California Coastal Road Trip

Highlights and Tips from our California Coastal Road Trip

Beautiful California Coast

We recently took the scenic route home to Los Angeles from San Francisco, also known as the great California Coastal Road Trip. This trip down Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, affords gorgeous views of California’s scenic beauty, as well as stops at historic sites that emerged during the growth of our great state. You can get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under eight hours if you drive inland, but the coastal drive is full of hills and winding curves, along with plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view. Including one day in San Francisco, we spent three days driving down to Los Angeles, with two overnight stops, so that we could take it all in at our own pace. Here are the highlights from our trip.

Starting Point: San Francisco

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

After an overnight stop and a day in San Francisco, we started our drive towards Monterey. Had weather permitted, we would have drove down on the 1 the entire way, past redwoods, Half Moon Bay, Natural Bridges States Beaches, and Santa Cruz on the way to Monterey. However, with intermittent rain showers throughout the day, we opted to drive inland the first leg.

Monterey

Monterey's Cannery Row

Our first stop was Monterey, staying near Cannery Row. We stopped here this trip mainly to get some rest before the serious driving started the next day, but if you want to do a longer stopover here, there’s a world class aquarium in Monterey and opportunities for whale watching. Cannery Row itself is a bit touristy, but it’s a nice place for a one day stop. The first time we visited Cannery Row, we splurged and stayed at the Spindrift Inn, waking to the sound of crashing waves. We had a fireplace room overlooking the beach. If this fits in your budget, I definitely recommend it. However, this trip we stayed a little off the main drag to save some money, and I think next time we do this drive, we might stay near the next destination on this list.

Sunrise at Lover’s Point Park

Lover's Point Park Sunrise

About a mile from the Cannery Row area is Lover’s Point Park in Pacific Grove. We arrived here early to catch the sunrise and would move in tomorrow if we could. With a large stretch of beach to walk and no touristy vibe, we fell in love with this area and will try staying the night in this area next time. The view here is expansive and you can walk along the beach or out on the rocks on onto the small viewing stations, but with crashing waves every minute or so, you’re bound to get soaked that close to the water. There is a park behind the coastline so you are surrounded by nature. We were surrounded by pelicans and seagulls at various points along our walk through this area. As they fly into the wind, they look like they’re floating, which added to the charm of this area for us.

Lover's point park

Lover's Point Park

17 Mile Drive

Deer in Pacific Grove

The 17 mile drive is a stretch of land in Pacific Grove that offers a range of scenery from beaches to seal and bird rocks to redwoods and cypress trees. The drive runs through Pebble Beach and is also home to a number of golf courses and millionaires. In addition to birds and seals, you can find deer here, running across the path, through the woods or even grazing in the yards of some of the homes. Deer are among my favorite animals so I was thrilled every time I caught a glimpse of one.

Pacific Grove

The Seal Rock Picnic Area is one of the most popular stops for good reason. It is large area with a clear view to this rock covered with seals.

Surfing sea lions in Pacific Grove

The entrance fee to the 17 Mile Drive is 10 USD and you are provided with a map of the best places to view wildlife and scenery. You’d be surprised how many people drove into the parking lot and drove on without exiting the car at this portion of beach, named Cypress Point Lookout on the map. From the car it looked like a fence with a view of the ocean, but once we got out of the car, we found seals sunning on the beach and surfing in the waves. This area is closed in the spring during birthing season.

The Lone Cypress

The Lone Cypress, one of the most iconic sights of the California Coast, is over 200 years old and held in place these days by cables. Having stood up to the elements all these years, here’s hoping the tree makes it to 300 years. It’s worth the stop to see this symbol of Pacific Grove and the 17-Mile Drive.

California Coast

After exiting the 17-Mile Drive, we took this photo along the way to our next stop along Highway 1. This is pretty emblematic of your view as you drive down the coast: waves crashing, ocean rock formations, green grass (much of it with grazing cattle), hills and bends.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge

The Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in California, and it is one of a number of bridges that were completed in the 1930s along the Pacific Coast Highway. The Bixby Bridge was originally built to help connect Big Sur to the rest of California.

 

McWay Falls and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

McWay Falls

Further down the Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur is home to a range of sights, including both beaches and woody forest. McWay falls is an 80 foot waterfall that feeds onto the beach and into the tide in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can not walk on the beach, but there are easy hiking trails winding around the area.

Elephant Seal Viewing

Elephant seals

As you approach San Simeon from the southern tip of Big Sur, you will find a large viewing area for elephant seals. Winter is the time to view them, as they begin mating and birthing on the beach from December through February. Viewing is free and you are very close to sleeping elephant seals. The loud and solo bull seals, as seen below, stay closer to the water, but you still get a good view.

Male elephant seal

Hearst Castle

We stopped at Hearst Castle near the end of our driving day and found all the tours were sold out except the night tours. However, they put us on a waiting list and we managed to join the Upstairs Suites tour, a tour of the guest rooms, including a golden room that was built inside a renovated bell tower. There are a range of tours available at Hearst Castle, and we are working our way through them. The Upstairs Suites is a great tour where you learn how guests of Hearst were treated and lived while they were visiting. I enjoyed seeing some clothes that women wore as part of their 5 different outfits a day that most wore. Included in the tour price is an IMAX movie that dramatizes Hearst’s life from childhood that I enjoyed. I don’t have a photo for this section of the post because Hearst Castle does not permit publishing of photos taken on the grounds without written consent.

Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn

We spent the night in San Luis Obispo, where Highway 1 runs concurrently with the 101 Freeway for a stretch. We stayed at an inexpensive motor inn, but had breakfast at the famous the Madonna Inn, a unique motor hotel with themed rooms, such as the Caveman room, Austrian Suite and Fabulous Fifties room. I have always wanted to stay here, but it has yet to happen. Our breakfast was at their Copper Cafe. Although we had hoped to eat at a copper-top table, we didn’t have reservations so we had to wait for a seat at the copper-top bar. Our meal was very good and we picked up a couple of cookies in the bakery right inside the cafe afterwards for the road.

Solvang

Solvang

Although not on the Pacific Coast Highway, Solvang is a small Danish town north of Santa Barbara that we stopped at on our way home. The town was founded in 1911 by a group of Danish teachers. It is a charming place to see stores built inside windmills and to taste some traditional Danish foods. Particularly good are the ebelskivers, a jam-filled round pancake, and butter cookies you can find at many restaurants and bakeries around town. Solvang is a touristy place, and is quite popular during the holidays with local tourists and out-of-state visitors alike. We didn’t enjoy this time as much as we have past stops here because it was unbelievably crowded right before Christmas, but I do recommend a short stop here if you are doing a Southern California road trip.

Solvang

Although I’ve done this drive and visited many of these spots before, the California Coast never gets old for me. If you haven’t done so yet, I hope I’ve inspired you to visit my beautiful home state.

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Highlights and tips from the scenic California Coastal Road Trip!

Linking up with:

 http://www.travelnotesandbeyond.com/ http://www.packingmysuitcase.com/2016/01/18/monday-escapes-26/

Pierced Wonderings

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60 thoughts on “California Coastal Road Trip

  • January 16, 2016 at 11:14 pm
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    Oh, your blog post brought back so many wonderful memories! We did a very similar trip around 20 years now (ouch!) and stayed in the Spendthrift inn and also the Madonna Inn (which was fab!). We also loved Hearst Castle and went to Solvang. It was one of favourite holidays ever – a real treat. I would love to go back. Fab pictures too! #theweeklypostcard

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    • January 17, 2016 at 11:43 pm
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      Thank you, Sarah! I’m glad to hear the Madonna Inn was good. It’s been on my wish list for so many years. Happy travels!

      Reply
  • January 17, 2016 at 1:40 am
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    We did the same road trip many years ago and it has always been one of my favorites! Beautiful photos – thanks for taking me along!

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    • January 17, 2016 at 11:41 pm
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      Thank you! It is one of my favorites as well.

      Reply
  • January 17, 2016 at 2:00 am
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    Oh my! I think you hit all my favorite places on this trip. I was telling my husband I want to drive around Big Sur again. We have done it once but there is so much to see. I want to stay overnight in the area and do several walks.

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    • January 17, 2016 at 11:40 pm
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      Great minds, Ruth. I was just telling my husband the other day that I want to stay in Big Sur next time and see more. It is so beautiful.

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  • January 17, 2016 at 7:46 am
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    Beautiful photography and it looks like it was an amazing road trip! Ive only been to San Diego in California but I hope to drive up the coast some day!

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    • January 17, 2016 at 11:38 pm
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      Thank you, Shanna. San Diego is great too but hopefully you can drive the coast sometime. It is such a great trip. Thank you for commenting!

      Reply
  • January 17, 2016 at 8:20 am
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    Oh, your photos make me miss the West Coast so much! I love your photo of the seals in the water. They are such cute and playful creatures (when they’re not sleeping). We have never done the 17 mile drive so now we have something to look forward to on our next trip.

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    • January 17, 2016 at 11:37 pm
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      The surfing seals were so fun to watch. I highly recommend the 17 Mile Drive. It is really something special. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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  • January 17, 2016 at 8:32 am
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    What a lovely road trip. We are headed that way next week, but probably won’t have time to stop at all those spots you mentioned. I love the Hearst Castle and visited it many time, but I wasn’t aware of the Madonna Inn. I should check it out. Marvelous picture of the Half Moon Bay!
    Anda recently posted…The Weekly Postcard: The Food Scene at Mercato Centrale in FlorenceMy Profile

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    • January 17, 2016 at 11:34 pm
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      Thank you, Anda. Enjoy your trip!

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    • January 17, 2016 at 11:33 pm
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      Thanks Rob. It is a great trip, and I’m with you. One day I will have to stay at the Madonna Inn.

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  • January 18, 2016 at 1:21 am
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    Sounds like it was a grand road trip. What breathtaking views from Lover’s Point Park. Enjoyed seeing the deer, seals and the Lone Cypress on the 17 Mile Drive, as well as the great shots of the elephant seals and the waterfall on the beach. Your shot of Bixby Bridge and it’s surroundings is stunning. Madonna Inn, Hearst Castle and Solvang all sound like great stopping points along the way. Thanks for sharing some of your home state treasures! Definitely a trip to add to my bucket list.

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    • January 18, 2016 at 1:48 pm
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      Thanks Carleen. I hope you return to Cali someday! We can do the drive together. 🙂

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      • January 19, 2016 at 5:57 am
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        Thanks Karen! I do, too. That would be great! 🙂

        Reply
  • January 18, 2016 at 2:02 am
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    Lucky for you, you seem to have had (mostly) clear weather on this drive. When we visited everything was shrouded in the famous Californian fog – so no vistas! But it provided some different looking photo opportunities, particularly close-ups of wild flower meadows disappearing into the mist.
    Juergen | dare2go recently posted…23 Photos of the Shops & Market in Colourful San TelmoMy Profile

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    • January 18, 2016 at 1:46 pm
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      Ah, that’s a shame, but I know what you mean. One time driving back from San Fran we drove straight into a grey cloud and stayed there for a few hours. Luckily we weren’t on any windy roads at that time. This time we had rain one day, but we were extremely fortunate to have incredibly clear skies on the day with the heaviest driving and best views.

      Reply
  • January 18, 2016 at 2:55 pm
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    Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the standout memories from my childhood travels. I don’t remember exactly what we saw on the 17 mile drive, but I remember just a general happy vibe from doing it. I’d love to do it again, especially since I’ve never been to Hearst Castle.
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    • January 19, 2016 at 5:29 pm
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      Thank you for commenting. Enjoy your trip!

      Reply
  • January 18, 2016 at 7:11 pm
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    This coast is really pristine and beautiful. I went to San Francisco once but we didn’t have the chance to explore the coast a lot.

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    • January 19, 2016 at 5:30 pm
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      It’s a beautiful trip if you can get the weather to cooperate. Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Reply
  • January 18, 2016 at 8:56 pm
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    You’re making me want to go back. We drove it the other way, but started in San Diego. Big Sur is just the most incredibly beautiful place isn’t it.

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    • January 19, 2016 at 5:33 pm
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      Since I’m originally from L.A., I had only driven it South to North before, but I really enjoyed it going South from San Fran this trip. Big Sur is amazing. I can’t believe I didn’t visit it more when I was living only a couple of hours away!

      Reply
  • January 18, 2016 at 11:54 pm
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    There’s such a variety to see along the route! I drove it about 20 years ago but apart from the gorgeous coastal scenery cannot remember much about it. A good reason to come back some day. #Mondayescapes
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    Reply
    • January 19, 2016 at 5:38 pm
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      The variety is one of the things I miss so much about California. It certainly keeps me coming back! Happy travels!

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    • January 19, 2016 at 5:16 pm
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      Thank you! I highly recommend this trip if you have the chance.

      Reply
  • January 19, 2016 at 7:12 am
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    Wow, what an incredible road trip! Roadtripping across the USA is probably my favorite kind of vacation. I’ve never been to California thus far, but maybe I ought to visit my husband’s home state one of these days…

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    • January 19, 2016 at 5:18 pm
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      It’s probably my favorite type of vacation as well. It’s the only type of trip we took growing up so maybe that has something to do with it. I recommend a trip to Cali, but I’m highly biased. 🙂

      Reply
  • January 19, 2016 at 11:05 am
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    What an awesome road trip…we are planning a California trip so this has given me some inspiration! Great to have found you on #mondayescapes

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    • January 19, 2016 at 5:19 pm
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      Thank you! I hope you enjoy your time in Cali.

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    • January 20, 2016 at 3:07 am
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      I really recommend it. It’s a wonderful trip.

      Reply
  • January 20, 2016 at 3:51 am
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    This is exactly the type of road trip I want to do in the States. What a lot to there is to see in just a few days. The wildlife and scenery are stunning. I hope I get to see it myself one day. Thanks for the inspiration #MondayEscapes
    Claire at Tin Box Traveller recently posted…Devon beach walk #1: Strete GateMy Profile

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    • January 20, 2016 at 9:26 pm
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      Thank you Claire! There is so much more you can add onto it too as there’s so much variety. We only had a few days, but we so could have kept going and going if not for work. I hope you get to California someday too. Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Reply
  • January 20, 2016 at 11:55 am
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    This is a great trip and trip report! we have made similar trip but being somewhat uncomfortable with heights were happy to do it from South to North (LA to SF) so that we do not come too close to the road edge.

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    • January 20, 2016 at 9:20 pm
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      Thank you! I totally get that about the edge and it was my first time doing the drive N to S as well. It is a great view, but it can be a bit of a scary drive in places.

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  • January 20, 2016 at 10:10 pm
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    This is such a useful guide to the drive! I wish I had plans to visit soon. I did this trip with a friend about 20 years ago – it’s definitely one of those things you have to do in your lifetime.

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    • January 21, 2016 at 12:16 am
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      Thank you! I hope you had a great time.

      Reply
  • January 21, 2016 at 3:16 am
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    Ah, that looks a great trip and it prompted happy memories of our own trip to San Fran and to Monterey. It’s been too long since I’ve been to the States, that’s the trouble with linkys like this – my list keeps growing 🙂 #mondayescapes

    Reply
  • January 22, 2016 at 2:00 pm
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    I love that drive! I really enjoy the California Coast – not this summer but next, my husband and I are planning a cross-country trip that will heavily feature California.

    Thank you for sharing with us at Photo Friday!
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  • January 28, 2016 at 12:11 am
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    Wow, just amazing. It’s on my bucket list to do this exact drive and I didn’t realise there was so much wildlife to see on the way – those seals – just breathtaking. My son (all of us) would love this so much. And the landscape – you wouldn’t necessarily put that in the US! I shall be bookmarking for future reference! Thankd for linking up with #MondayEscapes

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    • January 28, 2016 at 2:23 pm
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      Thanks Ting! It’s a great trip. I hope you visit California soon.

      Reply
  • January 28, 2016 at 12:19 am
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    Beautiful photos! We did the 17-Mile Drive a few years ago and stayed in downtown Carmel which is such a beautiful town. We were only in the area for one day and night on our way from Napa to Los Angeles and really hope to be back again soon and see more of these sights!
    Cindy recently posted…Winter Walk at National Trust: Osterley Park & HouseMy Profile

    Reply
    • January 28, 2016 at 2:22 pm
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      Thanks! I still haven’t visited Napa. Someday when we have the time I’d like to head further North.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 12:49 am
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    This looks like such a beautiful trip! I’m hoping to make it one day!

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    • January 30, 2016 at 10:45 pm
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      It is one of my favorite trips ever. I hope you make it one day too! Thanks for visiting my blog.

      Reply
  • February 27, 2016 at 10:16 am
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    Oh man. This is pretty nostalgic! I lived in Monterey off-and-on for the past five years before I moved to China, and all those places you listed are totally worth going to.

    The Hearst Castle tours were pretty awesome, but I’ve only done one. So many more to go!

    Reply
    • February 28, 2016 at 12:16 am
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      Oh, lucky you! We would love to live in the Monterey area. Enjoy China!

      Reply

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