By Laurie Jo Miller Farr
It takes several days to navigate a classic Pacific Coast road trip. From Seattle to San Diego, you’ll rack up in excess of 1,700 miles by sticking to the coast instead of the fastest inland route…but the experience is worth it. If you focus on the Golden State, California State Route 1 lets you hug the coast for much of its 655 mile length. Outstanding beauty spots and landmarks are abundant along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.
While a portion of Big Sur’s fabled coastline at Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge is under repair, you’ll still get a generous dose of gorgeous, with a sprinkling of lighthouses, whale watching, and wine tasting, plus one castle. California Highway 1 Discovery Route is an eye-popping 101-mile stretch that follows the spectacular coastline between San Simeon and San Luis Obispo.
If you’re debating whether to travel north or south, it’s worth noting that you can pull off easily at vista points for unobstructed views of the jagged coastline when traveling south. However, if driving on the inside of white knuckle curves is not your thing, head north.
North of San Francisco, the scenic coastal route through Mendocino County is chock-a-block full of twists, curves, and hairpin turns through towering redwood forests. Break out of tree dappled sunlight mixed with coastal fog 35 miles south of Mendocino, where Point Arena Lighthouse, tallest on the West Coast, is one of the best spots for whale-watching. Join a tour for the trek up 145 steps for endless views, weather permitting. To take a deeper dive into the experience, you can even book an overnight stay in the simple lighthouse keeper’s apartment.
Lighthouse fans and whale watchers benefit from overload in Mendocino, where the 1909 Point Cabrillo Light Station occupies a striking headland jutting out into the ocean. Pacific gray whales pass by twice a year in migration months celebrated by the March Whale Festival. With its unique vibe blending quaint; romantic; and wild, with art; music; and mushroom foraging, Mendocino has a festival of two for every season.
Golden Gate Bridge
Toll Plaza Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco, CA 94129
Check out “the bridge that couldn’t be built,” looking better than ever at 80 years of age. Once deemed an impossible vision, the Golden Gate Bridge is now a beloved icon. With its twin towers painted in distinctive International Orange, the engineering marvel and art deco masterpiece spans the place where San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean.
In 2017, the Golden Gate Bridge was selected the number one landmark in the USA by TripAdvisor travelers, coming in at number 11 on the worldwide list.
As Mother Nature squeezes layers of signature fog through that opening, the city is provided with natural air conditioning, notably in summer. When the fog lifts, you’re left with a remarkable view. Park your car at a vista point at the bridge’s north or south end to capture a special selfie featuring bridge, bay, and city skyline. Better yet, bundle up and immerse yourself by biking or walking across the bridge.
750 Hearst Castle Road
San Simeon, CA 93452
Judging by the numbers, “America’s Castle” is impressive. The facts don’t begin to describe the opulence, magnificent art treasures, spectacular Pacific Ocean views…not to mention a roaming herd of 113 zebras. This 165-room estate with 58 bedrooms, cinema, wine cellars and two giant pools containing 550,000 gallons of water is the showpiece of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s legacy.
Reserve a group or private tour up to 56 days in advance. You’ll be escorted up a winding road through 127,000 acres of ranch (that’s four times larger than San Francisco!) to start your visit with an IMAX presentation that explains how this place came to be.
At the base of “The Enchanted Hill,” the historic Sebastian’s General Store is top spot for a cooked-to-order burger and some wine tasting adjacent to a protected cove at William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach. Fish from the pier or jump in if you like; this pristine 13-mile coastline belongs to the people of California.
Wander the nearby towns: San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos, and Harmony (with its population of 18) for a taste of California coastal culture where surf meets ranch meets winery.
You’ll be hopping out at overlooks to admire 21 superb views along 17 miles in the Del Monte Forest. Star of the show, the camera-ready 250-year-old Lone Cypress poised on its dramatic granite outcrop has been called North America’s most photographed tree. Pay $10.25 in cash at the entrance gate to this famous private road, which you can redeem against food or drink (or golf?) at Pebble Beach Resort.
There’s a lot to pack into a Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea road stop. Here’s another chance for whale spotting, this time from aboard a cruise. Walk to the end of historic Cannery Row, where kids and grownups alike are wowed by America’s top-rated Monterey Bay Aquarium. There’s the honky tonk appeal of Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf and posh shopping for both dogs and humans in Carmel-by-the-Sea. At the foot of Ocean Avenue, a drop dead gorgeous white sand beach is ground zero for special sunsets.
The beautiful curves of the Pacific Coast Highway underscore the fact that driving and wine don’t mix. But if you’re keen to sample California’s fine wines, an overnight stay on the Monterey Peninsula will do nicely. For a taste of the Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco American Viticultural Areas, visit Hahn Family Wines, Carmel’s newest tasting room, open every day.
Pismo Beach And Morro Bay
San Luis Obispo, CA
San Luis Obispo, nicknamed “Happiest City in America,” is midway between two beaches. If you believe a California coastal road trip really ought to have some proper beach experiences, San Luis Obispo County delivers with 315 days of sunshine a year.
If you can’t catch the annual Pismo Beach Clam Festival in late October, visit a colony of 25,000 black and orange beauties at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove from fall through spring. Or hike and bike through newly opened Pismo Preserve above the beach. Bring binoculars to Morro Bay, a US top 10 bird watching site. Morro Rock, an ancient volcanic mound, is the backdrop for Peregrine falcons, great blue herons, snowy plover, egret, and shorebirds who share cool views with sea otters and seals. Keep Morro Rock in sight as you head indoors for the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum. For a hyper-local treat, dig into salt water taffy, fresh fish, clam chowder and wine from Edna Valley.