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Top Tips For Driving Highway 1: Ultimate California Road Trip

Want to take the ultimate California road trip? Drive California’s Highway 1 along the Central Coast. It’s rightfully rated as one of the top road trips in the world.

This is a particularly breathtaking drive, especially through Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia mountains plunge into the sea, and the surf and wind relentlessly pound the rocks and shore below and bend the native cypress trees into otherworldly shapes. You’ll see coves painted in shades of turquoise, sapphire, and teal, that will make you long to plant your flag and declare that beach your own. It’s a wild remote beauty that will definitely have you pondering the mystery of the universe, if you’re the pondering type.

Before you embark on the ultimate California road trip, let me share a few tips to help you along the way. While it’s a fun drive, it can be very challenging and demands 100 percent of your attention.

I’ll also share some of the top attractions from Monterey to Cambria. Keep in mind this is a small selection. Honestly there is so much to see and do, especially if you’re an outdoor enthusiast, I can’t cover it all in one article.

The trip takes about five hours if driven at a leisurely pace. You can drive from the north to the south (Monterey to San Luis Obispo), or south to north. I drove it both directions, taking longer to drive back because I had no place I had to be at the end of the day. I also liked driving north to south best, because the ocean was on my right side and it was easier to pull off in the turn-outs to take pictures.

 top tips driving California Highway 1 Ultimate Road Trip @PennySadler

Heading south on California’s Highway 1

Top Tips For Driving Highway 1

Tip: 1
Driving a comfortable and reliable car is a must. This is a two-lane mountain road. In some places, the shoulder is quite narrow and there’s not much between you and the sea below. There’s a forty to fifty mile stretch that’s full of hairpin twists and turns. I drove a 2015 Kia Forte which handled the curves perfectly. I actually felt kind of proud of myself making this drive on my own. Honestly, I’d not have done it my own car, a gently worn Nissan Sentra – it just doesn’t have the same turning radius or get up and go as the Kia did. I was happy I could pick up speed quickly, and I think that’s an important consideration. You’ll be pulling over a lot to admire the sweeping vistas – and of course snapping lots of photos.

Ultimate California Road trip Kia Forte

Asilomar Beach, Pacific Grove

 

Top Tips For Driving Highway 1 the Ultimate California Road Trip

There’s plenty of room for passengers if you don’t fancy traveling solo.

Tip 2:

Go in the off season. The main reason to go in the off season is probably obvious, but let me be clear: driving this road with heavy traffic would make it that much more challenging. The distance from Cambria to Big Sur is only 60 miles but it takes at least two hours depending on how many stops you make.

California gets plenty of sunshine, and it’s not that cold in the winter; even in the off season, the weather is temperate. I was there the first week of the year and it was chilly in the mornings but sunny, and warmed as the day went by. Just be sure to dress appropriately.

If you go during the off season, the only activity that you may miss out on is working on your tan. You can still surf, hike, go whale-watching, and enjoy everything else that makes California so popular.

Here’s a great article from USA Today about whale watching on the California coast.

Tip 3:

Be sure you’ve filled up the car with gas before you hit the road. Between Cambria and Big Sur, there are 40 miles of highway – and no gas stations.

Tip 4:

If you need to use the bathroom, don’t wait. Again, there’s no place to stop, even on the road side. The only places to pull over are turn outs, where there will be other tourists. No privacy.

Tip 5:

Don’t rush it. This drive is truly one of the bucket list experiences that people dream about. Take your time. Smell the ocean air, notice the natural beauty around you, stop and look for whales migrating up the coast, and feel the tension leave your body as the relaxed California atmosphere permeates every cell. Do you feel it?

Ultimate California Road trip @PennySadler

Just a typical view along California’s Highway 1

Tip 6:

Make sure you have a great camera with you, and that you have a fully charged battery and plenty of memory on the card. Be sure to ask someone to snap a photo of you in that stunning scenery. I saw plenty of people with selfie sticks, a trend I won’t imbibe in, but it is an option if you’re traveling alone.

Tip 7:

If you suffer from carsickness, be the driver. Once you enter the Big Sur area, the road is a bit of a roller coaster. If for some reason you cannot drive, be prepared with some non-drowsy Dramamine; you don’t want to fall asleep and miss all the gorgeous scenery.

 

Have questions? Feel free to email me via my contact page and subscribe to receive more awesome articles.

Tips for the Ultimate California Road Trip @PennySadler 2015

What a view!

Top attractions

Hearst Castle
About twenty miles north of San Luis Obispo is San Simeon and Hearst Castle. Once the home of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, the castle is now a state park and a vacation destination in itself. Hearst and his father spent a lot of time camping on this land and when young William Randolph inherited the land from his mother, the story goes that he told the architect, Julia Morgan, he wanted to “build a little something.”

Hearst Castle @PennySadler 2015

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle Top Tips driving Highway 1 Ultimate Road Trip San Simeon

How would you like to dine at that table?

I took the Grand Rooms tour when I visited this time.Though the house is a magnificent example of Mediterranean and Gothic architecture, and filled with antiquities from all over the world, my favorite part of the tour remains the indoor Roman pool. From the exquisite blue tile work to the beautiful soft ambient lights and the mirror reflection of the water, this pool begs you to lose yourself in its deep blue calm.

I love the stories of famous personalities, frequent guests at the castle, sneaking out to the pool after hours for a little romantic interlude in one of the many secluded corners. Cary Grant was quoted as saying “The Roman pool is a great place to get to know someone just a little bit better.” I wouldn’t mind meeting up with him there at all.

Hearst Castle @PennySadler 2014

The Roman Pool at Hearst Castle

You’ll want to book a castle tour in advance. After the tour, you can wander around the grounds outside to your heart’s content. Plan to spend at least two hours here.

To book online and more information visit the website: www.hearstcastle.org

Elephant Seal Viewing Area
Just past Hearst Castle is the Pieras Blancas Elephant seal rookery. These animals are actually quite ugly, but interesting to watch. They’re also really noisy, especially during mating season. The shore area is dotted with large lava rock, and it can be hard to distinguish the seals from the rocks when they are in the water. The day I drove past, there was a backup of cars waiting to get into the parking lot. This is another good reason to go off season, or a weekday.

Elephant seals near Cambria California @PennySadler 2015

Elephant seals on the beach near San Simeon.

Attractions in the Big Sur Area

Bixby Bridge

This may be the most photographed bridge in California, aside from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Bixby Bridge is a single-span concrete arch more than 260 feet high and 700 feet long. You can park at a turn out at either end to take photographs. Bixby Bridge, along with Garrapata and Rocky Creek Bridge, were built in the 1930s and paved the way for tourism to come to Big Sur. The only road prior to Highway 1 was the Old Coast Road. It remains an unpaved road and not suitable for standard passenger automobiles.

 Top Tips for Driving Highwy 1 Ultimate California Road Trip; @PennySadler 2015

Imagine building bridges along this road.

Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park

A great place for hiking, this park is best known for McWay Falls, a 100-foot waterfall that cascades from an 80 foot high drop off into the cove below.

The trail to get there is quite easy and it’s such an iconic spot, you really do have to see it. Don’t park on the side of the road. You’ll see that a lot of people do, but I think it could be dangerous; there’s plenty of parking in the park, itself, at least in the off-season.

The falls used to drop into the ocean, but due to a landslide several years ago, now drop on the sandy cove. It’s an idyllic spot and one that makes you wish you could actually get to it. There is signage everywhere warning against it. Be smart and admire safely from afar.

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California @PennySadler 2015

McWay Falls, a top attraction in Big Sur

Nepenthe

Nepenthe is an indoor/outdoor restaurant best known for its views, but it also has an interesting history. The restaurant and surrounding land has been in the family for over 50 years. There’s also a very nice gift shop there with handcrafted jewelry, unique fragrances, books, and children’s gifts.

www.nepenthebigsur.com

Nepenthe Big Sur California Ultimate Road Trip @PennySadler 2015

The view from Nepenthe, Big Sur

North of Big Sur

After you pass Big Sur it’s about thirty or forty minutes to Carmel by the Sea. Carmel is also known as “the little town in the forest by the sea,” which is a lovely and quaint description. It has a bit of a European feel, because it’s really a place to walk. There are many unique shops, galleries, and great restaurants. The beach there is known as one of the best places on the Monterey Peninsula to watch the sun set.

Carmel was voted #2 Best Small City in the USA by Conde Nast Travel last year.

www.carmelcalifornia.com

Ultimate California Road Trip Carmel by the Sea

Carmel by the Sea

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
From wikipedia:

The black-and-orange butterflies spend much of the fall and winter in the local Monterey Pine trees, roughly from Halloween until Valentine’s Day. Residents of Pacific Grove help the butterfly’s habitat by planting purple and yellow flowers, such as lantana, yellow aster, Pride of Madera, and Mexican Sage, in what are called Butterfly Gardens.

Point Pinos Lighthouse

Since 1855, the Point Pinos Lighthouse has been a beacon for ships on the Pacific coast. It’s the oldest continually operating lighthouse on the west coast, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Need to know: the hours of operation are Thursday – Monday 1:00 – 4:00 pm.

A personal side note: I left a ring in the bathroom at the lighthouse and didn’t realize it until I was back in my room several hours later. I miraculously thought to check if they had a Facebook page. Lo and behold, they do! I left a message about leaving the ring in the ladies room and asked if it had been found. The next morning, I was on my way to pick it up. You might say the lighthouse cast some illumination on how to best make contact with them, thereby reuniting me with my ring. Ok, it’s a stretch, but I will never forget the lighthouse.

www.pointpinoslighthouse.org

Point Pinos Lighthouse Highway 1 California

Point Pinos Lighthouse

From there you’re just minutes from Monterey and the world famous Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row.

Monterey Bay Aquairium jellyfish @PennySadler

Jellyfish at the Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium opened in 1984 and quickly became one of the most visited aquariums in the world, receiving over 2 million visitors per year. Located on the north end of Cannery Row, it’s on the former site of the Hovden Cannery, the last cannery to close, in 1973.

Cannery Row, originally Ocean View Avenue, is famous largely due to John Steinbeck’s novel for which the street is named. The book was the basis for a film named Cannery Row, featuring Debra Winger and Nick Nolte. One of the main characters, Doc, was real person – a scientist named Edward F. Rickets. His lab still exists and across the street is a Chinese-American owned store, also mentioned in the novel.

(I am reading an excellent book about Steinbeck and Monterey by author Susan Shillinglaw, A Journey Into Steinbeck’s California. You can purchase this book at the Aquarium or the Steinbeck house in Salinas if you go there. You can also obtain a copy through Roaring Forties Press).

Today Cannery Row is filled with shops, restaurants, and hotels, and is a tourist attraction in Monterey.

Just Go!

Great weather almost 365 days a year, a laid back attitude, and scenery that has inspired romantics, creatives, explorers, and adventurers for centuries – any time of year is a great time to take the Ultimate California Road Trip.

No matter when you go, California’s Highway 1 is the Ultimate California Road Trip.

5 reasons to love Monterey California. McWey Falls, Big Sur @PennySadler

Looking north from McWay Falls, Big Sur.

My road trip was sponsored by Kia and See Monterey. However all content is editorial and I am under no obligations to write anything at all.

 

Like the images you see? Please be respectful. If you’d like usage just shoot me an email.

50 Comments
  1. It’s really a cool and helpful piece of information. Thanks for share.

  2. Amazing and informative road tips about California! I did not know most of them. Thanks dear for sharing with us.

    • So happy to hear you found the information useful. Best wishes to you

  3. Your post brought back wonderful memories of a girlfriend’s road trip I did back in the day. I’d love to do it again and this time focus on the outdoor activities instead of just the drive.

    • Those are exactly my thoughts Mary. It’s a lot to see and the drive is only part of the experience, or it can be the entire experience.

  4. What a dreamy area! It’s definitely one of those places where renting a car makes full sense. We’ve got to head back there soon!

  5. When I was in undergrad, I drove that highway from Stanford to L.A. Solo. Got a ticket on my way back but it was such a wonderful expression of freedom at such a young age, I’m baffled thinking about it. THanks for the trek down memory lane.

    • So glad you enjoyed it and it brought back good memories.

  6. Love this part of the world.

    One tip though, go from Carmel / Santa Cruz in the north to the south. This way, the passenger is overlooking the ocean without another lane in the way (and all those cars in high season) and the driver has a better view too.

    For those moments when a glimpse can be snatched while driving that road!

    Stop for food at the Big Sur River Inn or Fernwood Resort (also a nice place to stay, they even have cabins in among the Redwood trees).

    • Hi Jack, I totally agree with you, the drive from north to south is the easier and prettier for caching a glimpse or pulling over. I stayed at the Big Sur River Inn but did not eat there. Interesting place right on the river. Unfortunately it was too cold to enjoy sitting in the river, but the atmosphere and location were perfect.

  7. America really is the best country for road tripping! We went to Monterrey on our trip from Seattle to Vegas and I have to say I didn’t enjoy it. Left after a night!

    • Hey Bethaney Sorry you had a bad time. I have to wonder where exactly you were. The entire area which includes Big Sur, Carmel by the Sea, Pacific Grove and lots more, is stunning. But if you stayed near Cannery Row or some other more urban touristy areas then I can’t really comment. If you’re ever back in the area go to Big Sur. I’m sure you will love it.

  8. We’re considering this for a mini moon before heading back abroad – great article, and our other ideas have some serious competition!

  9. I haven’t been on the PCH-1 in a long time. Many years ago, we drove out from Malibu on the 1 in an attempt to arrive in the South Bay Area later that very same day. Riiiiiggghht; yeah, no. Of course, we underestimated the driving time by a ridiculous amount. We decided by committee, and “surrendered” by heading inland at San Luis Obispo, with cuts back to 101 then up I-5 the rest of the way north.

    Years later, I’m on a big coach/bus for a comfortably reclined 7-hour ride from Santiago, Chile to the small coastal resort town of La Serena. The drive takes place on Ruta-5 (Route 5), also known as the Carretera Panamericana or the Panamerican Highway. Much of the Chilean Pacific coastline is very similar to scenery along the PCH-1.

    • Wow that is really interesting. South America is appealing because no time zone change! LOL. I also underestimated this drive because my GPS kept saying it’s only 60 miles. I didn’t factor 60 miles of switchbacks!

  10. Highway 1 through Big Sur is indeed a spectacular scenic drive. Thanks for the great tips & article.

  11. Very nice article! I would like to add that gasoline is available in Gorda.

    • Steve, thank you very much! I remember passing through Gorda. How far is it from Cambria?

  12. California road trips are near and dear to my heart and the Central Coast is amazing. You’ve captured it brilliantly in your photos. Great tips, too. There are so many wonderful places to visit along the way — Hearst is definitely a must. Love your pic of the indoor pool – that’s one of my favorite places in the castle, too.

    • Cathy I envy you living there. I hope to be able to spend most of my summer there.

  13. I have done this road trip a few years ago. Unfortunately when I visited in August it was quite misty and the views weren´t as clear.
    It is a beautiful landscape and the perfect drive.
    It is great to see yoour photos of the trip

  14. I have done quite some Road Trips in the US but I have never done this one. It looks like a stunning trip with lots of attractions along the way. Definitely added to my list, thanks for the great tip !

    • The US is a great place for road trips. My family used to drive from Texas to California often enough when I was a kid. Now that’s a road trip I could have done without out! LOL

    • I’ve been top to bottom and bottom to top on the PCH — When people ask me for vacation recommendations — this is number 1 for sure. Nothing like it anywhere!

  15. California is one of thos places I am determined to get to, and this post makes me want to do it even more. Carmel looks like my kind of place, although it all looks lovely.

  16. Love the look of Carmel, Penny. This sounds like a road trip best experienced from the passenger seat. I knew there was a reason I still haven’t got my licence.

  17. Awesome post, we’re actually leaving for the Highway 1 April 10 so these tips are great! Thanks!

    • There is a place just south of Nepenthe – very rustic place to stay – Lucia Lodge. We have stayed there several times. No frills, but breathtaking views!!!

      • Nancy, I stopped at Lucia because they have a little market there. I hoped to get a look at some of the rooms but they were all booked. I agree it’s in an amazing spot. I’d love to go back and stay there a couple of days though you aren’t close to anything except nature so you have to prepare. 🙂

  18. This post brought back great memories. I’ve only done a few of the side trips – elephant seals and the Monterey Aquarium and for the beauty alone it’s a drive worth repeating. I don’t know if there is a foggy time of the year but that’s the only time I’d really not want to go.

    • Leah, good point! There is a foggy time of year and I believe it’s summer. Definitely would not be a fun drive in the fog!

  19. ooooh lovely! These photos brought back some wonderful memories of when my friend and I made this tour. We got super lucky at the car rental place, and they upgraded us to a convertible for only $20 extra per day, so that really made the trip and view amazing. We drove from LA up to Carmel-by-the-Sea and then back down the same way we came. Beautiful shot of the jellyfish, by the way! Love that color contrast.

    • Hi Dana, Yes I did the drive both ways. It’s not easy but worth it. A convertible would be fun! I had a sun roof, not quite the same. 🙂
      thanks for the compliment on the photo. I loved the jellyfish!

  20. We just did the coast road trip at Christmas time, It was an amazing trip.we were heading to San Diego. I’m surprised that you didn’t go to” Point Lobos ” It is my favorite place to visit. it also has the beautiful rugget landscape. it was also the setting for alot movie scenes.”A Summer Place”one of my favored movie.

    • Moneypenny that is also one of my nicknames. 🙂
      I now will have to watch a Summer Place.

      • Penny, check out “The Sandpiper” w/Liz Taylor and Richard Burton for another Big Sur-locale film. It will take you back to a 60s vibe (which still exists in some ways in the area). Nice article and good shots!

      • I agree. And thanks for the film tip.

  21. VERY top tip: do not head north from LA towards Pacific Grove/Big Sur on Hwy 1 after dark! We left LA around sunset. The lady we were to meet in Monterey/Pacific Grove called to ask where we were, as we should have arrived around 4 PM. I told her we were coming up Hwy 1. She asked if she might suggest an alternative route. I said we’d wanted to see the water and wanted to do this. She wished us luck. Now, back when E-Systems sent me to Stanford to attend an AI seminar for two weeks, I drove *south* from Palo Alto to the Monterey peninsula on Hwy 1, and it was beautiful. Thus I did not expect the AAAAAAA experience of having the sheer cliff dropoff to the ocean on the left and the mountains on the right. Hubby drove this, including the Bixby Bridge (XOXOX), in the pitch blackness with no moon and other cars on the two-lane road coming the other way. He said he enjoyed it and that it was like the first-person videogames he has played. I think my mother began her decline as she clung to the sides of the back seat of the van because she could actually see the ocean. I was looking straight ahead and willing the oncoming vehicles to go more slowly and NOT come into our lane, as there was NOWHERE to go. Man! We arrived at our host house around midnight. Do not do as we did. Do the drive during the day when you can be properly terrified!

    • Too Funny. You’re right though, very good tip, drive during the day! Otherwise, what’s the point.

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