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California Road Trip: San Francisco, Big Sur, Monterey & Stanford

West Coast, Best Coast, am I right?

In some ways (weather), yes, in other ways (housing economics), probably not. But the beautiful thing about vacationing on the West Coast is that you almost exclusively enjoy the positives and need not even worry about the negatives. Such was the case with my recent adventures on the West Coast, where I left the perpetual rain and gray that has plagued the Midwest and escaped to the sun and blue of Central California.

This was my first trip to the Bay Area, and my only past experience with California was with the beaches and concrete jungle called Los Angeles last July. I had a blast in L.A., though my impression of Cali was limited to the hyper-urban culture of L.A.—perfect weather, minimal nature.

With my most recent visit, though, I was able to see some of the natural beauty that does exist in California, and they call it Big Sur. To get there, you take Pacific Highway 1. Pacific Highway 1 is unlike many other highways in that you don’t dread the driving portion of the start-to-finish journey. Unlike massive interstates filled with frustrated daily commuters, Pacific Highway 1 is a two-lane, curvy road matching every contour of the Pacific Ocean, with the vast expanse of water on the West and steep hills and cliffs on the East. It is a drive to enjoy; the drive becomes part of the vacation and not simply a connection from point A to point B.The Pacific West of Highway 1 CaliforniaHighway 1 enters Big Sur, which is more or less an undeveloped coastline a couple hours South of San Francisco, possessive of large ocean boulders and beautiful hillsides and trees. My first day in California, three friends from Stanford and I ventured south on 1 towards a trail and campsite. Along the way is the picturesque 86-year-old Bixby Bridge. We admired for a few minutes and captured a moment in time with a picture before carrying on to the trail.Bixby Bridge West Coast CaliforniaAfter ascending 2,500 feet, we set up our tents and cooked up a stew for dinner and watched the sun fall behind the edge of the Pacific before retiring for the evening as the only ones on top of the mountain.Big Sur California TravelBig Sur California Camping TravelThose precious moments engrossed in serenity are not forgotten easily; it must be because of their rarity. Part of them stays on that mountain and the other fragments float around the seascape of the mind and pop up into sight every now and again for years and years.

The next morning, we hiked down the mountain (basically slid down for a few stretches) but made it back to the vehicle with a sense of pride and accomplishment. We were conquistadores, but it was time to move on to the next adventure. Our car frolicked along Highway 1 again, and we had to stop at Bixby Bridge just one more time to soak in the view. It was another perfect California day, and a small crowd of people was hanging out at the bridge taking pictures, painting pictures, and engraving mental pictures of the towering bridge and mammoth ocean at its feet.Big Sur San Francisco California TravelWe came to a touristy area called Carmel by the Sea. Carmel brands itself with a sort of boujee tourism that replaces cheap t-shirt booths and drink stalls with hip art galleries and gourmet fooderies. It has a relaxed vibe, reminiscent of Sedona, Arizona, if you’ve been there, but with a few more nice watches and a cooler temperature. I stopped in a coffee shop and immediately loved it because “Mr. Brightside” was playing over the speakers. And the coffee was good, too, which helps.

Onward to Monterey. We spent the afternoon kayaking in a slough filled with seals and sea otters. These are truly intriguing mammals. I could (and did) sit and observe them dip, duck and dive into the slough waters for hours, having the time of their lives.

It was meal time, and when on the sacred water, I suppose it is sacrilegious to not eat seafood. A guy at the kayak place recommended going up the road to Phil’s Fish Market, and his recommendation was validated. I went with the swordfish and was well-satisfied.Phil's Fish Market Monterrey California TravelPhil's Fish Market Swordfish Monterrey CaliforniaWe hopped north to Monterey Beach and stood at the edge of eternity, tossing a frisbee around as the sun started fading into its evening amber. Waves are poetry.

The next morning, Wednesday, we continued back to Stanford. On our way, we stopped into Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria in Santa Cruz County. Even for a Wednesday, Gayle’s was hopping. I passed up on my typical order of black coffee and opted for a latte with the sole purpose of taking a basic latte art picture for Round Trip. It had to be done. Stop by Gayle’s if you are in the area—good coffee and great-looking pastries.Gayle's Bakery and Rosticceria Santa Cruz StanfordBack at Stanford, I walked around the campus, and it is beautiful as advertised. The most striking feature on the campus is an old, beautiful church. Built in 1903, Stanford Memorial Church stands in the heart of campus and has beautiful stained glass and carved quotations on the walls. The lawns are immaculate, and palm trees line most of the walkways.

That night, the gang went to San Francisco (or as the locals call it “S-F”). We took the classic pictures at the Golden Gate Bridge (which is a worthwhile national icon to visit). Downtown SF is a little too fast-paced for my liking, but Pier 39 is a good area to walk around to confirm your Instagram caption of “I went to San Francisco.” The baseball nerd in me was satisfied to drive past AT&T Park, and I am intent on catching a game there at some point down the road.Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco CaliforniaPier 39 San Francisco California TravelThe next day, it was off from sunny SFO and back to rainy STL. A great week in the books. More great weeks to come in this wild, wild world. I’m stoked to be a part of it.

This is a guest post from fellow writer Ryan Blake. All photos courtesy of Ryan Blake.how to take a california road trip san francisco big sur monterrey stanford.png

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