On Christmas Eve, 1769, 60 tired members of the Portola Expedition dropped their gear and camped along the banks of Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria.
The Spaniards were cold, wet and hungry — some had even resorted to eating their mules— after traveling from San Diego to Monterey, scouting the coast for the construction of future missions. Then, as they gathered for an evening mass, a group of strangers approached with a treasured gift: food.
They also offered a grizzly cub, but the Spaniards decided to stick with fish and baskets of flour.
In return, the grateful Spaniards offered their Chumash Indian friends beads, which, official recorder Father Juan Crespi noted, “pleased them greatly.”
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The peaceful encounter made the county’s first Christmas Eve a memorable one. But today that location, near what is now Coast Union High School, is probably better known for its scenes in the 1990 creepy crawler movie “Arachnophobia.”
Still, it’s as scenic as it was when Father Crespi observed the “mountainous region covered with pine and a canyon of great depth.” And because it’s a favorite among Sunday drivers, photographer Joe Johnston and I decided to travel Santa Rosa Creek Road for our latest local day trip.
The road, which recently underwent a monthlong construction project, represents a relatively short jaunt — about 15 miles — though you’ll want to take the curvy, narrow thoroughfare slowly. And you can make it longer by connecting to Old Creek Road, which will eventually loop you back to the coast in Cayucos. Some Sunday drivers even start in Cayucos and finish in Cambria. But Joe and I had decided we wanted to surf San Simeon in the early morning — before the wind kicked up so we started up north, which meant we would hit Santa Rosa Creek Road from downtown Cambria.
While in Cambria, you might as well take time to peruse some of the town’s art galleries or stop for a bite at one of its many restaurants. When you’re done, you’ll head east, where travelers with canines can stop at Cambria Dog Park, near Scott Rock. The rock — a 200-foot favorite among rock climbers — was named after Greenup Scott, whose family owned a ranch there around the Civil War.
Soon after Scott Rock, you’ll come to Coast Union High School, not far from where Captain Gaspar de Portola and his men camped out before the Revolutionary War. In “Arachnophobia,” the name of the town was changed to Canaima, but Coast Union kept its name. In fact, the football team got a nice nod in the film, as did Santa Rosa Creek Road, featured in a driving sequence early on.
Given its scenic beauty, this road makes for good film, which is why it’s also occasionally used in car commercials. Its winding, hilly quality also makes it achallenge for bicyclists. In fact, it was planned for a stretch in the recent Amgen Tour of California bike race, but a landslide on Highway 1 forced a last-minute rerouting of the event’s 144-mile fifth stage.
While there aren’t a lot of official landmarks on this road, there are lots of great visuals. Not far from Scott Rock, a field full of hay bales seemed to cry for a plein air painter’s attention. Also, there are some spectacular Victorian homes here — part of the lure that brought filmmakers to town — along with numerous, picturesque old barns.
In the first five miles, we passed through a tree-shaded canyon before arriving at Linn’s Fruit Bin. In the 1970s, John and Renee Linn dropped everything and moved from Denver to Cambria. While they had a lot to learn about farming, they did so quickly and scored big-time with their olallieberry pies.
They still grow olallieberries — a cross between blackberries and raspberries — at this location, which is mostly a place to buy pies. (They also run a restaurant in town.) As we walked toward the entrance, a peacock named Randy greeted us. The full-feathered bird, we were told, likes to eat pies himself.
Linn’s is a quiet and cozy place to take in a nice summer day. And there’s plenty of good treats here to help you pass the time. I left with three mini-pies and a jar of olallieberry jam, and we resumed our trip.
Almost immediately after Linn’s, the road gets narrow and winding as it follows Santa Rosa Creek through another canyon. There are many big boulders in the creek, but I wouldn’t recommend straying off the road for photos. For one thing, there’s not a lot of room to pull over. Also, the road is lined with poison oak.
As the road climbs steeply, you’ll understand why some bicyclists refer to it as The Wall. Yet, as you approach the top, the payoff comes in the form of terrific views near the intersection of Santa Rosa Creek and Cypress Mountain Road. Further toward the top, near Sky Ranch, we saw large patches of yellow wildflowers that encouraged Joe to take a few panoramic photos.
About five miles from there, the road ends at the Dellaganna Ranch and its many old barns. Once you cross Highway 46, Santa Rosa Creek Road turns into Old Creek Road and takes you back toward the coast, your last main attractions being Whale Rock Reservoir and the Pacific Ocean.
When our road trip was complete, we headed south toward San Luis Obispo, where the Spaniards built a mission three years after Captain Portola and his men stopped in Cambria.
Nearly 220 years later, San Luis Obispo stole Cambria’s thunder again, when it hosted the local “Arachnophobia” premiere at the Fremont Theatre.