Known to be America’s most popular and loved driving destination, even the slightest jaunt on the PCH will leave you in awe. Stretching just over 1000 kilometres, it tightly wraps the coastline, offering some of the most stunning, unobstructed views I have ever seen. It was love at first sight.
In my California trip, hitting the road was one that I looked forward to the most. Seeing Los Angeles and San Francisco has been undeniably fun and enjoyable, but the road trip was something different, something beyond sight-seeing — it was an adventure that fuelled a strong sense of wanderlust and soul-searching, which evoked a fluctuation of mixed emotions. They say, many a honeymoon has been spent, a book born and a virgin road trip consummated along the PCH’s wonderfully winding route. Not the least surprised.
Given just ten days in California, Bibiana and I braced the PCH in two full days covering 500 miles, heading north from Los Angeles to San Francisco with an overnight at San Luis Obispo, or Slo.
Our PCH road trip itinerary were mapped out as such with the following picturesque pitstops.
1. Los Angeles
We embarked on our road trip from Los Angeles at 10am. As excited as I was about the adventure, I left Los Angeles with a heavy heart. The city was something truly special, especially at the Griffith Observatory where I recall just taking it all in, overlooking the entire city as the sun sets and city comes to light. It was a view forever imprinted in my mind.
Up at Pepperdine University campus, a concealed yet perfect vantage point for a breath-taking view of the Malibu coast.
The Malibu Pier where the widely celebrated Malibu Farm Cafe is beautifully set above the ocean, perfect for brunch with everything served farm fresh.
We made a quick pitstop at this peaceful, quaint little town with trails of Spanish influence. I would suggest spending no more than an hour if you’re racing against time.
4. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a must for anyone doing the PCH road trip. A very charming city very much alike the quaint Ventura but livelier with the presence of both locals and travellers. Influence of the Spanish from 1600 can be seen throughout the colonial facades, with the Mission being the city’s treasured landmark. There’s ample to do around here — see animals at the Santa Barbara zoo, sample Santa Ynez wines, shop on State Street and Paseo Nuevo, or simply unwind at the idyllic beach. After all, the city calls itself the American Riviera.
Not far from Santa Barbara lies the surprising county town founded by Danish Americans. The collage of windmills, bakeries, and dated souvenir shops makes a stroll or drive by worth while. It was rather quiet during our visit with some shops closed at tea time, but a little less buzz won’t hurt. In fact, it probably adds on to the authentic Danish lifestyle experience.
6. Pismo Beach
A classic Californian central coast beach town that has an extremely relaxed and cosy vibe. Pismo beach seemed to me like a much quieter, toned down version of Santa Monica beach, which makes a perfect place for a romantic evening stroll in the sunset.
Little one-storey shops and restaurants huddle together by the beach, usually with a dimly lit interior and a contrasting neon sign board, although none of them seemed to flicker.
7. San Luis Obispo
En route to our final destination to end the first day of our road trip, midway between LA and San Francisco is Slo, a popular overnight stop among road trippers. With a large open space bounded by lush mountains, pristine beach, extensive hiking and biking trails tread through the city and year round sunshine, it gives way to various outdoor activities — Bishop Peak being the popular hike for those who fancy a stunning view.
By the time Bibiana and I arrived at Slo, restaurants were soon closing after dinner. We managed to nip into the highly rated Firestone Grill downtown. I went by a friend’s recommendation and tucked into the local tri-tip steak sandwich. It did not disappoint one bit. The meat was heavenly and well-matched with a perfect amount of house BBQ sauce.
After the entire day behind the wheels, all we were looking for was a good shower and the perfect bed. Our lodge for the night, San Luis Creek Lodge is the perfect boutique hotel that charms with a character of its own. The interior seems a little dated but it’s really just the intended style. The best part about this hotel were the blanket and bed sheets. They were literally the softest and most comfortable I had ever slept in, like a bed of cushioned fresh snow with micro-weaved silk.
8. Morro Bay
After a great nights rest at San Luis Creek Lodge, we hit the road early around 9am. Morro Bay was the closest stop nearest to Slo, only 13 miles away. With its calm, flat waters, nature-oriented activities take centre stage here — kayaking, hiking, biking, fishing, and wildlife-watching around the bay. At the mouth of Morro Bay stands the iconic 576-foot-high Morro Rock, one of the nine small volcanic peaks in the area.
9. Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Another 45 minutes headed North and we’re at one of the major attractions along PCH — the Elephant Seal Vista Point in San Simeon. Do not miss this. Adjacent to the parking lot lies thousands of elephant seals on the beach, molting away (shedding off old skin for new).
I can assure you the seals are very much alive. We were lucky enough to witness the antics of these mammals, including occasional brawls between the juvenile seals.
10. Big Sur
Shortly after the continuation from the elephant seals rookery, the best part of the road trip was about to begin — the famed Big Sur. If this is your first time hearing about Big Sur, I’m glad I’ve introduced this 90-mile stretch of beauty to you. It is certainly right up there with New York’s Times Square on the list of must-sees for many visitors to the United States.
With the winding roads above the jagged coastline, the drive could be a little challenging for some. But without the steepness and the askew landscape, Big Sur wouldn’t quite be Big Sur. Once we ascended to a certain height above sea level, the sheer magnificence of Big Sur swept us away. The Pacific Ocean was glistening under the sun rays, mildly crashing the rocks at the bottom with droplets of sea water gently whisked by the passing cool breeze. It was Mother Nature in all its glory.
Big Sur is more a state of mind than a place you can pinpoint on a map
The first half of Big Sur was so beguiling that we unknowingly spent a few hours making pitstops and wandering off to the furthest lookout points. We thought the rest of the journey couldn’t get any better.
Upon entering Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, tall redwood trees lined up the roads with cars clustered on both sides. We followed suit and pulled over, trailed the small crowd towards the paved slopes that led us towards the edge of the mountain. The ocean was instantly within sight, along with the iconic 80-foot McWay Falls pouring onto the beach all year round. It was simply beautiful.
11. Bixby Creek Bridge
Waiting ahead is yet another PCH landmark, the aesthetically pleasing Bixby Creek Bridge with a slender looking arch, noticeable from miles away. Set against the stunning Pacific Ocean, it was a sight to behold.
12. Santa Cruz
With the sun seeming to set quicker at every second, we cruised past the highly rated Monterrey that has equally stunning views and headed straight for the waterfront of Santa Cruz boardwalk. We narrowly missed the bustling fun at the boardwalk as it closed at 5pm on the day. Nonetheless, Bibiana and I enjoyed the boardwalk at its calmest with a stroll.
13. San Francisco
The sun has nearly set on the horizon and San Francisco welcomed our arrival with Karl the fog smothering us up-close on our windshields. This was the classic San Francisco experience they say, nothing completes the city like Karl. We arrived at the city two hours before midnight with two full days ahead exploring the area.
Big shout out to my adventure buddy, Bibiana for being so amazing behind the wheels throughout the entire PCH. You are a star.
It’s approaching two months since my California adventure and yet I could barely bring myself away from the overwhelming road trip experience that seemed to have whizzed by in the blink of an eye.
One of the biggest reasons why I adore the coastal drive is that it has this irresistible spellbinding power of making all my worries and qualms obsolete. The sight of it takes over all other senses. Like ecstasy, I was forever hooked on this magical experience.