When the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat spent some time in the Scout Garage a few months ago, we did not want to let it go…and it's not hard to understand why. The most powerful production muscle car ever made, the aptly named beast might as well have been created deep in the depths of Hades. Just consider the otherworldly stats: 707 horsepower. 650 lb-ft of torque. 3.4 seconds to get from 0 to 60. Of course, along with those numbers comes one that's just as diabolical—the supercharged 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi V8 gets an average of 16 miles per gallon. Low? Sure, but considering that the average price of gas has fallen to $2.66 per gallon, it gave us an idea: Now is the perfect time to take a gas-guzzling Hellcat on a totally unnecessary road trip up the PCH from San Diego to San Francisco. So come take a ride with us, but don't worry—we won't ask you to pitch in at the pump.
San Diego to Los AngelesRoute: I-5 to I-73 to I-405, 130 miles Getting behind the wheel of the Hellcat for the first time is an experience every car lover—nay, every warm-blooded life form—should have at least once. The seats are soft leather, but they hug you like a clingy aunt. The bright red instrumentation—with a speedometer that goes up to 200—serves as a reminder that you didn't get into a Ford Fusion rental by mistake. And when you turn that key (or, more accurately, push that ignition button), the roar is like a pitchfork-wielding lawyer informing you that you’ve just signed a pact with the Devil. The one I’m driving is a six-speed manual (an eight-speed automatic is also available, but what fun is that?), so trust me when I say the first time I pulled up on the clutch and gave her some gas, I did so with the tenderness of a perfectly cooked filet mignon. (I'm not sure that makes any sense, but give me a break…I'm hungry!)
The most notable characteristic of I-5 is how many damn lanes there are. When I first jumped on, it was early in the morning and the highway was virtually traffic free. I stomped on the gas in second gear, turned the wheel slightly to the left, and before I knew it, I was in the far left lane going way faster than the kind people at Chrysler who loaned me the car would like to know. (Suffice it to say, one can get dangerously close to triple digits before having to shift into third.) Exiting the highway was a much less pleasant experience. It felt like I had to cut across about 16 lanes to make it to an exit, and the tradeoff for the Hellcat’s dramatic and imposing looks is a severe lack of visibility. Changing lanes requires a good degree of faith, but thankfully that same aggressive design—and the screaming V8—encouraged fellow drivers to give me room to merge. I made it off with my life, and the car, still fully intact.
As devilishly fun as it is, piloting the Hellcat is a full-time job, so I was very happy to arrive at my destination for the night: the W Los Angeles in Westwood. The valets there are used to seeing all manor of supercar—pulling up I noticed a Maserati and a Lamborghini—but even those jaded souls were excited to get a chance to drive the Hellcat. (Hopefully, just into the parking garage.) See, what the Hellcat lacks in European sophistication, it more than makes up for in good, old-fashioned American badassery. Even though the signage differentiating it from a normal Challenger is minimal—a small roaring cat behind the front wheels and air scoops on the hood—those who know, know. And the gentleman who took the keys from me as I left the Hellcat for the evening? His mischievous smile told me that he knew.
The hotel, which recently underwent a massive renovation of all 297 rooms, was the ideal place to unwind and rest up for the full day of driving ahead of me. The entrance is dramatically lit but totally welcoming, with comfortable yet stylish seating areas in various nooks around what they call, appropriately, the Living Room. A full bar is set up to the left, so I had a much-needed cocktail in my hands as I passed a stunning 12-foot water wall, known as the Oasis, on my way to the room.
One of the sweetest aspects of the hotel is that every room is a suite, so for much less than you’d think, you can pretend to be Vinnie Chase in your own personal episode of Entourage. The outside bar, The Backyard, has a full menu, so I didn’t even need to leave the grounds to get a delicious meal of seared scallops and braised grass-fed short rib. That was a good thing, because the next leg of my journey was only hours away.
Los Angeles to CambriaRoute: US-101 to CA-1, 222 miles After a decadent room-service breakfast involving eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, toast, potatoes, and a smoothie (hey, I was still living the Entourage lifestyle) I said goodbye to the W, retrieved the Hellcat from the valet, and continued my journey north. My next destination was Hearst Castle, the mega-mansion that media magnate William Randolph Heart built in San Simeon State Park, about 200 miles north of L.A. I was psyched to check it out, considering I really only knew it as “Xanadu” from Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ thinly veiled takedown of Hearst. As I sped up the 101 to Route 1 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway aka the PCH), city traffic gave way to a beautiful view of the Pacific on my left-hand side. There’s a reason this stretch of road is considered one of the best routes in the whole country, and it’s not just for the view. The twists and turns are intoxicating, and while one might assume the Hellcat is made only to move forward, it handles more like a lightweight Miata than the well over two-ton monster that it is.
The first thing most Hearst Castle visitors probably think is, “Damn, this guy was rich!” Hearst, who created the largest newspaper, magazine, newsreel and movie business in the world, picked a spot for his lavish home pretty much smack dab in between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was built on a plot of land approximately 250,000 acres along 14 miles of coastline. (See what I mean about the “rich” thing?) Its architecture is a mash-up of styles Hearst noticed on his many trips to Europe, and the building contains 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, and 19 sitting rooms, all chock-full of priceless art and antiques from around the globe. There’s both an indoor and outdoor pool, as well as tennis courts, a movie theater, an airfield, and the world's largest private zoo. I indeed spotted (or is it striped?) several zebras roaming around.
The highlight of the property is supposed to be the outdoor Neptune Pool, which is located on the edge of a hilltop and offers incredible views of the house, the mountains, and the ocean. Thanks to California’s draught issues, however, it was totally drained. Good for any daring local skateboarders, bad for me. No matter—I still had the Hellcat to be in awe of.
Cambria to Big SurRoute: CA-1, 91 miles It’s easy to understand why Big Sur is the spot that Don Draper chose to escape reality in the very last episode of Mad Men; words fail to describe its dramatic beauty. The drive there is at once incredible and terrifying, because at this point the PCH is nothing more than a two-lane road twisting up and down innumerable mountains. The Pacific is just one wrong-turn-off-a-cliff away. The Hellcat handled every maneuver with aplomb, and it was very difficult for me not to let all 707 horses loose on the (very) occasional straightaways. My instinct was to drive quickly not only because, well, it’s damn fun, but also because I had been poring over pictures of my next stop for the night, Glen Oaks Big Sur, ever since I booked the reservation.
Glen Oaks Big Sur is a rustic-modern motor lodge located right in the heart of Big Sur—which, I soon realized, is more of a long stretch of cliff-side land off both sides of Route 1 than a proper town. Its rooms, cabins and cottages stand amidst impossibly tall redwoods, mountain peaks, and a picturesque creek that leads into the Pacific. There’s also a locally sourced restaurant specializing in California cuisine called the Big Sur Roadhouse right on the property. Heaven, I’m home!
Getting back to Mad Men, Glen Oaks Big Sur’s cabins, cottages, and “fireside rooms”—each of which has a fireplace, heated bathroom floors, and, I quickly came to appreciate, no TV—are straight out of a high-end architectural magazine from the 1960s. From the rooms’ pastel color schemes to the retro-looking furniture, it’s impossible not to feel like a modern-day Don Draper while sipping on a local pinot noir by the fire. And don’t worry if you finish that whole bottle; instead of driving to one of Big Sur’s overpriced, underwhelming restaurants (at least according to the Yelp reviews), get way more than you’re paying for at the Big Sur Roadhouse.
Driving the Hellcat builds up an appetite, so I was more than happy to put down Chef Brendan Esons’ grilled lamb chop special, duck confit, homemade hazelnut ice cream for dessert, and, yes, another bottle of pinot noir. (Don’t worry, I had plenty of time to sleep it off before the final leg of my journey.) Altogether, Glen Oaks Big Sur is one of the sweetest spots I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending an evening. (And I have a feeling the Hellcat enjoyed its time in the peace and quiet as well.)
Big Sur to San FranciscoRoute: CA-1 to US-101, 141 miles
Every journey must come to an end—at least that’s what a fortune cookie told me once—and I knew my time with the Hellcat was wrapping up. The final leg of my trip was an inverse, of sorts, to its start. This time, I was leaving desolate roads and the beauty of nature to enter the abject hell of Bay Area rush hour. Managing a car like the Hellcat, with its gobs of power and normally pleasantly heavy clutch, in hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic in a notoriously hilly city is just as fun as it sounds. (My left leg was sore for a week.) But my ultimate destination was special enough to keep me, and the Hellcat, pushing forward…
I like to think that noted gearhead Uncle Jesse would be proud of the spot I chose to finish up my Hemi-powered gas-guzzling road trip. Yes, the colorful Victorian rowhouses known as the “Painted Ladies,” located off Alamo Square Park in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, are indeed shown in the opening credits to Full House. “Whatever happened to predictability?” the theme song asks. When gas is cheap and you’re holding the keys to a Hellcat, predictability is the furthest thing from your mind.