When I first drove West, across America, I had just graduated college and was moving to California. As I started my last leg of the trip, along Interstate 10, I decided to drive as long as the road would take me. And I soon discovered that Interstate 10, also known as the Santa Monica Freeway, ended at the Pacific Ocean. What I didn’t realize — until I got to the end of the road — was that I was actually at the intersection of another, more magical route: State Route 1, often referred to as Highway 1 or... the Pacific Coast Highway.
And once I took that route, I knew I had arrived. The PCH runs along much of the Pacific coast of the U.S. in California, and it parallels, and sometimes hugs, one of he most beautiful coastlines in the world. As I continued my drive north along the ocean, the ride just kept getting more incredible.
A few months later, I decided to take a longer PCH trip — from Los Angeles all the way to San Francisco, and the 139-mile section from Monterey to Morro Bay was nothing short of staggeringly beautiful.
The PCH begins in Southern California at Interstate 5 south of San Juan Capistrano, and it ends at U.S. 101 in Leggett in Mendocino County.
In 1887, John L.D. Roberts, M.D., founded the town of Seaside on land he had purchased from an uncle. Dr. Roberts soon became the postmaster, planner, county supervisor and rural country doctor who visited his patients on horseback. He hoped that someday a road would be able to take him from his home in Monterey to his patients as quickly as possible. A shipwreck occurred one day, and Dr. Roberts had to ride nearly four hours to reach Point Sur. Seeing the need for a road, he later photographed the land between San Simeon and Carmel and has been credited with being the first surveyor of the coastline.
Highway 1 construction began in 1919. San Quentin Prison organized three temporary prison camps to provide labor for the road. The inmates were paid 35 cents per day, and their prison sentences were even reduced in return for their hard work. Locals, such as the writer John Steinbeck, also worked on the road.
Some 33 bridges span Highway 1, including the famous Bixby Rainbow Bridge in Big Sur.
The PCH can get crowded. In Los Angeles County more than 78,000 people are on the road every day. At its starting point in Dana Point, only 38,000 people use the PCH. But in Monterey, it jumps to 84,000, and 86,000 in San Francisco.
And while the views are spectacular, they also can result in road accidents. Drivers are — literally — not keeping their eyes on the road.
And the busiest months are July and August.
But not all of the PCH offers great ocean views. The PCH passes vineyards and agricultural lands to rolling hills and mountainsides, with a few urban landscapes mixed in.
In Southern California, parts of the PCH are nearly five miles inland from the coast. One of the best stretches of the PCH is located on the Central Coast. And of course, there’s Big Sur (the Big Sur River Inn is a great place to stop for lunch, and don’t forget to ask for the best seats they have: in the river. Dotted with redwoods, the Big Sur River runs behind the inn, and wooden chairs and tables are located in the shallow areas of the river).
Drivers are often so amazed by the views and vistas of the PCH that they don’t stop to experience nature. Make sure to stop and explore tide pools, venture out on a whale-watching expedition, or kayak in beautiful locations such as Santa Barbara County’s Channel Islands or in Monterey Bay alongside sea otters.
For a look at the Central Coast wildlife, visit the Point Lobos State Reserve. It is located just south of Carmel right off of Highway 1. More than 250 different animal and bird species and more than 350 plant species have been identified at this reserve. The reserve is also a great place to see tide pools. It costs $8 per vehicle entering the reserve.
Get your thrill on a different road at Jim Hall Kart Racing School in Oxnard in Ventura County. Here, you learn driving dynamics in steering, acceleration, braking and cornering, and will work up to racing speeds with on-track and class instruction. A half-day includes three on-track driving sessions and is $195.
Several wine areas are located along the PCH, including Mendocino, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Sonoma counties. In Monterey County, as you’re heading north on the PCH, if you turn left on Carmel Valley Road, you will drive through Carmel Valley past ranches and several wineries, including Chateau Julien, Bernardus Winery and Talbotts Vineyards. Tasting fees are around $5-$10.
One word of caution: If you’re in Los Angeles and need to drive to San Francisco quickly (or vice versa), the PCH is not your answer. Stick to Interstate 5. But if you want to experience the California coast in a way that’s not rushed, then the PCH IS the answer, with one caveat. Don’t try to drive too much of it in a day. The overriding concept of the PCH is to take your time. In my experience, a good planned trip, either north or south on the PCH, should take three days, with plenty of time for surprises and unexpected experiences.
Founded in 1962, the Esalen Institute sits on 27 acres on the Big Sur coastline and is an alternative educational center devoted to exploring “human potential,” unrealized human capacities. It is known for blending Eastern/Western philosophies, its experiential/didactic workshops, and the steady visits of philosophers, psychologists, artists and religious thinkers.
Here, you can visit overnight or stay long-term for the workshops. The Esalen Institute is also known for its hot springs. The hot springs are open to the general public by reservation only from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. and cost $20, payable only by credit card.
Camping at one of California’s state parks along the coast. Areas such as San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Ventura and Mendocino counties tend to offer more affordable accommodations for families.
For example, Big Basin is California's oldest state park, established in 1902, and it is located in Santa Cruz County. This park has ancient coast redwood, old-growth and recovering redwood forest, with mixed conifer, oaks, chaparral and riparian habitats.
The park has more than 80 miles of trails and has a number of waterfalls, a wide variety of environments, many animals (deer, raccoons, an occasional bobcat), and several types of birds — including Steller’s jays, egrets, herons and California woodpeckers. It costs about $25 per day. (831) 338-8860, www.parks.ca.gov.
If affordability is not an issue, then check out theBernardus Lodge, nestled on a vineyard in Carmel Valley. Rates for a two-bedroom suite range from $1,390 to $1,890. Bernadus Lodge’s restaurant, Marinus, is an award-winner, with five-course meals at $110. (888) 648-9463, www.bernardus.com
And, last but not least: If you want to start your PCH drive in style, rent a luxurious sport automobile at Beverly Hills Rent-A-Car at their Newport Beach location. You can choose from cars such as a MINI Cooper, Ferrari or Rolls-Royce. A Ferrari rental is around $2,000 per day. (310) 274-6969, www.bhrentacar.com
Moto Loco of Santa Barbara rents Harleys, custom-built choppers, all-terrain vehicles and more. A one-day rental is about $165 for street bikes. (805) 899-2453, http://www.motolocosb.com/
Some motorists choose to rent authentic reproductions of the Model A Ford Roadster at the Monterey Rent-a-Roadster when driving the Big Sur Coast. The average cost for a two-hour rental is $30 to $40, a five-hour rental is $140 to $190, and an eight-hour rental is $210 to $280. (831) 647-1929, http://www.rent-a-roadster.com.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.