Driving the Pacific Coast Highway Southbound – West Coast Spring Roadtrip

Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway along the coast of California is perhaps one of the well-known drives in the world. Many travel guides rates it as one of the best drives for road trips, and since I would be driving to Los Angeles, and have a stay at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands, it makes perfect sense to do this drive which has been on one of my list of travel experiences. The drive along the highway is more like a country road, with only 2 lanes, with one heading south and another heading north, so it is not the normal interstate commonly found anywhere else in the United States.

At Garrapata State Beach
Pacific Coast Highway by Garrapata State Beach

As I departed from the Hyatt Carmel Highlands, I drove south, reaching Garrapata State Beach as the first stop. There is a staircase by the roadside that should lead towards the beach but it was a long journey and we were not looking for a hike. Thus it was just a case of stopping by for photos!

Garrapata State Beach
Garrapata State Beach

Where images are concerned, the most iconic photo that suitably represents the Pacific Coast Highway is perhaps that of the Bixby Creek Bridge, which we reach probably in 30 minutes after departing from the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. There is a small stopping area for cars on the right side beside the coast before the bridge on the south-bound route and that was where we alighted to take photos. It is not difficult to stop since most people driving this route would inevitably stop by here as well.

Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge

The jagged shoreline, the blue sky and azure waters of the Pacific Ocean makes for a post-card perfect scenery of California. Though some photos of this creek shows a cloudy and mystic view, which is not too shabby either. The photos basically does not really show the sheer drop from the cliff and it is just a breathtaking scenery that does not lose to the Great Ocean road in south-east Australia.

Big Sur Coastline
Big Sur coastline

In fact the section of the highway between Carmel to Ragged Point after the town of Lucia is what is referred to as ‘Big Sur’ and is perhaps one of the most scenic views along the Pacific Coast Highway. As expected there are multiple stopping points to capture in this breathtaking scenery along the way. Before noon, it is best to take the photos facing the north due the slight curvature of the coastline towards the east.

Point Sur Lighthouse
Point Sur lighthouse

Past Bixby Creek, the next major sight is the Point Sur lighthouse that juts our prominently on a huge rock by the coastline. There is a road that leads to the lighthouse from the highway and accessing it requires a slight detour from the highway. Again this was a sight we passed upon as we proceed to find the beach that my cousin had recommended. The road near the beach does have some cafes and grocery stores for those needing a stop.

Pfeiffer State Beach
Pfeiffer State Beach

Using the GPS, I managed to find the unpaved road by the side that would lead to the beach. Do note that these trails are really suitable only for cars with higher ground clearance as they are full of gravel and very narrow in certain sections. Thus it took a while before we reach the entrance to the beach parking lot where there was a fee to get in. (I think it was around $5 per vehicle, but I had forgotten)

Rocks formation
Rocks formation at Pfeiffer State Beach

The beach itself made for a very nice place to chill out since it was quiet and there were few people there. We had some snacks and refreshments while resting by the beach, as we relaxed to the sound of waves crashing onto the rocks. It was definitely a different feel to experiencing the ocean from the highway as it is from the beach.

After the quite lengthy beach stop, I was refreshed enough to continue the drive. This time round the drive south from the beach took us to some very perilous hairpin bends with changes in altitude. It sure was fun but that meant a slower driving speed to account for the other cars travelling in front and the lack of any overtaking opportunity.

Big Creek Cove
Big Creek Cove

There was several sharp bends for a distance until we crossed another significant bridge landmark at the Big Creek Cove. This is a double arch bridge compared to the single arch Bixby Creek but the lack of viewpoints before and after the bridge meant it was not easy to get a nice photo of the bridge. The nearest stop on the southbound was via a viewpoint about 2 kilometres after the bridge, meaning you need a tele-photo lens for a great picture of the bridge itself. Again it is still worth stopping here for a quick photo-shoot.

Pacific Coast of California
Pacific Coast of California

Past the Big Creek, the road became less curvy and feels more like a proper highway but the change in terrain granted us faster speed. There was also less drastic changes in altitude. As we approached San Simeon, the mountainous landscape opened out into a flat coastline. Another significant landmark we passed by was the Piedra Blancas Light Station which houses a historical lighthouse. Past the lighthouse, there was another sight that I made sure not to miss, which is the Elephant Seal Viewpoint. This is a significant place of interest along the Pacific Coast Highway as evidenced by the amount of cars stopping in the large parking lot. There is a long boardwalk from where visitors could observe the huge elephant seals frolicking by the beach. Naturally access to the beach is restricted but there are a lot of seals that warrants a stop here. I even spotted a squirrel on the parking lot!

Elephant Seal Beach
Elephant Seal beach around Piedra Blancas in San Simeon

Another sight that would be of interest in this area is the Hearst Castle, home to the late media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and also one of the largest residences at the time. Though it is a National Historical Landmark that is open to visitors. However, I was too late as it was already closed by the time I arrived. I would definitely make it a point to stop by here the next time I visit!

Hearst Castle Visitor Center
Hearst Castle Visitor Center

From Hearst Castle onwards, the road became busier as we passed small towns and cities into San Luis Obispo which I would like to think marked the end of the Pacific Coast Highway. While it took a longer drive, I enjoyed this journey immensely and definitely rate it as one of the best roads to drive on a roadtrip. In fact I couldn’t imagine someone’s roadtrip list to miss this journey at all. If I were to do it a second time though, I would definitely look into spending more time in between and possibly even staying at one of the guest houses or bed and breakfasts along the highway to allow more time to visit the sights!

As a bonus to this trip report, I have included a time-lapse of the journey:

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