Highlights and Tips from our California Coastal Road Trip
We recently took the scenic route home to Los Angeles from San Francisco, also known as the great California Coastal Road Trip. This trip down Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, affords gorgeous views of California’s scenic beauty, as well as stops at historic sites that emerged during the growth of our great state. You can get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under eight hours if you drive inland, but the coastal drive is full of hills and winding curves, along with plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view. Including one day in San Francisco, we spent three days driving down to Los Angeles, with two overnight stops, so that we could take it all in at our own pace. Here are the highlights from our trip.
Starting Point: San Francisco
After an overnight stop and a day in San Francisco, we started our drive towards Monterey. Had weather permitted, we would have drove down on the 1 the entire way, past redwoods, Half Moon Bay, Natural Bridges States Beaches, and Santa Cruz on the way to Monterey. However, with intermittent rain showers throughout the day, we opted to drive inland the first leg.
Our first stop was Monterey, staying near Cannery Row. We stopped here this trip mainly to get some rest before the serious driving started the next day, but if you want to do a longer stopover here, there’s a world class aquarium in Monterey and opportunities for whale watching. Cannery Row itself is a bit touristy, but it’s a nice place for a one day stop. The first time we visited Cannery Row, we splurged and stayed at the Spindrift Inn, waking to the sound of crashing waves. We had a fireplace room overlooking the beach. If this fits in your budget, I definitely recommend it. However, this trip we stayed a little off the main drag to save some money, and I think next time we do this drive, we might stay near the next destination on this list.
Sunrise at Lover’s Point Park
About a mile from the Cannery Row area is Lover’s Point Park in Pacific Grove. We arrived here early to catch the sunrise and would move in tomorrow if we could. With a large stretch of beach to walk and no touristy vibe, we fell in love with this area and will try staying the night in this area next time. The view here is expansive and you can walk along the beach or out on the rocks on onto the small viewing stations, but with crashing waves every minute or so, you’re bound to get soaked that close to the water. There is a park behind the coastline so you are surrounded by nature. We were surrounded by pelicans and seagulls at various points along our walk through this area. As they fly into the wind, they look like they’re floating, which added to the charm of this area for us.
17 Mile Drive
The 17 mile drive is a stretch of land in Pacific Grove that offers a range of scenery from beaches to seal and bird rocks to redwoods and cypress trees. The drive runs through Pebble Beach and is also home to a number of golf courses and millionaires. In addition to birds and seals, you can find deer here, running across the path, through the woods or even grazing in the yards of some of the homes. Deer are among my favorite animals so I was thrilled every time I caught a glimpse of one.
The Seal Rock Picnic Area is one of the most popular stops for good reason. It is large area with a clear view to this rock covered with seals.
The entrance fee to the 17 Mile Drive is 10 USD and you are provided with a map of the best places to view wildlife and scenery. You’d be surprised how many people drove into the parking lot and drove on without exiting the car at this portion of beach, named Cypress Point Lookout on the map. From the car it looked like a fence with a view of the ocean, but once we got out of the car, we found seals sunning on the beach and surfing in the waves. This area is closed in the spring during birthing season.
The Lone Cypress, one of the most iconic sights of the California Coast, is over 200 years old and held in place these days by cables. Having stood up to the elements all these years, here’s hoping the tree makes it to 300 years. It’s worth the stop to see this symbol of Pacific Grove and the 17-Mile Drive.
After exiting the 17-Mile Drive, we took this photo along the way to our next stop along Highway 1. This is pretty emblematic of your view as you drive down the coast: waves crashing, ocean rock formations, green grass (much of it with grazing cattle), hills and bends.
The Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in California, and it is one of a number of bridges that were completed in the 1930s along the Pacific Coast Highway. The Bixby Bridge was originally built to help connect Big Sur to the rest of California.
McWay Falls and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Further down the Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur is home to a range of sights, including both beaches and woody forest. McWay falls is an 80 foot waterfall that feeds onto the beach and into the tide in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can not walk on the beach, but there are easy hiking trails winding around the area.
Elephant Seal Viewing
As you approach San Simeon from the southern tip of Big Sur, you will find a large viewing area for elephant seals. Winter is the time to view them, as they begin mating and birthing on the beach from December through February. Viewing is free and you are very close to sleeping elephant seals. The loud and solo bull seals, as seen below, stay closer to the water, but you still get a good view.
We stopped at Hearst Castle near the end of our driving day and found all the tours were sold out except the night tours. However, they put us on a waiting list and we managed to join the Upstairs Suites tour, a tour of the guest rooms, including a golden room that was built inside a renovated bell tower. There are a range of tours available at Hearst Castle, and we are working our way through them. The Upstairs Suites is a great tour where you learn how guests of Hearst were treated and lived while they were visiting. I enjoyed seeing some clothes that women wore as part of their 5 different outfits a day that most wore. Included in the tour price is an IMAX movie that dramatizes Hearst’s life from childhood that I enjoyed. I don’t have a photo for this section of the post because Hearst Castle does not permit publishing of photos taken on the grounds without written consent.
We spent the night in San Luis Obispo, where Highway 1 runs concurrently with the 101 Freeway for a stretch. We stayed at an inexpensive motor inn, but had breakfast at the famous the Madonna Inn, a unique motor hotel with themed rooms, such as the Caveman room, Austrian Suite and Fabulous Fifties room. I have always wanted to stay here, but it has yet to happen. Our breakfast was at their Copper Cafe. Although we had hoped to eat at a copper-top table, we didn’t have reservations so we had to wait for a seat at the copper-top bar. Our meal was very good and we picked up a couple of cookies in the bakery right inside the cafe afterwards for the road.
Although not on the Pacific Coast Highway, Solvang is a small Danish town north of Santa Barbara that we stopped at on our way home. The town was founded in 1911 by a group of Danish teachers. It is a charming place to see stores built inside windmills and to taste some traditional Danish foods. Particularly good are the ebelskivers, a jam-filled round pancake, and butter cookies you can find at many restaurants and bakeries around town. Solvang is a touristy place, and is quite popular during the holidays with local tourists and out-of-state visitors alike. We didn’t enjoy this time as much as we have past stops here because it was unbelievably crowded right before Christmas, but I do recommend a short stop here if you are doing a Southern California road trip.
Although I’ve done this drive and visited many of these spots before, the California Coast never gets old for me. If you haven’t done so yet, I hope I’ve inspired you to visit my beautiful home state.
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