One mustn’t travel to far-away lands in order to witness other-worldly sights. All it takes is a trip down California’s Pacific Coast Highway, and a deep passion for adventure.
Looking back at my childhood/teenage years, I had the chance to explore several countries before visiting the breathtaking destinations found right here at home. While such a thing never really bothered me, that changed when I became a dad-on-a-budget.
In the last few years, Missi and I have embarked on a dozen or more road trips, fly-away trips, and around-the-corner trips within the United States. From Key West to Seattle, we’ve developed a deep passion for all the incredible places and people the US is home to. More importantly, we began traveling with our kids.
We recently had the opportunity to check a major item off our travel bucket list — one that we’d been trying to get in the books for years. We finally experienced California’s Pacific Coast Highway, and then some!
With a work commitment awaiting us in Los Angeles three days later, we kicked-off our journey in San Francisco and hoped time was on our side.
We chose an early flight out of Indianapolis that allowed us to land at SFO at 9:00 a.m. and get to business right away. The kids had to sit this trip out due to school commitments, but it was a welcomed change considering Missi and I hadn’t had any time away from them all year.
Upon landing, a seductive 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio awaited us at an off-site parking lot fueled-up and ready to embark on a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, aka Highway 1. But first, we had to indulge in everything the Bay City had to offer.
Having avoided the morning rush hour, it only took us 40 minutes to get from the airport to Pier 33. There, we scored day-long parking for just $20 bucks which allowed us to tour Alcatraz Island without worrying about an expiring parking meter.
Despite having toured San Francisco with my dad in 2016, I didn’t get a chance to visit the infamous Alcatraz Island Penitentiary. So, this being Missi’s first trip to the city I made it a point to do so. The tour set us back about $35 per person, but that included a round-trip ferry ticket plus park admission. (Alcatraz is a National Park.)
The next 2.5 hours consisted of lots of walking and photo-taking. Admission includes a recorded guided tour which can be heard in multiple languages via headphones. This, we learned, was the best and most economical way to tour Alcatraz. Not only do you get to explore at your own pace but you can pause and rewind as needed.
After snapping a few selfies in Alcapone and others’ jail enclosures, we boarded the ferry back to Pier 33 in time to indulge in first-class dim sum at Yank Sing. Other San Francisco shenanigans included enjoying a Golden Gate Bridge sunset, eating a massive chocolate sundae at Ghirardelli Square, driving down Lombard Street, and a quick pit-stop at the Full House house.
Muir Woods National Monument
After wrapping up our first day in NorCal completely exhausted, we retreated to our overnight accommodations in the hills of Mill Valley, where a lovely 1969 Airstream travel trailer provided us with a cozy and restful sleep ahead of a very busy day.
We left our vintage retreat the following morning at 7:00 a.m. sharp and made the seven-mile drive to the Muir Woods National Monument. Arriving extra-early is key, as there are only ten or so parking sports at the park’s entrance, and another few dozen at an off-site lot. Arrive late, and you’ll be parking miles away and paying a bus to shuttle you to the park.
After snagging a front-row parking spot we picked up a trail map and made our way to the main walking trail. To say that we were completely dumbfounded at the might of the redwoods is an understatement. All along we thought of the PCH as the crown jewel of our journey, but we quickly realized that the Muir Woods was a worthy contender.
Travel Tip: Be prepared to walk — a lot. Also, watch your step!
Ninety minutes after departing the redwoods we found ourselves sippin’ on bubbly at the Domaine Carneros Chateau in Napa Valley. Despite seeing some of the destruction from recent wildfires, the area remained vibrant and captivating. But I’ll admit it, our four-hour stay in Napa can be summed up in a few words: lots, of, sumptuous, wine.
Santa Cruz to Big Sur
We had made it! Following our short-but-awesome excursion to Northern California, we drove south to Santa Cruz where we began the center-fold our of our trip. This is where things got even more adventurous, as we didn’t have lodging booked for the next two nights, and we knew most of the PCH wasn’t cell-phone friendly.
After a quick late-night drive around Monterey we realized that if we wanted to maximize our time and money, we had to be strategic and sacrifice a bit of comfort. With hotels in the area hovering around $300 per night, we popped into a supermarket and bought some snacks, a blanket, and decided to call it a night at a parking lot north of Monastery Beach.
Five-thirty in the morning came rather quickly. We positioned our seats forward and freshened up at the gas station across the street. Within minutes we found ourselves hiking down the Garrapata Trail en route to Garrapata Beach just a few miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Rabbits ran across the trail into their hideouts after a long night of frolicking. Thousands of Cala Lilies adorned a stream of water that trickled down the mountain and into the Pacific Ocean.
A sherbert-like orange coated the skies as an eerie mist clung to the rocky hills below. It looked like a digitally enhanced scene out of the Pirates of the Caribbean. Once at beach level, 15-foot waves crashed against the shore with extreme force. Amazingly, we were the only people there. It was surreal.
The next 20 miles took us over an hour to complete. At every turn, there was yet another breathtaking cliff, another picture-perfect view, another blue whale playing splish-splash with its gigantic tail. We had to stop to take it all in each time. We eventually made it to Big Sur, where the landscape changed so abruptly that it felt like we had crossed into a different country. Pasture-clad rolling hills gave way to mountainsides covered in oak, pine, and even redwood trees. We grabbed what was, hands-down, the yummiest breakfast of our trip at the Big Sur River Inn‘s restaurant.
Big Sur to Los Angeles
Highway 1 is dizzyingly beautiful, but its biggest superpower is its ability to induce fear. One moment you’re driving along a perfectly leveled, smooth chunk of tarmac and the next you’re fighting for grip on gravel-covered hairpins with six inches of “shoulder.” What’s beyond those six inches? A 300-foot dropoff that culminates in what resembles the Little Mermaid’s castle.
These scenarios put the Alfa Romeo Stelvio’s capabilities to the test. With road-hugging all-wheel drive, three programmable driving modes, and the most delightful steering wheel found on any crossover, the Stelvio devoured the PCH’s sweeping curves with ease. And despite possessing 280 horsepower, we hardly tapped into them. The view was too pretty, and the pace too enjoyable to push hard.
Our initial goal was to conclude our coastal drive in Malibu, but road closures due to landslides near Gorda in addition to the Ventura County wildfires made it impossible. We were forced to venture off the 1 at the Nacimiento Ferguson Road past “Paul’s Slide.” The switchback-only road was barely wide enough for two cars, yet incoming RVs expected us to move over towards the precipice to our right.
After one hour of left-right-left-right switchbacks at a scary 20 mph, we reached the summit of the Los Padres National Forest. There, in the midst of dry grass that fuels wildfires, vegetation suddenly turned lusciously green and gave way to majestic redwoods and a mind-blowing waterfall. It was an oasis, and a welcomed break from white-knuckle driving.
Eventually, we found ourselves going down the opposite side of the mountain where a slightly wider road spit us out of the wilderness onto Fort Hunter, a US Army base near the town of Jolon. More importantly, we finally had cell phone reception! We had spent over two hours traveling eastbound instead of southbound, which meant we were still four hours away from Los Angeles.
Our Pacific Coast Highway adventure culminated as we merged onto Interstate 5, where the Alfa could finally stretch its legs and put its adaptive cruise control to good use. After all, we had dinner plans in LA and we were behind schedule.
Two days later, we found ourselves on a flight back to Indianapolis. We had covered nearly 1,000 miles and managed to remain off the interstate until the very end. We saw sights so beautiful that they can’t be described, and even photographs don’t do them justice.
Moral of the Story
Before you venture abroad, don’t forget that California’s Pacific Coast Highway isn’t just one of the country’s crown jewels, it’s also one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. Take it from someone who’s seen a good chunk of both.