Not long after camping across Canada, I already had my eyes set on the next road trip I wanted to tick off the list. Voted one of the best coastal drives by National Geographic, the Pacific Coast Highway was one road trip I couldn’t wait to experience. With the help of a dear friend living in California at the time I convinced myself that I was due for another trip, this time from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.
My itinerary had me flying into Santa Barbara and then renting a car to drive to San Francisco where I would fly out of. I’ve been to California before but this week had a lot of firsts for me that I was excited about: first time in Santa Barbara, first visit to San Francisco and first solo road trip along the infamous Highway #1. As I packed for the week, I realized that a small part of me missed solo travel and I was excited for the adventure ahead. I love traveling with my boyfriend but I was looking forward to reuniting with my friend and having some quality girl time in the ‘Golden State’.
It didn’t take long for me to fall for Santa Barbara. It’s a beautiful coastal city with a mountain backdrop that I hope to visit again. After a few days playing the tourist, I went to pick up my rental and was ready for the next part of the adventure. I made sure to get a car with a GPS and, after a good Mexican brunch in town, I was ready to hit the open road.
There are a couple of options when driving from Santa Barbara to San Francisco and the fastest way would be on the 101 which takes about 5 hours. BUT this doesn’t include the scenic Highway 1 which is what I had in mind meaning the whole stretch would be about 8-9 hours in total. I realize my plan was very ambitious because I only had one day set aside for the drive but I knew that a taste of the infamous coast would be better than nothing. I could (and plan to) always go back for seconds!
The first stretch of Highway 1 is inland and not terribly exciting. The landscape is hilly but fairly uneventful since you’re not (yet) at the coastal edge.
My first stop on the trip was almost 2 hours into the drive at a quaint little bay. It’s a great spot for a walk along the pier and you can even see fishermen bringing in the day’s catch. I was mainly there for the washrooms but there are plenty of ice cream shops, outdoor cafes and (my favourite) fish and chip shacks!
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Just north of San Simeon is where you’ll find the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. If you’re interested in marine life, I would definitely recommend a pit stop here (bonus: it’s free!). The parking lot looks quite full during peak hours but there are great little trails in the area that are perfect for stretching your legs and admiring the elephant seals. You’ll likely hear (or smell) them before you see them but it’s actually pretty adorable to watch them. They all seemed to be napping under the sun and the only movement I noticed was when they wiggled about and tried to roll on top of each other. Not a whole lot of action going on at the beach but this site has a live web cam for some added entertainment.
Bixby Creek Bridge
This bridge in Big Sur is one of the most photographed bridges on the Pacific Coast and it’s definitely worth the stop for a peak and picture. There’s minimal parking at the north end of the bridge but it’s the best place to pull over and be sure to enjoy the views from both angles.
My favourite stretch of the road trip was definitely Big Sur. You don’t really realize that you’re actually in Big Sur while you’re driving but the landscapes through here are some of the most distractingly beautiful oceanfronts I have seen. All in all, I didn’t find it to be a difficult road trip but there are some pretty windy parts around here that can be challenging when you’re trying to sneak a peak at the perfect turquoise waters around every bend!
I arrived to San Francisco pretty late in the evening and circled around the city hills while my GPS tried to navigate me to my hostel in Fort Mason. I loved visiting Santa Barbara and San Francisco but there are so many gems hidden along the coast that are worth exploring too.
Other Highway #1 Pit Stops and Photo Opps
There are so many things to see along the California State Route 1 that it would take days, if not weeks, to hit up every one. If you’re planning your own road trip, here are a few other suggestions for stops between Santa Barbara and San Francisco:
- Santa Ynez Wine County
- Pismo Beach
- Piedras Blancas Light Station
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- California Sea Otter Game Refuge
- Monterey Bay
- Santa Cruz
- Half Moon Bay
Doing the drive all at once made for a long day and I wouldn’t recommend it for a place this beautiful. I hope my next visit to California will include more of these coastal stops and I’m already looking forward to experiencing the road trip with some friends for that ultimate girls getaway. Until then, I’ll be California dreaming…