California’s State Route 1, which runs along the Pacific coast, is considered by many to be one of the most scenic drives in the world. So it was a no-brainer for us to decide that we would extend our Route 66 road trip which ended in Los Angeles (more on this in a later blog post!) with a roll on Highway 1 to finish up the coast in San Francisco.
We had three bright days and 380 miles (615 km) of pristine highway in front of us – or so we thought, until a massive landslide swept a large part of the road at into the Pacific: a natural disaster that would destroy a large part of the road and would take more than a year to repair. The land slide left the route interrupted at Big Sur, the most majestic stretch of the road. This meant that we would have to detour. But what first seemed to be an unpleasant disappointment turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the diversion forced us to discover what lies beyond Highway 1… and it was spectacular!
We hit the road starting at Santa Monica, the beach side city west of L.A. We had just spent a pleasant day roaming around Los Angeles and its ocean side, enjoying people-watching on Venice Beach and taking a stroll on Santa Monica pier, but we were eager to get back in our rental which we had stalled in a Santa Monica parking garage for the time being and to get back on the road.
The Pacific Coast Highway quickly took us outside the city limits, and our ocean-front ride had begun. First stop: Malibu, to see where the rich & famous live and to take a stroll on one of its big-wave beaches. The beach was quiet, and the beach front homes were excluded from our view by big gates or vegetation. No surprise, as the stars of Hollywood need to enjoy their privacy somewhere. It is not hard to imagine what a joyful life the lucky few must live whose backyards extends onto a private stretch of fine Malibu beach sand. We satisfied our curiosity with a short stroll on the beach and got into the car again to drive on to Ventura Beach, where we watched surfers who had come out in droves to ride the big waves that were hitting the coast. The first real town we reached since setting off in Santa Monica was Santa Barbara, a pretty collection of whitewashed, terracotta-roofed buildings backed by a low mountain range. We climbed the clock tower of the courthouse and almost felt as if we were in Spain.
After Santa Barbara the road makes an inland turn and leaves the coastline for a while but we decided to abandon Highway 1 altogether and take the 101 up the mountains and then some back roads to reach a place more elusive and isolated than any of the Malibu beach homes of the stars… because high up in the hills above Los Olivos, surrounded by vineyards and cattle ranches, lies Neverland Valley Ranch, the former home of superstar Michael Jackson.
To get there we first passed Solvang, a fine curiosity of a town. It was founded in 1911 by two Danes with the aim of establishing a Danish colony in California. They succeeded by convincing more Danes to join them and today Solvang provides a slice of Scandinavia under the hot California sun. You will find a windmill, lots of Danish pastry, a Hans Christian Andersen museum and even a replica of the Little Mermaid statue whose original counterpart sits on Kopenhagen’s waterside. A somewhat confusing but at the same time amusing experience.
The road continued to Los Olivos, a small but pretty settlement surrounded by rolling hills on which black cattle roams and where some of the best Californian grapes are waiting to be processed to fine wines. At the edge of town, Figueroa Mountain Road leads deeper into the valley. The road is curvy and the landscape is dreamy with its old oak trees and golden hills. We almost drove past the Neverland gate, which sits just off the road and is rather non-descriptive. Only the photos and messages left by fans indicate that this was once the entrance to the home of Michael Jackson, a gigantic estate that included a private train track, a zoo, an amusement park, a pool and sports fields, a cinema and of course a dance studio. It is still guarded by security and it is impossible to see to where the road beyond the gate continues to, because it soon curves out of sight behind a hill. It was quiet, with only the sound of the small birds that flutter around here, and the sun rays slowly started to change to a golden hue as the end of the afternoon was approaching. Even though there was nothing to really see here, I appreciated to experience the beauty of this area and to understand how this must have been a magical place to retreat to, the only escape from a frantic and maddening and often unfair world.
Back to Highway 1. We drove down a spectacularly beautiful road through the valley to meet the 1 again at Lompoc and continued to Oceano where we arrived when it had just become dark, and where we dined in a fantastic fifties-style diner situated in two old Amtrak train cars. This first day of our road trip had shown us California’s beautiful coastline, but the more satisfying surprise to me had been the hills behind the coast, which hold the surprise of quirky villages and a beautiful landscape of quiet hills.
The next day took us to the small town of Cambria and then to San Simeon, where a pier extends into the ocean and offers grandiose views over the coastline and, if you are lucky, over migrating whales in the ocean ahead of you.
We decided to not visit Hearst Castle, the large estate of newspaper magnate William Hearst which sits in the hills behind San Simeon, due to time constraints and due to the fact that we have seen many castles back home in Europe – but we could see from San Simeon beach how large it was as it sat looming on a ridge of the hills behind us. Instead, we decided to spend our precious time with the San Simeon elephant seals, gigantic but endearing creatures that have chosen one particular bay as their resting spot. When you see a full grown male specimen you will soon understand why it is called an elephant seal, as its nose is extremely prolific and extends from its face like an elephant trunk. During the time of year we were there, however, the big males were out into the ocean and only the youngsters were lying around on the beach. We met a volunteer ranger, an elderly gentleman whose name is Jack, who explained to us the fascinating life cycle of these beasts. For ten months of the year the elephant seals live in the open ocean. They will swim as far as Alaska, to return twice a year to this particular stretch of beach where they will mate and have puppies and later in the year they come back to molt and grow new fur. Right now, the adults had left for the open ocean and the youngsters were here where they lay fasting before they would head out into the sea.
Although the seals are a bit stinky and not very active, we enjoyed observing them for a while before we hit the road again to continue for as far as we could get before hitting the road block, indicating the area of the landslide that had messed up our plans for this Highway 1 road trip. As we were nearing the road closure, the road became ever more beautiful, now slowly climbing along cliffs with sheer drops into the ocean below. It is this stretch of road that really defines Highway 1 as a spectacular coastal road, and it is very unfortunate that it has been cut in half by the landslide at exactly this most exhilarating point.
My dad who was my travel companion for this trip had done his homework and had figured out before we departed how we could take a detour around the roadblock to get back on Highway 1 on the other side of the landslide. It would certainly take a number of extra hours, but little did we know that it would become one of the highlights of our trip. We backtracked our route for a bit and took the 101 to Bradley from where we entered a country road to Lockwood and Jolon. The sun was setting so we checked our navigation system for a motel nearby. It indicated one hotel further up the hills – but when we got there, we saw that the area was a large army base and a kind man at the security gate told us that the hotel was for army personnel only. With directions to King City, the nearest city with accommodation at a 45 minutes drive distance, and a warning to be wary of crossing wildlife, we drove off again – into the darkness this time, as night had fallen and the forested hills around us had turned pitch black. With only our car’s headlights to guide us we drove down through the dark of night, luckily arriving safely at King City where we spent the night in a motel before driving the same road back up again in the morning. It looked much more pleasant in the early daylight, and just beyond the army check post we entered the gorgeous Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.
The drive on this road was breathtaking, and we started to actually feel very happy about the detour that we were forced to make because of the landslide. This was such a gorgeous addition to our drive up the coast, and we felt lucky to experience it.
At the highest point of the road we passed a mountain pass upon which the mountains opened and delivered a beautiful ocean view again. The detour had taken about 6 hours additional driving time, but we had not wanted to miss it. The drive down back to Highway 1 offered amazing views on the road and the coast line, and we were pleased to take note that without this detour we would only have had views from Highway 1, whereas now we had brilliant views on Highway 1, and it is a view that we will never forget.
We were back on our original route. The highlight of our third and last day for me was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where a waterfall comes down right on the beach – something I had never seen before.
Big Sur, described in the Lonely Planet as “more a state of mind than a place to pinpoint on a map” is exactly that. It is an area of otherworldly beauty at the edge of a giant continent. It is where land and sea meet and not always in a very peaceful way – the landslide that had forced us to detour through California’s hills beyond the coastline was a prime example of that. It is hard to say where Big Sur ends, but as the cliffs become less rough and the road goes down back to sea level, you know that you are leaving it behind. On to the next adventure: the 17-mile drive at Carmel.
Carmel-by-the-sea is situated some 30 minutes north of Big Sur and for a $10.25 vehicle fee you can drive the scenic 17-mile-drive along its golf courses and coast. Although attractive, it was too pretty and polished to me compared to the rugged beauty of Big Sur – although the many animals we spotted and the huge waves on the beach made up for that.
Highway 1 continues form Carmel to San Francisco via Santa Cruz, but we hopped on the 101 to make up for some lost time as we had to return our rental in SF that evening. We left one of the most beautiful coastline roads behind with a tinge of sadness for not being able to complete it in full, but with a happy heart for not having seen just the ocean road but also what lies beyond, in California’s smooth and golden hills. The road damaged by the landslide at Big Sur is expected to be repaired and re-opened by mid-2018, but even when Highway 1 becomes an uninterrupted stretch of jawdropping coastal road again, try to schedule in some additional time to explore what lies beyond. You will not be disappointed.
Practical information on Highway 1 and the detour follows below the photos of funky San Francisco.
Create your own adventure!
If you are planning to drive Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, be aware of the detour you will have to make due to the fact that the road has been blocked at Big Sur. The road repairs are expected to finish mid-2018.
Pfeiffer Bridge was recently reopened after a very quick repair job, so the road block is now limited between Ragged Point and Gorda.
Coming from the south, like we did, you can drive all the way up to Ragged Point where you will eventually meet the road block. You will have to turn around and drive back past Cambria where you can pick up the 46 which runs east until it turns into the 101 (turn north here). If needed, you can overnight at Paso Robles or San Miguel. Beyond Bradly, turn west onto Jolon Road and where the road forks at Jolon, take a left into Mission Road. You will drive through the army camp territory from where you can pick up the gorgeous Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, leading over a mountain pass back to the coast just north of the Mill Creek picnic area. From here you can pick up Highway 1 again and even drive it south for a while until you run into the other end of the roadblock and have to turn around to go back north and continue your trip.
Coming from the north, take a left just after Kirk Creek Campground to access the Nacimiento-Fergusson road going east and drive the above described route in reverse.
I recommend to drive the Highway 1 all the way up to the road blocks even if this means that you will have to turn around and backtrack for a while, because these stretches of the road are absolutely gorgeous and it would be a shame to miss out on them. This way you will effectively miss only 8 miles of the total road at Big Sur.
A good site to track the process of the road works at Big Sur is https://blogbigsur.wordpress.com/
Recommended places to sleep:
L.A. / Santa Monica – Hi Los Angeles Santa Monica Hostel. Large but very modern and clean hostel just one block from the ocean front and pier with car parking across the street ($17 per day). We slept in a private room for two (shared bathrooms in the corridor). It was the most affordable option we could find in this area and from here you can hit the Highway 1 immediately after getting up and checking out.
San Francisco – USA Hostels San Francisco. Again the most affordable option we could find, and private rooms are available (including private bathroom). A large hostel but friendly staff, free breakfast and with lots of places to eat nearby. Walking distance to many SF attractions and close to Union Square.
Recommended place to eat:
Oceano – Rock & Roll Diner. Set in two old train cars with a very cool 50’s vibe, including jukeboxes and rock & roll music. Great all-American menu. They serve good breakfast too (try the warm cinnamon rolls!)