Windows down, sun in our faces, cruising the Californian coast


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North America » United States » California » Big Sur
March 1st 2016
Published: March 2nd 2016
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It’s time for another ‘Road trip’

This time we are following the beautiful dramatic coastline from Los Angeles to San Francisco travelling through beautiful national parks along the way. We had heard so much about this beautiful route so agreed that ditching our pre-booked 8 hour bus journey would be one of the best things we could do if we really wanted to appreciate this coastline. We wanted to witness the scenery it had to offer and lucky for us the weather was still t-shirt and shorts worthy.

Rather than making the same mistake like last time, we booked the car a week in advance and got a reasonable rate from Budget car hire in LA, opting to return the car to their San Francisco branch.

When trying to decide how many days were sufficient to drive this route, our research informed us it was possible over 1 day, around 9 hours but this wouldn't allow for much food stops or chances to really take in the stunning views on offer. Instead we chose to hire the car out over 3 days and 2 nights to make this journey.

We were far more comfortable with the choice of car we received this time; a Ford Focus, very similar to a Perguet we owned previously. After having enough of LA, we packed up, collected our car with huge smiles plastered on our faces as we begun this road trip on such a sunny bright warm day. Playlist at the ready.

Day 1:

Our plan was to leave Los Angeles, stop at Santa Barbara for several hours and then continue the drive to San Luis Obispo.

The first leg of this journey took us to Santa Monica beach a lot quicker than the bus journey we had taken over the 3 days, cutting the whole journey in half. After reaching Santa Marta beach we carried on driving along highway 1 following the coastline passing several other beaches and towns. One area, Malibu is renowned for its stretch of beach front condo's that line the beach. We admired these colourful, glass cladded, unusual and expensive condos as we passed them but did not feel the need to stop.


Shortly after we saw many surfers in the ocean battling the huge waves whilst trying to avoid an incident with many of the huge rocks jutting out of the sea. We stopped for a quick break and to take a picture or two before we carried on to our midway point for the day - Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara is a beautiful Mediterranean looking town in the middle of the Californian coast. The average income here is said to be much higher than the US average. As we parked up near the coast we noted lots of dog walkers, runners and bikes. Locals and tourists alike. We couldn’t quite put our finger on it but this place but it had a lovely atmosphere. Maybe it’s because people seemed friendly and happy, maybe it was the relaxed pace here, people walking, chatting happily, the beautiful architecture of the buildings; either way we liked it. Walking down the pier, we spotted many people here with ice cream in hand, it reminded us of a pier back home in England. The sea was a lot bluer here though, the weather warmer and the sand whiter in appearance. Hand in hand we admired the views, watched the pelicans seeking sanctuary here and watched all the people kayaking from the huge cruise ships in the distance. It was interesting reading up on the marine life here with many whales and sharks sightings nearby and the constant restoration projects attempting to overcome pollution and habitat loss.

We were initially going to eat at one of the food joints on the peer but after finding out the shrimp and other fish eats on the menu were not fished from here we did not really want to spend that money on a meal. Instead we walked into town. We loved the quaintness of the town, shops and banks housed in beautifully restored buildings. We especially loved the ambience here, no people rushing in suits, no signs of poverty, and people of all ages causally strolling. On the main street we spotted various public street piano’s all brightly decorated and occupied by tourists, locals and students practicing or sharing their musical talents with the rest of us. Such a great idea. For lunch we ended up in a small local Mexican eatery both enjoying giant sized delicious burritos (you can never get bored of these).

One of the attractions we decided to visit was the old courthouse in town, with its clock tower one of the tallest structures in town. This building had been carefully maintained and still held really beautiful mosaic tiling, grand lights and courtrooms with the most elaborated murals too on each wall. Far too grand for a courthouse we thought. Afterwards we enjoyed the panoramic views of the town from the top of the clock tower, before treating ourselves to our favourite snack here in the states - Yogen Fruz, with all our favourite chocolate, fruit and sweet toppings and then made our way back to the car for the final leg of the journey. It was already 5pm, initially we planned on getting to our overnight stop before nightfall as we don’t really like driving on these huge confusing highways at night. With our internet connection, we quickly booked one of the most affordable motels with decent reviews (Travelodge) and took the inland highway 101 taking around 2 hours due to rush hour traffic. What a day!




Day 2:

San Luis Obispo, more than just an overnight base on a road trip from LA to San Francisco, this small town is nestled between some spectacular mountain ranges, offering a peaceful relaxing gateway or an adventure filled break with all the hiking and bike trails on offer. We were really looking forward to being able to take in the scenery when we woke up, as we arrived here after nightfall and could have been anywhere in the world. Unfortunately we woke up to thick clouds diminishing any hopes we had of viewing the mountain range views and the town itself. Instead we had to resort to online pictures (which only made our disappointment worse) this area was stunning. We had one more night before we could return the car and had 2 options: stay here another night (potentially missing another part of our road trip) or carry on regardless.

The plan was to carry on, we had an action packed day and wanted to make it to Monterrey this evening. Hopefully we’ll be back one day. (Although we can’t keep saying this about every place we visit).

The first leg of the drive took us back to the coast, in which we passed through some rain and back on highway 1 to our first stop of the day - Hearst Castle. We had read that Hearst castle was built upon a hill overlooking the breath-taking Californian coastline by the very rich William Hearst and was a worthwhile stop. As we drove up the hill, we stopped at some viewpoints and entered the museum. This was not in actual fact the estate but the museum overlooking the estate from a distance, you could only really make out the outline on this cloudy day. Admission was £25+ depending on how much of his estate you wanted to view; upstairs and down, outside etc and unfortunately as we are budget travellers we decided to give this a miss. Instead we walked around the free exhibits here with photos of rooms and the odd object taken from the house or garden which was enough for us.

It is safe to say from this point of the day this is when the disappointment ended. The clouds were clearing revealing blue skies, bringing out the sparkling blue sea and making the weather a lot more pleasant. We drove off the estate and more or less stopped at the viewing point on the other side of the road. There was a pier here, and as there were families walking the pier and playing on the beach in the waves, it seemed like a good place to stop.

Back in the car, we wanted to visit the Piedras Light station, but it seemed closed to the public with no entrance and so we carried on. Our next stop was something we were both looking forward to; the Elephant Seal viewing areas. To our surprise there were hundreds of seals on the beach, creating a funky smell in the air and making a lot of noise. We watched along with the other spectators, as some of the seals all closely packed together rolled in the sand for some protection from the sun. The younger males sparred as one brave seal decided to climb from the back of the group to the sea causing so much disruption. It was all so fascinating watching them in real life in their natural habitat. Far better than any visit to see them in the zoo. We also got speaking to the many volunteers here, a lovely lady who shared information on the life of these seals, the dangers they face and how to spot the male from a female. We really enjoyed the whole experience.

After an hour or 2 drive up and down mountains with highway 1, perched at the edge of the cliff we made our way to Ragged view Point. It was a much needed break as the driving on the cliff edge was a breath-taking experience, but one we could not overlook the danger with. You could tell who the tourists were creating rows of traffic behind them as we carefully, rode up and down, in and out of mountains with sheer drops beside us. We thought these types of roads only existed in non-western countries, like some of the hair-raising journeys we had experienced in South East Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. At least the roads were smooth and (unfortunately for the drivers sometimes behind us) we were also in control of our speed.

By the time we reached Ragged view point it was nice to have an extended break. Ragged Point provided places to stay, had nice flower gardens and incredible views of the rugged rocky coastline along the coast. It also provided food and we were terribly hungry by this point. Luckily they had places to eat for all budget options, a fancy expensive restaurant and an inexpensive burger shack, that even did veggie burgers. Bonus! It proved to be delicious too, what a great find. There was options to descend from the top of the cliffs down the rock face using a steep trail which we were tempted to take but in the end when considering the time and the distance we had left to cover we decided to give it a miss.

Once again we driving at the side of the cliffs, into the clouds along the coastline. One thing we were initially worried about leaving San Obispo was the possibility of clouds obscuring the views. The higher we drove the possibility of entering one of the low clouds was becoming more real. When we did drive along the cliffs through the clouds to our surprise we loved it. The cloud made the mountainous views and the coastline far more dramatic, we couldn’t help but take picture after picture.

McWay Waterfall in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was one of the many highlights. Parking on the side of the main road along with other drivers, we made our way down a trail that led to this waterfall. The whole trail was only small, always offering views of the waterfall from different angles. Upon first views of the waterfalls we smiled in delight. A small waterfall escaping from a crevice in the rock face gushing down the front of the rock, onto the sand and into the rocky sea. The area was insanely beautiful and certainly worth a stop. You cannot descend onto the beach although we heared people do and are stopped and fined by the park rangers. Looks like a tricky descent and climb back up though. You can kayak also near the shore but apparently you have to be experienced and so you do so at your own risk. Certainly not one we would take.

Afterwards we continued along the spectacular winding cliffs overlooking the sea, many beautiful natural untouched beaches below that were a part of this incredible Big Sur coastline. Over and over again we were blown away by the dramatic views from the cliffs. Thankfully there are plenty of areas to pull over so that we could soak in the views. Thank God for these, this could be potentially somewhat of a dangerous drive and with many tourists taking this route trying to appreciate the views, it would be deadly without such places to stop to take in the views.

The final viewpoint for the day along Big Sur section of highway 1 was Bixby Creek Bridge a reinforced concrete bridge. This bridge way built to bridge the gap over a valley running between two mountainous cliff-fronts all soaring high above the coast above a sandy beach and the ferocious waves crashing into the rocky cliff-front below. Despite it being a concrete structure, the design is quite aesthetically pleasing, the sandy colour blended well in to the rocky surrounds and the view of it all together was spectacular.

Because of the incredible scenery we witnessed such as the jaw dropping cliffs, the sparkling blue waters, the sea life, the amazing beaches, the waterfall and all the bridges we passed by, we had no choice but to time and time again, blink a little, breath again and take in such incredible scenery. A journey that could have been completed in around 2 hours took us 9 hours to complete. I’m sure we could have spent even longer on this coastline but once again time was against us and we wanted to arrive to our base for our second night, Monterrey.

Arriving in Monterrey we were both elated from such an incredible day. After checking into to our motel we decided to walk to the boat port and opted for some Chinese for dinner. We wanted to enjoy sunset at the bridge, but we just didn’t fancy driving down the cliff hugging road at night so eventually decided to get to to town early, just after sunset. As our time in the states was nearing to an end we spent some time reminiscing about our fantastic trip and our desire to come back and visit more national parks. After all of today’s excitement we needed sleep desperately and our stay in a lovely motel did the job.

Day 3:

The very last day of our awesome road trip along the Californian coast. Today we only had one main stop before driving to San Francisco; Carmels 17 mile drive around the coastline and through forested area. It is a protected area and costs $10 per car to drive through. You can get your $10 reimbursed if you spend $30 in any of the restaurants here but we did not spot many and certainly not any budget options for us. Instead we opted to drive through stopping at various viewpoints on the map and clearly marked out on the roadside. The whole drive took us over 2 hours as proved to be quite pleasant. As the weather was to be similar to the morning before, i.e cloudy, the first few viewpoints did nothing for us but the drive across the coastline to areas such as the famous pebble beach, Bird rock, Seal rock and the iconic lonely Cyprus all provided romantic coastal views. With the clouds and the wind, we had to wrap up several times before exiting the car but this did not ruin such a lovely morning. Morning fog is generally expected here and is known to clear after midday. Unfortunately for us, we did not have the time to wait due to the need to return our car before the rental place closed that day.

Once we finished the drive it was around 1 O’clock and we were already pushing it for time if we intended to return the car by 4pm without occurring any fines. I think the pressure of time and the traffic jams found us burdened with added stress. We were either stuck or continually took wrong turns exiting one highway and onto another.

Time was disappearing fast, we were going to be late. There were no longer any scenic views and we sat in traffic sometimes at a complete standstill, considering the repercussions for returning the car late. After stressing about this for most of the journey we called the hire company at around 4pm only to find out that we actually had the car until the following day!!

That was bitter sweet news, we could have spent another day along the coast. In reality however we had our flight booked to Mexico in 3 days’ time, leaving us only 2 full days in San Francisco. So in reality it would not have been possible to spend an extra day there, but certainly would have eased the stress with returning the car. Oh well.

When reading over this adventure before posting it, we relive our road trip along the coast of San Francisco, it brings us nothing but great memories. It was certainly a different way of travel for us on this trip with such an experience, certainly not possibly on a greyhound bus. Plus our readers get all the information on places to stop here all in one place without the hassle of piecing it all together like us. Enjoy.



Date: 14/Oct/2015


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2nd March 2016

"Playlist at the ready" - sounds like a road trip to me!
You've just confirmed everything good I've heard about this drive. Your photos are gorgeous, and it doesn't look crowded - which must have been really nice.
2nd March 2016
Santa Barbara

Home, Sweet Home!
What a fantastic journey you took--so wise to get a car for our wonderful central coast! While I love all your photos, this one of my hometown makes me so nostalgic. So many people just pass through Santa Barbara--I'm thrilled that you stopped to savor what a special place it is. And you made brilliant decisions--skipping pricey Hearst Castle and San Luis, which is similar to SB, and going for the elephant seals and Big Sur coastline. You've transported me back home--thanks so much!
4th March 2016
Santa Barbara

Home, Sweet home
We're happy we were able to take you home and understand completely why you would choose to live there. Santa Barbara had a lovely ambience to it, seems to us like it would be a good place to relax and call home in between your travels ☺
3rd March 2016

I love that drive....
so glad you enjoyed it too. I'm looking forward to your trip to Mexico!
4th March 2016

Californian living
It was just incredible. We would certainly love to take that journey again. Don't hold your breath with Mexico... it was short but sweet. 😊
4th March 2016

Now you know why so many people live in California
The beauty of that coastal drive is stunning and endless. I know California will lure you back to the U.S. and hopefully we can meet you when you come back. Let's make that a plan.
4th March 2016

The lure of California
It certainly did have its lure. Because of this I am more than certain we will return, so that's a plan!!
7th March 2016

The lure of Big Sur
Great blog of a very special place. I consider Big Sur one of the highlights of my own road trip, and your writing brought it all back. "We ... agreed that ditching our pre-booked 8 hour bus journey would be one of the best things we could do" ... indeed : )
10th March 2016

Re: The lure of Big Sur
Thank you. We loved driving along that coastline and stopping off at the various spots along the way. It's already inspired a future trip for us in the US.

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