Pacific coast: giant redwood on the highway

Robert Mendick hits cruise control and heads up the coast to Oregon

The tree in front was more than 300ft high, more than 20ft across and more than 2,000 years old. I fastened my seatbelt, gave my wife a conspiratorial nod, pressed the accelerator of the hired car – and drove straight through it.

The tree in front was more than 300ft high, more than 20ft across and more than 2,000 years old. I fastened my seatbelt, gave my wife a conspiratorial nod, pressed the accelerator of the hired car – and drove straight through it.

You can do that kind of thing on the west coast of America. This is God's great country and it shows. We drove full tilt at trees so vast you could run a car through one. We climbed sand dunes as big as mountains, visited Randolph Hearst's homage to Mammon (aka Xanadu in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane) and stared at giant tuna and man-eating sharks in the world's biggest fish tank.

Then there was Mount St Helens, with 2,000 feet ripped off the top by a volcanic blast that shaped the planet's weather patterns for the next decade or so. And the eerie town of Crescent City – flattened by a series of tidal waves that has folks in those parts so spooked that most of the seaside villages now carry tsunami evacuation route signposts that tell you where to run for it when the next one hits.

We started our 1,900-mile road trip after a 10-hour, non-stop flight that started in grey, wet Britain and deposited us in sunny, blue sky San Francisco, only to be greeted by an airport in chaos. The luggage carousels didn't work, and finding the car hire pick-up point required the investigative skills of the city's best known fictional detective, Sam Spade. We holed up in San Francisco for the first four days, fortunate to have a place to park our car at our b&b and glad not to have to pay exorbitant parking rates. San Francisco is that rare thing – the American city that hates the automobile.

By day five we were in our car – a silver Mitsubishi Galant automatic – and, after the obligatory wrong turns, heading south down Route One towards Monterey. Slightly nervous at first, I soon realised driving in the States is a remarkably easy thing that just gets easier. Out of the cities, traffic dwindles to almost nil while the cruise control allowed me to switch to a constant 56mph and do nothing other than steer.

Monterey is a relatively benign town, worth a stop because a) Clint Eastwood filmed the seminal stalker movie Play Misty For Me there; b) tens of thousands of monarch butterflies can be seen clinging to eucalyptus trees in nearby Pacific Grove and c) the town is home to a must-see aquarium that includes the world's largest fish tank, costing £38m. It stands on the site of a former sardine cannery in Cannery Row, made famous by the John Steinbeck novel of the same name.

So we spent an afternoon watching sea otters being fed and, this being California, dipping our hands into touchy-feely tanks that allowed you to stroke velvety bat rays. Out of Monterey, Route One, a wonderful road stretching from Los Angeles almost to the Oregon border and never leaving the coast, hugs the Pacific in a spectacular series of bends, swooping up and down through the Big Sur while waves crash on the side of the road.

After a day's leisurely motoring we arrived at San Simeon, home to Hearst Castle, a preposterous palace built on a hill by the newspaper magnate and housing treasures plundered from Europe's churches after the war. We retraced our steps for 300 miles or so to San Francisco and across the Golden Gate bridge, stopping for the night in Sonoma Valley, which runs parallel to the busier and better known Napa Valley. Driving north we headed back to the Pacific's crashing waves and spectacular sunsets.

Before joining Highway 101 at Leggett we passed through the impossibly cute Mendocino, where they filmed East of Eden and its unlikely bed partner Murder, She Wrote. This is the start of redwood country where you can find, among other arboreal attractions, the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree, cost $3 (£2.10) but you can drive through as many times as you want, and a man named Joe who is "carving for Christ" such godly objects as Bigfoot, the legendary yeti-like creature said to inhabit the redwoods.

Next stop was Arcata, a pretty enough town where we spent the night propping up the bar and sampling the local "red beer" – beer with tomato juice added and as disgusting as it sounds. The following morning, with a redwood-sized hangover, we headed for the state border into Oregon via Crescent City, whose downtown area was wiped out by a giant tidal wave in 1964.

With one eye on the enormous rollers breaking out at sea, we sped to Bandon, home to the cranberry, the second biggest cheese factory in Oregon and a handful of hippies who are convinced the village lies on a ley-line between the Bering Sea and the Bahamas, making it one of the earth's "acupuncture points". Bandon is a very relaxing village, made only slightly less so by the signs indicating a " tsunami evacuation route".

After two days' hiking amid the impossibly high dunes, we took off for Newport, the nicest and most interesting town on the Oregon coast, which offers a great harbour, whale-watching trips, mile upon mile of unspoilt beaches and a very strange hotel. Each of the 20 rooms in the Sylvia Beach Hotel is dedicated to a favourite author of the owner. Best is the Edgar Allan Poe room, with obligatory stuffed ravens and a pendulum blade above the bed that swings back and forth as you sleep. Very scary.

We stayed three nights in Newport, going whale-watching from Depoe Bay, which claims to be the world's tiniest harbour. The water was so rough – the wind just below gale force – that most people on the boat were ill. The ride was worth it, however, because we lucky enough to see killer whales speeding across our bows. Northbound from Newport, the coast seems tamer and the resorts tackier.

We headed inland, the first time in about 600 miles, and made for Portland, the city that, according to most polls, Americans most want to live in. It's a pleasant, low-key town, straddling the river Colombia and makes an ideal base from which to make day trips to Mount Hood, which dominates the view from the city when clouds are not obscuring it, and to Mount St Helens, across the border in Washington State. Neither should be missed. Mount Hood is home to Timberline Lodge – that hotel in The Shining – although the day we tried to visit it was cut off by snow.

The next day we drove the 100 miles or so north to Mount St Helens. "You are now entering the blast zone," reads the sign and sure enough all around you remain the over-turned trees, like matchsticks, scattered by the force of a volcanic eruption and mudslide. We drove beyond the snow line to the end of the road and a vantage point from the purpose-built observatory, which opens from May to September and marks the 1980 eruption with a free day every May. The views were staggering, the wind howling and cutting into our faces. We looked hard at the mountain, trying to imagine it with its top back on, returned to our car and skidded back down the mountain.

Oregon is divided between people who like to hug trees and people who like to chop them down. I never met so many herbalists as I did there and nor did I ever see so many huge, gas-guzzling cars. It's earthier and more rugged than California: wetter, colder, less sophisticated and less refined. People drink beer, not wine. and they wear lumberjack shirts without irony.

But just as we were thinking Portland was nice but dull after many miles of adventures, we stumbled across the mad-as-a-hatter Church of Elvis, which will arrange marriages replete with serenades from Portland's very own Elvis impersonator. The Church of Elvis is as odd as it gets – the creation of a likeable but barmy performance artist called Stephanie G Pierce. When we gave up our trusty car at the airport we were smiling still.

GETTING THERE

Trailfinders (tel: 020 7937 5400; www.trailfinders.com) offers return flights to San Francisco from £329.

GETTING AROUND

For car hire contact National Car Rental (tel: 0800 600 6666). Hire costs from £367 per week or £77 per day.

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