I drove California’s Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) from San Francisco (SF) to Los Angles (LA) in June 2016. Also known as California State Route 1, the PCH was built in 1934 and took 15 years to complete. It runs for nearly 550 miles in California.
PCH runs along California’s rugged coastline and is one of the most scenic drives in the country. Town after town from SF, Pacifica, Montara, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, San Simeon, Cambria, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Guadalupe, Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Malibu, Santa Monica, and LA offer scenic beauty and differing terrain to keep one interested. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, and found time during my travels in the West this summer to experience this scenic drive.
Common travel advice is to take three days to complete the drive by stopping overnight near Monterey and Cambria. Due to time constraints I had to start from Davis in the Central Valley on a Sunday morning and drive all the way to Cambria for an overnight stop. I completed the drive by reaching LA Monday evening. My family could not join me for this trip, but I never felt bored when such beautiful scenery surrounded me in every turn.
PCH map (taken from over60hiker.worldpress.com). Note 101 merging with PCH during certain segments of the highway.
Starting at 8:30 AM from Davis, leaving Interstate 80 after the SF bay bridge, traveling on US 101 over a short segment, then Interstate 280, I finally reached the PCH or California 1 around 10 AM. The highway ran along the hillsides of Pacifica with beautiful SF-style homes while hugging the Pacific coast. I reached Montara State Beach around 10:30 AM and stopped to enjoy the view. Montara is located between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay. The blue waters of the pacific, yellow wild flowers, creek entering the ocean, and the surrounding hills combined to create a panoramic view that only a skillful photographer (not me) can capture well. I tried my best to capture what I can with my iPhone camera.
As I drove towards Santa Cruz, the PCH meandered along the coast, hills, and rural farm land. I have stayed in Santa Cruz and Monterey during earlier trips, and did not stop this time. I could not stop at Pebble Beach either as I missed taking the exit from PCH to follow the backroads. I reached Carmel around 1:00 PM and tried to stop for lunch. It was really difficult to find a parking spot in this beautiful affluent town of Carmel, made famous by Clint Eastwood and other celebrities. In the interest of time, I shelved the lunch idea and continued South on PCH.
PCH quickly turned into steep slopes of Big Sur, blue waters of the Pacific, and the occasional traffic on the road. Big Sur often referred to as “The Greatest Meeting of Land and Sea”, is the historically unexplored and unmapped wilderness area South of the Monterey coast. There were occasional vista points along the PCH. I stopped at some, got out of the car, and took pictures. At some others, I pulled over and took in the view, but was too lazy to get out of the car. I was on the alert to stop at the famous Bixby Bridge. I had a few false alert stops at other bridges that looked similar to the Bixby, but each stop offered breath taking views. Finally around 2:15 PM, I reached the Bixby Bridge and took pictures. There were so many cars stopped and people crossing the road to take pictures, bringing the traffic to a crawl. I passed the Point Sur Light Station, but did not have time to stop.
By 4:00 PM my appetite for lunch has subsided, but I needed a little break from driving. I found a roadside café with a spectacular view to enjoy a cup of ice cream. As I proceeded South after the break, PCH continued to amaze me with breath taking views. PCH passed through a rock shed constructed to protect the highway. I also saw crews repairing portions of the highway after rock falls. Rock fall protection netting lined several segments of the PCH.
I reached San Simeon around 5:30 PM and joined the large crowd at the beach watching the elephant seals. There was a cool breeze from the ocean. I did not have time to visit the Hearst Castle on this trip.
I reached Cambria around 6 PM. Cambria would probably qualify as a sleepy town. Someone told me Cambria is like how Carmel was 75 years ago. My hotel was right across the beach, but one really needed a windbreaker to take a walk at the beach, and I did not have one for this summer trip! After a good dinner in Cambria town and some refreshing drinks, I made it in time to see the sunset at 8:23 PM. I love to watch sunrises and sunsets. These are two events that always happen in accordance with the scheduled time, up to the minute accuracy, unless clouds play spoiler.
Starting my day-two drive around 8:30 AM, I reached Morro Bay at 11:30 AM, and after a short stop to put gas and buy some souvenirs, I headed to the “Morro Rock”. Driving in the Morro Bay area, it is impossible to miss the rock. The Morro Rock is a 581-foot volcanic plug located just offshore from the bay, at the entrance to the Morro Bay Harbor and across the Morro Bay power plant with 450-foot high stacks. The power plant was shut down in 2014, but the stacks that compete for visibility with the Morro Rock are yet to be demolished. The rock was quarried extensively in the past. It is protected as a historic landmark now. You can drive all the way across the bay to the rock.
While writing about all the beautiful and famous towns along the Pacific coast, why mention Guadalupe? Guadalupe is a rural agricultural town located in a fertile valley between the coast and the mountains with a population of about 6,000. Along several areas of the roads, one can find rows of cars parked and farm workers toiling hard in the fields. You can also see extensive sprinkler systems irrigating the fields, a reminder of the importance of water for food production and the water shortages in California. It appears historically workers from China, Japan, and South America have worked hard on the fields of Guadalupe (and so many other areas) and helped California remain the breadbasket of America. I later read that several movies were filmed there.
I reached the beautiful city of Santa Barbara around noon and stopped by the café at the beach for lunch. There was a good crowd at the beach on a Monday and the temperatures were warm (compared to Cambria and Morro Bay). On the way to Santa Barbara, I passed some areas near the PCH where the highway slopes showed clear evidence of the fire that closed down the PCH (and US 101 combined) in Santa Barbara 4 days ago. Fires, earthquakes, and landslides (and droughts) remind us of the hazards in this beautiful part of the country.
I proceeded South from Santa Barbara and passed Ventura, Malibu, and Santa Monica and reached LA around 4 PM. I did not make many stops, so do not have many photos to share. I did pass through the Malibu Canyon, which was very beautiful. Malibu Canyon is not on PCH, but as the 101 and PCH merged along certain portions of the drive, I missed taking the PCH exit and had to cross the canyons to rejoin the PCH. I wish there are more signs posted along 101 to clearly warn when PCH is going to branch out. PCH is one of the most scenic drives in the country and I would think it warrants clear “attractions” signs and symbols for tourists. This excursion along the Malibu Canyon was educational to me to realize how the weather in the area differs along the coast and about few miles inland because of the mountains. At times, it seems there is more than 20 degrees temperature change at a given time between the coast and the other side of the mountains inland.
Driving the PCH is an unforgettable and enjoyable experience. I hope everyone who reads this blog get inspired to do this.
Tips for the Drive:
- Plan your overnight stops. One in Monterey and one in Carmel are ideal for a three-day trip. If done over two days, plan to stop at Carmel.
- There are only few stops for gas and food in the Big Sur area.
- Even in summer, be prepared for cool breeze in the Northern and Central beaches. Cambria and Morro Bay were cold in late June, and I wish I had a windbreaker to spend more time at the beach watching the sunset.
- Read about the route, and be on the lookout for attractions to explore.
- When US 101 and PCH combine along a segment, do not assume there will be signs posted for the PCH exit in advance and marked as an attraction. I missed taking the PCH exit at couple of locations.