So you’ve packed your bags, taken the time off of work, made some playlists, and finally decided on the dates for your vacation. You can already feel the wind on your face, but then it hits you: where, exactly, are you going to go? You’ve decided on California, but that’s a big state. You put down your road atlas and your pen, turn to your companions and ask the greatest of all road-trip questions: So… *ahem* where to, guys?
And your companions, well, they tell you. The Pacific Coast Highway is a must for any California lover, and if you’re just visiting, there’s no better way to see California than along the winding stretch of asphalt that divides the chaparral California cliffs from the glittering Pacific Ocean. There’s plenty to do, plenty to see, and just about every mile in between is postcard-worthy.
Technically speaking, the U.S. Department of Transportation defines the Pacific Coast Highway as the stretch of Highway 1 which runs between Dana Point (just north of San Diego), and terminates in Oxnard, California (just north of LA). But for the purposes of your road trip, we’ll say that the Pacific Coast Highway is that series of connecting highways that run along the coast, and generally considered “The 1.” Don’t get mad – it’s what the collective conscious of Californians tend to think, anyhow.
But what’s more important to note is that the destination is not necessarily paramount. The phrase, “the journey is the destination” holds true here. Because what could be greater than seeing all that there is to see? What is more exciting than taking if not the road less-traveled, the road well-traveled for good reason? Think of all the little things missed by flying – all the sights, the smells, the scenery – that are accessible when taking your time in the car? Road trips are hard-wired in us to be stimulating and the PCH is perhaps the grandfather of all scenic highways.
So really the question you need to ask is which direction? North or south? And to answer that, the question becomes simply, what do you want to see? The PCH offers a lot. Along its serpentine route you can find beaches both sandy and rocky, trees both of the palm and pine varieties, and enough roadside attractions to shake a stick at. But let’s break it down a bit further:
You’ve probably got a good idea about these, but here’s a brief rundown in case you’re curious.
- San Diego is big city life upon the beach. The downtown’s most notable area is the Gaslamp district, and it’s here you’ll find all the really nice entertainment, dining, and nightlife. Outside of downtown, however, San Diego splits into little townships, some of the most appealing being La Jolla and Oceanside. Both offer funky yet safe beachside communities of the Southern Californian stereotype. Learn about more things to do in San Diego.
- Los Angeles is the next big city upon your way north. Los Angeles is the birthplace of Hollywood, the Silver Screen, west coast rap music, and the counterculture music revolution of the late 60s and 70s. Books could be written about Los Angeles, and if you’ve got a hankering to visit Venice Beach, Hollywood, the OC, Manhattan Beach, or any of the other areas’ attractions, Viator’s got a lot to say to point you in the right direction. Read more about things to do in Los Angeles.
- Santa Barbara: Though not a large city (population roughly 150,000), Santa Barbara is known world-wide by its nickname, The American Riviera. It is here that the wealthy come to retire and the young attend the University of California at Santa Barbara. The confluence creates a dynamic scene, one of opulence and young blood. The city is truly a destination in and of itself, and if that’s not enough, the Santa Ynez Valley of wine-tasting fame is in its backyard.
- Monterey is a beautiful outcropping of land that is technically a peninsula. After miles and miles of rolling hillside and farmland, one comes across the Monterey Peninsula and is bowled over by the beauty of the sea, the sea lions barking down below, and all the fodder for Steinbeck’s literary musings from his seminal novel, Cannery Row. Or pull off slightly south of Monterey in Big Sur, where the road snakes along cliff-hugging curves below wooded hilltops. Read about Monterey, Carmel, and the 17-Mile Drive.
- San Francisco: The City by the Bay has a lot to offer in its relatively small seven mile by seven mile area. The city is known for its youthful energy, its waterfront, its dining, its culture, its nightlife, its architecture, its gardens – the list goes on. San Francisco is far and away the big-city stop if you’re in the market. Read more about things to do in San Francisco.
The above is in no way intended to be comprehensive, though it should give you good insight into where some of the PCH’s best big-city fun is to be had. But let’s step beyond the cities and into the big beautiful open road.
Another thing you’ll want to consider when planning the perfect PCH road trip is beach time. North of Point Conception (about 100 miles north of Santa Barbara) the wind picks up and the water temperature drops like an overzealous scuba diver. That means that Mom and toddlers aren’t seen so much in their swim trunks and beach blankets, but instead wrapped in fleece and pointing the camera at the elephant seals.
Still just as beautiful, but just different, and colder. So if you’re into the Southern California beach scene, it’s best to stick to some of Southern California’s best beaches. If you’re surfing, however, there’s no doubt that some of the best surf breaks lie above Point Conception (Mavericks, Half Moon Bay), but then again that’s a road trip in itself, no?
How about wine tasting stops? California is known for its great wines and what’s a road trip without a couple welcome diversions? Expand your palate and head outward. The great wine tasting road trip starts in Santa Barbara and expands upwards through California and into the famed Napa Valley. If this is your road-trip goal, the PCH will get you through most of it, but you might consider some sidetracks through Santa Ynez and Napa. Both of these regions house multiple international wine recognitions, subtle yet ample nightlife and spectacularly Arcadian countryside.
In short, what defines a great Pacific Coast Highway road trip is the willingness to go, a healthy serving of free time and adventurous spirit and the enthusiasm to explore. The PCH will get you there, whether it be the big cities, rife culture, and sunny beaches of the southern Californian lifestyle you’re searching; or the rocky picturesque beauty of Northern California, its wine valleys, its cedar, cypress, and eucalyptus ridden highways, or its distinctive rolling hills and open road. Give yourself enough time, and you’ll find it – whatever it is – which, after all, is what defines a great road trip, doesn’t it?
Read more about things to do in California