September 2020 Road Trip: L.A. to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway

Road Trip: L.A. to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park near Big Sur.
McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park near Big Sur.
Photo by Luis García
California’s classic drive embodies adventure, oneness with nature – even freedom itself. Drop the top, get in gear, and feel your horizons expand.

With travel still mostly limited to how far you can drive, the great American road trip is making a come-back. Our unsolicited advice: Skip the RV and rent a convertible. You won’t regret it. America’s most exhilarating asphalt adventure deserves a top-down approach (with floppy hats and maybe some aviator shades) to match the drama of a journey that’s somehow loftier than a mere “ride.”
 
Highway 1’s views trigger endorphins from the start. Rolling down the California Incline out of Santa Monica, the C-shaped curve of coastal road ahead – ocean on the left, misty peaks to the right – sets your mind to explorer mode. It pretty much stays there for the 450-mile venture north. Something about the waves crashing and the craggy blind curves and frequent dolphin and elephant-seal sightings quickens the pace, even if you push through all ten hours in one day. But better to savor the occasion with an overnight stop or two in some of the West Coast’s choicest spots.

Santa Barbara’s beachfront bikeway.
Santa Barbara’s beachfront bikeway.
Photo by Luis García
Three years after wildfires and mudslides ravaged Santa Barbara, the red-tiled beach town is polished again, but still enviably footloose. There’s Santa Ynez winetasting in the downtown Funk Zone, a nearly 100-year-old botanical garden blooming with pre-Columbian species, and kayaking and hiking opportunities aplenty. Plus, you might spy Oprah or Gwyneth social distancing at the farmers market.
 
Pismo Beach is where things get wilder. The trip’s halfway point is far enough from California’s twin megalopolises for ranchers and surfers to outnumber showbiz and tech types, and where a perfectly respectable afternoon involves gazing at thousands of orange-and-black-winged creatures at the Monarch Butterfly Grove from late October through February. Pismo’s vintage beach cottages and chowder huts recall a California that time (and gentrification) forgot.
 
That throwback vibe continues north of Cayucos in Harmony, population 18, where the town’s single paved lane has everything you need for the boho good life: a pottery studio, a glassblowing workshop, and an ice cream truck. But enough about simplicity. Up the road in San Simeon, Hearst Castle celebrates its centennial this year, recalling a time when newspaper publishing could buy you a hilltop super-mansion with 165 rooms, pools, and pet zebras roaming its 127 terraced acres (tours are currently suspended).
 
Nature’s power and presence can be life-changing here on the continent’s razor edge: A massive slab of earth came crashing down on a quarter-mile stretch of the PCH three years ago, closing the route south of Big Sur for an entire year. The detour-free passage now feels like a gift as you wind into the heart of the drive – the 96 miles from Cambria to Carmel Highlands. Redwoods and hidden waterfalls, not to mention some of the world’s finest retreats, give meaning to all those white-knuckle switchbacks. Frequent stops help. There’s no beach access inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, but a ten-minute walk from the road brings you to an epic tidefall that pours straight into the Pacific. The arched Bixby Creek Bridge, Highway 1’s landmark of landmarks, has been called the most spectacular meeting of ocean and land in the entire United States. Pebble Beach’s 17-Mile Drive and adjacent Carmel-by-the-Sea have horses in that race too.
 
Pebble Beach’s Lone Cypress on 17-Mile Drive.
Pebble Beach’s Lone Cypress on 17-Mile Drive.
Photo by Luis García
After Monterey, unpack your three B’s (Birkenstocks, beads, and board shorts) for one last rally along the legendary surf coast between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay – where, on a good swell, you can watch big-wave surfers tempt fate at Mavericks. From there, without much warning, the coast road’s twin lanes give way to four, and four becomes eight or ten or whatever it takes to snarl into San Francisco. But even as the rental car’s roof goes up, the momentum is hard to pack away. The best road trips linger with you like that.  

How to Tackle the PCH Road Trip

Go: From muscly Mustangs to BMWs, Porsche 911s, and even Bentley Continental GTs, L.A.-based Midway Car Rental’s collection of convertibles gets road-trippers zipping up the coast in style.
 
Stay: Set on five manicured acres atop bluffs overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, the 297-room Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows is L.A.’s only beach hotel with private bungalows. The 31 ground-floor accommodations peek out at gardens and the pool, and range from 350-square-foot patio bungalows to the 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom Bungalow One, with its curated art collection. Virtuoso travelers receive  breakfast  daily and a $100 dining credit.
 
The historic 500-acre San Ysidro Ranch (Churchill slept here) once again welcomes travelers to its 41 suites – all with exterior entrances – and vine-covered private cottages featuring outdoor patios with rain showers and sunken hot tubs (and several with private plunge pools). Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit.
 
Laid-back in the most civilized way, Santa Barbara’s hilltop Belmond El Encanto has 92 California Mission-style rooms and one- to four-bedroom cottages with garden seating, heated stone floors in the bathrooms, and postcard views of the “American Riviera.” All accommodations feature separate exterior entrances. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 hotel credit.
 
Ventana Big Sur.
Ventana Big Sur.
Perched 1,200 feet above the crashing surf in virgin redwood forest, Post Ranch Inn’s 40 secluded rooms, suites, and homes feel like private retreats with mountain and sea views, wood-burning fireplaces, and soaking tubs. An infinity pool built into the cliff often feels as if it’s floating on a blanket of clouds below. Virtuoso travelers receive  breakfast  daily  and  a  $100  resort  credit.
 
Ventana Big Sur’s 59 indulgently large rooms and residences and 14 safari-style tents in its campground provide ample distance to recharge and reflect alongside woodsy gardens. How California is Ventana? Its new star-bathing outing kicks off with a guided hike through the redwoods for stargazing from a meadow, accompanied by CBD cocktails. Virtuoso travelers receive a  room  upgrade  at  time  of booking,  breakfast  daily,  and  a  $100  resort  credit. 
 
Luxury Retreats’ eight private homes in San Francisco range from one to six bedrooms. A recommendation: the two-bedroom, two-bath Russian Hill penthouse with views of Alcatraz and the bay, plus a fireplace, bar, and dining room that seats eight; a shared rooftop terrace; and eco-friendly amenities that range from organic cleaning products to bamboo toilet paper. Virtuoso travelers receive a $200 concierge credit.