Goal Accomplished: Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

This has been a hard life goal to sum up! The entire drive was so beautiful; the task of describing each moment feels daunting. How do I put words to that feeling of nervous exhilaration I feel when I stare into the line of hazy blue where the sky meets the sea? How do I talk about the road that cuts through the mountains and teeters along the rocky edges? How do I juxtapose the waves that crash into the sharp ledges of the coast with those that glide in melancholy patterns onto the soft sandy beaches? How do I explain how they sound and how they feel and smell? Do people even care to try to understand that? Or should I just write, instead, that you really just need to go and experience it for yourself? (You should, by the way!)

I am struggling with whether to give a sweeping description of the drive itself, and the views, and the experience, or if I should instead be more concise and specific and write about each stop for anyone looking to plan a similar trip.

So, for those who don’t need the full, mapped-out description, you can just read the next section – and check out my video documentation of the trip, which you can see on my Instagram! For anyone thinking of doing this themselves, read on for more info!


The Overall Experience:

As someone who usually associates “travel” with international adventures, this was a good reminder for me that there is still plenty in this country that I need to explore. This drive gave me the chance to remember what a beautiful and diverse country we live in – that there is still so much I need to see.

As with any road trip, there was also plenty of time for introspection. I didn’t do the drive alone – I was with one of my greatest friends, Leanne, who I’ve traveled with before. (As a side note: she is hilarious and an amazing travel companion, which you’ll see on my Instagram. I highly recommend it!) That said, Leanne and I are comfortable enough together at this point to allow for silence during the drive, too. We could just listen to music and watch the scenery pass. We could think our own thoughts – work through our own challenges. Much of the communication we had was just to point to things outside and exchange breathy “wow’s,” coated in awe and accompanied by a slight shake of our heads. (The rest of the time we were talking about completely irrelevant topics and laughing hysterically!)

I can’t say I came to any groundbreaking conclusions, but I had a lot of thoughts about next stages in my life – about long term goals and some goals that are really non-negotiable for me. And in the meantime, I really enjoyed the view. And just thinking of now – how grateful I am for these experiences, for the chances I give myself to chase down these (often time-consuming and expensive) goals.


The Drive:

So, admittedly, I can’t really talk about driving the highway. Fortunately for me, Leanne loves driving and is happy to be the one controlling the car if I’m the one documenting. That really worked in my favor because I don’t love driving.

Some things to know:

  • The drive actually takes closer to 24 hours. Google maps may tell you 8, but between traffic, the winding roads, and stops for pictures (trust me, you’ll want to), you’re looking at 3 times the estimated travel times. We took around 4 days to drive it (not including our extra days in San Francisco and San Diego) – and we still felt rushed. I would have loved more time to take in the scenery and actually enjoy the beaches!
  • There aren’t a lot of gas stations right beside the highway – especially through Big Sur! I would highly recommend stopping for gas as you pass through towns, or every morning before you leave your overnight stop.
  • On that note, there also aren’t a lot of bathrooms. This was a concern for me! Leanne and I ended up buying toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and took advantage of the obscure viewpoints that few tourists cared to stop at. Maybe that’s too much information, but consider yourselves warned!
  • It is COLD. Pack a coat. Really. Everyone told us it would be chilly, but we didn’t really believe them, being from the North East. Not our best decision. It’s not “chilly,” it is COLD. Even if the weather says it is 70-degrees, the wind off the ocean makes it feel closer to 50. I sincerely wished I brought a coat with me so that I could have enjoyed more of the stops in the first few days of the trip.

From Leanne’s perspective, most parts of the drive felt fine, but there were a couple of difficult parts:

  • Big Sur was extremely foggy. The low visibility combined with the winding, cliff-side roads and the “Warning: Rock Slides” signs made that part of the journey a bit nerve-wracking for her. They were also finishing up construction through the area after the rock slides that occurred there last year.
  • Highway 1 south of L.A. – between L.A. and San Diego – is stressful because there is so much stop-and-go traffic. There are traffic lights every few minutes and only a few cars can get through at a time. I really thought that was the moment Leanne and I were going to give up and get off the highway. It was extremely frustrating, and not the most beautiful part of the drive. If you don’t care about driving the full Route 1 Highway, I would say you should avoid that part of the highway. If I ever do the drive again, I will certainly skip that part and find another route.


Our Route:

First Stop: San Francisco

Immediately upon landing, we began by hiking the streets of San Francisco – yes, I do mean hiking. Anyone who has been before knows you can’t simply stroll the streets, you have to trek! Your legs WILL be sore and shaking by the end of the day.

Of course, to balance all of our exercising, we ate everything in sight – Lo Mein noodles from a little corner shop near Chinatown, a sundae from Ghiradelli square, a cucumber martini to enjoy by the harbor, the Impossible Burger (for me) – smothered in avocado and spicy special sauce… We spared no caloric expense!

LombardStreetSomehow between meals we managed to fit in some sightseeing. We wandered past Grace Cathedral and Lombard street, meandered in and out of shops along Fisherman’s Wharf, took pictures on the pier with the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz as our backdrop. On this trip, we didn’t have a lot of time to stay in one place and really explore, and I had been to San Fran before so it was just nice to re-visit. (If anyone is going to San Francisco for the first time, you should take time to do the guided tour of Alcatraz. It is by far one of the best guided tours I’ve experienced. Get tickets HERE.)

We stayed overnight at a friend’s place in Sunnyvale, passing through Palo Alto for dinner and drinks, then woke up early to begin our official road trip!

We started, actually, going the opposite way – driving north to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and to try to see Muir Woods. What I didn’t realize is that things have changed since the last time I visited San Francisco, and now you need to purchase a ticket to get to Muir Woods – that would have been good to know. (PSA for anyone planning a trip! You can get passes HERE.)


Since Leanne had never seen a redwood, we were determined to find her some. We decided to stop somewhere else closer to our next stop, which was a motel in Monterey. This turned out to be more difficult than we assumed. We turned off of Route 1 and ended up very lost in Central California, looking for Big Basin State Park. It took us a few hours (not exaggerating), but we eventually made it. Compared to Muir Woods, the forest did not feel as free or as towering, but we still got to see the beautiful trees, and it was a shorter walk that fit into our schedule. (Well, would have, if we had not gotten so lost!)


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SantaCruzWe stopped in Santa Cruz for dinner that night. We were surprised how unimpressed we were. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I could have had some fun there – especially if I was in high school, meeting friends out on the boardwalk at sunset, or in college, with the goal of getting drunk! But as a stop to pass through, we were surprised by how much it felt like the East Coast! There were stores selling cheap trinkets, bars selling overpriced drinks, and a lot of kids with questionable agendas walking around! (Again, if I was one of those kids – I would have been having a great summer!) I think Leanne and I were expecting every beach town to feel like we had stepped into an episode of The Hills or The O.C. (gotta love that early 2000s childhood!) and instead it didn’t feel too far from the Cape or North Shore towns where we spend our summer days.

Night Two: Monterey

We stayed in a little motel in Monterey that night – mostly for cost and convenience. I wish we could have spent time in Monterey during the day, when all the shops and restaurants in Caramel-by-the-Sea were open. We spent time that morning weaving through the streets, taking in the storefronts and watching the locals, but we didn’t stop to walk around since shops were closed and we were freezing!

17mile2We drove the 17-Mile Drive, which we recognize is primarily a money-making strategy for the resort there, but one that we enjoyed nonetheless. It was still freezing out, so we spent much of the route in the car, but the views were incredible through the window. And the fog at that point was impressive in its own right! It curled around us and seemed to flow down the cliffs like water.

Emerging from 17-Mile Drive back onto Route 1 was when our appreciation of the scenery really began! The route through Big Sur had just reopened (thank you, Universe), and was, by far, the most memorable part of our journey. You cross bridges and echo through tunnels, all while passing rolling fields on one side, and intimidating ocean waves and harsh cliffs on the other.


At some point in this drive, the fog cleared up and all of a sudden it was warm! Just like that! We also stopped for burritos at the camp grounds in Big Sur, so all-in-all, it was a successful day!

Night Three: Ventura

surf shackThis was by far our favorite overnight stop. We stayed at the most adorable Air BnB – a surf shack, right on the water. Our host was informative and accommodating and we absolutely loved the sleepy town. In comparison to Santa Cruz, nothing was open late – or early for that matter! Where we stayed wasn’t kitschy or full of tourists. There were a lot of surfers, up early with the tide, and older couples that sat in the same diner as us for breakfast – the only place open before 11am. We took some time to doze on the beach  before getting back in the car to head towards L.A.

We ate lunch and drank margaritas on the boardwalk in Santa Monica to break up our drive. Although it was touristy, we loved the energy and the feeling of stepping into a 90’s music video! We walked around after eating and found cute boutiques, tons of Mexican restaurants, and places that served as both cafes and surf shacks.


We eventually made our way to L.A. and weaved through the crowded streets to see the Chinese Theater, cruised down Ocean Avenue, and passed through Rodeo Drive, where we pretended we were just “too good” for those stores. We tried to find the Hollywood sign hike, but we got a bit lost, and instead ended up on a different mountain, where we watched the sun set over the city.


Night Four: L.A.

We stayed that night with a friend of ours, Sara, who showed us the night life and street art in West Hollywood. She also managed to get us to the real Hollywood sign hike the next morning, which we struggled through in the dusty heat. (Don’t worry – we mustered up enough energy to take plenty of pictures with the other tourists at the top!) The views were a bit foggy that day, which may also have had to do with the fires that were persisting in the northern part of the state.


After leaving Sara, we met up with two of my other friends for brunch – turns out, a lot of my favorite people live in L.A. – is this a sign?! I think it might be…

Now, here’s where the trouble started – the miserable drive between L.A. and San Diego. I have very little to say about it. It wasn’t the prettiest part of the drive. Decent people watching, I suppose, which we had plenty of time for, as we stopped at every. single. traffic light.

InandOutFinally we made it to San Diego, which felt incredibly refreshing after the hustle of L.A. (And honestly, anything outside of that car felt refreshing after that drive!) We picked up dinner (In-and-Out, obviously) and brought it to our next and final overnight stop.


Nights Five – Seven: San Diego

We spent our last few nights staying with Leanne’s (and now my) friend, Lauren. She was such a gracious host and showed us all the best food San Diego has to offer – I think I still dream about the food… tacos, margaritas, mimosa flights, acai bowls, fried snacks along the beach…


(Side note while we’re day dreaming about all those delicious calories: Believe it or not, I managed to get a longer run in while I was there. I ran 11 miles, despite the sun and the fact that I had NO idea where I was! Gotta keep training! See: this update.)

BirdsWe spent time on the beach, took Bird Scooters around the city, went into Little Italy for the best homemade pasta and wine, oh – and we spent a day in Mexico! Because, why not?!


Bonus Stop: Tijuana

I couldn’t miss an opportunity to get another stamp in my passport! I know, I know, I said this was a domestic trip, but come on – I was so close to a country I’d never visited! Besides, if Marisa and Ryan went in an episode of The O.C., it must be a Californian past-time, right?

I wasn’t sure what to expect in Mexico – especially given our current political climate.  We only stayed for a few hours, unfortunately, but I really enjoyed my time there and would recommend that anyone visiting San Diego make the trip. I will definitely go back!

First and foremost, the tacos were divine. I know I talk about food a lot in this – just go and you’ll understand why! Leanne and I made our way to the Telefónica Gastro Park – a little off the beaten path – but so glad we did. We sat outside, surrounded by locals, not tourists, and found vegan tacos for me! So. Good.


Of course, we also spent a lot of our time wandering through shops, too. Store owners were friendly and energetic – offering tequila and asking where we were from. I wish my Spanish was better so I could have engaged with the locals more. Next time.

MexicoFor anyone wondering, we had absolutely no trouble getting over to Mexico and back. We had read a lot about long lines and tough security, especially on our return to the US, but we had no problem at all. We decided to take public transit in San Diego to the border, then walk across, rather than drive so we didn’t need to worry about parking or waiting in long lines of traffic. The process was pretty easy– no big security checks or lines on either side. People were friendly and helpful. The hardest part was finding the entrance back into the US, honestly! I’m sure there are times when it’s busier. We went on a Sunday, which may have helped, and crossed over midday, came back around dinner-time.


Drive Route 1. Drive it slowly. Give yourself days to take in the scenery and wander around the little beach towns and busy cities. Eat tacos every day. Bring a coat and toilet paper and a camera with a lot of storage. Don’t worry about getting lost. Let the sun and the waves dictate your journey.


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Published by Alaina

Adventurer. Dancer. Conversation starter. Optimist. Goal chaser. I feel passionately about helping others realize their priorities and abilities. Reach out for personal coaching!

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