I cannot imagine living anywhere else other than Chicago, but if I had to choose my absolute favorite place to visit, it would hands down be California. One of my very first posts when I launched this blog was on my love for LA but ironically, as much as I love California, most of my time spent there has rarely been outside this city. It has always been a dream of mine to cruise down the California coast on Highway 1, famously known as the Pacific Coast Highway. I finally had the chance to do it last month, and while there are so many variations as to how one can experience this road trip, I am sharing my experience and tips for embarking on this scenic and breathtaking journey!
While the Pacific Coast Highway is over 17oo miles long, most people think of it as the drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In other words, this is the most popular route and the one we did! From start to finish, the drive is at least 6.5 hours long and over 400 miles long so technically it can be done in one day, but why would you want to as you would be missing out on a lot of the magic! I spread our drive over four days and three nights and really felt we got to experience the best of what the PCH offers! While most road trippers start in San Francisco and work their way south, I found that the rental car cost was half by going from Los Angeles to San Francisco so I booked it this way. While you’re not necessarily gripping the coast by driving south to north, I enjoyed driving on the mountain side and in no way felt our views were compromised! (My packing essentials can be seen here or are linked at the end of this post)
DAY 1: LA to Santa Barbara-100 miles
We arrived at LAX late morning, picked up our rental car and headed straight to Santa Barbara, 100 miles north of LA. Since I have spent so much time in LA, this was an easy skip but if you are heading there for the first time, you want to spend at least one night there! For us, our first night was in Goleta, about eight miles north of Santa Barbara, staying at the Goodland Hotel. I cannot say enough good things about this hotel! Truly, I could dedicate a whole post to it. The Goodland oozes California cool with it’s surf-inspired, laid back, retro Southern Cal attitude where they have morning yoga, trivia night, DJs spinning vinyl by the pool and tarot card readings on the weekends. It is a fun and social atmosphere perfect for couples and families (especially teenagers!) and even dogs! As far Santa Barbara, it is a wonderful place to spend the day. While State Street is the main shopping and dining destination here, I found the side streets closer to the ocean to have the most charm. Lots of chic wine bars and boutique shops including the Blue Door, a mid-century haven of modern and vintage wares. You also cannot come to Santa Barbara without visiting the Old Mission, the chief historical and cultural landmark of the city!
Other things to do: whale-watch cruise on the Condor Express or another boat, rent a buggie at SB buggies for exploring the town, visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (for its beautiful gardens and Spanish architecture), venture to nearby towns of Montecito and Ojai.
Day 2: Santa Barbara to Big Sur-200 miles
This was our longest day on the road but with a great must stop a little more than half way through the drive-Hearst Castle. Leaving Santa Barbara, you are not hugging the coast quite yet but the scenery is still beautiful with rolling hills of grazing cattle and vineyards. There are some towns worth pulling over to see but we were anxious to get up towards Big Sur as right at the southern gateway to Big Sur sits one of California’s top attractions, Hearst Castle. It would be a shame to take the road trip and not stop here! Plan for at least three hours to have a guided tour (only way to see it!) and roam my favorite part, the gardens. It is the closest thing we have to a royal establishment in this country and you really have to see it to believe it! After leaving the castle, the next must is a stop at the elephants seal rookery 9 miles up the coast, where hundreds and sometimes thousands of elephants seals gather. We could have stayed here all afternoon watching them! From here on, our drive really started feeling like everything I imagined it to be as we made our way into the heart of Big Sur-narrow, twisting roads filled with hairpin turns and awe-stricking views of 5,000 foot mountains jutting out of the ocean. There are so many places to stop along the way to take pictures and take it all in. You could spend a whole day just doing that! For us, our final resting spot on day 2 was at the Deetjens Inn. Options are limited and can be pricey if you choose to stay in Big Sur (a lot of road trippers stay in nearby Carmel) but I highly recommend staying in the area for one night. We were lucky enough to lay our heads at the Deetjens Inn, which is one of the more moderately priced options as well as being on the National Register of Historic Places. No television, no internet but plenty of rustic charm nestled in the redwood forests with well appointed rooms and cabins containing fire burning stoves. It also hosts one of the most popular restaurants in the area for breakfast and dinner.
Note: Big Sur itself is about 90 miles of coastline that has resisted development and as such, still boasts a population of about 1,000. This is part of what makes it so unique and special. With that said, there is also no such thing as cell service (truly) on this stretch of highway although if you choose to stay in the area, a few hotels do offer wi-fi service. Also, plan to fill up on gas before entering Big Sur as gas options are limited and price inflated once there.
Day 3: Exploring Big Sur and Carmel-30 miles.
The weather in Big Sur can be unpredictable! For us, that meant waking up to overcast skies, fog and drizzle. There was moment when the sky opened up and we were able to see some amazing views of mist rising up from the ocean and redwood forests though. Our morning was spent reading and relaxing in our room by the fire and visiting Big Sur Village where the Big Sur bakery is another must stop, serving amazing pastries and coffee. By noon, the weather was not clearing so we decided to make our way towards Carmel. No sooner had we driven ten miles up the road where all of a sudden the skies cleared and we were once again able to see what this amazing stretch of coast has to offer. One of the most famous crossings and photogenic stops along the way to Carmel is the Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the most photographed images of Big Sur! As we made our way into Carmel, it can be jarring and almost overwhelming to connect again with the “real world”. Being in Big Sur can be equated to a very spiritual experience so I was so happy I booked ourselves at the Misson Ranch in Carmel, as it still offers the views and the tranquility of the coastline while being within walking distance to the downtown. Downtown Carmel is very charming and filled with art galleries, boutiques and plenty of good restaurants. We chose to come back to the ranch for dinner though so we could have our views of the coast, the pasture of sheep and what turned out to be a double rainbow that graced itself over the ranch that evening. Magic!
Other things to do in Big Sur: have lunch at Nepenthe for some of the best views in the area, horseback ride at Andrew Molera State Park, take a short hike to the waterfall at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park (which due to the weather we could not do), visit other accommodations in the area including Post Ranch Inn, Glen Oaks Big Sur and Ventana Inn & Spa, each extremely unique in their own right.
Day 4: Carmel to San Francisco-120 miles
Waking up to pure sunshine, we decided to head back into the northern tip of Big Sur to do a little more exploring before we made our way to San Francisco. Our first stop-which sits on the southern end of Carmel, was the Post Lobos State Natural Reserve, one of California’s most popular state parks. That means if you go, go early as the parking lots fills up fast and there is usually a long line to get in! Yet do not skip it because it the best chance to get up close and personal with the coast. The trails are well groomed and the views are like anything you will ever encounter. Another stop we made in northern Big Sur was at the Garrapata State Beach, where a short trail takes you down to the water and you can experience the most maginificent views of the waves breaking! It was not easy to leave the area but I knew the drive to San Francisco from here still had plenty to offer. We stopped in nearby Monterey for lunch at the deliciously fresh Wharf Marketplace . Overall Monterey is a little too commercial for my taste although it does have what is to be said the best aquarium in the world. From Monterey to Santa Cruz there is not a whole lot to see but once in Santa Cruz we took a brief sidetrack to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to experience rides and attractions dating back to the 1920’s. From here on our way up to San Francisco, the views are virtually unspoiled with rocky tide pools, bluffs lining the ocean and empty driftwood strewn beaches save for a few surfers here and there. There are also plenty of farm and pie stands to stop at along the way too and I found the town of Davenport to be charming. Our final stop on this road trip had to be none other than the Golden Gate Bridge in downtown San Francisco.
The Pacific Coast highway should be a road trip on just about every travel bucket list! At the very least, head to Carmel and explore Big Sur from there. I was lucky enough to share this adventure with my daughter but absolutely want to head back and share this epic adventure with the rest of my family!