Pacific Coast Highway drive

I could have titled this post “A ton of flower photos Hannah took in California” or “When Mother Nature ruins your plans to drive the Pacific Coast Highway.” Both would be accurate. I’ll address the latter first. I carefully plan itineraries for most of our trips, so I knew in advance that we were going to have challenges driving the Pacific Coast Highway (also known as Highway 1) from Los Angeles to San Francisco. A few months before our May 2017 trip, major landslides covered the road and wiped out a major bridge in Big Sur, forcing a deep decline in tourism to the area and a $40 million repair project.

Our Pacific Coast Highway drive was the thing I was most looking forward to on the trip. Though I was disappointed to see a little less of Big Sur than I had initially planned, our drive (split into two days) was breathtakingly beautiful.

Day 1: Los Angeles to Carmel-by-the-Sea

After spending one day in Los Angeles, we grabbed doughnuts and extra sunscreen and hit the road in our bright blue 2017 Mustang convertible. Our car rental was one of my surprises for Brandon. Curiously, it was also the cheapest rental available. I expected it to be warm in California in May, but it was chilly to be driving a convertible. We didn’t care! If you ask Brandon, he’ll tell you that his very favorite part of the trip was driving the convertible.

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Malibu

We drove through Malibu before stopping for lunch in Santa Barbara. After lunch, we split off from Highway 1 and took Highway 101 to avoid the closures in Big Sur. Not far past Santa Barbara, we fell prey to some highway billboard advertising (it still works!) and felt compelled to see what Pea Soup Andersen’s was all about. I am so glad we stopped. Pea Soup Andersen’s has offered “courteous service and value-minded home cooking” since 1924. They sell over 2 million bowls of pea soup a year. Though we were full from lunch, we sat down and ordered one bowl to share. Pea soup doesn’t photograph well, but it was delicious. In reflecting on our California trip, we’ve often talked about Pea Soup Andersen’s and how much we enjoyed our quick stop there.

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Santa Barbara

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Pea Soup Andersen's

The rest of our driving for the day was uneventful and brought us to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where I’d booked a room for the night at the Normandy Inn. Carmel-by-the-Sea reminded us of Blowing Rock, North Carolina, where we’ve spent a lot of time together. Carmel is small, walkable, and full of unique storefronts, boutique hotels, and places to dine. There were gorgeous, colorful flowers around every turn.

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Normandy Inn

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Day 2: Carmel-by-the-Sea to Oakland

Lest you think that vacations are all flowers, pea soup, and unicorns: I woke up at 6 am with a cold, which Brandon later caught. It was also this day that I broke down and tearfully called our dentist for an appointment as soon as we returned home. For the majority of the trip, I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to take normal bites of food. Now, that’s out of the way.

I spent over an hour walking around town and taking pictures before Brandon woke up and joined me for breakfast at the Inn. We stopped at the Carmel Pipe Shop, where Brandon had a nice chat with the owner, whose father opened the store in 1961. After checking out of the Inn, we drove down the hill to the Cypress tree-lined beach for a few minutes before continuing on.

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Carmel Pipe Shop

We picked up Highway 1 and backtracked, driving south to visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and the picturesque Bixby Bridge, just north of the landslides. Entry into Point Lobos is $10 per vehicle and is well worth it, given the numerous trails, lookouts over the shoreline, and wildlife to observe. We could have easily spent half a day here. By lunchtime we were starving and decided to blow our food budget at Rocky Point Restaurant. We sat cliffside outdoors, overlooking the ocean. It’s one of my very favorite memories of all of our trips together.

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Point Lobos

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Point Lobos

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Point Lobos

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Big Sur

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Bixby Bridge
Brandon insisted we listen to Death Cab for Cutie’s “Bixby Canyon Bridge” as we drove across.

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Rocky Point Restaurant

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Rocky Point Restaurant
My favorite meal of 2017: lunch at Rocky Point Restaurant in Big Sur.

After lunch, we continued our drive North into Mountain View and Palo Alto to visit the headquarters of Google and Facebook, respectively. Google has a fun Android garden for visitors to explore. Facebook’s campus is largely closed off to visitors, so Brandon cautiously stayed with our car while I took a picture of the entrance sign. Afterwards, it was straight up the highway in dense traffic to Oakland, our home base for the third leg of our trip.

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Google Android Garden
He really didn’t want me to take this photo, but I’m glad I convinced him.

Stops to make on your Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco: Facebook headquarters

Next time

A Pacific Coast Highway drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco should take between 9-10 hours (without stops). Even once Highway 1 is fully reopened, I’d split it into two days—or ideally three or four days. I’d love to spend more time in Malibu, Santa Barbara, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Monterrey. And I hope to have the chance to really explore Big Sur someday, including a coveted stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which was completely closed during our trip.

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