Just thinking about driving the Pacific Coast Highway conjures up sweeping ocean views and rugged cliffs while riding in a convertible with the top down and 1960s Beach Boys tunes blaring from the speakers. It’s widely recognized as one of the quintessential road trips in the U.S., so we had high expectations. And we weren’t disappointed. Perhaps a little road weary after traveling hundreds of miles on the narrow and winding highway, but certainly not disappointed.
Day 1: Leggett to Mendocino
Highway 1 starts (or ends, depending on which way you’re traveling) in the northern California town of Leggett, which isn’t on the coast. The first 20+ miles before getting even a glimpse of the Pacific are tortuous – narrow road with tight curves and no shoulders winding its way through dense forest. There are no scenic views, and sharing the road with logging trucks and cyclists was hair-raising.
It took a full hour to drive the first section, but we finally made it to the coast. Beautiful, as advertised, but no luck finding a nice spot for a picnic, so we ate lunch in a parking lot.
More scenic views were in store after lunch on the way to Mendocino Headlands State Park, where we walked around for about an hour and a half.
After checking into our cute little B&B, we checked out the even cuter little town of Mendocino and had a nice dinner.
Day 2: Mendocino to Inverness
The morning started with a hot breakfast delivered to our room! Our B&B – Headlands Inn – was first class.
Our first stop of the day was Point Arena Lighthouse and Museum – a short detour off the main road. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for a tour, just a few photos of the outside, then away we went.
Fort Ross State Historic Park
We were unfamiliar with Fort Ross until Gloria, my sister-in-law in Portland, recommended it. We went and enjoyed it so much that we’re telling others.
The park preserves North America’s southernmost Russian settlement, which was established in 1812 to grow food for Russians living in present day Alaska, to hunt marine mammals, and to trade with Spanish Alta California.
General admission allows visitors to explore the museum and walk the grounds, but we added a guided tour that included narration and access inside the buildings. We spent the next 60 minutes with Hank, our knowledgeable and enthusiastic docent who provided historical context, shared anecdotes, and answered any and all questions from our little group of six. Good decision!
The Russians operated the Fort Ross colony until 1841, when they sold everything – land, buildings, furnishings, and animals – to a Californian named John Sutter. Alta California was still under Mexican control at the time but officially annexed by the U.S. a few years later in 1848.
Fort Ross has a rich and intriguing history that I would guess is little known beyond those directly involved in keeping the story alive and visitors who learn about it thanks to dedicated volunteers. But it’s not just about history – the Fort Ross Conservancy nurtures an ongoing relationship with groups in Russia that promote cultural exchange and help to enhance the park’s programs and exhibits. The new windmill is a prime example.
Fort Ross used a windmill back in the day to grind wheat into flour and to assist with tanning hides to produce leather, but it met its demise at some unknown point in time. Enter Link of Times, a Russian-based cultural and historical foundation, who constructed a replica of the original windmill in Russia, then transported and gifted it to the park in 2012 as part of the colony’s bicentennial year celebration.
Our experience at Fort Ross was outstanding. You can learn more at https://www.fortross.org/.
The endpoint for day 2 of our drive was Inverness, where we had booked a room in a 1950s-era motel that had a little zen garden in front and the Giocomini Wetlands out back. A lovely setting, and the accommodations were fine.
After settling in, we drove a short distance to Point Reyes Station, where we met my Aunt Ellen, her son (and my cousin) Ralph, and his wife Debbi for dinner. Lively conversation and tasty food made for a fun evening!
Day 3: Inverness to Monterey
We packed and left early on day 3 to explore Point Reyes National Seashore. Fun fact – the peninsula is on a different tectonic plate from most of the continental U.S., separated by a section of the San Andreas fault.
The 70,000-acre preserve juts out into the Pacific, and the iconic lighthouse that sits at the end of the peninsula is the primary visitor attraction. Unfortunately for us, it was closed for renovation, which we knew ahead of time but drove to the point anyway to see what we could see.
It was hard-to-stay-upright blustery, but we had an amazing view of the coast. We also hiked the windy Chimney Rock trail, which reportedly has a colorful display of wildflowers in the spring. Everything was brown during our visit, but we had good views of Drakes Bay, and the walk felt good.
After three hours of exploring Point Reyes, we were back on Highway 1 headed toward the Bay Area. About an hour later, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge ($8.20 toll – pay online) and continued south through San Francisco without stopping. We had decided not to spend time in the City by the Bay, which made me a little sad as we passed through.
It was a slow drive from there, and then it got worse, as we were stuck in an epic traffic backup about 15 miles outside of Monterey. Once we (finally) arrived at our hotel, the Merritt House Inn, we went in search of food and called it a day.
Day 4: Monterey
Our hotel was within easy walking distance of downtown and the waterfront, so the Subaru stayed parked all day. Ready for a break from driving, we found plenty of things in Monterey to keep us busy.
Bill visited the Monterey Aquarium, while I opted to explore sights along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, an 18-mile paved rail-trail path that extends from Pacific Grove to Castroville and passes through the heart of Monterey’s Cannery Row and other waterfront attractions.
Colorful murals depict scenes from Monterey’s past.
I stumbled across the Cooper Molera Adobe historical site and spent an hour learning about this home and the prominent families that lived in the complex during the 1800s and 1900s. The 2.5-acre site is surrounded by an adobe wall and includes two adobe homes plus a barn, small store, adobe warehouse, and gardens. No charge for admission, but donations are appreciated.
Bill and I met up for a late lunch, then walked around a little more at Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
Monterey has a long and colorful history from its years as the capital of California under Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. military rule. Today, visitors can learn about the past by visiting the houses and buildings that collectively comprise Monterey State Historic Park. Exhibits at the Pacific House were especially interesting, and we made a quick visit to the Custom House as well. But we ran out of time before we ran out of places we wanted to see.
We could have spent a week in Monterey – hopefully we’ll be back. (I say that about most places we visit.)
Day 5: Monterey to Morro Bay
The final day of our Highway 1 adventure was a seven hour trek to travel 123 miles. There were a couple of delays due to road construction, but mostly, we just took our time to soak it in.
First we did the 17 mile scenic drive at Pebble Beach outside of Carmel. 17 miles with 17 points of interest. A terrific way to spend the morning.
Back on Highway 1, we experienced the dramatic scenery of Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia mountains rise abruptly from the ocean. It’s easy to see why this 70-mile stretch is regarded as one of the most beautiful coastal drives in the world. I think we stopped at a scenic overlook every couple of miles!
Our final stop on the way to Morro Bay was Piedras Blancas near San Simeon to take a look at the elephant seals. During the course of the year, more than 20,000 of these marine mammals spend time along this six-mile stretch of beach. The ones we saw in mid-October were juveniles, not the huge males that start arriving toward the end of November.
And then we arrived in Morro Bay and checked into our Airbnb home away from home, where we’ll be for the next month. Our trip down the coast was terrific, but now we can kick back, unpack the suitcases, and explore at a more leisurely pace. (And perhaps figure out how to do selfies!)