My 1,700-Mile, Black and White Adventure in a 2019 Porsche Cayenne S

An unforgettable road trip to the Northern California coast.

Chris NelsonWriter, Photographer

We had pulled off U.S. Route 395 in the small town of Independence, followed a road into the undistinguishable mountains of Inyo National Forest, and parked in a gravel pull-out. There, we folded down the rear seats of the 2019 Porsche Cayenne S we were driving, unrolled our Nemo sleeping bags, and drifted into dreams as the faint outline of the Milky Way beamed in through the panoramic sunroof. Why did we decide to sleep in the third-generation Cayenne? Mainly because we didn't want to spend money on a motel room. But we also couldn't pass up the absurd opportunity to camp inside of a Porsche.

The next morning as dawn leaked through the leather-lined cabin, we awoke from our fitful slumber and opened the hatch of the Cayenne S. My girlfriend Mallory wiggled from her sleeping bag and said, "I've got too many bony prominences to sleep in this car." Probably wasn't the greatest idea in hindsight.

We had stopped at the base of Onion Valley Road, a 13-mile stretch of writhing pavement that rises more than 5,000 feet in elevation and is best described as a punishing series of switchbacks. Time for some fun. I popped the Cayenne into Sport+ mode, switched over to manual control of its eight-speed automatic transmission, and drove up the road like a starved fox chasing a plump hare.

According to Porsche, the Cayenne S can crack 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, and its 434-horsepower, twin-turbo 2.9-liter V-6 delivered smooth and intoxicating power as we climbed through the Sierras. Mallory squirmed every time the exhaust cracked between upshifts, or when I stood on the brakes and the Cayenne lurched forward just enough to toss our stomachs and turn our knuckles white. No matter how aggressively I drove, the Porsche remained unfazed. I might've pushed harder had I not been so distracted by the majestic waterfalls running between lodgepole pines then spilling down granite mountain faces.

We slowly rolled back down the road to let the brakes cool before rejoining the highway north toward Mono Lake, a 760,000-year-old saline soda lake that acts a rest stop for more than two million migratory birds. A few miles north, I found a narrow dirt road leading to a deserted reservoir, where I adjusted the Cayenne's air suspension to its highest setting, selected the Gravel off-road drive mode, and proceeded to slide the SUV sideways along the rocky gravel shoreline—much to Mallory's chagrin.

We stopped for lunch at a picnic area along the West Walker River, where we watched Steller's jays fly between gnarled tree branches. When we got back into the Cayenne, we cranked its 15-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system so loud we couldn't hear ourselves as we sang along to Styx's "Come Sail Away" and "In The End" by Linkin Park. We laughed until our bellies ached as we made our way toward Reno.

An hour south of The Biggest Little City in the World in a town called Gardnerville, the police had blocked off the highway because there was a wicked car crash that had caused a sedan to flip and land on its roof. I brought up the Cayenne's navigation, pinched my fingers on the 12.3-inch display in search of an alternate route, and noticed that Lake Tahoe was only an hour away. So we bailed on Reno and diverted west along Nevada State Route 207, which steadily climbs to the lip of the bowl that Lake Tahoe sits at the bottom of then precipitously drops off as you drive into town. We decided to pay in impromptu visit to Mallory's college roommate, Kevin, a geologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who lives with his parents in South Lake Tahoe when he isn't trapping bats, tagging deer, or camping at an alpine hot spring.

Kevin showed me his camping rig, a 220,000-mile Toyota Tacoma SR5, and introduced me to his lovely parents, who invited us to use their guest room for the night. We rode bicycles along dirt paths through the woods, ate dinner at a tap house, and then went to Steamers Bar & Grill, where we threw back shots of Maker's Mark and mini-pitchers of beer while Kev and Mal reminisced. The next morning, we drove to North Lake Tahoe to float the Truckee River in blow-up tubes we bought at a grocery store and later scraped our asses on huge rocks as we passed through the rapids just before the tuber's exit. Afterward, we hugged Kevin goodbye and started the four-hour drive west to visit Mal's parents in Fairfield, California.

With Mallory asleep in the passenger seat, I stared out the windshield at a roller coaster of headlights going up and down the steeply graded highway and pondered how much I've enjoyed the all-new Cayenne. I thought back to when Porsche's first-ever SUV debuted, how it impressed the hell out of me, how I didn't want to like it as much as I did. The third-generation, 2019 Porsche Cayenne is more handsome, capable, and refined. It hauls like an SUV should and handles as well as most sports cars, if not better. I honestly couldn't muster even one moan about the Cayenne.

After staying the night with the parents in Fairfield, we ate a delightful home-cooked breakfast of fried eggs and Bisquick biscuits. Before we left, I lied to Mrs. Emerson when she asked if her daughter and I "got up to any shenanigans" in the guest bedroom. We drove north through the Russian River Valley and stopped at an antique store in Duncan Mills, where we bought a trippy painting of an eagle from an equally trippy young man. Later, we toured a flea market where we found a bamboo end table and a butter dish shaped like a wild boar. We bought sandwiches from a small roadside store and pulled into the weeds on the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway so we could picnic from the Porsche's tailgate.

When we spotted the spray of whale spouts out in the ocean's misty distance, Mallory's rust and seaweed eyes lit up; she loves whales—all cetaceans, really. We followed a pod of humpbacks along the coast into Mendocino County and the bewitchingly adorable town of Mendocino. We walked out to its coastal headlands, and under a serape blanket we watched a pink sunset dip below the waves. In nearby Fort Bragg we stopped for dinner at a harbor restaurant called Silver's and—fat with steak and lobster and thickly breaded calamari—I blearily drove along Route 20 until we found a disused logging road where we could "camp" again for the night.

Mallory reorganized our luggage and antiques while I emptied my lungs into our sleeping pads, which we regretted not using the first night we slept in the Porsche. Mallory and I are both very lanky, so we appreciated that third-generation Cayenne is 2.4 inches longer than its predecessor, and that it offers up to 60 cubic feet of cargo space, which was just enough for our long bodies if we rested our feet on the front center console. I again fell asleep looking through the glass roof at the burning stars, and woke up to the sound of tires on gravel and a spotlight beaming through our windshield. The police officer was young and friendly, and he told us they were looking for a man and a woman who had ditched their car during a pursuit. He said he didn't mind us camping on the road, and proceeded to ask us if the Porsche was an all-new model. He laughed at our overcrowded interior, and said we looked like a couple of "pack rats."

The next morning, we drove back into Mendocino for breakfast burritos. The day that unfolded from there was a series of perfect moments, one after another. We went tidepooling at MacKerricher State Park, watched baseball at the bar at North Coast Brewery, played with fur pelts at the Noyo Center for Marine Science, skipped stones at Van Damme State Park, and ate a romantic dinner at Wild Fish. Later, we rented a hobbit-like cabin at the eccentric Howard Creek Ranch Inn, where Mallory filled our hot tub and opened a bottle of wine as I turned on some music and grooved out. In the morning we ate breakfast in the main house with some intolerably intolerant people and—for nearly two hours—listened to the ranch patriarch Sunny tell us how Von Dutch pinstriped his motorcycle's fuel tank in exchange for a bottle of wine, how his Lockheed engineer father brought home buckets of aircraft-quality bolts picked out of the trash at work, and how we needed to visit his website, www.liftsaucer.com.

We left the ranch and drove south on the Pacific Coast Highway—known as one of the most beautiful roads in the world. A two-lane reverie with rises, dips, blind corners, and long, open straightaways, PCH can most definitely be enjoyed at its 55-mph speed limit, as long as you absolutely disregard the signs before turns that suggest slowing to 20 mph. Simply put, the 2019 Porsche Cayenne S is a big-boned, plus-sized sports car, and as such its steering is beautifully weighted and perfectly fluid, thanks in part to a new multilink front suspension. I told Mallory I look forward to meeting the witches at Stuttgart, because no SUV should turn in with so little drama. Our Cayenne also came with an option that has never before been offered on the model: rear-axle steering ($1,620), which allows the rear wheels to move and angle up to three degrees. I wish I noticed a difference but didn't, spellbound as I was by the coastal road. I probably would've driven along the water all the way back to Los Angeles had I not gotten annoyed with stops for road construction and slow-moving RVs.

We cut inland to U.S. 101, which runs as far south as Ventura, but stopped short to spend the night in San Luis Obispo. We drove almost six hours before pulling over, and only then because our bladders got full before the Cayenne's 23.7-gallon fuel tank went empty. When we arrived in SLO, we ate alone on the heated patio of a restaurant at the swankiest hotel in town, and then walked two blocks where we rented a cheap, charmingly creepy room at a Victorian-era inn. After our morning shenanigans, we visited one of the all-time best sandwich shops anywhere—High Street Deli—then got back on the highway, knowing we'd arrive in L.A. just in time to enjoy 5 p.m. gridlock.

After six days and almost 1,700 miles, we returned home in our bug-splattered Cayenne. I emptied our many bags, antiques, and miscellanies—reminders of the fun we had on our haphazardly planned road trip to Northern California, which wouldn't have been nearly as fun or as comfortable had we not done it in a 2019 Porsche Cayenne S. I asked Mal if she felt sore at all, and she said she didn't, then smiled and asked when we'd be buying a Cayenne of our own. "If only I could I afford it," I said. "But we can sleep in it again if you want." She turned and walked into the house without a word.

2019 Porsche Cayenne S Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $84,150/$101,660 (base/as-tested)
ENGINE 2.9L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6; 434 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 406 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 18/23 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 193.6 x 86.3 x 66.7 in
WHEELBASE 113.9 in
WEIGHT 4,454 lb
0-60 MPH 4.6 sec
TOP SPEED 164 mph
Related Articles