“Join for the bike, stay for the people” is the motto of the Concours Owners Group (COG). I echoed that sentiment myself the other day when I saw a post from a member who’s nom de plume is “SantaCruzRider.” He asked in a post on the COG Forum whether any member from the Bay Area wanted to go on a ride. Since I could tell where he lived from his moniker and knew what kind of bike he rode, I thought there could be immediate synergies. I’ve been a member of COG for about a year and a half and have found their members to be a great group of people interested in helping each other out while in pursuit of our common passion. So I posted a reply that I’d love to do a ride to Big Sur on California’s central coast and that I had read about a great motorcycle route through the Fort Hunter Liggett military reservation to Highway 101 on Pashnit.com. I was treated to an almost immediate reply, so we chose a date via email and scheduled our trip a few weeks ahead.
After doing some online research and route planning, I proposed a specific route to SantaCruzRider that packed too much saddle time into one day. He suggested we start off in Prunedale and take Hwy 101 down to King City and then head west towards Big Sur. His rationale was that it would be much more fun to ride with the sun at our back than glaring into our eyes while riding steep and twisty mountain roads. Boy, was he right! I learned a good lesson that day, which was to plan for the light when you have the option to choose directions. This made for better photography with the bikes as well.
So I left my house in San Mateo at 6:30 A.M. and headed south down Interstate 280, then Hwy 101 towards Prunedale, about an hour and fifteen minutes away. Although the forecast showed a 0% chance of precipitation, when I left the house the streets were all wet from a cloud system that apparently didn’t pay attention to weather.com. Though I hit some wet roads and light sprinkles in San José, it was otherwise dry and clear. The temperature was brisk at that time of morning, in the low 40s. But MyConnie’s full fairing kept me warm and dry as I flew down the highway.
As I got to Prunedale, I spied a gas station still a few miles before the rendezvous point. I decided to top off my gas here and leisurely check my tire pressure and pursue any other morning ablutions prior to meeting my new riding buddy for the first time at Starbucks. As I pulled into the station, I see another Connie getting air and knew immediately that it was SantaCruzRider, and he knew it was me. After exchanging pleasantries and tending to our bikes, I reflected on what an interesting and tight-knit community we Connie riders are. We are tied together by our choice of two-wheeled platform, and by the commonalities that caused us to gravitate towards the Kawasaki Concours in the first place.
If I were to prognosticate, I’d suggest that Connie riders are pragmatic, frugal, social, independent, wise and fun. I base this on reading hundreds of blog posts from COG members and forming a stereotype of a prototypical Concours rider in my mind’s eye. How else would you describe people who gravitate towards a bike that isn’t great at any one thing, but is really good at a doing them all? And these are people who have eschewed spending big bucks on a Beemer, choosing instead to invest two or three grand on a bike that will run for 100,000, or much more, that they can work on themselves, and that provides little glitz but plenty of “get up and go.” That is, until all practicality goes out the window and a brand new $16,000 C14 Concours goes in the garage. Hey, what can I say? COGers are an enigma.
We hopped back on the freeway and headed to our original rally point at the Prunedale Starbucks next to Safeway on Vierra Canyon Road, each choosing to kill the morning chill with a Venti cuppa Joe. We took some time to chat about our jobs and families, and Connie’s of course. We each found out why we got back into motorcycling after a long hiatus and why we both stumbled upon the Concours and discovered it was the perfect bike for commuting during the week and touring on the weekends. But soon enough, the road beckoned to both of us. So we saddled up, and headed the 45 minutes south to King City.
We took Jolon Road west for 20 or so miles and then turned right on Mission Road towards Fort Hunter Liggett. The turn-off was hard to miss considering the welcome mat was a 15 ton Sheridan Tank with its 152mm gun leveled right at us! Fort Hunter Liggett is a 168,000 acre military reservation that boasts “a mission to provide world class training for Combat Support (CS) and Combat Service Support (CSS) units and to become the best training center in the Western United States for the U.S. Army Reserve.” I’ve been past this area both on Hwy 1 at the coast and on Hwy 101 many times and never knew it was there. Remoteness is probably one of the best reasons for its location. That, and it sports a 360 degree live fire range. Hoo-yah!
But paradoxically tucked right next to all that state-of-the-art weaponry is Mission San Antonio de Padua, the third of what would eventually be 21 missions that stretch from San Diego to Sonoma, California. Founded in 1771 by Father (now Saint) Junipero Serra, Mission San Antonio de Padua is the largest of the 21 missions and is still an active parish, with 35 families attending services there. The grounds are quite impressive and this would be a great place to spend more time to delve into local history. But on this trip, we only had time for a few photos, a quick look around and a rapid-fire historical overview and fund-raising pitch from the docent.
Leaving the mission, we turned onto Nacimiento-Fergusson Road towards the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. I can see why the Spanish settlers called the land surrounding the Mission “the Valley of the Oaks.” Unlike parts of northern california, the land heading up to the coastal range mountains was chock full of oak trees, not the one or two found on most hills in Marin. Whether because of climate or isolation, you get the feeling like you’re stepping back in time seeing these wooded hills as they were meant to be.
The gentle rolling hills gave way to curves that follow a stream through the mountains. Then you start a climb up and over an impressive range of guardian mountains to the coast. A note to photographers: there are only a few pullouts where stopping to take a photo is possible, so when you see one, pull over. You won’t find another one farther on that is better. And with the curves getting ever tighter and steeper, turning around is problematic.
The trip over the mountains was easy, or would have been if not for rock debris in just about every tight corner. The narrow road without center-stripe was typical for these types of roads, making speed control highly important. Luckily, we only passed a few cars coming the other way. But the blind curves and lack of guard rails made it impossible to do anything but leisurely meander around all the turns.
Once we broke out of the trees and crested the summit, we started down a steep set of switchbacks. Soon enough we were treated to a breathtaking view of the Pacific. On this day, the water along the Big Sur coast was a deep azure blue, not the grey-green I had become used to from years of scuba diving the waters around Monterey Bay.
It seemed that we had lucked into those most rare of occasions on California’s central coast: a brilliantly sunny day with particularly good ocean visibility. It produced a quality of color in the ocean that I haven’t seen in years. And just to complete our spectacular vista, the sapphire water contrasted with white-crested waves, seen from thousands of feet above the beach atop our mountain road. Simply, brilliant.
Anyone who has seen car commercials filmed in California has seen the Marin Headlands, Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge, and the famous Bixby Bridge on Highway 1 at Big Sur. There are a number of bridges that follow the same architecture as the Bixby Bridge which was undergoing renovation at the time of our trip. The one in the distance below is not Bixby, but one bridge further south, but it is no less spectacular with its 1930s design ethic. I’ve always wanted to photograph the Bixby at sunset from down on a nearby beach. Today was not that day, but someday soon it will be.
We decided to have lunch at the iconic Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur that looks out over the crashing waves of the Pacific. Being able to park our bikes where cars could not helped us in getting right in to eat. But if you are driving a car, parking can be a problem on busy days. For two hungry bikers, seats at the bar trumped an ocean view. So we sidled up to the bar, ordered, and ate our fill.
But all of the crazy wind-tossed riding and debris-strewn mountain curves flew out of my mind when I got home and saw my photos on the computer for the first time. Indeed it was a great day: beautiful weather, gorgeous scenery and a newfound friend. It was all perfect except for trusting my final shot to a passing vista point tourist. Here’s to the gray-bearded gentleman in the white sedan: next time, press the button down half-way to focus—like I mentioned—before taking the photo by pressing it down the rest of the way. Oh…nevermind.
Ride Map: Click here for Google map
– Date: February 23, 2013
– Roads: All well-paved with inclusions of a few rocks here and there in turns that have no guard rails next to thousand foot cliffs – just to keep things interesting. Afternoon quartering winds on the coast with heavy unpredictable gusts made cornering on Hwy 1…uhhhh…thrilling.
– Scenery: This time of year we were treated to rolling green hills thoroughly dotted with oak trees which gave way to heavily forested and impressively high mountains with breathtaking views of valleys on one side and the pacific on the other.
– Weather: The weather was perfect on this late February weekend, sunny in the 50s with puffy clouds after the morning fog burned off. Summertime temperatures in the Ft. Hunter Liggett area can get very warm followed by the cool breezes of the coast, so be sure to wear layers.
– Challenge: Intermediate but very approachable for beginners. However with no guard rails on tight curves next to sheer cliffs, you’ll need to be very careful. This is not a churn and burn road for canyon racers…not in the least. Too much corner debris in the mountains and too many tourists on the Big Sur coast.
– Food: We didn’t see any gas or food between Hwy 101 and Hwy 1 so bring your own food as necessary. Lots of great places to eat in Big Sur, though.
– Gas: We also didn’t see any gas stations between Hwy 101 all the way until Carmel, about 100 miles, so plan accordingly.
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for scenic beauty alone. I will be doing this ride many times again in the future.
– Additional Fun: Although this time we didn’t include a ride through Carmel Valley, a trek to Pinnacles National Monument, a visit to Cannery Row, or a pilgrimage to the Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, there are an inordinate number of fun things to do and see in-and-around Monterey Bay. And Hearst Castle at San Simeon is only another 35 miles south on Hwy 1! This would be a great three-day trip for anyone coming from out-of-state. As for SantaCruzRider and I, all this and more is a mere twist of the wrist away.
Additional Trip Photos: