A few years ago my Dad and I decided, instead of my normal visit – flying from Auckland, NZ where I lived at the time, into San Francisco international airport – I’d fly into LAX (aka the worst airport in the world). We did this, simply so we could spend a few days driving up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. I’ve done this trip twice in my life, once as a 5 year old with my family; we rented a huge camper van and did a month long trip around the US, and the second time just with my Dad, and both trips are fond memories for me. In honour of one of my favorite road trips in the world here’s your guide to driving the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to SF, and seeing the coolest sights along the way.
Although Santa Monica Pier isn’t strictly outside of LA, I had to give it a mention as it’s one of my happy places. A large pier off a beautiful stretch of Los Angeles’ famous sandy white beaches, Santa Monica Pier is a carnival with the charm of an old pier. Packed with a roller coaster, an arcade and a hundred year old carousel, it’s a fun little beginning to your trip.
About 2 hours drive north is the city of Santa Barbara, its Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage. Santa Barbara boasts sweeping beaches, local wine tours and a bustling center. It is also home to Lotusland, acres of natural wonders left behind by a socialite-turned-gardener, opera singer Madame Ganna Walska. Book in to a guided tour to experience more than 20 miniature gardens, including a butterfly garden, exotic plants, a cactus garden, and a topiary. Another must see is the Santa Barbara Mission, founded in 1786 by the Spanish Franciscans, it is still home to a community of Franciscan friars and is a stunning stop on your trip. Tours run everyday, and cost $13 or you can choose a self guided tour for $9.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is a city not dissimilar to Santa Barbara in that is was settled by the Spanish and it too has a beautiful mission. It’s a lively college town as it is home to California Polytechnic State University. Famous for the Thursday night street market and it’s bubble gum alley, a slightly disgusting if amusing street plastered with 70 years worth of bubble gum. My Dad and I chose to spend the night here, at The Madonna Inn. The hotel consists of 109 lavish rooms, all with different themes and names to match: Floral Fantasy, Jungle Rock, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Whispering Hills, to name a few. A fairy tale chateau mixed with a place of worship to everything kitsch, it was so much fun. They also have a restaurant, tennis courts, a pool and spa – I highly recommend staying here, especially if you have kids.
About 45 minutes drive from San Luis Obispo is the world famous Hearst Castle Designed by architect Julia Morgan it was a residence for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947. After he died the castle became a California State park and is now a museum show casing a considerable collection of art and antiques in a stunning setting I have a particular memory of the stunning pool pictured above, and the lack of bathroom breaks on the tour. I distinctly remember 5 year old me being guided through many ‘off limits’ rooms to the only functioning toilet on that floor! Reserve your tickets online for one of their many tour options, staring at $25 for an adult ticket.
This beach has particular meaning to me, and is a wonderful place to experience these magnificent beasts in their natural state. Not 10 minutes down the hill from Hearst Castle, this beach is home to the largest seals in the northern hemisphere (and second largest in the world), elephant seals. Access to the beach is easy, close to parking, and there is even a board walk. Please be mindful not to disturb these animals, only to appreciate them. The best time to go is in February as mating season has began and there’s a lot of activity on the beach.
Big Sur is one of the most famous stretches of coastline on this road trip. With stunning views in all directions its well worth a slow drive over the Bixby Bridge – one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world and one of the most photographed bridges on the West Coast. Next stop is Pfieffer State Park, take a leisurely walk through the redwood forests before lunch in the Big Sur Lodge restaurant. We stopped here for a delicious, simple meal with lovely views of the surrounding greenery.
Monterey is an old fishing city where the Big Sur stretch of coast ends. The city has many wonderful seafood restaurants along the colourful cannery row. Go whale watching or take a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium is large, and once was home to a great white shark I was lucky enough to meet on my first visit as a child. Great whites don’t live long in captivity so don’t expect to see one (the great white was held for 198 days before being released back into the wild), but there are many other wonderful attractions! Visit San Carlos Cathedral, the oldest continuously operating church in California, or head to Point Sur Lightstation for beautiful views of the sea and surrounding coastline. The light house is believed to be haunted though, so keep an eye out!
On the other side of the Monterey Bay, is the city of Santa Cruz. Known for its beautiful beach and awesome surfing, Santa Cruz is a lovely stop for the beach bum in all of us. It has a board walk/amusement park along the beach and even a surfing museum. Just around the coast is the Natural Bridges state park beach with, you guessed it, a natural bridge! It’s well known for a yearly migration of monarch butterflies from October to January.
The Winchester House
If you have extra time, take the 40 minutes drive to San Jose. There you’ll find the Winchester Mystery House, an architectural marvel with hidden passageways, staircases that lead nowhere, the house is said to be one of the most haunted places in the US with many reports of paranormal activity within its walls.
These are some of the classic, and not so classic, things you can visit during your road trip to SF.
I’ll be doing separate guides for both SF and LA in the coming posts so keep an eye out for those!
Let me know other spots you love along this stunning and quirky coastline.