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Northern California drive

Thursday, May 20, 2010
The drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles is a beautiful one. The rugged coastline provides wonderful scenery and there are delightful little towns to visit along the way.

On this visit, Dermott Brereton took the road less travelled by the tourist and headed north from San Francisco into redwood country. As a Melbourne boy the scenery reminded Dermott of Victoria's beautiful Great Ocean Road.

He rented a campervan from Lost Campers USA and packed all his gear in the back, including his surfboard for a crack at the waves up the coast. When he saw surfers under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco he couldn't resist having a paddle in such an iconic place.

He figured that would give him bragging rights for some time to come, but was warned by locals that it's not for the inexperienced. The combination of strong currents, heavy waves and brisk water did present a challenge, and Getaway's experienced surfer took the challenge and ticked it off his list.


The first town after crossing the Golden Gate, Sausalito, curves around Richardson Bay. It was named after the region's first ranch, Ranch Sausalito — Spanish for "a small grove of willow trees".

When it was on the Pacific Coast train line, Sausalito was a busy port for lumberjacks, whale hunters and other traders. After World War it became bohemian with lots of artists moving to the area and living on houseboats. It's still known for the houseboat community, ranging from mansions to hippie havens.

Bridgeway Avenue is the main road with lots of expensive and quirky houses. There are plenty of restaurants and shops and day-trippers head there in droves.


Dermott probably didn't make too many friends in this little beachside village 4km up the coast. There's no mayor or city hall and the 2500 residents are always removing road signs to keep Bolinas a secret place. A mixture of surfers, poets, artists and writers call Bolinas home and they like living in their time-warp town.

Surrounded by county, state and federal parkland but with such great surf breaks the real estate market is opening up and Bolinas's exclusivity just may disappear.

Smiley's Schooner Saloon

Not just a Bolinas institution but listed with the California Historical Society, Smiley's doors have been swinging open since 1851. The doors were even kept open during the 1906 earthquake and 1920s Prohibition! During the latter period, windows were painted black and a barber's chair gave the impression you could go there for a haircut. Once inside, a door at the back led to all the alcohol you could want.

These days Smiley's serves alcohol and sells live bait, pizza, coffee and pastries, runs poker games and rock bands entertain.

You can stay in one of their simple but elegant rooms. Each has historic pictures of the Bay area and has private bath, complimentary coffee and morning paper.

Bolinas Bakery

In keeping with the hippie vibe of the town, this bakery whips up brownies made with kava, a herb which acts as a relaxant. They also sell tie-died carrot cakes!

Redwood Country

Heading up Highway 101 the first redwood grove you'll hit if the Drive Thru Tree Park. Owner Tom Stephenson is proud of what four generations of his family have achieved.

It is now a timber preserve and as long as Tom's family is in charge of the 100 hectares it will never be logged. Redwoods are the tallest and some of the planets oldest trees and in north-west California is where you will find the highest concentration of the magnificent giants.

The biggest attraction is the park's namesake: the drive-through tree, one of three in the area. It's 2400 years old, almost 100m high and still alive and growing. Its nickname is the chandelier tree because of its shape and natural design.

In the 1930s it wasn't considered a bad thing to cut a giant hole through a living tree and the practice is now banned.

Dirt roads are paved with "nature's speed bumps" and there is a 8km/h speed limit. Stick to that and you will be safe, as well as being able to enjoy more of the scenery.

After driving through the tree you can visit the gift shop, picnic by the pond or hike through hectares of wilderness.

Dermott said he could have driven for hours exploring the redwood forests and when it was time to turn in he settled at the state-owned Richardson Grove to sleep under 3000-year-old trees.

Lost Campers USA

The owners of Lost Campers USA, Emma and Nick Thomson, are in fact from Brisbane. Their campervans are a mix of cars and RVs. The eight-seater vans have super-comfortable beds pillows and include all linen, air-conditioning, cooking and kitchen equipment, loads of storage, picnic tables, stereo, awning, portable ice cooler and stove.

The vans also have bike racks, GPS navigator, sleeping bags, power inverter, cell phone, maps and guides, 24-hour roadside assistance and they offer 160 free kilometres a day.


Heading north from San Francisco in California.


Lost Campers USA has campervan hire from $47 a day. They offer one-way rental to Los Angeles.

Smiley's Saloon is open every day from 9am. Rooms start at around $100.

Drive Thru Tree Park entry is around $5. It's open from dawn to dusk year round.

V Australia has flights to Los Angeles from:

  • Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane $1229
  • Adelaide $1529
  • Perth $1829

Connections to San Francisco are available.

For further information

Lost Campers USA
2955 3rd Street
San Francisco CA 94107
United States
Ph: +1 415 386 2693

Smiley's Schooner Saloon
41 Wharf Road
Bolinas CA 94924
United States
Ph: +1 415 868 1311

Bolinas Bay Bakery
20 Wharf Road
Bolinas CA 94970
United States
Ph: +1 415 868 0211

Drive Thru Tree Park
67402 Drive Thru Tree Road
Leggett CA 95585
United States
Ph: +1 707 925 6363
Fax: +1 707 925 6455

Visas: Most Australians do not need a visa, providing they have a machine-readable passport with at least six months' validity after the departure day, have a round-trip non-refundable ticket and do not intend to stay longer than 90 days. Australians need to complete a pre-travel authorisation at

Electricity: 110V to 115V at 60Hz. Outlets take two parallel, flat prongs. Australian visitors will need a US adapter and converter.

Time zone: California is GMT -8.

Currency: The American dollar.

International dialling code: +1.

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