Redwoods and historic sights make California's Highway 101 a rewarding drive

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pass me if you like.

Driving along Highway 101 in Northern California, flanked by ocean and redwoods, I felt no need to rush or speed, honk or make pained faces. Aggrieved drivers don't belong here.

Unlike so many thoroughfares, this coastal road is the destination. As long as my car was in motion -- minus the occasional stop for elk, a Native American village, ancient trees that graze the clouds, etc. -- I was continually arriving.

"From here to the Oregon border is just so dramatic. It's breathtaking," said Nancy Short, co-owner of the Booklegger used bookstore in Eureka, a town on the highway. "It's a different drive every time you take it."

The 101 -- East Coasters, get used to the definite article -- is the longest highway in the Golden State, stretching 807 miles from downtown Los Angeles to the northern border. Many segments go by catchier names, such as the Hollywood Freeway, the Bayshore Freeway and the 370-mile Redwood Highway, which this year celebrates its centennial.

The "birthday" refers to the 1910 passage of California's first State Highway Bond Act, which financed the construction of a statewide road system. "California officially established the Highway Bond Act to start funding the highway," said Richard Stenger, a spokesman for the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "This was the first step in what would become the Redwood Highway."

This spring, to commemorate the highway's inception, I plotted a road trip preset at 100 miles. When I hit the century mark, I'd pull a U-turn. I had a few stretches to choose from: San Francisco to Hopland, Hopland to Garberville, and Eureka to Smith River.

Not to sound like a difficult Goldilocks but . . . the San Fran route, which ribbons through wine country, was too trafficked for my taste. The Hopland-Garberville portion veered inland and featured such urban totems as billboards and stacked buildings; I preferred the Pacific and subtlety. The northern section, however, was just right, with connect-the-dot towns tucked between the coast and forested parkland, the soft contours of the Coastal Mountains sketched lightly in the background.

Mile 1, Eureka: I set down my wheels on a road paved in gold.

* * *

Before the seminal bill of 1910, the main modes of transportation between San Francisco and the Oregon border were boat and train. An overland route did exist for cars, but it was a bumpy tangle of dirt roads, stagecoach paths and Indian trails. Too bad Dramamine wasn't invented until 1949.

The first paved patch of the Redwood Highway appeared along a 14-mile stretch in Ukiah, the largest city in Mendocino County, and the first "tourist" to travel the burgeoning highway was Jack London. The wily writer rode a horse-drawn Studebaker from the Bay Area to Crescent City, recounting his adventure in an article titled "Four Horses and a Sailor" and published in a 1911 issue of Sunset magazine.

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