Pacific Coast Highway and its attractions
(Be warned: They can be expensive.)
State Highway 1 follows the Pacific Coast for most of its journey through California but occasionally veers inland and joins up with U.S. Highway 101. Follow the green California 1 signs to stay on course.
Lodging, camping and dining
Hotels and campsites along the Pacific Coast Highway fill up quickly this time of year. Top lodges, such as Ventana Inn & Spa, can be pricey. Also, without much development in Big Sur, dining options are limited and expensive.
Kirk Creek Campground: Part of Los Padres National Forest, it’s a favorite about 60 miles south of Carmel, with sites situated on a bluff overlooking the ocean. 805-434-1996, fs.usda.gov/lpnf
Montana de Oro State Park: Environmental sites (hike-in, no water) cost $25 a night.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: Campsites are $35 a night.
Lucia Lodge: Rents simple cabins and rooms. Serves lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and dinner 5-8 p.m. (9 p.m. on weekends). 62400 California Highway 1, Big Sur; 866-424-4787, lucialodge.com
Old Mission Santa Barbara: Open daily 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in the summer and until 4:15 p.m. in fall and winter. Self-guided tours cost $7 for adults, $5 for seniors (65 and over), $2 for kids ages 5-15 and free for children 4 and under. Docent-led tours are $9 for adults, $7 for seniors, $4 for kids. 2201 Laguna St., Santa Barbara; 805-682-4713, see santabarbaramission.org
Hearst Castle: Guided tours start at $25 for adults, $12 for children ages 5-12 and free for kids under 5. The 45-minute Grand Rooms tour takes visitors through the main house’s social rooms, and after the tour guests can explore the grounds outside at their leisure. Advance reservations are recommended. 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon; 800-444-4445, hearstcastle.org
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: About 50 miles north of San Simeon. Parking/admission costs $10 a day. Some visitors parked along Highway 1 to avoid the fee, but the busy highway can be dangerous to cross to access the waterfall overlook, so park inside to access the trail that safely travels under the highway.
Bonny Doon Vineyard: The tasting room in Davenport is open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m. 450 California Highway 1, Davenport; 831-471-8031, bonnydoonvineyard.com.
BIG SUR, Calif. —
When four 20-something women are silent in a car, you know something is up.
Or down. Or in this case, both, in the form of hundred-foot rocky cliffs that dropped off sharply to our left, plummeting to meet the aquamarine Pacific Ocean, and the scrub-covered Santa Lucia Mountains rising to our right.
We were halfway through a summer road trip up California’s Pacific Coast Highway, and it hadn’t taken long for the rugged beauty to silence us all. You can only say “wow” so many times until simply not saying anything is the best exclamation of awe.
One of the country’s most famous scenic drives, California State Route 1 runs along the Pacific Coast from Dana Point in Orange County to Leggett.
The heart of the road’s beauty comes in a 90-mile stretch through Central California known as Big Sur. Low on development and big on breathtaking views, the route was designated as the Pacific Coast Highway in 1968 and has been drawing tourists ever since.
Many opt to begin the popular road trip in the north and travel south, but our plan was to begin near San Diego, where three of us from Wisconsin met up with a friend living in La Jolla. Four perfectly sunny days, three beaches, two breweries and one stingray sting later, we set off for a three-day trip up the coast.
Day 1: San Diego to San Luis Obispo
Carefully packed into our rented Chevy Malibu, we opted for a quick jaunt up to Los Angeles along Interstate 5 before officially beginning the scenic drive.
We rolled into Los Angeles along U.S. Highway 101 blasting Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and unabashedly perusing a giant Hollywood star locator map — if we were going to be tourists, we might as well embrace it.
After a quick stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame and obligatory photos in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre, we made our way into the Hollywood Hills along Mulholland Drive for views of the Hollywood sign and the surrounding valley.
We trailed a few tour buses — the same ones that hawked their celebrity sightseeing trips up and down Hollywood Boulevard — but our giant map and own musings (is that Bruce Willis in front of us?) were enough entertainment.
Back in the valley, we refueled at Mel’s Drive-In along the Sunset Strip before making our way alongside the Bentleys and Benzes on Santa Monica Boulevard to the ocean and the start of our Pacific Coast journey.
We turned north onto Highway 1 and drove past the long, white sandy beaches through Malibu — we somehow missed the joke of driving a Malibu through Malibu — before veering slightly inland at Oxnard and joining up with Highway 101 for a stretch up to Santa Barbara.
A short trip off the highway brought us to the Old Mission Santa Barbara, also known as the Queen of Missions.
Perched on a hill with views extending to the ocean, the mission was founded in 1786 and is still home to a community of Franciscan friars and an active parish. The church was reconstructed following the 1812 earthquake, but statues inside date back to the 1790s. Outside, the museum’s expansive Huerta Historic Garden contains plantings representative of the mission era.
About 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, the PCH veers inland and weaves through the rolling hills around Lompoc. We passed cattle grazing the gray-brown hillsides, evidence of one of the most severe droughts in California’s history.
At San Luis Obispo, the sun that had been our constant companion since San Diego gave way to clouds, mist and much cooler temperatures. We turned west toward the coast again and Montana de Oro State Park, our pit stop for the night.
The park gets its name from golden wildflowers that bloom in the spring, which were gone by the time we visited in July. We instead soaked up the misty views of the ocean and a long sand spit covered in windswept dunes that separates Morro Bay from the Pacific Ocean to the north.
Camp for the evening was Environmental Site 1, a less-than-a-mile hike up a sandy trail along a tree-covered ridge. Removed from the main campground, we fell asleep to the sound of the ocean crashing into the beach at Spooner’s Cove in the distance.
Day 2: San Simeon to Santa Cruz
Our first stop on our second day was the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built the 165-room mansion on his family’s ranch perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean and called it La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill).
When Hearst approached San Francisco architect Julia Morgan about building an estate on the land, he told her he was “tired of going up there and camping in tents” and that he would “like to get something that would be more comfortable.”
The opulent estate, which Morgan worked with Hearst to design from 1919 to 1947, was certainly more comfortable than a tent. With architectural influence from Renaissance and Baroque buildings in southern Spain, the mansion really does resemble a castle, although the main building’s two towers were actually modeled after a church in Ronda, Spain.
More than 127 acres of gardens outside set the stage for the art inside. Hearst collected not just paintings and sculptures from around the world, but also furniture, antique ceilings and doors, all of which fill the castle inside and out.
In its heyday in the ’20s and ’30s, Hearst entertained guests from the country’s elite — from politicians including Franklin D. Roosevelt to entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin.
Since 1958, the site has been part of the California State Parks system, with tourists as the primary visitors. Our 45-minute Grand Rooms tour took us on a bus up the hill — with narration from Alex Trebek — and through the mansion’s main living room where Hearst greeted guests, refectory, billiards room and theater. We finished our time exploring the estate’s expansive gardens, outdoor Neptune Pool and indoor Roman Pool.
On the bus back down the hill, Alex tipped us off to an elephant seal viewing spot just up Highway 1 from the castle. We stopped to watch the seals as they lounged on the beach, a few venturing out for a swim to entertain us gawking humans.
Back on the road, we finally made our way into the heart of our road trip and Big Sur.
Construction of what would become Highway 1 began in 1910, but work on the route’s toughest section through Big Sur began in 1919. The span, which includes 33 bridges, took 18 years to complete and provided access to one of the most remote stretches of coastal land in California. The route was named the state’s first scenic highway in 1968.
I hugged the wheel as the car hugged the picturesque cliffs, stunning view after stunning view materializing around each bend and silence replacing the chatter that had filled the car after Hearst Castle.
Our rumbling stomachs finally forced us off the highway at Lucia Lodge, where a cliffside patio provided a spectacular lunchtime view of the ocean.
Full on turkey and veggie sandwiches, we continued on to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home to the 80-foot McWay Falls. A short, wheelchair-accessible trail leads from the parking lot to an overlook of the elegant waterfall, which now cascades onto a sandy beach along the ocean in McWay Cove. The waterfall used to tumble directly into the ocean, but a 1983 landslide dramatically altered the cliffside landscape. To preserve the fragile environment, there is no access to the beach.
Back in the parking lot, we followed another trail along McWay Creek through towering redwoods whose blackened trunks were proof of a 2008 fire. The quarter-mile trail led to the 60-foot Canyon Falls, which tumbles over a series of rocks into the creek.
The rest of our Big Sur journey was a whirlwind of vistas, with plenty of turnoffs for photo ops. We crossed the famous Bixby Bridge and passed the artsy beach town of Carmel, also home to Pebble Beach.
With more time, we would have stopped at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, home to a large kelp forest and open sea galleries with sunfish, stingrays, jellyfish, sea otters and bluefin and yellowfin tuna.
But our campsite at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park north of Santa Cruz beckoned, so we soldiered on to arrive before dusk. Much to our delight, we learned we could build a campfire for our final night on the road — the drought had prevented them thus far. And while our campsite wasn’t in the majestic redwoods, mixed hardwoods provided a nice shaded site, and warm showers — albeit ones that cost 25 cents for two minutes — were a welcome relief after a few days on the road.
Day 3: Santa Cruz to San Francisco
With less than 80 miles to reach our final destination of San Francisco, we took some time to explore the park and had the Henry Cowell Redwood Loop Trail nearly to ourselves for an early morning hike.
Brochures at the trailhead provided information for the less-than-a-mile nature trail, which winds through an old-growth redwood grove. The old giants — the tallest of which is 285 feet — are more than 1,400 years old and induced the same kind of awe-inspired silence as the Big Sur cliffs. The remarkable trees are wonders of the natural world — able to withstand fires, floods, high winds and even heal themselves.
A highlight of the trail is the Fremont Tree, where explorer John Fremont was said to have slept during his travels. Visitors today can still crawl inside the giant redwood — we fit all four of us standing up — and imagine what it would have been like sleeping inside.
We had done the beach, the mountains, the redwoods. That left just a winery to complete our California road trip.
And so we found ourselves the only customers at Bonny Doon Vineyard’s tasting room on Highway 1 in Davenport just after it opened at 11 a.m.
We bellied up to the tasting bar and bartender Joe Bomgren began pouring samples, explaining the history of the winery and its flagship wines.
As the driver, I stuck to just a few swigs — a $10 tasting flight provided a nice sampling of five wines — while my friends indulged in a larger selection, including its flagship Cigare wines, made with Grenache grapes. Bonny Doon founder Randall Grahm was one of the original Rhone Rangers, a group dedicated to promoting the use of American Rhone varietal wines.
On our final short leg into San Francisco, we were silent once again. Whether it was the wine or the overwhelming beauty of the past few days, it didn’t really matter. Windows down and sunglasses on, there wasn’t much left to say as we wrapped up such a classic summer road trip.