Highway 1: the perfect coastal drive & camping trip in West USA

“One of the most beautiful coastal drives in the world.” The enthusiasm with which the superlatives for America’s West coast scenic drive are thrown at you from travel guides – and from travel writer and co-owner of SAY YES TO NEW ADVENTURES, Evelien van Delft – click here to read her Highway 1 story – would blend in well with the commercial signage on LA’s over-the-top Hollywood boulevard.  Driving away from that City of Angels, I can however not help but use superlatives myself to express what I am seeing. Angels would definitely be better off hanging around here, on golden sand beaches with ocean waves crashing in.

As we leave the busy streets and smoggy skies behind us we pass beach towns with names that I have heard since I was a small kid, like Barbie’s Malibu Beach and the Fresh Prince’s Bel Air. Beach bums are working on their tan on the sand strip in between the blue ocean and parking lots full of expensive and glistening cars. The coast becomes less polished and more beautiful as we further away from the rich and their posh mountain villas looking out over the ocean. Cliff tops drop steeply, waves break on the rocky shoreline and ocean blue blends in with the bright blue skies on the endless horizon.

It quickly becomes clear that we could easily spend the entire four weeks that we have planned to travel through Western USA on this part of the Pacific coast alone. Spectacular viewpoints alternate with agreeable villages and towns, touristy but still picturesque and friendly.

The first town we visit on our three day road trip from LA to San Francisco, is Santa Barbara. Its white houses and clean streets form a big contrast with dirty and shabby LA. The town is full of lovely stores and restaurants and boasts beautiful Spanish architecture such as downtown former Santa Barbara Courthouse and hilltop perched Mission Santa Barbara.

Having explored Santa Barbara in a shorter time period than we would have wished we drive on. Hills with hay glow golden in the light of the slowly setting sun. The winding road leads the way through the mountains back to the coast. As dusk sets, we descend to the beach where we will be camping this first night of our road trip.

Except for a mightily roaring train that passes right behind the campground, we enjoy a calm starry night with only crashing waves as background music.

Waking up in the morning to the same sound of the ocean and clear blue skies is a true treat. One that gets even better when taking it in while enjoying a pancake breakfast.

 

Fuelled up for a second day of road tripping we drive the winding road back up to Highway 1 and continue the scenic route through farmland filled with crops. We pass trucks loaded with tomatoes and fruit stalls where farmers sell fresh strawberries and cherries. Sprinklers are working on all fields to secure a successful harvest, even in the incredibly hot and dry summers of California. I am surprised to see farmland so close to the beach. I guess that can only be the case when there is such an abundance of beautiful coastline that not all parts of golden sand are taken up for recreation needs.

Back on the ridge of the coastline, uninterrupted views of the ocean and dramatic cliffs put this route high up on my list of favourite coastal drives in the world. The elephant seals at Point Piedras make it an even more unique experience. Viewing these wild animals from up close allows us to study their enormous bodies and trunks. It is molting season which means that the elephant seals are mostly just lying in the sand, every now and then lifting their limbs to cool their bodies with sand. When they do get in motion, it is a most entertaining sight. Their fat bodies blubber as they move through the sand.

 

Shortly after we have said goodbye to these funny characters the road winds up into the mountains, providing spectacular views of the coast and the ocean. The forest becomes denser as we gain height. It is not just because of the setting dusk that the road suddenly turns some shades darker. We are now surrounded by tall, big trees, the tops of which touch reach out to each other and form one giant green sunscreen. We arrive at our campground just in time to watch the sun disappear in the ocean.

Our motorhome

Beautiful sunset Kirk CreekEnjoying a sunset beer

The next morning, blue skies are not to be seen anywhere. We are surrounded by the notorious mist banks that can block California’s ocean views entirely during on summer days. As I turn away from the ocean and look up towards the mountain I feel lucky instead of disappointed. The fog hanging low between the tall trees creates a mystique image of the forest. As we continue the drive north on the misty mountain road I feel like being in a fairy tale. That is, until I am barely able to identify through the thick mist the famous McWay Falls that make their way to the beach. Some more viewpoints follow where all we see is mist. When we are back at sea level, it is as if someone has waved their magic wand. The skies are once again bright blue and there is not a cloud to be seen.

 

_DSC3781Streaks of sunlight through the fog and treeBixby Creek BridgeBig Sur

 

And so in the afternoon we enjoy a lovely stroll in the sunlit gardens of Carmel’s Mission (Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo) and take in the sea breeze on Monterey’s pier. There, we are saluted by seals and we watch them frolic in the water and on the old wooden frame of the pier while we enjoy our delicious crab chowder. I am pretty sure the seals would have loved to join in on our late lunch. After a stroll through the historic and picturesque town and buying ourselves some wine and cigars in an incredibly beautiful wooden tobacco & wine shop, we put on the theme song for the last part of our Highway 1 road trip. While we sing along to ‘When you’re going to San Francisco’ we drive along yet another piece of beautifully ragged coastline. The sun disappears on the horizon as we bid the ocean farewell. We drive into San Francisco as darkness sets. Ready for a new adventure.

Entering San Fransisco via the Golden Gate Bridge

Create your own Highway 1 adventure!

There is so much to see and do that three days basically can never be enough to experience it all. So, choose wisely and enjoy. Also check out Evelien’s route if you would like to combine the coastline with some scenic inland driving. Highway 1 and beyond – Road trip on the USA west coast

We drove this road from LA to San Francisco, but needless to say you can also do this the other way around. In that case, you or your travel companion in the passenger seat will have even better views of the rugged shoreline.

I absolutely loved the nature camping aspect of our trip, but there was one downside: we could not enjoy dinner in lovely Santa Barbara.

My highlights:

  • Jalama Beach County Park
  • Kirk Creek Campground
  • Santa Barbara: What a pretty, pretty town with cute white houses, beautiful Spanish architecture and many lovely shops and restaurant. Make sure to visit Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
  • A short stop at Old West Cinnamon Rolls in Pismo, this gooey goodness is too good to just drive past. Even if you do not have any time to explore the rest of this beach town.
  • Monterey: Chowder for lunch at the wharf & a visit to Hellam’s Tobacco & Wine Shop to buy a lovely bottle of wine and a cigar to enjoy by the camp fire.

More USA travel inspiration?

Read our travel stories on hiking in Monument Valley, experiencing the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the ultimate road trip Route 66, or city life: New York City and LA.

A walk on the Wild West side – Hiking the Wildcat Trail in Monument Valley, USA

Characters of Route 66 – Memorable encounters on our USA road trip

Beyond your imagination: the Grand Canyon on foot and by helicopter

New York: where (jazz) music and bright lights will inspire you

 

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