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California

The Pacific Coast Highway & Big Sur

Keep your eye on the road—but don’t miss the incredible views


Known by those not from these parts as Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway is America’s dream drive, offering stunning coastal views along almost all of its twisting 1,000-mile route from California’s northern border with Oregon to its southern boundary with Mexico. Most of the two-lane PCH runs through gorgeously isolated terrain, and frequent laybys and vista points provide ample opportunity to soak up the coast’s rare and astounding natural beauty. You can head south from L.A. to San Diego or take the traditionalist’s route north to San Francisco and even beyond, past the 19th-century fishing-town-turned-artists-colony of Mendocino.

From the heart of L.A., head west to Santa Monica then follow the coast to Malibu, where you’ll already feel a world away. Seventy miles up the road, you’ll skirt the environs of Santa Barbara at the base of the dramatic Santa Ynez mountains. Further north, the fabled PCH begins to unfurl at its most majestic, carving an awesome ribbon of highway 500 to 1,000 feet above the roaring Pacific. Extolled as America’s road trip extraordinaire, the wild and rugged 90-mile stretch from the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, past Big Sur and on to the Monterey Peninsula is the uncontested high point.

Bounded by the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west, Big Sur remains a remote wilderness and natural masterpiece. “A place of grandeur and eloquent silence” is how Henry Miller, the author of Tropic of Cancer, described his adopted home. Virtually inaccessible before the PCH was built with the help of prison labour and New Deal funds, Big Sur attracted more tourism and second homes when the highway finally opened in 1937. Its beauty drew writers and artists like Miller, whose books and photographs can be explored at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, and alternative thinkers, some of whom later helped found Esalen Institute.

Fiercely protected by its 1,500 residents, Big Sur has a dramatic loneliness about it, with angry ocean breakers on one side and a narrow curving road that snakes along the edge of the mountains. Pfeiffer State Beach is breathtaking—in fact, there’s precious little around here that’s not. Stop to take it all in with a drink or dinner at the well-known Nepenthe, with its outdoor patio suspended 800 feet above the surf. Big Sur’s stunningly sited Post Ranch Inn, perched 1,200 feet above the Pacific, is a window to vast vistas of dramatic ocean and mountains on clear days. Even when the coast is fogged in, this place breathes romance, with wood-burning stoves and indoor spa baths in all 30 rooms. On the other side of the highway, Ventana Inn offers the same casual luxury and middle-of-nature feel. An infinitely more affordable slice of Big Sur can be yours with a reservation at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. A cute place to sleep since the 1930s, the cabin-like rooms offer classic old-fashioned comfort, from antiques to woodstoves to quilt-covered beds. Equally loved is the inn’s restaurant, where locals gossip each morning over bottomless cups of coffee and hearty breakfasts.

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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