Northern CA Coast Road Trip on PCH

Pacific Coast Highway – Northern California Coast Itinerary

The iconic Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), which runs over 600 miles of California’s rugged and magnificent coasts, was first constructed in the 1930s and continues to remain a marvel of human endeavour. It is among the most absolutely stunning roads in the world, designed to be driven slowly while gazing out the window at the mountains, soaring trees, expansive beaches, and endless sky. It also provides travelers with an unrivaled opportunity to immerse themselves in all that California has to offer, including pioneer outposts, surfing villages, farm-fresh meals, local wine, roadside kitsch, Hollywood glam, and bohemia.

For the sake of making your planning as easy as possible, this road trip itinerary has divided the northern California coastline into three sections, running from south to north: San Luis Obispo to Carmel, Monterey to the Point Reyes National Seashore, and Bodega Bay to Leggett, which is the northern terminus of the highway, connecting to Route 101. The most crowded parts of northern California’s Highway 1 are exactly where you might expect them to be: in the San Francisco, Monterey Bay, and Big Sur areas, the most popular tourist destinations. That’s especially true during the peak summer months, when drivers jam rental cars onto the highway by the hundreds of thousands.

San Luis Obispo to Carmel

If you choose to begin your Highway 1 driving in San Luis Obispo, be sure to take a few hours — or even a day — to explore what the town has to offer. There are walking and bicycling trails, golf courses, fine dining, museums, and more. Call the city “SLO,” as the locals do, and take things slow before you climb into the car for the first leg of your drive up the coast.

An excellent first stop is Hearst Castle, which is forty-five miles north of San Luis Obispo, in the town of San Simeon. A lot of people driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco along Highway 1 consider Hearst Castle the midway point, so it’s a popular destination for more reasons than just its tours and history. For information about tours, go to hearstcastle.org.

Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle

From Hearst Castle, it’s about ninety-three miles to Monterey, covering what is perhaps the most spectacular section along Highway 1. This is the Big Sur region, the part of the highway where there are forty-mile stretches without so much as a single gas station. You almost have to do this long of a stretch by sheer definition of the place, especially if you want to spend your evenings in larger city-style hotels instead of roadside campgrounds or motels.

You will pass through the small towns of Gorda, Posts, and Big Sur before coming to Carmel-by-the-Sea and neighboring Monterey, but expect this leg of your drive to be almost 100 percent filled with nature. That’s the beauty of the place. Start out with a full tank of gas and enjoy it to the fullest.

TRAVEL TRIP: The stretch of Highway 1 near Hearst Castle can be closed due to heavy rains during the wet season, which technically runs from November through April. Your best bet in the face of inclement weather is to click on the “highway conditions” link found on the California Department of Transportation’s Web site, www.dot.ca.gov.

Monterey to the Point Reyes National Seashore

The drive from Monterey to Santa Cruz is about forty-five miles and takes you around the whole of Monterey Bay. There are a couple of towns in between, both on Highway 1 and just to its east, but for the most part the main attraction is the bay itself. Both Monterey and Santa Cruz have more than enough attractions to keep the entire family happy. You might consider a morning at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then a drive along the coast up to Santa Cruz, where you can spend the night before buying tickets for the rides along the seaside boardwalk.

Heading north from Santa Cruz, it’s about sixty miles to the town of Half Moon Bay, which is as good a place as any to stop if you don’t want to continue on to San Francisco, another thirty miles to the north. There are a couple of adults-only attractions here, including a double-decker smoking bus at Cameron’s Pub and the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, where you can sample the local ales.

One of the rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is called “Back to the’50s.” It features colorful cars that your little kids can drive backward and forward while singing along to doo-wop and Motown-era songs, thus keeping the driving theme going during your stopover between other Highway 1 destinations.

A lot of surfers tend to stop at Half Moon Bay along Highway 1, since the famous fifty-foot wave area known as Mavericks is about a half-mile away. This is not a place to learn the sport of surfing, but if you want to see some of the best surfers in the world, grab your long-lens camera and hit the beach. There’s an annual invitation-only surfing contest, with varying dates depending on weather conditions. If you want to avoid traffic, that would be a good time to continue north to San Francisco.

Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay

Assuming that you stop for the night at Half Moon Bay, your next destination along Highway 1 is San Francisco. You can of course pull off the highway and do any or all of the activities described in Chapter 2, but if you just want to get a look at the Golden Gate Bridge, you needn’t even hit the brakes. Highway 1 crosses right over it, bound for Sausalito and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Looking for a place to blow some big bucks on a super-memorable romantic weekend? Consider the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay, an 1800s-style estate with a thirty-six-hole championship golf course and a waterfront spa with sixteen different treatment rooms. The lowest-price room during the high season in August is $500. Suites cost up to $3,500 per night.

Bodega Bay to Leggett

After you leave the Point Reyes National Seashore in your rearview mirror, you’ll come to Bodega Bay, which marks the southernmost point in the northernmost route along Highway 1. The stretch from here to Leggett, at the highway’s northern terminus, is far less crowded with towns and tourist attractions. If you want to get away from the crowds and be almost alone with nature well into the redwood forests, this stretch of Highway 1 is ideal.

To do the entire stretch from Bodega Bay to Leggett, you’ll cover about 150 miles — which you can do, on good days, in about three hours. That’s not bad at all for a scenic drive, and if you’re hoping to become mesmerized without interruption along the highway, this is the place to do it.

Bodega Bay CA
Bodega Bay

Looking for a place to rent a house between Bodega Bay and Leggett on Highway 1? Consider the town of Sea Ranch, a planned community of weathered-wood houses built almost entirely without fences, so as to utilize the natural landscape as barriers between neighbors. Anyone with an interest in architecture will love this place.

Should you require a stop along the way, your best bet is in Mendocino, which was covered in Chapter 8. The city is just shy of 100 miles north from Bodega Bay, about two-thirds of the way up to Leggett and the intersection with Highway 101.

PCH Tips and Advice

These tips and ideas will help make your drive most pleasant:

  • Check your gas gauge. There’s no gasoline available for up to 40 miles in some stretches, especially in Big Sur and north of San Francisco.
  • “Go” when you have a chance. Restrooms are also scarce in those same areas.
  • Allow plenty of time. Assume you will average about 30 miles per hour (45 kph). This means a round trip between Hearst Castle and Big Sur can take most of a day and San Francisco to Mendocino can be an all-day drive.
  • If anyone in your party suffers from motion sickness, be prepared. If that party is an adult, let them drive.
  • If you are driving only one way, try to drive from south to north. You will be driving on the insides of the curves and views are clearer toward the north.
  • If you are driving both ways (making a round trip to Hearst Castle from Big Sur, for example), avoid crossing traffic to see things on the opposite side of the road. Save them for the return trip instead.
  • CA Hwy 1 is prone to landslides, especially during rainy winters. Check its condition online or call 800-427-7623 before you go.

It’s always good practice to follow these safety tips, but they become even more important along busy CA Hwy 1:

  • Drive defensively
  • Buckle up! California law requires it for the driver and all passengers
  • Pull over if too many cars are following you (but only when you can do so safely)
  • Don’t pass where there are double yellow lines

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