A Road Trip Up The Pacific Coast Highway


Oh, California, I have such a love-hate relationship with you.

A magical coastline, (mostly) beautiful weather, mountains, redwoods, orcas, and oceans. There aren't many places in the world where Christmas Day includes spotting whales off the coast, or a lazy Sunday means camping under the stars on top of a two hundred foot cliff.

But there are also few places in the world where my road rage gets *top notch*. California drivers, I have a few questions:

  2. Why do you never let people merge?!
  3. Where is your *effective* public transit system?!
  4. Why is your rush hour 24/7?
  6. How do you survive here?

I love California. But I'm not sure I could ever live here. There are too many people, and even in small towns it takes 15 minutes to go 2 miles. That's just too damn long for a girl from the middle-of-nowhere Michigan.


However, the Pacific Coast Highway (Also known as "Highway One") up the California coast has to be one of the most magical roads in existence.

On a recent leg of the van life, we were joined by my brother Nash to drive up the coast from LA to San Francisco solely on the Pacific Coast Highway. It's not the fastest route between California's two major cities, but by far the best one.

At first, the road sucks because of, you guessed it, traffic. However, the further behind LA gets, the better the road begins to look. It slowly transforms from crowded upscale coastal towns to rolling hills and pristine beaches.


The most important aspect of road-tripping Highway One is time. Do not rush. Do not try to complete the journey in two days. You will regret it, and you will miss out. The entire PCH runs from San Diego to Washington. The stretch from LA to San Francisco should be done in no less than five days. The whole road should need at least a month.

Gaviota State Park is home to some of California's southern public hot springs. A short half-mile hike will bring you to two pools perfect for soaking. Although not the warmest of hot springs, it feels good even on a chilly California evening. The minerals within the water are known to be very beneficial for skin, so make sure to soak your whole body.

What pairs well with hot springs? Beer, duh.

Thirty minutes north of Gaviota Hot Springs sits Santa Maria. A small town with a kick-ass brewery. Spend the evening at the Santa Maria Brewing Company and try the cider or chocolate stout. You won't regret it.



Keep driving up the coast, making stops at towns like Morro Bay. Catch a sunset on one of the many stops along the rocky beaches north of Cayucos and eventually make it to the gates of Heaven: Big Sur.

Famed as "the most beautiful scenic highway", the road does not disappoint. By this time you are far from the city limits, and the only towns that lie ahead for the next fifty miles are tiny wooden general stores with super expensive gas. Nothing but you and the steep, winding road filled with scenes straight out of Narnia and enough beautiful places to keep someone happy for the rest of their life.



Although only fifty miles, completing the route should take two-three days. If there is any place to stop and take your time: here it is.

There's Mcway falls, the iconic Bixby Bridge, high cliffs, hiking trails, camping spots, and so little light that a million stars can be seen with the naked eye. You stand high on bluffs to watch the waves crash below, witness beaches so remote only a few have stepped foot on them. And even during the high-tourist season, you can find a spot to be completely alone.



Before seeing it with my own eyes, I assumed Big Sur was overrated. I mean, LA is extremely overrated in my opinion (no one kill me for this), so I was beginning to think that because Big Sur is extremely accessible to a large population and relatively easy to access for any tourist with a rental car, it was going to be nothing but an over-crowded, over-glamourized natural element that has been completely ruined by tourism. I am happy to announce that I was wrong. Really, really, wrong.

I like being wrong (sometimes).


Big Sur wins the award for best stretch of Highway One in California. However, north of Big Sur remains extremely beautiful coastline. Often overlooked by those who only know of the highly popular places, the northern section holds even more coastline filled with high bluffs, empty fairytale beaches, and has to be one of the best spots in California to watch a sunset.

The surprisingly entertaining Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Sanctuary cannot be missed. November-February this beach gathers massive elephant seals. They do extremely dull things like scratch themselves and make obnoxious noises, but somehow they make it hilariously awesome.

The best beaches sit between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.

Here's why:



Home to the Mavericks, Half Moon Bay is a small town turned global attraction for all ocean lovers and surfers. The Mavericks are the world's largest waves which attract big wave surfers every winter hoping to catch the ride of their life. Although I enjoy surfing when I get the chance, you won't catch me out there. I'd die. Literally. The giant swells usually only occur in the winter months, but the location is beautiful either way.

Past Half Moon Bay sits the beginning of the San Francisco metro area. Although many of the natural elements disappear, make a crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge and stop at Muir Woods National Monument. Home to the tallest redwood trees in the world.



And from here I sit in Northern California. The Pacific Coast Highway lies for hundreds of miles ahead. I shall continue my journey up the coast, in search of more beaches, cliffs, and woods. I'm also in search of hot springs because they probably are my favorite thing in the world, currently.

Maybe it's because I'm living in a van and rarely get to enjoy the luxury of a hot bubble bath on a cold day. Normally on cold days, I'm wearing five layers, sitting in a van smaller than most bathrooms, without the ability to stand up.

Hot springs...I love hot springs. *Almost* as much as ice cream.

Wait. Ice cream in a hot spring. Could that work? I'm going to have to report back on that.

On that note, Happy New Year Everyone! I hope 2017 brings many adventures, a lot of memories, and the strength to punch all fears in the jugular.




Outdoor travel blog

Soulful adventurer. Probably lost. Definitely eating ice cream.

In her late-teens, Shalee drove out of her small hometown watching the sunset behind her along the two-lane highway. Her ventures began in Michigan, where she taught herself to travel on a budget. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, budget, and outdoor travel. Learn more about her here.

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  1. Lorri on January 3, 2017 at 8:36 PM

    Fellow Michigander here. We drove Highway One from San Francisco north. One of the best spots north of San Francisco is Pete’s Beach. Tiny little road sign to let you know where it is, but we spent hours there picking sea glass from the black pebble beach.

    • Shalee on January 3, 2017 at 8:54 PM

      Just added this to my list of must-see places! Thanks for the suggestion!

      • Candy Whitmore on January 4, 2017 at 5:35 AM

        Pick me up beach glass

  2. Dee on January 3, 2017 at 9:04 PM

    I love this read so much that I am saving and sharing. I have been there. Taken the highway north from Washington down to San Diego. Not every mile of it, but in sections over the years. I am much older than you. Still, your email today brightens my grey Michigan evening. Thank you my dear!

    • Shalee on January 3, 2017 at 9:21 PM

      Thank you, Dee! I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. I can’t wait to explore more further up the coast 🙂 Sending sunshine to Michigan!

  3. Frank on January 3, 2017 at 10:58 PM

    My wife and I will be traveling the PCH in early February. We will be touring with a Road Scholars group in the Monterey/Carmel area for four days. Unfortunately, we have only 2 1/2 days to travel between the Monterey area and Los Angeles. What would be some of your “must see” suggestions.

    • Shalee on January 4, 2017 at 2:11 PM

      Hi Frank! You can’t miss Mcway Falls. The main path might be crowded, but continue following it to the south and it takes you to a camping area with some amazing views! There are some paths blocked for restoration in the campground, but look for one small path directly across from the bathrooms that lead you to a ledge facing south. Absolutely stunning! If you hike back behind the main parking lot there is also a small trail that takes you for a walk in the redwoods to a waterfall that is also very uncrowded.

      There’s no service for Verizon, [email protected], or T mobile that I know of out there, so it might be hard to find some certain spots. My biggest advice is to pull over often and pack lunches. There some absolutely amazing picnic spots!

  4. Kerri Jo on January 4, 2017 at 9:53 AM

    You stopped Morro Bay! My older brother lives there – you should have said hi 😉

  5. Bruce Gezon on January 4, 2017 at 11:53 AM

    Great post, Shalee. You have such a wonderful way of painting pictures with words. I’ve been to California a few times, but haven’t made it to Big Sur yet. It’s been on my bucket list. Last time to California I put off Big Sur in exchange for a trip to Yosemite. Did not disappoint. Will go back again to Yosemite but leave more time for the PCH & Big Sur. Thanks for the details on stops along the PCH. Will definitely save this post for my next trip there. Keep these posts comin. Luv em.

  6. Kim on January 9, 2017 at 8:50 AM

    Thank you for sharing your adventures 🙂

  7. Sonny on January 30, 2017 at 12:52 AM

    Was born, bred and raised in St. Clair Shores, Michigan…..presently live on Cape Cod, Ma…..traveled PCH from Pebble Beach…..stopped at Lover’s Point in Monterrey to visit my Mom, Dad, Sister and Brother-In-Law’s Memorial Benches that face the Pacific Ocean….moved on to Oregon coast-line and dunes……the entire West Coast is mostly magnificent……however, I have learned over time and many, many miles of traveling these United States….there will never be anything better than Home……Michigan will always be my home…..someday, I will make it back….our plan is to travel the entire mitten.

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