Driving the Pacific Coast Highway – Los Angeles to San Francisco

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway – Los Angeles to San Francisco

We had read about it, dreamed about it and now we were realising it. Sweeping turns, beautiful changing landscapes, a drive of a life time. What I am talking about is the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) or State Route 1, an iconic stretch of road which hugs most of the Californian coastline and runs from Dana Point, Orange County to Leggett, Mendocino County totalling 655 miles. The section we would cover would be Los Angeles in the South to San Francisco in the North.

We would travel in October which is said to be the best time of year for the clearest days, we were least likely to see that pacific coast fog rolling in which can envelop all in its path like a mysterious swathe, making the beatiful scenery invisible and driving conditons treacherous.

We had researched this drive to death, we had 400 miles to cover, on what was said to be slow, winding, traffic clogged roads. Wanting to make the most of the trip and for it to be as relaxed as possible we planned four sleep stops along the route.

Having just spent the last five nights in Venice Beach we packed up Sally (the obvious name for our Ford Mustang convertible!) ready to leave. We were soon out on the Pacific Coast Highway heading north towards our first destination, Santa Barbara, 95km away.

On the way we pulled over at Elo Carrillo State Beach where the first scene from Grease was filmed. We wandered along the sand and gazed out to sea watching surfers catching some waves, pretty cool.

To our surprise the roads were much wider than we thought and with much less traffic. We cruised along, top down, swiftly arriving at Santa Barabara which did not disappoint. Exploring we discovered the pier….

….and habour, where we saw some star fish chilling…

….and the most gorgeous sweeping beach with blue sparkling sea and the Santa Ynez mountains as a backdrop. We felt like we had arrived in the Mediterranean. It felt like heaven, it was amazing.

Santa Barbara is a fantastic place to visit. So relaxed, the people are friendly and it offers a good selection of places to eat and shops to browse. We stayed at the Franciscan Inn which is perfectly situated just a moments walk from the sea. Our room was cosy, comfortable, nicely decorated and had everything we needed – check out the link below (supplied simply because I loved this place!)


The following morning we were headed to San Luis Obispo, our next stop on this trip and 110 miles on.

En route we wanted to take a slight detour to find the Chumash Painted Cave. A small cave of sandstone containing some of the most amazing art created by Chumash Native Americans estimated to date to the 1600’s and earlier. Leaving Santa Barbara via Highway 154 we turned off along Painted Caves Road. The cave is about two miles up this steep, narrow road.

It was incredible to see these blue, red and white paintings and the way they were perfectly preserved.

Moving on we passed through Solvang, stopping only for some lunch. A Danish town situated in the Santa Ynez Valley and famed in our world for its connection to the movie Sideways!

Heading back towards the sea we arrived at Pismo Beach, a cool, retro windswept seaside town with traditional arcades, cafes and bars from yesteryear. It had a massive pier….

….and another pretty amazing beach. Flat, soft sand stretching out to the glistening waters edge. Just incase you are wondering what I am looking at through the binoculars I am guessing you will be pretty wowed to hear that they were Humpback Whales feeding out at sea.

Just inland from Pismo Beach and we had arrived in San Luis Obispo. Our accommodation for the night was the Madonna Inn, an iconic American motel open since 1958.

A very grand place, the picture only showing one wing of the motel housing 110 uniquely designed rooms, set in the most beautiful surroundings…

Unfortunately we were not there long enough to enjoy the many hiking trails.

We spent the evening in San Luis, which had a good vibe, great choice of restaurants and cool independent shops. We also stumbled across Bubblegum Alley a touirst attraction famed for the accumulation of used bubblegum on its walls!

We ended the evening sitting in the dimly lit ballroom of the Madonna Inn supping on a cocktail or two, watching couples dance to live jazz being played on the piano.

The following day Monterey beckoned, 140 miles north. This would be the longest stage of our four day Pacific Coast Highway drive.

Getting an early start we pulled over at Moonstone Beach, Cambria which is named after the pretty, colourful stones that you can find amongst the pebbles and sand. We had a stroll along the beach…

and caught site of some amazing Turkey Vultures devouring a seagul carcass…yum!

Now at this point I would like to tell you just how good the road on this journey is. After research we were left thinking that the PCH was going to be a narrow, nail biting ride with lots of unsafe twists and turns. We were very pleasantly surprised. There are good barriers….

….loads of pull over places of ample size which will park many cars….

….and the roads are not narrow at all….

Leaving Moonstone Beach behind we pressed on and were soon cruising along the Big Sur itself, a stretch of California’s central coastline between Carmel and San Simeon, the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east and the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean on the west. The scenery is rugged, the road twisting and turning.

Both of us feeling pretty damn happy that we were finally here, doing our dream drive in our dream car, taking in this awesome scenery with only each other for company…

Adam has a huge connection with the Big Sur due to his hero Jack Kerouac and now spralling out infront of us was Bixby Bridge where Jack stayed in the canyon below in solace, trying to gain a grip on reality and escape the frenzied days of San Francisco. The bridge completed in 1932 is one of the most photographed bridges in California due to its design and magnificent setting, wow is all that is needed!

Not too much further and we had arrived in Monterey. The Monterey Bay Inn would be our base for the night and it was pretty neat. Room on the top floor, with a balcony and view out to the bay.

We explored the town and walked by Cannery Row, famed by John Steinbeck’s novel…..

The following morning, after enjoying breakfast on the balcony which had been brought up to our room, a cute little tray of delights…

….we were all set for our next adventure, a whale watching cruise. We booked this on line with Santuary Cruises, https://www.sanctuarycruises.com/ and they were awesome. Marine biologists on board with indepth knowledge and vying to get their customers the best wildlife sightings possible they did not disappoint. Even just cruising out of the harbour we saw a Sea Otter chilling….

…..and again with his mate the Sea Lion…!

….and a whole bunch of Brown Pelicans which I call the turtles of the sky….they look so chilled when they bob along in the air!

Out at sea we were lucky to see a Humpback Whale feeding and a school of Risso’s dolphins but I was too in ore to catch any pictures…sorry! Arriving back at the habour after four hours at sea and feeling satisfied we had squeezed all we could out of our short stay in Monterey we climbed back into Sally and hit the road to Santa Cruz, a mere 45 miles away.

We loved Santa Cruz. Awesome old school hippy vibe. Relaxed and friendly. Made iconic by the movie The Lost Boys where it is known as Santa Carla. The downtown area was cool with lots of independent music, comic and clothes shops. Great choice of restaurants and bars. We walked along the front, playing in the arcades and Adam hoping to ride the classic wooden roller coaster but due to being out of season the boardwalk theme park was closed….maybe next time..

We chilled while the sun went down and strolled along the pier. Tomorrow San Francisco.

With San Francisco as our base for the next four nights we had the opportunity to take a road trip north of the Golden Gate Bridge continuing on the PCH to Bodega Bay and Point Reyes Lighthouse. The scenery felt vast, ruggest and wild.

Point Reyes Lighthouse was cool to explore once you had climbed down the 300 steps that lead to its door. It was so cool to stand where John Carpenter had filmed The Fog over 35 years ago!

This trip was what dreams are made of. It lived up to all our expectations and more. We truly recommend anyone to do it. The biggest surprise to us was just how good the roads were, well maintained and as we were slightly out of season not clogged with traffic at all. Sometimes fog, snow or rock falls can make the road unpassable in places so it is worth checking up to date local information for the route.

Finally one question we came across alot during our research….do you drive the Pacific Coast Highway north to south or south to north? Well we did the latter, although for scenery the former is supposed to be the best as you are closest to the ocean. Our opinion….it does not matter. It would be awesome whichever. There are so many pull over places along route you will never miss the opportunity to capture the truly awesome sights that the Pacific Coast Highway has to offer. The only reason that North to South may edge it is that you can enjoy the temperature rising as your journey unfolds. Either way we felt pretty stoked that we had achieved our dream.






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