Taking the scenic route: San Francisco to San Diego along the Pacific Coast Highway

After a lovely two weeks visiting my extended family in the Bay Area, it was time to head back down to San Diego. Driving directly from San Francisco to San Diego takes around eight hours, but Brett and I scheduled two days for our drive so that we could take the scenic route, aka Highway 1 aka the Pacific Coast Highway. After spending days exploring the British coastline together, we were excited to get the chance to experience the Californian coast together. If you're planning on undertaking a similar road trip, make sure you check this website for potential road closures before you set off.


Early on the 16th of August, 2021, we set off from Menlo Park and pointed the car towards the coast. Here is a collection of some of the places we drove through on the final stage of our epic California road trip...


Day 1: 16 August, 2021

Skyline Boulevard (9:45 // 15 miles)

After getting off the highway, we entered the rolling hills. Just a few minutes later, we realised our gas was low and the next gas station was further away than we felt comfortable with. Not wanting to get stranded on the country roads, we turned around and fuelled up before driving back into the hills.

Skyline Boulevard hills near San Francisco

Big Basin Redwoods State Park (10:45 // 33 miles)

We had hoped to take Route 236 through the state park, but when we arrived we found that it was closed due to the high risk of forest fires. We drove a couple of miles up the winding roads, through the thick forest, before turning around. I was in awe of the size of the trees, and heartbroken to see so many blackened from fire.


Monterey (13:00 // 100 miles)

Driving through Monterey, we stopped for lunch at El Cantaro, a vegan Mexican restaurant that we would definitely recommend. Little did we know at that point, but that meal started a four-day Mexican food streak.


Carmel (14:15 // 110 miles)

Next, we drove through Carmel-by-the-Sea, a posh seaside village that Brett used to visit every summer with his family. We stopped at the beach to stretch, but the grey skies didn’t entice us to go swimming. As we drove out of Carmel, we enjoyed passing some incredibly expensive coastal houses, including one decorated in Ferrari signs.

Carmel-by-the-sea beach

Big Sur (15:00 // 150 miles)

After a very grey morning, we felt very lucky that the sun came out when we reached the rocky coastline of Big Sur. It was almost like being back on the South West Coast Path, except instead of hiking, we were driving. The coastline was dramatic and ever changing, which meant we made many stops throughout the drive to take pictures at different viewpoints. Brett was especially excited to see California condors – the largest flying bird in North America – soaring through the sky above us. In 1987, after being driven to the brink of extinction, there were only 27 condors left in the world, all in captivity. Since then, breeding programmes and conservation efforts have increased the population of wild California condors, which now sits at around 300. It felt humbling to see the huge birds circling above us, riding the wind along the coast.


Bixby Creek Bridge (15:15 // 125 miles)

Apparently this is one of the most photographed bridges in California (after the Golden Gate Bridge, obviously) and it's not surprising why. As we approached, traffic slowed and when we turned the corner we saw cars parked off the side of the road. Luckily we managed to nab a parking spot, allowing us to get out of the car and enjoy the view. The bridge crosses over a steep ravine that opens out onto a pristine beach. Unlike in Devon, it is illegal to go onto many of the beaches in Big Sur, which is how they remain so remarkably beautiful from these vantage points.


McWay Falls (17:15 // 150 miles)

Our next major stop was McWay Falls, which I had seen images of countless times on Instagram. This cove is magnificent enough even before you notice the waterfall pouring into the ocean. I was amazed at the colours of the water, a deep turquoise that transported me back to our adventures along the Cornish coastline. We spent awhile at the falls taking pictures on various cameras, enjoying the extended break from being in the car.


Salmon Creek Falls (18:30 // 185 miles)

We almost didn't visit these falls, as it was getting late and we still had hours further to drive. But Brett convinced me and I'm so glad he did. Only a few hundred feet from the road, the waterfall pool was illuminated with soft golden light. As there was nobody else around, I decided to go for a quick skinny dip, which felt wonderfully cleansing after a day in the car.


Elephant Seal Vista Point (19:00// 200 miles)

As the sun was beginning to set, we pulled off the road at Elephant Seal Vista Point. We passed a sign that showed the length of an elephant seal, and we thought it was exaggerating. No. We were wrong. Elephant seals are HUGE. And hilarious. We watched them for 15 minutes, laughing at their ungraceful movements and ridiculous sounds.


A beach, somewhere (19:45 // 210ish miles)

Brett pulled the car off the road one final time, and we watched as the sun set behind the horizon, casting the beach in pink light.


San Luis Obispo (20:45// 245 miles)

It was already dark by the time we arrived at Ziggy's, where we picked up dinner. The 'Korean fried Cauliflower' salad, which we ate in the parking lot, was especially delicious.


El Capitán State Beach (21:15// 340 miles)

We camped for the night at an established campground near the coast, a few miles outside of Santa Barbara. We arrived in the dark, set up our bivys and slept under the trees. The following morning was grey, and heavy mist blocked the sea from our view. We had planned on eating breakfast on the beach, but after seeing the weather, we decided to pack up our campsite and head out.


Day 2: 17 August, 2021

University of California Santa Barbara (8:15 // 350 miles)

After leaving the campsite, we drove to Isla Vista. As we drove around the college town, Brett pointed out the houses where he and his friends had lived. We ate breakfast near the campus lagoon before Brett gave me a tour of the campus where he spent his four undergraduate years. We even snuck into the Physics building, where Brett relived the good ol' days by writing equations on the chalkboard. Unfortunately, due to covid, a lot of the buildings Brett had hoped to show me were closed to visitors. Guess we'll just have to go back again some other time!


Santa Barbara (11:00// 360 miles)

After exploring campus, we drove into downtown Santa Barbara, passing the incredibly posh neighbourhood of Hope Ranch. We ate oysters on the Pier before wandering down the newly pedestrianised high street. I immediately was drawn to the charm of the small city with its independent shops and tropical vibes.


Mulholland Drive (15:45 // 435 miles)

Instead of taking the highway through LA, we decided to opt for the scenic route – following the famous Mulholland Drive through Beverly Hills. The two-lane road snakes through the mountains, passing the mansions of celebrities and revealing views out over the Los Angeles skyline. We were disappointed that the main viewpoint was closed (due to covid apparently...?), but I was happy we still managed to see the Hollywood sign in the distance from the car window.


Hollywood Boulevard (16:30// 450 miles)

It was rush hour so we knew we were committing ourselves to traffic, but we still decided to drive into downtown Hollywood. We drove along the famous streets of Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard. Having never been to LA before, I was surprised at how tacky this area appeared. We debated about buying tickets to the opening night of Hamilton, but agreed it wasn't a good idea to leave our full car in some dodgy parking lot in LA.

We got stuck in terrible traffic leaving the city, but eventually made it out to Santa Monica. We ate a Whole Foods picnic dinner in a random park before continuing our drive, passing Venice Beach and then getting on the highway back to San Diego. At this point it was dark, so we made the rest of the drive without stopping.


After driving over 620 miles (1,000 kilometres), we finally arrived back to Brett's house at around 22:00. What a brilliant way to end our epic California road trip!


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