Pacific Coast Highway Scenic Drives

Pacific Coast Highway photo
Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California (James Randklev/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images)

Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller found literary inspiration here. Surfers discovered curling waves. Movie moguls found themselves living the good life. As for the rest of us, well, we merely find enough time to make our way to the edge of the continent, roll down the windows, and drive some portion of 655-mile Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. Spend enough time here and you'll find this name too formal, too, referring to it like the Californians do, as the PCH.

Constructed between 1919 and the late 1930s, this ribbon of two-, four-, and multi-lane blacktop stretches from San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, in the south, all the way to the quaint, unsung hamlet of Leggett, in northeastern Mendocino County, about 50 minutes northeast of Fort Bragg. PCH is a rolling lesson in diversity, a tour not just through multiple ecosystems and geologic time, but a demographic and sociocultural journey as well. In Orange County, it's indecipherable from the tangle of car-choked freeways, while less than 75 miles north, in Malibu, it's a rushing—or clogged—four-lane of surfers on their way to the waves, Hollywood execs coming home from the studios, and rent-a-car Oklahomans gawking at the sight of them—never mind the waves and the scrub-and-oak, mansion-covered Santa Monica Mountains rising 1,500 feet from sea level right across the street. In Oxnard, the mansions give way to strawberry fields and the migrant laborers who work them. In Santa Barbara, the tree-lined PCH feels like Santa Fe by the sea. And that's just the first 200 miles or so. Spend a few more days among old hippies on the fog-shrouded cliffs of the Central Coast, or with off-the-gridders in the Victorian coastal towns and redwood-rich mountains north of San Francisco, and you're bound to slink away with a case of sensory overload. Or you'll just want to move to California for good.

Points of interest on the PCH show off its geologic, biologic, and anthropologic glory. Making one pit stop a day (see our picks on our interactive map, above), you can drive the whole thing in five days. Sip wine in the hills behind Santa Barbara; soak in ocean-view hot tubs with spiritual seekers and artists; hike the bluffs and forests of Big Sur; paddle the estuaries of Sausalito's Richardson Bay, outside of San Francisco; and crane your neck for a glimpse of one of the world's tallest trees. Of course, these shouldn't be the only stops you make as you meander up the coast, but they should top your list of reasons to get out of the car.

Published: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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