After an adventure-filled weekend celebrating National Parks Week 2022, Earth Day, and Junior Ranger Day at Pinnacles National Park in central California, too soon it was time to begin the trek home. But is was not time to end the adventure just yet. We have learned over the course of many road trips that there are often opportunities to continues exploring even as we drive down the long road home.
There are two major routes one can take to get up to Pinnacles from where we live in the San Gabriel Valley, and both are nearly equidistant. On the way up, I took Interstate 5 north to California routes 198 and 25. We stopped at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere Fresno County before Coalinga and then stopped for a Starbucks in King City before hitting 198 and 25 which took us through some really pretty rolling green hills but were definitely in very rural areas.
On the way back to Los Angeles County however, we drove California 25 to U.S. 101 South. This route took us through the famed agricultural areas of the Salinas Valley, as well as the many vineyards of the Monterey County, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara County wine countries. It is a route that carries many fond memories from drives up and down the coast when I lived for a short period of time in Santa Cruz County. The drive along 101 is much prettier than the parallel-ish stretch of Interstate 5, and faster than the gorgeous but winding Pacific Coast Highway. There are also some beautiful cities along the way that have scenic beaches, historic missions, and other points of interest. So as Sami loved windmills when she was smaller, I planned a visit to Solvang to enjoy a Sunday brunch with my quickly growing youngest child.
Solvang, California is aptly nicknamed ‘the Danish capital of America.’ It is nestled in Santa Barbara County, specifically the Santa Ynez Valley, and is just east of U.S. 101. While the area has been home to the Chumash people for centuries prior to European influence, the city has its origin with the founding of the Santa Ines Mission by the Spanish during the building of the California Missions along the El Camino Real. Fast forward to 1911 when a group of Danish settlers purchased land around the mission to create Danish community. Today, Solvang has much in terms of Danish-style architecture, including several windmills, and a scale replica of the Copenhagen’s Rundertaarn Tower. It is a popular tourist stop in California.
After ‘adopting’ a condor at the Pinnacles Visitor Center bookstore on the east side of the national park, Sami and I loaded up into the car and hit the road. We followed the route prescribed by Google Maps, heading south on U.S. 101. After about three-and-a-half hours on the road, including one stop for fuel, and a bit of traffic through Paso Robles, we exited the freeway onto CA-246 heading east. After driving another couple miles, we arrived in Solvang.
Even Sami was impressed by the town. The Danish-style buildings were really interesting, and while crowded on a Sunday afternoon at the end of Spring Break season, the city was really clean and chill. I had planned the stop ahead of time and were headed to the Succulent Cafe on Mission Street. At that point in the day, my main concern was parking, however this was nothing to worry about. There was parking behind Mission at Solvang Elementary which was open to public parking on weekends.
We walked over to the popular cafe. There wasn’t much of a wait as we were arriving just after lunch time, but it was still rather busy. The host said that their business had been steady with extended spring breakers coming in. That said, the service was still prompt, and our food and drink orders were taken pretty quickly. While waiting for our meal, Sami enjoyed her iced coffee while I sipped on a mimosa. It was a perfect day for dining al fresco; the weather was sunny and mild as many days along the central coast tend to be.
The food was delicious. We split a Cali benedict with the bacon on the side and the bourbon vanilla French toast. Both were great. The French toast was served with a pecan bourbon syrup, pecans, berries, and a mountain of whipped cream. The Cali Benedict had smashed avocado, poached eggs, caramelized onion, tomato, green onions, Sriracha hollandaise on a brioche-type biscuit. It came with a side of breakfast potatoes and those I would highly recommend. The meal was on the higher end of what I typically spend, but brunch tends to be a more expensive meal and we were finishing up vacation anyway. I thought it would be nice to have a special treat before heading back to home and real life.
After brunch, Sami and I walked around the town. There are a number of Danish bakeries, and of course we meant to stop in at one for some treats for breakfast the next day. We headed over to Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery, where the Olsen family recipes have been a favorite since 1970. We selected a few sweets and headed back to the car to continue the drive back home.
Google Maps had us continuing east on 246 rather than returning back the way we came. We drove past Mission Santa Ines and out of Solvang into Santa Ynez. We turned onto State Route 154, known as the Chumash Highway. This backroad connecting Santa Ynez to Santa Barbara is extraordinarily scenic. The road cuts through the Santa Ynez Pass and the Los Padres National Forest. Cachuma Lake, a large reservoir in the Santa Ynez Valley is a popular recreation area. The large lake glistened in the afternoon sun and looked so pretty nestled in the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains. The Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge, over which you drive on part of 154, is another cool landmark. At over 400 feet above the canyon below, this bridge is the highest arch bridge in California and one of the highest in the United States. It was really pretty and fun to drive over. I just wish I was able to get more photos, especially as the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean came into view even as we were winding through the rolling green mountains along CA-154. It was so beautiful, and totally deserving of its distinction as a scenic highway.
My return to reality hit as we turned back onto U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara and headed into the traffic that would characterize the drive from that point through Ventura County and Los Angeles up till we transitioned onto California 134 close to home. But it was still a beautiful drive with the gorgeous scenery of the Pacific Coast, plenty of podcasts and Taylor Swift jams, and conversation with my baby who is quickly becoming a young adult. I am so thankful to have been able to have this time with her. Because on road trips like these are where some of our best memories are made. Happy trails!
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