The Pacific Coast Highway runs North/South through the state of California, along its western edge. Featuring twist and turns that will thrill your driving skill as well as long rolling stretches of fabulous views of the Pacific coastline, whales, seals and shore birds, redwood forests and historic missions, you will feel as if every turn is a picture postcard. Is it any wonder that many stretches of this road are familiar features in car commercials?
There are other contenders for the ultimate road trip in the USA, but for the sheer beauty, history and drama, we think a drive on the Pacific Coast Highway is the drive by which all others should be measured. You can start in San Diego and finish in San Francisco which is how this article is written, or you could go the other direction. Or better yet, take two weeks, to do the trip each way.
Day One – In San Diego.
Once you have rented your car (convertible recommended!) and found your lodging place some options might be to visit Point Loma or Coronado Island. We feel that both of these will give you a great first look at this gorgeous city on one of the world’s prettiest natural bays. Point Loma has long been the home of the Portuguese fishermen and their families; there are very few streets from which you will not have great views overlooking the bay from here. Go up to the Cabrillo Monument and see the light house. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse there was one of the first lighthouses on the West Coast. Drive out to Coronado to see and photograph the Del Coronado Hotel. If you take the bay bridge it will deposit you right in the center of Coronado Island, which forms the protective sea barrier for San Diego bay. The island is best known as the home of the North Island Naval Air Station, and for the resort Hotel Del Coronado. We find that the terrace at the Del is the ideal place for lunch, overlooking the beautiful gardens and the shimmering Pacific. Shops abound in the town, and many other restaurants from which to choose, as well. Take the walking tour of the town to hear about its history and to see the sights, including the home of the author of “The Wizard of Oz”. The world famous San Diego Zoo, Mission San Diego de Alcala, and the Balboa Park Museums all await your visit. Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park, home to 15 major museums. Old Town is considered the “birthplace” of California, the first permanent Spanish settlement in California. In 1769 Father Junipero Serra came to establish the very first mission in a chain of 21 missions. Historic buildings include La Casa de Estudillo (also known as “Ramona’s Marriage Place”), La Casa de Bandini, La Casa de Altamirno Pedrorena and the Mason Street School, San Diego’s first one room schoolhouse. You may want to linger long enough in San Diego to do all of this, and then adjust your days accordingly.
Day Two – Drive to Long Beach.
By the coast road we will meander and stop as we wish to see what interests us en route. Just north of San Diego stop in elegant La Jolla to see Sunny Jim Cave. Consider spending time in the natural setting of Torrey Pines. Along the way, you will pass several more missions; stop to see them as you drive. Mission San Luis Rey was at one time the largest building in California. Known as the “King of the Missions”, it is the largest of the 21 California Missions. Make time for a lingering visit to San Juan Capistrano, with its huge ruined church and spectacular gardens. Capistrano is probably the best known of all the California missions. Famous for being the springtime home for thousands of swallows that annually migrate some 2,000 miles from their winter homes in Central America. Their arrival in San Juan Capistrano is celebrated on March 19th, Saint Joseph’s Day, with the ringing of the mission bells. You are aiming for Long Beach, which is a trendy town at any season of the year. Shops are quant and trendy boutiques, and the restaurants offer any cuisine you may fancy.
Day Three – Explore the Los Angeles Area.
Chief among the events will be a visit to the Wayfarer’s Chapel by Lloyd Wright, in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes. Nestled in a grove of towering redwood trees overlooking the ocean, the natural sanctuary of Palos Verdes stone and glass, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s eldest son and namesake, the church is among the USA’s most beautiful. Then a drive to Pasadena, where you will have a tour of the Gamble House (of Proctor and Gamble fame) by the architect brothers Greene and Greene. Afterward, on to Hollywood to see the famous footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre’s fabled forecourt, and the many Hollywood stars who have left their handprints and footprints there in wet cement. The forecourt is open free of charge to all visitors. A visit to Rodeo Drive (for splurging or window shopping) is next. Then a drive via Sunset Blvd down to Pacific Coast Highway and along the coast to Ventura for the night’s lodging. What, did you say you wanted a view of the city? Then don’t leave LA without a drive up to Griffith Observatory, it’s free. From the observatory, you can hike the Charlie Turner Trail to the top of Mount Hollywood, where you get an up close and personal view of the famous Hollywood sign.
Day Four – Cruising the Central Coast.
Today begin in Ventura at Mission Santa Buenaventura in the heart of town. The Ninth Mission Founded by Father Serra on March 31, 1782, it is named for Saint Bonaventure. The mission courtyard is particularly pretty with its cooling fountain, the interior of the church has some wonderful frescos. Pause by the long reflecting pool in front of the mission, for a photo op. Plan to stroll and shop in Santa Barbara where you will find beautifully preserved early California architecture and can even go to the top of the Santa Barbara Courthouse tower for a fantastic view. Or as an alternative route, consider meandering along CA 192 through beautiful Montecito with its grand estates and ranches tucked discretely behind manicured hedges and dressed stone fences, as we did, stopping at the little market in the heart of Montecito for lunch among the incognito movie stars who call this area their true home. Don’t stare; keep your autograph book out of sight for courtesy’s sake. North of Santa Barbara, part of this stretch takes you inland, but by Morro Bay you are back by the sea. It is about at this point in the drive where you begin to wonder what it would take to move to this gorgeous coastline, and enjoy it all the time. You will continue up the coast to Cambria, a colorful and fascinating town, filed with shops to tempt every shopper’s whim from art, to craft, to clothing to antiques. Plan to arrive in Cambria with plenty of time to spare, so you can poke around the town to your heart’s content. Your lodging in the Cambria area will have you ready to go for the next leg of the journey.
Day Five – Big Sur Country.
Begin the day with reservations for the first tour of the day at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s fabled manor high above the Pacific Coast Highway. The Hearst family still owns most of the land in this stretch of road, but the towering Spanish style mansion, glamorous pools, and fabulous gardens are open to view and well worth it. On the coast nearby you will probably be able to see walrus on the beach, close enough to photograph. The road is just what you expect it to be from films and car commercials, with the tight turns and the rocky coastline. Be sure to see McWay Falls, one of the most picturesque locations on the entire drive. Do park in the designated areas—there is a small fee; you will see others parking where they should not to try to avoid it—do not follow their lead. Then going northward you will enter Big Sur country. This is what you picture when you think of driving the California coast. Deep woods, stunning cliffs, splashing surf, sinuous curves. You will probably be going slower than the locals—which they don’t much appreciate. Take advantage of the pull offs for the scenic overlooks and to let the parade pass you by. You may wish to plan your drive to have a meal at Nepenthe, in a cliff side setting once owned by Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth; dine outside on the terrace with its stepped seating and throw pillows, if weather permits; the night we were there, we began the meal in crystal sunshine and ended by watching the fog roll in. There’s no better dinner show anywhere. Then, up the coast to Carmel, which is a fairy tale town by the sea. The homes are mostly quaint and look as if they stepped out of a storybook. We had dinner at Hogsbreath (owned by Clint Eastwood) and a lovely meal it was. If you did this part of the drive without stops, it would take you about two hours and forty minutes but do stop and savor whenever you can.
Day Six – Carmel to Half Moon Bay.
Begin the day taking the famous Seventeen Mile Drive which includes Pebble Beach and the Lone Cypress. This tree is actually copyrighted and perhaps the most-photographed of any tree in the world. You may wish to meander through Pacific Beach where the wild deer are often seen wandering in the town, and Monterey, where you could enjoy exploring Cannery Row. The charming college city of Santa Cruz holds many delights, among them, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, over 100 years old with its Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster built in 1924; the Surfing Museum at the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, and the Natural Bridges State Park, a great spot for seeing migrating whales, seals and otters at play. Further up the coast, pause to photograph picturesque Pigeon Point Light House. As you continue northward, aim for Pescadero and the best market on the Pacific coast, Arcangeli Grocery and Bakery, just inland, where you can shop and then dine out back on the picnic tables. We enjoyed their homemade bread, olive spread and other delicacies. The shop dates back to the 1920s. Your destination is Half Moon Bay, just seventeen beautiful miles ahead, where after you settle into your lodgings, dinner could be at any of about two dozen fine eateries, we selected wonderful Pasta Moon–ranked one of the fifteen top restaurants in the Bay area–and for dessert had their renowned lemon curd parfait, a tradition of nearly thirty years standing. Wow!
Day Eight – The Bay Area.
Today is an explore San Francisco Day. Many guidebooks will offer suggestions about what to see and do. We tried something a bit different and found it to be quite enjoyable. But if you are of the mindset that you have to see and do it all, our approach might not appeal to you. We began by heading northward up the coast through Pacifica.
As you go up the coast, have a meal or snack at the Taco Bell (yes we said Taco Bell) that is literally on the beach. You will be amazed, for sure. This has to be one of the best restaurants on the entire coast, view-wise. If you are fond of orchids you can detour here and see the working orchid nursery called White Oak Orchids. We aimed for the Golden Gate Bridge, and photographed it from both sides, at one of the view points in the Presidio, then having driven across, from the Horseshoe Bay, below, where unparalleled views of both the bridge and the city can be appreciated. Then we went into Sausalito, parked the car, and took a ferry across the bay to the ferry terminal. From there, you can take a trolley all the way past Fisherman’s Wharf to Ghirardelli Square, as we did , where we had a splurge hot fudge Sunday at world famous Ghirardelli Chocolates. Yes it is busy, but the atmosphere is energizing and the chocolate cannot be topped—except with whipped cream and a cherry of course!
Ideally, this trip can and should be done in both directions, since the views are remarkable whether driving north or south. You can select some of the stops for one direction and save the other for your return drive. If your time is limited, of course, just drive it one way and pick and choose what sounds best to you. Read more on the best places to visit on the West Coast.