PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY
Monterey to Santa Barbara, California
Pacific Coast Highway
This was a highlight trip for myself and my wife a couple of years ago. My beloved wife gets car sick but I somehow managed to talk her into taking the trip (once). The road clings to the jagged edge of the mountains and at times seems to be wandering out over a cliff leaving you suspended in mid-air above the ocean.
The Pacific Coast Highway, referred to as PCH by locals, was built in 1934. I guess technically you could say it starts in Seattle and continues on to San Diego. However, we’ll focus on the journey between Monterey and Santa Barbara. This area of jagged coastline unveils some of the most majestic scenery you will ever set before your eyes. There is a reason PCH lands at the top of many lists for “Best Road Trip’s In America.”
Our road trip began in Monterey, California as we drove south for about 235 miles to Santa Barbara. This trek can be done in five hours if there are no traffic delays, but to truly experience the Pacific Coast Highway, three days along this meandering path is ideal. If you have the luxury of time, there is much more to do and see especially if you enjoy camping.
Monterey is the perfect California coastal community with the appeal of something for everyone. Cannery Row, once a salmon and abalone canning facility, is now the restaurant and lodging destination for the region.
You really should spend the extra money and splurge on an ocean view room. The Monterey Plaza Hotel is one of my favorites. The Pacific Ocean is the deepest of blues and will reward your eyes with glorious delight as the sun sinks beneath the horizon. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must see for all ages. The marine exhibits and mesmerizing oceanic displays are world renown.
If you are a golf lover, you really should take a short trip along 17-Mile Drive to Pebble Beach. The 7th hole green has been showcased on many magazine and TV shows. Carmel-by-the-Sea, where romance is ignited and celebrities go to hide
I am partial to Carmel-by-the-Sea, for it was here that my wife and I shared our first date. Carmel is the inspiration for many authors penning award winning stories. It's where romance is ignited and celebrities go there to hide. Carmel ranks in the top ten U.S. destination spots year after year.
Speaking of stories, the houses (or cottages as the locals call them) look like they were plucked from a fairytale and nestled among the tree-lined streets of Carmel. It is definitely worth a drive through the neighborhoods if for nothing more than a quick photo to send home of “Wish you were here.” The downtown area is fashioned after an ancient European village with shops and art galleries, wine tasting and delicious treats. You really should budget your time for at least a one night stay in Carmel.
As you leave Carmel, head south on Route 1 about 3.5 miles to Point Lobos State Reserve considered to be the “crown jewel” of the California State park system. Point Lobos is a great place for learning with guided walking tours, a place for enjoying magnificent beauty or to just relax and enjoy nature. The park has a plethora of different species of birds and mammals including black-tailed deer, gray foxes, sea otters, and sea lions. You can also catch a glimpse of migrating gray whales as they pass by from December through April.
From Point Lobos to Big Sur is approximately 21 miles but it will take you a considerable amount of time. Don’t be in a rush as none of your fellow travelers will be. There are lots of twists and turns and nature loving sightseers crowding up the pullouts to soak up the scenery. Remember, you are here to relax and enjoy. Oh, and one other tip. Watch for pedestrians and be sure to pull completely off the road when stopping for pictures.
Just over a mile south of Big Sur is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The peaks of Pfeiffer tower high above the Big Sur River Gorge. This is a place where the land, the sea, and forests of giant redwoods all come together to form one spectacular landscape.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after the lady herself, stretches from the Big Sur coastline into 3,000-foot ridges as visitors are treated to an 80-foot waterfall cascading from the seaside cliffs onto the beach below. Nepenthe Restaurant is a great place for lunch or dinner and provides great views of the mountains and coastline.
Located in San Simeon, about 65 miles south of Big Sur is the hilltop mansion and museum of Hearst Castle. They offer a couple of different tours but I would suggest Tour 1 as it is an overview of the castle and lasts about two hours. It’s great for first time visitors.
Snuggled into the cliffs of the coastline just six miles south of the castle is Cambria. There you’ll find exquisite suites and charming bed and breakfast hotels. It’s a great stopover for the night.
Next you’ll travel through Morro Bay and turn inland just a ways to San Luis Obispo. SLO is home to Cal Poly University. Out of San Luis Obispo take highway 101 south to Pismo Beach. If you want to spend a little time here, there are several wineries within a few miles of town as well as plenty of water and sports activities at the beach.
Santa Barbara, "The American Riviera"
Take highway 101 south from Pismo Beach towards Santa Barbra. Depending on the amount of time you have allocated, there are wineries and the little Danish town of Solvang. There you’ll find some tasty Danish pastries and fun eateries. Continue on highway 101 south towards Santa Barbara often referred to as the “American Riviera," and home to East Beach, voted #10 Best U.S Beach by Dr. Beach in 2015.
If you’re looking for an economical oceanfront room in Santa Barbara, try the Cabrillo Inn at the Beach. From there you can experience, trolley tours, bike rentals, kayaking, whale watching, horseback riding, surfing, golfing and much more.
Check Big Sur Highway Travel Guide for comprehensive information and weather conditions.
San Jose Int’l Airport (SJC) is the closest to Monterey. If you rent a car, you may want to drop it off in Los Angeles or other nearby airports rather than making the trip back to San Jose. Be aware of the “drop-off” charge on the rental car for returning to a different airport.
"The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net forever"
- Jacques Cousteau