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Memorable things to see while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway
One of the most scenic drives in the United States and possibly the entire planet is a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. Starting in Washington State and going all the way to Southern California, this stretch of the highway offers some of the most picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean, the towering rugged cliffs, seaside villages, expansive beaches, untouched forests, gorgeous green landscape, and breathtaking rock formations.
For anyone who loves to travel, a trip along the Pacific Coastal Highway (PCH) is highly recommended at least once in a lifetime. However, anyone considering making this trip should first make a plan and determine how much time they have, what features they would like to see, and where they will stop for a break. The trip can be started in San Diego and one can drive up north to Seattle or vice versa. However, most travelers prefer to drive down South to San Diego from Seattle because while driving one remains on the coastal side (right side) of the road where the spectacular views of the ocean are visible. While one can start the scenic drive anywhere along the route, it is highly recommended that one drive from Seattle to San Diego to fully enjoy the scenery and fascinating landscape
Geography of the Pacific Coastal Highway
The PCH runs along the coast of Washington, Oregon, and California. The highway runs as US 101 in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. It then becomes California Highway 1 until it ends in San Diego. The PCH is about 1675 miles in length.
How much time do you need?
While one can travel the entire distance of 1675 miles in two days, this means you will not be able to enjoy the drive as your attention will be on the road. The trip along the PCH should be planned over 3-5 days. The 3-day trip will not give you enough time to enjoy all the sightseeing stops; so try to extend the trip to at least 5 days.
Recommended Night Stops
- If you start in Port Angeles (WA), take a break in Long Beach (WA) for the night.
- From Long Beach, the next stop should be in Crescent City where you can spend another night.
- From Crescent City, the next stop should be in San Francisco where you may want to spend the third night.
- From San Francisco, the next stop should be in Santa Barbara where you will speed the fourth night.
- From Santa Barbara, the final stop is San Diego and the end of the trip.
When to schedule your trip?
The PCH is on the wish list of many people and each day there are thousands of visitors driving along the route. The highway is particularly busy in the summer and traffic jams are not uncommon. Plus, during summer, most hotels along the road are fully booked and without reservations, you will be sleeping in your car. So if you want to enjoy the scenery, it is best to avoid the peak months of summer. The best times to drive along this interstate are in spring and early autumn. The best months to drive are May and September.
The right car
The PCH is a long drive and you must select a comfortable car with ample legroom. Plus, the route has many sharp curves and bends with steep climbs, so you need to have a durable and stable car. Today one can rent a comfortable SUV in almost any west coast city and drop it off at the end of your destination.
Lodgings and food
As far as food is concerned, there are ample places on this highway where you can buy or eat food. Almost every town has dozens of fast-food restaurants. Also, in almost every coastal town you will be able to buy farm-fresh foods that include fruits, veggies, cheese, and fresh juices.
However, when it comes to lodging, it all depends on what time of the year you travel. During the summer, and especially during the long weekends, most hotels are solidly booked and if you have not made a reservation, most likely you will be sleeping in your car. So once you decide where you will spend the night, make a hotel reservation. At other times of the year, there is no need to make reservations.
The scenic destinations along the route
- Port Angeles: If the Olympic Peninsula is in your itinerary, then start at Port Angeles which is located NW of US 101. In this small NW town, you can explore the Olympic National Park, Olympic Hot Spring, and visit Elwha River valley.
- Seattle is about a 2hr 30 min trip south and if time permits you should take a guided tour of the city which will include the Space Needle, Gas Works Park, etc. If time is not on your side, just drive through the city.
- Aberdeen is a very small town about 90 mins south of Seattle. It is most well known as the birthplace of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer for the rock group Nirvana. Unfortunately, the home is a private residence but you may want to visit the Kurt Cobain Memorial park.
- Cannon Beach is another 2-hour drive south from Aberdeen. Here you must see the famous sea stacks (Giant rocks on the shore). Haystack Rock is a great place to stretch your legs and perhaps take some pictures.
- An hour south of Cannon Beach is Newport, a small beach town along the Oregon coast. This place will allow you to stretch your legs by visiting the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where you will learn about the marine ecosystem in the Pacific NW. And just 2 miles further south is Devil’s Punch Bowl where you will get to see a huge natural circular rock formation caused by wave erosion over the decades. This is a great place to hike and take a break. If you are lucky, you may even see some whales off the coast.
- As you continue down south on US 101 for another 5 hours, you will finally enter Crescent City, California. At this point, you will see the beautiful pacific ocean, the rugged cliffs with gigantic rock formations, huge waves hitting the rocks, and some of the best sunsets on the planet.
- Humboldt Redwoods State Park: As you go down south for about ten minutes from Crescent City you will reach Redwood Forest Park. Here, the road does veer intermittently inland and the corners tend to be more acute-thus slow driving is recommended. Along this patch of the road, you will get to see the natural wonders of Northern California: the Redwoods which are the tall gigantic trees of which many are dozens of years old. There are plenty of places to park the car and see the landscape. This 31-mile stretch is also referred to as the ‘Avenues of the Giants’ because of the tall trees. Just south of the Redwoods is where California Highway 1 starts.
- About 30 mins south on California Highway 1, you will reach Fort Bragg Glass Beach. The entire beach has been rejuvenated using sea glass which imparts different shapes and colors. It is a beautiful sight and a great place for a short picnic
- Three hours south from Fort Bragg is Port Reyes where you will get a glimpse at the gorgeous landscape and develop a sense of the magnitude of the San Andreas fault. The lighthouse does offer tours but is only open from Friday to Monday.
- About an hour south will be San Francisco. You will enter the city via the Golden Gate Bridge and should head into the city. The best way to see the well known touristy places of this great city is to take a bus tour-this way you will avoid the traffic and parking hassles. There are all types of tours and it all depends on how much time you have.
- As you exit San Francisco and drive south for an hour, you will come to Pigeon Point where the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast is located. The unfortunate thing is that the inside of the lighthouse is closed for renovations and can only be viewed from the outside. But this is a great place to get a glimpse of the Pacific ocean and surrounding pleasing landscape.
- Next stop 30 mins south is the small wealthy town of Santa Cruz. Known for its warm climate and stunning views of the Pacific, this is a great place for a picnic.
- About 45 mins south of Santa Cruz is Monterey, where you can explore old historic sites of the State. If you want, you drive along the coast (Carmel by the Sea) and get a great view of the beach with its soft sandy soil and pristine blue waters.
- A short 30 min drive down south over Bixby Bridge will bring you to Big Sur, which is probably the highlight of this road trip. Big Sur is world-renowned for its long scenic coastline, natural cliffs, and pristine landscape. This is the one place where one should spend a few hours hiking or stroll along the coast. Swimming is not recommended as the water is usually rough all year round. Scenic sites that should not be missed include McWay Falls, Ragged Point, Pfeiffer Beach, and Point Sur State Historic Park.
- Exiting Big Sur and driving 90 miles south is San Simeon, where you can check out Hearst Castle on the Enchanted Hill. Other things to see here include the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery and Moonstone Beach.
- About 45 miles down south, you will come to San Luis Obispo where you can walk sound the Botanical Garden, see the Fremont Theater and hike up Black Hill. There are over 2 dozen wineries in the area where you can sample and buy wine.
- Another 90 minutes south and you will come to Santa Barbara which is a beautiful coastal town with a lot of history. As you drive along the coast, both East Beach and Stearns Wharf will come into view. If you have time, visit Santa Barbara Zoo and/or Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
- An hour’s drive south and one will reach popular Malibu beach. This is a place where you can see the fabulously wealthy homes and pristine blue waters of the pacific. You can also take a stroll on the beach and view the rocky coves and cliffs.
- Thirty mins south and you will come to one of LA’s most popular beaches-Venice beach. This beach is the best place to see other people doing their own thing. Or if you want, here you can skateboard, rollerblade, lift weights, play tennis, ride your bike or play volleyball.
- The next stop is Los Angeles. This huge city has many places that one can visit. The best way to see LA if you have limited time is to take a bus tour, which will take you to most of the iconic places.
- Thirty minutes south of LA is Huntington Beach, which is most well known for its surfing. If you do not surf, then just stroll along the beach
- Your final stop about 75 minutes away is San Diego. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful cities on the planet with its year-round warm weather, gorgeous coastline, and numerous natural sites to visit. The best way to explore San Diego is to take a bus tour which will take you to all the famous landmarks.
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