"Backroads of the California Coast" by Karen Misuraca

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Karen Misuraca’s book “Backroads of the California Coast”
Karen Misuraca’s book Backroads of the California Coast

Congratulations to Karen Misuraca, who won the Silver Award in the “Best Guide Books” category for her book Backroads of the California Coast (Voyageur Press).  Here is an excerpt from it.

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Overwhelming in its vastness, California stretches down the Pacific Coast for 1,264 miles. The state is split lengthwise by a wide central valley, warmed by intense heat of the inland Mohave and Sonoran deserts, and bordered by the high mountain frontiers––the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges.

Drawn irresistibly to the blue Pacific Ocean as it laps the edge of the continent, eighty percent of Californians live within thirty miles of the sea. They turn to their coast for refreshment of their minds and bodies, as do visitors who come here by the millions from across America and the world to see famous landmarks and historical sites, and to enjoy the weather. Some people never touch the sand nor dip their toes in the water. They drive to the seacoast, sit in their vehicles and breathe in the salt air. Magnetic in its beauty and invigorating atmosphere, just the sight and the scent of the ocean repair the spirit.

The Backroads State of Mind

More than one hundred California beaches, parks, preserves and monuments, and several National Parks, are easily accessible from the meandering coastside routes, Highway One and Highway 101. And for adventurous travelers who venture a few miles off the two main highways, even more natural and historic attractions are in store. And, that is what Backroads of the California Coast is all about––discovering the lesser-known, quiet pleasures away from the (sometimes) madding crowds and the well-trodden destinations.

“My advice is to get away from roads and parking lots, and hike or stroll along the spectacular trails in the state parks which stretch along a quarter of the coast, or even across private property where we and other agencies have acquired easements, the right of the public to walk to and along the coast,“ advises Bill Ahern of the California Coastal Conservancy, a non-profit organization that protects shoreline access.

“Bring binoculars,” Ahern said, “and check out the birds on the wetlands, river and creek estuaries, and on the beaches where the endangered Snowy plovers forage for food.”

North, South or In-Between?

About midway along the coast, around Pismo Beach, legions of palm trees signal sunny Mediterranean weather and sandy beaches all the way to the Mexican border. Everything below is Southern California, everything above is Northern California, and that, as they say, makes all the difference.

Which is best? The cool, magnificent redwood forests and romantic fishermen’s villages up north? Or, the warm waters and sprawling vacation resorts of the southern part of the state? The central coast has its appeal, too, from the winelands of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the architectural icons of Carmel and the wild cliffs and coves of Big Sur.

Mountains meet the sea on the North Coast, a land of big rivers, evergreen rainforests and an irregular shoreline scrubbed by raucous surf. It’s a romantic place with few inhabitants and vast tracts of untrodden wilderness. Travelers come north for the dramatic beauty and the feeling of isolation, when the only footprints on a beach may be one’s own, and a brooding grove of redwoods stands in utter, primeval silence, as it has for over a thousand years. Wrapped in mists and pummeled by storms, northern seacoast towns are small and snug, picturesque with Victorian- and Gold Rush-era buildings.

To the north, beaches are narrower, rockier and tidepoolier. Although the climate remains mild most of the year, you can expect more fog and rain in the wintertime (and, in San Francisco, in the summertime!). Ocean swimming in the colder northern waters is given up for beachcombing and bonfires.

Changeable is the word for weather on the central coast south of San Francisco. Clouds come and go, and even the densest fog usually burns off by midday. The colors and moods of the sea and sky shift, often in the span of an hour or two. Tracing the coastline south from Monterey Bay to Morro Bay, Highway One rides along above rocky promontories, coves and harbors. Country roads head inland to quaint mountain villages and historic valleys where the first tourists––the Spanish conquistadors––once galloped.

Sunny Southland

At the entrance to the Santa Barbara channel, Point Conception is where the north-south run of the coastline turns east-west, and beaches are oriented toward the sun. This golden fragment of the edge of the continent creates a great, convex, sandy shore separated by narrow mountain ridges from the intense heat of the interior deserts. A brilliant, over-exposed sky is a blue umbrella all year round, save the occasional mid-winter day. In San Diego, near the Mexican border, it rains less than ten inches a year.

Even near the population centers of Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara, seekers of the backroads will find 1940s glamour on Catalina Island, historic ranchos and missions; some of the best bird-watching in the world in a handful of precious estuaries; and a high valley Shangri-la promising pink sunsets over Pacific shores.

Tourists become travelers––even wanderers––by taking the backroads along the coast. As Joan Dideon wrote in an essay describing her experiences living in California, “ . . . things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

Karen Misuraca



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