When you think of great American road trips, two main roads come to mind: Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway. But that is where the similarities between those two roads, important feathers in many travelers’ caps, end.
Where today, Route 66 commemorates a once-important voyaging route rendered obsolete by modern technology, the Pacific Coast Highway, known to locals as the PCH, is a triumph of modern roadwork, built in bits and pieces over decades. Explosives left over from the world wars, prisoners from high-security penitentiary San Quentin and engineers looking for a project during the New Deal all played parts in carving a highway through the previously impregnable California coastline, turning what was once a rugged hiking route into a leisurely drive.
Thankfully for travelers looking to delve into the natural beauty of the PCH, preserved natural spaces of many kinds, from wetlands to dunes, surround the highway as it meanders nearly 800 miles from Mendocino County in northern California to San Diego. Though driving the entire route takes nine hours, not counting potential traffic when the PCH merges with Interstate 101 to head through some of California’s biggest urban centers, including Los Angeles, spreading it over a week allows groups to sync into the slow coastal rhythm and time to stop and enjoy the scenery.
Though the PCH officially begins where the road diverges from Interstate 101 in Mendocino, most groups begin their trip south of San Francisco in Monterey, cutting the overall trip down to around 500 miles and keeping to an area with more concentrated sites. Driving north to south is the best way to experience the coast, which will always be out your window in that orientation.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Many PCH visitors looking to take in the area’s flora and fauna begin their California marine biology education at the award-winning Monterey Bay Aquarium, which offers one of the best consumer education programs in the industry and an in-depth look at marine life from around the coast and surrounding waters. But Point Lobos is where visitors can see California’s coastal creatures more closely.
Popular with hikers and divers alike, Point Lobos is home to an abundant animal population. Most notable are the barking sea lions — thought by early inhabitants to be wolves or lobos — that give the point its name. But it’s also a prime spot to catch migrations by both air and sea, with gray whales visible from the shoreline in winter months.
Groups can park at the information station around one mile in on the main park road and strike out on the Bird Island trail to the south or the North Shore Trail to Sea Lion Point, site of Whalers Cabin, an original building and museum dedicated to the Chinese whalers who worked the shore in the 1850s.
Docents lead interpretive walks for groups of up to 60, but James Bilz, sector superintendent for the Monterey District of the California State Parks, warned, “Be aware Saturday and Sunday are extremely busy, and it is difficult to get into the reserve after 11 a.m. during the spring, summer and fall, and on holidays.”
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Sanctuary
Continuing south from Monterey, the next obligatory stop for nature lovers is a new attraction in a land shaped long before humans arrived on this coast. “Piedras blancas” means “white rocks” in Spanish, and Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Sanctuary has become one of the most beloved stops on the PCH in just the last 25 years, as a population of unusual northern elephant seals has made the area its home.
Elephant seals, known for their deep grey color and thick, cylindrical snouts, like those of baby pachyderms, have long used Ano Nuevo, north of Monterey, as their nest, but they outgrew the space and adopted a stretch of sand right off the highway in San Simeon as their new winter digs. The seals typically live in the open ocean but travel thousands of miles twice a year to return to the coastline to mate, molt and give birth.
Though many groups park and hop out for a quick look, the Friends of the Elephant Seal nonprofit organizes customizable docent tours that shine a light on the history of the rookery and the seals’ activities. An hour is a comfortable tour in slow season, but from December through February, when the shoreline is packed with more than 15,000 animals, docents can take two hours pointing out and explaining the mating, birthing, fighting and nursing practices.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
On a route positively lined with state parks and with enough scenery out your window that you’ll want to stop everywhere, it seems hard to justify pulling into a beach park for a quick jaunt. But as you make your way through Big Sur, one of the most scenic parts of the PCH filled with narrow bends hugging sheer cliffs and bridges, like Bixby Bridge, spanning wide valleys, save your stop for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
From the main parking lot, groups should take the brief, flat, just-over-half-mile hike through 2,500-year-old redwoods out to the beach, where an 80-foot waterfall delivers freshwater to mingle with the calm emerald cove protected from the typically pounding surf of the Big Sur coast.
Because the area is subject to erosion, portions of the trail are often closed for construction, so it’s best to call ahead to confirm that your desired trail will be available before your visit.