Cruising California’s Pacific Coast Highway
Words by Christine Van Dyk
After a long day of airport food, TSA checks, and one lost suitcase, we finally touched down in San Francisco. No matter! Even a bargain airline resembling a mass-transit bus couldn’t dampen the excitement of this girls’ trip. We’d arrived in California with a thirst for wine, a Pinterest board of things to do, and enough hotel points to justify the trip. Time for another tick off the bucket list!
Days 1 and 2: San Francisco
Despite the weather app’s promise of sunny skies, there was a chilly drizzle that reminded me of Mark Twain’s quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” To my relief, the clouds soon parted and the mercury rose—our adventure had begun!
We entered Chinatown at the Dragon Gate, welcomed by colorful flags and The Street of the Painted Balconies. Strolling past herbalist shops and tchotchke stores, we searched for a restaurant for lunch. We knew we had a winner when we spied the Peking ducks hanging in the windows and overheard the shouts of servers that could only be described as performance art. After the ‘show,’ we continued to wander until we stumbled upon the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Inside a store the size of my walk-in closet, two women bake 20,000 cookies a day using a conveyor belt and miniature waffle irons.
After comparing fortunes, we made our way toward Lands End Lookout for the jaw-dropping views and a rigorous hike along the wild shoreline. With dinner fast approaching, we packed up and headed to Fisherman’s Wharf. A simple meal of cioppino stew and sourdough bread was the perfect ending to our day in the ‘City by the Bay.’
Curious about the parts of the city not listed in the guide books? Check out what we discovered on Day 2:
Musée Mécanique - This penny arcade features antique games from the 1920s Playland amusement park.
The Wave Organ - The jetty uses cemetery stones with inlaid pipes to make an ‘organ’ that gurgles and echoes when waves crash at high tide.
Seward Street Slides - What could be better than forty feet of steep sliding fun?
Sutro Baths - Once a large saltwater swimming complex, all that remains of the former baths are the ruins resting in the sea.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps - These mosaic steps are based on Brazil’s Escadaria Selarón. It’s the ideal spot for a colorful profile pic.
Day 3: Santa Cruz and Carmel-by-the-Sea
Highway 101 meets Highway 1 at the Golden Gate Bridge. The overlooks are a great spot to snap photos before jumping onto the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). For our journey, we chose an itinerary going ‘down’ the coast and not ‘up.’ Why? Because the best views are found white-knuckling it, skirting the sheer cliffs on the oceanside of the road.
Our PCH road trip had begun. Before long, the unmistakable clack-clack-clack of a wooden roller coaster lured us to our first stop: the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Amidst a cacophony of arcade games, carny workers, and a 342-pipe organ that kept time with the carousel, we played in our own 1940s movie set. Who says cotton candy and amusement rides are just for kids?
When we reached Carmel-by-the-Sea we pulled over for the last stop of the day. The quaint village offered shopping, farmers markets, and upscale eateries. Our favorite was the seaside farm owned by Clint Eastwood. The restaurant at Mission Ranch was the perfect place to watch the sun slip below the horizon. In a bucolic meadow dotted with actual sheep, we sat back and enjoyed a steakhouse meal to the far-off sounds of the ocean. Not bad for a Wednesday!
Day 4: Big Sur, Point Piedras Blancas Beach, and San Luis Obispo
Passing redwoods high enough to block the sun, the road eventually led us to the “house of no sorrow.” Perched high above the Pacific, Nepenthe was the 1960s cultural hub of Big Sur. The food is simple and the recipes are family ones, but the allure has more to do with the stories of Bohemian parties, a cast of free-thinking characters, and those amazing views.
Pulling away from the glorious lunch, we were soon tracing switchbacks along the cliff’s edge. I was glad I wasn’t the one in the driver’s seat! To my relief, the road finally leveled out near Point Piedras Blancas Beach where a colony of elephant seals make their home on the shore. The loud barks and smells told us we’d arrived but also ensured we were soon on our way.
We passed Morro Rock before turning inland toward San Luis Obispo where a farmers market has been hosted every Thursday night since the 1800s. Growers from the valley arrive with artichokes the size of melons and a friendly crowd gives you reason to believe the city’s nickname: the happiest place in America! After we’d eaten and drank our fill, we popped a piece of chewing gum on the wall of Bubblegum Alley and returned to the hotel, exhausted but content.
Day 5 and 6: Los Olivos, Solvang, and Santa Barbara
After a late start, we steered the car toward the sleepy town of Los Olivos, known for spectacular tasting rooms. The girls sampled their fair share of flights before shipping cases back home and hitting the road with yours truly as the designated driver.
With lunchtime looming, we decided to check out Pea Soup Andersen’s restaurant. The famous pea soup has been served since 1924 and seemed on-brand for our tour of the Danish village of Solvang. Picture timber-framed shops, handmade cuckoo clocks, and sweet aebleskiver doughnuts pulled fresh from the oven. It’s a charming way to spend a slow afternoon.
After trolling the Christmas shops for Advent calendars and wooden yule goats, we departed for Santa Barbara, arriving just in time for tacos and beer in The Funk Zone. The pedestrian-only area boasts bars, restaurants, and shopping in an atmosphere that’s a unique blend of hipster and upscale posh.
The next morning we were up with the sun to ride bikes. We peddled past sprawling homes, wide-open beaches, and the Chromatic Gate before booking a tour of Mission Santa Barbara. If you ever visit, ask about the Lone Woman of San Nicolas, a reclusive indigenous woman who inspired the book, “Island of the Blue Dolphins” and is buried on-site. It’s one of the fascinating things about Santa Barbara, the Queen of Missions, and one of many reasons this was among our favorite stops on the trip.
Days 7: Los Angeles
When we finally arrived in L.A. we were dragging. The combination of cross-continental travel and an abundance of wine meant this final destination would require an extra bit of ‘oomph.’ We got our juices flowing with a hike in Runyon Canyon Park, followed by a light lunch and rooftop yoga. It was just what we needed to re-energize before popping into The Last Bookstore. Housed in an abandoned bank, it’s a fantastic hangout for readers and record collectors alike. Afterward, we fought through traffic so bad it can not be overstated, making our way toward Little Tokyo. Sushi, mochi, and ramen more than made up for our trouble—it was the perfect final meal of the trip.
Morning came and the bags were packed. It was time to say good-bye to the Golden State. We’d drank our fill, used all the hotel points, and shopped to our limits. After a week away from our real lives, it was finally time to call it quits: our trek down the Pacific Coast Highway had run its course.
Tips for Your PCH Road Trip
Load your playlist ahead of time — Spotty cell service means it’s crucial to load the tunes the night before. Plus, there’s no better way to experience the PCH than with an inspired playlist.
Be flexible — Quirky towns, amazing vistas, and mom-and-pop restaurants were the proof that when we chose a flexible agenda, we found joy in the journey.
Look ahead — While wonder awaits around every bend of the road, sudden stops are an accident waiting to happen. Look ahead so you have plenty of time to slow down and pull off safely.
Yield to faster traffic —You may be on vacation but the locals aren’t. Make sure to use the pullouts to kindly allow faster traffic to cruise by while you enjoy the views.
Go north to south — This direction allows you to skim the oceanside of the highway, giving you the best glimpses of the Pacific.
Go topless — The PCH is one of the most incredible road trips in America. Make the most of your journey with a convertible to soak up the sun and panoramic views.
Tune in for road and weather updates — Look out for falling rocks, fog, and heavy rain that can lead to mudslides.
- Pull off — Scenic overlooks on the ocean side of the road offer designated spots to pull over and take pictures.
- Plan for meal stops—or don’t — Food options are limited in the more remote sections of the highway. Plan stops to allow for meals, or be a bit more adventurous and see where the day takes you.
- Avoid Peak Season — Summer crowds bring traffic delays and accidents. Play it safe and enjoy a more pleasant drive in the spring and fall.