Epic! This was one of our best ever drives. Beautiful scenery, be that forest, mountain or the Pacific Ocean, everywhere you look!
Whilst in California it would be rude not to visit San Francisco; the issue was however that we were based in LA which is a good 6-7 drive away and our plans for moving on from Los Angeles go in a different direction. We decided to take a couple of days away from LA and drive the Pacific Coast road, also known as California 1, which has been highly recommended by a lot of people we have spoken to. Hotel booked for 2 nights thanks to the kindness of Nigel’s colleagues due to a parting gift voucher, we started our rather long but completely awesome journey.
We started the day a little later than planned (why is it when you know you have to get up early you can’t sleep!!!) Our original plan of out the door at 6am sharp was thwarted by the realisation we had screwed this by waking up at 6.30am oops. An hour later than scheduled we left at 7.15am.
The first 2 hours drive was pretty boring, lots of highways out of Los Angeles, some roadworks and heavy traffic in places but by 9.15 we had made it to Santa Barbara. I’m afraid to say we didnt see the best Santa Barbara had to offer; instead we headed for a brief stop in Downtown for a Starbucks breakfast. Starbucks has never been my favourite in the UK, always opting for Costa however I have since learnt that Costa is a purely British brand and not available here… anyway after a toastie and a coffee we headed onwards again, admiring the jacaranda trees as we went. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have made nearby Montecito their home, and we can see why, it’s a very beautiful area with mountains and the ocean nearby. Funnily enough we didn’t run into them in Starbucks 😉
Another hours drive brought us to our next stop, a Danish Village in the middle of California… who would have thought it! We were asked if it was actually a real place and it is, people live here in this Danish village and eat pastries. History states that Solvang was founded in 1911 by a group of Danes who travelled west to establish a Danish community in warmer climates than the harsh winters felt in Denmark.
We have previously been to Denmark and the places we have seen aren’t quite like this, this has been developed into a theme town which incorporates everything Denmark has to offer in a small space; however it was really quite fun and we got into the spirit of things by having a Danish pastry.😋😋. We could have spent longer but it was time to head on. To anyone considering a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, this is a stop we would highly recommend.
San Luis Obispo
We decided to stop next at San Luis as it was only 50 minutes or so down the road. We had no particular must sees here it was just a nice scenic stop. There wasn’t too much to see here that we noted but was a very pretty town with nice mountain backdrops. A couple of pics and back on the road.
Another 45 minutes down the road and we stopped at San Simeon. We had intended to visit Hearst Castle, and look for the zebras allegedly running wild in the grounds there, sadly it was closed. We were not really sure what else there was to see, but the scenery had changed dramatically from mountains to seascape. San Simeon was home to ground squirrels which we had never seen before; a pier and amazing sea landscapes. From reading the information notices there is a lot of sea wildlife to see here such as sea otters, whales and dolphins. We didn’t see so much but it really was a lovely stop; we had a walk along the pier and watched the ground squirrels playing mischievously.
Elephant Seal Vista Point
Well this place lived up to its name, we saw a couple of hundred elephant seals across our trip, stopping on our way north and back to the south. We hadn’t seen an elephant seal before, and personally I thought they were so named because of the adults’ large trunk-like proboscis, but it could easily be because of their size, they are massive! They can reach up to about 6.5 metres in length, and weigh up to 4000 kg. I don’t think we saw any quite in that league, but they were huge!
We saw some effortlessly swim near the shore, but on land it is a different matter. These lumbering beasts can barely move more than 3 steps at a time, and when they do move their bodies ripple with all the blubber they carry. We saw several just sunbathing, occasionally flicking sand over themselves to act as a kind of sunscreen.
The Big Sur
The most spectacular driving part of the trip; the Big Sur stretches 90 miles between San Simeon and Carmel in the north and has spectacular coastal scenery. It is rugged and mountainous which makes for a slow but awesome drive with loads of viewing points on the way.
This stretch definitely takes some time, it is very windy and an average speed of 40mph (slower on bendy bits) and of you’re of course going to want to pull over and take some pictures! It was an awesome drive, although like most roads you have someone who sits on your ass but luckily there are plenty of places to pull over and let them pass. The speed limits are reasonable and well sign posted on bends to give you an idea of what to expect. It took us around 2 hours each way to drive this stretch with stops but we could have spent longer.
Towards the end of the mountain trails you reach the area called Big Sur, full of camping grounds and trails where you can explore the redwoods. There are bars, restaurants and general stores. We had a driving break to have a look around. We also managed to capture a rather funky blue bird with an updo… must look up what it was. (We have since discovered it is a Steller’s Jay) If we had lots more time this would be an amazing place to stay either camping or in lodges.
Point Lobos State Reserve
We passed this going north at Carmel and stopped on the way back; Point Lobos had to mean sea lions; creatures we had grown to love throughout our time in the Galapagos Islands. We paid a $10 entrance fee for the car and parked up hoping we would be in luck. Our first impressions of the seascape was just wow! It was breathtaking.
We stopped and ate our lunch on a bench and walked a short cliff top path. As luck would have it where we found a parking space also happened to be near sea lion cove and the islands where they are known to spend their time. It was only a short walk before we spied the sea lions on an island off shore chilling with some cormorants …yay!
As an addition we also saw some grey whales in the distance; too far for photographs but we saw them spouting water out of their blowholes. We both wished we had more time to spend here; there were several trails we could have explored but time was against us. It was a great stop and definitely worth $10 whether you stay for an hour or all day.
Just a few miles (around 15 minutes) up the coast you will find Monterey. We were aware you can see more whales here but we also hoped to see sea otters which we hadn’t yet seen. We headed into the town and made a lucky punt by parking at the harbour; the sat nav was just set for the town and we ended up here. Theres a small beach called San Carlos and a little walkway along the water by the marina.
By the time we arrived it was 6pm and getting a lil chilly so we headed for a short walk along the harbour to see what we would see. It wasn’t long before we saw some sea otters lurking in the kelp! One was eating a huge crab and happily posed for photos on his back whilst having his dinner.
At the end of walkway we were also treated to the sight of hundreds of cormorants just chilling. We had seen them from a distance but never so close up.
A great stop, we were going to stop on the way back again to see if we could find the otters so were very glad we found them so easily here. We only stayed about 45 minutes before it was time to head on again but could easily have spent longer.
Santa Cruz is known for its beach, fairground and promenade. We stopped for some dinner, looking for something resembling good ole sausage in batter and chips, something we had missed from England. We managed to find a place on the pier which served clam chowder in a bread cob and chicken and chips. Not being seafood eaters we declined the very popular chowder and went for the chicken. By this time we had no battery left so were unable to get any pictures but you can read more about the boardwalk and the vintage fairground here.
Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space
This is a stop we made on our way back and may not be included in many people’s itinerary as it is a little ‘off piste’, however because we were staying outside of San Francisco then this wasn’t too off the beaten path for us. Despite its name we saw no signs warning of bears but there were mountain lions in the vicinity as well as rattlesnakes. We took the shortest walking route around the lake and admired some of the juvenile redwood trees in the area.
We did some research into San Francisco hotels online and they were way over our budget and the ones that were even close had terrible reviews. We therefore decided to stay outside of San Francisco in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara, San Jose. Thanks to the voucher Nigel’s work colleagues gave us we managed to stay for 2 nights at a nice property called Sonesta Suites. The location was just under an hour from San Francisco which was fine for us. It was comfortable and the staff were friendly and helpful.
Road Trip Stats
Our total Northbound journey with stops took us 15 hours with all the stops we made and we covered 651km (404 miles). Going back Southbound back to LA took us 12 hours with stops and we covered 645km (401 miles) making a total altogether of 1296km or 805 miles 😳😳 no wonder we were tired. It really was an epic trip and we saw more than we could have imagined in terms of wildlife and scenery. Stay tuned for our next post to read about what we did with our day in San Francisco.
Carol & Nigel x
2 thoughts on “Driving The Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco – an Awesome Road Trip!”
Christine and I did that trip back in the late seventies…Too bad Hearst castle was closed because that is a unique place.probabl on youtube..Carmel is beautiful and Big Sur is an incredible beautiful drive..WE were lucky in that we decided to stay in a motel at seven pm just before the drive south and good thing we did as i wouldnt want to do that drive in the dark.BEsideds missing the scenery would be dangerous..ah good times. thanks for the pics..
We’re happy to have revived some memories for you Dennis. It is a magnificent part of the world. I shall be searching for Hearst Castle on YouTube!