Summary: The PCH road trip is something every Californian should drive once in their lifetime.
The PCH road trip is something every red-blooded Californian should attempt at least once in their lifetime.
In fact, people come from all over the world to travel this scenic stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, which offers jaw-dropping views of rocky cliffs, charming bridges, brilliant green redwood forests and crashing waves, all competing for your attention.
To make the trip properly, allow at least a week to fully soak in the California Highway 1 scenery. We made the trek from Southern California to San Francisco in just three days — certainly not enough time if you want to see the sights, and there are plenty of them.
The most beautiful portion of Highway 1 begins right around Cambria and continues north toward Half Moon Bay and Mavericks, a surfer’s haven that is home to some of the biggest waves in the world.
Big Sur is particularly stunning — especially at springtime when rolling green hills peppered with orange and red wildflowers meet the crashing blue coastal waves of the Pacific.
Since much of the coastline is protected, you won’t see millions of sunbathers packed like sardines on the beaches, but only the odd few hikers, making a quiet trek to a waterfall or coastal stream.
If you are planning a coastal trip along Highway 1 this summer, here are five highlights you shouldn’t miss.
1. Pismo Beach. Where else can you drive your car or ATV right on the beach than at the Pismo sand dunes at Oceana State Beach? This laid-back surfing town, with a really nice cluster of cliff-top oceanfront hotels, is known for one of the West Coasts largest car dhows over Father's Day weekend. The Cracked Crab, known for its daily catch of line-caught fish and organically grown produce, is always packed. 805-773-2722. Spyglass Inn, with its prime oceanfront location and nicely landscaped grounds, has beautiful views of the Pacific and its stunning sunsets. A fine walking path connects the hotel with other Pismo beach hotels such as Cliffs Resort and Dolphin Bay Resort. Watch our video about Pismo Beach.
2. San Simeon. After you've made the obligatory stop at the amazing and beautiful Hearst Castle (watch our video), travel a few more miles north until you see the sign for the elephant seal rookery (watch our video). This vista point, located right off Highway 1, is one of the best spots to view elephant seals on the West coast, and they come and go year-round. Docents are there daily to answer questions and prevent the seals (and curious humans) from harming each other. Friends of the Elephant Seal can be reached at 805-924-1628.
3. Big Sur. Hippies from the 1960s mingle with posh Hollywood movie stars in this forested valley of redwoods, waterfalls and jaw-dropping cliffs. A highlight is the drive across historic Bixby Creek Bridge, built in 1932. For a memorable meal, grab lunch or a sunset drink at Nepenthe, a restaurant once owned by Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. It boasts one of the best views along the entire Pacific. 831-667-2345.
4. Monterey. This historic coastal town (watch our video), home to more restored adobes than anywhere else in California, is a vacationer's dream. Stroll along historic Cannery Row and tour Monterey Bay Aquarium (watch our video), then head to Fisherman's wharf and enjoy some cracked crab legs and a bowl of Monterey-style clam chowder. Nearby is Custom House, California's oldest public building, built in 1827. We stayed at Monterey Marriott, which has a killer rooftop pool for the kids, and a great location beside Fisherman's Wharf. 831-649-4234. A happy discovery for breakfast was Old Monterey Cafe, home to some of the best omelets and pancakes in town. 831-646-1021.
5. Half Moon Bay. This sleepy beach town, located about 40 minutes south of San Francisco, is perhaps best known for its massive 60-foot waves at Mavericks. But its beachfront resorts and quaint turn-of-the-century shopping village are also worth a look. Golfers shouldn't miss the Half Moon Bay Golf Links, a course with sweeping views of the ocean and nearby Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay. For families, Best Western Half Moon Bay Lodge is a charming and comfortable hotel with in-room fireplaces and a lovely warm pool for the kids. 800-710-0778. During our stay, we discovered a great little restaurant — Half Moon Bay Joe's, part of the original "tuxedoes waiter" chain that started in San Francisco in 1937. The eggplant parmesan, at $8, was incredible. 650-560-9260.