4 min read

Million dollar drive

The California coast delivers a treasure of scenic wonders.
California Highway 1 and Bixby Bridge
Iconic Big Creek Bridge, erected in 1937, shrouded in a dense layer of fog.

IT'S AMONG THE world’s most beautiful coastlines. A breathtaking, curvy, scenic drive from Malibu to San Francisco. It features dramatic cliffs, million-dollar ocean views, lush forests, majestic redwoods and an ecosystem all its own.

The Pacific Coast Highway and its companion, Highway 101, deliver a treasure of scenic wonders.  The changes in weather, altitude and climate. The seals baking in the sun, eagles soaring above and whales breaching the azur blue waters. The drizzle in Morro Bay, the fog in San Francisco, the sun in Big Sur. Often, as you reach the northern edge, it feels like you’re driving through the clouds, with the marine layer playing a game of peek-a-boo with the sun.

Whether its your first time or your 20th, the drive inspires you to pull over often. There’s also something new, or a new angle of something old, that takes your breath away.

I cannot recall the number of times I’ve made this drive. But I remember the first, in 1996. The most recent was summer of 2021.

Some highlights to consider:

Morro Rock

Iconic. Strange. Inviting.

Morro Rock, a 600-foot volcanic rock off the coast of Morro Bay, is one of the most photographed geological features on the west coast. But there’s more to see than this creation of Earth’s fury.

Trails amid golden sand dunes take you to a place where your mind relaxes and your soul regenerates. It is peaceful, beautiful and colorful, with wildflowers and native plants supporting a nearby sanctuary.

The Morro Bay harbor, with its fleet of fishing vessels, sailboats and cruisers idling quietly, gently rolling with the wake and the tides.

Along the harbor is a stretch of touristy shops and restaurants. It feels cheap and trappy. Walk a couple blocks up, away from the harbor and into the heart of town.

Try beach camping. There’s a couple of California State Parks options nearby. I did Morro Strand. The campsites offer no privacy and are grouped tightly, but a 50-yard walk to the ocean makes amends. The sound of waves crashing through the night is nature’s best version of the Bose Sleep System.

Random stretches of coast

Along the way, you’ll see plenty of curated spaces for parking at trailheads and vistas. In between those commonly used stops you’ll find the routes less traveled. Look closely and you’ll see wood ladders built over barbed wire, leading to trails that take you across a meadow or through a thicket of scrub oak.

I did this north of San Simeon, and was rewarded with solitude, a rugged coastline and a couple of my favorite images from the trip.

Beware, though, of your surroundings. This is nature’s home, not yours. Coyotes, wolves and bobcats, among other creatures, can be found here. Tread lightly, and pack out whatever you bring in.

Lighthouses and bridges

Somewhat obvious, I suppose, but encourage yourself to explore different views and take time for the vistas while appreciating the history. To this day, mariners rely on lighthouses to navigate difficult coastlines around the world. But before GPS, it was stars, charts and the sun that spirited the brave across the seas. Lighthouses represented the welcome wagon of civilization.

Covid-19 closed all lighthouse tours — fine by me, not much for the tours anyway. But the no-access policy created new ways to view, appreciate and photograph these stewards of the sea. I didn’t always find success, but enjoyed the process of trying something new to inspire creativity.

The Barrel

Between Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo there are dozens of tasting rooms offered by local wineries. If you like an ocean view with your tastings, try Alapay Cellars in Avila Beach.

The Bomb

So. Hard. The clear choice would be just the views, but I’d also say the charm of tiny villages like Pismo Beach or Paso Robles is worth a detour.

Tom Morello's "The Atlas Underground Fire"