, and modern day visitors as well, was the climate along the North Central Coast. The temperature still hovers around 67 degrees in summer and 57 degrees during winter; Santa Cruz continues to boast 300 sunny days a year. Explorers once complained of foggy summers and rainy winters, but like today's travelers, they were rewarded with beautiful spring and fall weather.
Perhaps that's why Monterey became a tourist mecca during the 1880s. Of course the old Spanish capital also developed into a major fishing and canning region during the early 20th century. It was then that John Steinbeck, the Salinas-bred writer, added to the already rich history of Monterey with his novels and stories. Much of the landscape that became known as "Steinbeck Country" has changed drastically since the novelist's day, and the entire Central Coast is different from the days of Serra and Sloat. But the most important elements of Monterey and the North Central Coast-the foaming ocean, open sky, and wooded heights-are still here, waiting for the traveler with a bold eye and robust imagination.

From Hidden Coast of California, by Ray Riegert. © 1997 Ray Riegert. Excerpted by arrangement with Ulysses Press. $16.95. Available in local bookstores, or by calling 800-377-2542.

Books to Get You Where You Want to Go

  • Weekend Adventures in Northern California. $17.95. 800-990-9FUN. Packed with interesting places to visit, where to stay, where to eat, what to do, and how to get there. Includes 17 maps and a 12-page index, plus chapters devoted to ski areas, family camps, houseboats, and other adventure sites.
  • Easy Hiking in Northern California. $12.95. Easy Camping in Northern California. $12.95. 800-364-4676. Each book provides 100 tried-and-tested entries. The hiking book rates trail difficulty and gives tips for making the hike easier or more difficult. Both books highlight fees charged, destination directions, and a phone number for additional information.
  • Hidden San Francisco & Northern California. $15.95. 800-377-2542. Describes traditional sights and popular attractions plus alternative sights and hidden locales. Dining, lodging, camping, and nightlife suggestions accompany each destination.