California Dreaming – Los Angeles to San Francisco

There is nowhere in the world better suited or more famous for road trips than the United States of America. While for many the ideal is a cross-country trip from east to west, following the historical movement of the American frontier, for most the reality of this mammoth trip is a far-flung dream. There are, however, endless possibilities for shorter road trips, in the USA, and California’s Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one of the stunning best.

California Dreaming: Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway

A Week on the Californian Pacific Coast Highway, USA

The Pacific Coast Highway actually stretches for over 2500 miles, from the tip of Baja California all the way up into Washington State. I travelled on a section of this, California State Route 1, from the sun and sparkle of Los Angeles to vibrant energy of San Francisco. Both these cities are, of course, great destinations in themselves and, while it might be tempting to fly or take a quicker inland route between the two, you really would be missing out. In my week long trip, along the breathtaking stretch of coastline that separates them, I discovered the real beauty of California and came to realize that sometimes the journey really is the best bit.

California Dreaming: Just after LA on the Pacific Highway
Just after LA on the Pacific Highway

You can easily pick up a car rental in Los Angeles; or alternatively a fully self-contained home on wheels with a Los Angeles motorhome rental. One way rentals can easily be arranged; so you do not need to return to Los Angeles at the end of your California road trip.

California Dreaming: The Pacific Highway
The Pacific Highway

Los Angeles to Santa Barbara

Once out of the maze of L.A. highways, it’s just a couple of hours’ drive north, on California 101, to the beautiful city of Santa Barbara. Whilst being the least remarkable stretch of highway on the trip, the golden hills that line the road ease you nicely into the Californian landscape. The short drive north is then rewarded with the gem that is Santa Barbara. Situated snuggly between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, with its Spanish-style architecture and Mediterranean climate, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere in southern Europe. The excellent wine and restaurants live up to this image too and there are plenty of places to stay in the city.

If you’re on a tighter budget or after a more outdoor experience, there are also a number of excellent campsites a short drive north, as there are all along the coast. Load your car up with goods, from the supermarket, and go set up a tent. I stayed at the modest Gaviota State Beach Campground and, while not the most stunning site, I enjoyed my evening sitting on the beach, the railroad bridge tall and imposing behind, looking out to the ocean, watching a seal jump between the waves as the setting sun turned the sky a pinkish glow. There’s definitely a simplicity and freedom to having your own car and driving this route at your own pace, which is something I haven’t found all that often, when travelling.

Santa Barbara to Big Sur

Whether you stay the night in Santa Barbara or push on, Morro Bay is a great place to break up the journey. This charming American seaside town, complete with diners, ice-cream parlors, movie theatres, quirky seaside shops, and the famous Morro Rock, is a beguiling little place, with excellent seafood restaurants to boot.

Just beyond you’ll drive past the lavish and remarkable Hearst Castle, which is almost as dramatic and audacious as the coastline it sits on. Also be sure to stop off just north of San Simeon, to see the extraordinary elephant seals that lounge on the beach.

California Dreaming: Redwoods at Big Sur
Redwoods at Big Sur

From here on the road begins to wind up to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Big Sur and the scenery becomes more jaw-droppingly beautiful after each turn: huge cliff faces plunge down into the crashing waves and swirling blue of the Pacific, giant redwoods begin to line the roadsides, towering above.

California Dreaming: The McWay Falls
The McWay Falls

Big Sur is a great place to break for a night or two. There are beaches and hiking trails around here and some excellent campsites. I stopped off to check out the McWay Falls, hiked through the redwoods and clovers at my campsite, Fernwood, and relaxed on Pfeiffer Beach. Be sure to book ahead as sites and accommodation, all along the coast, can get booked up as many as six months in advance.

California Dreaming: Rest stop with a view just beyond Big Sur
Rest stop with a view just beyond Big Sur

Big Sur to San Francisco

Beyond Big Sur, the spectacular scenery continues onto the picturesque town of Carmel, with its abundance of art galleries and chic shops. Another great town, just a little further on, is Monterey. This old fishing town was famous for its canning factories, immortalised in Cannery Row, a novel by California’s most prized author, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s novels are well worth a read before or during your trip, to help bring the history of California to life. The factories have now been turned into offices and tourist-orientated shops but the town has plenty to offer for a short stop or a longer stay.

For me this was the final stretch and I was soon in San Francisco, where I spent a couple of days soaking up the sights and sounds of this colourful city. There are many more options, however, and you could easily spend far longer exploring this fantastic highway, stopping off at the intriguing towns along the way and marveling at the wild and rugged beauty of the United States’ West Coast.

If you are flying back out of Los Angeles, don’t fear, as the return journey can be made in much quicker time by heading back south along the much less scenic, inland route.

About James Gill

Born and raised in the UK, James got his first taste for travel on an inter rail trip, round Europe. Since completing his English Lit. degree, he has spent most of his time working and traveling in Asia. As well as the UK, James has lived in Thailand and southern China and is now trying his luck in Australia. He has backpacked throughout Southeast Asia and China and travelled in America, Australia and Europe. He is a keen reader and loves eating spicy food.

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    […] of Washington and Oregon. Plus, northern California offers beaches, wine country and San Francisco. Highway 1 down California’s coastline is a treasure. The southern California coastline is simply […]

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