Road Trip: California coast — hitting Channel Islands, Big Sur |

Road Trip: California coast — hitting Channel Islands, Big Sur

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Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about Ross Leonhart’s recent end-of-winter road trip from Vail to San Diego and north to San Francisco, with stops along the way. Read the first part, “Road Trip: Havasu Falls.”

Living tucked into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, it’s a long way away to any ocean. As is tradition, less than a week after snowboarding 148 days at Vail and Beaver Creek, I was dipping my toes in the Pacific Ocean.

With a memorable trip to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and a successful night surviving Las Vegas, our tribe of three hit the road for San Diego.

We considered it the second half of our road trip, spending about a week making our way north to San Francisco behore heading 20 hours straight home.

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The weather gods continued to be in our favor this road trip as we hit San Diego. But that smog — I knew it was in California, especially around Los Angeles, but holy smokes (pun intended).

A little research while in the back seat on the drive past L.A. and up to Malibu says that haze comes from as far as Asia, and it’s actually better in the city of angels now than it was back in the 1950s and ’60s.

We made it to El Matador State Beach for the sunset, but it was somewhat of a tourist trap with multiple wedding photos being taken. We could see why.


The next morning we were off to the Channel Islands, about 5 miles off the California coast. The islands are described as what California once was. In isolation for thousands of years, the islands are home to animals and plants found nowhere else on earth.

We loaded our kayaks onto the ferry, along with our reloaded backpacks ready for camping, and made way for the islands on the ferry. With many day-travelers on board, and a school field trip, we were dropped off away from the crowds at Prisoner’s Harbor.

The safety talk at the Santa Cruz Island went something like this: If something happens, you can hike 12 miles to the Navy Center, which normally has someone there; or you can hike to the coastline, where sometimes boats will be going by; or wait until the ferry returns the next day at 2 p.m.

I looked at Austin and Daniela to make sure they heard what I heard. We laughed, nervously.

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We spent the afternoon kayaking around the island and making friends with sea lions that were following us from beach to beach. I was more concerned about what those animals attract — sharks.

We stashed the kayaks on the beach (well above high tide) and traded our water shoes for boots to hike about 2 miles to the Del Norte Camp — five small sites. The sunset was another beauty as the tiny, unpopulated island turned to dark, and the smog covered the California coastline.

On the morning hike out, we saw whales finishing their annual migration celebrating in the ocean ahead of us. The entire Channel Islands experience was filled with animal sightings — we also saw dolphins leading the ferry over and a fox that only lives on that island. (Yet another animal we had to deal with while camping.)

On the ferry back to mainland, we quickly decided that a hotel in Santa Barbara would be the perfect spot for the night. And it was, as the hot tub was calling.


We deviated from the itinerary for the first time to add Big Sur, a rugged stretch of the central coast accessed by a two-lane road. With a bridge recently collapsed, and little information about it, we thought the detour was too far out of the way.

Thanks to Facebook, I saw that some fellow Coloradans were in Big Sur a day ahead of us, and they finally gave us the details we were looking for.

Instead of taking the Pacific Coast Highway north into Big Sur (the bridge was closed at the south part of it), we skirted the state park to the east to Monterey and then back onto the PCH south into Big Sur.

The two-lane road took us to more views from Jurassic Park — maybe this time from The Lost World. We kept our string of sunsets going, catching the sun tuck beneath the ocean — and it was all to ourselves.

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The redwoods at our campsite were so big that my hammock straps wouldn’t fit around them. Instead of finding thinner trees, I marveled at how amazing my sleeping spot would be and used another rope to make my strap long enough — a first as a hammock camper.

We left Big Sur the next day in awe and headed north for San Francisco, where we’d spend the night with my aunt and uncle who live there. After a long time away from home, it was nice to receive some hospitality from family. And we had a long drive ahead of us.

We planned on stopping one more night to break up the 18-hour drive, but with Colorado calling, we alternated driving and made it home at 6:30 a.m.

While Austin and Daniela quickly repacked for another two-week trip to Costa Rica and Peru, I’m here in Colorado, California dreamin’.

Entertainment & Outdoors editor Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2984 and Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.

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