Road Trip Down Pacific Coast Highway: Los Angeles to San Francisco
Planning and What to See for this Once-in-a-Lifetime Adventure on the Famous Highway 1
The Pacific Coast Highway (usually referred to as PCH or California State Route 1) is one of America’s most famous highways, probably only being beaten out by Route 66. The PCH has been immortalized in songs by Hole and the Beach Boys among others, and you’d probably recognize different spots along the route from scenes in movies or from magazines. The entire highway stretches out across 500 miles and if you had a week or two on your hands, and considerable funds, you could easily plot out a ton of stops that would keep you busy the entire time. However, if you have somewhere to be, the drive can be done over two days, albeit kept on a tight schedule. My friends and I decided to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the PCH, thus skipping out on airport security, or the drudgery of a 10-hour bus ride with nothing to look at. Remember, it’s the journey, not just the destination, so there really aren’t any hard and fast rules to doing the PCH right, and if anything catches your eye, you can always pull off and stick around longer. Here are some things that you should know about embarking on this trip yourself, and some suggestions on where to make stops.
What to do before you leave:
1) Get your hands on a physical map.
Owning a GPS is extremely helpful, but sometimes having a fold-out paper map makes it easier for the navigator to give the driver a heads up on what’s going to come up next, and keep them on track.
2) Have a location in mind for where you want to spend the night.
It’s extremely dangerous, especially for someone who’s never driven on the PCH before, to navigate sharp curves coupled with the lack of streetlights in a lot of sections. And you can be sure that the PCH, especially around Big Sur, is full of winding roads on top of high cliffs. Have a stopping point in mind to prevent having to drive them in the dark. Download an app like Priceline or Hotel Tonight to look up hotels and motels in the area for that very same night.
3) Research different car rental companies.
I rented a car from Avis through Priceline and it cost about $255 for two days. Part of this amount was paying for use of the GPS, an insurance fee because I was under 25, and because we had decided to return the car in San Francisco instead of driving it back to LA. Some companies give better deals if you’re keeping the car for a week.
4) Come up with a list of things you want to see.
I had to skip out on visiting Hearst Castle and the Winchester Mystery House because the tour timings didn’t work out with our plans. If you want to do something that requires reservations or tickets, purchase them online a couple days before and plan exactly when you have to hit up landmarks on the way.
Places to stop:
Roll up your pant legs and dip your toes in the water at Zuma beach. It’s understandable why it has been used as a filming location for Baywatch – the water is extremely clear and its sands are long and wide.
Pismo Beach/ Shell Beach –
There are walking trails and paths that look kind of exclusive to the waterfront hotels, but they are actually open to the public. I took a walk around the back of the Best Western Plus Shelter Cove Lodge. It is ridiculously idyllic – there are baby bunnies hopping around, the plant life is beautiful, and you can look down cliffs from a gazebo.
San Luis Obispo –
The joke about this city (SLO) is that its name is ridiculously fitting. It is located pretty much midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, so it’s a good place to spend the night. It is one of California’s oldest communities, and has a high population of California Polytechnic State University students. There are a ton of cheap motels (I can vouch for the Super 8 being decent!) and a lot of bars to check out.
While you’re here, take a very quick walk through Bubblegum alley, which has a gnarly collection of 40 years worth of chewed up gum lining the walls. It manages to be both fascinating and gross at the same time.
Drop by the Madonna Inn, which is a testament to all that is kitschy and over the top. The lavish interior is an explosion of pink and florals, and if you have a bit of extra money, you can stay in one of their 110 uniquely decorated rooms. Some of their names include Caveman Room, Jungle Rock, Safari Room, Irish Hill and Old World Suite.
Morro Bay –
This is a cute town to stop in for pictures of Morro rock, a 576-foot high volcanic plug. There is also a giant outdoor chess board if you and your friends have time for a game.
Big Sur is definitely the highlight of this whole drive. Stop at the entrance of the Julia Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and walk down the trail right across from it (there will most likely be a lot of cars parked in the area). Here you’d emerge to face the ocean, and see McWay Falls.
Bixby Bridge is another overwhelming beautiful location in Big Sur. It is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world and you might recognize it being referenced in the Death Cab For Cutie song “Bixby Canyon Bridge”.