Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Tips for an epic road trip.

When I was a kid I used to watch a 1970’s detective show The Rockford Files with my Grandfather. I was a bit of a car enthusiast even then, and the reason I enjoyed it was that there was at least one car chase per episode. General Motors had some serious product placement going on, so every week Jim Rockford would have to flee from a bad guy in his signature gold Pontiac Firebird. But the part of the show that really stuck with me into my adulthood were these long helicopter shots of a General Motors car rolling down the Pacific Coast Highway. In the back of my mind, I always had this desire to cruise the PCH, as it’s known locally, and I finally got my chance. The PCH runs the entire length of the west coast, from Seattle to San Diego, but I decided to focus on California, in part due to time constraints, but mainly because that is where those great helicopter shots were made.

The trip did not disappoint. I drove 1500 miles in 7 days in a big loop from Los Angeles to Mendocino and back. The weather was perfect, and the PCH was everything I had hoped it would be; an epic road to drive, through some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet.

If you are considering this journey, let me pass on some things I learned.

You need an automotive accomplice:

You can’t road-trip without a car, and with mid-70’s Rivieras being in short supply, I rented a Ford Mustang convertible. This was the first time I had ever been behind the wheel of this classic American muscle car. It may be named for a pony, but I found it to be more of a Labrador Retriever. Kind of dimwitted but loveable; it likes to roll around, wag its tail, and fart a lot. This was the Ecoboost model, and the last part was caused by the turbocharged engine’s noisy wastegate. With the top down, sun shining, and music cranked, the ‘Stang was the perfect accomplice for an epic road trip.

Of course, you can drive whatever you like, but make sure its dependable. There are long stretches through sparsely populated areas, and cell phone coverage is spotty at best on most of the road. There were times I stopped where I could see I was the only car, in fact the only human, within 5 miles in either direction. A breakdown here could find you far from help and a tow would be extremely expensive.

Be flexible with your itinerary:

In planning my trip, I took inspiration from the Tom Petty song, The Trip To Pirates’ Cove. I set about planning the trip around places referenced in the song. An article I had read suggested that driving North to South was preferable because the car would be closer to the ocean providing better views. While this is certainly true, I discovered better reason: this puts most of the scenic pull-outs along the road to the right of the car, making it easier to stop whenever you want. With a direction decided and taking cues from Mr. Petty, I settled on starting in Mendocino and ending in Los Angeles 6 days later. Incidentally, there are several Pirates’ Coves along the coast, so I chose the one near Pismo Beach.

I planned the drive in easy stages, allowing plenty of time for diversions along the way. I aimed for around 6 hours of driving each day, which left plenty of daylight for stopping to take in the views, impromptu side trips, or any other delays which might crop up, such as construction or traffic. There are dozens of state and national parks, forests, and other public nature areas along the PCH, each one containing some hidden gem if you are willing to take a short hike off the road. Then there is the opportunity to walk the Golden Gate Bridge. That took about an hour for me. Each little town has shopping opportunities and unique places to eat. And of course, you might want to spend some time on the beach. Remember, the journey is the point: there’s no reason to hurry, and plenty to do along the way.

To illustrate a typical day, my first stage was Mendocino to the Marin Headlands with a hotel in the Sausalito area. Google Maps said the drive should be around 6 hours. It took me closer to nine between frequent stops, lunch, a side trip into the Marin Headlands park to view the bridge and increasing congestion near San Francisco.

If you have a special diet be sure to factor it into your planning. There are plenty of places to eat if you aren’t picky; but I’m a vegetarian, so I had to spend some time with the Happy Cow app to find places along each stage of the journey.

But book hotels in advance:

I discovered quickly that there aren’t many towns with hotels along the road. The hotels that do exist fill up quickly or become very expensive on the weekends. There are plenty of campgrounds along the road, if that’s your thing, but I noticed almost everyone I passed had a FULL sign. Bottom line; set a goal for the day with a hotel or other accommodation at the end, then let nature take its course along the way.

Take time off the road:

Another reason I planned the trip in easy stages was that I gave me time to do things off the road. I got a massage at a spa in Mendocino and had dinner with an old friend in Sausalito. I took a whole day to explore Monterey and Carmel, relaxing on the beach and visiting the historic mission there. Every evening I found a place to watch the sun set over the Pacific. And on my last evening I went to a movie at the Sunset Drive-In of San Luis Obispo, which seems to me to be a required activity when you have a convertible. This makes the trip about more than just the road.

Mind the crowds:

In planning my trip, I discovered that locations in the Bay area are very popular and horribly congested. Muir Woods, for example, requires reservations for parking spaces. Likewise, the Marin Headlands, which have spectacular views of the Golden Gate bridge, are restricted to one-lane traffic, the other lane is given over to parking. This makes any side trip into the park a very slow proposition, so make allowances if they are on your itinerary.

One lesson I learned the hard way: Avoid the PCH between San Francisco and Santa Cruz on the weekends. What should have been an easy 4-hour drive became an 8-hour crawl as San Franciscans flocked to the beaches on a beautiful Sunday.

Take an actual camera:

These days, everyone seems to have a smartphone with a decent camera, but for the PCH you should consider taking an actual quality camera with you. In part this is because a dedicated camera will do a better job of capturing those spectacular views, but the other reason is simplicity. If you are using your phone for navigation and music in the car, when you see something you want to take a picture of you will have to unlock your phone, unplug it from the car, and switch apps to the camera. If the thing you want to shoot is in motion, like a whale (did I mention you might see a whale?) it could be gone by the time you accomplish all that. With an actual camera you can just point it and press the button. You will find that ease of use increases your spontaneity of when and what you photograph as well, making for better memories.

Consider a paper map:

As I mentioned, phone coverage along the route is spotty at best. I spent most of the day between Carmel and San Simeon with no signal at all. That means the navigation apps on your phone can’t be relied on. If there is some place you must see, write down several landmarks to look for as you approach your target. That way the turn off won’t surprise you when it pops up. One of mine was the Point Arena light house, and I nearly missed the turn because my phone’s map was blank when I got there.

Keep your tank full:

All those wide-open spaces you drive through also means that there are big stretches without a gas station. The Mustang was giving me about 21 miles to the gallon for about a 280-mile range, so I made sure to top the tank every morning. There is a sign in Big Sur that says, “Last Gas for 40 Miles.” Plan accordingly.

Watch the asphalt dragon:

It goes without saying that you need to keep your eyes on the road, but the PCH is a unique challenge. Between Mendocino and San Francisco there aren’t any coastal plains separating the mountains from the ocean. In fact, the California coast has the most abrupt elevation change of any coastline on the planet, going from sea-level to 5500 feet in just over 1 mile. Consequently, the PCH perches along the cliff face above the water. It was a marvel of civil engineering when it was completed in the 1930’s. It climbs over steep ridges, then dives down into deep redwood canyons where cool streams run down into the sea, all the while twisting and turning around each contour of the mountains on your left and the ocean on your right. Quite often there is no guard rail, or even a berm between you and the abyss. Add to that, the road between Mendocino and San Francisco is loaded with bicyclists sharing that narrow ribbon. It seems foolhardy to me to tackle that road on a bike, but to each his own as they say.

From Monterey to San Simeon the road is a bit more civilized. But just a bit. The road is still perched on the cliff, but there are more guard rails, fewer bikes and the grades are generally shallower. It still has plenty of twists and dips, however. Following a final plunge at the town of Lucia, the road becomes relatively level and eventually runs out onto the coastal plain surrounding San Simeon, where Hurst Castle is.

If you like to drive, and by that I mean the technical challenge of putting a car through its paces, then the PCH is a dream road. You will need to downshift on climbs, engine brake on down grades, and those frequent sight-seeing stops will help keep your brakes from fading. Plus, the twisty road makes for endless fun keeping the car between the mustard and the mayo as racers say. But if you aren’t comfortable driving in the mountains, or get motion sick, then the best bet is to take it extra slow. Much of the PCH has a 55 MPH speed limit. I consider myself a very proficient and confident driver, and I was driving an extremely capable car, but I rarely got the Mustang above 45 MPH the entire distance between Mendocino and San Simeon.

Beyond San Simeon the PCH becomes quite tame. It wanders away from the coast for long stretches, and at times merges with its bigger brother the 101 freeway before finally returning to the shoreline at Oxnard where it runs through Malibu into Santa Monica.

Be ready for the Wow!:

There are many iconic vistas on the PCH that you have undoubtedly seen many times in your life, like the Bixby bridge (about half-way between Carmel by the Sea and Big Sur). One of the most fun aspects of driving the PCH is the way the road reveals these scenes. All of those curves keep its secrets hidden until you ‘round a corner and some magnificent view, like the Bixby, suddenly fills your windshield. At that moment you can’t help saying, “Wow!” Usually followed by, “Where can I pull over?” Those moments are the ones that make the trip, and you will remember them long after you get off the road.

A professional pilot by day, master of geekdom by night.

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