A couple weeks ago I went to California, and rented a car. I spent a week in San Francisco, before heading south to Malibu for another week. The plan: Drive the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as California Route 1, the whole way.
The winding two-lane highway means the trip takes about 10 hours, instead of the 6 or so it would take to drive the 101 the whole way. But I’m no stranger to long, solo days of driving, and from what I heard, this was THE only way to go. So I went. Duh.
The PCH actually runs straight through the cities and towns along the coast, so from my AirBnB in San Fran it was just a short hop down the hill and I was on the road and on the way. This makes it incredibly easy to get on the road from wherever you’re staying, and to stay on the right path when you hit those coastal towns along the way.
Seriously. My directions were: Get on the CA-1 south. Drive 10 hours. Turn left, AirBnB is on your right.
By the time I hit Santa Cruz I could already feel the ocean in the air and it. was. amazing.
I continued along the winding road, with the ocean a few feet to my right and the mountains a few feet to my left. I made it all the way through to Big Sur when disaster struck.
Not really, but it felt like it.
There had been a rock slide in Gorda and the PCH was closed, with no detour. I stopped in to a Ranger’s Office in Los Padres National Forest to get directions, and they confirmed my only option was to backtrack to Monterrey and get on the 101. Heartbreak. Or was it?
Turns out, it was the best detour ever.
I backtracked for 32 miles to Monterrey, got onto the CA-68 and drove through some farmlands to get onto the CA-101, which is your typical highway system. Typical, except that it was through farmlands and framed by mountain ranges on either side.
I stayed on the 101 for several hours (and yes, had amazing views of the mountains the entire time), and then just past Los Alamos turned off onto the 154-East, which turned out to be an amazing drive right through the Santa Ynez Mountains in Santa Barbara. I was telling a local about my drive a few days later and he asked how I found that route. I told him I had no idea – and he told me it’s a local secret and one of the most beautiful drives in the area (honestly, I just looked back at the directions from the Forest Ranger in Big Sur to write this, and nothing on there mentions the 154. NO IDEA how or why I ended up in those mountains).
When I emerged from the mountains (again), I had another short jaunt on the 101 before going through MORE MOUNTAINS on Route 23 to bring me back onto the PCH and into Malibu. This last range was the Santa Monica Mountains and it was sheer cliffs and winding roads. Breathtaking.
I chatted with my AirBnb host in Malibu, and she told me that there was actually a rock slide in Gorda back in the 90s that they had just gotten cleared, when another slide happened this year and closed the highway again. Although there is technically a detour, it’s through a narrow, dark forest road and by the sounds of it, should only be traveled if you know the area.
Things you need to know before driving the PCH:
- Gas stations are few and far between, especially in the Big Sur region
- There are no lights – I definitely don’t recommend taking the PCH after dark
- The road is winding, with two-way traffic and small shoulders most of the way, so stay alert!
- There are stop zones all along the coast where you can pull off to rest or take photos. I highly recommend you do – the views are worth the 5 minutes they add to your drive.
- Roll your windows down and enjoy the feeling of ocean air on your face, and enjoy the ride!