The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH in short) is one of the world’s most scenic roads, if not the most scenic one. As the name suggest it hugs the Pacific Coast, often perched on top of the very steep ledges.
It runs from the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico all the way to the top of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, but the most scenic, and famous, part stretches between Morro Bay in the south and Carmel in the north (both in California).
My first encounter with this fabulous road was in 2004 when with a few of my mates we toured the west coast after spending summer working in California. It was great trip and we were absolutely gobsmacked by the PCH. Back then we drove all the stretch from Los Angeles to the Olympic Peninsula but our time was quite limited and we wanted to see a lot of places so we were really rushing along. The other big downside of that trip was the fact that I couldn’t yet drive myself. So, even back then, I made a strong commitment to head back that way and drive the road myself.
Over the years of my travels to the USA I did manage to drive some sections of the PCH in Oregon (which are almost equally stunning) but it wasn’t until my latest trip that I got opportunity to drive the most scenic bit of it, along the central Californian coast.
Here the PCH is officially designated as California State Route 1. We joined it on a sunny Saturday afternoon, right next to the pier in Santa Monica, and headed north. Initially the road is far from perfect. It is a busy urban thoroughfare joining Santa Monica with Malibu and communities further along the coast. By the way, I don’t really get the whole fascination with Malibu. I found it a rather weird collection of oversized ramshackle bungalows of, mostly, no architectural quality whatsoever, squeezed between the beach and noisy highway chock full of traffic. Honestly I don’t get why you would live there if you were a millionaire and could afford a house almost anywhere. Well, I guess no one said that the rich and famous must be particularly clever.
After Malibu, in Oxnard, the California Route 1 joins the US Hwy 101 and for a while becomes a busy urban freeway connecting LA with Santa Barbara. Only further north it gets less busy and more scenic again. We wanted to spend a night somewhere in the vicinity of Santa Barbara but all the motels we checked were full so we had no choice but to push along. We finally managed to find a room in a small city of Buellton located 45 miles from Santa Barbara. And even there we only found a dated room in a seedy motel, one of those establishments where the majority of customers are weird locals living there long term. Well, I guess beggars can’t be choosers, so we took the room.
The next day we continued along the PCH. California State Route 1 diverges from the US Hwy 101 in San Luis Obispo and gets seriously scenic after Morro Bay. From now on, for about 120 miles, the road becomes a driver’s nirvana. I just can’t describe how much fun it is to drive it. Every curve and every bend opens a new panorama. Add spectacular bridges built in 1920s and 30s (for example the Bixby Bridge), add remote tiny communities (Cambia, Gorda), ocean breeze and mist, glorious sunset and you might, just might, get the image how fantastic this stretch of highway is. It was definitely worth revisiting this part of California.
For the whole day we drove, and drove, stopping often and taking plenty of photos. It is one of those places where it is hard to stop taking photos, especially for me as I’m mildly obsessed with taking pictures. Still, it is a challenging highway, with plenty of bends and even more excited and distracted tourists driving along it. I really recommend concentrating on the driving. Don’t drive and take pictures at the same time (as I tend to do from time to time).
As I already mentioned, the PCH is full of tourists driving it, many of them in rented pony cars like Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger or, like us, Chevrolet Camaro. These are perfect machines for this road and (more importantly for some I guess) they look damn good in photos. You can see many people taking selfies with their cars. Silly? Maybe, but come on, it is a damn fun. You must be a really sad or snobbish individual to blame them for that.
After watching spectacular sunset somewhere near Bixby Bridge we spend a night on the outskirts of Monterey. It was our last night in the US as we were flying back to London the following day. Luckily our flight was in the evening so we could continue along the Route 1 rather than take the fast way to the airport via freeways. Things got busy and populated for a while but after passing Santa Cruz the PCH becomes wild again. In fact it is not much less scenic here than along the Big Sur coast. You would never guess than the famous Silicon Valley, with all the technology giants’ headquarters, is just beyond the hills and that you can rich San Francisco in a bit over a half an hour. It simply feels miles away from civilization yet it is easier to reach than, let say, Morden in London. In places like that it is easy to understand people’s fascination with California.
I would gladly continue further north but London was calling, so we turned inland. On the way to the airport we briefly stopped on top of the 281m high Twin Peaks which offer an amazing panorama of whole San Francisco. That was a perfect farewell to the Golden State.
But, as one of its famous residents says, I’ll be back.
Nice post – you catch the magnificence of the central coast well.
I do think the stretch north of San Francisco is as spectacular, with the fog, the cliffs, the sand dunes in Oregon, etc. Well worth a slow trip from SF to Portland. Then another trip from Portland around the Olympic Peninsula (rain forests, hot springs, puffins, whales, bald eagles) including Seattle and the towns on Puget Sound.
I did the northern parts of PCH couple of years ago. In fact I drove some bits in both directions 😉
I have an old post about one of those trips here
Great capture of the PCH and Bixby at Dusk. That stretch of highway is iconic, and jaw droppingly beautiful. Thanks for the write-up.
Thanks for good words.