One of the things at the very top of our California bucket list was a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as PCH or Highway 1. This highway runs the length of California on the western side, towering above the Pacific Ocean and connecting various beaches and towns along the way. With one of the only long stretches of days that Brandon had off in January, we took to the coast to experience everything it had to offer.
Check out my first YouTube video recapping this trip, shot on my iPhone: (no judgement, still learning!)
Day 1: Connecting to Highway 1, exploring Big Sur, and walking on purple sand
Oakland > Carmel > Big Sur > San Simeon > San Luis Obispo
The first step in any PCH road trip is actually getting onto Highway 1. We opted to connect in the town of Carmel, also known as Carmel-by-the-Sea. IT. WAS. CUTE. Somehow balancing both upscale and down-to-earth vibes, Carmel was so pleasant to experience. We walked around a farmer's market and grabbed a coffee to go, catching just a glimpse of the water in order to continue on with our drive. Carmel is a popular day trip from San Francisco and we look forward to returning again for more of its gorgeous charm.
One of the most iconic sights on Highway 1 is the Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, south of Carmel. The Bixby Creek Bridge is a favorite photography spot for anyone traveling on the Pacific Coast Highway, and rightly so! You can capture both the bridge and the waves crashing on the cliffs and beach below. We decided to stop here to eat our packed lunch and take in the views. Maybe it's the way you get a preview of the incredible drive you're about to have, or maybe it's the concept of a man-made creation connecting pieces of nature and giving us a path to see more. Whatever makes it so special, I would drive just to see it again! It's something you just can't miss.
Next on our list was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and specifically, Pfeiffer Beach. I'm not sure that we would have actually found the turn for the beach had we not stopped at the park ranger station first. A random right turn off of Highway 1 will lead you down a curved road to the beach area. Luckily we had cash on us to enter - it was around $10 or $12 to access the beach parking lot. From there it was a short walk to the beach and before we knew it, we were traipsing around on the most lovely and subtly purple-hued sand. I really loved watching the waves crash against the rocks and feeling the sun shining down on us and all of the other friendly beachgoers.
Another quick detour in this state park is McWay Falls, a gorgeous waterfall spilling into the ocean. There is a short path that you can take to a viewpoint - some of it was closed for construction when we visited, but we still got the perfect view. There is also a longer hike that you can take if you want to see the waterfall at a different angle.
Our final stop on day 1 was the elephant seal vista point in San Simeon. I hadn't seen an elephant seal in real life up until this point, and I had to of seen over 100 seals in about 1 minute. There were adults and pups all just hanging out on the sand - some louder than others. It was really something!
We ended the night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (SLO), a super unique hotel that has a different bold, colorful theme for each room - literally 110 completely different rooms!
There were about a million other things that we could have stopped to see, but we felt satisfied with a day well spent on the California coast.
Day 2: Dune Buggy-ing on Pismo Beach, being surrounded by butterflies, a random Danish town, and Santa Barbara
San Luis Obispo > Pismo Beach > Solvang > Santa Barbara > Ventura
While reading up on things to do off of Highway 1, I learned that Pismo Beach is one of the only California beaches on which driving is permissible. So, I knew what I had to do - reserve a dune buggy! Brandon and I wanted to do a dune buggy tour in Moab like I had done last year, but everything was booked when we visited. So this was our chance, and on a beach no less! We almost had the entire beach and dunes to ourselves, and it was a really fun experience (even though we got stuck a few times). The company we chose was Sun Buggy, but there are quite a few others.
Also in Pismo Beach is the Monarch Butterfly Grove. Every year, thousands of monarch butterflies come here for the winter, from October through February. We visited in late January and it was absolutely amazing. From far away, it just looked like a bunch of big trees. But as we got closer, we saw a few butterflies around us (and you have to watch out for them on the ground, too!), and once we were at the base of the trees, we could look up to see hundreds of butterflies flying around and/or chilling on branches and leaves. In a few key spots there were small telescopes fixed on certain points that you could look through to see them more closely. They were stunning, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention how endangered they are, too. According to the National Wildlife Federation, "The monarch population has declined by approximately 90 percent since the 1990s." Monarchs are facing habitat loss and the effects of climate change. Sanctuaries like the grove in Pismo Beach are wonderful, but it's important to care for monarchs not just for an hour, but always. You can help by planting native milkweed (what monarchs need to eat and live), donating to supporting programs, limiting your personal impact on the environment, and raising awareness about the monarchs. I had so wished I had my "Monarch Mama" tee from Educated Earthling with me to wear here!
After spending some time with the butterflies, we drove to the city of Solvang. Situated in the Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is something out of a storybook. Founded by immigrants from Denmark in 1911, Solvang is brimming with Danish bakeries, cute shops, and wine tasting rooms. The architecture is so distinct and different from anything else on the California coast! It's worth it to make a quick stop and briefly transport yourself to Europe.
Next, we headed to Santa Barbara for lunch and sightseeing. We ate at Green Table (vegan + amazing!) then walked around State Street and the Paseo Nuevo shopping area. There were street performers and just about every kind of store you could wish for. Before leaving Santa Barbara, we visited the Chromatic Gate, a colorful art installation near the beach. That golden hour glow!
Our evening ended in Ventura, California. We stayed at Waypoint Ventura (booked on Hotels.com!), which is a really fun collection of vintage airstreams, and grabbed dinner and drinks at VenTiki downtown.
Day 3: SoCal - Exploring the LA area beach towns
Ventura > Malibu > Santa Monica > Venice Beach
As guests at Waypoint Ventura, we had access to bicycles to rent for free in the morning before we continued with our drive. We took a ride to the Ventura promenade, which was bustling with morning walkers, cleanup volunteers, surfers, and beachgoers.
After our bike ride, we continued down PCH, passing through Malibu. We noted several signs thanking the firefighters who worked tirelessly to put out fires in the area, and we could still see burnt trees, plants, and grass in the front yards of homes that we passed during our drive. I always thought of Malibu as such a glamorous destination - and it still was - but we also saw the reality of what residents there had gone through just a few months prior.
Not far from Malibu was our next destination of the day: Santa Monica. We parked in a garage near the Third Street Promenade, a busy shopping area. All these shopping areas and we didn't buy a thing! #minimalism :) We walked the promenade and to the Santa Monica Pier. This iconic destination was jam-packed with people and we didn't feel the need to stay long. Our favorite part was the carousel, built in the 1920's and on the oldest part of the pier.
Another interesting and less-frequented attraction off of the pier is the Camera Obscura Art Lab. Here you can step inside the body of a camera - really! You enter into a completely dark room and the mechanisms of mirror and light project images from outside onto a large disc in the middle, which you can adjust to see different angles and scenes. It's free to enter and an interesting and unique experience. Plus you feel like you are secretly spying on everyone outside.
Our final stop of the day was Venice Beach. We booked an Airbnb not far from the boardwalk and walked to the beach for sunset. It was magical! Colors of pink, purple, and blue danced in the sky and I wiggled my toes in the cold sand. We had been driving for the other sunsets of the trip so it was nice to just relax and take it all in.
We had dinner at Café Gratitude and I was *shook* by the sweet sweet concept of this vegan restaurant. Each menu item is named with an adjective and when you order, you can start with, "I am..." and then state your selected choice. For example, "I am Magical" would be how to order the black bean burger. Our waiter was helpful and kind and after taking our orders, left us with a question to discuss: "What are you creating with your life?" Wow. Feels!
Day 4: The *other* Venice canals + LA
Venice > Los Angeles
Before leaving Venice, I wanted to check two things off of our list: the Venice sign (classic) and the Venice canals. It's funny how your perspective of a place changes once you actually visit. I imagined Venice to be so chic based on all the photos I had seen of the sign, but in reality it's quite your average beach boardwalk. That said, there were still some lovely areas, and what actually surprised me most was how lovely the canals were - which isn't always what you think of when you think of the Venice in California. If I ever return, I will definitely want to stay in a home along the water in the canal area. It was like we had traveled to a completely different town in a matter of minutes. Quiet and charming, versus the row of shops offering neon screen-printed clothing and/or weed paraphernalia on the boardwalk. All in all though, Venice was v nice - c'mon, you know I had to.
Next up was big, bad Los Angeles, the final destination of our Pacific Coast Highway road trip. If we had more time, we would have kept going all the way to San Diego, but we will save that for another trip someday. In LA, we started by visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, to see the Urban Light exhibit outside of the museum. Urban Light was created by Chris Burden in 2008 and consists of 202 restored street lamps from throughout the LA area. I was thrilled to get to see this in person!
Afterwards, it was time for lunch and we had *thee* most ideal place: Vegan Sunday, a weekly market featuring 100% vegan food trucks and vendors. We had been blessed, y'all. We ate so many yummy, cruelty-free things and it was energizing to be surrounded by so many other people living the same lifestyle and sharing similar values.
One outfit change later (bc I was hot and sweaty and done looking cute) and we sought out to explore downtown LA. We stopped at the Bradbury Building (where JT filmed the "Say Something" video), The Last Bookstore (a huge collection of books and fun displays), and the Angels Flight Railway (the world's shortest railway). We closed the night with happy hour drinks and sunset views at Perch and dinner at a totally random vegan sushi restaurant.
We stayed in Koreatown at The Line, which is a boutique hotel that we couldn't/wouldn't normally afford, but found an incredible deal on HotelTonight. I'm a big fan of Hotels.com, but HotelTonight hooked us up with the best deal!
My one regret of our evening in LA is that we didn't have a chance to make it to the Griffith Observatory. As much as I wanted my very own La La Land moment, there just wasn't enough time to get there and have a chance to see it all at night. Next time!
Day 5: Warner Brothers Studio tour, Hollywood views, and returning back to NorCal
Our final to-do in LA was a studio tour, and we chose the Warner Brothers tour bc 1. Friends and 2. Harry Potter. We didn't care to see the walk of fame or the touristy spots in Hollywood, but we did want to learn more about movie-making magic! We booked spots on the 10:30 AM tour but ended up squeezing in on an earlier one. The tour is a combination of riding around in a golf cart (we got first row with our guide *just in case* we saw any celebrities. Spoiler: we didn't.) plus walking around different sets and backlots.
We learned about and saw the differences between a façade set (just the outside and not a real, full building) and the full building sets that are furnished for indoor and outdoor use. We saw the locations of so many iconic scenes in film and television and it truly is amazing what a little editing can do. Not to mention full-out games that filmmakers play with us viewers, like the way a small group of extras can look like a giant crowd just by entering and exiting a building and changing clothes in between.
Our tour guide took us to the sound stages and explained how they worked - it was pilot season so most were in use at the time. We had the chance to see costumes from films like Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts, Crazy Rich Asians, and A Star is Born up close. It's so interesting to see how low quality some of the pieces seemed in real life (though they had gone through a lot while filming) versus how they look on film. And last but not least, one of my favorite parts - getting to sit on the Central Perk set from Friends and grab a coffee. V authentic.
After our studio tour, we made a quick visit to Griffith Park. Griffith Observatory was closed for the day, but we still made a stop just to see it from the outside and check out the views of Los Angeles and of the Hollywood sign. 'Twas a lovely sight and a great way to end our time in LA.
Then it was back home to Northern California! We had driven down the coast, taking our time throughout our road trip, but it's much faster to take highway 5 in the middle of the state, so we drove on that highway to get home faster. This trip was such an exciting and spontaneous adventure and it's been one of our most favorite things that we've done so far while living in California. Hopefully my reflection has given you ideas about how to plan your own Highway 1 / PCH road trip!