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Leaves do change color on the Central Coast, you just have to wait until December

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Winter on the Central Coast is when things actually start to chill out a little bit—not that you would know it this year, because one of the most gigantic fires in California history is raging to the south of us.

Ash is fluttering from the sky, coating cars, and dusting jackets (but only in the morning, because it's too hot to wear one during the day). You know what else is gently making its way to the ground? Leaves. Yes, it's almost Christmas and the leaves here are still changing colors.

PHOTOGRAPH THIS The Bixby Creek Bridge on Highway 1 is one of the most iconic bridges in California. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • PHOTOGRAPH THIS The Bixby Creek Bridge on Highway 1 is one of the most iconic bridges in California.

Nacimiento-Fergusson Road is full of that rainbow. Yellows, oranges, reds, greens, and browns pop around every curvaceous bend in the road, floating in the Nacimiento River and mirrored in its low flow. It's really a great drive on any day as long as the road's not wet. And if you can take it—if you don't mind the length, the curves, the dips, the bends—all the way to the top, the coastline stretches for miles on the other side.

I was on my way back from Monterey when I stumbled into the rainbow. Because of all the mudslides, it had been almost a year since I'd driven through Big Sur on my way to anywhere. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was fixed in September, reconnecting the coastal getaway to the rest of California, so I decided to take my sweet time heading back to San Luis Obispo.

FALL IN WINTER You can gaze at colorful leaves along the Nacimiento River in December. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • FALL IN WINTER You can gaze at colorful leaves along the Nacimiento River in December.

Apparently, everyone else in the world also decided this was the thing to do. Highway 1 was packed and so were all my usual places to stop and take the dog to the beach, such as Garrapata State Park. Monterey County Search and Rescue was performing a rescue at the Bixby Bridge (also known as one of the most photographed bridges in California). They had the road partially blocked off on the north end of the bridge, and straps ran from fire engines down into the steep canyon beneath the iconic landmark.

The teal shade of ocean that signifies the shallows melted into that azure color of the deep, and a lone umbrella was posted up on the nearly deserted beach below. How they got down there, I have no idea. I scanned the horizon for whales and the sky for condors, annoyed at the idiots driving in front of me yet satisfied. Windows down with the salty breeze flowing through my powder blue Toyota, my lean mean machine hugged the curves like it was sitting in traffic.

Note: If you're going to make this drive, you definitely shouldn't be in a hurry.

Finally, though, we found our beach in the Pacific Valley. We found a few, actually. The valley is a stretch of chaparral that runs from the highway to the ocean with half a dozen coves tucked beneath rocky cliffs, soft sand, gigantic boulders, and ticks. There are always ticks. No matter the time of year or how dry the vegetation is, those disgusting critters lie in wait on tiny branches from the ocean up into the hills on the other side of the road. But when you get down to the beaches, it could be just you, the boulders, and the sea. So, really, who cares if you have to pull some ticks off your pet (and yourself) when you get back to your car?

TICK HEAVEN Brave the short jaunt through tick-infested chaparral to get to one of the Pacific Valley's isolated beaches. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • TICK HEAVEN Brave the short jaunt through tick-infested chaparral to get to one of the Pacific Valley's isolated beaches.

A few miles south of Pacific Valley lies the Mud Creek mudslide, so Nacimiento-Fergusson Road is currently the only way between Highway 101 and Highway 1, unless you want to drive all the way back up to Monterey. The road climbs into the Santa Lucia Range with the coast in sight most of the way up. Almost as soon as I started the descent, the trees were already showing me their fall (winter) brilliance.

I gasped. Because it was 70 degrees, I had forgotten that the seasons do eventually change here. Sycamore, alder, and cottonwood trees lined the road, whose bends shadowed those of the river. I slowed way down, looking for a good spot to pull over and explore. Luckily, there are many. The only issue might be how to choose the "right" one. There are a couple of official campgrounds, places to fish, and also a few unofficial camping spots along the river.

I chose one of those unofficial spots and rock-hopped along the water, watched fallen leaves pool together in spots damned up by rocks, stared at colorful reflections, and took some deep breaths. Δ

Editor Camillia Lanham changes with the seasons at clanham@newtimesslo.com.


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