Come along and enjoy a Pacific Coast Highway road trip with us. California is usually the first place that pops to mind when I want to escape Phoenix’s triple digits. Instead of visiting southern California this year, however, I decided to head north along the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, construction that narrowed the infamous road to one lane, and a landslide that has closed a section indefinitely, I had to weave between it and Highway 101. I was still able to hit many of the area’s highlights, though.

First Stops on the Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

From Phoenix, I drove with my husband, Jerry, and daughter, Kim, about an hour north of Los Angeles to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. It’s one of the best presidential libraries I’ve visited, offering an in-depth look at the 1980s and an opportunity to walk through a retired Air Force One. Plan to spend at least 2½ hours here.

A piece of the Berlin Wall at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Highway 1 merges with Highway 101 as you approach Ventura. We chose to stay on the latter when the two diverged so we could stop in Solvang, a community founded by Danish immigrants. During our two hours there (not nearly enough), we browsed galleries and gift shops and sampled baked goods at Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery.

Pacific Coast Highway – Monterey and Carmel

At Salinas, we headed west to Monterey, where we spent two nights at Portola Hotel & Spa. I can’t say enough about how friendly the staff is here, and the hotel serves a great breakfast buffet with made-to-order omelets. Don’t sleep in and miss it!

Pacific Coast Highway Monterey Bay Aquarium

Jellies at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by Teresa Bitler

The Monterey Bay Aquarium topped our list of things to do while in the area, and although I thought it was excellent, I was a little disappointed by how crowded it was even on a Monday. We also spent time strolling Cannery Row and the streets of neighboring Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Looking for a little less touristy? My off-road driving lesson at the Land Rover Experience in Carmel Valley, one of only three locations in the country, was great fun. Even Jerry and Kim, both passengers, enjoyed it.

The Land Rover Experience in Carmel Valley. Photo by Teresa Bitler

I had my best meals on this leg of the trip. The first night, we ate at Passionfish. Order the fish. You won’t be disappointed. The next night was Aton & Michel in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Service was impeccable (there’s a maître d’), and Jerry still raves about the short ribs.

But, the best meal I had on the entire trip was at Lucia, one of only six Forbes “Triple 4-Star” winning restaurants in California. All of the dishes were perfectly prepared. My favorite? The summer salad with pea shoots, goat cheese, beets and fresh fruit.

Lunch at Lucia. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Exploring San Jose

Leaving Monterey, we continued on The Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Cruz, then cut inland to San Jose. Our first stop was the Winchester Mystery House, a 165-room mansion built by firearms heiress Sarah Winchester. Kim said the Mansion and Explore More tours were one of her favorite activities on the entire trip.

The Winchester Mystery Hous

The Winchester Mystery House. Photo by Teresa Bitler

That afternoon, we visited one of Jerry’s favorites, the Computer History Museum. I’m not really into computers, but I loved the displays on everything from super computers to handheld devices and gaming. The two hours we spent here were not enough.

Wandering San Francisco

We took Highway 101 from San Jose to San Francisco and spent our first afternoon in the city at the California Academy of Sciences, a combination aquarium, natural history museum, and planetarium. Although it has something for everyone, the layout can be a little confusing.

Exploratorium

Learning about arches at the Exploratorium. Photo by Teresa Bitler

If you have to choose one science museum, opt to visit the Exploratorium. We could have spent the entire day here moving from one hands-on experiment to the next, but we weren’t the only ones. The Exploratorium tends to be busy, and some kids forget to wait their turn for the stations.

Since San Francisco is home to the largest Chinese population outside of China, we made visiting Chinatown a priority. I recommend doing a little research before you go to map out the hidden gems like the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum.

San Francisco’s Chinatown. Photo by Teresa Bitler

The city also boasts the largest of only three Japantowns in the nation. (The other two are in San Jose and Los Angeles.) Drop by Soko Hardware for chopsticks and trinkets, Waraku for ramen and Uji Time for ice cream in Asian flavors like matcha and black sesame.

You may want to complement your time in Japantown with a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. (Tip: Admission is free if you arrive before 10 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday or Friday.)

Japanese Tea Garden

The Japanese Tea Garden. Photo by Teresa Bitler

We spent two nights at Park Central Hotel and would stay there again for its location. It’s next door to Yerba Buena Gardens and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, down the street from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a 10-minute walk from Chinatown.

Even better, the hotel is steps away from the corner of Market and Third streets, where you can catch the historic cable cars to Fisherman’s Wharf or municipal buses and streetcars elsewhere throughout the city.

San Francisco Streetcar

A historic San Francisco streetcar. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Purchase a CityPass includes unlimited rides on any municipal transportation, including the famous cable cars.

Pacific Coast Highway – San Simeon and Cambria

From San Francisco, we drove south on Highway 101 to State Route 46, headed west to Highway 1, and turned north towards Hearst Castle. I was wowed the architecture and art collection and wish I had more time to roam the grounds.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle. Photo by Teresa Bitler

If you have time before or after your tour, add a stop at Hearst Ranch Winery, where you can not only sample wine but order a burger made from local beef.

Or, continue four miles north on the Pacific Coast Highway to the Elephant Seal Rookery. We spent at least a half hour watching the molting males, some weighing as much 5,000 pounds, lounging on the beach.

Elephant seals at Elephant Seal Rookery along The Pacific Coast Highway. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Even though San Simeon is closer to Hearst Castle, we stayed in Cambria at the Blue Dolphin Inn. I loved being able to open the window and listen to the waves crashing on Moonstone Beach across the street.

Moonstone Beach

Moonstone Beach. Photo by Teresa Bitler

I wish we could have stayed for the breakfast delivered to your room every morning at the Blue Dolphin Inn, but unfortunately, we had a 9-hour drive back home to Phoenix and the heat after a marvelous, cool road trip on California’s Pacific Coast Highway.


As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with attraction admissions, accommodations and some meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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Come along and enjoy a Pacific Coast Highway road trip through San Francisco, Monterey and more with us to escape the summer heat!