The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is certainly befitting as the grand finale to my US visit in Sept 2014. I’ve long heard that the coastal highway between San Francisco (SF) and Los Angeles (LA) offers magical views and interesting towns.
Before my trip, I was having slight doubt about how scenic it can be; considering that I’ve driven on some great coastal routes in Australia (Great Ocean Road, Victoria), Iceland (Ring Road) and New Zealand. After experiencing PCH for myself, I wasn’t left disappointed!
The coastal views are simply magical and there are endless miles of it! There are so many vista points and impromptu turnouts that you could take photo at, you’ll be numb of the views by the end of the day.
California State Route 1 (SR 1) is a major north-south state highway that runs along most of the Pacific coastline of the U.S. state of California. Highway 1 has several portions designated as either Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), Cabrillo Highway, Shoreline Highway, or Coast Highway. (Source, Wikipedia: California State Route 1)
Technicalities aside, tourist (like myself) simply call it Pacific Coast Highway; the most famous being the stretch between SF and LA. Most guidebooks and reviews would go further to agree that the most scenic of this stretch is that between Monterey and Cambria.
I started the trip from Half Moon Bay, then driving south to Santa Cruz, Monterey (overnight), Big Sur, San Simeon, Cambria and finally overnight at Morro Bay (end). Given 2 full days to cover from Half Moon Bay till Morro Bay, the pace was just right.
For this trip, it’s good to start north and travel south. This is so that you’ll be driving on the side of the road nearest to the coast, and will make it safer/easier to drive into any vista points/turnouts that you wish to stop for photo shoots.
The highlight has to be the 17mile scenic drive (Monterey; Pebble Beach), Bixby Bridge and the entire coastline from Big Sur to Cambria.
With countless vista points and turnouts along the way, you’ll learn that you couldn’t stop at every one of them. Focus on those labeled vista points and be selective on turnouts. By the end of the day, you’ll be too exhausted to stop by what seems to be YET ANOTHER scenic turnout.
Santa Cruz is a nice little city that is home to University of California and the O’Neill surfwear brand.
I drove into town via West Cliff Drive (it runs along the coast) and found it to have a few nice spots for photo taking. Needless to say, I stopped for a few quick shots.
Just a few minutes along West Cliff Drive will bring you to the town’s main beach and the Boardwalk Amusement Park. I stopped for a simple lunch at one of the pizza shops near to the beach before proceeding to explore the beachfront.
The beachfront was great, just a pity that I do not have the time to get into the water.
Situated just beside the beach is the Boardwalk Amusement Park. It was closed when I visited. Turn out that it only operates on certain season; thus be sure to check their website to find out when they’ll be open. http://beachboardwalk.com
(for more info/photos on Santa Cruz; click here)
Driving out of Santa Cruz, follow the PCH heading south and you’ll reach Monterey in 1hour (~45miles). By the time I reached Monterey, it was dark and after quickly checking in to my motel (Sunset Inn), I went to a Japanese restaurant (beside Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf) based on the recommendation of my motel’s receptionist.
After dinner, it was a brief stroll along the Fisherman’s Wharf. The wharf pales in comparison to San Francisco’s version of its namesake. It’s nothing more than a single stretch of touristy restaurants and cruise shops. The crowd was thin (maybe due to season or timing of my visit). I was disappointed and retreated back to my motel to plan and refresh for the next day.
Based on my prior research, a few of the more famous attractions in Monterey include Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf and the 17-Mile Drive.
Next morning, due to time constraint (and more so to the fact that I’m not exactly an “animal” enthusiast), I’ve decided to give the aquarium a miss. Having said, I understand that the aquarium is really impressive and should be a top “priority” for anyone visiting the area and have a few hours to spare.
And so, the first stop of the day was Cannery Row.
Cannery Row is the site of the now-defunct sardine canning factories of Monterey. Starting from early 1900s, it grew over the 2 World Wars before the industry started to die off after WW2. During its heydays, Monterey’s sardine canning industry was one of the biggest in the world. The last of the factories closed in 1973.
After spending 15 minutes to snap a few “I was here” photos, it was time to proceed to the Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf (~5 minutes drive), again. Not satisfied with my visit there the previous night, I wanted to see if a visit in the morning would change my perception about the wharf. It wasn’t to be.
Other than having an obviously clearer view in the day, Fisherman’s Wharf didn’t offer me more reason to stay any longer.
I took a walk to the end of the short wharf and there’s a restaurant (Rappa’s Harbor View Restaurant) there which offers a free viewing platform on its 2nd floor (seems to be accessible 24hrs). You could have a clear view of the harbor from the viewing platform, though the view is nothing exceptional.
After snapping a few photos of the less-than-fantastic harbor, I marched back to the carpark (there’s a massive carpark just beside the wharf). There’s a small cafe/marketplace at the entrance of the carpark (Wharf Marketplace/Cafe) where I opted to have a simple breakfast before continuing for the day.
17-Mile Drive, Monterey :
Before leaving Monterey wharf area, i was mulling whether to explore the 17-mile Drive. I had thought that there’s only one entrance to it via Asilomar Ave (which happens to be my previous night motel’s location). Having to explore the Drive would meant taking 1-2hours off my already water-tight schedule; all the sacrifices for a Drive which I’m not entirely sure will be worth the effort.
I subsequently decided against it, and proceed to get onto PCH to get out of town.
As luck would have it, shortly after getting onto PCH I saw an exit leading directly to the 17-mile Drive. Being impulsive, I jumped at the opportunity thinking that maybe I could just briefly skimp thro the Drive without losing too much on my schedule.
This turned out to be the best decision for the day!
The 17-mile Drive is a looping circuit that has 21 points of interest (a.k.a. scenic spots) along it. It’s located in a private/gated community and as such, you need to pay USD10 to drive on it (map will be given at gate). It includes the famed Pebble Beach golf course; widely recognized as one of the most beautiful golf course in the world.
There are a few entry/exit points. One is along PCH and another is on Asilomar Ave. Being a looping circuit, it doesn’t matter which entrance you enter from; just complete the loop and you’re done.
While at the entry gate, the guard informed me that the entire loop takes 45minutes.
As things turn out, I took 3hours to complete it as there are too many photographic opportunities! The most picturesque part of the drive is when it reaches the coast. You’ll end up stopping every few hundred meters for taking photos!
This is definitely a drive NOT to be missed!
(for more info/photos on 17-mile Drive; click here)
After leaving Monterey, continue south onto PCH for ~19miles (30minutes) and you’ll get to the next major highlight of PCH; the Bixby Bridge.
“It is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world and one of the most photographed bridges along the Pacific Coast due to its aesthetic design and location.” (Source, Wikipedia: Bixby Creek Bridge)
The Bixby Bridge is certainly one of the poster boys of the PCH. You could sense it by the number of cars that stopped to take photos.
The only safe place to stop is the northern end of the bridge, where there is a parking area. You could take photos from either the coastal side or the inland side of the bridge (see examples above). Both offer great view of the bridge and is sufficiently spacious enough to handle the loads of tourist.
I’ve yet to see anyone walking on the bridge; probably because the narrow lanes doesn’t make it a safe undertaking.
Be prepared to spend ~10-15minutes for a photo shoot here.
McWay Waterfall, Big Sur:
From Bixby Bridge, drive south ~24miles (40minutes) to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. At the entrance of the Park, pull over by the side of PCH for a brief stopover to enjoy the next scenic attraction; McWay Waterfall. The waterfall is a short 5-10minutes stroll from PCH.
McWay Waterfall, the tiny strip of water fall on the top-left corner of the beach.
Though a small waterfall (and you can’t get close to it), it’s nevertheless rather scenic and is well worth the time. Prepare ~20minutes for a return trip + photo taking.
(for more info/photos on McWay Waterfall; click here)
The coastal views:
After a brief pit-stop at the waterfall, it’s time to continue south on the PCH which has been increasingly scenic since leaving Monterey.
From Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, drive south ~15miles (25minutes) and you’ll come to a Rock Shed at Pitkins Curve/Rain Rock.
The Rock Shed essentially looks similar to a partially covered tunnel and serves to protect the highway/traffic against landslides that are common in the area.
(for more info on the Rock Shed: click here)
There’s nothing much worth stopping for at the Rock Shed. Anyway, I didn’t saw any turnout near the shed to enable stopping; which might be logical since it’s probably not safe to stop at an area that’s prone to landslides.
The above time-lapse video shows the coastal view (which is typical along the entire PCH) and the Rock Shed (0:11sec in the video).
Note in the video that there are numerous turnouts/vista points with scenic views along the PCH. This is true for the entirety of the PCH.
At the beginning of the drive, first-time visitors (like myself) are extremely tempted to stop at every other of these turnouts/vista points for photo shoots. The next turnouts/vista points always seems to offer increasingly better views than the last. Thus in order to prevent regret (who knows what’s the view going to be down the coast?), it’s always “safer” to stop at the next turnout for yet another photo shoot.
But alas, after a short while you’ll soon realize that there’s simply NO END to it!
The PCH offers endless miles of excellent coastal views. It hugs the coast from Monterey right up till Cambria after which it turns inland. This 100miles of coastal road (Monterey to Cambria) offers non-stop heavenly views. There are so many turnouts/vista points with excellent views that you’ll soon get “tired” of the view.
My suggestion is to be selective on your pit-stops and engage only those labeled vista points. Forget about turnouts, these are usually not as scenic as the labeled vista points; vista points are constructed/labeled as such simply because the locals think that they are more scenic to warrant making them into vista points. Let’s take heed from them.
Elephant Seals Vista Point, The Piedras Blancas rookery, San Simeon:
(website: click here)
Continue driving south 32miles (1hrs) will bring you to the next attraction; Elephant Seals Vista Point.
The vista point is right beside the PCH. It’s clearly labeled; there’s no way you could miss it. It’s essentially a big carpark with a viewing platform next to the beach where the elephant seals gather.
From the viewing platforms, you could observe the colony of elephant seals resting and getting along with their activities on the beach. The viewing platform is open every day and there’s no fee involved.
It’s definitely worth the stop.
Hearst Castle, San Simeon:
A short 5miles south of the Elephant Seals Vista Point, you’ll arrive at Hearst Castle.
Hearst Castle is the mansion belonging to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who died in 1951. You’ll have to book a tour in order to tour its grounds. From what i gather, it’s very famous with millions of visitors yearly.
However, due to time constraint I had to give it a pass and continue my drive south.
Moonstone Beach, Cambria :
Another 6miles south of Hearst Castle, you’ll arrive at Cambria. Look out for signs leading you to turn into Moonstone Beach Drive (right turn).
Along Moonstone Beach Drive, you’ll find a row of motels facing the beach. It seems a great place to stay for the night, just a pity that I’ve already booked accommodation at Morro Bay (23miles away).
I’ve read online that you could collect unique moonstones along the beach (hence its name). My wife insisted on trying her luck at finding the moonstones; I had to oblige as all obedient husbands should.
Initially it seems to me that it’s a myth; i could only find regular stones on the beach. However, upon closer inspection, i realized there’s indeed small moonstones of various colors scattered on the beach; i was initially expecting larger stones. I wasn’t particularly keen on the stones (my wife was), rather, the views got the most of my attention.
We spent ~40minutes collecting moonstones and taking a few photos before hurrying off. It was getting dark and we need to drive another 30minutes to get to our motel at Morro Bay.
(for more info/photos on Moonstone Beach; click here)
Just 20miles (25minutes) south of Cambria, we arrived at Morro Bay in the dark of the night and promptly proceed to check in to our motel (Sundown Inn).
Its a small town with little to offer after dark except for a few eateries. Upon the recommendation of the motel owner (Taiwanese), we make the 1minute drive into the waterfront area for a Chinese dinner (Golden China) before calling it a day.
“The town’s most striking feature is Morro Rock, a 576 foot high volcanic plug.”, “There is no public access to the rock itself because it is a reserve for the peregrine falcon.” (Source, Wikipedia: Morro bay)
Early next morning, I drove back to the waterfront area for a quick photo shoot of the Morro Rock and harbor. From what I gather, there isn’t much else to explore in Morro Bay.
With this last photo shoot, it was time to call an end to my 2 full days adventure of the PCH.
The extraordinary views and sights experienced in the 2days has certainly been nothing short of magical. Before the trip, I hadn’t expected places as developed as California would offer such heavenly views; I’m glad I was wrong.
PCH stretches all the way down the Californian coast right up to LA. Driving (at leisure pace) the entire route to LA would probably take up another 2-3days from Morro Bay. I didn’t have the luxury of time and had to head back up north to San Jose.
If you’re looking for a faster/shorter route to travel back up north while on the PCH, you could do a “U-turn” at Morro Bay/Cambria region and use inland Highway#101 instead. From Morro Bay, Highway#101 would get you to San Jose in 185miles (3hours) compared to PCH in 193miles (4hours). Without the numerous turns found on the PCH, Highway#101 is definitely a faster route to travel north.
As for me, what’s left to do now is the 3hours boring drive back to San Jose via Highway#101. I hope I wouldn’t fall asleep.
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