Road Trip Up The California Coast
Considering I've done this drive three times, driving along the coast along SR-1 is probably my favorite drive. The route begins in Dana Point of Orange County and spans the coast. You can continue the route passed Oregon (US-101) all the way until you reach Canada. I opted to skip Dana Point, and the LA portion of SR-1. In my opinion the route gets more interesting and enjoyable once you're passed Pismo Beach.
Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach are pretty okay, but if you're from a beach area in California then you can probably skip these towns. In Santa Barbara, you'll find a wharf, but if you're going to San Francisco then go ahead and skip this one.
Pismo does have a pretty cool sand dune recreational area at the Guadalupe Sand Dunes. Here you can rent and ride OHV vehicles. Others may have differing opinions, but I didn't find anything special in these towns with the exception of the dunes.
If you do decide to skip Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach you can take state route 46 from I-5. This route is scenic with rolling hills of green contrasting with the ocean blue. If you get thirsty, you can stop along one of the many wineries, but only if you have a DD or if you plan on staying the night in Paso Robles. Drinking and driving will definitely cut your trip short. It'll cut you short.
Morro Bay is approximately 30 miles away from Pismo Beach and has a pretty quaint town with a huge rock formation in the water. The rock is actually a volcanic plug that dates back 23 million years, but there are definitely other things to do around town such as kayaking to seal watching.
If you can plan your drive around the tide, then a great time to get to San Simeon is during low-tide. You'll find a vista point just before the Elephant Seal Vista Point (approximately 1/4 mile before). You can ease your way down to the rocks and search the hundreds of tide pools to find starfish, sea slugs (snails), hermit crabs, etc. They aren't hard to find, but you just have to keep your eye open and don't forget to look through the glare in the water.
San Simeon is the next stop along the 1 and offers views of Hearst Castle. Supposedly, you'll be able to find zebras there! If you're hungry and around here for lunch, you can stop at the San Simeon ranch/deli for a delicious burger and photo op of a tiny school house with horses. If you squint, you can see Hearst Castle in the background.
Along SR-1 you'll find may vista points. Each point offers a different view and I recommend stopping often and snapping tons of photos. It'll add time to your trip, but what good is a road trip if you don't stop and take in the views.
There are also unmarked vista points along the way. If you see a pull off with yellow flowers, then this may be a great time to stretch your legs or pull over to let the speedy or slow (depending on how you drive) family filled minivans pass before the incline and decline curbs.
You may hit the jackpot and pull off at the right vista point just before the Big Creek Bridge. It's not as famous as the Bixby Bridge, but from this vantage point, the view is better in my opinion.
Bixby Bridge is pretty awesome don't get me wrong...If you get there early enough, you may be able to get a picture without tons of other people. The best view may be on the east side where you can decide if you want to trek down the path to get a photo of the bridge from a lower angle.
Things really get interesting after the bridges. You'll come across interesting things from waterfalls flowing into the ocean to vista points with vantages that'll make your knees shake.
McWay falls in the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park is a short "hike" from the parking lot. The crowds start building around after 9AM, but it shouldn't be problem as you can't hike down to the beach (legally). Sea otters and whales can often be spotted from these viewpoints. Interestingly, the beach wasn't actually there in the past, but rather a landslide made the beach. You may also spot many Monarch Butterflies if you're visiting from December to February.
During my first drive up the coast, I really wanted and needed to see Santa Cruz. The thought of an amusement park on the boardwalk reminded me of the Rocket Power cartoon growing up, which probably has nothing to do with Santa Cruz. Nonetheless, I wanted to live a childhood dream of rollercoasters by the ocean, especially when you do your growing up in a landlocked state.
Thing stay pretty interesting and scenic all the way to San Francisco. If you've never seen the Golden Gate Bridge, then you're in for a treat. The bridge itself always looks fake to me when I drive through it because of how massively impressive it is, but beware you may have to pay a toll depending on which direction you're traveling. It's often cloudy, but such is life in the Bay Area.
After leaving San Francisco, you'll drive through quaint Mendocino County with more views of cliffs draped around the crisp blue ocean.
I decided to stop by the Point Arena Lighthouse and was met by gusts of wind. This point is the closest point of land to the Hawaiian Islands in the Continental United States. This gem is surrounded by water on three sides, which keeps the area cool.
From this point, I urge you to travel along the Avenue of the Giants. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The idea of being dwarfed by the Redwood trees isn't hard to comprehend, but you can only imagine what it's like once you're standing among giants. What's an ant to a basketball player anyways!
Once on the Avenue, you'll be able to pull off and hike random trails and explore the forest. You'll find landscapes worthy of a fairy tale. I drove through the avenue through periods of rain followed by sunshine. Though, my favorite part of the avenue was pulling over to the side of the road, getting out of my car, and taking in the silence away from modern city life. Hearing water drip from the trees and smelling the soaked wood and moist green leaves is a memory I'll keep tucked in the back of my head while at the office.
The coast passed the Avenue of The Giants gets pretty interesting and pretty iconic of the California/Oregon border region. The rock formations alone deserve their own hashtag.
On the way to Oregon on the 101, the Roosevelt Elk herd can sometimes be seen in the Elk Meadow. Use caution and don't approach the elk as they can weigh up to 1,200lbs. Whoooaaa there elky!
Once you get into Oregon, pull off for gas, but be weary! It's illegal in Oregon for patrons to pump their own gas. Just sit back and let the gas flow! This whole trip can be done in 3-4 days, but to really enjoy it, you'll need at least 5-7 days. If time is not on your side, I say do the drive anyways, but plan on taking another trip along the coast eventually to see what you missed. I did this trip with a friend, by myself, and with my girlfriend . Each trip was equally as enjoyable. Well, probably more enjoyable with my girlfriend (shameless plug to earn brownie points).
Stops along SR-46 to Point Arena Lighthouse
This map skips Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach and starts at State Route 46 and Interstate 5. Most of my stops are plotted on this map. I couldn't find the coordinates for the top of the SR-46, giving views of the rolling hills of green and the ocean, but it should be obvious when you're there. The route goes through Mendocino County, but there aren't any stop points on the map, but be sure to make your stops here as well! Don't feel the need to follow this route, but rather use it as a baseline. Make this trip your own and pull over whenever you want!
The map starts at the Chandelier Tree and goes all the way to the entrance of the Avenue of The Giants. It takes you along State Route 254 (Avenue of The Giants), which essentially runs along the 101. Take the whole route! I don't have many stop points, as I just pulled to the side of the road randomly while on this route. After the SR-254 I've routed the map all the way to the Oregon border with one stop in the Elk Meadow. There are plenty of stops along the way so be sure to pull over!