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:
- DO YOU KNOW YOUR BLINKER EXISTS
- Why do you never let people merge?!
- Where is your *effective* public transit system?!
- Why is your rush hour 24/7?
- DO YOU KNOW HOW FOUR WAY STOPS WORK
- 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.
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.
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.