The Best Driving Roads in California and Beyond

Once, my cousin and I debated the joys of driving a convertible. I described my 2003 Mazda Miata Shinsen Edition, as a daily delight with its peppy engine and open-top freedom. He questioned the practicality in a bustling city, so I shared nearby destinations where a convertible shines. This led me to realize the abundance of fantastic driving roads in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Lake Tahoe Region. Some are famous, others hidden gems. Presenting my list of the Best Driving Roads in California and Beyond!

California State Route 1: The Pacific Coast Highway

Photo by Cristofer Maximilian. He almost died taking this by the way.

Embark on California’s legendary Pacific Coast Highway, a scenic route captivating travelers with its breathtaking vistas and charming towns. Immerse yourself in the natural beauty, from serene Half Moon Bay to vibrant Santa Cruz with its iconic beach boardwalk. Explore Monterey’s history and Carmel’s charm before marveling at Big Sur’s rugged cliffs and landmarks.

With a rich history dating back to the early 20th century, the Pacific Coast Highway has become an iconic roadway. Originally envisioned as a means to connect remote communities, it evolved into a legendary route for adventure-seekers and nature enthusiasts. This highway weaves a mesmerizing tapestry of coastal wonders, inviting travelers to experience its unparalleled beauty.

As you journey along the Pacific Coast Highway, envision the early days when the road was built to connect isolated towns and facilitate trade. Witness the influence of the automobile era, which brought the highway to life as a scenic drive and popular tourist destination. Today, it stands as a testament to human ingenuity and a cherished symbol of California’s coastal heritage. This makes The Pacific Coast Highway one of the best driving roads in California.

California State Route 35: Skyline Boulevard

Photo by Nathan Barteau.

Take a drive along Skyline Boulevard, California State Route 35, winding through the stunning Santa Cruz Mountains. This legendary route offers panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay Area. With a rich history rooted in the region’s development, Skyline Boulevard has become a beloved destination. It combines thrilling driving with opportunities to connect with nature and witness the area’s beauty.

Make sure to stop at the vista points along the way for unparalleled views of the Bay Area. Explore the hiking trails that weave through the Santa Cruz Mountains, immersing yourself in the tranquility of the forests. Fasten your seatbelt and set out on an unforgettable adventure along Skyline Boulevard. Experience breathtaking vistas, hidden trails, and the rich history and natural splendor of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Of course, you can’t visit Skyline Boulevard without visiting Alice’s Restaurant! This restaurant is legendary among the car enthusiast community as being the official pit stop after a spirited drive around the surrounding winding roads. You never know what might show up to Alice’s! Once, after driving with a friend, we were passed by an actual Maserati Tipo 61 “Birdcage” race car driving on the public roads! This is just one example of some of the crazy thing you will see along Skyline Boulevard, and makes this a contender for one of the best driving roads in California!

California State Route 152: Hecker Pass

A photo I shot back in 2017 at the Mount Madonna Inn near the top of Hecker Pass!

Undertake an adrenaline-pumping journey along Hecker Pass, California State Route 152. This legendary road winds through the majestic California Redwoods, with its exhilarating banked turns and enchanting scenic beauty. Hecker Pass has a rich history as a vital transportation route, connecting communities and facilitating trade. Today, it offers a thrilling driving experience amidst the captivating beauty of the region.

Marvel at the towering California Redwoods along the route, and stop at scenic viewpoints to capture their grandeur. Explore charming towns like Morgan Hill, known for its culinary scene and wineries. Consider a detour to Mount Madonna County Park for hiking trails and stunning views. Immerse yourself in the beauty, flavors, and history of this remarkable region along Hecker Pass. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, stop at the abandoned Mount Madonna Inn and see if you can encounter the “Lady in White”!

I used Hecker Pass to commute to work when I lived in the region! I would drive daily up and down the Santa Cruz mountains when I commuted to San Jose. It was faster “going the back way” than Route 17 during peak rush hour. Also, it was far more enjoyable. This route is one absolutely one of the best driving roads in California!

Grizzly Peak Boulevard

Photo by Magaly Vasquez MontaƱo. You can just see the Golden Gate Bridge hidden in the fog!

Tackle a scenic drive along Grizzly Peak Boulevard in the Berkeley Hills, offering panoramic vistas of the San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, and city skyline. With roots dating back to the early 20th century, Grizzly Peak Boulevard has become a beloved destination, showcasing the Bay Area’s natural and architectural wonders.

Witness nature’s masterpieces and iconic landmarks as you wind along the road. Stop at viewpoints like the Grizzly Peak Overlook for breathtaking views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Make a detour to Tilden Regional Park, a picturesque escape with meadows, lakes, and eucalyptus groves. Explore trails and visit the charming Little Farm.

Put the top down and immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring beauty of Grizzly Peak Boulevard, where the San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, and city skyline create an unforgettable experience. Discover the historical charm of Tilden Regional Park along the way.

California Historic Highway 49

Launch an expedition along Historic Highway 49, the Mother Lode Highway, winding through the picturesque Sierra Nevada foothills. Named after the “49ers,” the gold seekers of 1849, this route is steeped in California’s history and leads to charming Gold Rush towns. This automatically makes this one of the best driving roads in California.

Stop in Placerville, once known as “Hangtown,” to explore its quaint Main Street and discover antique treasures. Visit Gold Bug Park and Mine to try gold panning and explore an authentic gold mine. Continue to Nevada City, a preserved Gold Rush town with Victorian buildings and unique shops. Don’t miss the oldest theater in California, the Nevada Theatre, and the enchanting “Victorian Christmas” during the holiday season.

Find yourself on an unforgettable adventure along Historic Highway 49, tracing the footsteps of Gold Rush pioneers and immersing yourself in the history and charm of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Discover living museums and create lasting memories along this iconic route.

California State Route 160: The River Road

Unleash your adventurous spirit as you cruise down River Road, also known as California State Route 160. This scenic route traces the majestic Sacramento River, treating you to stunning views of farmlands, vineyards, and the river’s winding path. River Road has a storied past, once serving as a crucial transportation link connecting communities along the Sacramento River. Today, it’s renowned for its natural beauty and showcases the region’s agricultural and viticultural prowess.

Drink in the panoramic vistas along River Road, where fertile farmlands create a captivating tapestry of colors. Pause at vineyards along the way, where you can indulge in wine-tasting experiences amidst breathtaking vineyard backdrops. Discover the charming town of Locke, a preserved Chinese American community, and delve into its intriguing history and culinary delights.

River Road offers a thrilling and unforgettable adventure, loved by enthusiasts like Tom Matano, the creator of the Mazda Miata. So drop your top, downshift, and hit the road to experience the magic of River Road and its hidden gems. Who knows, you might even cross paths with the man himself, enjoying the drive in his own Miata!

The San Joaquin River Delta Loop

Embark on a captivating journey along the Delta Loop, a scenic byway winding through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. This route showcases a stunning tapestry of waterways, offering endless opportunities for boating, fishing, and visual delight. The Delta Loop’s history is intertwined with the region’s agriculture and transportation legacy. The waterways of the delta have long facilitated trade and connection between communities. Today, the loop invites visitors to immerse themselves in the timeless beauty and recreational offerings of this remarkable water wonderland, making the loop one of the best driving roads in California.

Experience the Delta Loop’s natural splendor as you encounter meandering rivers, serene sloughs, and vast wetlands brimming with diverse wildlife. Delight in the interplay of sunlight on the rippling surface, creating a mesmerizing spectacle. Don’t miss the chance to explore the charming town of Walnut Grove, a bastion of small-town charm and agricultural heritage. Wander through its quaint downtown, browse local shops, and savor fresh produce at the farmer’s market.

Let the Delta Loop captivate you with its scenic waterways, inviting towns, and recreational possibilities. Set sail, cast a line, or simply revel in the picturesque views that unfold along this enchanting route. Immerse yourself in the natural splendor and cultural heritage of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive

A photo of the Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive, from AllLakeTahoe.com

Take an unforgettable voyage around Lake Tahoe along Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive. This captivating drive encircles the sparkling blue waters, offering awe-inspiring vistas of the lake, mountains, and charming lakeside towns. The Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive has a rich history as a 19th-century stagecoach route, connecting settlements around the lake. Today, it remains beloved for its access to stunning landscapes and thriving communities along Lake Tahoe’s shores.

Traverse the drive and be thrilled by the breathtaking beauty. Marvel at Lake Tahoe’s crystal-clear waters and vibrant blue hues. Admire the majestic mountains serving as a stunning backdrop. Explore lakeside towns along the route. Enjoy the lively atmosphere of South Lake Tahoe with outdoor activities, casinos, and sandy beaches. Experience the upscale charm of Incline Village, offering boutique shops, fine dining, and pristine beaches.

Venture off the main route to discover hidden gems. Visit Emerald Bay for Vikingsholm Castle and its pristine beauty. Explore the tranquility of Sand Harbor with golden sand beaches and turquoise waters. Relish the awe-inspiring Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive, where crystal-clear waters, majestic mountains, and inviting lakeside towns create an unforgettable adventure. Delight in the beauty, immerse in lakeside communities, and create cherished memories in this iconic destination.

Nevada State Route 431: The Mount Rose Highway

Venturing outside California, let’s go on a dazzling journey along the Mount Rose Highway, starting from the picturesque Incline Village. This scenic route promises awe-inspiring mountain views and provides access to a plethora of hiking trails in the magnificent Mount Rose Wilderness.

The Mount Rose Highway offers an ideal opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the area. Take advantage of the easily accessible hiking trails that await you. Lace-up your boots and venture into the Mount Rose Wilderness, a pristine area that invites outdoor enthusiasts to explore its wonders. Consider challenging yourself with a hike to the summit of Mount Rose itself, where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding valleys.

If you prefer a more leisurely experience, make sure to stop at Mount Rose Meadows. This stunning alpine meadow is a haven for vibrant wildflowers during the summer months. Take the time to bask in the tranquility of nature, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and immerse yourself in the serene beauty of this natural oasis.

Nevada State Route 207: The Kingsbury Grade

Beyond California is the Kingsbury Grade. Also known as Nevada State Route 207, it winds through the picturesque mountain pass connecting the scenic Lake Tahoe Basin with Carson Valley, Nevada. This remarkable road invites you to witness panoramic views of the glistening lake and the breathtaking valleys that surround it.

The Kingsbury Grade holds historical significance as a vital transportation route. It connects the Lake Tahoe Basin and Carson Valley, showcasing engineering marvels. Marvel at the crystal-clear beauty of Lake Tahoe and the majestic backdrop of rugged mountain peaks. Continue through the historic town of Genoa, the oldest settlement in Nevada, and delve into its rich heritage and charming atmosphere. Explore Carson Valley, a picturesque valley dotted with ranches and embraced by the dramatic Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Take your convertible and immerse yourself in the natural beauty of Hope Valley, with its vibrant wildflowers and idyllic landscapes. Finally, reach the summit of Kingsbury Grade and revel in panoramic views that stretch as far as the eye can see. Each stop along this remarkable route promises an unforgettable experience and a glimpse into the diverse wonders of the region.

Conclusion

As expansive as this list is, there are plenty of other roads that can be considered the best driving roads in California, and beyond. Some places are hidden gems only known by the locals and are kept close to the chest. However, this list of roads however is pretty well known by both locals and out-of-towners alike, and are perfect places to take a convertible or even the family minivan out for a spin. I may even follow this list up with some of my own favorite “secret routes” I like to take from time to time! Also, should you ever find yourself in the Sacramento Region while driving on one of these roads, be on the lookout for a certain gray and blue convertible. It might just be me going for a drive!

A photo from one of my “secret routes” that includes Hecker Pass. Maybe I should write about those next?

The Yashica Yashinon DS 50mm F1.9: A pleasant surprise in the world of Nifty-50s

In my last post, I talked about my latest collection of vintage lenses and how well they shoot. I’ve also said that I’m still on the lookout for more vintage lenses! Whenever I find myself in an antique store, I always look for old camera equipment. On a recent trip to Jackson, California, I found myself in one of the local antique shops. Inside one of the glass cases was a collection of vintage lenses that all looked interesting. However, there were two that stood out. One of the lenses I ended up buying was a Yashica Yashinon DS 50mm F1.9, for $15. Little did I know what an interesting lens this is!

In a world filled with all sorts of “Nifty-50” lenses, this lens is somewhat special. The Yashica Yashinon DS 50mm F1.9 has the interesting distinction of being a very good bokeh lens, while still maintaining sharpness across the board. There’s even some swirling in the Bokeh effect! While not as dramatic as the Helios 44-2, this lens wide open almost creates a “halo” of bokeh around your subject. I took the lens out for a quick test run with my Canon Rebel T5i and a Fotodiox M42-EOS adapter. While I had a short amount of time before sunset, I was pleased with the images this lens was producing.

I shot most of my images wide open at F1.9 in order to test out image sharpness. Usually, shooting wide open with a vintage lens isn’t ideal, as you lose sharpness. However, this lens didn’t lose much sharpness at all wide open. It’s even sharper than my Canon FD 50mm F1.8. Well-let scenes came out sharp with a natural contrast, while still retaining that dreamy Bokeh effect. Comparatively, the Canon FD 50mm F1.8 I own almost becomes washed out where it looks like a dream sequence on a soap opera. I imagine that shooting at F2.8 would not only produce much sharper images, but still keep that distinctive Bokeh effect!

The Yashica Yashinon DS 50mm F1.9 also produces images with a slight yellow tint, which I find helpful. Often when I’m shooting with a vintage lens, the colors tend to be on the cooler side. I usually have to adjust the white balance in order to produce an accurate result. Not so with the Yashica! Although some scenes did come out a little too warm, I was still pleased with the results. This lens also works very well as a Black and White photography lens. Black and White images with this lens have great contrast and detail. In addition, the vignetting in color and black and white images feels natural. This makes for both a nice landscape lens, and a great portait lens!

I did notice a few weaknesses of the lens. The focus throw tends to be long, and sometimes sticks. The stickiness might be from the age of the lens however. Also, the lens doesn’t do too well when shooting close to the sun. Images get washed out and the lens flare is massive. I would suggest getting a polarizer and a lens hood when shooting in direct sunlight. I also noticed that there are no half-steps in between apertures. This is a minor nitpick, however.

Despite these minor flaws, the build quality of this lens is very good! While the lens is smaller than my Nikon Nikkor-SC 50mm F1.4, it still feels hefty. The majority of the construction is metal and glass, with a rubberized focus ring. In other words, this is a high quality piece of kit for a really good price! I got really lucky finding this lens for $15! Normally, you can find the Yashica Yashinon DS 50mm F1.9 on Ebay for between $30-$60. Now compare that with some other well-known lenses, and you’ve got yourself a bargain!

While I only just started messing around with this lens, I plan on taking it with me on a later excursion to really test out how it works at higher apertures. I might even take it with me to the next Folsom Cars and Coffee! The possibilities of this impulse-buy lens is exciting. I also mentioned that there were two lenses I looked at. I’m going to have to order yet another adapter in order to use this other lens. But, it was definitely the stranger of the two I picked, so it might be worth it!

Until next time!

Can you shoot an event with just a phone?

Recently, I’ve been asked a question that’s been bugging me for days. I was having coffee with a friend one morning when he started asking questions about photography. Among the questions he asked, the one he stood out the most was “Can a professional photographer get away with using a smartphone?” Could I as a professional photographer, shoot an event with just a phone?

I’m a believer in expertise. I think that regardless of the toolset you use if you have a deep understanding of the processes and techniques used in photography, you can still create stunning photos. It’s not about how good the camera and lenses are, but how good the eyes behind the viewfinder are.

But, could I shoot an event with just a phone? I decided to give it a try!

Caught without a camera

One late summer evening, my friend let me know that there was a small classic car show happening nearby. This was a few days after our conversation, and just after a major event. My camera was basically out of commission as none of the batteries were charged and I still needed to offload photos. Then I thought, “Wait, this could be a chance to test what my phone can do!” This was a chance to test my hypothesis. I grabbed my phone and ran out of the door.

My phone of choice is the LG V30. Back in 2017, the V30 featured one of the best (if not the best) built-in cameras in a field that included the iPhone X and the Samsung S8. I decided to get the V30 because of the camera and its ability to shoot in RAW format. I was always curious if I could get away with using just my phone, so I was excited to finally put the phone to the test of capturing a local car show, in less than ideal lighting conditions. 

Leveraging the phone’s ability to shoot in both RAW and JPG, as well as the ability to modify the viewscreen to show professional-style tools (view grids, histograms, white balance, etc.), I got to work. I utilized all of my regular techniques; like dropping close to the floor for close up shots, pulling in really close for macro photography, and then using the view grid for shot composition. I used my phone as if it was a DSLR camera to make sure I can accurately compare the photo quality to using a DSLR rig.

The results were pretty surprising:

Is the best camera is the one you always have with you?

After processing the photos and making my regular tweaks in Lightroom, the quality of the photos was very surprising! While some images weren’t quite as sharp as I wanted, the majority of my photos were almost indistinguishable from photos shot with a professional photography rig. I think my phone performed better under certain conditions than my camera! So, you can professionally shoot an event with your phone.

This, however, begs the question: should I rely more on my phone camera than my rig? I think the answer is both yes and no. While your phone is an extremely powerful tool that not only allows you to take photos, edit them, and upload them to a microblogging platform, it shouldn’t outright replace your camera and lenses, because a phone camera is more limited in its capabilities. I can’t take my phone behind the fences at Laguna Seca and expect the photos to look the same, can I?

I think the best approach is to use both your camera and your phone in tandem. I’ve often used my phone to shoot photos for my Instagram and used the photos from my camera for my blog. The most recent example of this was when I went to Laguna Seca for the 30th Anniversary Miata Reunion; where the photos from driving on the track were from my phone whereas the gallery photos were from the camera.

In conclusion

In the end, I think the question of shooting events with your smartphone boils down to your skill. There is nothing wrong in my opinion with using your phone as a professional camera for Instagram or blogging. There are set limitations for what a phone camera could do. This is where a dedicated camera will outperform a phone camera.

Until someone makes a phone with interchangeable lenses, I’ll continue using both my phone and my camera. Though, It’s nice to know that I can sometimes leave my camera at home!