For lovers of literature, the Northern California landscape reads like a book, its pages filled with some of the most celebrated authors in modern history. Literary giants from Mark Twain to Jack London to Maya Angelou have found inspiration among the soaring redwoods of the Pacific Coast, in the cafés and saloons of San Francisco and Oakland, and in the Gold Rush boomtowns of the eastern Sierra Nevadas.
True to literary form, this road trip, which begins in Big Sur along the celebrated Pacific Coast Highway and ends in the eastern Sierras just beyond Yosemite National Park, is as much about the journey as it is about the destinations. Follow in the footsteps of John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Amy Tan, and other memorable writers on this 12-stop pilgrimage through Northern California.
Henry Miller Library
When Henry Miller moved to Big Sur in 1944, his magnum opus, the Tropic of Cancer, was banned for sale in the United States for its explicit sexuality. But the contraband book and the man who wrote it drew praise from artists and writers anyway, many of whom began to congregate, at least temporarily, in the rustic, free-spirited community springing to life on the rugged coast.
Miller was right at home in Big Sur. He was still writing from his cabin on a slope above Partington Canyon when, in 1962, Jack Kerouac published Big Sur, a fictionalized account of his own search for solace along this magnificent strip of rugged California coastline.
Some things have changed in Big Sur since those days, but at its core, the area remains an outpost for free thought and beauty epitomized by local institutions like Esalen, a center of learning driven by humanist ideals. Miller, too, remains a giant among the redwoods. His work and life are memorialized at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which hosts intimate music and literary events throughout the year.
North of Big Sur, the craggy coast beneath Highway 1 settles into undulating dunes opening into Monterey Bay and its National Marine Sanctuary. The city of Monterey isn’t the most beautiful town on the coast, not by a long shot, and in Steinbeck’s day it quite literally stank. A hub for canning sardines and other fish, the 1945 novel Cannery Row brings to life the putrid street that shared its name.
When the canning industry declined in the 1950s, Monterey cleaned up the port, eventually turning it into a sort of hokey homage to its industrial days. The stench is certainly gone, but fish themselves still hold a place of honor on the Row’s western edge at the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Mile 147 (121 miles)
San Francisco’s historic Italian neighborhood of North Beach is a literary hub. And at the hub of the hub is Caffe Trieste, an espresso house that first opened its doors in 1956. Trieste quickly became a meeting place for the Beat Generation’s literary heavyweights.
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, and other bohemian artists and thinkers whiled away hundreds of hours between these four walls. (Also notable: A quarter century after its doors opened, Francis Ford Coppola puzzled out the screenplay for The Godfather from its mosaic-inlaid tables.) Espresso and pastries are still served daily at Trieste, and on Saturdays, musicians take the stage, as they have since 1971.
City Lights Bookstore
Mile 147 (1.5 blocks)
It’s only a few short blocks down Columbus Avenue from Caffe Trieste to one of the country’s most famous literary landmarks, City Lights Books, an independent shop and publishing company founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953. The rambling bookstore, with its creaky wooden floors and tightly packed shelves, is a labyrinth of literature, poetry, and nonfiction that once served as a beacon for touring beatniks. Next door, across Jack Kerouac Alley (which was officially dedicated to the writer in 2007), the quirky, memorabilia-rich Vesuvio Cafe has been slinging cocktails to literary types for more than 70 years.
The First Chinese Baptist Church
Mile 147 (5 blocks)
Walk west into Chinatown and down Waverly Place, the colorful “Street of Painted Balconies,” toward the First Chinese Baptist Church. Founded in 1880, a period heavy with anti-Chinese racism, this mission developed over the years into the beating heart of San Francisco’s Christian Chinese community. That’s why San Francisco writer Amy Tan opened her 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club on its doorstep.
After almost 150 years, this unassuming brick building in Chinatown still houses a bilingual English and Cantonese congregation of more than 500 people. Through the Dragon Gate, walk toward Ellis Street for a meal at John’s Grill, the historic haunt made famous by Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon.
The Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround and the Cable Car Museum
Mile 148 (10 blocks)
Decades before Maya Angelou earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination, a Tony Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and more than 50 honorary degrees, she was already making waves.
At the age of 16, the future writer became the first black woman conductor of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. From John’s Grill, walk half a block to the Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround and grab a seat on the ride with the best views in town ($6/one-way, $14 all-day). On your return, stop off at the Cable Car Museum on Mason and Washington Streets to get a look at the impressive collection of transportation memorabilia and three antique cars that date to the 1870s.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park
Mile 180 (32 miles)
Back in the car, travel west toward 19th Avenue and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. There are faster routes, but only this one passes through the eucalyptus groves and green spaces of Golden Gate Park, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. It’s good preparation for the next stop in Marin’s Samuel P. Taylor State Park, itself a spectacular sidebar on an eastward route toward the Sierra Nevadas.
A fairy-tale land of giant redwoods, Samuel P. Taylor park is where Chilean writer Isabel Allende goes to unwind with walks along its shaded trails. The majestic trees periodically find their way into Allende’s work, including her 2008 memoir The Sum of Our Days.
Mile 220 (40 miles)
Forest-bathing complete, head back across the bay on the Richmond Bridge bound for Oakland. Many literary giants have grown up or spent time in the East Bay’s urban corridor—Maya Angelou, Michael Chabon, Philip K. Dick, Ishmael Reed, June Jordan—and the serene jewel at its center, Lake Merritt, has not gone unnoticed in their work.
Alice Walker, activist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the 1982 novel The Color Purple, found her way here, too. In her 2018 book of poetry, Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, the poem “Loving Oakland” pays homage to Walker’s adopted home and the shimmering waters at its core. Sit for a spell or stroll through the Japanese Gardens on Merritt’s shores, but before leaving, pick up three pieces of garbage—it’s what Walker does every day.
Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon
Mile 221 (1.5 miles)
Jack London looms large in Oakland. They’ve even named a neighborhood after him, Jack London Square, on the bank of the Inner Harbor about 1.5 miles west of Lake Merritt. And no wonder: Beginning in high school, Jack London was a regular fixture in the harborside Heinhold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a feisty bar frequented by sailors and adventurers. It was here, in the potbelly stove–warmed pub, that London first met Alexander McLean, a nefarious sea captain on whom he based his protagonist Wolf Larsen in the 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf.
Heinhold’s, too, made its way into London’s writing. In the autobiographical John Barleycorn, he mentions the saloon 17 times. Today, Heinold’s First and Last Chance looks much like it did in London’s day. The tables, bar, music box, and other details are all original, and it’s one of the last establishments in California to still use gas lighting.
Mile 349 (128 miles)
Go east. East toward Stockton and the Central Valley, east toward Gold Rush Country at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, east to the tiny town of Angels Camp. At least one literary genius, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize–winning Native American author of There There, Tommy Orange, calls Angels Camp home.
But the identity of this charming town, with a Main Street lined in false-front mercantiles and a historical park that’s home to one of the country’s largest collections of carriages and wagons, is also tied up with a storyteller long gone but never forgotten: Mark Twain. Some might argue Twain owes his success to Angels Camp. Drinking one night at the saloon at the Angels Hotel, the bard overheard a tale about trained jumping frogs.
The story went on to be the basis of his first nationally successful short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Those frogs are still jumping today at the annual Frog Jumping Jubilee, the oldest continuously operating county fair in the state (held annually the third weekend in May). Twain lives on in Angels Camp, too, on the Mark Twain History Trail and at the Mark Twain Wild West Fest in October.
Hetch Hetchy Valley
Yosemite National Park
Mile 427 (78 miles)
Drive south from Angels Camp toward the emerging granite landscape thick with pine and birch, which naturalist and writer John Muir memorialized in many of his works. Muir spent a summer living in the valley that would become Yosemite National Park, writing about the experience in 1911’s My First Summer in the Sierra. But more memorable for Muir was a second valley nearby, the Hetch Hetchy, a spectacular place that Muir believed was “one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mansions.” So when San Francisco came up with a plan in the early 20th century to convert the Hetch Hetchy basin into a reservoir to supply the city with drinking water, he fought hard to save it.
After years of outcry, however, the battle was ultimately lost. The valley was flooded in 1923, and it continues to provide San Francisco with 80 percent of its water through a 160-mile pipeline. While Hetch Hetchy’s most stunning views were drowned long ago, trails that sidle along the reservoir reveal what remains of its beauty.
Mono Lake and Bodie
Mile 511 (84 miles)
Through the high country of Yosemite National Park, past pristine alpine lakes and granite behemoths that cast shadows on the road, Mono Lake glints blue in what Mark Twain once called a “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert . . . the loneliest place on earth.”
Indeed, Mono Lake is a bizarre anomaly in the eastern Sierras, a body of water so salty that the only species that can survive beneath its surface are brine shrimp and a handful of nematodes. Tufa, salt-formed hoodoos, rise up in stacks from the shallow water like the stalks of alien eyes. By Twain’s own account in his 1872 travel biography Roughing It, the young writer-adventurer despised his time on Mono Lake. It didn’t help that his boat capsized there in an unexpected storm.
No, Twain was not a fan of the strangely beautiful Mono. He preferred the saloons of Bodie, a Gold Rush town a few miles to the north which, in Twain’s day, would have been a raucous, roiling hornet’s nest of gold fever. Bodie is still around, but it’s been decades since the last drink was served. The former boomtown is now one of the best preserved ghost towns in the country.