California Dreamin': Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a convertible might be the quintessential summer vacation.

Photos by the author

Having never gone on a proper road trip before, I decided to make the 400-plus-mile drive up the California coastline from Los Angeles to San Francisco. There didn’t seem to be anything more perfect for a summer vacation than driving along the Pacific coast in a convertible.

Actually, the original plan was to drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and then on to San Francisco. However, prudence got the better of my husband and me, and we decided the extra cost of renting a car in one state and dropping it off in another just wasn’t worth it. Instead, we hopped on a 45-minute flight for a measly $76 a ticket, which actually came out to less than the extra cost we would incur from the car rental company.

With less than a day, Los Angeles was really just a quick stopover where we took the time to visit a movie studio (Sony), take a leisurely stroll (through the La Brea Tar Pits) and eat some fancy French food (for our anniversary). From there we hopped into our convertible, put the top down and prepared for our drive up the coast. We, unfortunately, promptly put the car’s top back up, because the sky was cloudy and there was far too much wind even before driving 55 mph on the highway.

We had no plans, not really.

So what is there to do for hours on the road? It turns out that a couple hours on the Pacific Coast Highway go by quicker than expected. The smell of strawberries helped at one point, but the changing landscape is fascinating. In south the rock formations reminded me of Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon. There were low rolling hills like in Virginia’s wine country and there were forest covered mountains, like what I’m used to in New Jersey.

But on the left-hand side there was always the beach, sometimes level with the road, sometimes a few hundred feet down a cliff and sometimes just out of sight because of the houses. But the ocean was always there for almost the entire first day of driving. There were a dozen pull offs to stop and walk along the small beaches, take pictures of a beach wedding (taking place in less-than-ideal weather), watch surfers or climb a giant sand dune.

The sand dune in question was deceptive, and the children scampering up it fooled us, because climbing it was a lot more difficult than it looked. But the view from the top offered a fantastic view.

The view from the bottom of the sand dune (top) and looking out from the top of the sand dune (bottom).

And before stopping at our hotel halfway between Los Angeles and our destination of San Francisco, we had to go to a winery while we were in California. We chose Melville Winery from the movie Sideways, where we enjoyed a tasting and bought two bottles (a pinot noir and a chardonnay).

Although we’re wine novices more than anything else, we learned how particular the winemaker was when picking grapes, tasting from each row before allowing the grapes to be picked and leaving grapes on the vine if he didn’t think they were ready. Also, while some people enjoy chardonnays because they can have a rich, buttery taste, that’s not what the chardonnay we got at Melville’s was like. The creamy texture comes from the wine fermenting in oak barrels, which influence the wine’s flavor. Instead, this chardonnay was fermented in a stainless steel barrel, making the wine a little more acidic.

We spent the night at the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in San Luis Obispo. Every room has a private mineral springs hot tub. But be warned, all those rooms having mineral springs hot tubs means you get to enjoy the alluring smell of sulfur. We were able to get a free gel from the front desk to add to our tub’s water to help with the smell. And when we woke up bright and early the next morning we could hike to the top of the mountain and look down at the town below.

From top: wineries of the Sta. Rita Hills; (right) Melville Vineyards; (left) hiking trail at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort; view of Avila Bay from the top of the summit

The second half of our California road trip was the most anticipated part: Big Sur. But first, we came upon the elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas rookery, also known as Elephant Seal Beach. We expected to see maybe a dozen seals from a distance, but instead we found ourselves facing a beach lined with seals lying on top of one another, fighting, swimming in the ocean and all much closer than expected.

The seals return to this rookery twice a year for birthing, breeding, molting and rest. Since it was July, they were mostly laying around and covering themselves in sand. While on shore, the seals are fasting and can lose roughly one-third their body weight.

Big Sur is not nervous drivers. Although there are plenty of pull offs that to use so more confident drivers can go around. And since there’s no other way to pass cars on the narrow, winding road, it’s encouraged for slower drivers to make use of these areas. We’re not the camping sort, so we drove right through.

Since Big Sur runs roughly 90 miles long, you have more than enough opportunities to park and get dangerously close to the edge of the cliff to snap pictures. However, as beautiful as the view is, you’ll probably find that after an hour and a half, you’re not as interested in the view anymore as you are finding a place to eat. When you hit Nepenthe, practically hanging off the cliff 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean, you’ll know you’re almost done.

The menu isn’t cheap, and the food is really just fine, but you’re there for the view more than the $14 burger. The building is a restaurant on the top level, a café serving brunch all day on the middle and a gift shop downstairs.

Bottom is the view from our lunch at Nepenthe’s Café Kevah.

Once you leave Big Sur behind, it’s more long highways and watching the landscape change from the forest-covered mountains to flat land and little towns and busy highways that New Jerseyans are more used to.

Before entering San Francisco, we opted to drop our beloved convertible off at the airport since we did not want to experience driving the hills of San Francisco or worrying about parking.

Next up: San Francisco, Alcatraz and Muir Woods.