Route 1/the Pacific Coast Highway is the Ultimate Coastal Road to Plan a Road Trip Around
If I had to pick a number one route to plan a road trip on in the U.S., hands down it would be the Pacific Coast Highway (Rt. 1) in California. This is the epitome of the romantic winding road along the coast – one seen in movies time and again for its glorious views of the Pacific and majestic bridges. It’s my favorite road trip route by far.
Although this route starts at California’s Mexican border and runs all the way to the Oregon border, there is one section that is a lifetime must-do to a plan a road trip on – the section from Cambria to Monterey. This is the fantasy-beautiful section that runs along the coast with the Santa Lucia Mountains on one side and the gleaming expanse of the Pacific on the other.
Plan a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway/Rt 1 – Starting Point
Cambria is the perfect starting point for this trip - a charming seaside village with the bonus of nearby vineyards in Paso Robles. What’s to do in Cambria?
Plan a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway/Rt 1 – Stop #1Hearst Castle – San Simeon
- Moonstone Beach – Take a walk down the trails and boardwalks that wind along the rugged coastline at this beautiful beach that runs alongside PCH/Rt. 1. We walked this beach-front path one morning and couldn’t believe all the spectacular views around each corner.
- Cambria – This town is charming and small, perfect to wander around and get a cup of coffee, do some window shopping, or get lunch or dinner at one of the many outstanding restaurants including Indigo Moon and Madeline’s.
- Paso Robles – Drive fifteen minutes and you’ll find yourself in the middle of wine country. Paso Robles has wineries of all sizes and is becoming a major contender in the world of wine. You could easily spend an entire day here and not even get to visit every winery.
If there’s one expression that best captures the Hearst Castle – it’s "over the top". When you approach this huge estate, it’s hard to be prepared for it as the area surrounding it is fairly desolate with lots of tall pampas grass growing on either side of the road. Keep your eyes peeled, though, as not only do you want to be ready for the estate, the surrounding hills are still home to descendants of the zebras left over from when Hearst kept them in his zoo. We didn’t see any on our road trip, but my brother has.
Make a point to stop at Hearst Castle – there are a variety of tours to fit your schedule and this 165-room fantasy estate modeled after the fictional Xanadu is a must-see. My favorite is the Neptune Pool with its Roman-style temples that was once featured in many advertising campaigns – particularly one for Parliament cigarettes. Oh, to go swimming there every day!
Plan a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway/Rt 1 – Stop #2
Once you get into Big Sur, you’ll be traveling through the most winding and dramatic section of this famous route. Sections of the road disappear into little wooded areas before swooping outward to view the Pacific Ocean crashing below – as if the road is saying, "Ta da!"
Big Sur is home to two of my favorite places to stop along the Pacific Coast Highway – Nepenthe, an old family-run restaurant perched on the cliff edge of the road with decks wrapping around it that offer mind-boggling views of the ocean below. What makes Nepenthe even more wonderful is that the food is great and the wine selection is fantastic! I also loved their little gift shop and ended up blowing a wad of cash there, so be careful if you’re on a budget.
The other must-stop is at the Big Sur River Inn. What makes this place so great? It’s the perfect resting spot if it’s a warm day – wade into the river (it’s a little over ankle-deep) and sit on one of their bent-willow chairs (lots and lots are placed in the river for your enjoyment) and sip a cool drink. Talk about heaven! Then to make it even more amazing – throw in some great live music! I never wanted to leave!
Plan a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway/Rt 1 – Stop #3
Point Lobos State Reserve
If you like hiking even a little, get out of your car at this amazing park and be sure to bring your camera – you’ll take more pictures than you’ve ever taken on a hike. Every time we turned a corner on the trail, it was – "Oh, my God! I’ve got to take a picture of this!"
Trails wind along rocky outcroppings topped with pines and surrounded by foaming waves the unreal color of a swimming pool, through meadows filled with wildflowers and groves of sculptural trees, and then out to an area that reminds you of a sci-fi movie; it looks so much like another planet. You can hear the sea lions barking away from all over the park and watch them on the off-shore island that’s their home using binoculars (don’t forget to pack them). Eating on the trails is forbidden, but there are nearby picnic areas if you want to pack a lunch.
Plan a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway/Rt 1 – Stop #4
If you enjoy shopping and art galleries, this town is the place for you. There are many great boutiques and other non-chain stores to explore as well as art galleries located every few feet! The very pretty downtown area has remained that way due to town ordinances that were passed to keep commerce from taking over: that means no traffic lights, parking meters, or big stores. If you’re not a shopper or an art lover, you can take a pass on this village and move on to Stop #5 – our last stop.
Plan a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway/Rt 1 – Stop #5/Last Stop
Monterey’s changed a lot since it was a fishing town and the location featured in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Yes, there’s still a "Cannery Row" – but it bears no resemblance to the original – it’s a touristy street with lots of shops and high-end hotels. The big draw of Monterey is not only the gorgeous peninsula it’s located on, but the outstanding Monterey Bay Aquarium.
This is the best aquarium I’ve ever experienced. Walk toward the first exhibit and you’re confronted with a waving forest of sea kelp. Step closer and realize that the colossal tank is filled with every type of marine life – from rays to sharks to brightly colored fish. Nearby, a deep tank features sea otters that dive and twist in the water, their friendly furry faces seeming to smile as they enjoy their audience. Go deeper into the aquarium and witness jellyfish as you’ve never seen them before. Then there’s more. And more. And more.
You can easily spend an entire day here (more if you have children). We had our hands stamped and went down to the marina area for lunch. From our table we watched a sea otter in the harbor trying to eat an oyster on his back while two seagulls attempted to steal his snack. Talk about nature in stereo!
Plan a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway/Rt 1 – More Options
Want to extend your road trip? Here is a short list of great ways to add a day or three (or more):
- Visit the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas (near Monterey). This is Steinbeck’s hometown and features a great museum about his life and his literature as well as the Steinbeck House where he was born.
- Drive further up Rt. 1 to San Francisco. You can easily spend days here, there’s so much to do in this amazing city.
- Haven’t had enough wine country? You’re in luck! Both Napa and Sonoma are close enough for you to hop back in your car and visit them both. Here’s a great road trip that incorporates San Francisco and the California wine country.
This road trip route is not only breathtakingly beautiful – it has many outstanding sights along the way. This combination – I like to call it the wow-awe-yay combo - makes it a top U.S. route to plan a road trip around!
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