The Pacific Coast Highway travels up the western edge of the North American continent like the vein down the back of a shrimp.
It has claim to being the single most scenic road in America, passing between the mountains and the sea for 1,500 miles from Southern California to Puget Sound in Washington.
There may be shorter sections of other roads through the Rocky Mountains or the Appalachians that are equally stunning, but nothing approaches the Pacific Coast Highway for glory over so long a haul.
If you pick it up in San Francisco, you cross the Golden Gate Bridge and north of the city, you take the cutoff for California Highway 1, leaving behind U.S. 101, and head for the hills. The road to the coast is so curvy and filled with switchbacks, you swear to give up driving altogether. But it finally breaks out onto the sea, and the ride is one of the best in the world.
The northern half of the Pacific Coast Highway is notable for its quiet emptiness, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do.
Among the attractions you will pass on the Pacific Coast Highway driving from San Francisco to Olympia, Wash.:
Marin Headlands National Recreation Area — Within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, the headlands rise above the frequent fog and provide hiking, beaches, history and a Nike missile silo.
Muir Woods National Monument — One of the great groves of redwood trees, just a short hop from the city and great place for a quiet walk in the woods.
Bolinas — The small town at the south end of Point Reyes doesn’t encourage tourism. Its citizens have been known to take down the road sign out on the highway to mislead travelers. But it so beautiful a town you can understand why they want to keep it to themselves.
Point Reyes National Seashore — California 1 rides literally atop the San Andreas fault along the eastern edge of Point Reyes. On the other side, a renegade tectonic plate slowly has floated from Southern California to its current location north of San Francisco. Its hills, beaches and farms eventually will move north to Alaska, but give it a few million years to do so.
We’ll take the road further north, but let’s now consider the southern part of the route. We’ve already covered the glory of the Big Sur, but not all of the southern half of the road is quite so sublime.
It is, of course, not a single highway, but a confusion of roads, for the PCH, as it is known in LA, is not an official name but a popular one, and it covers several U.S. and state route numbers.
It is best known, for instance, as the beach road in Santa Monica. You will hear natives say they are going to take the PCH to Point Dume or Leo Carrillo State Beach, but the map of the area shows that the road they drive actually is called Palisades Beach Road.
What is more, when it was cut through the bluff bottom in 1929, it was called the Roosevelt Highway. That is still its secondary name.
It is also California Route 1. Through most of the state, the PCH follows California 1 and U.S. 101, hugging the coast and its scenery.
The PCH is born haltingly and in patches south of Los Angeles.
If you drive north from San Diego, you will be able to skirt the ocean through the city suburbs. California S21 goes through Del Mar and Cardiff-by-the-Sea, but north of Oceanside, you have no choice: You have to get on the interstate. Interstate 5 goes through Camp Pendleton and San Clemente to the actual origin of California 1 near San Juan Capistrano.
As it travels north through Orange County and Los Angeles, California 1 is just a city street, blocked with stoplights and suffocated with traffic. It isn’t until Santa Monica that it develops its character. The spiritual beginning of the highway is where Interstate 10 ends and dumps out on the PCH under the muddy slumping palisades past the Santa Monica Pier.
This is the beach California is famous for — surfers and frozen yogurt shops, lifeguard stands and parking lots crammed to the gills with shiny Hondas and Toyotas. The land of swelling bikinis and glistening sunglasses.
On summer weekends, the traffic is bumper to bumper through Topanga Beach and Malibu. It doesn’t let up — and then only a little — till past Point Dume. But the wait is worth it as the natural world reasserts itself at El Matador, El Pescador and Leo Carrillo state beaches.
And if you are lucky enough to be there at midweek in midwinter, you can have the beach all to yourself. Los Angeles is just a bad urban memory.
For the next 100 miles, the road alternates between beach and city, passing Oxnard, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo on one hand and Point Magu, Refugio Beach and Pismo Beach on the other. The road takes a long inland detour around Vandenberg Air Force Base, through Lompoc, beloved foil for W.C. Fields, and although the ocean is hidden, the grassy golden hills of California make a fitting substitute.
It is north of Morro Bay, however, that the PCH earns its reputation. It would be hard to find a more stunning stretch of coast road anywhere.
California 1 rides a shelf above the sea cliffs with the ocean on the west and the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east. At times, the mountains crowd on the highway; elsewhere, the broad grassy plain widens out, pushing the mountains back. Farmhouses and pasture fence off the flats and some of the country’s best campsites are just beside the road.
William Randolph Hearst’s castle, San Simeon, is the biggest single attraction in the area. The original yellow journalist and the newspaper publisher who brought us the Spanish-American War spent more than a quarter of a century building the mansion, turning it into a grandiose monument of risible bad taste.
So much for the comic relief: The grand climax of the entire West Coast rises out of the water north of San Simeon. Big Sur, it is called, and it is the very model of the rocks and sea fighting over territory.
The highway through the area wasn’t opened until 1937. Men died cutting the road from the mountains. It corkscrews in and out of coves and headlands, up and down, with precipices to one side and breakers to the other.
Writer Henry Miller lived in the area in a little shack on Anderson Creek for years.
”Often when the clouds pile up in the north and the sea is churned with whitecaps, I say to myself: ‘This is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked out on from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the Earth as the creator intended it to look.’ ”
Miller also said, ”It was here at Big Sur that I first learned to say amen!”
Everything beyond the Big Sur is anticlimactic: The land slowly uncurls and flattens and the real estate becomes populated. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a town of tourists and the slumming wealthy. Coffee shops replace redwoods and couture replaces granite.
Just outside of town, there is Point Lobos State Reserve, a jutting peninsula filled with sea-weathered rock and Monterey cypress.
And in the town of Monterey, the aquarium is a perennial favorite.
But the landscape seems hopelessly mercantile after the sublimity of Sur. Monterey Bay is one vast, flat, muddy estuary given over to the growing of garlic and artichokes.
North of Santa Cruz, nature reasserts herself, though less majestically. At Point Año Nuevo, there is a state reserve where elephant seals breed each winter. Access is by ticket only, and reservations are a necessity.
A few miles along the road, Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the site of a hostel run by American Youth Hostels with a hot tub perched on a rocky cliff.
The landscape is green and wet, with creeks gathering from the mountain runoff and pouring into the ocean in sandy deltas lined with beach. There is little traffic most of the year, despite the proximity of San Jose, less than 10 miles away but shielded from the coast by impassable mountains.
But the closer you get to San Francisco, the more development you find. North of Half Moon Bay, there is only one more brief run of wildness, as the road has to bend around San Pedro Mountain. At the place called Devil’s Slide, where the road cuts through a very unstable portion of the mountain, the road often has been closed by landslide. It is now bypassed by the Tom Lantos Tunnels, which are more efficient, but less adventurous.
The southern half of the Pacific Coast Highway alternates between the most asphalt-choked cities and the most untamed nature, culminating in the great crescendo of the Big Sur.
It can be seen as a kind of symphony, building to a grand outburst of brass and timpani, then quieting down to a final city cadence. From Los Angeles to San Francisco — something like 500 miles by this circuitous route — you can forget the planet is filled to the breaking point with humanity. You can reacquaint yourself with the elemental forces of rock, water and air and recharge your batteries.
But there are some people who say it gets even better. North of San Francisco, there is almost nothing but nature.
If the southern half is a symphony of alternating moods, the northern half of the PCH is more like the Bach cello suites: solitary, quiet, sublime but reflective. At times, you may feel as if you are the only car on the only road in the hemisphere.
There are state beaches and parks along the way, and a few towns, like Fort Ross and Albion, but for the most part, this is a road between a green interior and a rocky blue sea: a ribbon of innigkeit. At least until you come back to quasi-civilization at Eureka, and the road (now U.S. 101) heads north into Oregon.
Along the way, there are punctuations.
Fort Ross State Historic Park — North of the Russian River, you find explanations for the name: Russian architecture speaks of the days when that nation attempted to colonize the western rim of North America.
Mendocino — One of the most beautiful of the small towns along the PCH, Mendocino is in grave danger of selling out to tourism. It still is worth visiting, but it will not be long before it goes the way of Ferndale to the north.
Fort Bragg — Much more blue-collar, and therefore much more real, than its tourist-funded neighbors, the town is home to lumber mills and commercial fishing. In it, you can catch the flavor of what actual living is like on the Northern California coast.
Leggett — At this little town, not much more than a point on the map, California 1 rejoins U.S. 101 for the trip through the heart of Redwoodland. It is also the home of the ”original” drive-through tree (there are several others).
Avenue of the Giants — A 33-mile side road that parallels the main highway from Phillipsville to Jordan Creek, California 254 is an old byway that takes you through the heart of the old tourist redwood areas. There are lots of places to buy clocks made from redwood, and several old-fashioned tourist traps for kids. It is hokey enough to be worth visiting. It is also beautiful.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park — One of the largest stands of redwood, with 50,000 acres along the Eel River, this is the true heart of redwood country. Camping, hiking and just sucking in the ether makes this one of the best stops along the route.
Ferndale — If you really, really want a place to buy souvenirs and ”old fashioned” candy, the likes of which no old-timer ever saw, Ferndale is the place to do it. Like a chunk of gingerbread Disneyland set down in paradise, it reminds us, if we are ever in danger of forgetting, that America runs on money.
Eureka — The largest town on the route north of San Francisco, Eureka is another gritty blue-collar town, and a healthy dose of reality after the ersatz huckstering of Ferndale. It is also the home of the Samoa Cookhouse, one of the great eating places in the state, where food is served family style and in huge doses.
Redwood National Park — Spread out in discontiguous patches through Northern California like spots on a Holstein cow, the park protects about 100,000 acres of redwood. It isn’t the best or most impressive stand of redwoods — I recommend Homboldt for that — it still is worth stopping for, especially for the parts that front the ocean.
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area — For 50 miles north of Coos Bay, the oceanfront consists of mountainous sand dunes. At Honeyman State Park, 10 miles south of Florence, a 150-foot dune rises over a reflecting pond.
Sea Lion Caves — Just north of Florence, the waves have cut a monster cave in the sea cliffs and thousands of stellar sea lions come there each year to breed. It is the only such rookery on the American mainland. It is a much worthier stop than it might sound like: The tourist trap angle is played down and the animals are real and fascinating.
Yachats — This small town is the perfect seaside vacation resort, with all the restaurants and motels, marinas and beaches that implies. Oregonians come here to rent ”cottages” for a week or two in the summer.
Oregon Coast Aquarium — In Newport, the aquarium is an up-to-date modern facility with wonderful exhibits and a must-stop location along the highway, just under one of Oregon’s great, green bridges, this over Yaquina Bay.
Tillamook — One of the few places where the highway steps back from the water, Tillamook is the home of a cheese factory with tours and the world’s largest all-wooden building, which is, in fact, a blimp hangar with an airplane museum inside.
Seaside — Actually, the whole piece of coastline from Rockaway Beach through Cannon Beach to Seaside more closely mimics the New Jersey shore than anyplace else in America. It is a place for frozen yogurt, saltwater taffy and bicycle rentals.
Fort Clatsop — When the Lewis and Clark expedition finally made it to the Pacific in 1805, they stayed in a tiny wooden fort they built and named Fort Clatsop after the local Indians. The re-creation of this fort is one of the great historic sites and gives you a chance to learn how the 40 men, one woman and a baby spent the miserable winter before heading back to civilization.
Aberdeen — The Aberdeen, Hoquiam bi-city area is built on the lumber business, or at least it used to be. The factories and docks are still there, although not always busy. This industrial town is also the birthplace of Kurt Cobain and you can visit the high school he attended; a scholarship has been set up in his name, sort of the equivalent of a good citizenship award named for Vidmar Quisling.
Hoh River Rain Forest — The western side of the Olympic Peninsula gets nearly 12 feet of rain annually, making its temperate forest of hemlock, cedar and Sitka spruce luxuriant beyond all bounds. Giant ferns catch the humidity and green out the understory and all winter long – the rainy season – drops of water spatter from the leafage.
Olympic National Park — North of the Quinault Indian Reservation, the highway pokes out to the ocean once more, and the Olympic Coastal Strip, part of the national park, follows the shoreline for 57 miles, making this the longest wilderness coastline in the continental U.S.
Hurricane Ridge — The northern entrance to Olympic National Park sits just south of Port Angeles and the long climb up to Hurricane Ridge is one of the great alpine drives. You likely will pass mountain goats, elk and tons of yellow marmots, and it is not unlikely you will come across snow all year long.
Olympia — Home of Olympia beer — called ”Oh-lee” by the locals – and the end of the route. It is the state capital, but, most of all, it’s a good place to have a beer and celebrate the end of the drive.