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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 supercomputers to handheld devices and gaming. The two hours we spent there 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. For more ideas on traveling California, see more articles by Wander writers.
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.