The California Coast Road from San Francisco to San Diego
(A Roadtrip Tale by Jude Harley)
The PCH (Pacific Highway) is one of those iconic drives that ought to be done in a pink Cadillac convertible with the top down making the most of the azure blue skies and brilliant Californian sunshine with plenty of Beach Boys and Mamas and Papas CDs on board. In reality this was February and an open top car was not an option. We ended up with the Chevrolet version of the Chrysler PT Cruiser with black tinted windows and the skies were gunmetal grey. Not the ideal start, but hey it felt good to be on the road.
Day One – San Francisco to Carmel
We began our journey in San Francisco and immediately headed southwest on to the Cabrillo Highway at Pacifica to follow it south to Monterey and Carmel – our first stop. This is not a long section, but it can take a long time, as there are plenty of scenic viewpoints to stop off at on your way down the coast and in the summer there are several roadside food stalls to entice you.
The section between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County is prone to periodic landslides and road closures and one stretch is known as the Devil’s Slide*. This particular stretch of road is very much like Chapman’s Peak Drive in the Cape Peninsula, South Africa, as it hugs a similar steep promontory with equally stunning vistas. We stopped at Half Moon Bay to admire the surfers and the beautiful beach until the rain sent us scudding back to the car.
*(This stretch of the Cabrillo Highway has since been replaced by a road tunnel).
Don’t forget to stop at the family run Duartes Tavern in Pescadero which is a little further south and only 2 miles off the state road; it is still run by the 4th generation of Duartes and home to the worlds most divine Olallieberry Pie, world famous Cream of Artichoke Soup, and Crab Cioppino. We, on the other hand have had a full breakfast there and no complaints. In this small town you can also find interesting craft shops, artichoke bread and a goat dairy. If you have the time a stroll along the Pescadero State Beach back at the junction with Highway One may bring you into contact with harbour seals among the sand dunes.
Passing through several State Beaches and State Parks the road becomes the Coast Road as you enter into Santa Cruz County. If you want to stretch your legs visit the Natural Bridges State Park or if you’re after more thrills perhaps pop into the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk where you can find the world famous Giant Dipper, the classic wooden roller-coaster which opened in 1942.
At this point the highway swings away from the coast and heads inland for a while before re-joining the coast at Moss Landing State Beach, another popular surf beach which is good for bird-watching too. Turn right at Jetty Rd and follow the road as it curves between the Elkhorn Slough estuary and the sand dunes.
Continuing south you pass between fields of artichokes, a Monterey County favourite and where Marilyn Monroe gained fame as the Artichoke Queen, before they change to mountainous sand dunes and the Monterey State Beach which is apparently the number one spot for kite-flying.
Californians will tell you that you “must” go on the 17 Mile Drive at Monterey, a scenic toll road through the Del Monte Forest that leads to The Lone Cypress, Seal and Bird Rocks, Fanshell Beach, Point Joe and the colliding currents of The Restless Sea. It all sounds very romantic. Along the way you pass through emerald green fairways of famous golf courses such as The Links at Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach. You may see black cormorants, brown pelicans, California sea otters, harbour seals and sea-lions in their natural habitat and colourful native wildflowers among the preserved dunescape, or like us, you may not. I’m still not convinced it was worth the toll to drive around what is essentially a series of golf courses, but the coffee was good at the Pebble Beach resort.
We entered at Highway 68 Gate and exited at Carmel Gate to explore the much photographed fairy-tale cottages, twee teashops and boutique shops of the legendary artists’ colony Carmel-by-the-Sea. We didn’t spot Clint though (the Mayor in 1986-88). I recommend a visit to one of the great old Spanish Missions, San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo, second of the California missions founded by Padre Junípero Serra in 1770. Known as the Carmel Mission a visit to the grounds is like travelling back in time with the gardens equally as beautiful as the 18th century baroque church and three museums. It presents the complete quadrangle courtyard typical of mission architecture which is Moorish in design and the façade holds a star-shaped window directly above the main entrance. The gardens include culinary and medicinal herbs, citrus and olive trees, roses, Mexican sage and bougainvillea. It is an obvious attraction for artists several of which had set up their easels in the yard.
The Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey is iconic and if you get there early in the morning it will be people free. Allow a couple of hours to visit the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium, and apparently there are twenty golf courses in Monterey County so if you like swinging a club this must be paradise to you.
Either Monterey or Carmel is a good spot to stop for the night.
Day Two – The Big Sur
The route from Monterey to Morro Bay with its landmark Morro Rock is designated an All-American Road and is amongst the nation’s most scenic. This twisting coast-hugging 123 miles long road along the central coast takes about five hours to complete passing through the Big Sur and San Luis Obispo. It climbs higher than 1000 feet above the sea and beaches are generally hard to reach. The road is extremely narrow in places with hair-raising drop-offs to the Pacific Ocean so alertness is advised. In the wet and mist even more care should be taken and rock-falls or mudslides are not unknown.
We were heading for San Simeon at the southern end of the Big Sur where we had booked a tour at Hearst Castle, home to William Randolph Hearst the man immortalized by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, and an overnight stop at the Best Western Plus Cavalier Oceanfront Resort. Three miles south of Carmel is Point Lobos State park with trails through Monterey cypresses that grow naturally both here and in Pebble beach. Continuing through the Carmel Highlands you reach the start of Big Sur which extends 90 miles to San Simeon. Having been told that whales* pass by along this coastline we peered optimistically through the windscreen in hope of seeing something in the mist and gloom, but not a hope in hell of seeing a whale, though possibly a cypress or two.
En route to Bixby Bridge, a much-photographed single-span arch more than 260 feet high and 700 feet long is the 11 miles unpaved Old Coast Road that ends in Andrew Molera State Park offering the most dramatic view of the bridge from behind. This road is impassable when it is raining, so we had to give it a miss. Bixby Bridge is important historically as it introduced automobile travel to the Big Sur. Just before Bixby is the Rocky Creek Bridge, another stunning bridge.
Crossing Bixby Creek the highway then climbs to Hurricane Point which is a place of high winds and big views before descending to the mouth of the Little Sur River. We can only guess at the ‘big views’ as visibility was becoming increasingly worse and unless you count viewing the road in front of us we could hardly see a thing. Sand dunes soon appeared out of the mist rolling towards Point Sur Light Station. At 19 miles south of Carmel it sits 361 feet above the surf on a large block of volcanic rock that was the site of several disastrous shipwrecks before the lighthouse was built in 1887-1889. It is the only intact light station along the Californian coast open to the public every Saturday. Each tour takes 2-3 hours and involves a steep 1½ hour hike each way with a 300 feet climb in elevation. Thankfully this wasn’t a Saturday so we didn’t feel obliged to stop.
Between Nepenthe – an indoor-outdoor restaurant perched 800 feet above the sea and famous for its views, though not today – and Deetjens you will find the Henry Miller Memorial Library – a place out of time like much of Big Sur – where you can relax among the redwoods and get a free coffee. Unfortunately it is not open in February so we continued to Deetjens, The Big Sur Inn, where we planned on having a late breakfast of Eggs Benedict with loads of fresh coffee. Deetjens is about 28 miles south of Carmel and a charming, offbeat place offering lodging in unique cottages strewn among the redwoods and oaks that clothe the land-side of the road. If you have the time I recommend staying in this area. There are more conventional places to stay plus several campgrounds and cabins and several State Parks with trails, fishing, waterfalls and even hot springs to explore. Having taken our fill of fresh golden eggs, spinach and ham, freshly squeezed orange juice and several free refills of good black coffee we headed off into the storms once again. Eight miles on is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with a short trail along the seaside bluff to see McWay Falls pour 100 feet into a picturesque cove. Ahead lay the southern stretch of the Big Sur. Here the road clings to the precipitous coastline and there are few settlements along the next 40 miles. If you have better weather than we had then stop off at Sand Dollar Beach or Jade Beach (south of Lucia and north of Gorda) then just past Ragged Point you come to hills and pastureland and in the distance you can see the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse on a point supposedly named in 1542 by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo for its white rocks (stained with bird droppings).
We stopped at the Elephant Seal rookery before reaching San Simeon and saw several large bulls with their proboscises with hundreds of cows and calves. The males are very large and noisy and the way they charge around looking for a fight it is a wonder that any of the calves survive being squashed. Not far from here is the parking area for the five miles bus ride up to the very unique Hearst Castle begun in 1919 by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. The hilltop castle set on 250, 000 acres is one of the most extravagant houses in the world. Guests included Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant and Charles Lindbergh. This outrageous home is known locally as ‘Enchanted Hill’
That evening we stayed close by in San Simeon which only appears to have hotels and little else, but the Best Western was fine, A pity it was still raining though as they have fire pits on the beach (the beauty of this hotel/motel is that is right on the beach). Still we had a wood-burner in the large room with patio doors out to a pool and hot-tubs and they also thoughtfully provide binoculars in the room and huge telescopes on the beach to view passing whales etc.
*California Grey Whales can be seen along the Big Sur coastline between December and April. December to early February they are migrating south; beginning February you can see them migrating back to Alaska with new-born babies by their sides and this is the best time to see them as they are moving slowly, because of the babies, and nearer to the shore to prevent attacks from Great White Sharks.
We were there at the right time of year for this spectacle, but visibility was against us.
Day Three – The American Riviera
A new day dawned with no rain, the sun was shining and there was a soft wind and all was good. We almost felt like abandoning our drive south and turn around to do the Big Sur again! But we had to be in San Diego in two days time so south it was. We went without breakfast as we planned on stopping in Cambria a small town further south to try and find these Olallieberry* pies we keep hearing about. We stopped off briefly at Moonstone Beach (in San Simeon State Beach Park) to watch what looked like Californian Condors swirling high above us before slipping off the Cabrillo Highway into Main Street Cambria where we found a small bakery and had our olallieberry* pies and coffees sitting on an outside terrace in the sunshine people watching. What could be better?
*(Olallieberries are a cross between a loganberry and a youngberry, which themselves are hybrids of raspberry, blackberry and dewberry).
Continuing south in the sunshine our spirits lifted. The coastal route was lovely and the views great, though the landscape is not as impressive as the Big Sur. A large rock loomed in the ocean to our right which turned out to be Morro Rock. The rock was named “El Morro” (Spanish for crown-shaped hill) by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and is the last of a line of long-extinct volcanoes from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay, known as the nine sisters. Whilst there it began to rain again so our walk around the base of this huge rock was cut short. Not many miles further on lies San Luis Obispo, the end of the scenic central coast road. I had aimed to stop off at the mission there, but missed any sign to it and ended up in the middle of a rather lovely looking, if somewhat damp, town. The rain was now falling heavily again, so much so that on reaching the three lane freeway 101 the wipers couldn’t keep up with the torrential rain and I was concerned that we’d rear end someone! The road here skirts past Shell beach and is virtually in the ocean, which is where I thought we might end up. Miraculously as we parted from the 101 back onto PCH at Pismo Beach, the deluge stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The road wanders through Guadalupe and Lompoc before joining the 101 again into Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara is known as the ‘American Riviera’. Lush, sun drenched and nestled in the gently rolling hills above the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is known for its Moorish architecture, colourful history and beauty. In one direction lie the Santa Ynez Mountains and in the other the Pacific Ocean, barely five minutes from downtown. It is a very popular place with holidaying Americans with its permanent summer and consequently is not a cheap place to stay. We stayed at the Inn by the Harbor, a motel about three blocks from the palm-lined beach. The motel was clean and basic, but not very attractive and being on the ground floor it didn’t feel very secure either, though far enough away from the notorious train station area to walk safely to the marina.
First we visited the Santa Barbara Mission, which is the 10th mission and founded in 1786 although the current building was rebuilt in 1925 after an earthquake destroyed the church. The mission with its twin bell towers and Doric façade is located on a hilltop overlooking the city and providing a spectacular view of the ocean. Unfortunately the missionaries who brought religion and trousers to the local Chumash Indians also brought influenza and smallpox that killed the 4,000 Indians who are buried in the mission cemetery
Later after a stroll along the Shoreline Park and Ledbetter Beach accompanied by a pretty sunset we headed for Chuck’s Waterfront Grill on the marina where we had the best steak we have ever had in California, with a couple of decent Mai Tai cocktails.
Day Four – The Road to Hell and beyond
Next day we set off for our final stop in Long Beach about 100 miles south. I was not looking forward to the final stretch of the journey – the free for all freeways of Los Angeles are notorious and to say I was nervous of driving there is no exaggeration. PCH merges with US Route 101 at this point for the next 54 miles and the traffic was intense.
Driving along the ‘Screaming Eagles Highway’ and then ‘Ventura Freeway’ we hugged the coast with great views of the ocean to the right and the Ventura Hills to the left with the lyrics of America’s “Ventura Highway” buzzing around our brains. Just after Ventura is Oxnard where the 101 and PCH part company again and passing a huge naval base we were back on the coast. Seeing islands close to the mainland, we subsequently found out about the Channel Islands Park that lies in the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Monica Basin – the park encompasses five of the eight California Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara). You can get there by boat from Oxnard harbour and spend time hiking, kayaking, camping, photography, painting, bird-watching and snorkelling as well as looking for wildlife. I had never heard of these islands before this trip, but they look more than worthy of a visit if you are in the area.
Two sunny hours later and we reached Santa Monica on the outskirts of Los Angeles where the traffic was heavy on a late Sunday morning and somehow we missed the turnoff for the PCH which would have taken us through Santa Monica to Venice Beach, Malibu and Redondo Beach (and also under the runways at LA International Airport), but instead we found ourselves on the Santa Monica Freeway and the stuff of nightmares – 12 lane freeways with cars overtaking from the left and the right. Fortunately we managed to weave our way through the spaghetti onto Interstate 405 (the San Diego freeway) and then Interstate 710 (Long Beach freeway) to our destination in Long Beach harbour where the Queen Mary is berthed. This lovely grand ocean liner with its memories of old Atlantic crossings is a timeless art-deco masterpiece and a wonderful place for an overnight stay in staterooms with original wood panelling and artwork (and plumbing) and half the price of the grotty motel in Santa Barbara!
Unfortunately we were too late for the champagne Sunday brunch hosted in the first-class dining room (it finishes at 2 p.m.) So we spent the afternoon discovering the history of the ship on a very interesting self-guided shipwalk tour followed by a cocktail in the beautiful Art Deco Observation Bar listening to live music. Dinner was in the Promenade Café with views over Long Beach, watching brown pelicans swoop over the harbour and the lights come on along the shore. Later in our cosy stateroom you could almost believe you were sailing the ocean deep.
Reluctantly we said goodbye to the Queen Mary thinking we really must try a cruise sometime and carried on our journey southwards. Locating PCH we skirted across the north of Long Beach before plunging south to the coast again. I heaved a sigh of relief. Much as I love driving I no longer enjoy big towns and cities and LA is one huge mother of a city!
We abandoned the car at Huntington Beach, a pretty surfer town just south of LA to meet up with a friend for breakfast. I had a half stack of pancakes with maple syrup – the first time I had tried the pancake option and I can only say how glad I was not to have ordered a full stack! Coffee was plentiful and the aroma of crisp bacon filled the air. Sugar Shack on Main Street has been owned by the same family since the 1967 and a place where you can dine with surfers coming back from “catching the waves”. Go there if you can for mammoth portions of the best breakfasts in California along with interesting surfing posters and surf boards in 1960s splendour and old family memorabilia.
After a brief walk around the pier and promenade in the much warmer SoCal climate to try and burn off some of those calories and appreciate the skills of more surfers, we continued along the coast to Capistrano beach near Dana Point in Orange County where the PCH ends becoming Interstate 5, the San Diego freeway. Shortly after lunchtime we drifted into the car rental place in downtown San Diego with only fumes left in the tank. Our journey ended with a sigh, ‘Surfin’ USA’ rattling around our heads and a reluctance to return to normality.
This journey can be done in a couple of days, but if you aren’t in a rush I recommend taking your time; the Pacific Coast Highway is an excuse for a long, lazy trip in the sunshine and if you drive from South to North as we did, you are all but in the ocean for most of the time – though choosing a less inclement time would be an improvement.
For more info on Driving the Pacific Coast Highway see my Classic Road Trip Page covering the same drive.
For more info on Driving and renting cars in California and USA check out my USA Page.