Bixby Creek Bridge on Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur.

Around San Francisco

Visiting the San Francisco Area

San Francisco sits on a hilly peninsula, the south side of the "Golden Gate" joining the large San Francisco Bay and other bays and associated waterways to the Pacific Ocean. The San Francisco Bay itself extends some 30 miles south to San Jose and the Silicon Valley area, while San Pablo Bay extends to the north and on inland, eventually narrowing into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.

1:1,000,000 map of the Bay Area from 1959.

1:250,000 map, 1980, U.S. Geological Survey

The Golden Gate is an opening 4,200 feet (or 1,280 meters) wide at its narrowest, connecting the large bay system to the Pacific Ocean. The area just north of the Golden Gate is not heavily settled due to the rugged topography, making for some great scenery and parks very close to a large city. Muir Woods and its stand of California Redwoods is just a short drive from the city. The San Francisco airport is on a small shelf on the edge of the bay to the south of the city.

Tactical Pilotage Chart TPC G-18A.

Outside San Francisco

Muir Woods National Monument is just twelve miles north of San Francisco. It protects one of the few stands of old growth Coast Redwoods in the San Francisco Bay area.

The area of Muir Woods is cool and moist all year. Rainfall is heavy in the winter. Summer moisture is provided by coastal fog drip. The result is lush growth that pictures just can't capture.

The mature redwoods here have average ages between 500 and 800 years, with the oldest at least 1,200 years old. The tallest tree in the Muir Woods is 258 feet tall, although redwoods can grow to nearly 380 feet. The distinctive fibrous bark can be up to 3 feet thick at the base of the tree.

California redwood trees in Muir Woods.
Mossy growths in Muir Woods.
Tactical Pilotage Chart TPC G-18A

The ancestors of todays redwood and sequoia trees grew throughout North America 150 million years ago.

Today the various subspecies of Sequoia sempervirens are found only in a narrow belt paralleling the coast from Monterey Bay to today's Oregon.

Around 1800 AD, there were an estimated 8,000 square kilometers of old-growth forest containing redwoods in a narrow strip along the Pacific coast from Monterey Bay to today's Oregon.

By the early 1900s, most of those forests had been cut down. A U.S. Congressman purchased a 611-acre tract of land in southwestern Marin County and donated it to the Federal Government.

Theodore Roosevelt declared the land a National Monument in January, 1908.

Redwood Creek, which flows through Muir Woods, is a crucial spawning habitat for three endangered species: Oncorhynchus kisutch, the coho or silver salmon; Oncorhynchus clarki clarki, the coastal cutthroat trout; and Oncorhynchus mykiss, the steelhead trout. The salmon migrate down river and out to sea, returning typically after two years to spawn. The coho salmon population in California down to just 1% of the levels seen in the 1940s, and they have disappeared from 90% of the streams where they used to be found.

The United Nations Charter was drafted and signed in San Francisco in the spring of 1945. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died on April 12th, shortly before he was to have formalled opened the United Nations Conference.

The United Nations delegates held a commmemorative ceremony in what is today called Cathedral Grove within Muir Woods. Harold Ickes, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, said: in such a "temple of peace" the delegates would gain a perspective and sense of time that could be obtained nowhere in America better than in such a forest. Muir Woods is a cathedral, the pillars of which have stood through much of recorded human history..."

You could continue further north to Sonoma County. It was originally settled by the Pomo, Coast Miwok, and Wappo people around 8000-5000 BC. The Russians and their Fort Ross or Крепость Россь settled along the coast 1812-1841 AD. Meanwhile the Spanish established some missions inland, starting in 1823.

Jack London, who was a real piece of work, owned a ranch here in the early 1900s. London's mother was Flora Wellman, a spritualist who claimed to channel the spirit of an Indian chief. His father seems to have been the astrologer William Chaney.

Flora became pregnant, Chaney demanded that she have an abortion, Flora refused, Chaney denied all responsibility, and Flora shot herself. She was not seriously injured, but she was "temporarily deranged." She had the baby, Jack, on January 12, 1876, and turned him over to an ex-slave who remained a major maternal figure to Jack. This seems to have been one of the most sane decisions he ever made.

Cover of June, 1914 'The Masses' by John Sloan, depicting the Ludlow Massacre, from

Cover of June 1914 The Masses depicting the Ludlow Massacre in April of that year in Colorado. The Masses was published monthly from 1911 until 1917, when federal prosecutors filed charges against its editors for conspiring to obstruct military conscription. The Liberator and The New Masses followed it.

Jack was, in quick succession, a cannery worker, an oyster pirate, a jute miller, and a tramp. Only then did he attend high school, followed by a year at the University of California, Berkeley. While at Berkeley, Jack wrote to Chaney in Chicago. Chaney relied upon the defense of impotence and casually asserted that Flora had had sexual relations with other (non-impotent) men. Jack left immediately for the Klondike Gold Rush.

London returned, married, divorced, became a member of the Bohemian Grove, then married again in 1905 to Charmian Kittredge, a woman to whose uninhibited sexuality every biographer seems to have alluded. Later that same year Jack and Charmian London purchased a 1000 acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County.

Jack London at
the New School on
St Marks Place in
the East Village

Amongst all the uninhibited sex, strident socialism, and terrified racism, Jack London wrote or at least plagiarized a large number of books and stories about socialism, dogs, the Yukon, communism, wolves, and sailing, rendering him almost as amusing a target of parody as Ernest Hemingway.

Today, Sonoma is a center of the California wine industry, producing significantly more than its competitor, Napa Valley, one mountain ridge and valley to the east. The description that I got was that Napa is all about the image and the weekend getaways, while Sonoma produces the grapes and the wine. Sonoma County produces over 150,000 tons of grapes worth over $310 million.

California vineyards in Sonoma Valley.

Here is a view of Benziger Winery, which uses a strict "biodynamic" regimen. This goes beyond being simply sustainable or organic, as it uses a closed nutrient cycle within their facility. A tour of a winery like this is very interesting, even if you aren't a brewing nerd. Not only is some of their wine based entirely upon grapes grown locally in their self-contained biodynamic system, but even the yeast is an endemic local strain.

Big Sur highway along the Pacific Ocean.

You can drive the opposite direction from San Francisco, south along Highway 1 through Monterey and into Big Sur.

The stretch of coast between Carmel and San Simeon is still sparsely populated. In the 1920s, only two homes in the region had electricity, and that was locally generated by windmills and water wheels. Most of the small population had no electrical power until connections were made to the California grid in the 1950s.

The two-lane Highway 1 was finished in 1937. There are still no towns along that stretch of coastal road, although road maps tend to mark three small clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels as though they were. There are less than 300 hotel rooms along the 90 miles, none of them in chain hotels, only three gas stations, and no fast-food outlets or supermarkets. Most of the lodging and restaurants are clustered within a stretch of a few miles where the highway leaves the coast and winds through a redwood forest while crossing the Big Sur River valley.

The coastline is rugged, as the Santa Lucia Mountains rise out of the sea, forcing the road to follow a narrow ledge. The mountain range inland is one of the largest roadless regions near a coastline in the continental U.S. The varied topography creates many closely space microclimates, producing a few very unusual places where redwoods and cacti grow within sight of each other.

The drive along Highway 1 is probably the most scenic driving route in the United States and it is one of the top drives in the world. Above is a picture of the Bixby Creek Bridge, just 13 miles south of Carmel. This stretch of Highway 1 has been the setting of many automobile commercials. The bridge, finished in 1932, is 714 feet long and over 280 feet high. Until it opened, the 30 mile trip from Monterey to the Big Sur River valley took a day and a half in each direction.

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