When Travis and I planned our February getaway from the ice-encrusted hellscape that would become the coldest winter on record in Chicago, we decided to drive the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco. For inspiration, we watched YouTube videos of the journey, read TripAdvisor and asked our Cali friends for recommendations.
The drive was as phenomenal as everyone said it would be, and I would recommend it to anyone. This is how we did it, and our advice for others.
Trip length: A lot of the TripAdvisor posts we read suggest doing the drive over five days. That seemed excessive to us for a trip that takes, on paper, roughly nine hours. We budgeted three days, which allow plenty of time for eating, sightseeing and relaxing, especially if you, like we did, want to spend some time in LA and San Francisco as well. But after finishing the drive, I do think five days would be better if you can swing it, because you’ll likely take detours, stop at vista points, and want to have several hours at night to get dinner and lounge in your hotel room.
Day 1: Our journey on the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as U.S. Highway 1, began at about 2 p.m. in Santa Monica, which borders LA on the west side. Our friend Jeremy suggested visiting Solvang, the Danish wine hamlet where “Sideways” was filmed. It took us about three hours to drive there, and we deviated from the PCH to go further into the mountains, where the temperature dropped.
We ate dinner at California Tacos, a little strip-mall gem that served us homemade tortillas and chips with heavenly guacamole. This place was amazing and cheap, but if you are looking for resort-town-style ambiance, there are plenty of pricier options in downtown Solvang just a few blocks away, where we headed after dinner to get wine samplers at Carivintas Winery. I tried Barbera wine for the first time. It has a deep, muted, delicious taste. Carivintas donates a portion of their proceeds to animal shelters, and each bottle comes with a painted portrait of a rescue animal on the label.
Solvang’s city center feels like California’s take on Europe. Lots of Tudor buildings, and everything is a little newer and cleaner. We visited the Hans Christian Anderson museum—a must if you’re in town, it’s free and takes about 15 minutes—and learned a lot about the author of Thumbelina, The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Pea.
Our first hotel was just a short drive away in Pismo Beach, which a lot of people recommended as a place to sleep. It’s a cute beach town right off the PCH on the ocean. Our room was dirt cheap, but in the off-season Pismo Beach is a bit of a ghost town. We went in the hot tub at our hotel, and the only other people we saw were some sketchy characters in the parking lot. One of them was skateboarding with an empty gas can in his hand until he wiped out spectacularly. We asked him if he was OK, but he just got up and skated away.
I would suggest skipping Pismo Beach in the winter unless you are really in the market for a cheap hotel room.
We started our day in a monarch butterfly grove just down the road from our hotel. We saw hundreds of butterflies clustered on trees and even a few in the throes of an intense mating session on the ground. We learned a lot about the lives of Monarch butterflies: how they travel in packs, migrate south for the winter and can live anywhere from six weeks to seven months, depending on the time of year.
Then we started driving. Our first stop was the Elephant Seal Vista Point, which is one of the highlights of the drive. The vista point gives people a chance to see elephant seals in their natural habitat. We probably saw about a hundred of them lounging on the beach, nursing, playing and sleeping. We learned that male elephant seals can be double or triple the size of their female counterparts, and that the males have massive proboscises that make them all look like they’re related to Rodney Dangerfield. We also learned that elephant seals have an “alpha male” system, in that the dominant males, which comprise about 10 percent of the male population, are the only ones that get to copulate.
Maybe half an hour north of the vista point, we pulled over because Travis saw a “Redwoods” sign and a trail. We did some impromptu hiking and saw some gorgeous trees.
Back on the road, raindrops began falling as the landscape grew more dramatic and the drop-offs on the roadside got steeper. A few people had warned me that the hairpin turns and curving mountainside roads of the PCH could be dangerous. However, I was just in Bolivia last October, and the PCH roads have nothing on the Bolivian countryside. These roads may freak you out if you’ve never driven through mountains before, but they had decent guardrail coverage and the pavement is more than wide enough for two vehicles (not the case when I traveled from Corioco, Bolivia to La Paz in the snow and we had to pull over several times to let a bus going the other way pass). My friends said people like to drive fast and recklessly on the PCH, and we experienced a little of that, but just pulled over and let those folks pass us. This may be more of a problem in summer when there are more people on the road, and I could see traffic being a problem. But on weekdays in February, it’s not bad at all.
Several friends recommended Big Sur Bakery, and we got there at the height of the rain. The bakery really delivered, though it should be noted that they only serve meals at lunch and dinnertime. The interior has an elegant log-cabin vibe, and it was a soothing place to escape the weather. We ate a potato frittata, a pumpkin scone and a croissant and washed them down with some very delicious vanilla Rooibos tea.
Point Lobos was our next stop, and by then the rain had cleared up. Point Lobos is another highlight of the PCH. The jutting cliffs, brilliant rain-soaked cypresses and crashing waves will make you feel like you’re in a Dr. Seuss book.
After Point Lobos, we were ready to stop for the night at our hotel in Monterey. We had left all the confirmation info at home, so we actually had to call around to find the hotel we reserved, but it only took a few calls. We stayed at the Colton Inn, which was really nice for the price. They have a sauna that we took advantage of the following morning.
Monterey is known for seafood, and we ate on Fisherman’s Wharf at the Old Fisherman’s Grotto. If this sounds like a cheesy tourist trap, yes, it kind of looks that way from the outside, but inside it is pretty classy and the food was amazing. We ate crabs, scallops, shrimp, clam chowder, crab cake, seafood salad and sourdough bread. Our waiter was one also of the most professional I have ever seen.
We ended our day with a beer at the Cannery Row Brewing Company, which has 73 beers on tap. Travis had a sour rye beer and I drank a Firestone Walker IPA. I loved both the restaurant and the brewery, and would definitely suggest stopping in Monterey.
After a quick stop in the hotel sauna and a quick visit to a 200-year-old church, we drove to Santa Cruz to eat at the Surfrider Cafe, which lured us in with the promise of avocado fries. The “fries” are actually breaded and deep-fried avocado slices, but they were nonetheless delicious. Travis ate a ramen burger, which had a ramen-and-egg bun.
Our next stop was the Fitzgerald Marine Preserve, where we spent an hour wandering around the beach checking out tide pools. We saw sea anemones, starfish, snails, tiny fish and more. If you visit the preserve, check online to see when’s the best time of day to visit. You’ll want to go at low tide. Having said that, while I enjoyed the preserve, it was one of my least favorite stops on our trip.
Then it was time for our farewell stretch of the PCH as we made our way into San Francisco to return our rental car. It’s pretty cool to see the pastoral give way to the urban as you make your way into the city.
After returning the car, our friends Dan and Vicki took us to Twin Peaks to see a night view of the city and then to Beach Chalet, which was a perfect place to end our coastal travels. Beach Chalet is an ocean-side restaurant and brewery inside a stately freestanding building. The first floor, which you walk through to get to the restaurant, features beautiful 1930s frescoes commissioned by the U.S. Works Progress Administration. The paintings are of San Francisco life in the ’30s, and according to the website are in the style of the Arts and Crafts movement. On the second floor are floor-to-ceiling windows for seeing the ocean, which is just across the street, and beer brewed on site.
Everyone should drive the Pacific Coast Highway at least once. Some spots we didn’t check out but are highly rated include the Hearst Castle, the Monterey Aquarium, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and the PCH north of San Francisco in Humboldt County. We will be back at some point to hit those!
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