Cruising California’s Highway 1

By Lucy Dodsworth, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on California.

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Recommended for:
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One of the world’s most spectacular road journeys, Highway 1 hugs the Californian coastline. The stretch from San Francisco to LA makes for a great road trip, so rent a convertible and get exploring

What to see

Leaving San Francisco, Highway 1 starts off as a freeway through the suburbs and Daly City, before heading out to the coast and winding through Half Moon Bay. The first city you pass en route is Santa Cruz. A bit like a Californian version of Blackpool, it’s home to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (www.beachboardwalk.com), the state’s oldest amusement park. Eerily deserted out of season, in summer it’s packed with families visiting the vintage 1920's wooden Giant Dipper rollercoaster, playing mini golf and eating candyfloss. Santa Cruz also has a good surf beach if you want to get out into the ocean.

Further on round the bay is the town of Monterey, famous for its aquarium. The Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940; 831 648 4800; www.montereybayaquarium.org), ironically situated in an old sardine cannery, is one of the area’s top attractions and definitely worth a visit. It has a huge tank containing a three-storey-height kelp forest, where you can get an insight into the marine life of the California coast, as well as exhibits ranging from touch pools to shark tanks. There’s also the largest collection of jellyfish in the US, sea otter feeding sessions, a new sea horse exhibit and over 600 other species (adult tickets $29.95).

South of Monterey is picture-perfect Carmel-by-the-Sea. Famous for its former mayor Clint Eastwood, the town’s strict planning restrictions mean its quaint streets are home to a mix of architectural styles from Swiss chalets to English country cottages. The area is also known for its art and crafts and Ocean Avenue is home to a host of antique and craft shops. Leaving Carmel, 17-Mile Drive runs along the coast to Pacific Grove and is one of the prettiest stretches of coastline, though the residents know it and will charge you $9.25 if you want to drive through! But you can hire bikes in Carmel and cycle though if you want to avoid the charge and take a more leisurely look at the scenery.

Further south the stretch of road through Big Sur is one of the most famous and spectacular parts of the route. Stretching for around 90 miles, the road twists and turns along the coastline with steep rocky cliffs leading down to crashing waves. There are some great walking trails through the redwood forests of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park if you’ve got time to spare, or take a break at the Big Sur Bakery (Highway 1, Big Sur, CA 93920; 831 667 0520; www.bigsurbakery.com) for lunch or great coffee and cakes.

Just north of San Simeon, you pass the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery (www.elephantseal.org), a breeding ground for Elephant Seals with up to 15,000 of them visiting the coast here during December-March. You can come and see them on the beach at this time and guides from the Friends of the Elephant Seal organisation are on hand to answer any questions, though be prepared to shout as the seals can be pretty loud!

Nearby Hearst Castle (750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA 93452; 805 927 2020; www.hearstcastle.org) is the former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and now a National Historic Landmark. Situated high up on a hill with far-reaching views along the coast, the buildings are a mix of architectural styles copied from famous European buildings Hearst admired and house some of his huge art and antique collections. It’s a unique place to visit and you can choose from a variety of different tours. Tour one is best for first-time visitors and includes the main house, guest house and gardens, as well as the spectacular Neptune Pool (1 hour 45 mins, $24).

You then travel on to Morro Bay from where the road heads inland to the town of San Luis Obispo. Just outside town is the Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405), a temple of kitsch and definitely worth a stop. Its 110 rooms are all themed – from ‘Safari’ with its leopard print sofas and waterfall rock shower, to Wild-West-style ‘Yahoo’ where your bed is a converted wagon! If you’re not staying there you can still check out the main dining room, a riot of pink and gold, and the waterfall urinal in the men’s bathroom.

Heading south, Highway 1 emerges back out on to the coast near the pretty beach resort of Pismo Beach. The ‘clam capital of the world’, Pismo hold an annual clam festival in October (2011 dates to be confirmed - see www.pismoevents.com). Thoroughly embracing the theme, the festival includes a parade of local residents in clam costumes, the chance to dig for clams on the beach and a clam chowder cook off.

From Pismo Beach the route heads inland (the coast here is a home to a big US Air Force base) before re-emerging back on the coast. You soon come to Santa Barbara, a laid-back college town that’s a good place to stop for the evening with its wide selection of bars and restaurants. Shoreline Beach Café (801 Shoreline Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93109; 805 568 0064) is a great place to start the evening with sunset drinks right on the beach.

The last stretch of Highway 1 down to Los Angeles passes through the 27-miles of coastline that make up Malibu. The road here is flanked by movie stars’ homes, with local residents including Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks. Unfortunately most houses are hidden away from the road so you can’t see very much and a lot of the beach is private property, but there are a few access ways down to the sand if you want to try and spot a star.

Heading on into the outskirts of Los Angeles, its much easier to hit the beach at the seaside resort of Santa Monica. Familiar from scores of films and TV programmes, you can watch the super-fit on Muscle Beach, dodge the rollerbladers and scream your way through the rides on the pier. And from there you say goodbye to Highway 1 and head inland, with just a short hop to reach central Los Angeles.

Distances

You can complete the full 490-mile Highway 1 route from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 10.5 hours, but with so much to see and do its worth taking your time. For a four-day, three-night trip route the driving times break down as:

  • Day 1, San Francisco to Monterey, approx 2 hours 30 mins
  • Day 2, Monterey to San Luis Obispo, approx 3 hours 45 mins
  • Day 3, San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, approx 2 hours
  • Day 4, Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, approx 2 hours 15 mins

Where to stay

Monterey: Sanctuary Beach Resort (3295 Dunes Drive, Marina, CA 93933) is situated among the protected sand dunes of Monterey Bay, 15 minutes north of the town. You leave your car at reception and travel around the resort in your own golf buggy. Rooms have balconies or terraces with views across the dunes as well as fireplaces and complementary wine you can drink while watching the sunset or at the evening beach bonfire. Dune view rooms start from $160 per night if you book in advance on their website.

San Luis Obispo: The Peach Tree Inn (2001 Monterey Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401) is a charming retro-style motel on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. You can catch the vintage trolley just outside to get into town and the friendly staff are helpful and full of tips about what to see and do in the area. Rooms start at a bargain $79 per night, which include a breakfast of cereals, fruit and muffins.

Santa Barbara: For luxury, try the Inn of the Spanish Garden (915 Garden Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101). The Spanish colonial-style building is set around a central courtyard with fountain, and has an outdoor fire pit and pool. Spacious rooms have fireplaces and balconies or terraces and there are lots of nice little touches like freshly baked cookies in the afternoons and local wines available by the glass. Rooms start at $259 per night.

Los Angeles: The Magic Castle Hotel - Hollywood (7001 Franklin Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90028) is in a great location just five minutes’ walk from Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame. The staff are fantastic and have a wealth of information about what to do in LA, as well as providing free snacks and drinks, free newspapers in the morning and a menu of DVDs you can borrow. Our suite was huge with a separate kitchen/diner and lounge. There’s also a nice central pool area to relax in. Rooms start from $158 per night for a Queen room or $198 for a one-bedroom suite.

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More information on Cruising California’s Highway 1:

Author:
Lucy Dodsworth
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)
Total views:
960
First uploaded:
15 February 2010
Last updated:
3 years 51 weeks 6 days 21 hours 34 min 14 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Activity, Beach, Road Trip
Budget level:
Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
coast, driving, road trip

Lucy recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Magic Castle Hotel - Hollywood
£80
N/A
2. Madonna Inn
£166
N/A
3. Sanctuary Beach Resort
£96
N/A
4. Inn of the Spanish Garden
£208
N/A
5. Peach Tree Inn
N/A

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Community comments (1)

Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

An excellent summary of this road trip – it certainly brought back memories, especially of the worst Elvis impersonator in the world in a bar connected to a motel in San Simeon! The seals just up the road were more tuneful!
Your hotel recommendations are thorough, if on the pricey side. We stayed in motels as it was usually just a night to get some sleep before moving on to the next place. We found plenty of decent and cheap accommodation options along this route however, it being such a popular road trip.
Thanks for the guide Lucy. You’ve certainly been paying attention to the styling requirements as this guide hardly needed editing. We’re looking forward to your next.

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