Coastal California Travel Adventure in a Mitsubishi Mirage
When given the opportunity to take a fuel-efficient Mitsubishi Mirage on a road trip, my goal was to see how far I could take the little car and how little gas it would use during the trip. The road trip wasn’t intended to be a hypermiler’s high-mileage challenge, but a real-world driving experience: I wanted to see how the car performed on a variety of roads to give it a fair and reasonable evaluation, but I also wanted to have some fun myself.
After my previous Midwest multi-state adventure, I wanted this drive to take a different direction. So, my traveling partner and I pointed the little Mirage north for an adventurous, weeklong road trip from urban Los Angeles through San Francisco, on to Eureka and Crescent City to see California’s historic redwood forests. It would be a fun juxtaposition, I thought, to photograph the little tiny car against the great big trees. My mental image was solidified when Mitsubishi delivered an eye-searing Skittles-green Mirage, a hue that created many opportunities for colorful photos along the way.
We planned a route to travel along more than 1200 miles of California’s beautiful Pacific Coast 1 and 101 Highways, reserving the very last 500 miles of Interstate for the final leg home. During our travels, we saw our fair share of historic landmarks, visited plenty of cemeteries, spent a day driving around hilly San Francisco, and took the little Mirage onto a few unpaved roads through majestic redwood forests. We even encountered some unexpected wildlife! Much of our route included world-renowned California roads that many automotive enthusiasts would choose to drive in sporty performance cars.
California’s Pacific Coast Highway offers plenty of scenic vistas. My first landmark was Morro Rock, also known as “the Gibraltar of the Pacific.” This 581-foot-tall rock located just off the shore in Morro Bay is an example of a “volcanic plug” type of volcanic landform.
I also looked forward to crossing the famous Bixby Bridge in Big Sur. Completed in 1932 for a cost of $199,861, the Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges along the Pacific Coast due to its design and location. This reinforced concrete open-spandrel arch bridge features a 320-foot arch span and is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world.
What would a northward trip through San Francisco be without the obligatory crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge? One of the most internationally recognized symbols of San Francisco, California, and the United States, this suspension bridge opened in 1937 to span the Golden Gate strait, the mile-wide, three-mile-long channel between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and has been declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
While in Eureka, we took the highly recommended Madaket Cruise to learn the history of Humboldt Bay and Eureka's waterfront. The Madaket is the last remaining vessel of a seven-vessel fleet that once transported families and workers around Humboldt Bay. Built for the shallow waters of Humboldt Bay in 1909, the Madaket measures 47.5 feet in length, 12 foot at the beam, and draws a mere 3.75 feet of depth. She is not only the oldest passenger-carrying vessel in continuous service in the United States, but also boasts the smallest licensed bar in California. I was not prepared for the afternoon rain (it seems I am NEVER prepared for rain), so I got plenty soggy during the water-logged 75-minute narrated cruise around the bay, during which I learned about the area’s history and industries, and saw Harbor seals, oyster beds, and flocks of shore birds.
In Crescent City, we were fortunate to be able to visit the Lighthouse at Battery Point because the small islet on which the lighthouse sits connects to Battery Point by a shallow isthmus that can only be crossed at low tide. One of the first lighthouses on the California coast, the lighthouse was first lit in 1856, and even survived the infamous tsunami caused by the 1964 Alaska earthquake (the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the United States).
We also made a stop at the Loleta Cheese Factory,where visitors can watch the cheese-making process through big glass viewing windows. It’s a great place to visit around lunchtime, as bite-size samples are available to taste their selection of more than 34 varieties. It’s also super kid-friendly, thanks to a fun scavenger hunt activity that takes place in the colorful gardens behind their store.
We spent a good part of one day zig-zagging around Berkeley and San Francisco, mainly because I couldn’t read the maps and the tall buildings kept confounding my phone’s GPS. While there, San Francisco’s steep roads provided a good opportunity to experience the Mirage’s Hill Hold Assist feature, which safely kept the car from rolling backwards for more confident starts when stopped on inclines. I wanted to take the nimble little Mirage down curvy Lombard Street, but could not because the street was only open to pedestrian traffic on that day.
We also wanted to visit San Francisco’s Mission de Asis and its Mission Dolores Cemetery, but could not find parking because all the nearby streets were blocked for Pride weekend activities.
Of Course We Saw Redwoods!
My introduction to the forests of Northern California came on our second night, on the 1 between the coast and the 101, when my co-driver stopped the car to look at the starlit sky framed by the walls of tall trees lining the road. We turned off the lights, letting our eyes adjust to the dense darkness to view an amazing night sky. I admit, it was a little bit unnerving to be standing in the dark in the middle of the road at midnight, but without the light pollution of the urban environment I am so familiar with, the millions of sparkling stars set against the pitch-black night were an awesome sight to behold.
From our base in Eureka, we took a day trip farther north to Crescent City and the Jedediah Smith State Redwoods Park. We took a detour onto the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway and stopped at Elk Prairie to watch a herd of giant Roosevelt Elk, the most commonly seen mammals in the Redwood National and State Parks, grazing in a field.
We took another detour off the Highway near Klamath to tour a 10-mile mostly unpaved loop via Alder Camp and Klamath Beach Roads, to drive through the lush forest to reach the high bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Panoramic coastal views offered opportunities to view whales and sea lions in the crashing surf far below; though on that day, we saw only pelicans and clear, blue ocean. As we left the coast to head back to the 101, we saw what looked like a farmhouse and barn (but it turns out it was actually a World War II radio station) and additional views of the Klamath River.
East of Crescent City, we followed 10 miles of unpaved Howland Hill Road to drive through 10,000 acres of towering old-growth redwoods in Jedediah Smith State Park, named after the explorer, Jedediah Strong Smith who was the first white man to explore the interior of northern California. Established in 1929, this predominately old-growth redwoods park is bisected by the last major free-flowing river in California, the Smith River.
California’s coastal redwoods can grow as tall as 350 feet or more, and can have a base diameter of around 20 feet. Some of the oldest redwoods are about 2,000 years old. We spent hours here, enjoying the lush landscape and listening to the various sounds of the creatures surrounding us… and shooting pictures of the little green Mitsubishi Mirage against the enormous trees in the moody light.
While setting up for these amazing photos, I did not almost drive the little Mirage off the side of a cliff, or nearly back it into a tree. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!
We also spent half a day driving through the world-famous Avenue of the Giants. This scenic route navigates along a 31-mile portion of old Highway 101, among more than 51,000 acres of redwood groves.
It is said to be the most outstanding display of these giant trees in the entire 500-mile redwood belt, and is where we snapped one of my favorite shots of the entire trip, the photo below of the minuscule Mirage being dwarfed by the fallen trunk of a giant tree.
While I can’t claim to be a “connoisseur” of cemeteries, walking through these quiet memorial parks is an activity I really appreciate. I specifically enjoy reading the old headstones, imagining their stories, and trying to find the oldest ones. While this trip wasn’t intended to be a tour of California’s historic cemeteries, we wound up visiting more than half a dozen significant and historic graveyards during our travels.
On the drive up, we spent part of a day wandering through two cemeteries in the necropolis of Colma, where the population of the dead outnumber the living by more than a thousand to one. The city, which claims the humorous motto "It's great to be alive in Colma," was filled with cemeteries in the early 1900s, after San Francisco relocated many of its dead there in response to rising land values. We didn’t visit the (in)famous “Pet’s Rest” pet cemetery, but we particularly enjoyed a walk through the Colma Italian Cemetery, which is different from many other lawn-style cemeteries because, in addition to traditional above-ground tombs, so many of the deceased there are encased in ground-level concrete “false tombs” marked by elaborate monuments. We also visited the lovely, grassy Cypress Lawn, where their small crematory columbarium inspired a visit to the much more famous Neptune Society Columbarium on another leg of the trip.
We spent a rainy morning walking through Myrtle Grove Memorial Park, the first established cemetery in Eureka. Incorporated in 1861, Myrtle Grove holds the remains of many of the area’s first settlers. More than 150 years later, the cemetery has been long neglected, wooden grave markers have rotted away, gravestones are broken, and many of the mausoleums have been vandalized. There’s also a very sad sense of irony to the fact that these early pioneers traveled from all around the world just to die in Eureka of rattlesnake bites, falls, and crush injuries (from the logging industry), generic and unusual disorders like “phthesis,” “paralysis of the insane,” and “weevation of the bowels,” or the most common cause of death: cerebral hemorrhage.
I spent a lot of time during the trip appreciating the early Victorian architecture of the old homes in the cities we visited, especially in the city of Ferndale. Known as California's best preserved Victorian village, Ferndale was transformed into the fictional city of Lawson for the 2001 Jim Carrey movie "The Majestic." While we were there, we also walked through the Ferndale cemetery, where film crews borrowed grass from local homeowners to build a veterans plot for Lawson’s World War II victims. Established in 1868, this lovely hillside location is one of the state's most beautiful and historic burial grounds. It overlooks the quaint old town, and would have offered beautiful views… if it hadn’t been raining.
One of the very last remaining vestiges of San Francisco's long-gone cemeteries, the Neptune Society Columbarium features a neo-classical architecture with a large rotunda, intricate stained glass windows, mosaic tile floors, and more than 8,000 inurnment spaces. After San Francisco disallowed ground burial and mandated the closure and removal of most of its cemeteries, the Columbarium fell into disrepair. The Neptune Society of Northern California took stewardship in 1980, and after extensive renovations, the Columbarium is now a beautiful location containing the cremains of many of the city’s elite dead.
We also visited the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. This breathtaking location is the final resting place for our nation's military veterans and their families. Framed by Monterey Cypress and other majestic trees, the perfectly manicured cemetery rests on a slope overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Among the 30,000 Americans resting there are Civil War generals, Medal of Honor recipients, Buffalo soldiers, and even a Union spy.
The last cemetery was the gloomy Calistoga Pioneer Cemetery, unofficially founded in the 1860’s. While some say it's haunted, I didn’t see any ghosts on that day, though I did see the graves of some of Upper Napa Valley’s earliest settlers, including survivors of the Donner Party tragedy and veterans of the Civil War.
Once, along the way, I did fear we might run out of gas: On our second day, after crossing the Golden Gate bridge, we left Highway 101 in Marin City and headed west to continue along the Coastal Highway, passing by an extremely busy gas station. We were looking at a nearly empty tank, but didn’t want to wait in the long line, mistakenly assuming there would be another station “soon.” Turns out, my phone’s Google Nav indicated it would be nearly 30 miles to the next pumps in Point Reyes Station. The irony of possibly running out of gas in the most-fuel-efficient non-hybrid car currently on the market was not lost on us as we warily watched the fuel gauge rest on empty for the last few miles before getting a few gallons at Greenbridge Gas & Auto Service and heading back on our way.
At one point along our northbound coastal drive, we encountered cattle roving across the road, right along the cliff's edge above the sea. Like last summer’s trip through New Mexico, where numerous roadside signs warned of cows (but we saw none), this stretch of Highway 1 also had several signs to caution about these bovine roadblocks. I could have reached out the window to pet her, but because the average Holstein can weigh around 1500 pounds and the Mirage fully loaded with us, our stuff, and gas probably only weighed 2200 pounds, I gave “Petunia” plenty of passing room.
The entire trip used 44.5 gallons to travel 1772 miles, averaging out to 39.8 miles per gallon. That’s pretty good real-life economy considering the Mirage was loaded down with two people, a week’s worth of clothing and gear, and food and drinks for snacking along the way. While the majority of the drive was on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway and Interstates at highway speeds, we did stop often and spent a fair amount of time sightseeing at slow speeds through the redwood forests, small Victorian towns, and hilly San Francisco.
We tracked our daily drives with a high-quality GPS unit, which showed daily moving averages from 42 to 63 mph, and max speeds between 70 to 90 mph, revealing impressive real-world fuel economy considering how we drove the car. You can read more about my driving impressions of the Mitsubishi Mirage here at AskPatty.com.
All photos by Brandy Schaffels