The Pacific Coast Highway – spanning over 650 miles of the California coastline – is one of America’s greatest road trips. A drive along this route takes you through the spectacular and diverse terrain of the Pacific Coast. There is something for everyone on it – from dramatic cliffs and the world’s largest redwood trees to historic small towns and beachfront cities. In my recent visit to California, I had the chance to drive this classic route – here’s what really captivated me…
I began my journey in San Francisco; a city once overwhelmed by the ‘Forty-Niners’ of the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century and famously known as the home of the former island prison Alcatraz. Today, San Francisco is a bustling place with a balance of international culture, many of the world’s biggest businesses and a booming gastronomy scene.
During my time in San Francisco, one of my highlights was cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge. Setting off early in the morning on my hotel’s complimentary city cruising bike, I began in the financial district. Pedalling down the long stretch of pier in the early hours is a real treat – fog covers sleepy boats tied up at the docks as fisherman and workers make their way to the pier holding steaming cups of coffee.
As I continue down the wooden-plank pier, there is a resounding noise coming from the water. Hopping off my bike to find the source, I walk through a break in the buildings to find a colony of sea lions lounging on floating rafts, beginning their day together in symphony.
I finally reach the base of the bridge, but I can’t see any real sign of the enormous bright red structure. San Francisco is known for its year-round fog; however, during my visit, forest fires over 200 miles to the east were causing limited visibility in the city and smog. It was quite a remarkable sight as I cycled along the bridge – only seeing the famous red structure when it was within approximately 10 metres. On a clear day along the one-mile cycle, views into the San Francisco Bay and out to the Pacific Ocean are extraordinary. As I reach the other side, and a town called Sausalito, I looked back to the bridge and was rewarded with a stunning dusty view of the iconic structure.
Heading south through the towns of Santa Cruz and Carmel-by-the-Sea, I was met with my next highlight of this famous coastal drive: the Big Sur. This long stretch of road offers dramatic coastline views, ancient redwood forests and occasional wildlife – watch as California Condors soar above the cliffs and use the thermals to glide for extended periods of time. There are numerous vista points along this section of road; giving you the chance to pull over and attempt to capture the outstanding natural beauty on camera. This section of the drive – a 100-mile stretch of almost-untouched terrain – is incredibly impressive on the eye.
Arriving into Santa Barbara as the sun sets was something special; especially after having been greeted by the coolest dogs ever seen. In California, the hour before sunset is commonly known as the ‘Golden Hour’, and it’s easy to see why with the beautiful golden hues giving the scenery an astonishing glow.
Set in a cove, surrounded by mountains, Santa Barbara is a special stop along this route. The area is quite an active place – with kayaking, paddle boarding and numerous walking trails to take in the stunning views. Many local vineyards have tasting rooms in town – with all of them offering their unique wines. Finishing the evening on Stearns Wharf gives you a chance to try the local seafood and look back on the beautiful backdrop as the ‘Golden Hour’ closes out the day.
My journey finished in the city of San Diego – 600 miles from San Francisco – on the Mexican border. San Diego is a diverse city with varying neighbourhoods and a strong US Navy history. The historical old town has deep Spanish and Mexican roots; which are still visible with the architecture and handmade tortillas sold on the streets. Balboa Park is the largest cultural park in the country and home to the Old Globe Theatre and numerous attractions, including the Museum of Man, San Diego Art Institute, the San Diego Zoo, botanical gardens and Spreckels Organ Pavilion, to name just a few.
Along the coastline, the US Navy presence becomes even more apparent when passing the USS Midway Museum and the charming Seaport Village. Across the bridge is Coronado Island; where the historical Victorian beachfront resort Hotel Del Coronado sits on a long stretch of beach.
In the evening, the Gaslamp Quarter comes to life. Revival efforts in the 90s brought this historical neighbourhood back to life; and today it is best known for outdoor bars and restaurants. San Diego is a relaxed city with endless entertainment and history to get involved in – with the beautiful southern California sun washing over the area, it is easily one of my most favourite spots along this coast.
As a native of the coast, I find myself drawn to the sea and fascinated by the coastline nature continues to mould – whether it’s the people and marine life who call these places home, the history the shores have experienced or simply the vast expanse of ocean as far as the eye can see. The drive along this route offers captivating sights, both coastal and inland-facing. Additionally, it offers a view into a unique and complex part of American history.