“This is scary, but I’m glad we did this,” my dad shared as we were driving a portion of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) with a wall of dirt on one side, a steep cliff with a grand view of the ocean on the other, and a winding, uphill road ahead of us.
We started our drive from Valencia, California after spending the night at our friends’ house. An entire Saturday was all we had allocated for our roadtrip to San Francisco on the PCH, so when 5:00am arrived that morning, my parents, Andrew, and I were out the door. It took us about an hour to get back on the 101 highway somewhere in Ventura then eventually to Highway 1 (PCH) and as expected, the sun had already made an appearance by then which gave us spectacular views of the ocean.
Time: 16 Hours
Stop #1 – Solvang
Our first stop was at the Old Mission Church and the Danish Village of Solvang. We bought coffee and pastries for breakfast then walked around town, impressed by the architecture that transitioned from Spanish to Danish. There were a number of bakeries, coffee shops, and gift shops throughout the main hub of town.
Stop #2 – Bubblegum Alley
Our next major stop was at the Bubblegum Alley in San Luis Obispo. As its name suggests, it is a narrow passageway in the middle of two establishments with walls on both sides covered in chewed up gum. It was fascinating for the first minute or so, as we took photos and walked further into the alley. However, once the novelty and the artistry went away and the smell of hundreds or thousands of rotting gum hit us, we hurriedly left the alley, careful not to trip and having to catch ourselves by touching the walls.
Stop #3 – San Simeon Pier
Before we turned right towards Hearst Castle, we made a left turn towards the San Simeon Pier. It’s a great stop to take in the views of the ocean, and to use the restrooms if needed. The long pier makes it perfect for stretching legs and fishing, while the beach area is great for taking a quick dip or sunbathing.
Stop #4 – Hearst Castle
The mansion that once was William Randolph Hearst’s residence is now a California State Park. We were hoping to finally get a glimpse inside the castle, but we realized that we didn’t have enough time. We only made it to the Welcome Center where we saw the castle situated on the slope of the mountain from afar. It is definitely one of the places we’d like to visit soon.
Stop #5 – Elephant Seals
Back on the PCH, we then noticed signs promising to take us to see elephant seals. We followed the signs and were led to a beach lined with elephant seals basking in the sun as far as we can see. They were definitely fun to watch as some of them would push their way towards the water, only to abruptly stop and plop back down on the sand after just a couple pushes. Some covered themselves in sand, while other seals playfully threw sand towards their neighbor seals. It truly was a sight!
Tip: There will be a lot of uphill, winding roads ahead. Make sure to stop on the side of the road by the cliffs (where there’s room to safely stop and get out of the vehicle) to get magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean.
Stop #6 – Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
We were worried that it was going to be a while before we could stop at a gas station because the section of PCH that goes through Pfeiffer State Park is high up in the mountains. Then as if on cue, we drove by gas stations with convenience stores and different restaurants. There were also a bunch of signs pointing to campsites, whether in the mountains or down by the beach. We definitely want to find some time to go back and camp.
Stop #7 – Bixby Bridge
The architecture of the bridge and the view from it are breathtaking. We drove across (as slow as we safely could) then stopped on the designated parking area to take photos and just enjoy the view. There were a few people who walked halfway down the bridge, but we didn’t see any designated walkways which make it seem dangerous to do.
Stop #8 – Carmel-by-the-Sea
We left the PCH and took the Scenic Road, with the ocean on one side and beautiful houses on the other, into this lovely beach town that has so much to offer. We then drove on Ocean Avenue which brought us from the beach to the town’s center, which has many specialty shops, such as that of fine artists, antique collectors, chocolatiers, bakers, and clothiers.
Tip: A couple blocks north of Ocean Avenue, on Dolores Avenue and 6th Street, is the Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore and right next to it is the walkway to a somewhat hidden garden shop.
Stop #9 – San Francisco (Japantown)
By the time we arrived in San Francisco, it was already dark and we were hungry for ramen. So we drove straight to Japantown and had dinner at Suzu Noodle House & Japanese Restaurant inside the Japan Center Mall. For dessert, we headed to the second floor of the mall to Sophie’s Crepes for a banana and Nutella crepe with vanilla ice cream, which was a great way to end our all-day epic road trip.