If you happen to be driving a 18 wheeler and hauling 50 tons of sheet steel, then the best way from San Francisco to Los Angeles is a six hour drive on Highway 5.
However, with this one exception, everyone else should take the scenic route — the Pacific Coast Highway for what will be one of the most thrilling driving experiences of your life.
This legendary road is strewn with breathtaking sights and fascinating landmarks.
Here’s where to stop and what to see.
Leaving beautiful San Francisco is not easy, but leaving it via Route 1 softens the blow. Begin your trip on Great Highway, in front of the Golden Gate Park. You’ll travel along Ocean Beach until you get to Route 1 at which point the show, to coin a phrase, is on the road. The road zigzags through the hills just meters away from the Pacific… all the way down to L.A.
First stop should be Santa Cruz. You’ll find great cafés for lunch and while you’re there walk Pacific Avenue before hitting the road again. If you have a little more time to spare, make a stop in Monterrey where you’ll find the beautiful Carmel Valley, Pebble Beach and the historic waterfront made famous in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
Next stop is the 145 km coast of Big Sur. This may be the highlight of the trip unless you suffer from vertigo. The cliffs are very steep and fall away sharply to the ocean and sometimes the rail disappears. But the views are nothing short of amazing and the colour of the ocean is as good as it gets. Don’t forget to photograph the spectacular Bixby Creek Bridge.
Not far from San Simeon, you should spot the sea elephants from Piedras Blancas. This is the biggest rookery on the west coast and it’s hard not to be impressed. Hundreds of these huge beasts are just lying around in the sun. And, the “vista point,” next to the road, places you just meters away from them.
The next city, San Luis Obispo, is a great place to stay for a night. Downtown is calm and cool. You’ll find cheap motels as well as classier hotels and, of course, the height of kitsch that is the flamboyant Madonna Inn. It may be a little expensive to stay in one of the 109 themed-rooms, but it’s a nice place to have breakfast before hitting the road and it’s a great photo spot.
Before arriving in Los Angeles, there is one other big stop: Santa Barbara, where you’ll feel like you’re in a soap. After that, you’ll feel you’re approaching L.A. by passing by Malibu (Baywatch alert) and Santa Monica, the coolest city in the area. Stop for a well deserved rest at Santa Monica’s beach or go the whole hog and join the artists/crazies at Venice beach — you’ll feel you’ve really arrived in L.A.
Need to know
• If you drive without stopping, Route 1 between S.F. and L.A. takes about 10 hours.
• There are many places to stop for restaurants and hotels. Santa Cruz, Monterrey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara are the best spots, directly on the route.