Everyone has heard about Route 66, but I’m here to tell you that there is another great US highway you must drive at least once in your life: US1, The Pacific Coast Highway. Hugging California’s coastline from north of San Francisco, down through Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and (in surviving fragments) San Diego in the south; the section between San Francisco and Los Angeles is the most dramatic/iconic and a great way to link the two great cities on a trip.
US1 broadly follows the route of the historical El Camino Real, ‘The King’s Highway’ established by the Spanish colonising California in 18th Century, as they founded Franciscan ‘missions’ (churches), fortifications and villages up and down the coast; all of which are embedded in the DNA of modern California, from the surviving missions to the names of the great cities themselves. The route is now commemorated by a series of roadside ornamental mission bell markers.
The sections particularly between San Luis Obispo and San Francisco are the most dramatically rugged, sometimes precariously overhanging the Pacific Ocean and taking in the likes of Cambria, San Simeon (vicinity of William Randolph Hearst’s infamous ‘Castle’), Pebble Beach and 17 Mile Drive, Carmel and Monterey. It has always been an ambition of mine to drive US1 ever since I saw its panoramic vistas and strange, beguiling landmarks in guidebooks as a teenager. I had no idea however that getting to California would only be half the battle, and for me anyway, US1 has been my unicorn: a strange, elusive but dramatic and beautiful road, which would ultimately take two visits almost ten years apart to drive end to end; and even then the road has yet to give up all of its secrets. It will help to know that the section of US1 between San Francisco and LA is a long day’s driving without stops, so each time we have visited we have taken an overnight stop in San Luis Obispo (roughly half way).
March 2000 – Heading South
In March of 2000 we attempted to drive US1 heading south from San Francisco to LA. We left the Golden Gate Bridge late morning, shrouded in mist and a fret of light rain. The weather pretty much set the tone for the first day of our trip. The first sweeps of the highway south from San Francisco are quite broad and flat, near to but not overhanging the ocean. We were a little too early in the spring for the roadside wild flowers often mentioned in guidebooks and there was little by way of California sunshine. It didn’t take long for US1 to drop its first real bombshell though.
Stopping for lunch at a roadside diner somewhere in the vicinity of Santa Cruz, I think I half hear something on the radio in the background I can scarcely believe: ‘Highway 1 closed south of Big Sur’? Surely not! I push it to the back of my mind. It is too unexpected and too ludicrous to contemplate having come all this way. Still, as some sullen country singer croons a dour song about ‘the road’ through lunch, a depressing sense of doubt settles on my mind.
Pushing on regardless towards Monterey, I desperately calculate the hours of daylight left and contemplate the sights we still want to take in on the way to our overnight stop at San Luis Obispo; and less than halfway there, again ignore the shortcomings of our plan. Near Carmel we take a diversion around the scenic private toll road known as 17 Mile Drive, which takes in small coastal communities such as Pebble Beach, and in particular the iconic landmark of The Lone Cypress tree. This particular example is perched on a barren rock overhanging the crashing ocean, in a place where you can scarcely believe anything could grow and survive. I think perhaps this is part of its intrinsic beauty. I manage to grab a few photographs in the rain (none of which are good enough to share here alas). Somehow the weather suits this part of California’s rugged coastline.
The clue to its nature is in its name; and by the time we wind our way around 17 Mile Drive (at speeds by its nature restricted far below highway limits) we have burned up way more than an hour. We emerge back onto US1 not much further south than where we turned off and push on.
A big reality check awaits us not far south of Carmel: a roadside sign warning ‘Highway 1 closed south of Big Sur at Lucia. NO DETOUR.’ In complete denial now, I ignore the last opportunity to make an easy detour inland to the 101 freeway at Salinas, and push on instead. We must see Bixby Creek Bridge and Big Sur, and what about San Simeon, Hearst Castle and Cambria? In my parochial, English mind I think there must be some mistake or at least a detour signposted for us if and when we must turn off.
Not far beyond Bixby Creek Bridge, still short of Lucia reality bites: in a queue of (no doubt essential, local) traffic the road is closed down to one lane, and teams of hardy construction workers are practically rebuilding the road under our tyres. It finally dawns on me: after a no doubt hard winter, this precarious ribbon of tarmac, floating over the ocean sometimes on cliff edges and often on spans over deep gorges, constantly overhung by more steep cliffs, has been pounded from above and eroded by crashing waves from below for months; and nature has no doubt taken its toll. I should have read a traffic report before I even left the UK. In the fading light and falling rain, US1 has become as rugged as I can stand, and reluctantly we turn back to Carmel, heading inland to Salinas to pick up the 101 freeway south. Flat, fast, open and boringly safe, it takes us away from the coast and down to San Luis Obispo under cover of darkness, arriving around 10pm.
The following morning sees San Luis Obispo bathed in sunshine, the previous day’s journey just a strange memory. Any thoughts of doubling back up the coast to San Simeon and Hearst Castle are nipped in the bud when the friendly receptionist at our motel confirms US1 is closed north of Cambria too. For now that whole section of this iconic highway is impassable for us; its sights and secrets safe within.
Reluctantly but resignedly, we head south instead, through rolling farmland and low canyons to the altogether less dramatic but pleasantly laid back ocean front restaurants, beaches and parking lots of Santa Barbara for lunch; then on down through Ventura, Oxnard and, ultimately, Malibu; only finally turning away from the ocean onto iconic Sunset Boulevard itself to take us into LA.
March 2009 – Heading North
In 2009 we were back in California. Having arrived via Las Vegas, and spent a few days in San Diego and LA, we again had the opportunity to drive the Pacific Coast Highway– north this time – back to San Francisco. Surely this time our trip would be more of a success?
As before, the southern leg of our journey from Malibu to Santa Barbara was uneventful. The weather wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible either. We ate in the same pier restaurant at Santa Barbara as we had nine years previously, and arrived in San Luis Obispo for our overnight stop without issue. The trip thus far was pretty unremarkable.
The world had moved on in 9 years, and we were able to check traffic reports on the internet in our motel and things looked good for the second leg of our journey from Cambria to Carmel the following day; to at last complete the route we had to abandon 9 years earlier. Studying the website for Hearst Castle though, it became clear that given visiting times and tour restrictions, I had again left insufficient time in our itinerary to stop off there. At least we would at last see the dramatic, iconic vistas of this stretch of US1 ?
Leaving San Luis Obispo on US1 for Cambria the following morning saw the same sort of gloomy, misty fret that plagued our previous trip. This wasn’t really a surprise as we were visiting at the same time of year; and we were of course heading north into the altogether more temperate and less balmy part of the state. As we passed by San Simeon, I was vaguely aware that somewhere off in the hills to my right, Hearst’s (for me) still impregnable Castle lay hidden in the mist.
What I wasn’t prepared for however was the thick fog which enveloped us as we neared the coastline and the road climbed and wound its way up along the steep cliffs. For the first hour of our trip, all I saw of this scenic section of highway was the road in front of us as far as the next bend or precarious guard rail post, and at most twenty feet of cliff above us as far as the low cloud ceiling. Over the guard rail, there was nothing but a yawning white oblivion of fog completely hiding the mighty Pacific Ocean hundreds of feet below. Even now it seemed US1 wanted to keep its secrets and wonders from us.
After 45 minutes or so of this sort of driving, I was so fatigued with concentration and fog-blindness that we decided to make a rest stop. Diving at the last minute into the parking lot of a small roadside diner which emerged from the fog, cradled in the cliff side, we parked up, with a hot cup of coffee and a bathroom in mind.
This place, standing in a small clearing on the roadside in the fog over the ocean, seemed lost in time. An older, hippy-looking guy with a straggley pony-tail was making hard work of making a couple of hot drinks at a makeshift, ramshackle stall in the parking lot for a handful of other stranded, bedraggled travellers. He looked like he might have stopped off here on his way to or from San Francisco in 1969 and never left. A guy on a Harley, clad in denim and leather against the weather, was taking a rest stop too. He looked like he had ridden this road before, and probably had his own story to tell.
We opted not to wait in the parking lot for a hot drink, and instead headed into the diner itself. This too was strange and lost in time and getting served with a coffee and a pot of tea seemed like a big ask for the old gal inside. Nothing however prepared me for the trip to the restroom before we left though.
Stepping into what was a water closet not more than six feet by three feet in the diner, with one small window high on the side wall, there was a mirror filling the wall over the toilet. On the opposite wall there was another mirror, equally large and filling the wall. Thus I had stepped out of the fog, into an infinite man-made corridor of mirrors which seemed to stretch for a mile in front and behind me. Could the day get any more surreal? This place was ‘Twin Peaks’ to a very strange pot of ‘tea’.
Fortunately, as we headed north again, the fog finally began to clear, and we at last got a few decent views of the rugged ocean. By the time we descended to Carmel for lunch, the world seemed a little more normal. By Santa Cruz and San Francisco, early that evening, the sun was even trying to make a late appearance.
So ended our second strange trip on the Pacific Coast Highway; nearly ten years, two trips, and around 850 miles of driving; and still the journey is incomplete. There are still sights to be seen and secrets to be discovered.
Check the weather and travel reports before you go, and expect the unexpected. Even if your carefully laid plans are thwarted, you will be richer for the experience. Perhaps, after all, that is the essence of travelling and exploring; and makes a good trip great, and a great trip memorable. It’s all part of the odyssey.
See you on the road.
Hearst’s Great Folly: San Simeon – Hearst Castle
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree” declares the obituary in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), the thinly veiled biopic of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (April 29, 1863 – August 14, 1951). Kane’s fictional pleasure palace ‘Xanadu’, situated in Florida in the film, is undoubtedly inspired by Hearst’s Castle near the remote California coastal village of San Simeon, which he constructed over his lifetime on a grandious scale and filled with all manner of rich and eccentric treasures and works of art, ultimately living out his latter years we are to believe as a lonely recluse.
Everything about the estate at San Simeon is at once incredible and excessive: The twin-towered Casa Grande has over 100 rooms and was built in stages from 1922 to 1947 and housed thousands of artworks collected by Hearst over his lifetime; many brought at great expense from Europe. Three guest houses catered to visitors at the lavish and exclusive weekend parties held by Hearst for the good and the great, which epitomised 1930s and 1940s glamour. There was a private cinema catering for up to 50 guests, and an indoor heated Roman pool; in addition to the 100 foot (30 metre) outdoor Neptune Pool with its white marble, Greek colonnades and temple façade. Tennis courts, a private zoo and planting on an industrial scale completed this billionaire’s private paradise.
An often divisive but interesting figure of 20th century American history, Hearst’s Castle is one of California’s top tourist attractions, and a no-doubt fascinating insight into and legacy of this once-mighty, and perhaps if not flawed, at least eccentric and complex character.
US1 in Literature and Popular Culture
Monterey – Cannery Row, John Steinbeck (1945)
Carmel – Home of Clint Eastwood (where he was elected mayor in 1986)
Big Sur – Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name (1962)
San Simeon – Hearst Castle, inspiration for Citizen Kane’s Xanadu (1941)
Santa Cruz – Setting of fictional Santa Clara, The Lost Boys (1987)
Santa Barbara – Soap opera featuring the lives of the rich and vacuous (1984-1993)