Our California Road Trip started as we drove northbound on the PCH-Highway 101 out of Los Angeles. It felt like a movie scene– windows down, fresh ocean air blowing through the van, passing highway signs for Malibu, Zuma Beach, and Ventura. I was quite literally blasting Miley Cyrus’ ‘Malibu’ as we sailed along in our little Ford Transit campervan.
Our first night was spent in Santa Barbara; a college town wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains of Los Padres National Forest. We parked at Leadbetter Beach for the evening, strolled the beach, and cooked our first meal out of the back of the van (pasta). We both dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean for the first time. This lifestyle felt strangely natural to us, although we’ve never done anything quite like it– our camping has always been more traditional (think more campfires, fewer parking lots). After we cleaned up from supper, we strolled a few blocks of downtown Santa Barbara. I really liked the vibes of this town; it felt laidback, yet there was a distinct buzz and air of excitement. It was classy without being condescending.
It was illegal to park overnight in the beach and marina lots, so we found a quiet residential street, pulled in and hunkered down. We were as lowkey as possible, keeping all the lights off and curtains drawn. I was nervous for our first night of ‘stealth camping’ (we weren’t exactly stealthy in a bright pink, purple, and blue van) but nobody bothered us or seemed to be worried about our presence in the neighbourhood. A more utilitarian-looking van would have given us a little more confidence about camping inconspicuously– duly noted for our next trip.
The following morning we made our way back to Leadbetter Beach to get cleaned up in the public washrooms. We noticed a little cafe on the beach that was just opening for the day, so we decided to enjoy a nice coffee and breakfast before hitting the road. This was the point for me where I really started to feel like I was on vacation. Afterwards, we spent some time driving around Santa Barbara to find the perfect place to snap a picture of the stunning hillside homes.
After leaving Santa Barbara headed North, the highway rapidly climbs into the mountains. We made a quick stop at a scenic vista with views of the San Rafael Mountains. Our first pit stop of the day was in Pismo Beach, which was vastly overrated in my opinion. About half an hour later, after passing through San Luis Obispo, we stopped at Morro Rock and made sandwiches for lunch. Morro Rock was slightly less overrated than Pismo Beach, and definitely a stunning sight, but nothing too exciting for two Newfoundlanders. If anything, it was nice to be reminded of home.
The next stop of the day was the famed Elephant Seal Viewpoint. We had heard of this and were only expecting to perhaps catch a glimpse of a couple of seals in the ocean– boy were we wrong. This was legitimately the most comical sight of my life and one of the most worthwhile roadside stops of the entire trip. How do I describe it? The beach was simply lined with massive blubbery seals baking on in the sun. Sometimes the only movement among the hundreds of seals was their fins flicking sand onto their backs (or bellies) to cool them down. We were cracking up. We also saw some in the water, some blubbering their way to or from the water, and some fighting and interacting. It was awesome– they were so animated yet lazy. I understand they are not there year-round, so we feel very lucky that they were around in late April because it was an unforgettable sight.
From the elephant seals, located around San Simeon, all the way to Big Sur, the PCH gets a little more gnarly. Dizzying, actually. We were navigating rapid climbs and descents, hairpin turns, narrow passageways, and sharp cliffs. Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, but certainly breathtaking with jaw-dropping vistas. It was one of the most exciting roads we’ve ever driven.
We didn’t know what to expect in Big Sur, but it certainly was not a massive redwood forest perched on the side of a cliff. We stopped to stroll down to the McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach viewpoint. I swear McWay Falls looked so unreal, almost like a desktop wallpaper. Unfortunately, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was under construction so we did not get to spend any time there aside from snapping photos of McWay Falls (still totally worth stopping). The drive into Big Sur was quite magnificent. However, we soon realized that being a state park, there likely wouldn’t be anywhere to park for free overnight and there were no campgrounds available. Having already seen McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach and being a little late for a hike, we decided to make our way toward the next community to find a place to spend the night. On our way, we crossed the iconic Bixby Bridge and stopped there to bask in the remarkable architecture and snap some photos (hint: for the best picture, headed northbound, pull off to the right, not the left, on the north side of the bridge).
The next town we hit was Carmel/Carmel-by-the-Sea/Carmel Highlands. This is a beach town with swanky vibes. It’s located just before the town of Monterey, where the TV series Big Little Lies is filmed. If you’ve seen that show, you totally understand the atmosphere of these communities. When we realized the majority of vehicles were Mercedes, Land Rovers, and other ultra-luxury brands we didn’t even recognize, we felt a little out of place in a graffitied Ford Transit. Those initial feelings aside, we did really enjoy our night in this community. We found a quiet public parking lot to cook some supper (fajitas), walked the main street (Ocean Ave) and did some window shopping, and made our way to the beach (freezing). After heading to Anytime Fitness for a shower and finding it closed, we decided to call it a night. Like the night before, we tucked our little van away on a quiet residential street and nobody seemed to care.
In the morning, we grabbed a coffee and a muffin from Carmel Bakery and headed over to Monterey to track down a place to shower. We were able to pay to use the showers at a local Veteran’s Memorial Campground and we both felt so refreshed. After gassing up, we found a farmer’s market and grabbed some fresh fruit before hitting the road again. Next stop, the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
…which ended up being closed. It would have opened a few hours later, but we did not want to waste any time getting to San Francisco as we had lots to do there in little time. The PCH had straightened out considerably by that time and we were able to find a good roadside pullout to eat some lunch along the way.
Overall, the Pacific Coast Highway was the ride of our lives. Looking back, it was our favourite portion of the road trip in terms of driving and fun roads. It felt so rewarding to be able to go with the flow and change our plans as we arrived in each new place. At the time, we didn’t realize that San Francisco would also require a lot of flexibility and elicit a lot of spontaneity. So, until next time!