One of the most distinctive things about California’s Pacific Coast Highway is how little it has changed over the years. Those heart-stopping curves along dusty cliffs, the vast Pacific Ocean crashing on rocky shores below, the towering evergreens that block out the sun around Big Sur? It is scenery as massive in scale as it is timeless.
In some respects, the California coast — particularly the pristine central and northern stretches — probably looks much as it did centuries ago. But as recent world events remind us, the Pacific Rim is a landscape of geologic violence and danger, constantly shifting and eroding, shaped by upheaval.
I first drove the Pacific coastal route in the late 1990s, when gas was under $1 a gallon. That’s perhaps the biggest change I’ve witnessed in a region I’ve explored many times in the years since. It remains, for many, the iconic American road trip.
There are lots of ways to do the PCH — as the Pacific Coast Highway is colloquially known, though it also goes by U.S. Route 1 — but planning is always the essential ingredient.
First, consider time and distance: How much coastline do you have time for? While the PCH spans from Orange County north of San Francisco to Mendocino, not all of it runs along the water.
The most spectacular stretch — the quintessential heart of the PCH experience — is arguably along the Central Coast, from San Luis Obispo through Big Sur and Monterey. The lush, almost tropical Orange County coast is lovely as well, as is the drive between Malibu and Santa Barbara, a gently curving coastline that hugs the Santa Mountains; the southern portion is especially pretty in springtime, when the hillsides are abloom with yellow, purple and orange wildflowers.
Los Angeles and San Francisco are the classic bookends to a PCH drive, both terrific cities to begin and end journeys — and two very different, if equally Californian, urban experiences. But which direction you start from is key.
Drive north, and you’ll be safely on the inland lane along the scariest stretches of tortuous, cliff-hugging road; off to the side is a sheer drop of hundreds of feet into a roiling, rock-strewn surf, and you’ll notice, as the road curves in front of you, how mudslides and erosion eat away at the outer lane first. For this reason, I don’t personally have the nerves to drive southbound, though I know plenty of people who do — and they report better opportunities to pull over in turnouts for picture taking.
While the distances seem relatively short, you won’t be driving very fast, and you’ll need plenty of time for picnics, sightseeing and eating. How much time is up to you, but although you could drive between cities in a couple of days, you’ll need between four days and a week to include leisurely stops.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Make sure you schedule your driving during daylight hours, not only because the scenery is the point of the exercise, but also because driving the dark, narrow Central Coast is downright scary at night. So while there’s little variation in the cool, fresh Pacific climate — which ranges from sunny to foggy, depending on time of day — reduced daylight means you’ll need more time for a wintertime trip.
It goes without saying that you’ll want a reliable car with good brakes, roadside service like AAA — and a good map, because California highway nomenclature can be confusing. (Although in my opinion, they have nothing on Queens.) At various times, Route 1 becomes Route 101, and the coastal route is also referred to variously as the PCH, Coast Highway or Cabrillo Highway. Follow the map and the sun — as long as the latter inclines to your left as the day wears on, assuming you’re driving north, you can’t be too far off-track.
Picking up the PCH in Santa Monica, you cruise along the wide, sandy beaches of Pacific Palisades into Malibu, a rustic surf town wedged between sea and mountain, for which Route 1 doubles as its Main Street. The beaches become progressively emptier and the seagulls more numerous as you head into Ventura County, through a brief mountain pass and finally into Santa Barbara, which makes an excellent stop.
With a big university and a lively Jewish community (the annual Jewish Festival is in May), Santa Barbara is the most cosmopolitan destination until you hit San Francisco. You can easily spend a couple of days shopping the picture-perfect downtown, wandering orange-scented backstreets, prowling through colonial-era missions and hanging out on the wide bay beach, where the water is calm if frigid.
North of Santa Barbara, the route skirts inland for a spell. You’ll inevitably stop in Solvang, a Danish-theme park of a town that knows road trippers are a captive audience for its hokey pastry shops. This part of the drive is interesting primarily for that side of California that tourists rarely see: the rural agricultural valley culture, with its odd mix of European-immigrant heritage and Latino neighborhoods.
Cruise past the missions of San Luis Obispo and the surfers at Pismo Beach, and the next place of any interest is Cambria, a romantic seaside village with just enough cafes and galleries. Cambria is an easy stop, a good place to catch a beachside sunset and 40 winks at one of its many inns.
After Cambria, the coastal highway enters its most picturesque stretch. Many people detour at San Simeon for a guided tour of Hearst Castle, the Gilded Age estate; maybe I’ve just seen many real castles in Europe, but I prefer to head straight to Big Sur.
These 90 miles of oak and redwood forests, dramatic cliffs, pounding surf and mountain trails are a perennial mecca for spiritual seekers and those looking to escape the mundane world. How long you spend here depends on how much time you’d like to devote to hiking, biking, bird watching, rock climbing, and picnicking at the numerous state parks (including Pfeiffer Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Andrew Molera). From Pfeiffer Big Sur, a canyon road winds down to windswept, moody Pfeiffer Beach, one of the few accessible along this rocky stretch.
You can also stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library (www.henrymiller.org), where a small museum is devoted to the author’s books and drawings. With a sculpture garden and picnic tables, it makes a good rest stop for the culture-deprived (in general, along this stretch of coast, stop wherever you can; frequent weather detours mean you can never be sure of your next meal or bathroom).
North of Big Sur is many people’s favorite California park, Point Lobos State Reserve, fabled for the abundance of its otters, sea lions, baby seals and seasonal whales. Then you’ll come to the moneyed towns of Carmel and Monterey, beloved of golfers and San Francisco weekenders.
The former is an artsy, somewhat precious village, with a nice beach and pretty Victorian houses; the latter is a onetime-Spanish mission and fishing outpost, now most famous for its aquarium and its mansions. You can linger here, but I favor the lower-key surf towns of Half Moon Bay and Pacifica, less than an hour but a world away from San Francisco.
Then all of a sudden, the jagged, sculptural rock formations atop golden cliffs give way to rows of neat stucco ranch houses and traffic lights. You’re in the big city once again, hunting for a parking spot.
California Parks information: www.arpks.ca.gov
California Highway conditions update: www.dot.ca.gov (click on “Travel”)